There is this idea about romantic relationships that they either exist or not. In Dutch we say it’s “on” or it is “off”. There may be a “blinker-phase” where the on and off alternate at a pace faster than gossip can catch up with – but there are two options nonetheless.

It’s not all Black and White

This “on-or-off” concept is, in my eyes, a very black and white approach to the concept of intimate relationships. Either you have it all, where “all” is often considered stepping onto the relationship escalator of expected progression from flirting, to going steady, to introducing to friends and parents, to marriage and kids and a steady job to provide for it all – in a relationship construct of two persons, often of opposing genders, and with an average of two kids. The concept should include sexual interaction (or struggles, shame and doubt when it’s not there), being each other’s automatic +1 when one is invited, and often (the intention for) living together in the same place.

When the relationship stops, all of that is gone. And when it never is an official relationship, none of that will be there either. The relationship may be a friendship, which is another construct with many societal rules attached to it of what should and should not be part of it.

There is this strange paradigm in our society where the success of a relationship is determined by its exclusivity and longevity. I want to challenge this idea. Can we determine the success of our intimate relationships by their quality, and how meaningful they are to our lives?

The many Flavours of Relating

I like to approach my intimate relationships in a different way. Instead of the black and white system, I like to see intimate relationships as a kaleidoscope of colours. When I let go of the fixed ideas around intimate relationships about a decade ago, my whole view of how people can (or should) interact changed. Because why wouldn’t I be able to sleep naked in the arms of my best friend? And why would it be impossible to relate with someone who already relates with another person?

So now I do have a best friend in whose arms I can sleep and with who I can kiss and share tender erotic moments. When someone called us an amazing looking couple (we’re both quite obviously queer and tattooed) we smiled, felt happy, and didn’t correct them.

My partner also relates with another person with whom they live and own a business. They go on holiday with this partner, and then they go on holiday with me. My partner’s parents know about me and welcome me warmly.

I have a best friend with whom I go on long walks several times per month. It’s platonic, we openly discuss our current, past, and future lovers. We have very serious plans of moving in together in a few years. We fantasize about how we have no idea who we will be to each other in the future – may that be best friends, wild lovers, partners, or anything in between. We tell our lovers and partners about our connection and plans – and are clear we do not plan on letting each other go.

I have a best friend with whom I cuddle in bed regularly, fully clothed and not in an erotic way.

I have a dear person in my life with whom I share sexy selfies and voiceys.

I have several people in my life that, even should I try, I have no idea how to label them. Folks who live abroad I had sex with in the past and may share that with again when our paths cross. I have people with whom our relationship most often is platonic – but not always. I have an ex with whom I still love to curl up on the couch and watch a movie. Folks I work with and love to play with. And that’s not even everyone.

People and Desires Change over Time

My kaleidoscope of intimate relationships is a dynamic one. ‘People have different needs, with different people, at different times in their lives‘, is what I said in my TEDx talk on designing intimacy. I deeply believe in that.

Different times in our lives create different desires and needs to care for ourselves. Why should our idea of a binary approach to intimate relationships limit ourselves from the nourishment we desire?

What if the shape and form of a relationship design don’t fit anymore over time? Rather than “breaking up”, what if the common practice would be to sit together, have an evaluation, and calibrate the design to what does work and fit? And what if we can do the same if we feel a desire to jump in the sack with a friend? What if eroticism deepens a friendship, instead of ruins it?

What if we can let our intimate relationships be fluid? It will take some big changes in our paradigms, but the glimpses I’ve seen are so beautiful. It means I can consciously choose to design my life in certain ways – including staying in one romantic, monogamous partnership for my whole life. But then it’s a conscious and informed decision instead of an automatic one.

My life and relationships are controversial in many ways, but it’s deeply satisfying to me to live like this.