Sunday, November 18, 2018

love, relationship anarchy, and poem fodder

I was kind of late to the dating game.  When I was a teenager, I remember my parents determining that I wasn't allowed to date until I was 16, by which time I had other things on my mind-- what to do with my life, how to write terrible poems, figuring out why I was so bad at math-- and was mostly hanging out with girls.  Not only girls, but the sort of wholesome girls who's idea of fun included slumber parties, board games, and at most, mountain dew fueled marathons of horror movies. I had crushes--many, at least one a year--sometimes two, but I really didn't know how to talk to boys beyond how to format 5 paragraph essays.  This would continue into college, where I managed to awkwardly lose my virginity and  a couple of loose hookups with indeterminate boundaries, but it was still the 90's. If it was hard to meet people and connect in college, it was harder in grad school, and pretty much impossible in adulthood if you were as pathologically introverted as I was.

At first I worked in an elementary school library and was surrounded with much older faculty members, then I worked in a college library where there were very few men who weren't considerably younger even then. I didn't have many friends outside of work at that point, certainly didn't hang out anywhere but the library and  my apartment.  I was just starting to do poetry-world things, but even then knew dating other writers was bad news.   All along, while I certainly had no problem with me being a single entity, other people seemed inordinately weirded out by my failure to lock into a relationship. While I certainly found myself attracted to men, I did not feel that their addition would actually improve my quality of life, and if anything, might very well have the opposite effect. The things I most prized, alone and creative time, also seemed at odds with most relationships where people were tripping over each other constantly.

While I kind knew I wasn't on the marriage/family train, I was in my late 20's when I decided to see if the internet was a better option--at least for finding people who shared similar interests (because I certainly wasn't going to find them anywhere else.)  This was slightly before OK Cupid launched, long before Tinder.  I remember checking out LavaLife, of the cheesy ridiculous late night commercials, and, since I was looking for smart and bookish, the personals (which were part of a larger network of publication-based personals.)  There was still some stigma associated with online dating that would evaporate in the coming years, so it was done furtively, on the sly, and my first date was a disaster with someone who it turned out we had a mutual acquaintance, but who basically abandoned the coffee date halfway through due to an "emergency". There were a couple others, awkward getting-to-know-you cafe dates, some of them cute or smart, but no spark.  In late 2002, I hit it off spectacularly with someone like minded--solid, funny-- and over the next few years, since he lived way out in the burbs, it was more of an e-mail & phone call relationship with occasional visits. We also wrote delightful dirty stories back and forth to each other that should probably be anthologized.   I was discovering I was a little more on the kinky side of the straight and narrow, so we bonded on this point in a big way.  He considered himself polyamorous, and was seeing others occasionally,  but during the 4 years or so I was into him, I wasn't that interested in anyone else beyond some passing fancies.  It seemed like finding even one person you connected with was hard, let alone more than one.

The style of this relationship at first suited both of us--both of us introverts, independent, really busy with jobs and other pursuits. It kind of fell apart when he met someone he would eventually marry--even though still poly (and her too) it was hard to watch someone's interest pull in a direction that wasn't toward you. I struggled to get him to drive into the city, but he was driving to the opposite end to see her.  He was madly in love with her, in a way he obviously was not with me, and I could feel it--was threatened by it, and though the step away took some time, and we remained friends, but  it was hard to watch happen.  While I had become well enough accustomed to polyamory, and knew that jealousy was something that was a hazard, but eventually it was very distressing. We had amazing chemistry in some ways, but it was always more friend-like than love-like.  I always joke that in the middle of this, I went to see the movie Tristan  & Isobel alone in the theatre, and on the way home, found myself craving the sort of passion that made you crazy, insane, liable to ruin entire lives. Not a good model, obviously, but it was sad to feel like I had never felt that way about anyone, so was it even real?  (I've since determined that it may be real, but pretty much horrible and not a good foundation to work with.)  Regardless of those dynamics, I was still interested far more in polyamory than monogamy.

Shortly after I decided to pull away, I started dating.  A lot.  I met someone who I definitely had those Tristan & Isolde type feelings for, but who turned out to be secretly married, a compulsive liar, and  very bad for me & thus took almost a decade to disentangle from.  I met someone else with whom I had pretty much no romantic feelings and only a strong physical attraction, who also turned out to be problematic later on.   I boomeranged back and forth for awhile between them, with various, levels of emotional investment , but with the rise of OKCupid, was meeting others, sometimes which would continue for a few dates, a few months, and then burn out.   This went on for a few years, during which time, I was sort of coming to the realization that it's impossible to expect people to be perfect, but sometimes imperfect could also be fun.  For a while, anyway. Some were internet-spawned, others real-life meets. I was at the point where I finally felt less awkward around men and was actually very good at dating, if not the relationship that was supposed to follow.  I later had a 4 year long tumultuous fling with someone who lived across the street, but who was considerably younger than me and a huge fan of the drunk dial.  Like Taylor Swift, I also found that unhappy romance bred amazing poem-fodder, so I never took it too seriously.  It was writing experience,  so bring it on.   I am also good at compartmentalizing --I was generally a pretty content person even if my romantic life was a garbage fire.  This is still pretty much true. (though thankfully not so much with the garbage fire the past few years. )

