Monday, May 21, 2012

Couple Dynamics in a Mononormative World

Marc and I recently spent a week in Vieques, Puerto Rico.  We were sitting out on the veranda of our hotel enjoying a glass of wine when a man and a woman approached the chairs across from us and asked if they were open.  We indicated the seats were available, so they sat down. 

Marc and I immediately struck up a conversation with them (you can take the kids out of New Orleans, but you can’t take the New Orleans out of the kids).  We introduced ourselves—let’s call them Brad and Angelina—and talked about where we were all from, what sort of work we do, where we’ve traveled, and other sorts of get-to-know-you without really getting to know you conversation.  Before long, the jokes and innuendo were flying, and we totally clicked.  They were attractive, smart, funny, fun, and seemingly pretty relaxed about things.

Neither Marc nor I said anything about being open, but at one point, Marc mentioned our blog.  The topic quickly moved to something else, so we didn’t have an opportunity to explain the content of the (this) blog or the ins and outs, as it were, of our open relationship. 

We exchanged contact info and made a plan to go to one of the remote beaches together later in the week. 

The next day, Marc and I were talking about how fun our evening with them was.  Marc said, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we lived in a world where, instead of us having to ‘come out’ as poly and open, they had to find the right time to let us know that they are monogamous?  You know, like when you meet someone at a bar you assume they’re single until they tell you otherwise.”

I replied, “I never thought about it like that.  Imagine what the world would be like if everyone was assumed to be open unless otherwise specified.”

“When should we tell them?”

I thought about it a moment.  “Well, do you think we should?”

“Hell yeah!  It might open the door to something.”  Marc and I often fantasize about meeting a sexy, open couple on our vacations, but it’s never happened.

“So we agree?  It’s a beach date?”

Marc smiled.  “Mmm hmm.”

The following morning, we received a text from Brad confirming our “date” on the beach.  Marc told him that we had made dinner reservations for four at a restaurant we had talked about and we’d love for them to join us for dinner after the beach.

Brad replied, “That sounds lovely.” 

I should mention here that the night we met, after parting, Brad and Marc had a text exchange that was, if not flirty, definitely full of hetero-masculine innuendo. 

We met them at the beach the following afternoon.  Marc and I were snorkeling when they waved to us from the shore, so we paddled our way over to our beach chairs.  We knew it was Brad and Angelina because there was no one else for miles.

Marc and I agreed that they were both attractive, but when they showed up on the beach I, at least, decided they were really attractive.  She was—how do the Brits say it?— quite fit and wore a bikini that dipped down in the back to reveal the indentation where her back meets her butt and covered only half of each cheek.  He was wearing regular guy swim shorts, but I couldn’t help noticing that, when he came out of the water, his shorts clung to the emerging outline of an erection.  It was lovely.

After we had settled in our chairs to listen to the surf, soak in some sun, and become better acquainted, Marc decided to do some more snorkeling and paddled off toward a distant reef. 

Brad, Angelina, and I chit chatted about my work, their work, Obama, and marriage equality.  I liked them even more when they showed their political cards.  At one point, they asked how Marc and I met.  I recounted the tale and then asked for their story.  After they described meeting on line, I considered telling them about my relationship with Scott (my lover) and how we met on line.  Uncharacteristically however, I kept my mouth shut.  I was really attracted to them and worried about freaking them out too early in our getting to know each other.

Later, when Marc and I were alone, I said that I almost told them about Scott.  He looked at me with surprise.  “Why didn’t you?  You should have.”

After the beach, we decided to have a drink at a bar we’d seen on the way in.  They asked about our blog, so we gave them the skinny on being open and poly. Brad said, “We’ve been monogamous, but I’m glad it works for you two. The most important thing is honesty, especially with your arrangement.”  “Arrangement” is one of my least favorite words to describe open and poly relationships. As if monogamy isn’t an “arrangement” between partners!

As we bid our temporary goodbyes until dinner, Brad said, “So, we’d like to have you over to our house for a nightcap after dinner.  Do you think you might be up for that?”

Marc and I looked at each other with grins that we’d exchanged before.  I answered, “Absolutely.  That sounds great.”

We parted ways to shower and get dressed for dinner. Marc and I were excited to be having a date with a couple we met on vacation.  A new M&M adventure!

