death, love and the illusion of control

It’s a balmy, summery night and I am sitting near an open window, letting the leftover warmth of the day mingle with the light cool breeze and whisper over my skin. There’s something about nights like this that never fails to hit a chord of… nostalgia? Anticipation? I’m not sure exactly, but it’s bittersweet, a hard-to-describe emotion that hovers between happy and sad, richness and longing, deep calm and humming excitement. Summer is on the way, but it’s not quite here yet. Things are about to happen. I have lots of plans and ideas, but there’s still much room for the unknown.

Contrasting emotions seem appropriate right about now. My grandfather passed away earlier this week at the ripe old age of 90. He was a wonderful man, gentle and kind, but hard to get to know, and all the more so as Alzheimer’s set in over the last seven or eight years. I loved him, but in that somewhat abstract way that you love someone who’s related but whom you don’t really feel deeply connected to. It was a strange experience to sit vigil by his bedside for two nights, listening to his breaths, counting them sometimes, knowing that any one of them could be his last, and knowing that in some ways I was more intimate with him in those dark hours than I ever had been before, holding his hand and letting him squeeze when he was hurting until the sedatives and painkillers kicked in and he wasn’t squeezing anymore. That intimacy wasn’t about talking or getting to know one another. It was about silence and presence and listening and occasional touch. I wouldn’t have wished for his passing, but I am grateful to have had the chance to connect with a man from whom I inherited a penchant for writing, but with whom I never once shared a deep conversation. Sometimes words just aren’t the point.

Death and funerals are, again, bittersweet. Family comes together, the tone is hushed. Loss, vulnerability, fear, sadness, all are present, and yet there is also the warmth and joy of reuniting with loved ones from all over the country who don’t often find the time to connect, the sense of being surrounded and cradled.

What people don’t talk about, so often, are the logistics of death. Figuring out finances, and burial arrangements, and funeral arrangements, and wills, and travel arrangements for people coming from afar, and how to feed everyone and where they will stay, and obituaries and dress pants and flowers and donations and receptions and who, exactly, will be keeping Granny company through all this at what time and with which car and when’s the appointment with the rector again?

Oddly enough this reminds me of the logistics of non-monogamy. Many people’s needs all come rushing together in a common space that nobody could necessarily have predicted, because death and love are both like that: unpredictable. We knew Granddad was leaving us, but we didn’t know when, and even though a few weeks ago I remember telling my mother “this feels like the beginning of the end,” the speed of it came as a surprise. I never expected to fall in love with two bois, one quickly, almost instantly, the other over a period of weeks and months and hey, what do you know, this goes deeper than I realized, and now here we are, months and years later, and what are we doing? Juggling logistics. Who’s travelling to see who when, and where are we spending the holidays, and when do we each get alone time and couple time and triad time, and with Boi L overseas, who’s putting what in the care packages and delivering them when, and when are the webcam dates and the phone dates and who owes who an e-mail and what, exactly, will it all look like when she gets back? Unpredictable indeed. My grandfather died of old age. My boi could die of a random roadside bomb. Boi M could get hit by a bus tomorrow, or one of my planes could crash as I fly somewhere to give a talk. Death is beside us at every turn, and we just have to make peace with its possibility or we’ll go nuts trying to control it.

Again, I turn to the similarities with love. I’ve been plowing through Tristan Taormino’s book Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, and while it’s definitely a thoroughly researched and very engaging read, some bits of it rub me the wrong way, and I’ve noticed they’re all centred around the idea of control. Take the following paragraph for example, on negotiation:

“Negotiation is one of the most important steps in designing your open relationship. I simply do not believe in attitudes such as “Let’s just see how it goes,” “We can decide on a case-by-case basis,” or “We’ll make it up as we go along.” I am all for spontaneity, but not when it comes to people’s relationship values and boundaries. You want to go into an open relationship with very clear intentions and limits. You want to have those intentions and limits articulated, and in doing so, leave nothing unsaid. Nothing should be implied in the negotiation process; it should all be spelled out. Neglecting to anticipate and make decisions about important issues in advance can be a recipe for disaster.”

