It is the 9th day of March in the year 2015 and as I write these words, I am deeply in love and lust with my wife, someone with whom I have been in a relationship with for just shy of a decade. I acknowledge this while simultaneously discussing with her a framework by which we might explore our attractions to other people while still being every bit as married.
This is weird and hard and arousing and exciting and fucking terrifying. It also suggests that an essential dichotomy that has underpinned my life (choose a marriage or choose the elusive promise of erotic ‘freedom’) is perhaps not actually valid. It’s also somewhat ridiculous, as I giggled to myself a bit writing about how it’s hard.
We discovered two years ago that, by and large, kissing people didn’t really bother us and we liked it. Or, rather, I discovered this; Wife already knew. As long as we get consent from everyone involved (in addition to really talking about it afterwards) so far, we’ve always been good. That’s enough to rock some marriages to their core I’m sure, but for us, for now, it’s not a big deal. Everything that isn’t kissing (or kissing people with whom there is that *) in addition to the complicated emotional gnarl around affection/desire/connection is one of the ascendant conversational topics in our lives.
My path into my own sexuality has been… complicated. I never had ‘the talk’ or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the talk I got was more akin to something given by the Mom from Carrie. Or maybe my parents thought I had gained all the relevant information I could need or want after they signed the permission slip for the Lutheran 6th grade I attended to teach sex ed; a process comprised of viewing a single vhs cassette focused on fetal development that summed up the entire spectrum of sexual activity as ‘special love times’ between a married couple while showing a picture of man and woman hugging and then spent two more hours insisting that embryos had souls. Middle school me reverse engineered ‘sex’ from dirty jokes and novelty greeting cards.
Through it all I was caught up in the evangelical tradition wherein male sexual desire of (nearly) any kind is inherently disruptive and predatory while female sexual desire is (basically) a myth. There are certain situations wherein a man can legitimately express that desire (generally extremely carefully, within a marriage; and even then she won’t really ‘want’ it) but those situations are the rare ‘good’ exception to a what is otherwise a monstrous impetus. I managed to cut my way out of evangelical Christianity, and while I thought I changed the framework I didn’t essentially challenge it. The lazy, blustering degradation of locker room ‘conquest’ talk (standard male-peer sexual discussion; the cultural miasma that as a man attracted to women I am nothing more than a dick with legs working to bluster, trick, or buy my way into someone’s bed) saddened and horrified me, so I learned not to talk to my people about sex. My growth was stymied further by a full blown case of white knight-itus; my desire to ‘save’ people weaving itself into my attractions and desires.
And with my transactional thinking, and in my fumbled grasping I murdered every moment.
For most of my life I believed that the sex I wanted was bad except in this narrow list of approved situations vs what I now strive to believe-practice that the sex I want is good but that I should be careful and considerate in a bunch of different ways in order to avoid (more or less) hurting myself or others.
I can’t fault myself overmuch for having to work hard for such a long time to root out my weird sexual hangups even as Wife encouraged me that they weren’t necessary.
The great risk of having an epiphany is losing all sympathy for that version of you suffering so much, suffering so earnestly from what is obviously idiocy. The great risk of epiphany is losing sight of how hard-won growth is, how non-apparent wisdom once was.
Wife has mentioned that this is something she’s always wanted for us; whether we had sex or developed eroticism with other people or not was of secondary importance to the freedom to talk, the freedom to share, and to not dismiss and clench and hide merely as a reflex. She asked for all of me, what I liked, what I didn’t like; even the stuff that didn’t involve her because -to her- there is no shame. Rather, it is the desire to hold back and obscure that is shameful. And in that, I have been so shameful for so very long.
Most of the friends we party with who’ve walked down this path (or one similar to it since I don’t actually know what this path is for us) are wary, afraid for us I think. A bunch of them are firmly in the hangover stage; burned from recent experience or loss that was so jarring as to seemingly outweigh whatever good they did have once. We must seem like such fools to them. From their perspective, I assume the subtext of our conversations goes something like this:
Hey, so we were thinking about playing with cherry bombs.
Oh… that’s interesting. Did you know my fingers were blown off from a cherry bomb?
