The Other Protagonist

Carrie here. 

Nick was foolish enough to confer posting rights.  I feel like I should give a bit of my own history.  In certain ways, it’s quite the opposite of Nick’s, in that I have always been in open relationships and never in monogamous ones.  

This has been circumstantial, partially.  I move a lot.  Jobs in my field are often seasonal.  In one banner year, I moved six times, mostly crossing state lines each time.  I’m infamously mega-busy, and I disappear off the face of the earth for long periods of time to juggle superhuman career-related feats.  (I’m a prop person.  It’s a good thing I never bothered to take physics, since I’m usually asked to do the opposite.)  Really, I haven’t slowed down with the moving thing until the last few years.  Even now, I don’t actually intend to stay in one place, but happen to.

This is lousy for monogamous relationships, obviously.  I’d have the guy back at school, the guy from the summer, the old roommate I shouldn’t have been sleeping with anyway… all dependent upon agreements to get together when I was in town, or when they were in mine.  And I was happy that way.  Eventually, I realized that I was using distance because I was more comfortable dealing with people on their own terms, without relation to the others.  This is perhaps the root of my conscious rejection of monogamy: the extreme singularity of relationships, in my mind.  I don’t mean that they’re islands, but my important relationships are fervently one-on-one.  My relationship with someone else has nothing to do with my relationship with you, fundamentally. 

Which is to say, I haven’t really had any, well, serious relationships, in the way you’d probably mean serious relationships.  I take friendship much more seriously than most people do, and I would regard my romantic relationships as serious friendships.  I’ve never been a part of a couple.  I have not identified a person I was romantically involved with as my “other half,” for lack of a better cliche.  I’ve never wanted this.  I’ve always been baffled by people who would rather be in a mediocre relationship than no relationship at all.  Basically, unless you’re really motherfucking special, I’m not going to sacrifice my precious personal time to you, and certainly not a slice of my identity.  I really like people, but I really like being alone.  (I’m almost 50-50 on the I-E spectrum, per Meyers-Briggs, tending slightly toward the E.)  I have ridiculous independence complexes.  On my first day of kindergarten, when all the other kids were screaming and clinging to their mothers, I turned around and banished mine from the bus stop.  It got worse from there.

I fell into the Boston poly community four or five years ago, after an old friend from early in college took a chance by sending a Christmas card to my mother’s house, wondering what had ever happened to me, and I took to visiting her and her more recent friends.  The Boston poly bunch is astonishingly bright and functional.  They’re mostly brilliant adults (lots of Harvard and MIT runoff) who were not the cool kids in high school, and now are reveling in lives of abject sincerity.  They’re responsibly hedonistic, and treat sex as the sacred ordinary, something that is common but relished.  They do poly well.  I often wonder if the people who give poly a bad name do so in part because they’re not operating as a part of a community.  Everybody in the Boston bunch is surrounded by others facing the same things, they have other examples to learn from, and there are social consequences for serious transgressions. 

So I fell in with these people in Boston, and I basically kept doing what I’d been doing all along: having multiple caring relationships.  Basically everyone I’ve dated lately is already fundamentally committed to someone else, and I’ve liked that fine.  To answer the question about “how I juggle all those relationships” — well, among other things, distance helps, and they’re not all relationships that I constantly maintain anyway.  Some are still whenever-you’re-in-town.  Really, there are only two of them that I sort of throw myself into right now, besides Nick, and I’ve basically called a moratorium on the physical aspects of those relationships.  I’m not into anyone else right now, physically.  I’ll get over it.  But it’s best to be clear.

Nick is the first person in my whole life that I’ve been in an actual couple with.  Just as Nick has never really dated, I’ve never really not-dated.  And I don’t know what it is that’s so different.  In previous relationships, I would start to panic when I got the idea that people would identify another person with me.  Now I don’t care.  He basically is me.  He’s better at math, more extroverted, and more in touch with his feelings (who else could start a fucking blog to talk about his feelings and actually keep anyone’s attention?), but basically he’s a default position for my personality.  One of the nicest things I can say about a person is that being with them is like being alone.  Nick is the least alien thing I can imagine.

