Updated: Nov 11
“Conformity begins the moment you ignore how you feel for acceptance.” ~Shannon L. Alder
What is love like these days? Ask a stranger what their take on love is, and they might give you a series of answers. They might say, that love is the feeling of a warm blanket and a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning, or love is the phone call of a loved one when they’re feeling low, or that love is having a pizza out of a box with friends while watching a trashy rom-com, or that love is the feeling of finding joy in the joy of others. It gets different when we think of romantic or intimate love though, then the answers don’t flow out so easily. Someone might say, that love is that feeling of knowing that your significant other is the one, or love is finding them attractive despite their flaws and shortcomings, as they accept your own, or that love is enjoying how they make you feel so much, that the two of you can do absolutely nothing, and still have fun. The pure, unconditional kind of love.
Amidst all the cheesy movies, the deep poetry, the songs about heartbreak, the couples outside on Valentine's Day, and the people swiping on Tinder at 9 pm on a Friday night, the idea of romantic love has changed over the past 50 years. Ironically speaking, even though our population is higher than it ever has been, and technology and the internet have given us the means to be more connected with each other, finding love has never been more difficult. Forget love, even finding company or friendship has never been more difficult. Reports show that in today's world, with us being more digitally connected than ever, an estimated 33% of the world's population is lonely, with numbers ranging from country to country. Individuals aged 18-24 were found to be the highest group that reported loneliness, with nearly 60% revealing negative effects on their well-being from feelings of loneliness. Social isolation and loneliness plague our cities across the world, flooding our social media feeds with what our lives can be, and who can accompany us.
What is settling in a relationship?
Definitions are limited, and language is limited. However, for the purpose of this article, having a general concept of the subject is helpful. The typical definition of settling as per various relationship coaches, sex and marriage therapists, and clinical psychologists can be described as a situation where someone is ready to accept less than what they want or feel like they deserve. To be more specific, settling is when someone's wants, needs, expectations and deepest desires aren't being met in their relationship, and yet they choose to stay. While there are many reasons why someone may be settling for what they have, a common one is the belief that they don't deserve anything other than what they have, or that this is all they are capable of having. In most cases, someone might settle due to an aversion towards being single again, i.e. fear of loneliness.
People settle in a relationship because it’s easy. Why wouldn’t they? When you’ve spent years of your life with one person, building a foundation of trust, loyalty, and partnership, it only makes sense to keep things going as they are, even if that means putting love on the back foot. After all, breaking up means going back into the dating world and starting from scratch all over again, going through the process of putting yourself out there, whether physically or through online dating. If you've ever had bad experiences with online dating, you know what I'm talking about. Then, it’s the process of getting to know someone and finding out if they’re the one, which is often much easier said than done. All of this requires effort, which is nothing short of a gamble for someone in their 30s, 40s, or even older. That’s the age where people typically think about having a family or growing their family. Is finding love at that age too far-fetched of an idea? Maybe. Should it be discounted? Maybe not.
When it comes to ‘settling’, it’s difficult for someone to look at another couple from a third-person lens and say that the love has just ‘faded away’. Different people and different couples have their own ways of expressing love, and so this is not a judgmental claim about who is in love and who is settling. That is a question only the people in the relationships can ask themselves. Many times a couple experiences strong attraction and infatuation with their partners during the first few days, weeks, and months of the relationship, typically known as the honeymoon phase. With time, however, the colour may start to fade away and they start looking for new ways to get excited. New distractions to keep things fresh. Some couples choose to get a pet, some choose to have kids. Some choose to invest towards a new house, car, marriage, the list goes on. While these are all important milestones to work towards, they aren't antidotes to a dry relationship. Getting a house makes sense from a financial perspective, but often it’s one of the many variables that can tie a couple together, even when the love begins to fade away.
This is why when asked about the thought of separation, the couple might say that there are too many responsibilities in the mix, too many variables tying them together. Kids, houses, assets, and families are all important factors that, when combined, can make separation all the more difficult. These variables then motivate people to just keep on going, to remain in the relationship even when they are settling. One way to deflect this is by saying that what they're doing is for their kids because separation can take a toll on the kids. While this may be true, it's a bandaid that won't fix any pre-existing problem, but rather make it worse over time in the form of arguments, disagreements, and fights. Statistically, this is reflected in the number of instances of cheating and divorces in relationships, which have proportionally grown over the past 50 years.
According to a 2021 survey that interviewed over 400 people of different ages and backgrounds, nearly 50% of respondents in monogamous relationships confessed to having affairs outside of their relationships. An affair in this case includes but is not limited to instances of one-night stands, emotional infidelity, online flirting, or a strong desire for someone else. The Institute for Family Studies (IFS) sought to find out cheating rates among men and women between 2010 and 2016, revealing that 20% of men and 16% of women confessed to cheating while married. When asked about why they cheated, common responses included:
Interest in trying specific sexual activities never achieved with their partner
Low or declining relationship satisfaction
Little to no romantic love
Solitary desire for a new individual
The same can be said for divorces. According to the United Nations handbook, the global divorce rate in 2021 amounted to 1.8 divorces per 1000 people so approximately 500 couples. While divorce may have many other variables in the mix such as regional and legislative differences, relationship problems similar to the ones mentioned earlier are significant contributors. Fighting may be common in relationships, and many claim that it can also be healthy in relationships. However, when fighting becomes a pattern to the point where one or both partners become desensitised to it, dismissing it by saying it's nothing more than a part of the relationship.....is negligence.
