Relationship Design

SOLO 175 | Relationship Design


Peter McGraw welcomes Jessalyn Dean into the Solo Studio to discuss Relationship Design. Peter defines relationship design as the process by which two or more people intentionally engage in co-creating a customized relationship, in which all parties agree on the rules and regularly revisit the agreement, revising as necessary.

Listen to Episode #175 here


Relationship Design

I am welcoming back Jessalyn Dean, who’s a member of the Solo community, a friend, and a guest on the Aromanticism episode, which I received a lot of positive feedback. Not only did people find it informative and liberating but they thought we had a good dynamic, Jessalyn, so no pressure. Welcome back.

I’m glad to be here.

We are here to talk about relationship design. This is a critical episode for the community. What happens is we have a lot of conversations about relationships, intimate, romantic, platonic, familial, and so on. There’s a lot of fetching at times about how the world is built for two, and how it holds this one style or this escalator relationship up as a high-status relationship, and everything pales next to it. It’s a highly rigid and conforming relationship that works for many people but doesn’t work for all.

We are told that the alternative is being alone. It’s all or nothing.

If you dare do anything besides being alone, you get at best, “What are you doing?” At worst, you get ick, ew, and gross because the escalator is not only good. It’s moral. This notion of relationship design is my moniker for a class of processes associated with coming up with your unconventional relationship or your conventional relationship. It’s a manner of not just defaulting to the rules. Let’s be honest. You are the real expert here. You have thought about this stuff way more than I have. You have talked about it more. You have lived it more.

Practical application.

I want to define relationship design as I have it. It is to set this up as we are going to get to this. I say that relationship design is the process by which two or more people intentionally engage in co-creating a customized relationship in which all parties agree on the rules and regularly revisit the agreement revising as necessary. Don’t stomp on that yet.

I have some stomping to do but I will wait.

We have to get there first. Let’s talk about unconventional relationships and why we need to talk about them other than the escalator friendships, kinships, or the ones that people know. The reason that this is important to do is because there are all these singles by mismatch, as I call them. These are people who want to be connected to other people. They may want to have sex with other people. They may want to have a romance with other people. They may want to have sex and romance with other people. They have trouble doing it because they don’t want to play by all of the rules of the escalator.

For example, they might not want hierarchy. They may not want to raise this connection above all others. They don’t want to prioritize it more than their relationship with their brother, sister, another lover, a platonic friend of 30 years, and so on. They may not want to merge their lives. They may not want to move in with this person. They may not want to merge their finances.

They may not want to merge their lifestyle and identity. They don’t want to become a thing. Jennifer as I’d like to say. They may have some doubts about this notion of consistent sexual and romantic monogamy. That you two are together in a romantic way or sexual way exclusively, and that once it starts, it’s never supposed to stop.

The other thing that we will get into a little bit more that gets into some of my stomping is it all sounds a little bit exhausting as well. Sometimes people are tired. They have so many hours in the day and the default is easy and lazy. Some of the things we will talk about here are relationships by design will open up the world of possibilities, but then also get to some practicalities that it doesn’t have to be difficult and exhausting.

I’m happy for you to say that because my practice, as limited as it has been, is uplifting and not that exhausting. What is exhausting is trying to date people who want to ride the escalator because of the amount of friction that creates. That doesn’t mean that some of those people also don’t know that they don’t want the escalator until you start to design with them. You might find out that they are willing to bend or even break the rules.

Let’s focus mostly on sexual and romantic relationships as a case study. That’s where most of the friction lies in most people’s lives. At least in the singles by a mismatch or the people who are going a new way with it. The average one of them thinks that rather than a fixed price menu, which you pull the escalator off, you either are going to eat at this restaurant or not, you have an a la carte menu where you can choose an entree. That entree might be friends with benefits. It might be polyamory. It might be solo polyamory. I’m going to share this cartoon that you sent to me. Polygamy, polyfidelity, hierarchical polyamory, and open relationship. How long is this list do you think?

It’s incredibly extensive. The way I like to think about it is in an a la carte menu, you have some dishes that still have a priority. People think an entree or a main takes priority over a side or a dessert. I like the tapas menu instead. It’s a “pick your own adventure,” but everything is equal.

I want the poo-poo platter. That’s like group sex.

You can have your a la carte. I’m going tapas.

That’s great. It’s a good way because a menu does suggest that the entrees are most important. They are most fulfilling.

A side order. Who wants to be the side?

I’m happy to be an appetizer.

It could be a side or a dessert.

That establishes this idea. What ends up happening is you could pick these things. If you want, we can do a case study. I will point one out. I have an episode on Solo Poly. I have an episode on Friends With Benefits. Friends with benefits are rather popular. Solo poly is much less so, but each of those episodes is an example of a tapa that you may choose. Let’s talk about a comet. This idea of someone who comes into your life very rarely with almost no communication is like a comet. No one is talking about Halley’s Comet.

Halley’s Comet only comes for a certain number of years. The case study we could use is someone in my life, they are like this comet. I only see them maybe three times a year and we don’t speak in between. That’s when the comet has left the zone. Out of the galaxy. Our daily lives do not intertwine with each other and we have no business with each other. Every time that we meet, it’s like the first date every single time. It’s just a text message, “In 2 or 3 weeks do you want to meet in X City?” We then have a nice, lovely, and romantic weekend for 2 or 3 weeks.

As romantic as you can make it.

As an aromantic person can make it. If we hold hands for ten minutes, my hand gets sweaty. I brush them off. This has gone on for years. I will also say this because it surprises people. On one of my dating profiles, which I will let you audit sometime again, it says, “I’m non-monogamous. I’m open to dating monogamous people.” I get a lot of questions about that. This person I have been dating for years in this comet experience we have described is monogamous.

Because he’s not exclusive with someone else, you are a potential tapa for him.

That’s right and he hasn’t been with someone else for five years.

I like that line. I like how provocative it is. I don’t want to be indelicate, but you have sex. You are not just holding hands.

Yes, there is sex and holding hands.

You are intimate. You go to museums. You have meals. There’s a friendship element to this. One way to think about this is it’s imperfect. This tapas menu would be as if Cheesecake Factory was making it. It’s several pages long. I tried to do it as a flow chart and it’s too messy. It’s impossible. The heuristic or the easy way to think about it is what rules are you going to strip away like bend or break to get you to one of these things.

For example, friends with benefits. This is a casual and non-romantic friendship that includes physical intimacy without commitment or an expectation of exclusivity or may. That’s the thing. For example, monogamy within friends’ benefits is a maybe. It may be monogamous. It may not be monogamous. It is AKA sexual friendship. There is sex involved but there’s no romance. That’s one of the major differences between a sexual friendship and someone you are dating.

There’s likely not to be a merging unless you have friends with benefits with your roommates. There’s less likely to be a hierarchy that this is less likely to be the most important relationship. It might not even be more important than other friendships even though you are having sex with this person. Even something like friends with benefits is squishy because some of the rules of the escalator are yes, some are no, and some may be.

It’s cliche to say this. When I was in my twenties, I loved labels. They were very important to me. If you tuned in to the episode on Aromanticism, you will hear that history. Now, I don’t like labels like friends with benefits because as you described in that description, it’s a bit squishy. This thing is in and out. How I describe it is what you tried to opt for, “Maybe I could build a hierarchy,” but it doesn’t work.

