What is Commitment Without Entanglement?

I’ve been thinking about commitment a lot recently. What it is, what it means, and how I can ethically incorporate it into my life in a way that aligns with my needs, my values, and my partners’ needs and values.

As a polyamorous person and an ethical slut, commitment matters a lot to me. Does that surprise you? Many people assume that true commitment is impossible in a non-monogamous context. Of course, I don’t agree.

What is commitment, anyway?

Oxford Languages suggests the definition of commitment as “the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc”. I think this is actually a pretty okay definition.

We all think we know what commitment means in a relationship, especially as it relates to mononormative culture. People often equate commitment with things like getting married, living together, and raising children together. Our society also strongly equates commitment with exclusivity. (Hands up every polyamorous person who has been asked “when are you going to commit to one person?”)

As a non-monogamous person, I suggest we look at commitment a different way. Instead of asking “what does society tell me a committed relationship looks like?”, ask yourself “what does commitment mean to me?”

Here are five things commitment means to me.

  • Commitment means I will prioritise you highly. This does not necessarily mean I will always put you first, and I will not necessarily prioritise you to the detriment of other important things in my life. But I will always consider you and strive to behave in ways that honour our connection.
  • Commitment means I will attempt to work through problems that arise in our relationship, engaging in good faith and seeking solutions that work for everyone involved.
  • Commitment means that I honour the ways in which you, I, and our relationship will grow and change. I want to grow along with you, not away from you.
  • Commitment means I want you to be in my life for as long as it is a happy and healthy choice for both of us. Ideally that means “for life,” but I accept things change. If our relationship is no longer good for one or both of us, I will let you go.
  • Commitment means that your happiness matters to me. To the best of my ability, and to the extent it doesn’t harm me or anyone else to do so, I will behave in ways that faciliate your happiness.

Your answers may be different. But I encourage you to think about what commitment is to you and maybe write down a “commitment manifesto” like the one I’ve shared above.

What is entanglement?

When I talk about entanglement in a relationship, I’m broadly referring to what is often known within polyamorous communities as “the relationship escalator.” Coined by writer Amy Gahran, the relationship escalator is described thus:

The default set of societal expectations for intimate relationships. Partners follow a progressive set of steps, each with visible markers, toward a clear goal.

The goal at the top of the Escalator is to achieve a permanently monogamous (sexually and romantically exclusive between two people), cohabitating marriage — legally sanctioned if possible. In many cases, buying a house and having kids is also part of the goal. Partners are expected to remain together at the top of the Escalator until death.

The Escalator is the standard by which most people gauge whether a developing intimate relationship is significant, “serious,” good, healthy, committed or worth pursuing or continuing.” (Source.)

The relationship escalator isn’t inherently bad, if it’s something you genuinely want (as opposed to something you’re following because of social, cultural, or familial pressure). But holding up the escalator model as the pinnacle of relationship achievement is deeply damaging to many people.

On or off the escalator?

Even though I strongly identify as non-monogamous, I’ve always valued having a core, deeply entangled relationship in my life. This is what Mr CK and I have. We live together, we share bills and cats and household chores, we are at least somewhat financially entangled. We’re each other’s next of kin at the hospital. We make big decisions together, and we hope to be together for life.

I also do not want all my relationships – or indeed any others – to be this entangled. The beauty of non-monogamy is that relationships don’t have to be all or nothing. If you have great sex but don’t have romantic feelings for one another, you can have a great friends-with-benefits arrangement. If you love each other but don’t want to live together, you can enjoy the connection for what it is without pushing for it to be more. When you have a need one partner can’t or won’t meet, you can get it fulfilled elsewhere.

This means you get to choose whether each relationship is on or off the escalator. It means you get to choose what level of commitment you want, and what that means for you and your partner(s).

You can even decide to take certain steps on the escalator but skip others, if you want to. For example, “we want to live together but no kids,” or “we want to get married, but monogamy isn’t part of our arrangement.”

Commitment without entanglement

When you try to define commitment without the trappings of heteronormative, mononormative, escalator-driven relationships, it gets complicated fast. It also gets really, really diverse.

Here are five things I’ve learned about how to do commitment without entanglement.

Create milestones that matter to you

Every serious relationship has meaningful milestones. What these look like and what they mean to you both/all will be different in each relationship. A few common milestones that don’t necessarily imply entanglement include the first kiss, the first time you say “I love you,” the first time you have sex, and the first night you spend together.

Unromantic milestones matter, too. In my relationship with The Artist, I remember feeling like our relationship had turned a corner the first time we navigated a (non-relational) crisis together. It wasn’t fun at the time, but in the long run it cemented our bond even further. I felt similarly after the first time they saw me in the middle of a major mental health crisis and didn’t run away.

What relationship milestones feel significant to you and your partner(s)? Think about both things you’ve already done (“the first overnight we spent together felt really significant to me”) and things you’d like to do someday (“I really want to introduce you to my best friends.”)

