Recently, one of my partners and I got engaged. DOMA falling suddenly made it an option for them to emigrate to the US and live with me, and once that was a serious option on the table it quickly got more and more and more attractive to all of us. So hey, only part of my relationship will be long distance now! This is a really exciting life development for me.
(This is why for years I’ve been grumbling that same-sex marriage is actually an important issue, not just a shiny distraction for LGBTQ people. Immigration is a huge obstacle for long distance relationships that marriage lets you surmount which is basically impossible to deal with otherwise unless your career is very specifically fortunate! Having access to that as an option has been really amazing, even if my backwards state of residence won’t recognize it yet.)
Most of the reasons marriage was and is exciting for me have to do with getting to live with my partner. I am so thrilled to be making progress on the long distance thing, guys! Long distance sucks, and I am thrilled to now have my partner around to go to the grocery store with and ramble around farmers’ markets and split chores with and cook for and all of that. That bit is going to be awesome. But if marriage wasn’t required for that, would I be so excited about it? Not so much.
Marriage as a wtfromantic is squidgy, guys. I ran into a lot of weird feelings about it, and I still have those feelings. It’s very normatively romantic in a way that I am not particularly comfortable with, and the concept has a lot of baggage about displays and “special days” and making a big public fuss about your relationship that is not really my thing. Even though we have zero intention of actually bothering with a party for now, the weight of cultural expectation is still… strange. (This is especially true since it won’t feel “complete” until all three of us are in one place, which complicates things a bit; marriage is a big step but not actually a final one for us.) So I have been thinking about what it means to be in a relationship that has always been cheerfully agnostic about whether it is romantic or not while taking on possibly the ultimate marker of romantic relationships.
And then I thought about it some more and accidentally hit on a reason that “romantic attraction” isn’t useful in the slightest to me. A lot of what we use to define a specifically romantic relationship has to do with how it starts: limerence, crushes, the obsession you get with someone. Especially when we talk about romantic attraction, we’re all talking about the differences in these relationships at the beginning of those relationships, and I don’t experience those.
But romantic relationships aren’t all honeymoon. They settle down into a more companionate sort of love after a few years, and that thing is where I am totally comfortable. I might not know where the storm of passionate infatuation feels like, but I can do that place where you get someone well enough to accurately tell if they’re judging your taste in cheesy sleeved blankets when they’re standing silently behind you. I can do the place where you finish each other’s sentences and effortlessly bicker along well-worn arguments and keep a mental list of what kinds of food your partner likes, hates, and can’t consume without allergic reactions. I can do all of that, easy. So what’s different between my easygoing, companionate two year old relationships and a romantic partnership that has mellowed and matured into an easygoing, companionate relationship?
GOOD QUESTION. I got nothing, as usual, and have learned not to even bother pursuing that one too closely.
For me, it turns out using “primary” versus “secondary” relationships is a more useful division. It hasn’t got anything to do with the relationship intrinsically; it matters how much energy I’m willing to invest in it, and how committed I am to making it work. For my partners, I am willing to move across continents. My friends? I would do a lot for them, but I’m not doing that. I talk to my partners every single day; for me, that’s a big priority. I see my friends maybe once or twice a week. I invest huge amounts of energy and effort into my partners; we’re a family in the making, and I want to be in their lives forever. I’m just not willing to put that effort into anyone else, which is why they are primary relationships and other friendships are secondary to me.
And I mean, there’s a reason for that! One of the things that bugs me about “relationship anarchy” is that you just can’t devote equal amounts of emotion and time to everybody in your life. I don’t have all that much free time, honestly, and I have even less that I really want to spend socializing. There are only so many relationships I am capable of maintaining at a time, and I’m going to invest more energy into the ones that are really super important to me. And that’s okay. On the same token, though, communication and honesty are important, and I need some way to tell people “Hey, I like having you in my life, you’re important to me, but you’re also not one of my very top priorities, and I don’t expect to be yours either.” That sort of thing is pretty rude and hurtful to say explicitly—I winced typing it, it sounds terrible—but very helpful to have as an implied shorthand.
We use relationship labels to talk about things besides the feelings that the two people within the relationship have for each other, after all. They’re also used to communicate intentions about where the relationship is going, and about how much energy two people have invested in the relationship. Maybe that’s why “marriage” feels so weird to me as a concept—I have the “commitment” aspects of the label down pat, but the associated societal fuss about the big showy party to celebrate your big dramatic feelings for your partner doesn’t speak to me at all.