On staying afloat, in and out of relationships


April 9, 2013 by aggiesez

When people discuss whether a given relationship, or type of relationship, “works” or how much it “matters,” typically they start talking about time: whether it might endure for years or even a lifetime. Or about how “committed” it is, usually in terms of how much you merge your lives or identities. But when it comes to intimate relationships, I think longevity and enmeshment are vastly overrated. In the long run, I think vitality matters more.

I’ve found that intimate connections (my own, and those of many people I know well) tend to ebb and flow like tides; or to build, break, and recede like waves. Trying too hard to force an intimate connection into static form and hold it there tends to drain its vitality. You can’t capture the experience of a beach in a bucket of wet sand.

Vitality is buoyancy, and it comes in many delicious flavors. It isn’t just the butterflies and thrills that accompany a passionate romance or hot sexy fling. It can also be a sense of discovery, recognition, belonging, welcoming, trust, growth, or unburdening. It can be the joy of play, or of shared experience or creation. It can be the strength of offering support, nurturing, forgiveness, healing, or comfort.

Even the painful, scary parts when intimate connections leave you adrift, scraping on the rocks, freezing, gasping for breath, or high and dry can eventually yield their own vitality once you get through them. Like good times, bad times always pass. It doesn’t make sense to try to hold on to either.

Of course, the catch is that we’re all human. We hate feeling hurt or vulnerable. That often drives people to want to control and channel their intimate relationships: if those connections don’t change, if we know how they’re “supposed” to be, then they won’t end — and we’ll all keep feeling good, right?

That’s the point when people in relationships often stop being mostly good to, or for, each other.

OK, to be honest, most people (even me) desire at least some stability in life. Also, we’d probably all prefer to have unending (or at least on-demand access to) connection and affection. But over time, I’ve learned that accepting and appreciating myself, and staying actively emotionally connected to my network of close friends and family (as well as being open to connect with lovers), works far better to keep me stable and happy. Today I’m more able to roll with the ebb and flow of intimate connections — whether over the course of a single relationship, or from one to the next.

To me, that’s the essence of being solo by choice, being my own main anchor in life — as opposed to being single (as in “between relationships”). I know, through experience, that I can remain afloat and content whether or not I have any lovers.

This is why, in my relationships, I prefer not to lash myself to anyone to create a merged “couple” identity — despite strong social conditioning and pressure to do so.

True, I did spend much of my life conflating the value of relationships with couplehood — both as a primary partner and otherwise. But I always eventually started feeling an anxious urge to steer my partner once we inevitably started to wane or drift. I’d lose focus on the vitality of our connection, and on vitality in general. I’d stop seeing abundance and start fearing scarcity. And my old self-doubt would creep in, whispering that on my own I would be too small and vulnerable to ever feel happy or secure.

Until I ended up one awful day with no lovers or partners at all. It was not my choice.

Still: I just kept living! Actually, life got even better.

These days I don’t wonder whether my intimate relationships might last “forever.” I certainly do treasure my experience of relationships — but what I desire is connecting with the hearts, minds, and bodies of others in ways that help make everyone involved feel glad to be alive. I want relationships that influence me to explore, grow and evolve; and where I am accepted and appreciated as I am. I like being good to, and for, my lovers. Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the sex or romance lasts for any length of time or reaches any particular level. Those aren’t my benchmarks.

Zen master I am not!

Despite all this philosophy, I definitely do not possess complete equanimity when a lover’s interest, attraction, or availability wanes.

I realized this when one lover played an April Fool’s Day prank on me. Just before midnight, when I felt proud that I’d made it through the day without anyone fooling me, he looked at me and with all seriousness told me that he wanted to stop seeing me in order to focus on someone else.

Ugh. I immediately felt that “No! Not yet! Dammit!” sinking feeling in my gut. Getting to know this man was making me very happy, and our connection was still pretty new. I was not ready for this to be over, especially not in the midst of all the new shiny good stuff. Bad surprises suck — not as much as mystery disappearances, but still.

However, in that same moment I also noticed that I felt no urge at all to try to cling to him, to bargain my way out of this loss. Even though I’d miss him as my lover, and felt sad about that.

This reaction surprised and intrigued me. It was very different from the Aggie of a decade ago, when I was learning to navigate polyamorous relationships.

Back then I would not have pleaded for him to stay with me. That hasn’t ever been my style. But I probably would have panicked inside while acting all casual and said, “Hey, I’m poly, I’m happy to share, you certainly can see someone else in addition to me.” Sure, that sounds really generous — but in fact it would have been a tactic to downplay and undermine his stated intention to conclude our relationship, to change his decision. Or if he insisted on going, I might act as if that would have no effect on me, to spare my pride.

Yeah, like any of that would have kept me from feeling abandoned or insecure. Right.

