Jeremy M. believes you don’t need to let society’s rules get in the way of the kind of relationship that you are interested in having.
This is not an article about cheating. This is not an article about polyamory. This is not an article about threesomes. This is not even an article about what Dan Savage would cleverly describe as “monogamish”. No, this article is about finding balance, and figuring out what works for you.
Up until the last hundred-or-so years, marriage and sexual fidelity were not particularly linked. Husbands often had mistresses; this was a fact tolerated by wives, since they not infrequently were shtupping the gardener. This was the way of the world until relatively recently. There are a bunch of reasons for this, mainly religious and economic (it’s amazing how often those two are linked), which you can read more about in much greater detail and with greater expertise than I can offer in the excellent book Sex At Dawn.
Suffice it to say, however, that the general assumption today is that sexual exclusivity is a necessary part of any committed relationship, and that anyone acting otherwise is betraying their significant other and was obviously never in love with them in the first place. This goes against much of what we know of our own evolution, similar species, and even our own history, and need not be the rule if those involved don’t want it to be.
In fact, societal norms often go against our actual needs and desires. So, why shouldn’t we have the kind of relationship that we want? Why can’t we separate sexual exclusivity from fidelity? In short, why can’t we have our cake and eat it too?
A little backstory may be in order. In my teenage and early adult years, for a variety of reasons not the least of which being my socially awkward nerdery, much of my sexual expression took place online. I have in the past been a total slut on LiveJournal communities, “dirty chat” sites, CraigsList casual encounters, and other places. I’ve played with quite a few people in front of my webcam. I enjoy the chance for clever wordplay, the ego stroke (no pun intended) and the seduction of it, and I have no regrets about that aspect of my sexuality. As with anything else, relying on it to the point where it becomes an addiction can lead to its own issues).
Two years ago, I met an awesome woman, and we started dating. Eight months later, we were living together.
From early on, a bedrock of our relationship has been how open and honest we try our best to be with each other, even (or especially) when its a difficult subject to be vulnerable about (hi, sexuality!). One of the few things I hadn’t brought up with her in the early not-yet-exclusive parts of our relationship was the fact that I was still playing with other people online. My interest ebbs and flows, but it has always been there, to some degree.
To me, these activities were not reflective of anything I felt was lacking in my relationship, nor was it meant as any kind of search for intimacy elsewhere (though initially it may have been a block against intimacy, I have grown a lot since then and adjusted). However, I was very worried about how she would interpret it.
I felt lost and confused as to how to reconcile my love and commitment to my girlfriend with the pleasure and ‘spark’ I get from the occasional online flirtation with friends and strangers. This was just a normal part of my life, and suddenly i had a lot of conflict about it, because now I had someone that could be hurt by my actions.
The feelings that came up when I thought about it were pretty intense. I questioned how I felt about her, I questioned my own ability to ‘be faithful’, even though I knew I would never betray her trust with anyone in person. My mind, when given the chance would spin around such untrue-but-powerful lines as “you’re just doing this to fuck up your relationship” and “if you continue, you’re going to lose her, and you deserve what you get”
Traditional wisdom, of course, says that if your partner is being sexual with anyone else, they are ‘cheating’ and should be dumped immediately, so I should suck it up and just stop altogether. Needless to say, the activity created some internal conflict. Luckily, I’ve never been one to bow to conventional wisdom.
Rather than struggling hard to give it up (which ultimately I would’ve done my best to do, had she asked), or hide it (which would make it an actual betrayal of trust, in my mind), after some soul-searching, I chose instead to talk to her about it. My girlfriend was certainly aware of my interest in playing with people online (we’d even played around online a couple of times before we lived together), but I didn’t know how she would feel about these activities continuing (and even maybe including her in them) now that our relationship was ‘serious’.
We needed to talk, so we talked. My intention was to clarify my intentions and negotiate through anything that came up for both of us. She did not have the same history with online playing as I did (oh, us old farts who grew up in the early days of cellphones and before digital cameras) but in discussing she seemed to understand the appeal, and was open to expanding the boundaries of our relationship to include flirtations with others online. We talked about ground rules: We each must make clear to anyone we play with that we are in a relationship, so as to not give an impression that something more could take place. The people I play with understand the boundaries I stick to and why. It has become a fun way to explore hidden aspects of some of the people in my life, aside from the purely physical aspect of it. Ground rules are very important when it comes to something like this.
Initially, the feelings that came up were those of inadequacy, feeling ‘used’ and ‘not taken seriously’, which are completely understandable things that I also struggled with. This was something new for both of us, and luckily we were able to support each other through when these things came up. One of the additional responsibilities of choosing non-standard boundaries is being extra super communicative and sensitive to each others feelings about it, and address them as often as is necessarily. Patience is required.
My commitment to my relationship is absolute. It is by far the most solid relationship I’ve ever been in, I love and respect her (and vice versa), and we’ve made it clear to each other that neither of us are going anywhere. We’ve reached a place now where our opportunities to focus our sexual attention to a wider spectrum than just each other is less of a source of stress and more of something that we can explore together, when we choose to pay attention to it.
My point is this. If I’d just gone with societal norms and not bothered to talk to her about it, we may have had a fine relationship, all told. But, by discussing it, and negotiating an agreement that works for both of us and continuing the conversation throughout our relationship to refine and adjust as necessary, we’ve set a precedent that we can define our own terms together, live our own relationship and do what makes us happy rather than purely what is expected of us. This takes a lot of communication, checking in, and in a way, that initial conversation never ends.
I’ve sometimes seen sexually or romantically polyamorous relationships described as ‘hacking life’, and I can see what they mean by that. Our relationship is not quite fully poly in that regard, and in fact might even be scoffed at as ‘amateurish’ from some in that community with mutliple long-term partners and such, but it is what works for us right now, and certainly has elements of that ‘thrill’ of having a secret addition to our otherwise ‘standard’ relationship.
Here’s a final thought on the thrill aspect: the initial rush of passion and intensity in a new relationship is biologically linked to an increase in dopamine in the brain (also connected to feelings of variety and novelty, which makes sense: new relationship is new). Then (after a year or so) things settle down and oxytocin (bonding hormone) takes over, leading to a deeper more intimate connection, but a necessary decrease in that animal heat that comes from dopamine. Is it possible that the ideal biological situation for keeping that dopamine passion alive while also being bonded to a partner is non-monogamous sexual exploration? Someone should do a brain study!
This kind of activity, especially over the last 100 years, has been SO vilified, so ingrained as WRONG and HURTFUL, that even making room for this small amount of freedom seems simultaneously freeing and ‘not right’. Sometimes I’m unsure of it myself. But, I look forward to the opportunity to explore as many new adventures with my girlfriend as possible, and I’m forever grateful for her open-minded GGG-ness and willingness to figure out what works for us.
photo by massimo_riserbo / flickr
More from our Special Section on Polyamory.
You might also like our section on Our Sexual Vocabulary.