Rethinking Relationships: On Distributed Intimacy

Sometimes, I think of all the modes of intimacy I have in my life — the banter with folks at my coffee shop, some of whom I've known for over 16 years, others I've just met; a run-in with a long lost childhood friend while visiting parents; a smile from the girl at the market which makes me weak in the knees; a Facebook post about Derrida and me from a former student; a Skype consummation with a woman I've never met in person that is so erotic I am laughing and giddy for days; a massage from the same masseuse I've seen for years and with whom I experience physical, exisential, and emotional nurturing; a texted image from my friend in Brooklyn, showing him floating on the Cape Cod ocean; my eight year old son climbing into my bed for some morning cuddles; conversations with my ex-wife about my son, discussing things that I could not possibly discuss with anyone else and that have the weight of eternity in them; cocktails with one of my best friends, gin fueling insights into Deleuze at a dizzying pace; this list is as infinite as life. 

I am a node within this vast, ever morphing dynamic of connections, these flows of touch and affect and knowledge, of profound resonance, dissonant irritation, misundertanding, orgasmic satiation, of longing, fear, hate and, yes, love — so many loves, so many kinds of love, so many modes of love.

And yet nearly every song, every moronic Hollywood movie — even Howard Stern's Private Parts —, every idiotic television show (this was Seinfeld's greatest contribution: breaking this model), my mother's prodding questions, even my own self assessment —that devil in my head — tells me the same thing: I gotta find that one person. Within the glorious teem of intimacies that is my life, I am supposed to be looking for one — one person who has to fill an insane number of roles — best friend, confidante, hang out buddy, lover, co-debt holder, cohabitator, co-sleeper, co-bathroom user, co-parent.

I known I'm not the first to say this — there is a chorus from Heraclitus to Leibniz to Guattari  — but I'll say it again: the one is a pervasive belief, insidiously permeating everything from our notions of the divine and the nation to identity and love itself. One god. One unifying theory of everything. One right answer. One me. One love.

This is our assumed goal: to find, and secure through whatever means necessary, that one person we can call our own. This is the story we tell ourselves over and over again. This is what we imagine is necessary to be happy. We even think it's sweet.

Now, I've had long term relationships with one person. I was even married for 13 years. But I'm thinking it's time to jettison this assumption and entertain a different model. I've done it with philosophy, literature, film, and art so why not with relationships? Just as I believe in distributed networks of identity, I will think of distributed networks of intimacy.

So rather than considering my life in terms of my proximity to this one — Are you seeing anyone? Is it serious? asks the narrative in the form of my mother, my friends, my own head — I now imagine something else entirely: an endlessly shifting distribution of intimacy.

Now, I am not talking about polyamory per se. Frankly, to me, that sounds so complicated. Which is not a moral or aesthetic judgment. The great Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, tells us we should consider the strength of our shoulders before deciding whether to become a wrestler. This is how I feel about what people call polyamory: my shoulders aren't strong enough. I am not talking, then, about sex with different people — I, for one, believe sex gets better when done with the same person for a while.

No, what I am talking about here supersedes both marriage and polyamory. I am talking about a model that embraces all the different modes, all the possible architectures, of how we can relate and exchange intimacy. I am talking about a dynamic architecture where the intimacies of strangers, lovers, neighbors, and family flow. And, no, it is not a spectrum that runs from the casual conversation to the committed sexual relationship. It's not a spectrum but a network. 

This is not to say that all  relationships are, or should be, equal. That's silly. As in any network, such as the Inernet, there are multiple nodes of differing intensity. We don't just visit one website; we visit different sites for our different needs.

And I by no means want to belittle or dismiss that beautiful enchantment that comes when you first fall in love and all you want do is be with that one person, touch that one person, shower that one person with everything you have. That is one of the great gifts of being alive.

But that intensity relaxes and our attentions become more dispersed. And I'm suggesting that rather than think of this as a bad thing, let's consider it a beautiful thing: the beauty of ambivalence, of multivalence, of the great complexity of life. I want a more generous architecture, a more giving model: one that proliferates and enjoys all modes of intimacy rather than reducing and owning it.

In the graphic novel, Paying for It: A comic strip memoir about being a john, we see Chester Brown move from pyramid to network. In the beginning of the book, he's living with his girlfriend. But she falls in love with another man. Chester's not jealous. In fact, he's content with all the forms of intimacy he enjoys from friends — and even gets along better with his now ex-girlfriend.  Of course, all his friends assume he's repressing his hostility.  But he's not jaded or afraid or angry. On the contrary, he's brave — and simply content.

He decides he doesn't need another "relationship" in which both parties are owned by the other. But he does miss sex. And so he begins paying for it. Over time, he finds his way through being a john and, at the end of the story, he's been in a monogamous relationship with the same prostitute for six years. They are not boyfriend and girlfriend. They do not live together. They have sex; he pays her.

But this doesn't mean they are not intimate. While they might not have the intimacy that comes from seeing someone shit and sleep for 20 years, they still have intimacy — not a greater or lesser intimacy. Money doesn't necessarily sully the relationship or make the intimacy fake. In fact, money can liberate both parties from the destructive mayhem of jealousy, judgment, and sentimentality.

The logic of the one love is the logic of ownership. Perhaps, ironically, paying for intimacy actually shifts this ownership dynamic.  I am not saying there are not ownership relationships in the sex trade. What I'm saying is that paying for sex does not necessitate ownership and, in fact, allows for a dynamic free of the ownership model that defines the one love model. (This is a discussion for another post at another time.)

