Navigating Non Escalator Relationships

aka “So, you’re in a non-escalator relationship- what now?”
(dedicated to ‘Alexander’)

no-escalatorThe most common script that we follow in relationships is that of the Relationship Escalator. And that’s a model that works for a lot of people. But, increasingly, people- especially in the non-monogamous community- are challenging that default script and exploring what it means to have relationships that are not on the Escalator.

And, let’s be honest- most relationships you will experience in your life (including platonic ones) are not on an Escalator.

Non-escalator relationships can be short term and casual, and they can also be long term, emotionally invested relationships. They are build-your-own-lunch-box relationships, relationships a la carte. But, how do people in non escalator relationships measure the investment? How do they read emotional commitment, security, and the ongoing life of the relationship, when they aren’t defaulting to the regular milestones of dating, moving in, getting married, and so forth?

58ddb1c5ae37f0734abdebfdc58a08b0Something I’ve both experienced and witnessed in my explorations of this non-escalator paradigm, is that when we don’t talk about this stuff, and instead fill in the blanks based on a default set of assumptions we carry about the other person, then we end up either trying to control the relationships we are in, or being controlled by it. And neither of those options is much fun. Personally, I would rather see Relationships be spaces of freedom.

I think it is important to remember that we aren’t following a script, we are co-creating a relationship. All relationships have the possibility of being an ongoing conversation- and Non-Escalator relationships more so, because there’s no script to default to when there’s uncertainty (though, we might try to). Radical relationships, in general, are about making conscious choices about relating.

Awesome-quote-Running-awayWhen you’re Solo, and looking for non escalator relationships only, there can be a fear that the “RE” established people you meet are only dating you to get a temporary fix. You wonder if they are using you- consciously perhaps but unconsciously more likely- to spice up their sex life or let out their frustrations, or exercise some otherwise unrealised disfunction or fantasy. I’ve personally had a recurring fear of becoming part of the ‘Disneyland Relationship’ where the married family person goes to a fun-loving singleton to escape the reality of their responsibilities. It’s depleting to your self-relationship to feel used. So, us non-escalator folks look for certain things as marks of commitment and emotional investment- things that say “Yup, this person’s going to come back for another date!” and “This person recognizes and respects who I am.”

The Relationship Escalator has implicit marks of commitment and investment- each floor reached symbolises deeper intertwining, like moving in together, sharing finances, getting married, having children. And, when people are on an escalator in their relationship, when they are invested in the concept that their relationship has a set destination, they will go to great lengths to troubleshoot and address the conflicts and areas where intimacy has been lost. They’ll go to therapists and counsellors and do the work to figure out what went wrong and how to course correct.

I hear of so many couples- married, common law, primary, nesting, however you want to define it- going to relationship Counselling. But how often do people think of going to Counselling with their partner when it’s a non escalator relationships that’s on the rocks?

“You don’t measure love in time. You measure love in transformation. Sometimes the longest connections yield very little growth, while the briefest of encounters change everything. The heart doesn’t wear a watch- it’s timeless. It doesn’t care how long you know someone. It doesn’t care if you had a 40 year anniversary if there is no juice in the connection. What the heart cares about is resonance. Resonance that opens it, resonance that enlivens it, resonance that calls it home. And when it finds it, the transformation begins…”

~ Jeff Brown

Relationships that are decidedly not on the escalator, don’t have to lack direction or purpose. Being off the escalator and without a predetermined trajectory doesn’t mean it’s not going to require conflict resolution or course correction. For those of us traversing the terrain of the non-escalator paradigm, we need to know that we aren’t going to be disposable in relationships. We need to know that we aren’t going to be dropped at the first upset, the first sign of conflict, or the third or fourth. And, while we don’t want to see a ring on our fingers as a symbol of contractual obligation, we do value assurances. We value knowing the landscape, and knowing that the relationships we share can still have direction, intention, and milestone moments, like any other relationship. The likelyhood is, we aren’t in it for the promise of a 40-year anniversary; we’re in it for the juice, the connection- and, the potential for personal growth and transformation.

non escalator landmarks

Things small, things that might seem inconsequential in escalator relationships, can take on greater significance in Non-Escalator relationships. It’s not that these wouldn’t or couldn’t be significant in escalators, it’s just that, in a non escalator relationship, you begin to appreciate them more. Removing the options to live together or get married or share finances as things that might grant a feeling of security down the line, you have to seek the present moment affirmations that the relationship has presence and continuity and value. So an extra toothbrush appearing in your bathroom is a milestone moment because it implies they plan to come back. Defining and redefining your relationship labels marks a turning point and affirmation of the level of commitment and engagement you have with one another.

