I make people uncomfortable. This is a fact. For those who stick it out, I become one of their best friends. This also is a fact. But the time and energy it takes to move past my defenses and get to know me takes a good bit of effort. I like to think I am a diamond in the rough – with emphasis, of course, more on the “rough.”
When it comes to different gender relationships, that is “boy and girl” or “girl and boy” (assuming of course the boy and girl are both straight) my awkwardness becomes more pronounced. Knowing how abrasive I can be once we get past formalities, I try to make a good first impression. I try to be friendly. Somehow, this often gets translated as me “giving off a vibe” that I am interested in the girl. On my side, I am just making friendly conversation and trying to be personable. This is received as a “come on” or flirtatious.
It’s not just girls. I am told by my friend Chelsea (a lesbian and possessor of strong Gaydar) that I give off this same flirtatious “vibe” to guys as well. In fact, she thought that I was gay before getting to know me. She’s not the first, mind you. I’ve been told by a handful of other people over the years that they “weren’t sure about [me]” until they had been around me a while. For the record (since it is relevant to this article) I am straight. Not bisexual, no bicurious – straight. I will, of course, be perfectly honest and say that given the right circumstances, setting, people, level of comfort, and alcohol that I could be convinced to play around but these conditions are so well-defined that you would have to be a locksmith or chemist to get them all just right.
That said, I now turn back to opposite-gender relationships.
I love women. Like… for real, y’all. Women are where it’s at.
And, as much as I love “the women,” I can also feel uncomfortable around them for a myriad of reasons all related to that certain tension that exists between the sexes. Married women or those in a committed relationship are often an exception. Since they are “taken” I am more likely to feel like I have nothing to win or lose, and so I am free to be myself. No tension exists.
By way of context, I want to confess two things: I was once involved with a married woman. It was an emotional affair, but it went far enough that I felt it necessary to seek forgiveness from her husband and answer the same questions repeatedly over a long period of time to assure him and dispel his random (yet important) questions. For some reason, I feel very more comfortable with women. Two of my three roommates are women and I share a bedroom with one of them. My mother raised me by herself essentially and for many reasons which I would love to share with you, I hold high levels of respect for both my mother and single parents everywhere. It’s tough and the odds aren’t always in your favor. Further, I just feel comfortable around women. I have never been one to “talk shop” with guys at the bar, recite sport stats, punch other guys in the stomach or testicles to prove my manliness, or any variation thereof. In short, guys are boring and women are simply divine so I spend more time with them. It helps, I suppose, that I am able to compartmentalize. I can shop for lingerie with my friends-who-are-girls and it is not sexual, or talk about sex toys and not want to “play” with them. One friend asked me to shop for her wedding dress for her because I “can be honest and give a man’s opinion, but also you know about women’s fashion so you know about that too.”
“Sex ruins a friendship,” he said playfully.
In addition to women, I love sex. But I know how quickly it can erode pre-existing levels of comfort. Especially when I begin talking and “open relating” and how we have more than one sex partner over a lifetime. The ideal is that we settle down and commit to the person we lose our virginity to after marriage. But this isn’t how it happens for the majority of us. Lovers leave, marriages fall apart, people cheat and sex doesn’t “come” ever-and-only after the ring and rites. And so we are defensive, we as a collective people, because sex is seen as a non-renewable resource.
So sex is a word that makes people uncomfortable, (again) especially when I start talking about “open relating” or relationships with the opposite sex outside of marriage. Now, this kind of thing comes naturally when we talk about siblings. I can be friends with my sister and still married to my wife. I am not threatened when my brother talks to my wife for a half hour at Thanksgiving – because we trust these social bonds are platonic. It is the threat of the “outsider” who introduces or who oversteps these boundaries who make us feel uncomfortable.
A sidestory – In Baton Rouge, I have two friends who are married, Jason and Jessica Hughes. When I began college, Jessica and I became friends and I found her honesty refreshing. She was the first person I considered a real “sister” to me. But, if I am being honest, I was also attracted to her for a few days there. At least that is how I remember it – “something” was there. But then the story began to be written in a different direction – Jessica went away for the summer to work as a camp counselor and soon met Jason. Jason, every time he tells the story, says he “literally thought she was an angel at first, she was so beautiful. I just felt like, if there was anything that ever came from Heaven, it was this girl.” And so, in short order, they got married, had kids and began to go through a really bad couple of years in their marriage. They weren’t sure if they were going to stay together. And then… One day… Things changed. They had weathered the storm and had moved and their marriage got better.
