He and his fiancée never got married. I moved away. But we stayed close. It’s been almost a decade since graduate school, and he and I have not lived in the same state since. He has a partner and a family. I have a budding career in television and a busy social life. The last time we had sex was five years ago. (Ethically, that time!)

A while back, I texted him to see if he wanted to chat on the phone. I love talking on the phone and ask for it often. It was Monday. He said he was visiting his ill father but could do Friday. I agreed, but come Friday, he forgot. The business of travel and baby-needs and parental role-reversal had pushed me to the back of his mind. A lapse in care happens in all types of relationships. Someone’s feelings get hurt because there was a plan and someone else forgot. It’s normal.

But in these moments, with us, the level of effort needed to fix it can become confusing for the monogamist. If this scenario had happened with a wife, maybe there would be a short fight, followed by Uber Eats and a “Below Deck” binge. If this scenario had happened with a girlfriend, then perhaps flowers would be best to soothe the hurt. If it was with a friend, maybe just a recommitment to plans and a promise not to forget again.

But when he and I have a conflict or a disagreement, we can sometimes get jammed up trying to resolve it. Because I don’t use labels, and because he doesn’t know how to label me, it becomes easy for him to regress to a familiar scenario: I’m the side piece and he’s the unavailable object of my desire.

This impulse normally only lasts a moment while we untangle what it is we’re stuck on. And I don’t hold it against him. It’s hard to have a relationship with someone like me who doesn’t dress up her partners as recognizable personas. The anarchy makes people uncomfortable.

To me, all relationships are like those paper dolls we had as children. The figures are in their underwear and then you put different clothes on them for different occasions. The base level is the figure laid bare. The base level is vulnerability and intimacy. It doesn’t matter how you dress it up — mistress, relative, friend, girlfriend, husband, lover — the base stays the same. And if the base is good, it’s easy to understand how someone can start off in one set of clothes and end up in another. Some time ago, I just stopped using the clothes to label my relationships.

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