Supermodel: Creating & Nurturing Your Own Best Relationship Models

When you’re thinking about entering into a sexual⁠ or romantic⁠ relationship⁠ it’s time to think and talk about what’s probably going to work best for you and yours, and for each of you to define, create and refine what that is to one another. There is no one model -- or type -- of relationship that is best for everyone or that everyone assumes as a default; no one label, no one set of rules and regulations, wants and needs that fits all. "Boyfriend" or "girlfriend" does not mean the same thing to everyone, even if it seems like it does. And any one way of being a boyfriend or a girlfriend doesn't magically work for everyone.

To get an idea of how different our ideas of what constitutes something as seemingly simple as when someone is a boyfriend or a girlfriend, check this out⁠ : Mediamark Research, Inc. found that in one large group, while 38% of the girls said they had a boyfriend, only 29% of the guys said they had a girlfriend. That could mean that almost ten percent of folks someone thought were their boyfriend had a “boyfriend” who didn’t think he was one at all! It’s not sound to just assume a relationship with someone based on arbitrary criteria: it’s something we need to individually define, create and agree upon with our partners.

There’s a lot of noise out there that healthy sex⁠ or love can ONLY happen within a certain criteria: within marriage or monogamy, within heterosexuality, within a certain time frame, at a certain age, only if two people are “in love.” But healthy, beneficial sex and quality sexual and/or romantic relationships happen not in one specific way, but in an environment -- with realistic expectations, a basis of friendship and mutual respect, healthy boundaries, and ongoing communication⁠ and negotiation -- that is tailored uniquely to fit the people involved, not anyone else's ideas of what is best. Trying to fit every person and every relationship into one ideal model is like everyone in town trying to fit into the same pair of jeans.

Certainly, it can happen that we're asked, or ask of someone else, if they want to be our boyfriend or girlfriend. And if and when that offer happens, it's pretty unusual for any of us to say "It depends on what you mean by that," rather than to say yes or no (or to avoid saying yes or no -- sometimes because we don't know what that will mean for us -- to squirm around the subject). It also can often happen that there's no question at all, but just an assumption over time, that boyfriend or girlfriend is just what we are. What that can result in, though, are one or both of us passively agreeing to things we either know or discover aren't what we want or what makes us happy. We can also end up in a relationship which could have been a good one, had we both made our wants and needs clear, and negotiated any compromises mutually, but because of not doing that, wound up tanking.

Having some idea -- even if parts of it are flexible -- about what you think is going to be ideal for you can be really helpful when it comes to both being able to see if you even want to pursue a relationship with someone in the first place, and for negotiating what you need if you do pursue a relationship. And if you've had a relationship in the past that didn't work, or feel locked into certain patterns that aren't good for you, even sitting down and writing this all out in a list you keep ongoing can be a good way to remind yourself of what your needs are, especially when you're feeling the buzz and the optimism of new relationship energy⁠ and agreeing to things you might not otherwise can be more likely.

So, what might work -- and what may not -- for each of you?

Here are some basic things to think about in creating a relationship model that's best for you and your partner⁠ :

Time Together: How much time, alone and with others, do you think you need from your partner? How much time do you have available to, and want to, devote to the relationship yourself? What sorts of time are you looking for: private time, time with family and friends, at school, on the phone, on the ‘net? How do you both best enjoy spending time together -- what are your shared interests -- and how much does both of you have to share and want to share? How are the two of you going to make time for each other: does it work best for you to schedule time firmly, or to be more flexible and spontaneous?

Time Apart: What do you both need in terms of having enough time apart to manage all the parts of your life AND be sure you get plenty of time just to be by yourself, whether that’s working on your artwork or just hanging out listening to music? What are your interests you don't share, and how will both of you be sure you each have enough time to pursue them while in a relationship? How do you feel about your partner just dropping by, about what good times are for phone calls, and such? How will you arrange for and manage time apart?

You, Them & Everybody Else: How do you want a partner to fit into all of your other relationships, with friends, family, the rest of your community? How much do each of you need in terms of family approval and inclusion? What about disclosure to parents or friends in terms of sex? How do you both feel about how much time you want to spend as a couple with all of your friends, and with your friends without your partner? Are there any friends or family which do or might create conflicts you need to talk about (such as an ex who has since become a platonic⁠ friend)?

