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On The Nature of Relationships - 8.4.04

A man and a woman, exclusively together for a time or even for life.  This is the prevalent notion of what relationships should be in this world, a monogamous and committed bond formed between exactly two people.
Traditionally this is how it’s been.  Often times, relationships aside from this primary, exclusive relationship have to be held back because other friendships might otherwise grow into their own natural form and this might encroach on the emotional and physical territory of the other party in the exclusive relationship.   So that’s how it’s been:  one man with one woman, attempting to meet each other’s needs 

The enlightened world takes this a step farther as it recognizes gay rights, allowing us to also say:  One man with one man or one woman with one woman.  In short we can say:  One individual with another.  But why stop there?

Over the past several years many of my close friends have been from Madison, WI.  I used to drive four hours each way from Minneapolis, MN at least once a month to go see these friends.  They lived curious lives, lives that intrigued me, lives that pushed buttons that held intellectual appeal but seemed to challenge everything I knew about relationships.  Alice and Bob would be married but the restrictions they placed on each other were very liberal.  Bob could get physical with Cathy, Alice could become emotionally intimate with Dave or could fool around with Ellen or “Frank and Gail”.  Alice and Bob were very secure in their bond and granted each other a level of freedom I’d never before seen in a serious relationship.  At a party once I was accosted by a nude Heidi and led to the door of a room where a play party was going on.  I was invited in.  I couldn’t bring myself to step through the door.

Two and a half years have passed.  I have been in a relationship that has had some major struggles finding common ground on physical issues not only in practice but with regards to emotional energy.  Several times we faced a bleak future, one that we wanted to walk into together but one that we couldn’t envision happening without driving one or both of us mad.  The difference in our needs was driving a wedge between us, tearing apart a relationship that in all other ways was the best either of us had ever had. 

Something had to change and we had many discussions about what that might be.  We finally accepted that we are simply very incompatible in some ways.  As we shared our history, our philosophy, our views, our needs, our dreams, our goals, slowly I started wrapping my head around some new ideas.  She wanted a little more alone time and I needed more time with people.  She didn’t have a jealous bone in her body.  She was okay with me seeing other people, even having other people involved in my life sexually.  She wasn’t threatened by any of my other friendships, even the extremely attractive women.  Essentially she was offering an outlook on life that seemed too good to be true and despite it being genuine on her part it was really hard for me to accept it at face value, that’s just not how people work.

What matters to her is emotional intimacy.  The friendship, the trust, smiling together, spending time together, sharing the good times and being supports for each other in the bad, cuddling up on the couch to a movie or an old M*A*S*H episode.  What matters is that we are open and honest with each other.  What matters is that we can enrich each other’s lives in whatever ways we can.  What matters is that we can be best friends, putting each other’s interests equal with our own and finding solutions to our problems.

What doesn’t matter to her is who-kissed-who last night or that I hung out with a female friend.  It doesn’t matter if I cuddle up with a friend to watch a movie.  Within certain boundaries it wouldn’t matter if I were to fool around with someone.  And so long as I was being responsible it wouldn’t matter if I spent a passionate night in someone else’s arms.

You’re probably reading this thinking:  What the hell is that girl thinking, how can she possibly say that stuff?  I know that I couldn’t digest it immediately; it took me almost two full years to really start to accept the words she was saying.

In short, what is important to her is the relationship, the honesty, the closeness, the emotions that I have for her and my commitment to our joint health. 

Nothing else matters…

(Pause, then re-read that last bit.  Understand that she really means it)

In past essays I have shared how recently I have learned to question not only what I believe but also WHY I believe it.  How much of what I claim to subscribe to was fed to me by society and how much of it was thought out for myself from first principles?  As I thought about my views on relationships I gave shape to an inner conflict that I’d felt for years, one that I hadn’t previously been able to identify. 

As I had contemplated things over the course of my life there was always this feeling in the back of my heart that what I was teaching myself wasn’t completely right.  When I was a Christian I had gay friends even as the church taught that homosexuality was a sin.  I had a crush on a girl who ended up finding bisexuality in her identity.  Her family rejected her because she found love in another human who happened to be a woman. 

And then I have my friends in Madison who embrace life and share themselves with one another emotionally and sexually in all sorts of different ways.  They are people being people and friends being friends who don’t automatically limit the nature of their involvement with others.  This lifestyle is more taboo than homosexuality or bisexuality, more taboo than BDSM.  It exists somewhere between polyamory and being swingers and just the thought of it sickens or bewilders a lot of people.  This is a reaction that I once shared; this is a reaction that was learned from society and not derived on my own from first principles.

