How do queer adults have healthy friendships?
June 25, 2017 9:57 AM   Subscribe

When I get close to people, I start having powerful feelings for them. I'm married, bi, and my partner has no problem with me exploring these feelings. But I do, because I don't have an understanding of healthy relationships outside of the patriarchal hetero nuclear family. Please explain to me like I was 17 how to have healthy, queer, adult relationships.

I'm male, 30, identify as somewhat bi, married to a trans man. Trying to move past the relationship and gender rules I learned in high school.

Friend at work S. She was my best work friend. Then she told me she was moving out of the country, so I decided to get off my couch (I'm a couch potato) and hang out with her more often, while I still could. This led to her becoming my best friend. As we spent more late nights over alcohol together, we became very close emotionally.

I had periodic conversations with my husband about "Are you sure you're ok with me becoming so close to S?" "Yes, I like S, you shouldn't feel bad about being friends."

Earlier this week, Husband, S and I ended up in a drunken pile on the floor. Slowly drifting in and out of sleep, soft touches, kind words, music. Nothing happened, but afterwards, husband said to me " last night, it felt like anything could have happened.... and I was ok and excited by it. I love you and trust you and honestly if something did happen I'd be more worried about you than about me."

Also, I am seeing in myself some unhealthy reactions. Jealousy -that she spends time with other people. Guilt - that I have feelings for her. Shame - that I would fool myself that she has feelings too. Fear - that my partner will be hurt. I think I know the answer to this part, but I wanted you to know that this stuff is also in my head.

Now that you know the situation that brings on this contemplative state, I'd like to share some questions.

I want to keep exploring - not this relationship, because S leaves the country forever in a few weeks. I want to keep exploring a deeper level of what it means for adults to share love for each other. Everything in my head is suspect, but the loudest voice is yelling at me "MEN AND WOMEN CAN'T BE JUST FRIENDS"

If that were true, then that would imply that as a bi man I could never be friends with anyone.

How do queer, open minded adults have healthy relationships? What is the definition of "Healthy" for adults? What are lines that should not be crossed? What are signs that you're in too deep? Do those things even exist?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
What are lines that should not be crossed?

The ones you establish by using your words like a grownup. Then you keep your word, or you renegotiate with new words (but understanding that trying to change the terms of a relationship risks the termination of the relationship).

You keep using the word "friend" but then talking about things that do not fall under the "friend" umbrella for a lot of people. If by "friend" you mean "I might decide later I want to have a physical and/or romantic relationship" you need to say that up front as you're creating these relationships, so that the other person has the ability to affirmatively consent to those terms, or not. You should have been having that conversation with S on the regular, same as you were having them with your husband (who might have been a little disingenuously encouraging you toward something he wanted but wouldn't say). That's how people healthily manage relationships where multiple options are on the table because of orientation. They talk until their faces get tired, they don't take liberties, and they err on the side of conservative when boundaries have not been explicitly determined.

You are not only made up of feelings and whims. Having a feeling doesn't mean you have to (or can or should) do anything to manifest the desire. If the feelings you are having are at cross-purposes with the negotiated relationship you're having, you should decide a course of action that is most appropriate to the negotiated relationship. If the other person, for example, has said, "I am interested in a certain amount of emotional intimacy with you but not in a romantic or sexual sense" and you get the feels, you may need to walk back your involvement until you are able to handle it. (But you should have managed them so you didn't get in too deep in the first place.) You need to care about what they want, and you need to embrace and welcome and honor that you aren't entitled to anything they aren't offering you.

If what you're actually asking about is ethical non-monogamy, you should go look up that term for reading that will help you.

If what you're asking is "how do I not fuck my friends", you make choices. For many people that means you don't spend extensive alone-time getting drunk with them (for a lot of people, the relationship you described, especially once it reached the point you were repeatedly asking your husband for permission, that was an emotional affair and it's not okay in some relationships). Friendships happen at a certain distance if you're maintaining a firmer emotional monogamy, and the participants just choose not to do certain things together because those things aren't defined as okay or are pre-identified as risky. You have to decide up front for yourself what is and isn't okay, and then you have to decide it with your partner or partners (because yeah, there's poly relationships in which it would not be okay for you to have that relationship with S without serious discussion with her and the other partners too, these aren't just stuffy monogamy rules).