Fenced In: Almost every sexual and romantic relationship has a fence that defines -- or assumes -- what we want to be for us and our partners and ONLY us and our partners. What are your limits and boundaries in terms of sexual activities? Are you comfortable with strict monogamy -- only having each other as sexual/romantic partners -- or a more open relationship⁠ ? What level of exclusivity do you want or need? What are your partner’s feelings: how do they define monogamy, an open relationship or friends with benefits⁠ and how does that mesh with your own needs and definitions? Is there an openness or a closed-ness that you need for right now, as you enter into the relationship, but which you see as flexible over time? Or do you have one ideal you feel is going to be best for you now and later? What level of openness is comfortable for you: is flirting okay, and what defines flirting? Is having some sort of romance with someone else acceptable if there isn't any physical contact involved? Engaging in sexual activities with others, in particular or specifically? If so, what are your limits there, and how do you want to manage them together?

Number One and Number Two: What priority does a romantic or sexual relationship have for you? Do you and your partner(s) want or need it to come first, or after other priorities, like school, work, friends, family, sports, personal projects or hobbies? What do each of you want when it comes to sex in your relationship and the priority it has: are your wants and needs similar and compatible? If one of you needs to see the other every day, but the other has something else in their life which only allows them a day a week to hang out, how are you going to find the middle ground together and do your best, jointly, to be sure everyone's needs are met?

Grunt Work: How will you both shoulder things like birth control⁠ and safer sex⁠ , initiating and facilitating important discussions, managing joint plans with friends and family, who pays for what? What joint responsibilities are both of you comfortable shouldering, now and later?

What’s in a Name: What one calls a relationship or a partner can be a big deal. Is it important to you to be called the boyfriend or girlfriend, or not to be? Is your relationship casual or more formal? How do you want it to be? A lot of common relationship models have names like “friends with benefits,” “boyfriend” or “partner” which may mean very different things to each of you. Do certain words or phrases carry special meaning or expectations for you?

End Goals: Some people enter relationships with certain expectations or goals: sex, cohabitation, marriage or lifelong partnership. If you or your partner have end goals, are you on the same page? If not, is there room for compromise, whether that’s accepting this isn’t a permanent relationship, or one or both of you agreeing to adapt your end goals, or just giving things time to see how you both feel as your relationship develops?

Extra Value: How will you work practical issues related to values? For instance: if you or your partner doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, how have you agreed to manage that? What if one of you is vegan and the other a carnivore? One a pacifist and the other thinking about entering the military? One Jewish and the other Muslim? What about pornography⁠ use? What ethics and values of yours create "dealbreakers" within romantic or sexual relationships? Are there gender⁠ or relationship roles you feel you need -- or cannot be part of -- to make a relationship work? What expectations in terms of roles and values does your partner have for you? How can you manage and work differences in values between you? Do you both want the same things now, or do your needs there differ enough that it might be best to consider being platonic friends, rather than sexual or romantic partners (or are your wants and needs so different that it might be best to just be acquaintances)?

Crisis Management: Do either or both of you know your individual styles of dealing with crisis and conflict or behavior during one? For instance, do you get quiet, withdrawn or bottled up, while he’s a talker or a crier? Does she only process relationship issues with you while you need to check in with friends for feedback first, then talk to her? How do you feel about privacy in crisis or conflict, in terms of what gets discussed with friends -- or when -- and where certain lines might be drawn in disclosing to friends and family? Communicating these things in advance, and working to both find methods of crisis/conflict management that you both feel good about can help you to avoid a lot of misunderstandings and excess hurt when you’re already hurting or stressed out.

Even if you're not in a relationship right now, or about to be, it's a good idea to think about these things and keep a running list in your head about your general wants and needs when it comes to relationships.

While interpersonal relationships are about more than one person, we'll usually all have things that no matter who we're with, probably will or will not work for us. If, for instance, you just know school or work will need to come first for you for a while, no matter the other person, you know a lot of room needs to be left in your schedule and goals for those things. If you know your personal values are such that certain things outside a marriage or other legal or spiritual commitments aren't okay with you, you know that for those who don't share or understand that set of values, a relationship may not work or really fit you both. If you know that for the time being, or period⁠ , you have an interest in keeping your options open when it comes to sexual or romantic partners, you probably want to date communicating that someone who wants sexual monogamy isn't going to be very happy with you and vice-versa.

