Timing is everything in relationships. In monogamous (or serial monogamous) terms, if two people want to date, they must be available at the same time, i.e., not otherwise partnered. Unless of course one or both of them cheat, and deception is not the preferred way to start things off. One would think that this conflict, this not being able to pursue relationships with compatible people, would be easily remedied with polyamory.
However, it’s not quite that simple.
While non-monogamy does add a bit more flexibility, it’s far from being a cure-all. For starters, people can become too busy to add new partners, or polysaturated. But even setting aside the whole concept of “monopolized” or “taken,” there’s even more than that.
You have to be ready for one another.
In the past, I’ve joked that my sexual orientation is “brilliant and haunted.” Beyond any carnal gnawing, what really keeps me passionate about a person in the long haul is brilliance and a sense that they’ve been through some shit and understand pain.
When considering new prospects, I invariably hesitate if they’re under 30. Emotionally I’m about 90 years old. And I find maturity a great deal more impressive than youth. However, it’s far from a one-to-one correlation. I’ve known old souls in their 20s as well as emotional infants in their 40s. It all depends, so I try to leave a little wiggle room and keep an open mind.
For me, love is primarily about understanding someone else and being understood by them. And if I feel like a lover doesn’t quite “get” me, there is something vital missing. Likewise, if I feel like I can’t quite “get” them or like they won’t let me in, I’m dissatisfied.
So close but no cigar.
I’ve walked away at this point so many times, catch and release, knowing that one day they may just wander back to me, a different person, newly understanding me like a punch line to a joke that only makes sense a week later. Sometimes they catch and release me. When the currents change, we swim back towards one another.
It’s beautiful when it happens.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s a form of cruelty, to get so close to people and then turn away. The trouble is that it’s difficult to know if things are going to work with a person until you give it a try. Humans are generally bad at predicting how things will feel.
Wouldn’t it be crueler still to keep someone in your life out of a sense of obligation? To tolerate them while feigning love? I certainly think so.
Besides, once we step off the standard model of the relationship escalator, we can move away from some of the old assumptions: Just because a relationship ends doesn’t mean it was a failure — and it also doesn’t mean that it couldn’t one day begin again.
I often go into relationships with a very explicit understanding that most will be temporary or intermittent, a matter of the odds of compatibility, emotional habituation, and mutual bandwidth.
Given this, how does one proceed ethically in relationships?
It seems a little crude to offer a disclaimer to every new partner. “This is probably not going to be a ’til death do us part thing since most relationships aren’t.” Yeah, not so much.
It would be nice to go into relationships with a clear picture of what the future will hold. Sadly, relationships inevitably involve uncertainty, risk. We don’t really know. The best we can do is avoid lasting harm. This holds especially true in the early stages.
Dan Savage’s campsite rule comes to mind: “As with campers at campsites, the older partners of younger people should always leave ’em in better shape than they found ’em. Don’t get ’em pregnant, don’t give ’em diseases, and don’t lead ’em to believe that a long-term relationship is even a remote possibility. …And if you do the right thing—and leave ’em in better shape than you found ’em—your younger lovers will always speak highly of you.”