We may avoid conversation because we’re afraid it might challenge us; there is always the possibility that we may not get what we want out of the relationship if we end up having to define it. But, if we don’t communicate, if we don’t get clear on our own boundaries and relationship sandboxes, things will get messy, and we’ll get hurt. Knowing the terrain you’re crossing together is key. And it’s okay to stop and ask for directions, and make course corrections when you need to. This is not an escalator, it’s a treasure map, with multiple types of treasure chests to find.

What’s important is asking yourself what you want to explore, and asking your partners what they want to explore, and figuring out what are you each willing to explore. In all of this, you’re looking for the things you both want. And, because I know how scary it can be to have these conversations, here’s some things that you might find useful to talk about with your partners in non-escalator relationships. Some might be things worth bringing up on a date zero, others might be better saved for that toothbrush moment, when you realise that yeah, this person’s going to be sleeping over more regularly. So, go forth, and converse with your partners!

Non escalator guide


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Self Intimacy, Sex-Positivity, Shame, and the Resilient Edge of Resistence

“Boundaries are an essential part of life. They delineate and maintain needed borders and separations, making differentiation possible at every level. Boundaries both contain and preserve the integrity of what they are safeguarding, be that physical, psychological, emotional, social, or spiritual. Without them there is no relationship and therefore no development, no evolution. But despite this clear truth, we often fall into the trap of believing that boundaries hold us back, preventing us from being free…”
~ Robert Augustus Masters, Boundaries Make Freedom Possible

skin

I heard a great metaphor for boundaries recently, from my friend and mentor Marcia. Boundaries are like skin. Skin protects us from bacteria, contaminants- it keeps the bad things out. It also holds our bodies together and keeps the good things in. It has elasticity and can stretch and squish for short periods of time (this is called the Resilient Edge of Resistance, think of it as a plus/minus margin around your boundaries). Push that edge too far, and we reach our limits- the skin breaks. It is semi permeable, so we can let good things in (like sunlight and moisture) and sweat the bad things out. And without skin around us, things get messy.

Similarly, without boundaries, life gets messy.

In polyamory we are constantly being challenged to redefine our boundaries, to explore some of the difficult stuff in that resilient edge of resistance- sometimes we reach our limits. We also traverse an emotional field where we invite more vulnerability into our lives, because we are allowing more people to connect with that core part of ourselves that the boundaries are there to protect. The more partners we have, the more we are asked to live in that space of vulnerability. Doing so feels radical, revolutionary, and many people experience a sexual and emotional liberation when they begin exploring this.

In a traditional coupled relationship, boundaries are created to protect and preserve the primary relationship. They are there, like a warm blanket, keeping the relationship safe and in a place of comfort, where the individuals in it can relax and grow and flourish. This is true of monogamous and honestly non-monogamous couples.

However, when it comes to flying Solo, it is not quite so straightforward.

Evening clouds above

There is no primary partner, there is no obvious other to create shared boundaries with- though we absolutely can, many people perceive boundaries as limitations, and equate them with primary like relationships. Ultimately, we all have to develop our own clear boundaries around what we want to nurture in our lives, and what we want to keep out- and this is far more apparent when exploring Solo Polyamory. The nature of Solo Poly relationships is so often fluid and changing, that one can sometimes feel there is no safe-house to come home to unless you create one for yourself. But, it can be easy to forget this, and when you are unattatched to a primary partner, there are plenty more opportunities to explore that Resilient Edge of Resistence.