You might have been in a relationship or two before and learned some things that just don't work for you or which you aren't comfortable with: previous relationship experience can make figuring out what is best for you easier, so do know that figuring this stuff out tends to be less confusing over time. One of the reasons that navigating young adult relationships, and both knowing and communicating what you need, can be so hard is just that most of you have so little experience: it's a bit like going to a restaurant for the first time with a ten-page menu where you've never tried a single dish there. But even without your own experience, you can cull from the experiences of others. You might see relationships dynamics or agreements in your family, or in the relationships of your friends which strike you either as ideals or as no-go's.

Deciding on a relationship model, and on the specifics of our relationships and how we live in them, tends to be something ongoing and evolving, not one thing we choose and agree to for life. You don’t have to feel the need to go on a first date with a monster checklist in your hand: you can start talking about all this at a pace that feels comfortable and appropriate to you both, when it becomes clear that you are going to spend more than a few dates together. When you are in constant, ongoing communication with a partner, when you’re fostering intimacy, a lot of this stuff will come up just in casual conversation.

For many people in relationships, coming up with a model is also somewhat organic: rather than having one sit-down and figuring it all out, you talk about each item as it comes up or becomes more pertinent over time. For instance, asking about monogamy on the first date is a bit much, while after a handful of dates, when you're clearly seeing each other regularly, or becoming sexual -- or if one partner has clearly assumed things are going to be and stay monogamous⁠ or open -- it makes sense to start talking about those boundaries. You may not discuss how much time together or apart you need until one or both of you starts to either feel like you don't see each other enough, or like other important parts of your life aren't getting enough of your time or attention.

Active communication needs to be a constant in any relationship, not a one-time deal, or only during times of conflict: we may also find that over time, either or both of our needs and wants may shift or change, and we may need to discuss those things and renegotiate our agreements.

It's also a good idea to be sure neither of you are employing any double-standards in your relationship model, or that one partner is being asked to agree to something which wouldn't seem fair for the other to also agree to. For instance, if you're very firm on total monogamy and having your partner commit to it, are you just as firm in making that commitment yourself? Or, in the inverse, if you're asking for a level of openness when it comes to seeing other partners for yourself, are you going to be just as okay if your partner also explores those avenues? If one partner agrees for now to shoulder all or most of the responsibility with birth control, is that something you'll be just as willing to take a turn with later? If your partner is asking you to make big adjustments to your personal values in a relationship, would they really be willing to do the same, and do you think it'd be healthy for them to do so? If one of you is asking the other to set aside or sacrifice something important to make the relationship a bigger priority, would that go both ways?

You probably won't have talks about your relationship model just once or twice in a relationship that lasts months or years. You might agree to one basic model in the beginning, and later have a situation comes up -- for instance, a partner pursuing an internet relationship with someone else, you going abroad for the summer to study, a death or trauma⁠ in the family -- where it's clear you need to cover something new you didn't include before. As you and your relationship evolve, and time passes, some aspects of your relationship may change and you may need to adapt your model: people who switch to a long-distance relationship, for instance, will often need to rethink or rework their model to make adjustments for that change.

Need some examples of how to create a model, how to negotiate or adjust it, or to see why some models -- or ways of enacting or agreeing to them -- might not work?

1) August and April discovered that they were the only two lesbian⁠ girls they knew of at school. Lucky for them, they also were very attracted to each other, liked each other a lot, and wanted similar things. They'd started out as friends, so they'd talked about what they wanted in a romance even before they began one. Neither felt a need to have the relationship open to anyone else, both because their attraction was so strong and because they didn't seem to have a dating pool outside the relationship anyway. Both were also very involved with studies, so it was easy for them to make a shared schedule that gave them both a lot of time to work at school, but also enough time to spend together, some of which was spent in shared school interests, merging their priorities well. April had been struggling for a while when it came to her orientation and her religion, so she wasn't very comfortable with most sexual activities, but August could accept and understand that and was fine limiting those activities. Neither really knew what they wanted in terms of a long-term relationship, so they were fine just going with the flow. They communicated in similar ways, which was great and made settling conflicts pretty easy.

