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New relationships

30 August 2013

iStock

AS I type in the words "polyamorous" and "compersion", red squiggles appear underneath them, telling me that the words do not exist, or that at the very least they are misspelt. Perhaps Bill Gates is not up-to-date with the latest jargon emerging from relationship politics, as explored in Monogamy and the Rules of Love (Radio 4, Monday of last week), or perhaps it is the technology telling us something more profound about human nature.

Once upon a time, there was Tom, who was engaged to Charlie. By happy coincidence, his best mate Chris was also engaged, to Sarah. Then Tom fell in love with Sarah; and Charlie fell in love with Sarah; and Chris fell in love with Charlie. Now they all live happily under the same roof in a "polyamorous" relationship.

Arrangements are made with great care. A date night confers on its participants important rights in the household - over TV viewing, for example. Each person must exercise "compersion", a neologism created to express a feeling of warmth towards a fellow human being's success and happiness.

The presenter, Jo Fidgen, treated the set-up with suitable delicacy, but I wondered why one of the quartet, Chris, did not want to give his views. Perhaps he needs more time to get used to this compersion lark.

But determining who gets control of the remote control is not the only problem to contend with in open relationships. Alice and Sam provided a case study that at first seemed liberated and refreshing, but, as the documentary progressed, displayed tensions and anxieties at least as burdensome as the average monogamous relationship.

Alice and Sam allow one another to date other people. They now have two children; so the resentment in the stay-at-home partner when the other is out is difficult to manage. And what if one or other of them falls for somebody with whom they want to be exclusive? That is the biggest worry of all, Alice explained. Alice is not her real name; and "Sam" did not wish to be interviewed.

In both of these scenarios, the argument of last resort was that the same tensions and resentments would occur in a monogamous relationship; and the programme was not asking what might be deemed best for society. But, in the end, the listener could feel neither jealousy nor compersion for these people who, by attempting to break from norms, appeared more oppressed by them than anybody.

Fitting in is also a problem for Dr Tim Stanley, as he repeatedly told us during Summer Nights: A sense of belonging (Radio 4, Tuesday). His Roman Catholicism, his politics, his whole relationship with Britain make him feel as if he does not belong here. But, under the chairmanship of Hardeep Singh Kohli, this round-table discussion turned into a kind of therapy session for Dr Stanley, during which the other guests listened, cajoled, and found accommodations with the self-proclaimed misfit.

"I don't want this to be all about me," Dr Stanley declared. But the show represented the classic progress of the narcissist from self-defined alienation to acceptance and belonging.

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