For some reason, we didn’t discuss what our code words would be.  When we meet others in a situation like this, we arrange code words or phrases to indicate to each other that we are either interested in pursuing something more or ready to call it a night and go home.  (And no, we’re not going to tell you what our code words are! We will tell you, however, that in the case of wanting to call it a night, “I feel my rash chafing again” works like a charm.)

On the way to the restaurant, we wondered if they had talked about our “arrangement” and the possibility of being sexual with us.  It was definitely in the air the night we met, at the beach, and in the bar, but 1) they said that they were monogamous, and 2) we didn’t indicate that we were “swingers” (because we’re not) so group sex probably wasn’t on their radar.  They did, however, invite us back after dinner for a “nightcap” after the discussion of our blog.  We thought there was possibility there, but were tentative about what might happen.

At dinner, Angelina drank a lot.  This is sometimes a sign of interest, but also possibly an indication of discomfort with the situation.  There was some flirting, though it didn’t seem as open and seamless as the night we met.  When I told Angelina that she has a beautiful body, Brad’s eyes lit up with excitement and he looked with anticipation at her.  Blushing, she smiled and looked down at her lap.  When she glanced up, I smiled.  She held eye contact for a moment and then quickly shifted her attention to Brad to check his expression.  I couldn’t get a clear read on either one of them, except that they were feeling each other out about something.

We followed them back to the house they were renting.  It was a beautiful home on one of the highest points on the island.  We stood for a moment by the lighted blue water of the pool and took in the lights of the town below.  When I said something about how I prefer swimming in the nude, Marc said, “I’m going to need more drinks if that’s gonna happen.”  Brad laughed and said, “Well, what are ya havin’?”    

We sat in the living area with our cocktails and talked for a while.  It wasn’t the most scintillating conversation on anyone’s part and there were a lot of awkward silences quickly filled with Angelina talking about people we didn’t know or mundane details about food preparation, home decoration, and her desire for a baby. 

After an especially long and awkward silence, like a breath of fresh air, Angelina snapped out of her domestic stupor and excitedly said, “Let’s go swimming!”

With a sly grin, Marc said, “Sounds great, but we didn’t bring our swim suits.”

Jumping up, Angelina said, “That’s okay!  I’m only going to wear bottoms.”  She looked at me.  “Do you want to borrow a bikini bottom?”

Given she was 5’4” and weighed no more than 100 pounds, I wasn’t sure I could get into her bikini bottoms—at least not in that way, so I said, “Well, as I said, I’m cool with skinny dipping if that’s okay with everyone else.” 

Marc and Brad jumped up and made their way to the pool while Angelina skipped off to put on her bottoms.  I was out of my clothes and in the water before Marc and Brad had their shirts off.  I really do love swimming in the nude.  They stripped down to their boxers and jumped in.

Angelina—sporting a bikini bottom and top joined us as we frolicked in the cool water.  After a few minutes, Brad asked, “Is it okay if I take off my boxers?” 

He was asking Angelina more than Marc and me, but I enthusiastically said, “Please do!”  I could say it was a benevolent effort to make him comfortable, but in all honesty, I was interested in getting another glimpse of what outlined his swim trunks earlier at the beach. 

Brad looked at Angelina who shrugged and nodded.  Things were getting more interesting.  Off came the boxers, and with this new freedom, Brad got a bit more frollicky.  At one point he brushed my arm and quickly apologized.  “How weird is that,” he said.  “Here we are naked together and I’m worried about touching your arm.”

With this, Angelina wrapped herself around Brad and clung to him like a life preserver.  Marc and I followed their lead and snuggled up to each other.  Brad kept trying to move closer to us, but Angelina would scramble away, dog paddle to the other side of the pool, and Brad would follow.  Clearly, this was going to be a swim party and not anything else.

With chattering teeth, we all decided it was time to get out of the pool.  Angelina scampered off to change into dry clothes as Brad, Marc, and I dried off before putting on our clothes.  Brad confided in us that Angelina has a hard time letting go.  “She doesn’t really trust people.  It’s nice to see her getting a little crazy tonight.”

I wasn’t sure if he was saying that they’re open to being really crazy or if that was an indication that that’s about as crazy as it was going to get.  The signals from Brad were mixed but leaned toward a road less traveled while the signals from Angelina were less ambiguous and read as stop signs at every intersection.

Brad went into the house to find Angelina, and once we were alone, I asked Marc if he wanted to leave.  He said that he did, so when Brad and Angelina came out of the bedroom, we thanked them and said we were going.