But maybe that’s just my fear, but -regardless- what do I say to that? That I/we are smarter than you? (Because that’s not true.) That I/we/our relationship is better than you/yours? (Also not true.) The default thinking around this is that we are ‘risking’ our marriage, and in truth there are plenty of marriages/long term relationships that don’t survive this sort of… what? Experimentation? Dalliances? Fucking around? Developing loving eroticized relationships with people who are dear to us? Almost all the ready language I have at my disposal suggests -at best- a certain feckless naivete and -at worst- an irrevocable betrayal of what I hold most dear. What is it we’re seeking to gain, and how could it possibly be worth risking the loss or ‘damage’ to the single most important relationship of my life?
Let me break down my thinking about this, examine the assumptions about both the risks and the rewards.
When most people who ‘believe’ in marriage talk about marriage, they seem to me to be asking/discussing how to make a relationship that lasts a lifetime. They’re looking for (or more often, positing) ‘rules to follow’; core principles as raw material for the creation of marriage like some inviolate monastery far removed from the dramas and politics and inherent messiness of the everyday world; far removed from the raw, confusing, frustrating, gut-twisting experience of being a human being. They want to ‘win’ so thoroughly in their marriage today that they automatically ‘win’ for the rest of their lives.
But I don’t think that this sort of ‘winning’ exists.
For me, I’ve found that only the most paltry and withered aspects of my life are static, unchanging. For a marriage to last -or at least the kind of marriage I’m interested in having- it has to be dynamic; has to be something that grows just as Wife and I are growing. And we have to try and do that while still tending to the core of respect, and care, and actually liking one another, actually loving one another; actually wanting to be with one another. Which is to say that while this particular tactic or avenue of growth/exploration might be wrong for us, the instinct to grow and change is (and has always been) a vital piece of our marriage and -I honestly believe- good marriages everywhere.
The difficulty is trying to facilitate growth that brings you closer, that further entwines a better version of you with the better version of your mate. So why do we think that this sort of growth would bring us closer together? For one, talking about it most definitely has. Because we’ve learned things about ourselves and each other that has enriched (and enflamed) a ten year relationship which was already this amazing, lusty, ecstatic ride that me and my best friend were on. Because of what little we’ve seen (and what we’ve thought of) we both like seeing our mate being appreciated, being desired, being loved.
That said, we’re not such fools as to think that that will always be the case, that bad feelings -fear, jealousy, envy, anger, bitterness- won’t erupt suddenly and inconveniently.
Maybe it will be growing pains.
Maybe it will be the signal to stop, game over (or at least time-out called); ripcord pulled.
Maybe it will be time for a lot of crying and blaming and doubting and wallowing in guilt - crawling on hands and knees over the broken glass of what we loved about us. But if something essential is to be broken I vow to keep scrabbling forward, to bleed out Kintsugi gold into the shards until the fixing of us becomes a thing of beauty and awe.
But just because something bad could happen; just because something bad has happened to others, should the spectre of ill-outcomes outweigh the promise of the good– all the great things that have already happened for us and could most definitely happen more/further?
I have generally found that insofar as I let fear infect my loving relationships I dishonor them. And how many of these concerns would be based on fear versus honest care and consideration? It’s not just that I don’t know the answer, it’s that the answer is this mocking trickster liable to dissolve into an intangible cheshire cat smile the moment we think we’ve finally caught it.
When it’s all said and done, I want to know what Wife wants and I want her to experience as much as what she wants without lessening the connection we have. And I know that’s what Wife wants for/with me. And for all the talk and scheming and talk and reading and talk and thinking (and talk); eventually you reach the lessons that can only be learned by doing. Whether we decide to act or not, we want the honesty that cuts to the quick.
To not do this is no true defense, most relationships do not last a lifetime; betrayals and infidelity can be anything - the touching of an ear, confiding, fucking that guy for too long when you were with the group, yearning, inviting your friend to the family cabin, looking, being bored, et al forever and ever anon. I do not mention these things to dismiss concerns, but rather to point out that neither touching nor refraining from touching will -in the end- save you and that which you hold dear. Waking up everyday and practicing your relationships is the best and only path; and even in it there are no guarantees of results. Because every moment of every relationship is a gift, one that can stop at any time.
If I honestly had to choose between marriage-monogamy with Wife and the entire universe of erotic possibility I would choose the former instantly; no further questions. Eight years ago that’s what I thought I was choosing, I thought that’s what our marriage would be, thought that that was the only thing a marriage could be. And that’s a choice I believe I would continue to make for the rest of my life. But increasingly it seems like a choice I don’t have to make; the ‘either/or’ of survival-scarcity is a much shittier model for the world I inhabit than the ‘yes and’ of vulnerable collaboration.
