Negotation and agency, a conversation on successful relationships

We finish out this month with a conversation I had with writer Johnny Murdoc. In between our talks about comics, storytelling, and print culture; we’ve had more than a few discussions about how people relate to each other in romantic relationships. I thought I would share one on what makes a relationship successful with you. Besides being a good friend and incredibly sweet, Johnny spends his time with his equally rad partner Evan and writing erotic fiction as well as essays on relationships and sex. He is also a co-founder of Sex+STL, an organization that works to create solidarity among sexual minorities in St. Louis, all while advocating for them politically.

Here is a link to his website, which is decidedly not work safe i.e. explicit.

If you want to explain a little about your romantic past and that kind of thing.

My romantic past is nice, short, and sweet when counting down the people. My first “real” relationship was in high school and it was with a girl. As much as I wanted it to work, I was well aware the entire time it wasn’t going to. She was young and she was very smart and she was a very talented musician and she was also very Christian. I was young, I was well aware of the fact that I was already an atheist (even though I never told her that), and I was also gay which meant it was never going to work out.

It was probably another three or four years before I had another serious relationship. That one developed online via a mailing list for a web comic. This guy and I started writing back and forth and we kind of fell for each other. About five or six months before my 21st birthday, I went to visit him. He lived in Virginia. We had one week together physically and that kind of crashed and burned as soon as I returned home. But because of that relationship and the fact that I almost moved away to Virginia, my best friend Evan realized he had feelings for me that were more than just friendship and so he kind of actively pursued me. We have been together for the past nine years.

The other interview I did, the person I interviewed had been with their partner for seven. That is also pretty long, but not as long as nine. Another question I had is maybe a little tangential to this. In my other interview one of the things that came up was kind of similarly to you, he didn’t date many people before his current partner. Not that he didn’t want to be with his current partner or anything like that or that he wished he had time to sow his wild oats but he kind of wish he had dated more people. Maybe that would have given him more insights or skills sets to use in his current relationship. I was curious if you ever have any similar feelings or not at all?

There are definitely periods where I have felt that way. I would say even in that past few years I have had that kind of like, “Wow, this has been the dominant relationship of my life.” Aside from my parents and my sister, Evan has been in my life more than anyone else.

However, most of the time, I am well aware of just how lucky I am that everything worked out the way that it did so that I could be there when I met him and that I could be here today where we are. So, I would say that there have been times when I wished that I had dated more but actually right now I don’t feel that way. I am very comfortable with where I am and where we are.

You guys have been in a monogamous relationship for nine years which, by traditional terms, that would be classified as a successful relationship so far. Would you agree with that? That in that outlook that your relationship could be described that way?

Yeah. Even where we are at right now, I can’t logically foresee our relationship ending. I don’t think there are any threads or problems that would cause it to crash and burn quickly. Even if it ended today, I would say that overwhelmingly the relationship was a success. I think that Evan and I get along really well and for the most part the story arc has been easy. It has gone well. We haven’t had a lot of ups and downs even though there have been times when it has been hard. It is not always easy; the curve of the relationship has been easy.

I think that we have succeeded even though I am only thirty and I recognize that I am young and still naive in certain ways. I don’t think I have matured. At the same time, saying that “Yes, this is a success. We can put this in the black. It is not in the red column but the black.” That is still within the context that I am only thirty and we have been together for a third of my life almost but I still have a lot of life ahead of me, if that makes sense.

Yeah. Something that came up in that response is part of why I wanted to talk to you. I think that the traditional idea of what a successful relationship is related to finding someone, pairing with them, and spending the rest of your life with them. That is the traditional viewpoint and you don’t…in the conversations we’ve had, you’ve expressed a different outlook on that. I am curious if you want to explain that a bit?

