I don’t remember exactly where or when I heard this, or even who said it, but when I was studying theory in college I remember a professor saying that theory only mattered if you could apply it to the world and actually see it at work. If you build a theory, you have to “put it on the ground and make it walk.” Clearly the details of that encounter have faded for me, but I remember that phrase vividly. It informs everything I think about queer theory and the constructions of gender and sexuality I see underlying everyday life. Sometimes I fancy myself a pretty radical queer, but I’m always grounded by those words: put it on the ground and make it walk.
When I got divorced, you could say that my interest in fairytale monogamy was at an all time low. Not that I’d ever been the biggest monogamy cheerleader in the world; it seemed impossible to me that one person could embody every one of my sexual, emotional, or social needs (even considering the role of friends and other close relationships in meeting at least some of these needs) and that I could do the same for them, and divorce statistics and anecdotal evidence seemed to back me up on this. Non-monogamy just seemed to make sense for an alternative to forcing yourself to fit into a role one might find especially constricting. I read a lot about polyamory and how to construct and maintain multiple relationships; at a bisexual empowerment conference where I was invited to present a paper based on a chapter in my MA thesis, I met a large community of poly folks representing a range of gender and sexual identities and found their constructions of romantic relationships challenging and refreshing. But a lot of my queer ideology got put on a shelf when I was dating and eventually married my ex. I had critiqued and challenged the institution of marriage in my academic work, but there I was accepting a ring from a man on bended knee (a beautiful opal ring I still haven’t been able to part with that sits in a safe with my wedding ring), buying a white dress, and playing the part of a person I didn’t even recognize. I told myself that was just what people did: they grew up, they settled down, and they got married. And I did. And then, later, he didn’t.
After my divorce, I thought I didn’t want anything like that ever again. I thought, maybe something casual where there aren’t too many strings or commitments to get entangled in. I was discouraged that there wasn’t as strong a sense of polyamory as a “thing” among gay men; instead there seems to be a higher tolerance for this vague notion of the “open relationship,” but this seems in practice to be more about allowance for outside sexual activity and less about building a network of open, communicative relationships. But in a way that just reaffirmed my identification with the term queer, as once again I seemed at odds with a community I was both resisting and longing to be more a part of. I thought, maybe I need to rewrite these definitions for myself. Maybe I just need to throw away monogamy and do relationships my own way, in a way that allows me to feel fulfilled, maintain my integrity, and challenge this privileging of heteronormative monogamy that is poisoning LGBTQ communities…well, the L and G parts of them anyway.
See how very theoretical all of that sounds? That’s the academic in me, imagining worlds where I am critiquing cultural constructions and working to expand the ideas of non-monogamy and queerness. All very lofty. But I forgot about the practical side of it. I forgot that part of doing all of that isn’t just thinking about it or talking about it, but was also living it. I had to put it on the ground and make it walk.
Enter the fella.
I call him my fella because I’m still trying to figure out the dynamics, the vocabulary, the proper terms and conditions. But more on that later. Right now, let’s talk about the sweet, squishy parts.
In a moment of relative weakness, I took my friend’s advice and created a profile on OK Cupid. I already had a long-neglected profile on Plenty of Fish, but I didn’t appreciate their rather preachy approach to sex and sexuality; if you weren’t interested in pursuing your “happily ever after,” they weren’t particularly interested in you. I liked that OK Cupid was open to people looking for all different kinds of relationships and encounters, and I also liked that they had these compatibility questions you could fill out that would help pair you with potential matches. This made creating the profile seem less like small town queer dating desperation and more like an exercise in self-discovery. You can learn a lot about yourself and others through these sorts of questions.
The first thing I learned was that apparently, I have sex like a closeted Republican. How do I know this? I kept seeing people in my search results who were, say, 40 to 50% matches. When I would look into more detail in the questions, we’d be matched in the 90s for Sexuality questions, but in the 20s or 30s, sometimes even in the teens, on Lifestyle, Religion, and Politics questions. It was quite disconcerting to see sexual compatibility up next to profiles with phrases like “straight-acting,” “MWM,” and “down low.” I am not, nor have I ever been, a closet freak.
