So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

26 August, 2007

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations

One of the useful things about looking at the world on a slant is that I have no shortage of reminders that other people are not me. Though it's often a little bit disconcerting, because there's this sort of chasm of comprehension sitting there and I have no idea how to start bridging it.

I've been thinking about writing about this one for months; the comments that provoked the original thought are nowhere near current. But anyway.

One of the things that hits me really hard with the "Other people are different from you" cluestick are comments like, "Really, do monogamy because I'm lazy. Anything else is far too complicated."

Monogamy is way too complicated and confusing for me.

You see, I like knowing why things work. I have a hard time operating in systems I don't comprehend, because I am, for a variety of reasons, quite sure I'll wind up stumbling across some case of Breaking The Rules when I didn't pick up on an implication or an unspoken ... thingy, and trying to do that makes me awfully anxious and self-conscious, and I'm way too good at anxiety, self-abuse, and social fuckup to want to choose to do that sort of thing all on its own.

"I'm in a monogamous relationship because I'm not attracted to anyone other than my partner" makes sense to me. It makes no sense to have relationships without, y'know, wanting them. (And it would be hypocritical of me -- someone who hits a point where I just don't want any more relationships -- to dismiss someone who hits that point at 'one' rather than 'two'.) "I'm in a monogamous relationship because I choose to offer that to my partner" more or less makes sense to me. There's stuff that makes sense to me, for various levels of making sense.

But "too complicated" just throws me for a loop.

You know what's complicated, to me? Figuring out these little social boundaries of what is and is not supposed to be an appropriate interaction. I once accidentally hurt my best friend in high school quite badly by napping with my head in his lap on the way home from a concert, which he took as having romantic inclinations. But my social group in high school wound up evolving into the sort of strange organism which would, at parties, wind up lying in a great heap of people in the living room floor staring at the ceiling fan, listening to Erasure, and occasionally saying, "Uh, whose hand is this?" -- without the influence of any drugs whatsoever except perhaps pizza. There's this fellow I had this awfully confusing unrelationship with who wound up dying in my lap during the game of Paranoia in which we met, because I was giving him a backrub. (The friend-of-friend who'd brought him said, "I thought you two might hit it off.") The folks I spend time with these days are a fairly hug-and-snuggle crowd, and many of our gatherings are in a sort of clothing-fluid household. (Mostly taken advantage of by the owners of the space and by me and my horrible tolerance for heat.)

I don't understand what's supposed to be okay and what's not, under the principles of surrounding monogamy. I know of people who would be horrified by the sort of stuff I consider normal interaction, wouldn't have a relationship with someone who did that.

I hear people going on about "emotional infidelity", and who want to police vigorously against the possibility that someone might have a friendship with a person of the other sex (somehow, I never see this translated for same-sex couples), with vast quantities of "Of course I broke up with my [sex-of-spouse] friends when I married [spouse]" and "We only socialise as a couple". And mostly this just hits all of my "Warning signs for abusers: controlling friendships" buttonisation. (I know this isn't a universal monogamy thing, but it's one of the things that baffles me.)

And then sometimes I get specifics: this set of things is okay to do with someone else, this set of things is not okay. And ... I can't figure out why one thing goes in one list and not the other. I mean, I get emotionally irrational reasons -- I don't fancy the concept of anyone other than my husband trimming my split ends at all -- but these lists are often presented to me as being Obvious. A lot of "Of course one doesn't ..." and I don't ever see a why. And this is where I start getting paranoid, trying to figure out what The Rules for operating this way are, trying to figure out what the principles are, because otherwise the entire territory is this sort of teeter-totter of Unspeakable Consequences. The closest I get is "Don't do something that threatens the security of the relationship", which, okay, yes, I can go for that, but then I get stalled out on "What will threaten the security of the relationship?" and I don't know the rules. Some people say that the boundary is at sex, and I don't understand what differentiates sex from anything else; some people say that the boundary is at certain levels of emotional engagement, and I don't understand what differentiates the 'not-okay' emotions from the 'okay' emotions; some people say things about encouraging or discouraging the emotional stuff that goes off in directions where I don't understand why that sort of effort is worth expending.

I mean, I can start with what threatens me: not having a secure place in the relationship, or having my place in the relationship undermined by lack of time, space, and consideration. Okay, then. But that doesn't say anything about anyone else; it's, to put it in crass terms, "Are my needs being met here, or am I being told my needs will be met by someone who is not doing so?" But this doesn't get me any closer to understanding, because an exclusive relationship does not provide me with time, space, or consideration. I mean, I recognise that there's a cultural symbol-set there, but it's like the symbol-set of Catholicism to me -- I see it, I can translate it roughly, but none of that brings me salvation, or an understanding of why 'salvation' is something I should be pursuing. There's some impressive art, though.

