Relationships are like dogs.
Hear me out. There are millions of dogs in the world, but in the minds of some people, only some dogs that matter. Just talk to the American Kennel Club. According to the AKC, for a dog to matter, the dog must be an outstanding representative of its breed.
Which makes sense until you think about it a bit, and then it doesn’t. Most “breeds” are recent creations. Not so very long ago, there were only a handful of recognized breeds, and now there are hundreds. Someone crossed something with something with something with something and came up with something which they called a Papillon. And when there were enough papillons in the world, the breed was submitted to the AKC and acknowledged. And now, certain dogs are judged on how well their phenotype aligns with a theoretical concept of a papillon. Or not. It’s all pretty Platonic when you think about it, no? Is there actually a papillon out there to which these dogs are compared? And this, of course, leaves my own dear Faithful Companion in the lurch. He’s no breed in particular. But he’s definitely dog. And a great dog. One of the best I’ve known.
And that has to do what with relationships exactly?
Wellll... The Powers That Be seem to have prescribed certain ways of being in relationship. Marriage is the best example. Two people meet, fall in love, and with the blessings of their friends and family, embark on a life-long, committed, monogamous union. Although this is presented as timeless, that’s hardly the case. It’s a pretty recent development in human history. A little older than airconditioning, a little newer than representative democracy. In the not so distant past, most marriages were arranged and “love-matches” were discouraged. And they were chiefly found among the upper echelons of society. Poor people (most of the worlds population until mercantilism) couldn’t afford a priest, and priests couldn’t be bothered. So this model was plucked out of the ether and imposed upon us.
And there our troubles began. To my mind, there’s no “wrong” way to be in a relationship. Problems tend to arise in trying to conform our relationships to received models. Although calling them “received models” doesn’t quite do them justice. They’re imposed, not received. It’s as if the American Kennel Club went a step further and deemed dogs that don’t match breeds to be anathema and launched a huge canine eugenics campaign.
I don’t think it’s correct to say that there are as many kinds of relationships as there are “grains of sand on the seashores of the world” or whatever. In all human relationships, there are three basic elements, and the kinds of relationships arise from which of these elements are in play, and to what degree.
The three elements are Sex, Romance, and Companionship.
Sex is the purely physical and animal. It’s the act itself and whatever leads up to the act. And, briefly, the aftermath. The basis for a sexual relationship is mutual sexual attraction and compatibility: “I like you, and I’d like to do this to you, and you like me, and you’d like me to do that to you, so let’s get busy.”
Romance is that “dizzy dancing way you feel.” The “some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger” thing. One day, he’s the guy who works in the mailroom, and the next day he’s The One For You, all you can think about, all you desire, I wonder what he’s doing Right Now. Maybe thinking of you? Wondering what you’re doing Right Now? Could it be? Oh God, please let it be so.
And finally there’s Companionship. When spending time with him is like being with yourself. The person who doesn’t have to ask “how was your day?” because just seeing your face, he knows how your day was and responds appropriately. The person who seems to like the same odd things you like, who shares your passions. The person you can talk to for hours and, more importantly, listen to for hours.
And each of these give rise to certain human activities. Sex is characterized, tautologically, with having sex. If you’ve got a Romance going on, you’ll want to be dating, that is to say, engaging in some novel activity together. And the business of Companionship is communication, sitting and talking. Or sitting and not talking, but communicating nonetheless.
Largely due to neurochemistry, timelines for these three are built right in. With Sex, there’s no reason for it to continue beyond the act. (That tautology thing again.) If it’s Romance we’re dealing with, then as long as the energy can be sustained, it can continue. But keep in mind that sustaining that energy takes a lot. On the other hand, with Companionship, there’s no reason--short of treachery--that it should end.
So there they are, only three elements in our periodic table.
By my count, that gives rise to seven possibilities for a relationship that two people can have with each other.
Here’s a tour of those possibilities.
