Highlander Rules in Relationships
A dear friend asked me to go for a walk and talk about what her son had just told her during a recent visit, that he was bisexual. My friend, who's a kind and concerned mother, was grateful that her son had figured this out about himself and shared it with her. She was also worried about him. He's currently seeing a man, and she worried about social stigmas affecting him there. And she worried about whether he can ever be happy in a monogamous relationship as a bisexual.
We talked a lot about that idea, which is very common. If you like boys and girls and non-binary people, the question goes, how can you be happy without a relationship with someone from each gender to which you're attracted?
The unstated but implied corollary to this is that if you are attracted to only one gender it is possible to be in a relationship with someone who has all the qualities to which you are attracted - as though gender is the only variable involved.
There's a common game where committed couples make a “list” of celebrities they are allowed to sleep with if the opportunity arises. The list usually includes five famous people, because there's not just one fantasy person one might be attracted to. My list, if I played this game, would include both Daniel Craig and Eric McCormack. Physically, they're very different. I find them both aesthetically pleasing despite their differences.
This makes sense in the context of the list game, right? My appreciation of Daniel Craig's rugged features doesn't invalidate my appreciation of Eric McCormack’s dark hair and light eyes. I can like both. And if I were to monogamously pair with a man with sandy blonde hair, I would still be allowed to find men with dark hair attractive, right?
Or is that where it gets conflicted for you? Because it might be. The idea that we have one true soul mate that we're allowed to be really attracted to, and any other attraction is wrong or false or inappropriate is pervasive in our cultural upbringing. We're taught that relationships work according to Highlander rules: there can be only one.
If we believe the Highlander rule, though, we run into a problem when we find another person attractive. If there can be only one, finding another person attractive means one of those attractions is a lie.
How many movies, TV shows, and books have as a key theme the main character making a choice to determine who they're "really" attracted to? The idea in these stories is that your goal in choosing a partner is to find your one true love, and recognize anything else as false. Most of these stories depict that choice as happening in the context of a monogamous heterosexual relationship between multiple cisgender people, right?
if we understand the world as "it's normal to be attracted to multiple individuals" and the choice as a logistical one about discerning the best match across many dimensions (physical, emotional, intellectual, habitual, spiritual, logistical, etc) to create a working pair bond, then there's nothing tragic about the road not taken. It becomes like choosing a next job, or choosing a major in college. Each decision leads to paths taken and paths not taken, and we understand that's just the way life works.
But we don't think about it that way with relationships in our dominant culture. We have this myth that one “right” relationship partner exists and the goal is simply to find the perfect puzzle piece.
The Trouble With Soul Mates
Of course that creates multiple problems, not the least of which is the inability to see every relationship as a trade off. With any partner, there are things you'll get an abundance of, and things you won't get at all. With my husband and I get someone who will take excellent care of my car, from being able to do a lot of the maintenance himself and cleaning out the trash I'm prone to leaving in the door pockets for me. Also with my husband, the garage is almost always so full of tools and projects that I park in the driveway instead of the garage. It's a trade off I'm happy to make, but it is a trade off.
If I didn't recognize that every relationship comes with trade off, though, I might expect that because I'd like to both have a well maintained car and park it in a garage, that my husband wasn't right for me.
When it comes to bisexuality, these trade offs seem a little exotic because they are related to sex. If you're attracted to both penis-having individuals and vagina-having individuals, making the choice to be with just one for the rest of your life could feel overwhelming. Again, though, this choice only seems exotic if you assume that, for people only attracted to one type of genitalia, there is a single individual who embodies all the characteristics you might desire related to that type of body. We don't recognize that someone might be attracted to both tall burly men and more compact men with streamlined physicality, and continue to be attracted to both body types even after getting married.
This is part of why the idea of being attracted to someone new is considered such a threat to marriages. When we see an attraction to a new person as evidence that our partner can't be the one, rather than accepting that attraction is not the only or determining foundation for a relationship.
When you realize that sexual attraction and interaction is only one piece of what makes any relationship work, sexual attraction to more than one gender becomes a less overwhelming obstacle to happiness within a monogamous relationship.