Yeah, actually I have someone to quote. Just the other day, I bought a new ‘zine called Rad Dad and they did an issue on sex and love. I have only read the first two essays but one of the essays had a quote that I was like, “Holy shit, that is what Nick and I have been talking about.” The essay is actually about taking a monogamous relationship and turning it into an open relationship but in the introduction he is talking about how when he met his partner they were both in open relationships that went horribly wrong. He says, “Of course, breaking up in this society is already portrayed in crazy and unhealthy ways. Changing the way that someone relates to another person should not be seen as a failure.”

In our previous conversations, we’ve talked a lot about how I think that a relationship [is successful] as long as the two people (the two or more people, I guess), were in the relationship were happy for most of the time they were in the relationship. [If] they got what they needed to get (whether or not it was emotional/romantic fulfillment or if it was sexual fulfillment, or if it was something they needed to grow about)… out of the relationship, [it was successful.] Even if it ended prematurely, [even though] we see successful relationships as ones where people stay together forever. As Dan Savage says, we only consider relationships successful if it ends in death. I think a relationship can be successful even if it ends before one of the partners dies.

Like I said, I think Evan and I have had a successful relationship and I don’t want it in any way today or tomorrow or in ten years. I can honestly see us as together for the long haul. I think that it would be a betrayal for me to say if it did end tomorrow or if it did end in a few years that the relationship itself was a failure. Being with Evan and being in this relationship was fundamentally changed who I am, and I think it has change me for the better. So, I think that at the end if you tally up all of the pros and cons of this relationship there are far more pros than there were cons. And I think that makes this a successful relationship.

If an ending horrible enough, can it supersede everything else was for being a failure? Or no matter how bad the end is, it still considered successful?

Honestly, I think it depends on the situation. We have the capability to say things to one another that can overshadow the past or put everything that came before in a different light. In a particularly evil scenario, you could find out that you thought you were in the happy ten-year relationship with your partner and in the end they tell you that they had been cheating on you the entire time. So even though your experiences, outside of their extracurricular activity was overwhelmingly positive, that would crash and burn everything. So I don’t think it is impossible for what was perceived as good relationships could overall be considered a bad one.

At the same time I think that even though things may end badly for one person, and that may overshadow everything that came before, I don’t think that has to mandate for the other (that it didn’t end badly for). It doesn’t mean that they have to re-contextualize everything as a failure. You can have a terrible break up that certainly could render everything in a bad light but I don’t think it is inherently true that it does. I think it is possible for each partner to walk away with a totally different perspective on the relationship. So, I think just because one person thinks it was a terrible relationship or that it was a failure in any way; I don’t think it means that the other partner is also obligated to view it as a failure. They may have seen that everything that happened because of that relationship, that everything that they got out of that relationship was good. It can still be a successful relationship for them.

This viewpoint, on what is a successful relationship, is it a more recent thing or is it kind of an outlook you have had for a long time?

I would definitely say it is more recent. My opinion on relationships as a whole has been constantly evolving. When Evan and I started dating and we recognized that it was going to continue on, I had a lot of ideas of how I thought a relationship went and how things would have to go. As time has passed, we have been able to grow and flex into what our relationship actually is and not what we thought it would be. In the past few years, even more so, I have been exposed to a lot of different people in different kinds of relationships. Three years ago, I didn’t know anyone who was in a polyamorous relationship but now it feels like a majority of my friends are in polyamorous relationships. I had to re-contextualize what I think a relationship is, what I think a successful relationship is. I think a mature look is a really loaded term, but it is a more mature look at what a relationship is or can be. I don’t think it has to fall under anyone else’s guidelines of what a successful relationship is. That definitely has been an evolution in my thought process about relationships.

Is there anything else outside of your experience with meeting people with different ideas of what a relationship is that changed it? Is there anything more specific about your relationship that the relationship itself has changed what your idea is?

Really, I don’t think so. I think that, more or less, my actual relationship with Evan follows those very traditional ideas of what a successful relationship is; what a monogamous relationship is. I don’t think we fall outside of what many people’s idea of except for the fact that we are both men and even today most people recognize that it’s just as possibly traditional as a man and a woman together. So even though I have these different ideas of relationships, I don’t think it has fundamentally changed how my relationship continues to this day or changes how it exists.