Which doesn’t mean I’m not terrified.
I’m scared of rejection. Both being rejected and (oddly) potentially having to reject others. There is no better shield against such things than an unexamined, ‘off the shelf’ marriage.
I’m scared that people who find out about this will think it means I love or want Wife less, that we do this because of some wastrel flaw in ourselves. That we are, that I am too immoral to properly value what I have and thus I summon dire consequences for our relationship.
I’m scared of hurting my friends; through my inexperience & ignorance, with my negligence, in my clumsiness.
I’m scared of facing deep uncertainty, again; scared of my propensity to obsessively loop through every hypothetical contingency, reaction, and scenario like my life is a chess game I’m desperately preparing to win.
I’m scared of disease, of bringing pathogens into myself and Wife that we won’t be able to get out. Phrases like ‘dental dams’ and ‘barrier protection’ are mildly unsexy although phrases like ‘Human papillomavirus’ ‘Herpes Simplex 1 or 2’ and ‘unintentional pregnancy’ are catastrophically unsexy. It’s possible that, even if we decide the emotional ‘risks’ are not deal breakers we’ll conclude that the physical ones are. That we’ll go no further than we have simply to ensure no untoward fluid gets where it shouldn’t. Which is not to say protection isn’t wonderful, important, and (maybe) fun; just that one of the seldom acknowledged privileges of what my sex has been comprised of is that I’ve never really had to think of these things for the last decade.
This particular issue strikes at Wife deeper, and points to some of the actual differences between our sexuality. While we were discussing the other night, Wife casually mentioned that if I ever had sex with other people we would be forever using condoms between us. To which I responded, quite seriously, that is that’s the case then I will never have sex with anyone else. On the most obvious level, I don’t want anything that we know or even strongly suspect would remove any aspect of our intimacy. But when it comes to these vague notions of extramarital whatevers I think I’m more carnal, more wrapped up the heavy, hot insistence of flesh and hence more likely to consider the prude-brain derived logistic necessities of preventing the warm moist places from meeting. When I think of fun and sexy times with other people, I think of -well- sex; sweaty and sticky, being wrapped in warmth breath and a tangle of sheets; pulling, and pushing, and fucking. Much of my lust is a panting animal clawing its way up my back. When Wife pictures the sexy fun times involving other people she thinks of making out, the tease, and playing with desire; watching and being watched while the shot fades out into soft focus right around the time the clothes start coming off. Much of her lust is a swarm of butterflies getting so close but never quite touching, leaving the skin aching and charged by that last millimeter of negative space.
There are other risks, and other hypothetical protections. Newness for one; exciting, surprising, and potentially addictive. When I think about getting caught up and off guard with newness (both the newness of another and the ways in which this reveals newness in myself) and I think about how to minimize the bad, part of the answer would definitely involve being careful and slow and wary and apply brakes like you would with anything you’re seeing addictive/destructive tendencies towards. But I think a big part of the answer is just to ensure I’m doing my best to design and build my life and my marriage to be as engaging and wonderful and captivating as possible. Because balance is not just about learning how to suppress, but also learning where and how to empower and redirect.
Then there is the entire issue of bad actors. This whole line of thought has been predicated on the concept that any problems that arise will be the result of people actually being well-meaning and respectful (most especially ourselves). But I know our own good intentions are not armor enough against the stupidity, malice, and blithe, reckless disregard of others; most especially people you thought you could trust. Opening yourself up to new connection, new forms of trust always carries with it new vulnerabilities and -when done enough- the inevitability of pain. The only protection, such as it is, is to keep your brain on and to know who you trust more; who you choose without deliberation. And I know that with Wife.
And so we talk as we’ve been talking; the conversation opening in earnest two years ago, put on hiatus throughout Wife’s pregnancy and our transition into being new parents. But the conversation resumes, as this has been bubbling under the surface as Wife tried to find the words and I tried to find the sanity.
Incidents and teases abound, not to act necessarily but certainly to talk:
The truncated triple kiss.
The friends that insisted we were polyamorous as we scoffed.
The acknowledgement of wife’s, and then my bisexuality.
Being propositioned by someone I had no sexual interest in.
Wife very careful asking if she would be the kind of girl I would have dated before I knew Wife, and me running through the thousand million loops trying to discover the trap to this question before answering honestly, haltingly after a ten second delay… yes.