That said, what else is learned?  How about the “one individual exclusively with another” summary that I shared above?

A few questions to ask yourself to set the stage…  When in a relationship with someone have you ever looked at someone else and wondered “what if”?  Have you felt guilty about it or hoped that your significant other didn’t catch you checking that person out?   Has a friend ever tried to kiss you and you had to stop them even though you wanted to let them because even though you knew that it could be just an “innocent friend thing” but your partner would just never understand?  Have you ever been torn between two people, thinking that you feel strongly for both of them but it could never work because of, well, things?

Maybe you can identify with some of those feelings, maybe you can’t.  I would suggest, however, that the conflict present in each of those questions is a reaction or behavior that has been learned that doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.  We’ll get to that in a moment, for now let’s discuss human needs as they pertain to relationships.

We want to feel loved.  We want to feel needed.  We want to find someone with which we can share some common interests and hopefully some common goals.  We need to develop a trust and have a policy of honesty, elements of a deep friendship.  Partners in a committed relationship should look out for the best interests of the other and also for the union.  Despite a union, we need the freedom to be individuals, each with our own private goals, motivations and interests.  Yet even within these interests we usually want someone we can share them with, someone who can understand our excitement and our fascinations. We want to be wanted physically, to have another look at us with eyes burning with passion and desire.  And we want them to act on it in sexual freedom.

Most people on this planet attempt to meet their emotional intimacy needs, their physical needs and a large part of their ‘interest’ needs through a relationship with a single individual.  It is commonly accepted that this one individual will not meet ALL of your needs, that you will still have other friends with which you will share other interests.  Your partner doesn’t like hockey?  That’s fine, you’ll hang out with Ian and watch the game together.  You don’t like museums but your partner does?  He/she’ll find someone else to share that with.  When a relationship is good a single difference in interest isn’t something that should be a deal breaker.

This is, of course, where things take a bit of curve…

My relationship has only had a single ‘difference of interest’ that has mattered since the beginning:  sexuality.  The thing is, it’s not one that people generally chalk up as a ‘difference of interest’ but given the right attitudes from both parties that’s all it really ends up being.  While sexuality is an interest that most people have, some people simply don’t have much or any inclination that way. 

Sexuality is, however, something that most people in the Western or modern world reserve exclusively for the person that they are dating or married to.  My situation and relationship negotiations, evolved over almost three years, have left me viewing sexuality as an interest that two (or more) people can participate in if they have the inclination and an interest that certain people don’t share.  My long-term girlfriend has very little drive that way but doesn’t mind if I explore this ‘interest’ with others.  In our specific situation this has become very similar to me attending a hockey game with another friend because my girlfriend doesn’t share this interest.

“Hold the phone!  Are you saying that sexuality has become ‘just this thing’ and that both of you are cool with this?”

In short, yes.  The ironic thing here is that the position I find myself in is something that guys everywhere at all points of history have craved yet it’s something that I didn’t actively seek myself.  We tried everything we could think of to make things work in more traditional ways.  In the end it was a matter of a “more-conservative me” learning from the words, thoughts and actions of my “much-more-socially-liberal girlfriend” and experimenting with a change in philosophy that terrified me.  Over time, the more we spoke about it, the more a lot of what I was hearing made sense.

Throughout my life, until about three years ago, I spent a lot of my emotional energy on a stupid thing called ‘jealousy’.  I was insecure in relationships and for whatever reason had a really hard time trusting whomever I was with to do right by me, despite the fact that so far as I know nobody has ever cheated on me.  I was overly suspicious and ‘guy friends’ immediately raised warnings in the most paranoid part of my soul.  This led to behavior some might call ‘emotionally controlling’ and it was probably the single-most contributing factor to two years of unrest and, ultimately, my wife’s decision to file for divorce.  I hated that aspect of myself but felt powerless to do anything about it.

Jealousy has been called many things but two words that do it justice are ‘nasty’ and ‘venomous’.  Jealous energy is almost always wasted on circumstances in which it is completely unwarranted.  Jealousy is distracting and disturbing.  At the end of a jealous day you feel completely drained and the prospect of waking up the next day and repeating the same gets increasingly bleak with each passing day.  Jealousy is very easy for a partner to spot and it drives otherwise healthy couples apart. 

