I often feel like people who live fairly normative romantic lives place their social relationships into discrete categories: George is my friend, Sally is my wife, Fred is my brother, etc. I believe that people in non-standard romantic situations, be they open, swingers, poly, or other – and the people who spend lots of time around us – use more of a spectrum of affection to describe relationships.
For instance, which standard relationship box would a swinger use to contain a frequent sexual partner, with whom s/he has developed affection, but with whom s/he is not in love? What box does my husband's girlfriend who lives with us, and shares my bed, but with whom I have no romantic or sexual connection, fall into? What about her boyfriend? They all fall into grey areas that are not exactly friend, or relative, or lover. I imagine a graph with axes for affection, sex, romance, and family. The people in my life are little points positioned amid the axes.
This spectrum is something I always took for granted, until recently I started trying to place a particular person on this spectrum, and he gave me some trouble. It is pretty unsurprising that I don't think about my system of categorizing until I find something I can't quite find a place for.
So I told you all of that to tell you about this person, because our relationship has had a fascinating progression. He started out as a regular customer at my job, and being the unknown attractive guy who I saw two or three days a week, I developed a crush pretty quickly. As we got to know each other, I found out that he is married and monogamous, and they fall very firmly into the mono category; there is no “ish” about their monogamy. So the crush got set aside, but we've become good friends. We have spent a lot of time talking about our differing relationship styles, and he's become my best sounding board for my questions about monogamy.
Sounds straightforward thus far, but we're not done yet.
Come to find out, as I got into my current triad situation, that this person has been friends with my boyfriend for over a decade and helped raise his kids. If I'm feeling paranoid about my boyfriend's teenage kids, and if they like me, and oh my god my boyfriend has kids this is so weird what do I do, he's somebody who can help with that. So through that relationship he's been put in a place along my “family” axis as well.
He has also always been a proud an avowed tease. He told me once, “My ex used to say that I was a tease who occasionally put out. I guess that means now I'm just a tease.” He and I share a hair fetish, so we spend a great deal of time playing with each others' hair, sometimes casually and sometimes in a more intense S/M setting. We both get a great deal of satisfaction from this play, and he understands that it is something that turns me on and makes me sexually frustrated. And the thing is, we both love it! Our play is not going to lead anywhere; it can't, shouldn't, and won't. But the flirting and the teasing are gratifying to us both, so we egg each other on. It's also important at this juncture, considering his monogamous situation, that he and I have always been very frank with each other regarding boundaries. We are both aware of where the limits lie, so we have the freedom to torment one another without the risk of taking things too far and causing offense.
So, to sum up, this is a person for whom I feel a great deal of affection and trust, as well as being a part of my extended family of choice. In addition, there is acknowledged sexual tension that we have no intention or desire to act upon, but is mutually enjoyable and encouraged. Romantic connection is non-existent and would be unacceptable if it were present. I am pretty sure there is not a standard relationship label to encompass all that. And, I would argue, the relationships that have those kinds of layers and complexities are the best ones! They let us be more three-dimensional and honest with one another, because every interaction and feeling doesn't have to fit into the boxes we put each other in. And, as I mentioned in my BDSM post, another name for switches (like me!) is “box-jumpers.”