When we said goodbye, Brad and I had a kiss that was a brief second longer than a simple peck while Marc and Angelina shoulder hugged.  I hugged Angelina and kissed her on the cheek while Marc and Brad shook hands.  We all talked about keeping in touch and having them visit New Orleans, but in retrospect, none of us believed it would happen.

On the way home, I told Marc that I was very interested in seducing them and disappointed that we didn’t make that more clear.

He responded, “It was obvious that they weren’t down with it, and to be honest, I wasn’t really attracted to Angelina.  It would have been a big mistake to make a move.”

“You never know until you ask.  Maybe they wanted us to seduce them.”

“I didn’t get that feeling at all.  Well, maybe Brad was into it, but not Angelina.  It would have been awkward.”

Thinking about it, I said, “They could have said ‘no’.  They’re adults.  It doesn’t hurt to make it an option.”

“I totally disagree.  I’m not okay with putting people in that kind of situation. And besides, I really wasn’t interested.”

Marc and I don’t have a whole lot of experience approaching or seducing couples on the fly.  Those we have been involved with we knew for a while and established a friendship first OR we solicited them explicitly on Craigslist so there was no ambiguity.  This experience in Puerto Rico with Angelina and Brad made us realize that, 1) We should always have code words so Marc could have expressed his lack of interest, and 2) We have different philosophies about seduction, especially when it comes to couples.

So, what was it like to be with a self-identified monogamous couple and negotiate the possibility of seduction?

The dynamics between two mixed gender couples is very complicated.  You are dealing with, not only the level of desire and interest of each individual involved, but also the impression each wants to convey to their partner, gender expectations, and the real possibility of homophobia. 

Unless a couple is open or has discussed the desire to be sexual with others, it seems that trepidation, caution, and prudence are the order of the day.  If one of the partners expresses too much enthusiasm, the other might be very threatened.  Now pile on top of that gender expectations—specifically that 1) a woman can’t be too enthusiastic less she’s read as slutty (especially by her partner), 2) a man can’t be too enthusiastic less he’s read as a dog (again, especially by his partner), and 3) men worrying about being perceived as poaching the property of the other guy.  Finally, the cherry on this cake of complications is the possibility of a group grope can invoke homophobia or a fear of a homoerotic experience in anyone involved, but I think, especially for men. 

All of this makes the negotiations extremely complicated, and all of these factors are part of the equation even when all involved have explicitly consented to the possibility of sex play and Marc and I have our code phrases.

And because of this level of complication, I don’t read ambiguous signals as a lack of interest.  Needless to say, the interaction with Brad and Angelina was really complicated and I read the ambiguous signals as perhaps more about lack of communication between them than lack of desire or interest.

From my perspective, complicated does not translate into “not worth it”.  I tend to like complicated, and I’m a big fan of seduction.  One of the things I enjoyed about the time spent with Brad and Angelina was the uncertainty combined with the flirt.  Flirting is fun when we meet a couple explicitly to pursue the possibility of becoming sexual, but when I desire someone (or someones) and I’m not sure the feelings are mutual, I find the playful exploration and “reveal” of desire, not only a huge turn on, but also really fun and interesting. 

In fact, I am perfectly happy with the flirt and don’t necessarily need or want to act on my desire.  It’s nice when the interaction becomes more physical, but getting on a good flirt with an individual or a couple is one of my favorite ways to spend an evening or day at the beach. 

Unfortunately, I think that, because of mononormativity, some might think that it’s wrong or immoral or selfish to flirt with and express desire for a couple.  One might conclude that it puts an undo burden on the couple to “deal” with their commitment to monogamy and confront each other’s desire for someone else. 

I don’t subscribe to this idea.  I don’t believe I am responsible for keeping others’ commitments to monogamy safe and sound.  I’m not interested in creating discomfort or discord in others’ relationships, but I’m also not responsible for discomfort or discord that emerges between two other people if I express desire for one or both.  I am, however, responsible for respecting and honoring boundaries that any individual or couple establishes.  Violating boundaries is not cool.

In retrospect, I wish I had expressed my desire for both of them at dinner or soon after arriving at the house.  To be honest, I didn’t because I didn’t want to hear them say “No” and kill the fun of flirting.  My bad.  That was perhaps selfish and disingenuous on my part.  I do not think I was sending ambiguous messages though. 
I also think, however, that Brad and Angelina could have been clearer in their signals to each other and to us, and they could have set up unambiguous boundaries or propositioned us (depending on what they wanted).   

