The Communal Relationship

Today, I went on a date.

Within the first 10 minutes, I was hearing about the longterm relationship my date (we'll erroneously call him Sam) was in (5 years, for the record), as well as a number of other "partners" he maintained on a regular basis. It wasn't cheating, Sam said -- it was a communal relationship, established upon the principle that the opportunity costs of dating a single individual in a city like New York were too great. "Commitment for the sake of commitment," Sam declared, seemed arbitrary. Antiquated. Not for him. And as my eyes alternately narrowed in suspicion and widened in disbelief, I began to wonder, is this really the state of dating in the 21st century? 

Before we dive further into the deluge of polyamorous horror that was my morning, I'll set the scene. Sam and I met on Coffee Meets Bagel, an app that I assumed was more conducive to "serious" dating than say, Tinder, purely by way of the fact that you're limited to a single match a day. And to be fair, it would be dishonest of me to say that Sam seemed only interested in a physical relationship. But I think that was the most concerning aspect of the entire date -- this wasn't a situation in which he was just trying to hook up. Rather, he was suggesting that being in an actual, quasi-committed relationship in this day and age in this city could be entirely devoid of actual commitment. Or at the very least, that commitment is a moving target. 

You see, to Sam, and to his partners and their partners alike, having multiple relationships is like working multiple jobs. You're just trying to make ends meet, satisfying your desires (carnal, emotional, fiduciary, what have you) however (or whoever) possible. When it comes to fidelity, Sam said, romantic relationships are the only social constructs around which such expectations are placed. In no other aspect of our lives, he claimed, are we expected to one choice and stick to it.

Call me crazy, but maybe that's what differentiates picking a significant other from picking a brand of laundry detergent. 

As much as I respect Sam and his multiple partners' autonomy in making their own choices when it comes to their personal choices, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't distinctly horrified, and moreover, a bit offended by the entire setup. Almost proudly, Sam described a situation that he called an optimal end-state as follows: last night, he contacted one of his partners (they've been involved for around four months) to get dessert. She told him that she was at the apartment of another individual who is none other than the live-in boyfriend of yet another one of Sam's partners (this one for many years). This "familial atmosphere," as Sam called it, was optimal, ideal, something to aspire to.

I couldn't get out fast enough. 

So here's my (perhaps antiquated) problem with the whole situation. Of course a relationship carries with it opportunity costs. So does, you know, literally all of life. Of course you could walk a block in any direction in New York and probably find a couple people you'd be alright with spending a solid chunk of time with (if not the rest of your life). It feels almost Newtonian in its logic -- for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction somewhere in the universe. For every action, we recognize that we are, perhaps, closing one door while opening another. And to me, there's something perverse about wanting to open one door while keeping the rest of the doors in all the world cracked open. 

When it comes to relationships, it seems that the ultimate compliment, the ultimate demonstration of love and devotion, is our willingness to overlook the inherent opportunity costs associated with picking just one person. It's not, as Sam called it, "sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice." It's the recognition that building a life with another human being isn't something that can be done with 95% of each person's attention, with the other 5% free to wander at will. Because what is the other 5% other than the physical manifestation of a selfish "what if?" 

Maybe it was in the way he presented the concept, or maybe it was the concept itself, but something about the "I want it all" attitude that feels implicit to this communal relationship scenario seems to be nothing more than a whole lot of privilege. Is it our ambition to (over) achieve that's driving this insane need more and more attention? Is it the entrepreneurial spirit of the quintessential millennial that makes us think that we can literally have our cake and eat it too? Whatever it is, when I went on my date today, I'd never felt as though I'd aged a century after drinking one cup of coffee.