Sunday, June 19, 2011

NSSO- The Non-Sexual Significant Other, Friends, and Affection

So, I've had Polyamory Weekly sitting in iTunes for MANY MONTHS now, being a major podcast junkie.  For some reason, however, I never got around to listening until last week.  Seeing as we've actually started the move from being theoretically poly to actually dating, chatting it up online, and (yes) on at least one or two occasions kissing other people, I figured I really needed to start drawing in as much information and guidance as possible.  If you haven't noticed yet, I'm serious about researching any major life changes I make, especially since this one directly impacts a relationship that is the most fulfilling and beautiful, heartfelt and genuine, loving and magical that I've ever had, and one that I'd like to keep forever.

My phone is set to sync the most recent episode, which as of last week just happened to be a re-podcast of an old episode about Introverts vs. Extroverts.  This was actually quite helpful, as I'm (mostly) an extrovert (although I have my moments where I've finally been tapped out and just need to crawl into a hole to hide), and my husband is (mostly) an introvert (although he enjoys spending time one-on-one or in small crowds with our tiny band of close friends).  We have, of course, over the 12+ years we've been a couple, sorted out how that all looks in our relationship and worked out something that meets both of our needs in terms of social interaction.  I can still see how that might be a new challenge to sort through as we start dating new people.

But that, actually, wasn't the most interesting thing in that podcast for me.  There was a movie review of Carrington, by Joreth of The Inn Between (who has a handful of reviews of poly-ish movies on her site).  Her review was interesting (and I've since seen the movie thanks to Netflix), but one thing stood out in the review-- the concept of the "Non-Sexual Significant Other," or NSSO.  Lucky for us, Joreth also has a glossary of poly terms on her site (and I highly recommend giving it a look-over when you can if you're unfamiliar with poly):

NON-SEXUAL SIGNIFICANT OTHER (NSSO): Someone who fulfills the role of a Significant Other or a romantic partner, but does not include a sexual relationship. Usage: This is not a very common term because many people view a relationship without a sexual content to be "just friends" even within the poly community. However, some people do seperate different forms of love and emotional connections from sexual relationships, and often believe they have a "romantic" or intimate relationship with another person that, for whatever reason, does not include sex. This may include a relationship that resembles a romantic relationship in all ways except, for medical reasons, those involved are not capable of having or choose not to have a sexual relationship.

This idea intrigues me, not because I'm not into having sex with significant others, but because I do believe that over the years, I may have had a few extremely close relationships that were clearly "more than friends," while not being sexual in nature.  While I wouldn't necessarily call them "romantic," they were kind of flirtatious and playful.  One, well over a decade ago,  was with a gay man when we were both single.  One, also a decade or so ago, was with a married mom friend of mine who (along with her son) became like family to our family.  Another was with a single girl friend, and one has been with a married guy friend (whose family was not poly).  None of those were particularly complicated or weird, with the possible exception of the married guy friend.  In that case, the weirdness was overcome by the fact that I was fully aware that people can have loving, emotionally intimate relationships with more than one person at a time without it meaning less love for the "primary" partner (as I was already beginning to think seriously about poly at that time), and I took time to get to know his wife and connect with her in a positive way.  Plus, I have this thing about not wanting to help people cheat (similar to the thing my friend had about not wanting to cheat); this made it much, much easier to keep things platonic, which we did, even as an extremely close friendship developed.

