I’d like to say that my integrity was steadfast and my boundaries always stated, but I can’t.
That strong, boundaried woman who stands up for her values, she’s my ideal. The ideal of a more self-aware me living in a world where boundaries are taught and respected. Not this one, where few have a clue.
Once a gorgeously hairy man once invited me over to his tent for a ‘cuddle’. Maybe he really meant cuddle. But I didn’t know him very well, and I didn’t trust him, so I declined, as I don’t particularly like “cuddling” (or indeed just cuddling) with people I’m not emotionally intimate with… and, in all honesty, also with people I am intimate with. Get over to your side of the bed.
Afterwards he said dismissively to a mutual friend,
Clearly she’s not as open as she says she is.
And by open, he meant easy. I was doubly glad I did not go and “cuddle”. Because, well, fuck him (or rather not).
My primary love language is verbal, not physical. Five hours of intense discourse at either end of the sofa can pass in the blink of an eye before I even take my partner’s hand. I need honest communication and raw connection before I get physical. I need that intimacy, to be able to open. Then, oh then, my nerves sparkle, my pulse explodes and my body quivers. But never – never – before we’ve dug deep into our psyches.
I can imagine that for many whose primary language of love is physical, touch might communicate more than words ever could. But when people learn I’m in an open relationship, they assume my love language is physical. Touch seems to be more acceptable before a word is uttered, because we’re supposedly not bound by monogamous conventions of possession and jealousy. The dating ‘etiquette’ is assumed to be different.
For many people who ‘open up’, be they single, coupled or other, open relationships are unknown territory. As we are so used to being bound by monogamous rules – don’t hit on your friend’s wife, sister, or ex i.e. don’t above all, hit on another man’s property – we forget the golden rule. Respect for personal boundaries.
If a barely introduced acquaintance be they monogamous or polyamorous, greets me with open arms, it is enough to send me running to the bathroom as an excuse to shield me from their sweaty unwelcome embrace.
Theoretically I’ve learned much about boundaries. What they are, which I have and my own responsibility to state them. But knowing them and stating them in a society which rarely respects them if you’re monogamous and blatantly assumes them away for you if you’re not, a society which is created from and reinforces unequal power dynamics, is another matter. Especially when your past attempts at boundary setting have led to the type of traumatic and violent conflict… you would do anything to avoid again.
For me, I know that being in an open relationship does not change the way I like to connect with people. It does not change the way I prefer to court, or be courted. It does however change other people’s assumptions of the way they can approach me. I’ve had it all, from the subtle
‘I thought you had a twinkle in your eye,’ from the guy who’d just found out. To the slightly less subtle,
‘I’d be up for a fuck with you,’ from the guy at the party.
And the occasion where no words at all preceded a bum grope in the workplace the day after a colleague had read my ‘coming out’ blog. He’d assumed it would be okay, ‘because you know, you’re open.’
To be quite honest, many times I’ve not even known the appropriate answer to these approaches, because I’ve been taught not to be rude. Nor have I been able to guess the safest response to these men. I am still peppered with fears from past aggressions, self-destructive flaws and still floundering in a sea of society’s unexamined values. It’s easy to say ‘don’t be a douche’ on paper, but far harder in the real world where unstable egos can explode through wounded feelings, and perceived humiliation. It gets even trickier when alcohol is involved.
If there is one thing those men seem to respect (although, even that, not always), it’s that a woman is the property of another man. The ‘no thanks I’ve got a boyfriend response’ is such a well known rejection that it’s used by women the world over, as a replacement for ‘no thanks, I’m not attracted to you.’ Or even more difficult to justify, ‘I am attracted to you, but I still don’t want to touch you.’ But because I’m in an open relationship, I’m more clearly not the property of anyone, which for many makes my bum – apparently – up for grabs.
So I’ve sometimes hidden the relationship status I’m so proud of, used the excuse, and I’m not ashamed. My survival mechanism kicks in when I need to protect myself because I’m human. I wish I didn’t have to feed the value system I’m trying so hard to challenge. But still, I can’t always be the person I want to be because the mould the world provides me with is sometimes too difficult and scary to break.