And I might not harp on this point so much if you weren't male-identified, but not everyone is for you even though you've been socialized all your life that they are. And I mean that in both directions: you aren't entitled to every person who enters your field of interest, and also you should beware of anybody forming that kind of relationship with you without wanting to be up front and open about what it is - without wanting your consent. Women, in particular (but by no means solely), are socialized and/or brutalized to read interest as approval, and people lacking a firm inner support infrastructure will sometimes take whatever they can get whether they really want it or not, for as long as they aren't challenged about their intentions. You have to watch out for those people who've identified non-traditional/non-mono spaces as fertile ground to get their needs met without playing fair. And you have to be careful not to be one of those, too.

Talk it to death, in short, is the answer. And be honest with yourself and your friends. Stay conversant with your own motives and those of the people around you. Don't have relationships you didn't agree to, don't have relationships by default rather than by agreement, and don't let people do that to you either.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:59 PM on June 25, 2017 [26 favorites]

If by "friend" you mean "I might decide later I want to have a physical and/or romantic relationship" you need to say that up front as you're creating these relationships, so that the other person has the ability to affirmatively consent to those terms, or not.

although I concur with your gender socialization points I must disagree on this, because a guy who says that is saying "hey, just so you know, I experience the full range of human emotions and when I have an emotion around you, I am going to make it your problem." I don't get the sense he's really doing that (yet?) but if he were, he should stop it, not warn for it.

If that were true, then that would imply that as a bi man I could never be friends with anyone.

It is easier to dismiss obviously absurd generalities than to address specific situations that may be genuine problems. in short, is this "I fall in love with all my friends so I must learn to address it" or "I want to seek out attractive people to fall in love with, so I must argue that it's bound to happen anyway" --?

I think my reaction is colored by your particular example being a woman. maybe you have the same issues with all your male friends, and you don't sound sleazy at all, more the opposite, but that's the thing -- do not let yourself create an idealized queer friendship space where you feel yourself exempt from the pressures and privileges that straight men traditionally exert over bi and straight women. If you do the same thing they do, it is the same thing, even if to you it feels different.

like for example, your husband said: I love you and trust you and honestly if something did happen I'd be more worried about you than about me."

that's great -- for you two -- but if I were a woman who fell asleep drunk on the floor with two men I thought of as friends, one of them attracted to me and the other one turned on by it, I would want someone to reserve just a little bit of their worry for me.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:43 PM on June 25, 2017 [15 favorites]

Howdy. As a non-monogamous solo not-exactly-straight person who would be thrilled to end up in a pile of guys if they were the right guys, let me say this: clarity is your friend. Clarity is not certainty but it is the opposite of fuzzy, magical thinking. Clarity is self-awareness, which is probably the better word. It is observing your feelings and your behaviour and noting to yourself the many different possible ramifications of these things and then deciding what, if anything, to do. Just letting things happen is not ideal, as you are discovering.

In Al-Anon one useful slogan is "Awareness. Acceptance. Action." Acceptance doesn't mean you approve of whatever you've become aware of. It just means you give yourself time to accept that the reality is the reality. If you don't like the reality, then you can make a plan to take action. Such as following Lyn Never's excellent advice to use your words.

It's not true that men and women can never be friends. It's also true that some men, some women, some folks who identify off the binary gender track choose to love (emotionally and sexually) more than one person at a time. The people I know who love several individuals at one time do not do this randomly. They do it thoughtfully, openly (in terms of their partners), and humanly. So sure, they crash and burn sometimes.

Whether you stay monogamous, become monogamish, go full fledged poly, or do something else entirely, it might be handy to have friends you don't want to fuck. Boundaries are important. Boundaries make all relationships better, no kidding. It sounds like you may have some issues around boundaries. You know what the MetaFilter approach that is, right? Therapy! A therapist certainly helped me in that and other areas. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 4:32 PM on June 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

if I were a woman who fell asleep drunk on the floor with two men I thought of as friends, one of them attracted to me and the other one turned on by it, I would want someone to reserve just a little bit of their worry for me.