All of that is not to say that I have unintentionally had an NSSO before (because I haven't), but to say that I can see how it could happen, and how it could meet people's needs, even if in a way that isn't culturally normative.  For starters, obviously even people who identify as asexual could be in loving relationships, even polyamorous ones.  Secondly, I actually enjoyed Carrington and loved the interplay between the characters.  I read a few descriptions of it online as a movie about "unrequited love."  I think people who wrote those reviews have a far-too-narrow definition of love.  One movie description goes so far as to say that Carrington's unrequited love for Lytton "ruined her life and ended in tragedy."  This I don't buy for two reasons.  First, any damn fool who watches the movie can tell that (at least as they are portrayed in the movie) Lytton clearly loved Carrington deeply, and enjoyed his unusual partnership with her.  Did it meet their every need and fill every aspect of partnership for them?  No.  But it was still a meaningful relationship from which they both benefited, and in which they both received love.  Secondly, that paints the picture that she hopelessly pined after him, thus causing the tragic end.  SPOILER ALERT (skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know the ending)...  What actually happened is that Lytton dies from cancer, and on his death bed yearns for Carrington's love, and after his death, she commits suicide from the grief of losing her partner.  What if they had been a traditional couple, married for years?  Would anyone, upon hearing that a wife of 15 years had been through watching her husband endure a painful and horrific death had then killed herself to escape her unbearable grief, then go on to ridicule her choice?  We might not agree with it, either in her case or in general, but we would understand her grief.

All of which brings me to sex and romance.  Does sex define which relationships matter and which don't?  Is a non-sexual relationship only acceptable, valid, and recognized if it is seen as something that is the preparation for a later sexual relationship?  What about romance?  What is "romantic" and what isn't?  Holding hands?  Giving a hug?  Stroking someone's hair?  Leaning into each other on the couch?  Sharing your secrets?  Kissing a cheek or forehead?  It seems that the line between "what friends can do" and "this constitutes a romantic relationship" is nebulous and arbitrary.  On the one hand, when romantic partnership is desired by one or both partners, it makes things feel complicated-- at what point should we call it a Relationship?  On the other hand, when platonic is the goal (either because of orientation or monogamy status, or some other issue), there's always the dance of "how much is okay?"  You try to balance doing what feels natural in the friendship and allowing appropriate expressions of love and caring with not doing more than is "safe" (emotionally, socially, or physically) and making sure everyone's boundaries are honored.

And I think some of this is real, and important, and valid.  I do not WANT to be in anything resembling a romantic relationship with someone, male or female, who is in a monogamous relationship, and will act in a way that honors their important life commitments.  Just as the romantic, crushing part of my brain seems to shut off and not work on friends whose orientation does not match with mine (gay men and straight women), so it turns off for people I know are in monogamous relationships.  There is no crushing.  There is no fantasizing.  While there might be love, expressions of it are kept safely within the boundaries that help me to maintain the friendship in a safe way.  I can love people with whom I would not or could not have a sexual relationship; It is very rare that I end up with a crush on one.

Still, a lot of this platonic vs. romantic rule-making seems silly to me.  Am I too idealistic in just thinking people can just be friends, the kind of friends that the friendship naturally develops into, and express love in ways that feel respectful, kind, and compassionate, without fearing that there is some kind of ulterior motive or hidden meaning inferred from their actions that wasn't actually part of the intent?  I dunno, I can see how that can work (in friendships where you know your friend operates in a very loving and affectionate way and that it doesn't mean they're trying to rope you into something).  I can also see how that wouldn't work (if a friend has a history of using lovey-dovey behavior to open the door and then launch a romantic sneak-attack on you when you least expect [or want] it).

Either way, the fact stands that I love my close friendships, and this, honestly, is how I prefer my friendships to be.  While there are some people with whom I know on a spiritual level I am supposed to be friends, even if it isn't (yet or ever) looking like the way I'm used to my friendships looking, I tend to be uninterested in superficial connections with people.  I like the long talks, the hugs, and the love.  At this time, I have around 8 close friends (although 4 of them do not live local to me) with whom I have that kind of intimacy.  Visits and phone calls are ended with "I love you," we call each other "honey" and "sweetie" and "love," and would be each other's 3 am friend, should one ever be needed.  I have one more friend with whom I feel that same level of love, but I'm still not sure where I stand with him (as he's not very expressive about lovey feelings with friends, that I've seen).  And I have a handful of other friends where some level of hugginess and affection is the norm, if not the overt "I love you" type.  As far as I can tell, this is a good thing.  Love is good.  Letting other people know you care about them is good.  Reaching into each other's lives, if even for a period of time, to love and be loved even in a non-sexual or non-romantic way is good.