Have each other’s backs

For me, one of the biggest signs of commitment is when someone is by my side through difficult times. I enjoy the sex-with-no-expectations brand of relationship with some people. But I want to know that my inner circle people are there for me.

If you’re around when you want a hot shag but then disappear when I’m sobbing on the sofa because my depression is so bad, I won’t see the relationship as a committed one and will adjust my expectations accordingly.

Having each other’s backs isn’t the same as expecting the other person to drop everything to care for you in every crisis. But it does mean stepping up when you can, being there for the bad times as well as the good, and going out of your way for the other person at least some of the time.

Ask, don’t assume

When was the last time you asked your partner what love and commitment means to them? It’s easy to assume other people define these things in the same ways that we do. But assumptions are the fast-track to hurt feelings and miscommunications.

If you’re not sure what your partner needs or wants, ask them! If you’re not sure how they’re feeling, don’t try to guess. Just talk about it.

Learning each other’s love languages can be useful here. People often make the mistake of assuming that everyone gives and receives love the way they do. The love language framework isn’t perfect. But it gives you a way to explore and communicate your needs to your partner and to understand theirs.

Asking isn’t unromantic! Asking someone what they need or want is actually a huge sign of love and respect. Mononormative culture holds that we should be able to read our partner’s mind. This is bullshit. Don’t try. Seriously, I cannot emphasise this enough – just fucking ask.

Stand up for the relationship

When I was with my ex, one of the things that stopped me ever feeling safe was the fact that his wife had veto power. Even after years together, she could have told him to dump me at any time and he would have complied. Even though it was only ever hypothetical, we talked about the possibility at length. One of the things that really hurt was the knowledge that, if push came to shove, he would not stand up for our relationship.

I won’t date anyone with a veto arrangement any more. I believe that longer-term and more entangled partners should absolutely get a say and be able to voice concerns. But I cannot be in a situation where my relationship could be unilaterally ended by someone who isn’t even in it.

If you want to show commitment to your non-entangled partner, that means being willing to stand up for your relationship if you ever need to. This might mean telling your spouse or nesting partner that no, they don’t get to slam a veto down. It might mean speaking up when your friends or family (if you’re out to them) dismiss your non-entangled relationship as not real, not serious, or not important.

Keep the promises you make (and don’t make ones you can’t keep)

To my ex, promises made to me were always breakable if anything better came up (or his wife just had a bad day). This prevented me from ever feeling truly important to him.

In general, if you make a promise or commit to a plan with your partner, you should do everything you can to honour it. Emergencies happen, of course. Part of being in a long-term relationship means being flexible enough to roll with the punches when crises arise. But breaking promises or cancelling plans for minor reasons impedes building a true sense of commitment in a relationship, in my opinion.

The other piece of this is not making promises you can’t keep. My ex used to tell me that we – me, him, and his wife – would all live together and I’d be an equal co-primary someday. I eventually realised this was never going to actually happen. If I’d known that earlier, I could have adjusted my expectations accordingly. Instead, by promising something he never intended to actually follow through on, he deprived me of the ability to make an informed and consensual choice about how much I wanted to commit to that relationship.

If your non-entangled partner is asking for something, it can seem kinder to say “yes, someday” then just keep pushing it off into the distance. But if the real answer is “no, never” or “probably not,” it’s actually much better to tell them that. Hearing “no” to something you want is never fun. But it’s much better than being strung out on a false promise and then being let down again and again.

What does commitment without entanglement mean to you?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I’m so curious how other non-monogamous people handle this.

Reunion

Have you ever just fallen into someone and held onto them as if you would drown if you let go? That’s how it felt to me when I saw my secondary partner[1] for the first time in sixteen months this last weekend. Throughout the 30 hours or so we spent together, I had to keep touching them just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

The last year has not been kind to many people, including us. We’ve survived many things in the four and a half years we’ve been together, from a terrifying car accident to my mental breakdown in 2019. But a pandemic that separated us for almost a year and a half was a different beast entirely.

Of course, our relationship wasn’t on hold during all this time. We couldn’t see each other physically, but we kept in touch with Skype calls and sexting and app-controlled sex toys and online theatre and movie dates. But it’s not the same. Sometimes I wanted to hug them so badly it hurt. Often, actually.

Even so, I went into our reunion not really knowing how it would go. So much has changed in the last year. Life is not the same. I am not the same. I’ve changed not just my hair and my body, but also my career and my relationship with myself in the past year. In some ways, I am far better. My self-esteem and my relationship to my work are both hugely improved. But in other ways, I am carrying the inevitable scars of the last year. I am jumpy and scared of things I was never scared of before. I don’t always know how to people any more, after almost a year in such isolation.

So no, I wasn’t sure if we would still fit. Because when people and circumstances change, relationships do, too. I think it’s fair to say they were more sure than I was, but I think they also had their doubts. How could we not, after all this time?

