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:
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 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.