Relationship Literacy: A way of seeing

Here is a draft of a section of the fourth chapter of my dissertation. Any ideas or suggestions for parts to expand upon? Is there anything else I should say here? Your input is very valuable to me!

Relationship literacy refers to the reflexive, critical fluency with which people can understand, analyze, discuss, and reflect upon their own as well as others’ relationship styles, choices, practices, values, and ethics. Mononormativity—the misguided assumption that all people aim to be or should be monogamous is one of the negative results of a lack of knowledge about the possibilities for relating to others in a sexual, loving, and/or intimate manner. At base, relationship literacy supports a culture of care, where a diversity of approaches to intimacy and relationships are increasingly understood and supported, rather than immediately rejected on the basis of tradition, religious doctrine, or outdated the psychological model of deviance/pathology. Ways of relating must be allowed to be flexible and in service of the individual people involved. No one model will work for all.

Relationship literacy is a way of asking: What are our connections to each other? How do we forge bonds? What options are culturally condoned? What options for connection are taboo, illegal, or dismissed as unethical? As Alexander writes in Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy (2008), “Far from being a purely ‘personal’ or ‘natural’ phenomenon, what we know about sex/uality comes to us through a variety of discourses surrounding us and in which we frequently participate” (p. 61). Extending this notion to relationships, what we know about how to form and maintain bonds with others is not personal or natural or unremarkable, but rather heavily conditioned by cultural discourses, institutions, and values that are often unseen and unremarked upon. Romantic relationships—and its normative mode of dyadic monogamy—are by no means a natural state of being. As queer theorists such as Warner and Butler have pointed out, our monogamous-centric ideology of sexuality is one that does not just spontaneously erupt, but it takes careful maintenance and regulation. If monogamy were the natural state, no such policing would be required, because people would simply choose this way of life and no deviation or no temptation to deviate would occur.

Relationship Literacy—a practice, skill, and pedagogical focus—is a way of seeing that takes into account the agency inherent in human need and desire. Love will find a way. While it may be difficult, there are those who put their job, social status, relationship with their families of origin, and even sometimes risk tangles with the law, in order to forge alternative loving systems of care.

Also important is the notion that relationship literacy moves beyond mere content to be acquired and discussed by students, teachers, learners. A literacy of relationships means opening up a new way of seeing the world and being in the world, even if that seeing and being is still (for the learner) one of dyadic monogamy. In other words, one need not be “changed” to polyamory or some other queer or non-monogamous identity as a result of coming into contact with relationship literacy. The goal is not a missionary effort. Instead, coming to a more complex and nuanced understanding of what is possible for the human animal to achieve (or not achieve) aids discursive understanding of what rhetoric and writing is all about. Persuasion, communication, and listening take on new meaning, as relationship literacy helps to peel back the layers of silence around alternative options for living. There is more room to breathe. There is an added spark, suddenly.

Polyamory is not the only orientation that can be revealed through an attention to relationship literacy, however. As a way of seeing, a range of queer practices, queer communities, and queer relationships can be either revealed or further highlighted, as learners become more savvy in decoding the myriad cultural messages received from the sex-negative dominant culture—a culture that reviles ways of loving that threaten the status quo of late capitalism. Simply put, loving more than one, or loving a gender or body type or race or ethnicity (etc.) that is taboo puts in jeopardy the blinders that mass culture tries to enforce. When one begins to step out of the box and begins to queer love and relationships, one becomes more flexible to stretch other sorts of wings. The fear of public censure begins to fade a bit, and individuals begin to wonder: What else don’t I know? What else have I been told not to do? What else have I been told is wrong, evil, corrupt, unnatural? In sum, the possibilities for a social quest and social rebellion expand. Once a relational border has been crossed, other borders become more easily seen and crossing does not illicit quite as deep fears. For some, even, further questionings and crossings become a calling.


About Anya Light

Anya Light, PhD, is an author, life coach, meditation teacher, Reiki master, and poet. Her book, Opening Love, demonstrates how relationships can be a powerful doorway to compassion and freedom.
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14 Responses to Relationship Literacy: A way of seeing

  1. Cornelioid says:

    Hi! I see some great points here that i’ve missed before, but one that seems missing. As a disclaimer, i’m no queer theorist (or sociology/philosopher of any sort); this may be my misunderstanding or misconception.

    You describe mononormativity as a “misguided assumption” and a “negative result” of relationship illiteracy. This makes sense as far as it goes. In dialogues i follow, though, normativities tend to be seen not just as misconceptions but misconceptions that exist within a community- or society-level framework that prescribes norms. That is, even in a society in which monogamy was not the sole relationship norm, one might still make the misguided assumption that monogamy is the best option for all people, but this wouldn’t be a manifestation of mononormativity.

    It seems a bit pedantic there, but it introduces a complication in the next paragraph: A deeply-enough entrenched norm might not require maintenance and regulation to persist; it could be self-sustaining, and require concentrated effort to break. Gender binarism might be such a norm; it may even “spontaneously erupt” in most or all societies as a cultural byproduct of our bimodal anatomies and reproductive roles.

