This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
I once had a therapist — a sort of lousy therapist — who I was seeing when I was starting to question my long-established singledom and consider looking for a relationship again. I told her about a huge revelation I’d had: the revelation that many of the things about coupledom I was resisting weren’t problems with coupledom per se, but problems I had with living together.
It was a huge, liberating flash of insight for me. I’d been automatically linking “romantic love” with “cohabiting,” and I didn’t have to… and I could therefore pursue the one even though I was highly dubious about the other. Neat.
And the first words out of my therapist’s mouth?
“Or you could change your mind about that!”
Talk about a buzz-kill. The idea that you could have a serious love relationship without sharing an address? The idea that romance and sex didn’t have to follow an invisible checklist of progress? The idea that a romantic relationship could be a series of separate choices instead of a giant package deal? She wasn’t interested in discussing that.
I want to talk about how people make decisions about sex and relationships. Specifically, I want to talk about the unsettling frequency with which major decisions about sex and relationships get made by default.
Decisions that get made because that’s what’s next. Because that’s what everyone else is doing. Because that’s just what’s done. (Or not done.)
The timetable is the most obvious example. There seems to be this rough timetable that Americans base their sex and love lives on: a timetable that rarely gets spelled out but that everyone seems to know about. It varies somewhat between different regions and communities (sex tends to happen faster in progressive urban areas, marriage is more likely to precede sex in conservative rural towns). But even between those regions there’s a remarkable similarity… and within the regions, there’s a expectation of homogeneity that’s rather startling.
When you first have sex. When you make the decision about whether the relationship is serious. When you move in together. When you merge your finances. When you get married. When you have kids. Think about it. How much variety is there in your circle about when these things happen? And when people do step outside the standard timetable, how do other people react to it?
In my experience, there’s surprisingly little variety in the timetable. And when people step outside of it, they’re often met with surprise and bafflement at best, disapproval at worst. If you move faster than the timetable (having sex on the first date, say), you’re “rushing things”; if you move slower than the timetable, you’re “dragging your feet.”
Here’s an example from my own life. Ingrid and I didn’t move in together until seven years into our relationship. In fact, the first time we got married (in the San Francisco City Hall same-sex weddings of 2004, the ones that got annulled), we weren’t living together. And while nobody burned us at the stake for it, we were definitely met with a fair amount of puzzlement. We didn’t get disapproval, exactly, but we got a certain amount of disapproval’s more polite half-brother — concern. And we got a lot of disapproval’s slightly slow-witted cousin — confusion. The amount of explaining we had to do about why we weren’t living together and why we had no immediate plans to live together… it makes me tired just remembering it.
But for us, moving in together was too big a decision to make just so we could cross it off the checklist. For us, moving in together was something to do because, well, we wanted to do it and felt it was right for us… not because That’s What Comes Next.
Especially since, for the first several years of our relationship, the question of moving in together wasn’t a “When?” but a “Whether?”
See, default decisions about sex and relationships don’t just get made based on the timetable. Default decisions aren’t just made about “When?” They get made about “Whether?” as well.
Not just when to move in together — but whether to move in together. Not just when to get married — but whether to get married. Not just when to have kids — but whether to have kids. It’s astonishing to me how many people just assume that this is the path a relationship has to take, and if they want love and sex in their lives they better get cracking.
And there’s more. What kind of sex to have. How often to have sex. Whether to have a joint checking account. (We recently had friends act as though we were space aliens because we still have our own checking accounts. Yes, we have a joint account, for bills and other joint expenses… but we each have our own money as well. And that works really well for us.) Whether to travel together, or sleep together. (Couples who take separate vacations or sleep in separate beds apparently get as much bafflement/ concern/ flak as couples who don’t move in together.)
Whether to be monogamous. That’s a huge one. The assumption that of course a long-term couple is going to be monogamous is a deep and pervasive one. Most people don’t even discuss it.
Even whether to get into a serious relationship at all. I was single for twelve years before Ingrid and I fell in love. And for about ten of those twelve years, my singlehood was a conscious, positive choice. And if you think you’ll be met with disapproval and baffled concern if you don’t move in with your sweetie, imagine the disapproval and baffled concern you get when you tell people you’re not interested in having a sweetie, period.
But here’s the thing.
These decisions? They’re too big — and too personal — to be making by default.
If we know anything at all about human sex and human sexual relationships, it’s that the only constant is variety. Human beings have an almost infinite variety of sexual and emotional experiences: an eye-popping smorgasbord of feelings and desires, prejudices and preferences, turn-offs and needs. And we should be tailoring our decisions about sex to fit our individual experiences. We should not be forcing our sexual and romantic decisions into a one- size- fits- all garment… one which, like most one- size- fits- all garments, really fits only a handful of people.
Sex and relationships should be like a walk in the woods, where you pick the trails that suit your interest and stamina. They should be like a trip to the market, where you buy the vegetables that you need for your recipe. They should not be like an express train — where the track is laid out ahead of time, and everyone has to get off at the same stops.
P.S. Just for the record: I do understand that, in some specific sets of circumstances, there is a genuine timetable, not a made-up social one. I understand that people who want kids — especially women who want kids — can’t wait indefinitely. My point is that this in itself should be a set of decisions that’s made consciously (“I very much want kids, I’d rather not be a single parent, therefore I need to keep an eye on my biological clock when I’m considering my romantic life”), instead of being made by default (“Kids should happen by the time I’m 35, so I should be married no later than 30, so now that I’m 27 I should stop dating people who aren’t serious about marriage”).