If we didn’t live in such a thoroughly mononormative and heterosexist world, the idea of having a group grope would be on the table in a situation like this.  I mean really, if an individual invited another individual for a “nightcap” and midnight naked swim the possibility of sex would be obvious and each would have equal responsibility for clearly expressing desire and respecting boundaries.  Unfortunately, when it comes to negotiations with mixed gender couples that haven’t thought about let alone discussed this possibility, it often feels like all the responsibility falls on my shoulders—responsibility for seduction and establishing boundaries.  And that’s some tricky shit. 

It was great to meet new people on our (working for me) vacation.  I love the energy of striking up a conversation with people whom you think are interesting and clever (and some physical attractiveness doesn’t hurt, either).  I was pleased to receive text messages from Brad after we parted ways, suggesting that we all get together again…mostly from a “these folks are fun…let’s hang out again” standpoint. 

I did mention to Mimi that in a world that worked better for us, it WOULD be great if instead of US being the outliers, the monogamous folks would be the ones who have to “come out” as being monogamous, and us folks in an open relationship or those who are non-monogamous would be the norm.  ON a different, less drastic level, it would be nice if at least monogamy wasn’t a given…it would be nice to be in a world where, yeah, most people are monogamous (or claim or try to be), but being non-monogamous is not so unusual.

When we all met at the beach, I did notice that Angelina looked mighty fine in her bikini…nowhere near as hot as the lovely Mimi, but not bad at all.  I spent much of my time in the water, looking at all of the great undersea life while snorkeling, but what little of the conversation I engaged in, I enjoyed.  It was indeed liberating to “come out” as having an open relationship.  The response is often the same…”well good for you guys, but I don’ think I could ever do that.  I’m monogamous and couldn’t handle the jealousy”.  That’s pretty much what we got from Brad and Angelina, which was perfectly fine. 

The next issue for me that comes up is a concern that our new friends will automatically assume that we are interested in fucking them, simply because that sort of thing is allowed in our relationship.  I never know if people understand the difference between a horny couple of swingers (not us) and a couple who is a committed, open relationship (us), and I get concerned that their expectations and/or opinion of us changes with the new knowledge about our choices.  I do realize, however, that all I can do is be me, and they can think whatever they want to think. 

They accepted our invitation to dinner, and I did find it surprising that they pre-emptively invited us over for a “nightcap” and some pool action.  Mimi has already accurately described the situation at the house they were renting.  Due to the slow conversation, the fact that we had to be up early to catch our flight, the fact that I didn’t get the vibe from Angelina at all that she was interested in anything more than a swim, the fact that she got really pretty drunk and a bit emotional at times, and the fact that rum just generally makes me mellow and tired, I was ready to leave before we even got into the pool, but I was game for a new experience in a new place, so I was up for some night swimming.

You all know what happened after that.  I felt simultaneously bad that I let Mimi down, but glad that I was going to be able to head back to the hotel and now deal with some drawn out “will she or won’t she (or will he or won’t he)” scenario for the next 3 hours.  I’m definitely less interested in pursuing someone or a couple who doesn’t directly express interest in me/us in that way.  Seduction is definitely fun, but for me, it’s not so fun unless I have a good indication that it will lead to something, and I wasn’t getting that, especially from Angelina.

So, in the end, it was fun to hang out with some cool new people, and it was fun to imagine that maybe something would happen, but it just wasn’t the right situation for me to push for that “something” to happen.  Another learning experience in the lives of the 2Plus’ers.


  1. As my husband and I are new at the non-monogamous relationship, we really enjoy your blog. This one came at a really good time for us as we have been discussing how to deal with a similar situation where only one of a couple is interested in playing outside of the relationship. We agree with your philosophy Mimi, it is not up to the pursuer to keep the boundaries of someone else's relationship.

    Keep up the good work! We look forward to your next post!

  2. Thank you very much, SexyMuffy (love the handle, BTW!). While I don't feel that it is my responsibility to establish the boundaries for anyone else, I do try to respect them once they are made clear to me. Sexy couple we know have stated in no uncertain terms that they are strictly monogamous. While Marc and I still love to flirt with them (and I think they enjoy the flirting), I will not to make any moves or propositions until they let me know something about their relationship has changed.

    Thanks again for your comment and interest in the blog!