When they went off to college, they found that their dating pool was bigger, and August wanted to be able to try dating others, both because she did want to explore more sexually and just see what dating was like, and because the distance was a bit hard for her to work out. She also felt like given their long friendship before their relationship, meeting other people was part of getting to know herself: she wanted April to be a big part of her life, but not the whole of her identity⁠ .

They had a lot of discussions about this because April was initially very uncomfortable with this idea, while at the same time understanding what August felt she needed, and that her own process of accepting her lesbianism was taking longer than they both anticipated. For the time being, they've agreed that opening up the relationship somewhat is something they can both handle and which will work best, especially given their solid history and easy communication together, as well as April's plans to go overseas for a semester for school. August can date others, but they still have a standing agreement to talk on certain nights together and see each other several times a year, and it's understood that "girlfriend" to both of them right now means that that is the primary relationship. Their agreement is that August (as can April if she decides she wants to) can date, and that kissing⁠ is okay, but if she wants to do more than that, or feels like she might want a more serious relationship with someone, that they need to spend as much time as either needs to talk it out, and make that communication a shared priority.

2) Tony and Maria had a high-velocity relationship that they leapt into very quickly, calling one another boyfriend and girlfriend without ever really asking what that meant.

Tony figured that made him the number-one priority in Maria's life, that he'd always get precedence with scheduling when he wanted to see her, that they had the same end-goal of marriage, but that flirting and continuing a very physically affectionate friendship with his ex was okay. Maria figured she didn't need to talk about any kind of romantic or physical exclusivity, since she assumed they'd only have any attraction to each other. She also assumed that Tony would know that her artwork always came first for her. She didn't know what she wanted in terms of end-goals, nor did she know what his might be. Both also had different ideas about what made sex okay: one thought that so long as they were boyfriend/girlfriend it was all good, while the other felt that that alone didn't cut it: some real time was needed before it was time for sex.

Within just a couple of months, both were getting very frustrated and feeling the relationship was strained. Not knowing what boundaries Tony had with his ex made Maria paranoid and jealous. Tony getting upset if she didn't drop everything when he wanted to see her -- and not understanding that paint dries fast -- was getting in the way of an important part of Maria's life and identity. He also seemed to be assuming future plans for them that she wasn't ready to even think about yet. They ended up in a big fight one day. It became clear neither knew what the other wanted, but for some reason, thought they did, even though they didn't ever talk about it much. They agreed to take a break for a couple of weeks and think about what they wanted, and were able to then talk clearly about what those wants were.

As it turned out, while it was a process that took a few talks, they were able to meet in the middle with things like agreeing that Tony's relationship with his ex was fine so long as they all went out together more often, Tony could better understand and support Maria in her all-day-painting days now that he knew that wasn't about her just not wanting to see him and so long as they had enough time scheduled together in advance, they both worked out what they needed to to find the middle ground with both sex and who took responsibility for what, and both could agree that talking about their future a year or two down the road wasn't something they needed to do right now. Their priority needed to be on working out these issues in the present and taking things more slowly.

3) Luke and Joseph became friends in junior high, and Joseph knew even then that he was gay⁠ . But Luke in high school, Luke was just discovering that he's bisexual⁠ , which was difficult for him, especially since he was with a girlfriend he cared about a lot at the time. They broke up because of this, but weren't sure they wanted to be apart: Luke's girlfriend felt very confused about Luke's bisexuality and what it might have meant to their relationship, and Luke wasn't sure he can agree to something monogamous while he figured all of this out, which his girlfriend felt she needed in order to feel secure.

Joseph had feelings for Luke for a year before Luke came out to him, and when Joseph shared those feelings with Luke and expressed wanting to be in a relationship immediately, Luke was excited but also torn. He'd just gotten out of a relationship, after all -- and didn't know if he wanted to be out of it -- but he also did share some feelings for Joseph. They agreed on a model based around the idea of being friends-with-benefits: it was considered an open relationship sexually and romantically, they didn't plan to spend all that much time together, and they wouldn't consider it a serious relationship, even though that really wasn't Joseph's ideal. He figured, though, it was better than nothing and that Luke's feelings might develop when they were together if he agreed to that.

