By Cascade Spring Cook
Based on interviews
with Steve and Maxine
(These are pseudonyms)
(My comments are in italics)
Do you have to live together to have a serious relationship? For some people that’s a requirement. They want as much time together as they can get, or living separately is a sign to them of a lack of commitment. Other couples prefer to have a lot of alone time, or even require it. Steve and Maxine, for example, each have their own residence, and both prefer to live alone. Neither has had kids. Steve says that he has “already wrecked a couple of relationships by cohabiting, so I know what I need.” He likes his relationship with Maxine, and wants it to continue, and feels that things work better when they’re living separately. “Maxine and I have made some conscious choices. Not living together and not being financially interdependent, that knocks out about 95% of all the sources of stress that most couples end up with.” To demonstrate his point, he mentions a couples workshop that they went to. He and Maxine had a lovefest at that workshop, while the couples who lived together were deep in their struggles. So by living separately they get to share the good times, and avoid the stresses that come from someone else having different preferences. They’ve had plenty of time to discover their personal preferences: Steve is 55, and Maxine 47.
When monogamy meets polyamory
Steve is a natural to polyamory. While he says he sometimes experiences envy (a feeling that “Geez, I would like to be doing that with her”), he does not experience jealousy (the feeling that “I don’t want her to be doing that with him”). The jealousy that Othello experienced never made sense to him. He has never felt monogamous, though he tried to be monogamous in his first marriage. However, he would reach a point where he could no longer tolerate monogamy, and he thought the only way to keep his relationship together was to have an affair. This was before he discovered that there actually were other people who wanted to play like he does, who are interested in living life on the same terms that appeal to him. By the time he met Maxine, he had discovered some of those other people and was comfortably polyamorous. He was convinced that monogamy would be too restrictive for him.
Maxine, however, expected a monogamous relationship. This is an almost classical bind. One person wants monogamy, and the other wants polyamory, and the two struggle with this issue for some time. Often the relationship remains strained, or eventually they break up when the resentment and frustration become too much. Steve and Maxine have been together for 8 ˝ years, and are delighted to be together, so they’ve successfully navigated that hurdle.
Maxine’s desire for monogamy came up early in their dating. Steve remembers that moment as a time when he could easily have backed off, seeing that they wanted different things from the relationship, and therefore they weren’t well suited to be together. He’s glad he had the sense to ask her, “What is it you actually want from monogamy?” As he recalls, with great appreciation for her courage, without skipping a beat she replied, “I want to feel special.”
Maxine remembers having had some time to think about it. Hearing him say something about polyamory had rattled her. At the time she had bad associations with poly - her experience of open relationships was observing the problems of friends who tried it. For them it was the first stage of breaking up. So she took a few days to process the idea, and then came back and asked Steve to tell her more about it, while at the same time letting him know she didn’t think it would work. As they talked about it, she decided to see where things went, since it was still too early in the relationship to expect a commitment. Since then he has quite successfully put in the effort to let her know that she is number one. “After that,” she explains, “he really made it a project to let me know that I was special to him, and that made me feel secure enough in the relationship so that him having other relationships didn’t bother me.” Part of her success in feeling secure initially involved keeping his other relationships out of her awareness. She put her strong powers of denial to good use, and avoided any thoughts of Steve’s interactions with other women.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Many people talk about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) relationships. In many cases it’s little more than pretending that it’s okay to have an affair. It’s complicated, because if you’re entering into a relationship with someone who is operating under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, you can’t actually ask the spouse if they do in fact agree to the situation. I’ve heard many stories where DADT didn’t work, and am perhaps biased against them because I know they wouldn’t work for me. However, Steve and Maxine have actually made it work. One aspect is that because they don’t live together, she doesn’t have to wonder why he is late or out all night. He also agreed initially that his other relationships would not be close to home. He would simply continue relationships in a different state where he had lived previously. That way it did not affect his time with her, since he had other reasons to be out of town in any case.
For Steve, there is a world of difference between an affair and DADT. When he was having an affair in previous relationships, he had to work to keep it a secret. It involved an active withdrawal of intimacy. With Maxine, however, he realizes that she’s entitled to ask for whatever helps her feel good. He would prefer more candor, but is willing to go along with Maxine’s request not to talk about other sexual relationships. If Maxine asks a question that might reveal more than he thinks she wants to know, he asks her if she really wants to know, because he’s quite willing to tell her.
Maxine acknowledges that one of the ways she made it work was that she simply didn’t think about Steve being sexual with someone else. She didn’t want to know about it, and as long as she didn’t dwell on it, it didn’t upset her. The key for her is being the primary partner, being number one, and Steve makes it very clear to her that she is indeed number one. She also has a strong sense of privacy and a recognition that the two of them are autonomous people. She does not have a great curiosity about what he’s doing with his time when they are not together. She guards her privacy by keeping some things to herself, and clearly gives him the right to privacy as well (more than he asks for or even wants). This is a great contrast to the people who are preoccupied by what their partner might be doing with someone else. So if you have a problem with jealousy, just don’t think about what your partner is doing. Maxine makes it sound very easy, at least for her.
