A Traditionalist’s Guide to Thinking About (and Going About) Non-conventional Intimate Relationships, Part III

I. Personal experiences that have contributed to both pro- and anti- ideas

II. Different relationship formats, relationship components, and how format affects the maintenance of these components

III. Analysis of relationship formats and principles, and how to discuss and go about them while maximizing potential and minimizing harm


Part II was getting long, so here are some summative analyses of the relationship formats I discussed, and a discussion of the possible issues with how to sort out and fulfill so many formats fairly for everyone.

All is resourceSecurity vs. democracyClash and compromisePossible negative significances of intimacyAssumptions and cultural bias in public discourseGendered dimensionsIntimacy in an age of flexible accumulationFinal thoughts

All is resource

When I was reading up Polyamory on Wikipedia, I saw the following endorsement: “The more you love, the more you can love — and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had time enough, he could love all of that majority who are decent and just.”

This is true in theory. Love itself is definitely not a limited resource, and individuals indeed love multiple people at the same time and in different ways without the feelings competing with one another. However, I do not think the quotation works in practice. Love cannot be expressed in its pure form. It has to be expressed through things that are finite resources, time being the one that controls everyone regardless of their mental or emotional capacity and wealth. Emotional and mental capacity are also not infinite. Regardless of the size of one’s capacity, adding another person to one’s life is significant undertaking – even a casual sex partner requires time to browse, converse, plan, get frequent STI tests, etc. Thus it is naïve to think that resources are not involved in love, or that love can transcend resources.

However, thinking about relationships in terms of resource can help change the tendency to judge them on moral terms. For example, I had thought that I would not like to be in an open relationship because I thought they were irresponsible and thus immoral. However, if I were in an exclusive relationship but my partner had a full time job that demanded a lot of overtime or travel, had a big family and friends who needed his help and attention, and a number of activities that he wanted to attend which I weren’t interested in, my feelings of insignificance and indignation would be very similar to those I would have in an open relationship. Thus it is not some abstract morality but preference over how much resource is due to me that is at issue here.

I think when people worry about society when they look at intimacy, their worries are actually grounded on a perception of society having scarce resources. When there is no consistent contraception in a society with little infrastructure or few resources, raising the healthy next generation requires people sticking to familiar family structures. As Jarrod Carmichael says on his show about the correlation between income and cheating, “100 grand to half a mil means he’s definitely cheating, and anything over half a mil just means his wife knows his mistress by name.” This assessment, while comedic, relies on the same resource factor. So, those who can afford to have unconventional relationships literally can afford it.

But I do think it’s useful to let go of the scarcity mentality when dating, not in the sense that relationships don’t use resources, but in the sense that people are not a finite resource. From my experiences, I tend to be a pessimist about relationships, and I also feel I don’t fit in with my peers very well. So, in relationships I have tended to think that my partner was the only one in the world for me, and I found that I have tended to burden them with too many expectations. For someone like me, dating multiple people (at least when looking around initially) might actually be a good idea so that I can distribute my care and expectations, and also gain more confidence in my ability to relate to people.

Security vs. democracy

I started Part II by saying that I am not a traditionalist in the sense that I believe traditional relationship formats like marriage are the best, but in the sense that I believe in using guidelines to ensure that people treat each other fairly and with consistency. A general principle from all the formats in Part II is that there is either a pre-set relationship format with clear guidelines to maintain proportionality and reciprocity, or there aren’t strict guidelines but then details need to be worked out according to the needs of the individuals involved.

This is a case of the tradeoff between security and democracy that also applies to national security. In America there seems to be a lot of emphasis on individual freedom, which I personally feel can sometimes be a reductionist emphasis that views any guidelines whatsoever as invalidating freedom (eg the anti-vaccination movement). I think this is a misrepresentation; guidelines can be repressive, however having some guidelines ensures that all people can have equal opportunities to exercise their freedom. I don’t think this changes when we talk about interpersonal relationships just because they are more personal.

I understand that not everyone has a lot they want to share intimately with others, or they can give more when they give to many. In this case the conventional exclusive and lifelong marriage can be indeed stifling. In this case, the onus has to be on individuals involved to know themselves and know what they want, and communicate it to people they are involved with. The Mic article I mentioned in the last post discussed the “dating partner” format, where two people expressed their relationship thus: “Eliza tells Mic they only broached the topic of exclusivity after two months and even then, ‘It wasn’t a conversation I definitely assumed we’d have.’ The talk, when it happened, simply established that they wouldn’t hook up with other people.” Using the components above, they had established reciprocity.

However, I am not sure what Eliza meant when she said that it wasn’t a conversation she definitely assumed they would have. It sounds like she meant that they would just keep dating without communicating what they were doing. To me this sounds like a bad idea, due to the component of reciprocity of information – there is no way to assess whether this reciprocity has been achieved without a talk. What if Eliza’s partner believed that dating multiple times meant they were official, and he also didn’t say anything because he couldn’t conceive it might be different?

And if we are meant to believe that anything in the relationship is possible without having a talk, a) who were supposed to have taught us this? It is unfair to others to assume that everyone knows these implicit dating practices. They do not hold across all human societies, but people are intermingling more and more. b) this creates a level of uncertainty which I am not sure is fair to ask others to deal with. Even if my relationship with Partner #1 ended badly, I think he brought up obstacles to our relationship in a timely manner and did not avoid it. So, I believe that communication is absolutely necessary. The right time depends on the circumstances, however if individuals have been engaging in sex, going on dates, and bonding emotionally, I can’t see some kind of discussion being pushed farther than 2 months. These conversations also don’t necessarily need to establish a relationship status, but should serve to help individuals check in about being on the same page.