But that’s what I think about all this, which I am prone to offering up to avoid revealing how I feel. I shy away from the feverish emotional disclosure because -in part- I still have a twinge of worry about being the chump; the guy who’s making too big a deal out of things, the guy who loses -inevitably- because he’s the one who cares more.
I’m working to let go of that fear.
So this is how I feel:
Before I had that simplest all of all realizations (‘you’re alright’) I was terrified, trying to hold onto myself with cracking fingernails, sliding down smooth concrete on which I couldn’t find purchase and slipping towards unknown darkness. I would have given almost anything to be able to run away. I kept looping, obsessing; trying to figure out the what and whys, tease out meaning and intention from the barest scrap of interaction because I had to be wrong about what people were showing, this couldn’t possibly be right. The words and actions I was witnessing couldn’t possibly mean that, people couldn’t possibly mean what they said and did. And obviously what I felt about things wasn’t right, the only reason I thought I felt the way I did was because I’m bad and hadn’t yet realized an essential folly. I kept trying to think of or invent some mitigating circumstances for why this was all wrong so I could heroically go back to not dealing with my shit.
Then there was that peal of thunder, that shift; Wife actually wants to know how you feel and what you feel is ok.
And now I feel like someone ripped my skin off and I’m just a shivering heap of raw nerves. Which is to say, I feel everything. I get caught off guard by the tingling, sweaty flush that swells in me and nearly overwhelms my capacity to act; the emotional volatility and ready -nearly senseless- erections that I associate most keenly with being twelve years old.
I feel my lips. I feel the rough-soft stubble on my face. I feel myself (heh).
I’m aware myself differently, the subtle inflections to my stance and posture. I see when people are attracted to me, sometimes try and find out if I can throw them off balance and make them stumble over their tongue with nothing more than looking at them and maybe half-smiling — just so.
I feel like I’m stumbling drunk in an intoxicating fog of eroticism, that I reek of it and everyone can smell it on me. In this I know there is some truth because I’ve most definitely been catching a blushing wife up into it. I see how she looks at me and how she sometimes turns away. I’d been trying for a long time to figure out how to seduce her again all while hiding what was ‘inappropriate’ in me.
I’m running and lifting weights and jacking off a lot; all in an effort to vent out this growing fire that threatens to crack open my middle.
I feel sexy.
I feel lusty.
I feel like a boisterous puppy.
I feel cry-laughy.
I feel fucking adorable; all 6 feet 4 inches, 260 pounds of me.
I love and lust after my wife. I want more than anything to continue building the relationship we started a decade ago every day.
I have attractions to people who are not my wife, who may be attracted to me, and with whom I might well get to explore this mutual attraction, that I might have some kind of relationship with that is not friendship (or at least, not a friendship I’m used to) and not marriage.
All those feelings are ok, and are not mutually exclusive…
Or at least that’s what I felt yesterday.
Today I feel exhausted, wrung out, unsure. I race -again- over the string of thought-action for those little bits of evidence that will show me how I’m bad and wrong and how I’ve fucked up and fucked over the people I care about. And I loathe this weak-kneed bipolarity, work hard to avoid vomiting great gouts of boiling hot crazy all over the people around me while simultaneously acknowledging that the best way to deal with this is to let people in, let people see me and what I’m working on.
Sometimes that guilty side that seeks the false shelter of martyring myself pleads that I’m not doing this, that it’s being done to me. That aspect just wants some well-defined bridge of (in)action to die defending, to keep the thoughts and feelings that confound me locked away. I’ve gotten a lot better at letting that particular brand of idiocy go, of acknowledging that I am doing this; that I am full participant and party to everything done and undone.
I get frustrated dealing with the essential confusion that there is monogamy and there is ‘other’ - the fractal thousand upon thousands of ways you can relate to people. The language is hastily being jury-rigged by linguistic pioneers but the verbiage (let alone the norms, let alone the stories, let alone the working examples) of all these ways you can be don’t really exist in a solid form yet.
A friend once suggested the framework where we only do things at parties, maybe. There’s a lot to recommend making use of safe, altered space to promote feeling secure. But my concern here is this; that doing ‘things’ only in a certain space doesn’t make the ‘things’ safe - it makes the space unsafe. Because maybe you start liking the things especially with that one person, maybe you start fixating on getting out to another event because you want those things with him and her especially again. It’s easy as hell for men (easy as hell for me) to follow ‘rules’ while letting obsession bloom and take over their waking life in complete betrayal of what the rules initially set out to accomplish. So now you’re doing things at parties, but you don’t go to parties because you want to party; you go to parties (and you’re constantly planning, scheming to get to parties) because you want what you can only ‘get’ at parties except you’re there all the time in your mind.
