Musing on Monogamy, Friendship, and Boundaries

I had a conversation with a girl I met at swing dance a while back. We were talking about the phenomenon where when someone gets married or you learn someone is married it often seems to put a damper on interacting with that person. Not that you necessarily enjoy it less, but, in my and my friend’s experience, your drive to do it takes a hit. Maybe it’s just a lack of shared experiences—life being so different that you feel like you have barely anything in common with that person. Maybe, in the case of people of the gender you’re attracted to, it’s just the subtraction of the possibility of romance or sex. Also in that case, at least for me, I think some of the reason may be that it can be much more complicated getting close to someone for whom romance or sex is off the table in that way, because I’m afraid of developing a closeness with someone that might be perceived as a threat to that person’s relationship.

I really want deep, meaningful, vulnerable, powerful friendships with people. For better or worse, most of the people I find it possible to experience that with are women. Sometimes women in relationships. Sometimes women in relationships for which the level of closeness that I want in friendships as much as relationships could be perceived as threatening.

I’ve never been able to figure out how to deal with this.

A while ago, I was talking to a guy in swing class about some of the regulars we hadn’t seen recently. He mentioned that a girl had stopped coming because she had a new boyfriend who didn’t want her swing dancing with other guys. We shared a, “What a douchebag”, moment, that I’ve never forgotten. It made me think.

Dancing is sexy. Dancing is sexual. I feel like the distinction between monogamy precluding outside sex partners and monogamy precluding outside swing dance partners is a difference of degree and not of kind. Why is new boyfriend an asshole for not allowing her to dance with others but not an asshole for not allowing her to have sex with others? It’s something that I both do and don’t understand simultaneously.

For me, feelings of romance and sex and friendship all seem to bleed into each other too much to draw these weird, hard lines that people draw. This is why the lines confuse me so much. This is why I don’t really understand the distinction between sexual monogamy and partner-dancing monogamy. This is why I have so much trouble figuring out, if there are people in monogamous relationships that I’m interested in being close to as friends, how to do that, or if it’s even possible. I know how to respect stated boundaries. If someone tells me not to kiss them, I can not kiss them. If someone says we can kiss this way but not that way, or kiss but not fuck, or cuddle but not kiss, I’m fully capable of adhering to those restrictions. I can’t intuitively feel where the lines are, though. I only know what to look for because I see the same lines drawn by so many different people. Why people draw those lines in particular, though, escapes me.

Not understanding the why makes me uncomfortable because it means I know how to adhere to the letter of the law but not the spirit. Generally, I think being able to adhere to the spirit of the rules is the more important of the two. It also seems, generally, to be the easier of the two. If you understand the reasoning behind the rules, you don’t have to remember each and every rule. If you don’t, the best you can do is remember each and every rule, and even then it’s possible to violate the spirit without violating the letter.

I suspect that part of the reason for my confusion is that a lot of people in relationships don’t know why they draw the lines that they do. Whatever the reason, though, it’s something I’d like to be able to understand better. It would make having friends who are in exclusive relationships an easier thing for me to process.

Sidenote: At some point, I’m going to make a post about rules that I do and don’t understand. Nutshell, though: I find it much easier to comprehend rules that are about the relationship that they are about. Analogy: if I have full time job, my boss can say “You can’t have another job”, or they can say “I need you to always have 40 hours per week for this job”. The latter is a rule about the job, and makes sense. The former is a rule about other things, and doesn’t make a lot of sense (to me).

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6 comments on “Musing on Monogamy, Friendship, and Boundaries

  1. Pingback: Will I Ever Be Monogamous Again? | Research to be Done

  2. While, to a certain extent, I understand what you’re saying, I think it odd that you do not think every relationship has negotiated boundaries of what is, and what is not, acceptable behavior. It’s always simply a question of degree. Comparing the behavior of controlling boyfriend to the sexual boundaries of a monogamous relationship as if they are comparable is a bit simplistic, and it ignores that you have almost certainly had negotiated boundaries in your own relationships. Also, you may not understand the boundaries monogamous people set, but you are judging their boundaries based on the way you interact, and that’s hardly fair.

    I don’t find dancing particularly sexual unless I’m actively attracted to my dance partner. And I’m rarely attracted to my dance partners. I’m rarely attracted to people in general. I’m monogamous because I don’t really want to sleep with anyone else. I find it difficult enough to find *one* person I want to sleep with, and I tend to date people who are very similar.

