Sunday, December 29, 2013

In the Ethical Grey Zone: My Workplace Romance

Dear Viny,

I love my husband, but I have always had a feeling that I am unable to be emotionally monogamous. Two years ago, I started a new job and fell hard for my supervisor (we can call him “Brandon”). He does not have the authority to punish or fire me – it's more of a leadership role. We work in a very liberal field so there is lots of talk about social issues such as race, gender, feminism, sexuality, identity, and so on. Everyone knows that he is pansexual and that his wife has given him the ok to have a relationship with any man that he wants...but unfortunately for me, she hasn't said the same about women.

There were no confessions of romantic feelings until 8 months after I started working there. He was in a bad mood one morning and I asked him privately if everything was ok and he confessed that things were really bad with his wife. He had found out that she had been sleeping with a childhood friend while he was out of town for work. He told me he was moving out and getting his own place. A little later, he admitted that he had feelings for me (without any prompting from me) and said that he thought we should be careful that we didn't cross any lines since he is a supervisor.

Around this same time, I realized I wouldn't want to leave my husband for Brandon. I feel like I need Brandon in my life, but I don't want to become Brandon's wife or live-in girlfriend. I don't think we'd have a very healthy relationship as we are too much alike for a traditional relationship to work. We don't think about practical things often, and especially not when we are with each other. Our spouses help to balance us.

I spoke with my husband about a poly relationship. He was ok with it for me but wasn't really interested in pursuing anyone himself. Because I felt so much guilt and shame for how I felt about Brandon, I didn't mention that I already knew someone I wanted to pursue a relationship with. Meanwhile, Brandon and his wife worked things out, and so things between me and Brandon went back to how they were before our confessions of mutual attraction, except with more sexual tension since I knew that on some level he felt the same things I did.

Then, this fall, Brandon and I had to spend a lot more time together because of a major project our company had. For 3 days we made out like teenagers all over the building. We were irresponsible in regards to our jobs. We never had sex but pretty much everything else happened. I haven't told my husband this part of the story, but he does know that I care for Brandon deeply, and feels a bit jealous.

Brandon and I put a stop to things but work has become difficult since then. We are back to an emotional affair (though with more knowledge of the other person's feelings and more consideration of the other person's feelings) but the electricity between us now feels painful. We have both become depressed and we aren't getting as much work done. We are committed to making things between us as platonic as possible, at least for now, but there is a pain (emotional, that turns into physical symptoms like nausea) that we are both feeling by being separated. It's probably the worst pain I've ever experienced emotionally.

So that's my story of infidelity and shame that is more in a grey zone than what it would have been in a traditional relationship. I don't even know what question I'm asking. I'm sure there is part of me that wants to hear that everything I'm doing is justifiable, but really I just want all four of us to be happy...both with our primary partners and with each other. And I don't know if that is possible. I think perhaps Brandon's wife is more open now to a poly type of relationship, and I know my husband is, but I don't think either of them would be ok with us seeing each other. Any advice?



Dear Nadya,

One thing at a time, my sweet-n-savory sesame snacklet, one thing at a time!

You're in quite a tangle. Let's see if we can separate out the strands.

One: you are suffering, because you are madly in love and cannot be with the person you desire.
Two: you and your supervisor at work are in a relationship that would generally be considered inappropriate.
Three: although your husband has agreed, at least in theory, to allowing you to explore polyamory, you haven't been completely upfront with him about your relationship with Brandon.
Four: Brandon and his wife have a rocky marriage, and a lack of clarity around sexual boundaries may be part of their problem.
Five: you are suffering, because you can't imagine a situation in which everyone involved in this mess can be happy.