Within a pretty short period of time, Joseph was feeling pretty miserable. He had romantic feelings for Luke that only got stronger with sex added to the mix, and seeing Luke experience romantic feelings for others and not him stung. The relationship they were in did not make Luke develop romantic feelings, and all of the myths and attitudes about bisexuality also left Joseph feeling like he needed a more committed relationship even more. Given Joseph also was the partner who took the most responsibility for things like getting them both to STI⁠ testing or being with Luke when he came out to family (which made him feel like Luke was okay with him being a capital B-boyfriend, but only when it suited him), it made Joseph feel more like someone who was mentoring Luke in how to have the kinds of relationships he wanted with him with others, which hurt. Ultimately, he felt used, and like everyone but him had Luke's romantic interest. He talked with Luke about his needs, but they still just didn't fit with what Luke felt he needed -- and left Luke confused as to why Joseph agreed to an FWB⁠ in the first place -- so they agreed to go back to being platonic friends (friends not having sex). There was some time in there where they just didn't talk at all, but a year down the road, they started talking more again and getting close once more.

Five years later, after considerable time apart, some other life experiences and relationships and their friendship renewed, Luke and Joseph are together monogamously, and are both mutually committed to an organization they co-founded. They do consider each other to be a serious partner. At this point, they share an end goal of moving in together together: they'll see, as they go, if that shared goal continues to be shared. And Luke's ex-girlfriend realized a year ago that some of why Luke's bisexuality made her so uncomfortable back when was that she was bisexual herself. She is now dating both men and women in an open relationship where she and her heterosexual⁠ primary partner make a lot of extra time for weekly gab sessions about how all this is going, communication helped by the fact that she can uniquely understand because of her experience with she and Luke's relationship.

4) Aida and Tristan have very strong chemistry and have long felt a draw to each other. When both of them were in relationships with others, they kept feeling like they were supposed to be together. However, when they finally got together, it wasn't anything like they expected. Aida's primary focus in her life right now is on the relationship, and she needs a lot of time from Tristan to talk and be together, while Tristan is very strongly focused on the full scholarship to music school he'll likely get if he keeps his grades up. Aida wants a lot of Tristan's time, which he not only doesn't really have, but he also tends to need more time just to be by himself than she does. She feels 100% ready for all kinds of sex, while he worries that some kinds of sex, and the possible risks, could get in the way of his life goals: since he feels like birth control is also all Aida's responsibility, which she resents, he feels particularly out of control when it comes to managing sexual risks. Because she's so devoted to the relationship, she doesn't feel like flirting with others should be a problem, but he's very uncomfortable with it. They also communicate very differently, especially when upset: Aida tends to be very expressive and verbal, while Tristan withdraws and would prefer writing letters to work things out rather than arguing and crying for hours. Aida is also very social, and a big sharer with her friends in terms of personal details about she and Tristan's sex life, and that makes him feel both like his privacy is invaded and like she doesn't take it as seriously as he does.

Before getting involved, both of them knew about some of these differences, but figured that if it worked for them as friends, it'd work as romantic and sexual partners. When their frustrations finally erupted, and they were eventually able to really talk about it, and jointly came to the conclusion that while their chemistry was intense, and they loved each other a lot, their needs and styles in a romance were just so different that they were much better off as friends, a relationship that works out just right for them both.

Remember: relationships are active, not passive. We don't just sit around and have relationships happen to us, they're something we make and sustain -- or not -- through our shared actions and agreements. I know some of this can seem daunting but one skill young adults⁠ and teens tend to have, developmentally speaking, is that you're often fantastically creative and passionate communicators. So, while you might feel nervous bringing these issues up, or even making clear that there is no one meaning of "boyfriend" or "girlfriend," don't discount or second-guess your abilities in this regard. In many ways, if you get a jump on creating unique models and negotiating them early, you'll be able to usher yourself into a life of relationships better than adults who only started working with models late in the game.

