Territorial Markers Aren’t a Great Proxy for Love

two rainbow colored wine glasses
Image by Ross Elliott / CC BY

“Hey you twoooo!” I say, stepping through the door. I call this greeting out as loudly as I possibly can. Sing-songy in a way that I know will carry into the living room.

The acoustics of my house have long been a vital factor in how Skyspook and I date others separately while living together. My goal here is to give Skyspook and Cassie ample opportunity to disengage should they be lip-locking on the couch.

“Hey Page!” Cassie replies, and the speed of the reply suggests that I didn’t interrupt anything private. Which is nice. I do hate to be a Buttinski.

Still, I take my time, gingerly hanging up my purse. Sliding off my shoes.

“We’re having wine!” Skyspook adds. “Want to join us?”

“Sure,” I say, stepping into the living room.

But as I walk in, I see something that disturbs me far more than catching them mid makeout would.

The wine glasses. They’re drinking from the rainbow wine glasses Skyspook and I got in Maine, on a romantic trip we took to Bar Harbor. At a time where our relationship was functionally monogamous but we were still very poly-minded. In a state of post-poly exile.

I feel a hot knot of fury twist in my belly before I have any control over it. I spin around immediately.

“Let me just go find a glass,” I reply, hoping my voice doesn’t sound off.

I walk back into the kitchen, lean on the counter, bracing myself.

It’s such a stupid little thing. Why does it bother me so much to share those with her?

I take a few deep breaths in and out. Grab a juice glass. Walk back into the living room. Pour myself some wine.

The three of us sit and talk for what feels like hours. I tell jokes about the date I’ve been on. And laugh until my face hurts.

Cassie leaves late but only because she’s half falling asleep.

“So, there’s something I have to tell you,” I say to Skyspook, once we’re alone.


“I had a rough moment. When I saw you two were using the glasses from Maine.”

“You did?” he says. “I couldn’t even tell.” And then it hits him. “Oh God. I didn’t even think about that… that they’re linked to our trip.” He tells me he feels terrible. Apologizes.

“It’s okay,” I say. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t know how much they meant to me. Or that I’d get a possessive gut reaction. How could you? I didn’t even know.”

“Still,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I say. “After all, we don’t have any other proper wine glasses. And it makes sense that a guest should use the best that we have.”

He tells me he loves me. Puts his arms around me.

The next day he takes me out to buy a full set of new wine glasses: Four white, four red.

And even better: I know if I ever have to share the rainbow glasses with someone else again that I’ll be fine.

Territorial Markers

It’s always astonishing to me what tends to stir up territorial and/or possessive instincts: Not necessarily big things. But smaller markers.

For me, the challenge was sharing a rainbow wine glass.

In one Savage Love column, the letter writer was freaked out by the idea of their partner having other lovers with their same first name. Still other folks have been upset by shared birthdays. Or their partner wanting to bring dates to their favorite restaurant.

We get this idea about what makes us or our relationships special, and then we turn them into territorial markers, sometimes without even consciously knowing what’s going on.

But while these territorial markers can serve as symbols for our relationship, they’re not a good proxy for it. Because they’re not nearly large enough to represent the love we have.

That’s why I always advocate against setting rules like “only you and I can use the rainbow wine glasses” and instead suggest tackling the underlying insecurity.


Edit: This article generated a lot of discussion on social media. Here’s a followup post I wrote relating to that.


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  1. “That’s why I always advocate against setting rules like “only you and I can use the rainbow wine glasses” and instead suggest tackling the underlying insecurity.”
    But he acknowledged your feelings and you got more wine glasses, so it’s less likely that he’ll drink from them with dates. You both honored that marker, even if there’s no rule.
    Do you think you’d feel the way you do, if the marker hadn’t been honored?

  2. Difficult to say, human cognitive biases being what they are.

    However, I will say that he won me over with his compassionate reaction when I spoke with him. It was never about wine glasses — but instead about our dynamic together. Reacting with kind words to my chagrined confession validated and affirmed our emotional dynamic.

    If we hadn’t needed wine glasses for practical reasons, I probably would have dissuaded him from buying them (only so much cupboard space). We make our own wine and frequently entertain, so it was a bit silly that we didn’t have at least four white and four red, although back then we had only been into wine for a few months.

    Those remain our best portable wine glasses (they’re a durable plastic), and other people have drank from them in picnic settings since then. This night happened two years ago, but I was reminded of it by a client who is working through similar things.

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