I remember learning about elements and electron-shell diagrams in my 7th grade science class. Who would’ve thought that that same model I saw on the whiteboard would be the key to explaining what the heck I was doing with my relationships years later?
Please scroll to the bottom for a 2016 update/note!
|Fluorine has 2 electrons on
the first shell and 7 on the
Unless you count a torrid online romance with a guy from Canada when I was 14, at the age of 19 I’d never been in a relationship. All my knowledge of the mechanics of sex and intimacy were purely theoretical, and then I suddenly launched into something with a married polyamorous man with a Ph.D who was almost 10 years my senior. Oh, and did I mention he also had another girlfriend in addition to his wife? Though precocious and definitely interested in alternative sexuality since before high-school, nothing had prepared me for this relationship model.
So I did what any self-respecting nerd would do: I researched! I devoured everything I could find online about non-monogamy (and polyamory especially), spending hours upon hours reading personal accounts, advice columns, informational websites, and research papers. I had to unlearn a lot of things and reprogram my brain to understand this new model of relationship. In that process, I had to interrogate the metaphors I used to describe my love-life, what visual representations I used to talk about significant others, and what kind of language in general I used to describe my intimacy and the people involved.
|If “Lithium” actually just meant
“Aida,” this diagram would say that
I have 2 primaries and 1 secondary!
With increased hands-on experience (wink wink, nudge nudge) in non-monogamous living came more “opportunities” to describe my situation, both to potential partners and the general public.
One of the hurdles in explaining my relationship configuration was discussing how I could have two super important partners at the same time. I’m a pretty visual person, and non-monogamy sometimes necessitates a lot of diagramming, so I needed something I could draw for people. At some point along the way, my brain cycled back to my 7th grade science class and the electron-shell diagrams seemed to resonate.
So how does this work for me (and how might it work for you)? Read on, look at the Lithium diagram to the right, and keep the following in mind:
- The big, red circle is the nucleus (made up of protons and neutrons), and that is the self (me!)
- The little gray circles are electrons, and those are other people
- The shells/rings are levels of commitment/closeness
1: There can be more than one electron/person on each shell (which goes against the ideas of “only one soulmate” in the monogamy model and against the “only one primary” notion in some polyamorous communities). The electrons don’t occupy the same exact space on the shell (read: the electrons are not on top of each other, ), but they ARE on the same shell, so it embodies how multiple primary partners are on the same general level of importance but are still fulfilling in different aspects.
2: Up to a certain point, the further a shell is from the nucleus, the higher the maximum number of electrons allowed on it. (For example: the first shell can hold a max. of 2 electrons, the second shell can hold a max. of 8, and the third shell can hold a max. of 18.) In relationship-talk, that means that I have a maximum number of people that I can pay attention to at a given time on a given rung, and I could have bigger numbers of lower-investment relationships than higher-investment relationships*. The maximum of two on the innermost shell is also probably accurate; I don’t think I could ever handle more than 2 primaries!
3 (not tied to the shell diagram, but just general atomic knowledge I wanted to include): While the electrons affect the charge of an atom, an element is identified by the number of protons in the nucleus. This jives well with the idea that while relationships might change me (and, heh, make me more positive or negative), I’m my own person and I have a recognizable identity outside of whomever I am partners with at a particular time.
4: Finally, just because a shell has a maximum number of electron spots available, it doesn’t mean I HAVE to try to get that shell full of electrons or that bed full of people just because I can.
*Still, the model isn’t perfect. Number of partners on each “commitment rung” don’t have to follow the “filling” patterns of atoms. For example, in Real Science, each shell can only hold a particular maximum number of electrons (2, 8, 18, 32 for the first four shells) and shells get filled from the inside out, so I wouldn’t have an element/relationship with 2 electrons/people on the first shell, 4 in the second, and then 9 in the third. In my love life, however, I could totally have 5 casual partners and no primary, or perhaps I could have 2 primaries, 1 secondary, and 12 tertiaries. And actually, according to the Madelung Energy Ordering Rule, there are certain atoms who have “partially-filled” outer rings, so straying from the 2, 8, 18, 32 pattern is possible, but not the rule by any means.
07/30/16 — Edited to add: How I personally arrange my relationships and what words I use for them has changed considerably throughout the years! It’s important to clarify that the way I describe relationship arrangements here follows (or can follow) a fairly hierarchical model (though different from the “only one primary” idea, and without the problematic “only primaries matter” mentality). This electron shell model is useful for some but certainly not exhaustive, and there are tons of layers of nuance we can/should layer on top of it. This shell model can help with broad explanations and debunking some common misconceptions, but it doesn’t say anything about kinds of commitment, what names and partnerships in these “relationship rungs” look like, or anything like that. Intimacy and commitment are rarely so easily categorizable, so please keep that in mind when perusing. For some food for thought on polyamory, hierarchy, and more, check this and this out.