Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sexual Intimacy vs. Non-sexual Intimacy

Dear Viny,

I have what may be an odd question. (Or maybe not.) I'm not really in an “alternative” relationship, so I don’t know if my concern is unusual.

My husband has what I would call a girlfriend. He plays tennis with her two times a week and they share a passion for astronomy, so they're always sending each other links to articles and so on. And they talk on the phone every day. What concerns me (maybe I’m just weird) is not the possibility that they're having sex. (He assures me it's not a sexual relationship, and I think I believe him.) It's actually the other parts of their relationship that bother me. What I want to know I guess is whether sexual intimacy or non-sexual intimacy is more threatening?



Dear C.,

If I were a chiropractor, and you walked in with a spine shaped like the question you just asked, I'd be tempted to give you an adjustment before you even sat down to give me your health history, and that would be unwise. Luckily, however, I am merely an advice columnist, not a chiropractor. Tweaking your question may cause some momentary discomfort, but there will be no lasting damage if I get it wrong. So, let's risk it.

Take a deep breath in. Count to three. Now exhale, slowly, and rephrase:

My husband has a girlfriend. (So what's wrong with ME?) She likes tennis and astronomy, and I don't. (Does that mean there's something wrong with me?) He talks to her every day, about stuff that matters to him. (Why doesn't he talk to me the way he talks to her? Is something wrong with me?) He says he's not having sex with her, but secretly, I kind of wish he were. (What the fuck is WRONG with me?!) If it were just sex, I probably wouldn't feel as threatened. (Is that normal, Viny, or is there something wrong with me?)

Put your hand on your heart, C., and take a look at those parentheticals. Have we gotten any closer to saying it straight? If so, read on. If not, feel free to click that little “x” and go make make yourself some carrot biscuits or something.

Still with me? Yes? All right, then!

As far as I can tell, you're not weird at all. I mean, for all I know, you sleep upside down in a violet velour bat costume and brush your teeth with Cracker Jacks – but there's nothing weird about what you shared in your letter. Many people in committed relationships feel threatened by the idea of their partner being intimate with another person. Many of these same people feel aroused by the idea of their partner having sex with another person. (This may seem like a contradiction, but it isn't. That's because intimacy and sex are not the same thing. You can have hot sex without being intimate, just like you can have hot coffee without being intimate.) Anyway, whatever seemingly-strange, seemingly-conflicting emotions and desires have been coming up for you, C., they are most assuredly normal. 

Now, would you please stop comparing yourself to other people – especially your husband's girlfriend? Her being the person she is doesn't make you a better or worse person than you are. I understand the temptation to compare, I really do, but I promise you that nothing good comes of it. There is no security to be found in "better than" and "worse than." Trying to figure out how you measure up or where you stand in relation to someone else just feeds your jealousy. In my opinion, you need to get out of the "me vs. her" mindset entirely. 

Still speaking of comparisons, but moving on: you wanted to know which is more threatening, sexual intimacy or non-sexual intimacy. My answer to that question is that there is no difference between the two. Intimacy is intimacy. The sex is irrelevant. That sounds like an extreme position, I know, but there are mainstream marriage “experts” who would agree with me. For example, Shirley Glass, the author of Not “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity, argues that it's not necessary to have sex in order to be unfaithful. She warns couples about the dangers of “emotional infidelity” – or, in other words, being intimate with anyone other than each other. I think Glass is right to be suspicious of non-sexual intimacy, because there is no such thing as non-sexual intimacy. When you are truly intimate with someone, you see them as a whole person. You can’t divide them into sexual bits and non-sexual bits, and then cherry pick only those bits that feel safe to you and/or your significant other. Whether they happen to be gay or straight or bi or asexual or pansexual or queer or kinky or engaged in some fluid process of exploring who they are and how they want to express themselves, human beings have sexual histories and sexual identities. They have thoughts and ideas and philosophies about sex. Whether they choose to have sex or not, they can’t be intimate without also being sexual, because they are sexual beings.

To someone like Shirley Glass, this is a reason to avoid intimacy. To someone like me, this is a reason to learn how to deal with jealousy – my own, and other people's – so that I can fearlessly embrace intimacy, wherever and however it may bloom.

Eros and Bandoleros,

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