The variety of connectivity and choice our culture gives us creates unprecedented opportunity for innovation in managing our lives and relationships, personal and professional. 

“Is irrelationship the future of relating?”Grant

For those accustomed to lives structured around phone apps, like dating apps, “traditional” ideas of romantic commitment (as contrasted with “hanging out”) become foreign to how popular culture now does relationship. Digital (dis)connectivity provides a buffer for both parties to just walk away before getting too close. This leads to one or both parties’ feeling entitled to call the shots without talking about what’s happening.

People may also find fluidity in commitment useful as a way of avoiding loneliness while at the same time keeping scary parts of intimacy at arm’s length.

Melinda, a newly minted nurse in her mid-twenties, started seeing another young woman, Paula, about the time Melinda took a job which could make her move away. For Melinda, this was a dream job she’d had her eye on all through nursing school. Though both Melinda and Paula felt some disappointment at being pulled apart so early in their relationship, social media allowed them to interact from a distance without pressure or serious commitment. Social media also provided a means of safely exploring their interest in one another. The digital distance was important because both women had recent experiences of relationships that went too fast and fell apart, leaving them both hurt and wary. 

“If the point of psychological defense is protection of self against being overwhelmed by anxiety, then the point of irrelationship is to defend self-other against the anxieties of intimacy. We might be able to protect ourselves from love’s threat—but at what cost?”Mark

Managing emotional risk digitally let each feel out the other’s ability to be there, while exploring their own feelings about intimacy. In irrelationship terms, Melinda and Paula could gauge how intimacy-related anxiety affected their experiences of the other, and share that as they came to feel safe with one another—or not, if they didn’t. When they met in person, they could compare experiences and make measured decisions about moving forward, aware of what they were deciding together, and why.

Katharine and Randy, in their late 30s, approached a similar situation from a different place. Though dating veterans, neither were stung by romantic disappointment. Katharine had broken up with a steady boyfriend when she graduated from college and moved to New York for her first job, and still felt some guilt. Randy had stayed focused on career goals in his early professional life, devoting a lot of time to business networking. He wanted and enjoyed the company of women, and dated occasionally, but always called it off if he felt it was getting “too serious.”

They met at a party in a mutual friend’s home. Though clearly interested in one another, both were aware that they were at a point in their careers at which they deliberately placed the possibility of a romantic relationship on the back-burner. So they candidly told each other that a “real relationship” wasn’t a good fit with their current plans. They agreed that they’d like to keep up with one another and spend time together as long as it didn’t interfere with their career goals. They got together once or twice a month over the next year, enjoying one another’s company, going out together and sleeping together. Then Katharine got word of a great opportunity—a promotion that required her to spend more time in Europe and Asia than in New York. She and Randy accepted this expected turn of events, and parted amicably. They loosely kept in touch via social media, and felt no lasting regrets. The mutually-determined parameters they’d agreed to—a form of purposeful irrelationship—helped them to keep their eyes on the professional prize. It also helped them to keep their feelings in check and avoid the emotional vulnerability that would have come with unrestrained intimacy.

“Protection from the cost of love is exactly what some people are looking for.”Daniel

More and more people find it useful to reframe the either/or question of in or out of relationship as a continuum. This conceptual shift includes developing ways in which we can use relationships to manage feelings about, and reactions to, intimacy, particularly anxiety and avoidance.

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