This approach is so foreign to me, I almost don’t know where to begin. I feel like the attitude of pre-negotiating everything down to its last detail leaves out the most important feature of relationships: the people. Whether you’re single or part of a couple already, how can you possibly “design” a relationship with someone new before you’re in it? How can you do anything but decide on a case-by-case basis? Trust and intimacy and connection and chemistry and life situations and energy levels – these are not things that can be known ahead of time, precisely because they are about what happens when two (or more) people come together and something new and unforeseen is created. These are simply not things we can control. Sure, it’s a good idea to have a strong understanding of your own values and a basic idea of your deal-breakers, but beyond that, the very idea of “designing” a relationship before there’s an actual person to engage in it with strikes me as ludicrous. Relationships, especially new ones, are all about growth and change and discovery – otherwise we call them “stagnant.” How can you possibly predict how love or attraction will go, when it will show up, with whom, in what manner, to what degree of intensity, and with what resulting practical and logistical challenges?

Like in most of the book, in the paragraph quoted above, “open relationships” are implicitly understood to be based on a couple that then chooses to open up its doors to possibilities with others. Tristan does include a section on “solo poly” to acknowledge that some people do non-monogamy in ways that are not based on a founding pair-bond, but even then, she sets it up as though there were two options: open-concept couple or freewheeling single by choice. There’s very little room made for people, especially experienced poly people, who simply approach all their relationships from a poly worldview regardless of whether they’re currently single or heavily partnered or somewhere in between – because lord knows, sometimes finding one right partner, let alone several, can be a real challenge. And there’s nothing much said about the (many) people who are single because their relationship(s) ended, not because they make a principled choice to enjoy singlehood. For all that it’s technically about open relationships, Taormino’s book is heavily weighted toward the assumption of couplehood, with very little addressed to all the (again, many!) individual people out there to whom these couples, or their component parts, might open their arms – or who might like to found their own couple, or triad, or other poly formation.

Of course, if we’re looking at things from a base-couple perspective, I can see how negotiating the details of what’s okay and what’s not okay to do with other people could be useful. And yet – even then, such negotiations, when carried out in a vacuum, are only useful insofar as they help people figure out what their feelings and desires look like abstractly, in the absence of a full third (or fourth, or…) person whose own desires, availabilities, interests, and so forth must necessarily impact what the whole equation looks like. So Taormino’s two-page checklist about the “characteristics of affectionate or sexual activities” is fine and good, except that never in a million years could I tell my partners whether it’s okay for them to perform analingus on someone without knowing who that someone might be. In some cases, I wouldn’t want my partners to touch someone with a ten-foot pole – if I totally didn’t trust the person in question. In other cases, pretty much anything up to and including moving into our home with us would (eventually) be fine. The point is not about specific activities, it’s about whether or not I feel a potential new lover is respectful and trustworthy. And trust is not something you can decide on ahead of time. It is necessarily a case by case scenario – unless, of course, you want to function with a rigid model into which your future potential partners must absolutely fit on penalty of disqualification, or set limits so tight that they would apply even if you didn’t trust the new person further than you could throw them. In which case, more power to ya – but most people won’t fit, so you may have a very hard road ahead.

I think what bugs me about this A-to-Z pre-negotiated approach to non-monogamy is that it attempts to control the uncontrollable, to predict the unpredictable, to define and categorize human connection and experience that has not yet even occurred. I have yet to meet anyone who’s been genuinely successful at pouring love into a pre-made mould and having it actually gel. Further, though, such an approach smacks of fear – fear of the unknown, of the unpredictable, of the very richness of possibility that poly relationships bring to the table. When we make decisions based in fear, we restrict ourselves from opportunities, and the kicker is that bad things still happen.