This is a special case in which DADT has worked very well, because of a combination of factors: living separately, allowing privacy, and avoiding thoughts that might be disturbing. In general, a lot of poly relationships would be a lot smoother if the participants had the strength of focus that Maxine exhibits, and managed to avoid obsessing about activities which make them jealous or upset.
Over time, DADT has tended to fade away. Because it required a change in their agreement, Steve talked with Maxine when he began a relationship with Doris, a woman who lives only two hours away. Maxine found it challenging at first, but gradually became desensitized, and realized she could handle the situation. Doris wanted to meet her, because Doris had been burned in the past by lovers who were lying when they claimed to have the agreement of their wives. This meeting was helpful for Maxine, partly because she could see how dissimilar she is from Doris, and how Doris filled a different niche. Also, Doris told her about her own experiences and feelings. Maxine found it very helpful to hear that even an experienced poly person can be jealous at times, and to learn that it’s good to talk to your partner about those feelings when they occur. Since this time, Steve has told her when he’s visiting Doris, which has been helpful because that lets her know whether he’s available to give her some help if she needs it (for example when she was dealing with some medical issues). They still avoid talking about the details of his relationships, however.
Does polyamory necessarily include sex?
Is sex a required part of a poly relationship? This question is sometimes vigorously debated in poly email groups. Steve’s answer is no. He notes that his emotional connections have caused problems in his prior relationships. For example, his exwife became jealous of his relationship with his brother. His intellectual soul mate is a woman with whom he had a passionate affair for about a year. After that the sex drifted out of their relationship, but the emotional connection remained. In the years since then they’ve been firmly in each other’s lives, and totally unwilling to forgo their friendship for the sake of someone else. So he feels this relationship is part of his polyness, even though it no longer has a sexual element to it. He thinks the emotional aspect is at least as important as the sexual aspect of a relationship. Maxine had some pangs of jealousy about this woman at first, but now she’s more secure in her relationship with Steve, including her intellectual relationship with him, so it no longer bothers her.
Commitment – what is it?
One of the ways that Steve and Maxine’s relationship is different from many monogamous relationships (or even many other poly relationships) is that they have a strong emphasis on only being together because they want to be, not because they’ve made a commitment. Steve comments that he hasn’t been looking for exits to their relationship because Maxine isn’t blocking them. That’s partly because they are not living together, but also he knows that she would find it degrading to hold on to a relationship that her partner didn’t want to be in. This is in contrast to his previous lover:
“I remember at the end of the last live-in relationship, I had said to my then partner something along the lines of, ‘This isn’t working, and I don’t think it’s your fault or my fault, I think I just need to live alone.’ And I was perfectly willing to continue the relationship, I just wanted to renegotiate it. Her response was, ‘I’m not going to let you do that.’ And so I asked her if she really wanted to be in a relationship where the other person didn’t want to be in it, and her response was, ‘I don’t really care what you feel about it.’ I’m paraphrasing, but that’s essentially what she was saying. ‘Since you started this relationship with me, I expect you to have it whether you want to have it or not.’”
Steve thinks that this is a fairly common attitude towards commitment, but it clearly does not work for him at all. When I press him about his sense of commitment to Maxine, and whether they are likely to be together for the long term, he sidesteps the question. “We’ve never wanted to extract a promise. I guess we’re just enough alike that neither of us has ever thought that a promise to feel some way in the future was worth that much. You might feel like it was something you wanted, and I really can’t speak for other people, but it’s nothing that I’ve wanted or that she’s wanted.” He says their commitment is to honesty. Steve wouldn’t stay in a relationship with someone who was only with him because she had said that she would be. He does say, however, that he’s madly in love with Maxine.
The word commitment as much as anything seems to be the hangup. Steve says,
“I don’t know what we could add that would make our relationship stronger. I’m satisfied that our attraction on many levels is strong enough to keep us together. I have no desire to go elsewhere. I think that our personalities line up so well that it would be hard to find anything that would fit better. So I think it’s our mutual satisfaction with what we have that’s keeping us together rather than some idea that we’d be together because we’d agreed upon it.”
Maxine has a more pragmatic view of commitment. She comments that Steve was surprised a couple of years ago when she told him she considered that they were in a committed relationship. She explains, “As far as I’m concerned, we are in a committed relationship in that we’re primary partners, and the relationship would not change without us discussing it and agreeing to it. I guess for me it means that I feel secure in this primary relationship, and I don’t know exactly what it means to him, but in my mind, as far as I’m concerned, we have a committed relationship.” She doesn’t see any reason it wouldn’t last, since they are both very happy with it.
For many people, emotional closeness involves being able to talk with your partner about anything and everything. Steve and Maxine have managed to create what for them is a close to perfect relationship without that, specifically when it comes to Steve’s other relationships. At Maxine’s request, Steve doesn’t talk about his other lovers and his feelings for other women. He felt a great deal of NRE with Doris, and was concerned at first that it might be threatening to Maxine. However over the course of the first year, he noticed that he was spending more time during the week being emotionally open, so it actually increased his openness with Maxine as well as with Doris. Maxine comments that Steve has shielded her from his NRE, so that she was effectively unaware of it. In the same way, when Doris broke off the sexual aspect of their relationship, Maxine did not want to be his confidante and hear about his feelings. She doesn’t feel any need to know everything he’s thinking. In this case she felt somewhat weird that she first heard about his sadness about his breakup with Doris when he expressed his feelings in a HAI (Human Awareness Institute) support group they were attending, but it was still okay.
