Thursday, May 7, 2009

Stocking the Lifeboat

Challenges tend to focus one’s mind, and the sharper the challenge, the sharper the focus. If it’s serious enough, you quickly strip down to what’s essential, and jettison (at least temporarily) the superfluous. While you may prefer not to have had the challenge, you still get the benefit of the sorting.

The other day my partner, Ma’ikwe, disclosed an interest in becoming lovers with one of her community mates at Dancing Rabbit, and that’s led to a lot of sorting the last few days. In particular, I’ve been looking at whether this represents a threat to my Relation Ship with Ma’ikwe and, if so, what would I place in the lifeboat.

While not yet a consummated act, things are now at the stage of open discussion with all the key players, including the prospective lover’s primary partner. While things are quite fluid, and could unfold in a wide variety of ways, I’ve given Ma’ikwe full permission to proceed and I’m finding it instructive to do my sorting in the projected reality that this is a done deal. Though this represents a bit of jumping ahead, it’s the most interesting case. (If Ma’ikwe’s hopes for this new intimacy unravel, my main role will be to succor her in disappointment or frustration, which seems relatively straight forward by comparison.)

Fortuitously, I have a couple travel days ahead of me on the California Zephyr, inbound from the West Coast. With no cell phone and no Internet service, I have the opportunity to reflect and journal before meeting up with Ma’ikwe on the train platform in Ottumwa Friday morning. Here’s what I’ve been sorting:

Am I being a good partner?
I’m not sure. In the context of open relationships (where there is permission for partners to have other lovers) here are my responses to some predictable questions:

If I truly loved my wife, wouldn’t I demand monogamy, to protect my precious investment?
I don’t think that way. For me, love is about paying attention, accurately seeing the other person, and unconditional giving. It’s not about how tightly you can interweave your lives or establishing how devastated you’d be if you lost your partner. It’s about how far I extend my trust, not about how high I build the wall.

Do I need restrictions on her time or activities with her new lover to feel secure about my relationship with Ma’ikwe?
No. The health of my relationship with my wife is based solely on what she and I create; not on what she creates with others.

Am I jealous of the new lover?
No. I am curious about what Ma’ikwe will get from the new relationship, and it will surely hurt if her excitement with the new lover translates to diminished excitement or emotional availability with me—which is a possibility. However, I don’t see how any attempt on my part to prohibit or limit her access to other lovers will increase the quality of her life, or that of our relationship. I don’t believe that intimate energy is a finite quantity with only so much to go around, and thus I don’t see her investment in the new relationship as a withdrawal from ours. While there’s no doubt it could go that way, there’s no advantage to my projecting it that way.

Am I confident that this will go well?
No. Adding lovers always introduces a chaotic and complicating element and this has the potential to be highly destabilizing (mind you, it doesn’t have to be destabilizing; I’m just looking at the downside). On the other hand, I didn’t check the “Play it safe” box on my What Kind of Life Do You Want questionnaire (when being interviewed for induction into this vale of tears). Leading an examined life means being willing to take chances, and being at risk for pain. It goes with the territory.

In my view, being a good partner means doing what you can to support your partner’s happiness—even when that means supporting her having other lovers.

Am I doing what I want with my life?
A key factor in this equation is that Ma’ikwe and I don’t spend much time together. We live three miles apart and I’m on the road half the time. My guestimate is that we’re together only 75-90 days of the year. We each live in the community we want to be in, and I am satisfied I’m doing the work in the world I feel called to do.

It’s not hard to appreciate Ma’ikwe’s desire for more intimacy. She’s a vibrant woman and excited to be actively involved in the development of her community. It’s natural to desire an intimate partner who is more available and who shares in that work. Her new lover is both, and this presents as a significant enhancement in her life.

Ma’ikwe’s desire for a new lover brings right to the surface a pair of questions I’d rather not face. Though Ma’ikwe is not asking me to make a choice, I am compelled to look at two possibilities:

A. If it came down to a choice between my travel and the marriage, what would I do? As painful as it would be, I’d give up the marriage. It would hurt like hell, but if I gave up my work, I would resent the marriage and, in the end, I’d have neither. It’s crucial to me that I make a serious attempt to contribute to a better world; it’s optional that I have a happy marriage. (Of course, it needn’t be all or nothing, and it’s reasonable to discuss whether I could travel less, yet I’m nonetheless clear about the relative weight I give these two enormous pluses in my life.)

B. If it came down to a choice between my community and my marriage, what would I choose? This one is harder, and I’m not sure. My two-year marriage to Ma’ikwe is precious to me, yet so is my 35-year marriage with my community. If I had to give either up, it would leave a big hole. While I’m relatively confident I’d live through it, I’d rather suffer the loss of neither if at all possible.

In sum, I am at peace with the main choices I’ve made in how I apportion my time, and I’m fervently hoping I won’t have to make either of the choices I’ve enumerated above.