    I hope that makes sense. Thanks for sharing your process.

    • heathertrahan7 says:

      Thank you SO much for sharing! Your feedback is immensely helpful. I have a couple follow up questions. I want to make sure I understand you.

      In your second paragraph, are you basically trying to get at the idea that monormativity is something that is created/maintained by whole communities rather than individuals? If so, then would it be unfair to say that individuals were enacting “monormative tendencies or beliefs”? I’m a bit confused. How can I improve my argument? Would adding a distinction between individuals and societies/communities help? If so, how much should I say about it? Any ideas for how much more I need to add, describe?

      In reference to your second paragraph, I wonder if I need to say more about what I mean by “maintenance.” What I mean by maintenance/regulation is really about the small, everyday things that folks do, without thinking about it. For example, sending out a wedding invitation where only one parter can come along as a guest would be what I believe to be maintenance–of course, most of the time, this is not intentional. But it’s still participating in larger societal normativities surrounding monogamy.

      Are my thoughts making sense here?
      I love this dialogue. I hope you write back with more. Thank you.

      • Cornelioid says:

        Hi again! I’m glad to be of any help. (Though somehow i didn’t get an email notification of your response like i thought i checked to; oh well, i’ll check again.)

        I’ll try to answer carefully. Yes, i think that mononormativity is created/maintained by cultures, though cultures are made up of individuals and defined by individuals (not always the same individuals). It makes just as much sense (and is just as fair) to ascribe mononormative tendencies or beliefs to individuals as to ascribe to them the English language. (The analogy isn’t superficial; as i understand things, the rules and styles of our language significantly flavor the way we think.)

        I see what you mean by maintenance—participatory reinforcement, perhaps. Let’s contrast this with “tending”—intentional reinforcement (a subset of maintenance). I have trouble distinguishing maintenance from normativity itself, since the interactions that comprise maintenance are, as i see it, a critical part of the norm’s existence. A “norm” with no manifestations would not be a norm at all; just a shared but silent bias. But i don’t see tending as a critical part of maintenance: norms like gender binarism (my previous example) perhaps don’t require tending.

        My sense, though, is that mononormativity requires tending, at least in the United States. Heteronormativity clearly requires tending nowadays, or at least gets quite enough of it. Mononormativity also gets quite a bit of tending, but it tends to be disguised as tending for some other normativity like heteronormativity (“marriage is between one man and one woman”) or the nuclear family (“a child needs two parents”).

        So, it seems to me that maintenance is necessary for any norm, not because norms need reinforcement (though they might) but because maintenance is definitional to a norm. However, i think mononormativity does require tending, and anyway i see now that you didn’t mean to take for granted that you did, so i don’t really see a problem with the rest of your argument.

        Again, i could just be explaining in fine detail my own misunderstanding of this stuff, but it helps to be prompted to spell it out to myself. 🙂

      • Cornelioid says:

        (Argh. Sorry for the smiley image; i forget to avoid those sometimes.)

  2. andrewrihn says:

    First, I really like what you have here. In particular, the end paragraph: I especially like the gesture from one boundary-crossing to another (and while I’m complimentary, I liked the power in the colon: question structure [” individuals begin to wonder: What else don’t I know?”]). I know this section is a bit of a teaser here, but it does leave me wanting to read more, so I would categorize that as success.

    Two things I would want more of:

    Perhaps it is the amatuer linguist in me, but I would like to know more about the “literacy” side of relationship literacy. I understand literacy as a form of cultural navigation, so I wonder what elements are being navigated in your formulation. What does relationship literacy make legible? And on the flip side, a notion of literacy implies the existence of illiteracy, yes? How would that be expressed? What would be lost/gained/translated?

    Secondly, I am left a little unclear if relationship litetracy is an individual practice (as in being literate of my own relationship) or a more social force (being literate of relationships generally) or something like a both/and situation. While I guess his touches on notion of public/private, it also relates I think to elemetns of care (of what kinds of work I put into my own relationships),

    I realize that is pretty broad, so I don’t know how much use it can be.


    • heathertrahan7 says:

      Dear andrewrihn,
      Thank you so much for allowing me to dialogue with you about this. I very much appreciate your time.

      I LOVE the idea of making things “legible.” That is a turn of phrase that I had not yet considered–and it’s so apt!

      Here are some of the questions that a focus on Relationship Literacy helps us to ask:

