A good friend of mine has been exploring her tantric side. She met someone on a tantra course and really enjoyed spending time with him. She loved the long walks, reading books to him and increasingly intimate connection and cuddles. She loved holding hands, shared meals and conversations that included deep vulnerability. From the outset, she had said that she is a lesbian, but she really enjoyed the developing intimacy. In exploring the connection she decided to have sex with her new person, but it didn’t really work for her, and she decided once was almost certainly enough. When she talked to him about this he understood it as an end to their relationship, in essence, a breakup. She had understood that it meant that one small part (after all, it had only happened once) of their connection was unlikely to continue, but everything else that they had enjoyed together would carry on. She deeply valued everything else about this relationship, but she didn’t want a sexual component. He saw the whole relationship as contingent on their (to his mind) budding sexual connection. Clearly, they had implicitly understood their relationship very differently. He walked away feeling rejected because she wasn’t sexually interested in him and that ended their relationship. She felt rejected because she thought that sex was not a major part of their connection, and that he had walked away from everything else that they had together. Her feelings of rejection were compounded by feeling she was being unfair to him. She knew that it was generally considered normal to withdraw from other aspects of a relationship when sex was off the table, even though she had been clear from the start that she was only sexual with women.
Many of us have a map of how we think relationships should look. Often, this reflects the things that our parents and caregivers did in their relationships. It can reflect society’s values about monogamy, sexuality, and commitment. This road map often includes ways of becoming increasingly involved and enmeshed in each other’s lives. This may mean sharing holidays, having sex, meeting the other person’s family, moving in together, getting a pet, having a child or sharing bank accounts. Societal expectations of what is ‘normal’ in romantic relationships are everywhere – from romantic comedies to sitcoms, reality TV and adverts. The problem is, ‘normal’ doesn’t work for everyone. Neither does a model of romantic relationships where the trajectory is expected to be towards more and more enmeshment and sexual intimacy.
Most lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people have to consider these expectations to some extent, after all they are based on the idea that there are two genders and a couple should include a man and a woman. Some LGBT people engage in relationships that conform to the road map society created for heterosexual relationships, but with greater gender diversity. Two women can form a monogamous relationship, spend most of their time together, live together, share finances, marry, have children (and grandchildren) and hit all the expected points on the relationship escalator. While expectations around sex may be different from those of heterosexuals, it can still include a hierarchical understanding of what activities actually count. For example, what is ‘proper’ sex for heterosexuals may involve putting a penis in a vagina, lesbians frequently consider oral sex to be the real deal, and for gay men it is anal sex. These norms just alter what is expected from one thing to another without really addressing the fact that a plenty of straight people don’t like penis in vagina sex, and a lot of lesbians don’t like oral sex and many gay men don’t like anal sex. Norms around what ‘counts’ as sex are harmful, particularly to people that exist outside of those norms. They contribute to feelings of shame, inadequacy, and concerns about being sexually dysfunctional.
The more a group or community deviates from the typical map that is laid out for romantic and sexual relationships, the more we have to negotiate about what our desires and expectations are. We can’t rely or assume that our partner sees sex, connection, communication or commitment in the same way that we do. Those of us consciously engaging in relationshipqueering have to explore our own desires, expectations, and needs, which is vulnerable work. We create relationships that fit us, but in doing so we are frequently acting outside of what is societally acceptable. We express needs, desires, and boundaries that are not commonplace. If we are solo poly, a boundary around never living together may be something we need. If we are asexual, we might not want to include sex in our romantic relationships. We might prefer certain kinds of contact, particular styles of connecting, to avoid financial enmeshment or to choose a platonic partner rather than a romantic one to share space at home with. These choices are valid, however uncommon they are, but they are also not socially sanctioned.
When we choose relationships that are not socially sanctioned, we can find ourselves experiencing shame or guilt for our choices. Worse, we can find that partners use societal norms to shame us. Whether that relates to the kind of sex we have, the kind of relationships we prefer or the gender presentation that we choose, it is not OK. Incompatibilities and erotic conflicts are inevitable in relationships. After all, we are all independent humans, and finding two of us that like the exact same things exactly the same amount all of the time is impossible. When tensions arise, it can be easy to resort to what other people think is normal.
I’d like to suggest taking a different approach. Rather than blaming someone for not acting in line with social expectations, I invite you to talk about your own desires and expectations: your feelings, your disappointment or hurt; your relationship agreements; what you want and need from the people that you’re closest to. This allows you to share vulnerability and create relationships based upon your connection with another person, rather than what the wider world thinks your relationship should be. Try to be mindful that just because your desire might be more commonplace than your partner/s’, it doesn’t mean that it is more ‘right’, or even more right for your relationship. It just means more people feel the way you do. Equally, if your partner/s’ expectations are more common, try to avoid thinking they should automatically get more weight. Working out what works between you will help you to create the relationship that you want, rather than the relationship that other people think you should have.