Sex, Relationships, and the Hazards of Default Decisions

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Lucy the psychiatrist
I once had a therapist — a sort of lousy therapist — who I was seeing when I was starting to question my long-established singledom and consider looking for a relationship again. I told her about a huge revelation I’d had: the revelation that many of the things about coupledom I was resisting weren’t problems with coupledom per se, but problems I had with living together.

It was a huge, liberating flash of insight for me. I’d been automatically linking “romantic love” with “cohabiting,” and I didn’t have to… and I could therefore pursue the one even though I was highly dubious about the other. Neat.

And the first words out of my therapist’s mouth?

“Or you could change your mind about that!”

Talk about a buzz-kill. The idea that you could have a serious love relationship without sharing an address? The idea that romance and sex didn’t have to follow an invisible checklist of progress? The idea that a romantic relationship could be a series of separate choices instead of a giant package deal? She wasn’t interested in discussing that.

I want to talk about how people make decisions about sex and relationships. Specifically, I want to talk about the unsettling frequency with which major decisions about sex and relationships get made by default.

Decisions that get made because that’s what’s next. Because that’s what everyone else is doing. Because that’s just what’s done. (Or not done.)

Time table
The timetable is the most obvious example. There seems to be this rough timetable that Americans base their sex and love lives on: a timetable that rarely gets spelled out but that everyone seems to know about. It varies somewhat between different regions and communities (sex tends to happen faster in progressive urban areas, marriage is more likely to precede sex in conservative rural towns). But even between those regions there’s a remarkable similarity… and within the regions, there’s a expectation of homogeneity that’s rather startling.

When you first have sex. When you make the decision about whether the relationship is serious. When you move in together. When you merge your finances. When you get married. When you have kids. Think about it. How much variety is there in your circle about when these things happen? And when people do step outside the standard timetable, how do other people react to it?

In my experience, there’s surprisingly little variety in the timetable. And when people step outside of it, they’re often met with surprise and bafflement at best, disapproval at worst. If you move faster than the timetable (having sex on the first date, say), you’re “rushing things”; if you move slower than the timetable, you’re “dragging your feet.”

Here’s an example from my own life. Ingrid and I didn’t move in together until seven years into our relationship. In fact, the first time we got married (in the San Francisco City Hall same-sex weddings of 2004, the ones that got annulled), we weren’t living together. And while nobody burned us at the stake for it, we were definitely met with a fair amount of puzzlement. We didn’t get disapproval, exactly, but we got a certain amount of disapproval’s more polite half-brother — concern. And we got a lot of disapproval’s slightly slow-witted cousin — confusion. The amount of explaining we had to do about why we weren’t living together and why we had no immediate plans to live together… it makes me tired just remembering it.

But for us, moving in together was too big a decision to make just so we could cross it off the checklist. For us, moving in together was something to do because, well, we wanted to do it and felt it was right for us… not because That’s What Comes Next.

Especially since, for the first several years of our relationship, the question of moving in together wasn’t a “When?” but a “Whether?”

See, default decisions about sex and relationships don’t just get made based on the timetable. Default decisions aren’t just made about “When?” They get made about “Whether?” as well.

Bride and groom
Not just when to move in together — but whether to move in together. Not just when to get married — but whether to get married. Not just when to have kids — but whether to have kids. It’s astonishing to me how many people just assume that this is the path a relationship has to take, and if they want love and sex in their lives they better get cracking.

And there’s more. What kind of sex to have. How often to have sex. Whether to have a joint checking account. (We recently had friends act as though we were space aliens because we still have our own checking accounts. Yes, we have a joint account, for bills and other joint expenses… but we each have our own money as well. And that works really well for us.) Whether to travel together, or sleep together. (Couples who take separate vacations or sleep in separate beds apparently get as much bafflement/ concern/ flak as couples who don’t move in together.)

Whether to be monogamous. That’s a huge one. The assumption that of course a long-term couple is going to be monogamous is a deep and pervasive one. Most people don’t even discuss it.

Even whether to get into a serious relationship at all. I was single for twelve years before Ingrid and I fell in love. And for about ten of those twelve years, my singlehood was a conscious, positive choice. And if you think you’ll be met with disapproval and baffled concern if you don’t move in with your sweetie, imagine the disapproval and baffled concern you get when you tell people you’re not interested in having a sweetie, period.

But here’s the thing.

These decisions? They’re too big — and too personal — to be making by default.