At different times, different people account for more of my time, more of my thoughts, more of my desire, appetite, my longing and love. At different times, different people provide me with different kinds of intimacy — some that touch me deeply, some that grace the surface, exquisitely. There is not just one person who does it all for me. Why would I even want that? Just as I flow, I want my modes of intimacy to flow with me. 

I know this is not easy. That we can all be emotionally fragile, sensitive, needy. Basing relationships in flows rather than promises is risky, scary; people will get hurt, including me. 

But I want to be more ambitious. I want to be brave — so brave that I don't need the "ego boost" of having one woman who calls me her own (Chester Brown). Nor do I want to be so principled that I deny such a thing should it arise. I want to be so strong and effusive that I need no one but desire many. I want to be more generous, more romantic — so generous and romantic that I can embrace multiple kinds of relationships, different modalities of intimacy. I don't want to feel that need for the one that is so pervasive and eats away at people's well being. No, I want to make my way ecstatically through the ever-flowing, ever-fluctuating, intimacies of life. 


ayşegül said...

Recently I've experienced an enlightened moment about love and its power. It seemed to me as a kind of drug: very fulfilling while it is modifying the chemistry of our bodies but it is abused a lot for the same reason too. We all eventually become junkies of that moment, that high of love. But, as it is usually seen in drugs, love becomes a terrible pain in the ass when we start to want it all for ourselves, become selfish about it, clinging on the source (as we believe, we assign it a source) of that chemical change. So it no longer provides pleasure, it becomes merely an addiction which takes away our freedom as well as our joy.

Junkie is one that no longer pursues pleasure (or maybe one that pursues only pleasure), he or she is no longer interested in what the drug enables he or she to do, to see, to feel. The path which is opening up to new worlds is lost when one is more interested with the path and not with where it leads to or beautiful scenes it provides while traveling.

What you are describing here seems to suggest that you don't want to be a junkie of love, you just want its experience which is its actual source. Source of love is not the individuals per se, but a certain style of opening up to the world. Every time different but always an opening up while being subject of a powerful change. When we assign it to individuals and fix it there, we just lose it. Fades away eventually since it cannot be fixed. It is the ever changing nature of the world, the power of change itself. So I agree with you. Polyamory would be just another way to fix it (although it is a much more generous way), so it won't work as productive as the nature of love implies. It is something that we all have to consider seriously if we don't want to turn joy into misery: is there a solid way to be less petty in terms of intimate relationships?

jenna humphrey said...

ayşegül... I guess this is the most embarrassing thing I'll ever admit on the internet, but I got through my last breakup by obsessively reading Ekhart Tolle's take on love as addiction... so obsessively, in fact, that my copy of The Power of Now falls open to that passage.

Seems like maybe you have studied mindfulness. Anyway, here is Tolle's take, but scientists have also made the connection between dopamine and romance:

"If in your relationship you experience both "love" and the opposite of love--attack, emotional violence, and so on--then it is likely that you are confusing ego attachment and addictive clinging with love. You cannot love your partner one moment and attack him or her the next. True love has no opposite. If your "love" has an opposite, then it is not love but a strong ego-need for a more complete and deeper sense of self, a need that the other person temporarily meets. It is the ego's substitute for salvation, and for a short time it almost does feel like salvation...

Every addiction arises from an unconscious refusal to face and move through your own pain. Whatever substance you are addicted to--alcohol, food, legal or illegal drugs, or a person--you are using something or someone to cover up your pain. That is why, after the initial euphoria has passed, there is so much unhappiness, so much pain in intimate relationships. They do not cause the pain and unhappiness. They bring out the pain and unhappiness that is already in you. Every addiction does that. Every addiction reaches a point where it does not work for you anymore, and then you feel the pain more intensely than ever."

Daniel Coffeen said...

I love this — all jokes aside — and I will even admit I like Eckhart Tolle's Power of Now.

I've written on love before and keep coming back to the same thing: love is generous yet the way it's coerced is anything but generous: it's despotic and judgmental.

This is the background, if you will, for my rambling post which led me to wonder: is there a different model? A different image? Usually, when I bring these things up, I'm accused of being jaded. Such is the way of ideology: anything outside its "true" is insane or criminal.

I love love. I love love so much I don't want it to be wielded as a weapon of misery. This is why I wrote, ages ago now, that Velvet Underground's "Some Kinds Love" is a true love song:

"I don't know just what it's all about/ but put on your red pajamas and find out"

jenna said...

John Darnielle on love as addiction--you gotta hear the song though, which is here:


King Saul fell on his sword
When it all went wrong
And Joseph's brother sold him down the river
For a song
And Sonny Liston rubbed some tiger balm in his glove
some things you do for money
and some you do for love love love

Raskalnikov felt sick
But he couldn't say why
When he saw his face reflected
In his victim's twinkling eye
Some things you do for money
And some you'll do for fun
But the things you do for love
Are gonna come back to you one by one

Love love is gonna lead you by the hand
Into a white and soundless place
Now we see this
As in a mirror dimly
Then we shall see each other
Face to face

And way out in Seattle
Young Kurt Cobain
Snuck out to the garden
Put a bullet in his brain
Snakes in the grass beneath our feet
Rain in the clouds above
Some moments last forever
And some flare out with love love love

αλήθεια said...


As I was watching this last scene from Wim Wender's film, Wings of Desire, I kept thinking about this post.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Whoa. Haven't seen that movie since I was in college. That's a great scene...it's amazing, if scary, to have that alienation from the bonds you take for granted. Thanks for this.