Relationships: Learning From the Albatross
I’ve taken a break from finishing The Story of S, the serialized remembrances of my immersion in a weekend-long private bondage-and-domination tutorial in Santa Barbara, coached by an angel. I’m becoming overly saturated by the narrative; I’m no Marquis de Sade. And my agent thinks I should turn it into a novelette. That a story on this site might evolve into something more than just a post vests it with importance that is a glutton for time and thought.
Also, a related topic emerged while writing it: the timing of romantic relationships. My encounter with S was a one-off, always intended to be that; for a start, he lives in Maine — he was completing his doctorate in physical therapy at Santa Barbara when we met. He’s gone now. I doubt I’ll see him again. The relationship was intentionally ephemeral, strictly sexual, and that added to its pleasurableness; part of its ease was the lack of stress from expectation. But it wasn’t just a hook-up, either. It was a mayfly relationship that lasted a weekend.
In the first section of The Story of S series, I realize that I may have willed S into being. I have wanted to learn proper bondage techniques for a long time, but have never found the right sub with whom to practice. In the second part, I elaborate that I may have willed him into being because I feel my relationship with the man I call ‘the Primary’ is heading toward a new chapter, perhaps a whole new book, one that will be enhanced if I know how to tie him up, to give him what he really wants sexually, but has barely hinted at. I will go into this further in the third and final segment, when I actually discuss the Primary with S himself and confess the main reason for my need for instruction. If I believed more in free will and visualization techniques, less in determinism, I would believe that S manifested himself as just the right person at just the right time.
Timing. Its fickle, organizing chaos does have an appealing magic.
Most people wouldn’t tolerate the sort of relationship I have with the Primary. Much of the time, I can’t tolerate it myself. Sadly, he is more of a match for me than anyone I have ever been with, which makes breaking it off permanently difficult; believe me, I have tried over the past four and a half years since we met to do that many times. I can’t move him into the friend zone, either; I don’t fantasize about doing such pervy-filthy things with my friends, and I cannot stop fantasizing about him. It’s not just fantasizing, either: just the other night I had a deep-sleep dream about tying him up and tag teaming him with a former boyfriend of mine. And as time goes by I am only more ‘in love’ with him, whereas friends only become more comfortable, well-worn, beloved leather jackets.
This former boyfriend didn’t work out because of sexual compatibility issues: he’s a top and so am I; we bounced off each other like magnets of the same polarity. But there were timing issues, as well. When we met he was, like the Primary, a ‘transitional bisexual’ crippled by shame about his gayness. And from there emerges another characteristic that he shares with the Primary: they are both visual people with and elegant sense of style and behavior, and the general rainbow-flag-waving, boom-boom-diva-music, go-go-dancer gay world is loud and tacky and aesthetically offensive to aesthetes. All of this explains the former lover’s presence in my sexual dream about the Primary; they remind me of each other.
The Primary has at least one major personality disorder, characterized by extreme avoidance. When we first met, he would make out with me, tell me he loved me, excuse himself to use the bathroom, disappear for six weeks, and reinsert himself into my life by leaving a work of art outside my door, the profundity of which no other lover has ever created for me. The former lover also shares this avoidant trait, although not to the same degree.
I must be one of the few people who is relieved that the love of his life lives on the other side of the continent, that he sees him only twice a year. That’s how challenging the relationship has been. But things are evolving, I can see that now, getting incrementally better, the bond between us solidifying. While he is becoming more ‘human’ (his words), I have let go of all anger, resentment, insecurities, and moved closer to something approximating true unconditional love.
That mutual evolution is the only way the relationship will work. And timing is co-paramount with our evolution. Having met at the wrong time for both of us, we are now heading toward a critical mass, an event that will hopefully be kicked off with ropes and knots. Maybe, just maybe, we will have a chance of living happily ever after; it’s something we would both like, although we would never want the traditional notion of a relationship; our non-traditionalism is a part of our commonality, and would be a part of our shared happiness. Living happily ever after would certainly be a just reward for having endured each other’s bullshit all these years; although even he admits I’m more the good guy, or less of the asshole.
My fear now isn’t whether he loves me. I regret nothing more than having once believed all the friends spouting clichés like, “If he loved you, he would be with you” — that’s not what my instincts and my assessment of his personality ever told me, but I had trouble listening to myself. I have moved beyond the fear that I am too old for him, too; there is a twenty-one year age difference between us, a big enough gap that you start hearing your inner voice warn, “There’s no fool like an old fool.” I’m not plagued by any other of the hypersensitive person’s usual mental boogeymen, either, and they can be legion when the object of one’s affection is so opaque. Rather, my only lingering fear is that this mutual evolution is an asymptote, that geometric principle in which a curve bending towards a line to infinity never actually touches it. In other words, that we will always be Zeon’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, never catch up with each other, doomed to be forever out of sync.
That fear of the asymptotic relationship — and it’s a weak fear — is again based on certain cultural assumptions that we make about relationships. In the conventional notion of a relationship, if this relationship with the Primary were “meant to be,” we would be together by now; again, the wisdom of concerned friends: “If he wanted to be with you, he would be with you.” The thing is, we are together in our own way, even if we’re physically apart.
It’s not as if I don’t meet other men I’m attracted to both emotionally and physically. That’s why I call him the Primary; I have one or two secondary relationships at any given time, as does he. It’s not cheating; we aren’t committed that way, yet. But emotionally we are as bonded together as Tristan and Isolde or any other mythical couple whose standards are held up to us from childhood as paragons of what we must achieve or be forever failures.