I still believe that the majority of people, especially young people who are more likely to engage in relationships without fixed guidelines, aren’t very good at knowing what they want and communicating it. But there’s no solution to that except to guarantee a socially open environment to all young people, encourage them in soul-searching and discussion (esp with young men), and encourage young people that there is nothing shameful in going to a therapist, even just to find out more about themselves in a structured setting.

Clash and compromise

I have tended to want marriage and the kind of exclusive unit-forming relationship with mutually high reciprocity. That is aligned with what I have been taught regarding living life in general: a) don’t do a half-assed job; if you take responsibility for something, then see it through to the end, or don’t pick it up at all b) sharing is caring.

I still believe that these principles are good ones, however when I act according to them in intimate relationships, I seem to be taken advantage of. With Partner #2, my acts of giving and tolerance were assumed to cost me nothing, and when I communicated that they did and asked for reciprocity, he stated that it wasn’t that kind of relationship and I knew it, so if I gave a lot that was my choice and not his problem.

Not all of the above relationship formats are equal, and when two people with expectations of different formats come together, they are not equal in their difference. Partner #2 and I were equal in terms of him feeling stifled and my feeling betrayed, however in terms of resources expended and benefits gained, I gave a lot more at more cost and he received a lot more benefits with less cost, because I was the one who involved myself more. This is not just me being biased – at the end of our relationship, Partner #2 admitted that I had given him a great deal whereas he had displayed a great deal more behavioural problems that demanded more of me.

Sometimes I would stumble upon similar cases as me with Partner #2, where the advice is to care less, or break up. I find this advice unfair. If we ask people who are by default responsible and caring to step down, why do we not ask others to step up? In addition, I believe that those who want and can achieve involvement tend to be those who can compromise better too, and when they are with someone who can’t or doesn’t want involvement, it would most likely be one-sided compromise. If the spirit of having many relationship formats is to validate all ways of interacting with one another intimately, this is contradicted by regularly asking more involved and caring people to step down and match the levels of those less involved.

I point this out to utopians who think that having multiple relationship formats means that everyone would be happy. People will indeed be happy when (and if) they find the most suitable format, however while they are on their search and meet people they do not match, individuals who espouse aspirations to a high degree of involvement and exclusivity, and who are able to accomplish this, can be at a disadvantage.

I believe that people who know they are not involved or caring can try to make up for this: first, they should believe that all relationship desires are equal, and not automatically label people who want involvement as “needy” or “clingy.” Second, if they have legit reasons for not wanting high levels of involvement, they should be mindful of the other partner’s needs, instead of saying that it’s not their problem or using proportionality to cooler feelings as an excuse. Less involvement should mean that a partner is not obligated to help their partners plan their next career move, but it should not mean that each partner can excuse themselves from making sure the other is satisfied with the relationship.

Possible negative significances of intimacy

Detaching sex from love can also detach sex without love from judgments of immorality – for example, I believe that legalizing prostitution would minimize harm to prostitutes. However, sex can become either meaningless (which is neutral) or – my worry here – has a higher chance of being attached symbolically to traits that can be harmful.

For example, when I was dating Partner #1, I told him that I had never had sex before. He was extremely surprised and said that he lost his virginity at first opportunity. Since my friends up to that point had been those who never dated or married the first person they dated, I didn’t know why someone would be in such a hurry to lose their virginity. He said that as a young man, being a virgin is like carrying a burden and he would have been ridiculed. He also said that his first time having sex was rather unpleasant, though at some point he also mentioned that he and co-workers took a younger staff member to a prostitute to make him lose his virginity. What I gathered from this exchange is that among young men, there is a lot of peer pressure to have sex not necessarily to enjoy it or for love, but to prove one is a man.

Or, it’s to prove that an individual is an adult. When I was still a virgin, I revealed it to a temporary housemate; she said that had she been younger, she would have dragged me out and found a way to help me lose it. She was only half joking and I was very disturbed. A lot of popular culture, like the film The 40 Year Old Virgin, also seems to perpetuate the idea that there is something wrong with people who don’t have sex, don’t have it as soon as possible, or don’t enjoy casual sex. In this case, the discourse of normality that used to be attached to marriage is flipped now to designate other people as strange, and the tendency to label others based on intimacy hasn’t improved on the whole.

As I mentioned, Partner #2 frequently asked if I would be willing to have a threesome with him and another woman. When I asked him why he wanted this, since he was already dating multiple people at the same time, he said that it meant to him the greatest expression of heterosexuality and sexual success.

One person that Partner #2 wanted to hook up with was a female student at our university who had sex with many people to get back at her boyfriend for something, supposedly a rumour circulating among undergrads. Similarly, as I mentioned in the previous post, my parents divorced because my father was cheating on my mother. I didn’t mention that he did this because he thought that she wasn’t spending enough time with the family and not giving him enough attention, and cheating was a way of acting out.

Perhaps young men of any age used sex to evaluate masculinity, and sex as a form of revenge also happened all the time too. But still I worry that detaching sex from love would create more opportunities for these kinds of abuses of sex to fester, especially if many people endorse it as a part of freedom without question. I have doubts as to whether the benefits for having a relationship format to suit everyone outweighs these negative associations.

Assumptions and cultural bias in public discourse

I mentioned already that there tends to be a lot of articles encouraging casual sex and open relationships, whereas there aren’t many offering the opposite opinion. I think articles that encourage these unconventional relationships are meant to counter assumptions that exclusivity is a moral imperative, or that marriage is the most legitimate way to be intimate. However, I find that current articles about casual relationships also rest on a number of unexamined assumptions.

