Boundaries and Celibate Partnership

We always enjoy talking with people who read our blog. We’ve been engaging in an extended conversation in the comments section with Maria McDowell and her readers at Women in Theology. Many of Maria’s commenters have raised thoughtful questions. We didn’t have space to respond to them all during our last post, and we wanted to respond to some on our own blog lest we unintentionally dominate the comments at WIT. Today we’re taking some time to discuss the issue of boundaries and exclusivity as it pertains our relationship.

We’ve heard several variations on boundary questions. Some people have asked us if our relationship is really a committed relationship if we do not have certain forms of physical intimacy reserved just for one another. Other people are mystified by the notion that we can even make boundaries work at all in the context of a celibate relationship. What gives our relationship its sticking power if we’re not sexually active? Are we in a “one person only exclusive committed friendship for life” relationship? Virtually every form of these questions wants to tease out why we consider celibate an important modifier of partnership. In this post, we’re going to talk about how exclusivity does — and does not — exist/function in our relationship. Some disclaimers before we get going: 1) we are not in any way, shape, or form in an “open relationship,” and 2) we are not trying to make generalizable claims about non-celibate relationships or celibate partnerships other than our own. This post should be read as a sharing of our own experiences and our observations of people closest to us.

As we reflected on where exclusivity does exist in our relationship, we found commitment to be at the heart of the question. We have made a commitment to be radically transparent, open, and honest with each other about everything at all times. Every day we talk about our successes, our failures, our triumphs, our anxieties, our fears, our shortcomings, things we realized while praying, happenings of the day, and places where we wouldn’t mind having a chance for a do-over. In a monastery, this sort of practice can be called the “confession of thoughts,” which is not to be confused with the mystery of confession. A “confession of thoughts” is a time to answer the question of “What have you been thinking about today?” thoroughly and prayerfully. Taking time to share the contents of our thoughts with one another helps us discern what steps God might be calling us to next. Sharing thoughts also connects us deeply with each other. Each of us has experienced innumerable benefits from having another person who cares to know about every thought, no matter how unimportant it may seem. To give but one example, being able to talk with Sarah about the stresses of the day has provided an entirely necessary valve on Lindsey’s temper. When we know the full picture of what’s going on, we’re able to offer each other much sounder counsel. 

Of course, we still share our lives fully with our spiritual directors and friends. However, sharing a household on a daily basis gives us a chance to be transparent with each other in a different way about matters big, small, and absolutely trivial. For example, if Sarah doesn’t do the dishes, Lindsey will check in with Sarah to ask what’s going on because this task is one of Sarah’s commitments for maintaining our household. Sarah might be exhausted after a long day of work, out late running a ton of errands, or simply forgetful. We discuss items like this all the time, and the openness has proven helpful in our spiritual growth. Though we do not hide anything from our spiritual fathers, our relationship gives us the advantage of having a deep connection with someone else who can help us make the right decisions day by day, sometimes hour by hour. Does anyone else need to know that Sarah forgot to do the dishes one day unless it falls into a bigger pattern worthy of concern? Probably not. Occasionally we choose to loop friends into particular situations where we share just as transparently with them as we would with each other, but we have made a solid commitment to share everything with each other always.

What we’ve just discussed is the most prominent example of exclusivity in our relationship. Despite the fact that we have committed to being 100% transparent with each other on a daily basis, our level of exclusivity seems distinct from what we’ve observed in many non-celibate relationships. We have enjoyed a profound degree of emotional intimacy with friends, we have no problems with how we naturally display physical affection to others, and we welcome guests regularly into our home.

We don’t hesitate to call on others during times of need. We have no illusions that we are somehow entirely sufficient for one another. We don’t consider ourselves one another’s “everything” — and we’ll expand on that thought in a post in the near future. We’ve learned who the other calls upon during especially stressful periods. When Lindsey receives a phone call from a particular childhood best friend, Sarah knows something is going on but waits to ask until Lindsey is ready to give the update, and trusts that Lindsey will offer it soon. Sometimes Sarah needs to go out for the evening to be with lots of local friends and share openly with them about a difficult situation. Lindsey understands that processing things with 10 (or more) people is just part of how Sarah’s extroverted brain works, and is confident that Sarah will share all the important details later. These examples probably speak to some people in healthy non-celibate relationships as well. However, based upon our own past experiences in non-celibate relationships, we are aware that some non-celibate couples have more difficulty sorting boundaries with friends (especially very attractive friends) than we do. Lindsey completely accepts that Sarah’s local friends include LGB women to whom Sarah is attracted, but still encourages Sarah to cultivate emotional intimacy with them. Sarah also accepts that many people Lindsey is emotionally close with have been past romantic partners or interests. Neither of us has ever had an ounce of concern about the possibility of unfaithfulness or our relationship being threatened by someone else. Neither of us has ever experienced even a hint of jealousy toward the other’s same-sex or opposite-sex friendships.

