Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
1. Announcing E & R
Elizabeth Krakow and Rebecca Armstrong entered into partnership without public or private ceremony. They never filed articles of incorporation, and have paid no state, local or federal tax together. They never traveled to San Francisco, Massachusetts, Vermont or The European Union in order to acheive government sanction for their choices .
The collaborators never placed an advertisement in the local paper, and were not featured in either the society or arts and leisure sections of the Times, Los Angeles, New York, or otherwise. The pair met in 1997 and four years later set about building home together.
Armstrong and Krakow began to talk ideas and emotions with each other in a shared studio in Yale University's Art Department before either reached her twentieth birthday. The foundation of their early friendship
was a commitment to and a discussion of their art work. After two semesters of University, Elizabeth left school and then the country, living in Mexico, traveling in Europe and finally settling in California. Armstrong finished one undergraduate and one graduate degree in the same three years while she and Elizabeth constructed a regular correspondence through the post and the telephone. Krakow describes the letters she and Rebecca exchanged as an "emotional support" while both women shaped their adult lives and made sense of their early years.
In September of 2001 the two drove together from Southern California to Ashville, North Carolina where they rented a small house near Interstate 40. A year later the pair again moved, this time to Providence, Rhode Island where Elizabeth studied glass and ceramics at the Rhode Island School of Design, and David, Krakow's brother, occasionally came over for supper. Armstrong, displeased with the city, and Krakow, unsatisfied with her studies and intolerant of the winter, chose to move west. The two settled in Los Angeles during the summer of 2003. Between New Haven and Los Angeles Elizabeth and Rebecca developed their relationship from one of studio mates, to a friendship, and finally into a life partnership. The implication that their relationship developed through discreet phases marked by time or place is not quite accurate, but it is difficult to write about change over time because there is no blend command in the word processor.
2. The very normal goals of a NSLPship
In the current political climate the reader is perhaps suspicious that this article is shaping up to tell a maudlin tale of queer love, or perhaps one of a successful new small business. In fact, it will do neither. The article is not manifesto, nor treatise, but hopefully it can explore a few ideas about relationships and family.
Krakow and Armstrong are NonSexual Life Partners (NSLP). They are not gay, but to call them straight would be missing the point. They are not members of a religious order, profess no fundamental faith in any higher being, and have never joined a fraternal organization. They are not womanizers, nor sluts, not man haters, and they are not going through a phase. They are creating a relationship that does not fit well into the language we have developed to talk about how people care for each other, share homes and build lives. They are doing something different.
The young women choose a variety of terms to talk about their relationship depending on their audience, but always the labels require qualifiers and explanation. Krakow describes her relationship as "related to marriage" when speaking to some married folks. At other times Armstrong talks about a "partnership," careful to counter the connotations of a long term heterosexual pairing between progressive twenty five year olds, or of same gender sexual relationships, and also of old fashion business cronies, that partner carries with it. Rather than try to talk about their relationship with a word that requires constant qualification, I am going to define NSLP as the term which describes Armstrong and Krakow's relationship. My rudimentary explanation comes almost entirely from conversations with Armstrong and Krakow, and so is limited by my own capacity to synthesize ideas and feelings into coherent sentences.
NonSexual Life Partners are dedicated first to the emergence and fulfillment of each other as selves. Second, NSLPs commit to work for the emotional support and complete well being of their partner throughout life. Finally, NSLPs create family together. These three goals establish a framework that has helped me, and I hope help the reader, understand what, in the simplest sense, constitutes Elizabeth and Rebecca's relationship.
Armstrong and Krakow place much importance on the idea of work, individual and collaborative. For Krakow and Armstrong work is artistic and serious. It is the creation of objects, writing, images, or performances that reflect the creator's critical understanding of the world, and when successful that help inform a viewer's understanding as well. For Armstrong and Krakow, the idea of work is directly connected to self and parallel to the work of creating a partnership. An artist, when she realizes herself, unencumbered, can create successful work either as an individual or as a member of a collaboration. The first goal of NSLPship, then, is to support the process of creating work and realizing the full self of each partner.
The second goal of the NSLPship is more personal, but given the connection of work and self realization a division of the personal and professional is not entirely possible. Working for emotional support means listening to your partner's feelings, asking questions that help to reveal the sources of those feelings, and finally creating an environment that helps your partner resolve behaviors that create feelings not helpful to the realization of self. An example of this process, I believe, would be helpful.