The first one is the pursuit of individual happiness is good, and that people should be responsible to themselves before being responsible to others. Most of the articles with tips on how to conduct non-conventional relationships are written in a way where tips are meant for self-protection, eg this article on how to make friends with benefits work, or this one on casual sex tips. Few of these are written to teach people how to treat others with respect.

A second assumption is that articles encouraging casual relationships are often culturally biased towards a western culture with abundant resources and decent infrastructure, and an emphasis on individuality. While this bias exists because the audience they want to reach live in these societies, often markers in conventional relationships get slapped with negative connotations without an examination of whether those connotations are true, or true of all societies. For example, the Mic article includes the statement that non-committal dating allows for “cuddling and engaging conversations without the pressure of family visits.” It is assumed that family visits are pressure and the statement is tossed out as such. Family could just be more people to interact with and befriend; and in other societies, family constitutes a support network that might be vital to one’s partner. None of these possible connotations are mentioned, and so at the same time that these kinds of articles deflate assumptions in conventional relationships, they set up their own assumptions. I think writers should be more culturally sensitive and relative.

Gendered dimensions

Third (following from before), the venues for these articles and the tips for self-protection also seems to have a gender aspect – that is, it seems to be largely women’s magazines encouraging women to have casual relationships and instructing them to protect themselves, often implicitly against men. I have to admit I’m a bit unclear as to how the multiple waves in feminism got us here, since for me as an immigrant from the PRC, feminism was more like first and second wave feminism focused on breaking the patriarchy of one’s immediate family and getting women access to public life and work opportunities. For me, again it’s the step down / step up problem of why it is predominantly women being told how to adopt casual relationships while we aren’t asking men to approach relationships more seriously or ethically.

I also know that a) women don’t automatically want more commitment, b) that marriage had been damaging to women in history as they were often property traded among male heads of households when forming alliances and so forth, and c) that women face more disparagement from social and family circles for having more sexual partners. My responses would be that a) I still find that women are better at being committed and are more likely to want at the present social moment, regardless of whether they have been educated to be this way or not. For example, Partner #2, being bisexual, hooked up with both men and women, and while the men never wanted a relationship, almost all the women did in some form. This means that regardless of the reason for women being different, the gender of one’s partner and the gender of the other people they see has different ramifications on the relationship. b) I don’t believe current laws in the Euro-American world regarding marriage, divorce, property and child custody are biased against women. And so c) The object of feminist critique should be the against gender bias in specific people as private individuals (again plus a corresponding address to men), and not against the idea of long-term commitment itself or an “institution” of marriage, which I find to be somewhat of a straw man argument.

Intimacy in an age of flexible accumulation

This part is probably more academic. A lot of the research in the humanities and social sciences come out of social theory regarding state repression or profit-driven capitalism; sometimes the state devalues certain people because it wants to maximize opportunities for others to pursue capital gains. For example, the Enclosure Acts in England and the Industrial Revolution were cases where the state failed to regulate property and industry, leading to uneven displacement of peasants, who then faced exploitation in urban industries.

At least in the Euro-American world, things are better now, but there are still concerns over job security affected by firms seeking cheaper offshore labour, subcontracting, and hiring at part time without granting benefits, in addition to a great deal of freelancing and self-employment where the onus is on the individual to keep up. There are numerous articles showing that people tend to have multiple career changes in their lifetimes. In this kind of work climate, social life has also become unstable. My immigrant family epitomizes this kind of social instability – before I entered high school, I had gone to 6 different schools, and to this day I had never lived in a city for more than 4 years.

I have wondered about the appropriate reactions in interpersonal life to an unstable public and work life. Either interpersonal relationships (including intimate relationships) could offer increased stability to compensate, or they could match the instability out there and be likewise flexible. I think the latter has taken place, and all the formats in Part II are for situations when it is no longer possible to marry, have children, and live and work in one place.

I am not sure which reaction is more appropriate. I said earlier in this post that it is naïve to think that love can transcend resources, but here a part of me hopes that it might transcend social instability. Immigrants of my parents’ generation, for example, had long-distance and exclusive relationships as the norm when one partner immigrated earlier to set up life for the family. I think it is good to have someone you know you can depend on emotionally regardless of where you are or what happens to you. On the other hand, consistency also involves a lot of personal sacrifice. If I want to hold strictly to dating to find a long-term married partner, I would have to abstain from dating completely as I go around the world for advanced degrees and work, knowing that I might only stay in one place for a few years. Asking this of people also doesn’t seem quite fair, and so I have to allow for dating in the short term with less involvement and commitment. For some, this lessened involvement and commitment might involve dating other people at the same time.

Final thoughts

It has been my (female) friends who have exhibited more ethical ways of dealing with non-conventional relationships, and it is they who have saved me from being in total despair about it. First, I found that the friend who judges relationships using quality of sex isn’t too off the mark. I reconsidered her approach when I realized that while I was attracted to Partner #2 and enjoyed spending time with him, sex wasn’t that great because he was rather inconsiderate and was often unwilling to negotiate. Soon I saw the same tendencies in other aspects of our relationship as well. I do think that if a partner can be mindful of me in the throes of passion and that sex is egalitarian, it bodes well for the relationship as a whole, and so I also understand now why some people would have sex first and ask questions later.

