Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sharing Love, Embracing Change, and Telling the REAL Truth (Even When It's Scary)

Dear Viny,

Not too long ago I came out of a chilly, depressed, years-long sexual drought in my marriage, reclaimed my sexuality, and flew straight into the poly sun. It was a wild, crazy, blazing, and challenging time. And absolutely the right thing to do. Although my husband is deeply monogamous and has NO libido (while I'm poly with high libido), in the end we decided to stay married, raise our children together, and keep the marriage open for my benefit. We still function quite well as a family. He's my best friend. But we're NOT lovers.

I started dating a man a while back and now we're in love. Not lust. Not infatuation. Love. Profound, beautiful, partnership love. My husband suspects that the relationship is significant. He's asked me where it's going. I've told him the truth: I don't know. But I've not yet shared the extent of the relationship with him. His knowing won't change our lives in any way. My lover and I are content with what we have – we have no need to define and/or label it, no need to establish goals for the future. We're just taking it one step at a time, two people with very busy lives. We both believe in non-monogamy even though we're both only interested in seeing each other right now. We definitely don't want to get married or anything remotely like that.

My question is this: should I tell my husband that I've fallen in love? Should I tell him that this lover is not just a lover but a true partner who now factors into my life? What to do?



Dear S,

Yes, you should tell your husband you've fallen in love. It's important for him to know that “this lover is not just a lover but a true partner,” because anyone who factors into your life in such a big way is also going to end up factoring into your husband's life.

You already knew that, and yet you wrote me, wondering what to do. I have to admit, I was initially puzzled. Why, I wondered to myself, is she asking me to weigh in on this one? She doesn't really need another opinion. And then it hit me: you aren't asking me what I think you ought to do. You're asking me to help you figure out why you haven't already done it.

I have only your letter to go on, but I have a funny feeling about one sentence in particular. I think it's a Big Clue, possibly even The Key to Unlocking this Mystery, so let's get out our magnifying glasses and take a closer look at it, shall we?

Here's the suspect sentence: His knowing won't change our lives in any way.

On the surface, you are saying that you are happy with the way your life is arranged, and you have no plans to do any rearranging, at least not any time soon. You have a functional let's-raise-the-kids-together relationship with your best friend, and you have an amazing let's-share-our-hearts-together relationship with someone you consider to be a true partner, and you want to keep both relationships exactly the way they are. You have had to work pretty hard to achieve your present level of bliss, and you want to make it clear that you aren't about to upset the collective apple cart by doing anything stupid (such as leaving your husband for this other man). So far, so good

Looking a bit closer, I see a rationalization. If you can prove that your love is immaterial (“won't change our lives in any way”), then maybe it doesn't matter whether or not your husband knows how you feel. But that's a flimsy, feel-good excuse, and you know it.

Looking closer still, I see fear. On some level, you must realize that your sentence is one measly little sandbag against a rising sea. Love changes lives. It is changing yours right now. The false bravado of your words belies your anxiety. Let's face it, S: change is a lot easier to embrace when you're coming out of a chilly, depressed, years-long sexual drought than when you are sunning yourself on a tropical beach, cool drink in hand.

Let me put it another way. You're a mother, so I assume you are familiar with the special kind of terror that descends when you've just finished cleaning the entire house – for once it's spotless, an absolute frigging miracle of spaciousness and tidy delight – and you hear the kids come in, shedding raincoats and school papers and wet leaves as they squelch down the hall in their muddy boots. In a panic, you yell, “Don't! Touch! Anything!” And then you start pleading, whether or not anyone is listening to you: “Can we keep it like this for just five minutes? Is that really too much to ask?”

I understand that you don't want to tell your husband how you feel about your lover because you are actually afraid his knowing will change your lives – quite possibly for the worse, at least in the short term. It makes complete sense that you wouldn't want to risk losing what you have by telling your husband something that will probably be hard for him to process. What you have is wonderful, and worth protecting. But his not knowing will also end up changing your lives, almost certainly for the worse. In fact, your little evasions – “I don't know where this relationship is going” (technically true) instead of “I have fallen in love” (the real truth) – may have already begun to take a toll on the friendship you share. Continued silence will only create more emotional distance. Remember, if you wall off your heart in an effort to keep it safe, you are in danger of losing what you value most.

So here's my advice: Don't keep your love too close. Open your heart. Share your feelings, and embrace the inevitable changes love makes to the landscape of your life. It's scary, I know, but just remember, you got where you are today by taking emotional risks. Your future self will thank you for the beautiful view.

Froot Loops and hula hoops,

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Defense of Casual Sex

Dear Viny,

Can you please explain the appeal of casual sex?

- Curiously Serious


Dear Serious,

It depends on what you mean by “casual”.

For me, there's the kind of casual that's almost purely physical, except that it's shot through with a sense of personal power. I'm suffused with feelings of pleasure that derive from being alive, in motion, and thoroughly in my own body.

