When it comes to love, most of us follow the social script — start dating, move in together, get married, and have kids.
But some people defy these expectations. They opt for unconventional relationships, like polyamory or relationship anarchy.
Why is that? What do they get out of it?
Learn what defines a non-traditional relationship, which types of unconventional relationships there are, and how you can make them work.
What Is an Unconventional Relationship?
An unconventional relationship is a sexual and/or romantic relationship that deviates from the traditional relationship paradigm.
Of course, that begs the question of what the traditional relationship paradigm entails.
The four hallmarks of the traditional relationship paradigm are:
- Sexual monogamy. You are only allowed to have sex with the same person (or at least you must pretend to do so).
- The merging of identity. You go from being an “I” to being a “We.” Whatever you do —attending a function, going on vacation, living arrangements — you are now expected to do it together.
- The merging of property. Whatever assets you own get pooled. You might still refer to “My car” or “My comic book collection.” But effectively, your partner can use anything that is yours.
- Procreation. At some point, you are supposed to have kids, provide for them, and raise them together.
These hallmarks don’t manifest simultaneously. Rather, they unfold as a sequence of escalating steps, sometimes referred to as the relationship escalator.
Essentially, it’s the storyline of any romantic comedy — you start dating, you become exclusive, you move in together, you get married, etc. The great finale, of course, is having kids. Mission complete.
So, any relationship that questions one of these four hallmarks can be considered an unconventional relationship.
Types of Unconventional Relationships
There are countless types of unconventional relationships; it really depends on the people involved. But here are some broader categories that you will hear mentioned more often.
ENM stands for “ethical non-monogamy.” It’s an umbrella term for any kind of relationship that doesn’t require sexual exclusivity of its participants. Several of the following relationship types I mention can be considered ENM relationships.
The “ethical” in ethical non-monogamy makes it clear that there is no sneaking around. Most so-called monogamous relationships are not monogamous anyway — people just cheat on each other.
In an ENM relationship, our non-monogamy is acknowledged, not swept under the carpet. The partners tell each other the truth about their sexual experiences with other people. Thus, communication skills are essential.
The term “monogamish” was coined by writer Dan Savage and then further popularized by relationship coaches like Esther Perel.
In a monogamish relationship, your romantic focus is on one person — unlike polyamory, for example. But sexually, there is room for experiments. For example, you openly flirt with other people or even have the occasional one-night stand.
But other than these planned “slip-ups,” the relationship doesn’t look different from the traditional relationship paradigm. The escalator logic — moving in together, getting married, having kids — still applies.
Open relationships are similar to monogamish relationships — you are focused on one romantic partner. However, open relationships tend to be less regimented. It doesn’t stop at flirting or sexting — sex with other people is part of the deal.
A variation of the open relationship is the open marriage. Here, both spouses get to ride the relationship escalator while still having consensual extramarital sex.
Swinger relationships also allow for outside sexual encounters. What makes them different from open relationships is that these encounters usually take place at organized events (at swinger clubs or private swinger meet-ups) that you attend together.
Swinging supposedly started as a practice in the military during World War II, but that’s a contested claim. It really gained traction during the free-loving 60s and 70s, especially in the context of commune living.
Poly relationships are different from all the other models mentioned so far in that the romantic focus is not just on one person but spread out over several people. For example, a woman might be in a relationship with two men she both loves and lives with.
The underlying assumption is that limiting love to just one person is not desirable. Just like you would never accept just being allowed to have a single close friend, you should not accept only being allowed to love one person.
Also, one person is never going to be able to cater to all the different facets of ourselves. But when you have one partner that you can explore your intellectual interests with and another that shares your sense of humor, you’ll feel more complete.
Poly relationships often go hand in hand with bisexuality. For example, a bisexual woman might be in a relationship with both a woman and a man. Poly relationships are also popular with gay couples, especially gay men. But there are also plenty of heterosexual poly couples.
Poly relationships can have an escalator dynamic and often do. I have a friend who for several years lived with two bisexual women and has kids with both of them. Except for their sexual preferences, their family life looks quite ordinary.