Suppose you have an NSLP named Ralph who you plan to travel with on an airplane. Ralph turns to you five hours before the flight you are scheduled to take is slated to depart and demands, "Why aren't you ready?! We need to go!" You, as an emotionally supportive NSLP realize that you should do at least three things, and none of them include responding, "What the hell! The plane doesn't leave for five hours." First, is to listen to feelings. In this case the feelings are clearly some anxiousness about the trip. Second, is to ask some questions that help your partner figure out why he is anxious. Something like, "Hey, are you anxious about the trip? Why do you think that is?" might be a decent start. Finally, you are ready to create the environment that helps your partner resolve their unhelpful behavior. This might look like you packing quickly so that there is time to sit at the airport where your partner will be less nervous, or might just as easily begin with you saying, "I promise that I'll be ready for us to be at the airport two hours early like the TSA recommends
. Is there something you're nervous about?" The important fact in this imaginary encounter is that you recognize that Ralph's anxious behavior is not actually caused by you. Ralph acts like it is your fault that he is anxious, and his question expects you to respond as if you agreed. In fact Ralph's nervous energy is probably related to some other airplane trip that he took with some other person.
Working for your partner's well being is the simplest goal of an NSLP. This is the one where you sit with Ralph and pass the Benadryl when he has full body poison ivy. This is the idea that Ralph will not come home and pass out on the floor so you have to roll him over, but if he does you will. This is the one where if you get cancer Ralph will not run away.
Lastly we come to the goal of creating family. Most of the time we talk about marriage as the way people chose to add someone to their family. Sometimes there are friends who are like family, or mentors who play father figure roles, but for adults who choose someone else to include in their family we almost always think of marriage. This idea of family, I think, is why Elizabeth has some success explaining her partnership with Rebecca as "related to marriage." Armstrong and Krakow are creating family together. They are committed for their lives. They each know that the other's parents and cousins matter, and they have set out to know and be known by the other's family. Theirs is not simply a relationship between individuals, but an expansion of two families into each other.
3. Now comes the weird part
The remarkable aspect of Armstrong and Krakow's relationship is that sex is not important to it. An account of two women who seek a relationship together that provides emotional support, a space to realize one's self as a capable worker, and the opportunity to create a family is not actually special and certainly does not merit the space afforded this article. Most people think sex is good, and even more people think it is important to focus at least a good plurality of their time on having sex, talking about sex, or, at the very least, thinking about sex. As a result most of us seek relationships that meet our emotional needs, our professional aspirations and our sexual desires all together. We seek a partner who has all three S's, who is Sensitive, Smart and Sexy. We search out this person in hopes that he or she will fill our lives and help us make meaning in the world. We hope to fall in love
Elizabeth and Rebecca are not looking to fall in love, and neither one thinks that sex is all that useful, meaningful or interesting. In observing her peers and elders, Armstrong has noticed that from adolescence on people place great trust and serious emotional expectations on their sexual partners, many of whom they barely know. She describes this expectation and faith in intimacy achieved primarily through sexuality as "stupid." For Armstrong, sex does not help build intimacy, and only occasionally is it useful in maintaining or developing a relationship that already carries a certain amount of intimacy earned through shared experiences and careful listening. Armstrong says of sex, "sure its fun, but it's not interesting."
Krakow talks about primary relationships when asked about how sex works in her life. Primary relationships are those which provide emotional support and a critical reflection for her ideas and her work. Primary relationships are those that matter most, the partnerships. For Krakow most of her primary relationships have been friendships with women, and only rarely has she decided to seek out a partner and a sexual companion in the same person. As a young woman Elizabeth practiced a conversational sexuality. She did not separate the way that she sought to meet and understand people through conversation and the way that she chose to know people through sexual interaction. Both, practiced with care, openness, and a sense of interested fun were legitimate and valuable ways to approach peers. As a result, sexual relationships for Krakow never developed the automatic connection to primary relationships that is so common in our society. She learned to develop complicated, emotional and adult relationships apart from sexual ones.
