Tuesday, October 27, 2015

My Quibbles with Relationship Anarchy

In a post I wrote a few weeks ago, I suggested that we might want to come up with a term to describe a new relationship paradigm that is emerging, and that this term would ideally refer to a collection of ideas about relationships, rather than any particular set of practices. Several people left comments to the effect that such a term already exists: Relationship Anarchy.

Wikipedia's entry on Relationship Anarchy (abbreviated RA) defines it as “the practice of forming relationships which are not bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree on.” Since RA's do not make any “formal distinction between sexual, romantic or platonic relationships,” their number of sexual partners – many, one, or none – is irrelevant: “Relationship Anarchists look at each relationship (romantic or otherwise) individually, as opposed to categorizing them according to societal norms.”

I had already heard of Relationship Anarchy, even before I began this blog. My ideas about relationships haven't arisen in an intellectual vacuum. I owe a lot to other thinkers and writers, some of whom identify as Relationship Anarchists.

It's not a label I want to apply to myself, though.

I am not a Relationship Anarchist. Why not? One word: duty.

I believe I have a moral obligation to put the good of the community over my needs as an individual, and to conduct my personal relationships in a way that maximizes sustainability.

I don't know any hardcore Relationship Anarchists who are active parents (that is, who are currently engaged in the process of raising children). This is not mere coincidence.

An article on Postmodern Woman, written by Olle Eckman, makes it clear that Relationship Anarchy is based on “the belief that no party should have to compromise, should have to feel as though they have to give something up, to be in a relationship with the other.” Try telling this to your average teenager – or his/her/their parents. The truth is, we all have to compromise in our relationships.

Not a single one of us can be self-sufficient over the entire course of our lives. It follows that we are collectively responsible for each other. Any one of us can choose to shirk our share of the responsibility, but we invariably do so at someone else's expense.

For example, take my parents' relationship. My father is losing his mind. My mother continues to care for him, even though he has become verbally abusive. No longer able to process language the way he once could, my father responds to any explanation longer than two sentences with a derisive, “That's garbage!” or “And your point would be...?” Twenty times a day, my mother gets put down this way. Yes, she could spare herself by pawning my father off onto someone else – there's always the overworked, underpaid staff at some nursing home! – but as long as he is alive, he is unavoidably in relationships with other people, whether they like it or not.

We all have to compromise, because not every relationship is freely chosen.

I didn't choose my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins. I didn't choose my school teachers. I didn't choose my metamours. I didn't choose my kids' friends. It is perhaps because I have so many relationships I didn't choose that I value autonomy so highly in the relationships I can choose.

There is one other reason why I don't feel comfortable calling myself a Relationship Anarchist, which is that I was first introduced to RA by an article on The Thinking Asexual. It's an excellent primer, and you should definitely read the full post if you are interested in learning more about RA. However, I have to confess that I felt somewhat put off by implicitly judgmental rhetoric like this:

“A polyamorous person can be and often is just as much a sex supremacist or a romance supremacist as a monogamous person. That means, just like the vast majority of monogamists, a poly person can make their romantic and/or sexual relationships superior to their nonsexual/nonromantic relationships, solely on the basis of sex and romance.”

I value sex and romance. I want to be able to prioritize sexual and romantic relationships in my own life, without being called a “supremacist” by someone who does not prioritize the same things I do.

So there you have it: one major quibble, and one minor quibble.

Quibbles aside, there is a lot of great stuff out there on Relationship Anarchy. I highly recommend checking out Andie Nordgren's 2006 Short Instructional Manifesto for Relationship Anarchy and Ian Mackenzie's recent interview of Mel Mariposa (author of the blog Polysingleish).

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How Many Lovers Can One Person Have?

Dear Viny,

If I can ask a personal question, how many relationships are you currently in? And do you find it emotionally taxing to be carrying on multiple separate relationships? I know a local girl who has about five relationships going on at any given time. I think I could not do that without hiring an assistant.

Too Introverted Really Emotional Doyenne



Not to be coy, but I have to counter your question with a question: how are we defining “relationship”? The answer matters. Having stepped outside the pre-packaged “Relationships-R-Us” model of human connection, I have come to the conclusion that there is no consensus definition, no non-arbitrary way of distinguishing between relationships that “count” and those that don't.

I'm currently in dozens of relationships, if we're talking about significant connections with people who matter a lot to me.

Let's start with my immediate family: two life partners, and two children. Then there's my extended family: my parents, and my two siblings and their families. That brings the total to fifteen. Each of my partners has family members and significant others who are an important part of my life as well (metamours, in-laws, out-laws), for at least ten more people, so say twenty-five. Then there are my local friends, and the amazing women in my polymamas group – you know, good friends: people you go out with, people you invite to parties, people you love – and we're at forty. Now, let's talk about exes. Most of my exes are very dear to me; it's debatable whether there's any point in calling them exes. I am still on intimate terms with four people I once considered partners. There's also one person with whom I am currently exploring a prospective relationship: we're taking it “slow and meta” (his words), and who knows what roles we'll end up playing in each other's lives, ultimately, but there is a definite connection there. Finally, there are my non-local friends – you know, good friends: people you'd drop everything to go visit if they needed you, people you love – and we're already at fifty, easily.