      • What is mononormativity, and how might that undergird polyphobia or other phobias (such as, for example, biphobia) relating to relationship forms and philosophies that do not take dyadic sexual fidelity as their aim? Furhermore, how might the psychologically-based insights within polyamory studies help rhetoric and composition scholars to understand emotions such as jealousy in contributing to polyphobia or other fears of relationship orientations that are based on principles of abundance rather than principles of scarcity?
      • How is Western culture deeply saturated by heteronormativity, and how might this tendency be linked to mononormativity?
      • How can we describe the negotiations about identity inherent in any dialogue about or within American government, education, and culture as a result of monogamous or dyadic privilege?
      • How has sexuality become a kind of sorting/categorizing machine in the unfolding of history—and how might “dividing us” into “normative and non-normative” have an effect on not just those who have been marginalized due to mononormativity, but broadly across all citizens?
      • How might relationship literacy expose how a perceived lack of choices about relationships constrains “certain kinds of love and affection” in American culture? And, in what educational or classroom contexts might these values take on particular relevance?
      • How do/might composition teachers (or other teachers) unwittingly participate in social and cultural practices that sustain mononormativity?
      • How might poly studies, and its attendant discussions of mononormativity, queer teachers’ and students’ conception of rhetorical agency?
      • How might the concept of agency be strengthened or productively complicated by taking into account polyamorous lives and ways of knowing?
      • What occasions a uniquely polyamorous or extradyadic path to understanding, grappling with, or harnessing rhetorical agency?

      You asked, in your comment, “And on the flip side, a notion of literacy implies the existence of illiteracy, yes? How would that be expressed? What would be lost/gained/translated?” I don’t know if I understand your questions here. Could you say more? I struggled to answer them, but I don’t understand them, so I can’t answer yet.

      And your comments were pretty broad, but broad is good. It’s actually the exact stage I’m in in this project–thinking broadly.

      Thank you! Hope to hear back from you!

      • andrewrihn says:

        First, sorry for my delay in responding. Summer session suddenly became quite hectic, and I’m still playing catch-up to all the projects I’ve been putting off.

        That’s a great list of questions you have in the above comment, and I think they help clarify by example what you mean by Relationship Literacy. With regards to my earlier comments about relationship ILliteracy, then, I think the questions are useful as well. A person who lacks relationship literacy would be unable to answer the kinds of questions you posed, but perhaps more importantly, they might be unable to even formulate such questions. Like a fish unable to notice water, they lack a literacy that allows for a critical engagement with relationships and sexuality. Sometimes this is quite literal; I’m sure we’ve all had experiences having to teach people new sexual/relationship concepts by way of vocabulary. Relationship illiteracy, I would imagine, would be a lacking of this broadened vocabulary. But I suspect it would be more as well; it would go deeper and represent an inability to conceive of alternative relationships or to critique existing relationship paradigms.

        I suppose mononormativity is basically the same thing as what I meant by relationship illiteracy. Does this help in any way?

        Would you describe relationship literacy as an *answer to* mononormativity?

  3. heathertrahan7 says:

    Dear Cornelioid,
    Your thoughts are extremely helpful to me, as I work to revise this passage of my dissertation. I think I might use the distinctions that you suggested, about the differences between tending, maintenance, norms, etc….I am pretty happy with this dialogue. At this point, though I want to think of more to say, I think I’m at the stage of just internally munching on all we’ve already said.

    Thanks to you!

  4. heathertrahan7 says:

    Also, PS:
    Cornelioid: Would you like me to cite you in my dissertation, since I am taking some of your ideas in account? Let me know if you would like this, and we will exchange information. If not, that’s okay, too. I won’t be using your exact words, but paraphrasing.

    • Cornelioid says:

      Oh! I’d be delighted, if in your judgment credit is warranted.

      • heathertrahan7 says:

        I do. I think your two ideas of “tending” and “participatory reinforcement” are wonderful, and I’d like to use those specific terms in my dissertation. Were you drawing on any scholars in your use of those terms? (because maybe I need to cite both you and that other scholar(s).
        In order to cite you, I need your full name. Please email that info to me at


  5. manyquestions:) says:

    This dialogue is fantastic! Thanks for your blog Heather and to everyone reading it!

    This entry also reminded me of a recent article about single individuals being excluded by the mono and heteronormative practices of marriage just as those in other relationship identities/orientations (such as poly). Just as LGBT folk, prior to the overturn of DOMA (if it shakes out as many hope it will), are excluded from the 1000+ rights and privileges of marriage, those who are single also face legal restrictions demonstrating their “less than” significance in the eyes of the state.

    This article is a brief version of someone articulating this pov.

    And reflecting on what I read in this work, I believe being single is also a status considered unequal to that of those who are married, both in state recognized legislation and daily societal norms and expectations.

    This literally just came to me while reading your post so I haven’t yet fleshed out what I think and how I feel about single being a choice/status or being something others feel is natural for them. I tend to air on the side of equality for ALL and did resonate with the overarching points of the article!

    Let me know your thoughts!


    • heathertrahan7 says:

      Dear manyquestions, I love what you are saying here, and I was wondering if I could repost your comment in my Reader Response section on this blog? Let me know if you are okay with that or not. Either way is fine.

      I definitely agree that the whole notion of “marriage” in order to gain rights is extremely flawed. The whole nature of “rights” is to exclude some. You might be interested in the world of Michael Warner, particularly his book The Trouble With Normal (1999).

      Thanks for commenting! Right on!

  6. heathertrahan7 says:

    Dear andrewrihn,
    Yes, I would most definitely say that relationship literacy is an answer to mononormativity. Yes absolutely. But I would not say it is the “only” or “best” answer. Just one of many answers or solutions to mononormativity.

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