The Five Factor Model of Relationships

This post was written for the May 2015 Carnival of Aces, which is on the topic of Identity, Labels, and Models.  I think I went in a bit of a different direction than most of the other submissions, but hopefully that’s okay!

A while back I mentioned my relationship model in the comments section on one of Elizabeth’s posts, and apparently a lot of people were very interested in it.  Now that I’m finally done with finals, I have a spare moment to type it all up.

About this model:

This model is pretty highly influenced by similar models from David Jay (more recently here) and M.  It is also, in some ways, a simplification of The Anatomy of Relationships.

I picked these five specific factors for a couple of reasons.  First, they’re the ones I find most useful in categorizing my relationships, and they’re also ones that other people have found useful in thinking through their relationships.  (If you know me offline and have ever come to me for relationship advice, you’ve probably already seen this model, possibly in multiple forms!  Thank you for being willing guinea pigs.)  Second, they avoid words like “feelings,” “attraction,” and “love,” which can quickly turn into contested territory, especially if you’re greyromantic, wtfromantic, aromantic spectrum, or otherwise not quite jiving with normative models of relationships.  They also pretty neatly avoid the platonic/romantic/queerplatonic classification system, which A. is contentious, B. varies from person to person, and C. seems to quite often be used to either invalidate other people’s relationships or tell people that they can’t have certain types of relationships without certain types of feelings, neither of which I’m particularly into.  Plus they also avoid the monogamy/polyamory divide, which I don’t find helpful for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this post.

This model is meant first and foremost as a communication tool, not as a way of publicly presenting your relationship to the outside world.  It’s very much tailored toward sitting down with someone and having a “relationship conversation.”  If you want to categorize a particular relationship as platonic/romantic/queerplatonic/poly/monogamous/whatever as well as fitting into this model, that’s totally cool!  (I do that too.)  This model is more about the inner workings of a relationship and acknowledging that my romantic relationship may look a lot different than your romantic relationship.  Basically, I really like relationship navigation tools, and I wanted to add another one to the arsenal.

If this model doesn’t work for you, that’s fine!  It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or Doing Relationships Wrong.  If you find pieces of it helpful, feel free to use those and ignore the rest.  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments; I would be really interested to hear what you think!

The Model

The Five Factor Model relies on five factors (thus the name) to categorize relationships: commitment, intimacy, time, exclusivity, and priority.  Below I use questions to explain each of the factors (partially because that’s how I most often use the model in practice).

Commitment: What future do you see for this relationship?  Have you explicitly talked about the future of the relationship?  Will you make an effort to maintain the relationship in its current form, or are you expecting the relationship to drift apart/evolve organically?  How constant do you assume this person will be in your life?  (One of the measurements I like using is, “Assuming all other things are held constant, would you designate this person as your emergency contact?”)  What actions are required to end or change the relationship?  (Do you have to have an “I’m breaking up with you” conversation or can you just drift apart?)

Intimacy: How emotionally intimate are you?  How physically intimate are you?  Is there a correlation between the two?  (Note that I tend to conceptualize “intimacy” as a combination of “intimacy,” “vulnerability,” and “support,” although other people may find it helpful to separate those out into different categories.)

Time: How much time do you devote to the other person?  How much of that time is in person?  How much is online?  How much of that time is one-on-one versus in a group?  How much is accidental (”we ran into each other,” “we both happened to be going to the same event,” etc.) versus intentional?

Exclusivity: What things are exclusive to your relationship?  (This can be anything from “He’s my only boyfriend” to “They’re the only person I cuddle with” to “She’s the only person I watch new Elementary episodes with.”)  Additionally, I find “soft exclusivity “ or “semi-exclusivity” helpful for categorizing relationships, i.e. things that are not 100% exclusive to the relationship but that I’ll go to that person first for.  (For example, “I’ll watch X-Men movies with whoever wants to watch them, but she’s the first one I go to for fandom talk” or “I’ll take help where I can get it, but when I’m having a bad mental health day, they’re the first person I’ll call.”)

Priority: Where does this person fall in your priority list?  On an average day?  In a crisis?  How much effort will you put into spending time with them, talking, being together, etc.?  Do you spend time together when it’s convenient, or are you intentional about making time for, say, a weekly phone call to catch up or a monthly visit?  Do you put their needs before yours?  Before other people’s?

The Model in Action

Below I’m going to categorize a few of my relationships with the model so you can get an idea of how it works in practice.