Those are the basics.  More later.

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Non-assed? Fully Assed?

It’s not completely true that this my very first attempt at an open relationship, it’s just my first non-half-assed one. After and T and I broke up, a few months later I ran into M online, and a couple of messages sparked into some rather hot exchanges and then led to an incredible weekend in Chicago. After that, we kept exchanging messages, and clearly were into one another, but a combination of my skittishness about getting involved and her flightiness led to, well, never seeing each other again.

In retrospect, I was clearly rebounding, and I think she was, too. Still, it was painful when she started finding new people and I did not, the latter for reasons previously covered. At the same time, I couldn’t express that to her, because I was worried about getting too attached, and was desperate to avoid spending another ten years stuck monogamous relationships. It wasn’t a rational fear, of course, but I was terrified of finding myself 40 years old and still unaware of what it’s like to be single.

M didn’t help, though. Either she was very bad at understanding the things that I needed help to get past, or she was uninterested in helping me through them; I’m honestly not sure which. We both seemed to be seriously interested in one another in the beginning, and I think that faded faster for her than me, but again I’m not sure. She once told me that she’d let me know if she ever lost interest in me, and she still hasn’t said so, but we haven’t seen each other in almost two years, so I’m reasonably certain that’s gone on her side. It’s certainly gone on mine.

To be fair, it surely didn’t help that I was, and am, terrible about expressing actual vulnerabilities. I’m not talking about the usual bullshit machismo no-one-sees-me-cry stuff; showing my emotions isn’t a vulnerability. It’s very hard to tell someone, “If/when you do this, it hurts me,” because that gives them power over me. It’s hard to say, “If you were to do that, I would feel better,” because then I feel beholden to them. I never managed to say to M, “I really like you, and it doesn’t hurt me when you see other people, but I still need you to make me feel like I matter to you”. Thus, either because I didn’t say that, or because she didn’t want to, she didn’t do so.

So that abortive attempt at an “open relationship” didn’t really even succeed in being a relationship, just a one night stand bracketed by a lot of e-mail. It was worthwhile for te days we spent together, and useful for learning about myself, but made for a couple of painful months afterward.

The two relationships aren’t really analogous–this is much more serious, we’re more explicitly committed, we have a lot more in common, and we’ve seen each other more than twice–but having that experience on my resume has been useful for getting involved with Carrie. It left me with some knowledge of the things that I need to ask for, the things that I need to disclose, and the things that I just have to steel myself to. It also helps that Carrie’s been excellent about listening and is capable of picking out issues that I haven’t fully realized myself. Additionally, I’m much better–although not at all “good”–about being vulnerable here, and about telling her what’s going on in my head.

This is a much better experience, made better by the earlier less-good experience. At the same time, flashes of what happened the last time I tried anything at all like this occasionally give me pause in the current relationship. Like everything else that happens to someone, it colors what comes after. It doesn’t govern it, though.

One of these days, I’ll write a post about what’s awesome in my life as opposed to things that hurt. I’m really a rather happy person, and I feel like this blog is a poor lens through which to see that.

Why not poly?

Frankly, at the moment, I’m a bit blissy. Things are going well, and my gal is relatively accessible. In fact, I’ll see her tomorrow, which at three days will mark the fastest turnaround time after parting in our relationship thus far. The pressures I’ve been talking about aren’t eliminated, but they’re minimized to the extent that’s possible right now. I’m just happy, and things are going well; I don’t even have that sense of foreboding that I often do in times of plenty. It’s good.

However, this time of plenty makes poor harvest for a blog about my problems. I’m not really feeling much that I need to hash out publicly. There are a couple of things, of course, but I’m feeling none of them particularly strongly right now.

So, this makes for a good time to get into particulars that I’ve skipped over before. I thought I’d start with polyamory, what I think about it, and why I’m not doing it. As I’ve said a couple of times, I’m “open”, but not “poly”. I have a couple of objections to the word itself, and a couple of reasons that I don’t think it applies.

