when
monogamy
isn’t

‘one size
fits all’

From open marriages to “situationships,” the

boundaries around relationships are eroding—and,

sometimes, that can be a very good thing.

From open marriages to

“situationships,” the boundaries

around relationships are eroding

—and, sometimes, that can be a

very good thing.

For the past 1,000 years, relationships have been narrowly defined. Marriages are monogamous. Friendships are platonic. People find where they fit within those boxes and stay there. But what if we’ve been thinking about relationships wrong all along?

Today, there’s a growing movement of people who are rethinking these cultural norms, exploring instead the benefits of “liminal relationships”—connections that exist in the in-betweens. That might be the exes who are best friends and sometimes more, or the married couple exploring “open monogamy.” Whatever it is, experts say, exploring liminal relationships can be an important opportunity for growth and self-discovery. Because it’s not just relationships that don't fit into boxes. People don't, either.

This shift in thinking is at the heart of a new Hulu Original series, “Conversations with Friends.” Based on the best-selling novel by Sally Rooney, the author behind Hulu’s previous smash-hit, “Normal People,” the show tells the story of best friends and exes Bobbi and Frances, two queer twentysomething women, as they become entwined in the marriage of thirtysomethings Melissa and Nick. Through an ever-shifting web of friendships and romantic entanglements, the characters free themselves from traditional boundaries to try and develop a truer understanding of who they are, and what they want.

Finding space
to be ‘in-between’

Rafaella Fiallo (she/Ella), a psychotherapist and co-creator of the sexual liberation duo Afrosexology who identifies as queer and non-monogamous, agreed that “liminal relationships offer a huge opportunity for growth and reflection.” When you’re in a less defined relationship space, you can explore what you’re really looking for, and not what society says you should be looking for. And that lack of rigidly set expectations demands clear communication about what the “rules” are and what you want from the situation. “You’re going to have to be more honest and transparent about what’s working and not working for you,” Fiallo said.

However, exploring relationships in-between society’s prescribed boundaries has its challenges. In her own life, Fiallo has had many interactions with friends and family members who tell her they simply don’t “get” her choices. They cannot understand how a relationship can be considered “committed” if it is not monogamous.

That said, a growing number of people do “get” why she, and so many others, are embracing liminal relationships. “There are many sub-societies and sub-communities that are accepting and encouraging and that are actively exploring what it means to define, or redefine, relationships for themselves,” Fiallo explained.

According to research, nearly 35 per cent of Gen Z daters are in loosely defined “situationships.” And one recent global survey found that one in five young adults today say they do not identify as straight.

“Young folks are having these conversations, they’re having these experiences, and they’re so open-minded and giving,” Fiallo added. “They’re giving each other a lot more space to be themselves.”

And that’s exactly what Frances is doing through her liminal relationships in “Conversations with Friends”—making room to discover herself in those in-between spaces.

Liminal relationships
offer
a huge opportunity
for
growth and reflection.

Not your
grandmother’s
monogamy

Younger generations aren’t the only ones exploring how liminal relationships might provide “more space to be themselves.”

Tammy Nelson, a sex therapist and author of “Open Monogamy: A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement,” argued that, if you look at the evidence left by older generations, the monogamous marriage and nuclear family “experiment” has not worked out. “Half the people got divorced, and a lot of the people that stayed together had affairs,” she said. “At least two generations have grown up in families where there was divorce or cheating.”

For Nelson, the answer is not necessarily to abandon marriage, but to reimagine what marriage might look like—something that she said more and more couples, of all ages, are doing now. Recent research suggests around 20 per cent of married couples today have experimented with consensual non-monogamy.

“Today, when you get committed to someone or you say you’re ‘monogamous,’ it’s not your grandmother’s monogamy. It’s not like, ‘This means we’re going to just sleep with one person, and we’re going to be together for the rest of our lives until we die,’” Nelson said.

Monogamy today is defined
by the two people who are
in the relationship.

It is, she added, down to couples to devise their own “agreement.”

Fiallo concurred. The problem with “traditional” marriage, she said, is that it’s not realistic. “We have this expectation that [one partner] should fill all of our needs—emotional, mental, social, financial—and it’s just unreasonable.”

Instead, Fiallo said, we might try an “it takes a village approach” to personal fulfillment. Rather than counting on one person to provide us with everything, “What would it mean to have a full village of companions and lovers and friends?”

In “Conversations with Friends,” Frances, Bobbi, Melissa and Nick experiment with their own “village.” The characters realize there are a lot of different things they need that cannot necessarily be acquired from just one person.

That said, there is one key element required to make such a “village” work that, perhaps, these characters could improve.

Boundary testing
Liminal relationships often take root when one person (or more) tests a line that could move the relationship into a new and undefined place. Bobbi tests a boundary when she kisses Melissa at a party early on in their relationship. Frances and Nick do this too when they first kiss, and later when they begin to sense their connection is deeper than they first thought.
Jumping in
There is a “rush” that comes with starting a new relationship that challenges the status quo. It’s not just the newness of the other person, but also the freedom of the arrangement itself. For Frances and Nick, their affair gives them a sense of being seen and admired that had been missing from other relationships. This “rush” sees them jump in without giving too much thought to the consequences.
The conflict zone
Liminal relationships can help people find what they want outside of what cultural norms tell them they should want. But they hinge on good communication, otherwise conflict creeps in. Both Frances and Nick are naturally reserved, which makes it challenging for them to tell each other what they really want and need. The development of their relationship is also tested by a lack of honest communication about, and with, the other people who are important to them (Bobbi and Melissa).
Coming clean
“Coming clean” is the milestone that allows a liminal relationship to go from something exciting to a situation that also offers opportunity for growth. For Nick, it’s being open and honest with his wife about what he gets from his connection with Frances that he does not get from her. “Coming clean” also represents how, by exploring their connections with Melissa and Nick, Bobbi and Frances come to reassess what they want and need from each other.
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In the ‘in-between,’
communication
is key

There are healthy liminal relationships, and there are unhealthy liminal relationships. The difference comes down to two crucial factors: care and communication.

Fiallo explained that being in an in-between space doesn’t mean you don’t owe the other person anything. For a liminal relationship to have value, the people in it must treat each other with respect and compassion. And they must communicate and be radically honest about what they want.

Fiallo encourages her clients to have regular check-ins and to ask each other (and themselves) questions like: What do we want to get out of this relationship? What is its purpose? How do we want to feel?

If a liminal relationship isn’t working for you, that’s valuable self-knowledge, too. “When relationships are so ambiguous that it is causing a lot of frustration or pain and you aren’t getting your needs met, whatever those needs are, that is when you need to be able to say: ‘This is not serving me,’” Fiallo said.

Just remember: Relationships
are not easy, however you
choose to do them.

In “Conversations With Friends,” the characters often fall short of this kind of honest communication. That’s the thing about “it’s complicated”: it really can get complicated. And perhaps that is the show’s greatest strength—it is messy, and true. We see the freedom in the in-betweens—how it can lead to new opportunities for love, connection and self-discovery—but how it can lead to hurt and confusion, too.

In the end, Nelson said, monogamy and more traditional relationships aren’t dead. And they aren’t impossible. But there should also be space for, and acceptance of, different kinds of relationships that meet different needs.

“How we choose to do these things is up to us,” she said. “Just remember: Relationships are not easy, however you choose to do them.”