Should you date a co-worker? How about your best friend's ex? What about someone 20 years younger?
There are a lot of strongly held beliefs about these things, sometimes argued with a simple "you just don't."
A thought exercise
Sometimes I challenge my graduate students to explain – specifically – why incest is wrong.
Being grossed out is a perfectly good reason not to do something, sure. But neither disgust nor the fact there is a law against a behavior actually explains why it's bad. Though the incest taboo is nearly universal, very few of us can articulate the reason for being immovably opposed to intra-familial sexual experiences.
Why do I ask my students about this? Because we're examining our beliefs about sex and relationships. Which values are rational, healthy and necessary? Which ones are based on superstitions and traditions that no longer make sense in the modern world?
Why question the rules about sex?
Many of our deeply held ideas about sex are entirely unscientific and illogical. Only when we're brave enough to question our beliefs can we be assured that they make sense and are serving us.
One area that warrants a closer look is who is and who is not appropriate to have as a partner. What makes it not OK to have a romantic or sexual attachment to someone?
When talking with students about what is problematic about incest, we discuss a number of things. We look at variations from culture to culture: how marriage to a first cousin is not only legal in most US states but incredibly common in many countries. We affirm that birth defects are a potential result of inbreeding. But we also acknowledge that they are a risk with any pregnancy and also that not all sex can lead to conception. We consider how these types of relationships are prone to be abusive, due to power differentials. We look at what is gained by looking outside one's community for mates.
Eventually we come to the conclusion incest violates important boundaries and that the potential fallout from a breakup with a family member is not worth the risk. And, after this exploration, we can be assured that the taboo has a useful purpose and that it's worth upholding. It also gives us a minimum threshold for what we can accept in a sexual relationship.
What are boundries anyway?
Boundaries are lines that separate and create limits. They maintain roles, rights and responsibilities. They keep us from losing ourselves, being taken advantage of, and becoming dependent on others. They're important to sense of self, respect for others, and equality of power.
Boundaries sustain relationships. It's possible to have a healthy coupling with a major power differential between partners… but it's a lot harder. When someone is already in our life in one capacity, we take a risk by connecting with them in another way, potentially ruining the initial connection if things go south. Sometimes a relationship develops between two people that changes the dynamics for others around them, making it harder to live or work together.
Mutual attraction can happen anywhere – whether we indulge in the interest isn't just about desire. It's also about consequences.
Whose business is it?
We have the freedom to take any risk for love or sex, to choose any partner we like (as long as they are able to consent), if we are willing to accept the outcome. Whether we weigh how other people are affected is really a matter of allegiances. If your social network objects to your partner choices, only you can decide if you care enough to make that a consideration.
In a business setting, romance has the potential to: disrupt the chain of command, lead to differential treatment and, when flirtations are allowed to fly freely, opens the company up to lawsuits. For these reasons, there are often rules about fraternization among co-workers. And these policies are generally fair and reasonable.
But in friendships and families, boundaries can only be set by the individuals. There are not – and cannot be- hard and fast rules about whom you can date. There's no one-size-fits-all guide that works for every person and situation.
The fail proof formula
Other than the minimum requirement of informed, enthusiastic consent, there's no equation to figure out if a partner is too young, different, close, etc. While it might destroy one person to see her best friend and ex hook up, others are happy to see such pairings. Some folks have an easy time transitioning from lover to friend and risk little by dating those in their professional or friend circles; others have post-breakup Scorched Earth policies and those people should stick to dating relative strangers.
It's possible to have a perfectly healthy coupling between employee and manager, for instance, but it's probably not a good idea for those who've never dated seriously before, who have difficulty compartmentalizing, or maintaining cordiality during personal conflict.
The key is being honest with yourself about the potential consequences and your ability to handle them. The more experience we have with relationships and the greater understanding we have of ourselves, the better we can handle complex, potentially risky partnering. Bravely assess yourself, your potential mate, and the risks and rewards of being together. And, perhaps most importantly: enjoy.
Dr. Timaree Schmit earned her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality from Widener University, where she now trains future sexologists and clinicians. Her passion is bringing rational, empirically-based, sex-positive information to the world, empowering others to celebrate their bodies, build intimacy and experience pleasure.