Paradoxes of Pleasure: The Big D
The Paradoxes of Pleasure series is one part origin store, one part personal reflection, and many parts "wow, wtf!" This is part two in the series: read the introduction here.
My partner and I constantly talk about differentiation. Are we doing it? Are we failing at it? Are we just the same person living in two bodies? What will our therapists think? Are we Doing Therapy right?? Where the fuck are our therapy gold stars?
I think we may struggle at differentiation.
Part of our confusion comes from the simple fact that we’ve struggled to define it. How can we know we’re doing it, or anything, well if we don’t really understand what it is?
After a little internet sleuthing, I found that most resonate with this definition from Assael Romanelli Ph.D. on Psychology Today - “learning how to be autonomous while maintaining intimacy.”
Ugh. Really? I have to be autonomous? I have to be a full-fledged individual person? I had hoped love would solve me, you know? Answer all my deep, chasmal needs. And of course I wouldn’t have to do anything, I could just receive the love, and feel better. Feel whole. I would be fine, finally.
But no such luck. It turns out, intimacy, love, and desire require me to maintain a me that is separate from my romantic relationship, and separate from my partner. What the fuck.
I have deeply disliked stepping away from my partner to establish myself as my own self. We have been lucky to have a strong bond that held us tightly for many years (and still does), but we hit a roadblock about five years into our relationship. We were still happy and in love, but something was off with me. I felt a new ambivalence that I did not like or want. My desire became less reliable, and more amorphous. My relied-upon routes to my own desire, and desiring sex, weren’t quite working anymore.
But after a few months in this strange internal fog, I caught a spark. I had been listening to Dan Savage’s Savage Love podcast, and multiple times he had commented that people who were not friends with their exes were somehow untrustworthy, and not good partner material. This stuck in my brain, doubly so when another friend told me about keeping in touch with one of their exes. I wanted to be trustworthy. I wanted to be an excellent partner, a worthy partner. So I, very naively, reached out to an old flame and said we should get coffee when I was in his city next. Maybe we could be friends? Maybe this would heal some of the old hurt I still carried from when I first knew him?
Right off the bat his response was flirtatious, and found it surprising, somehow. And I enjoyed it; I was immediately more curious about what our in person chat would hold.
A few weeks later I was in his city, and we met. Instantly the old, dangerous, combustible chemistry was there between us. It’s the sort of chemistry that lights up your nervous system with fireworks and jet fuel; calamitous, confusing. Oh so big. We talked, and walked, and eyed each other. What was the other one thinking? What was happening? I couldn’t tell, I couldn’t sort it. Did he grab my ass as we parted ways? Was he really flirting, or was I making it up in my mind?
After laying awake in my hotel room alone that night, still awake after many miles of walking and two glasses of wine, I knew. My desire was ignited again.
I went home the next day, and misunderstanding some cues from my partner from over the last few weeks, I told him I wanted to sleep with my old flame. Another calamitous moment. And more and more; pain, confusion, crying, anger. I had misunderstood my partner, and I felt like I had brought pain and rupture to us.
But. BUT. I also felt certain I needed to sleep with this other person. Even with the discomfort now lingering between myself and my beloved partner, the crying, our long talks, the moments of distrust from my partner. Somehow I could feel my own individual need outweighing my desire to please my partner.
We talked for months, my partner and I. I sought out a sex therapist for what I was sure was only about three months of support (still going strong after 5 years . . .). My partner and I suffered the agony of a new stage of our relationship, a breaking apart of two people that had been fervently enmeshed. How could I want to sleep with someone else? What did it mean for me to want this? What and who was it a reflection of? Was it even a reflection of anything? How could I trust this urge to be real and worth the pain I was causing?
But we kept talking, and working through one uncomfortable question after another. We worked to regain trust, and establish rules and boundaries. It was DIFFICULT. And exhausting. I hid my wet and red eyes at work, and stared out of cafes after therapy, unsure of what to do. But we kept going. And we kept going deeper, in ourselves and our relationships. And as we did, we carved out a new space in our relationship. We came to know each other better. We came to understand that we had plateaued in our relationship, and we were now somewhere different. We were seeing benefits in our relationship; we were sharing more, and sharing more honestly. It was so unexpected and hard earned, but wildly, we were becoming better because of me being honest with myself and my partner.
And, about six months later, I went to see my old flame. Back to his city, back to the cafe, back to eyeing each other across the table - who will make the first move? We walked to the fancy hotel I had booked (my desire, my money, my choice of hotel, I thought . . .), and we had sex. He was everything I had remembered. Sexy, intense, hot as hell. But. Ahhh, the but. He was also still the same person he’d been over a decade ago. Withdrawn, manipulative, there for himself but not for me. Not in any real way. I felt like I could’ve been anybody, any body, in that instant. And the disappointment flooded in. FLOODED in.
He left rather promptly afterward. I was now alone in the hotel room. I had a solo dinner on the bed, and a long stare out the window to gaze on one of my favorite cities. A city I usually feel like myself in. Yet again, I couldn’t sleep.
I left to go home the very next day. A miserable drive home, filled with traffic and soggy skies, which brought me back home to a miserable reunion with my partner. The pallor of rupture was present when I got there. He was uncomfortable and distrusting. He wanted to be close to me, and to keep me at more than arm's length. Where were we now? How did we navigate from here?
But still, my partner and I kept talking with one another. And slowly, after days, weeks, months, we recovered. Though where we ended up a few months later was so different than where we had started this conversation. My god, the depth of understanding we had come to about each other. Our pasts, our internal stories about ourselves and each other. The pain we carried that was difficult to speak to before came to the surface. Everything was on the table.
We became different people within our relationship as a result of this entire experience. There was more honesty, a greater depth of connection. More vulnerability. A greater ability for each of us to state our own needs, though we still both struggle with this, five years later.
I have had only one other sexual experience outside our relationship since, and that was equally transformative. It is partly how I came to Vermont, and fell in love with Burlington to the extent of wanting to move here and start a business here. But that experience also didn’t provide me with the sense of desirability I was searching for by becoming non-monogamous with my partner.
In the years since, I’ve come to understand that period of time in such a different way. I had thought non monogamy would be a way for me to establish a route to individuation from my partner. And it may still be, but what I discovered in my early attempts at non monogamy was that I was still wanting others to provide the foundation to my selfhood, and the ignition to my desire. What I have learned over time is that I actually needed to be the catalyst and foundation for all aspects of myself, not any other person. I was, in those early years of non-monogamy, just recreating the same problematic relational pattern that I had always had, which had hurt me in my younger years and had always left me with the same yearnings as I had now.
But non-monogamy did give me some differentiation from my partner, or as we call it laughingly now, The Big D. He could see me as something and someone separate from him and our relationship, and I could see it as well. I grew some strength in feeling, identifying, and speaking my own needs. And we now knew that we could be apart without losing our connection.
The entirety of this experience was so fundamental in creating and opening Earth and Salt. There would likely be no Earth and Salt had I not gone through this painful and exciting period of transformation. And I certainly wouldn’t have been able to understand all of this without my dear therapist, who both introduced the concept of differentiation to me, and also introduced the concept of surviving joy, which will be the topic of the next blog post in this series.