There’s this concept that I described to people. Food and tapas are great descriptors. Imagine a table in between you and me. We are designing a relationship, and on that table are multiple platters or plates. On each of those plates is a thing that two people can share. You decide or maybe the two of us pick up a plate together and say, “This is going to be our plate. What things from each of these dishes would we like to spoon onto that plate?”

Additionally, when we run out of that thing, we can opt to refill it or not. That speaks to the timeline that things don’t exist in perpetuity. At some point, they may exhaust their relevance in our relationship and we don’t need to renew it. That plate between you and I, we start to dish up the things on the platters. It’s like sexual intimacy. We want a little bit of that. Maybe we want a little bit of kink or maybe we don’t. We’d want to hold hands or maybe we don’t. We’d like to share finances or maybe we don’t. We would like to go to weddings together as plus ones or maybe we don’t.

Saying, “Here’s a label called friends with benefits, and here’s how it works,” puts back a structure that people need to fit into and they feel a bit off if they don’t feel fit into it. I like the description of these platters on the table full of things that people can and cannot share with each other, and we decide what to scoop onto the plate.

Want a doll-up of this and a sprinkle of that? I like it. We are going to have so many metaphors here. I have been using this container metaphor, which is very common in the kink community and lifestyle community.

Is it like a glass bowl or more like Tupperware?

I want mine to be more indestructible like one of those big coffee things.

Like a mortar and pestle.

No, I’m kidding. The idea is that this container holds this relationship and it’s a unique container. I like yours more. I may steal it if I have enough time to rewrite it in time for my deadline. One of the voices that informed me was Andie Nordgren. She changed my life. It sounds like she has also informed you. She’s a legend. She is the inventor of the term relationship anarchy. She wrote a manifesto. She’s a Swedish game designer, producer, and advocate. She wrote this essay, The short instructional manifesto for relationship anarchy.

SOLO 175 | Relationship Design
The Short Instructional Manifesto for Relationship Anarchy by Andie Nordgren

If you type in relationship anarchy into Google, it’s one of the top hits there. It’s a blog post of sorts. I want to say 2009 or 2007 or something. She put this out there and it’s an essay that presents a process for defining relationships to suit participants’ needs and desires rather than defaulting to the rules expected by society. First of all, an amen for Andie. What is relationship anarchy?

I am one person. I won’t speak for everybody, but there are a lot of commonalities with what I will say. Relationship anarchy is the concept of removing hierarchy from our relationships and creating equitable relationships with people in our lives. That’s it. The key component is the hierarchy piece, and then the different flavors can result in different things for different people. There are a lot of people that will subscribe to a lot more of the anarchist principles.

What does that mean?

Looking at different ways that even government structures are formed around relationships getting into a little bit more the politics of relationships, where other people may just strictly want to subscribe to the non-political aspects of removing hierarchy from their relationships. It certainly does not mean a free for all where there are no rules, and we have complete and utter disregard for humans. At the end of the day, people like to be respected and treated well. We can have common sense in how we treat each other.

If you do a deep dive into this, you do run into these hardcore political types. There’s even an alternative to relationship anarchy called Relationship Communism. There’s a book on it and I read it. It feels more about politics than about relationships to me. I didn’t get through that book. I do like this idea of creating your ideal match. I like to use this term. It’s not my perfect match. It’s my ideal match because it’s co-created, and relationship anarchy provides a backbone for doing that.

For some people it does. In my situation, I don’t search for an ideal match. I’m sure you see this on Tinder and dating apps when someone writes you after you have matched, “What are you looking for?” My answer is very simple, “I’m looking for the Venn diagram where your wants and needs overlap my wants and needs.” That’s it. The challenge that I say is that there is no ideal moment. In my life, if I’m feeling that I’m not getting some certain sexual satisfaction, or maybe there’s a thing that I’m interested in but none of my sexual partners are interested in it, I might seek out a person that does that one thing.

You are bringing in a specialist.

That’s right. I’m not just using them for that one thing. It’s to say that if they don’t otherwise add any other values to my life like interest in music, going hiking, hobbies, and professional interests, I will be so satisfied to have filled in this one little gap with that person. I’m open to the possibility that we could share or overlap with more wants and needs. I’m not seeking out an ideal in that way.

I want to clarify. When I say an ideal match, I’m creating an ideal match with this match. What we are trying to fashion is the best overlap in the Venn diagram.

We are not trying to force things into our match that aren’t meant to be there, and so it becomes ideal. I agree then.

This is a very exciting notion that relationship anarchy puts forth is the greater possibility because we are not defaulting to the rules of society. We get to create the rules.

I think in the Aromanticism episode, there was something that I said that resonated with a lot of people, and it was my positive outlook on the possibilities of all the different relationships that I could experience. That particular sentiment resonated with a lot of the people that I saw commenting after the episode. It was this very positive outlook on the endless possibilities.

What Jessalyn is talking about is the Solo community, which you can sign up for at PeterMcGraw.org/solo. We have conversations and people have posed further questions because many of the guests are members of the community. You get to interact with these now famous people that are there. You have already alluded to it but what are some of the problems or challenges with relationship anarchy? Here’s this essay. It has changed people’s lives. I see it referenced on the occasional dating app, especially the non-traditional ones. People practice it. What are some of the issues and challenges with relationship anarchy?

I would say one of the first challenges is it’s not for everybody. You can try it out and ultimately determine that “I’m more comfortable with the default and that’s okay.” Sometimes you don’t feel so comfortable experimenting with people’s relationships that can feel a bit uncomfortable. I have been someone’s experiment before and that did not feel nice.

Did you know you were? Did they tell you?

In a way, yes. It ended so quickly because they found a monogamous partner within a month of us beginning this exploration.

Let me get this straight. They found you on a dating app. They read, “I date monogamous people.” They started dating you trying out this other world, but deep down, they want monogamy. Here comes Miss or Mr. Monogamy and they said, “See you later, Jess.”

It’s slightly different.

You can imagine that happening.

I can and it does happen to people. My dating profiles are all slightly different. I A/B test how they will work. One of my profiles, most of them don’t mention non-monogamy because it’s one of those things. If I meet someone 1 or 2 times and I’m not interested, it’s not worth getting into. In this instance, I had not mentioned non-monogamy.

I go on a few dates with this person. It comes up in conversation. He admitted to me, “If that had been on your profile, I never would have considered meeting you. I would have swiped left. I’m so grateful that I met you because now I’m open to exploring this possibility and learning with you.” After a month, he met somebody he wanted to be monogamous with. I said, “This is where the opportunity is to transition our relationship and remove the pieces on the platter that we are done with and keep the pieces that we can still share on that plate.”

Like become friends for example.

No more sex but we can still play guitar and sing music together, which we enjoyed. He said, “I would love that,” and then I never heard from him again until about three months ago, I got a text message from him two years later out of nowhere. It said, “I know this is out of nowhere, but I wanted to reach out to you and tell you I’m very grateful for having met you and opening up my eyes to the different ways I can relate with people. Even if I still defaulted back to monogamy, my ability to communicate with my partner was life-changing. I wanted to say thank you for that.” You will laugh a little bit at my reply.

I can’t wait.

I wrote back, “I’m acknowledging your message,” because I didn’t want to leave him on red but I also still felt hurt at having been someone’s experiment.

He didn’t properly apologize. He expressed gratitude but he wasn’t contrite.

I said, “I’m acknowledging your message. I am always grateful to hear that people are experiencing happiness.” A little burn.

