There’s no question that relationships look a lot different today than they did just a few decades ago. We’re staying single longer, having children later, and when many of us do settle down, it’s not necessarily in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship. At a time when our romantic options seem limitless, it can feel difficult to know what choice is the right choice for you.
We sat down with Sarah Mirk, a Portland, Oregon-based journalist whose adventures in dating inspired her to write Sex From Scratch: Making Your Own Relationship Rules. She offered a few tips on how to figure out what relationship style is right for you.
SEX.RIGHT.NOW.: What have you learned about what relationships look like right now?
SARAH MIRK: Everybody feels like they’re bad at dating. Everybody feels like they’re particularly awkward or they have trouble communicating. And that it’s hard. And really, that’s everybody. Communicating about these issues is complicated for everybody because they’re really intimate, and tricky, and complex, and involve your personal history, and figuring out your values, and figuring out how you want to fit into the world. And then figuring out how to express that. And sometimes what you want and feel and value changes over time, so it’s not like you have one conversation and you’re done with it.
Everyone is making it up as they go along. Some people are just better at talking about it and figuring out how they feel and working through that.
What advice would you give someone who says, “I’m new to dating, and I really want to figure out what relationship style is right for me. How do I figure out if I’m monogamous or poly or just want to be single and casually date?”
The big thing is not to put yourself in box. Not to say, I’m this one way, and I’m going to be this way forever. Because when you’re eighteen, having a monogamous boyfriend or girlfriend might be what you feel like right then. In a year or two maybe you want to be with multiple people, and you feel equipped and able to do that. It doesn’t need to be a major life crisis. You can adapt and evolve and change.
I think for a lot of people tension comes from this feeling of, “Wait, am I not who I thought I was?” And my advice is that your feelings and desires and what makes you healthy and happy will probably change over time. And really the best thing you can invest in trying to figure out is how to talk about your feelings, and how to be honest with people even when that’s really scary.
Rather than stressing out about “Am I this or am I that?”— Am I queer or am I straight or am I bi? What am I?—learn how to talk about what you feel, what you want, and feel free to not have a label for what you are in the world.
What if I decide I want a relationship style—or no relationship at all—and my parents don’t approve of it? How do you advise people balance their own happiness with family expectations?
It really helps to have some kind of community and some kind of support for whatever relationship you have. But that community and that support doesn’t have to be your family; it doesn’t have to be the people at work; it doesn’t even have to be your friends. If you’re thinking about being in a relationship and you don’t feel comfortable talking out loud about it to anybody yet, I would recommend finding communities online, and following people on Tumblr or on Instagram who are out about being part of that community or identity, and looking to them to be role models and resources.
Learn from books and the internet and podcasts until you feel like, “Okay, there are people out there like me, there are people who are doing this who are healthy and happy.” You can learn from them and feel supported by them, and then hopefully you can talk about it out loud in person to a couple of your friends or people that you trust, and then maybe at some point your family. I feel like telling your family first for a lot of people is like going from 0 to 100.
If you’re not feeling safe about telling people about your relationship because it seems like other people would think it’s abusive or violent, that’s a time when you should seek out friends and family to tell about it. But if it’s more like you’re afraid to tell them because you think they’d be homophobic or biphobic or slut shamey, that’s a different story.