Cartoon guide to sex
If we know anything at all about human sex and human sexual relationships, it’s that the only constant is variety. Human beings have an almost infinite variety of sexual and emotional experiences: an eye-popping smorgasbord of feelings and desires, prejudices and preferences, turn-offs and needs. And we should be tailoring our decisions about sex to fit our individual experiences. We should not be forcing our sexual and romantic decisions into a one- size- fits- all garment… one which, like most one- size- fits- all garments, really fits only a handful of people.

Sex and relationships should be like a walk in the woods, where you pick the trails that suit your interest and stamina. They should be like a trip to the market, where you buy the vegetables that you need for your recipe. They should not be like an express train — where the track is laid out ahead of time, and everyone has to get off at the same stops.

P.S. Just for the record: I do understand that, in some specific sets of circumstances, there is a genuine timetable, not a made-up social one. I understand that people who want kids — especially women who want kids — can’t wait indefinitely. My point is that this in itself should be a set of decisions that’s made consciously (“I very much want kids, I’d rather not be a single parent, therefore I need to keep an eye on my biological clock when I’m considering my romantic life”), instead of being made by default (“Kids should happen by the time I’m 35, so I should be married no later than 30, so now that I’m 27 I should stop dating people who aren’t serious about marriage”).

Sex, Relationships, and the Hazards of Default Decisions

12 thoughts on “Sex, Relationships, and the Hazards of Default Decisions

  1. 1

    The discarding of defaults is one of the biggest reasons I like polyamory. Yeah, I’m not so comfortable with monogamy as a practice, but to me being poly is about more than that.
    It means to me that there ARE no defaults anymore. By rejecting monogamy–the biggest default of them all–I’m breaking down all those rules about what relationships are supposed to be. I get to start from scratch, make a relationship that’s completely specific to me and my partner. That’s what I love about polyamory.

  2. 2

    Interesting! Being together, but not living together is something that is becoming more common here, and I know several couples, among them my own mother and her man, who prefer it that way and has been doing it for the last 10 years or so now, and it has had a good effect on their relationship.
    There’s even a word for it here. ‘SÀrbo’ that is a combination made up from the words for ‘apart’ and ‘living’.

  3. 3

    Since my marriage crashed down in flames around me I’ve been really questioning what I’d want out of a relationship, should I enter into one again. I decided that I’d say to hell with all the ‘default decisions’. I never wanted to marry in the first place as I consider the institution to be an outdated curiosity at best and only did so to please my partner. Not again. I need a lot of space and free time to myself so co-habiting any time soon would be out. Kids, I’m not sure about. Nice idea but practically a pain in the ass.
    Now the problem. How the hell to find someone I actually like who feels the same way? :p The bad thing about rejecting or even questioning default decisions is that they are default because most people seem to agree with them…

  4. 4

    Thanks for this, Greta. I clicked through the link and read the piece on singledom, and thanks for that, too.
    I’ve been single for a couple years now, and I’m really liking it. Or rather, that isn’t quite the accurate way of putting it. What I’d say is, being single is a state of being, being in a couple (or a triple, or whatever) is a state of being. Both of them have advantages and disadvantages. Right now, the “single” set of advantages suits me far better than any other way.
    And yeah, you’re so right about people not getting it. I remember a while back, I was on the phone to a friend and whining about various things that were bothering me and how I was upset by these things. And she said, in very gentle, sympathetic tones, “And is it because you’re single, too?”
    And that just totally stopped me in my tracks, because it was right outside my mental map. The idea that being single could cause or contribute to misery for me just wasn’t even on my horizon. So I said no, that’s not it, and to her credit, that particular friend was happy to take me at my word. But some other people get quite, I don’t know, almost aggressive if you tell them that you’re just fine the way you are, and you don’t want what they seem to think you should want, and that if you never find a relationship, ever, you don’t think that’ll actually bother you particularly.
    So yeah, it’s nice to be able to see that someone whose opinions you really respect feels the same way, or rather felt the same way before finding their sweetie and still doesn’t reckon single=sad.

  5. 5

    Maria touches on something rather curious about Swedish society and language – we have the words sambo and sÀrbo, short for sammanboende and sÀrboende, which means together-living and apart-living, respectively. Simple and effective terms to denote your relationship status when you’re _not_ married. (I should mention that sÀrbo is often equated with boyfriend or girlfriend or simply being in a “steady relationship”, for instance when you’re filling in forms – there might be the options Single, Steady relationship, Sambo or Married, for instance.) Could the presence of these terms be indicative of Sweden’s generally progressiveness in these areas?
    Sambo is more than just a word, for the record – there are laws pertaining the rights of sambos. They are not as extensive as those for registered partnerships or marriages, but they exist.