This is a quick PSA. The fact that you practice consensual non-monogamy but don’t put it in your profile. Some people believe that’s controversial. I don’t. It’s appropriate to put it in. It’s appropriate to reveal it when it ought to be revealed. The reason I use this is because it is completely okay to want monogamy and not put it in your profile. That’s the default and people are so blind that they assume that’s what everybody wants, or they should assume that’s what someone who doesn’t say they want something else wants. As I say, “Ask for what you want.” If you want monogamy, you better ask for it at some point and not assume.

To the point earlier, I’m not asking you to be non-monogamous. You and I talk about putting positives on your profile. What do I want? I’m not wanting you to be monogamous or non-monogamous. You don’t have to be so I haven’t put it. The other thing that is controversial is you use the phrase consensual non-monogamy. I don’t like that phrase either.

I get that. I don’t want to go in down that rabbit hole but so much non-monogamy is associated with cheating or without consent, and so on.

It comes back to this. If there’s monogamy, we could put it on our profile if we want consensual monogamy. There are differing opinions about it.

I appreciate it. I think it’s the more common vernacular. I don’t want to have to have a fight every time around it. I’m happy to fight with you because you are a friend. I want to put forth some other issues with relationship anarchy if I may.

We’ve only touched on a couple of them.

This idea is that it’s difficult and it might not be exactly useful for people to do. That critique of relationship anarchy is difficult. It’s the same critique you will give to relationship design. Because there’s an effort flown element to it, it often involves very honest communication, vulnerability, figuring out what is ideal for this particular relationship, some experimentation, revision, and so on. What I’m offering with relationship design has suffered one of the same challenges, not a solution.

I would also argue. Monogamy or the traditional relationship escalator also has those challenges if you are doing it right. Don’t people say that successful marriages and successful relationships are hard because you need to work at it? They are all hard.

A lot of the hard work is maintaining the rules or keeping the rules in those regards.

That’s why I don’t like this excuse.

What are some other challenges of relationship anarchy?

Just being frank, a lot of people experience trauma in their lives. They experience sexual or relationship trauma either through familiar relationships or ex-boyfriends, ex-husbands, ex-wives, or ex-girlfriends. That makes it difficult to think outside the box and trust something different. It’s a practical challenge.

I think World Health Organization says that you can’t exactly quote the numbers, but 30% of women have experienced violence as a result of an intimate relationship, and 26% of men. 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 people have experienced it within a romantic intimate connection, which is where relationship anarchy is happening.

When you have got these societal safety nets that you have been told or the things that are supposed to protect you and then they don’t, it’s a little bit difficult to trust some stranger like Peter and Jessalyn talking about these other potential safety nets out there that might better suit you. That’s challenging to process and let design happen naturally around it.

Frankly, I don’t know any way to get away from the risks of relationships except to not have them. It’s this idea that someone is not going to cheat on you, steal your money, or violate the agreement that you have. I always say this, “You can’t make someone be monogamous.” You can try. You can be like, “I’m not going to let her do vacations on her own with the girls anymore,” or, “I don’t trust him,” whatever. “I’m going out with the guys and so I’m going to stop that from happening in order to keep this person from ‘cheating on me.’” If the person is going to cheat, they are going to cheat. You can’t control it. You can only trust to a degree that they are trustworthy.

Otherwise, go be a hermit. That’s the alternative.

It’s fine if you want to be a hermit, lone wolf, or whatever works for you. The issue is the average person does want connections.

You have an episode about lone wolves. We are here to talk about the ones that don’t want to be a lone wolf.

I’m going to have one but I don’t yet. I was working on it.

I heard a rumor.

I want to put forth one of the challenges with relationship anarchy. By critiquing it, I am in no way trying to dissuade someone from doing this. I want to acknowledge that.

We put it on the table. I like the pros and cons.

I don’t like this idea of removing hierarchy.

A lot of people don’t.

Relationship anarchy is supposed to be this idea of agreeing on the rules rather than defaulting to them. The default rule in romantic relationships is hierarchy. I can appreciate the fact that it becomes optional. I am a rather flat hierarchy person in my life. I don’t like ranking my friends. I certainly don’t want to put my romantic relationships above my friendships in part because those friendships are typically less fleeting than my romantic partnerships.

I have always chafed at the idea that I have a good friend who then a romantic partner comes along and suddenly that person is the most important person in the world. I can’t even get ahold of them. They disappear on me. When that doesn’t work out, I’m now elevated again to a worthwhile friendship.

It’s a very typical behavior of Americans. My friend was saying this, and they are a not an American citizen. That’s one of the things that frustrates them about living in America is they get these deep and intimate friendships with people, and then when that person partners up, they disappear. They say it’s heartbreaking.

It’s terrible. I practice hierarchy in my relationships in the following way. I have some friendships that are like brothers. It’s like a ride-or-die.

I would do anything for them, no questions.

If you said you had to choose, I’m going to choose this person. There is a very clear hierarchy there. I don’t have any problem with that. I’m aware of hierarchy and I got that from Amy Gahran and from Andie Nordgren. It’s important to be honest about it and so on, but I’m not interested in flattening all of my relationships to being without status differences. Although many are in that sense. I feel like that is too much of a prescription, which is fine. This is her first essay and she has the right to put forth the standards by which relationship anarchy exists.

Again, I don’t like labels but it tends to fit into more how people describe solo polyamory. Solo polyamory are people that lean a little bit more into relationship anarchy, but they still appreciate a bit of hierarchy.

I could see that. I was told by Amy Gahran and Laura Grant that I am a solo polyamorous, even though I have never practiced solo polyamory. The idea is that I’m open to the idea of having more than one romantic relationship at a time while living on my own.

You like your space and distance.

Everybody knows this by now. The other thing is when it comes to hierarchy, I don’t mind being the low-status person. That’s not the right way to say that but, for example, I was seeing someone who is polyamorous and lives with a partner. That partner you could even say has veto power over certain things and so on. These are loaded terms and so on. I’m like, “That’s fine.” You do have the whole shebang and then we have this little tapa.

Tell me where I fit in.

That’s right. I don’t need to be number one.

What I want to say about that is I share the same opinion, but I frame it slightly differently.

You will probably frame it better than I have.

You said, “I don’t mind being low-status.”

I don’t have the right word for it.

What I say is, “I don’t want to be on your pedestal.” It’s the other direction.

The other thing is, “I don’t want to be primary.”

I don’t want to be primary. I don’t want to be on a pedestal. I have noticed that more and more. I’m living in Italy now and I’m trying to learn to date an Italian culture. It’s very interesting seeing these experiences where I go on a few dates and all of a sudden, without it being said, I can start to feel the actions of the other person. They are starting to put me on a pedestal and are prioritizing me. I don’t want to be prioritized. It makes me feel obligations and pressure like I’m supposed to call them and tell them where I am even if they didn’t ask me to do that. I don’t want that pressure.

I’m so happy I met you.

Me too.

I get it. I’m going to digress for a moment. I had a friend who met someone on a dating app who is open to consensual non-monogamy. I know that’s nails on a chalkboard for you.

You told me I can disagree with you.

This is a heterosexual relationship. It’s a guy and he said to me, “This woman I match with is open to non-monogamy, but she wants to start monogamous first.” He goes, “I’m okay with that but I’m puzzled as to why.”

You saw my eyes go a little to the right. I was also puzzled.

Here’s what I said, “Feel free to ask her, ‘Why do you want to do this? I’m curious. Walk me through your logic,’” but I will tell you what I think the logic is. I think she wants to be primary. Her way to establish being primary is to be in a monogamous partnership with him for some period of time, and then open the relationship to others, but she gets to have that pedestal. That’s a guess. You don’t know until you hear about it.