The doubt dissolved the moment I saw them, the moment we clung to each other and I buried my face in their shoulder and I remembered all the ways we fit together. Every time I looked at them, I wanted to laugh and cry all at the same time. Because yes, it still works. The love is still there. Our connection was tested but never severed. Our hearts and our bodies remember each other, and that matters more than days or months or distance.

Sometimes, in the sea of everything changing, you just need something that still feels right. You just need someone who will hold you as though they felt every damn second of all the months you were apart.

__________________________________________________

[1] We use “secondary” as a descriptive term, not as any kind of pejorative, and we love each other deeply and fiercely despite not being on the relationship escalator with each other.

I Don’t Believe in Soulmates (But…)

“A true soulmate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life.”
– Elizabeth Gilbert

I don’t believe in soulmates.

Well, it’s not quite that simple. I don’t believe in soulmates in the “one person on earth for everyone who will complete you” kind of way.

Aside from the previously discussed mathematical absurdity of imagining there’s exactly one person designed for one other person, the One True Soulmate thing doesn’t account for polyamory, or people who are widowed and then find love again, or just people who have multiple serious relationships in their life because something isn’t retroactively less real because it ended. Then there’s the fact that we are all whole already and don’t need another person to complete us.

I’m not sure I even believe in souls, at least not in the metaphysical or religious way the term is often used. I’m both an atheist and fundamentally quite cynical.

So no, I don’t believe in soulmates. That doesn’t mean I am cynical about love. I’m not. I do believe in powerful connections between people, which might happen quickly or might grow over years.

When I hear “soulmate,” I think it implies a situation where you’re so made for each other that everything is easy. It’s the Disney-fied, romcom-style happy ending where all problems vanish and you live blissfully ever after.

But that’s not real. It’s a seductive lie, a dangerous fiction, a marketing ploy that leads real people to believe their relationships are inadequate.

I don’t want always-easy, because always-easy does not exist when it comes to meaningful relationships. What I want is someone who sees me completely. Someone who sees everything – the good, the bad, the ugly, the broken – and loves me anyway.

And, yeah, someone who can call me on my bullshit.

I don’t believe that anyone can know us better than we know ourselves. That is a fallacy. No-one else will ever be in your head or your body and you are always the ultimate and final expert on you. But I do believe that another person can see the bits of us that we’re not seeing, or choosing not to see, or trying to choose not to see.

Of course, it requires trust and vulnerability to let someone in that far. I’m not very good at either trusting people or being truly vulnerable. It takes me a long time to get there and the rest of the time, there’s a protective layer around me. Sometimes it’s a steel wall a foot thick, sometimes it’s barely perceptible and almost permeable.

A soulmate, in that fiction, would be someone who immediately fixed all those issues with their True Love. That doesn’t exist. What I want is someone who takes the time to see everything that is behind that wall, makes the effort to understand it, and wants to stay even then. Someone who does not expect pretense or perfection, but who embraces all that I am and – and this bit is important – all that I will be.

The “soulmates” ideal implies something static, something immovable and permanent. Real love isn’t necessarily like that. Our souls – our selves – are not static. Instead, I want a person who commits to growing alongside me. Someone who is all in, for the messy as well as the tidy, for the worse as well as for the better. And honestly? Someone who will walk away if it is truly no longer working, rather than someone who is so attached to an ideal that they stay to the detriment of both of us.

So no, I don’t want a soulmate. I want people who will do the work, make the effort, and show up again and again when it’s hard as well as when it’s easy.

It might not be quite so picture-perfect, but at least it’s real.

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[Guest Post] Happy Never After by Velvet Divine

Velvet Divine (fae/faer) is becoming something of a C&K regular at this point! I’m delighted to welcome faer back again with this wonderful person piece about being on the aromantic spectrum. Don’t forget to follow Velvet on Twitter!

Happy Never After by Velvet Divine

It’s fitting that I compose this piece as Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week comes to a close.

Let’s start from the top – my name is Velvet Alicia Lilith-Victoria Azshara Divine. I am trans-femme, non-binary, Sapphic, and – most recently discovered – aroflux.

Aroflux falls under the aromantic spectrum and is described as fluctuating between points of aromanticism (not experiencing romantic attraction) and alloromanticism (experiencing romantic attraction.)

I describe my particular experience as an inability to distinguish between romantic and strong platonic affection. I love my partners in the same manner that I do my closest friends, the only real difference comes in the manner that those affections are expressed and reciprocated.

This can also make something as simple as a crush or casual interest wildly frustrating as I’m never sure if I want to friend-up or bone-down, much less where the other party stands! Furthermore, it’s quite a hurdle to forming any semblance of a relationship or consistent companionship, at least on any level north of the platonic.

Alloromantic folks are (understandably) reticent about getting involved with someone on the aro spectrum and for those that I have been involved with, it was always understood to be an ephemeral arrangement, lasting just until the fire faded or they found an alloromantic partner.