Second, I think there is a tendency for traditionalists to believe that if a person frequently changes partners or is relaxed about sexuality, they are incapable of commitment. I have found that this is not true. I mentioned a friend in Part I who believes in open relationships. She also has tended to also seek other sexual partners when there are major problems in her main relationship. At first I thought this was unhealthy, however I also saw that having sex with other people actually enabled her to relieve pressure and then return to work on her main relationship. She might as well have gone hiking with a friend. In addition, when she found a more suitable partner than before, her tendency to seek out other partners has been less and virtually non-existent, even when the new relationship is a long-distance one. Before I thought of traditional and non-conventional approaches to relationships as mutually exclusive, however now I no longer think this way. I understand that I can still hold ideals of commitment and a long-term partnership, but I can also adopt other relationship formats as strategies until I find someone suitable, or until my own life is more settled.

Third, I have found that women tend to be quite good at compartmentalizing, perhaps due to women being more encouraged to think about their own interiority. My friends who seek multiple partners tend to not let it affect their behaviour in their main relationship or other aspects of their lives, even when they don’t turn out well. They are also able think in nuanced ways about communicating other partners to their main one if they have one, instead of seeing honesty in black and white terms. A friend has said that she tends to not tell her partner about other strictly sexual partners and does not need to know about his. However, if she sees relationship potential in someone she meets but wants to keep dating her current partner, she would find it ethical to immediately communicate this to her current partner so he could choose whether he would stay or not. This is more than what a lot of people would do when meeting others not through sex.

Accepting that oneself and others can engage in non-conventional relationships can be freeing. It enables me to make friends and keep them without prejudgement and also to cut myself some slack. Partner #3 that I mentioned in Part I is a friends with benefits situation that I will probably not pursue, but because it comes from someone who I have known for some time and think about positively, it has been an opportunity to dissociate nonconventional formats from betrayal. In addition, I also realized that in the years that we have been friends, he has been a very consistent and generous friend (and I’m not in a position yet to worry about who will help me with mundane life tasks when I’m 70). So if my goal is to have someone care for me no matter where I am, I’ve already achieved it, even if on the face of it the format doesn’t seem like it.

I also know now that accepting that oneself and others in non-conventional arrangements in no way obligates me to accept every form these relationships might take. Also, trying to accept something unsuitable for me really proves nothing. Sex doesn’t matter to me a great deal, so it would be pointless for me personally to have casual sex with someone or to have one-night stands. I also don’t feel comfortable dating someone who dates many other people, because usually I do seek high levels of involvement of people in general. I also tend to move to new places where there is not a lot of social life to occupy my time. It makes sense to find someone else who is more like this, so we are balanced. Currently, I have also managed to detach sex from love, however based on my experiences with Partner #2 and my friends, I believe that compartmentalization is necessary, and there needs to be other actions in the relationship to build trust and bonding. Someone who cannot do these things are also not suitable.

With regards to intimate relationships, on the physiological side of things we have a good system of teaching about sex early, making contraception easily available, encouraging frequent screenings for STIs, and discussing how to be have sex responsibly. I think we need more infrastructure on the emotional and interpersonal side as well to encourage deliberate, nuanced, and consistent discussion about how to responsibly conduct all kinds of relationships. To be honest, I would rather have gotten any STI (short of HIV) than some of the emotional toil and confusion I had been through. Through these 3 posts I have clarified my ideas and preferences a great deal, and hopefully they’ll also suggest an approach to others who are thinking these matters through.

Advertisements

A Traditionalist’s Guide to Thinking About (and Going About) Non-conventional Intimate Relationships, Part II

I. Personal experiences that have contributed to both pro- and anti- ideas

II. Different relationship formats, relationship components, and how format affects the maintenance of these components

III. Analysis of relationship formats and their principles, and thoughts about how to discuss and go about them while maximizing potential and minimizing harm


These are the formats: One-night stands, Marriage, Sex work, Dating, Open relationship, Multiple dates (w/ Group relationships, Group sex), Recurring casual sex, Friends with benefits, and Cheating.

A few caveats: These formats I discuss below reflect the relative ease or difficulty of achieving the format in its ideal (roughly in order of easier to more difficult). In its ideal, no format is better or worse than the other. This also leads to the definition of a “traditionalist” in the title – I am not a traditionalist in the sense that I believe traditional relationship formats like marriage are the best, but in the sense that I believe in using guidelines, whether pre-set or arranged cases by case, to ensure that people treat each other fairly and with consistency. From my experiences discussed in Part I, I have doubts about whether certain formats today can smoothly facilitate this. So, this post is to try and, as objectively as possible, break relationship expectations down to common components, and evaluate whether various formats can or cannot easily allow guidelines to be created and followed based on these components.

These components are not really rules; I don’t necessarily believe that there should be laws governing interpersonal life. I am also not considering the wider social ramifications of intimate relationships, because I’m not even sure there is a correlation between them. My focus is the individuals that are involved in conventional and unconventional intimate relationship and what contributes, or does not, to them treating one another with fairness, though I will go more social in the next post when I discuss the valence media attaches to them and the meaning they have for peer or family groups in the next post.

Components in intimate relationships:

1) Informed consent: the hard legal version, or a soft non-legal version that involves disclosing or failing to disclose information that would influence another’s decision to stay in the relationship.

2) Resources: both material, like money, or immaterial, like time, used to calculate components below.

3) Proportionality: an individual tends to expend resources for / ask resources of another individual (level of involvement), proportionate to the type of relationship or proportionate to how they feel about them. The feeling can be varied, such as affection, duty, sense of social status.

4) Reciprocity: of both feelings and expenditure of resources; all individuals involved tend to reciprocate one another’s feelings at roughly the same levels, and tend to contribute resources on equal levels with the others, even if these resources take different form for each.

4.5) Agreement – ie, reciprocity of opinion / information. Does the same intimate action or the same relationship label mean the same thing to all individuals involved? Does having a relationship take up equal importance for all individuals relative to the rest of their lives, and does everyone agree on what “important” entails? When this factor is at play regarding future prospects, the expression is “having expectations”.

