“Oh…, it was nothing…”
My favourite people and I share numerous relationship values that have emerged from Polyamory – and which, of course, apply to Oligoamory as well.
I even wrote a separate Entry on this in the beginning of this bLog: For example, we agreed on accountability for our actions, responsibility for our overall relationship, commitment with regard to the recognition of our values, integrity, reliability, consensus, equality, transparency, honesty, loyalty to – and identification with our relationship model.
Especially for my nesting¹ partnership these core elements are important, all our agreements – but especially our common view of how we envision life in multiple relationships – are based on them.
Those values listed above, which seem to appear quite grave in my Entry “The Oligoamorist’s Stone”, however, do not play a constantly dominating role in our everyday life. Rather, they form the invisible framework of our shared “emotional contract“ – that is, our „acknowledgement – as a result of a mutually established emotional close-knit relationship – regarding the totality of voluntary yielded obligations, self-commitments and care which have been reciprocally contributed and are potentially enjoyable by all parties involved.”
And also this “contract” is not something that is filed away in some file folder in multiple copies – it is rather the commitment towards our shares lives, gained by many aligning conversations and experiences – and also a little bit our blueprint and vision for our approach to and acting in multiple relationships.
An agreement on certain values and also an “emotional contract” resulting from that are something like a railing, which hopefully provides support when people hold on to it – which is especially important in situations that are not everyday, accustomed or familiar.
And these situations in multiple relationships include, for example, those in which a new person is about to join.
Because those relationship shareholders who are just falling in love often have their heads in the clouds at the beginning – whereas the “established partners ” who are witnessing these events from the second row would like to know, for quite understandable reasons, what the status of this first “flirtation” is at the moment: Is it merely a flirt – or the prelude to the fact that a whole new beloved person will soon be added to the relationship network? And are there just shooting stars in the hearts and minds – or is a move in towards table and bed already being discussed?
To some readers, the range described here may sound exaggerated – but at the same time, it quite accurately reflects the possible spectrum of developments when romantic relationships are open to more than just one partnership.
Consequently, the above-mentioned mutual agreements and values do carry a certain graveness.
Enough with all the theory – and let’s have a very personal example:
I dated Annika, who was quite a whirlwind, perhaps a bit of a minor cyclone in terms of neediness.
When it comes to sexuality, for example, I prefer that things proceed slowly. All of my successful, long-term relationships had begun with a rather gradual engagement on this topic, from extended face-to-face getting to know each other, to cautious approaches to permitting exchanged caresses, to eventually shared, real sexuality weeks later.
Uh, wait a minute.
“Real sexuality”…, what is “real sexuality”?
Is that important?
Yes, I think it is important – especially with regard to our other existing loved ones. For shared sexuality is certainly a somewhat relevant familiarity marker in several aspects, and its importance in multiple relationships points predominantly in two directions:
On the one hand, of course, for the two persons who share sexuality – in whatever way – specifically with each other. Obviously, both persons have decided that they want to have – and experience – this area of intimate interpersonal exchange in their relationship.
On the other hand for all other favourite people and partners in the Polycule; in particular with the signal that besides the necessary familiarity here now a specific, physically intimate connection has emerged, which besides an unambiguous deepening of the level – as far as the kind of loving connection is concerned – can also in case of doubt have health and even legal consequences for all pending participants.
[Ok, I know, there are people out there who don’t attach so much importance to shared sexuality – but you may turn it this way and that – with regard to extended sexuality in a relationship consisting of more than just two people, an expansion of the field of sexual activity is in any case relatively substantial in its consequences.]
All right, then, so what is “real sexuality”?
In their Polyamory guidebook, “More Than Two” ² authors Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux suggest working with a very broad definition in multiple relationship contexts because of the enormous potential for discord or hurt when definitions of “sexuality” do not match between people. So, in case of doubt, “sexuality” would actually be anything that ranges from kissing, making out, clothed or unclothed fondling, sharing sexual fantasies, text or cybersex, phone sex, erotic massage, same-room masturbation, mutual masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, all the way to an explicit contact of sexual organs.
“Oligotropos, that’s quite a rigid approach – and now what does that have to do with Annika and your personal example?”
Oh yeah – so Annika, well… when she met me, she had not had sex for quite some time (but that was something I found out later).
On the first date we kissed, realized there was potential for more; and I was really looking forward to this journey (which I assumed would follow my usual script…) and so I reported my progress transparently to my nesting partner after that initial meeting.
My nesting partner knew me well and said ok to that, she only wanted to be informed about further steps on this “sexual journey” so that she would know how far that new relationship had progressed.
So far so good…
Already at the second meeting, however, Annika’s hands dug deep into my pants, which took me quite by surprise (and was not at all according to script…) and soon I found myself more or less in horizontal position under her thighs on the sofa, next to which I had just served the tea, – while Annika assiduously continued her explorations and also provided ample physical contact.
I considered it all a bit abrupt, a bit too fast – but part of me enjoyed it nonetheless – but after the encounter I was a bit embarrassed by all of it, not least in front of myself.
My mind thought that all this was “not right” – but also didn’t quite manage to activate my mouth for talking about it – and anyway, especially because I didn’t experienced it really as nice and relaxed, as I would have wished regarding a cosy get-to-know-you session there was nothing to fuzz about – accordingly “nothing had really happened”.
On the third date with Annika, she was well prepared from her point of view, because she was only wearing a one-piece dress and shoes. After not so long a time most of that was sufficiently arranged away and Annika’s unwrapping talents also had proficiently proceeded in my territory, as she already squatted expectantly on the edge of the sofa between my legs…
At this point, I’m fading out of the scene to ensure this bLog stays G-rated. But I admit that I carried a part of voluntary-involuntary complicity in me, which contributed to the eager-lustful striving of Annika simply because it gave me such pleasure to witness her pleasure-gaining.