BDSM and Kink Relationships
BDSM relationships focus on sadomasochistic practices like bondage, discipline, dominance, and roleplay. These practices may or may not include other people outside the core relationship, for example, while attending a BDSM party or a BDSM playspace. Sexual intercourse can be part of this, but doesn’t have to be; it all depends on the rules set out in advance.
Kink relationships are a broader term to describe relationships that focus on non-conventional sexual practices; that can include BDSM practices but is not limited to them. Other examples include fetishism or sexual objectification.
Kink has become a buzzword in recent years. Especially in urban centers like Berlin, London, or New York, it is chic to refer to yourself as “kink.” Ironically, this turns the whole idea of unconventional relationships onto its head. Now the point is not to deviate from the norm so much as to signal your group affiliation with a certain “avant-garde” subset of the population.
Relationship anarchy is the attempt to apply anarchist values to sexual relationships. It emphasizes the autonomy of the individual partners; hierarchy is seen as something to be avoided; societal norms about sex and love are to be questioned.
These factors set relationship anarchy apart from other types of ENM relationships. For example, poly or swinger relationships might very well be hierarchical.
The term “relationship anarchy” was coined by Swedish programmer Andie Nordgren. In 2012, she published “The short instructional manifesto for relationship anarchy” on her website.
Relationships That Keep Things Separate
Not every unconventional relationship has to defy monogamy. There are other unconventional relationships that either oppose either the identity merging that goes in traditional relationships or the mandatory merging of property.
Here are some expressions of that:
- Buying your groceries separately
- Sleeping in separate bedrooms
- Living in different houses next to each other
- Attending events separately
- Vacationing separately
- Living in different cities
- Keeping your finances separate
Another type of unconventional relationship is what I call the age-gap relationship (at least in the West). If your partner is 30 years older than you, you can be sure to raise some eyebrows.
Age-gap relationships are characterized by stronger awareness of death. One of the partners will likely die a long time before the other partner. That puts a lot of strain on the expected “survivor.”
Also, one of you will probably not be around to see the kids grow up. That is hard for both parties — the “deceased” will miss out, and the “survivor” will be left alone with the responsibilities of caring for the kids.
On the upside, partners in age-gap relationships tend to be more conscious about their time spent together. Since they understand their time is limited, they try to make the best use of it.
Some people have little or no sexual drive but still enjoy being in a purely romantic relationship. Your romantic orientation, however, might still be heterosexual, gay, or bisexual, despite an absence of sexual acts. On top of that, there are also individuals who identify both as asexual and aromantic but are still in a platonic relationship-like connection with another person.
The community is also referred to as the ace, a phonetic shortening of asexual. It is estimated that about one percent of the population qualifies as asexual. A famous fictional example of an asexual person is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes who is an aromantic partnership with Dr. Watson.
The Deviation Spectrum
Opposing one of the four hallmarks is what defines an unconventional relationship. However, these hallmarks are not equally controversial.
Defying the merging of property, e.g., keeping separate bank accounts or having separate bedrooms is the most forgivable deviation, at least in modern Western societies.
Not merging your identity is already iffier. For example, if you regularly vacation separately, this will raise some eyebrows.
Not procreating will definitely be met with social ostracism, especially if you are a woman. Your parents and your female friends will let you know what they think of your “failure.”
Opposing sexual monogamy is the worst of all. Again, it is women who must bear the brunt. If you are “giving it away for free,” slut shaming automatically ensues.
What You Can Expect
Depending on the type of unconventional relationship you choose, you can expect to face headwinds.
That might come as a surprise, as we live in a society that prides itself on its progressiveness.
In reality, it’s a different story. Our forward-thinking only applies as long as it doesn’t touch our own lives. That’s why the heterosexual mainstream is somewhat relaxed about gay couples; it doesn’t affect them directly.