First and least of all, the word bothers me because it is a Greek prefix attached to a Latin root. The word, if fully Latinate, should be multiamory. However, even more than that I’d prefer a fully Greek construction, as Greek affords us many more words for love: eros, agape, philia and storge, each of which has a very different connotation. A lot of the difficulty in describing one’s relationships would be resolved better, in my opinion, by words like polyerotic, monoagapic, or, polyphiliac than by things like primary/secondary dichotomies.

Second, “polyamory” implies a level of definition and rules-laying that I’m uncomfortable with. I don’t want “veto power”, I don’t want to talk about my “metamours” or “OSOs”, and any time someone describes my current relationship as having “NRE” my teeth itch. Polamory is like relationship nerdery, and while I approve of it in the way that I approve of many geekeries that I don’t share, I don’t want to be held part of it any more than I want to be called a Trekkie/er. I get offended easily when anyone tries to boil me down into a specific grouping. Also, listening to two polies argue over relationship models is like listening to two comic book nerds fight over whether Superman or Obi-wan would win in a fight.

Aside from the geekery above, I’m also just uncomfortable with placing rules on a partner, and reciprocally uncomfortable about having them laid on me because of that. If I won’t set something as out of bounds–and I generally won’t–I wouldn’t want to be told something was out of bounds for me. I have a relationship. I’m in love, but I may see other people. That’s all the definition that I care for.

Additionally, it’s just not really applicable, at least not yet. I’ve at no time in my life had multiple, simultaneous romantic relationships, or multiple physically intimate relationships, or multiples of any of the things that get wrapped up in the “amory” half of the word. My interest in doing so is currently minimal, although probably not nonexistent. Nor am I convinced that I ever will; I think I’d like to, but I’m not sure the option is open to me. We’ll see. For the moment, the distinction is immaterial.

These shouldn’t (aside from the first one) be taken as indictments of polyamory qua polyamory. I’m not only tolerant of the subculture, but expansively approving of it. But, as I’ve just laid out, I have some very specific reasons to feel that it doesn’t and won’t apply to me. At the same time, the word “monogamous” is also inapplicable, except in the temporary-and-technical sense. Frankly, I’d be uncomfortable applying any of these terms to myself, as opposed to my relationship. Carrie and I have an open relationship, and it’s as simple as that.

Semaine Sémantique

Carrie and I have this unfortunate tendency to get along like gangbusters, which means that finding things to argue about takes a lot of energy*. As often as not, this search for debate ends up with our arguing niggling semantic details about a word or turn of phrase. I tend to be taking a more definitional approach, and arguing against unclear language; Carrie’s point is usually that something that expresses a particular meaning is sufficient, even if the nuance isn’t perfect. These are tendencies, though, and both of us shift and flex around them, which is unsurprising given that we rarely actually disagree on whatever we’re arguing about. Also, I’m sure she’ll think I’ve mischaracterized her point here, but it’s my pulpit, so… nyah.

Anyway, this week has featured a lot of discussion about various pat phrases that poly/open communities tend to bandy about, many of which are pet peeves of mine. Usually, the peevishness is not because I disagree with the intent, but because I think the phrase poorly expresses the concept that one is ostensibly trying to communicate to the monogamous listener.

Some examples:

  • Poly relationships are just like monogamous relationships, except with more people. – I do understand what this is meant to get across–the idea that poly relationship problems are essentially the same as mono ones, and require the same skills–but this phrase is meaningless. Here, try this: “Many is just like one, except that you have more of it”. The problem is that the very definitions of the two words are mutually exclusive. You can’t have a relationship that’s “just like a monogamous relationship, except with more people”, because that’s the only definitional point of the word monogamy. It’s not that the concept here is mistaken, it’s just that the phrase is anti-tautological–“ceci n’est pas une pipe”.
  • A better phrase would be something like “poly relationship skills are just like monogamous relationship skills”, or something along those lines. The intent is to express that these relationships are not completely alien to what someone monogamous experiences, not that the two are “just [a]like”, when they’re obviously not.