My girlfriend is one of the people I’m most comfortable being emotionally intimate with, and pretty much the only person I’m comfortable being physically intimate with.  We don’t spend much time physically together–we usually only see each other on weekends–but we talk via instant messenger or text pretty much every day.  Because we live apart, I make it a priority to spend time with her when I can, and if she needs to talk, I prioritize her needs over whatever else I could be doing (within reason).  She’ll be moving across the country for a post-doc in the near future, so we’ve had a lot of conversations about how we’re going to handle being long-distance, and we’re both committed to making this work and staying together as long as we both feel this relationship is working out for us.  We’ve definitely had conversations about how to handle the Two Body Problem (with the added complications inherent in being two queer women).  In terms of exclusivity, pretty much the only things that are exclusive to our relationship are physical things (up to a certain point; I’m okay with her cuddling other people even though cuddling other people is pretty high on my intimacy scale) and calling our relationship a romantic relationship.  Feelings talk and emotional support is semi-exclusive, but maybe less so than a lot of people would expect.

I see H pretty much every day (since she’s my roommate) so we spend a lot of time together.  A lot of that time isn’t particularly intentional, though; since I run into her around the apartment a lot, spending time together is rarely a priority.  I’ll definitely prioritize her if she needs me, but most of the time she has middling priority. I’ve been emotionally intimate with her in the past–she knows about my history of sexual violence, for example–but she probably isn’t the first person I’d go to for that.  Physical intimacy is a no-go.  There are some things that are exclusive to our relationship–mostly a lot of media!  We often get sidetracked by really intense, in-depth conversations about conceptions of masculinity in Mad Max: Fury Road or Sansa’s character arc in A Song of Ice and Fire.  We haven’t talked a whole lot about the future, although the current group of roommates has agreed to stay together pretty much as long as the situation is still working out for all of us, which is a form of commitment, I guess.  She’s also my emergency contact for a whole ton of stuff, so I’m not expecting this relationship to end any time soon.

I don’t spend much time with R ‘cause we live on different coasts!  We find time to talk every few weeks, but generally it’s of fairly low priority, since we keep pretty different hours.  We also haven’t ever had a “relationship conversation” (so commitment hasn’t been articulated), but she’s been my friend for more than a decade so I’m not expecting her to drop out of my life any time soon.  That said, we’ve drifted apart and together over the years, so our relationship can change without having any intense “where is this relationship going” sort of conversations.  There isn’t much that’s exclusive to our relationship (although clothes shopping is semi-exclusive, but that’s a story for another time), partially because of the distance and partially because I only get to see her about once a year (although I do definitely make an effort to get to the other coast to see her, so, priority).  I’m reasonably comfortable being emotionally intimate with her, and I trust her to have my back.  (For example, she drove the get-away car during last year’s coming out extravaganza.)  Physical intimacy is surprisingly okay up to a point–I’m fine with most casual touch and some intentional touch.  Also she keeps sending me cute ties with tiny animals; I’m not sure what category that goes in, but I wanted to note it for the record.

About queenieofaces

QueenieOfAces is a graduate student in the U.S. studying Japanese religion. She is a queer asexual. She also blogs over at Concept Awesome and runs Resources for Ace Survivors. She is never quite sure what to write in these introduction things, but this one time she accidentally got a short story on asexuality published in an erotica magazine.
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22 Responses to The Five Factor Model of Relationships

  1. luvtheheaven says:

    One thing I’d like to add that’d be useful for me in categorizing my own relationships would be: if a person is one of only two people, or one of only a few people, who I would do something in particular with. That would be something to tack onto the exclusivity category, I believe. For me it doesn’t have to be with only one person to still feel like an “Exclusive” thing we share. As long as it’s not done with many people, it’s got that specialness of “something I only do with you and her”. Or whatever it is.

    Does that make sense, when I’m speaking on broad vague terminology?

    • queenieofaces says:

      Yeah, that makes sense, and was sort of what I was going with with “semi-exclusivity.” It could be “I go to that person first” or you could use it to me “I only go to this small group of people for it.”

  2. Hmm this is useful.

    The last time I saw you mention this I was concerned that you had both commitment and exclusivity, but it seems like you actually have taken them apart in to two different concepts. My fear was that for a lot of people I know, when they talk about effort to maintain a relationship they almost always focus on what people would give up- and it almost always starts to turn in to exclusivity (this may be the ole “you are interested in dating multiple people therefore you aren’t committed trope”). So it’s nice to see that logic broken up a bit.

    Another thing- and this isn’t a critique- is that I feel like I care a lot less than other people about any of these things other than intimacy (of every kind)? And that may be why I have so much trouble convincing people I know that I do actually care and love and so on- because they often seem to lump all of these things together, and assume they are all correlated. So even if I find this mostly unhelpful for describing my relationships (because saying what they aren’t doesn’t seem helpful, and saying intimacy tends to just confuse people), it is helpful for analyzing the way society values relationships.

