First of all, I want to start out with the fact that I DO talk far too much.
I am a talker to the max.
Sometimes when I explain my thought processes to my husband he looks at me with eyebrows raised and says something like, “Woah, that was a lot.” It’s something we laugh about regularly.
Talk intimacy is a characteristic of polyamory I immediately found attractive. But as I’ve navigated my own marriage, I’ve started questioning the importance I’ve placed on talk intimacy and its role in our relationship.
When I say talk intimacy, I’m referring to the idea that talking through and over-examining most situations and thoughts (as a means for coming closer as a couple) and when it’s valued above most other aspects of a relationship.
I’ve seen this play out in my own and other polyamorous relationships. In fact, many equate polyamorous with “tell all” arrangements. Bringing to mind the image of a couple sharing in explicit detail every thought, fantasy, desire, and extramarital interaction (including non-married couples here).
I first heard the term “talk intimacy” in Esther Perel’s book Mating in Captivity. Specifically, her observations on the difference between American and European interactions in relationships, made me look at my husband (who’s British) and our relationship in a new light.
In my quest to learn more about differing relationships and my desire to challenge my own way of doing things – I’ve began questioning the value and emphasis I’ve placed on talk intimacy in my marriage. The concepts that resulted have been enjoyable to consider.
Take What Works (or Is Pleasantly Challenging!) and Leave the Rest
Each person’s needs and all relationships are completely different. There are literally billions of ways a partnership can look. This is meant as an exploration of different concepts and ideas – especially those valued in non-monogamous relationships.
I consider my own relationship monogamish or ethically non-monogamous but try saying that ten times fast – it would be obnoxious as hell. And so, I use the word polyamorous pretty loosely here.
Ultimately, I consider relationships a spectrum just like so many things in life.
The most important thing here is to question and consider different ways of looking at your relationship – even if it is monogamous.
Take what works for you and your partner and leave the rest.
But if you get one thing out of this, I hope it’s questioning at least one aspect of your relationship that you’ve been taught is “the right way.”
Ask questions, challenge norms, and make the relationship of your dreams by configuring it in a way that works best for you and your partner. This is something I wish for both monogamous and nonmonogamous relationships alike.
The Importance of Other Forms of Communication
Relationships that place talk intimacy above all, often undervalue other forms of communication available. A simple tool to help explore this concept is the five love languages.
The five love languages is the idea that we all express love in different ways: words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time, physical touch, and gifts. Often a person expresses their love in the love language they receive or feel the strongest.
When one form of communication is placed at the top of a hierarchy of communication it can leave partner for whom it’s not their primary love language feeling inadequate, misunderstood, and ultimately frustrated.
These feelings can result when the most valued love language isn’t the realm of communication they express or experience best. Also, this hierarchy can sometimes result in the unmet needs of one partner.
I’m not pointing this out to let the person whose primary love language isn’t verbal communication off the hook. I’m simply pointing this out because I believe overvaluing verbal communication can quickly undermine the hard work many polyamorous couples are willing to put in.
If you are going to expect your partner to become a better verbal communicator, it’s just as important that you become a better non-verbal communicator.
When I want to show my husband, I love him, I carefully watch how he shows me love and try to reflect that back onto him.
This is a great lens to take and examine not only your romantic relationships with but your friendships with. I also try to incorporate this concept in my relationships with my parents, siblings, and close friends.
Eroticism Thrives in Autonomy, Novelty, and Mystery
Fostering eroticism and desire is one of the beautiful aspects of non-monogamous relationships I adore so much. If you’re in a non-monogamous relationship of any form, you’re likely exploring the deep places of erotic desire, fantasy, and sexual communication.
It’s incredibly beautiful to express your innermost fantasies to your partner and have them met with acceptance and validation. I’ve seen this interaction disarm guilt and shame. It’s an experience that can be deeply empowering.
Esther Perel says it beautifully…
“But then there are those who long to be known differently, to give themselves over and risk crossing that threshold. They muster the courage to confront the cultural prohibitions against sex – exuberant sex – at home. They hunger for full expression in the erotic realm, and resist the urge to withhold. For them sexual communion is far from dirty, but rather a sacred melding that puts us in touch with the divine.”
This is what I love about nonmonogamy – the willingness to be raw, vulnerable, and honest. To share parts of yourself that you were taught were unnatural and shameful, and to have your partner look at it and say, “I love you anyway.”
While fostering eroticism through autonomy and novelty is commonly part of most polyamorous relationships, it’s the mystery that can sometimes be crowded out.
I have friends who pride themselves in “knowing” exactly how their partner thinks and behaves. A sense of arrogance often comes with this “knowledge,” as if they’ve unlocked the secret of perfect polyamory (or monogamy for that matter).
I used to envy this attitude but I pretty quickly realized that it’s actually a limiting belief. It’s limiting in both its lack of humility and how it stifles mystery.
I try to approach my relationship with humility and curiosity. It’s a conscious effort on my part to give my husband both emotional space and space to change his identifying characteristics.
Because I believe we can label our partners with characteristics that can crush mystery and eroticism. Talk intimacy has the potential to exacerbate the blandness we are working to avoid.
