The Rules of Engagement: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and WTF?!?

Well it’s officially Week 4 in Oxford (yes I’ve started measuring time this way and it’s weird!). And like always I’m scrambling to get work done but of course leaving plenty of time to procrastinate.

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But my constant state of “Imposter Syndrome” is not what I’m focusing on in this entry. Nope, this time it’s all about “The Rules”, or, more specifically, “The Rules of Engagement.” Recently I’ve been discussing a recurring topic in therapy as well as with friends about this abstract concept of “The Rules” that we all seem to operate under when in any type of sexual relationship, be it casual, serious, and everything in-between.

First let me preface this with a bit of general back-story. For those of you who actually read my blog loyally (I love you to pieces but wonder about your sanity haha) will know that I make no secret of my sexual history, proclivities, preferences, beliefs etc. Living openly, despite criticism and negative commentary from some people, is the only way I know how to truly live. And for those who take the time to hate, there are 100 more of you who love me just the way I am, and it makes all the difference <3 <3 <3

infinite love
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Recently I’ve been involved in what some would term an “open relationship”. This person does not know I’m writing this blog so for the sake of privacy I will not mention his/her name. I’ve known this person for several months, and our relationship started as a one-night stand that gradually turned into casual sex and eventually became whatever the hell it is now.

And that statement is exactly the point of what I’m writing: what determines or what are the criteria for designating something as an open relationship, friends with benefits, casual sex, a serious relationship? Who decides these criteria? What are the rules governing each of these relationships? Are they distinct archetypes or are they just fantastical categories we create in order to define something that is inexplicable to ourselves? And, most importantly, how do you move from one category to another?

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Now sometimes I find nuggets of wisdom in my stream of consciousness rants, but I certainly cannot promise that I will provide glowing answers to each of these questions. I’m not sure they really have answers, and if they do, these answers will surely be subjective to whomever is doing the answering. Gotta love post-modernism in real time 😛

The catalyst for me finally writing about these questions, or rather dilemmas that have been burgeoning for awhile, is the grey area in which I currently find myself in my current relationship. There are some who argue that the idea of friends with benefits, which I actually think is a more accurate term for what I’m currently in versus open relationship, cannot exist. That you cannot ever keep sex and feelings totally separate.

And in my current situation I’m starting to agree a bit. But once again this all depends on each individual person, their unique emotional capacity, and what they are/are not comfortable with.

I do believe that having sustained casual sex with someone is possible. You have a respect for them as a person. You enjoy sex with them from time to time. But that is it. What makes friends with benefits unrealistic or unsustainable, I’m realizing, is the “friends”. The minute you start to get to know the person with whom you’re having casual sex removed from a sexual context, it’s game over.

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A key factor upon which the idea of friends with benefits hinges is an implied emotional detachment. But when you’re or I am friends with someone, that automatically constitutes a certain level of emotional involvement. I care about my friends. I love my friends. I’d do anything for my friends if they needed me, and I know they’d do the same.

Aristotle believed that friendship is one of the highest forms of love, “a single soul dwelling in two bodies”. And while Aristotle articulated several different types of friendship, one of which could be termed a classical precursor to friends with benefits, for the most part if they involve sex, emotion is implied.

So if we are to believe Aristotle here, friends with benefits is an oxymoron. A logistical impossibility for the simple fact of trying to impose logic on human relationships. It just doesn’t work.

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Which brings me back to this idea of “The Rules”. Lately I feel like I’m operating under a set of guidelines that are simultaneously very specific and extremely vague. I have no idea what the rules are, who made them up, and just when I feel like I do, someone changes them, and I’m back where I started. And let’s not lie: I’ve always fancied myself as living without rules or by my own, but I’ve kind of caught myself doing the opposite lately.

And it feels like everyone is doing the same thing. We all pretend like we have it down. We act nonchalant, never acting like we catch feelings (“catch” like it’s some kind of disease), because as young 20-something millenials our defining characteristic is supposed to be not giving a shit. We have evolved past convention, past monogamy, past the antiquated idea of committed relationships, and to indulge in any of the above is to be seen as backward and constitutes a loss of freedom.

But are the two mutually exclusive: freedom and relationships?

And whatever the rules are I know I’m breaking them right now because I’m talking about them. The moment you acknowledge the existence of these rules and how arbitrary they are, that’s it, you’ve lost. No more playing, you’re out of the inner circle, please pick your emotions up at the door, you’re banned for life.

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And I’m not knocking living this way; if that’s truly what fulfills you and makes you happy, go for it and do you. But for a lot of us, I think we’re just fooling ourselves in thinking that casting off these old restrictions doesn’t mean we haven’t imposed new ones on ourselves. We’ve just exchanged one set of complications for another. The complications of thinking we have to care about someone in a very narrow, circumscribed way to the complications of not caring at all.

Let me be clear about something: everyone I’ve ever had sex with I’ve cared about on some level. Even if it’s just for one night, I do care. Even if they treat me like they don’t care, I still can’t help but care. I don’t fall in love with everyone certainly, but as a human being connecting to another, if only for a second, there is a respect there.

