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How Do You Define A Partner? Polyamory And The Blurred Lines Between Partners And Non-Partners


It’s a common observation that when you’re polyamorous or otherwise non-monogamous, the lines become blurred between friends and more-than-friends.

I personally have a lot of people in my life that wouldn’t quite fit into the mono-normative definition of “just friends”. However, not all of them are exactly partners either. They seem to fit on a spectrum of friendship, love, romance, cuddliness, and sex, with some being very close to “just friends” and others being closer to partners.

It’s often rather hard to define these people when I talk about them. When I find myself having to say something where “my friend” or “my girlfriend” would usually go, I end up having to have an awkward half-minute of explaining roughly what our relationship actually consists of.

Come to think of it, it’s rather funny that I should have to describe the exact type of relationship I have every time I talk about somebody. I think I should be able to just call all of them “friends”, because, among other things, that’s what they all are, but if I call them that people will make incorrect assumptions. I think this tendency to make such assumptions comes from the polarity inherent in mono-normativity: you’re either friends OR you’re partners. In non-monogamy there are so many more possibilities.

On The Limitations Of Labels

A lot of people seem to think that because labels are often so limiting, we should do without labels. I actually don’t think that. I think the number one problem with labels is that there often just isn’t a label to describe a certain reality. Because we lack adequate labels, we often try to fit things into the boxes of inadequate ones.

In this case, I believe that instead of doing without labels for relationships at all, we should be developing new labels to encompass the new realities we are experiencing outside of monogamy. Then, perhaps, one day it will be less horribly awkward to define our relationship to someone who is neither “just a friend” nor a partner.


What Is A Partner?

In a conversation recently, someone posed the question to me, “What is a partner?”. I found that rather interesting.

In the conversation that followed, I felt inspired to break down relationships into different components:

1. Friendship

2. Physical closeness (cuddling)

3. Passionate love and caring (often called romance though some friendships can be like that)

4. Sex

5. Commitment

I realised that I could have everything from 1 to 4 without calling something a partner relationship. Number 5, then, seems to be what turns a sexual and passionate friendship into a partner relationship.

By commitment, I mean that you have a certain amount of time and energy that is kind of reserved for that person. You know that you are there for each other, and you expect that of each other. You can plan a future together. When you get sick, you know that the other person will be ready to take care of you. When you’re sad, you know the other person will come and comfort you. And so on.

I don’t believe it’s a bad thing to have expectations of a person. A relationship like this gives you security and support which a non-committal friendship wouldn’t give you. There might be problems if you have unrealistic expectations of each other, but expectations themselves are not a problem.

A non-sexual and non-passionate friendship could be committal too. You could call these people life partners, though not relationship partners in the usual sense of the word.

Different Combinations

If you think about it, then, there are many different possible relationship configurations based on different combinations of these elements.

For instance, I have a friendship which includes physical closeness and passionate love and caring. There is no sex, though, and not much in the way of commitment. We see each other when we see each other, but don’t go out of our way to reserve space in our lives especially for the other person.

I also have several friendships that might be labelled “lover” relationships; friendship, physical closeness, and sex. However, there’s often also an element of passionate love and caring in these relationships. They don’t become partner relationships because there isn’t much commitment to each other.

And then I have relationships that are a mix of friendship, closeness, passion, sex, and commitment. These would be what you’d call partner relationships.

Additionally, though I’ve never experienced this, I’ve often thought to myself that I could enjoy a relationship with an asexual person. I’m very fond of cuddling and passion, and often find myself having sex because it’s usually hard to have such intimacy without both partners becoming horny and ending up having sex. But for me the sex is rather less important, and sometimes even feels like something of a distraction from the parts of a relationship I like most. So I occasionally wonder about having a close, passionate, and committed relationship with an asexual person. I would consider this to be a partner relationship, even if most people assume partner relationships always involve sex.

Those are just some configurations I’ve experienced or thought about. There are potentially many more. I am certain that whatever mix of relationship elements you think of, there is someone out there who is experiencing that.


A Table

I tried making a table showing how different relationship elements can be combined. As you can see, some of the labels I’ve used are more awkward or ambiguous than others.

As it’s a 2D table I’ve only been able to combine two elements at once, so there are many more possibilities. To be truly complete I’d have to make 5 cubic tables which are animated so that information is also graphed through the dimension of time.

Or something. Anyway.

I’ve kind of assumed that friendship was implicitly included in all of these combinations, because that’s how it usually is, even though I could strain my imagination and come up with some possible exceptions to that.

Friendship Physical Closeness Passion Sex Commitment
Friendship Cuddle buddy Passionate friendship Fuck buddy Platonic Life Partner
Physical Closeness Cuddle buddy Passionate cuddle buddy? Lover Cuddly platonic life partner
Passion Passionate friendship Passionate cuddle buddy? Lover, affair, fling? Passionate lover? Asexual romantic partner
Sex Fuck buddy Lover Lover, affair, fling? Passionate lover? Umm… Lifelong friends with benefits?
Commitment Platonic Life Partner Cuddly platonic life partner Asexual romantic partner Umm… Lifelong friends with benefits?

Related

Monogamy As An Ideology Or: Why I’m One Of Those Insufferable Polyamorists Who Thinks Polyamory Is Better

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Anja October 17, 2014, 4:21 pm

    I think that Friendship + Commitment is a big thing, too. I have heard it called “best friends”. Comes with physical closeness sometimes, but to me that’s not the important criterium. And somehow “life partner”, whether platonic or not, is a different concept to me. Although maybe only because I have never heard it used to mean “best friend”.

  • Tom November 18, 2016, 12:06 am

    The table can be a triangle since the top 🔝 right ↪ half is redundant and therefore confusing

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