That’s not to say things are perfect. I often wonder if “good” marriages ever are. It seems the harder we work to stay in relationship and overcome the differences, the “better” the relationship becomes. If a marriage is “perfect” I worry about the couple. Are they being honest with one another? Is one person stripping the other of opinion?
And so, through a series of strange circumstance, the Hughes and I hadn’t spoken for years. Raising kids and just… wow… Life in general had pushed us to separate corners. And then one day, poof, there I was, like Mary Poppins sleeping on their sofa as though we had been best friends forever, waking up early, going to get coffee with Jessica, talking for hours with her as Jason took the kids here or there. But all accounts, there should have been red flags going up all over the place. But Jessica and I were friends. Whatever “something” had existed didn’t get in the way of loving her as my friend and sister. In other words, Jason felt comfortable with us spending time together – even knowing that I had once been involved with a married woman – because Jessica and I were such good friends and everyone felt “safe” that trust could hold our curious friendship/ brotherhood/ sisterhood together.
This, for me, is an ideal. An ideal I am able to live out. It is the kind of relationship that I am always trying to recreate – family, trust, love, and deep friendship.
My purpose of including this aside about my friends is not to “sexualize” them. Quite the contrary, it is to put our “triangle” forward as a real and tangible example of a healthy male-female relationship that does not involve sex. Our tendency, for the aforementioned reasons, is to sexualize relationships instead of embracing the knowledge that, for many, we will not find all of our needs met in a spouse or significant other. Instead, we will supplement – “hanging with the guys” or “girls night” but we remain afraid of opposite-gender relationships outside of dating and marriage.
For anyone who has grown up with siblings or had children, it is easy to understand how you can love more than one person. For those fixated on sex as a central element in relating, “loving” more than one person intimately means to have sex with them – with more than one person.
But what if you take sex out of the equation? Was Harry right when we said that everyone secretly thinks of having sex with everyone else?
Imagine that monogamous partners could actually choose another relationship style… let’s call it the “non-sexual open relationship.” This means relating in an ‘open’ way without traditional pre-set taboos. Said couple now has no bounds on what they can share with one another. Remove all of the “do’s and don’ts” of traditional marriage so that we can talk about anything with our extra-partner without feeling our primary-partner will become afraid, insecure, or angry.
What if we flesh this out some more? What if we challenge the following “rules” of relationships:
- Looking at another (wo)man is off limits
- Having a sexual feeling toward another person is off limits
- Being attracted to another person is off limits
- Wanting something vastly different that what you wanted last year is off limits
- Wanting something too different from what your partner wants is off limits
- Enjoying yourself “too much” without your partner is off limits
Somewhere in all of this is anarchy. I have crossed some undefined invisible line.
So, since I’m crazy, let me continue like a madman.
Let’s say that you can talk to your partner about any feeling you are having at any time. Complete honesty. If you want something sexually that he or she is not willing or able to give you, you can say that – it won’t hurt his or her feelings. If you want to have more money but you don’t want to work extra, you can share that. If you want expensive gifts, or if you want to actually quit your job, do share! If you have a co-worker who you are falling into lust with, you can share that, your partner will probably have a good laugh with you and discuss possible strategies to befriend the woman or man so that you can share lunch with him or her, with the only caveat being you will not have a sexual relationship with this person, but emotional openness.
Preposterous. Let the riots begin. And I am sure you are thinking at this point and listing all the ways in which I have subverted the empire. What the hell? Emotional relating always leads to sexual relating!
Always? Maybe for people who keep emotional needs so pent up that they burst out into sexual frustration and run away without the mind’s intervention. But does that kind of thing happen in non-sexual open relationships? Think about it – does it? When you go out “with the girls” and share the intimate details of your life, does that threaten your marriage? Or does a poker night with the guys create the adulterous conditions to lead to your divorce? Maybe. But the odds don’t lean that way. No, instead we find comfort and relatability. And sex doesn’t really predominate, does it?
