When it came to sharing sex- and relationship-related advice, my mother’s suggestions weren’t entirely consistent.
- No sex before marriage.
- Your body is yours and yours alone.
- There’s nothing dirty about sexual pleasure.
- Why buy the milk when you can get the cow for free?
- Sex is the icing on the cake — make sure you’re working with a good recipe for batter.
- If both of you are enjoying sex then anything goes.
- I can’t stand the way people just jump into bed at the drop of the hat.
- Sex changes a relationship. You, Maddy, aren’t cut out for casual sex.
- If you sweep stuff under the rug it leaves lumps. Don’t go to bed mad.
- Better an end with horror than a horror without end.
Hm. It’s no wonder I was a tad confused.
Here’s My List
In the end, I wound up making up my own mind (and, creating my own list).
Over the course of many miles along the relationship highway I’ve explored more than a few permutations along the way, so I’ve had plenty of chances to test out my theories.
I’ve been the other woman (with male and female partners), explored polyamory, spent quite a few years celibate by choice, been traditionally married (with men — one at a time), and in a couple of serious, long-term relationships with women.
I’ve been older by more than 25 years (my partner was a much younger man) and also younger by the same age gap — once with an older woman and once with an older man.
Granted, I had a plan:
Give Me Passionate Love Affairs with Fascinating People
… you only get one chance to live your own best life
but it’s not that often that life plans made as an adolescent actually pan out.
Maddy’s Rules for Sex and Relationships
Having tried on all kinds of relationships for size I can say that whatever combination of genitals and prior, or concomitant attachments may be involved, what makes a relationship work — or not — boils down to a few core essentials.
- Be kind. If I could stencil that on my forehead, I would. In fact, if I ever get another tattoo, that’s exactly what it will say. There is no other single ‘rule’ that actually matters more than this one.
- Speak up. Make your voice heard. Stifling yourself and pretending that what matters most to you is not a big deal is a sure way to wind up feeling miserable. Just because you are in a relationship with someone does not make them your boss.
This is just as true between the sheets as it is at the dinner table or when negotiating how you want to deal with major family holidays.
Establish boundaries early and stick to your guns, even when the risk is losing someone. If your partner can’t respect who you are and what’s important to you they don’t deserve to be your partner.
- Don’t compromise on the big stuff. Don’t get all hung up on the small stuff either. This one is two sides of the same coin. There are certain non-negotiables in any relationship. Understand where you draw the line and do not give in on the core, important stuff that really matters to you. By the same token, don’t agonize over little things that really, seriously, do not matter in the long run.
Example A: You have always believed that your elderly mother will come and live with you as she nears the end of your life. Your partner says, ‘Hell no. There’s a perfectly good nursing home around the corner.” This is a BIG thing. Don’t back down if this matters a lot to you.
In the bedroom, some big things are BDSM, threesomes and coercion.
Example B: You’ve always wanted a pet rabbit. Your partner is allergic to rabbit fur. The world will not stop rotating if you have to visit your friend’s rabbit twice a week for a bunny fix.
If we are talking about sex, then think hard whether it really matters if the sheets are satin or cotton or what flavor of cream pie you slather over your partner’s delicate bits.
- Laugh — but kindly. There’s a big difference between laughing at someone’s struggles and laughing with someone at the ludicrous situations that can cause us so much grief. Make sure you know the difference when you are the one chuckling. You will certainly know the difference when your partner laughs at you rather than with you. Point this out at your earliest convenience (which is often not during the moment of mirth). Tread very carefully when you laugh in the bedroom. If the giggles are mutual because you are both having a ton of fun, no problemo. But if there is even a whiff of mockery or derision, that’s a giant red flag. We are never more vulnerable than when we are naked and sharing ourselves with someone else.
- Know your limits. This is a good one to keep in mind no matter what you are saying ‘yes’ to. Knowing yourself — how long, how hard, how much, how kinky — is essential if you are going to be able to communicate to your partner effectively.
When enough is enough, you need to know when you’ve crossed your line in the sand. If you aren’t sure, then how on earth is your partner supposed to know what’s cool and what’s not?
- Know your desires. Knowing what you love, what you want, what you need is, likewise, a precursor for asking to have your desires met. Relationships — successful ones, anyway — are about give and take. We all know that. But if you don’t actually know, specifically and clearly what makes us happy, then how is your poor partner supposed to guess?
If you are open about what you like, what turns you on, what relaxes you and what makes your heart do that little hippety-hop thing, then you also give your partner permission to share what works for them. There’s nothing quite as delicious as being confident that you are making someone else happy. That said, don’t think that you are obliged to take on the responsibility of making someone else happy. That is a fast way to a miserable relationship.
