I’m going a bit out of my normal range for this entry, but I’ve been inspired by my favorite relationship blogger, Susan Walsh. In a recent blog entry, a young woman asked for advice on how to handle a guy who’s perfectly happy with a situation that doesn’t “have a label.” For those of you living in Patagonia, that means that they’re hanging out and having sex, but he doesn’t want to use the “R” word. As it turns out, I was recently asked for relationship advice from a male friend who was in the same situation. The advice I suggested for both Meghan and my friend was exactly the same. You can check out Susan’s blog if you want to know what it was.
In this blog, I want to focus on a common — I would say nearly ubiquitous — misunderstanding about the word “relationship.” As my regular readers know, I believe that at least half of our errors in critical thinking occur because we either use words improperly or conflate terms. I don’t know if there’s a more glaring example than the relationship conflation.
First, let’s talk about what most of us mean when we say, “I’m in a relationship.” Generally, we mean that we’re having sex with someone monogamously, and that we also share our lives outside of the bedroom to some degree or another. It can be anything from calling everyday, or sleeping at each other’s house more nights than not, or living together. We usually meet each other’s parents, have lunch and dinner together often, watch tv, and just hang out together. (Curiously, we stop using the “R Word” when we get married. Isn’t that strange?)
I’ve devoted several posts to dispelling the myth that this is the only kind of relationship that humans can successfully maintain. For one thing, strict monogamy is not the norm for humans. Most of us will have sex with ten or twelve people in our lifetime. More if we were born in the 70s or 80s. (Who knows about the 90s children!) Of these, probably three or four will be “serious long term relationships” including but not limited to marriage. Some of us will have “open relationships.” In other parts of the world, polygamy is still quite common.
I’m not highlighting all of these options to suggest that they are what we should be trying to get. Instead, I’m trying to shake you out of the tunnel vision approach to relationships, where the word literally means “committed, long-term, monogamous mated pair.” Instead, I want to introduce you to a much broader, and significantly more useful concept of relationships. (Remember, a lot of what we believe to be the “natural order” of things was a clever land grab by the Catholic Church.)
Ok. Enough build-up already. Here’s the simple version. You’re in a relationship with lots of different people, and each of them is a slightly different relationship. From the moment you say “yes” to a potential suitor, whether you’ve been asked on a date, or asked to give a blowjob in the bathroom, you’re in a relationship. Relationships are defined by what each person gives and gets. In these two examples, the relationships would be described something like this:
- He and she are currently ok with having random sexual hookups with each other, and they both get sexual thrills from it.
- He and she are currently expressing sexual interest in each other, and they are both interested in potentially trying each other on for size, as it were.
Make no mistake. These are relationships. They’re just not very serious relationships, and there are no long term promises. But that’s the thing. Relationships don’t have to involve long term promises to be effective or satisfying. For instance, the girl at the noodle shop a few blocks from my house goes and gets me an unsweet tea before I even get to the counter to order. She remembers me and gives me this little bit of extra service. I tip her more than average as a way of saying “thank you.” I never promise to return, and she never promises to be there next time I come. But we have a relationship.
Back to Meghan, the twenty-three year old with the commitment-shy guy. What she needs to get a grasp on is that she’s in a relationship. They give each other company, sex, and someone to call in an emergency (hopefully). At this point, their relationship is non-monogamous — very much like most beginning relationships. They have not promised each other that they will be monogamous, and he has (through the sin of omission) as much as admitted that he might sleep with someone else in the future.
Oh… one other thing. Non-monogamous relationships aren’t the same as polygamous relationships. You don’t have to be sleeping with more than one person to be non-monogamous. You just have to have the “contractual right” within your relationship. A relationship becomes monogamous when both people promise each other that they will be monogamous. Until then, strictly speaking, all bets are off. Yeah, I know, that’s not the way most people feel about it, but that’s what I’m trying to help change.
Meghan is so focused on getting into a relationship that she hasn’t realized she’s in one. This has caused her to make a fundamental mistake. She’s acting as if she is in the kind of relationship she wants, not the kind she’s in. She’s committed herself to monogamy, and will be hurt if he doesn’t do the same. She has committed to being there for him anytime he needs her, and hopes he will do the same for her.
But her sly not-quite-boyfriend knows the rules better than she does. If he sleeps with someone else, he will rightly say, “But Meghan, we didn’t promise to be monogamous.” If he doesn’t want to take time out for her to complain about her day, he will rightly say, “But Meghan, we didn’t promise to be there for each other. This is just casual.”
And he’s right. Yes, I know that he knows he’s taking advantage of her. But for crying out loud, could we take control of our own lives and stop being victims? Were she more reserved with her commitments, she would have more control.
The damage has already been done between Meghan and her Beau. She’s over-committed without demanding an equal return on her investment. She let the existing relationship get lopsided in his favor. Her only choices now are to cut her losses, or to change her position and pull back. But her heart’s already there, so it’s going to be tough.
Had she realized all along that when they had sex (and even before) they were in a relationship, she could have been more savvy. She could have waited for him to ask for more commitment, or asked for it herself, before investing anything more than he was investing. She could have kept the playing field level, and not given away most of her bargaining chips.
Yeah, I know. It’s harder than that in real life. Most of us, when confronted by a desirable person who wants to rip our clothes off and do all manner of dirty things to us, tend to cling to them like a Titanic survivor clinging to a floating deck chair. We don’t like to admit it, but most of us don’t think of ourself as God’s gift to the desirable sex. We think of every new sexual encounter as a rarity.