Confusing Radical Honesty with Word Vomit
This is the area where I’ve seen the most difference in way Americans and Europeans interact within a romantic relationship. Day to day, us American’s generally share our thoughts and emotions more readily.
My husband has exhaled many a time, “you Americans and your emotions!”
Obviously, it’s not that we have more emotions; it’s that we seem to talk through things willingly and often incompletely.
I find it interesting that in American monogamous relationships, not disclosing infidelity is often considered as bad if not worse than the act of cheating itself.
In European relationships, it’s considered very selfish if you are going to cause your partner severe damage by disclosing your transgressions for the sake of soothing your guilty conscious.
I’ve started reexamining my own words and asking myself, is all this sharing actually selfish?
My general answer (as it stands now) is that for the most part it’s ok, as long as I don’t expect the same amount of verbal communication from my husband. This doesn’t mean I haven’t asked him to meet me in the middle, sometimes pushing him to share a little more of himself verbally.
And in the case of extramarital sexual encounters? My conclusion is that over sharing can be extremely selfish on my end.
He doesn’t want to know the details and I’ve learned to respect that. I’ve learned that when there’s not intentionality behind words, it can quickly become word vomit that only makes you feel good.
Glimpses into Another’s Thoughts are Precious Gifts
The fact that you need to earn a person’s right to enter their thoughts isn’t something that’s readily accepted in American culture.
We often enter a relationship or marriage and assume that because we’ve committed to a life together that it means we are also guaranteed access to the inner workings of our partner’s thoughts.
We act as though we’ve been given security clearance to the most protected and secret parts of our partner’s mind. And I’m 100 percent guilty of this.
But isn’t it so much more romantic, to consider these glimpses into the deep thoughts and desires of our partner’s mind, a gift?
Instead of demanding or expecting access to our partner’s mind, I’d like to think of it as an ongoing field of expertise. Just like any skill worth learning, you don’t earn your 10,000 hours overnight.
But remember, no matter how well you think you know your partner – there is a huge piece of their own mind they can’t possibly know, which means by default you shouldn’t ever give yourself too much credit in this area.
It’s a lovely adventure to explore the mind of another – try not to demand or rush it.
Remember the Power of the Subconscious
A relationship that values talk intimacy above all else, naively implies that our most true self is always conveyed through words. But we know that 95 percent of our brain’s processing and therefore behaviors are occurring in the subconscious.
When we describe ourselves on paper or through a conversation, we are actually describing our ideal self or our conscious mind. But when we go about our daily lives, the subconscious is in control most of the time
It’s important to consider the implications of our past experiences, including childhood, and the fact that there’s an unknown even in our own mind. Within each person, there are millions of unspoken truths. And that’s a lot to consider!
And the longer we’re in a relationship, the more of our interactions with our partners are moved to the subconscious.
This is what’s happening after the initial honeymoon phase of a relationship. Once our interactions are moved to the subconscious, sometimes we are suddenly confused and even shocked by the “new” behaviors of our partner.
And over time it takes more effort to pull our interactions with our long term partner into the conscious mind. This is where real intimacy can happen – through many forms of communication.
Don’t Ignore the Fear of Engulfment
I believe the fear of engulfment or losing the sense of self in a relationship is playing out in all sorts of peculiar ways today. Many are frustrated with online dating and how flakey it’s become.
We live in a world of efficiency and self-reliance. We are also deeply wary of vulnerability and dependence. With apps like Tinder, it makes it extremely easy to keep intimacy an arm’s length.
The fear of becoming engulfed by another is extremely powerful in me. This is probably the number one factor that ended nearly all of my relationships.
In fact, the only man I’ve met who has this fear more strongly than I do is my husband – haha! In a weird way, his innate desire to preserve his sense of self is one of his qualities I find most attractive.
While acknowledging this fear is strong, fighting the irrationality and lack of vulnerability this fear fosters is super important.
What I’m trying to say here is that, in an effort to battle the unhealthy behaviors that coincide with preserving the sense of self, which plays out into today’s dating world – polyamorous couples often try to exist in the opposite end of the spectrum by living in a world of talk intimacy or “tell all” arrangements.
This swing from almost total self-reliance to excessive over talking (and mistaking it for vulnerability) is a strange form of reductionism that isn’t realistic for most of us who were born into a world valuing autonomy.
I think it’s healthier to live somewhere in the middle. And only by acknowledging the potential over talking can have on losing the sense of self, can we live in the middle.
Challenge the Desire to be Radical, Radically
I think it’s common for a group that differs from the “norm” to swing hard to the opposite end of the spectrum. To cling to values for the sake of them being the antithesis of what they’ve fought against.
But in my experience, many people exist somewhere in the gray area. My views on polyamory are evolving and I imagine they will continue to do so. More than anything I hope to find that sweet spot for my husband and I, while acknowledging that this will likely change throughout our lives.
Perel, Esther. 2006. Mating in Captivity. Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. New York: HarperCollins.
Want to learn more? Read New Relationship Energy: Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground.
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