How bad can it be?
When I look into the darkest hole, it’s losing my wife. While I know that’s not her thinking, and I don’t believe it’s the probable outcome, it’s a possible outcome. Her hunger for more intimacy may widen into the realization that she made a mistake with me. At the end of the day it won’t matter whether it was because there was not enough quantity or not enough quality; any flavor of “not enough” is still not enough.

To be sure, Ma’ikwe has done her best to reassure me about the seaworthiness of our Relation Ship—and I believe the sincerity of her remarks—yet it’s important for me to sit with the full range of possibilities and not attempt to scare away the boogie man by whistling as I hike through the dimly lit forest of my future. In truth, I don’t think I’m any worse off today than I was last week, before Ma’ikwe revealed her buregoning interest in a new lover. It’s just that now the uncertainties—which were always there—more vividly haunt my consciousness. (Would your mind be free of pachyderms if, out of the blue, I gave you the strongest possible assurance that there were no rogue elephants at large in the neighborhood?) While I ordinarily give no attention whatsoever to contemplating life without Ma’ikwe, now I am.

These last few days I am seldom far removed from feeling my way into the tenderness of a partner-less future. Uncertain of the prognosis, and powerless to do anything about it as I chug home across the Sierra Nevadas, I cannot cease returning to the ache evoked by the thought of being de-selected. Though an unlikely future, I feel compelled to look fully into the dark corners and see the worst—rather like worrying a throbbing tooth by running my tongue over it repeatedly, as I anxiously await an appointment with the dentist. Hoping that it is something minor, I brace myself for bad news.

What do I need from Ma’ikwe?
The first thing is honesty. Fortunately, I have every confidence that I have that already, and that it will remain a constant feature of our partnership. Ma’ikwe has been solid in keeping me apprised of developments. She values honesty as well as I do, and I have no qualms in this regard.

The second thing is a commitment from Ma’ikwe that she’s only with me when she wants to be. If she’d rather be with her new lover (or alone), I’d rather that’s what she does. It’s important to me that I can count on her presence being volitional, rather than something motivated by a sense of obligation or guilt, or some need to balance.

To be sure, our time together will change. For one thing, I now expect that some non-trivial fraction of our hours will be devoted to her finding a way to share what she feels is appropriate for me to know about what’s happening with her new lover, what her feelings are about that, and satisfying herself that she’s made a good faith opening for me to disclose what this brings up for me. This is a new item in the garden of our relationship, and while I was not expecting those seed to be sown, that crop will require regular cultivation to keep the weeds down. As I reflect on this, I am confident that Ma’ikwe will be diligent with a hoe.

How can I best support Ma’ikwe right now?
Three things occur to me. First, to be as transparent as I can about my responses to what’s going on (whence this blog). In addition to showing up authentically for conversations about this, I need to do my homework and not duck the tough questions. Perhaps the hardest challenge for me will be to remain available and open. There’s a part of me that wants to disappear (just drop me a line when the fireworks are over and let me know if our Relation Ship is still riding high, or if there’s been damage to the hull), yet I know that the situation calls for me to be bigger than that.

Second, to be as low maintenance as possible, giving Ma’ikwe the chance to thoroughly enjoy this exciting development without distraction from me. This is not about suppression, or masking; it’s about not being self-centered or reactive. Because this calls for a degree of mindfulness that may stifle spontaneity and ease, this can be a tricky line to walk. Nonetheless, I think it’s incumbent on me to try. I’m approaching this as a meditation, and reminding myself of the Vipassana mantra that each person is the source of his or her own misery. My job is to stay out of the pit.

Third, to join in her celebration and joy in the exploration and rush of fresh intimacy. The start of a new relationship is a magical and ephemeral time, and I want Ma’ikwe to be able to ride that wave all the way to its natural end.

What does Ma’ikwe having another lover say about our partnership?
The obvious initial observation is that she wants more intimacy than she’s getting from our relationship, and she’s manifested an opportunity to address that. While there’s some hurt for me around her having gotten this far in setting things up with her prospective new lover without first more thoroughly exploring the topic of what’s missing for her in our relationship, I am sure there was no hurtful intent.

It is in relation to this question that the lifeboat metaphor most applies. I have committed to a life where I am on the road a lot, and Ma’ikwe and I have crafted a partnership where we don’t live in the same place. Combined, this means we’re separated far more than we’re together. As there’s not much wiggle room around how many days we can spend together, I’ve been focusing mostly on what I can do to enhance the quality of the intimacy we create in the opportunities we have.

Happily, I think there’s a lot I can work with in that regard, most of which distills to four admonitions:
—Laying aside the other parts of my life to be fully present to Ma’ikwe whenever we’re together.
—Asking as little as possible, and giving as much as I can.
—Being available sexually with minimal reservation.
—Being as flexible as possible about how we spent our time together.

If, in the end, Ma’ikwe seeks intimacy more and more with others, then I want it to be because my best was not good enough, rather than because I was not paying attention.

No comments: