On Halloween afternoon I found myself at a bar with my mentor Reid Mihalko. I was recounting to him a conversation I'd had with a lover who was recently and unexpectedly back in my life after some time apart. Almost exactly a year ago I had called Reid to solicit his coaching to help me move on at the time when this same person had unexpectedly cut the sexual/romantic element out of our relationship.
"You got kind of relationshippy," my lover had said just days earlier, in my bed as we pressed against one another, clearly about to have sex for the first time in over a year. Last year when we’d dated he had been recently single after a very long relationship and needed to be on his own. "Relationshippy?" I replied with a skeptically furrowed brow. "Well, you weren't, it seemed, and then you were." I remembered the conversation he was referencing: a year ago when he'd cavalierly ended our sexual involvement, he'd been surprised that that had hurt me, so I'd decided to tell him how passionately I felt about him, which it seems in retrospect he had interpreted as a desire for monogamy. "Well, maybe," I continued, brow still furrowed, "but me being relationshippy as a millennial is a lot different from you being relationshippy as a Gen Xer."
I related this to Reid and he promptly tweeted the quote.
I started to think back to how I was slut-shamed by the authors of The Rules this summer during a teleconference with New York Magazine for an article in their sex issue. They told me that I couldn't possibly actually enjoy the long-distance, non-monogamous relationship I was in at the time; they told me that when I was ready they would sit down and do a client history with me, that they would figure out where Daddy had hurt me and why it had made me so sad and desperate. I later went on to write a blog entry where I debunked their supposition that any woman who claimed to desire non-monogamy was just faking it in order to hold onto a relationship with a guy who just wouldn't commit to her.
I also thought back to the comments section on my interview in the Daily Mail a few months back. In the interview, the Daily Mail had asked me how my boyfriend felt about my work. I replied that I had broken up with my most recent boyfriend because of differences in our personal growth but that I had yet to date a man who didn't respect what I had written, and one commenter, a young woman, had written in response, "She doesn't even have a boyfriend! Why should we listen to her? I have a boyfriend, where's my book deal?"
I thought about a lot of friends who were in unhappy relationships that were still tagged as relationships on Facebook.
I thought back to said boyfriend. I remembered a text he'd written me: "I am in painful love with you. You are filling my MIND with thoughts."
I remembered breaking up with him. I had wanted things to work, but I'd discovered some deeply problematic dealbreakers. I had rushed into a relationship label that wasn't really merited yet, and I’d paid dearly for that. It had felt so good at the time to make that move into solidarity together, to be two people choosing to commit to making it work. My readers had been so happy for me upon seeing us with one another, and I couldn't even fake it for appearances anymore, even after I’d sent him back to his hometown ten hours away so I could have some space. I broke up with him in one text message, and he, confirming my decision if there'd been any doubt in my mind, had replied with a handshake emoticon.
I could have kept that relationship if I'd wanted to. I could have told the Daily Mail that my boyfriend was in painful love with me and that I was filling his mind with thoughts. I could have easily set my Facebook status to "In A Relationship," and maybe then that commenter wouldn't have had such a strenuous argument against my success.
But one of the most important skills to have in a relationship, counterintuitively, is to know how to be alone. I said it in The New Rules Of Attraction: “If you feel that any condition in the relationship still gives you more value by staying than you would get by leaving, then you will be doomed to live in any condition your partner chooses.” If you can’t be alone, you will be doomed to stay in some very poor relationships.
I related some of this to my friend J.P. Robichaud, who is a fellow enthusiast of things like rope and kink and non-monogamy. I complained about the deficit in credibility often afforded me as a relationship expert not in a (traditional, public, monogamous) relationship, and he told me about a concept called the Relationship Escalator, defined as “the default set of societal expectations for the proper conduct of intimate relationships. Progressive steps with clearly visible markers and a presumed structural goal of permanently monogamous (sexually and romantically exclusive), cohabitating marriage — legally sanctioned if possible. The social standard by which most people gauge whether a developing intimate relationship is significant, ‘serious,’ good, healthy, committed or worth pursuing or continuing.” What’s problematic about the concept of the Relationship Escalator is how divisive and, well, judgy it is. As the creator of the term states, “Our society reflexively trivializes, ignores, or vilifies other choices or preferences for conducting intimate relationships. Getting to the top of the escalator socially validates you as an adult and as a person worthy of love and respect. Not succeeding in getting there, voluntarily stepping off — or worse, not wanting to ride at all — marks you as immature, defective, damaged, selfish, untrustworthy and possibly even dangerous.”