The only virtue in it that I have ever found is that it can make you feel good when your partner expresses moderate jealousy in a reasonable appropriate circumstance and you end up feeling important and wanted as a result.  The “bads”, however, far outweigh the “goods”.

Since we’re discussing jealousy it makes sense to discuss the two factors that jealousy is usually derived from:  your partner’s significant emotional closeness to another of your own gender or physical actions with another that violate the spirit of your established relationship.  I separated these for a reason as emotional closeness and physical closeness, while possibly present together, are two very different things.

Imagine for a moment that you go to a party and get drunk.  Someone catches your eye and the next thing you know you’re making out with him or her.  Maybe your hands do a little roaming, maybe you receive some of that back.  You go home, wake up the next morning and the night was a blur that you barely remember.  Thinking back on the night you have vague memories of what happened and you realize that it was just two people having fun and that there was zero emotional relevance to whatever transpired.  This is an example of a physical situation that might instigate jealousy from a significant other.

Now imagine that you’ve had a really bad day and your significant other tries to comfort you. You don’t share anything significant and then you brush him or her off.  Later that night you get together with another friend and spill your guts.  When your significant other learns of this there is a good chance they will experience jealousy of the ‘emotional closeness’ kind.

These are examples of how emotional and physical closeness can differ from one another but a more important question for me was whether or not I could have the emotional closeness with someone that I sought without having the physical closeness as well.  Time has shown me that this is indeed possible, so long as my physical needs could somehow be met.

Let’s step back for a moment and revisit the two circumstances above.  Most guys would have problems if their girlfriend made out with another guy at a party but would actually get a little excited about seeing their girlfriend make out with another girl.  Most guys wouldn’t feel so bad if their girlfriend blew them off and ended up confiding in a female friend.  Had she gone to another guy the situation would be completely different.  What becomes apparent is that an individual’s gender matters when issues of boundaries and jealousy are involved.

I know that I am probably in the minority here but one thing I’ve learned from my current relationship is that people are people, regardless of their gender.  They didn’t have any say in their gender at birth or throughout life.  You can like someone for who they are or you can choose not to.  Unless you’re planning on getting erotic with someone their gender shouldn’t really affect the aspects of friendship they can offer you.  And if you ARE attracted to someone physically then it’s what’s inside them that matters (who they ARE) rather than whether they were born with a penis or not.  People ask me if my girlfriend is bi.  I answer them that no, she simply likes people.

What happens if we take our above “jealousy” situations and look at them from a perspective that gender doesn’t matter?  For the physical situation there are really three choices:  jealousy (as described when the girlfriend kisses a guy), happiness for your partner (as described when she kisses a girl), or ambivalence.   I’ve already shared my thoughts on how jealousy is a bad thing so I think I have to lean towards happiness or ambivalence, especially since I can convince myself that gender is nothing more than a fluke of nature.  The same argument can be made for the emotional situation described above.

I suppose what really matters is whether or not you feel threatened by your partner’s actions.  If you truly trust your partner and have an honest relationship with good communication then you won’t feel any more threatened by your partner kissing a guy than having him or her kiss a girl.  You won’t feel any more threatened by your significant other hanging out and baring his or her soul with a guy or a girl.  People are people and it’s your significant other that you have trust much more than whomever they are talking to or playing with.

Now let us revisit a topic from above: human needs with respect to relationships.  We identified intimacy; this is the single most important thing to share with your significant other.  Purely physical relationships aside, if you can’t be close with your partner on emotional, intellectual, and spiritual levels then the rest doesn’t really matter.   Having at least a few common interests is nice; sharing all interests is unrealistic.  And then there is that physical thing.  The issue at hand is:  How will your needs be met?

IF you can embrace a mindset similar to the one I have described so far then I have an exciting answer for you!

Your significant other should be your primary (or at least a significant) source of intimacy.  Once the trust and honesty is established, within parameters that you will decide together, you can meet your other needs any way you want!  These parameters will likely change over time.  They might start off somewhat conservative, becoming more liberal as your experiences progress.  Maybe you’ll find an area where you have to pull back a little and become more conservative again. 

The key, however, is that you always act within your established boundaries.  To cross those boundaries is akin to the same sort of betrayal felt in conventional relationships when boundaries are crossed.  The important functional piece of this mindset is that my significant other’s interactions and relationships with other people don’t have to affect me in negative ways.  If she kisses someone else it doesn’t change the way she feels about me.  If someone else sees her naked it doesn’t change the way she feels about me.  If she does something with someone else that she doesn’t or won’t do with me, that’s when we have to talk.  So far that hasn’t happened but keeping a realistic view on things I have to be prepared.