    And finally, I think the concept of priority can be complicated. I know in my experience, how much I’ll prioritize someone often depends how long its been since I’ve seen them. But in theory there is still a matter of how quickly that “I’ve seen this person recently” feeling starts up and wears off, which is sort of just a meta-priority. It may also be that how much I prioritize someone depends on what activities I want to do, and whether or not that is something I think they would want to do. But that doesn’t change it from existing as a useful concept, it’s basically just stating the obvious: context matters. So maybe the real reason I feel like I can’t say I care about a lot of these things is because I’ve dated/seen/talked to too many people who conceptualize these things differently than I do.

    • queenieofaces says:

      Yeah, I broke up commitment and exclusivity because they really don’t go together in my mind. Like, arguably, most people would consider my relationship with my girlfriend “more exclusive” than my relationship with H (I’m not sure that’s actually true, but whatever; people only care about exclusivity of very particular things), but H and I have been living together for 3 years and have a plan for the next 4+ years, so arguably we’re more committed to each other.

      With priority, I tend to prioritize people I care about really highly, which doesn’t work out most of the time because most people don’t have VERY STRONG FEELINGS about all their friends, so I tend to try to mirror how much the other person prioritizes me, otherwise I wind up in a really unbalanced situation. So, yes, it’s dependent on context and situation and how much the other person prioritizes me, but it can also be tied up in exclusivity. (Like, if I want to watch the new Steven Universe episode, I’m going to want to spend time with my roommate, J, who is my Steven Universe-watching buddy.) So I think I have the same sort of complicated prioritization as you do; I’m just not sure how to model that without breaking priority into fourteen different parts.

      Just out of curiosity, do you think it would help as a negotiation tool if you removed the keywords? I know some people get hung up on words more so than concepts, so “commitment” can seem like a much scarier/easier to misinterpret concept than saying, “Hey, would it be okay to designate you as my emergency contact?”

      • Well, realistically I’m not sure removing the words actually helps. Explaining them (as you do) does, however. Which may be part of why I find this useful, because that helps separate all the concepts.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Warning: possibly triggering, discusses abusive non-traditional/non-categorizable relationships.

    Thank you for posting this! It was really good timing, as a lot of the issues I’ve been having in the past week have been related to “what the hell even was going on?” and that sort of thing. I know that this model is really more suited to sitting down and having conversations about relationships, but in this case, we’re talking about a relationship where there was ZERO explicit communication about the relationship itself (very little, anyway, and it was like pulling teeth to get any acknowledgment at all). I do not and probably will never know what the deal was from his perspective. But analyzing it by these factors gives me a lot of clarity, and helps me get to a point of thinking, “Okay, yeah, there were really good reasons to think that’s what was going on.” There were definitely some clear assumptions/expectations of constancy, as well as specific intentional plans for the future. It was to the point of requiring a break-up letter, even though it was not “committed” in the sense that most people would think of commitment. But most people only think about certain types of commitment (or exclusivity, as you said).

    I think it’s important to think about how much and what kind of communication has happened for each of these factors—and whether it’s unequal or unsatisfactory. Probably in most “casual” style relationships you’re not likely to have any kind of “HEY LET’S ANALYZE OUR RELATIONSHIP!” moments (although maybe more so with other aces, haha), but you may still be able to figure out those larger patterns by looking at the specific things you do together in each of these categories. Escalation of each of these factors is a really important consideration, too. Like, for example, have you started to spend a lot more time together, be a lot more emotionally intimate, prioritize each other more? Is it to the point where you feel like you should probably start having a conversation about where you want the relationship to go? Who is expected to initiate the conversations that emotionally escalate the relationship? Does it always seem to fall on one person? Is the other receptive, or dismissive?

    Those last few questions can really help to figure out when a relationship is unequal, or potentially even abusive. (It’s worth noting that in hetero relationships, women are often expected to be the ones that emotionally escalate the relationship.) Sorta thinking here about what you said about trying to mirror how much the other person prioritizes you, too. I don’t have a lot of fully formed thoughts on this, but I’ve really struggled with that too—always being the one who has to invite, then being avoided or blown off. Others just not making effort to keep the friendship going. Makes me just sort of sigh and give up after a while. Anyway…

    Still pondering everything. Could possibly one day expand on all these considerations in their own post.

