When it comes to love, most of us blindly 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.
That begs the question of what traditional relationships entail.
The four hallmarks of a traditional relationship 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 — 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 together, raise them, and provide for them.
These hallmarks don’t manifest simultaneously. Rather, they unfold as a sequence of steps, sometimes referred to as the relationship escalator.
So, any relationship that doesn’t adhere to these four hallmarks can be considered an unconventional relationship.
Types of Unconventional Relationships
Let’s look at the spectrum of unconventional relationships.
1. ENM Relationships
ENM stands for “ethical non-monogamy.” It’s an umbrella term for any relationship that doesn’t require sexual exclusivity. Several of the following relationship types can be considered ENM relationships.
The “ethical” in ethical non-monogamy means that there is no sneaking around. You tell your partner what the deal is — and they tell you. How much you go into the details is up for negotiation.
Dealing with jealousy is a constant in an ENM relationship. Thus, great communication skills are a must.
2. Monogamish Relationships
The term “monogamish” was coined by sex columnist Dan Savage and further popularized by relationship coach Esther Perel.
In a monogamish relationship, your focus is on one person — just like with a “regular” monogamous relationship. You spend a lot of time together, you might live together, you make plans for the future, etc.
But sexually, there is some room for experiments. For example, you might be allowed to sext with other people or even have the occasional one-night stand.
You could think of these as agreed-upon “slip-ups.” They introduce an element of adventure into your otherwise conventional relationship style.
Swinger relationships, too, allow for outside sexual encounters. What makes them different is that these encounters take place at organized events (at swinger clubs or private swinger meet-ups) which you attend together.
The framework is “We can both sleep with other people but only in a shared context.” In a sense, you are keeping tabs on each other.
4. Open Relationships
As with monogamish relationships, the focus in open relationships is still on one partner. However, open relationships tend to be more straightforward about the “sex with other people” part. It’s more the rule than the exception.
Open relationships can still be escalator relationships. For example, some people opt to get married and even have kids while continuing to have extramarital sex.
4. Poly Relationships
With a poly relationship, your romantic focus is not 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 regularly has sex with.
The underlying idea is that love is limitless. Just like you don’t force yourself to have only one friend, you shouldn’t force yourself to have only one lover.
Also, by expanding your romantic network, you can cater to different facets of yourself. You might have one partner that you can explore your intellectual side with and another one that shares your sense of humor.
Polyamorous relationships often coincide 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. There are noticeably fewer heterosexual poly couples.
Poly relationships can still have an escalator dynamic. For example, I had a friend who for several years lived with two bisexual women and had kids with both of them. Yet, except for their sexual preferences, their family life looked quite ordinary.
But there are also people within the poly community who refuse the escalator logic. Check out my article on solo polyamory to learn more.
5. BDSM and Kink Relationships
BDSM relationships focus on sadomasochistic practices like bondage, discipline, dominance, and roleplay. Sexual intercourse can be part of these practices but doesn’t have to be.
BDSM activities may or may not include other people outside the relationship. When they do include other people, this often happens at designated BDSM parties or playspaces.
Kink relationships are a bit wider in scope; they include BDSM practices but also other practices like fetishism or sexual objectification.
Kink has become a buzzword in recent years. Especially in urban centers like Berlin or New York, everybody seems to identify as “kink” now. Personally, I suspect that this is more about appearances than actions.
6. Relationship Anarchy
The term “relationship anarchy” was coined by Swedish programmer Andie Nordgren in her 2012 manifesto. It is an attempt to apply anarchist ideas to sexual relationships. Any kind of hierarchy in relationships is strongly opposed.
This sets relationship anarchy apart from “regular” polyamory which usually differentiates between “primaries” and “secondaries.” To a relationship anarchist, there is no point in ranking lovers. Each relationship is valuable in its own way.
7. Relationships That Keep Things Separate
Not every unconventional relationship is about defying monogamy. Some simply oppose the merging of property that is so typical of traditional relationships.