I was slowly coming to the realization that while I liked men, liked dating, and definitely liked sex, I REALLY liked being alone.  Being independent, self-sufficient, a single instead of a double.  Maybe it's because I never paired up early, I got too used to be on my own. This was weird at times--family gatherings, weddings,social events, where couples are the norm, but definitely had to be weighed against the freedom and autonomy thing and the latter always won. I liked that my apartment was my apartment--that I could blast ridiculous music and write into the middle of the night and watch whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. That I could have too many cats, too many books, too many dresses hogging the closet space and never had to deal with sports on the tv or picking up someone else's laundry.  That decisions on outings and trips and dinner were gloriously simple as a single.  I worried that I liked it too much. Was it healthy?  Would I die alone and be eaten by my cats? (But then again, we all pretty much die alone, we're not taking anyone with us) The people around me weren't having any better a time about things.  Their relationships were incredibly distressing, even if they started out strong. Divorces, messy breakups, and I started to lose a lot of faith in the concept.  Even the people who remained together seemed varying degrees of  unhappy--caught in cycles of emotional abuse, co-dependence, and general incompatibility. At best, it seemed an endless battle of navigating someone else's quirks, bad habits, and insecurities while still wanting to fuck them. Things you can't unsee once you've seen. Sometimes it was a sacrifice, but I wasn't willing to play those odds and disrupt a pretty content solo life. 

I first became aware of the solo poly terminology, and joined a couple facebook groups,  around 2010--the idea that one's primary relationship existed with one's self and all others secondary.   I felt like I finally had words for my experience.  When it comes to men in the "poly community", I've always been wary of the new ageyness--men with ponytails and D&D obsessions named Raven who are just as misogynistic as mono men in their approaches.  Not everyone surely, but in the OKC world, definitely.  Years ago, I dated someone in an open marriage, and while he was cool and he had amazing stories of traveling with indie bands in the 90's, he was struggling with his wife's unnecessary secretness after they opened up the relationship.  He was thinking she was just looking for an out through which to leave him and I imagine she eventually did.   There are as many pitfalls in the poly world as the mono, probably many, but I felt it fit more.  In many ways, if we're using labels, I am much more a relationship anarchist, since my non-romantic friendships have always been just as important as my romantic/sexual ones.  It's actually harder to become my friend than it is to get me to date you--and though I've tried to blurr those lines at least once very badly years ago--friends are a constant that relationships are very much not.   (Not to say that platonic friendships are immune from being garbage fires but this is a whole other entry on toxic girl drama.)

My discovery of the terminology didn't change my dating style, but it gave me some terminology to explain it to both myself and others. . I get that you encounter different people in your life that meet different needs, different impulses at different times. That no one checks all the boxes, and that you should never just erase boxes and make do, it eventually leads to unraveling. Over the years, the jealousy part had actually been less of an issue, that if a relationship is solid on other fronts, those feelings should be less a dealbreaker and more an opportunity to explore why they are bothering you.  And if so, how can the relationship be stronger.  Not everything lasts forever--and that's totally okay.  Not everything is an escalator from first date to marriage to death, and really I'd prefer to take each relationship on it's own merits in the moment.  Just because we aren't moving anywhere, doesn't mean its stagnant. Just because it's not exclusive doesn't mean its any less serious.

Over time, my dating bandwidth has dwindled as well, and actually, the past three years I'd probably been in what, to the outside world, probably looks a bit like monogamy even if its not.   It's actually probably the most healthy relationship I've been in more than a decade, maybe ever, and both of us seem to need alot of solo time.  Both of us also very busy with more than one job and bustling creative pursuits, so our weekly sleepovers & dates are a much welcome treat.  Not a writer, but an actor, and also very stable and sensible in a way I've not encountered in the arts.   I've dealt with this particular relationship love poem series a couple years ago, and probably the first time a romantic relationship was cast in a positive light in my writing.  But we're still both dedicated to be autonomous entities in the world, and this is enormously satisfying without feeling too much like suffocation. It's good. And I'm lucky.  I think he'd probably agree we both are (even if he has to listen to my occasional feminist rants and really bad jokes I think are hilarious.)

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