There's the kind of casual that's about observation, exploration, and discovery: who am I in this moment, and how am I being perceived/received by others? Who is this other, and how do I perceive/receive him or her? It can be a cerebral experience, even dispassionate, but I often feel as though I am learning something important about how to be more fully human. There's also the reverse: an experience in which I am offered relief from thought, when some non-rational version of self takes over, and “I” am just along for the ride.

There's the kind of casual that allows me to float free of time. I don't have to ask myself, “What led to this moment? Where is this going? What does it MEAN?” Instead, I immerse myself in the present. I am able to pay close attention to sensory details and the play of my own emotions, moment to moment, without being tempted to turn them into a story with an exciting beginning, a ho-hum middle, and a tragic end.

Then there's the kind of casual that makes it possible to connect with another person (or with a group of people) without having to run the usual compatibility scripts. It doesn't matter whether I approve of his politics or share her dietary preferences, because we're communing on a different plane. The love I feel may be light, in the sense that it is transitory and weightless, but it is nonetheless true.

I hope I've given you a sense of the some of the ways in which “casual” sex might be appealing. But I have a confession to make: up until now, I have been talking about dancing.

For me, dance is a form of sex. (Interestingly, there are fundamentalist religious groups that agree with me on this!) When I interact with others on the dance floor, I bring my whole self to the experience. The exchange of energy feels sexual to me. Sex: desire, movement, release. A creative force grounded in physical expression, transcending physical boundaries.

However, if by “sex” you mean something unimaginatively literal, such as “the insertion of one person's genitals into another person's body cavity” or “any activity between people that involves a certain degree of nudity, a certain amount of flesh-on-flesh contact, and preferably at least one garden-variety orgasm,” then you may need to take your question elsewhere, because that kind of sex doesn't appeal to me in a casual context. I can extrapolate, based on my experiences of “casual” dancing and non-casual “sex”, what the appeal of casual sex might be for someone else, but I have very little direct experience of it myself.

About five years ago, I decided to try out “I think you're hot but let's keep it cool” sex. I found someone on OKCupid who met my basic requirements (attractive, intelligent, ethically non-monogamous, and not a health risk) and commenced my experiment. (Yes, he knew I was playing around with him, and he was okay with that.) After several dates, which were spread out over several months, I reached my conclusion: although the sex worked the way sex is technically supposed to work (meaning that our bodies functioned the way we expected them to function), I just didn't get off on getting off that way. Thankfully, I was able to extricate myself from this “acquaintances-with-benefits” arrangement with minimal fuss and no hurt feelings.

Although I have decided I don't want to engage in casual sex-as-it's-typically-defined, I'm unabashedly sex-positive. I defend the right of every individual to define, explore, and express his/her (nir/vis/eir/hir/zir/xyr...) sexuality in any way that does not prevent someone else from exercising that same inalienable right. I celebrate sex, in all its glorious multiplicity – and I am delighted that others are able to enjoy forms of sex that don't appeal to me personally.

So, if casual sex – however you define it! – appeals to you, go for it! If it doesn't, that's also completely fine. Whenever you try but fail to understand the appeal of something that others seem to find appealing, all it means is there's something you don't understand. Not understanding something doesn't make you – or anyone else – wrong.

Tangos & Mangoes,

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Let's Get On with Getting It On! (Dealing with an OSO's Reluctant Spouse, Part II)

Dear Viny,

I'm actually in a similar situation to Debacle Herein, from your last column. I'm married (with kids), and am dating a married woman (also with kids); let's call her L. My wife and I have been poly for years, while this is L's first poly experience.

In L's marriage, she has been the one pushing for polyamory, while her husband is not interested in it for himself. (Actually, he doesn't really like it for her, either.) But the fact is that, while she loves him dearly, she isn't really...*satisfied* in her marriage. She has made it clear that this is a requirement for her happiness and fulfillment. (Specifically, that the thought of never being...*satisfied*...is not something that she can really accept for the rest of her life.)

At the same time, she cares about his feelings and wants this to go as smoothly as possible. So it's been a *very* slow process. (We see each other about once a month, for a few hours, in a public place. She doesn't stay out late. We've kissed, but not much else. This has been going on for about six months now.)

That's been fine with me: I want to do the right thing by all parties involved. I even met him once. (I thought it went well enough, but I found out later that he wasn't comfortable with it.)

He has been as supportive as I think he's able. He loves her and wants her to be happy, and he understands her reasons. And yet...he is *really* struggling with jealousy.

I feel like he needs to figure out exactly where these feelings are coming from, but also like it's not my place to get involved in that conversation. From what L has said, he hasn't shown much interest in unpacking his feelings. He also hasn't shown any interest in getting to know me any better, or in dating anyone himself. He's told L that it would be easier for him if he just didn't know about it, if he'd never met me, etc. (I guess meeting me made it "more real".) I want to be open and honest (as does L), but there's this question of balancing 'honesty' with 'respecting his wishes'.