Earlier tonight I sat at a dinner table with a flirtatious friend of mine, a 74-year-old ad man, a real life Don Draper at the other end of several decades. He was there with his best friend, who was arguing over something on the bill. "He's just like a wife," my friend joked. "I'd say fuck him, but we don't fuck wives.” I told him how I had been thinking of relationships differently lately, how the world seemed to want me to slap on a label of credibility that seemed to come with marriage, some sort of relationship expert validation in the form of a diamond ring, and how what I wanted was something different. According to this man, his wife was happy; they had a solid relationship with her being very well cared for and him being able to execute his freedom as he wished. And that may very well have been true. But that, I told him, wasn't what I wanted or how I ever saw myself. He looked at me with a wink and said, “I know.”
My own experience with cohabitation took place around 2008. The boyfriend of over three years I was with at the time had lost everything and I had offered my space for him to move in rent-free while he got back on his feet. He moved in, and like clockwork the passion in our relationship died. His things cluttered my formerly chic bachelorette one-bedroom apartment, perfect for one but arduous and cramped for the two of us. He spent ten-hour days trying unprofitably to build a business I knew was destined to fail, contributing nothing to our relationship emotionally, spiritually, sexually, financially. I suffered over a year's worth of this and then kicked him out. My experience with cohabitation was a decidedly non-romantic one, borne of necessity and not of a desire for intimacy through proximity.
But despite the bias of my experience I'm not sure I share the dream of cohabitation that seems so popular. If I ever do move in with a lover again, I'll be sure to do it when we both have the finances to create a home from scratch, rather than a makeshift move-in to one person's place or another. But even that isn't on my wish radar. Instead what I'm dreaming about is my next apartment -– I’m moving in just a few months -– where for the first time since moving to my current New York bachelorette pad in 2007 I'll get to purchase all new furniture and finishings, gleefully exercising my personal branding with environmental transference in mind. I'm thinking of soft ivory bedding, wrought-iron attachment points for rope bondage, delicate wine glasses hanging upside-down in the kitchen, candles everywhere. Not all that different from my current place, actually, but a chance to do it again, better, fresher, darker, more committed to fantasy.
In The Art of Seduction, Robert Greene describes the seductresses of history: "Once they had their victim's interest, these women would lure them away from the masculine world of war and politics and get them to spend time in the feminine world -- a world of luxury, spectacle, and pleasure." I thought whimsically about the legendary Floating World of Japan, and about Cleopatra welcoming Antony into Egypt. I thought about my warrior-like Mediterranean lover of over two years and the night that I told him, post-coitally, the story of Antony and Cleopatra, told him about the courtesans of the Italian renaissance who were neither whores nor wives but educated sexual companions, and then tried to convince him that we were Ares and Aphrodite incarnate in human form, and how I believed myself when I said it. In the morning as he dressed by my bedside he said, with a wistful smile and some thoughtful consideration, how he thought that society should bring back the institution of the courtesan, and I had bitten my lip gleefully at the compliment.
My therapist once related to me how she watched people say over and over again that they want one kind of relationship but always end up in another, and how after a while she asked them to question what they really wanted. I brought this up to her recently and told her that I couldn't escape the desire to be a refuge, to bring to life that luxurious world of sensual feminine pleasures separate from the masculine world my lovers so often inhabit in their everyday lives. And that in order to create that magic, I need a certain degree of solitude that a partnership like marriage would likely not be able to afford me (although sometimes I think it would be an incredibly interesting challenge to attempt).
In bed with my returned lover that night, I whispered to him, "I don't need to be your girlfriend. I just want to be your geisha."