Why? Because we cannot control the future. We can’t control the future of love any more than we can truly choose the moment of our own death (unless you think suicide is a good idea, which, come to think of it, is perhaps an apt metaphor here). All the energy we expend in trying to structure the world of our relationships so that it’s safer, more predictable, less frightening, more to our liking, so that we can reassure ourselves that surely everything will now be just perfect because we planned it all out that way – the universe regularly makes a joke of us, shows us that these attempts are useless and hollow. But for some reason, some people still invest in maintaining that illusion.

I say drop the illusion of control. Invest that same energy in self-awareness and self-knowledge. Invest that effort in finding ways to feel stronger and more secure regardless of the tapestry of relationship into which you are currently woven. Invest in cultivating flexibility, and openness, and listening skills. Invest in figuring out what you’re like in relationships – not what your relationships should be like. Invest in making peace within yourself, in letting go, in opening up in the deepest possible sense of the term. That way, when the moment comes – whether it’s death or love – you’ll be ready for it, whatever it may look like.

10 Responses

  1. Ace post.

  2. People seem to have this fundamental need to have a sense of control. Unfortunately, many think that having control means controlling everything, micro-managing relationships and so forth. Our actions and reactions ARE the only things we can truly control. I therefore agree that self-awareness is important to work on because it actually leads one to be more in control of oneself in unpredictable circumstances. I mean “in control of oneself” in the sense of thinking about the impact of one’s actions and so forth, NOT in the sense of controlling emotions and feelings, of course.

  3. Love is unpredictable, oh yes :)

    Thank you for this beautiful piece.

  4. Thank you Ma’am, something in that just felt right. I dunno, that’s all I’ve got.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this. Sex and love are so complicated. If one can find a way to manage their happiness and not hurt anyone (even if it means having multiple partners in their life) then so be it. I say do whatever works.

  6. Thanks for the kind words, everyone. :)

  7. Thanks for this post; much to chew on. I haven’t read Tristan Taramino’s book, but I did hear her promoting it on a podcast over the weekend, and had a similar reaction to her comments on the subject of pre-negotiating the limits or rules of new relationships. Her comment (apologies, I’m paraphrasing here) was that often partners set rules as “baby-steps” for getting comfortable with other partners in an open relationship. She agreed when the host mentioned that a partner showing their desire, willingness, and ability to follow their pre-negotiated rules would help prove their trustworthiness, and that these rules are often relaxed as the trust deepens. This was a bit of a jaw-dropper, especially when the host mentioned that these rules could be somewhat arbitrary and still achieve the same end.

    It occurs to me that those of us who already have a poly-worldview probably aren’t the intended audience for this book, and I wondered if couples who are attempting to open up their relationship to include others might benefit from this advice. After all, I have asked for accommodation from partners to allow me time to adjust to changing circumstances. I also negotiate certain basic things, like what precautions need to be taken against STIs, but not specific activities. I also wondered if the understanding you have with your partners that you would need to find their new partners trust-worthy or respectful might be an example of pre-negotiation. Although you’re certainly evaluating each instance on a case-by-case basis, you’re also clearly articulating your relationship values and boundaries. Again, haven’t read the book, so I’m not sure whether Tristan Taramino would approve or not.

    Still, the whole business seems a bit silly to me. I wonder why we would put these limitations on a romantic relationship when we don’t put them on our families or close friends. These relationship are often inherited and not pre-negotiated. They often require us to strengthen our relationships without controlling them. I want my sister to be happy, and would strive to build a relationship to whomever she chose as a partner. Why would I treat my romantic partners any differently?

    Thanks again for your thoughts. My condolences to you and your loved ones on your loss.

    Gregg

  8. This is some seriously delicious food for thought. I’m really happy that I read this. Thanks. :)

  9. All of these ideas are cool until kids are involved, as I’ve discovered. Just saying is all.

  10. […] 3. Polyamory requires a lot of rules.   If we start out with a couple, and we want to keep that couple firmly in its place as “primary” with all others as “secondary,” well, of course we need to come up with a bunch of rules to make sure it all goes according to plan, right? Right. (And there is most certainly a plan.) […]

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