But propose a non-monogamous arrangement to your current heterosexual girl- or boyfriend, and most people’s tolerance will come to an abrupt end. Your parents, too, will be less than thrilled. And of course, you will be the talk of the town at work.
Our language gives it away, too.
Just pay attention to how mass culture always glorifies “committed” relationships (aka relationships that follow the escalation logic). In contrast, any relationship deviating from that logic is automatically labeled “non-committed” and therefore “unhealthy.”
It comes as no surprise that many unconventional couples keep their relationship style a secret. They would rather not have to deal with this hypocrisy.
Why Is It Such a Big Deal?
Why do we get so worked up about alternative relationship styles?
There are a couple of factors at play here.
We are herd animals.
The way we live our lives is largely predicated on a social script. We go to college, we get a job, we do the relationship escalator, we become good consumers, and we get involved in our “community” (church, charity, etc.).
It’s a readymade life plan you can follow without ever having to make your own decisions or being criticized.
That is the double allure of the herd — unambiguity + emotional security. If you get with the program, there is zero doubt. You know exactly what to do.
And when you do what everyone does, everybody around you will approve of your choices. Your choices are their choices.
Happiness through uniformity.
Now, when you deviate from this script, these people will feel questioned by you. “Maybe there is a better way to be in a relationship with another person?”
That is a dangerous question to ask yourself. The answer might be you were both too lazy and too insecure to think for yourself.
Few people can cope with that. So, they would rather attack you than admit to themselves that they backed the wrong horse.
Misery Loves Company
The vast majority of people in long-term relationships are unhappy.
Just consider the fact that about 50 percent of all marriages get divorced; that translates to half the people in marriages eventually getting so fed up with each other, they can’t take it anymore, despite having sworn a vow.
Now, some people might object, “What about the other 50 percent? They seem to make it work!”
Of course, it is harder to quantify that remaining half. But do you really think that if 50 percent suffer so much that they go through with a divorce, it will just be sunshine and rainbows for the other 50 percent?
Much more likely, a vast percentage of these remaining 50 percent suffer close to what the divorcees feel; they just can’t get themselves to cut ties.
Paradoxically, it is this universal unhappiness that reinforces the traditional paradigm. That’s why most people are so eager for you to join the club — they don’t want you to be happier than themselves.
For them, it is better to be surrounded by other miserable people in traditional relationships. That makes their own misery slightly more bearable.
Pair bonding, what we commonly call love, is a byproduct of biology. Your offspring is more likely to survive if there are two people around to take care of them, instead of just one.
The traditional relationship paradigm offers more reassurance. At least subjectively, you feel like you have more of a guarantee for the other person to stick around. It plays to our fear of being alone and weak.
In contrast, an unconventional relationship is more dynamic. There are fewer certainties. We feel like the other person might leave us at any point (and consequently leave us alone with the kids).
That’s why many people, especially heterosexual women, reject the idea of a non-monogamous arrangement. It takes a mature, self-assured personality to handle that degree of uncertainty.
When you opt out of the traditional relationship paradigm, especially the monogamy requirement, you are not just making an individual decision; your decision also affects the sexual marketplace as a whole. This particularly applies to women.
By “giving it away for free,” you are undercutting the sexual bartering power of many “regular” women.
Their power is based on giving or withdrawing sex. When you suddenly say, “I don’t want to play this game, I want to interact on equal footing with my partners” that is perceived as an attack. Thus, slut shaming ensues.
Men with few sexual options will happily join in. Ostensibly, they rationalize their behavior as moral superiority; in truth, they are just angry you are not giving it away to them.
It is no wonder that so few people dare to deviate.
The Struggle From Within
So far, we have only talked about external antagonists. But there are also two internal factors that complicate unconventional relationships.
The first, obvious one, is jealousy.
Many years ago, when I was in my first non-monogamous relationship, I drove my girlfriend at the time to a date. It was clear to both of us that she was going to have sex at that date.
I thought I was going to be okay with it. After all, I had spent many years in my last monogamous relationship imagining this kind of open arrangement.
But when I picked her up the next day, I had a breakdown.