If what you really want to know is how many people I have sex with on a regular basis, the answer is two. I could see bumping that number up to three, or – possibly, if conditions were perfect – four, but probably no more than that. (Actually, I have serious doubts about my ability to show up for more than three concurrent relationships, based on my historical record. There was that crazy summer of 2012, when I was divvying up date nights between my husband and three boyfriends, and it proved to be too much for me to handle: that configuration lasted all of four months.)

In my previous blog, I wrote a post that addressed this same question – “How many relationships is too many?” – by interviewing a “veteran poly” friend of mine, who said that his record was five concurrent relationships, and that five was definitely too many for him.

[Interesting tidbit: in tribes that believe in partible paternity – i.e., any male who has sexual relations with a pregnant female *also* becomes the father of her baby, which means a child can have multiple fathers – the optimal number of “fathers” seems to fall somewhere between two and three. Children with fewer than two fathers, and children with more than three fathers, do less well than children with at least two, but no more than three. Fascinating! I imagine there are also studies on polygynous family groups; note that Islam caps the number of permissible wives at four.]

There may be relationship savants out there who can manage five, or six, or even seven sexually charged, emotionally intimate relationships at the same time without causing an absolute trainwreck, but I am not among them – and that is totally okay by me. At this point in my life, I value sustainability, and I know my limits. It sounds like you do, too. No shame in that!

Harems & Theorems,

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

NRE, Jealousy, and the Ineffable Nature of Sexual Desire

Dear Viny,

My partner is in a new relationship, which has really increased his sex drive. You might not think this would be a problem, since just a few months ago I was complaining that I wished we had more sex, and we both agreed to try dating other people as a possible solution. However this is not what I was hoping for. The way he's acting just makes me feel gross, not sexy. He goes out with her, and then after he comes home he's all ready to go again. I wish I could believe that his desire had anything to do with me, but I can't. He is obviously only excited because of this new person he's seeing. I'm just the boring person he's lived with for the last four years. I don't want to be like the wife who stays at home waiting for her husband to get back from the strip club because that's the only way he can ever get it up. Just to put it bluntly, thinking that my partner might be thinking about another woman while he's fucking me makes me want to vomit. Help.

– Not Interested in Leftovers


Dear NIL,

Before I go any further, I need to mention the fact that it's four thirty-seven in the morning, and I'm sitting at my desk in a terrycloth robe, a striped sports bra, and an ice pack: my right breast was biopsied yesterday afternoon for a possible malignancy, which means that I'm now feeling quite sore. There are several reasons why I'm bringing this up. First of all, I don't want to be held responsible for the quality of my writing or anything “off” about my tone. It's crazy early, and I'm distracted by my own drama. Secondly, while I'd rather not admit this, I'm probably playing this situation up for effect (and sympathy). So...backpedaling a bit: chances are, I'm gonna be fine. The current screening technology for breast cancer is super sensitive, which is no doubt a good thing, but unfortunately the medical mantra in the U.S. seems to have become “first, don't get sued” instead of “first, do no harm.” Biopsies are the new black – everyone's getting them, whether they need them or not. This brings us to the third reason why I'm boring you with details about my personal life: I'm a person. Being a person means playing roles in other people's scripts, but there's not a single one of us who wants to be reduced to a role. I may be playing a bit part in the story of your life, as a disembodied dispenser of advice, but that's not who I am.

[Enough about me. Let's talk about you. What do you think about me?]

The point I am trying to make, in an admittedly circuitous and self-indulgent way, is that it is completely normal and natural for you to want your partner to treat you like a human being – and not just any human being, either, but you, your own self, in all your glorious, quirky, ineffable...selfness. And, since you happen to be in pain (the emotional distress of jealousy, in your case), it is also completely normal and natural to want your partner to acknowledge that pain, and to demonstrate some understanding and respect for your tender feelings, before he commences with his “How 'bout you help me with my hard-on?” program.

Let me gently suggest, however, that right now you may not be the best judge of where your partner is coming from (as it were). Jealousy casts a sickly green pall over everything. It makes you look bad. It makes your partner look bad. It makes your relationship look bad. If you are viewing the world through the distorting lenses of jealousy, then you ought to entertain the idea that you are misinterpreting your partner's motives and intentions. Maybe what's making you sick actually has very little to do with him, or anything he's doing with this new lady friend of his. Maybe it's all in your head.

Try this on for size: when your partner comes home from a date in a sexy mood, and he lets you know, either directly or indirectly, that he is interested in having sex with you, it's probably because he wants to have sex with you.