With regards to Issue Numero Uno, a bit of emotional triage is all I can offer. We both know that the only cure for what ails you is blissful, guilt-free union with your beloved – and unfortunately, there are some pretty formidable obstacles in the way of that happening any time soon. I'd advise you to cope with your emotional pain the way you would deal with a chronic physical illness: accept it, and work on managing your symptoms. In your current frame of mind, you will need to be very cautious about “medicating” yourself, because you could easily slip into substance addiction. You'd do best to focus on eating right, sleeping as well as you can, and getting an appropriate amount of exercise. Of course, you don't feel like doing any of these things. You are under the influence of powerful hormones (most likely a cocktail of adrenaline, phenylethylamine, and testosterone) that make it hard to focus on anything but Brandon. So, find out what you can about these hormones, then try to work around their effects. And don't despair: this too shall pass.

As for the second issue: I haf some gut news, und I haf some bat news. The good news is that there isn't much of an ethical distinction between the inappropriate relationship you and Brandon already have and the inappropriate relationship you and Brandon would like to be having. Your emotional affair is already wreaking havoc on your productivity at work, and it sounds like you've already done some cavorting in back rooms and stairwells, so why not just fuck and get it over with? (Ah, if only it were that simple!) So here's the bad news: if you and Brandon want to continue your affair in good conscience, you will need to either change the current system or change jobs – and this is true whether or not the two of you choose to indulge in the pleasures of physical contact. As you might have guessed, I am all for reforming the current social system, and the asinine “Just Say No!” approach to dealing with workplace romances is just one of many things I'd change if I could. This is a big ol' bear to tackle, though. Your best bet may be to redefine your roles at work so that Brandon is no longer your supervisor.

The third issue is probably the simplest to solve: you need to come clean. I realize that a simple confession isn't necessarily easy. If spilling the whole story is too difficult right now, you can at least begin by telling your husband that you are interested in exploring a relationship with someone specific, namely Brandon, and ask him how he feels about that possibility. In my opinion, polyamorous relationships work well only when current and prospective partners are committed to being honest and open with each other, about all of their sexual and/or romantic involvements. If you want this to work, it's time to begin establishing clear lines of communication with your husband. Talk to him about your feelings and hopes for the future, and make sure you understand what his expectations are. You are probably afraid your husband will say, “Y'know, on second thought, I don't think I'm okay with this whole poly idea,” or, “No fucking way – anyone but Brandon!” – and I understand that living with the fear of a possible “no” seems easier than living with the certainty of a “no” that's been uttered aloud. I've been in your shoes, and they weren't very comfy. The night I realized I wanted my theoretically open marriage to become a for-real open marriage, I didn't sleep a wink: as I lay next to my sleeping husband, all I could do was rehearse what I planned to say to him in the morning. I was falling in love with another man; I very much wanted my husband's express permission before beginning a physical relationship; and I was terrified he would refuse to give it. I still remember what that fear felt like. But I pushed through it, and you can, too. Be courageous. Tell the truth about what you want.

There's not a whole lot you can do about the fourth issue. You can provide support and counsel, of course. For example, you can suggest that Brandon ask his wife how she would feel about him seeing another woman. If she is open to that possibility, perhaps you and she might even one day become friends, and when she and Brandon start chucking the good china at each other, she'll invite you to play referee. (Stranger things have happened, believe me!) Ultimately, though, you have to accept that Brandon and his wife have their own little red wagon to pull. You can't pull it for them. You can hope it doesn't come careening down the hill one day, but it might, and if it does, it could easily crash right into you. That's one of the risks of being involved with people who are involved with other people. Practice letting go.

Finally, here's my advice for tackling Issue Five: imagine the future you want – and I mean imagine it in detail – and then start moving toward it, one step at a time. If all of your problems were magically solved overnight, but you didn't know this had happened, how would you figure out that you had begun living your ideal scenario? What would clue you in to the fact that something had changed while you slept? What would you spend your day doing? With whom would you interact, and how? Your best chance of achieving what you want – happiness for yourself and others – begins with imagination and faith. Don't fool yourself: no one can be happy all the time. But when we are fully engaged in our lives, working toward goals that benefit not just ourselves but also others, and expressing our love openly and fearlessly, we are free from the shame that keeps us small.