I think I was more surprised than her. Wasn’t this what I had always wanted? Why did I feel so utterly miserable then?
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. My girlfriend kept talking to me and eventually, I got over it. From there on, it got gradually easier.
What this episode taught me is that what you are convinced of intellectually and what you feel are two very different things.
Don’t be naïve like me. When you first enter into a non-monogamous relationship, there will be jealousy. Be ready for the storm.
Fortunately, your capacity to withstand jealousy can be trained, much like a muscle. Eventually, you will get to the point where it hardly bothers you (provided you have a smart, communicative partner like I did).
The second internal factor to complicate unconventional relationships is that different people will start from different places. Specifically, their eagerness to experiment will differ.
So while one partner might be completely fine with having the occasional threesome, they might not be fine with you blowing 10 different strangers at a Techno club in Berlin. Neither one is per se wrong; it all comes down to the individual.
Here, too, the key is communication. Every involved party must express their wishes clearly. After this, it’s a matter of negotiation. If a compromise can be reached, perfect. If not, part in peace.
The Case for Unconventional Relationships
If you have read so far, you might be wondering, “Why the heck should I try out an unconventional relationship? It sounds terrible, nothing but trouble.”
And while it is true that unconventional relationships come with some major challenges — social ostracism, instability, jealousy — I can honestly say that nothing else in my life has given me as much as loving unconventionally.
This is for three reasons.
1. Cooler People
The people you end up with in unconventional relationships tend to be exceptional. They have to be — otherwise, how could they manage to stand up to societal pressure as well as inner relationship challenges? It takes a special kind of person to pull this off — smart, driven, conscious, self-confident, yet vulnerable.
Having been with a few people like this has positively impacted my life in ways I cannot describe. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of one of my former lovers — something they said, something they did, and how impressed I was by them.
These memories are a never-ending source of happiness for me.
Unconventional relationships force you to confront yourself. The psychological baggage you carry, your insecurities — all of this comes out in the open really quickly.
To an extent, this could also be said about conventional relationships. Whenever you are in an ongoing sexual connection with somebody, they will reflect your behavior back to you. It’s one of the few times you get to see yourself as who you are.
However, with unconventional relationships, this process is supercharged. Because these models are so much more dynamic, you can’t really arrive at some state of uneasy balance — as is so often the case in long-term conventional relationships. No stone is left unturned.
The great catalyst here is jealousy. As painful as it can be, it brings everything out in the open. What you desire, what you fear, what you like, what you hate — in short, who you truly are. If you can withstand that pain, your self-awareness will benefit in ways you cannot imagine yet.
3. Superb Sexual Pleasure
When you are with other intelligent, horny, open-minded people, great things happen. You will have sexual experiences that go so far beyond what most people ever experience in their lives. I have had sexual encounters that I won’t forget until I die — that is how mind-blowing they were.
How To Get the Most Out of an Unconventional Relationship
Here are some tips to make the most of your unconventional relationship.
1. Observe Your Own Jealousy
Jealousy is a major challenge in any kind of non-monogamous relationship.
The best way I have to deal with it is meditation. I know how cliché that sounds, especially in the context of the ENM subculture, where everybody is constantly going on about their spiritual journey.
But I really does help. During my last serious bout of jealousy, it saved me again and again. The reason is that jealousy and the accompanying pain make you more permutable, so to speak.
So, when you sit down to meditate, it becomes much easier to reach a “deep level of consciousness” (sounding hippie, again, I know). And these deep dives are both highly enjoyable in the moment but also reverberate for several hours later.
Strangely enough, I quite often miss feeling jealous, for the simple reason that it makes it easier for me to enjoy these meditative experiences.
Bottom line — try meditation to deal with your jealousy, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
2. Communicate Clearly
With any kind of nonconventional relationship, it is essential to communicate clearly. You must truthfully state what you think and what you want, and resist the temptation of self-censoring to appear “nicer” than you are.
From what I have observed in myself and others (working as a dating coach for a couple of years), this is especially tricky for men.
