Territorial Markers, No; Rituals, Yes.

So Page Turner has a wonderful writing called Territorial Markers Aren’t a Great Proxy for Love, about handling our partners doing things that we thought of as “our” thing with other lovers:

“In one Savage Love column, the letter writer was freaked out by the idea of their partner having other lovers with their same first name. Still other folks have been upset by shared birthdays. Or their partner wanting to bring dates to their favorite restaurant.

“We get this idea about what makes us or our relationships special, and then we turn them into territorial markers, sometimes without even consciously knowing what’s going on.

“But while these territorial markers can serve as symbols for our relationship, they’re not a good proxy for it. Because they’re not nearly large enough to represent the love we have.”

And that’s very true on a lot of levels. One of my most-referenced writings is The Addiction Of Labels, which was about a girlfriend who needed more and more special things just between us until I couldn’t keep track of all the things that were supposed to be ours. To which I said:

“To this day, I’m skeptical of labels. I think they have an addictive quality. Sure, sometimes you see a couple making a single rule and that’s it – ‘You can’t sleep with them in our bed’ – but more often what follows are a cascade of additional restrictions, each designed to wall off the other partners in some way as a proof of love, each time the couple being convinced that this, this new thing will reassure them once and for all.

“When the truth is, if you need a special label to survive, often they either don’t speak your love language properly, or the life they need to live is going to take such a great toll on your self-esteem that they can’t stay in good faith.”

So case closed. Trying to have little things that you only do with your partner is bad, right? It’s a sign of a dysfunctional relationship. Don’t have them.

Except you should.

Just sparingly. And thoughtfully.

The truth is, most humans seek some form of uniqueness in their relationship – the question of “What makes us special?” often arises when the emotions start deepening.

In monogamous relationships, the answer is easy: “We’re the only ones we’re allowed to fuck.” You can (and really should) add additional emotional layers onto that, but automatically that’s the thing you can point to that identifies you as a couple.

But in polyamory, “exclusive sex” is off the table by definition – so people start seeking out other things that define them as them. Other rituals swell to fill that gap – because my wife and I met on a Star Wars chat room and fell in love in a large part because of our mutual love of Star Wars, “attending a Star Wars movie premiere with another woman” would be a divorce-level event. With another lover, I have a profound ritual in which I leave a shirt behind and then pick up the last shirt I left there as the last thing I do when we say goodbye – and though we’ve never discussed it, I’d never trade shirts with someone else.

That’s just… us.

Those little markers can get weird – I mean, “He saw a movie with someone else so we had to call off an eighteen-year marriage” sounds odd until you realize the intensity of that ritual. There are some things that come to define who you are, and what you share together, and breaking those bonds is sacrosanct.

The hurt comes, as Page’s essay so vividly shows, when you thought this was a ritual that defined who you were, and the other partner doesn’t think that at all. In Page’s case, her partner got out a set of wine glasses they’d gotten on a wonderful vacation to drink wine with someone else.

That was their wine glass, as a couple.

Except her partner didn’t see it that way.

That awkward moment happens a lot in poly, particularly when you’re transitioning from monogamous relationships to polyamorous ones. You’re just living your life, hanging with friends and lovers, and then you do something where your partner stiffens and goes, “…I thought that was our thing.”

At which point, you have to have an awkward discussion where everyone has to be very mature.

Because the partner who thought the ritual was theirs has to realize that their lover intended no harm by getting out the wrong wine glass. And the partner who didn’t think the ritual was there has to realize that whether they meant to or not, they hurt their partner and now they need to handle that hurt.

And here’s the truth: nine times out of ten, whenever you painfully stumble some ritual you thought was “yours,” it is, as Page notes, irrelevant in the long run. Yeah, it stings to realize that your lover didn’t have the intense memories of those wine glasses the way you did – but the alternative is, as happened with my ex, to keep adding a bunch of “exclusive” rituals until your relationship feels more like a bureaucratic tangle of paperwork than a living, breathing, love. (“Which shirt am I wearing today – is it one of the special ones? How do I greet this new person hello, because I only say certain greetings to certain partners? Oh, crap, did I schedule my next date with her on the Special Day?”)

It gets exhausting.

And yet occasionally there is that one ritual you can, and should, fight for. Those are the ones that actually say something special about who you are, some organically-evolved action that cuts straight to the heart of what you mean to each other – and having that senselessly cut-and-copied into another relationship would, on some level, demean who you are.

Which is tricky to define. You have to be mature enough to ask, as Page has, “Am I stopping my partner from doing this with other people just to mark territory?” Your partner, in turn, has to ask whether they’re able to not do this with other people (as a lot of cheating monogamous partners should have questioned before they started dating exclusively).

But without a couple of rituals to yourselves, a relationship can often degrade into a “nice to be here” moment – there’s nothing unique to who you are that they can’t get anywhere else, so why stay?

Marking those special things that draw you to each other as special can help you both appreciate what you love about each other. Even if it’s as silly, as, say, having hour-long discussions about unwise trench run tactics in Star Wars.

And keep in mind, good rituals are small and well-bounded. I’d never see a Star Wars on opening night with another woman, but I’ve seen Rogue One with two of my sweeties because the aim is not to make all of “Star Wars” our exclusive, but just the parts that are most special to us. I’ve been gifted with other items of clothing that have my lover’s scent on them, but I’d never disrobe in a train station with anyone but Fox.

Which is how you help filter out the bad rituals. I mean, yes, that was a lovely trip, but how often do you drink wine together? Did the wine help clarify some absolutely thing you loved about your partner? I mean, two oenophiles could definitely be bonded by the right wine glass, but nine times out of ten that’s just a knickknack attached to a single nice memory, maybe it’s time to make more memories – as Page’s partner, wisely, did.

Rituals are potent. And painful, when you discover that your ritual is someone else’s unthinking habit. And when your partners start dating other people, you’ll stub your toe on all sorts of little things you’d thought of as “yours” but turn out to something they just do with everyone they like – that way they rub your thumb when they hold hands with you, the way they playfully yell “CAT BUTT!” whenever you say “You know what?”, that wine glass.

They sting. But those things usually aren’t who you are.

Learn when to let them go.

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