To do or not to do?

That is the question

Published May 17, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Mr. Tennis,

I'm on the cusp of my 30s, in a life partnership and polyamorous. My personal history involves a graduate-school education, a grade-skipping, semi-home-schooled childhood and several coming-out stories. So I'll ask you to picture me as I am right now. I have crazy hair and clothes. I'm finally allowing myself to feel young after many years of trying to look mature and serious; I am secure enough in my spiritual and political beliefs to remain quietly confident about them, but I used to be quite the crusader. There's a strong creative vein that runs through my family. I learned the hard way that to repress my artistic impulses makes me go quite mad. I make music, perform and dress up whenever I can. I get hooked on things and experiences very easily, but I have enough self-awareness to unhook myself before I get too damaged. I used to drink too much and get in fights, I used to have a really haphazard, risky sex life -- till I laid out rules, got some help and learned to watch my moods and habits. Mostly I get by. I read a lot of philosophy, I meditate, I do the spiritual stuff and try not to live in my head all the time. I still get a bit obsessed with ideas and concepts and lifestyles, and of course, I get hung up on wonderful people.

Now there is this new person in my life, and the usual thing has happened where I decide that I fancy them, and I have to work out what that means. This time I would like to proceed differently -- you know how things often proceed in cycles with different relationships and friendships? Every time a situation comes round, it seems to turn out a little better -- or at least I seem to learn a new thing each time I recognize that pattern remodulating itself.

This other person is pleasant, cute, older but not to an alienating extent. He's a bit more in touch with his physical expressions than I am. I apply slightly more logical rigor to our conversations. He encourages my introverted, whimsical side. I delight in the strong, lively intellectual interplay between us. There's a mutual physical attraction -- personal spaces keep getting crossed in a way that gets more and more blatant. It's already obvious to my life partner, who knows all about my proclivities and finds this whole story hilarious and adorable. But nothing has been explicitly acknowledged. Yes, it's at that awkward stage!

On an emotional level, I have preserved enough awareness to realize my "just good friend" and I don't go about things in the same way. I often find myself sort of "bearing with" his theories about personality and social interaction. It's no huge ideological disagreement, I just recognize that we are not soul mates -- we don't have a tight, unconscious bond like the one I have with my life partner or even with some of my old lovers. I'm still deciding if that's a good thing. I think on balance it will be, because I can really pick out that point of difference, the very deep and years-long connection with my true partner versus this scholars-with-benefits fling -- it will help me be poly in a way that keeps everyone happy and reassured. Of course the question is, is that what I want ...
A real source of annoyance is that while all this is going on, I know this person has a life of his own and a partner of his own. Now I've no idea how his life is arranged -- we move in these liberal circles and perhaps he is free to go wander as he likes. Maybe all's fair if nobody knows the particulars, or maybe he has the official blessing to do whatever. Most of me doesn't care; that's his business, I am going to let him do what he does and I won't shoulder any moral burdens. But you know how life is in little arty circles -- things get really insular -- I am cautious. Actually I can't pinpoint the precise reason for the cautious feeling. It's not the force of moral convention. Do I stand to lose power or agency somehow? I'm not scared of rejection. Maybe it's that uniquely feminine kind of retroactive self-doubt in action. I lack the intuition to work it out.

The options that I keep seeing before me are these: I can't sit in limbo and flirt and pretend we are both unaware of what's happening. That's insulting to my intelligence and frustrating. I could make him back off a little, insist that what I'd like is a friendship uncomplicated by chemistry. I would actually accept this quite readily if I had no other option -- there's plenty going on between us as friends that enriches both of us, it'd mean fewer dramas, it wouldn't change much in the friendship as it stands. But to have the choice in my hands is awful. I can't let go of this atavistic feeling. It would also feel like I'd be denying my poly identity somewhat. The other thing I can see happening is that awful inevitable moment that so often happens -- you know, the one where you both have a few too many glasses of wine, or you get down on your luck, or whatever the relevant excuse is to get into bed with each other. And I really don't want that. Playing the dance of unconscious attraction is going to lead to that situation, I've seen it and I've been that person and ... yuck. I'd find myself trying to justify it afterward and generally being a hypocrite. Nope, I've got to be at least a little true to myself.

So, what should I do, where's the third path I'm not seeing, and how do I keep all this from turning into one of those awful crushes? I'm doing as much as I can right now not to fret -- acquiring hobbies and new friendships at an alarming rate, doing the art thing and as you see, the writing thing -- but that all feels like an attempt to stall the wheel of causality before history comes round for another pass.

De profundis etc. :)


Ms. Moppet

Dear Ms. Moppet,

One thing you could do is to say to him, "I am going to make a decision by the end of today whether to sleep with you or not. What do you have to say in favor of my sleeping with you or in opposition to my sleeping with you? Do you have a position?"