For example, these partners might …
- … keep their finances separate
- … buy their groceries separately
- … sleep in separate bedrooms
- … live in different houses next to each other
- … attend events separately
- … go on vacation by themselves
8. Age-Gap Relationships
Age-gap relationships are another type of unconventional relationship (at least in the West). If your partner is 30 years older or younger than you, you’ll sure raise some eyebrows.
Age-gap relationships are characterized by their awareness of mortality. One of the partners will likely die a long time before the other partner. That puts a lot of strain on the expected survivor.
It also means that one of you will not be around to see the kids grow up. That is hard for both parties — the future deceased will feel like missing out, and the survivor will be left alone with all the responsibilities.
On the upside, partners in age-gap relationships tend to be more conscious about their time together. Since they understand their time is limited, they try to make the best of it.
9. Asexual and Aromantic Relationships
Some people have little or no sexual drive but still enjoy being in a relationship. This group of people is known as the ace community, a phonetic shortening of asexual. About one percent of the population is estimated to be asexual.
There are also individuals who identify both as asexual and aromantic but are still in a platonic, non-romantic relationship with another person. A fictional example would be the character of Sherlock Holmes who is in an aromantic partnership with Dr. Watson.
The Deviation Spectrum
To be in an unconventional relationship is to oppose one of the four hallmarks:
- Merging of identity
- Merging of property
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 iffier. For example, if you regularly vacation separately, this will raise some eyebrows.
Not procreating will be met with flat-out social ostracism, especially if you are a woman. Your parents and your 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 ensues.
What You Can Expect
When you opt for an unconventional relationship, 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 forgiving about gay couples; it doesn’t affect them.
But propose a non-monogamous arrangement to your heterosexual partner, and their tolerance will come to an abrupt end. Your parents, too, will be less than thrilled. And at work, tongues will wag endlessly.
Our language gives it away, too.
Just look at how mass culture glorifies committed relationships as “healthy.” Any type of relationship deviating from that is automatically labeled “unhealthy.”
That’s why many unconventional couples keep their relationship style on the down-low. They would rather not deal with this hypocrisy.
Why Is It Such a Big Deal?
Why do we get so worked up about alternative relationship styles?
There are four factors at play here.
We are herd animals.
Our lives are determined by the social script. We do what everybody else does — we go to college, we get a job, we get hitched, etc.
There are two advantages to this way of living — unambiguity + approval.
By following the script, you know exactly what to choose. And you can be sure everybody else will approve of your choices.
But when you deviate from the script, the herd will feel questioned by you. It might mean that there are other, better models out there — models that they were too afraid or too lazy to explore.
Few people can cope with that. So, they would rather attack you.
2. 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. It stands to reason that the remaining 50 percent are not much better off. They just can’t cut their losses.
Ironically, that’s why most people are so eager for you to join the club — they want you to be as unhappy as they are. It makes their own misery slightly more bearable.
Pair bonding — what we 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 plays into that. It gives you the illusion of a guarantee. “Now that we are married, we’ll stay together forever.”
An unconventional relationship is more dynamic. There are fewer certainties (real or imagined). At any point, the other person might leave you alone with the kids.
That’s why many people, especially heterosexual women, reject non-monogamous arrangements. It takes a very self-assured personality to handle that degree of uncertainty.
4. Marketplace Dynamics
When you opt out of monogamy, you are not just making an individual decision; your decision 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 all other women. That power is based on giving or withholding sex.
When you pronounce, “I don’t want to play this game anymore,” that is perceived as an attack on the market. Slut shaming ensues.
It is no wonder that so few women dare to deviate.
The Struggle From Within
Unconventional relationships are not just challenged from the outside. There are also internal challenges.
The first big issue is jealousy.
Many years ago, when I was in my first non-monogamous relationship, I drove my then-girlfriend to a date. It was understood that she was going to have sex at that date.
I thought I was okay with it. 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 talked me out of my funk.
Don’t be naïve like me. When you first enter into a non-monogamous relationship, there will be jealousy. Ready yourself for the storm.
Fortunately, your capacity to deal with jealousy can be trained, much like a muscle. Eventually, you will get to the point where it hardly bothers you.
The second issue is that different people start from different places. Their eagerness to experiment will differ.
