21 June, 2016
So I'll be your friend
And I'll be your lover
'Cause I know in our hearts we agree
We don't have to be one or the other
We could be both to each other
Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska, "Friends and Lovers (Both To Each Other)" (1986)
That's yet another of the songs that hit home with a resounding "of course" the first time I heard it. I guess you could say I'm a relationship anarchist from way back.
I hate that term, by the way, almost as much as I hate "friends with benefits". Anarchy to me implies not freedom, but chaos. Call me poly, call me openhearted, call me anything but an anarchist. Especially since, for somebody whose ideal involves the blurring of lines, in real life the lines have always been sharp and pointed.
And respected. I'm not known as a walking safe space for nothing. Establish a boundary and while I might push it a little in mutual play, when the chips are down I'm firmly on my side.
But while I may hate the term, I am, at heart, a relationship anarchist. It's because of my beliefs about boundaries.
Boundaries are fluid in polyamory. Within a relationship, they are distinct from rules, which are hard, non-negotiable limits on behaviour. Incidentally, poly or mono, the fewer rules in your relationship, the better chance that relationship has of lasting happily. Rules go where trust should be.
Boundaries are different: they change as the relationhip does. Safer sex is a common boundary: after a time sufficient to establish trust, partnes may 'fluid-bond', but not before. Other boundaries might involve places, intimacy levels, time together, or even something as momentous as shared living arrangements or children.
Anyone who squirms at the notion of children and polyamory ought to think really hard on the phrase "it takes a village..." As is often the case, objections are based in fundamental misunderstandings of what polyamory actually is. It's not about the sex so much as it is about the relationships, and the more loving, stable relationships around a child, the better. One family member loses her job; others pick up the slack. There's more likely to be someone available for quality time, and the child will gain exposure to more viewpoints and thus (hopefully) become more empathic. Of course, this is assuming a properly functioning poly household. Dysfunctional poly is just as bad as dysfunctional monogamy, i.e. bickering, abuse and divorce.
Anyway...Many poly people (by no means all) find that once they've opened up their hearts, the rules they used to live by become boundaries instead. Relationship signifiers may shift. People may move between friends and lovers, or lovers and friends. This is, in my mind at least, the inevitable byproduct of living by the poly maxim that serves as the basis for MORE THAN TWO, the go-to text on the subject: "The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship".
Ideally, the downshifts happen without acrimony: it's simply a case of putting the person before the relationship. "This arrangement doesn't work for you anymore; let's try being friends instead". Would that more monogamous people lived that way, but all too often they've been led to believe that the relationship is more important than the people in it. Thus you stay married "for the sake of the children", even if your marriage is loveless or worse; your relationship is successful if it lasts a long time, with no regard to whether or not you grow or wither within it.
Does this seem selfish to you? It did to me, at first blush. Then I remembered that, in Heinlein's immortal definition, the state of love exists when someone else's happiness is essential to your own. In ANY relationship, you ought to be looking out for each other and checking in: does this arrangement still serve you? If both of you are committed to doing this, odds are excellent you'll catch problems early and your partnership will prosper.
I'm in a relationship right now that has tested my boundaries like no other.
Oh, don't get me wrong: we're friends, never were anything else, will almost certainly never BE anything else. In that respect the boundaries have held and will hold fast. But otherwise--
Well, start with the facile observation I've made before, more than once: "friends" is pitifully inadequate to describe this level of emotional intimacy. Nor does it account for that sense of time-stop you get with deep relationships, where five hours go by in a moment and two months becomes two hours. One Facebook meme referred to this space between friend and lover as a "flirtationship", while another one I found on r/polyamory several years ago called it "smit", as in "she and I are up smit's creek" or "well, we're in deep smit now!" That's....apt.
I thought that this might be a "game changer". and actually voiced the thought. Once. That's the kind of disruptive love that poly people dread: the kind of thing that opens up undreamed of possibilities and upends lives. Most relationships aren't game changers. Most new relationships are simply new relationships following more or less the patterns of older ones. But every once in a while you find somebody that so changes your perception of yourself and life in general that you get swept up and away.
The reason I thought I might be in that situation was simply due to unprecedented depth of feeling over a very short time, coupled with a lust I haven't felt to anything near that degree in...a very long time. The two together nearly unmanned me. As it turns out, this flirtationship, this smit-show, is not a game changer at all. It is, in fact, the same game I've played many a time before. This time, though, I wasn't just playing with myself. Double entendre definitely intended. That one change shifted the dynamics of the thing into something utterly out of my life\s experience. which left me flailing for a while. People don't return my serves!
Eva, my rock in this as in everything else, actually let me muse about game changers without ripping my head off, merely asking for clarification, and with amusement, exasperation, and deep, deep love, let me flail, trusting that things would work out as they eventually did. Every man should be so lucky as to have an Eva at home: such a bottomless well of love is beyond price. I love you, love: the game we played was for keeps.
I have admitted to a powerful temptation to discard my ethics with respect to pre-existing relationships. I struggled with that for about three weeks, all told. It felt like three years. You will doubtless be as pleased as I to know that I got control of my wayward ethics and harnessed every last one of them. It was a near thing, because that pre-existing relationship was on unsteady ground (not, I repeat, NOT my doing) for a little while there.
I've never in my life so dearly wanted somebody to consider polyamory, and that was a boundary broken, to my shame. I have always resolved to simply live a poly life and let its benefits speak for themselves, but my want got the better of me here. I knew where she stood...the same place most people stand, not with me...and I tried anyway. I regret that. I regret that because it's interfering with pre-existing relationships through a back door. To borrow a phrase wrongly applied to polyamory, I was looking for a way to ethically cheat. Except, of course, there is nothing ethical about cheating.
We're still working on the final boundaries that will protect that other relationship, which must be done. They're slippery little buggers, those boundaries, partly because of emotional closeness and partly because we both have, shall we say, a cheeky streak. But my heart is in the right place, finally. and so is hers. I told her as I commenced my falling, maybe three days into talking to her, that come what may and whatever I did, I would always respect her.
That's no boundary. That's an ironclad RULE.
In a scant three months -- not even -- she has gifted me with confidence and upped my game considerably. In return, I got a start on convincing her she's loveable; he can finish the job, with my utmost respect and gratitude.
I'm always going to love her, because I don't know how to turn love off. But I can confine it to its proper boundaries in my life, and that, for her sake and mine, I have done.
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