On Couples

Will and Jada

Recently I met this couple at a party (not Will and Jada), and we confessed we were all attracted to each other. B and I started chatting on Facebook, multiple paragraph/multiple topic things. Each time I receive a message, I’m surprised by the length, delighted by the detail, and touched by the time she took to write it.

Last weekend, I ran into her husband, C, at a game night, and we took off early to get a drink together. We wound up walking around, distracted from the cold and the dark by a great conversation, warmed by holding hands and one amazing kiss. A few days later, he reached out on Facebook and told me he was thinking of me, and I wish I could explain to anyone who wants to date me just how reassuring that simple phrase is. I’m thought of. I’m cared for. I switched between conversations with him and his wife, excited by our new and growing intimacy.

My brain is filled with thoughts about the strengths and weaknesses of dating a couple, and I want to write about it, but first, I want to consider what it means to be a couple.

The term is associated with a hierarchy. I could date B, and we could consider ourselves a couple, but in some important way, we’d be less of a couple than B and C. I’d be an extra; a side dish. I’d come second, and some consider this inherently problematic.

There’s a growing trend among non-monogamous individuals to reject any sort of relationship hierarchy. Some of these individuals reject the label polyamory, considering it already tainted with heteronormative values, “coupledom” in particular. They might, instead, consider themselves relationship anarchists and reject any form of relationship hierarchy. Others who still accept polyamory choose to do “solo-poly” in which they don’t have an anchor partner, otherwise known as a primary.

(Side note: I have switched the terminology I use. Numbered language can make people feel “less than,” whereas calling someone an anchor (and non-anchors?) doesn’t connote a value judgement.)

I think it can be admirable to commit to solo poly or relationship anarchy whose base value is to ensure everyone is treated with equal respect. I personally haven’t committed to it. Someday I hope to have an anchor partner. I want to share my life more with one person than others, and I want to explain why I don’t think that choice is less ethical.

Andie Nordgren’s manifesto on relationship anarchy starts out:

Relationship anarchy questions the idea that love is a limited resource that can only be real if restricted to a couple. You have capacity to love more than one person, and one relationship and the love felt for that person does not diminish love felt for another. Don’t rank and compare people and relationships — cherish the individual and your connection to them. One person in your life does not need to be named primary for the relationship to be real. Each relationship is independent, and a relationship between autonomous individuals.

The rest of the manifesto is a set of helpful guidelines on how to maintain ethical relationships. It includes things like “love and respect instead of entitlement,” and “customize your commitments.” I completely agree with her guidelines except her outright rejection of ranking relationships.

Not everyone needs or wants this kind of anchor partner, but I don’t think it’s wrong to want or have one.

Sometimes, I think it’s practical. It’s easier to have one person that you do most of the major life things with: share a house, raise kids, share a bank account or a car. And your relationship with this particular person would probably require more time and attention.

I believe that there’s a way of prioritizing one relationship over others in an ethical way, and it starts with the premise that everyone else deserves the same respect and basic human consideration. Everyone’s time is just as valuable. Everyone deserves the same honesty. But it’s more complicated than that.

When David and I started dating other people, we were living together and planning a future together.  We quickly learned we were afraid of what we might lose, and wondered what about our relationship we wanted to protect. What was at the heart of it? What kept it beating?

What if I felt a deeper spiritual connection or he felt a deeper physical connection with someone else? What if we felt love for other people, or had better orgasms? Would I feel threatened if another partner moved in with us? What if he wanted to call someone else his girlfriend?

Being a couple means committing to something, but what exactly is that thing? And is it fair to limit the possibilities of every other relationship in order to protect it?

I know of couples who will sleep with other people until feelings develop, then call it off. I think it’s shitty and wrong and yet I know it’s done to protect the love of someone else. To protect their thing.

Protecting one relationship can limit each person’s growth, and the growth of their other relationships. But being in a fulfilling, grounding, foundational relationship can also provide a safe space to allow for other kinds of growth.

Ultimately David and I figured out our thing, our coupledom, was not right for us, and we have a healthier relationship not being each other’s anchor. But he has a healthy relationship with his now anchor partner. They complement each other better as anchors than we did.

I think when someone commits to being a part of a relationship (really any relationship), they have to accept the fact that people evolve in unexpected ways. Being in multiple sexual or romantic relationships spurs change.

I’ve realized lately that I highly value personal growth, but it’s not everyone’s priority and maybe it’s arrogant of me to assume it should be. I’m not really sure how to feel about this.

It’s not like people in monogamous relationships don’t grow or that non-monogamous people are inherently more mature (that’s a laugh). But I do think that when people choose monogamy sometimes to protect the relationship they’re in by keeping it from changing, they’re choosing monogamy for an unhealthy reason. (Relationships and people change for lots of reasons, not just other romances).

For couples to grow as individuals and maintain healthy relationships, it takes a good amount of flexibility and bravery from both parties.

Next up: On dating couples

Also check out my related posts:

What does it actually mean to be non-monogamous?

What does it mean to be polyamorous?

Why non-monogamy, even if it’s more difficult, is worthwhile (for me)

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