Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Magic Words Part 3: Using the 3 T's

t-square = love
Originally uploaded by mynameis shoe

Oof, too much traveling and midterms have gotten me way behind on posts! So much has happened recently. Kristin Scherrer of the University of Michigan has published a paper: Coming to an Asexual Identity: Negotiating Identity, Negotiating Desire. Badass that she is, she's also breaking academic turf on asexual relationships by looking at asexual polyamory, where things get mighty interesting. "This research illuminates the complications of categorizing relationships as monogamous or polyamorous indicating that new language is needed to appropriately describe the wide array of relationships humans form outside of this binary." No shit. I'm kinda shocked that it doesn't exist already. Kristin: if you read this blog can I see that paper?

In other academic news, Brotto's study is about to be published. I got a sneak preview and there's some fantastic stuff in there, lots of useful information about the community that I didn't know and lots of stuff that will lay a foundation for studying asexuality in the future. She's following up with another study on physiology that's going to lay even better groundwork, all super exciting.

I also want to give a shout-out to pretzelboy's excellent research on the history of asexual identity.

Right, so where was I?

Last time I talked about how to describe relationships without relying on categories like friendship and romance. Personally, I describe relationships in terms of time (how much time you spend in the relationship and what you spend it doing), touch (how you feel about the relationship and how you express those feelings) and talk or trust (what you expect from the relationship and how you arrive at those expectations.) I personally find this system incredibly useful. Not only do they get me out of the romantic binary, they provide a pretty versatile and useful system for understanding the important things going on in my relationships.

Take my relationship with R. "Friend" could describe the relationship, but with a brush so broad it's almost useless. If I think of R as just a friend I can't describe a lot of power and potential that our relationship has. R and I hang out once or twice a week, we do political things together, have esoteric discussions and spend a lot of time happily working or thinking together in silence. We hug hello and goodbye, and almost always express feelings about the things that we do together. We also get slow, awkward, deeply sweet conversations every few months about how we feel about one another. At the end of those discussions we usually wind up making commitments to one another, and we usually wind up keeping them.

Understanding these three things about the relationship gives me a much clearer picture of what's going on than the word "friend" does. "Friend" tells me that this is someone who I value. The Three T's tell me that this is someone who I value because we create a quite, reflective space in oneanother's lives. They tell me that the way I should express that value is through well-spaced discussions on hikes in the woods, and they tell me that the way to feel secure in that value is to treat the little commitments that we've made to one another as sacred. Good stuff to know.

The Three T's also give me a way to explain the relationship to other people without relying too heavily on the romance/friendship binary.
I could say that R is my "friend" or my "close friend," but neither would give an accurate a picture (neither would "partner"). Instead I can say that R and I "are close" and drop a few tidbits from the paragraph above. The essential details can get packed into a single sentence. ("R and I spend a lot of time philosophizing, we're not too affectionate but there's a strong bond there.") This provides a quick, accurate way to describe relationships that are in that murky area between romance and friendship without needing to delve into binary-busting theory or use awkward terms like "lady friend."

Describing relationships this way also sets a standard for talking about relationships with more precise language, one that many people pick up on and copy instinctively. Say I describe my relationship with R to Z. I not only give Z an accurate picture of an important relationship in my life, I lay some important groundwork. Let's say that as Z and I hang out and talk about our love lives, I develop a little bit of a crush. I start thinking that it might be interesting if this relationship headed into that gray area between romance and friendship for someasexy good times. Normally there would run into a huge language problem here, I would struggle to express to Z that I was interested in cuddling and intimacy but not sex and Z would get confused. Not anymore. In talking about our love lives, Z and I have already gotten some practice in talking about relationships outside of the binary. Maybe I'll drop a few other examples of relationships closer to what my lecherous asexual brain has in mind: "K and I get together to dance really, really cheesily and support one another in our life's ambitions. We're super physically affectionate, say that we love on one another and have a plan for where our relationship is going over the next two years." I'll be able to subtly communicate that I'm interested while using context to give Z a rough idea of what I'm interested in. Right now Z and I talk about our love lives, play soccer and spend a lot of time laughing. Maybe from Z's perspective adding some cuddling and verbal affection to the mix might not seem like such a bad idea.

In my experience Z doesn't have to be asexual for this to work. Once we've got our soccer, laughing, cuddling and possibly low-level commitments going on there's absolutely no reason for Z to suddenly need sex to keep the relationship going. If anything, sexual people in Z's position tend to be titillated at the possibility of getting so much intimacy WITHOUT being railroaded into sexuality. Even die-hard sexuals need a little asexiness now and then.