    • queenieofaces says:

      Please do expand into a post! I’ve definitely used this model both as a communication tool and in figuring out when relationships were unequal and…really not good for me to be in. I was in one relationship where I prioritized the other person really highly and they kept telling me that priority wasn’t a “useful word” for them…but then made it really clear that I was really not a priority. And while I know that some people can handle that in their relationships, I tend to like mine to be roughly balanced, otherwise it starts doing really bad things to my head. So, yes, I use it both as a communication tool and a person yardstick.

  4. Sennkestra says:

    mmm this is a really good way of articulating things.

    It reminds me a bit of the “triangular theory of love”‘s passion-intimacy-commitment model, but a little more developed and more applicable to a wider variety of relationships. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangular_theory_of_love)

    The triangular theory was actually one of the first places outside of ace spaces where I encountered discussion and acknowledgment of strong, intimate relationships that didn’t need to be romantic or sexual – specifically the recognition of the idea of companionate love:

    “Companionate love is an intimate, non-passionate type of love that is stronger than friendship because of the element of long-term commitment. “This type of love is observed in long-term marriages where passion is no longer present”[9] but where a deep affection and commitment remain. The love ideally shared between family members is a form of companionate love, as is the love between close friends who have a platonic but strong friendship.”

    I think the 5 factor model is in some way s and improvement, though, in that it is more generalizeable to other types of relationships that may not resemble love at all – like employee-employer relationships (lots of commitment, a fair amount of priority and time, but not much intimacy, at least for me).

    I think the main thing that I find missing from this five factor model is something like “passion” – One of the biggest things that makes standard relationship models not work for me is the idea of passionately wanting/needing to be with that partner – I just don’t feel or desire that kind of emotion towards my relations with other people, but it’s sometimes hard to find a way to articulate that difference. I like the idea of having people I can be close and committed too, but I just don’t feel any high emotions that drive me into relationships (of any kind). The five factor model dopes a great job of describing the practical/behavioral aspects of different relationship types, but maybe not so much the different emotional aspects (although, I guess I don’t know if it was even meant to?)

    Does anyone else have that kind of experience? How do you usually articulate it?

    • Sennkestra says:

      I also wanted to mention that I appreciate that this model doesn’t set up a hierarchy of “better” or “truer” types of relationships, which is a major flaw in some types of models like that triangular love theory.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I also have been thinking of the triangular theory lately, sort of using it in conjunction with the 5 factors. The passion/desire aspect is definitely missing from this model, but I think that’s very much intentional. Because passion is more based on “how do I feel about this person?” than the practical aspects of the relationship, which I think this model does an excellent job addressing. Feelings are much harder to address, and often either unrequited or mismatched in intensity, so it can be really hard to base a good understanding of a relationship on.

      I’ve had sorta similar experiences, but very little luck trying to articulate it.

    • queenieofaces says:

      I intentionally stayed away from the emotional aspects of the relationship (other than intimacy, which is pretty tied up in emotionality for me, but YMMV) mostly because the emotional bits/passion/attraction/whatever tends to be super highly contested. Mostly, I’m kind of tired of seeing people being like, “No, you can’t have a [whatever] relationship without [whatever] feelings!” (Most recently, in the blow-up over cupioromanticism there was a lot of “you can’t be a romantic relationship unless you’re romantically attracted!” which…I’m greyro, girlfriend is wtfromantic, romantic feelings are not exactly happening in a normative manner here so I guess our “romantic” relationship is super fake????) Also, personally, I tend to find classifying relationships by functionality a lot more helpful than classifying them by feelings, because my feelings tend to be pretty person/relationship-specific, so I would be like, “Yes, this is my R relationship where I have R-related feelings; this is my H relationship where I have H-related feelings; this is my girlfriend relationship where I have girlfriend-related feelings; etc.”

      Also, about relationship hierarchies, like three years ago I posted this thing conceptualizing relationships as books on a bookshelf, and how ranking relationships just didn’t make sense to me, given how I relationship. That metaphor never really caught on, but, yeah, I still don’t find putting relationships in hierarchies particularly helpful, thus the model that makes doing that really difficult.

  5. elainexe says:

    I do find this a much easier thing than designating things as romantic or not or whatever. Personally I’ve bypassed this by just saying I’d like to get married, and then I wouldn’t have to use words like boyfriend or queerplatonic partner.
    But it’s very good to have something like this. It seems like some people just take things as, “I’m dating so-and-so,” and taking assumptions about what it means to date someone in place of thinking about how much they want each of the qualities you mention here. Of course, even the most non-queer relationships have variations on these points and it’s acknowledged, but I think aces and other queer people can particularly benefit from such a model as this when we don’t fit into these more mainstream relationship boxes. Boxes can have their own comfort I suppose, to not feel so lost. My feelings towards marriage probably have some of that comfort.

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