And this makes me a freak according to this set of rules. I used to think I needed to keep these feelings under wraps, I was ashamed of them, and I lived a very closed off life. And I suffered. I suffered so much. This is why I live the way I do now. Fuck what the world thinks! Sure being open definitely makes you incredibly vulnerable to being hurt by others, but in comparing the two lifestyles, this one is much more worth the risk.

However, I’d be a hypocrite if I said it was easy to practice this mindset on a daily basis. It’s easy to say fuck what the world thinks because you’re not in a relationship with the world on a day to day basis. Saying fuck what the other person thinks is much much harder. If you care about them, you automatically care what they think; or more specifically what they think about you.

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Hence my current situation. It started out casually enough, just sex (great sex), but then it began to evolve into something more. We started having actual conversations. We started realizing we had a lot in common. We started realizing we liked being around each other outside of a purely sexual context. We started laughing at the same stupid shit. We started watching the same shows, the same movies together. We started having fun just doing nothing together.

Even the way we have sex has changed. While we are both sexually open and exploring what we like is very much a part of what we do, it has become more intimate. It’s not just mindless fucking anymore.

But as much as the above is true, how guarded we both are is doubly true. As quickly as a hand is held, it is retracted. As soon as they kiss my neck, my back, they retreat. As soon I kiss theirs, I draw back. And when we sleep together, just sleep, if there is any contact, it is soon withdrawn. It’s amazing how you can feel so far away from someone when you are literally an inch apart.

And why do we do this? How is it possible that we can feel so comfortable naked together but holding hands fully clothed just seems like too high a price to pay?

Personal damage? Definitely. We all have a past, we all have baggage, we all have that one person whom we trusted and then betrayed us so spectacularly that to trust again seems impossible. This is just a fact of modern day life. But baggage is an essential part of what makes someone interesting, what makes them beautiful. And trust me at this point, it looks like I’m packed for a six month trip around Europe!

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But that’s not it. I believe, and I could certainly be wrong, that these so-called “Rules” are holding us back without us even knowing it. It’s almost like we’re waiting it out, seeing who will blink first, and finally let on that they feel something more than just the cool, mature sprezzatura, this intelligent, sarcastic, ironic detachment we have all pretended to master so well.

And I hate it. I absolutely 100% cannot stand it. And yet I engage in it. I play this sick game. Why? Because I’m terrified. I’m terrified of rocking the boat with what I have now with this person in the hopes of becoming something more. Would I rather have them in some slightly satisfying way than risk not having them at all? I don’t know.

So far I’m playing it safe, but I don’t know how much longer this can be sustained. I’m so tired of agonizing over each text, each message, making sure it’s not too long but long enough to show a certain amount of interest without being excessive. Making sure the words are coy enough to warrant a response but not too sentimental. Waiting a certain amount of time before responding so it doesn’t look like I’m too available or more into the conversation than they are.

And while I’m painfully aware of just how stupid all this is, I can’t help myself. “The Rules” got me!

So I find myself secretly clinging to stolen moments, the little things, silly stuff: the awkwardness when they can’t undo my bra and we burst out laughing, the way it feels when they come up behind me and put their arms around my waist, the feeling when I run my fingers through their hair. I could live on that stuff forever.

Honestly I wish I could shut my head up and enjoy. But as an academic, over-thinking shit is kind of what we do and unfortunately that often bleeds over into our relationships. Introspection isn’t a bad thing, but you can definitely go overboard!

So what is to be done? Seriously, I’m asking, if anyone knows ffs please email me! I know what I want to do. I want to say to this person all the things I’m thinking, ask them all the questions I have, and hope beyond hope they give me the answers I’m looking for. I want them to tell me they’ve been doing the same thing I have for fear of rejection or rocking the boat. I want to find out that our insanities are a match.

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But that takes balls that I’m currently lacking. In a sense, I’ve been castrated by “The Rules”. It’s not that I’m afraid to have my heart broken; that mends. I’m afraid of finding out that everything I’ve been experiencing, I’ve been experiencing alone and hasn’t been reciprocated by this other person. I’m afraid I’ve had feelings for something that may not really exist.

I don’t know. And that’s the problem. My very nature demands knowing. But I do know that soon, I will blink, and I can only hope that when I open my eyes, this person is still there.

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So to close out yet another rant (seriously why do you people read this?!?) I leave you with a quote from one of the greatest poets of our time Andrea Gibson and the song  “Love Somebody” by the amazing Robyn Sherwell. Both have perfectly encapsulated the dilemma which I and so many of you are trying to reconcile.

INFINITE LOVE!!! <3 <3 <3

“When we all know everyone’s life has been hard enough already, it’s hard to watch the game we make of love. Like everyone’s playing checkers with their scars, saying checkmate whenever they get out without a broken heart. Just to be clear, I don’t want to get out without a broken heart. I intend to leave this life so shattered there’s gonna have to be a thousand separate heavens for all of my flying parts.” –Andrea Gibson