I pushed and stretched and redefined my personal Resilient Edge of Resistence for two years. After a lifetime of frustration with the limitation of my creative expression and sexual shaming, I dove heart first into a dynamic and powerful exploration of living life without restrictions. I began to embrace my sensual expression, I grew to honor my shadow self, I found alchemy in letting my spirit blossom and fly free. I looked to the free spirits around me and followed their examples. I was going to sex parties, being guest listed for kink nights, throwing my own kinky raves with my friends, being invited to participate in the sex-positive community both locally, and internationally. I felt comfortable having sex around strangers, and engaging in BDSM play to the side of the dance floor. It was so incredibly liberating! I had come so far from the shy, ashamed, repressed young woman who flinched at the idea of talking about sex.

shattered glassAnd then, I became intoxicated with the freedom. I became addicted to my shadow self. I pushed myself too far.My resiliency broke. I lost my boundaries. I lost my skin. My guts went spilling all over the place, and toxic, unhealthy influences entered into my life.

Months later I still wake in the middle of the night from nightmares filled with flashbacks of trauma, and my heart remains heavy with heartache, regret, and deep sorrow.

After reaching a breaking point with exploring my resilient edge, I attempted to build a wall around my heart, and my Self, reinforcing my boundaries into an impenetrable fortress. While this made me feel more safe, it also made it impossible to reach out to the ones I loved- because I couldn’t connect to my heart without connecting to the pain too. They felt pushed away.

While all this was happening, I was diving into studies of the nature of intimacy, boundaries, and self-actualisation. I learned about something called Self-Intimacy, the conscious awareness of one’s own emotions, desires and thoughts. Without healthy self-intimacy, we struggle to engage in healthy conflict, and displays of affection can become shallow and disconnected. When we lack healthy self-intimacy, our negative emotions can build up, and without expression or support for resolution, they can drive us to disregard our limits, and live in a state where our resilient edges are being constantly pushed to breaking point.

I had spent so long pushing myself to explore my edges, I had forgotten how to relax, and just be with my self. My inner perfect poly person had grown adept at suppressing my shadow emotions in relationships, and my mind was at conflict with my heart. Even though I had intellectually consented to almost all of my experiences, my heart’s consent had not been present. I had been ignoring the messages from my body, ignoring the crushing pain of approaching my limits- until they had been reached, with heart-breaking consequences.

jumpingLiberating ourselves of the shame around sex and embracing sex positivity shouldn’t have to mean going to orgies or BDSM play parties. It doesn’t have to be a process of pushing our resilient edges of resistance to breaking point- either physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. It might mean those things for some people- and that has certainly been part of my own journey- but I don’t think that it has to include those things. I think sex positivity is hi-fiving ourselves and our friends and partners for good sex, sex positivity is exploring healthy connections and physically empowering chemistry. It’s about not flinching when someone else talks about sex. It’s embracing your own nature as a sexual being. It’s accepting the diversity of experiences people have had, and the complex relationships each person can have to the act of sex- and respecting that most people do not need to live in the adrenalin addiction of having their edges challenged in relationships constantly.

I’m valuing the existential crisis inherent in all of this. In my personal quest for identity, relationship, and meaning, I have too often become trapped in doing mode, a state entangled in mental pathways, removed from the experience of simply being. Rather than following my head into new situations, I’m slowing down and listening to my heart, and my whole body. In finding solitude and quietude again, I’m reconnecting with the courage to just be, and finding freedom in that. The clearer I become on what I’m living for- my deepest desires- the more my natural boundaries become apparent. The margins of my being may not be what I once thought they were- or perhaps, they have changed- and I am giving myself permission to change, and nurture my resiliency.

I don’t need to live life on the edge all the time- and neither do you, if you do not want to. You have permission to be loving to yourself, to honor your physical, spiritual, mental and emotional body and boundaries, to embrace your shadow self, and your light. Life doesn’t have to be lived on the cutting edge, doing all-the-things. Life can also be lived with warmth and nurturing; life can be lived by simply being. You can love your boundaries. You can grow roots, live a life that doesn’t push your resilient edge of resistance to breaking point, and still be radical and sex-positive.

self-empowerment
“We are not here to shed or abandon our boundaries, but to breathe integrity and strength into them, to fully illuminate them, and to make sure that they take a form that serves not only our highest good but also the highest good of all. We are not here to override or devalue our boundaries but to use them as wisely as possible… discovering the freedom in fully engaging our experience. Our boundaries stand as guardians on this path, with an authority that supports our growth and awakening.”
~ Robert Augustus Masters, Boundaries Make Freedom Possible

(with gratitude to Orion and Chelsie for editorial feedback)

The Perfect Poly Person

The Perfect Poly Person develops in all of us who start exploring polyamory.