I believe that these components are all involved for intimate relationships, whatever their format. When they all exist (or when they can be easily evaluated and deemed to exist), it would be a satisfactory relationship. When there is no informed consent or resources to spare at all, relationships tend not to happen; when proportionality and reciprocity are lacking, conflict arises. The complaint “I do X but you never do X” is a matter of reciprocity, or an issue in communication problems like, “You don’t need to yell about something like Y” is a matter of proportionality (is yelling proportional to the gravity of the issue?).

However, a satisfactory relationship doesn’t necessarily mean a happy relationship, or vice versa. The 3 relationships I listed in Part I brought me a lot of happiness in various ways but none of them were satisfactory, and so they attracted me enough for me to begin, but they tend not to last.

Formats

As mentioned, the formats and components I discuss below reflect the relative ease or difficulty of achieving the format in its ideal and no format is better or worse than the other in its ideal. I will go in the order of the most easy to achieve to the most difficult.

One-night stands

Hard informed consent is covered by laws regarding rape and sexual assault and there is a robust structure facilitating precautions taken against STIs. In casual sex, resources aren’t much of a consideration. As interaction is brief, there are also no major concerns over proportionality. The reciprocity and proportionality is based mainly if not solely on attraction; whether the criteria of attraction is present and reciprocated can be easily evaluated. Finally, most likely people who participate in sex with others they have just met understand that the meaning of intercourse is just the intercourse, and so there is unlikely to be any disagreement.

Marriage

By this I mean the conventional kind where 2 individuals establish an exclusive emotional, sexual, and life unit with informed consent. I am not dealing with marriage as a form of economic transaction or arranged marriages with non-consenting partners. Those would have criteria working in reciprocity and proportionality determined by local laws and customs that I am not qualified to assess.

Exclusiveness is to establish high reciprocity, ie it ensures that resources of each partner goes mainly to the other. There is usually a statement of great feeling to the other, and high involvement counting in all of emotional, sexual, and life events establishes a high level of proportionality to the feeling. The commitment of one’s whole life in marriage is a pre-established high reciprocity regarding the resource of time. The format of marriage demands a certain degree of reciprocity and proportionality in the first place, which is a basis for those involved to work out its details.

Some people, such as Partner #3 that I described in the previous post, believe that there is no use for the institution of marriage and that it should be abolished. I do agree that in certain (if not most) cultures, marriage can often be used to measure a person’s worth and to determine if they are “normal.” As a Chinese woman, I feel this acutely when some friends of my parents in China think that I am strange when I choose to do a PhD at 30 instead of finding a husband. Again, this gets into the territory of how intimate relationships impact social functioning, which I don’t think it does.

I believe there is no use for an institution of marriage whereby society judges the whole person based on their inclination/ability to form a highly proportional and reciprocal relationship. Maybe it made sense as a litmus test in a society where fealty to a lord or monarch ensures stability. However, I do believe that it is useful to keep marriage as a personal shorthand for those involved in it to register an agreement on their level of reciprocity and proportionality. People who know they want it and are good at it can use it as a kind of benchmark for themselves in terms of how they treat their partner. To me, marriage without institution should be like designing one’s own workout regimen with specific activities and goals to facilitate improvement. There is no publicly mandated workout regimen, but it would be a good idea to stick to the one you designed to achieve the goals you want to achieve.

Even so, I do find that marriage as an external institution to adopt might be useful to keep as well. I do think people are generally more motivated when there are others external to themselves to make them accountable when people get lazy or lose their way. So, marriage should be like your personal fitness trainer.

Sex work

There is a very clear structure for reciprocity in this as sex is exchanged for money. But if all sex workers perform the same sexual acts, why are some paid more than others?

I’m actually not being facetious. I think all prostitutes should be paid the same amount, probably quite a high amount. Previously I mentioned that marriage has clear guidelines for reciprocity and proportionality. The institution of marriage can be repressive, but as an institution outside the individuals involved in marriage, it is also easier to appeal to when proportionality and reciprocity are violated. Prostitution frequently violates reciprocity and proportionality since many cases of it occur in societies where some group (usually women) are trafficked or pressured due to the lack of resources in their daily lives. If marriage can provide external guidelines to ensure proportionality and reciprocity, then prostitution should have it too. Ie. Sex work should be legalized, with standards for the workers’ well-being, guard against exploitation and give high and equal compensation.

Dating (exclusive but short term, or as long term but not mutually involved as marriage)

This is what I had to come to terms with Partner #1 in the original post. In that case it was an issue of proportionality – we liked and admired each other very much, could empathize and open up about our deepest issues that we couldn’t with other people, and had a lot of common interests and common aspirations about our lives. It seemed, then, a chance at an lifelong partnership would be proportional to what we shared, but the environment did not allow this to happen. Had we been able to spend time together, it would have been more like a short-term marriage without the paperwork.

Dating can mean less involvement. When holding back involvement despite strong feeling to share one another’s lives, there is lower proportionality and this might be a unsatisfactory if dragged out. For example, two people who would like to buy their own home and have a child but cannot due to insufficient resources might find this frustrating.

Dating can lead to marriage with increasing involvement, or not. Previously I had believed that dating should lead to marriage, however now I realize that if there is less involvement but individuals dating can consistently maintain reciprocity selectively, then perpetual dating can be satisfactory. When people have different expectations of dating, there is a lack of reciprocity in information, for example one person believes that dating would lead to marriage, whereas the other does not. Then it becomes a problem.

