State of the Union: How alternative relationships are reshaping love in Canada

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State of the Union preview
WATCH: The State of the Union series takes a deep dive into five alternative relationship models and uncovers the changing face of Canadian love. – Jul 18, 2018

The conventions of romantic relationships are so deeply ingrained in our culture that it’s nearly impossible to shake the nuclear picture of domestic bliss: a committed, monogamous couple sharing everything from the emotional and spiritual to the legal and social.

And while that works for a lot of Canadians — and power to them — there are a number of alternative relationship models quietly proliferating that fly in the face of that convention, yet yield the same result. That is, a happy union.

Polyamorous families, sexless couples, mixed orientation marriages, arranged marriages and couples living apart — by choice — make up some of the most successful and in some cases, fastest-growing unions in Canada. They make the stock image of what many Canadians view as “love” look nearly obsolete.

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“Why is it that we hold up this couple-type of approach that doesn’t really reflect or meet the needs of many, many Canadians,” asks Nick Mulé, associate professor at the School of Social Work at York University.

“We know there are all kinds of relationships, such as (mixed orientation) and polyamorous relationships. Statistics Canada speaks to, you know, the fact that the fastest growing type of household is the single person.”

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According to the 2016 census by Statistics Canada, nearly half the Canadian population is married and 21.3 per cent of relationships are common-law. Unfortunately, it’s harder to track these alternative models, but some bodies are following them, indicating that they’re ones to watch.

The Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association conservatively estimates that there are 1,100 polyamorous families in the country, while an informal survey by the Vanier Institute of the Family found that of 547 respondents, more than two-thirds identified as polyamorous. Sexless marriages have been estimated to comprise 15 per cent of all marriages in the U.S.; approximately two million people in the U.S. are in a mixed orientation marriage (where one spouse is straight and the other is bisexual or gay); 1.9 million Canadians are couples living apart together (LAT). There are no numbers to show how common arranged marriage is in Canada, but statistics do show that they’re successful — a 2012 study by Statistic Brain estimated the global divorce rate for arranged marriages at only six per cent.

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Humans have been seeking companionship, whether temporary or long-term, from the dawn of time, but somewhere around the early 20th century, marriage went from being an economic and social union to a romantic ideal — and it was strictly defined. Sociologists often question why we’ve placed such stringent expectations on coupledom, marriage and love.

“We often have these romantic love ideologies that unfold in our heads and that assume exclusivity in a relationship that’s heterosexual and in which two people live under the same roof,” says Barbara Mitchell, a professor of sociology and gerontology at Simon Fraser University.

“The standard North American family model dictates that it has to be a certain way in terms of structure and living arrangement, and when we see things deviate, we naturally assume those things can’t work.”

But the success of these alternative relationships proves that love is love, no matter who shapes it or how it comes to be. Starting on July 23, Global News will launch State of the Union, a five-part series that takes a deep dive into each of the aforementioned relationship models, starting with “living apart together” unions. Through expert sources and first-person stories, we will reveal the inner workings of the families and relationships that look so unlike what we’re accustomed to, yet make up a portion of the fabric of Canadian love.

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Check back every day next week for a new and alternative look at the State of the Union in Canada. Follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #SOTUCanada.

— With files from Monique Scotti. Illustrations by Laura Whelan.

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