It would be my logical first guess. I could tear through other possibilities, but then this episode would be three hours long.

Let’s keep going. I have another critique of relationship anarchy and it might be a good segue into relationship design, and that is it is a terrible name.

Tell me more.

It’s not a terrible name for someone like you who’s well-read and understands what the principles of anarchy are. First of all, relationship anarchy was originally named radical relationships, which in some ways is better and in some ways is worse. The anarchy translates too often to this lack of rules.

People think it’s a free-for-all and to treat others like nothing.

The connotations of anarchy are anarchists or people who want to take down governments and cause havoc, mayhem, and so on. I think that you are missing an opportunity. I like big tents. I feel like anarchy is not a big tent term.

I also sometimes have noticed I’m in communities of people that consider themselves relationship anarchists, and there’s a group called relationship anarchy online. Sometimes there will be posts from people where they go through this whole description or analysis of something they are experiencing and they ask for feedback.

Everything that they have described is all words, phrases, and statements that are just polyamory. There is a controversial conversation because no one wants to be the word police and say, “What you are doing isn’t relationship anarchy.” At the same time, a lot of us notice that people that are polyamorous or want to try out polyamory think that relationship anarchy is another fun way to call what’s polyamory and they are not the same thing.

I also agree that it’s not a great word. It doesn’t welcome a lot of people that might want to be welcomed in. It’s also a word that has a lot of political meanings to it. I fully agree with you, and people think of it as a way to disregard everything. I agree. Sometimes if I tell people I’m a relationship anarchist, they may have met one of those people before that has utter disregard for everybody. I have to say, “I’m not that.” By using the phrase, I’m also retaking ownership to say, “You have met someone that’s not that.” Do you have an alternative phrase that you would like to propose or do we need to brainstorm that later?

You are asking me this now?

What would you call it otherwise?

I call it relationship design. I wouldn’t say I’m a relationship designer. That way is a little clunky.

It also misses the deprioritization and the removal of hierarchy that many people resonate with.

To me, the difference between relationship design and relationship anarchy is there’s no prescription.

You are saying design is a broader umbrella that could capture that you want to remove hierarchy, but also if you don’t.

If you want to design a relationship that is highly hierarchical, you can do that.

With design. Agreed.

Who am I to say you shouldn’t do that? I don’t want to be in the prescription business, which sounds ironic to anyone who tunes in to this show often. They are like, “McGraw, you prescribe things a lot.” I’m going to say the working definition again. I will let you comment. Relationship design is an intentional act of co-creating a customized relationship in which all parties agree on the rules and regularly revisit the agreement revising as necessary.

Now I get to bomb on it. My two criticisms. The first one is all parties and the second one is it’s implied in the words that we are sitting down and verbally agreeing on everything and that everything is explicit. We sit down with a notepad and tick through it. Which of those do you want me to go and do first?

Let’s do all parties.

I’m not an expert on polyamory. I’m saying tendencies. In polyamory, there tends to be actual interaction communication between parties. Maybe you have got primary and secondary, and those people have a relationship with each other. In relationship anarchy, which is only a subset of your relationship design, I don’t have anything to do with these other people. Peter, if you make a new friend tomorrow, I’m not going to call you up and say, “I have to meet your new friend.” I’m not that party to this new friendship. All parties, it’s like what does that mean in the context of, “Are you saying that if only if there’s sex involved? Do all parties need to be in agreement because of safety issues?” With that, I have a bit of tension around all parties.

That’s helpful to hear. The way I feel about this, let’s use a very basic polyamory three-people case study, in which there’s a hinge and two metamours.

Which is the phrase of the two people that are connected to the hinge.

Those metamours may or may not be in contact with each other. They are not romantically involved with each other in this particular profile. They could be in others. Joanne has two romantic partners, person A and person B. She has agreements with each of them. Person A and person B may never interact or they may interact. The way you interpreted my relationship design is all three of those people get together and they go, “This is what our polyamorous triad is going to look like.” I might mess with the language a little bit. I believe that Joanne can be a conduit between the two metamours.

She’s considering the feelings of all parties.

They implicitly all agree with each other in the sense where Joanne goes, “With person A, I do X, Y, and Z,” and then you are telling this to person B, and for person B’s agreement, you are telling person A. I don’t want to get into the weeds too much.

That’s more the practicality.

I get your point. I will think about how to do it.

It might be that the phrase in all parties is extra words that aren’t necessary in the definition.

It might be. I need to sit down.

We will wordsmith a bit. Point two, you want me to go into.

The intentional act. This idea of it’s an explicit conversation. I will reveal my bias, which is that I have been working on these explicit conversations. That said, I have dozens of friendships that are co-created. I have never sat down with my friend and said, “Is it okay if I don’t call you for six months? Would that be a problem?”

It’s implicit. It develops over time. Most people are not like me and you, in that they don’t have the language and the ability to think through these kinds of conversations. It is good at first to have explicit conversations while you are learning all this stuff. Over time, as you learn to communicate more with these concepts and language, you are better able to read the implicit agreements that have been made.

This also goes back to my earlier point. That sounds exhausting if I have to write all this down and draw it out and constantly have these conversations. They are fun if you want them to be fun. Sometimes that’s very exhausting. I will say with the simple case study, our comet example from earlier. Our relationship conversation was one of exclusion rather than inclusion. On our very first date, we made a small conversation about what our relationship was not rather than what it was, which is slightly different and still powerful.

Rather than putting things on the plate and saying, “This is what’s on it,” We are taking platters on the table and sweeping stuff off the table. That’s a great visual. I love that. We wiped it off the table. That statement was on our first date. I asked him, “What are you looking for? What do you want one day?” He said, “I want to be married with some babies living in my small German village near my parents.” I maintained eye contact with him like I’m doing now.

You didn’t say ick, ew, or something.

I did not. I said, “That sounds lovely. I will never be that,” with a big smile on my face, “No.” We have never spoken about it again. He’s never going to ask me to move in with him to be his girlfriend and his wife. If he did, that’s okay. You can adapt relationships. Things change. If he does ask me, I’m at a version of my life that I would say, “Sorry, I can’t be that for you.” We would decide then if we continue as is or not.

The point is that the design conversation was not planned. We didn’t sit down and say, “Let’s design it.” It was one of exclusion rather than inclusion, and we have never revisited it because the implicit behaviors that we continued to maintain reinforce it. I will give one last example to wrap up the case study. A few months ago, I invited him to visit me in Italy. For a few weeks, I didn’t hear back from him, which means it’s a no. That’s how he says no. He doesn’t reply.

I would have to have a conversation about that.

I’m okay with it with him. Normally I’m not. It just works. He wrote me a message and said, “I’m sorry. I have to have this knee surgery. I won’t be able to come to visit for some time.” I wrote back and said, “I will be happy to come to your city where you live and take care of you. Pick you up from surgery, cook your dinner, and do your laundry for a few days,” because he lives by himself and his family is in a small village.

I know what it’s like to live alone and need surgery. As I wrote that, I said to myself, “If he made that offer to me, I would say no,” because our relationship is one where every time we meet, it’s like the first date. I don’t want him to see me like that. When he wrote me back, he said, “I’m so grateful I met you on Tinder. That’s a wonderful offer, but I don’t want you to see me like that.” I said, “Thank you for the honesty. That’s what I would have said as well. Have a good surgery.”

I think you have a great partnership with this person.

We reinforced the relationship without sitting down with a pen and paper and having a conversation.

