Zen and the art of dating together

If you’ve spent much time on various dating apps, especially if you have the “nonmonogamy” filter on, you’ll have come across a lot of profiles belonging to couples. Many of these, you may have noticed, share three traits: the pictures are almost exclusively of the woman, the profile is run by the man, and there’s a line in there somewhere about how they date or “play” together. Maybe the profile I’ve just described is yours.

For some totally mysterious reason, queer couples never seem to have profiles like this.

Now, I’m not here to shit on unicorn hunters or couples who look like unicorn hunters.

(For those not hip to the lingo, “unicorn hunting” is a somewhat dismissive/pejorative name for what hetero couples do when they go looking for a queer woman to join them, either just in bed or in the relationship proper, but only on the condition that she make no demands of her own and no making-of-space is required of the existing couple. The rarity-bordering-on-impossibility of such a woman makes her a unicorn. See also: couples’ privilege.)

There are definitely couples out there who are earnestly looking to grow into triads, and who are willing and prepared to do the work to welcome a new, whole person into their lives. There are also lots of couples who’ve started doing the work of unlearning the cultural presumption of monogamy, but haven’t yet learned the skills and tools and best practices of ethical nonmonogamy… and treating them with contempt for reaching for that security blanket definitely won’t help them on that journey. (Not to mention that this sort of gatekeeping is both ideologically bad form and ultimately serves to rob our already-minority communities of people who, with some support or just a bit of patience, could grow into valuable members.)

A number of my early relationships, for example, were nominally open. Mostly what this meant is that we’d flirt with online friends together and “ooh” and “ah” over pretty ladies on TV without reservation, but the goal — insofar as there was a goal — was to have a bit of fun without changing our underlying relationship in any meaningful way. It may not surprise you to learn that that never really turned into sexytimes with a special guest star.

Not that the flirting and the ogling wasn’t fun in itself, but ultimately, just as a practical matter, finding someone who would be (1) logistically available, (2) sufficiently attracted and attractive to both of us, and (3) willing to do the work to fit us without us doing any real work to fit them was… well, a tall order. It’s hard enough finding someone who’s a good fit for a pair bond; turning that into a three-body problem, especially if you’re not already well-practiced at the sort of communication and negotiation that ethical nonmonogamy requires of us, is asking for trouble.

In a way that’s both counterintuitive and obvious, though, those kinds of dynamics can totally emerge organically when you’re not aiming for them. As is so often the case in life and especially in relationships, removing the intentions and the expectations makes room for authentic connections to emerge.

You know you thought of this too, nerd.

Part of this is my relationship anarchism talking — I think almost any relationship is diminished when it’s entered into it with expectations about what it should be, when its ought precedes its is. But even setting aside the ideology, it’s important to remember that (1) having expectations from the outset means having some standard of success and failure in mind, which raises the stakes for all involved, and (2) making plans or setting expectations with an existing partner prior to engaging with a prospective third creates an inherent imbalance and oppositional, two-against-one posture, which is a real hurdle.

But this isn’t a practical guide, so I’m also not here to tell you how to have a threesome or recruit for a triad. Beyond treating people with kindness and respect, and not making them responsible for your expectations without their consent, I don’t have much advice for you on those fronts. The real concern for me, when I hear that a couple only dates together, is that they probably haven’t spent enough time thinking deeply and carefully about what they mean by “together.”

Now, I’m not a very sentimental dude. My friends and partners would likely describe me as an exceedingly, and sometimes infuriatingly, rational person. So believe me when I tell you that whatever I’m doing — snuggling a partner, going on a date with a shiny new person, sitting alone at a coffee shop to write a thinkpiece no one asked for — my existing relationships, romantic and otherwise, are very much present in my doing it. I don’t mean this in some woo, New Agey, “I’m always thinking about you” sort of way; at the end of the day, a nontrivial part of who I am is simply the intersection of the relationships I’ve cultivated. As a general matter, this is just what it means to have intimate bonds: your intimates are the people you carry with you into your day-to-day life, into your baseline, into your time alone.

An intimate relationship is a kind of life that you build and cultivate together. Your partners are still your partners when they leave the room. Your relationship is still your relationship when you’re not relating directly to each other in real time. Object permanence is one of the first things a child has to learn in order to exist in the world; it’s a thing your relationship has to learn, too, if it’s going to grow and deepen without becoming codependent.

So when you tell me that you only date together, what you’re really telling me is that your togetherness is not yet deep enough to be truly intimate, not yet mature enough to persist even when you’re apart. Regardless of what this signals to any potential third, it’s probably something worth working on within your existing relationship.

There’s a saying that’s gone through many variations over the years, but goes something like this: “Before I studied Zen, I would look at a mountain and see only a mountain. When I began studying Zen, I would look at a mountain and see so much more than a mountain. Now that I’ve mastered Zen, I look at a mountain and… it looks a lot like a mountain.”

I would encourage you to really sit with “togetherness” until you see more than togetherness, and then again until, well, it looks a lot like togetherness. In my experience, this is the most stable foundation and the most fertile soil for one’s relationships to grow, both in depth (existing bonds) and in scope (adding new partners). To paraphrase from Voltaire: whatever it is that we’re trying to grow, we must tend to our gardens.

Lawyer and translator of legalese into plain English. Also a cishet white dude trying to unlearn a bunch of baggage.

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