“If one of us must lose exactly as much as the other wins, as in poker, then we are talking about a “zero-sum game” … two more individuals are trying to achieve a goal that cannot be achieved by all of them. This is the essence of competition …” ~ Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition
My best friend Tom envied me and I envied him. He mistakenly saw me as intrinsically “better with women” than he was, and I saw him as a muscular, Ivy League trained, affluent research scientist — the embodiment of prototypical masculine ideals.
He met a girl at work (let’s call her “Laura”) and thought she was his soul-mate, but being highly rejection-phobic, did not share his feelings with her. Instead, he kept relating to her as a friend, inviting her to group events and being an empathetic listener. He was spending longer and longer amounts of time with her but had not “made a move” yet. I didn’t know much about this girl, but empathized with my Tom’s nervousness and sincerely wished him well.
About 2 or 3 months later, I ran into an extremely attractive woman at a party, we had loads in common and after about 90 minutes of conversation I interpreted her body language as a green light and initiated a kinky sexual encounter. It was an unforgettably pleasurable experience. Our interactions afterward remained sporadic and casual, but pleasant.
About a month later, Tom invited me to another house party, he told me Laura would be there. Great, I thought.
He introduced me to Laura — it was the same woman I met at the earlier party.
I didn’t know how to proceed. I used to be fairly religious, and Tom still attended the same church I used to. He was still locked into a fairly conservative, conventionally monogamous mindset. There’s no way he would appreciate what I had done with the woman he was trying to slowly woo with his accomplishments, smarts, and interpersonal skills. He respected my more “open-minded ways,” but didn’t fully endorse them.
If she was trying to play “monogamous good girl until further notice,” I didn’t want to blow her cover. I also didn’t want to engage in sophisticated lying to my friend. I later learned she was pleasantly enjoying her “extracurricular activities” (which included encounters with guys like me) while she was waiting for him to “make his move.” She did kinda like him, but felt no need to accelerate things.
She said “Nice to meet you” and shook my hand. “OK, we’re playing this game,” I thought.
We tried to play total strangers convincingly, but, because of the involuntary eye contact we made initially and throughout the evening, my friend suspected more was up and asked us each about it separately. Tom eventually got her to admit that “she thought she had met me at a party before” but no further details.
After the party, he sat me down and asked me exactly how I knew her. Wisely or unwisely, I took a deep breath and told him the truth. My friendship with Tom was the closest platonic relationship I had at that time and I didn’t want to contaminate it with profound and continuous dishonesty.
I trusted in his benevolence enough to hope we could somehow work things out, but he inwardly had decided to end our friendship that night and proceeded to do many things in the upcoming weeks to communicate his anger and even damage my reputation. I had unintentionally become the supreme antagonist of his life-script. Panic, tears, and confusion on both ends followed my decision to tell the truth.
My friend Tom had his demons, but certainly something in the logic of his “all or nothing” monogamous soul-mate thinking added fuel to his rage.
Enter ethical non-monogamy and my new friend Jacob.
About a year later, I live with my friend Jacob. I’ve had a few sexual encounters with his girlfriend of two years and he’s been with some women I met first. If we both like a woman who is attracted to both of us, we simply try to work out times to meet up with her. If we both have profound emotional feelings for the same woman, we agree to try working out the logistics of that also. The contrast with the former situation is night and day.
If 3-4 men know each other and sleep with the same woman, how everyone involved interprets, or morally evaluates, that situation is everything. Is that woman trashy and dirty or fun and open-minded for sleeping with these guys? It depends on the perspective of the men and women involved.
Men must accept that the object of female arousal or attraction constantly shifts and fluctuates. At least in the realm of fantasy, we accept that total faithfulness to one person is rare, and that who we want can change quite frequently and rapidly. It’s quite normal for men and women to entertain erotic thoughts towards innumerable people over the course of a day or week.
The question then is, how do we behaviorally or socially process this fact? There’s a variety of options here. We may still accept strict monogamy as the goal, but just not as naively or childishly.
What went wrong with Tom?
Did my friendship with Tom have to end the way it did? I say yes and no, as we cannot avoid behaving in ways congruent with what we consciously and unconsciously believe.
Tom’s extreme delay in making his intentions toward Laura clear were fueled in part by his “sexually castrated” view of women and his need to preserve a kind of “Madonna/Whore complex” towards her.
In other words, Tom needed to believe that women take months, rather than minutes or seconds, to decide if a man is sufficiently attractive because seeing women as more naturally horny and libidinous would screw with his worldview.
If he were to accept that women can be as quickly and easily aroused as Laura was by me, it would mean his “monogamous vanilla soulmate” would potentially be aroused by and attracted to many men simultaneously, all the time, throughout her life. To see his love object as a highly sexual agent would partially traumatize him. This need to see what he wanted see and to protect his assumptions at all costs informed the entirety of his approach towards women as sexual beings.
Tom also entertained somewhat of a jerks-versus-nice-guys” concept of male sexual self-expression. Only “rude and shallow” guys quickly and straightforwardly let women know their true SEXUAL feelings towards them in his mind, so he was trying to live up to his own expectations in that regard.
Tom was also unable to “make a move,” because having convinced himself that Laura was his “soulmate,” he had maximally increased the anticipated trauma and confusion associated with potential rejection.
Tom welded his sense of purpose and self-esteem to a fantasy world, including a fantasy lover, of his own creation. Too much reality had to be filtered out to in order for him to function, and during that fateful night his fantasy defense structures were poised to collapse.
If we commit to seeing things as they are and in living from that truth, much of what we currently think and feel will not survive the transition. This kind of self-destruction is often just what we need. I often struggle with feelings of profound insecurity (both general and sexual) and take refuge in fantasy, but I am committed to noticing and ameliorating this whenever possible. The only “solution” to the kind of emotional and interpersonal problems I’ve highlighted here reside in the commitment to knowing and living from the truth.