That’s fair. I want to invite a counter to this, which is I think that you are very sophisticated with relationships, very tuned in, and very good at communicating on the fly improvisationally and so on. I think that a beginner relationship designer might want to try it in this clunky way. Going through it is going to be a good exercise because the average person is terrible about having conversations about their relationships. They find them very threatening. They are scared to ask for what they want. They can’t be vulnerable. It’s a framework by which to bring those things out.

I can say this is in a heteronormative way. I date women. These women look at me like, “Who are you?” I practice relationship design, and then I describe it and I say what I would like to do, but they don’t look at me in a bad way. In part, it’s because the women I’m usually having the conversation with are already open-minded enough to be in a room with me. They are not completely traditional and conventional thinkers. They are already unconventional thinkers. I swear they think it’s sexy as hell to have a middle-aged guy saying, “What do you like? What are you interested in? What do you not like?” Also, having this very unthreatening situation or conversation as part of it. I do agree with you. It doesn’t have to be explicit, but it has to be reinforced behaviorally and so on.

Let’s go through a few steps. Maybe the one place that I don’t have good advice for is how to have those conversations. Maybe we will try to work on that a little bit before we get to intimacy design, which has already come up once. The first step in relationship design is to recognize and acknowledge that there are default rules and social norms that govern relationships.

These rules might be macro or they might be micro. A macro rule, for example, might be merging. If we continue on this path, eventually we are going to move in together. That’s a rule that’s often not discussed when two people start dating, for example. A micro rule might be that we are going to have the same bank account, we are going to have separate credit cards or something like that.

The micro is a smaller component of the greater macro item, which is we share finances, and then the micros are the little units in between of like, “We share a bank account or we don’t. We split the rent or we do 75-25.”

Yes, something like that. I will give you an example. This came up in a previous episode where I had someone I was seeing said to me, “When I come over to your place, I want you to greet me with a big hug and a kiss.” That’s a micro agreement. That was important for her to say to me because the previous time I had seen her, I was a little bit lax. I was a little distracted when she arrived and she didn’t feel welcome. Rather than holding that in, resenting it, testing me, or something like that. As part of one of these conversations, I said, “What are you looking for today?” She said, “I want you to greet me with a big hug and a kiss.”

How did you feel about that? Did you feel that was being imposed on you or was it a very easy, “I could do that.?”

I normally would with her. I was happy to do that. That’s where things get scary for people if they ask for that. I could have responded to her, “I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t like that.” To me, it’s such a simple thing. It wasn’t a problem but we can imagine a small request in the eyes of one person being a big request in the eyes of another person.

I like how you phrased this. I can do well with macro requests because then the little details in between are more flexible. If I get micro requests, those are nearly impossible for me to satisfy and I will push back on them.

I can see that and that’s fine to say, “I demand promptness in my relationships. Except for a small handful of people that I allow their tardiness.”

When I was coming today, you told me, “We can be early but we can’t start late.” You were very firm about that.

That’s because I have other things going on.

I appreciate it. It’s a communication of timeliness. We share that.

That’s why we are friends. I could imagine a situation. I will give you an example of a micro request that I probably would say no to. That is, “I would like a good night text.”

I can’t do that.

I would say, “I can understand why. I’m flattered that I’m the last person you want to hear from before you go to bed. My evenings are very precious to me. I turn my phone off sometimes at 6:00, and turning my phone on again before I go to bed is disruptive for me. Is there a way for when I’m able to give you a good night text? I do, but the fact is it’s not every night. Is that going to be okay? I want you to know that you are in my thoughts. As I lay my head on my pillow, I can send you a metaphysical goodnight type of thing.” That person can then say no, yes, or what about, and now we are negotiating.

There’s one critique that I have of how you went through that, and it was a bit on the fly as you said that. If this person said to you, “Peter, can you send me a good night text?” You say, “No. I can’t do that. Here’s why. Is that okay?” I logically think no because I wouldn’t have asked. My correction or my suggestion is rather than saying, “No, I can’t do that. Is that okay?” What I do is I say, “What is it about the good night text? What is it giving to you? Describe the feeling you get when I send you a good night text and let’s find a different way for me to give you that feeling maybe at a different time of day.” It’s getting into rather than explaining why you can’t do it or why I can’t do it. I want to understand what is it that they are getting value from the things so that I can find an alternative or suggest an alternative that I can do. I think that’s where you were going when it leads to a dialogue.

That’s the thing. The way about this is that you get a yes, no, or maybe. Yes is easy, “Yes, I can do it.” No, and maybe can set off a further conversation. Another way to think about it is must-have, nice to have, and deal breaker in a sense. A good night text would be nice to have. You ask for it. A no is not a problem because it’s nice to have. If it’s a deal breaker, I must get a good night text or I don’t want to have a relationship with this person. That may sound absurd to some people, but a lot of people would demand it.

You have a decision to make, “Am I willing to change my behavior or my nighttime ritual and so on in order to keep this person in my life?” We know that people do this all the time with the escalator. They don’t want to go on vacations with this person as much as they love them, but you have to do it. You go to the beach when you want to go to the mountains. Compromise is part of any relationship, but what I believe that relationship design does is it allows coordination much better, and coordination is so much nicer than compromise.

I come at it from a slightly different angle so both of these comments are valid. What we are trying to share with the audience are different ways you can think about it. What I’m about to say is not a critique of that. It’s an alternative. When I ask for something, wish for something, or vice versa, if the answer is no, that’s simply not an overlap of our wants and needs. There is no instance in my relationship design where I ask for something, I don’t get it and then I say, “We are not compatible and we can’t do anything.” My relationship is an overlap of wants and needs.

For example, I do like regular text messages with people in my life. One of my love languages is sending memes on Instagram. With this person of five years, we don’t do that, but we don’t share that. It’s not an overlap of our wants and needs, but I get it from other relationships. That goes back to the point of thinking about relationships not as a single person needs to serve all of my wants, needs, and purposes. I get some good night texts from that person. I get some good beach time with that person. This person helps me take out the trash rather than saying, “I need a good night text from everybody.” I like them and I get some from that person, but not that person, and that’s fine.

Thank you for not asking for one. The next step. You have this conversation. You are finding this overlap. This is drawn from design principles. You create a prototype. This is that container that I was talking about, or the tapa or the platter that you are talking about. That container has certain boundaries and is an early version of the relationship. What you do using design principles is evaluate and iterate. That is that you pay attention to how this agreement and this design relationship is going. Where there are points of friction or where there are opportunities, you revisit them as needed.

Maybe we have a sprint meeting every two weeks with some sticky notes on a board.

This probably gives away how mechanical I can be about to-do lists and so on, spreadsheets, and whatnot. I think that there’s something very useful. What I tend to try to do with it is I like to do it at the beginning of a date. These design principles are useful not just for sexual and romantic relationships, but they could be used with your mother, son or daughter, sibling, or coworker, but we are focused on the romantic stuff, in part, because that’s where most of the friction lies.

This would be a five-hour episode if we got into all those different angles, but it’s useful.

It’s a reminder about this.

I do have a question and stop me if you want to jump to this in a bit. It bounces from my concept of the overlap of wants and needs. On date 1, date 2, or reading your Tinder profile, I don’t yet know where our wants and needs overlap. My question for you is, because I let mine go in a bit more implicit or fluid motion if you match with someone on Tinder and you are on the first date, how are you designing that first prototype if you don’t yet know what your wants and needs are? How much time do you need? Let’s say personally, this is your anecdote or your case study. How many dates would you need to have even started the prototype? You need those initial brainstorming design sessions.