Are there things that you have learned from observing those other relationships that you have been able to apply to your relationship and make it more successful than it has been previously?

I am a lot more liberal on how… it is actually kind of a huge loaded topic. It has changed in a lot of ways. When we first began, I’m sure you can attest to this and everyone I know can attest to this, Evan and I can be a sickeningly, sickeningly cute couple. We didn’t really do anything apart from one another until recently, when he started going to school full-time. We have the same friends. We do the same activities. We spend all of our time together. But I am more comfortable now than I use to be (with the idea) that Evan is a completely autonomous person, that he has his own agency and it seems ridiculous to suggest that I didn’t ever see it that way. I was very wrapped up in the idea of us as a couple. Now, I recognize, I think pretty fully, that he has his own range of needs and wants and desires and he can have relationships with other people. I don’t necessarily mean romantic relationships because we have a social contract with one another that we are not going to have romantic relationships with other people.

Even that is a topic that my viewpoint has changed on. When we first started dating, I came in with this very stereotypical idea of gay men—that gay men are inherently cheaters and sex fiends. Before we even started dating, Evan and I had these conversations where I said “If you ever cheated on me, that would be the end of our relationship, no matter what.” It wouldn’t matter the circumstances. I still feel the same way today because cheating is a violation of our… of my trust basically. I would rather know that if he came to the conclusion that he wanted to have a relationship with someone else or even if he just wanted to have sex with someone else, that he would come and talk to me about it. I would rather our relationship be flexible enough for both of us to grow in it than for it to be kind of this rigid set thing (where), if part of it breaks, the entire thing crumbles. My idea of what I need a relationship to be has changed even though to this day we are monogamous and we intend to stay that way. I would rather be open to change rather than have a situation where he felt like he needed to go behind my back. Given where I was, even five or six years ago, that is a major change for me.

You want him to feel comfortable bring it up that to you regardless. You may not be okay with it but you want to feel comfortable that you could talk about it. Am I understanding you?

Right. It’s not to say that if he were to bring it up tomorrow that I would be like, “Okay, let’s do that,” or “Okay, you do that.” I want to have a relationship where we can communicate about those things without fear of retaliation.

You were talking earlier about how you have grown into the idea of him being autonomous with his own agency. Something that I have been thinking a lot about lately is even in our language, culturally, we really don’t see couples having agency from each other. A lot of the language is about ownership. Do you think that a lot of problems that we have in relationships have to do with those ideas of not recognizing agency as individuals and viewing things more, even if it is not ownership in a more classical sense, but still in a couple the two parts have an ownership of each other.

I tend to have a cynical view of how most people go into relationships. I think that culturally we are trained to have that exact viewpoint. Once you either settle down with someone or legitimately marry them, that they somehow become yours. I tend to think that most people to this day make that assumption going into relationships. I know that I did when Evan and I started dating.

I think that a lot of the language of relationships is about property. There may be some good things about that. I kind of get off on the idea that some part of Evan is mine. It is a fantasy and a fallacy because tomorrow Evan can get up and walk away and I could never see him again. The only things I really have ownership of are the things we jointly own, which is to say my house.

You also have ownership of your feelings and thoughts related to him.

Right, I can only own what is in my head, what falls under my agency.

You said that all you can own is what you jointly own.

At the end of the day, as crude as this sounds, Evan has no obligation to respect my feelings. He does respect them a lot and that is why we are still together.

Do you feel at the same time while there definitely is a limit to the feelings you have, that you are completely entitled to those feelings? Just as much as someone is not obligated to respecting or reciprocating your feelings, you are not responsible for feeling something else than what you feel?

I think that our responsibility to each other, a lot of the ways we discuss it gets tied up in the idea of ownership. Sorry, this is a new part of the discussion for me. It is weird, because I do, in practical terms, think in ownership. I still…I have had to work at disentangling what I feel and what is real. Ultimately, I know what is real by the way I interact with Evan and the way he interacts back with me. I don’t think that it creates something—I don’t want to use the term “magical” for all the obvious reasons, for all my skepticism and atheism but…its weird. I don’t have a clear answer for that one.