Open relationships

I think people should think about aspects of relationships they value for exclusivity – sex, emotional bonding, life activities, or the expenditure of resources. I pointed out in the last post that with Partner #2, who is bisexual, I didn’t really mind him having sex with men at all. This was because sex isn’t as important to me as emotional bonding, and I do believe it is true that when men hook up, they tend to not be looking for emotional bonding or even need much time. His male partners spent a couple of hours with him and then left, and didn’t need his companionship in any form until the next time.

The biggest source of contention between older and younger generations can be that older generations are taught to increase sexual exclusivity proportional to an increase in love, but younger generations do not. I would say that sexually open relationships are fine as long as the terms are clearly negotiated so that they do not get in the way of reciprocity and proportionality in the main relationship.

Reciprocity would be most easily established if both partners had other partners outside the relationship. One of the reasons Partner #2 didn’t work out was because he dated 25 women and I dated only him. However, reciprocity can be established in other ways; for example, when one partner’s work takes up a lot of their time.

In open relationships, though, there is always the chance that what started off as a purely sexual encounter might become something else. I do believe that sex is categorically different from other interpersonal activities because it occurs when people are exposed, vulnerable, and triggers hormones that stimulate increased affection. Even when taking precautions such as not staying over, there is also no such thing as purely having sex with someone because other aspects of the person come through. This may threaten proportionality and reciprocity in the main relationship. Thus, I think open relationships are a bit problematic even after clear negotiations. This threat may be neutralized by the fact that there is reciprocity in the importance each partner attributes to their relationship, which can be demonstrated in other ways. For example, if neither cares for the relationship much, the risk of finding someone else might be high but neither care; if both cares a lot for the relationship, they would take proportional steps to minimizing the likelihood of finding someone else when sex is involved.

Dating multiple people separately

This has largely the same issues as open relationships to a greater magnitude, and requires even more negotiation of what constitutes reciprocity and proportionality for each person involved.

There is also the specific issue of compartmentalization or its failure. By “compartmentalizing,” I mean emotionally, mentally, and materially containing the effects of one event or interaction so they do not affect another event or another interaction (usually the concern is affecting another for the worse, which would usually tip proportionality or reciprocity). Solely sex outside a relationship can be compartmentalized more easily since biology are the only thing the individual needs to work against. When adding to sex with dating, so many other aspects of the person need to be contained. I mentioned that with Partner #2, for example, other women he dated would often discourage or upset him, and this frequently affected how he interacted with me.

Partner #2 was particularly bad at compartmentalizing, however I am not sure many people would be really good at it. Each aspect of our lives affect the others; a hard day at work would make most people a little short-tempered when they interact with other people afterwards. I think having stresses from work, duties to family members and friends, and then add multiple partners on top would almost certainly constitute a poor atmosphere in which to maintain proportionality and reciprocity for each partner, if it is as simple as spending enough time. Partners might choose to negotiate what needs to be compartmentalized, however this would take a lot of self-knowledge and discussion to cover everything that matters to them, which I am also not sure the majority of people are good at.

Polyamory or group relationships, however may be different if all individuals involved are all mutually involved with one another, and negotiate some sort of mutual support. I really haven’t seen an example of this around me, so I’m a little hazy as to what its strengths and pitfalls are.

Group sex can either have the same but more severe pitfalls as open relationships, or they might get resolved if they are so mutual as to constitute some kind of polyamory. Partner #2 frequently expressed his desire to have a threesome with me and another woman. I saw his problems with compartmentalizing already and refused. In addition, in an objective sense I saw that his desire for a threesome with 2 women was an expression of him wanting to master heterosexuality, which I thought was a problematic way of approaching sexuality (more on this in Part III). As I said, I had no problems with his male partners because I saw that they did not demand a lot of involvement, and Partner #2 was good at compartmentalizing them as just sex. This was a recurring male partner who I was even able to establish a rapport with.

Recurring casual sex with one partner

The reason that I put this quite far down the list is that the chance that a purely sexual encounter might become something else is increased when the sexual partner is a recurring one. If this happens, there is a high chance that a minimal reciprocity of information has been occurring, since casual sex is a relationship format that doesn’t emphasize exchanging information, and people tend not to choose casual sex partners based on similar expectations of relationships. And of course whether sex becomes something else it might not apply to both partners, which would make their relationship non-reciprocal. So, I think of casual sex as relatively difficult to maintain and have a high chance of being uneven when they are not maintained.

Partners may even interpret the act of recurring sex differently – A friend who has worked in France said that usually “the talk” about establishing exclusivity is not needed there, because most people agree that having sex repeatedly with one person means they are dating and the relationship has a high chance of being exclusive.

Friends with benefits

There seems to be different definitions to this term. Sometimes it means recurring casual sex with one person, which is above. In this separate section it means having recurring sex between two people who have been friends. To me this can be pretty problematic as it combines risks of recurring casual sex with one partner, to the same but greater issues with compartmentalizing in dating multiple people. By the latter I mean that to maintain both the friendship and the benefits, they need to be compartmentalized from one another to ensure reciprocity and proportionality in both areas.

This is also a format that I am the most hazy about, since I don’t quite understand the point of it even being its own format. If two people are friends and have a bond based on mutual understanding and share interests, and on top of that they are attracted to one another, why would that not be dating? Perhaps I just have very good friends with whom my emotional bond exceeds most other people’s bonds with their friends. Or perhaps when other people have distinguished it from dating, they define dating as exclusive, or as a commitment that eventually lead to marriage. There might also be specific considerations as to how to transition from friend to partner as opposed to from stranger to partner, and how to transition out.

