Trust is a sensitive matter for relationships, especially when they involve sexual intimacy. The physical and psychological vulnerability that comes with letting someone into your body is much more complicated than letting someone into your home.
In my life this issue is made more complicated by a disjunction between my relationship orientation and my primary partner’s. I am polyamorous and kinky; Hyacinth is monogamous and establishing her sexual limits. In 75 days we will be married. We are still, and probably will always be, negotiating what that means.
After reading “Am I empowered, degraded, or both?” we discussed at dinner that night what consent means. At the base we have the same view: there are actions that we consent to allow, there are people that we consent to trust. To a certain degree we each, and consequently the relationship, are constrained by how deep we consent to trust each other.
Our relationship started 10 years ago, in college. After not seeing each other for six years we reconnected. On our third date Hyacinth confided, “I’m not going to let you get away this time.” I asked her how she feels about monogamy. Hyacinth told me that she couldn’t handle having more than one relationship. This was the first time that I shared my polyamorous orientation.
Now we have two major threads in our relationship: the emotional trust that allows us to have a healthy day-life and the physical trust that allows an adventurous nightlife. Our intimacy is hung on the intersection of these two types of trust, emotional and physical; either can lead to a breakdown in the other. When Hyacinth gives me the benefit of fulfilling her needs (reiteration of my love/dedication) and my own need (being true to my orientations) we both end up winning.
My task in this has been to show my love through the changing perspectives Hyacinth has about the difference between singularity and importance. I spend most of my emotional time with her establishing a context where love and obligation are different things. We work toward my love being timely tenderness and appropriate actions, rather than inactive presence.
Her part is owning her feelings and communicating her needs—giving me solid insight into which action best show my dedication. Hyacinth is often called to have faith in my commitment to her. By presenting her needs in terms of a stable love and hope for the future, she shows that her love is for our path, not our immediate context.
Frequently, our moments of pause come when Hyacinth needs an unexpected emotional recalibration or I introduce something new to our sex life. At these moments our success hinges on what I call “mutual attentiveness,” a state of showing your needs and accepting your partner’s clues. In her moments I gain ground by refocusing myself to opening up the part of my attention that Hyacinth asks for; she supports the process by acknowledging that my intent is loving–even when I say something the doesn’t fit right.
In my moments Hyacinth gains ground by being very responsive–giving me a clear “YES” when she is on board with me, and letting me know when she needs time. With every “yes,” the new experience moves further into territory that she enjoys. I help this process by immediately attending to her needs when things don’t come together well.
Our relationship’s real struggle is balancing discretion and openness in a way that meets Hyacinth’s need to feel both safe and involved. Although moving in together was not a surprise, it happened earlier than expected, and brought that struggle to the forefront. Soon after she moved in we had to discuss scheduling because I was supposed to have a date that week.
Hyacinth in her own words:
Before Cesar and I moved in together, I had been very uncomfortable hearing about the other people he was seeing, even as I accepted that they were a reality of our relationship. In the first days we lived together, I was forced to address that discomfort, as the result of his desire to schedule his date in the way that would be least likely to leave me feeling hurt by it. Despite knowing that this date didn’t threaten my relationship with him in the long-term, it nonetheless left me feeling like I’d been put on the sidelines during what was a very happy, but also very stressful, time when I needed his support.
Ultimately, I participated in my own activity that night, and set out to let my stress about his date fully process. When I came home, he told me that he’d been stood up, and later shared when she chose not to pursue any relationship with him. The latter was a surprising moment for us both. While their date was distressing for me at the time, and made clear that I needed to be more assertive with him about my boundaries, I was still sad to know that he had been dumped. At that moment, the unhappiness about my failure to articulate my own needs, and my hurt feelings over being put on the bench didn’t matter. Even on our hardest days he is my partner and teammate, and when another woman hurt him, it wasn’t any kind of victory for me, because it hurt my team.
As we each enact our love through apt handling of the other’s moments of pause, we deepen the trust that we have and bring to our moments. Over time we have reached the point where our relationship is unique—where trust can be a simple yes, because it is you. We still do, and likely always will, have moments that require explicit boundary talks, but sit-down negotiation is becoming an exception, rather than a rule.