Open Relationships & Respectability: Who Cares What Others Think?
It’s been a little over a year since I entered into my first non-traditional relationship. In many aspects, it is much like the boilerplate, monogamous coupling that everyone is assumed to have. We make love, we fuss, we go out, we lay around the house in our undies threatening to fart on each other (everyone does that, right?). He and I are very “normal.” However, there are aspects that—while “normal” to us—would give others pause. I will admit, at times they give me pause too. Not because I’m uncomfortable with them, but because they go against everything I’ve been taught to expect in a relationship.
I was familiar with respectability politics long before I heard the phrase, and you probably were too. In its original context, respectability politics are the unwritten rules or ideas about how Black people should live positively; it defines “acceptable” behavior. For the sake of this post, I’m applying respectability more so to relationships than to race, though there is definitely a racial component to it. (I’ll save that for another post.)
Image: Robert Ashworth via Flicker
We’ve all read articles, watched relationship experts on television, and listened to our friends and family on what you should and shouldn’t tolerate from a significant other. It comes from their experiences, preferences and (very likely) their upbringing. This isn't necessarily a bad thing! After all, everyone—especially young people who are just beginning to explore romantic relationships—needs guidance to ensure that they aren't being taken advantage of. Knowing that it's okay to say "No, I will not accept this," or "This is what I want; I don't want that," is a great thing.
The issue comes into play when what you desire clashes with what you have been taught is "acceptable."
In many instances, the expectations of others have influenced how I have acted in past relationships. I didn't want to be one of those “silly” women my father would point out whose actions didn't align with his ideas of what a woman should accept. The principle of not seeming "too eager" had me not answering texts immediately, even though I wanted to and had the phone right there in my hand. Fear of being viewed as a doormat by people outside of the relationship has caused me to stifle my servile nature even though that is one of the ways I express love.
With the current boo, I’ve been able to let go of a lot of that. A lot of it is trivial, after all. But at times, doubt does creep in. After all, there is a reason why certain things aren’t considered acceptable… right? The biggest doubts come about when dealing with the issue of monogamy. Even though I’ve long held the view that monogamy isn’t natural or important to me, I wonder if others are right.
Do we not love each other if we occasionally get physical pleasure elsewhere?
A lot of folks would say that if I’m not the one and only, I’m playing myself, and because I’ve heard that all my life, a little voice in my head sometimes questions what we do. Then there’s the taboo nature of "The Lifestyle", with the added “Black folks don’t…” commentary that runs through the back of my mind.
And I’m sure this doesn’t just affect couples like us. Even “traditional” relationships can be affected by the expectations of others. What about the heterosexual, monogamous, vanilla couples that eschew traditional gender roles? I’m sure many of them have heard that even if the woman works, the man should be out working too. After all, many would ask, “what ‘respectable’ man lets his woman take care of him? What ‘respectable’ woman does it?” Popular opinions of gender roles span from this major issue to the minor, such as “the man drives, not the woman.” They are bound to hear judgments and possibly outright rebuke for the way they choose to conduct themselves within their relationship.
For me, the issue has been appearance. I wanted to look like I was in a nice, “normal” relationship. That way there’s no accusation of being depraved for being into the things that I am. But the more I think about it, the idea of a normal or traditional relationship is silly. After all every affair is nuanced, every individual is different. Without knowing the inner workings of every couple, who is to say what’s normal?
I’m in a happy, healthy relationship and that is what matters.
Respectability be damned.