Extra-marital affair (in a marriage not agreed upon to be open)

This is problematic, as the agreement about the meaning of marriage is not being reciprocated, faithfulness and most likely time and emotional resources not reciprocated. Most importantly, I find this to violate soft informed consent. The extra-marital individual and the cheating partner may both be consenting individuals, however the partner being cheated on is at a disadvantage because they most likely don’t know about it, and if they did know, would not consent to it. An objection might be that that consent only applies to the extra-marital individual and the cheating partner. However, I believe that people who get married tend to want to create one unit with their partner in some way, and believe themselves and their partner to be an exclusive unit with regards to the condition of the relationship. If the whole married unit does not give informed consent, informed consent cannot said to be given. To me this is like how a verdict cannot be passed by a jury unless all members of the jury agree on the verdict. If the partner being cheated on knows and consents, then regardless of the legal terms of the marriage, the marriage is by their subjective definition an open one and thus another matter.

There is an issue of whether cheating in a non-marital but exclusive relationship is better or the same. In terms of legality, I believe it is better, as no contract was violated, but in terms of morality, I believe it is the same.

Saying that cheating is problematic does not mean that I think all kinds of cheating are equally bad. Before I came to LA and met people with varied perspectives on dating and I was still upset about my parents’ divorce, I did think so. This was like how I was taught that all theft is bad regardless of what item was stolen. However, I have been forced to consider extenuating circumstances. For example, someone who has suffered sexual assault as a child might have been forced by their circumstances to take sex and sexuality lightly, and they might still want a life companion but have a hard time understanding why sex should be exclusive, when for them it was extremely indiscriminate. Another example might be a partner comforting a friend of theirs that they are emotionally close to, and in a state of high emotions and the lack of clear thinking, intimacy occurs without prior intent.

A Traditionalist’s Guide to Thinking About (and Going About) Non-conventional Intimate Relationships, Part I

This is going to be pretty long, so I’ll break this up into 3 posts:

I. Personal experiences that have contributed to both pro- and anti- ideas

II. Different relationship formats, relationship components, and how format affects the maintenance of these components

III. Analysis of relationship formats and their principles, and thoughts about how to discuss and go about them while maximizing potential and minimizing harm


These days there are many articles about young people who aren’t really thinking about marriage but want companionship and intimacy, and new kinds of relationships are constantly being defined (eg dating partner, casual sex). However, there seems to be a comparative dearth of reflective articles considering reservations or opposition, especially those that come from a secular perspective. Searching for “issues with casual sex,” there are a bunch of articles that point to how certain strategies weren’t suitable, but other than religious ones (ie here), there were very few that deal with concept itself.

Relationship issues is really not the usual wheelhouse on this blog. However, I increasingly feel like I need to think through my own ambivalent position with this, and sharing them has no additional cost, I suppose. I also want to share this because I get the sense that secular people can be turned off by arguments couched in religious terms. Whether being turned off is justified or not, at least I do think that religious terms might not be the most pertinent for seculars.

Anyways, I’m not a religious adherent (though I think of Buddhism as the most sensical). I am a woman around 30 from a PRC Chinese family, and mostly heterosexual. The most pertinent experiences contributing to my current thoughts were my parents’ divorce, a new crowd in LA, and a number of recent relationships where I found myself in arrangements I wasn’t entirely comfortable with.

Family

While my parents are not really traditional and gave me a lot of freedom, they also believed that marriage was important and should last, and could not teach me, for example, that casual sex was okay. My parents divorced when I was starting high school, after my father was cheating on my mother with a co-worker of his.

The divorce had two rather unpleasant effects on my worldview: the first came from the fact that the co-worker was a woman who had affairs with men in the company in exchange for completing some of her work. Thus, I started disliking things associated with female sexuality, such as makeup, fashion, etc, and also affected my perception of women in general. The second effect was that I became deeply pessimistic about relationships. Upbringing aside, I have always been the romantic and sentimental sort, so it wasn’t that I repudiated the concept of love or didn’t feel it, I just didn’t think the chances of making one work was enough to put in the effort. Also, what my father did in itself was such a betrayal of my mother and I, and had unpleasant consequences for us, that when intimacy outside of an established relationship is mentioned, I associate it with betrayal.

Until recently, my Chinese upper-middle class sense of dating involved having meals and holding hands and getting to know someone through years, perhaps even a decade. I at least saw people moving in together, but it was for the two people gradually compromising with one another until they were one unit, ending in marriage.

Friends

From high school into undergrad and a master’s degree, my immediate circle were also other Asian immigrant children, who as of now have either married the first person they dated, or never dated. I was also very studious and wasn’t really in touch with mainstream culture – the things I do follow you can see from the rest of the blog, which aren’t exactly great places for learning this kind of thing. The only time I dated for 10+ years since my parents divorce was in undergrad, and the guy broke up with me after a month of pretty chaste interaction. Given my idea of relationships at the time, the breakup made no sense, but because nothing much happened, it didn’t ultimately change my concepts.

When I got to LA to do my PhD, however, I met a department full of queers and anarchists, and moreover they were Americans who were predominantly not immigrants. My housemate is a fellow grad student. She believes in the freedom to have sex with people other than her main partner but her partner did not, leading her to hide her hookups from him. This triggered a lot of issues with my parents and bothered me a great deal. She has a new long-distance partner who is also not entirely on board with open relationships, however at least tolerates them with some discomfort.

Another example is a mutual friend who is a lesbian and hiding her sexual orientation from her parents. Although largely monogamous, she has been in threesomes, believes in having sex very early in dating, using the quality of sex as a microcosm of the relationship, and her recurring definition of a date has to involve at least kissing.