I wish I could tell you that I’ve embraced being aroflux as easily and even enthusiastically as I have being non-binary, but that would be a fib of the highest order.

Most days I resent the realization.

As someone who has a voracious craving for physical intimacy and relies on sexual intimacy to find validation despite vicious gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia, it’s a cruel joke to only find those things in incredibly niche circumstances.

In no way do I want to imply that physical or sexual intimacy is necessary for a whole and fulfilling life or relationship, but these are aspects of intimacy that are important to me. Moreover, by niche circumstances, I refer to the already small dating pool as a trans femme Sapphic being further shrunken by those willing to engage in the necessary level of communication and understanding to navigate the caveats of my being aroflux.

Ironically enough, I’ve been essentially navigating the hookup and casual sex scenes as an aroflux person, just without the label. My various trysts and liaisons were short-term or consented to end at a set point – whether I felt I had too much going on to try to establish a relationship or the other party found a partner more suitable. At points, I even thought it was simply a matter of working through my baggage and trauma before I would be able to connect with someone on that level.

As my therapy progressed and under the copious amount of self-reflection required to cope with the current pandemic, I had the opportunity to do a lot of self-reflection and evaluation of what it is that I truly want out of an interpersonal relationship. This is when I began to realize just how little difference there was in my interactions and expressions of affection between my intimate partners and my close platonic friends. Often, the difference was only a matter of physical or sexual intimacy.

There’s an incredible beauty to the way I approach relationships and I’m endlessly bemused by the fae-like, casual contracts I have with certain connections regarding the comfortable ways we can exchange affection and the term limits that dictate until when that mode of affection may continue. But now and then I feel almost cheated.

I have a lot of trauma surrounding attachment and abandonment, to the point that I will frequently check in with people I’m close to just to ensure that my company is still desired in some capacity. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve expressed some version of the sentiment, “I don’t care in what capacity, I just want to be a part of your journey”. Up until recently, I had always held out hope for that fairytale type romance, whether that came in the form of one partner or many – the type of love my mother has told me my entire life does not exist and that society all too often tries to tell me that I’m not worthy of.

Now, by some caprice of fate, the door to a classic happily-ever-after is closed to me. 

I know that romantic love is far from the end-all-be-all, and maybe my current frustrations stem from a place of internalized arophobia and conditioned amatonormativity, but I find that I no longer have any clear picture or idea of what a possible physically intimate relationship would look like for me. A dear friend of mine recently asked me what the ideal scenario would look like for me and I said that the most plausible scenarios would be some kind of non-monogamous situation or some kind of queerplatonic arrangement with another allosexual aromantic person in a similar position. 

I could carry on as I have and see for how long this revolving door method is sustainable, but I’m tired of having to get close to people who will not be staying or being a placeholder until a better alternative appears. I could come to terms with the fact that what I want is unattainable and that it’d be better in the long run for me to get used to filling those needs with toys or vicariously through ethical and worker-owned media, but I can’t imagine either filling the gnawing void. Maybe nothing ever will. Which would track for me.

None of this to say that I don’t receive an overwhelming amount of love and support from my friends, I do, and I’m beyond grateful for it. However, there are things that my platonic friends cannot do for me, one of them being to commiserate with me on this topic. As far as I know, none of my friends are aro, and the few aros that I have met are aro-ace. So while there’s plenty of solidarity and support to be had around being aspec in an allo world, I don’t have anyone to relate to my specific situation.

I’m allowing myself the time and space to mourn the model and vision I had for myself as far as relationships go, even deleting my dating apps and taking myself off the proverbial goblin market while I work through some issues that continue to impact my interpersonal relations.

I hope that with time, I’ll learn to like and appreciate being aroflux for what it is. But until then I’m choosing to give myself grace for once and let the process play out.

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Things That Matter More to Me Than Looks

I won’t pretend that looks are completely unimportant to me in a relationship. There does need to be a level of physical attraction – I need to be physically into my partners and have them be physically into me. But looks only get you so far and they’re so much less important than a great many other things.

I have met people I was physically attracted to, only to have that attraction greatly diminish or completely switch off due to some other trait in the person. At least a couple of crushes have been snuffed out when the hot person turned out to be an asshole.

So here are a few things that are ultimately way more important than looks.

Kindness

When it comes to dating someone or having them as a close person in my life, this is probably the single most important attribute they can possess. If someone isn’t kind, I’m unlikely to want to get close to them.

Even if I’m not immediately physically attracted to someone, kindness is one of the most reliable indicators that attraction could grow.

Things in Common

Obviously, no two people have everything in common. And separate interests and activities can be healthy in a relationship. But if we don’t have enough in common that we can share at least some hobbies and enjoy doing some things together, that’s unlikely to be a good fit for anything more than a very casual fling.