Polyamorous 'perfection'?

Polyamorous ‘perfection’?

It’s this future ideal, this high-bar image of perfection inspired by the scripts presented to us about polyamory (many of them, common misconceptions), that we aspire to. We attempt to fake-it-till-you-make-it; the PPP is that glossy poster-worthy role model for How Polyamory Should Be. And, it’s good to have role models. However, I’d like to examine the problems we face when this role model is a projection we have created for ourselves.

The PPP is an extension of that “you must be perfect, you must be good, you must be nice” voice that internally critiques our actions. We each create our own unique PPP based on what we are told polyamorous relationship perfection looks like, and what we aspire our relationships to be.

 

Here’s some beliefs you might notice your inner PPP holding on to:

  • "I told everyone I'm polyamorous, guess I better stick to that now- no jumping ship!"

    “I told everyone I’m polyamorous, guess I better stick to that now- no jumping ship!”

    I don’t experience jealousy, nope not me.

  • I don’t compare myself to others.
  • If I don’t acknowledge the way my metamor makes me feel insecure, everything will work out okay.
  • I need to be dating more people or I’m not doing poly right.
  • I have to give everyone equal time or I’m not being fair to them.
  • It would be selfish and inconsiderate for me to express what I want.
  • That messed up situation wasn’t my fault, it’s their fault for doing poly wrong.
  • If I own my responsibility in this messed up situation, it’s going to make me look like I’m a bad person, cos I did poly wrong.
  • I told everyone I’m polyamorous, now I better stick to that!
  • Even though this arrangement isn’t that convenient for me, I’m going to go along with it anyway cos I don’t want to cause a disruption to everyone else’s life.
  • If my poly relationships end, that means I’m a failure, so I’m just going to keep them all going, even if they aren’t inspiring me.
  • I’m not sure my partner is really poly, so I’m just not going to tell them about all the other relationships that are developing for me- that could scare them away.

 

The inner Perfect Poly Person likes to rewrites things to avoid taking responsibility for the fuck ups, and is a master of emotional bypassing and passive communication. If we acknowledged that we messed up, it might imply that we’re just not ‘naturally polyamorous’, and given how much people can risk to explore polyamory, that’s a scary prospect.

Sometimes our PPP doesn’t want to have those difficult conversations with exes because to do so would involve acknowledging that we have fucked up just as much as the other person, and aren’t that role model for non monogamy we’d like to be.

The PPP can silence us- not just to our partners, but to ourselves. We so easily find ourselves intoxicated in relationships, being in love with the idea of the relationship more than the person themselves, and when flaws begin to show up, rather than rock the boat, we shut up and keep rowing, sometimes cramming as many other people onto the sinking ship as we can.

The PPP blames others for the mistakes in relationships and never takes on shared responsibility where it’s due. How often have you heard of a relationship breakdown where all the blame is placed on someone else? Even some of the best regarded writers in polyamory have shared their personal stories of breakups and bypassed their own degree of responsibility. As my dad might remind me, it takes two- at least- to tango.

shadowsNone of us want to hurt or harm others. But sometimes, in moments of selfish idiocy, we do. The PPP shows up in some of those moments, and in their desire to Be Perfect, can disrupt not just our own lives, but the lives of others. And usually, it’s because the PPP wants to deny the shadow-side of the emotional spectrum, it doesn’t want to admit to any fears, to any sense of loneliness, or to any anger. And, that’s problematic, especially when you consider that denying these three emotions is one of the most common triggers for betrayls within relationships, and the ideal that polyamory is seeking is an open, honest, consensual approach to non-monogamy, one that hinges heavily on the degrees of trust between everyone.

In summary, when your inner Perfect Poly Person is running the show, you’re showing up as a set of expectations for yourself and who you think you need to be, rather than as the wonderful, genuine, beautifully flawed You. And, you might end up sabotaging your own relationships without realising it.

