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 resource – Security vs. democracy – Clash and compromise – Possible negative significances of intimacy – Assumptions and cultural bias in public discourse – Gendered dimensions – Intimacy in an age of flexible accumulation – Final 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.
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.
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.