I don't know this, of course. It's possible that your guy is a total prick. Maybe he actually subscribes to the belief that one hole is the same as another. Maybe he thinks of you as nothing more than his fuck-toy – but only if he happens to feel like playing, and only if he gets to imagine you're Barbie while he's playing with you. In which case, you should kick his sorry ass to the curb, immediately. But assuming your guy is a decent human being, please give him the benefit of a doubt.

It is common knowledge that the heady hormonal cocktail known as NRE, or new relationship energy, is a strong libido-enhancer. What is less well-known is that people with multiple sexual partners often experience this temporary increase in sex drive as a more general phenomenon: that is, feeling excited about having sex with a new partner makes us feel more excited about having sex with our other partners, too. I've watched this happen many times: with me, with my partners, with poly friends and acquaintances – and (somewhat less reliably) with people who are cheating on someone. Speaking just from my own experience, an exciting date with an exciting new partner is likely to leave me in one of two moods: either I want some time alone afterward, so I can process my recent experience in private; or I really want to connect with my other partner(s), preferably by having sex a.s.a.p. (Sometimes I'm in both moods at the same time, which does present a dilemma.) If I'm feeling like I want to be by myself after a date with a new partner, it's not because I no longer find my “old” partner(s) desirable; it's simply because because I want to be fully present and focused on whomever I'm with, without feeling like I've got to repress certain memories and sensations in order to do so. If, on the other hand, I'm feeling like I want to reconnect, it's usually due to a complicated mix of some or all of the following: I'm still physically amped up; engaging with a new person has given me a renewed appreciation for all the things I love about my other partner(s); I am concerned about my other partner(s) feeling unloved or unappreciated, and I want to reassure them that isn't so; I am anxious that what I have just done will end up damaging my pre-existing relationship(s), and I want to reassure myself that isn't so; I'm feeling super hot, and it's fun to exercise my sexual power; I'm feeling loved and lucky, which makes me want to share my good fortune with everyone. The foregoing list is far from exhaustive, but I can assure you that “I get my jollies from taking advantage of people who are too stupid to realize I don't really care about them” isn't on it anywhere. I'll bet it isn't on your partner's list of motivations, either.

You might argue that it doesn't “count” if your partner wants to have sex with you because you're feeling bad, or because he's feeling good. You might argue that it doesn't “count” if his mojo was in any way influenced by anything other than pure, unalloyed lust for you-and-no-one-else, even though it would be exceptionally irrational to insist on that. Jealous people aren't known for being rational. Speaking from my own experience again: if one of my partners has an exciting date with an exciting new partner, and he doesn't make an obvious attempt to initiate sex with me immediately afterwards, I assume this is because every experience he's had with me has been completely eclipsed by this new experience, and I am no longer desirable to him, or to anyone else, which means I might as well shave my head and become a nun. If, on the other hand, he seems particularly eager to initiate sex with me, I assume it's not really about me at all, because, as we've just established, I am no longer desirable to anyone anymore, and if I allow myself to capitulate to his simulacrum of desire, or even to my own genuine desire, I will be demonstrating a complete lack of self-respect.

Believe me, I am familiar with the whole cascade of jealousy-related bullshit, which for me includes wild pendulum swings (desire → disgust → desire → disgust) whenever I have to contemplate opening myself up (read: allowing myself to be vulnerable) to someone who's just come from having sex with someone else. It's so predictable, I swear. Like fuckin' clockwork. At least by this point I know what to expect, and can attempt to have a little fun when I sense those gears beginning to grind in my brain. (I summed up my most recent episode of jealousy with one sentence in my journal: “My ovaries are gonna pout, now, because we got our feelie-weelies hurt and no longer feel special.”) 

Negotiating consensual sex under the influence of an NRE + jealousy combo is a complicated affair, Nil. It may be too much for you and/or your partner to handle right now, especially as you have evidently not yet worked through the issues around sex that prompted you to open your relationship in the first place. Yes, you can work through those pre-existing issues while your partner is skipping around in NRE la-la land and you are trudging through the sloughs of despond, but do keep your seat-belts fastened, 'cuz it's gonna be a bumpy ride. Either way, though, please be aware that you now have at least one additional passenger – your partner's new friend – whose feelings need to be respected in the process. (Just as an aside, has it occurred to you that she might interpret your partner's desire for you as evidence that his desire for her doesn't really count, since the whole point of dating was apparently to spice up his sex life with you? Hmmm.) 

I want to leave you with one final thought. If your partner tells you, explicitly or implicitly, that he wants to have sex with you, there is only ONE thing you need to figure out, and that is NOT whether he means what he says. The only thing you need to figure out is this: Do you want to have sex with him? If the answer no, it doesn't matter why he wants you. You're not into it. Simply tell him so, as clearly and kindly as you can, and move on. If the answer is yes, it still doesn't matter why he wants you. What he thinks about, in the private sanctuary of his own mind, is actually none of your business. So just get over yourself, and get busy! If you're anything like me, you will feel much better afterward. 

Jams & Jellies,