  • It’s not about the sex. Yes, the relationships are the point. But, you know, it’s at least a little bit about the sex–otherwise, there wouldn’t be any sex involved. The connotation here is meant to be “it isn’t all about the sex”, but to monogamous ears it sounds like “it isn’t at all about the sex”, which is just obviously silly.
  • Beyond that, though, why does this need to be stated? Okay, sure, it’s not about the sex, but being enlightened beings we wouldn’t care if it were about the sex. The phrase just seems defensive to me, an assumption that being “about the sex” is wrong. This sticks with me much like the way many polys will call someone a “swinger” with a snide sneer if they sleep around without involving relationship-rules wankery. It presumes that the culture at large is correct to treat sex as something that is only okay in some contexts and even then has to be secondary. What if the sex were the point of one of someone’s relationships? Why would that be bad?

  • I don’t have meaningless sex. Well, who does? Isn’t that a physical impossibility, given the hormonal releases involved in sex? It’d be pretty difficult not to care about someone after you’ve had a bunch of oxytocin dumped into your brain. I think “meaningless sex” is pretty much a bugaboo for people to dump on whatever the “other” of the moment is–polys think swingers have it, monos think polys have it, everyone thinks monos have it when they cheat–but it’s essentially mythical. I’ve had sex with people whose names I don’t even know, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t meaningful, or that it didn’t involve some amount of deep connection (hur), or that I could ever forget any of those people, or that I don’t still have warm feelings for them.
  • What’s meant here, I suppose, is to say that one doesn’t just have willy-nilly sex with any and all comers (hur), but it’s another defensive phrase that is a) unnecessary and b) implies a negative judgment on those who do which I think is probably unintentional. “Meaningless” is meaningless here without some explication of exactly what “meaningless” means, and why it’s a bad thing.

Being a poly-friendly guy who’s been largely monogamous, I’ve spent a lot of time straddling the two (hur). I’m shifting a little close to the other side (not that I’m poly, just open, but that’s another post), but I still feel like I spend a lot of time translating from one group to the other. No, poly/open people are not wanton sluts just in it for the getting off, nor are monogamous folks less evolved beings who can’t grasp the true meaning of love. Neither is poly the ticket to the crazy sex life that someone monogamous has always wanted, nor monogamy a sure-fire way to repair your sense-of-self after a poly relationship melts down. I’d love to tackle a few standard mono phrases that don’t quite work, just to establish balance, but monogamy is hardly a close-knit community with its own memespace, so that’s a little bit difficult. Maybe I’ll ponder it for the next post.

* Simply not arguing about anything is not an option. That’s like suggesting that heavier-than-air objects should just try not falling all the time, or that it would be nice if two and two would just go ahead and equal five this once.

Wealth

Carrie and I were recently discussing a trip she’s taking out here this weekend, and making the sort of ribald jokes that we often do.  One involved getting together with one of my friends for a threesome, and I took a weird turn; I suddenly felt compelled to extract a promise from her that she wouldn’t, this weekend, sleep with one of my friends. I expressed that I was fine with the idea in the future, theoretically, just not yet, at this moment, while I’m still getting used to things. I didn’t actually think that she would, but for some reason the momentary certainty was important to me.

I’ve been pondering exactly why that was so important to me, and today in the shower it finally hit me; it wasn’t about her being with someone else, or with one of my close friends, but about her starting yet another new relationship while I’m still not seeing anyone else, and won’t be for the foreseeable future.

Granted, the prospect is unlikely; emotions aside, Carrie just really doesn’t have time in her life for any more people. But the idea that she might–and the knowledge that she could easily–find yet another person is difficult for me.

Carrie has expressed, in passing, that she finds it a bit of a turn-off if someone makes too much more money than she does; the power differential is unappealing. This feeling, for me, is something similar. I don’t much care about money, but I do care about relationships, and Carrie has a wealth of them. I have… well, I have my own wealth of relationships, of course, but in this context I’m speaking of intimate relationships, and of those I have one–with, again, no prospects for more.

That’s not to say that I don’t feel, on some level, “wealthy” in the one (intimate) relationship that I’ve got. But I do sometimes feel trapped, and optionless, ironically in a way that I didn’t in any monogamous relationship. In monogamy, your options are restricted, but there’s a feeling that “we’re in this together”, an us-against-the-world thing that just isn’t present in this relationship.