Matching Goals for the Relationship

I’ve been in relationships before where we wanted wildly different things out of it, and this is its own special kind of hell. While some things are open for negotiation, our core hopes and goals for the relationship should match. If one person wants a very serious, entangled relationship and the other wants friendship with casual sex, that’s likely to lead to resentment and frustration on both sides.

Compatible Kinks

Sex is important! If I’m going to have a romantic relationship with someone, chances are that sex and kink are going to be a part of it. That means that compatible kinks matter.

Again, no two people will have 100% crossover. Kinks and preferences are far too unique and nuanced for that. But there needs to be a pretty significant overlap for things to work.

I’m primarily a submissive, so while I enjoy dating switches, dating someone who wanted to bottom a lot of the time wouldn’t work for me. Likewise, dating someone whose main kink is my hard limit is unlikely to end well for either of us.

Similar Politics

Some people believe you can have very different or even opposite politics and still have a relationship. I do not believe that. I need someone whose politics are broadly aligned with mine if we’re going to be partners, lovers, or even close friends.

We don’t need to agree on everything. I think nuanced discussion and learning things from each other can be a wonderful part of a trusting relationship. But realistically, no-one who is right of centre is ever going to be a good match for me. We need to be on the same page about the important stuff.

What matters more to you than looks? Let me know in the comments.

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[Guest Post] How I Accidentally Brought Out the Kink in My Vanilla Partner by Erato Feistein

Today’s guest post is from a new-to-C&K writer, Erato Feistein (she/her.) I love this piece because I’ve always dated other already-kinky people, so a story about introducing kink to a previously-vanilla partner is quite a different story! What I love about this piece is that it didn’t require the relationship to get to crisis point before kink was introduced to “save” it, and no-one cheated or did anything shitty. It’s a lovely example of how communication, honesty, and vulnerability can take a relationship from great to amazing.

I’ll hand you over to Erato. And if you want to write for me, check out the pitch guidelines.

Amy x

How I Accidentally Brought Out the Kink in My Vanilla Partner by Erato Feistein

Whenever I begin exploring sex with a new person, I am always nervous to go all-out with my desires. I wonder if my partner will be able to accept my sexual desires. I be perceived as “freaky” or “sex-crazed”? How do I introduce my kinks to them and will they receive them with an open mind? 

Kink shaming is very real, especially in countries where sex education is not valued. As a child in Eastern Europe, my only conversation about sex included my aunt demonstrating how to properly put on a condom using a desk reading lamp. I had never heard girls or women openly talk about sexual pleasure until I was in my 20s. A friend of mine, left wanting more from her partner, asked me “Will he always be this vanilla? When does it get spicy?” 

It takes a level of trust to confide your sexy secrets to your new partner. Sometimes, your kinks don’t match up with theirs. It can be hard to find romantic partners who share our ideas of great sex. But chances are, your partner(s) are aching to please you. It’s just a matter of open communication. 

When I started dating my current boyfriend a year ago, we didn’t talk about our sex life. I had accepted our conventional coitus and didn’t bring up anything that could be considered a “deviation” from it. He seemed to be enjoying it, so I didn’t want to disappoint him by voicing that I needed more. I didn’t bring it up for a couple of months, until I decided to weave in some kink references into our conversations to see what kind of reaction I would get out of him. 

Almost as a joke, I suggested that we take the BDSM test as an informal reference point for our preferences. While my results were a colourful mix of masochist, rope bunny, experimentalist and switch, his results came out as mostly vanilla. 

As we are in a monogamous relationship, finding sexual pleasure elsewhere was out of the question. So we sat down to have the anticipated conversation about how we can both be sexually satisfied, without overstepping each other’s boundaries. This got us talking about our desires, fantasies, and favorites in sex. To my pleasant surprise, he was really interested in the things that turned me on, even if those included rope play, for example – something he had never tried before. We talked over the things we would never do (hard limits) and set up clear parameters for the things we were willing to try together. 

Honestly, I was not expecting this conversation to go so smoothly and for him to be so open to exploring new things for us to try. So far so good. But was he actually willing to do those things, or was he just fascinated by the variety of kinks and fetishes that exist? Well, let’s just say that the next time we had sex he tied up my wrists and ankles with my satin scarves and even choked me a little bit! The next time, he poured hot candle wax on me. I would say it was significantly less vanilla than our usual sex play. 

I recognized my partner’s efforts to adhere to my sexual desires and that in itself was a huge turn-on. Since he was actively trying to understand my wants and needs, I made sure to check in with him and ask him if it was something enjoyable for him, too. I worried if he was going too far out of his comfort zone to please me without finding pleasure for himself. Many of the things we were trying out were brand new to him. 

When I asked how he felt about the kinks we had incorporated, he told me he was actually surprised how much he liked it! 

In our daily lives, I am certainly the more dominant one – very outspoken and sometimes a bit controlling. As he tends to be more laid-back and reserved in his day-to-day, he said exploring dominance and kink in our sex life has been refreshing for him. It is a space where he can safely delve into another version of himself. Being dominated and degraded tends to have the same effect for me – I can release the need to control the situation and allow myself to be vulnerable under someone else’s authority. In a way, this power shift teaches both of us about the spectrum of our emotions and characters. 