But meanwhile my mind was again standing somewhere on a windy bridge in the drizzle with the collar turned up and only thought: “…but that’s not how I wanted it – that’s not right at all, that’s just harum-scarum and meaningless…”.
And since it was again somehow embarrassing for me – if only because I was in a sense being run over for the second time thereby overstepping my own personal (feel-good) boundaries – and sexuality in this sofa-edge style was uncomfortable, inadequate and as a matter of fact – specifically as well as figuratively – ineffective for me, I felt afterwards like a certain U.S. president in 1998, when he said in front of the world public: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.“
And that’s how I kept it in front of myself and, unfortunately, – while clinging to this awkward self-assessment – in my further external communication.
But when my favourite and nesting person found out not so much later, nevertheless, what had really happened in our cosy parlour, she was of course – and rightly – extremely embarrassed, disappointed and hurt.
And it came to a quarrel, in which I myself, however, had to realize after a very short time that I had virtually nothing at hand for my justification.
On the contrary. I realized with dismay that I had quite completely ignored our relationship values and agreements mentioned at the beginning, on the one hand, due to an easily perceptible cognitive bias and, on the other hand, due to the nature of my own interpretation of the situation, which I had tried to stipulate as the generally valid standard.
The cognitive bias is quickly explained: It is a phenomenon known in the English-speaking world as “shifting baselines“. It is best illustrated by the example of a child and a candy jar:
A child loves candy – and in the kitchen cupboard there is a jar filled with candy on Monday. Now the child takes out a few candies every day and does so, as it thinks itself, very skilfully – each time only a few, so that the fill level in the candy jar almost does not change. The child does this every day – and to it’s eyes the level in the glass has hardly changed after every 24 hours. On Saturday, the surprised mother asks the child why it had secretly emptied half the jar of sweets…!
The mother, of course, recorded the actual total level decrease from Monday to Saturday – the jar is, no doubt possible, visibly reduced to only half full.
“Shifting baselines” are unfortunately a very present and human phenomenon of our everyday self-deception (and currently playing a significant role in the field of climate change, for example): Only because a position changes only gradually (minor annual whaling in Japan and Iceland, for example) and it seems for a long time as if almost nothing happens, things change objective measurably nevertheless – and the effects are considerable and undeniable after a certain time (e.g. no more whales because they no longer find mating partners in the oceans due to spatial distances that have become too large to cover).
In relationships, “shifting baselines” are therefore the proverbial “silent poison”. In my case with Annika, I gave in more and more and thus deviated increasingly from my own wishes, values and agreements. Kissing became petting, petting became genital contact – and “sexual” was, strictly speaking, all of the above. Because that’s exactly how I would have judged it myself if I had been the mother in the example above confronted with the half-empty candy jar. So if a video had been played to me with a guy engaged in my activities on the sofa, I would have objectively said from the outside without hesitation, “Yes, what’s happening is sex.” But instead, I cheated myself by getting involved in an occurrence in which I was gradually selling out my own limits.
Those “shifting baselines” are what I and my battered self-worth in particular have to deal with – for my nesting partner, the U.S. presidential preference for my own perceptual evaluation definitely weighed heavier.
To get back to the camera recording and the plain statement: What has happened there was shared sexuality. This should have been the sole – and therefore also my sole – criterion with regard to what happened. Because this was the only piece of information my favourite person had asked me for: to communicate transparently and sincerely to what extent sexuality would already be involved in the deepening of my relationship with Annika.
This was the information that was essential for my favourite person, so that she, in turn, could have adjusted to it, could have made informed choices, could have expressed sensitivities, concerns, sympathy, could have sought a conversation – whatever. I, however, put my own perceived notion of “That wasn’t the way it should have been / That somehow wasn’t right…” above everything else – and thus deprived her of all of those options.
And by doing so, I also jettisoned at the same time the relationship values of “equality” and “participation. Exactly the same values that are usually so important to me as well.
In my case, it was indeed sexuality – but it could also have concerned (multiple) relationship topics like “telling each other personal stuff”, “spending time together”, “visits (yes, also overnight stays or vacations)”, “spending time with the kids”, “introducing someone (or being introduced) to friends or families”, etc.
Regarding any of these things, we probably all have personal ideas about how and when we wish they would occur. And presumably we all have “shifting baselines” when, for example, we pick someone up from the parking lot one time, ring the front doorbell next time, and are invited in for coffee the third time…
But each time there is only one actual, definite chain of events, as an observer – who has nothing to do with the situation – would have been able to perceive and describe it without embellishment.
This version is the reality and with respect to second or third parties – especially for the preservation of their full agency – it is the only relevant thing that counts – and therefore should be the only version to be told.
The mayhem in our minds may throw us into turmoil in many a situation and lead us astray in numerous ways. On some of these ways we may come to terms more favourably with what has happened, and we may cope better with our role in it in front of ourselves.
Our favourite people, however, need our undivided integrity for their well-being – and thus our courage to face reality – even if it is unpleasant for us.
Or, to put it a little more lightheartedly with US author Ernest Cline in his bestseller “Ready Player One“: »I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.«
¹ “Nesting partner”: In multiple relationships, a term for the people with whom one shares a “nest” – i.e. who live closely together and also spend a lot of everyday time, e.g. in a shared home.
² The book by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert “More Than Two – A practical guide to ethical Polyamory”, Thorntree-Press 2014.
Thanks to 愚木混株 cdd20 on Unsplash for the photo!