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Sex Tips For Geeks: Relationship Management

OK, so you and a partner have established a sexual relationship. You're doing your best to fulfill the basic ethical responsibilities we explored in Sex and Consequences. Now it's time for the next question: where does it go from here, and how do you keep it healthy?

Billions, possibly trillions of words have been spilled on this topic. The self-help sections of bookstores are full of dubious attempts at addressing it. We're not going to wrap it up here, but we can at least develop some useful tools for thinking about the problems.

Where your relationship goes next and how you keep it healthy depends strongly on what kind of relationship it is. In the previous essay we distinguished three broad uses of good sex: romance, friendship, and recreation. A good start on thinking about relationship management is to consider how good management of relationships themed around each of these uses differs among them.

If you're not thinking, it's probably because you're in the initial period of intense, euphoric mutual fixation poets call "falling in love" and psychologists call limerence -- nature's superglue for pair bonding. Back in the 1980s one intrepid psychologist plotted the duration of sexual relationships in a suitably large population that was somehow induced to report their activity. He discovered that the period of limerence lasts on average six weeks before reality sets in and each partner begins to notice that the other is not quite perfect...

A vital thing to understand is that (despite what you've absorbed from a hundred sappy movies) limerence is not romance. It can be the launchpad of romance, but you won't really know what kind of relationship you're in until the glow of limerence fades. Could be romance, could be friendship, could be recreational, could be nothing and a breakup -- it depends on how much and what kind of emotional binding the partners have done while their hormones were in an uproar.

So use that limerence period wisely. If the two of you intend romance, then wallow in it -- you're using limerence for its primary biologically intended purpose. If you're aiming to keep things on a friendship or recreational level, it's wiser to keep a little emotional distance and not to completely surrender to the hormonal rush. In either case, the more difficult challenge will be properly managing the relationship as the limerence fades.

Now let's talk about love. The best definition I've ever heard is very simple; you love someone to the degree that their happiness becomes essential to your own. Love and romance and limerence are different things, though they often overlap. Love can, of course, be present in sexual friendships as well as romances (as for that matter can limerence). Mutual love can begin with limerence, or it can develop gradually in a non-sexual friendship. If you are fortunate, and open to the possibility, your sex partner and you will come to love each other.

There's something else that looks like love, but isn't -- codependence. Two people can need each other without actually finding each others' happiness essential to their own. In codependence, the partners project their unresolved problems on each other and lock each other into limiting roles. Such relationships are more often than not destructive -- love makes people strong and joyous, but codependence tends to make them weak and miserable. At its worst, codependences breeds emotional and physical abuse; but even when it does not, it tends to cause cumulative damage that can ruin lives.

An essential theme in relationship management, therefore, is to build love and avoid codependence. Unfortunately, sexual bonding can serve to reinforce either. This is a major reason that sex requires careful management.

Managing recreational sex, by itself, is usually pretty simple. The sex was the object. When it's done, the relationship is over. Complications only arise if the act has knock-on effects on other, more significant relationships -- or if what was intended as recreational sex turned into something else for one or both parties. We'll come back to these issues.

Managing friendship sex is not much more difficult. You have a continuing emotional relationship to keep healthy, but that would have been true by hypothesis anyway. Mutual sexual enjoyment is not the central bond of the relationship and may be begun, end, or be suspended and resumed during the relationship's lifetime. There's little fuss about these transitions unless they have side-effects on other relationships, or in the case that one or both partners develop romantic feelings.

Amy: "It's important to be sure that you can both distinguish between sexual and romantic feelings. This is one reason it can be very helpful to develop sexual friendships. Having a few of these can help you learn the difference, and help you towards finding relationships that are long and meaningful. They also help take away the pressure (no pun intended) to get directly into the pants of every person you meet. Beyond that, they can be fun!"

Managing romantic sex is the tough case, because the stakes are much higher. Romantically-involved people are constructing (or maintaining) a relationship that is either marriage or aspires to the condition of marriage. For our purposes, marriage is living together long-term in deep intimacy with at least the possibility of choosing to raise children. In romantic relationships sex is a central form of bonding; its beginning is a serious matter and its end for any other reason than physical incapacity is very likely to fatally break the relationship. And romantic breakups are painful.

There's actually another important distinction. A romantic relationship can be closed or open -- that is, the partners may refuse or permit each other permission to have other sexual relationships of particular kinds. Nowadays the practice of open romantic relationships is often called `polyamory' and is emerging under that name not merely as relatively isolated cases but as a growing social movement. It's rather more common and visible among geeks (and several adjacent subcultures such as science-fiction fandom and neopaganism) than it is elsewhere, which is why it's worth some coverage here.

The first and most basic question in managing a relationship is simple: are both partners having the same kind? Mismatches in expectation about this cause a colossal amount of grief. That's especially so when one partner bids to change the mode of the relationship and the other doesn't follow. So the first rule of relationship management is this: know (and tell your partner) what mode you're in, know what mode your partner is in, and do your damnedest to make sure they match!.

Amy "I know that all your life, you've been told that relationships happen magically, but realize that you do have to talk about the terms and learn to communicate your wants and needs if you are going to be successful."

Actually there's a rule zero you need to follow in order for rule one to work, which is don't bullshit yourselves or each other. If either of you are misrepresenting what you are giving and expecting (whether because of self-deception or deliberate other-deception) the relationship is a tragedy waiting to happen.

Agree on your goals and be honest about what you're doing. That's not rocket science, but a lot of people don't manage it. One reason is that a lot of women have been taught that sex is a valuable commodity that they shouldn't trade for anything less than the prospect of romance, and they pretend to follow that rule all the time. Many men have learned to oblige this pretense by pretending to offer a prospect of romance even when that's not how they feel. The result is too many relationships that begin with lies and end in tears.