  6. 6

    “Could the presence of these terms be indicative of Sweden’s generally progressiveness in these areas?”
    I think it could maybe be so. Clearly the words were invented because of a need to name forms of being together that are non-traditional, and since they caught on quickly are are completely accepted (no one raises as much as an eyebrow if you present your significant other as your sambo or sÀrbo and so on) it probably shows that these non-traditional ways of being together is also accepted and seen as normal by a vast majority.
    “I should mention that sÀrbo is often equated with boyfriend or girlfriend or simply being in a “steady relationship”,”
    I think so too, except maybe for younger people like teenagers who would use ‘kille’ and ‘tjej’ (boyfriend/girlfriend) more often I guess. The word, to me at least, seems mostly to be used for older people to denote, just as you say, a more steady relationship where the two persons has decided not to live under the same roof.
    Another such word, that is more of a joke, is ‘Mambo’ short for ‘mother’ and ‘living’, meaning adults moving back home to their parents when fallen on hard times 🙂

  7. vel

    What a great column! Being from a fairly conservative background and state (Pennsyltucky, you know, the part between Pittsburgh and Philly) I find it fascinating to learn about how other people live and deal with life and how it’s perfectly okay to be different.

  8. 8

    I’ve known people who prefer not cohabiting with their S.O. — it’s pretty reasonable if that’s what works for you. Dan Savage gives the example of his straight brother doing exactly that with his S.O. in the book “The Commitment” (while giving examples of all sorts of relationship possibilities that work for different people).
    For myself, I’ve never had a problem living with a lover and yet I’ve had a lot of difficulty living with roommates. It’s a weird thing about my private space — a lover gets easily absorbed into it, but a stranger somehow becomes a perpetual irritant, even if the person is perfectly pleasant and reasonable, etc.

  9. 9

    I do love when you repost your blowfish pieces, it reminds me why I liked them the first time. And I have a short memory. So win-win!
    My partner and I are currently unmarried, and are likely to remain so for quite some time. We actually talked about marriage quite early on in our relationship, not as a “let’s do it” thing that people usually mean when they say “talk about marriage”, but as a “what does it mean to me, what does it mean to you?” sort of way. Turns out it’s so important to both of us that we both made it pretty clear early on we could never date someone we wouldn’t want to marry, and we could wait pretty much forever for it to happen to make sure it’s just right. Back when I thought I had to marry my first boyfriend, when it was all a rush… that was not fun. And I can’t imagine how it would be to be a couple that each assumed a DIFFERENT timeline and set of default decisions for those sorts of things. Actually, I’ve seen it happen to a multi-cultural pairing, and it’s pretty ugly. x_X It didn’t last too long.
    A while back I was at a party with my partner’s family, and the matriarchs (a young generation of them, older siblings of my partner and their friends) stood about and gossiped about forcing us to marry and how they might accomplish it. I remember being so angry that I couldn’t even talk to them about why I didn’t care for them to do that. Didn’t they know it’s not their choice? And that was with dearly loving them all–this wasn’t mother-in-law syndrome here. It took a long time for me to understand why I was angry, and even more to understand why they would have done so so casually. It wasn’t even religion… just a case of wanting the best for us, and trying to help us make the ‘right’ choice for our happiness. And a bit of fun for them on the way to go with the rum punch.

  10. 11

    Thank you so much for posting this, Greta! It’s an (in my experience) almost never-mentioned topic, but one I’ve been pondering more and more since becoming a naturalist. Any time tradition gets involved–especially a tradition that differs from culture to culture–I have to stop and ask, Why?
    Unfortunately, my wife and I get swept away by our culture at a very young age and made some decisions we probably wouldn’t have otherwise made.
    I was about to write a blogpost on perspective and this topic would be a perfect example–do you mind if I link to your post in reference? (Sorry, I’m still new to blogging and don’t quite know blogger etiquette ^_^)

  11. 12

    I had almost the same experience as you write here. Me and my wife had decided to keep except our shared account for bills and common expenses (family vacations, etc.) even our private accounts with our individual money. We had decided to divide our incomes and send half of monthly income to our shared account while the other half is staying at individual accounts. I think it is great that while “building” something together we still maintain some level of financial privacy. However, our friends and family looks at us with regards to this issue as complete strangers…

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