You've got your work cut out for you in 2014, that's for sure – but if you're willing to keep at it, bit by bit, you just might create something beautiful. Okay, I'd best sign off before I turn into one of those tacky motivational posters!

Pinecones and petunias,

Friday, December 20, 2013

Should I Tell My Parents I'm Poly?

Dear Viny,

I'm a single Mom happily involved in what I anticipate to be a long-term poly relationship. I've been with my lover in a poly pod situation for 9 months. He and I continue to grow stronger as a couple, and our families (his wife, her OSO, and all of our children) are also growing into more of a community together.

Ideally, I'd like to be able to be out to my parents about my poly relationship, but not if it's going to cause me all kinds of stress and discomfort. When I was a teenager and came out as queer, my parents handled it 'right' ("We love you anyway"), but we never spoke about it, and they never asked about my relationships. My parents have seen me through a variety of sexual identities (undefined, lesbian, bisexual) and they've seen me marry and divorce, but sexuality has always been this big awkward subject we avoid talking about. As much as I've grown and changed, I am still sensitive to my parents' concerns and criticisms, and I have sometimes felt the need to lie about my relationships to preserve my sense of self. I should add that the way they handled my divorce several years ago made the whole experience enormously harder for me. They claimed to be supportive but their comments made me furious and miserable.

It's hard to predict how they might react and how I might feel if I told them about my current situation. My brother, who is a psychologist and has a much closer relationship to my parents, advises me not to tell them, saying they “wouldn't understand.” My concern is that they might see us in the only way they can manage – in a bad light. But then I feel guilty for selling them short perhaps, and leaving them out by not sharing the source of much of my happiness. What if they reacted in a loving way? Am I being unfair if I don't give them a chance to be supportive? If I choose to keep my romantic life private, do you have any tips for how to not feel guilty about it? Thank you.

A Reluctant Daughter


Dear Reluctant,

Hang on a sec while I tie back my hair, roll up my sleeves, and don my heavy-duty gloves: this is one sticky wicket of a question. I'm glad you asked it, though, because so many people in alternative relationship configurations are currently agonizing over whether or not to tell someone they love about...well, about all the people they love.

I know quite a few polyamorous people who still aren't “out” to their families. Some plan to stay in the closet indefinitely. Others dread the day when they'll finally have to sit the dear (or not-so-dear) old folks down and explain to them what the birds and bees have really been doing in those cozy nests and honeycombed hives of theirs. They're pretty sure the parental reaction to this revelation – “Mom? Dad? Guess what? I'm [insert non-monogamous sexual identity term-of-choice]!” – is going to fall somewhere in the range from “What?” to “WHAAAAT???!!!

There are some wonderfully open, surprisingly savvy, exceptionally accepting parents out there. Unfortunately, yours don't seem to be among them. “We love you anyway” isn't exactly marching in the Pride Parade, knowwhatimean? I'm sure your brother is correct: Your parents are not going to understand. They will worry about you. They will worry about your child(ren). In the initial freak-out phase, they may even say some truly nasty things.

Nevertheless, I think you should tell them.

I would give the same advice to anyone with basically loving, basically sane parents: If you have something “big” to share – I'm gay, I'm poly, I'm asexual, whatever – share it.

I'm not saying you have to tell them now, or even that you should tell them now. In fact, it might be better to wait a while. There is something to be said for having a good chunk of time under your belt (“Junior and I have been an integral part of a jolly poly pod for over a year – and would you believe it, the world hasn't ended! No one's laced the Kool-Aid yet, but I'll keep you posted, okay?”). I am, however, suggesting that you plan on telling them before too much time goes by. Start preparing yourself now. If you want to have a meaningful, healthy relationship with your parents in the future, there will come a time when you will want them to know who you are and what your life is like, at least in accurate outline. Even if you just want to facilitate good grandparent-grandchild connections, you will ultimately need to come clean, and when that day comes, you won't want a pile of lies in the way of the truth.