I also recounted this to Reid on Halloween afternoon over whiskey. I can't remember if Reid was the first person to define my sexuality as geisha or if he was merely the first person to take me seriously when I said it myself, but it was his validation that caused me to stop saying it as a half-joke and to own it as truth. Reid said to me, "You know Arden, even a geisha's main patron often came and went as he pleased." I immediately raised both hands to my face, on the verge of tears, not sure whether they came from sadness or joy. Simultaneously I felt as if I'd been condemned to a life of longing and also as if I'd finally been given permission to live life exactly as I wish it. I felt a sad yet intoxicating freedom. I felt deliriously happy. “A geisha knew she was never supposed to be anyone’s ‘the One and Only,’” Reid continued, “and a truly happy geisha had no delusions about that, which allowed her to truly be free and show up to be of service. And being of service wasn’t an obligation but a love language of hers, and sourced a deep, deep calling and sense of purpose. An empowered purpose. Not an obligation, but a choice.”
And I know I’ll probably get flak on this post, the same kind of flak I took on the post where I talked about my then-estranged, now-returned lover breaking off our sexual involvement because he said he needed to do work on himself and not because he didn’t think I was awesome. Come on, Arden. Surely this can’t be true. He left you because he wasn’t that into you and you don’t want to admit that. Surely this can’t be true either. You disdain monogamy because you can’t get a man to be monogamous with you; you have failed at the Relationship Escalator and so you are a pariah not worthy of your “expert” title. You are lesser because you can’t say you’re In A Relationship on Facebook. Wah wah. Where’s MY book deal.
The only defense I have to that is that I have left every monogamous arrangement I ever entered. I dumped my last boyfriend, I dumped the boyfriend who moved in with me, and the one before him and the one before him. I’m sure I could have kept them all if I cared about the status and legitimacy imparted on me by a successful trip up the Relationship Escalator more than I cared about staying true to my own happiness, but I don’t. I have, however, kept the lovers who have shown up and allowed me to work my magic with them, who have granted me my freedom and accepted my being of service, some for years at a time.
And for a long time I figured this was just the most viable option with the people I found myself most attracted to, people who also seemed to value their freedom, but maybe I need to stop blaming my choices on my lovers' preferences and realize that this kind of relationship, this refuge of a relationship with its excellent bedding and immersive feminine pleasures, is really what I dig most, because clearly it's what I keep choosing, over and over again. And yes, I do want a primary partner one day, and maybe I'll even call him a boyfriend, but even that ideal future partnership I imagine to look the same -- just with more frequency, consistency, and ever-deepening intimacy and knowledge of one another -- and never at the expense of that relationship arising organically out of both parties' desires to be there. I will never prioritize a relationship status over the truths of the people in it.
Above all I crave passion. I even crave craving. I think back to reading my hero Dr. Helen Fisher's work about the roles of dopamine and incentive salience in relationships, how it is those chemicals that keep us awake at night obsessing over our beloved, and how those things are dulled after too much exposure and mundanity, how other chemicals like oxytocin and endorphins, literally opiates, dullers of the senses, seep in and make us feel comfortable and affectionate and, slowly, bored. I'm starting to think that despite what so many men have told me, despite my bacon apple pies baked in cheekily self-referential heels and aprons, I'm really not wife material. I'm not the woman who argues with you over the bill, the one you don't fuck. I'm the one you do fuck. And the moment you stop fucking me, I'm out. I will refuse to let a man wife me until he convinces me that he can sustain that passion that so often gets taken for granted in the mores of tradition. My love is a rebel; my love will forever buck against the tide. If you're not down for that, I'm not your girl.
All this is to say that if you are looking for me to land a ring on my finger in order to give my work credibility, I wouldn't hold out too much hope. I might reserve the right to change my mind in the future, but for now I am stupidly happy being the fucking Floating World incarnate. Deeper, darker, more truthful. There is truth in our sex. I will hold any lover's truth close to my heart, and draw the lines of our relationship around it, because that is where the magic begins.
And if you feel the same way, or anything remotely like it, if you are here because you too doubt the false promises of tradition, don't ever let anyone else make you feel bad about yourself for your choices. We're here to carve out our own worlds, not to accept the paltry boxes handed to us. We are part of a revolution and we accept nothing less than our own fulfillment in whatever shape that may take.