So, what do we do?

self-hugFirst of all, I think we need to have some compassion for ourselves. It’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to be imperfect. As far as I know, there’s no dissertation committee waiting to asses us on our successes and failures in relationships, let alone poly relationships.

 

Here’s some things I’ve taken to reminding myself on a regular basis:

      • It’s OKAY to screw up- as long as you can own it and be willing to talk about it.
      • It’s okay to have conflict in relationships. In fact, a healthy conflict process is a worthy goal for long term relationships, and far preferable to cycles of hostile dependence or conflict avoidance.
      • It’s okay to have illogical and unreasonable desires- and it’s better to give voice to them (disclaimers of irrationality included) than to suppress them. Yes! You have permission to ask for what you want! Remember that expressing something doesn’t obligate anyone to meeting those needs for you. However, asking for what you want is a fantastic way to grow communication within relationships.
      • It’s completely natural to feel jealousy and insecurity around a new relationship developing for a partner. Acknowledging these feelings and examining them is important to do. It’s also totally okay if you don’t feel any jealousy or insecurity about new relationships in your partners’ lives.
      • It’s okay to feel that something has changed in a relationship and to talk about it.
      • It’s okay to fall out of love, and it’s okay for the love you feel to change and morph- give yourself permission to talk about it when that happens.

What I’ve found, is that, when we embrace our own vulnerability and share that with our trusted friends and lovers, the inner PPP has no choice but to surrender and melt. It’s still there, a whisper in the background- and I think I’m okay with that.

Perhaps ironically, I remind my inner PPP that the perfection is in the imperfection, that it’s wise to stay humble, remembering that I don’t have all the answers- that none of us do- and this sense of humility and vulnerability is actually the ‘perfect’ way to go about having relationships, because it gives us permission to show up as our genuine, imperfect selves, and maybe even be loved for who we are in the moment, rather than the impossible ideal we are desperately trying to become.

photo (1)
 Some further reading that might interest you:
Successful Non-Monogamy (includes free download) and The Good Girl Recovery Program (both by Marcia Baczynski, whose coaching has been invaluable for me).Gratitude to all the friends who helped me flesh out the ideas in this article (you all know who you are), and to my friend and colleague Mislav Marhonic for offering editorial guidance on this piece. Love you all!

Expanding and Exploring

“You have permission to ask for what you want.”

Do you really know how to play?

Do you really know how to play?

These words of relationship advice, from Marcia Baczynski, shifted my perspective about the relationships I was in at the time, leading to an evolution in the way I have found myself approaching relationships today. I had been growing fed up of intimate relationships where it felt like no one ever knew what they were doing. In bed, I too often felt like a beautiful musical instrument, with a novice randomly plucking strings, hoping to coax a melody- or concerto- from this highly complex form. I didn’t want that any more. I wanted that to change.

Last summer at a music festival, I fell in love on the dance floor. The crowds parted and I became mesmerized by a young man spinning a glowing staff. My attention caught, I complimented him on his dancing, saw him again briefly a few days later- but it wasn’t until running into him several months later in the city that we actually had a chance to connect.

The incredibly beautiful, exotic, fire and poi-spinning Marco had me curious. We chatted online and on the phone for a couple of months before going on a date zero- I was a little hesitant to date someone eight years younger than me, but I soon forgot about that and had an amazing time. On our next date, we discovered that we lived ten minutes walk away from one another.

Marco puts extra anarchy into relationship anarchy, in a really good way. It’s almost impossible to keep up with how many women he might have dates with. His work schedule is on call and often unpredictable and so dates are sometimes really spontaneous. One of the things I enjoy the most is that the dynamic he and I share together is one of experimentation and adventure.

Where would the electricity be without willingness to experiment?

Where would the electricity be without willingness to experiment?

Our dates have included a trip to the STI clinic (followed by lunch), midnight booty calls, loud and kinky morning wake up calls, making a stilt-walking elephant together, an epic sexy after party in our hotel room where we mostly observed and directed our friends having an orgy, eating ice cream together in his bedroom hammock, sensually grinding together on the dance floor after almost 24 hours of no sleep, poi spinning lessons in my back yard, and whispering poetry to one another into the wee hours of the morning. We talk about kinky things we want to try out, we share thoughts about shamanism, and we collaborate on creative projects.