So when I saw the fella’s profile, I was interested. Our compatibility score was in the mid-90s, the highest I’d found so far. When I read his profile, I was hesitant; he was very upfront about having a boyfriend in the Twin Cities, and also that he didn’t have any long term plans for staying in North Dakota (and though I’m open to the potential for new adventures in new places, I have no immediate plans to leave). I wasn’t sure I was going to message him, but then one day I got one down low match too many and sent him a message. We messaged back and forth a few times and then decided to go out on a date.
In fact, he called it a date; this was refreshing considering that I had spent several months before that “hanging out” with a commitment-phobe who refused to call anything a date and when I decided it was time for me to move on (a process that was very messy and that I wasn’t particularly successful at for quite some time) he acted as if the whole concept of us dating was a complete surprise to him. There were no games this time around, everything was on the surface. He let me know that his boyfriend knew that he was out on a date and was ok with it. This is very typical for him; he speaks plainly and very directly, something I wasn’t used to having spent seven years trying to translate emotional messages out of rolled eyes, sighs, and unintelligible grunts. But that’s the thing about polyamory: if you’re going to do it right, you need to be good at communication.
It was pretty good as first dates go, though there was a little bit of awkward scrambling when the place we’d selected for our initial rendezvous was closed for a staff holiday party. I mean, Jesus, didn’t they know that I had a date planned?! It’s not like this was an everyday occurrence. But we found a suitable alternative; though it had an earlier closing time and I was worried we’d cut the evening far too short, we ended up continuing the conversation in the parking lot for another hour despite the chilly December temperatures. Later that night I “inadvertently” happened across a Facebook post where he said that he’d had a first date that went pretty well. Again, that sort of direct honesty was foreign and almost a little disconcerting.
There have been moments where the directness was a little too direct. I’m an emotional creature; say something to me and I’ll analyze it a hundred times to decide how I feel about it, then a hundred times to make sure that’s how I feel, and then a hundred more to make sure I’m sure. If the fella is feeling like he’s stretched a little too thin or he needs some space to focus on other things, he says so. And then I come along with my hidden-meaning-detector looking for concealed messages and emotional time bombs, and I’ve worked myself into a bit of a froth on a couple of occasions. Luckily he seems pretty good at just waiting me out and letting the rage dust settle. I’m like a windup toy that gets wound too tight: first I’m unwinding so quickly that I almost vibrate apart before settling down into a more even rhythm. Plus, he always seems to know exactly when I need a pic or video of his ridiculously adorable cat to put me in a better emotional state.
After the first couple of dates, it was Christmas vacation time and the fella, a student in commercial aviation, headed home to visit the family and the boyfriend. Since everything was still pretty new, I didn’t have any strong feelings. I thought, “Wow, maybe I am a radical queer with my non-monogamy and my lack of jealousy and my cosmopolitan attitudes!” How cute. How naïve.
In my reading on polyamory, I kept coming across the term compersion (please forgive me; for all my high-falutin’ talk about academics I’m about to do the unspeakable and quote from Wikipedia):
Compersion is an empathetic state of happiness and joy experienced when another individual experiences happiness and joy, and the term is regularly used by members of the polyamory community in the context of polyamorous relationships. It is used to describe when a person experiences positive feelings when a lover is enjoying another relationship.
I think this term is very useful for understanding the dynamics of many relationships, but especially polyamorous relationships and how some people make them work (and some people don’t). Jealousy is an ugly beast, and it can be hard to wrap your mind around the idea of feeling joy when someone you love is enjoying the company of other people. What’s also important about compersion is that it isn’t a replacement for jealousy – it often lives right along side of it.