So here we are, six months later, and she's getting impatient for things to move forward. And then back just a bit, and then forward again...like when people are fucking. (Single entendre is all the entendre I need, thanks.) And, yeah, I'd like that, too. I'm not dying without it, but it would sure be nice. The problem remains, though: the husband is still struggling with this. So, what to do?

My feeling is that I've done my 'ethical due diligence' in this. He doesn't want to meet me again, doesn't want to talk to me. I guess I feel like this is between L and her husband now, and if she is ready, then so am I.

My wife, on the other hand, disagrees. She says L's husband clearly doesn't want anyone to sleep with his wife, so if I do, then *I* am hurting him, and am ethically accountable for that.

But how do you balance his needs with hers? And to what extent is it even my place to do that balancing? He wants her to be happy and fulfilled, and wants her to date if that's what she needs to be fulfilled...but also wants her not to, because it makes him miserable. She's been very clear that extramarital sex *will* happen (with someone, at some point), so it's just a question of when, and with whom. If he's not interested in processing this, how long does she have to wait? How long do *I* have to wait?

Is my wife right? Or have I done my due diligence?

- Holding Pattern


Dear Holding,

If there's one thing I really appreciate, it's being asked to come between a husband and his wife. (Entendre à trois! I win!)

Seriously, though: I am an advice columnist, not a judge or arbiter. I can drape myself in voluminous black robes and put on a goofy white wig, if you really need someone to rule in your favor, but let me state – for the record – that I am not establishing a legal precedent here. Relationships do not operate according to laws or set rules, no matter how reasonable, wise, or well-intentioned they might be.

I recently came across a fun slide show put together by Cunning Minx, 8 Things I Wish I'd Known about Polyamory (Before I Tried It and It Kicked My Ass). Item #3 was “Guidelines, Not Rules” – because “rules made out of fear are 99% ineffective” and “stuff changes”. Also, and more to the point here, no two people/relationships/situations are exactly alike. In other words, as George Bernard Shaw famously argued, “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” (Yes! I covered Minx and Shaw in the same paragraph! I hope they are feeling cozy together under that blanket....)

I submit that there are at least as many different “right” ways of treating another person as there are people on the planet. To the extent that we know a particular person, we can attempt to customize our actions and interactions to respect his or her preferences. This is true for all living creatures, actually. Treating a dog right means honoring its doggy likes and dislikes, insofar as we are capable of understanding them. However, sometimes the divide between another's preferences and our own is simply too great: most dogs, for example, want to engage in a lot more crotch-sniffing than their human companions can tolerate. Also, very often – more often than not! – we just don't know enough about how another living creature, human or otherwise, might want to be treated. The only way we can hope to bridge that divide is honest communication. Absent that, we are back to our best guess.

Unfortunately, “Another Grey Zone Guideline” doesn't have quite the same ring to it as “The Golden Rule,” but here is a guideline that may work in your particular situation: Let the slowest member of the group set the pace.

I can already hear the protests beginning: “But...but...the slowest member of our group isn't moving! If we go his speed, we'll never get anywhere! We might as well rent ourselves out to the public park system as statues!”

I'm not saying you must all resign yourselves to verdigris and birdshit on your shoulders. If the slowest member of the group is refusing to budge, he is, in effect, separating himself from the group. Anyone who is unwilling to cooperate is choosing to behave as an individual rather than as part of a group, and has to accept that he may get left behind.

Here's the thing, though: everyone else in the group needs to agree that it is in the group's collective best interests to move forward, understanding and accepting the possibility that moving forward may mean leaving L's husband behind. If L's marriage unravels, there will be serious consequences for her – which means there will also be consequences for you, and, by extension, your family. That's quite the sequence of consequences.

Yes, I agree with you: you have done your due diligence as far as L's husband is concerned. He has been given the opportunity to communicate with you directly about his needs and wants, but he has chosen to stay behind a self-protective wall. You aren't a mind-reader; you are therefore not responsible for treating him as he wishes to be treated. Unless and until L's husband changes his mind about interacting with you directly, how best to treat him is L's concern, not yours.

However, this doesn't mean you are totally in the clear. To the extent that you are involved with L, her concerns concern you, and, by extension, your wife. Before moving forward (and then back, and then forward again) with L, more diligence is due for the doing. Are you reasonably sure L understands the risk she is taking, and what kind of support she can expect from you if things go south (as it were)? Do you clearly understand your wife's concerns? Has your wife been able to express her misgivings to L directly? Unless and until everyone in the group has been given the opportunity to speak and be heard by everyone else in the group, and unless and until you can all support one another in moving forward (and back, and forward again), it's probably best to keep your pants on and continue to sit tight.

Just remember: it's polyamory. You can't do it alone. QED.

Civil torts and apple tortes,