If he hesitates, you might say, "This is called 'giving you an opening.'"

See what he does. If he is truly enlightened, he will not circumlocute. He will make an answer.

He may say no. He may say yes. But he will give an answer.

If he engages in circumlocution, then he is not enlightened and you should not sleep with him.

However, as long as his answer is quick and clear, the matter remains open. You then have to decide what you want.

It doesn't need to be hard. It's like standing at the candy counter. Other people are in line so you have to choose. Your choice is not going to change the course of world events. You just have to decide: Either choose a piece of candy or walk out of the store. Just  do something. By the end of the day, as you have already promised him, make your choice about what you want.

There are four possibilities:

  1. He wants, you want;
  2. he wants, you don't want;
  3. he doesn't want, you want;
  4. he doesn't want, you don't want.

The fourth possibility should make things simple. Neither of you wants to have sex with the other. Actually, though, that can be the most dangerous of all. You may let your guard down and get drunk together. That would call into question the truth value of your avowals. But let's move on.

The next-simplest is the first one: he wants, you want.

If you decide you want to sleep with him and he wants to sleep with you, arrangements should be straightforward.

If, however, he says he does not want to sleep with you, or does not think it is wise, but you want to do it anyway, then it becomes interesting.

You will have some work to do.

Fortunately, such work is pleasant. It involves breaking down his resistance by creating pleasurable enticements. There is nothing strenuous about such work. The only problem is that even your enticements may not work and then you will feel disappointment. But even this disappointment need not be soul-crushing. It's just a matter of recognizing that you didn't get something you wanted. At least failure will be clear: You decided you wanted something and were going to attempt it, there was a certain probability of success and a certain probability of failure and success was not yours.

Oh, but there is this: If you make your enticements in bad faith, you also risk ruining the friendship. That is, if you pretend the reason you are taking off your blouse is because it's just too hot in here, that's not fair. You have to be upfront and say that even though he does not want to sleep with you, you are going to try to make it happen anyway. That way, he knows the danger. He knows you are out to seduce him so if he really wants to not sleep with you he can take appropriate measures.

You have to be upfront about it: I understand that you don't want to sleep with me but I am going to try to make you change your mind and here is how. Then he will know you are taking your blouse off not merely because of the weather. Then you can begin your program of subtly escalating enticements, secure that it is not a subterfuge.

If he can't resist you, that's his philosophical problem.

Nothing in this should be a barrier to honest friendship. It is more in the area of a friendly contest. Can he resist? Let's find out.

Now, should he say he wants to sleep with you but you decide you do not want to sleep with him, that's a different matter. He may be quite as determined as you.

If he wants to sleep with you and you do not want to sleep with him, your resolve may need buffering. When we find that having made this or that decision we cannot later stick to it, we must examine the conditions under which our resolve falls apart. Often, if we are honest, we will see that our resolve falls apart after several glasses of wine.

So if you decide you do not want to sleep with him but he wants to sleep with you, you will have to not drink with him. Drinking leads to sleeping with people. That is why we like it so much. Alcohol affects the ability to carry out a plan when the plan requires resisting impulses.

That raises the question, What does "want to" really mean? If you decide you don't want to sleep with him but then you get drunk and sleep with him anyway, does that mean you really did want to sleep with him? Maybe it's not "wanting" we're talking about but "making a plan." "Wanting" is not a static quality, but a fluid reality that shifts with our movements. When we say "decide what we want" what we're actually talking about is "making a plan."

Drinking changes how we regard our plans. What seemed ironclad and sacred earlier in the day now looms like some tiny and abstract prohibition scarcely worthy of our attention.

Anyway, that's the practical side of it.

As to the larger question of consciousness and being, well, I suggest that you give some attention to the states of being that give rise to your questions. When we are agitated or anxious we formulate text strings with question marks attached. This activity is a result of our agitation. It does not mean that these text strings terminated with question marks have answers.

Anyone can construct such a thing? It doesn't mean that human effort ought to be expended constructing the corresponding text string terminated with a period that would be considered an answer. I can do things like this? I can end sentences with these marks? It doesn't mean there's an answer to them? Does it? Which ones are legitimate questions? Which ones are merely text strings terminated with question marks? I'm fairly sure I know the answer? I think you do too? But how to implement it? That seems to be the question? No?

So if I were you I would concentrate on the quality of my consciousness by increasing my meditation. When I find my consciousness filling with these text strings terminated with question marks, I would return to my meditation. I would view them as random objects of consciousness, like noises and bird songs.

I would look for questions that have immediate answers, like, What am I going to do next? I am going to go into the house and make some tea.

Other questions I would consider as noise.

And, again, the important and interesting question to ask this person is, Are you in favor of, or against, us sleeping together?

Then make your own decision by the end of the day and stick to it for at least a year.

At the end of the year, you can revisit the question.

By Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Relationships Since You Asked