I have disagreed with and have been bothered by how my friends live their lives, especially when they are hurting someone that in my view they are supposed to care about. However neither are malicious nor vengeful; they tend to have big hearts, are very responsible to their families, friends, and school work, and also thought through their ethics (more on this in the next post). I could either believe them to be bad people, or to believe issues I have with their behaviour aren’t that much of an issue. I’ve been trying to work on the latter.

Partners

When I got to LA, enough time had lapsed since my parents’ divorce where I was ready to believe I could find someone and establish a relationship. Having not really thought about it in practical terms and being rather sheltered, it wasn’t that I disapproved of non-conventional relationships, but that I couldn’t even conceive that they existed.

For example, I didn’t really know what “friends with benefits” was til a couple of years ago. My friends here still have goals of finding an emotionally devoted companion, so I also couldn’t conceive of dating someone long-term while knowing they are incompatible. I had wanted to be single, or married and monogamous, but could not conceive of wanting to be a swinging bachelor(ette) for one’s whole life, or conceive of having an open marriage. All of these formations appeared in 3 relationships I had in the past few years.

Partner #1

The experience that emphatically started all of this shock and self-questioning was a Korean man I dated long distance (mentioned here when talking about the unexpected entanglements we still have from history). A couple of months into our interaction, he told me that he was descended from a ancient royal lineage and his parents expected him to produce pure-blooded Korean children from a legitimately married wife. So, at some point he would have to break up with me and marry a Korean woman. First, I was deeply offended by the race factor (and I couldn’t even conceive that Chinese and Koreans were different races, even if races were a thing to begin with). Second, it was hard not to think of it as an insult that I was good for the short term but not long term.

I could handle it if doubts of my long-term suitability was a result of not knowing me well, but in this case the possibility of it being long-term was close to 0% and due to a factor I couldn’t change. I didn’t think that I could be treated fairly with a predetermined verdict, nor could I act naturally with this hanging over my head. I was angry, sad, and confused, and it took me a good week to recover. The Korean man also had mental health issues, and by then he had also irrecoverably spiraled into depression. He sent an email saying he was sorry but he had no control over his issues, and I never really heard from him again. This experience has left me heartbroken to this day.

Partner #2

The second recent relationship I had was with a fellow grad student who is also an international student, but not Asian. He is bisexual and had recently ended a long-term relationship with a man, but realized he was now more attracted to women. As this was new to him, he wanted to date around, me being one partner among many. I was apprehensive about this, but felt as though I didn’t quite do justice to the Korean man because I was too concerned about the form of the relationship over the person.

The relationship lasted several months due to the following issues: first, he accepted it natural that I should be the one to “loosen up” and found my adherence to “ancient morals” incomprehensible. He also believed that he would need to have casual sex after marriage. At some point I couldn’t keep compromising, and he also felt pressured every time I brought up my discomfort with his dating practices. Second, related to the first, was that he believed that in a relationship people should look after their own interests, whereas I believed that even in casual dating there should be some effort to learn about and cater to the needs of one’s partner.

Third, his sexuality and identity were also in flux, and was often distraught when his other dates didn’t go well (eg sometimes on a weekly basis women online would accuse of him being gay in actuality, or made fun of his foreign language name). In these moments he would need my help and even showed up unannounced at my home. So, I found myself in a dilemma; I did genuinely cared about him, however I couldn’t genuinely comfort him if what I really believed was that he wouldn’t have any of these problems with insulting dates had we been monogamous. Moreover, I felt like it wasn’t fair to be his go-to person for resolving any and all of his dating issues if was just (unwillingly) only one of all his partners. Even ancient imperial concubines had it better, I thought – if I had the primary duties of a first wife, then I should also have the privileges. At the end of the relationship he revealed that he had dated 25 other women in the months that we were together (not counting the men, who actually I had no problems with).

Partner #3

Some years ago, I had a big crush on someone in one of my classes. I never said anything at the time, though we became friends, and feelings abated. He would fall into the camp of friends who have never dated, and I just assume he wasn’t interested at all. Last year we were in the same city and hung out a lot, and I started to develop feelings for him again. I asked him to stay the night, but he said that because he needed to drop off his car before morning, he could not, but would if the circumstances were different. I knew from being friends with him that he was interested in intimacy, but not in having a girlfriend or marriage, and generally believed marriage and all social categories to be constraints. I have the feeling that we are supposed to consummate this relationship next time the “circumstances” are aligned, however I would be dissatisfied with intimacy without some form of dating-like activity. If there is none, I would rather not find out the hard way by being used and then tossed aside (one thing I am sure about is that sex for the sake of release is not for me. For me, attraction is predicated upon liking the person, and sex has to contain some affection for enjoyment).

Unfortunately I don’t think this is the kind of relationship where I can be up front and ask what is supposed to happen next, since I get the impression that people involved in casual relationships are in them precisely because they don’t want the pressure of thinking about the future. In addition, asking would make me appear decidedly un-casual about it and possibly rock the boat. So, my current struggles are not only with not getting the relationship I want, but being in a form of relationship where I don’t even feel I can ask about what kind of relationship I’m getting.

And so, I found myself having to readjust again – and getting the sense that every time I’ve adjusted to a new concept, I would be met with another one beyond my new threshold of acceptance. After I had reconciled that short term relationships with one person was okay, I was faced with the demand to be in an open relationship; after I had sorted through the nuances of that (next post), I was faced with a relationship that didn’t involve dating at all. Part of me is extremely tired and I’m approaching the point of wanting to completely abstain for the rest of my life again. Before I decide to do that, I had to sort it all out here.