Sex You’re Fuck Buddies! You share the same fetish, or you’re both available on Wednesday afternoons, or you live down the hall from each other. And your sexual compatibility is so on target that it’s on par with masturbation.
Sex + Romance What you’ve got going on is a Fling! Often, a Fling happens between two people who don’t know each other well. Both of you finding yourself in an unfamiliar setting (a trade show both of you have traveled to, on a cruise, the French Foreign Legion outpost, a Sting concert) sets the stage for a Fling.
Sex + Companionship God bless teenagers! For eons, we had no name for this relationship, but now we do. Thanks to teenagers: Friends With Benefits.
Romance Straight up Romance we call a Flirtation. And aren’t they sweet? Some would say better than sex. And often, you get dinner!
Romance + Companionship We could call this a “Platonic Friendship,” but that strikes me as a little bit quaint. Some recent nomenclature I’ve heard to describe this is “Straight Guy Man Crush.” Of course, it also goes down among women, and it’s so common that it’s never to my knowledge been identified as a phenomenon. And between a man and a woman. Any two people of whatever sexual orientation can encounter this. But at any rate, I’m partial to the word, so let’s call it a Krush.
Companionship This we refer to as Friendship. Good old Friendship. Way too under-appreciated and often taken for granted.
Sex + Romance + Companionship Let’s give a neologism to this and call it a Trifecta. With the Trifecta, of course, a lot of our problems begin. It’s what we’re told we’re all entitled to, and the Dr. Phil’s of the world are all about telling us How To Do It and why it’s the Gold Standard. They’re wrong and it’s not. It’s just one possibility among several. Too, there’s really no way of doing it “wrong.”
And, a relationship between two people can evolve over time.
Let’s say you’ve got a Fuck Buddy. Every once in a while, you two get together and get it on. But on one occasion, as he’s putting his pants back on, he notices something on your coffee table. “Whoa! Is that Wim Wenders Wings Of Desire? Best. Movie. Ever.” And since you happen to agree, he sticks around to watch. You both rewind Peter Falk’s soliloquy three times, savoring every line. “Who is this guy” you ask yourself. You never quite noticed the amazing color of his eyes, and that cock-eyed smile he has that just makes you weak. “Wanna go to dinner?” You head stumble upon an Afgani restaurant, and by the time dinner is over, you’re both prettty much head over heels. For weeks, you’re callling and texting each other constantly. And, of course, you’re beset with terrible doubts: should I have told him that I didn’t finish college? Will he think I’m not on his level because of that? What did he mean when he said “I’m afraid of getting hurt”? Is he getting cold feet? But slowly those doubts and fears subside, as do the exhilarations of being together. You spend more and more time together, discovering there’s a lot more than sexual compatibility and Wings Of Desire that you have in common. And he’s so nice to come home to. And so nice to wake up next to. And so full of (pleasant) surprises.
Okay. If we wanted to chart this out, it would look like this:
Fuck Buddy (Sex) becomes A Fling (Sex + Romance) becomes Trifecta (Sex + Romance + Companionship)
One more thing. Sex and Companionship don’t lend themselves to exclusivity. You can have sex with a lot of people, and you can have as many friends as your time and attention allow. Romance, on the other hand, is all about exclusivity. Although it’s not impossible to maintain Romance for the long term, either as the sole element in a relationship or in some combination, it’s unlikely. It takes a lot of psychic energy. And you’ll probably get fired from your job. Much more likely that over the course of a relationship (say Friends With Benefits), Romance will crop up now and then and you’ve got a Trifecta for a time.
But you see what I’m getting at? Without Romance, exclusivity is... well.... unnatural. If you want exclusivity, then you better be ready and willing to do a hell of a lot of work to keep romance alive.
But my point, and I do have one, is that the relationship is what it is. And what it is is good. So don’t go getting all concerned because it’s not the Ricky and Lucy thing you dream about. Not everybody can be Rod and Rob Jackson-Paris. Not even, if you’ll recall, Rod and Rob Jackson-Paris.