Yes, this. Should have said I would be thrilled to end up in a pile of guys if they were the right guys and if I knew they were interested in me sexually as well as other ways. Consent and communication are key. Truly.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:34 PM on June 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

What you were describing there isn't friendship.
posted by Jubey at 5:56 PM on June 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

The crystal clarity and absolute honesty required of any relationship that attempts to navigate these waters is, in my opinion (and from my own experience), practically impossible to find and sustain.

This is not me saying, avoid these situations. I am just saying, how people truly feel, what they wants from one moment to the next, and what their motivations are, is difficult enough with two people. When another is added to the mix, the results can (and probably will) be amazing, awful, devastating, crushing, and every emotion in between. There is no map for this.

Bella Donna nailed it- Just letting things happen is not ideal.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:18 PM on June 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

How do queer, open minded adults have healthy relationships? What is the definition of "Healthy" for adults? What are lines that should not be crossed? What are signs that you're in too deep?

I think a useful search term here is boundaries, probably in combination with queer, bisexual, nonmonogamous, and other similar words. If I were to restate your question, it might sound something like "How do I, as an open-minded queer person, set healthy boundaries with others?"

I think a key part is being upfront about what you want, both with yourself and with the people in your life. This requires a great deal of self-awareness. The result is that you can distinguish among "This person is my friend, and I enjoy casually cuddling with them sometimes, but there's no romantic or physical attraction there" vs. "This person is my friend, and I love flirting with them but it's just for mutual fun, I'm not interested in actually dating them" vs. "This person is my friend, and I get butterflies when I look at them, and I love flirting with them and would like to pursue this further" and then act accordingly.
posted by danceswithlight at 7:49 PM on June 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

A big part of healthy boundaries is thinking ahead about how different situations will play out and choosing to participate or not participate.

For example, getting drunk and staying up late together is likely to lead to less inhibition, more flirting, and (potentially) an emotionally intimate experience depending on the circumstances. If you had a friend who you were interested in but who was "taken" (monogamous with a partner), a healthy boundary would probably include not getting drunk or staying up late together. Same goes for any setting or conversational topic that promotes intimacy. If the other person were to suggest such a situation, you could exercise your boundary by offering a different plan, or leaving early, or redirecting towards some other activity. It's a conscious choice between escalating vs. deescalating.

You could also arrange situations that would facilitate emotional bonding with someone you wanted to get close to. But the overall effect is predictable. It's not just waiting for "if something were to happen" by chance. Healthy boundaries means thinking ahead about what various social settings mean, being aware of your intentions, reading the other person's words and body language as to what kind of relationship they want with you, pulling back if you're getting a vibe that they're at all uncomfortable, and working towards something that feels good to both of you.

Men and women (and people of all genders) can be just friends. Usually it requires some emotional maturity to not act on every impulse that crosses your mind. But there's also truth in the idea that you can fall in love with almost anyone, given the right circumstances.
posted by danceswithlight at 8:18 PM on June 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

As a bisexual woman, anytime my straight coworker starts talking about how men and women can't be just friends I respond "that's why [our gay male coworker] is my only friend." So... maybe you need more lesbian pals in your life?

But seriously, it's okay to have some feelings in most cases when friendships deepen, but part of being an emotional adult is not placing the burden of those feelings onto other people unduly, especially if they think they're just having a friendly platonic time with their happily coupled friend. So all those comments about boundaries and communicating clearly above? Heck yeah you should listen to those, whether you want to keep it friendly or try to take a particular relationship deeper. Don't just make shit up on the fly while drunk. As a matter of fact, "no fooling around with my friends when I'm not sober enough to drive" might be a very good hard boundary for you to set for yourself.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:50 PM on June 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you’re worried that married adults “shouldn’t” have emotionally intimate relationships with other people. And in some marriages that’s true because of the limits the spouses have decided to maintain within their relationship. It doesn’t sound like that’s true in your case… you and your spouse are open to and feel safe having deep relationships outside of your marriage. Assuming you’ve talked that through in a functional way, I’m not seeing the problem.

If that is the case, it sounds like your main concern is having intense feelings that may not be reciprocated and which could hurt you. That’s kind of how things go when you’re dealing with deep feelings. You can protect yourself by maintaining tighter emotional boundaries, but that will also limit the intimacy of your friendships. You need to decide the tradeoff there.

