“Hello – may I introduce you to an alternative relationship-concept?”
There are certainly duller hook-ups than this – on the other hand, I still fear that even with such a conversation-starter the chances of success will be rather low.
“But how and where can I find people who are interested in multiple relationships?” Well, that is such a good question and the answer to that may not sound very helpful, for it is “everywhere and nowhere”.
In fact, I have already delivered the »bad news« in Entry 4, referring to sources that show that the number of people who are consistently committed to non-monogamy is rather small.
There is, however, also a kind of »good news«, because our life plans within an individual biography have probably never changed as strongly and repeatedly as ours now at the beginning of the 21st century. In particular, our job flexibility is involved in this, which in its wake immediately also occupies both our flexibility concerning habitual residence and flexibility in terms of our attachment- and reproduction-strategies. And in one way or another, this social dictate catches up with all of us. Even people who do not have their gainful employment at the centre of their lives nowadays manifest an astonishing account of relocations and cohabitation models.
The strategies we choose to tackle these challenges are as various as we are ourselves. And one of the great strengths of Homo sapiens is, strictly speaking, our outstanding curiosity, our continued ability to learn and our ability to adapt. With a tiny – but important! – restriction: We need a little time for that.
Unless we belong to the very small avant-garde of ultra-spontaneous contemporaries, most of us are not overly keen regarding sudden surprise or the announcement of rapid change. And in a certain sense this would also include our first sentence in this article – and that’s why it seldom yields a radiant countenance and the reply: “Yeah, I have been waiting for this question for so long; sit down and tell me all about it!“.
Again it is mainly our biology which does not follow suit and hurries somewhat inconveniently to the rescue of our biography. In Entry 21 I mentioned the neuroscientist Prof. Dr. Gerald Hüther, who in his book “What we are – and what we could be” explains that our brains are basically adjusted to energy conservation and therefore would like nothing more than to manage familiar tasks – thereby ensuring enduring »coherence« (= consistency, correlation). Most cleverly, our brains reward us in such a case with a sense of well-being: “Everything’s fine, everything as it should be”. This coherence forms the basis for what is commonly referred to as the »comfort zone« .
Because in a certain way, we are all always a little comfortable in our current established living conditions. And that is even necessary so that we can at least reasonably fulfil our basic needs such as sustainment, safety, recreation and structure (to which we may eventually add some kind of community, communication and a creative way of life). The tricky thing is: Because we rely heavily on the feeling of well-being and coherence generated by our brains (thanks to a pleasant cocktail of all sorts of rewarding hormones, etc.), we often settle down regarding our (self-)generated living conditions and report back to our brains “I chose it that way – that’s how I want it.”. And our dear brains are pleased to register our confirmed mood as lasting coherence, pour out a little more endorphins and are switching to default mode: “Carry on as usual!”
Such a comfort zone can’t be changed »quickly« and if we would try, it would feel at first as if we were violating our own interests. Therefore, our advertising campaign concerning “alternative relationship-concepts” is bound to fail, at least if we try to submit it via direct marketing to people who have never really dealt with things like that before.
If, on the other hand, we want to employ the strengths of the human species, curiosity, the ability to learn and adaptability, then we need a different approach – and that, in turn, will only be successful if we ourselves leave our own established »comfort zone« (or at least dismiss a part of it).
When I met one of my later partners for the first time, she entered the apartment of my family because she wanted to participate in a spiritual home group we held there with some of our friends. The original appointment had been made by one of the involved friends who had searched for other participants, but the circumstances are almost arbitrary. Almost, I say, because there actually weren’t any »relational intentions« regarding the background of the meeting. And I have to choose the word »actually« for two reasons:
Once, some kind of relationship involuntarily establishes itself in each case when people do anything together. You know the ol’ proverb: “There’re always relationships…” ? – And of course this is true, because I usually have some kind of “relationship” with all those persons with whom I regularly interact in everyday life, whether they are cashiers, postmen, mechanics etc. Whenever human interaction gains an extra quality, a relationship is established: My cashier has considerations for my pace because he knows me as a regular customer in his checkout line; my postmen delivers all large-size envelopes to me personally because he knows that I value that service; and my car-mechanic knows all the aches and pains of my venerable car better than I do. All these people are no longer »anyone« to me at these moments – and I’m not »anyone« to them. And that’s not unimportant regarding the relationship level: Because relationships can retain a certain quality, which they usually do in a public setting – but we also always have the opportunity to personalise, deepen and empower them by means of committent.
Secondly, I am inwardly not a fully monogamous person; and in my relationships I had over long stretches the happiness and the freedom to think (and express!): “Now, there’s an interesting and pleasant person who just walked in. I would like to get to know her better. Maybe there’s »more« to it.” (and this »more« has a dimension in my mind like the Mariana Trench: Everything is possible from “We can enjoy ourselves watching colourful fish together…” to “All the way down…”).
Of course, at the time, I too had “settled in my life”. I was a spouse, father of a family, a househusband – which, however, in my case did pose no contradiction to my profession of sympathy above. That way, my brain was at ease, reported coherence, and at the same time had a pleasant stimulus of gentle curiosity concerning things to come.
And that was a pretty perfect combination for the resulting process, which is currently much cited but rarely understood correctly: Getting to know each other.