Sexuality and connection
Steve describes himself as bisensual, though his basic orientation is heterosexual. He can sometimes feel a sexual charge around guys, but hasn’t been attracted to doing more than occasionally kissing the odd cute one. He’s been moderately sexual with couples, but “When I’m with couples I don’t tend to focus on one partner or the other, that’s the whole point, but what that usually means is that we’re not all that sexual anyway. It’s more sexual energy than tab A into slot B. It’s more cuddly and snuggling.” He’s open to emotional connection with men, but it doesn’t go as deep because he finds that
“The sexual connection is one of the ways to emotional connection. And that said, I’m not that interested in sex that isn’t open to an emotional connection, but it’s kind of a synergistic dialectical process. That is, the opening up to sexuality tends to put me in a place where I want to be more open to emotions, and that makes sex better, and round and round.”
Steve pretty much has the kind of sex life he fantasized about when he was first being sexual, which is starting out Friday night and not getting out of bed until Sunday morning except for bathroom breaks and eating. Well, they do have some activities, but they like to spend a lot of time snuggling and being sexual. He has some difficulty reaching orgasm, and usually doesn’t get enough stimulation in intercourse, but that has its advantages. He can spend the whole weekend without climaxing and feel very satisfied sexually. They spend a lot of time in a love space and snuggling up. His enjoyment of that is obvious when he says, “Sometimes I think that we have the hot sex that we have just to get us into the place where we’re snuggly.” The emotional connection in sex is very important to him, so eye gazing and playing with the sexual energy are important.
Maxine comments that their relationship has been very passionate from the beginning:
“On our very first date, while we didn’t have sexual intercourse, we exchanged sexual energy in a way that I had never done before and that I didn’t know was possible. We both had our clothes on, no one touched anybody else’s genitals, but there was a tremendous amount of sexual energy being exchanged, and it really blew me away.”
Even committed polys sometimes become monogamous
People change, and even experienced poly people sometimes find they react in ways they didn’t expect. Steve’s relationship with Doris shows some of the surprises that can come up in polyamory, and the courage that Steve says is required “to do hard stuff with people you’re intimately involved with.” Doris was very committed to polyamory when she and Steve became involved, but after a year or so she fell in love with another man. Steve was initially thrilled, because he’s glad when someone he’s peripherally involved with develops a primary relationship. He knew they might have less time together, but he didn’t expect her to cut it down to zero. But that’s what happened when she lost interest in spending time with anyone other than her new partner. Steve and Doris made the transition with good communication, but that didn’t make him feel any better. However, they’re still committed to honesty and communication and encouraging each other to show up big in the world, and even continue to lead some classes together. She has told him she doesn’t expect her current partner to be the last man she has sex with, but for now he’s the only one she’s interested in.
This change in Doris didn’t surprise her mother; even though she is also polyamorous, she thinks that most people will become monogamous when they find the person they’re truly interested in. When Steve mentioned that that is not his experience, her response was simply, “Well, you’re a guy.” This is an example of the attitude that some people call “polyamorous while looking.”
Occasionally Steve has thought that polyamory is an amazing amount of trouble, and has very briefly considered being monogamous with Maxine. But then he realized that the moment he agreed to be monogamous, he’d start thinking about what he didn’t have, so it’s better for their relationship to avoid that. In any case, Maxine accepts him just the way he is. One day when she was talking about how perfect their relationship was, he commented, “Except for that one thing.” She contradicted him, “No, I wouldn’t actually have you any other way, now that I know who you are.” Now if he wanted to become monogamous with her, he’d have to ask her permission.
While Maxine is still monogamous, she enjoys the sense of freedom she has that comes from knowing that if she were attracted to someone else, she could have another sexual relationship without losing Steve. However, she values her alone time too much to want to spend time on another relationship.
Steve is fairly out about being polyamorous, anywhere it makes sense. Since it was important to him to discover that there were other people who didn’t do well with monogamy, he will gladly out himself if someone asks him a question that leads in that direction. One of his reasons is that if the person happens not to resonate with monogamy, he wants that person to know they’re not the only one. And if they are monogamous by nature, as he thinks 95% of people are, he’d still like them to know who he is. Finding a community in which his style of relating was not seen as strange, and is even accepted, was very helpful to him.
Maxine would like people to know that it can work for a monogamous person to have a polyamorous partner. It has worked very well for her. She thinks it’s also important for people to realize that there are many ways to do polyamory.
An important benefit of polyamory to Steve is that he can live authentically, and it has given him many opportunities for growth. However, he has run into the common poly problem that love may not be limited, but time and energy are.
© 2009 by Elaine CookOther Poly Stories
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