Believe me, I understand your reluctance. It took me eight years to come out to my own parents. They're wonderful people, both of them, and I love them dearly. They are also conservative, repressed, devoutly religious Mormons. It was painfully clear to me that the best I could hope for was, “We love you anyway.” We did get there, eventually, but their initial response to my old news went something like this: Why did you have to go and ruin everything? We don't NEED to know what goes on in the privacy of your bedroom, we don't WANT to learn anything about your immoral lifestyle, and we have NO INTEREST in ever meeting any of your “extraneous” people. What good can possibly come of your telling us something we didn't want to know?

I'm going to share a portion of the long letter I wrote to my parents in January of 2007, in which I answered their rhetorical questions, because it explains why I chose to come out, and also why I am encouraging you to come out to your folks as well. (You can read the whole letter here – but I have to warn you, it's practically a novella.) 

...For a very long time, I wondered if I was making the right decision in keeping you in the dark about really important things going on in my life. We are NOT talking here about my private sexual life. We are talking about my life. When people start dating someone, fall in love, and end up moving to be in the vicinity of that person, or make the decision not to move on account of that person, it’s almost always the case that their family, friends, and even acquaintances are at least aware of the relationship that is exerting such an influence on every decision being made. I felt I was always having to hide from you, to omit, to change the topic, and this went against my very strong commitment to complete honesty. It especially pained me to have to worry about [my son, still an only child at age 10] innocently disclosing something to you. It wasn’t just my own discomfort that was the problem, either. [My husband] was never very comfortable with the fact that you guys didn’t know, and worried about what to say if ever you called while I was away for the weekend. Then, after [my husband's mother] knew the whole story, she had to feel uncomfortable about keeping something from you, too. To make matters worse, it’s not just other people in the family who’ve been unwittingly drawn into this intrigue: I’ve actually had to warn my neighbors not to say anything to you. The whole ruse was getting truly ridiculous. When [my son] started saying things that made me think his relationship with you two was being compromised, because he didn’t feel he could “really talk to you” since you “wouldn’t approve of our lives,” I began to think it was high time to stop lying to you -- that my desire to spare you grief was not really an excuse for my own cowardice.

Several months ago, I was editing a manuscript for a therapist, and came across some mental exercise in which readers were admonished to reflect upon what they’d do if they knew that they had only one more week to live (or something along those lines). I realized that I didn’t want to die without my own parents knowing who I really am. You may think that it’s selfish to want to be remembered accurately after my death; you may not even sympathize with that desire at all. But I place great value on authenticity and truth, in all its splendor and all its ugliness.... Anyway, I realized that if I would want to tell you the truth before I died, I should be telling you the truth now.

As for what good could possibly come from having told you something you didn’t want to hear, only time will tell, I guess. Both of you have lamented that there is more distance between us now, as though my having revealed the truth has actually widened the rift. As I said to Mom, I have known just how wide the rift is for a long time now. It was only an eventuality for you; it was an actuality for me. All I’ve done is cleared the fog away, shown you what was at your feet all along. I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe that ignorance is bliss. Fake bliss doesn’t count. Bliss that can be shattered by the truth doesn’t count. So, here we are: this is reality. It may look bleak to you, but I see a lot of hope here. Any gain we make now, any advance in our understanding and acceptance of each other, will be a real gain. We have a solid foundation now for re-building our relationship, if we choose to do so. And I know that I want to have a meaningful relationship with both of you, and am committed to working to make that happen. I love and care about you both. Sometimes I wish I could make you happy, but that’s something you will have to do for yourselves.

The way I see it, Reluctant, there is no way you can keep your romantic life completely private, because your romantic life has become such a big part of your everyday life, and your everyday life is entwined with the everyday lives of so many others. You are a mother: you do not have the luxury of complete privacy. It's one thing to teach children social discretion – “Sweetie, there is no need to tell the UPS delivery person that the reason I can't come to the door is because I'm on the toilet!” – and it's another thing entirely to ask them to lie for you.