- Share freely without expecting anything in return.
- Be realistic. Don’t expect your one true love can fulfill all your needs. We are complex beings designed to live in communities with various other people. It’s unrealistic to think that any one person will ever be able to fulfill all your needs — emotional, intellectual, physical, and social. A good, solid relationship allows lots of breathing room and makes it easy for overlapping communities to coexist within its boundaries.
- If sex before marriage feels good for both of you, then go for it. If it doesn’t, don’t let anyone push you around.
- Don’t limit your potential list of partners. Kiss a girl (or, a guy, if you’re a guy) — who knows, you might like it. Ditto for age differences. Ditto for differences based on appearance, religious affiliation, political leanings, socio-cultural backgrounds. We are more alike than we are different. Seek out the commonalities and stay open to possibilities
- Don’t make assumptions. My mother thought I was not the type who would ever go in for casual sex. She wasn’t entirely wrong, but she wasn’t entirely right, either. There have been times when I was not interested in a serious, longterm, committed relationship. That didn’t mean I wasn’t interested in having sex. Ergo, I found myself involved in relationships where ‘getting serious’ was not an option. When the time was right (and the person was right), I moved into ‘serious relationship mode.’ One is not better than the other, just more appropriate for different times in life.
12. If you sweep stuff under the rug it leaves lumps. Don’t go to bed mad. Work out any issues with your significant other before you crawl under the covers, roll over facing opposite walls, and pretend like you don’t care and will get a good night’s sleep despite the elephant in the room. It doesn’t work like that. Much better for everyone’s sleep hygeine to suck it up, have a 15-minute heart-to-heart and clearing of the air. Sorting stuff out before you both have a terrible night of tossing and turning has been known to result in some fabulous ‘thank-god-we-had-a-talk’ sex.
13. Better an end with horror than a horror without end. I have to agree with Mom on this one. Her words were a good reminder that relationships are only good until they aren’t. Knowing when to give up and move on is just as important as knowing when to tough things out and keep talking.
All Good in Theory, But Do the Rules Work?
Curious how all those experiences played out in my world? I’m happily married to a guy, just one. To anyone looking in from the outside we are pretty ordinary. We’re good friends with several shared hobbies, a great love life, and lots of plans for the future.
But we also give each other lots of space. I like to travel on my own and so does he. We have some mutual friends but plenty of our own as well. We move in separate circles (I’m more arty, he’s more sporty). Neither of us expects the other to be at every event or outing the other attends. We don’t rely 100% on each other for all our emotional support needs. We have friends, family, and therapists for that.
If issues ever come up (which is rare), we talk about them right away and don’t let stuff fester (see point #12). That’s not always easy, especially if someone’s feelings are hurt or expectations weren’t met, but it’s way better to talk about stuff than be left with that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach that things aren’t right.
With my mother’s final point in mind, we have both agreed that we are only in this relationship for as long as we both want to be here. There is no coercion and no obligation, which is not to say there is no commitment. There is. We both assume that we will be together until we croak.
But we’ve also both been around the block a few times and we know that things don’t always go quite as planned. With the basic rules in place (talk about stuff as it comes up, be honest — and kind, and be aware of what we want, need, and can contribute to a relationship), we’re in much better shape to navigate our way forward to a long and successful partnership than I ever was when I was flailing around in the decades of my younger years.
Did Mom Know Best?
Did my mom get any of that advice right? Sure she did — her sex positive attitude was fabulous. I grew up with all the information I needed to make decisions about my body and with whom (and how) I chose to share.
Mom was absolutely right about the lumps under the rug and not going to bed mad.
The ‘no sex before marriage’ thing worked for her (she and my father were married until she died a number of years ago) and as far as I know, neither of them ever wandered. It was not my jam and I’m okay with that.
I agree that sex does change a relationship (in one way or another). But, I don’t agree that one person can decide for someone else what feels ok. And that’s where Mom and I always disagreed.
She was never comfortable with my relationships with women, was not happy when I didn’t seem to be too interested in traditional, heterosexual marriage, and definitely could not imagine that casual sex could lead anywhere except bitter disappointment and self-loathing.
Perhaps the most valuable tool my mother gave me in the relationship department was a deep-seated sense of self-worth. That’s what allowed me to make up my own mind about how I wanted to live my life, what kinds of relationships I wanted to pursue.
The fact we disagreed on some of the details counts as small stuff in my mind.
She also encouraged me to speak my mind — as she did — all the time. Loudly.
I like to imagine she is reading these posts, sometimes fuming, not always agreeing, but appreciating that — in fact — I’ve taken lots of her advice to heart.