I am interested in creativity in every area of life. What’s interesting to me is that even highly creative people often lose their originality when it comes to love, sex and relationships.
I have a pretty good sense of why that is: For over 50 years we’ve burdened this area of our lives with unrealistically heavy expectations. I see it representing a crucial place of belonging for many people.
During the 20th century, we’ve seen communities breaking down in many other areas: organized religions are in a steady decline; corporations are moving from paternalistic and potentially nurturing environments to greedy, hostile ones; local neighbourhoods are becoming less safe and people more distant from each other.
With so few places where people can belong, it’s not surprising that we look more and more to our intimate relationships to satisfy this deep human urge.
And herein lies the problem, when we invest such hope and need into our sexual connections and loving relationships, we burden them with a weight they aren’t designed to support.
I notice that when people are anxious, stressed or over-invested in anything, they lose their ability to be creative and to think for themselves about how they want those things to be.
As I see it, there are two standard options, the default ‘relationship boxes’ available to us in the mainstream way of thinking. The first box is labelled "Free & Single" with no significant ties or commitments, we enjoy connecting with as many people as we like, revelling in the feeling of independence and freedom that comes with it. The second box is labelled "Monogamy Till Break-Up Do Us Part" (aka serial monogamy). We find someone special and let go of our slutty singledom to commit to this relationship, enjoying the depth and security that it offers.
The advantage of slutty singledom is that we enjoy feeling free and untethered. The disadvantage is that our connections often lack depth and intimacy, and loneliness frequently knocks at the door, reminding us that we don’t have anyone for whom we’re special.
The advantage of monogamy is that we can go deep with one person, feel secure in our connection and enjoy having someone special in our life; the disadvantage is that often we feel trapped or bored by this, and eventually break the commitment to give slutty singledom another go.
In the struggle to find the right balance between freedom, security and depth, we tend to jump from one box to the other.
When we satisfy our need for the freedom we sacrifice depth, and when we satisfy our need for depth and security we sacrifice freedom. So how do we find a middle way between the rock of monogamy and the whirlpool of singledom?
The key is to activate our creativity. The first step towards this is to begin dismantling the boxes we’ve been squeezing ourselves into. We don’t need to destroy them altogether, as some of their components might be useful to us; and at the same time, since most of us don’t fit into these boxes, we need to create our own. Which parts of each box do we keep and which parts do we relinquish? And how do we find the balance of freedom, security and depth that’s just right for us?
One invaluable tool for creating our own relationship boxes is to break out of our needs. Often we put a whole bunch of needs into whichever box we’re in, particularly when we’re in the monogamy box. We want security and freedom, tenderness and passion, domestic comfort and excitement. Naturally, this is a big strain on any relationship, since it’s unlikely to be able to support so many contradictory needs and desires.
Breaking out our needs is a great starting point. I sometimes even recommend being literal and making a list, which might look something like this:
Just making this list is an act of courage, because it acknowledges that I’m someone with needs and I’m worth investing in. Often this process of breaking out our needs can bring a lot of stuff up for people and reveal to them where they’re lacking self-worth or the belief that they can really have what they want.
Once we have our list, we can start looking at where certain needs are already being satisfied. Perhaps, for example, we didn’t notice that our best friend is someone we can be vulnerable with. Close friendships are just as precious as sexual relationships and they’re often hardier and more enduring. When we recognize that we already have an important need met in an existing relationship, we can honour that relationship more fully and invest more time and effort into it.
The process might also reveal that some of our relationships are no longer really serving us. We might realize that certain friends or social groups don’t satisfy any of our current needs: perhaps they did before, but these days we remain in them through habit and shared history. When we realize this we don’t need to do anything drastic – I’m a great advocate for gradual change rather than a drastic overhaul – but it really helps us to focus where we’d like to invest more energy and where we’d do better to withdraw it.
Once we get clear on our wants and needs, we can start getting creative about how to fulfil them. An example from my own life illustrates this. About four years ago I broke up with a long-term partner I’d be in a non-monogamous relationship with for six years. The relationship had turned sour a couple of years before and the break-up was bitter. Coming out of it, I knew that I didn’t want to be in another committed relationship for a while: it felt important for me to fully experience being single for the first time in nearly thirteen years.
I soon identified that one of the things I missed most was physical affection. I simply love cuddles and I feel malnourished, even starved, without them. Since my previous partner had provided most of my cuddles for over six years, I was pretty bereft at not having a way to satisfy this important need.
Around the same time, I grew close to a friend who was also single. We had a bit of a spark between us and things could have easily become sexual, but we both knew that we wouldn’t thrive in a relationship if we were sexual with each other. So we agreed that we’d be cuddle buddies instead, and for the next few months, we met regularly for cuddle dates. We agreed that we could be sensual, touch each other anywhere except genitals and breasts and that we’d stop just short of French kissing. It was a revelation to me that this type of friendship could exist, and that we could hold the sexual tension between us without acting on it. We had some amazing dates, spending hours naked in bed together, cuddling, kissing on the lips but not on the mouth, stroking each other, sharing secrets, falling asleep in each other’s arms.
Since then I’ve had a number of relationships move into this space, which I call ‘sensual friendship’. Even now, when I’m in a new long-term relationship, I recognise that satisfying my need for physical affection with a variety of people takes the pressure off my primary partnership. And since each person is so different, both physically and energetically, having several cuddle buddies simply adds variety to my colourful love life.
The key thing here is to be creative and stay in dialogue as things unfold. Things change over time: we may start sexual and end up sensual friends; we may begin as colleagues and end up as best buddies; and myriad other possibilities and configurations. By staying in touch with what’s happening, talking about it and being creative about how we want our relationships to be, we can fulfil more of our needs with less pressure on each connection.
When we get in touch with what we really want and start being creative about how we fulfil these desires, wonderful things start happening. As a teacher and purveyor of authentic desire, I’m consistently amazed and delighted by the huge shifts people make when they begin to approach their lives this way. It’s like we start saying “I’m someone who deserves to have the life I want.” This is a huge step in the right direction because everything in our society points us away from this place of confident entitlement and self-respecting assurance.
Once we start believing this, we come across differently to others. We become one of those ‘special people’ who seem to get what they want with ease and grace. Things start falling into our laps and we are grateful for every gift. We become kinder and more generous because we already have so much of what we need that we’re happy to help others fulfil their desires too. And we sleep better at night because our life is fuller, richer and more satisfying than we ever imagined it could be.
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