So it turns out, my partner is not so vanilla after all. We just needed some open communication to build that level trust in our relationship to experiment sexually. Our conversations and ventures into kink have opened up a whole new world of ideas in our relationship. We have both found new things that turn us on and work for us. 

While I realize this is certainly not the case for every sexual partnership, educating each other and talking openly about our wants and needs in sex opened up my partner to the world of kink, which has definitely been a positive shift in both our sex life and our relationship. 

About the Author

Author pic for Erato Feistein

Erato Feistein is a freelance writer, photographer and digital marketer in the daytime. At night, she comes alive with the desire to share her erotic tales with the world. While she is new to the field of sex writing, she hopes to share her personal experiences with other open-minded people and, in turn, both teach and learn a thing or two about kink and sex. Outside of her daily digital life, she loves to climb cliffs (preferably with rope), experiment in the kitchen, and go on long, romantic walks on the beach with her dog, Ella.

[Guest Post] 5 Questions to Ask Before You Open Your Marriage by Minda Lane

I’m thrilled to have another new-to-C&K writer for you today! Minda Lane (she/her) is telling us about what she learned when she first explored consensual non monogamy, and 5 questions you should consider asking yourself before you open your marriage. I found Minda’s story profoundly relatable. I hope it resonates with you, too – whether you’re polyam, monogamous, or somewhere in the middle.

5 Questions to Ask Before You Open Your Marriage by Minda Lane

The prospect of opening a monogamous marriage is, for many people, titillating. If you’re like I was, the potential is so thrilling you might not be thinking with your—ahem—brain. 

Before my husband, Jack, and I opened up, I thought about it privately for months. Marriage and family life had begun to feel too predictable. I started to feel desperate for a break from the routine, from the known. I wanted to feel young and vibrant like I once had, before I started storing Kleenexes in my shirtsleeves and worrying about things like health savings accounts and whether my kid was having too much screen time. 

When I brought up opening our marriage, the conversation went better than I hoped. We quickly ordered every related book we could find: Dating in Captivity by Esther Perel, The Ethical Slut by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton, and various others. But the information was too hypothetical. I needed to dip my toe in the pool before I could relate to what I was reading. 

We decided to go for it. Never mind wading in—sexting, playing with others nearby, or a soft swap (where no penetrative sex occurs.) Jack and I did a cannonball, dating independently, with condom use as our only hard and fast requirement. 

I’ll summarize our experience for you: it didn’t go well.    

To save you the trouble we went through, I’ve prepared a list of questions to consider before you try to open your marriage.

Do you still want to be with your partner?

Plenty of people have an affair because they lack the self-awareness, skill, or courage to tell their partner that they want out of the relationship. There are also plenty of people that seek to have an open relationship for the same reasons. 

You might think you’re sparing their feelings by avoiding the truth, or maybe you want to open your marriage to preserve your options because you’re not sure. Whatever your motives, it’s best to be forthcoming. Tell your partner how you’re feeling. Set them free. You’ll save time, spare yourselves a lot of drama, and maybe even preserve your friendship.

Are you and your partner mutually interested in opening?

It’s not uncommon for couples to disagree about opening up, or about the what’s “allowed” under their new agreements. Perhaps one partner wants to be able to have sex with other people but the other is only comfortable with light flirting or trading photos.

In this instance there are four potential outcomes, and two of them will be determined by the partner that wants more: they can either give up on their desire, or cheat. Or you can break up.

The only way forward together is to continue to talk and work at it. Reading and discussing the material or working with a therapist who is experienced with consensually nonmonogamous relationships are useful ways to ensure the conversation stays positive and productive. If there isn’t full agreement around the new arrangement, trying to open your marriage is going to cause a lot more problems than it can fix.

Have you done your own personal work? 

I had no idea until I started dating again that I had an insecure anxious attachment style, which I learned about in the book Attached, by Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S. F. Heller, M.A. Insecure anxious attachment is characterized by preoccupation with a love interest, insecurity, need for reassurance, and sometimes consuming worry.

You can imagine the problems that ensue from this dynamic, which I repeated over and over until I finally figured it out. If I’d had this awareness earlier, not to mention processing early childhood trauma to a greater extent, I would have saved myself and Jack a lot of heartache. 

Do you and your partner communicate well?

I always thought Jack and I had great communication. I talked a lot and he listened. What I didn’t realize is that he had a more passive style. His cues were more subtle. Instead of telling me outright something hurt his feelings, he showed it in a facial expression, or by withdrawing.

The first time I hit it off with a lover, I didn’t want to acknowledge that I sensed Jack was struggling with it, because it would have meant slowing down, and I didn’t want to spoil my fun. He did his best to endure the hard feelings and give me space, but it was costly to us both. We couldn’t address the issues that remained unnamed.  