We have some truly fantastic friends, and we see the level of emotional intimacy we’re able to share with them as paramount to keeping our own relationship healthy. There are occasions when Lindsey is not able to attend to an immediate need of Sarah’s, and vice versa. In these cases, we know that we can rely upon our individual “circles of trust” to be there for whichever one of us is in the midst of a sudden crisis. As Sarah’s been coping with Meniere’s disease, Sarah has had some emotionally difficult days that have led at times to rough nights. Recently, Sarah spent almost an entire Friday night engaged in a text message conversation with one of our close mutual friends while Lindsey slept. The conversation was extremely helpful and exactly what Sarah needed, and both of us are certain that given the circumstances, Lindsey could not have provided the same level and kind of support so successfully. We accept these instances as signs of meaningful friendship with other people, and neither of us becomes angry, upset, frustrated, or suspicious of the other when they occur. In our own past experiences of non-celibate relationships, the story in this example would have had a very different ending. Neither of us has ever been in a non-celibate relationship where past partners would have considered having a midnight-to-5 AM text conversation with a close friend acceptable behavior.

Emotional intimacy goes two ways. One cannot expect to pour one’s heart out to one’s friends without also offering one’s own ears in return. We understand this reciprocity, and neither of us gets upset when the other spends considerable amounts of time being present for a friend. This past summer, Lindsey received a phone call nearly out of the blue from a past partner who was in a tough situation. Because of how Lindsey’s schedule worked out at the time, Lindsey called this friend on the way to and from work on a daily basis for several weeks. Commutes in our area are on the longer side, so it wasn’t uncommon for Lindsey to spend up to three hours a day talking with this past partner. The crisis reconnected them as friends. Lindsey now continues to talk with this friend regularly, and Sarah has no concerns about this arrangement.

One of the places where we most frequently confuse people regarding our boundaries relates to physical touch. Lindsey hugs truly are global public goods, and we’re both rather proficient snugglers. We have had several conversations with other people about what forms of affection are okay to share with friends and not saved exclusively for each other. Sarah has heard many variants of, “Would you be okay with Lindsey snuggling, dancing, or going out to dinner and a movie with someone else?” Our answer to these questions is always unequivocally yes. Then the questioner’s response is almost always, “You’re in the slim minority of opinion on that issue. I don’t know anyone else who would be okay with his/her partner doing those things.” We don’t doubt that at all. We both believe strongly that Western society today is far too afraid of physical affection. It seems to us that so many Westerners are afraid to be physically affectionate lest they be perceived as having particular romantic and sexual attachments. We won’t mince our words here: we think this social paranoia is stupid, cancerous, and outright deadly. Therefore, we have no problem with giving hugs, snuggling, embracing, and being fully present with other people. All people could benefit from having more folks who know, love, honor, accept, and cherish them. Why is it that we Westerners generally ween ourselves off of physically affectionate friendships after we’ve finished college?

The few bits of exclusivity in our relationship are primarily about supporting each other 100%. Each of us wants the other to grow as close to Christ as is humanly possible and to live an abundant life in the process. In our times together as a team, we frequently ask ourselves what would help us focus more outwardly instead of inwardly on ourselves and what makes us happy together. It’s hugely important for us that we are generous with emotional and practical support writ large, even as many people question how it’s possible that neither one of us is bothered by the way the other tries to love and serve the world. As we thought about the exclusivity question, we struggled to identify ways our relationship is exclusive. We’ve been amazed that as our relationship has deepened and matured, it has also become less and less exclusive. Our commitment to sharing our thoughts with each other transparently means that we have deep intimacy between the two of us. And ultimately, that intimacy serves to connect us to, rather than isolate us from, the world around us.

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