Kind of one of the things that you have been bringing up in discussions and stuff about relationships previously is the term negotiation. I don’t know if you want to talk about that idea a little bit.

The idea of negotiations?

Yeah, in a relationships. In previous conversations, you have been pretty adamant about it being important in having successful relationships. Kind of like our societal—that when you are with someone you are with them for good, our societal idea you get that person, “Alright, we are together and this is what our relationship is.” People feel like that is all the conversation they need. What is negotiation’s role in making relationships successful?

So, I woke up this morning after kind of struggling with this essay I was writing yesterday and I woke up with a really clear thought about relationships. Specifically this mostly applies to monogamy but I guess it is for every relationship. I think that a monogamous relationship is the purest distillation of a democracy in that you have two people who have a say in the way the relationship goes. You have two people, so you have two votes. When nation building is going on, if a new nation is being created, there is not a cookie-cutter constitution that should fit all nations. In the same way, I don’t think that there is a cookie-cutter agreement that fits all relationships. At the end of the day, the relationship—any relationship between two people—only has to work for those two people. So it is important that you are clear about what you want out of a relationship, about your needs and wants are, what your desires are, what your fantasies are. The only way you are going to get them out of the person is if you tell them.You are not going to get everything that you want because no one is ever going to find the exact perfect partner for them. I don’t believe in the idea that there is one true person out there in all of the universe for you. You are going to have to work together to make sure your relationship works for both of you.

It can be really huge things like, “Can you have sex with other people?” or it can be really, really tiny stupid things about like, “Do you go to bed at the same time?” Because, there is someone out there who thinks a happy relationship is one where two people go to bed together at the same time every night. You can assume that all you want and you can continuously get disappointed when your partner stays up to play video games or you can talk it out. Not that when two people get together, they need to sit down on date six and work out a contract, because that contract is not going to be worth its weight in gold in six months. The only way I think for relationships to really work, for both people to be happy and get what they need out of a relationship, is it needs to be an ongoing set of discussions and negotiations. And there are parts of it that need to be treated like a business transaction ,even though in the early days it is all butterflies and roses and condoms.

Condoms are an important negotiation.

This is slightly veering off topic but do you think that is applicable to not just romantic relationships but do you think it is important in all relationships?

I think it can be. There are lots of times where people go through periods, even in just regular friendships, where they kind of get their feelings hurt because something isn’t happening the way they thought it was going to. It is because your model of what a relationship is is different from someone else’s. For some people, it is okay if you have a friendship where you see each other every three months or six months or a year. You may also have close friends where you get your feelings hurt if you don’t hear from them in two weeks. I don’t think it is fair to other people that you have this rising and falling set of expectations and emotions that they are responsible for in some way because of their actions but they don’t realize you have an expectation that is different from theirs.

I think for me, part of my understanding…I think I probably view relationships that are successful similarly to you but developed that idea separately on my own. Because of circumstances of my life, I feel like what of what I learned about how I think you have a successful relationship romantically, a lot of that was learned through friendships. Just as much as recognizing another person’s agency is an important thing in friendships, too. If there is a day that you are really down in the dumps and you really need someone to help you out, there might be a day where all your friends have other things in their lives that are important. You are just going to have to deal with the fact that you are on your own. That is dealing with the fact that they are separate people with agency.

Part of what I think you are talking about ties into that I don’t think that there is as much a difference between the various kinds of relationships people have as we like to believe societally. A lot of people believe that there is a clear-cut line between a friendship and a relationship even though you hear a lot of people in relationships talk about how their partner is their best friend. That is certainly true for Evan and I. There is a set of feelings that I have for Evan that is exactly how I feel about you, it is how I feel about other friends that I have. There is something more I feel than that and even “more” isn’t the right word. It’s not like Evan is a ten and you’re an eight. There are a different set of emotions that come into play between me and Evan than become between you and I. I think a majority of interpersonal relationships are based on the same things. It is just that some have extra factors or are slightly more intense.

