Crazy shit’s been happening in my life lately. One of the most exciting bits of news (and the most relevant for this blog) is that I have a new partner! (Now I can use the phrase “One of my partners” with complete accuracy. This is very important.)
I’ve been seeing an excellent woman (let’s call her S) for a couple months now. We’re definitely in the middle of New Relationship Energy (so ask me about it again in several months) but I’m excited enough about it that I wanted to share the love. I think we’re working out in practice some of the stuff we like to talk about here.
I don’t know what order to talk about this stuff in. I guess I’ll just go in vaguely chronological order, since that’s easy?
So, we met at a party. This is not where I normally meet people, but I guess miracles can happen? Nothing happened that night, but we traded information and promised to be friends. “Friends” turned out to be “introduce S to Doctor Who”. Note that Doctor Who is a crucial element in any non-normative relationship’s courtship phase.
We started out on a good, communicative note. I’ve basically made it a policy to be incredibly up-front about things, and this is working out well for me. I suspect that has a lot to do with the environment (UChicago students are a special breed), so we’ll see if this continues to work in the real world. In this case, I had mentioned that I was poly at the party, so we talked about that (and about kink) the very first time we hung out. At that time, I also talked casually about the fact that I was hitting on her at the party (she was surprised I would just say that up front), and explicitly asked consent to put my arm around her and play with her hair. There was a little bit of awkward first-date boundary testing, but a lot less than there would have been without those conversations.
Then the next time we hung out (actually probably the third or fourth, I think I’m compressing things), I brought up the sex question. This was admittedly pretty fast, but we had been very comfortably talking about sex and kink and poly, so it seemed reasonable. I basically just said, “So, it seems like an obvious question here is whether you want to move this relationship in a sexual direction. I’m happy either way, but I wondered what you were thinking.” She said she wasn’t sure, which was fine by me, and we went back to watching Doctor Who and cuddling.
She pretty quickly decided that she did want, after all, so we began exploring sexuality and, pretty quickly, kink. We moved very deliberately, talking about everything before we did it. I think precisely because of that, we also moved pretty quickly. She had never done kink before, and within a month or so we were doing some pretty heavy stuff. This was all really smooth, however, because we established from the beginning that we were comfortable talking about everything. (Also she’s ridiculously kinky. Although she may make a face at me when she reads that. [Editor's note: Yep, she did.])
In the mean time, we were becoming really great friends. She’s funny and hyper and really, really clever. We talked about the similarities and differences between Renaissance and Ancient Near Eastern magic, and social hierarchies within friend groups, and the weird academic cult of “non-biased” teaching, and polyamory, and why people don’t identify as feminists. We started spending more and more time together, watching Doctor Who and talking about incredibly nerdy things and introducing her to kink.
At some point I asked her, “So, if someone asks what’s up with us, what do I tell them?” We ended up deciding on the word “partner”, though neither of us were quite sure what the word meant. We knew we were important to each other, though, so it felt pretty right.
Both of us felt, however, that this wasn’t anything like what we had experienced before. It just felt qualitatively different from any relationship I had had before, and I think she felt the same.
We had a conversation about this a few weeks ago, and we came to the conclusion that this was because we had a legitimately aromantic relationship. Sure, it was sexual, and intimate, and cuddly, and wonderful, but it just didn’t feel romantic. It certainly didn’t seem to involve the thing I call romantic attraction. And we agreed that it still, on some crucial level, “felt like a friendship”.
We talked about how this came to be, and S said some pretty interesting things. For me, I think this is what I’ve always wanted. I’m aromantic, or close enough, but I’ve never realized before that it was possible to have this sort of relationship. (Not even, really, after starting this blog. It’s sorta amazing to see it happen in real life, and there’s a strong sense that I couldn’t have told you what I wanted before I got it.) S, on the other hand, says she’s definitely romantic. But for a variety of reasons (an initial misunderstanding of what poly meant, a recent breakup) she unconsciously decided to keep this one aromantic. Now that it’s established that way, she finds that she likes it, and wants to keep it that way.
Somehow this never occurred to me, that romantic people could choose to be in aromantic partner relationships. It shouldn’t be surprising, but somehow it was.
I don’t know how to extract the elements of the relationship are due to its aromantic nature, and which have more to do with poly and feminism and what have you, but there are certainly some unique things going on. (I’m also probably going to make it sound like all of these things are universally good. This is almost certainly untrue. Different things are good for different relationships, and even different moments in the same relationship. This is just what is making our relationship tick at this particular moment.)
One interesting things is that we both feel like this relationship, unlike previous relationships, really allows us to remain autonomous individuals. We spend rather absurd amounts of time together, often in public, but we’re not “Semiel-and-S.” We somehow avoid feeling like a unit, and other people seem to treat us that way as well. This makes the time we spend with each other somehow more special, because it’s “S likes me and chooses to spend time with me”, rather than “my other half is there, as she always is”.
It’s also very… designed? We still make advance plans to see each other and stuff like that. Even stuff like “feeling possessive of each other” or “feeling wanted” gets carefully discussed and delineated. Relatedly, we’re getting good at communicating what we need, so that we can do that design work. It’s maybe not very romantic to have a practical discussion on how often we should GChat, but it’s damn useful.
[I showed this post to S before I posted it, and she wanted to add that even more important than it being "designed" is that "we're our own mechanics". We are willing to pro-actively tweak things that aren't working for us, and solve all of the small problems that tend to arise in any relationship.]
I defined romance as a sort of content-less feeling, and while I totally don’t mean to denigrate anything with that, it’s striking to me how content-ful our relationship is. We’re constantly doing something, or arguing about something, or watching something. If we get bored (which we rarely do), that would be a perfectly good reason to stop hanging out for the night and go do other things. We just really, really enjoy each other’s company, because of the things we do together.
It’s also pretty… compartmentalized? We don’t feel the need to bring this relationship into every part of our lives. We both enjoy hearing about what the other is up to, and we both invite the other into our lives to some extent, but sometimes S is going to go hang out with her friends and I’m not invited. And that’s kinda awesome, because I was going to go play video games anyway but I’ll see you tonight for Doctor Who!
Maybe another way to put a couple of those things: the commitment in this relationship is very specific. We make lots of explicit promises to see each other at certain times or whatever, but there’s no assumption that we have any obligation beyond what we say. Like, S is leaving for a few months today, and she chose to spend the last couple days with her best female friend rather than me. The fact that we both have the right to make that sort of decision is strangely empowering.
But at the same time, we really do make commitments to each other. This is clearly an important relationship to both of us, and it’s clear that we’re really both working very hard at it. I think it was a little bit hard for us to accept that we were really allowed to have preferences and explicitly ask for what we want, but we both seem to have taken to it pretty well. S was a little concerned we’d lose touch over the summer (a reasonable fear), so we made explicit promises to email each other at least once a week. This sort of low-level problem solving, without any need for anything silly like “blame” or “negative feelings” is really excellent. It makes the stress levels in this relationship really low.
I recognize that this post is disjointed, and I probably forgot half of what I wanted to say. I guess the crucial take-away is that it seems like some of this stuff can work. Ours is far from the most non-normative relationship possible, being a man and a woman in a sexual relationship, but it definitely screws with a few of the assumptions and definitions. I hold out hope that over the next decade or two some of this stuff will start to become more visible, and that intentionally designed, possibly poly, possibly aromantic, etc. relationships will become less bizarre. If any of my readers have similar success stories to share, I’d love to hear them.