Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

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.

First Steps

When my partner and I began making plans to open our relationship, we came to an agreement I thought was quite sensible: he’d give me two months, during which time I’d make an effort to start putting more work into my relationships with other friends, to start spending more time outside the house and with other people, and to start seriously investing myself in my own projects, again. I felt that all of this would enormously help me in being okay with the idea of my partner being with someone else; I need to first be okay with spending less time with my partner, and then be okay with him using that extra time to be with someone else.

A month has passed since then, and I think I’ve done pretty well. I’ve been feeling pretty confident about the two-month mark, a trip my partner was planning that would include visiting a girl he’s interested in. I felt this would be a good first step — someone I didn’t know, someone I didn’t have to interact with socially, someone I knew wasn’t in any way a threat to our relationship, because she lives halfway across the country. I felt like I was ready for that.

Then my partner decided he wasn’t going on that trip. And I realized that I was tired of trying to ease my way into things, trying to take baby steps that were getting us virtually nowhere. I was actually looking forward to his traveling to visit this girl, because I’ve been anxious to see what it’s going to really feel like, anxious to figure out whether or not I can actually handle this kind of relationship. So last week, I told my partner that I didn’t want to put off the inevitable, and said that I wanted to just “officially” declare our relationship open.

For the past few days I’ve been teetering between “doing really well, considering,” and “fucking miserable.” On Saturday night, at a show, he ended up making out with a girl we’d both met relatively recently — he’d previously told me that he thought there was a mutual attraction there, so it wasn’t all that unexpected. He did everything right: he made sure I knew, before he went to the show, that this girl was going to be there; he gave me lots of affection and reassurance; he didn’t let things progress too quickly with the other girl, and made sure to talk to her about me and about our relationship; he let her know that this was a new thing for us, and that it might be difficult for me to deal with at first. He called me from the show to let me know exactly what had happened, and said we could talk it all over when he got home. And we did talk, and we both cried and held each other, and then we played a few games of Boggle. (Which actually made me feel far better and more normal than any amount of talking had been able to accomplish…)

The next day, the girl was over at our house for a regular Sunday-night event that we host; she’s been coming regularly for a few months, which is how we met her, and it would have felt strange to me if she hadn’t just shown up as normal. But I couldn’t look at her, when she came in — not because I was upset with her, but because I just had no idea how I was supposed to behave. Should I take her aside to talk to her? Should I just say hello, smile at her to let her know that we’re cool, and leave it at that? Should I act like nothing’s happened? And how do I behave around her friends and roommates, who probably have some idea of what’s going on?

I was expecting to feel jealous, isolated, left out. But that’s not entirely what I’m feeling. More than anything else, I’m feeling awkward, unsure of myself, and worried about what other people are feeling and thinking. Instead of feeling abandoned by my partner, I’m finding myself feeling worried that this other girl will feel left out and hurt when my partner is affectionate with me in public but not with her. At the same time, I’m afraid of people knowing how painful this is for me, watching me to see if I’m doing okay when we’re all in the same room, asking me how I’m feeling. I think that to most people, I come across as an extremely together, sensible, healthy person. That’s the face I’ve cultivated my entire life, because I’ve always been reluctant to show anything I consider to be weakness or vulnerability. And right now, at a time when I’m feeling pretty fucking vulnerable, my first concern is to keep up that protection, keep people from seeing what I’m feeling — even when I don’t exactly know, yet, what it even is that I’m feeling. Even worse, because this particular girl is a part of my social circle, I’m afraid of showing or talking about how much this is hurting because I don’t want to alienate her or make people feel like she (or my partner) is doing anything wrong. I don’t want to make mutual friends feel awkward for being in the middle. Yet I also really don’t want to keep pretending that I’m doing okay.

…and this is all the rush of everything happening in a matter of days, and I know that not everything needs to be resolved right away, that these things take time. I’m being buffeted by strange emotions and unexpected feelings, and until I can make some sense of them I expect that I’ll continue to feel this self-consciousness, this not-knowing-how-to-behave. Looking forward to getting to the other side of this.

Talking about Relationship Problems with Potential Lovers

…so now I am actually seeking advice. Here’s a question for polyamorous / non-monogamous readers: How do folks deal with the issue of talking about problems in your primary relationship with other people? Specifically, is it okay for you to talk to your other lovers about problems you’re having with your primary partner? What about potential lovers, people you’re attracted to or have flirted with? Why or why not? Does it depend on the nature of the problems?

This is a really tricky issue I’ve been thinking about recently, and I’m torn. On the one hand, it’s devastating to think about my partner talking to someone he’s interested in about problems he’s having with me; on the other, if that person also happens to be a good friend of his, someone he’s specifically gone to because he thinks she can give him good advice, it doesn’t seem fair to deny him that outlet. But can that advice ever really be impartial if the friend is already a lover, or if the attraction is mutual? And how do you draw the line between “friend I’m attracted to” and “potential lover”? That is, I can’t realistically expect my partner to never talk about relationship problems to any female friend he’s attracted to…right?

Thinking about it for myself, too: any other person I would likely become involved with is going to be first a friend, because that’s just how I like to form my relationships (I’m really not into “dating,” per se). So it just makes sense that if I’m having problems with my partner, if I’m obviously feeling down, this friend might notice and ask me what’s wrong — and then what? After thinking about this a lot, I think an ethical answer (for me) would have to be “I really appreciate your concern, but I don’t want to talk about it right now.” Here’s why: while I’m sure I would be tempted to confide in this other person, I know that such confidence, especially when it comes to relationship problems, often fuels a particular intimacy. It would thus become more tempting, I think, to talk about problems like these with people I wanted to become intimate with, to consciously or unconsciously choose them as confidants rather than other friends. In past relationships gone sour, I have definitely found myself talking about problems with my partner to other friends I was attracted to, far more often than I talked about those problems to any of my other friends. And I instinctively knew that it was a bad idea, that I was doing it not because those friends could give me better advice than others but because talking about my relationship problems with them would bring us closer. It’s fucked up, but true.

This is why I feel especially jealous when my partner talks to friends he’s attracted to about problems they’re having with their boyfriends, when he consoles a potential lover about a breakup she’s going through — and it’s just worse, somehow, when he’s talking to her about our problems, when he confides in someone he wants to sleep with that we might be breaking up. No matter how sincerely he believes that such conversations occur purely because of friendship and aren’t influenced by his sexual or romantic attraction to her, I can’t make myself believe it, because that hasn’t been my experience.

Of course, there are some aspects of our current relationship problems that are absolutely necessary to talk about with potential lovers — for example, it makes sense that my partner should let the other person know that I’m struggling with all of this, so she’ll know that at least at first, there will have to be a lot of restrictions on what they can do together because of my insecurities around non-monogamy. But then…it still hurts. This is a person I’m already jealous of, a person I already realize embodies certain characteristics my partner desires that I can’t fulfill — identifying as non-monogamous is one of those things. When he tells her that I’m having a hard time with all of this, and she tells him that in her experience, trying to have a relationship with someone who isn’t earnestly interested in being non-monogamous is a bad idea, I can’t help but worry about what that means.

So…what do you think? Can you separate sexual attraction to a friend from conversations with that friend about relationship or romantic problems? Is this a common issue in polyamorous relationships, and can anyone direct me to existing resources discussing it?