For a lot of romantic relationships, people become more intertwined than they do with other people they have other relationships with. I think that that may be a greater difference that defines the difference between [relationships]. I think in general for me, that every relationship I have with someone is unique. There is something about that relationship that is different than another relationship I have. So, in that way romantic relationships are just another relationship that is different than these other relationships. Maybe the greater difference is how intertwined they can become and the kinds of decisions you are making as a result of that intertwined-ness.

I think that that is certainly true more so for relationships the longer they go on. Everyone knows that in early days of a romantic relationship, and I guess to some extent friendship, you have a kind of excitement that even every time you think of the other person. You get an extra little boost of happy feelings. There is probably a science-y word for that. In the end though, eventually those feelings go away and they are replaced by something more complicated.

Obviously Evan and I, our lives are very intertwined. Nearly ever decision he makes short of what he has for lunch by himself affects me. Actually, even what he decides for lunch by himself affects me because I may not get it the next day because he ate all the leftovers. Our relationship is very intertwined to an intense degree but I think that happens with friendships, too.

I kind of want to throw out some stupid random number and say that like 90% of a romantic relationship is the same kind of relationship you have with a friend. Maybe it is more obvious or more true for me in that Evan and I were really close friends before we were partners. We had a year where we were just good friends. That isn’t to say that in the beginning of that friendship I didn’t have romantic feelings for him or sexual feelings for him. The majority of our early relationship was based on the fact that we were friends, not that we lovers or boyfriends. To this day, I still see that. We are, for the most part, people that really like to hang out together and we have taken pretty huge steps to make sure we can do that on a daily basis.

One of the things about negotiation and one of the things about having a relationship is honest communication but that, especially early on and for certain things forever, can be really risky. As much as you want it to be okay for Evan if he has feelings for someone else you want him to talk to you about it, don’t you feel like for him to do that he would feel like there is a great risk there?

Absolutely. That risk increases every day. There is always that idea that if your partner reacts badly to this (new idea), you have just flushed five years, six years, seven years down the drain. Lately, I have been stuck on the idea that there is no reward at the end of the day for having been in a successful relationship other than your own personal satisfaction. I think that the longer that you are together with someone, the more imperative it becomes for you to communicate and discuss these things. We all grow and change. If you think about who you were ten years ago, you are probably fairly radically different from now in some pretty important ways. In other ways, you may be exactly the same. You may be reading the same comic books but chances are you have grown in huge leaps and bounds. That is not going to stop because you hit twenty or thirty or hit forty; we change every day. I think that as much as I feel that there is a risk to bring up something new in a relationship because you are risking the stability of the relationship, I think that there is just as much risk not communicating on a regular basis.

If two people grow and change silently, if they do it without communicating with one another, they could both wake up one day and realize that they are totally different people and they no longer fit in the mold that they had set up for one another. So, I would rather Evan risk the past nine years to bring up some new challenging idea that challenges our comfortably, our familiarity with one another, than to wake up one day and realize that he no longer fits in our relationship. I think a lot of people end up in those situations where they wake up one day and they are fifty and they realize the past ten years they have been unhappy. Chances are, they could have made their lives better had they been more honest about their feelings early on.

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About Nick K.

Nick is just some dude. He likes comics, pizza, tabletop rpgs, and secrets. He is also a bit shy.
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5 Responses to Negotation and agency, a conversation on successful relationships

  1. Pingback: A conversation about successful relationships : Johnny Murdoc

  2. Anna says:

    What a thoughtful interview! I especially like the parts about risking the stability of the relationship in order to keep from growing apart.

  3. Pingback: A succesful relationship. : Johnny Murdoc

  4. Pingback: Things I have written about my boyfriend on the internet: TWO : Johnny Murdoc

  5. Pingback: Sex Positive St. Louis » Blog Archive » Ethical Monogamy

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