Relationship by Design: Reinventing Relationships

Co-authored by Emily Polak, PhD and Effy Blue

Trapped, bored, annoyed, disconnected, dead inside.
These are just some of the feelings commonly reported by those in long-term relationships. They are also the fears of many about getting into one.
Most of us want to be in long-term relationships but we also have concerns about their viability. This can be explained at least in part because we’ve only been given a “one-size-fits-all” model for how romantic relationships look. As Esther Perel says in her book “Mating in Captivity,” adult intimacy has become overburdened with expectations. We expect our partner to be our lover, best friend, confidant, activity partner, co-parent and more. It’s no wonder we feel weary and skeptical about relationships.
When a couple decides to get married, an enormous amount of planning and attention gets paid to every detail of the wedding day. From the invitation to the flowers, the color scheme to the band, people think through, choose, and consciously design every aspect of how they want their day to go. But the same cannot be said for the relationship itself.
For one, the traditional monogamous relationship structure clearly doesn’t work for everyone, as evidenced by the high rates of cheating and approximately half of marriages ending in divorce. It is time we embraced the truth that love and intimacy are not one size fits all.
We are challenging the monogamous ideal. We believe that the success of a relationship has more to do with whether it is consciously designed than whether it’s monogamous or not. Instead, we assert that no one relationship type is inherently superior to any other. Rather, what matters is person-structure fit along with the presence of clear communication and mutual agreement among partners. As such, there is tremendous value in taking the time to design your relationship, starting with recognizing the abundance of possibilities available.
We invite you to view your relationships as a creative process. This approach takes traditional monogamous marriage off the pedestal and places monogamy as a choice rather than a given. Further, relationship designs are always adaptable, allowing flexibility for changing needs and desires over time.
This process works for both individuals and couples. For a single person, contemplating your ideal allows you to look for a partner with awareness and clarity. Existing couples can use the process to examine and redefine how their relationships work. For example, a couple can contemplate how they want to spend time together, how often, for what purpose, and so on. As a result, this process helps people have more successful relationships according to their own personal definition of success. Creating your own relationship design also provides opportunities for growth and self-discovery as you uncover what meets your unique needs and desires.

Designing your Ideal Relationship


Ok, you get it. “But how do I actually design my ideal relationship?” you ask.
Here are six steps:

  • Know yourself
  • Know the options
  • Create/Choose your structure
  • Communicate
  • Experiment
  • Refine


Know Thyself


To begin, what are your core values? What is your attachment style? Your primary love language? What are your most frequently used defense mechanisms and communication styles?
Then, think about why you want to be in a relationship in the first place. Companionship? Emotional intimacy? Sex? Sharing resources (money, chores, etc.)?
From there, let’s consider some important decisions into which many people unconsciously default. For one, some people want “escalator relationships,” beginning with dating, then moving in together, eventually getting engaged and married and finally having children together. However, not all relationships have to follow this progression. Does this appeal to you?
It’s also important to think about what constitutes cheating for you. What are your personal boundaries for what actions are precluded? For some, the line may be pornography, masturbation, flirting, touching, kissing, or genital intercourse. For some, cheating may also be a matter of emotional intimacy.

Know the Options:


Do you want to be part of a polyamorous couple who each have other partners with whom you spend time weekly?
Do you want to be in a triad who cohabit but do not date anyone outside of your unit?

Do you want to be couple that is mostly monogamous with the exception that one partner is allowed to have sex outside the relationship but only if discussed beforehand?

Do you want to be in a monogamous relationship in which you decide not to have children?

Do you want to be a monogamous partnership with two kids and a dog?

These are just a few examples of possible relationship designs. But what are the broad categories that exist? Let’s look at some common relationship structures.

Monogamy — when both parties agree to be sexually and romantically exclusive with each other. While it is often the default, we advocate that if it is chosen, it be done so thoughtfully and intentionally. This structure may appeal to individuals who subscribe to the idea that exclusivity creates more stability in relationships. Also, it may appeal to those who are prone to jealousy or don’t feel a need for additional physical or emotional intimacy.
Non-monogamy — a relationship structure in which the partners agree to be sexually and/or emotionally non-exclusive. Therefore, consensual, or ethical, non-monogamy is not cheating because the partners involved are in agreement about having partners outside of the relationship. This structure requires self-awareness, willingness to engage in ninja-level communication, and emotional self-regulation.

Polygamy — NOT the same as polyamory. Polygamy is a marriage consisting of more than two people. Though polygamy is one of the most recognized terms within non-monogamy, it is specific to marriage and is less relevant when discussing intentional relationship design.

Open Relationships — a structure that can be used to describe any relationship in which sexual interaction with someone other than a primary partner is agreed upon. One common example is swinging, which is an activity that typically involves emotionally monogamous couples switching partners for sex in a recreational or social setting. Swinging, however, typically does not entail emotional intimacy or romance outside of sexual encounters. On the other end of the spectrum, relationship anarchy is a less prevalent relationship style in which there are no labels or defined structures and participants do not rank or assign special value to sexual relationships.

Polyamory — meaning multiple loves, a relationship structure in which individuals openly engage in more than one romantic relationship simultaneously. These relationships can exist in many configurations. Many people utilize a framework in which they have a primary partner and secondary partners, whereas others prefer a non-hierarchical system for relating to different partners. They are many reasons individuals choose to practice polyamory, such as differing sex drives or desire for different kinds of intimacy.

Monogamish — a term coined by sex-columnist Dan Savage in 2011 to describe a relationship structure that is mostly monogamous. Such relationships have an agreement that allows for some sexual contact outside the primary relationship.
When considering what relationship structure is right for you, some important factors to consider are: How much time do you want to spend together? Do you want to live together? If so, do you want to share a bedroom or have separate bedrooms? Do you want to share finances? Do you want to have children?

Create/Choose your Structure:


You are now ready to make a preliminary decision about what type of relationship structure appeals to you. You can choose from the categories listed above and fine tune it to meet your specifications or design something unique.



Ultimately, honest and clear communication is necessary for any successful relationship. Once you know where you stand, you can communicate these preferences to your existing or future partners. In each relationship, you have the opportunity to design it together by sharing and collaborating to create a mutually satisfying arrangement.

It is worth noting that a relationship’s design is not representative of the feelings and love between the parties. Relationship design is a process that requires each person to recognize and communicate their personal needs. For example, an individual’s need for alone time is completely independent of their feelings for their partners. Ideally, partners can understand this and make an effort not take such needs personally. Partners should support and create space for their partners to figure out and express their needs and work together to see that all partner’s needs are getting met.

Experiment and Refine:


It’s important to allow for and expect a lot of trial and error as you make adjustments to your relationship design. Miscommunications will occur. Feelings will get hurt. Unanticipated challenges will arise. For example, scheduling is one of many challenges people in non-monogamous relationships face. As you spend time with a partner, you can fine tune your preferences for yourself as well as in the relationship design with that person.

Whatever it looks like, by knowing yourself, communicating with each partner, and allowing space for refining as you go, you are taking a major step towards creating your ideal life — intentional, conscious partnerships.