‘If I was meant to come in a box with a label slapped across me, I would have been produced by Mattel.’
Recently I met someone I actually connect with, who I like to spend time with, to talk to, who makes me laugh until my belly aches and my makeup is smudged. Someone who didn’t just throw me on the Porn Pile, but courted me, who wanted to know my person before knowing my body.
Quickly we slipped into chatting every day, into meeting each other’s friends, and actually hanging out. Not just dating and not just f*cking.
People knew right away that something was different. The way I talked about him, the way I lost interest in searching for someone else. I knew something was different because I didn’t want to escape the minute the sex was done. This wasn’t the heady lust I experienced with my F-Buddy; this was someone I wanted to get to know and who I wanted to know me.
Then one night as we lay in bed, enjoying simply being together, he asked, ‘So, can I call you my girlfriend?’ Then it was my friends: ‘Are you guys a couple now?’
It should be a straightforward question. Does he feel like a boyfriend? Do I want him to meet my friends and actually spend time together? Yes and yes and yes. But when it came to answering, I stumbled.
It’s not that I don’t want to be in a relationship with him, it’s that I don’t know what that relationship will look like. Because what they mean is, ‘Are you a traditional man-and-woman forsaking all others type of couple?’ An X-and-a-Y on an invitation, what Amanda Palmer describes as ‘living on one side of an ampersand’ — a couple as they understand and define it?
He is a serial monogamist, going from one long-term relationship to the next, the longest of those being four years. He has told me he is not a jealous person, but he is not open to opening up a relationship, and casual sex has no appeal for him.
I can’t help but wonder if that is because he has never experienced the dead-inside guilt of your long-term partner — the person you love and share your life with — actually repulsing you after six, seven, or ten years. When the idea of sleeping with your husband feels like shagging a brother.
Sex therapists like Bettina Arndt argue it’s a matter of ‘just doing it’, even when you’re not in the mood, and ‘faking it till you make it’, but it’s not so easy when your loved one reaches for you in the night and you actually feel sick inside. When you have to live with knowing that’s how he makes you feel, and that you can never tell him. I am a jealous person, but I am willing to share to avoid the crippling weight of that silence.
And that’s just the beginning of how my new lover and I fundamentally differ. He is straight, while I am only starting to explore my bisexuality. Will wearing his (and their) label mean I need to shut that part of myself off again and live an unexplored lie?
I have spent the last twelve months discovering alternative relationship models, spending time with couples and singles who are polyamorous, in open relationships, who swing and have BDSM playmates, who are casually poly or selectively mono. Gay, straight, and everything in between.
I have discovered that love and sex are two very different things. When they come together it is wonderful, but so is sex divorced from love. I have also learned that having sex with one person does not diminish how I feel about another; that being in lust can be as thrilling and as heartbreaking as being in love; and that I can love and desire more than one person simultaneously in very different ways because each connection is special and unique. Most importantly, I learned that my self-worth is not tied to exclusivity.
This is not a case of waiting to reach some mythical end, where I come out the other side, ‘get it out of my system’ and ‘settle back down’, as though the experiences I have had as a single girl are an aberration instead of a journey.
My travels overseas taught me that I could never go back to who I was before the journey began. Everyone else might have stayed the same, but I am not that round peg any more. I have grooves worn in different places, my shape fundamentally altered.
I am no longer who I was at 19, 25 or even 30. This isn’t a phase — these life experiences have changed the way I see the world. I have stepped outside the box. I can’t step back in and accept edges that grate where they no longer fit.
I want to continue to evolve, acquiring new grooves and ridges, while he does the same. I hope that some of those will be shapes that fit together just so, while we continue to wear in others that are unique to us as individuals.
The important thing for me is that none of this lessens what I feel for him. Many people believe that when you meet someone you love, monogamy comes easily and that unless you are monogamous you aren’t truly in love. Once upon a time, I would have agreed, but no longer. If a partner feels that being with someone else somehow takes away from what I feel for him or her, then they don’t understand me at all.
I don’t want to lose what we have started, but I don’t think it is fair to start something on terms I am not sure I can finish, to make a commitment of a prescribed nature under duress. That way can only lead to resentment.
Instead, I want to explore what we have, which I believe is very special, free from expectations and boxes with labels, and see what happens. I might find I don’t want to play outside our relationship, but I want the freedom to choose and want him to enjoy the same. The commitment I make will be one of openness and honesty, trust and respect.
So even if I answer, yes. Yes, you can call me your ‘girlfriend’, that label might mean something very different to me.
This post first appeared in Rhonda Perky’s Bits on Apr 9, 2012