The thing about the invisible boundary between friends and lovers is that it's invisible. And trying to navigate what's okay around there is too complicated for me. I much rather let relationships settle where they're quiet and stable and don't take too much work and self-conscious staring at figuring out what's okay.

And, y'know, I've had six lovers in my life, plus some groping. I'm terribly boring that way. And I want a boring, quiet, domestic sort of life, without the drama of new relationships or turmoil or change. That sort of thing I understand. I just can't correlate it in my head with monogamy, because monogamy is too weird and risky to be satisfyingly dull.


Anonymous said...

I like how you write about this very much.

I have funny mixed feelings. When I'm not in a relationship, I'm extremely poly-tolerant, and when I hear people in my social group talk about their poly lifestyle, it sounds great to me, and exactly like what people ought to be doing to live happily.

Yet in my own relationship, I'm not completely comfortable with poly on either side. I'm afraid of losing my intimacy with Jos if I had another lover, and I'm afraid of losing his time if he had another lover. But the relationship is very new and if it goes on for a long time, I may feel differently.

For now, our "rules" are that we can have bdsm scenes with other people as long as we inform each other and the other has the option of being present for the scene. Scenes may include the usual amount of sexual contact. But if we want to have actual sex (whatever the fuck that means; it's not limited to just intercourse but it doesn't include snuggling IMO) then we have to seek the other's permission and there is no presumption of getting a yes.

But in reality, if he wanted to fuck someone else, I'd let him, and I'm pretty sure the reverse is true too. And I had no problem having a threesome with him and his ex-girlfriend.

We don't have rules about friendships, flirtation, or other stuff, but I think it's incumbent on each of us to keep the other informed about feelings and little intimacies that we have with each other. And why not?

So...I don't know. It's all mixed up for me :)

Anonymous said...

Oh, I meant we need to keep each other informed of "feelings and little intimacies" that we have with other people, not with each other. Duh!

Dw3t-Hthr said...

What I tend to think is low-maintenance is for people to do what they understand and what works for the way they think, y'know? I don't care whether people are monogamous, polyamorous, switches; to the extent I care what they do it's at the level of "Are you happy with this, does it stress you out?"

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. What works here may not work there, and that's Okay.

And sometimes I want to shake people a little, maybe shock them into looking at the stuff they take in their axioms, because none of this emotional shit is simple until one chooses an axiom. I suspect when people talk about "complicated" they're talking about stuff like ... how to schedule things, or dealing with emotional messes, or whatever else, and that's stuff that I just file as "What one does in relationships" and ignore the complexity of.

(Never mind that my complexity on there isn't all that complex. I have been known to comment, "I can't have a poly lifestyle. I don't have a Palm Pilot." All these people with dating lives so complex they need a little widget to keep track of them weird me out. Not Boring Enough.)

Trinity said...

Y'know I';ve got some chasms of comprehension shit going on right now because my sexual development happened at parties much like you describe, but the idea that they'd make monoamory make no sense is fritzing my brain. How do these things go together?

I mean, if you are in a "sex whenever whoever wherever" situation... well at least in my experience you've still gotta negotiate. LOTS of free-sharey-touchy people I've met are... not so much with the condoms and the dams and the gloves as me. Maybe you're not either, or maybe there's unspoken safer sex vibes ululating through the party but I get "I don't mind your blood on my mouth" from people I've just met, and so the idea that swimmy energy means no break for discussion of safe sex is totally foreign to me.

And if there's a break for discussion of safe sex... how is there no break for discussion of safe emotion, emotional limits, etc?

That why monoamory's "easy." Because I only have to do that once.

Does that make more sense?

Trinity said...

And that also explains why I'm usually monoGAMOUS too: I'm much more stringent about safe sex with the random people. And you'd be surprised how many people think "willing to have sex so close to first meeting" means "I can whine about the latex."

Path of least resistance: not dealing with that.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Given that I don't know how you leapt from a description of a completely nonsexual situation to "sex whenever whoever wherever", no, you're not making any sense to me whatsoever.

My point is that I don't have any sort of clear understanding of what some people find sexual and thus offlimits and nonsexual and thus okay. (Or for that matter why 'sexual' means 'offlimits'.)

