options for less brave days

April 11, 2010 at 12:25 pm 3 comments

Attraction. It seems there is a lot of fear around this emotion. In my last post I asked a couple of questions about what to do with either romantic/sexual feelings one might have for a person outside of their primary relationship, or with feelings their partner might have for someone else. And although there were just two comments, I think they pretty well summarize the two main ways in which we, Americans at least, handle this sort of thing.

Option One is to make an attempt to control our outside circumstances in order to avoid letting attraction blossom into a force that could alter the terrain of our relationship. We hope to identify feelings at their onset and make an intellectual choice to choose a different course. Perhaps we quit going to the coffee shop where the cute guy works, or put in for a transfer so that we aren’t working in such close proximity to the woman who has popped up in recent dreams. Or even, as the first comment suggests, actually moving away.

This is the theory. But in reality I think something different more commonly happens. Attraction feels good. So, unless there is serious pressure, most human beings will naturally move toward someone who appeals to them. It would take considerable intellectual forethought to consciously move away instead. Many people, I assume, let themselves fall in with the tide of an attraction, and at least entertain thoughts of the other person. At the same time, because these thoughts are taboo within their relationship, they have feelings of guilt, sadness, and anger. Eventually that person might share their feelings about another with their wife or husband, either as a confession of actually following through in a physical manner, or just as a confession of physically oriented thoughts. In return, their wife or husband has enormous feelings of sadness and anger, especially because their partner didn’t make attempts to avoid the attraction in the first place.

Option Two includes identifying feelings of attraction early on and sharing them with a wife or husband early on as well. The sharing is in the hopes of, if not celebrating the attraction, making those feelings less taboo and therefore less powerful. By reducing the shadowy nature of such thoughts the potency of their effect on the relationship is thought to be reduced. There is a sense of teamwork in tackling the challenge of such feelings and preserving and maintaining a solid primary relationship.

Both of these scenarios hold the same goals, keeping the relationship in good working order and withstanding the threat of an outside attraction. And though I believe the second scenario, in which feelings are discussed before attempting to avoid the draw of those feelings, is probably more successful, I don’t think it is the most common version. Nor does it avoid the goal of avoiding, which is difficult at best and unnatural at worst, or the atmosphere of intense fear, fear that feelings of this nature automatically constitute a threat.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried both of these options with great fervency. My relationship with Nathan began with the agreement that there was nothing out-of-bounds. That, though committed to a lifelong partnership, utterly satisfied, and deliriously in love, we held no claims over one another. Neither of us were seeking other girlfriends or other boyfriends, but we also weren’t trying to protect ourselves from finding people attractive, or even acting on that attraction. But when I became pregnant with Echo my emotional state turned extremely primal. I was like a mama tiger in the deep wild jungle, scanning the horizon for signs of danger, ready to sprint far away, ditch everything, if I thought there was any sign of threat. My heart was pounding so hard, so much of the time. What was I afraid of? Feelings. I didn’t think Nathan was going to leave me. I knew he wasn’t. And I didn’t want to leave him, in fact I wanted to be carried snug in his breast pocket if only that were possible. No, even after our history of openness, I was so scared of potential feelings he might have for someone else that I wanted to put him on lock down. I wanted to control every aspect of our lives so that I could quiet the pounding of my heart.

It was miserable. Thankfully we both granted me a free pass from rational thought for the duration of my pregnancy and for several months after the birth as well. As my child grew bigger so did my bravery, I wasn’t as fearful. My neighborhood no longer felt like a jungle. As I relaxed so did my sense of what was “okay” in our relationship and that brought greater relief. When many rules are in place there are many rules to enforce, many ways in which one could be betrayed. While pregnant I watched the clock, counting the minutes until Nathan came home, working myself into a tense ball of anxiety until he walked in the door. A few minutes in the wrong direction put him in trouble with me. Like I said, it was miserable, but because I was so afraid, I was willing to live this way.

When, finally, I wasn’t emotionally ignited by mere talk of attraction we could go back to discussing butts, boobs, hot girls, hot guys, all the fun aspects of people watching and community analyzing we had enjoyed before. After living option one as described above, we were able to live option two. Talking casually and openly about attraction in all it’s forms helped to dissipate the perceived threat, and slowly but surely I began to feel safe trusting our natural judgement  and high esteem for one another rather than drafting rules to follow. At that point though, though still different from where we began our relationship, I was soothed by the goal of avoidance. Having been through the emotional wringer during my pregnancy, neither of us were interested in stirring up any similar reactions right away.

