Book Review: Designer Relationships (Michaels and Johnson)

While at a conference, I had the good fortune to run into Mark A. Michaels and Patricia Johnson, authors of Designer Relationships: A Guide to Happy Monogamy, Positive Polyamory, and Optimistic Open Relationships (Cleis Press, 2015). While chatting with them about mono-normativity and other fun stuff, their new book came up, and I expressed an interest in reading it. Now that I’ve gotten through my copy, I’d like to recommend it to people who want an overview of monogamy and its alternatives in contemporary society.

Designer Relationships is a slim but extensive handbook that dissects current American notions about the ways in which people live monogamously, non-monogamously, and everything in between. Michaels and Johnson use the term “designer relationships” inclusively, which allows them to address a broader audience than just people who might identify as non-monogamous. They define designer relationships as non-binary, based on free and enthusiastic choice, thoroughly mutual, and maintaining high standards of transparency. Thus, many types of relationships can be considered designer relationships.

This is a refreshing difference from much of the literature available on alternative relationships, since designer relationships can theoretically include monogamous relationships, so long as they are entered into consciously and consensually.  Michaels and Johnson write: “Many people enter into monogamous relationships without a clear understanding of what they mean by monogamy and what their agreements are” (6). As later chapters explore, much of how we understand monogamy is socially conditioned, and varies across time periods and cultures. There is not, therefore, any empirically true meaning to “traditional marriage,” a phrase often thrown about in discussions of new relationship styles and alternative sexualities.

Michaels and Johnson are relentlessly sex-positive in this book, which I really enjoyed. They dispel a number of mononormative beliefs, particularly sex-negative ones (e.g. that too much or too little sex is harmful, or that masturbation is harmful or says something not-so-nice about the relationships you’re in, and the same goes for using a vibrator to get off). And they invest a lot of time in addressing misconceptions about consensual non-monogamy, many of which are based on sex (such as that swingers are sex addicts or cheaters, or that folks having a lot of sex automatically have more STIs, and so on).

They round out the book with a number of tips and relationship skills that can benefit everyone, regardless of relationship structure. These include ideas that correspond to other areas of life, such as knowing generally how you work and what makes you happy, emphasizing kindness in your interactions with others, and have a sense of your purpose in a given relationship. Specifically for people who are interacting sexually with one another, the authors recommend exploring fantasies together, which could involve anything from acts of imagination to acting out desires, with each other or with other partners. Navigating jealousy, both in the imagined world and the real one, is always tricky, but the authors provide some good tips for people getting started on various explorations, from swinger-style swapping to kinky interactions. Finally, they give ethical considerations some attention, from STI testing to what counts as being respectful toward one’s partner(s).

From a scholarly perspective, I liked seeing how the authors built on the existing literature on relationships. They incorporate the three-part understanding of monogamy in Curtis Bergstrand and Jennifer Sinski’s sociological study of swingers, Swinging in America – that monogamy in America contains sexual, emotional, and practical components – and also develop an argument for a social component. Michaels and Johnson refer to other ideas that have been gaining traction in sex-positive and internet discussion circles, such as the ideas put forth in Sex at Dawn  and other books that monogamy is not the norm in the primate world or even the animal world at large.

This is a minor quibble, but when Michaels and Johnson set foot into interpreting ballads and fairy tales (pp. 42-43 and 46-47 respectively) as cultural data for attitudes about love and relationships, they stumble into tricky territory. I’m not sure why ballads with unhappy endings – lovers united only in death, for instance – would count as evidence for how love was viewed ambivalently in early modern Europe (I’m not arguing against their conclusions, only how they got there). Other ballads showed the triumph of love, even across species and supernatural boundaries, as in the case of the well-known ballad Tam Lin, about a woman winning her lover back from supernatural bonds. And ballads were, in many European societies, performed alongside folktales and fairy tales, which were somewhat more optimistic about the outcome of monogamous love. I like how the authors criticized the overly saccharine Disney versions of tales that have conditioned many contemporary Americans to view love and romance a certain way, but I hesitate to accept some of their arguments about rise tales and restoration tales, which likely came from a source that most folklorists regard as problematic at best.

On the whole, though, Michaels and Johnson have an impressive command of the literature about monogamy and non-monogamy. The anthropologist in me cheers when they write things like, “Regardless of what our Pleistocene ancestors may have done, regardless of what the Bible says, regardless of cultural practices, and regardless of the controversy over what is natural, there is abundant ethnographic evidence suggesting that humans continue to have a wide variety of relationship structures” (50).

If everyone’s takeaway from Designer Relationships is that human relationships are varied, and that this is okay, then I’ll be quite pleased with everyone involved. For those trying to be more intentional about their relationships, as well as relationship pioneers looking for a fresh take on familiar territory, this is a quick, fun, and useful read.

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