From past relationship experiences, I’ve found myself growing cautious of diving too deep into clothes-ripping passion all the time. I’ve had some really beautiful connections burn out because the focus was so much on physical expression- but not so much on exploration, and as a result I would have great sex the first few times, fuelled by the excitement, adrenalyne, novelty and NRE- but it would quickly peter off, resulting in a string of six-week long relationships.

I didn’t want this to be another six week relationship.

I also found myself in a quandry over sponteniety versus consent. Marco and I were exploring the edges of our kinky personas, and both enjoyed doing so with sponteniety. He knew I was very passionate about enthusiastic consent, and expressed once that, in his perspective, the conversation around consent was taking away from the spontaneous aspect that made things so much fun.

Just because you're enjoying something, does it mean your partner is enjoying it too?

Just because you’re enjoying something, does it mean your partner is enjoying it too?

For my part, consent has become an important part of relationships and building trust. I’d experienced holding back a lot in intimate exchanges because I was afraid of having my own boundaries crossed or of crossing someone else’s unintentionally- something that had happened for me in the past. I mean, there’s always that hope that I will find partners who are 100% psychic and can read my mind to see if I’m comfortable or not- but the reality is, we can’t expect someone to know something about our intimate preferences unless we reveal that information to them, and likewise, we need to ask our partners for feedback about whether what we are doing feels good for them or not- instead of just assuming that it probably is.

One night when Marco came over to my place, I decided that I needed to ask for what I wanted. So, I put forward a proposal to him:

“Tonight, I’d like to invite you to explore me. Just do whatever you want. Follow your instincts. And I’ll give you feedback at every step. I want you to learn my body. And if something doesn’t feel good, or doesn’t do anything for me, I’ll communicate. And if it’s amazing- you’ll know, and if I know how to, I’ll guide you on how to enhance the pleasure for me.”

Never before had communication felt so sexy. As we played, I got to show him how my different erogenous zones can be connected, how a slap or a bite in just the right place can make me melt or take me to the edge. I learned things about my own body as he experimented with differing pressures in different places. And after, we talked about all sorts of other things we want to try further down the road.

After that experience, not only was the quality of our physical intimacy enhanced, but our communication around sex grew leaps and bounds too. We’d taken time to learn one another’s language. He, as someone who plays more dominant, had discovered how to read my responses, and I’d learned how to communicate with fewer words and in ways that made the communication part of the play. As a consequence of just that one night, we started to feel more comfortable with greater sponteniety. The trust we share evolved because we took one another to the edges and learned to recognise one another’s “no”.

piano maestro

“Practice Makes Perfect”

There is tremendous power in slowing down from the insane devouring passion and finding our way into a natural flow of communication between bodies. Tuning in, and learning how to read our partners, rather than just assuming we know what’s going to feel good, assuming that all people function exactly the same.  Think of the difference between someone who sits at a piano and randomly tinkers on the keys hoping to make music, versus someone who has studied and become a piano maestro, effortlessly dancing their fingers across the keys and filling the room with the sweetest music.

We may both be Solo, we may be one another’s ‘proximal’ relationship, we may be in love, but we also know this relationship may not last in this same form for all time. Marco reminds me to be present to what’s in front of me, to be present to the moment. We are growing and learning together, and there is no telling what the future may bring. I pinch myself from time to time that someone as unique and talented an individual wants to hang around with me, let alone undress me and devour me with so much passion- and it’s a passion that seems to just grow deeper and deeper.

Exploring the edges of our comfort zones, and expanding beyond them, has never felt so comfortable, nor been so fun. We explore eachother’s bodies, eachother’s minds, eachother’s souls.

And the lesson in this- that asking for what you want is one of the best things you can possibly do within a relationship- has me contemplating all the other things I have often wished for but never outright asked for from my partners. There’s a sliver of risk involved in asking. What if they say “No”, or judge you for it, or break up with you because you asked for something? That’s the fear dialogue running through our minds holding us back.

We don’t have to listen to the voice of fear. We can embrace the risk and choose- dare- to ask the ones we love and trust if they might be interested in something that we are interested in too. And when we do so, we give ourselves- and our partners- the opportunity to experiment, expand and explore new edges of being.