In my relationship the boundaries look a little like this:  I can hang out with anyone, anytime.  I can kiss, play with or spend the night with anybody I want.  I can go farther to meet my physical needs with anyone who fits a certain liberal profile (21+, mentally sound, my girlfriend doesn’t hate them).  I can participate in bondage or other fetishes if I choose to.  I can do whatever I want, physically, so long as I am responsible on health issues.  I can get close to whomever I want to.  If that closeness impacts my relationship with my girlfriend in negative ways then we will talk.

Her boundaries are very similar but not exactly equal.  In short, our boundaries are simply that we won’t do things with other people that we wouldn’t at least be open to doing together.  What we are willing to do together is different for me than for her and so we have an understanding that is a little different for each of us.

This is all possible because of a new attitude on jealousy.

Consider this:  if I truly love someone then I will want the very best for him or her.  I will want all of their needs to be met and I will wish upon them a rich life.  I will contribute to that life as best I can, but I know that there will be needs that I cannot meet.  Other people can contribute to her life in ways that I can’t and rather than choosing to be threatened by this I can choose to embrace that and welcome their efforts to make the life of someone I care about that much better.  When all involved share that attitude (as is currently the case for me) then an unparalleled richness of life can result.

The new perspective on ‘what matters’ is for everybody I care about to have as rich a life as possible.  I want the best for YOU, even if I’m not the one to provide it.  If I can contribute, all the better.

So many people out there are in relationships that restrict them, how much more powerful to be in a relationship that frees you, builds you, encourages you in your every pursuit, dream and friendship?  What if you could choose that way?

There are many types of open-minded relationships out there.  I will describe four of them and then describe a fifth that more or less describes the sort of relationship I have which is a sort of hybrid.

Open relationships are the sort where the members of a couple allow each other to see other people.  Typically these secondary relationships are mostly physical although there is usually some level of emotional attachment as well.

Polyamory describes a mentality of ‘loving more’.  In polyamory the focus is on a primary relationship and other possible secondary relationships that are just that, relationships.  There are physical aspects in the secondary relationships just as there would be in traditional relationships.  A person’s primary responsibility is to the primary partner.  In certain cases the primary relationship might grow to include another person (a triad) or more than three people (a tribe).  The focus of polyamory is love but it does not necessarily exclude sex and usually includes it.  Love without limits.

Swingers are couples that love to have sex.  They often attend sex parties or have sex dates with other couples.  Couples can ‘swing’ with singles as well.  Sometimes one member of a swinging couple will be that single person for another couple or single party.  The emphasis is completely on sex and physical sensation and therefore any emotional attachment beyond friendship is generally discouraged.

Play relationships are somewhat similar to swinging except that couples are not necessarily involved.  Additionally, play is often equally about sensuality as sexuality, it’s about fun and physical experience.  It can include touching, cuddling, sex, bondage, S&M and more.

This brings me to my own relationship.  I have considered which of these best describes my current situation and none of them really do.  There is a phrase I have gleaned from my girlfriend that seems to be the best description I’ve found:  Letting my friendships find their own levels.  We do not seek anything more or less than what is there naturally.  If someone wants to play then we can play.  If it turns out that someone wants to date me or both of us then that might occur.  We are not closed to emotional attachment (in the spirit of polyamory) but don’t require it if play is all that someone is after.  We are committed to intelligent health decisions and will err on the side of safety if in doubt.  I will not push anyone to go anywhere they do not want to go, nor will I hold back something that happens naturally and doesn’t bring with it additional complications.  Don’t feel threatened though, I realize that most people in my life are never going to be interested in anything more than friendship and I, for one, really value my friends. My girlfriend does not see people by gender and that is something I have now learned for myself.  She’s sort of bi, I haven’t really explored bi-ness but I suppose I am not closed to the notion as I once was.  I see people for people now….

Now that I have explained a lot about how I have arrived at my current mindset and how it plays out in my life I have to state that I realize that this sort of thinking is far from typical in today’s society.  I don’t expect anybody to easily arrive at the same sorts of conclusions that I have.  This sort of lifestyle isn’t for everybody; it takes the right fit of two people along with trust, really open minds and the willingness to take an emotional risk.   While you might not accept the same ideas that I do I simply ask that you respect my position as I respect yours.

