Following last week’s discussion of non-monogamy, Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell continue to explore our connections to ourselves, our partner(s), the Holy in an exploration of the language of relationality.
Sexuality is a form of language, language that brings together body, mind, and spirit. It is embodied language that uses not only our voices to speak or our hands to write but also can use those means and all other parts of our body to communicate.
It is a language of connection, intended in its highest and best use to bring bodies together (this may include genital sexual activity or not, depending on what feels right). That connectedness has divine roots, the eros of God, to bring us together as humans and to bring us into union with the divine. It is the language of relationality.
As such, it is a powerful language, perhaps the most powerful. And, like all language, it can bless and honor and affirm, or it can hurt and harm and abuse.
All close relationships have an erotic component—again, not necessarily to do with genital sexual activity, but rather a foundation of connectivity from the eros of God, the central part of God who desires connection with us and our connection with all others. We are drawn to each other from that foundation.
I want to turn to some thoughts about patterns of relational health and their opposite, relational dis-ease or disorder. Our relationships—including our friendships, even our connections with neighbors, co-workers, fellow congregants—require us to pay great attention to the processing of this divinely inspired erotic language. I will draw some of this from experience with my husband.
- Learn from what went wrong. He and I become very angry with each other at times. Any relationship that avoids all expressions of anger is probably not really alive. Yet, these times can be so very hurtful. We say things that come from inner places of harm, perhaps from childhood demons and injuries. We cannot stop this entirely from happening, but in time, we learn to pull back and re-position ourselves to talk through with less anger what has happened. We can on occasion become stronger through the entire process. And I think we engage in these angry outbursts less than we used to.
- Check out what is going on. Sometimes, such moments are created by perceptions by one or the other of us that we are not receiving sufficient attention from the other, or perhaps even a thought that the other is paying too much attention to someone else, or we are not touching each other enough or the other touched another too much.
- Someone be the adult. It is, of course, vital that the one on the receiving end of the first statement, perhaps said in high-volume anger or even in soft but cutting tones, try not to respond in kind. This is easier said than done. We each know how to maximize the pain of the other in the simplest and most basic ways. That is one of the things intimacy teaches us, and shows us the power of this erotic connective language. Fortunately, it also teaches us how to offer healing.
- Pay attention to all the signals. Thus, relationships, because they are built upon and utilize the power of eros, require that we pay close attention to many dynamics—facial expressions, tone of voice, types and places of touch, listening, smelling, e.g.—both in times of joy and ease and in times of pain and disruption.
In a monogamous relationship, and in relationships with multiple sexual partners or other significant relationships, these dynamics can be heightened by so many factors of ordinary life—unhappiness with our work, or an argument with a colleague, bodily pain that won’t go away, disconnection from other family and loved ones, and many other things. Thus, it takes self-awareness to avoid letting a build-up of unhappiness lead to tensions that can create an explosion.
There is one more area I want to briefly explore. We all carry sexual memories which can have an impact on our sexual relationships today.
- Use the entire vocabulary. I remember some incidents from my post-coming out, single days—when I sought sex with men as a way of self-discovery and affirmation—that carry some vestige of pain to this day. In one incident, I was told that I should give up on being gay because my penis was too small. More than my organ was badly deflated. In another incident, a man I had taken to bed told me, after a few minutes, that he could not continue. “I feel nothing,” he said. Of course, I felt a lot after that.
I admit to still feeling the sting of these moments, even if only in a memory bank that I don’t visit very often. But what both of them did was let their penises do their thinking. And, of course, I was letting my penis do a lot of my thinking, too. I can look back and see signs that neither of these men would be a good fit for me. But I was so eager and sexually hungry and they were very handsome and seemingly available. Why should I not give it a try?
This is not, in my view, holistic erotic relationality. And it is using one part of the body to speak for the whole body, denying the possibility of deep connection.
I say this not to deny or demean the urgency and power of sexual desire, nor to judge myself or even them for insensitivity or hunger, but rather to say that it is important to use the whole vocabulary of this embodied erotic language to experience, and to give, to participate in, real and whole relationality, body, mind, and spirit.
We are made for connection. But it takes effort and attention and self-education and growth, and being fully present as much of the time as possible.