So while one partner might be fine with having the occasional threesome, they might not be fine with you blowing 10 strangers at a Techno club in Berlin.
Communication is key. Every party must express their wishes clearly. After this, it’s a matter of negotiation. If a compromise can be reached, great. If not, part in peace.
The Case for Unconventional Relationships
Despite these potential stumbling blocks, unconventional relationships can be highly rewarding. That is for three reasons.
1. Exceptional People
The people who go for unconventional relationships tend to be extraordinary themselves. To pull it off, they have to be.
Having been with a few people like this has impacted my life in more ways than I can start to describe. Their positive aftereffects are always with me.
It will be like this for you too.
Unconventional relationships force you to confront yourself. The psychological baggage you carry, your insecurities — no stone is left unturned.
The great catalyst is jealousy. It brings everything out in the open. What you desire, what you fear, what you hate — in short, who you truly are.
If you can endure that process, it will take you to new heights of self-awareness.
3. 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 the day I die.
How To Make an Unconventional Relationship Work
Are you ready to try new relationship models? Here is how to make it work.
1. Say What You Want
With any kind of nonconventional relationship, honesty is key. You must truthfully state what you want, and resist self-censoring yourself.
This tends to be especially tricky for men.
First, men usually have less practice talking about their feelings.
Second, there is a bit of a double standard.
If a woman says, “I would like to add a new lover,” it’s considered an emancipatory act. If a man says that, he is considered a lech.
I am not lamenting. There are good historical reasons why we are currently more inclined to consider the female perspective.
But for all of us to be happy, we must all speak our truth freely.
More truth = more mutual understanding = more joy.
2. Take a Time-Out
You must speak the truth, but you must speak it calmly.
When you talk yourself into a rage, you lose your ability to think rationally. You ignore everything that is good about the relationship and focus on the ugly. This might do damage beyond repair.
The best way to counteract this is to take a time-out.
Tell your partner, “Listen, I understand we need to have this discussion. But right now, we are just getting angry at each other. This is not helping anything. So, I will leave now. Once we have cooled off, we will continue this.”
After this, you don’t say another word. You just walk away.
It’s like popping a balloon — it removes all the malice from the interaction.
3. Let the Other Person Be
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 there is no perfect fit. That is due to different life stories and — in the case of heterosexual couples — it is also due to varying biological needs.
The problem arises when we try to change the other person, to make them fit our ideal of them. Such attempts are doomed to fail. You can’t change people.
Let them be, in all their glory and in all their vileness. What you can’t get from them, get from somebody else. But realize that this other person won’t be a perfect fit either.
This is the heart of it — we are by ourselves. We are born alone, and we die alone. Yes, we can create deep connections in the interim, and it’s beautiful. But complete “oneness” is out of reach.
Once you embrace that truth, you will have peace.
4. Take Care of Your Jealousy
No matter how well you communicate with your partner, sometimes, jealousy is going to get the best of you.
A great antidote is meditation.
In fact, your jealousy will make it easier for you to reach deeper states of consciousness. Being in pain makes your inner barriers more permutable, so to speak.
The trick is to not suppress anything. Observe your inner turmoil. Look at it like a curious scientist.
The longer you keep at it, the more your upheaval will dissipate. All that will remain is consciousness.
These deep dives are highly enjoyable. You will come back from them feeling both calm and energized.
5. Learn To Talk to People
Don’t just look at the ENM subculture to find partners.
First, it’s a small dating pool. And honestly, it’s not exactly brimming with attractive people.
Second, as with all subcultures, there is a lot of “us vs. them” going on — jargon, mannerisms, and even how people are supposed to dress.
The most interesting people never self-identify as members of some weird subculture. They are free-loving individualists. Think Amelia Earhart, Simone de Beauvoir, and Bertrand Russell.
So, cast a wider net. Talk to everybody, not just ENM folks. You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to give an unconventional relationship a try.
Turn this into a habit. Every time you leave the house, talk to a stranger — at the supermarket, in the subway, on the street.
It’s a numbers game. To find a few outstanding people, you must pass through a sea of mediocre people.