At its best, polyamory is about creating relationships grounded in honesty and mutual respect. It's also about showing up as your authentic self and doing the work, even when it makes you feel uncomfortable. It's about maintaining healthy personal boundaries while granting others their autonomy. And it's about courageously cultivating love. I believe that whenever we apply these principles in our interactions with other human beings – our parents included! – we are making the right choice.

Snowflakes and milkshakes,

Monday, December 16, 2013

How Do I Ask a Question without Giving You My Email Address? (A Point of Process)

Dear Viny,

Is there a way to pose a completely anonymous question? I have been reading your posts and like the insight you are sharing. I would like to pose a question and not share my email address. I guess me doing this is to see if it is a requirement to have a valid email when submitting.

I tried sending my question and it said I needed a valid email. Would you work on lifting this restriction for those of us that are not completely comfortable yet? Thanks.



Dear Anonymous,

Yes! There is a way to pose a completely anonymous question! I know, because YOU posed THIS question, and I don't have a coroner's clue who you are. 

The new "Blogger Contact Form" widget I'm using requires that you enter an email if you want to submit a question, and there doesn't seem to be an easy way to alter the html. However, you can apparently type in a fake email address, as long as it takes the form of a valid email address -- because I seriously doubt that the email address YOU used to send THIS question is your real one. Who knew?

The downside of using a fake email when sending me a question is that there is no way for me to contact you privately. If I want to respond to your question, I have to post it to the world.

So, for anyone else out there who desires complete anonymity: just make up an email address, and then go ahead and ask your question.

A few suggestions: 

However, since I may choose not to post your question on the blog, you may not hear back from me. If you're good with that, I'm good with that. Here's to hearing from you, whoever you are!

Twinkles and Sparkles,

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Love Is Not a Game

Dear Viny,

My significant other, Connor, and I are in an open relationship. Connor has an ex-girlfriend named Shanna. The two of them dated for about a year, during the same time that Connor and I were first getting together. Shanna knew Connor was also dating me, but wasn't interested in getting to know me and rejected any effort on my part to become friends with her. But about a year after she and Connor broke up, Shanna started writing me through Facebook. A couple weeks ago, she invited me to dinner. Now she is expressing interest in possibly having a sexual relationship with me. However, she's ignoring Connor, and is actually being quite rude at any effort on his part to be friendly with her. I have no idea why Shanna is interested in being with me all of a sudden, when she never expressed any interest in me during the time she and Connor were a couple. Is she just doing this as some weird power play? Is it appropriate for me to even consider her offer?

--Suspicious of Her Motives


Dear Suspicious,

When my siblings and I were kids, my father would sometimes entertain us by reading aloud from Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. I remember being impressed by Judith Martin's ability to deliver a painful put-down with just the right balance of primness and aplomb. If only I were better at channeling that Miss Manners 'tude, I could help you rehearse polite ways to tell Shanna to go fuck herself.

I confess I'm wondering why you are even considering considering Shanna's offer. Why aren't you simply thanking your plucky stellar orbs, in all their shining luminosity, that Connor is no longer involved with this woman, and that you are therefore no longer under any obligation to interact with her, even vicariously?

Clearly, you must be tempted by her sexual advances, or you wouldn't be writing me.

Maybe you're really attracted to Shanna. Maybe you feel like Shanna owes you something – an apology, for starters – and this is a roundabout way of getting your needs met. Maybe, given that Connor was involved with her in the past, you are intrigued by this opportunity because it provides a window into his experiences. Maybe you're crazy-curious: Do Shanna's stories match Connor's stories? Why did the two of them break up anyway? What did Connor tell her about you? And, above all, what is she like in bed?

Or maybe it just feels good to be desired, even if it's for the “wrong” reason.

