Book Review: Designer Relationships by Mark A. Michael and Patricia Johnson

Designer Relationships is actually two books. The first half is an exploration of why we need designer relationships. It delves into the history of monogamy, how modern monogamy developed and functions, why modern monogamy is failing, reasons individuals and couples might want to create a designer relationship, and the wide range of relationship styles that people are exploring as an alternative to modern monogamy.

The second half is a how-to book for building your own designer relationship. It looks at what you want out of your relationship(s), things to consider when creating a designer relationship, issues of trust, jealousy, and insecurity, and much more.

Designer Relationships is unabashedly couple-centric. As the authors explain, their primary audience is couples who are not comfortable with modern monogamy and are ready to explore alternatives. That makes it a poor read for many poly-folk who have no interest in a couple-focused approach to relationships. However, if you are new to polyamory or non-monogamy, whether you are part of a couple or not, you will find many ideas and concepts well worth exploring.

One area where the authors impressed me was their approach to rules. I believe they have proposed a use of rules in relationships that even Franklin Veaux couldn’t object to. As long as you follow these rules with everyone you are involved with. Instead of rules for how the relationship works, Designer Relationships proposes rules for yourself. Rules focused on how you treat your partners. “I will be as honest with you as I can.” If you prefer a rules-based approach to relationships, you definitely need to read this.

As the proposed rule above suggests, the authors take it as a given that we are all human and we all screw-up. There are times we can’t be honest with each other. There are times we hurt each other. There are times we make mistakes. And these times don’t make us or our relationships failures. They are just part of being human and something we and our partner(s) need to work through. This view has often been absent from books on polyamory. I’ve heard several people say they felt if they weren’t perfect they couldn’t be polyamorous. I’d love to see the authors approach of assuming mistakes and problems will happen–and that’s normal–in more poly-focused material.

There are quite a few areas where Designer Relationships contradicts the Big Book of Poly (not necessarily a bad thing). There are also several areas where I disagree with the authors. (Pet peeve: Romeo and Juliet was not a romance, damn it! It was about teenage infatuation, NOT love. Shakespeare wrote LOTS of romances and love stories with happy endings…okay, okay, irrelevant…grumble grumble.) Ahem. Several areas where I disagree with the authors in their advice for relationships. However, I found the vast majority of their ideas and suggestions valuable. And advice books are always “use what works, ignore what doesn’t.”

Unfortunately, I found the writing style unengaging. This was made worse by long divergences into unrelated topics. (Extended discussion of prenuptial contracts and other types of relationship contracts, how they work, their purpose etc, before saying that contracts are a bad idea in designer relationships.) Actually reading through the book was a challenge. Of course, writing styles are a very personal thing and what annoyed me may just be your cup of tea.

Overall, I highly recommend Designer Relationships for folks who are considering breaking away from the constraints of modern monogamy, couples (monogamous or not) who want to make a conscious decision about what kind of relationship they want, and anyone new to non-monogamy who wants a broader idea of the options available to them. People in established non-monogamous relationships who are finding their current approach to non-monogamy isn’t working will also find a lot of valuable ideas.

If you happy in your current relationship approach, then you may or may not find some useful ideas in this book. It’s worth reading if you get a chance.