Thursday, May 15, 2014

When Mum's the Word: Respecting Different Approaches to Ethical Non-Monogamy

Dear Viny,

I'm wondering if you have any insights about how to deal with generational differences in poly relationships.

Currently, I am involved with someone much older than I am. He grew up during the 60's, when the free love movement was just beginning. He has told me stories about sitting in the back seat of cars, making out with chicks, and no one would mention birth control or even discuss whether or not to have sex, just so that if anything were to happen, it would be the result of a spontaneous accident. As a child of the 80's who grew up during the AIDS epidemic, I remember sitting in the back seat of cars, making out with boys, and asking, “Baby, did you bring a condom?” without missing a beat.

Skipping ahead a few decades, we now have a situation in which my lover and I have different approaches to being in an open relationship. Before entering into a space of physical intimacy, we both spoke with our spouses. My husband and I opened our marriage eight years ago, and are very comfortable with these kinds of conversations, but this was a new topic for my lover and his wife. During their conversation, which I was not present for, they agreed to a variation of the “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” approach, which I don't clearly understand. She has since made several friendly overtures toward me and my family, and this has been reassuring. However, she and I have never had a meaningful conversation, much less talked about boundaries, scheduling, sexual hygiene, or any of the other conversations we poly folks are accustomed to having.

My lover's wife is not interested in having a sexual relationship with anyone at this point in her life (not even her husband – they haven't had sex in several years). Still, I'm feeling anxious about their arrangement. It's not that I think he is being unethical. I am pretty sure he is following the “rules” of his marriage. My problem is that I don't understand those rules. I feel like the American poly Eliza Doolittle at the hush-hush Euro-style party, and I'm worried I'm going to make a faux pas and not even understand the nature of the mistake.

I want to let my lover and his wife handle their marriage their own way. At the same time, I want to feel more at peace. Are there constructive changes I could propose, while still being respectful of generational differences in our approaches?

Rio, dancing on quicksand


Dear Rio,

Based on my own intimacies (sexual and platonic) with people 15+ years older than myself, people my own age, and people 15+ years younger, I might be able to make a few generalizations about possible generational differences – for example, “Older people are more likely to think of sex as a private matter, and less likely to enjoy electronic dance music,” or, “Younger people are more likely to feel comfortable sharing graphic pics/videos of themselves, and less likely to use apostrophes when texting.” However, I don't think these kinds of generalizations are particularly helpful when it comes to developing and maintaining authentic relationships. We fall in love with individuals, not with broad cultural patterns or statistical likelihoods. One of my long-term partners was born before 1960, and he's one of the most sexually open people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. When I first met his family, I was surprised – and delighted! – by the ease with which he and his siblings talked and joked about sex-related topics with their 80-year-old parents. Clearly, they didn't get that “Leave It to Beaver” memo about keeping bedroom talk in the bedroom, under the covers, with the lights off.

I'm not sure it matters why your lover and his wife are choosing to handle things differently than you and your husband do. It might be due to the fact that they're older, or it might be due to some other factor or combination of factors. In any case, the real problem here is not the age difference. The real problem is the lack of communication. And this one is a particularly sticky wicket, because you can't exactly solve it by communicating about it! Unfortunately, when one person wants to talk and another does not, the person who says “no” always wins.

You're in a really frustrating position, Rio. Your lover's wife has not agreed to have a direct relationship with you, and she has no incentive to go along with any changes you might propose, no matter how constructive they might be. If you tell your lover, “I need your wife to communicate with me,” or even, “I need you and your wife to communicate with each other about me,” you would be putting him in a frustrating position: he would have to choose whose stated needs to honor, yours or hers. And no one wants to be cast as the “middle man” in that kind of power play. (Ah, yes, the circular argument: if only you could speak to his wife directly....)

I suggest you step back from this whole convoluted mess for a moment to focus on the person you have the greatest chance of changing: yourself. Who are you, and what do you need from others in order to show up as your authentic self in your relationships? Where are you willing to stretch, and where are you in danger of snapping?

Take a good look at whether you are honoring your own boundaries in this relationship. Your lover and his wife have set their boundaries. You need to set yours, and then determine whether there is enough space in between for a relationship to flourish. Do you have any relationship deal-breakers? For me, dishonesty and unwillingness to disclose information I need in order to protect my sexual health are definite deal-breakers. You don't seem to be worried that your lover hasn't given you the straight story, and (assuming he's been truthful with you about being in a sexless marriage, and truthful with his wife about being in a sexual relationship with you) it isn't strictly necessary for you and his wife to communicate about sexual hygiene. But are there any other consequences of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” that you are not okay with? If so, you need to discuss these deal-breakers with your lover.

It may be that you don't yet know what all of your boundaries are, and that's fine. Give it some time. Drawing clear boundaries takes years of practice and a super steady hand. Your lover and his wife are new to this – and so, in some respects, are you. They are new to ethical non-monogamy, and you are new to their way of being ethically non-monogamous. Given sufficient time and increased levels of trust, people's boundaries often shift. Perhaps your lover's wife will eventually feel more comfortable talking openly about your sexual relationship with her husband. Or perhaps you won't mind catering to her wishes after you get to know her well enough to understand why she might prefer privacy to disclosure.

Meanwhile, don't be afraid to fuck up. Do your best to honor the agreement your lover has made with his wife, but only to the extent that you feel comfortable doing so. In my opinion, you ought to err on the side of saying too much rather than too little, since your preference is to communicate more openly. If something you do turns out to've been a faux pas, be grateful: you can learn a lot from a few mis-steps! If you find that you keep tripping over the same sharp rock in the green pasture of love – and no one else is on board with painting it day-glo orange so that you can see it better, and there's no way you're gonna get the go-ahead to dig it up and drag it somewhere safer – you will know you need to move the fence until that particular rock lies outside your stated boundaries.

So, my fair lady, please repeat after me: the rhine in spine falls minely on the pline....

Dipthongs and derring-do,

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