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26 October, 2009

Emotional Gerrymandering

One of the big questions about how to manage nonmonogamous relationships is the question of where to draw the lines of intimacy and of commitment.1 Now that I think about it, that's a question I haven't really answered before this year - at least, not in a satisfactory manner. Even in terms of monogamous relationships, no-one ever gave me a single word of advice on how to do this. Maybe other people got this in a talk from their parents or something; I feel as though it should be taught on day one of middle school. I am the kind of person who wants to break everything down to its basic parts, but still, it's possible that what follows will read like remedial math to the emotionally competent among you.

Nevertheless, it's a question that can make or break your life. In romance, where does one draw emotional boundaries? (EDIT: see this entry for discussion of what I mean by that term.)

I can't speak for other people (although I'm curious to hear whether you've ever noticed this) but I've observed that I unconsciously sequester parts of my emotional response. I don't get the impression that I can consciously fall in or out of love with someone, but after spending a year with (primarily) one solid, longterm lover, when I started seeing another, I realized that I was guarding a part of my emotional response. I was somehow holding myself back from the crazy, precipitous "Oh god love" reaction that I get when I'm not dating anyone and strike up a promising new attachment (whether it's healthy or not!). After giving it a little thought, though, I realized that guarding myself wasn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it might be of critical importance. I do love my friends, but I don't need to worry as much about whether we're going to live in the same city. That long-term relationship receives (and deserves) some consideration when The Future is on the table, but not every friendly hook-up needs to have that kind of importance. I don't draw a sharp line between friends and lovers, though, which means that there's a no-man's land for people to fall in before they're clearly central to my life - and I don't like to leave people in the lurch!

The Lurch

When any relationship starts to grow more central to one's life, it's important to figure out how central it is. For someone who's already in at least one serious, long-term romantic relationship, the issue is doubly complex: how does one manage one's time, and just as importantly, one's attention and emotional energy, between those relationships?


When people go head-over-heels, whatever that metaphor is supposed to denote, their boundaries fall and they leave themselves emotionally vulnerable in an almost insane way. If one of them pulls out, the other can collapse completely; a broken heart is nothing to laugh at. If they stay together, the consequences are even greater. They'll end up relying on each other through hard times (read: you'll end up having to support this person through Hell and back), they'll share the best and worst of your lives (read: you'll have to sit back when they have moments of triumph and listen to them bitch when they don't), and they'll share the mundane, as well (read: do the dishes). In other words, when relationships become committed, they're serious business. Of course, with the right people, they're also completely worth it.

When you meet someone new, though, it's hard to predict how the romance will develop. If you open your heart to every you meet, eventually you're going to get stabbed. It's worth taking care to hold back, sometimes - but if you want the joy of a deeper connection, eventually you have to erase the lines you've drawn. So ... where and how do those lines develop?


Conflicting expectations can really mess up a good thing. It's been said before and it'll need to be said again, but a kiss (or a touch, or a word) means something different to everyone. "What did last night mean to you?" is kind of an awkward question, though. You might actually get more mileage out of, "What are you looking for?"

It's worth getting your goals out on the table. It might also be a more tactful way to open a conversation about how each person involved views physical and emotional intimacy, which is a conversation that needs to happen. Put it up front, too. By making what each party wants clear from the beginning, one might be able to avoid heartache later on. If one person is looking to jump into a lifelong relationship with a picket fence at the end of the rainbow but the other just wants a friend to spend nights with, you know that neither one of you is going to end up happy in that relationship.

It's worth questioning your own expectations, as well. First off, you'll need to know what you want if you're asking someone else the same. I know that's not always an easy question to answer. It's worth doing more than that, though, especially if you're going to be involved with multiple partners. Framing one's own expectations about a relationship can completely shift the direction it takes. Personally, I have a rough time holding back from slapping definitions on new relationships, but it might be worth doing. Or, at least, consider this: it may be easier to draw a line and later invite someone to cross it than to leap in completely and then ask someone to step back. I'm not talking about nominal definitions so much as behavioral definitions, by the way. Because expectations vary, it might not be as useful to say, "I'm your boyfriend and you're my girlfriend" as to say, "We'll spend time together whenever we can, we'll kiss, we'll sleep together, and I need to have time on the weekends to see my lover from out of town."

It just goes to show that it don't come easy. However, as snowmobiling Ringo Starr will tell you, "Use a little love, and we will make it work out better."

(On reflection, that song's verses are full of innuendo. He don't come easy, but we can open up our hearts and come together. It's here within your reach, if you're big enough to take it. Awesome.)

That Good Ol' Noun Again

What, you mean "communication"? Why would that word appear in an article on nonmonogamous relationships?

Everything written here is predicated on the idea that one is communicating with one's partners, and with oneself. I work to know what I want. I work to know what I require. I work to know whether my partners know, and so on - you get the idea, but I, at least, still need a reminder now and then. It really is key, though, to get the nerve up to answer straightforward questions like, "What would it mean to you, emotionally, if we were having sex?" or "Under what circumstances would you be open to a new relationship of the kind I want?" Think of it as part of the flirtation - you're getting to know each other.

I still haven't really answered the question I posed at the beginning: where and how should one draw emotional boundaries?

One of the biggest factors is something I can't speak to, gentle reader: your own goals. What do you want? Can this person provide it? If there is a heuristic for emotional boundaries, it might be to keep them solid until you at least know whether the person you're seeing can actually meet your wants. It's possible to get to know each other, enjoy each other, explore, but hold back on lowering the last walls until you both want to take the next step. If you're speaking clearly and making your minds clear to each other, you'll probably be able to tell.

I do want to throw out one piece of actual advice. If you - or the person you're seeing - has one or more other partners already, hedge up your emotional boundaries as you enter the new relationship. Slow yourself down. Spend time together among your friends, talk or write - you have a topic, the relationship itself, that I'd bet is hard to exhaust - and watch the emotions develop. I really am of the opinion that a dyad in a social vacuum is one of the least healthy relationship models, especially if the people in that dyad are also part of other romantic pairings or groups. Put yourself and your new lover together in your normal social environment, and let the relationship take a little time to root there. If it continues to blossom, that might be when it's time to allow the boundaries to slip.

Ok, so this isn't loving with wild abandon, throwing caution to the wind and gambling everything for love. So what? It's happiness, and that's awesome. If you know what you want and don't let yourself form an attachment to someone who's going in a completely different direction, you should be fine (unless you want your heart broken!). Know your emotions. Communicate with yourself. If you and your fuck buddy are falling in love, go for it; if one of you isn't, pull back before it gets ugly. Is it simple? Not in the real world. But reminding yourself to think might be the best tool you have.

So hey guys, what of the above is totally incorrect, flies in the face of all you hold dear, and will send newbies spinning into a hideous cycle of pain and violence? I know next to nothing about emotional experiences of this type other than the ones I've experienced firsthand, so rock out a comment or two. That's all for this time. Next time I get around to posting, I think it'll be on nonmonogamy and community.

1 I'm steering slowly away from the term "polyamory" because polyamory is specific to longterm, loving relationships and, in many peoples' definitions, doesn't cover a lot of gray area between "poly" and "swinger". I submit that we need a term other than "polyamorous relationships" to describe, as a category, ethically conducted relationships that aren't monogamous. I further submit that this new term be "awesome relationships".

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