I have no idea where the apparent swing party image came from, and that's the gap I'm talking about: free touch = free sex, what? Contact and physically expressed affection = eroticism, what? I don't understand the customs of this planet.

Trinity said...


How does free touch link to polyamory for you then? What are you talking about? I'm totally confused. You're offering that image as some supposed reason why monoamory would be odd, and... I thought that was because you were saying that you were used to sex being considered nebulous and free.

What are you saying? How does this link to polyamory at all? I'm very touchy myself but monoamorous, so I don't see at all the link you're drawing between the touchy and poly-ness, whether polyamory or nonmonogamy.


Dw3t-Hthr said...

And, I mean, suppose I'm only interested in one person at the moment, which has happened. That doesn't remove the need to negotiate the whole "What is okay to do in normal interactions" question, and I don't have whatever social coding that makes that behaviour setting compatible with standard-issue monogamy.

And if I am interested in someone else, then I still have to work through how to be careful of my own emotional state, how to keep the agreements I have, how to be adequately respectful of that person and of my own state. Making the decision in advance that I will only have one relationship doesn't actually save me any work.

There's still the negotiation of boundaries and comfort levels, and whether or not someone is okay with this thing given various emotional contexts, all of the stuff that's part of interacting with people. I've negotiated touch protocols with people who were and were not interested in me (and vice versa) because that's one of the things that one does. I make decisions about whether and how to express certain emotional reactions to other people whether or not my interactions with those people are constrained in certain ways.

That's an irreducible complexity. I don't choose to add to that complexity by adopting poorly-understood restrictions.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I know people who would consider that sort of touch a violation of monogamy agreements. I don't understand why, and I don't understand why it matters.

I know people who would consider falling in love with someone and not doing anything about it a violation of monogamy agreements. I don't understand why, and I don't understand why it matters.

I know people who would consider getting significant emotional support from a person of the same sex as one's partner to be a violation of monogamy agreements. I don't understand why, and I don't understand why it matters.


These magic invisible boundaries that I'm supposed to Just Know ... I don't know.

Trinity said...

"I know people who would consider that sort of touch a violation of monogamy agreements. I don't understand why, and I don't understand why it matters."

Neither do I, at all, which brings me back to my question: what are you asserting about monogamy by talking about that sort of touch? I'm totally not sure of your thought process here.

Or are you just saying, when you say "monoamory isn't less complicated" that you have the particularly odd subset of monoamorous people who WOULD consider that a violation of agreements in mind, and are using them to illustrate the whole?

Because I don't see what you're connecting the touch to here.

Trinity said...

"These magic invisible boundaries that I'm supposed to Just Know ... I don't know."

Who said this? I am totally perplexed. Huh? No one knows anyone's boundaries without asking... whaaaaaa?

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I'm not trying to "assert" anything about monogamy/monoamory at all other than I DON'T UNDERSTAND HOW TO DO IT.

Goddamn. I'm not writing a polemic, I'm saying, "Isn't it funny what some people understand and some people don't? Variety in humanity is a funky thing."

I am not in a mental state to be useful here; everyone today manages to convey to me an impression that they think I'm batshit insane, from my liege on down. I may be able to respond more later.

Anonymous said...

My impression is that the people who say "Of course one [does/doesn't]..." are, generally speaking, simply folks whose social circles all share that same attitude, and that claims of Obviousness are just a result of humans being so amazingly good at overinferring from limited data.

Or, to put it another way, they're full of horse pocky. Not maliciously so - I'm sure I've done it myself on occasion - but nonetheless.

(Of course, my observation of this could also be an overinference from limited data, but hey. I think it's at least a reasonable working hypothesis.)


S.L. Bond said...

Hi there -- I'm one of your regular readers. I don't believe I've commented before. As a monogamy-practicing person, I thought this post was really interesting.

Based on this entry, it seems to me like it isn't monogamy that you don't understand -- it's arbitrary, restrictive social roles, which I don't understand either. The kind of monogamy you describe as confusing is confusing, or anyway should be, because it's something people adhere to because it's the default heteronormative model (it's done out of laziness, it includes weird sexist rules like the whole not having friends of the sex of one's partner business, etc).