What I know now is: unless you are willing to tell the compassionate truth and give grace to your partner as they share their desires and experience, it will be very difficult to proceed with the kind of transparency needed to prevent issues from cropping up later. 

Practice saying the hard truths before you open your marriage for real (I want you to touch me this way, sometimes I fantasize about so and so, I am afraid that…) and make space for one another’s experience. Consensual nonmonogamy has great potential to nourish your primary or anchor relationship and learning to communicate with more empathy and clarity is one way it can do that. 

Are you in it for the long haul?

Relationships, like people, change over time. New lovers or partners will likely come and go, and when they do, it can cause ripples in the original partnership. But it would be a mistake to reorient your existing relationship for an affair that may fizzle inside of three months. I learned this the hard way—Jack and I had considerable struggles over a connection I shared with a lover. When that relationship ended I was left with a sinking feeling of “what for?”

Ideally, when the inevitable waves of New Relationship Energy, fear, and envy come, you can ride the waves together, knowing that difficult emotions can exist without requiring action. Jealousy, frustration, sadness, grief… consensual nonmonogamy is likely to trigger a host of feelings between you. In those times you have to lean into the love, tenderness, humor, passion, and friendship that drew you together in the first place. Honor one another, be true to yourself, and remember that lust is fickle, but love is enduring.

About the author

Minda Lane is a freelance writer based in Seattle who has recently completed a memoir relating her experience of nonmonogamy. Follow her on Instagram @monogamishbook or @mynameisminda.

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Reflections on Four Years

Yesterday (11/11/20) was the fourth anniversary of my relationship with my secondary partner, The Artist. This year has not been easy – we only live an hour from each other, and at the time of writing we haven’t seen each other in a little over 9 months. (For context, in non-pandemic times our average was once to twice a month.)

In honour of them and all they’ve given me in our time together, I thought I’d share a few reflections on our relationship.

It’s possible to have a secondary relationship that is truly, deeply joyful

Years ago, I wrote a defence of hierarchical polyamory and how people need to lay off judging it as Always And Absolutely Unethical. I said at the time that I was happy being The Artist’s secondary partner, and I stand by that now.

We have no desire to be each others’ primary partner. We each have our person that we live with and have entangled our lives with, and we love them very much. What we have with each other is different.

When people decry secondary relationships, it’s usually because they’ve been in one where they got burned. And I’m sorry for that, because I’ve been there. But this relationship has affirmed what I’ve always believed: that it’s possible to have a secondary relationship that is loving, nourishing, and joyful.

Because secondary doesn’t mean “just sex” or “less important” or “I don’t really care about you.” In the last four years, The Artist and I have had some amazing experiences together and shared mutual care and support in crises. We’ve held each other up and we’ve had each other’s backs. It might be secondary, but it still matters. A lot.

Taking it slow works out well sometimes

There’s been a post sitting in my drafts for over 2 years that I might publish eventually that explores this point in more detail. The working title is Fucking is Easy, Loving is Harder.

Because it took me a long-ass time to fully open up in this relationship. I got very adept at slamming a lid on my real feelings, keeping my emotions in check, because I was still convinced there was a catch. That I liked them more than they liked me, that they’d get bored with me, that I’d fuck it up. Saying I love you took me just shy of two years.

Because love is high stakes. The highest. Letting someone in is fucking hard when you’ve been hurt multiple times, especially when you’re an abuse survivor. By taking it slowly, my brain had time to catch up to my heart. And the trust we built was real, not based on impulsivity or rushing headfirst into something without thinking it through.

We can get through a lot

As I mentioned at the start of this post, we haven’t seen each other since February (it’s now November.) We currently have no idea when we’ll be able to see each other again. The UK is back in lockdown, and COVID-19 cases are still soaring. At this point, I’m expecting the total length of our separation time to stretch to a full year or more. If it doesn’t, I’ll consider that a pleasant surprise.

Is it easy? Fuck no. Does it suck? Yes. A lot. But have we got through it so far and do I believe we’ll keep getting through it? Yes and yes.

It’s not all been hot sexting and mushy online dates, either (though there has been some of that.) Some days, it’s been nothing more than an “everything sucks, but I love you” message. Of course there have been moments I’ve wondered if our relationship could survive this, if the long separation will result in them deciding they don’t need me any more, if one of us will just get too fucking depressed to keep this thing going.

But overall? I feel like if we can survive nine months to a year of lockdown, we can survive a lot of things.

I love them super-much

Basically, I think that’s what I’m trying to say, here. This is a fucking weird love-letter, but it’s a fucking weird year, so this is what I have right now.

I love you, sweetheart. Here’s to the next four.

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Pancakes

I love making people pancakes the morning after a night of filthy sex.

I don’t know quite when this tradition or this association started, but it’s now firmly entrenched in my mind that an overnight date should ideally end with a lazy, late-morning pancake breakfast.