Another problem that comes up more often among geeks than elsewhere is romances that are traditional/poly mixed (one partner polyamorous by inclination, the other not -- and for reasons having to do with the sexual strategies I've discussed in my essay The Biology of Promiscuity, the poly partner is actually somewhat more likely to be the woman). Lots of people have serious trouble mustering the particular kind of confidence needed to say "no" to sexual jealousy and be successful polyamorists. This is hardly surprising; sexual jealousy is a powerful instinct which the mainstream culture surrounding us reinforces and rewards. But any mixed traditional/poly relationship has a built-in instability, and that has to be carefully negotiated to avoid the whole thing going to smash.

Amy "Don't kid yourself. Polyamory is not just a way to get to screw indiscriminately, with the permission (or inclusion) of your partner. It actually takes far more communication and work from both partners in order to keep it going. "

Assuming you and your partner can in fact agree on your goals and be honest about what you're doing, there are other issues. Some of these have to do with commitment -- for how far and into what kinds of futures do the partners bind themselves together? This one gets really important if there are children or the prospect of children involved; children (as we've previously noted) need and deserve a stable couple to parent them.

Others have to do with defining boundaries of various kinds -- what kinds of relationships with other people are excluded? Again this is mainly a problem of romance. Boundaries are less an issue in sexual friendships and almost a non-issue in recreational sex.

Here's an important constraint: marriages are such high-maintainance relationships that it's virtually impossible for one person to be involved in two marriages at once without short-changing one or both. Barring the still-rare context of a group marriage, this means that trying to manage two romances to their logical long-term conclusions is going to wreck one, likely to wreck both, and will cause a lot of grief. Thus the irreducible mutual demand: in a romance, neither partner can have another competing romance.

Polyamorists take advantage of an important loophole in this constraint. While it's deadly to try to run two romances at once, and probably not possible to be in two limerence episodes at once, it's perfectly possible to have a stable post-limerence romance established with a primary partner and to have a limerence episode with a secondary going at the same time. The challenge is to bring that limerence episode to a soft landing, modulating it into a long-term sexual friendship rather than letting it crash in a painful breakup. With awareness, discipline, and a supportive primary partner, this is possible.

In the above I have tried to sketch what is possible; what kinds of relationship you can have, and how limerence fuels romance but can have other outcomes, and what kinds of relationships can successfully be combined and what kinds connot. I have indicated the importance of honesty and making sure you and your partner keep your goals matched. We might call this the strategic level of relationship management.

There's another, more tactical level -- the things you do, the signals you exchange, to keep the sexual and emotional juices flowing in your relationship.

First, touch each other a lot. People in really good, really close relationships don't keep their intimacy in a box in the bedroom. They automatically go into a light cuddle when they sit next to each other (unless there are good social reasons to refrain). They kiss lightly but unselfconsciously in public. Even after years of being married they still look like newlyweds. They constantly remind each other, below verbal level, how valuable their relationship is. If more people behaved like this, there would be fewer divorces and breakups.

Second, surprise each other. It's important not to let the sex or other couple behaviors in the relationship get repetitive and stale. And it's important to show your partner that you can be counted on not to let things get boring. Make a habit of finding new things to try together, not just in bed but out of it.

Third, swap your interests. Try to learn enough about the things your partner finds fascinating to discuss them intelligently with him/her, especially if they are things you wouldn't otherwise have gone out of your way to learn. This is why I have learned a fair amount about the law and historical costume, and my wife has learned a fair amount about computers and guns! Every time I make a halfway-intelligent comment about 14th-century Burgundian court dress, or she mentions some bit of trivia she's picked up about 1911-pattern semiautomatics, we are showing each other that we love each other enough to participate in each others' personal worlds.

Fourth, develop shared habits and private references. Close couples have pillow names for each other; they have shared idioms that other people wouldn't understand. They develop in-jokes and small mythologies, and they become two-person microcultures. Let these things grow. Like touch, they reinforce your relationship by reminding you of all the mutual investment that makes it valuable.

Fifth, leave each other space. The best relationships are so deeply mutual that after a while you can finish each others' sentences. The counterpoint to that, however, is that each partner still needs room to be an individual, and to grow in his or her own direction some of the time. Leave each other some private physical space when you share a home, and some private psychological space as you share a life.

Finally, the three keys to a successful relationship (whether friendship or anything else are 1) communication, 2) communication, 3) communication. Talking about what is bothering you may be difficult but it is absolutely essential. Small problems left to fester become big problems. Big problems left unaddressed can kill relationships.

Sometimes something will be bothering you and you won't know exactly what it is. Let your subconscious do its thing (humans do more at subconscious level than they think they do). The old advice about sleeping on it is right on the money. When you feel stuck this way, it's important to let your love interest know that this is what's happening (that you have a background thought process running) and that you'll be more than willing to talk about whatever-it-is when it comes to the surface. Then, when it does, it's important to fllow through and actually talk about it!

Ultrafinally, try to keep a sense of humor. The wry observation that humans are not so much rational animals as rationalizing animals applies nowhere so strongly as in our sex lives. Our mating instincts and sexual longings don't pay a lot of attention to our forebrains or what we think we ought to want, and that mismatch can lead to sad consequences. On the other hand, without those instincts and longings we would know neither the giddy joys of limerence nor the deep, nourishing experience of true love.

It's easy to see this tension between instincts and forebrain as a tragedy, but I find I cope better when I laugh. What confused, horny, struggling, noble animals we are! Understanding your own animal responses and irrationalities will help you manage them better, and seeing the funny side of them will help you keep a sense of proportion. And that's a very valuable thing to have when managing any relationship.

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