If you want to give Shanna the benefit of the doubt – just in case she is actually a very sweet person with a small smidgin of growing up to do – you could counter her sophomoric game-playing with some straight-up communication. You might try asking her why she wasn't willing to get to know you until after she and Connor broke up, for example, or why she is currently giving Connor the cold shoulder.

However, I really think you'd be better off just steering clear of Shanna. Why? Because love is not a game. My advice is to kindly – but firmly! – decline her sexual advances.

In other words, fancy it up however you like, but tell her no.

No, thank you.

(All together, now: En Oh / spells NO / out you go / with a ho-ho-ho....)

Kumquats and Cartwheels,

Saturday, December 7, 2013

ISO Simple Terms for Complicated Relationships

Dear Viny,

I have a lexical problem. I am a happily married man who is in a relationship with a happily married woman who is not my wife. Talking about a monogamous relationship is easy; talking about a more complex situation is hard. 
Do I have a wife and a girlfriend? Do I have a first wife and a second wife? Do I have a primary partner and a secondary one (ew)? 
I refuse to say that I'm "polyamorous," both because it conjures images of key parties and orgies, and because it's linguistically absurd. Unfortunately, there is no better word for my situation. 
You're used to addressing these issues; is there any linguistic shorthand that you've found useful in talking about situations like this?

-Lacking Vocabulary


Dear Lacking,

I hear you, brother. Terminology is tough. Out here on the fringes of polite discourse, lexical lawlessness runs roughshod over the plains of smooth speech, and neologisms brawl in every corner saloon. What's a relationship pioneer to say?

According to the nice folks at the Oxford English Dictionary, polyamory is “the fact of having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, esp. in regard to matters of sexual fidelity; the custom or practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned.” For the record, I have no problem with this definition.

However, words don't come with their OED tags securely attached. This is why, for you, the term “polyamory” conjures images of key parties and orgies, neither of which feels like “you” to you; whereas for me, the term conjures up images of Renaissance Faires and riding crops, neither of which feels like “me” to me. I've been OED-definition polyamorous for over fifteen years, and I still sometimes balk at identifying myself as poly – probably because I really don't know what other people are going to think I mean when I stitch that Scarlet “P” to my chest.

If you can't stand “polyamorous,” there's always “ethical non-monogamy” or “consensual non-monogamy.” The problem with these terms is that they are even more polysyllabic than “polyamory,” which in common parlance gets mercifully shortened to “poly” with little loss of explanatory power. Also, there is no simple way of turning them into adjectives: you might as well tell your friends you are “pretentiously non-monogamous.”

You can say you are in an open relationship, or an “alternative” relationship (less clear, but has a certain cachet). But again, there is no corresponding adjective you can use to label yourself – and everyone needs a label, right?

So, how about a new term? At Burning Man this year, I heard someone say she was a fan of “freestyle” relationships. I'm kind of hoping it will catch on. It's like “free love,” only more stylish. And since it's borrowed from swimming terminology, it implies a certain amount of healthy exercise. (Relationships require work, you know?) Best of all, you can be a “freestylist” without signaling allegiance to any particular camp – at least until there get to be enough freestylists out there to start forming a camp of their own, with its own particular set of rules, not to mention a whole lexicon aimed at distinguishing camp insiders from camp outsiders.

As for what to call your people...well, let's just say that three years ago, I wrote a post on this topic (A 'Sweetie' by Any Other Name) in another blog, in which I came to no definitive conclusions. And I'm still stumped.

I recommend adopting whatever terms appeal to you. Have some fun, and don't worry about whether you're making any sense to other people when you say stuff like, “Yeah, I'm taking the whole postmodern harem out to dinner,” or, “My honey takes tango lessons every Tuesday with one of her love buddies,” or, “Darling, did I mention that my paramour, my metamour, his pet, and their pal are all going to be joining us for cucumber sandwiches and tea this afternoon?”

Marmalade and RĂ©moulade,