One of my favourite creative voices in Atlanta, Melysa Martinez, posted a link to an article that struck a chord with me on her Facebook page today. It explores the idea “Can we be exclusive?”, examining the idea of whether or not our popular culture eschews the idea of exclusivity in relationships in favour of the idea of being “free”,”independent”, “having fun”, or “focusing on your career”….or simply eternally holding out for something better. Even many of those who trade in their exclusivity for the benefits of a committed relationship have one eye on the idea of “trading up”.

You may argue this is a New York/LA/Miami/other large, self-centred city problem. After all, many places in America still think it’s pretty normal to marry your high school/college sweetheart, and live happily ever after. And, maybe it is. After all, the more you see of life, the more options you have, the harder it is to choose what’s right for you.

I posted a reply on this friend’s page (as an aside, like many awesome people, she’s abandoning ATL for a larger, better city in the very near future. Boo.) regarding my viewpoint on the subject. Here’s what I wrote:

“I’ve found this a really hard thing to deal with in life. As someone who has always been in one or more committed relationships at virtually any given time, I’m actually kind of terrified by committment. But I also realise that without it, the idea of emotional intimacy can’t exist. Too many people live lives with no strings attached: I see it when I have a roommate who just skips town with little warning, a dinner party where only half of the guests show up, the fact that people flake on plans 10 minutes before you’re supposed to meet up. We can’t have friendships living that way, we can’t have relationships, and we certainly can’t have “emotional intimacy”. Physical intimacy is easy. It’s like deciding to go to a friend’s club one night or not. You’re probably going to do something else the next day, so, whatever. Investing yourself is hard, and people do it less and less often. There are all these excuses, from other people being “the wrong people” to “being too busy” to “things just not falling into place”, but the truth is we’re a population of people terrified to emotionally invest in anything—especially one another.”

As expected, it didn’t take long before I got a response from a mutual friend via FB e-mail. It basically pointed out that this person was surprised by my response; as someone who has spoken openly about having poly relationships and advocating the idea of “open” relationships and marriages, it struck this friend as hypocritical for me to be commenting on a culture of committmentphobia.

I’ll both agree and disagree. I agree that it’s a little hypocritical for me to condemn a culture of committmentphobia, when it’s a struggle to get me to follow through on anything. I stay too long in bad relationships, and leave good ones because I’m terrified of choosing the wrong thing. I’ve been engaged and unengaged more times than anyone I know. At one point, I changed apartments, jobs, friends, and the like every two years. I show up late for everything, and have an honourary Ph.D. in procrastination. When things don’t go right in my life, my natural inclination is to run somewhere else, and fantasize about me starting my life over again in a tiny little place where nobody will ever know me. On the committment scale of things, I’m pretty much Kim Kardashian.

Yet, there’s also something fundamental about me that builds permanent emotional attachments with people. They aren’t always permanent, and not always easy to develop, but once they’re there, they are hard to shake. I think that’s why, for my many failings, I have a fantastic and fabulously loyal group of people in my life. I’m willing to emotionally invest, once you demonstrate that you’re not going to hurt or abandon me because I happen to care. When I say that I’m going to have a monogamous relationship with someone, I don’t lie or cheat, even though that state of relationship-being often feels unnatural and complicated and difficult for me. However, I view it as a gift I’m willing to give someone else…exclusivity. I may show up late for everything, but I don’t stand anyone up. I don’t forget birthdays or anniversaries or other special events; in fact, I’m the first one to plan a party or make a big deal about it. I don’t necessarily like committment, but I like the emotional intimacy and security that goes along with knowing—unless there’s some unforeseen calamity—someone is in your life for the long haul. I’m not that interested in hosting a revolving door of friends, lovers, and acquaintances in my life. At one point, I think I was. I wasn’t really much into the substantial back then. I was a little careless and selfish and hurt people. Karma got me back big time, and I learned a valuable life lesson. Once I did, I started meeting people that are “substantial” enough that they’re still in my life many years later.

As for advocating the benefits of polyamoury, or “open” relationships and marriages, while also believing in the power of committment and emotional investment, I don’t see any hypocrisy there. Most poly relationships are built on the idea of having multiple committed and loving relationships in life. They don’t all work the same way, and some people have open relationships and marriages just to have the best of both worlds, and think it’s a convenient way to have a loving committed relationship, plus permission to screw around. However, that’s not what I advocate in that kind of relationship. I think that, regardless of your relationship status or outlook on what makes good, healthy relationships, the moment you decide to sleep with someone, you should be making some sort of a committment. Maybe it’s just to treat that person with respect and esteem, or maybe it’s that you’ll be good friends down the line, or maybe it’s that you’ll continue to be lovers for a longer period of time. Maybe it’s that you’re going to date, be exclusive, get married, and make a death-do-us-part committment, but for most of us, most of the time, it doesn’t work out that way. (Imagine if you ended up marrying every person you’ve ever hooked up with!) Regardless, you should be willing to invest yourself in getting to know that person emotionally as well as physically. As I’ve said, physical intimacy is the easy part. Why do it just because you can?

I don’t, anymore, and that’s just a personal choice that’s resulted from growing as a person, and having a hell of a lot of life experience. I require emotional investment, committment, respect, friendship, a certain level of interest and compatibility. I do not require exclusivity, because not all relationships are the same, and I personally don’t know I believe that love and exclusivity have to go together. Everyone looks at relationships a little differently, and if “exclusivity” fits into your list of relationship wants and needs, that’s a good thing. “Committment” and “emotional intimacy” are related but different concepts. I personally value the latter two, and make them a non-negotiable part of my life, in any kind of relationship with any physical/emotional/romantic context. The former is open for discussion.

So, in answer to the question: “Can We Be Exclusive?”, there is no doubt in my mind that of course we can. However, between the number of people who are too emotionally unavailable to offer things like “committment” and “emotional intimacy” to any kind of relationship, and the number of people who see “exclusivity” as an optional component of loving, committed, emotionally intimate relationships, the old relationship paradigm isn’t as black and white as it used to be.

As with all relationships, it all comes down to who you are and what you value, more so than who you’re looking for and what they’re willing to give. If “exclusivity” means a lot to you in a given relationship, and you’re afraid to bring it up because you don’t want to lose someone or scare them away, you’re with the wrong person…or at least, with someone who doesn’t share your relationship values. It doesn’t make one of you demanding and unrealistic and the other a jerk and a player, it just means you’re incompatible on a very fundamental level. While it may hurt to learn that, it hurts more to learn that later, or to hide your feelings about knowing you’re not the only one in your partner’s life, when you feel you deserve to be.

If we could all speak about these things honestly and openly, before getting involved with one another, and during the course of our relationships—well, just imagine how much easier, better, and less dramatic our relationships would be.