Partnerships, plural

Love in Conversation

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Madeleine: It is her room, and when I wake up, it is early. The room’s biggest window faces east, and before our alarms chime, there are those strong shifts of sunlight. It is those, and then her, that warm me to wake: the way I am tucked under her limbs, a closeness that heats.

It is Tuesday, or one of those middle days, and I move slow, turning my body to face her. I take note of the way she looks, the way this feels: her eyelashes fanned over closed eyes, her cheeks flushed, her arm draped over butter-yellow sheets. Without speaking, our legs interlock, my arm slides around her waist. I nudge her shoulder, and she hmms in response. I tell her I’m going to go get ready for class, and she pulls me into her chest, kissing the top of my head.

Waking up next to someone you love is one of our culture’s favorite collective fantasies and one that usually delivers. There is something about sharing that most private, unguarded time — unbrushed teeth and staticky hair, nestled in each other’s old T-shirts, before alarms or to-dos or emails — that leaves more room for your relationship. It’s a quiet intimacy, one that is easy to yearn for.

And I have: There have been times when I would dream of waking up next to a romantic partner and times when I have regularly done so. These days, though, if there’s a body next to mine in the morning, it belongs to Sonnet. 

Sonnet: Growing up, I thought I had a pretty evolved understanding of what I wanted in a relationship — a word that, until recently, defaulted to mean “romantic partnership.” I didn’t dream of flower deliveries or elaborate gestures or even that many candlelit Italian dinners. I dreamed of finding a coconspirator, someone whose eye I’d catch across the room of a crowded party and know immediately whether it was time to leave together, dance together or go make out on the porch.

I wanted someone whose legs would tangle easily with mine, my head fitting neatly into the indentation below their shoulder. Someone with whom I’d explore long-term plans, trusting and consulting without confining or smothering. 

I didn’t have any illusions that such a partnership would be easy: I knew it would take work. But I was limited in expecting these things from a single romantic partner, limited even in expecting relationships to sort themselves neatly into romantic and platonic boxes.

Through college, I’ve been more or less single – partnerless, as some might say; not “in a relationship.” But, adjusting the vocabulary, I’d counter that I’m actually in a number of serious, committed relationships.

One such partnership is this one with Madeleine.

Sometimes our love feels electric, like a fizzing, sudden romance, when she fixes me with those massive green eyeballs and presses me to return a kiss. I’ll never get tired of looking sideways at her, following that penetrating gaze toward whatever she’s mulling over. I love that slight, thoughtful pout, that mind full of music.

Sometimes it feels challenging — when we get out of step with each other, when our good-natured barbs strike deeper than intended, when tendrils of jealousy or misunderstanding or callousness find their way between us. Like any committed partnership, our relationship requires humility and honesty and work. Sometimes it takes a few days of half-hearted shoulder strokes, vaguely avoiding eye contact, but eventually one of us will sidle into the other’s room and sit on the bed. We hold hands as we tease out the misunderstandings, telling each other what we need and committing to giving it. 

With practice, we’ve found our ways around each other. Where Madeleine has conviction, I have ambivalence: She pushes me to commit and I push her to consider. What began as a loose housemateship has deepened and widened, so that now, many of the things I thought I wanted in a lover are here instead, in my friend. 

Madeleine: The prevailing wisdom seems to be that, in the absence of a long-term monogamous, romantic relationship, the best course of action is to wait, to sit tight until a suitable mate waltzes into view. Then, a partnership can begin, and you can begin to build a life around each other.

For as long as I can remember, though, I’ve been committing to people, our relationships taking many forms: explicitly romantic or surprisingly so, strictly platonic or undefinable. Romantic and platonic aren’t organizing categories of relationships — they aren’t even poles on a spectrum. Redefining love clears the way for a mosaic of partnerships, each filling different roles, meeting different needs. Those roles can shift, or they can hold constant: I was waking up next to Sonnet when I was in a committed romantic partnership, and I still do now that I’m not. 

The delusion of finding one perfect partner is a romantic one: that the person you have sex with must be the person you live best with, the person you create with. I would never write a column with anyone I’ve ever dated, or anyone but Sonnet, for that matter. But our love, though singular, is not all-encompassing: It is beautiful, in part, because of its place in the mosaic. 

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This column is, as we’ve conceived it, an expression and an exploration of our love and the many other loves in our lives, an effort to find a language that pushes beyond the conceptions we’ve received and grown up holding. We recognize that this exploration is inextricable from our identities as women, who have always had more cultural permission to be intimate outside of romantic partnerships.

But by engaging in romance with our “platonic” partners, by even calling them partners at all, we can wrest free of the expectation that one monogamous, romantic relationship will be our singular source of intimacy, trust and stability. With our boxes broken down, our relationships are free to take new shapes, fulfilling us beyond what our fantasies promised. We’ll realize that the “loves of our lives” can be plural, and platonic, and romantic.

Sonnet Phelps and Madeleine Gregory co-write the Monday column on kinds of love. Contact them at [email protected] and [email protected]