Last but not least, I've found the Three T's very helpful when thinking about growing my relationships. I've found that they tend to build over time and work in a cycle. Touch follows time, talk follows touch, and time follows talk. Let's take my imaginary relationship with Z. I've got this crush on my soccer buddy, what do I do about it? I can't just say "I like you, let's be grey-area relationshippy friend/lovers" and reach for a cuddle, dumping that much talk and that much touch on the relationship would be incredibly awkward. If I use the Three T's I can push the relationship to grow more organically.

Touch follows time. If I want to be more affectionate in the relationship I should wait until we've done something that we both have feelings about and then express those feelings. I'll start small, maybe making a point of always saying what I feel about the soccer we play together. Once that becomes accepted I'll start expressing feelings about Z as a person ("I can't get over you're jokes, you're too much!") and eventually start in on my feelings about the relationship itself ("Z, I just want to say that I'm really glad that we're spending time together. It means a lot to me.") The more emotionally expressive the relationship is, the more organic it is to express affection through touch and body language. Maybe we'll start out hugging hello and goodbye, will move to comfortably leaning on one another during during jokes and will be full-fledged cuddlers by the time we're talking about our relationship. That's not to say that this is a formula to insert touch anywhere you please. As you build touch gradually, you'll have ample opportunity to see whether or not the other person reciprocates. Listen to how they express affection so that you can get a sense of what they want and how they emotionally communicate. If they're not interested in a lot of cuddling they'll let you know by not reciprocating affection beyond their comfort level.

So we've got love and cuddles in our life, what about dependability? In a world where friends are often thoughtlessly discarded for lovers, trust can be a big challenge. How do you ask someone to commit to you without coming across as needy? (Warning: some awkwardness completely unavoidable.) In my experience, talk follows touch. Remember how in my relationship with R we would always make commitments to one another after those awkward conversations about our feelings? That's not a coincidence. Once everyone's expressed their feelings it's natural to make commitments based on those feelings. When my relationship with Z starts out these commitments are small, possibly just arranging the next time that you get together. As the relationship grows we can start committing to seeing one another on a regular basis, then talking explicitly about how we want to be a part of one another's lives.

Of course, as I make more and more commitments with Z we'll spend more and more time together. Time follows talk. At first that time will just be soccer, jokes and gossip, but as we express more emotion and learn more about one another we can start exploring all sorts of other things to do. The more we do, the more feelings we'll have to express about it and the more commitments we'll make based on those feelings. If you think about it this time>touch>talk cycle shows up naturally in conversation. It's common to end an afternoon (time) by saying "this was fun! (touch) Let's do it again! (talk)." How about "I love you! (touch) Let's get married (talk) and spend the rest of our lives together (time)." Is it me, or does "Let's spend the rest of our lives together (time) and get married (talk). I love you! (touch)" seem a lot more awkward?

That's it for now. I hope that this system makes sense. I've found it's a powerful tool for taking relationships to their full potential. The next question is: should you? The fact that you can delve into the murky depths of nonsexual intimacy in any relationship in your life doesn't make it a good idea. All of that nonsexual intimacy takes time, and you're an asexual with shit to DO. If you've only got a few hours in your week which relationships should you spend them on? How can you spend those hours building relationships that will make you and those you are close to balanced and happy? Next post I'll take a shot at those questions by talking about the magical world of community organizing. Stay tuned.


Adams said...

I'd also love to be able to read Kristin's article.

Ily said...

Thought-provoking as usual! I'm pondering all this...

Anonymous said...

Another blog to stretch the brain! I'm not--yet--willing to say that you're on to something, but I do value the thought that you put into these posts, DJ!

Anonymous said...

Pretty sweet. The 3 T's is a pretty interesting way of talking about all of this. Definitely makes sense.

I especially appreciated you talking about gradually building up relationships - that it's kind of an organic process. That's how all of my relationships work. They start off kind of slowly, & if I'm interested, I can start trying to introduce new things to that relationship. If reciprocated, that's how I build a more intimate relationship. It makes a lot more sense to me than the idea of being attracted to someone, asking someone to go out w/ you, & then introducing a whole bunch of emotions & affection & such into a relatively new relationship.

And have I commented at all on your recent blog posts? I'm not sure if I have. Either way, I totally support the idea of using
"relationship" rather than "boyfriend," "girlfriend," & "friend." Sometimes it can get a little tricky when talking to people b/c we're so used to saying "my this" & "my that." But it's also a lot more helpful to me.

Ily said...

I wanna know about the magical world of community organizing!

Hezaa said...

I think I've kind of unconsciously been doing this already, kind of jumping off when at the Drew University presentation you suggested that it was easier to get close to a couple than to individuals by themselves. That is how I got to know two of the wonderful men in my life this previous semester, one of whom I've already told you about.

I look forward to hearing about the magical world of community organizing. :)