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On Loving The Expanse



I wrote this during the time my partner and I were going through a period of relationship de-escalation; a process that queers the script of a break-up into one of significant relationship change. What can be both beautiful and difficult about queer relating is that there is no road map. This is a joy and a freedom; in refusing the heteronormative scripts we were given on how to relate, how to love, we write our own. We make a language, a world of our own creation to inhabit together – an island of sense in this senseless world.


But sometimes it is dark, scary, isolating – lost in the woods without a map, full in the knowledge that there is nobody to turn to for directions on this untried route. And certainly at times it can be both beautiful and scary at once. I wrote this piece just as I felt the balance tilt from fear into beauty. These words are my realisations about freedom, and the lessons I learned about wholeness along the way.



During a time of huge uncertainty about where our relationship was heading, I heard Rilke's poem about the aim of marriage read out on the radio. Although below I would change all mentions of ‘marriage’ to ‘relationship’, I love what Rilke's words hint at. Despite being ostensibly about marriage, to me his suggestions align beautifully with relationship anarchist (RA) principles.


The monogamy I refer to here is a Western monogamy which has been heavily influenced by Christian values, and in particular the insidious moral weight placed on marriage. The monogamy I criticise is a prescriptive, rather than descriptive, monogamy. Prescriptive monogamy is the hegemonic monogamy that saturates our culture. It draws upon other systems of power – including but not limited to compulsory heterosexuality and male supremacy – and is based on possession and coercion. Of course any relationship, however it is structured, has the potential to be unhealthy or coercive. However, the defining components of prescriptive monogamy include tacit acceptances of ownership, rules and other coercion – elements which are recognised as being either indicative of, or have the potential to descend easily into, abuse. By contrast, descriptive monogamy is consensual, and is actively chosen and negotiated by both or all people in the relationship. This essay does not refer to descriptive monogamy in its critiques of monogamy. As with criticism of all oppressive structures, the criticisms are of the structure of prescriptive, compulsory monogamy rather than its participants.


“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his [sic] solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvellous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

– Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet

a merging of two people is an impossibility

[ONE FLESH]

Our culture romanticises the idea that we can become so close with one another that we act as one person, or one unit. Certainly, the idea of becoming “one flesh” in marriage or sex has long proposed that such a thing is possible, or desirable. But becoming one flesh requires that one or both people become smaller: become half-people. We use language which emphasises this – “my other half” and imagery of “finding a missing piece” or “completing each other”. Whilst I can acknowledge that this is in some ways a lovely idea - and until recently I was certainly seduced by its allure - it comes with a hefty price tag. It requires not being a whole person: it tells us that we need somebody to complete us. That we are not enough.


Historically in heterosexual relationships, the becoming One Flesh requires the woman to forgo freedoms and identity, while leaving the wholeness of identity and freedoms of the man largely intact. In one of the most well known stories from the Bible, Eve is created from one of Adam’s ribs – an origin story which ties Eve symbolically and physically to Adam and demonstrates her secondary and lesser nature to him: she is a fraction of Adam. In Western and European cultures which predominantly hold and follow Christian values, marriage has been the transactional sale of a woman from one man (a father) to another (a husband). In this a woman legally had no separate identity to her husband. Perhaps the most disturbing and pronounced example of this is in the laws on sexual assault: sexual assault to a wife by someone other than a husband was considered an assault on a husband’s property rather than on the woman herself. The laws that made sexual assault to a wife by a husband (marital rape) legal were only overturned in 1991 - painfully recent and relevant for all of us. In language which remains today, women are referred to as “Mrs John Smith”, in which a wife loses not only her maiden name but also her first name: in marriage, she becomes her husband; or a shadow, property or rib thereof. In other words, monogamy has a dark history of disappearing women, as well as their identities and rights. That’s not to say that all marriages will necessarily recapitulate these oppressive traits, of course. However, it is important to acknowledge that when we speak of romantic ideals of “becoming one” or acting as one, it is these ideals too that we romanticise.

guardians of solitude

[THE MORTALITY OF LONELINESS]

For me, the process of RA begins with accepting that we are ultimately alone. This might sound pessimistic, but bear with me – it gets lighter.


During the early days that my (then monogamous) partner and I began to think about non-monogamy, an at-once terrifying and exhilarating idea hit me one day like a slap: I truly am all I have. I am all I’ll ever be able to depend upon. Non-monogamy is often framed by monogamous as a risk - that the freedoms of it are always and forever shadowed by a gambling that your partner(s) will leave you, find somebody else, fall out of love. In those early days of exploring non-monogamy, this idea used to freeze me with fear whenever I thought of it.


But for all monogamy and in particular marriage tries to shield us from it, this risk is also true of monogamy. The fact is that we can be left (romantically) alone at any point. If this thought fills you with existential dread I understand. I remember realising this, knowing that my world was no longer the same. Or rather - my world was just as it always had been, but I looked it in the eye for the first time. Because the fact is that, whether monogamous or not, it is never a certainty that somebody will stay with us. Spouses can still fall out of love with us; want to end the relationship; die. In fact, because in non-monogamous structures a person falling in love or desiring with somebody else does not necessitate an end to the relationship, monogamy can make us more vulnerable to relationship endings. In many ways its limitations on making connections outside of the relationship make us far more vulnerable to loneliness - but that’s for another essay.


In a way, I’ve found the process of making peace with our alone-ness akin to accepting our mortality - the latter being something which, in all honesty, I am much further back in the journey with. With both, accepting an initially fundamentally terrifying idea can, with time and work, bring peace, freedom from fear and an ability to be more present with joy.