Today all the rules are completely lifted once again and avoidance is not mandatory. We discuss things openly, no one is in trouble, and as always, we share the goal of honoring the beautiful and magnificent thing we have together. But I still wonder about the avoidance part a lot. The rational part of me doesn’t think it makes sense for anyone to avoid people they are drawn toward. If one of us chooses to walk a slightly different path out of a personal motivation, that is one thing, but mandatory avoidance is another. And, because I found rules to be something that drew more energy into a situation than was necessary, something that made more areas in which trespass was inevitable, I am not keen on itemizing attraction, making some expressions okay and others against the rules. But the emotional part of me, especially the part that remembers how I felt when I was pregnant and panicked, yearns to avoid pain, both for myself and for my partner. And although it sounds hypocritical, since I’ve gone to great lengths in this blog to make every feeling okay, to see them all as simply emotion, nothing good or bad, I still have a preference for feeling happy. And I want my partner to feel happy too.

I didn’t bring this subject up in order to chronicle my own relationship, (though once I began it seemed a bit inevitable), but because I wondered how other people address this. Our particular approach at times frees me from all kinds of struggle and I am thankful to have found a partner interested in looking at this old subject with fresh eyes, someone with enough self-esteem and a broad enough perspective to see the widest possible view. At other times the emotional bravery required for this kind of relationship feels enormous and I falter from the fear of needing to maintain my courage.

I know that I personally value emotional courage, that I have unconsciously manifested scenarios in which bravery was required so that I could bring that quality out in myself, so that I could feel enormous fear and still plunge ahead. What if some days I simply don’t feel brave enough? What if other people never feel brave enough? Are our only options control and avoidance?

Does anyone have any other ideas?


Entry filed under: life lessons. Tags: , , , , .

sweet spot hankering for something other than chocolate

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rachel  |  April 11, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    I hear your thoughts about feeling uncomfortable with control and avoidance. After all, if we’re uncomfortable with those methods in our parenting, what place do they have in our romantic relationships, which sometimes feel even more emotionally impacting (for me, at least)?

    Obviously, choice IS an option for some. It’s just not an option for me or my partner. The pain I would feel if my partner physically indulged one of their attractions for someone else, or even if I did so myself, outweighs the perceived benefits of pursuing those temptations for me. It doesn’t feel like jealousy- it feels like the preservation of a private world of trust we’ve worked hard to create between us, which would be permanently altered with the introduction of a new character.

    I am aware that there are rare couples who can, and want to, withstand the ongoing dance of fear and risk that is a truly open relationship. As for me, I cannot imagine allowing our secret garden to become a public park. Possibly because we are introverts, so fully invested in one another, that others just aren’t appealing enough to instill a willingness to hurt each other? You could think of it this way- it’s not so much that we’re avoiding attractions- we are avoiding times of fear, insecurity, uncertainty, dissatisfaction, disappointment, confusion, and painful pining. While I don’t want to ignore or avoid the way I’m feeling, I’ll gladly avoid those triggers whenever possible to make more room for peace, contentment, joy and fulfillment in our relationship.

    Sometimes, it is, admittedly an active choice to turn down something that seems appealing (though that appeal, in reality, is often far more short-lived than our crush-state would have us believe). But as long as I understand WHY and FOR WHOM I am making a difficult choice, it all seems well-worth it, because I have chosen for myself after weighing my options. The same is true with parenting- we often do what we don’t feel like for a season, even when it feels so uncomfortable or difficult, because in our hearts we choose to again and again by being conscious and present with what we really want- whether it’s nursing or loving unconditionally or choosing to trust our child’s instincts.

    To continue the parenting metaphor, I think of it as grabbing your child’s hand before they run in front of a car, then offering them empathy and understanding for how scared they might have felt, or how their arm was hurt being jerked suddenly. In the same way, a degree of control sometimes (though hopefully rarely, if ever) plays a part in our marriage also, to protect our emotional safety. I don’t like the idea of control, in fact, I like it much less than the arm-grabbing scenario, but I also know that there are great things at stake, like the long-term health of our family.

    So to me, it’s not so much about controlling what I do or how I feel- it’s about sitting with my emotions just as they are, letting them wash over me, inviting my partner to join in that, and ultimately deciding that I want what I have, rather than getting what I want- again and again and again. And to be honest- nothing leaves me feeling more light or free in the end. You’d think the shackles of relationship under such a guard would weigh a person down, but to us, they bring comfort, love and freedom.

  • 2. John  |  April 12, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Are control and avoidance the only options? No! Is it only ‘rare couples’ who can open up their relationship? No!