One last step, let’s go on to say that you and your partner can enjoy male or female friendships of all kinds. There is no longer a “safe” social compartment to fit other people into when it comes to friendships. You, in fact, share your friendships with your partner easily and discuss the various happenings in those relationships – as you would share about your night out with the girls/guys. And, I would like to point out, as the Hughes do with me. When Jason and I trot off for tacos or coffee, I know everything we talk about “privately” will be shared with Jessica. And when Jessica and I take a walk or drive, I know everything we do and say will – you guessed it – be made public knowledge with Jason.
Imagine have a rich friend who just wants to give you gifts. Hubby is cool with that. Your husband might have a lady friend who he enjoys giving math lessons to as she is in college and needs his help – no problem – her big boobs and all are not a problem in the least. Your husband tells you funny stories about how he avoids looking at those big boobs, but that yes, he loves them. Again – no problem!
Right? Have I finally tipped over the rails of reality? If there is nothing you can’t share, or wouldn’t share, and there is no more fear of being authentically who you are with your partner, you are in an non-sexual, monogamous, open relationship. In this kind of open relationship, one is free to explore life, be independent and dependent, without fear of the sexual. That is the big fear – that your partner will place his penis into someone else, or that she will allow someone else’s penis into “your” vagina, oops, I mean her vagina, that’s the fear right?
But hey. What if this sounds cool with you but there’s something nagging at the back of your mind, that makes you uncomfortable… well, why? I thought sex was the issue. And we’ve taken that out of the equation. So…oh… okay… Sex is not the real issue, then? It’s something else? The fear is deeper than we suspected, isn’t it? You fear that your partner will meet someone else that he or she likes more. That there is someone better than you. And, after all, we all know men and women can’t be in the same room alone together without something questionable happening. Can you actually conceive of being with a person who says they will not and actually will not ever leave you for another person? Ever? Ah – so now we have an issue bigger than sex. We have a relationship without trust.
Sounds suspect right? Indeed, damned near impossible. Are there actually people in the world who live beyond this fear and insecurity? Are there people who are not afraid of this kind of scenario?
This is why I am an unsettling presence with my coupled friends – because I disagree with the “protective custody” we call relationships today. We are a culture that fosters fear, insecurity, and lack of a desire because we are taught to fear what is organic and authentic. We fear the unknown. And it is crippling all of us. We have to, as a culture, begin lifted this fear from our current and modern day cultural indicators and icons. This is the very fear that ends relationships in the first place, even monogamous ones, because it breeds suspicion and erodes trust. Our thoughts create our reality and in the back of our minds, as westerners, we are programmed to fear organic behavior, natural behavior, to fear “the other” who would have access to “our” resources – especially emotional resources to be found in our spouses and dating life. Indeed, by all accounts, it seems that deep down we believe that true love is actually impossible in the first place. And, in the end, we can’t want something that we believe is impossible, right?
Moving on, if you can move on past the fear, you and your partner are able to share both minds and hearts with one another. If he wants to have a closer friendship with his baby mama, he tells you. If you want to go on vacation with your baby daddy, you tell him. Of course, with the promise of no sex. I’m not so progressive that I do not think continual communication isn’t important. There are few “givens” or things that don’t or wouldn’t need to be talked about in our intimate relationships. And in the process, you may actually begin to trust one another to keep your promises.
Another benefit of this is of course in the unlikely scenario where your partner slips up and makes a mistake (so to speak) he or she can tell you as well. Because, as honest people in an honest relationship, you can talk about it – albeit painfully. But you remind yourself that you will not leave, you will not break the bond, you will not overreact and end up tossing him or her away when you know that deep down all you want is to work it out. You committed yourself to this person, and want to prove it. You want them to prove it too. You don’t shame or blame him, he is not a villain and you a victim. You are both growing and developing together.
In our day and time this seems so impossible because, again, we cannot conceive of a non-sexual relationship between people of the opposite gender.
Me being me, I must turn to scripture now. Out entire construction of Western Society’s mores and ethics, our treatment of one another, is built upon how we understand scripture – including those of us who reject large swatches of scripture.