When I say the beginning of a date, I don’t mean the first date. I don’t even know what I would do if I was on Tinder in terms of this. As a case study, if you meet someone online or you meet someone at a coffee shop, there’s a certain set of things that I disclose that are often deal breakers, and I do that early. For example, I’m not interested in having children. I’m not interested in merging my life with people. I do that early on because it gets rid of huge swaths of people.

We know a lot of people are looking for that, and we don’t want to waste their time.

It’s not even worth having to educate them about relationship design if the first thing we are going to talk about is merging in this sense. It’s more of an instinct because I don’t want to have a relationship design conversation with someone I don’t think I want to see again. Not because of differences in values but because I don’t find them attractive. I don’t like the way they smell. I don’t think they are a nice person.

They treat the weight stuff that way.

That’s right. Your question is right. It’s like we don’t need to jump too quickly into this.

Go on dates. Get to know people. On date 1, don’t be like, “Do you want to get married? Do you want to have some babies?” I’m contradicting what you said, but I agree with your point that on first dates, get to know each other. Find out what your hobbies are. Have some fun. We are talking about practicalities here. We are not having sprint design sessions prototyping on dates 1, 2, or 3.

For this idea of revisiting, oftentimes, a revisiting session for me is something as simple as “I like this idea of relationship design. I want to check in. How are you feeling about things? Is there anything you want to change? Has anything come up for you?” I just listen. To be honest, most of the time, things are like, “I’m enjoying this. This was working for me,” and so on. You might get something like this. I like this example. I have some case studies here. One of them I call a relationship hiatus.

This came out of a situation with the woman I dated who I liked. Maybe very early on she said, “I’m launching a new product in six weeks. This job is going to crowd out almost everything in my life.” The way she framed it was, “I don’t think we can date,” in a sense. I said to her, “I practice relationship design. Let’s talk this through.” It would be appropriate if we wanted to. We could agree that we won’t date for the next 6 weeks or 8 weeks if you want to take a vacation after. We don’t even have to communicate. We don’t even have to text.

I will put a reminder on my calendar.

We can agree that at the end of the six weeks if we are both interested, we can come back together. That doesn’t diminish our interest in each other. It’s not a problem. Remember, one of the rules of the escalator is consistency. Lack of consistency is very threatening to an escalator rider. From a design standpoint, you get to choose consistency in a sense. That conversation happened very early in it, and it was so wonderful. She’s a great person and I saw the light bulb over her head. She goes, “I never thought of that,” because people don’t think about the rules. They just accept them in a sense.

I have two comments that tie into that. I know we are talking about romantic and sexual relationships, but I had a great example with a friend of mine in Europe where I live. We had a situation where a travel experience didn’t go very well. We came together to talk about it and say, “I’m sorry that this is how this went and I recognized that this was my behavior.”

She did the same thing. She wanted to apologize for this thing and recognize her behavior. We have both realized that we are no longer compatible to stay in each other’s homes when we are visiting each other in our home cities. We are going to change that about our relationship going forward. We were compatible for a while and we are not.

If I come to visit you in your home city, I will stay in an Airbnb or hotel and vice versa. It was a moment to change something but not ruin our whole friendship. The other comment I wanted to make ties into both what I said and what you said. People need to be comfortable that when they have that check-in, they might hear something that potentially has been brewing for some time, but that person hasn’t said anything. You need to be okay with that because things happen gradually. There’s never this moment that something clicks and you are like, “I need to call and tell that person something.”

Slowly through time, you start to feel things and sense things. It doesn’t build into, “This is a thing and we need to talk about it.” Sometimes, just the moment of sitting down and saying, “Is everything working out? Is there anything we should adjust?” It can trigger someone to go, “Now that you say that, there’s this thing that’s been bothering me.”

I mention that because very often, I’m triggered by this as well. You are probably triggered by it as well. If I did that and someone said, “There’s this thing that’s been bothering me and it doesn’t suit me any well,” my immediate reaction is, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? Why are you only telling me now?” I’m not saying there’s a perfect answer to that. I’m acknowledging that is a feeling that you will experience and you need to set it aside.

The person tuning in to this who attempts relationship design, you have to be the bigger person in the following way, which is you are going to have to be a little more in control. You going to be a little more magnanimous, a little more patient, and recognize that this is probably going to be more challenging for them than it is for you. In part because the average person is ill-prepared to do this stuff. Know that by inviting a revision of the container, it may cause the container to fracture.

Also, cause you to feel uncomfortable.

That’s right. I have a bunch of case studies here. I had one related to friendship. I call it friendship renegotiation. I pulled this from a post from the Solo community, which you can sign up for PeterMcGraw.org/solo. I’m going to read it verbatim. “Maxine has a friend whom she enjoys spending time with, but her friend has a full schedule and an ambitious career. Maxine reluctantly decides to use relationship design to broach the topic over coffee, telling her friend that she would like to explore socializing more often. Her friend is flattered and acknowledges that it might be difficult, but they agree to explore it by setting up a fun night out together later that month.” It’s like, “Jess, I value our friendship. I know you have a lot going on. I’m wondering, can we find a time to prioritize this? Even if it’s once a month, can we find a fun night together?”

A friend date. All a date is time that I set aside with someone that is important to me to spend time with them and I’m focused on them. I’m not on my phone. I might be watching TV or reading a book with them because some friendships are simple presence in a room together. A date is just I have set aside time to spend with you. Date your friends.

Most people don’t have the experience to roll with it the implicit style that you have. Let’s talk a little bit more about it. I have alluded to some of these things. I think that there are two scripts that we can workshop here. The first script is the first conversation, and then the next is call it a check-in, Iteration, or revisit. What comes to mind as far as best practices for either or both of those things? If you were going to say to someone, “Here’s how I think you should do it.”

I would make the first conversation like a game with sticky notes. For these platters I described, I have a nice diagram of this long list of potential things that two people can share. You can write all these things on sticky notes. Over a glass of wine, a bottle of wine, margaritas, or juice if alcohol is not your thing, you start picking up the sticky notes and saying, “Which of these things.”

That’s fascinating. I would never have thought of that.

Imagine I sat down with you and we had all these sticky notes in front of us and I pick one up and I say, “Peter, I love how you make spreadsheets. I enjoy making spreadsheets with you. That’s a thing that I value about our friendship. Can I put that on the wall?” You consent to it and we put that on the wall, then someone else picks up one and says, “I love cooking with you. You are such a great cook and I love hearing your stories when we are cooking. Could that be a thing we share together on an ongoing basis?” “Yeah. Put it on the wall.” It’s like a fun game night like Pictionary but with relationship design as your sticky notes. Make it fun. It doesn’t need to be not fun. It should be fun. That’s how I would do it.

That’s fascinating, and then you can imagine revisiting the wall, “I noticed we haven’t made a meal together in six months.”

That was a thing we said we love doing together.

Now it’s, “Do we want to say that’s not something we do or is it something we want to commit to?”

Why haven’t we done it? Is it because we are not finding time together or has something else changed?

All these metaphors we have is the friction that can occur. One of my case studies was introducing non-hierarchy. The escalator crowd crowds out almost every other relationship except for a parent and child if it’s your child. The escalator beats a child to their parent normally. I say Tina and Tracy decide that their romantic partners do not have veto power over their relationship. Tina and Tracy are platonic partners. They are friends. Each of them has to have a design conversation with their partner. If Tina or Tracy is dating someone, their partner can’t say, “I don’t want you doing that with Tracy,” or, “You can’t go on that vacation.” They have no veto power. That can be a very difficult conversation with someone because they expect veto power to some degree because that’s what the escalator allows them to have.

