Here’s review number two for 2016!
Designer Relationships: A Guide to Happy Monogamy, Positive Polyamory, and Optimistic Open Relationships by Mark A. Michaels and Patricia Johnson
Michaels and Johnson have written a concise little book with a hybrid mission. The results are mixed, in part because they set a high bar for themselves going in, and proceed to reach it, at least at first.
The first third or so is informational. The authors provide a sort of taxonomy of what they call “designer relationships,” or relationship choices, from chosen singledom and celibacy through monogamy and to various kinds of non-monogamy. It’s refreshing to read a work that validates choices across that whole spectrum without angling for a hierarchy. They then give a brief history of relationship models, placing the monogamous ideal into proper historical context. A historical perspective is sorely lacking from most practitioner-centric books, so it’s definitely a welcome addition here.
I’ll stop here to note that I don’t love the term “designer relationships.” I know that Michaels and Johnson intend it to mean relationships that you co-create with your partner(s) in a way that reflects your values and desires, rather than bending to mainstream social custom by default, and I totally agree with this premise. But the idea that one can “design” (and then, one assumes, produce) a relationship to a set of specifications sits uncomfortably close, for me, to a paradigm in which people think they’re in control of love, or its absence, such that human emotion and relationships can be made to behave like trained pets. I do believe we can control our behaviour, but relationships sit at the crux of emotion and action, so they’re not as designable as one might like to think. At best I believe we need to develop a robust skill set, particularly centred on self-awareness, self-expression and listening, so that we can observe what’s occurring in our connections with others, and respond to or manage it in keeping with our core values. We must recognize that we can’t pre-fabricate relationships, especially if we understand the other participants in those relationships to be fully human, just as we are. So I read this book expecting to come across a control-based approach. I was mostly proven wrong – more about that in a sec.
Okay. Digression over.
The second third of the book is about myth-busting. It deftly unpacks common misconceptions about both monogamy and non-monogamy. It’s great, and especially great because it tackles both sets of misconceptions rather than attacking one in service to the other. Valuable work, here, and done succinctly. Michaels and Johnson do a great job summarizing the politics that surround contemporary relationship choices. I would have loved to see them add a section about myths surrounding BDSM-focused and power-dynamic relationships, but they admit they are outsiders and occasional dabblers in kink, so perhaps they’re not the ones best placed to do that job.
The last third, comprising three chapters, is practice-focused. In chapter five, the authors first provide a robust list of what they call relationship skills, but which are more like relationship values they suggest we think about and potentially put into practice. It’s really lovely, the sort of thing that could provoke some deep conversation between partners. With so many alternative relationship books focused on technique, it’s so nice to read really grounded writing about the values that must underpin what we do. (Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux do in-depth work on this in More Than Two.)
Chapters six and seven of the book left me a bit perplexed. Despite the authors’ broad, egalitarian approach thus far, chapter six focuses on how couples, specifically, can expand their sex and relationship horizons. The authors note the discrepancy, but say they expect most readers are probably coupled up – and who knows, maybe they’re right. But in a book that’s about custom-designing relationships (or not having them!), the sudden couple-focus undermines their broader message, narrowing the field of discussion just when it could have been broadened even further. They could have written, say, about practical challenges faced by people in non-normative relationship structures or who choose to go solo (housing, insurance, wills); about social etiquette for welcoming people of a range of relationship styles; about activist work toward creating a world where all relationship choices are respected. For that matter, they could have reflected on how to enjoy one’s sexuality when choosing singledom or celibacy, or what it might mean to be asexual, or simply not be an especially sexual being, in a world where sex is assumed to be important for everyone.
Instead, they provide a sort of “open relationships 101” for what appears to be mostly hetero vanilla couples – a step back into a comfort zone, instead of following through on the book’s project to push beyond such things. The chapter is fine for what it is, but it belongs in a different book. As well, while the chapter doesn’t elaborate an explicitly control-based paradigm, I sniffed it here and there, underpinning the types of advice they provide. It’s gentle, kind, far less rigid and dogmatic than I’ve read elsewhere, but still present, if more in terms of what’s not said than of what is.
I’m even more perplexed by their short final chapter on ethical considerations in designer relationships. The title sounds promising, but the content is entirely about sexual responsibility. Not that sexual responsibility is a bad thing, of course, but alternative relationships come with many more ethical considerations than just the sexual variety – especially if celibacy, non-sexual relationships and asexuality are indeed as valid as they posit at the beginning. We need to be talking about how to ethically navigate relationship power structures, social perception and acceptability, the institution of marriage, money and financial privilege, age differences, relationship duration and transformation, subcultural community belonging and the challenges and privileges it entails, sexual orientation, gender, honesty, communication, trauma and survivorship, and so much more.
I’d actually love to hear what Michaels and Johnson think about these questions, which are, I think, the logical extension of the taxonomy they set out in the beginning as it collides with the myths they bust and the values they lay out for consideration. Rickert and Veaux, again, spend a lot of time on these types of questions in their book; they opened a particular kind of conversation in their work and I’d have really valued Michaels and Johnson’s contribution to it. I really think it’s where the public discussion of how relationships work (all kinds of relationships!) needs to go in the coming years.
Designer Relationships is an excellent short read, and it does a lot of work to summarize, clarify and bridge discussions that are happening in different spheres. If the first third is about the past, and the second about the present, I’d have liked to see these authors do a bolder job on addressing the future in their last third. It goes further than many books on alternative relationships, and is top-notch for that reason. I wish it went further still.