Kit Q&A: Burning Man Without Your Significant Other

On Saturdays I answer questions from my readers or respond to frequent web searches. To bring Approximately 8,000 Words’ Burning Man Week to a close, here is an interesting topic — what to do when you are going to a Burn without your lover, spouse, primary partner or significant other. I asked for stories and advice from many of my fellow Burners on this question; since relationships are a private matter I will be paraphrasing and not quoting anyone directly.

Tips for going to Burning Man without your Significant Other

Burning Man can strain -- or strengthen -- relationships whether or not couples attend together. Black Rock City, 2010. Photo by Michael Holden.

Burning Man is challenging to relationships of all kinds, from the most casual non-sexual friends all the way through to married couples and committed groups. The playa is noisy, chaotic, often overstimulating, and full of beautiful, happy people who feel free to express every aspect of themselves openly, including their sexuality. All of these factors can put a strain on people who have unspoken expectations, unclear boundaries or rules to their relationship, or just poor communication. Even two friends camping with each other should communicate their expectations for the week, so significant others need to work especially hard.

Burning Man promotes Immediacy – living in the moment, experiencing everything directly and not through filters like the media, personal fears, or society’s rules. There is often an intense desire to follow one’s whims wherever they carry, and there is much to be said for being free to do so — many would argue that this is essential to experiencing a Burn. One Burner I spoke to pointed out it was not a matter of if you meet someone attractive and available at one of these events, but how you react when you do. Obviously, those choices become more difficult when your primary partner or significant other is hundreds of miles away as opposed to across Black Rock City.

Agreements and Communication

Some people I spoke with had not communicated at all before attending Burning Man without a partner; in many cases these were absolutely strict monogamous relationships — one Burner told me that his marriage vows already cover all the agreements needed. Many others told me they had detailed conversations ahead of time, whether they were in polyamorous or monogamous situations. Some people in otherwise monogamous relationships choose to recognize the immediacy of the event by allowing certain open sexual behaviors at the event, like protected sexual activity within certain boundaries. Common agreements include specifying that any sexual relationships formed end when the event does, or stipulations about whether and how activities on the playa are discussed after the event.

Even polyamorists need to consider that outside communication is extremely difficult. If you’ve normally agreed to talk about a potential new lover ahead of time, how do you manage this in a place where wi-fi and phone service ranges from extremely unreliable to nonexistent? In addition, the nature of Burning Man means that deferring a decision is essentially the same as a refusal; your chances of finding that hottie later after you get the ‘OK’ from your partner are close to zero. In general, if there is any doubt whatsoever about how to handle sexual behaviors with another, talk ahead of time. In some cases, a partner at the Burn may have neither the desire nor the opportunity to act on these agreements, but they will feel better knowing specifics about what is expected and which freedoms are available.

Staying Home From Burning Man

Regardless of relationship style, it is important that it is clearly understood what kinds of intimacies the playa-bound lover may pursue. Black Rock City, 2005. Photo by Waldemar Horwat.

There are also special concerns for the lover who is home alone, no matter the relationship style. Whether polyamorous or monogamous, it can be difficult knowing that a person is experiencing one of the most vibrant and pleasurable places on earth while you go on experiencing your everyday life. Try not to dwell on what could be happening to them, but focus instead on enjoying your own time. Go to parties, an event for other “orphans” who can’t make it to the playa, or just pamper yourself in some way — eat a sumptuous meal, take a long bath, indulge in music, movies or other media your absent partner might not enjoy. Find some way to make the time fun.

At the same time, don’t beat yourself up if you do feel moments of jealousy, envy, or loneliness; it’s hard enough to handle these difficult emotions without adding self-critical thinking to the heap. Try to just be with those hard feelings for a while instead: take some deep breaths, engage in some introspection, make notes of anything you need to talk about with your partner when they return, and then move on.

Burning Man & Relationships: The Aftermath

Burning Man events are known for creating personal upheaval in a person’s life because they are huge catalysts for change. One Burner who responded to my question shared how her partner’s extremely jealous reactions when they returned from the playa revealed not just incompatibilities in that relationship, but in the very kinds of intimacy she seeks out. This experience is common; speaking personally, insights I’ve had through Burns have led to at least a couple breakups, but also to embracing polyamory and increased bonding among my poly family.

Be aware that a playa-bound partner can return changed, with new goals in life for career, relationshps, creative expression, and more, just as the partner who stays at home may also gain insight into their needs. Change of any kind can be hard and require time, adjustment, and even more communication. In general though, relationships committed both to clear communication and to growing together while embracing inevitable change are likely to not only survive a Burning Man event — apart or together — but to become stronger in the process.

Submit questions for Kit via the comments or contact info at the top of this page. 

For more of Kit’s writing about Burning Man culture, see A Burner Lexicon.

Comments (8)

  1. I think these suggestions apply to more than just Burner stuff. I go to a lot of political events all over the country , and my partner doesn’t usually come with me. Communication is really important, and we always make agreements before I go on a trip without him.

    Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 3:32 pm #
  2. Kit wrote:

    @Stacey: Thanks Stacey. I was hoping this would help all kinds of people who have to be apart from their lovers! Burning Man might be especially charged in some ways, but the overall issues apply!

    Thursday, September 1, 2011 at 12:39 am #
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