Food is one of my love languages. I love the ritual of making a loved one a cake for their birthday (or, let’s be real, any other special occasion.) Adding flour and eggs and chocolate chips and infusing the whole thing with love. I love dashing around the kitchen whipping up a feast for a group of friends. God, I miss dinner parties. Years ago, I taught myself how to cook vegan (I wasn’t yet even vegetarian at the time) because a dear friend adopted strict veganism overnight and it seemed like a good way to show support.

And I love making pancakes the morning after the night before. Whether we’re grinning at each other across the kitchen table with filthy, hot memories still fresh in our minds, or balancing trays on our laps and trying not to spill syrup on the bed, there’s something delightfully intimate about eating breakfast together.

If I’ve let you stay over (or I’ve stayed over with you,) it means I trust you to see me at my most imperfect. It’s one thing to get dolled up and go out to a restaurant and then go home and fuck and slip out before we fall asleep. It’s another entirely to let you see me with bed hair, morning face, pre-coffee blearly eyes.

A lot of my sex is pretty casual, but I still care deeply about everyone I get naked with. Whether we’re long-term partners or friends who also fuck occasionally, I want you to know how loved and valued you are. Making breakfast is my little way of saying “I want to do all kinds of hot and dirty things with you. But I also want to hang out in our pyjamas and eat pancakes with you.”

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You Can Be Both Abused and Complicit in Abuse: A True Story

“Just living is not enough,” said the butterfly, “one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”
– Hans Christian Anderson

TW: this post is about abuse

One late afternoon in spring of 2015, I went to meet my then-metamour in a coffee shop. Talking to her was a last resort in a tangled, confusing mess of a situation that I couldn’t find my way out of. Our shared partner had become increasingly unstable, volatile, and verbally and emotionally violent towards me, and I had simply no idea what to do.

She called me her sister, and in some ways we were closer than close. We shared not just a partner but a coven, a plan for our little polycule’s future, and sometimes even a bed.

In other ways, though, there was always a wall between us that we could not scale. That wall was made of a lot of things. Of the fact that we both knew that, if push came to shove, he would choose her. I simply did not compare, as I was told frequently. Of the fact that I was a kind of human shield to her, someone who took the worst of his heat and terrifying temper away from her. Of the fact that I was afraid of her, because I knew she too could yell me into submission if I did anything she didn’t like.

Still, I turned to her because I thought she might be the one person who could get through to him. I’d seen how, sometimes, she was the only person in the world he’d listen to. So we sat across from each other, at a quiet corner table, and I quietly told her, in as few words as possible, that I’d realised I was in an abusive relationship with her husband.

I’ve never forgotten, and I doubt I ever will, the icy chill that ran through my body when she met my eyes, sipped her coffee, and asked calmly, “am I supposed to be surprised?”

That might have been the moment that I realised I was on my own. She was the final ace I had to play, the one person I thought might actually be able to help me. Instead, she told me that she’d known for years that he was abusive. She’d learned to live within it, she said, so I should too. I should be stronger, be better, be more loving. Remember everything he’d been through, his painful childhood and his fucked up family and all those girls who rejected him.

I didn’t have to be another source of pain for him. I didn’t have to be another brick in his wall of hatred and distrust of the entire world, especially women. Instead, I could help heal him. I could be one of the good ones. All I had to do was be quiet, be good, be better. Swallow my needs and my feelings and just smilingly let him be what he was.

That day, that conversation, was one more little step in my journey towards the inevitable end resolution of I cannot do this any more. Less than a week later, I left. Even as she counselled me to stay, what she inadvertently did was give me another of the series of little pushes I need to leave. Because I realised I had two choices: live within the system he’d built for me, or get out of it. It was never going to change.

No longer satisfied with just surviving day after day, I decided to get out.

Even after I’d left him, she struggled to retain access to me and piled on the pressure for me to stay. “How could you do this to us?” she asked me, even as we held each other and cried in her living room. “How could you choose someone else after all this time?”

What I wanted to say, and didn’t, was that it wasn’t about choosing someone else. It was about choosing sunlight and freedom and flowers over an oppressive cave where I could barely breathe and there were rocks just waiting to fall on my head. I didn’t say any of it. I just told her I was sorry, got out of that house as quickly as possible, and didn’t look back.

What I realise now is that she – my metamour, my friend, my sister – was both complicit and a victim. I do not doubt that he behaved abusively towards her, probably for most of their two plus decades together. I also see now that she behaved abusively towards me. She directly enabled him, counselled me with variations of if you could just be better he wouldn’t hurt you countless times, and did her fair share of yelling and threatening and intimidating me herself.

In the classic, endless, fucked up circle, the abused became the abuser. There’s a part of me that left because I didn’t want to end up an abuser, too. I do not forgive her, but I also hope that she will get away from him someday. I still feel guilty sometimes because I couldn’t save her. In the end, all I could do was save myself.

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