Just about the time that I started to get a sore arm from patting myself on the back for how great I was embracing this new, non-normative experience, the green beast started to rear its ugly head. Intellectually I was still on board with the program; that intellectualized self was the one that would react when people would say things like, “But isn’t it just awful knowing that they want to be with someone else?” or “I don’t know how you could put up with that!” or even the annoying well-intentioned, “I’m sure once he gets to know how great you are, he’ll pick you!” My intellectual brain can take those statements and dissect them, pull them apart and say, “See, here is how this statement demonstrates the privileging of heteronormative monogamy, and here are all of the other viewpoints that exist to counter that.” I can explain all of the ways that non-monogamy can still make sure that needs are being met without having to fit into one specific pattern or mold for how a relationship or relationships should be. Very academic. But then there’s my ooey-gooey emotional core kicking up my insecurities and saying things like, “You know what? Maybe he will choose me!”
Compersion is one thing when you’re talking theoretically about the arrangements and definitions of polyamorous relationships; it’s quite another when same-sex marriage is legalized and your fella decides to jump on the rainbow-Facebook-profile-pic bandwagon and the photo he chooses is of him and his boyfriend. His other boyfriend. When that happens, the green beast gets real chatty. It reminds me that I’m not exactly where our relationship fits onto the whole polyamory chart thing (one thing that I noticed, at least with the subsection of poly folks that I’ve met, is that they love to draw relationship diagrams – thick lines, thin lines, dotted lines!). It reminds me that we don’t really talk much about the future beyond what we might do next weekend, or whose mother is visiting next month. It gets a little bit harder to ignore those voices that say, “See, this is what you get for bucking tradition! Why can’t you just behave.”
The problem is that I have sat down, shut up, and behaved. And I was miserable.
Maybe the problem was that I was impatient or scared and instead of finding the one I settled for that one. Maybe I didn’t really give it all of the effort I could have. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe neither of us did. All I know is that we tried to walk down that fairytale path of “happily ever after” and all we ended up doing was making ourselves and each other extremely unhappy. “But,” the little green monster says, “wasn’t it better to have that person making you miserable all to yourself?”
Ironically, it took a very traditional celebration of monogamy to help put things in perspective.
A friend of mine is getting married in September and she sent me an invitation. At the bottom of the RSVP card was that dreaded question: number of guests? The fella and I had been seeing each other pretty steadily for the last 8 months or so, but were we “plus one” ready?
With my ex, this invitation would have been met with stubborn annoyance. If we talked much about it at all, I probably would have been given a vague sort of “I probably have to work” excuse or, if I pressed, he would have reminded me that he didn’t really know this friend. If I had to venture a guess, I would say the discussion would have included 3 heavy sighs, and 1 to 2 eye rolls. The final result could go either way: either he would have stayed home and I’d be hurt that he wouldn’t go with me, or he would go and make it abundantly clear how much he resented being there. Sounds like exactly the kind of fun-lovin’ couple you want at your nuptials, am I right?!
So with that history as my frame of reference, I texted the fella to float the idea of the wedding invite and prepped myself for the worst. Here is pretty much how the conversation went:
Me: My friend is getting married…I was wondering if you’d like to be my plus one?
The Fella: I don’t really like weddings. But I don’t mind the idea of going with you. I suppose I could do that.
That was it. No fuss, no outbursts, no pouting. He gauged how important the event was to me (I’ve had much less success getting him to go with me to Art Fest and the farmer’s market!) and said that he would be willing to go. We even got to commiserate on how neither of us really likes weddings. So even though this relationship has its own unique set of challenges, it also has the space inside it to talk about and work through those challenges. We get to have what I’ve been nervously/jokingly referring to in my head as Polyamory Field Test 1: his boyfriend is coming for a weekend visit and we’re all going to dinner. I don’t know where things will end up, and I don’t know how well I’ll manage to keep that little green monster muzzled.
But for now I have a date for a wedding, a cuddly manfriend with an unreasonably cute cat, and my own little thread on a relationship web that just happens to include two other people. I didn’t set out looking for this particular set of complications, but right now this complicated situation makes me feel valued and supported. And for right now, that’s enough.
That, and this.
Tags: Champagne Dreams Productions, compersion, fairy tale, fairytale, fairytale romance, heteronormative, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Miss Jaye, monogamy, non-monogamy, poly, polyamory, weddings, World of Champagne