That’s the purpose of having a primary on a pedestal sometimes. It gives you a safety net. I feel safe because I can veto things that make me uncomfortable.

The other thing is for the real chicken crap people, they get to say, “I need to ask my wife.”

I cringe at that. I hate that. Friends do that to me. If I’m sitting with a friend and I say, “Thursday, there’s this concert. Do you want to go?” They open their calendar, which all of us live by a calendar and they say, “I don’t have anything on, but I need to check with my spouse and make sure there’s nothing else going on that night.” What that says to me is, “I have to make sure there’s nothing better that I could be doing.”

Whatever the reason, it bugs me. I want to put forth an idea about how to bring someone up to speed, and that is you can give them this episode to tune in to. One of the great things is if you want to start to practice relationship design, you just say, “I want to try this new thing from this podcast that I listened to. There’s a lot of far-out stuff in there. You may hate the host or guest but there’s some good information. Can you give it a listen and then I’d like to try this with you?”

It can be, “Here’s this episode. It was very interesting to me. I’d love you to listen to it. I would love to hear what you thought about it.”

That’s good as a starting point. Well-said. That’s great. I think that the more important thing rather than the script or the blocking and tackling is being honest, that design benefits from honesty. It benefits from authenticity from vulnerability and this acceptance that it may not go smoothly. It may be fun and exciting, but you have to keep an open mind to it. I believe that the pain early is better than the pain later that happens when you don’t have these kinds of conversations.

I agree and I experience stronger highs and sometimes some stronger lows. What I mean by that is people are more animated in telling me the things that they love about spending time with me. They are like, “This thing that we do together brings me so much value and there’s no one else in my life that brings that value to my life. I treasure this a lot.” That’s a big high to hear from someone, but the lows in the traditional relationship escalator, it would be horrible to tell your partner, “I don’t like doing those things with you.” It’s so threatening.

In relationship design, you need to start being comfortable with the idea that someone might tell you, “I don’t like doing that thing with you,” and kindness is always important. There are people in my life that I have traveled with before and we are not compatible to travel together. I say, “We can’t travel together because our travel styles are not compatible. It’s not fun for me and it’s not fun for you.” It can be low if both sides are not in agreement on that point.

It’s less of a low than doing another trip with them.

That’s right. My life is so much better because I say, “We are not compatible with that thing. Let’s not ruin what could otherwise have been a great vacation if we had done it differently.” In traditional relationships, you are meant to suck it up and compromise and go on the trip anyway or whatever the thing is rather than saying, “I don’t like doing that thing with you. Can we not share that?”

I did this with my friends on occasion when they are pushing me to do something that I don’t want to do. I say, “Do you want me there or do you need me there?” If it’s, “I need you there,” then I will often suck it up and do it. I’m doing it for them. I’m not doing it for that situation. If you want me there, I don’t want to be there. I’m not going to do it. That’s a little spritzer that can happen along the way.

Let’s finish by talking about intimacy design. Intimacy design is a special case of relationship design for your sex life. This has come up before in the show. It came up in the singles-only episode. It came up as an answer to a question. The idea essentially is that rather than defaulting to the way sex should be done, you have a design conversation. You can have a big meta one as part of your relationship design if the topic of sex comes up.

By meta do you mean the macro?

The macro, “I want to have sex with you,” and expect it to be monogamous or non-monogamous, frequent, infrequent, or whatever that thing is, but this is more about the micro stuff. It’s about tonight or tomorrow type of thing. The guest blanched at this and felt that intimacy design would ruin some of the spark, excitement, and everything. I feel the opposite. I feel that you get pre-consent and you can build excitement.

You already have a pre-approved list of things that are going to be fun.

You know what to stay away from and so on. I also think that what ends up happening is when you have this conversation. You start imagining these acts and it can be foreplay to your foreplay. It can be quite liberating. This is me. Do this or not do this. For me, some of it starts as simple as, “What are you in the mood for? What are you feeling like tonight? How have things been going? What is it that you have liked? What is it you don’t like? What is it that you want to try?”

The best place to start is a conversation about sexual health, STIs, and so on because that will have implications. If someone is having a herpes outbreak, then suddenly you may do different things and so on. There are some decisions to use condoms or condomless. These issues of other types of birth control and so on.

This yes, no, or maybe things are, “Yes, I want to do that.” “No, I don’t want to do that.” “Maybe. What would that look like?” It’s the way to set up these questions and it should be a conversation. The person ought to be like, “What are you feeling like?” You are looking for a then for this particular rendezvous.

There are going to practically be two branches to that as well. There’s the person you have met on Tinder and gone on a few dates with or it’s your first date, and you have not interacted before versus someone that you have a sexual history with. The reason I differentiate those is in the first instance, you are that dating, “What do you like? What do you not like? What are we compatible with? What are we not compatible with?” There are things I like to do that I might not like doing with that person, but I like doing with other people.

On the flip side, if I have a sexual history with someone, that check-in is also important but it’s a slightly different framing in that I probably already know what you like or dislike. We probably already know what we are compatible with or what we are not. Is our relationship one where we made the rules and we always stick to them, and it’s a repeat every time? Is this a relationship that we have designed previously but we are checking in to say, “Do we want to do something different? There’s this new thing that I’d like to try and are you open to trying it? If not, that’s also okay.” Especially, in the context of non-monogamy, “I can try it with someone else if you are not into it.” How do you think about those differently like the first time versus the repeat?

The first time is trying to set some basic ground rules and figuring out, “Do we even like the same things?” I had a situation with a woman who’s a lot more kinky than I am. I’m open to experimenting. I’m open to trying. I have some boundaries. To me, I like my partner to enjoy herself. I’m often willing to do things that don’t turn me on that much because I’m turned on by the fact that she’s turned on. The first time we went out and had sex, we had made out a little bit, because to me that was already a threshold. If I had started kissing her and wasn’t attracted to her, I wasn’t going to want to have sex with her.

That’s a baseline for you.

I want to feel some chemistry and someone’s touch, someone’s smell, their taste, or whatever that type of thing. They could even be back at my apartment or I could be back at their apartment. Just because we are in the apartment doesn’t mean we have to have sex. It’s less awkward if you can figure it out early and not come see my art.

I said to her, “We don’t have a lot of time,” because both of us had early bedtimes that night. First of all, I said to her, “I would like to have sex with you.” She said, “I would like that too.” I wasn’t being presumptuous in it. I said, “If it’s okay with you, can we keep it vanilla tonight and hit the basics?” She said, “That’s great.” We then talked about the basics.

That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t want to do other non-basic things later, but I said, “Given the circumstance and how well we know each other, can we start there?” We then talked about what parts of the basics we like, didn’t like, and wanted to do. You have this pre-consent. We were both enthusiastic about the basics and we had a nice time. It was a nice beginning.

We have people of all ages tuning in to this. Jessalyn in her early twenties would have cringed at what you described. The idea of talking about things in advance was so foreign and difficult. You are not comfortable with your sexuality. You don’t even fully sometimes know what you do and don’t like. I know it’s different for men and women. I will say to the younger people that are feeling that cringe right now, I promise you it gets better. As I have gotten older, like what Peter described, I’m like, “I have those stories as well. They are sexy.” At the moment, it’s still sexy. The orgasm still feels good. I promise if you are feeling cringe as a younger person, it gets better when you get older and it’s still sexy.