First, men tend to communicate less about their feelings (which is their loss).
Second, I would argue that we are currently experiencing a zeitgeist that is more in favor of the female perspective; at least if you are talking to people with a higher level of education.
That, too, makes it harder for men to speak up. If they say, “I would like to have sexual experiences with other people while dating you” they are quickly ostracized. If a woman says that, it’s viewed as an emancipatory act.
I am not lamenting. I also don’t want to play the genders off against each other. There are good historical reasons why we are currently more inclined to consider the female perspective.
But to get what we want, we can’t censor others. We must allow them to speak freely without getting upset.
I have always tried to emulate my gay friends in this regard. They tend to be better at stating things how they are. When someone wants to whore around, they just say so. It’s no biggie. You don’t sugarcoat it and the other person doesn’t punish you emotionally.
That is what all of us should aspire to, as it really benefits us all. More truth leads to more mutual understanding, leads to more joy.
3. Communicate Without Malice
Talking yourself into a rage is rarely helpful. It certainly doesn’t help the other person, as we are not just trying to do damage.
But it also doesn’t help you, as you lose your ability to think rationally. As a result, all that is ugly comes to the surface. And while that can certainly be therapeutic at times, it cannot happen constantly in discussions.
The best way to counteract this is to take a time-out.
If one of you is getting carried away, you must tell them something along of the lines, “Listen, I understand we need to have this discussion. And we will. But right now, we are just getting angry at each other. This is not helping anything. So, what I will do is I will leave now. Once we have cooled off, we will get back together and continue this.”
After this, you don’t say another word, no more arguing. You just walk away.
I have dated some extremely emotional people and this is the only thing that works. It’s like popping a balloon — it removes all the malice from the interaction.
4. Let the Other Person Be
In every relationship, conventional or non-conventional, there comes a point of disillusionment. And that is when we realize that the other person is different from us.
This is hard to take. We want to feel like there is at least one other person on this planet who thinks and feels as we do. No space, only connection.
But it’s impossible. No matter how seemingly in sync we are, there is no perfect fit. That is due to different life stories and — in the case of heterosexual couples — it is also due to different genders and varying biological needs.
This is all perfectly normal. The problem arises when we try to change the other person. Without exception, such attempts are doomed to fail. People don’t change unless they themselves want to change. No amount of pressure will make a difference here.
Let them be, in all their glory and in all their vileness. Find what you cannot get from them in somebody else if you can. But also realize that every other person will eventually turn out to be not in sync with you either.
This is the heart of it — we are by ourselves. We are born alone, and we die alone. Yes, we can create meaningful connections in the interim, and it is one of the most beautiful things to do with your lifetime. But complete “oneness” can never be had in relationships.
Once you embrace that fact, you will feel peace. And the people you love most will feel more at peace too.
Learn To Talk to People
One of the best tips I have — don’t just look at ENM subcultures to find partners.
First, that’s a small dating pool. And honestly, it’s not the most attractive one, especially if you are straight.
Second, as with all subcultures, there is some very narrow-minded thinking going on. Acronyms, code, jargon, certain mannerisms — anything to make it clear to everyone else, “I belong here.”
This is the eternal irony of any subculture — people leave the herd, only to join a smaller, but even more rigid herd. The initial impulse — “I want to have more freedom” — is lost in the process.
The most interesting people in unconventional relationships — Amelia Earhart, Simone de Beauvoir, Bertrand Russell — never self-identified as members of some weird subculture. They were strong, independent thinkers before anything else.
So, don’t be a walking ENM poster boy or girl. Instead, talk to everybody. You will be surprised how many people out there are curious about unconventional relationships and are willing to give it a try. All my best relationship experiences have been with such people.
And when I say talk to everybody, I mean. Make it a habit to talk to three strangers each day (more is better), especially people who intimidate you with their beauty or their personality.
It’s a numbers game. To find the absolute best people you must pass through a sea of mediocre people. Yes, quality over quantity. But quantity is a necessary intermediary stage.