July 31, 2013 by aggiesez
Labels are tricky things when it comes to describing how you connect intimately with other people — often because the people involved don’t quite agree on the meaning of the terms they’re each using. Lately, as a solo polyamorous person, I’ve been learning to redefine some common terms that apply to my current connections — on my own terms.
This came up a couple of months ago when one of my lovers and I stumbled over the term dating.
“Dating” is a terribly fuzzy — and in many ways outdated (yeah, I couldn’t resist that pun!) — term. It carries a ton of old baggage as a traditional monogamous relationship escalator courtship ritual.
But: if you’re not riding the relationship escalator (and I most definitely am not), that doesn’t necessarily make dating a bad word.
Trust me, I’m speaking as a longtime editor: ALL terms have unfortunate baggage.
I never really had much experience with dating until the last few years, after I embraced solo polyamory. As a teenager, I never really went on many dates — it was more about hanging out and hookups that sometime shaded into deeper relationships of various kinds. Then I was a serial monogamist from age 17 on, up through marrying (and then later embracing polyamory).
Even after embracing my poly nature, I didn’t really date much. I tended to develop crushes, stick my neck out to see if the attraction was mutual, and if so we’d explore whether there was chemistry. That strategy yielded some good relationships that lasted for awhile, and some painful unrequited passion. Such is life.
Fast forward to today. I’ve been getting involved intimately with men (yes, I’m straight) who I’ve met online, as well as with men I’ve met in real life through various ways (mutual friends, the local poly community, at parties and events, etc.). I like this strategy — and it does tend to involve more actual dating (as an activity, a pattern of spending time together) than my prior strategy of nursing crushes with people I’d known awhile.
Dating is not the only way I like to connect with guys and spend intimate time with them, but it’s good. I like it much more than I’d always assumed I would. It can even feel special and celebratory. Getting out of the couplehood mindset has helped me enjoy dating — to expand my comfort zone to include it. Not having the pressure of “auditioning” people for any role, just figuring out how we might click together (or not), removes most of the implied pressure that previously led me to dislike and avoid dating.
So, a couple of months ago, I had an interesting discussion about dating with of my lovers. He’s considerably younger than me, solo, and new to polyamory — but so far he’s taking to it very well. We share a strong sexual connection and have developed a pretty good friendship. We both enjoy spending time together in a variety of ways — casually hanging out alone or with friends, or going out on more typical dates (dinner, concerts, parties, etc.). However, we don’t share romantic feelings for each other, and neither of us desires couplehood.
I mentioned to him “…since we’ve been dating…” and he stopped me and said, “Oh, we’re not dating, we’re just friends with benefits.”
I explained to him that, to me, “dating” describes an activity — a pattern of spending focused (and usually planned) time together that includes intimacy. Which we’d been doing for a few months at that point.
To him, having departed mono-land only fairly recently (I’m his first poly lover), “dating” implied having romantic feelings and starting to ride the relationship escalator.
To which I replied, “Dude, look who you’re talking to. Do you think I — the author of a blog called SoloPoly — want ANYTHING to do with the relationship escalator?”
He laughed and conceded: “OK, yeah, I guess we’re dating. I can accept that.”
I then explained to him how I’ve had difficulty with the term friends with benefits because I’ve so often seen people use it without truly meaning the “friends” part. That is, in mainstream society (and sometimes in poly-land, too), people often say FWB to identify sex partners whom they’d feel OK about abandoning at a moment’s notice, perhaps callously. That’s why it bugged me when my lover said “just” FWB — that one little world implies a crucial lack of significance.
Worse, sometimes people say FWB to identify someone who they enjoy fucking, but might be ashamed if anyone found out about it — especially if that partner is unconventionally attractive, or of an age, race, or other characteristic that mainstream society might deem “inappropriate.” Or perhaps they fear that public acknowledgment of this sexual connection might “hurt their chances” for having the kind of intimate or sexual connections they “really” want (which speaks volumes about whether they “really want” their FWB). So they tend to have furtive FWB booty calls that involve little affection, to keep things under wraps emotionally and socially.
Or, in some cases of hierarchical polyamory, where one partner is involved in a pre-existing primary-style relationship (or is actively seeking a primary partner), the term FWB may be deployed to prevent or deny emotional connection — or at least to avoid emotional honesty and responsibility.
For me, I hate that crap. It feels disrespectful. Friendship, whether or not it includes sex and affection, means the world to me. In fact, I tend to only have sex with people who I at least consider to be my friends. Personally, I can’t relax enough to fully enjoy sex otherwise. That’s just how I work. (Other people fully enjoy sex without any other connection or emotion, even friendship, and that’s fine too; it’s just not my style.)
But since that conversation, I’ve reconsidered my relationship with the term FWB.
I realize that I was a counterproductively judgmental about that label. In fact, many people who consider each other to be FWB treat each other quite well and maintain genuine friendships, even if they stop having sex at some point.
Yes: I’d allowed other people’s bad behavior and prevailing social norms to color my thinking about an entire category of intimate relationship — one that, in fact, I’ve been engaging in and enjoy quite well. By resisting that term, I was effectively cockblocking myself, reducing my options for mutually beneficial intimate connections.
The fact is, people can behave badly in ANY style of relationship. So if I choose to say “FWB” it’s up to me to make sure I walk my talk about the “friends” part. Also I make it clear to those partners: if they decide that, because we’re giving each other orgasms, they’re entitled to treat me disrespectfully — we’re done.
So I no longer avoid the FWB label. I’m getting comfortable with it, on my own terms.
My younger lover understands this. So does my other lover, who’s about my own age.
Lovers is another fuzzy term. I call these men my lovers because that’s a term that’s comfortable for me to describe ongoing sexual partners with whom I share affection and feel a bond that’s meaningful to me. In both cases, aside from the sex and affection, I share bonds of genuine friendship with these men. And we date as well. As it happens, I’ve never heard either of these men say “lover” to describe their connection with me, and that’s fine. We’ve achieved peaceful linguistic coexistence.
So: I have two lovers. Both of them are my FWBs. Plus, we’re dating. A tangle of overlapping labels — oh well. I can live with that. Language is always a messy work in progress.
Anyway, it’s all is working well so far — and it’s all entirely off the escalator. I’m very happy about that.
BY THE WAY: This post began as a response to a thread on the Singleish and Solo Polyamory Facebook group — which is proving to be an excellent and thoughtful forum for a perspective that’s often overlooked and undervalued in the poly/open community online and elsewhere. Check it out!
UPDATE AUG. 6: The blog Research to be Done just published a brilliant, pithy post with a clever analogy for understanding (and getting comfortable with) casual sex.