And then there’s the sexual ethics dilemma. Women especially are terrified of their “number.” Judeo-Christian Mythology has taught us that women with many sexual partners are loose.* Whores. Sluts. Cheap. Flighty. Dirty. Unfit for marriage. We speak of the “walk of shame.” Many women have had it rammed down their throats for so long that there’s an even greater desire to make “this one” work, regardless of how much actual sense it makes. Once a woman has had sex with a man, her number has gone up, and damn it to hell, she’s going to make it count. Otherwise, it will have been meaningless sex.**
So yeah. I get it. There are a lot of reasons why it’s damn hard to keep our cool and not over-commit. It’s even harder to keep our options open after we’ve had sex the first time with someone new.*** I get it. But we live in a hookup culture, and the reality is that among teens and twenty-somethings, most relationships begin with sex, and then hash out the whole compatibility thing. Within that paradigm, the winners will be the ones who realize that sex does not mean commitment, and casual fun does not mean escalation. The smart daters, both men and women, will control themselves enough to give only what has been given, and — what a concept — ask for more when they want it, and not give any more until they get it. Crazy, huh?
It risks a lot. Some of our partners will not agree to our requests, and we’ll be forced to make the hard decisions earlier than we would have otherwise. But in fairness, is it better to be in a lopsided relationship for six months before running headlong into the overwhelming evidence (yelled in unison by all of your friends for the last four months) that you gave too much too soon?
So the moral of the story is this. Stop thinking of relationships so narrowly. Give yourself permission to be in a casual, non-monogamous (though not necessarily polygamous) relationship. Give yourself permission to let your number go up without guilt if you did the right thing by cutting your losses early. Respect yourself enough to give what you receive, and give up on the fairy tale that giving more than your partner will work magic. It doesn’t. It just makes you the giver and them the taker. Realize that relationships aren’t magic. They’re contracts between two people. They’re trade. You’re giving, they’re getting, and vice versa. Neither of you would be in it if you weren’t getting.
It’s very hard to use our critical thinking brains when we’re overcome by love-endorphins. But the more we drill ourselves with the reality of beginning relationships, the better prepared we will be when one of our friends has the gall to suggest that maybe we’re jumping in a little bit too fast. Long-term committed monogamous relationships are the final step in a series of relationships. If we think of them that way, and forget about this whole “I’ve got to get my boyfriend/girlfriend into a relationship” nonsense, things will go a lot better. I promise.
So what about the practical How-To Guide? How do we make the change from jumping into the deep end to proceeding step by step as a tandem? The simplest answer is to ask questions. Most of us are afraid of asking questions, and it’s important that we understand why. In most cases, we don’t ask because we already know the answer, and it’s not what we want to hear. But this is exactly how we can break out of bad patterns. We can confront ourselves with the truth, and force our own hand.
A word of warning. There are two kinds of questions. One is really a demand in hiding. Even though there’s a question mark at the end, this is a demand: “Honey, can we be an exclusive couple?” And notice, it’s not even really asking for any information about our partner. It’s demanding something for ourselves. Instead of demanding change, we can ask for information. In learning about our partner’s feelings, desires, and fears, we will learn whether or not we will be given what we want, and we don’t have to demand a thing.
Here are some examples of good questions that give us information about what our partner wants.
- Are you sleeping with anyone else? Do you always use a condom with them? Have you seen their latest STD test? (Ooooh… that’s a hard one, isn’t it!)
- Can I see your latest STD test? (Oooooooohhh… even harder!)
- What does the sex we had last night mean to you?
- Do you think this is all you wanted, or do you want to see if there’s something more going on?
- What does it mean to you that we’ve spent the night together every night for two weeks?
- Do you want this relationship to grow into something more, or are you happy where it is?
- (If they want something more) What kind of changes would make you feel like you were getting something more?
- (When given the answer, “I’m happy where it is.”) Can you think of something that might change in the future that would make you want more out of this relationship? What would it be?
If you’re human, you cringed at least once while reading that list. Those are hard damn questions to ask. But, many a wise philosopher has said that knowledge comes from listening, not speaking. These are all very short questions we can ask our new lovers. The answers will give us a LOT of very useful information. In some cases, they will convince us not to have sex with the person again, and our number will go up. That is part of the risk of honesty and openness. The reward, however, is that we stand a far better chance of getting into a long term, committed relationship with someone who is in touch with their feelings and capable of asking and answering honest questions, and not playing games.
*If we just did a little bit of homework, we’d realize that lots of sexual activity makes the vagina tighter. Squeezing a penis is the same as doing Kegels. Where did the myth of the well used, loose vagina come from, anyway?
** There are so many myths to dispel in this entry. For crying out loud, I’d have to do a whole new blog to have a library of articles dispelling all the myths. Let’s get this clear. All sex has meaning. Some of it means you get an orgasm you desperately wanted. Some of it means you’re cementing a long-term commitment. Some of it means you feel very sorry for your friend who’s been hurt very badly, and just want to comfort him. There is NO SUCH THING AS MEANINGLESS SEX.
*** No, I’m not saying I think everyone should sleep with several people at once. I’m saying that in this culture, sex happens, and being in a casual sexual relationship with one person is no reason to rule out the possibility of finding someone who wants more. It’s not inherently wrong to be sexually satisfied while looking for a long term partner.