Any relationship, sexual or non-sexual, has the weight and power that you give it.  If it is a friendship, then it's a friendship.  If it's family, then it's family, whether related by blood or not.  If it's a significant other, then it's a significant other, even if it doesn't fit society's definition of SO.

And if the opportunity for a loving and committed relationship with someone who will not or could not be sexually involved with me were ever to present itself, I don't think I'd reject that opportunity just because it wouldn't fit a pre-defined expectation of what a relationship should be.

I know there are a few of you who actually read this.  You've let me know without officially following the blog, liking it on facebook, or commenting.  But this is something I'd love more thoughts on.  Comments welcomed, even if you don't want your username shown (though you'll still have to wait for me to approve it).


  1. So, like a brother or sister, or like the kinds of friends other cultures are commonly familiar with - the relationships formed in ritual, in hunts, in battle...

    The "poly" community is onto something, but what it's onto is, I think, the beginnings of a restoration of full humanity to people. The full human experiences has various levels of kinship with all folks, something that capitalism and patriarchy have led societies to increasingly compartmentalize and limit. Sexuality has become symbolic, the expression of intimacy has become taboo.

    The idea of a "non-sexual significant other" is couched in the language of "significant others" which means little outside of strict monogamy. It's also couched in a need to highlight the absence of sexuality as symbolic.

    I guess all I'm saying is this: the need to label this as something confusing and odd is itself confusing and odd, and emblematic of something broken in contemporary mainstream culture, since most cultures, including our own prior to, say, 600 years ago, would have understood at least somewhat better the full range of potential for connection and intimacy between human beings.

    We are impoverished, and the need for discussions like these is symptomatic of that fact.

  2. What a great comment! Seriously-- thank you.

    I agree with you almost completely, but maybe had a few thoughts to offer (some just supporting and building on what you've said, and some perhaps offering a qualifier to some of the thoughts in the original post). Keep in mind, this is all just freeflow, think-out-loud kind of stuff for me, and that while I'm not new to the idea of poly or agreeing with it theoretically, we're only almost a year into actually being ready to do anything about it. Clearly, I don't yet have a wealth of experience with poly, just a whole lot of experience with human nature, and with knowing how I react in certain situations.

    I'm not sure that I think about it the same way as a brother or sister, although I have sometimes used that terminology to describe one of my more close friendships. For me, "significant other" would indicate someone with whom I am romantically involved, with a level and intensity of intimacy (real intimacy, not just "euphemism for sex" intimacy) that goes beyond what would be healthy for a sibling relationship. Even without the sexual component, I envision such a relationship as having a bit of an electricity and spark between the two.

    And I don't know that I agree that "significant other" is meaningless outside of strict monogamy. I'm not monogamous, and there are definitely some folks in my life who are more significant than others, you know? For me, it doesn't necessarily carry the weight of meaning an "only other," it just indicates that someone's place in your life is one that is precious in a loving, everyday, and romantic way, and in a somehow committed relationship (although that commitment can be defined by the partners to have many, many meanings to include monogamy or polyamory or something altogether different).

    Those two qualifiers out there, I have to say that I agree with you that we, as humans, have lost something important. Every day, we suffer from the absence of real connection, intimacy, and love in our lives with the people we are around. We are so concerned with protecting something that doesn't even serve us well that we refuse to welcome blessings as they come, lovers as they love us, and gifts of insight and strength that can come to us through and awareness of nature and her cycles. And that absence of connection? I think we try to fill that void with things that are meaningless, or hurtful, or otherwise keep us from the business of life, which (mostly) I consider to be love.