The Case for Ethical Non-Monogamy
We're wired to behave in a way that aligns with how we've been conditioned in our lives. Growing up, we're told by everyone around us about what's right and wrong, what's acceptable and unacceptable, what's normal and what's weird. Monogamy in relationships is one of the many forms of conditioning that we're exposed to, which then affects our relationships. Movies and media show us that everyone is destined to find one true love, one soulmate who is perfect for us. This paints an unrealistic picture of what one can expect from another human being, a high standard of expectation that can become difficult to meet. This isn't necessarily wrong, but rather limited.
A monogamous relationship is when someone is committed to one person at a time, whether dating or married. When people think of the idea of non-monogamy, the general perception is about having an open relationship, where people are having sex with multiple people at a time, also known as polyamory. However, polyamory is only one type of non-monogamy, and is more than just physical attraction and behaviour. It's possible to develop emotional intimacy with someone else as well, even if nothing physical arises out of it. Ethical non-monogamy (ENM), also known as consensual non-monogamy is an umbrella term used to describe any situation where someone has more than one romantic or sexual partner at a time, with everyone involved being aware and enthusiastically consenting to the dynamic. It's this core idea that separates ENM from cheating because ENM relies on strong transparency, open communication, and consent. It's also important to note that ENM is not a 'new' concept. Non-monogamy has been practised in ancient and indigenous societies throughout time. It's only due to various societal, political, and religious regimes that Western conquerors used to put forward a narrative where church-sanctioned marriages between one man and one woman were considered the only acceptable relationship format required for a 'functional society'. Granted, we've evolved since then and there are numerous other benefits that come with being married, but marriage is also one of the many labels we may use to describe relationships. We live in a world where factors like age, gender and race don't limit someone from finding lasting relationships, at least in most countries and societies. If we accept that these people can love and do what they want, how is this any different?
We're not going to talk about all the different kinds of ENM as that would require a whole article in itself. Instead, it's useful to explore how ENM can help relationships where the partner/s may feel like they're settling. For instance, a couple open to trying ENM may start off by communicating and agreeing on what they want and don't want. We all have certain criteria of traits that we look for in an ideal partner or friend. For some, these may be primarily physical such as height, muscle tone or other physical qualities. For others, it may be emotional such as a good sense of humour, financial stability, emotional maturity, and so on. For most people, it's a mix of both, and while we may not know what traits exactly we look for, we do have them, because it's these traits that influence who we decide to have in our lives as friends and partners.
Since no one is perfect, expecting one individual to check all these boxes is an unrealistic expectation to have, especially since we don't carry this expectation with any of our other relationships. For instance, we maintain a certain relationship with our colleagues at work, our friends from school, our close friends, and the local barista at our favourite coffee shop. Each of these relationships brings out a different part of ourselves, a persona that we reveal because we have different boxes being checked at each interaction. We don't expect one individual or interaction to encompass the whole of ourselves, except for with our romantic partners. Why?
We don't know what we don't know. We also don't necessarily know if we'll like or dislike something without giving it a try, or being open to the possibility of something coming out of an experience that may improve an already strong relationship. ENM in its nature is not tied down by the individual's inhibitions. Instead, the partners can openly engage in what they truly desire, without giving up what they have. This is where the idea of compersion comes in. Compersion can be described as sympathetic joy, the feeling of euphoria, love, enjoyment, and happiness when you see someone close to you feel happy. Compersion as a term is typically used in cases of ENM but I believe it applies everywhere, and is the antidote to envy or jealousy. Think of the feeling of seeing your best friend be ecstatic, happy, and overjoyed as they receive love from someone or something. Now imagine that for your partner. Where are the limits?
This isn't to say that all ENM relationships exist due to a pre-existing deficit in a relationship. This isn't a competition between monogamy and non-monogamy. It's not a game to see which one's better because ultimately it boils down to what works for you. People may have multiple reasons for trying ENM. The goal here is not to limit love but to expand it. For instance, a couple may fully be in love with their partner and be open to sharing that love with other people. This could be due to compersion, curiosity, or pretty much any reason.
For all the monogamous couples out there that are happy in their relationship with all their boxes checked, more power to you. However, we don't know what may work for us and what may not work for us, until we try it, or even talk about it. Labelling concepts as 'taboo' or 'unacceptable' only conditions us further to do things in one way forever, limiting ourselves to the possibilities that may make us happy.
Open that door, and see where it takes you.
I offer my sincere gratitude to my close friend Denzel Byrne for joining me on this episode.