Now on to a few matters of practicality concerning “friendships that find their own levels”.

In addition to the intimacy and trust requirements that I discussed above the next most important topic is that of health.  We live in a world where sex manifests itself in all sorts of exciting ways and yet the dangers of STDs are continually increasing.  If ever there was a time to be health-conscious it is now.

You are responsible for your own health and nobody can really tell you how to manage that.  But in an alternative relationship like I’ve described you have the UTMOST responsibility to protect everybody that you might be involved with.  Be smart and get tested.   Use protection and stay clean.  Ensure that your potential partners are tested, reliable and telling the truth.   You should disclose your sexual relationships to everybody you are involved with at any given point in time.  Remember, this mindset isn’t about jealousy, it’s about living a full, rich life.  Part of that means not contracting something horrible because you failed to have a needed discussion.

Play aspects of this sort of relationship are much safer.  There is very little risk in kissing, touching and cuddling.  There is very little risk in responsible, intelligent BDSM play.  The main participants in your alternative relationship should discuss what level of disclosure is required.  Be reasonable.  Do you really want to hear about everybody your girlfriend kissed at the club for health reasons?  If you have your own emotional reasons for disclosure then that’s another matter.  On the other hand, you need to know when people you are with, who have already tested safe, are sexually active with other people and in what ways.

The next consideration is to establish realistic and honest expectations with all involved.  If you are in a relationship that you are not planning to leave then you need to disclose that to anybody who wants to get involved with you.  Alternative relationships have a serious potential for allowing expectations to get distorted thereby causing one or all involved considerable anguish.  There is nothing to be gained by holding information back.  If you think that you and your girlfriend MIGHT be interested in together dating someone that you are talking to then don’t promise that it will happen.  But if you don’t mean it, don’t say it will never happen either, forcing the third party to adopt a play attitude as you later spring new motives on them.  Call it like it is and avoid heartbreak.

Granted, hopes and expectations change over time.  The answer is simple:  constant, honest communication.  If you think this is not possible in your situation then maybe you should reconsider what you are doing.  Your challenge will be in remaining committed to this.

This leads to the issue of time-sharing.  Even in an alternative relationship founded on the principle of non-jealousy it’s realistic to think that a little jealousy will find its way into the mix in the form of ‘who is spending how much time with whom’.  This is especially true when a new person is introduced to the relationship and one of the individuals in the established couple latches on to this person in a state of excited newness.  Again, the answer is communication. Establish the necessary guidelines up front and revisit them on a regular basis.  Situations change, as do wants and desires on someone else’s time.  If you find yourself in a situation where you are not satisfied with the way that time is shared then you should talk about it with all involved.  If you can’t work things out then you have to decide if it’s worth the effort it will take to make things work.   Remember this as an issue as you enter into any such relationship.

The last thing I want to bring up is the issue of social etiquette.  How much PDA with a secondary partner does your primary partner want to see and vice versa?  Maybe your primary partner wants to participate in the affection as well, how much do YOU want to see?  How do you represent your ‘arrangement’ to curious people when you’re out and around?  To your family?  When you’re out you might want to have an understanding of when it’s okay to try to pick someone up, together or individually and in what context.  Avoid making promises for anybody else in your relationship.  You do not speak for them unless you’ve already agreed explicitly that this is the case for a certain situation.  These are all things to discuss.  Plenty more situations will present themselves.  Discuss them, don’t avoid them.

Regardless of all of the above, DO NOT assume that because you are in a relationship that allows you to see other people that other people will necessarily want to see you.  People should be valued as the people they are.  You should give and take with them as is appropriate and you should NEVER force anyone to try to accept your views.  It took me three years to get to where I am, it’s unrealistic to think that most people can rewire their thinking in a very short timeframe. 

It’s early August 2004.  I have a girlfriend I have been with for over two years who has taught me more about life than I could have ever imagined.  I have just started seeing someone else who, surprisingly to me, finds herself in a similar situation as myself.  I have friends who like to play at the club and some who might like to play outside the club.  My needs are met within a relationship that couldn’t meet them on its own.  I live a life free of guilt and a life that holds the promises of richness.

Late in my life, life begins.

(Note:  The last paragraph illustrates where I was at one point in time but is not necessarily indicative of my current situation.  If you're curious about what's going on now feel free to ask)