Thinking about the language of relationality reminds me of my upbringing. Growing up in
a lesbian household has had some incredible benefits (as well as complications) in my development as an integrated, sexual adult. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons I learned from my parents was the emphasis on finding a partner that was “good to me and good for me.” I always knew the gender of my partner wouldn’t matter; the focus was on how we treated one another, not the aesthetics of our relationship.
This is a lesson I have carried with me and believe that it strongly applies to the discussion of non-monogamy: what the relationships look like matters less than how the people in the relationships treat one another.
I have heard a lot of people who practice non-monogamy state, “I am my own primary partner.” (a subject I have written about at length here) In essence, this just means that someone has a strong relationship with themselves: they are centered, grounded, self-aware, accountable, etc. But I also see this as an important aspect of monogamy as well: the best of relationships can fail without a strong understanding of self. And for those of us who believe that we are created in the image of God, I would argue that a strong sense of self is a sense of the God, indeed the presence of God, within each of us.
Building a strong sense of “self” can be difficult in a world that inundates us with superficial perspectives without cultivating a sense of accountability for our actions. I have found that these types of self-check-ins are a necessary part of non-monogamy, but I have learned that most of the conversations have more to do with being honest about where we are at, taking accountability for our own emotions and feelings, and working together to figure out how to keep the relationship strong. In that spirit, these are some of the things I have had to check in with myself about on multiple occasions:
- Know yourself. Know what you want and need from a relationship. Know what things are deal-breakers for you. Know what things are red flags. Know what things are preferences. Learning to differentiate between “needs” and “wants” can be vital, particularly in attracting relationships that can be mutually nurturing and beneficial. It’s nearly impossible to get your needs met without first understanding what they are and how to verbalize them.
- Understand how to get your needs met. Determine what things you want and/or need from your partner, what things you want and/or need from friends and other communities, and what things you want and/or need to
provide for yourself. Remember that we are community-oriented beings: having friendships outside of a sexual relationship is important, necessary, and healthy, regardless of whether we are monogamous or non-monogamous.
- Allow time and space to be comfortable with your emotions. Name them and try to understand where they are coming from. Determine the difference between emotions like jealousy and envy. Try to understand your own insecurities and how you can combat them. Find low-stress, loving ways to bring up your emotions and discuss them with your partner(s).Remember that you may not be able to control how you feel, but you can control how you act. For example, I always think of a good friend of mine who has a 72-hour rule in dealing with anger: she waits 72 hours before she brings up something that made her angry. More often than not, she’s forgotten about whatever it was after three days; if not, she has taken some time to reflect and is able to approach the conversation in a much healthier way.
- Understand the intention of agreements. It’s really easy to accidentally break trust with a partner by breaking the intention of an agreement. Understand the purpose of agreements you make. Understand what insecurities you might be struggling with if you’ve asked for a specific agreement. Understand what insecurities your partner might be struggling with. In my opinion (and in my experience), it’s easier to maintain agreements when the intention is well-understood.
While these might be concepts that could be applied to any relationship (family, coworkers, friendships, etc.), it becomes more complicated when we are trying to navigate relationships that have a sexual component. How we connect with and relate to ourselves and our bodies directly impacts how we are able to relate to our partners (and our partner’s bodies).
I know that when I am dealing with some disconnection with my body and myself, it becomes much harder to have a sexual relationship with my partner, which is difficult for them. As people who practice non-monogamy, this can get incredibly complicated: if we are not consistently having sex with one another, it becomes more difficult to navigate the sexual relationships we have with other people. We are more prone to jealousy, sadness, and frustration than usual, and deconstructing those emotions can be time-consuming, painful, and complicated.
It is vital that we find ways to maintain our connectedness with ourselves, which is a lesson we each wish we had learned much younger. Our first relationship is with ourselves and, by extension, our first relationship is with the God within each of us. So whether we are sexually monogamous or non-monogamous, our strength and connectedness with our partner(s) is often a direct extension of our strength and connectedness with ourselves. Perhaps focusing less on aesthetics and more on substance will help us all be more in touch with ourselves, more in tune with God, and more connected with our partner(s).