For all I don’t know, I am mistrustful of rules that drift towards giving you license to dissociate from what you want and what you do; or ones that you feel absolve you from dealing with the often overwhelming, often contradictory emotional lives of the people you’ve brought into your life. Because I am what I want, I am what I do, I am what I choose; on any substance, in any zone, with any backdrop, with anyone. Because it’s all me, all the way down. I don’t have to like it, don’t have to act on it, in fact I can be actively working on changing it:
But I have to, have to, have to fucking own it.
I’m conscious of the connotative judo I still have to perform to bend away the thrusts of ‘infidelity’ ‘adultery’ ‘vow-breaker’ into something true and right. I remind myself that to be always faithful might mean it’s more important to be proactively honest and vulnerable and caring with yourself and your mate as opposed to taking refuge in the sallow legalese of what you didn’t do. I remind myself that I shouldn’t try to use the ready-made expectations of what a marriage should be as an excuse to even avoid acknowledging what’s in me.
I feel, and know that this is a wave I’m surfing, and all waves end but this surge can and has smashed men and women, relationships and cities. I think I’m good enough to ride this wave instead of it riding me. But then again that’s what everyone thinks before they get their teeth kicked in right?
I flash the words of wry foreboding to distract from my own inexperience, from my confusion, from all the ways and things I just don’t know.
I have good days and bad days. Perhaps not legitimately bad, but less good; the rubber band snap-back of my emotions assuming a different configuration. I work to avoid the worst days, the ones that persist; either the days where I think whatever I’m feeling I’ll never stop feeling, or the lingering bad days of stagnation, of growing complacent and drifting out of conscious presence due to the lazy tug of habituation. The tools to get through the bad days and the good days are identical -communication, consideration, care, fucking consent!- I strive to practice them always. It’s just I become more aware of their utter necessity on the bad days.
I’m reluctant to claim that I’m in the middle of a ‘sexual awakening’ because ‘sexual awakenings’ are not something that married 31 year old Dads are supposed to have. According to the world at large, we get ‘mid’ or ‘quarter-life crises,’ we get ‘seven year itches;’ we don’t take lovers– we fuck sluts, we get married, we cheat… cycle repeats. And besides ‘sexual awakening’ sounds too beautiful and sensuous a phrase for ‘merely’ accepting that what I want is ok. But isn’t that what all sexual awakenings ever are? Expanding yourself, and accepting; even loving that expanding learning? Isn’t a sexual awakening ever and always ‘merely’ the ability to plug into what it is you really want and be reassured that it’s ok? And this is true regardless of the outcome, whatever you negotiate, however you prioritize the kaleidoscope of ever-changing desires and love and respect and boundaries amidst the moving target of self in relation to the people in your life.
Let’s coalesce and encapsulate this psycho-sexual meander, bring it on home.
When we were planning our wedding, Wife wanted to wear a black dress. The notion was casually dismissed by the clucking elders in our life. And to my shame I didn’t fight for her to be able to do so, didn’t offer my encouragement for what she wanted (and what I would have wanted) and thus lent tacit support to the undertow of propriety taking us where we ‘should’ but didn’t want to go. This might seem like just one seemingly inconsequential detail, why fight for it? But that’s exactly the point. Nobody gets to decide how we relate to one another, what our relationship is and what it means except us. And at our vow renewal (and every day is a vow renewal) I want to be the kind of man who supports his wife wearing whatever color dress she wants, whatever color or kind of clothes we want. And, though this part is infinitely harder, I want to be the kind of man who fights for the same things for myself.
So for now, there is Wife and I. There is sharing with one another, all the ways we want the same things, all the ways we want different things, and learning as we go. There is kissing, and the possibility of more than kissing. There is talk; arousing, dizzying, discouraging, surprising talk. But it’s honest. And if all we get out of these endless mental cycles, these whys and wherefores is just the merest tinge of greater honesty; then I say it’s all worth it.
Because, if nothing else, I want to keep talking. To whatever end, for the rest of my life; I want to keep talking to my wife and the people in my life.
So let’s talk, about what you want and what I want Wife; about what we want. Let’s talk about how we each feel loved and sexy, talk about what scares us and what we’re unsure about.
And let’s never stop talking.