Part of the reason that cringes there is there are no role models. If you watch porn, a couple or group is not like so, “What are your boundaries tonight?” You see two people start kissing and doing whatever they are going to do. If you watch a movie and you watch a sex scene, that’s providing a particular type of script, where people are ripping their clothes off and going at each other.

The sex is always great the first time.

It’s always outstanding and no one is ever reaching for a condom and trying to put it on fumbling around all these kinds of things. No one ever takes a break and talks in the middle of a session.

Gets a leg cramp.

Know that may seem cringy, but people do this. They do it in the privacy of their own sex lives. I believe it can still be sexy. I believe it can be even more so in a heteronormative way for men. It allows you to then be more comfortable rather than going, “Is this okay?” You’re dancing around, wondering, and so on. Having boundaries is freeing.

If your partner can’t do this or doesn’t want to do this and you do, that may mean they are not a good partner. If you say to your partner, “What are you feeling like tonight? What do you like? What you don’t like?” You try to do intimacy design, for example, and they are like, “I don’t want to talk about this. We should know what we should do. Let’s go into the bedroom.” That might not be the ideal partner for you. That may not be the ideal match.

I was pausing to think about that for a moment to say, “Maybe someone wants to learn.” Also, at my age, if I’m getting in bed with someone and they can’t put to words things, what that also means is that they can’t listen. You will not be surprised by this. I have a very structured roadmap to my orgasm. Steps 1, 2, and 3. We talked about this. I don’t know if it made it into the last episode, but steps 1, 2, 3, 4, and the magic happens. If you can’t articulate things to me, that also tells me that when I give you that roadmap, you are not going to listen to it.

They are not even asking you for the roadmap. They just want to go into the bedroom.

You don’t always need the roadmap. The roadmap is the backup in case it’s not naturally finding its way there as this person said. Sometimes it can organically happen, but if it doesn’t, I got a backup roadmap. The question is this. I will speak from a woman’s experience. I am not every woman and I have a group of female friends. I find pop culture says this a lot, so you might relate to the message. The concept of sexting like texting in advance grosses a lot of people out. They are turned off by it. They aren’t good at it. I’m not good at it. I don’t like sexting in the sense of, “What are you doing tonight? What are you wearing?” None of that.

I can’t wait till X, Y, and Z.

It’s whatever to me. If I’m messaging with someone on a dating app and they’d like to have an advance chat around like, “What are some of your sexual preferences? I want to see if there’s some overlap there.” I can easily have those conversations and it does lead into a lot of this advanced prep that maybe otherwise people are a little more uncomfortable to have verbally. They feel more on the spot. They can’t make eye contact. Texting is a little bit safer avenue, but I tend to find that women are more turned off by this.

At least in a lot of the women I speak to. A lot more women are turned off by this or the idea of sending pictures or anything. I’m curious what are your thoughts on the in-person design session where I have to make eye contact with you, but I don’t quite know you yet versus a little bit of advance texting to see if there’s a compatibility in advance.

To me, it’s about communicating. If you want to communicate through text rather than verbally, that’s fine. The situation I had talked about “I want you to greet me at the door with a big hug and kiss” came from me sending a text, which said, “Are you in the mood for something? Is there anything you want to request for today?” I’m not a big sexty person. I flirt a bit via text. I make plans via text, but I’m not going to communicate about important things via text.

That’s me. I think other people especially generationally feel much more comfortable with that stuff. My feeling about it is if it’s working and both people agree that that’s a fine medium for it, then have at it. Recognize the limits of texting, which is you can’t always get the tone right. It’s subject to misinterpretation. You may want to have some agreements around clarifying and not making assumptions if you are like, “I don’t understand this.” You say, “I don’t understand. Can you rephrase?” That type of stuff.

Don’t jump to it immediately. Sometimes I match with someone on a dating app, and within three messages they have jumped straight to that thing. It’s a little presumptuous. Unless I’m on an app where it’s pretty clear that I’m looking for sex, I don’t think I’m on any of those, but I’m saying broadly for people thinking that. Unless I’m on that app, I would love to find out if we have anything in common first. Maybe when I was younger, having something that we could talk about was less important, but now I want to know that there’s something we have in common outside of sexual interests.

There are some coded languages around the emotional connection that mean like, “I need to like you as a human being, not just your genitals.” That type of stuff.

I also do want to say that I changed my mind about this. This fits in the relationship design. I’m glad I remembered this. There was a person in my life for about two years and I have moved cities, so it doesn’t work anymore. I met them and our relationship was exclusively a sexual one from date one. For two years, I never met this person outside of my home.

When they would come over, it was a sexual experience, and then they would leave. They might stay for twenty minutes talking and then they left. The way I described that relationship to people was, “This is purely a sexual relationship. We don’t have a friendship.” I think of relationships as having three components. Companionship/friendship, sexual, and romantic components. I categorized this as solely sexual friendship. I changed my tune later when I realized, “What is friendship?” A friendship is between two people that share a common interest.

Provide value.

That’s right. I have friends in my life that are hiking friends. We don’t do anything but hike together. I don’t have any other interests or overlaps with them. We go hiking. We get to the top of the mountain. We have lunch and take some pictures. We hike down and I don’t see them again until the next hike. How is that any different?

I don’t see it as different at all.

It’s a common interest. We are friends.

What an elevated insight. I’m going to ask you to reflect on this conversation. Before you do that, I want to reflect on it and say I want to propose the conversation that we had as a model for how to have conversations along with relationship design. We don’t see eye to eye about everything, but we listen to each other and accepted our differences. We are able to hold that space. Just because we don’t agree on relationship anarchy, we don’t agree on the phrase to use for non-monogamy, or we don’t agree on the definition of relationship design doesn’t mean that we can’t have a relationship. I believe the process that we engaged in here was healthy and communicative. It was fun.

I learned more about our relationship.

I think we are better friends as a result of this. It could serve as a model in terms of at least the way you approached this emotionally, open-mindedly, and authentically, and trying to navigate this challenging endeavor the best that you can.

I like that reflection.

Thank you.

My reflection on this conversation is I’m reminded. I got very energetic describing the sticky note relationship exercise. I’d love to do that with more people. The other reflection is maybe the version two of that’s why I reflect to is how can we take this conversation further. We focused on romantic and sexual relationships. There is a whole other world and layer of relationship design with blood and familial relationships. I’d love to hear the audience’s feedback on where would you want to take this conversation to think about designing or modifying relationships with mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children in ways that will better suit you than they do now.

Why don’t we agree that the next time you are in Denver or the next time I’m in Europe and we can sit together, we will do a sequel on relationship design for kin?

The call to the audience is a call for questions and a call for feedback.

Tell us your anecdotes and stories. What works for you, what doesn’t work for you, and where are the pain points? I will start to build the document. Jessalyn, I will say it again. I’m glad I met you.

It was a pleasure.



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About Jessalyn Dean

SOLO 175 | Relationship DesignJessalyn Dean is a financial literacy and tax consultant currently based in Milan Italy with her two cats though is frequently on the move as a self-proclaimed “serial migrant”. She spent her teenage years and 20’s searching for “the one” only to realise once she found him that it wasn’t what she was meant for. Jessalyn got off the relationship escalator in 2017 and now designs her relationships using autonomy as a compass and removing hierarchy from all of her relationships. She is currently working towards early retirement and traveling full time as a solo nomad. In her free time, she coaches friends on doing the same.