Ultimately, I know that I don’t have a problem with monogamous relationships, and I don’t think that I have a problem with non-monogamous ones.  But what I have now is a situation where I am the functionally monogamous partner of someone in an order of magnitude more relationships than I am, and that chafes. Additionally, being in one relationship severely restricts my appeal for starting new ones; I’ve yet to meet anyone that I wanted to date, who wanted to date me, and who was copacetic with idea of my seeing someone else–aside from, you know, Carrie.

I’ve had some discussions with poly/open friends on the subject, but they didn’t have much help to give me. Few of them have been in my situation, which is why I started this blog in the first place. One asked if a “veto power” on new relationships might help, but I don’t think that would work for a lot of reasons, not least of which being that it feels like an artificial restriction. Beyond that, though, a veto would actually reduce my options; Carrie is already seeing as many people as she could reasonably see, so in practice it would probably only apply to me. An “asymmetric veto” was suggested, but frankly I would be uncomfortable with the idea of that to the point where it would be impossible for me to exercise even if we did agree to it.  I’m not sure a veto power is strictly necessary, anyway; I doubt that either one of us would get involved with someone that the other would feel compelled to veto.

Ultimately, though, I know I’m loved, and for the nonce that’s all that I need. This blog is about expressing the difficult bits, and thus necessarily covers the rare occasions when I’m not blissful. Those aren’t often, and are becoming less common as time goes by. In particular, now that I’m moving–by the way, I’m moving–we’ll be able to see each other more often, and my anxieties should lessen. It’s a grand adventure, with its ups and downs, but thus far ups outnumber the downs.

Ell Dee Are

The open status isn’t the only thing that causes tension in this new relationship; we’re also currently 800 miles away from each other.  Being the one currently living in a place where neither of us particularly want to be, it’s mostly on me to remedy that, which I don’t mind at all–an excuse to move is almost as welcome as the relationship itself. Still, the process has been the cause of no small amount of stress on my end, as I search for new employment and housing in an area that I can’t easily travel to without advance notice.

Almost as much as I didn’t expect or particularly want to fall in love, I was also not at all looking for a long-distance relationship. I’ve made a couple of abortive attempts at such things, and they never work well for me; I’m a very physical person, and the physical presence of someone I love is both important to me and difficult to do without. I’m stuck being without Carrie for weeks-to-months at a time, and when I can make it out there it’s always an epic trek after which I’m almost as exhausted as I’m elated. I’m in this stage where I can’t get enough of her, and it’s exacerbated by the fact that I can’t get very much of her.

This ties back into my anxieties about her having other relationships, as well. I’m quite a bit further away than many other people Carrie dates, and am thus far less accessible.

Since we’ve gotten together, I find myself thinking of Carrie as often as anything else, if not more. She’s, at least for this moment, the central focus of my life, and moving to be closer to her is my overwhelming goal.  At the same time, I have badly craved physical affection more than once since we’ve been together, which puts me in an odd conundrum internally: I want to be with her, and can’t, but I also want to be with someone badly rather badly.

I haven’t, as of yet, settled for something nearby on nights when things were bad, mostly for lack of opportunity (anyone who finds out I’m in an existing relationship heads for the hills, no matter how casual they were looking to be), but not entirely for that. It’s also because I’m aware that I’d feel fairly awful about it afterward. I’d feel as if I’d been unfair toward Carrie and also toward this theoretical other person. I’m unsure how much of this is reasonable, how much is my tendency to be unnecessarily self-sacrificial, and how much is leftover habit from my monogamous years. I’ll sort through it, I’m sure, but at the moment it’s a bit of an internal tangle.

Today, however, I got word of new developments with my employer that change the time frame of my moving from months to weeks. I will be much closer to Carrie much sooner than I thought, which is going to have interesting and exciting effects on our relationship, I’m sure. The dynamics are about to change in unpredictable ways, but I’ve never been terribly happy with the predictable, anyway.