Are we exclusive?

Love in Conversation

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Madeleine: One recent summer, while we were on opposite sides of the country, Sonnet called me. She was with her parents, talking quickly and quietly, and I asked her what was up. With a sharp sigh, she told me she had a confession to make: Months ago, she slept with our friend Sam, who was one of my first friends at UC Berkeley. 

I was walking somewhere, I remember, and at this, I stopped. I ducked into a quieter street and listened as she explained that she knew she should’ve told me earlier. I exhaled, sort of annoyed.

It felt weird to know that these two people I love had slept with each other. Weird, yes, but not exactly a transgression. What hurt was that they kept this secret for so long without thinking that I (being close friends with them both) should know. It felt like I wasn’t part of their thinking at all, like they’d sacrificed their allegiance with me for the sake of this secret.

As soon as I got off the phone with Sonnet, I called Sam. I made it through a few sentences of his excited catching-up before I interrupted. “Sonnet told me,” I said, and he quieted. Then he told the whole story, interspersed with many concessions of “you’re right” (which I love to hear), acknowledging that he should’ve told me as soon as it happened. 

The next time it happened, they both told me right away. 

Sonnet: One night toward the end of last semester, Madeleine came home late and cheerful, having shared a commemorative bottle of wine with Sam in the courtyard of their freshman dorms. Twenty-four hours later, she sidled up to me on my way to bed. “I have to tell you something,” she said. “I slept with Sam last night.”

My jaw dropped in a surprise that was both amused and incredulous. “Oh!” I said. “Fun!” We studied each other for a moment, and then parted ways for bed. 

And though I waited — for a couple of days, at least — for a pang of jealousy, hurt or betrayal, none ever came. I knew that my connection with Sam (which was, after all, primarily a close friendship, with just a few unpremeditated moments of physical intimacy) was separate, and I knew it would long outlast this brief phase of boundary-testing. I knew Madeleine wasn’t trying to take from me what I’d shared with him; she was (as I had) exploring a new dimension of their own existing connection. 

 Madeleine: After telling Sonnet, I checked in with her later. “You’re allowed to feel weird about it,” I said, bracing for the moment when she’d admit that she was, in fact, upset. Instead, Sonnet told me something that I’ve been thinking about since. She said she doesn’t believe that the strength of one connection necessarily diminishes another. 

This is a cool idea (albeit very free-love-y), and in this case, it worked: We are all still friends; nothing feels irrevocable. It took awhile, initially, to reckon with the fact that Sonnet and Sam — two people I felt particularly, uniquely close to — had a relationship that I had no part in. But I tried to acknowledge that their bond did not mean either of them loved me any less. Allowing space for their relationship, and in turn being granted space by Sonnet, felt like a breakthrough in that moment, a way to undermine jealousy with transparency. 

Sonnet: The experience with Sam did not represent a decisive victory over jealousy in our relationship. On a recent camping trip with our housemates, three of us woke up at the edge of a lake in the woods, having slept there under the stars. Madeleine was lying in the middle, with Maggie close beside her; I was off to the side a bit, having dragged my pad out to join them after they’d fallen asleep. 

We all began to stir around the same time, as the lake’s geese began their morning roll call. Dozing, Maggie hmm’ed and rolled her head onto Madeleine’s shoulder, draping an arm across her chest. I watched Madeleine thread her arm around Maggie, pulling her close. Neither of them turned to face me or moved to bring me into their nestling. 

It was a moment that could easily trigger a quiet flood of jealousy. I’d been feeling a little out of step with myself all weekend, and my first impulse was to read their sleepy affection as further evidence of my own failings, a redoubling of the fortress around the connection they shared, one I didn’t have access to. But I caught myself. 

Stretching and turning to face these two women I love, I thought about how often I am enlivened by the chance to bear witness to other people’s love. How the moments when it rankles rather than warms me are most often related to an ebb of my own self-worth, not a conscious choice by the other parties to hurt or lock me out. 

Madeleine: Exclusion is an old, deep feeling, born back in middle school when friends would plan sleepovers in front of me. This feeling rears its head when friends I introduce become closer with each other than with me, when a close friend enters a romantic relationship and has less time for me, when a group chatters on about some activity or memory I didn’t share. These twists of jealousy seem to reaffirm my worst suspicions: that I am not, in fact, as wanted as I want to think I am.

But knowing the sting of exclusion doesn’t keep us from cultivating it. After all, Sonnet and I have been told our own relationship can be exclusive. This critique was most recently leveled about our time writing this column, about the way we would sprawl out on the wide living room couch and then tangle, talking about love. 

Co-authoring was testing our relationship as we traded critique and control, laying bare our most private moments in writing. Letting ourselves revel in the good parts felt necessary, a giggly reaffirmation of the joy of our connection.

Caught up revisiting revisions or brainstorming future topics, we thought very little about what this looked like to everyone else until they told us: that we were flaunting a part of our relationship nobody else could access. We realized that this newfound closeness, when performed, was creating more resentment than support. So we moved our work to our rooms, savoring it less visibly. 

Sonnet: Though we’d been (willfully) oblivious to its potential to irritate, this love we were demonstrating did not come from an effort to exclude our housemates. It rested in a trust that our own closeness would not threaten other relationships in the house. 

As I said to Madeleine after she told me about Sam, I really do believe that love is not a finite resource. I think it’s a multiplicative, emanating force, and watching other people have it doesn’t mean that you can’t or won’t get it. This is what I have to remind myself, in moments that prompt the familiar wrench of jealousy in my stomach.  

** 

Existing, as we all do, in a network of relationships, there are some that each of us are integral to and some, inevitably, that exclude us. 

Although jealousy is unavoidable, we’re learning to manage it. When we’re the ones on the inside, we’re learning to recognize how our public expressions of love can affect other people, so that we can be careful about the discomfort we might inflict. And when we’re on the outside, we’re learning to accept that living in community requires us to respect — and ideally appreciate or even enjoy — meaningful relationships that don’t include us.

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