When Rebecca and Elizabeth began to form a partnership neither of them had expectations that sexuality was necessary to cement or protect their growing intimacy. As a result, the two developed an ever closer relationship that resulted in a partnership without sex. When Krakow and Armstrong realized that they had found someone who was interested in supporting their self realization as an artistic worker and as an intelligent and emotional person the clear result was a life partnership, more specifically a NonSexual Life Partnership.
4. The upshot: some misunderstanding, the rational, a little alienation resolved
Elizabeth and Rebecca's relationship occasionally inspires some shock, misunderstanding, and concerned interest. Even as our society begins to challenge conservative ideas about marriage and family we usually begin with a sexually monogamous relationship where two lovers live together
. When Krakow told an old teacher about how she and her partner did not have sex with each other the teacher remarked, "Oh, well maybe that will change." Elizabeth and Rebecca are not, however, seeking to change the nature of their relationship. Both women see their NSLPship as a solution to problems that have plagued their interactions with other folks.
Armstrong and Krakow connect rational behavior and personal well being. Rebecca spoke to me about the way our culture values emotional exuberance in love
. Our most popular movies show men and women, swept up in love, following each other away from the work that provides meaning, away from homes that provide security, and often into situations that are limited
or oppressive. Usually in the movies everyone ends up happy, but Armstrong recognizes a very different reality for most lovers in the real world. She sees partners in love who limit each other's ability to interact with the world, who create oppressive expectations for each other, and who make decisions based on that love that do not serve either partners' realization.
Elizabeth and Rebecca do not place rationality opposite to emotion.
Instead, they see rational actions as those which help people to know and understand the origins and consequences of their feelings. The goal then is not to follow one's emotions whole heartedly, but to foster emotions, to reflect on them, to understand them, and then to act rationally in a way that respects your well being and serves to further your goals and development as a person.
The value placed on rational decisions and behavior explains the pair's decision to exclude sexuality from their relationship. Krakow explains her decision to leave sexuality as an important aspect of her day to day life behind in terms of desire. She believes that sexual desire impedes people's ability to understand people as they are, to see them as real individual humans rather than as fantastic objects. Put differently, when we desire someone we see them as we desire them, not as they are. Desire then, is irrational and leads to emotionally unsafe (remember how it hurts when your fantasies are not realized) behavior, falling in love. In developing a relationship with Rebecca that meets her needs for a life partner, Elizabeth is able to limit her own desirous gaze and the necessity to interact with the desire of suitors. She is able to see people, know them and simultaneously be seen as a human being because desire does not disrupt rational, emotionally honest interactions.
Most people who hear that Armstrong and Krakow are living a NSLPship ask if sex with someone else violates the expectations of the relationship. But to ask such a question misses the point. Early in their partnership Elizabeth and Rebecca discussed how their sexuality impacted their relationship. Krakow realized that her habit of casual sex made it harder to be intimate with anyone, especially Armstrong, and Rebecca further clarified her understanding of intimacy as separate from sex. Currently, both continue to seek an understanding of sex with the support of the other, maintaing the primacy of the NSLPship.
5. The end
In constructing a NonSexual Life Partnership, Krakow and Armstrong have created a relationship that meets their emotional and physical needs. It creates physical and psychic security. It allows both to be productive as humans and as artistic workers. In short, they have succeeded in caring for each other. They perhaps have learned to hold each other without screwing anyone.
Their hope now is to expand their partnership because a NSLP need not be limited to two people. Joking, Armstrong returns to the multiple connotations of partnership to talk about what it might look like to add members to their family. "You know, If you are a good enough lawyer we want you." More directly, Krakow and Armstrong make space in their family for others to join if they "realize that primary intimacy need not be defined by sexual interaction." The pair seeks a relationship that is neither monogamous nor emotionally exclusive.
Rebecca and Elizabeth often have to field questions about their choices to pursue a path that not many others have. Their family is not normal because it is not bound by sex, and that is hard to explain in a way that satisfies either traditionalists
, or advocates of same sex marriage
. As is true for all people doing something new, NSLPs are faced with the task of living in accordance with their own beliefs and in the larger society. It is my hope that as they continue to develop their relationship and to realize themselves in their partnership that they succeed in relating to other people with ever greater clarity. That they might share how they experience love and care for each other for the married, the celibate and the seeking to understand.