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April 10, 2010

The Talking-Equals-Drama Fallacy

Filed under: Uncategorized — thirdxlucky @ 5:00 am

I want to name the following phenomenon:

In the standard monogamous dating script, certain “levels” in a relationship correspond broadly with certain types of relationship talk. When you first start dating someone, you have exploratory are we interested in each other? are we compatible? type conversations. As the relationship gets more serious, conversations become more what are our expectations of each other? what are our boundaries? When a relationship reaches the ‘commitment’ stage, people might talk about what are we doing with our lives? are we doing that together and, if so, how? Each level of conversation is more complex and emotionally loaded than previous levels, because there are more issues to consider and the stakes are higher. Finally, if they make it through all the levels, two people get married and, at least ideally according to the script, the Define the Relationship talks cease – the relationship has now been clearly defined until death do them part.

What’s important here is that these various degrees of DTR talk aren’t simply consequences of increasing seriousness in a relationship – they often serve as markers to people that their relationship has “leveled up.” It’s often by way of these very conversations that people take their relationship to the next level of commitment. I’m sure we’ve all heard, for example, that someone knew she was ready to “get serious” with so-and-so when they agreed to be exclusive. It’s not just the fact of their exclusivity that makes it a serious relationship; being de-facto exclusive with someone you’re dating just because there doesn’t happen to be anyone else around you’re sleeping with doesn’t automatically indicate a serious relationship. That they talked about being exclusive and decided to do it together matters.

Let’s call this…the Conversation-Commitment Correspondence Chart – just to be cute.

So what? Why do I care about this?

Because, for obvious logistical reasons, polyamory requires having Define the Relationship talks on a different schedule from monogamous dating. You can’t really spend five or six leisurely dates exploring your compatibility with someone cute before you bother to mention that you’re married. Not unless you’re a douche. We have to be explicit about our relationship expectations and boundaries much earlier on. This seems like common sense, not a big deal, until you run into the following problem:

Having been raised in Romantic Comedy Society, most of us have subconsciously internalized the Conversation-Commitment Correspondance Chart. Being poly means we might need to have, say, a Level 2 conversation with someone with whom we’re only in a Level 1 relationship. But because those conversations serve as emotional markers, not just planning tools, our subconscious brain then sometimes sends up a little jet that says, “Hey! She and you just talked about Big Deal Things and made Big Deal Decisions. That must mean you have Big Deal Feelings for each other!” (Or you must have Big Deal feelings for her, even though she doesn’t appear to have them for you. Or she must have Big Deal feelings for you, even though you don’t seem to feel them for her. You see where I’m going with this.)

I know people who’ve gone on one or two dates or slept together a couple of times, and call each other “boyfriend” and “girlfriend”. It’s peoples’ prerogative to use whatever lables work for them. (Although I’m not gonna lie, if someone I’d had coffee and made out with started calling me his or her girlfriend, I’d be pretty weirded out.) But no matter what your philosophy on labels, it’s tougher and more complicated to break up with a girlfriend then it is to simply not go on any more dates with someone you went on a few dates with.

I suspect this is part of the reason why monogamous people believe poly relationships involve a lot of “drama” – they see us expressing what appear to be very strong emotions, having very complex relationship conversations and using high-level relationship terminology with people who, comparatively speaking, we barely know. And it’s true, partly because our subconscious brains have tagged certain topics and decisions according to a monogamous development scale, that poly relationships tend to develop very fast. Sometimes too fast to be sustainable.

Traditional Poly Culture, such as it exists, has come up with some ways around this problem of artificially sped-up emotional investment. Mostly they involve replacing triggery monogamous-style DTRs with alternative relationship-defining rituals – but I suspect many of us in the younger generation find these inelegant and kind of embarrassing. I don’t want to write out contracts with my lovers and insist that potential new ones read and sign them before we go on a first date. For one thing, my boundaries and expectations of any relationship are going to shift and grow as the relationship grows; they can’t be functionally encapsulated in a form letter. Plus, that just sounds like the ultimate mood-killer.

So, how do we avoid the trap of embedded monogamous programming while maintaining room for the spontaneity and deliciousness of a surprise first kiss?

Here’s one way: Name it. If we have a quick shorthand to point out when it’s happening AS it’s happening, we can level down the exaggerated emotional intensity and sense of impending Big Dealitude without derailing the important and useful conversations about needs, desires, boundaries and expectations that have to happen earlier for polyfolk than they do for monogamous folk. Call it a bit of anti-magic. We need a clear and clever phrase to snap ourselves out of unconsciously running this internalized monogamy-centric script on our own brains.

I’m going to ponder possible names overnight, and when I come up with one, I’ll make it the title of this post. If you have any ideas, throw ’em out there.

(I am almost tempted to call it The ‘Talking-Equals-Drama’ Fallacy…but that seems a little broad for this very specific phenomenon.)


1 Comment »

  1. […] Filed under: Uncategorized — thirdxlucky @ 2:22 am Here’s a more concise way of describing what I was talking about here: […]

    Pingback by Bloggity Blog Blog Blog… — April 11, 2010 @ 2:22 am | Reply

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