After a minute where I acknowledged his decision and my sadness, he let me off the hook. Turns out, he wasn’t done with me either, not yet. I thumped him on the chest (not too hard) and called him an asshole. But I was laughing too, and so was he, because he did indeed fool me well and fairly. The prankster in me can appreciate this; I wouldn’t dish it out if I couldn’t take it.

It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d been fooled. As recently as last year I was fooling myself in a more insidious way. I’d unconsciously applied the sunk cost fallacy to my relationships. If I’d invested considerable time or emotional energy into a relationship, I’d want to keep trying to “fix it” — even if the other person was clearly telling or showing me that he was done.

That worked about as well as you might expect. Unfortunately, unless you’re a Time Lord, past investments of any kind are always gone — and they never guarantee anything for the future. Also, one person is never enough to keep any kind of relationship going.

Learning that particular lesson about relationships sucked royally, but since then it’s helped me feel even more freedom and vitality as I connect with new lovers.

Right now I am experiencing some wonderful intimate connections with a few wonderful men. This is good. When these relationships eventually shift or end, that will also be ultimately be good, even though transitions and endings can sometimes be jarring. Because I sincerely care for all of these guys; none of them are disposable props.

Best of all, as long as they don’t decide to treat me disrespectfully or inconsiderately, I think it’s especially likely I’d remain friends with these particular men if our intimacies were to end. That’s largely because I feel no need to cling to them. I’m more able to take them for who they are, rather than what they might do for me.

I’d much rather we all stay afloat. Drowning each other in the name of trying to avoid pain or feel more secure just doesn’t seem to work.

10 thoughts on “On staying afloat, in and out of relationships

  1. chelseaxavier says:

    Your posts really have a way of making clear things that I already sensed intuitively about my own life, and this is one of them. I’ve felt that sense of natural change over time in every relationship I’ve had, and it always makes me worry that it means the relationship is over, dig my heels in and try to stop the change. Here’s to trying to roll with it.

  2. polyhydra says:

    Awesome. This really nails me in the heart. I already realize that I made far too many sacrifices to keep a commitment, as if that were some kind of sacrosanct goal. I am returning to my Buddhist philosophical roots and realizing that when the flow of the river changes, one cannot stubbornly stand still and refuse to accept that it has changed.

    • aggiesez says:

      Yep, learning to not just tolerate change, but accept and embrace it, can be really hard when hearts are on the line. But ultimately that’s how to stop fighting life and get on with living, and loving.

      That’s why I dropped out of the King Canute leadership trading program.

  3. Harper Eliot says:

    I think what you say about staying afloat when you’re alone is really apt. I don’t have a primary partner, but I do want one very much, and trying to stay afloat sometimes feels like a vicious cycle: I need to be afloat in order to enter into a healthy relationship, but sometimes I feel that being in a healthy relationship is what will keep me afloat. Nevertheless, I can stand on my own two feet, and be just fine, if I put in the energy. And it’s worth it just to know you’ll be okay on your own.

    • aggiesez says:

      Yep. Personally I don’t want a primary partner, but I hear ya.

      I think the key is getting through enough hard times and realizing you’re still fine, the world didn’t crumble, you’re OK no matter what. Sometimes the world crumbles a little (or a lot) temporarily, but that could happen regardless of who else is in your life at the time. It’s all temporary. Eventually equilibrium will reassert.

      IMHO, I think it’s a good idea for anyone to embrace being solo for a time, not seeking a partner, in order to gain experience, confidence, and comfort with being solo. It’s a great way to be — and even if it’s not the kind of life you want, anyone could end up involuntarily solo at any time. Better to get comfy with it in advance, when you’re not in a crisis.

  4. […] information that allowed me to make sense of today’s topic. You can read the post in question here, and if you have even a passing interest in open relationships of any kind, you should check out […]

  5. thelocalslut says:

    I’m dealing with this right now – a partner (though we don’t do primary/secondary, we happen to be each other’s only partners at the moment) is moving to a city about an hour away, and I am having a hard time accepting it. I want the relationship to stay “perfect,” which in my conception is seeing each other a few times a week and living in the same city but not living together. I can tell that if I can’t accept this change and make the best of it, one of us will end the relationship. I can see what you’re saying about ebb and flow, and I’m not sure if you mean that when it ebbs, the relationship ends…I think that it can flow again. I hope it can. I am trying various steps to come to terms with what’s happening.

    • aggiesez says:

      Sometimes relationships ebb to the point of ending, sometimes they just evolve and continue in a new direction, or get a fresh burst of energy. But yeah, they’re living creations, which means trying to trap them in a stasis field doesn’t really work. Being able to let go, or to change — which does not mean throwing in the towel when things change or when you hit a bump! — is a useful life skill.

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