  3. It's just so hard, because we are living in this culture, and not some other culture. It might not be wise (or respectful) for me to act always as if poly is the norm, allowing *every* relationship to blossom in its own unique way. Some of the people in my life are in monogamous relationships. Some aren't, but have monogamy as an ideal (even if I believe that ideal is culturally-conditioned and not necessarily their own). Some of my friends identify as either gay or straight in a way that would prevent full realization of romantic potential. I've discovered already that not everyone is comfortable with me being openly poly (particularly if it's openly attracted to them), not because they definitely judge me, but because it's new, and they aren't sure what to say, and they aren't sure how they fit into that picture by virtue of being my friend. On the one hand, I can definitely say "fuck it" to those who judge me for being poly and aren't accepting. But for those friends who are genuinely curious and trying to understand who I am, I want to leave plenty of safe space in which they can process while still being my friend.

    Which also makes the absence of sexuality slightly less symbolic. Sometimes the absence is intentional to respect someone else's understanding of relationship, or identity, or orientation. Other times it's because people need time to come to a place of understanding about poly, and to pursue a sexual facet to the relationship before then would short circuit the process of processing. Some people are totally cool with a free and open sexuality, others aren't. I don't place a moral weight on either, but want to make sure that the free-ness of my sexuality never leaves any of my less-free friends feeling pressured, just as I hope those whose sexual boundaries are much more open than mine would never pressure me. And in my intimate relationships, it isn't that having sex with me is like the crown and scepter in a relationship-- you win the prize of being X amount of important to me; it's simply that sexuality is something so personal and varied in how we approach it, and that (as a rape crisis counselor) I take very seriously the task of making sure my understanding and expectations match up to others.

    So, thanks for the comment, and for being a part of the discussion. I agree that the need for these discussions is symptomatic of a broken understanding of love, even as I am thankful that we are starting have these discussions. May they be a necessary step toward opening back up a way of life that loves without fear or arbitrary boundaries.

  4. Love, intimacy, relationships between human beings are as unique as the people involved in their kaleidoscope of sexual, gender and cultural diversity. Bonding and shared intimate thoughts, feelings and touch - sexual and non-sexual - have always felt very fluid to me although I have noticed since transitioning from female to male that my tactile experiences of significant others is reducing.

    I really want to thank you for writing with such depth. Like others have said it is an area I also feel we would really benefit from exploring more - it does seem to be an aspect of our sense of self in relation to others that has been quite pyscho-socially imprisoned from us, certainly in advanced capitalist times.

    I wonder if this is an aspect of what I would call our homind self that is just bursting to reach its full potential

  5. Just another Anonymous poster chiming in.
    Firstly, you wrote a great article.
    Secondly: A lot of what the first Anon said rung true to me... I have to back up the sibling model. In my experience I have an NSSO that fits what you wrote about: I kept noticing in your article things that matched.
    There's a closeness that means they get included in significant decisions, that means all friends know about them and how important they are to you and levels of trust,affection and intimicy that I just don't include or feel inclined to include in relationships with friends.
    I hadn't heard of NSSO as a descriptor before and might have used it to describe the relationship, but it seems quite clinical. What works for us is using sibling terms for each other and I think that's something we'll keep doing. It's the best thing we found for describing that love.

  6. Sam, I agree wholeheartedly with: "Bonding and shared intimate thoughts, feelings and touch - sexual and non-sexual - have always felt very fluid to me." There are some things that, for me, feel very friendship, and some that feel very intimate. But mostly, there's just a whole lot of gray area, most of it filled with love and intimacy. I'm interested in hearing more about how you feel that's changed since transitioning. If you ever blog about that on your own blog, send me a comment so I'll check it out. Does it feel more like a loss, or just a shift?

    Anonymous-- I, too, have used the sibling terminology when nothing else fits. What's funny is that one of those close friends (who later became a not-quite-lover) is so close, that others recognize it, as you said. My boss even told me recently, "I had a dream that you and your family we going to be moving to another state, and all I could think about was ' what about (name)!?!? You just got so close with her-- how could you leave her!!" Even others recognize that "SO" element, even when it isn't defined as such. NSSO does feel a bit clinical, and honestly do we really need to define which are sexual and which aren't? I think after a day of sitting on the first anonymous comment, I'm realizing that it doesn't really need the qualifier. SO is SO, sex or not, right?