Over time, it's also typical for the nature of some of our relationships to change, since over time, it's typical for people to grow and change. We’ll usually need to make adjustments at some point, great or small, to things we initially agreed on. Having a relationship open to dating others may feel fine until other aspects of your lives become shared, like sharing a household. Making the relationship the top⁠ priority may not work if one of you discovers a new passion in your life, like a rewarding volunteer opportunity or going after your black belt in Jujitsu, or encounter a new challenge, like an ex-partner becoming gravely ill or facing a sexual orientation⁠ or spirituality shift. One or both of you might face a move or a big economic change. You might discover that in learning new ways to manage conflict and crisis that the old patterns you had with a partner aren't working anymore. Someone who has been our romantic or sexual partner⁠ for a while, for example, may start to feel more like a platonic friend, or vice-versa, or one portion of a relationship or our life may become more or less important than another.

On the friendship note... much of the time, people don’t have great conflicts or feel devastated when a friendship or a more casual relationship starts developing romantically or sexually, however, may people feel far differently when the opposite happens. That’s not too surprising: our culture puts a lot of status on romantic relationships, often deeming them more important or greater than other kinds of relationships, even though a solid friendship is the basis for any kind of healthy relationship. Plus, romantic and sexual relationships tend to be highly charged, and also include friendship and other aspects of intimate bonding and relating, so when those feelings start to fade or change, we may feel like we’re losing something, rather that simply evolving and growing. It’s entirely possible to move from a romantic relationship into a platonic friendship: it just often takes a little bit of time, some mental adjustments and a person that we still care for and want to keep in our lives, even though it may be in a different way than we’re used to.

In case you need to hear it, please know that there really, truly is no one right relationship model for everyone. A person who needs an open relationship isn't a lesser person, or someone who loves someone less, than a person who needs a monogamous agreement. A person who wants less time for themselves isn't somehow a better partner than someone who wants more time alone. Someone who has other big priorities in their lives isn't necessarily less devoted to a relationship than someone who makes that relationship their biggest priority. There's no one right way to share responsibility: it's all about sussing out what each of your strengths and abilities are and you both doing your best to be sure it's pretty equally divided. There's no one right way to communicate: it's all about going with your own personality and finding the common ground between you and someone else, and also each person making some concessions to understand and be responsive to the other. And even though we can easily see that our culture privileges or celebrates certain kinds of relationship models, that doesn't make them better or best for everyone: those attitudes just mean that a lot of people have been taught one given thing is normal, best, or most successful (even if none of that is true) and that those models also tend to fit a lot of personal, social or political agendas.

Without being trite, if whatever relationship model you create with someone else has you both feeling fulfilled, harmonious and happy most of the time it really is all good.

With some models, you may find others are judgmental, or express that your given model either makes your relationship "not real" or bonafide, or that they feel what you both need for a happy, working relationship is more than is needed. If that happens, just remind yourself (and that other person) that someone who isn't part of a given relationship, or who doesn't have the same wants and needs you do, isn't generally able to best determine what feels best and works best for those who are in it.

Too, people can be in love, like each other, respect each other and love each other -- the whole enchilada -- and still have some challenges and places where wants and needs don't mesh, sometimes or period. Love is something that can cause people in a relationship to appreciate and understand one another, but it doesn't have the power to make people have the same wants and needs, or become exactly like each other. If, even after talking out what each of our wants and needs are, we find there are areas where we either can't reach a compromise, or don't want to compromise, that doesn't mean there isn't love or interest there. It just means that at that given time, we aren't going to be a good fit for a certain kind of relationship, and that's okay, even if it's a bummer. It may turn out that years down the road, we reunite with that person and find something has changed where we can have that relationship we wanted, or it may mean we just never get to have that one with that one person. That'll probably happen to you more than once in your life, but just remember that, again, all of this coming together -- chemistry, love and compatible wants and needs is rare, not common.

So, when it doesn't happen or isn't going to happen, it's something you'll just learn to accept, however disappointing. And when it all really does come together, know that no matter what model you mutually create that is best for you -- and no matter how many adaptations you make together over time to keep it working -- if you both nurture it, keep talking, and keep adapting, no matter what kind of relationship it is or how long it lasts, you'll have something that's likely to benefit both of you for all of your lives.

Here are some additional links and resources to help you with relationship communication and modeling, as well as working out what's right for you: