There is a lot of talk about love at this time of year. It’s a subject this culture really doesn’t understand; many people believe that as long as they love their partner, it’ll be a good relationship. Life is not so simple. Experiencing deep love is a glorious thing–and it’s important to realize that compatibility and the ability to communicate are what make a relationship flow smoothly. The ability to communicate requires both that a person is able to listen and that s/he is able to express her/himself clearly. But we are not generally very good at listening – most of us are much more invested in making ourselves heard, and we have already made our minds up before the person we are supposed to be communicating has even offered their suggestions. Because people so often operate that way, many so-called intimate relationships are more like battlefields than negotiation grounds. If your prime motivation in life is getting everything to turn out the way you have already decided you want it to be, you aren’t going to be interested in listening to anyone else’s opinion except in order to refute it. That’s very limited: listening to others and being open to new ways of doing things, new ways of being and new ways of thinking is a much fuller way of life. Sadly, an awful lot of people, especially men, have an approach to life that is about asserting themselves as the ones who decide what’s what, and they truthfully don’t want to hear what others have to say. They are not interested in a cooperative partnership, they only think about operating in a competitive mode. No relationship can benefit both partners without cooperation; they must both be operating from the basic assumption that they can work things out to mutual benefit, and they have to want the best for each other. What often happens is that they divide their lives up and choose the particular areas where each of them are the boss, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. This is where compatibility comes in—if they can easily settle into an agreement about who gets to be in charge of what, then they are compatible. If they just can’t come to agreements easily, then they are too different to be able to spend time together easily. That isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just the way it is, and you hope you fall in love with someone who is compatible with you.
I have had a few people tell me that their most explosive relationships—the ones where they had dramatic fights with their partners–have also been the ones with the best sex. It’s as though all the energy they raised through arguing found a powerful outlet in the bedroom, or the energy of sexual desire sometimes needed another outlet. That’s an interesting line of thought: perhaps we can learn to channel energy in particular directions, learning to be aware of energy building, and choosing whether we manifest it by fighting or having sex. Making conscious choices like that would require a considerable level of self-awareness, and the ability to contain the energy when necessary, but it would certainly be possible. Any healthy relationship requires the ability to negotiate, which is about self-awareness—being able to state your needs, listen to your partner, and then decide together how you can both get your needs met. Most people never even get as far as recognizing their needs on any deep level, because they are too busy avoiding their feelings, which are what tell them what they need. But we can all learn—if we’re willing.
One of the key things in any healthy relationship is allowing room for either or both partners to change, which is, after all, the one reliable constant in our constantly changing world. That’s where the true meaning of loving someone comes in: when you really love someone, you always want the best for that person, to the point that you are willing to encourage them to do what is right for them: even if it means they move on into a new phase of life that doesn’t involve spending time with you. That kind of generosity may seem beyond the bounds of possibility for some of you, yet very often, the only reason we are so attached to making a relationship last a long time is because we have it tied up with a notion of security, and if we had the self-confidence and trust that enabled us to believe we can have very rewarding lives without a permanent partner, we might much more easily be able to let things unfold the way they need to.
The old mode of the monogamous relationship that lasts a lifetime still works for some people, but many of us are finding it outmoded. We want to experiment with life, trying many different flavors. No one has any business judging anyone for that. If your choice of lifestyle involves having multiple partners, I say do what you need to do – just be considerate of others and practice safe sex. There are still social taboos against anything outside the standard model of marriage, even when that clearly hasn’t been working. So we don’t talk about these things a whole lot, and definitions are vague. Monogamy refers to having one partner at any one time. Serial monogamy is having one partner, breaking up, getting together with another partner, and repeating that cycle ad infinitum. Polygamy is usually used to describe men who have several wives. Non-monogamy is a much broader term that also refers to having more than one partner at one time; most people who fit that description would call themselves non-monogamous rather than polygamous. Within these terms, there are many different models. Probably the most common is having a primary partner, and then having affairs which are not considered as important as the primary relationship. In some cases, a couple will take a third lover and all three of them are sexual together. Then of course there is partner swapping between two couples, a practice that is probably less common. Any of these relationships can run the gamut from occasional one-night stands to deep longterm commitments. I know of one couple who have been together thirty years, and still are happily married. A few years ago, the woman became lovers with another woman, who has a warm, loving and nonsexual relationship with her partner’s husband. In many cases, though, the primary partner doesn’t want to know anything about her/his lover’s lover. What works for you is what works for you – there are a million different ways of having wonderful, and not so wonderful relationships.
Mikaya Heart is an author and life-coach. For more information, check out www.mikayaheart.org