Monogamy as practiced by more thoughtful people makes a lot more sense: I'm monogamous because, so far, I fall in love with people one at a time. 'One' seems to be the number of partners I am wired for (there are probably socially conditioned reasons for this, I guess, but that's the way it is). Some people may be wired for two, or zero, or as many as possible. I think the negotiating, rule-making process is comparable in all of them -- different things are okay with different people, it doesn't matter what they are as long as everyone involved understands.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Okay, now that I've gotten myself slightly saner and packed full of comfort food, trying again using fewer words:

The bafflement of "I don't understand why that sort of touch affection is taken as a problem" is the same bafflement, for me, as "I don't understand why falling in love with someone without doing anything about it is taken as a problem" and "I don't understand why falling in love with someone and wanting to pursue it is taken as a problem."

It's all the same category of stuff-I-don't-get.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Monogamy as practiced by more thoughtful people makes a lot more sense: I'm monogamous because, so far, I fall in love with people one at a time.

As I said in the original post, this makes plenty of sense to me. I don't see any point in starting relationships without wanting to.

I think the negotiating, rule-making process is comparable in all of them -- different things are okay with different people, it doesn't matter what they are as long as everyone involved understands.

Oh yeah. And a lot comes down to what people think is straightforward and matters -- like Darker noted, a lot of the assumptions come about from not examining the question of "What does it mean to be in a relationship?"

One of the ones I've seen hit both monogamous folks and poly folks is stuff like, "Where does your unspecified time go?" With some people figuring hey, we're in a relationship, of course we'll spend our free time together, and other people ... not. And when these two kinds of people get into a relationship with each other, some of the blowups are spectacular.

Thanks for commenting. :)

Trinity said...

"The bafflement of "I don't understand why that sort of touch affection is taken as a problem" is the same bafflement, for me, as "I don't understand why falling in love with someone without doing anything about it is taken as a problem" and "I don't understand why falling in love with someone and wanting to pursue it is taken as a problem.""

Okay. I think the reason I do see a difference is because I see a difference between -gamy and -amory.

"amory" is about love. And No, I don't have any issue with people falling in love multiple times. But I think a lot of people who are puzzled by polyamory (and I mean the puzzled ones, not the hostile ones) are thinking "LOVE is an emotion; RELATIONSHIPS are work." Beause intimate relationships, as deeply rewarding as they are, are some of the most upkeep-requiring forms of interaction on the planet. They're like Bonsai trees in the sense that they require constant, careful attentiveness.

And I think for a lot of people who are monoamorous by default, polyamory looks "too complicated" because it's that relationship-upkeep they're thinking of. They're thinking of how it's often a lot more demanding than one first thinks ("Oh, I'm in love with Jill. As long as we feel this way about one another, what can go wrong?") and how that will feel to suddenly be faced with twice or more times than that.

On top of which there's also, for many people, the question of living together or not. It's even harder to do the upkeep of a relationship if you're doing it long distance, on the one hand.

On the other, three or more people living together have increased potential to develop what I shorthand as "roommate problems." Does everyone agree what's to be done with the dishes? Is intimacy the ideal but the reality petty bickering about that ugly painting in the front hall?

That's part of why the "-amory" part strikes me as complicated. Not because falling in love with multiple people is particularly weird, but because there are two things at play: "feelings" and "relationship." And until they're actually in love with two people at once, I think it can be hard for people to imagine that doing "relationship" twice is worth the effort.

As far as "-gamy" goes, since you brought up free touch... I'm not sure when touch becomes sex either in some universal scale sense. But I am concerned about risk and risk minimization so my brain usually files stuff similarly to my ex-gf: If you could, should, or would use latex or nitrile on or over something, it's "sex".

Dw3t-Hthr said...

My perspective on relationship complexity is another one of those places there's a funny angle, I suspect.

My experience with relationships in general is that they all have a couple of places where they're more stable and less work than others. And those places aren't obvious and continuous in the "less commitment = less work" sort of way.

I mean yes, I spent a while trying to make a relationship with a guy who had commitment and communication issues look like it was marriage-track, and this caused me fuss and drama like anything until I stopped doing the stupid thing. I've also been in a situation where friends-with-benefits would have required ridiculous levels of energy to maintain compared to either friendship or a committed life-partnership.

And friendship is still a relationship, and is not immune from the effort expended to make it work, or from the possibility that some other form of relationship would be less work. (The circumstances with my liege are such that I believe our close partnership takes me less maintenance energy than our friendship did, even taking into account the fact that the friendship only required energy at intervals.)

I spent a while not breaking up with my ex because we weren't in a position where we could move the state back to a stable friendship. And it is now more stable as a friendship, with less energy required, than before we spent five and a half years as partners. (In a long-distance relationship. Agreed: long distance is frequently harder, when the low-energy state of the relationship is such that it works best with casual regular interaction.)