    You are attracted to a lot of people. For you, emotional and sexual closeness are very intertwined. For me, they’re not. My boundaries make perfect sense for me. I’m not saying that there aren’t tons of people who accept conventional boundaries without thinking about their own needs and desires. But I can certainly tell you exactly why my relationships tend to be monogamous, and why any guy telling me I wasn’t allowed to dance, or be friends with my ex-husband, would be completely unacceptable to me.

    • “While, to a certain extent, I understand what you’re saying, I think it odd that you do not think every relationship has negotiated boundaries of what is, and what is not, acceptable behavior.”

      I do think all relationships have rules, or at least standards, for behavior. But there are different ways of choosing what those boundaries are. See the sidenote at the bottom–I think there’s a big difference between boundaries that are about relationships with others and rules that are about the relationships that they are about.

      Either way, I didn’t intend this to be a rant about how all relationships’ boundaries that I have trouble comprehending are necessarily wrong, though. It’s just that I don’t understand them. Interacting with someone who sets them is, for me, a lot like doing BDSM scenes with someone who’s asexual. I have to learn to feel out where lines are and remember them as best I can, because my lines for what is okay and my lines for what is sexual are very different and my intuition is of little help.

      “Comparing the behavior of controlling boyfriend to the sexual boundaries of a monogamous relationship as if they are comparable is a bit simplistic, and it ignores that you have almost certainly had negotiated boundaries in your own relationships.”

      I have, but not generally boundaries of this type.

      The thing that confuses me with the dancing analogy, though, is that we were able to have that moment. That the standard is so culturally ingrained that we were able to share a moment of “That’s ridiculous” over a boundary that, as a cultural standard, appears utterly arbitrary to me. As an individual standard, it might be significantly less so, for reasons like those you describe. I didn’t mean to conflate conflated my take on that rule as a standard and that rule as an individual choice. There is a significant difference in my take as a standard vs. an individual choice (except in the case where the individual choice is made solely based on the standard).

      The monogamous rules that are frequently accepted across the board I have a lot of skepticism about. The monogamous rules that individuals set for themselves I have a lot of difficulty understanding, and, depending on the relationship, may have varying levels of skepticism about (the same as any other relationship).

      If I appeared to be judging all monogamous relationship rules as silly, point out to me where. My intention in this post was to say that they don’t make sense to me, and talk about why I have so much trouble understanding them. I do think, as per the last paragraph, that they are often difficult to understand because they aren’t well thought-out. I don’t think they are never well-thought out. I think they’re the same any any other type of relationship—sometimes people think things through well and sometimes they don’t. I have trouble understanding monogamous rules either way, though, because the reasoning behind them is more foreign to me than most other relationship styles are. That doesn’t make them wrong, just difficult to comprehend for someone to whom they don’t come naturally.

  3. I don’t feel like I’ve ever “set rules,” or had someone “set rules” for me to follow. Perhaps it’s more like an employer saying, “I need you to be here for at least 40 hours a week,” and then me evaluating that and saying, “I don’t have the time or energy to add another job on top of that.”

    But I’ve also dealt at various times with “what counts as cheating?” type questions in relationships … it’s just that my memory of how that went down was as a dialogue. “This is what I’m comfortable with, and what I’m not comfortable with.” “This is what I want to do, and this is how important/unimportant it is to me to be able to do it.” I mean, I guess those negotiations end up as mutually agreed-upon “rules,” but it feels very different from “You is ma’ girlfriend now, and you better ACT like it!”

    • There are definitely good ways and bad ways to talk about that kind of thing, and to deal with feelings of discomfort about things. That said, it seems to boil to to similarly confusing lines for me, personally. Not that dissimilar from the experience of doing kink with someone who is asexual and having trouble understanding the fundamentals of those lines.

      How does the energy model interact with the avocado model? And how do those two interact with the “This makes me uncomfortable” cheating model? Is there a unified theory? :-p

    • I think the difference between someone like you and someone of the “You’re my girlfriend now, and you better ACT like it!” persuasion is the degree to which I’d be willing to trust them to know what is okay and not okay. The rules, in and of themselves, might be similarly difficult for me to feel out. But in your case, I have a lot more confidence that you, yourself would know what and why they are and be able to communicate them reasonably effectively, and intelligently predict what would be okay or not okay in a given situation. Use of the phrase “You’re my girlfriend now, and you better ACT like it!” would suggest to me that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know why the rules were what they were.

      Either way, I’m in the dark, but there’s a big difference in whether or not I would assume that the other person is just as in the dark as I am or not.

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