NPR posted a piece yesterday clunkily titled Introducing A Divorce Rate For Birds, And Guess Which Bird Never, Ever Divorces? They excerpt a book by Noah Strycker, The Thing With Feathers, a section about albatrosses. Alone among their fellow things with feathers, these seabirds have no divorce rate, a rather convoluted way of saying they are one hundred percent faithful (they aren’t monogamous; they do have dalliances, secondary relationships). Not even penguins can match that.
The crucial point is albatrosses don’t just reach maturity and pair off quickly in some mating gathering like the famous, albeit misleading one in March of the Penguins. Yes, there is a gathering, but the pairing process can take years, and even then they have to grow together to become truly compatible for life. The growth is achieved by dancing together, developing a sequence of steps that is as unique to them as a couple as a fingerprint.
It takes on average fifteen years for an albatross to choose the right mate, to refine the mating dance. On an intellectual level that would seem reasonable; they will be together for decades. The oldest female Strycker studied was sixty-two and still hatching chicks. Given that humans have a similar lifespan and relationship expectations, shouldn’t we take our time as well?
Albatrosses often don’t see each other for long periods. They get separated at sea: “Even the most committed partners spend months at a time alone, without knowing what their mates are up to.” That is also quite germane to my relationship with the Primary: I often have no clue what he is up to a continent away. But I do not doubt his commitment — that is the strength of our dance as we have evolved it.
I have written before that monogamy is unnatural because it doesn’t exist in nature. I should rectify my statement to say that monogamy in humans is difficult because it is so rare in nature; most other primates are not monogamous, although a few are — they live in the safety of trees and are fiercely territorial. That’s not me. The human condition is particularly complex because consciousness makes us more individualistic in our behaviors than other animals. Therefore, monogamy isn’t so much unnatural as it is too rare to be held up as an ideal for everyone — yet in most cultures it is.
My young nieces, for instance, are being taught from an early age what a ‘normal’ relationship is, even if that includes the possibility of divorce. As a consequence, they struggle to understand my relationship with the Primary as much as anyone else close to me. The eldest niece is particularly conflicted because she sees with a child’s clarity that the Primary and I love each other. In a recent, unprompted, heartfelt monologue delivered directly to the Primary that began with, “What is wrong with you?” she noted how compatible we are in the way we flow with each other, in the way we present ourselves outwardly, even in the way we smell, apparently. She adores him, but thinks his behavior is “unnatural”; again, this opinion is based on assumptions that arise from her conditioning. The best I can do at this time in her life is explain that I am not normal myself, so why should I have a normal relationship? There is some basic logic to that argument, definitely enough precedent for it among artsy folk to make it valid — c’est la vie bohème, sweetheart. You’ll see.
I like to believe that the Primary and I have had a reverse romance: The tough times were stacked at the beginning; the relationship is getting easier. We began divorcing, now we are moving toward true union.
Most non-arranged relationships begin pleasantly lost in a fog of love. As the relationship becomes more routine, the fog lifts. That is when most people start their albatross dance together, and more often than not discover they are out of step. By contrast, my relationship with the Primary only grows richer, more intense, more exciting, yet far less complicated. Or rather, we know the steps well enough that when we tango, we glide across the floor with the ease of pros.
Normal or weird, most of us are like the albatross. It’s difficult to find the right mate. I’m merely obvious because I am so different from most people that it would stand to reason that I am destined for a relationship as unusual as I am. I consider myself lucky because my expectations are not that I will have a conventional relationship. But others fall into despair because they can’t find love as easily as they can change cell phones, to name a random convenience; relationships aren’t dispensed in vending machines. And when they do find it, the rush to monogamy often leads to disaster and eventual separation.
Sometimes the dance of the albatross is quick; a lucky few find the right life partner immediately. More often, people should deploy strategic patience and wait it out, and practice their moves to make sure they are in sync, that they flow together. Relationships in big cities are such a struggle because of a combination of too many distracting options — and those options increase exponentially with one’s physical appeal — together with the lack of time to discover each other properly, to practice those dance moves.
Often the dance falls apart even if you’ve been doing it a while, and that’s a good thing no matter how painful the crash. Increasingly, people find themselves alone either for long periods or for the rest of their lives. That’s a good thing, too; it’s far better to be in a reasonably healthy relationship with yourself than in a terrible one with someone else. It’s even worse if that relationship is Crazy Glued together by marriage, finances and children.
Against all logic, we seek fidelity with a single person. Even the albatross hangs that expectation around our necks. There is wisdom behind the notion that we lead longer lives now and shouldn’t shackle ourselves to a single person, but rather a series of people. Forget the albatross, we’re not birds: divorce is normal, divorce is healthy. What isn’t healthy is enslaving yourself to an unrealistic ideal. Don’t get me wrong: no matter how hardass and brutally practical I am, I aspire to romance as much as any soap-opera fan, enough to endure substantial hardship from the Primary.
I do know from experience of failures and successes that timing and time are key to achieving the chimerical ideal of lifelong love.
I have so much more to say about this, so many personal anecdotes and musings, so many observations of other people’s relationships to relate. And tangential questions arise, too: If lifelong union is the ideal, why to so many cultures sanctify celibates? Discussion is heartily welcomed.
A lot to think about, but the “wait it out” method is something I needed to hear just now. Thanks (seriously).
@Bernard Marx And thanks for reading and commenting. It’s important that I know I am adding some value and guidance. You bare your soul, shoot it off into the internet and hope for the best.
jkillough I read everything you do and I’m a big fan. You take a scalpel to all the conventional ‘wisdom’ and provide radical thinking insights for me socially and in terms of behaviour. Please keep it up. Also dead right on cinema, (however not so sure about Sons of Anarchy). Pleae keep it up, I’ll listening from Ireland. xx