    The word you’re looking for, if you’ve not come across it before, is ‘polyamory’. Polyamory is about, in brief, ethical non-monogamy. Put that way, it doesn’t sound much different to an ‘open’ relationship or swinging, but when you actually investigate it a little, you find that for most people who engage with this life, what it’s really about is precisely what this post is talking about – not an open marriage, but an open heart. Being open to attraction, not being afraid of it, and not just discussing it with your partner (if you have one) but actually allowing any attraction that you feel to take its own course.

    This doesn’t necessarily mean that you pursue it, or look for others outside your existing relationship, or even that you have sex with others (some may debate this point, but some may debate anything!) What it allows however is the opportunity to follow that attraction towards, if that happens to be what feels right for all involved, a deep and loving relationship with this other person. You can draw up whatever boundaries you like, you can (and will!) constantly renegotiate practicalities, and you may have to deal with jealousy (which can be done!), but the most certain thing is that, approached the right way, confronting these situations will make your existing relationship stronger – you can’t fix a failing relationship by adding more people, but in just determining and talking and negotiating and being completely open and honest, you are doing an enormous amount of work on your existing relationship. You might, at the end of that, decide that you’re not strong enough, or have enough time, or whatever – or you might decide to allow an attraction to develop in its own way, and see what happens. You might even find yourself living in a triad! If you’re open, and honest, and compassionate, then you will end up living a life closer to the person you see yourself as, whatever arrangement you end up with.

    One other note: look up the work of Helen Fisher (as well as assorted information about polyamory – this is a great place to start!) for her discussion about the biological basis of three types of love – lust, attraction and attachment – and why we can feel more than one kind at any time for different people.

  • 3. Jessi  |  April 19, 2010 at 5:50 am

    I found that through our open communication regarding our attractions for other people we were able to build a level of trust that didn’t require control. I never wanted control and I tried very hard to not act from a place of control. The few times I remember asking him to directly put my emotions first were when he started staying out late after work and I became frightend for his safety as a result. The reaction I had came in large part to the infrequency of his actions, I never knew if he was just distracted and didn’t think to call, or if he had been injured on his bike-ride home, or if he was working late. I never once, even during the few times that he didn’t come home until 6am (6 hours after he usually got off work), doubted my trust in him. I never questioned where he’d been or who he’d been with, only why he hadn’t thought about my worrying and called. I never asked to know where he was going, when he finally did start calling, and i never demanded a time when he’d be home. A simple “i’ll be home late” was sufficient enough for me to rest easy and grant him the freedom to do as he pleased.

    To my knowledge neither of us has ever come close to ‘cheating’ on one another. We never laid down any laws regarding a monogamous relationship, but found ourselves there after months of calling ourselves “somethings” as opposed to a title of girlfriend or boyfriend. This allowed our relationship to take a more ‘natural’ course if you will, at least to take the course it wanted to. We have now been living apart for going on 3 weeks and still arn’t having any interactions with people on a level greater than platonic friendship.

    I have never trusted anyone so greatly to be so honest. And I have never trusted myself to be that honest so openly. I came to a decision sometime between the label of “something” and “boyfriend” that even if he were to ‘cheat’ on me (physically or emotionally) that I would still be 100% interested in being with him, that I would not hold it against him, and as long as he was staying with me of his own desire to do so I wouldn’t feel insecure as a result of his actions. I can say this with such certainty because I have been through relationships where i’ve been lied to, cheated on, and tried to work through those emotions that came up in myself as a result. Even in a open relationship when it came down to it we didn’t have the level of trust to support the continuation of the relationship after someone else had been introduced (even for a very brief time). Nate, however, is someone who still to this day I want to be with to a great enough degree that I have no doubt about my continued desire for him. After the bad times we’ve been through, the agreed break up, the moving into different homes, and the hurt feelings we’ve both endured; there’s no one else i’d rather be with, and he’s expressed the same desires for me.

    i believe that based on the level of trust you have in someone else you can either foster the level of commitment you’d prefer or your can help it to erode. I believe that based on the degree of desire you have to be with someone you can overcome any issues or emotions that arise along the way, including one person no longer desiring the other; out of love grows compassion for the best interest of yourself and your partner even if that means an end to the current status quo.

    But again this has only worked for me in one very educational healthy relationship and has been supported by the lack of trust or desire (or both) in the few unhealthy relationships i’ve experienced.

    And i full heartedly agree that it takes a level of responsibility, emotional maturity and bravery that we all fall short of on a regular basis (my challenge is just to see how far apart i can spread those immature days and how greatly i can grow from them each time they occur).


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