Under capitalism and many other oppressive structures, there’s no denying that self-love and self-connection is a long-term project, and nothing in this essay aims to suggest that any of these journeys are easy. In fact, that can bear being written again: be under no illusion that these things I write about came quickly or easily. In my case, what I write about here is the culmination of over two year’s work on the substantial insecurities, intense jealousy, fear, and uncertainty that were unearthed by moving away from monogamy. Breaking out of the comforting walls of monogamy is scary, and hard work. I still struggle with most of these things now from time-to-time but even in the darkest times with jealousy and fear of loss, I never wished I had chosen differently.


The exhilaration comes in the form of the beautiful self-trust and relationship with self which comes out of realising: I am enough! Acknowledging that the longest and most important relationship we have is with ourselves opens up possibilities for the amount of energy, time and love we can be putting into that self-relationship. Choosing to be alone, even. Our culture in so many ways suggests that being alone in any capacity is shameful or synonymous with being lonely. There is a particular shame given over to the idea of being “single”, a space which is being reclaimed with joy, choice and power by feminist movements. If we can crack the joy of being single, of being alone, of spending time with ourselves we really are laughing - we spend a lifetime in our own heads. This could involve realising the activities we perhaps enjoy even more alone than we do with others; exploring emotional inner worlds; evenings surrounding ourselves with the music, books, art that only we could curate for ourselves. Feminist writers and activists such as Chidera Eggerue in her book What A Time To Be Alone are reminding us that being single is not a bad thing - it is a gift of space to explore how wonderful we each are, and the ways that we can love ourselves.


And I would add to this - aren’t we all single, always?


Having a foundation of a nourishing and joyful relationship with ourselves makes way for the same when we relate to others – and makes it more likely that we will be doing so out of freedom and joy rather than being driven by fear or necessity.

loving the expanse

[DISTANCES, DIFFERENCES, BOUNDARIES]

“Loving the expanse” can look like many things. It accepts that even in a close partnership, we are different people. That we won’t connect on every single aspect. That you can’t meet all of my needs and I can’t meet all of yours. That, though I love to meet you where I can, getting your needs met are your responsibility not mine. Loving the expanse can be acknowledging the distance that is between you – acknowledging that mortality-aloneness. That not-one-flesh-ness. It can look like acknowledging the ways in which you are different, the ways you like to spend your time differently or have different values. It’s acknowledging these without the implication that difference means one person is wrong, or that being different is somehow destructive to the relationship. In fact, it cherishes difference.


When we love the distance between each other, we see each other as whole people and not only what we need or desire from people. We can love them for the person they are without needing to own them or demanding access to all parts of them. Each time we connect in the ways that we mutually decide to, and allow distance or space in ways that we do not want to, we cultivate freedom.


Boundary communication, which is foundational to RA but is an important skill for a relationship of any kind, are transformative. When we say no, we give the gift of freedom to ourselves and others: no makes space for a yes, or another no, or a yes in two weeks’ time, or a conversation, or a change, or reciprocated honesty. Further, asserting a boundary such as the amount or type of time that is spent with somebody, the type of physical touch they both want to share, or the myriad other ways that one can decide how to connect with someone, makes the relationship into an intentional space. One which is not based on cultural assumptions telling us how a ‘friend’ or a ‘lover’ or a ‘girlfriend’ or a ‘husband’ acts, but one which two or more people connect and behave in whatever ways feel nourishing, joyful and fulfilling to both or al of them. Perhaps the most beautiful thing that arises from the potentially difficult experience of hearing a ‘no’ in this way is this: when somebody spends time with you or lies next to you in bed, you know without a doubt that they have chosen to be there.


On this point: we cannot persuade somebody to want to spend more time with us, or to share more emotional or physical intimacy with us. Our culture’s heavy-handed - not to mention r*pe-culture-ridden - ‘romantic’ ideals would have us think otherwise. Think of the countless films depicting (usually) a man committedly pursuing a woman who transparently has no interest in him, and the ways that our culture declares this the most romantic gesture possible. But there is nothing romantic about non-consensual contact or coercive relating. If we can alter the way we have been taught to think about romance, we can flip this idea to see it is incredibly romantic to honour the total freedoms and boundaries - the infinite distances - of those we love.


During this process of relationship de-escalation, of learning to love the expanse, I have repeatedly found myself drawn to imagery of a loosening and tightening hand, metaphors of a furling and unfurling flower bud. Despite being polyamorous for two years, this process felt like one of many shakes – I have no doubt there are more left to come – to rid myself of the ways that monogamy dictates how to relate. Allowing more space between us required me loosening the last grips on what used to be a monogamous relationship; I found that the tighter I held to how the relationship used to be, the further my partner furled up. In the loosening, in the freedom, we unfurled to each other in beautiful, vulnerable, honest ways I could never have imagined.


Letting go is not often easy. I think of David Foster Wallace and “everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it”. But I saw that clinging on did not bring us closer, nor did it give me control or security; it just made my partner unfree.

a marvellous living side-by-side

[CONSTELLATIONS]

I love to think about the beautiful connections in my life, whether platonic, romantic or intimate, as a constellation: each valued for the ways they contribute richness, depth and joy. More specifically, I think of them as a smattering of coloured circles – where each of us is a circle, our own colour and entirely separate, each a part of the interdependent support-network of the constellation. I could never hope for mine to overlap entirely with somebody else’s circle: as Rilke says, it is an impossibility. But where we connect and overlap – on things we love to share, do, or inhabit together. Our colours merge and overlap in exquisite ways. Yellow and blue become green. New connections make new colours. Three, four, five overlap and create entire spectrums. Sometimes we overlap significantly, deeply, expansively; sometimes in one or two specific ways. Our self is held aloft by a myriad of connections. Solo, whole, unfurling.

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© 2019 Vita Sleigh