»Getting to know« – incorporates the word »know«, which means “to perceive, to understand and to recognise” (at least regarding the Ethymology Online Dictionary). That will hardly be possible within a day, especially with respect to something complex like another human personality. And our brains would raise »Red-Incoherency-Alert« – quite fitting for the first stages of »falling in love«. But »getting to know«? To assess well-founded if there is a true relation to another human being – to an extent that one does not want to miss that relation any more? Regarding such an evaluation our poor brains need more time. Because they are putting in a lot of hard labour during the »getting-to-know-phase«: Not only do they need to open up the existing “comfort zone” of established coherence, but, strictly speaking, in order to regain their lost efficiency, they have to create a new comfort zone – but a more inclusive version than the previous one.
Hardly anyone has described this process more considerate than the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in his book “The Little Prince” (1943):
“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince.
“I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”
“Ah! Please excuse me,” said the little prince.
But, after some thought, he added:
“What does that mean – ‘tame’?”
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”
“‘To establish ties’?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”
“I am beginning to understand,” said the little prince.
“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the colour of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”
The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.
“Please – tame me!” he said.
“I want to, very much,” the little prince replied. “But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”
“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me…”
If by now we have wiped a teardrop out of the corner of our eyes, we can identify in this short excerpt all the »human factors« that I have previously mentioned, such as curiosity (concerning each other) , mutual willingness to learn (from each other) , and adaptability (to each other). And regarding the fox and the wheat, Saint-Exupéry even describes, in a lyrical way, how in ones mind a new experience harmoniously is integrated into the context of what already exists, so that a new, larger correlation can be established and the desired coherence can be regained.
Accordingly, what would be my recommendation on how and where to find people who are interested in multiple relationships?
Before the new visitor of our house-group became my (additional) »significant other«, she had probably come and gone dozens of times to our house. During this time we had met on a variety of occasions, together with other acquaintances, at parties, on excursions and so on – and at the same time we had spent a significant proportion of everyday life (there are always preparations, trips, agreements; simply profane stuff that usually goes hand in hand with everything special). Both of us were able to check whether we had room for each other in our already “existing frame” and if such an arrangement was viable at all. For in this regard it is much more important for our brains to register how someone reacts when the lid of the salt shaker drops off over the salad bowl as to assize a glamorous outfit on the same person…
Incidentally, in the vast majority of Mediterranean and Romance-influenced countries, first dates almost never happen in a 1:1-context: New acquaintances are first introduced to the (whole) existing circle of friends in a relaxed atmosphere – and often it is checked out whether the »new« harmonises with the »existing«. And that was also a decisive factor for me: It contributed decisively to my »sense of coherence«, how my partner and my children got along with our new guest over the next few months – and whether they were able to form independent relationships of their own.
That way our brains need a playing field where they can learn to assess a new »influencing factor« – and the remaining amount of familiarity has to be sufficient enough to avoid loosing coherence – which even literally means to be »joined with each other«.
Dating-struggle for the sake of dating, however, means stress to our brains. And stress makes us insecure, tense, easily irritable and sends out ambivalent signals – or at best makes it easy for a while to maintain a certain pretence. Which in turn is not good for our counterparts, as their brains will likely report incoherence in that case – and by now we know that this will turn out rather counterproductive.
Grandmother’s advice (which even I do not always like to heed) is therefore still true today: Do something that you enjoy; do something that you have loved ever since. It is much more likely that you will find like-minded people in such contexts – and that they will be excited and exiting like yourself.
A common interest (Oh yes, I really mean something like hiking or pottery) is excellent for our brains to serve as the playing field I mentioned above: “There are other people who are doing something similar to me. That’s good, that’s how things should be…¹ “. And if you are a little bit bolder, I suggest activities where you can show a little bit more of your personality – and therefore you will be able to experience more of the others as well. Involvement in a self-help or environmental group is not bad at all – and even the spiritual circle I used myself may work (it does not have to be ecclesiastical, there are also meditation groups, fasting, yoga, etc.) – and all of them can provide a “get-to-know-you” atmosphere.
And, as Saint-Exupéry once told us, getting to know each other is a gradual, in-depth process that can range from initial sympathy and friendship, fellowship, harmony, intimacy, connection, closeness and familiarity, to affection, togetherness,and deep love.
By now I suppose that some readers will argue that even in the pottery class, in the environmental club and in the chanting-circle there are only monogamous people who, at best, will utter something like “Is that some kind of swinging???” when you dare to mention multiple relationships.
Statistically most likely. But. At this point I would like to remind my dear readers not to underestimate our multifarious biographies I mentioned at the beginning. All the mentioned groups and activities above have the enormous bonus that we can meet people of any age, sex or gender there. Lifestyles and living conditions are very changeable over time – our need for attachment, for social communication, for reciprocity, an emotional home and yes, for love, however, remains for a lifetime. With whom do I want to share my life with? Accordingly, our strategies how we want to meet those needs have to adapt to our lives. And if we are not entirely sociopathic it is certain that we all long for other people to share our lives with, people we want to associate and join with.
Whether this always involves sexual activity? Regarding this I suggest my inner Mariana Trench: It has a depth of 36.201ft and in the darkness down there a lot of things may be conceivable and even possible. But likewise looking at colourful fish just inches below the surface will prove more than satisfactory if it is shared wholeheartedly with beloved people – who in turn are loving us.
PS: Dancing, however, I do not recommend (if it’s not a group-activity like Salsa Rueda, line dancing, etc.) since it is usually conducted in pairs. The scene is also occasionally marked by vanities and outward comparisons that can quickly lead to awkward dynamics – especially when “more than two” parties are concerned…
¹ That’s why many people are getting to know potential loved ones at work. Besides much time spent there, there is a community, there’s common context, maybe even a connecting objective.
Thanks to Subenja for the inspiration and thanks to Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash for the photo.