And you need to keep in mind that the people you develop these relationships with have their own lives and their own needs too. Don’t limit them, for example by telling them that you feel jealous of the time they spend with other people, especially when you’re not offering a marriage-type relationship with them. Don’t suddenly cut them off for reasons related to your or your spouse’s fears; intimacy comes with responsibilities too, and that’s not fair to them.
posted by metasarah at 6:47 AM on June 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've had crushes on several people (male and female) in my life who, after the crush had died away, became some of my closest friends. I've said it here before but I think when you have a crush your brain can really easily mix up the signals of "omg I so admire and respect this person and want to be around them more" with "I want to share everything about myself with them and be romantically/sexually involved". And it can take a little while to untangle that.

So then while you wait to see what happens, I guess it comes down to a choice, and whether you (and your partner) want to explore a poly arrangement. For me, that's a no, so if I have a crush on someone I acknowledge it to myself, try to be mindful and keep it under control, and then wait for it to either go away or if I'm lucky develop into a really neat friendship.

If you feel like you have trouble setting those boundaries with yourself, OR, if you'd like to explore a poly lifestyle but are getting too much crosstalk from the "men and women can't be friends" voice (which is nonsense by the way), then get yourself to a therapist who can help you clear out those thoughts and conflicts.
posted by greenish at 7:47 AM on June 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

So the stuff you're describing here is actually a big part of why I'm nonmonogamous at all. I'm bisexual and AMAB (and my upbringing on relationship stuff was pretty standard-issue straight-guy stuff), and especially when I was younger I found a lot of my friendships wavering back and forth between platonic friendship and emotional affair.

I'm in a firmly committed bundle of relationships right now, with little time or energy for dating outside our little triad, and the attitude I've learned works best for me is "I'm not going to pursue anyone, I'm even going to do my best to avoid catching feelings for anyone, but if I do find myself with a mutual crush on someone -- or even starting to fall in love -- then it won't be the end of the world." Because that's the attitude my partners and I have negotiated, and the one that works best for us. Seeing one of them falling hard for someone new isn't a relationship-destroying gut-punch for me; it's not really a turn-on either; it's more like seeing one of them get SUPER INTO an expensive new hobby, where you're like "welp, this is going to be a time-consuming hassle for a while, but I bet if we handle it right it'll be worth it in the end and enjoyable for all of us."

The result, for me, is that I can make friends with people I might be attracted to and not worry that our friendship will destroy my life if it gets too intense. That doesn't mean I go diving headfirst into anyone's pants (or heart). It does mean if a friendship feels emotionally healthy in other ways, and isn't draining too much time or energy from the things that are most important in my life, I relax and give myself permission not to agonize over where it's going, but just to check in occasionally with myself and my partners.

Also, by cultivating this open-but-not-eager attitude towards new relationships -- we sometimes call it "low-bandwidth high-latency poly" -- I've learned that 99% of the people I have mutual crushes with aren't even that compatible with me, and that if we move slowly and keep our eyes open the crush actually evaporates on its own when we reach a point of obvious incompatibility. I've had gentle crushes that felt maybe-kinda-mutual on about a dozen friends in the last year. Most of those evaporated before "anything" "happened," as we got to know each other better and realized that we'd mostly been acting on wishful thinking or momentary physical attraction. Three of them turned into first kisses. Two evaporated at that stage, as I realized that taking things further with them would be messy and inconvenient and I preferred having a stable friendship with them to having a big question-mark of a budding casual relationship. One went farther and we had a few overnight dates before realizing that we were headed towards Big Serious Feelings and he didn't want that. In all of those cases we're still friendly with each other, and still able to hang out casually.

I think when you treat most of your crushes as Forbidden Fruit, you don't get that opportunity to learn for yourself about the natural lifecycle of a crush, and to see for yourself that most of them fade on their own. Either you smash your feelings to bits before they get a chance to fade, or you cling to them and keep them alive artificially with pining and imagination and magical thinking.

So yeah. Tl;dr: poly for me isn't about acting immediately and vigorously on all my crushes. It's about sitting back and letting those crushes blossom and fade on their own — and if every once in a while one of them doesn't fade, that's not an emergency and I'll discuss it with my partners and it'll all be okay.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:28 AM on June 30, 2017 [6 favorites]

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