Archive for September, 2009|Monthly archive page

Non-monogamy, Intimacy, and Identity

What a roller coaster the past few weeks have been: a constant swinging between giddy optimism and completely crushing feelings of defeat. When the thought of my partner with “the other woman” isn’t invading my consciousness, I’ve been completely happy, both in our relationship and in the rest of my life: in my projects, in my relationships with others. When I’m suddenly, for whatever reason, reminded of her existence, I completely shut down, lose all interest in everything I’d been working on, and feel like withdrawing from all of my social circles. These changes can happen within a matter of minutes, from one mood to the other and then back again. It’s really wearing me down.

I’ve realized that the reason I have felt so profoundly hurt by my partner’s having sex with someone else is that my sexuality is an incredibly sensitive and deeply intimate part of my identity — which isn’t the case for him. It’s taken many years for me to be okay with not only my sexual identity as a submissive but just with the idea of myself as a sexual being at all; for most of my life, sex was something big and terrifying that I engaged in somewhat reluctantly and while holding a lot of myself back. In my family, sex was probably mentioned all of two or three times throughout my adolescence, and then only in combination with the words “don’t” and “be careful.” My memories of these brief conversations with my mother are marked by feelings of extreme discomfort, embarrassment, and fear — both on her part and my own. In fact, this could be said about any of my conversations with my parents around personal issues or problems. And as I got older, I mirrored this in my relationships with friends and others — avoiding discussions of serious issues; minimizing and dismissing emotional problems; lying about my scars during phases of self-injury; hiding the fact that I was at times unable to function because of depression, anxiety, and overwhelm; and never, ever talking about sex. In large part, this is still true today. Even with my trusted partner of four years, I often lapse into a headspace in which I can’t bring myself to actually voice the thoughts in my head, or sometimes even speak at all, when having conversations about difficult or highly personal issues.

All of which brings me to a paper on non-monogamy and identity that I recently read; it’s very academic, and I strongly disagree with parts of it, but it brings up some interesting points. Most significantly, the author writes that many (if not most) women in our society are taught to define ourselves in terms of our relationships with others, and specifically in terms of our (monogamous) sexual relationships. Because of this fusing of a monogamous person’s identity with that of her sexual partner, when the partner chooses to have a sexual relationship with someone else, the person feels that her identity is being changed in a way that she didn’t choose for herself. The author writes, “When the monogamous person says, of her lover, ‘I’m selfish; I don’t want to share,’ she may not necessarily be thinking of her lover as a child thinks of a toy or a bag of candy. She may rather be saying that she does not choose to share herself, to extend herself to include this new person, who is not a chosen part of her self-assumed identity.” It is a sort of “forced relating.” And as long as a person defines herself in part or exclusively in terms of her sexual partner, this sort of pain and vulnerability will continue. The real problem, the author argues, is neither monogamy nor non-monogamy but the idea that real emotional intimacy and identity can only be tied to the person or people you’re fucking; both monogamous and polyamorous people may feel that “sexual coupling defines and is the hallmark of closeness between human beings; that being sexual is being intimate; and that sex is almost the only route to warm physical contact between adults.”

And this leads to the big revelatory conclusion: The real solution to my issues with non-monogamy is not to just start dating other people myself (which I’ve considered), nor is it to cut myself off completely and regress to the hyper-independent ideal that I used to aspire to (which I’ve noticed myself already doing). The solution, or at least a large part of it, is to actually form intimate relationships with people I’m not having sex with. To let myself cry in front of my friends. To talk to people in person about the things I currently write about anonymously online. To learn how to touch other people without feeling awkward and uncomfortable. To not allow my sexual relationship to be the only outlet I have to get the love and affection and reassurance I need. I can’t stress how difficult these things are for me. But I’ve already begun testing the waters — and it’s not quite as hard as I thought it would be.