Imagine for a moment that you have a friend who is in a toxic relationship. It’s hard to tell from the outside just how unhealthy it is, but you’ve got a pretty strong inkling that it’s worse than they let on. You want to help your friend, but what do you do? What can you say? How can you encourage them to get the hell out and move on?
First, I’d like to tell you how *not* to do it. Because I am consistently astonished by how often I hear this terrible advice repeated.
Even if this is demonstrably true, it’s STILL a bad idea to say so to your friend.
Why? Because it makes them wrong to have gotten into the relationship in the first place. And making someone wrong about something is the very best way to get them to vehemently defend their right to do it and their rationale for having done it.
Allow me to play the role of your friend for a moment.
So you’re telling me that my partner is a toxic person. But if he simply *is* toxic, as a quality of his being, then he was toxic when I chose to start a relationship with him. Right? So what does that make me? An idiot. A mark. A martyr. A victim.
And anyway, you’re wrong. I know that he isn’t all bad. He has stunningly wonderful qualities. Qualities so wonderful, in fact, that I’ve been continually willing to put up with and overlook the toxic behaviors in question.
I’ve even engaged in some of those behaviors myself. They seem to be contagious. So if he’s toxic, then I must be toxic, too. Hell, maybe we deserve each other.
And maybe I can still fix this. Maybe I can repair this broken relationship and prove myself right to have gotten into it in the first place! Maybe I can redeem us both and make all this pain worthwhile! Maybe, with a little more work, with a little more patience and understanding and loving kindness I can still get my happily ever after…
But even if I can’t, the bottom line is that it doesn’t feel good in my soul to label this person whom I deeply love as “toxic” and cut him out of my life like a fungus. So I guess I’ll just have to hide the really bad stuff from you from now on so you’ll stop saying that to me.
Not exactly the outcome you were hoping for, hmm?
So, how do you help your friend?
Step 1. Observation
You point out the toxic patterns you see playing out in their current relationship. You help them step outside of their own relationship for a moment and see it from the outside so that they can decide what ought to be done. Use language like, “Here’s what I’m observing,” or “I wonder if you’ve noticed that…” Stick to observable behaviors and facts. No speculation, no evaluation of motives or assignments of blame.
Step 2. Validation
You reassure them that they are normal, and human, and that their reasons for choosing to be in, and stay in, that relationship are perfectly valid and totally understandable. This may feel counter-intuitive but it’s absolutely essential. Nobody wants to give up on a project that others tell them was doomed from the start. But if you tell them instead, “I totally see what you were going for there. Great idea, in theory,” they’re far more likely to be able to drop it and move on.
Which brings me to…
Step 3. Offer an alternative
Gently remind your friend that they can make a different choice at any time. For any reason. That it really is okay to take a break from someone just because that feels like the healthiest course of action. It doesn’t need to be a reflection on the toxicity of either party.
The truth is that, for the most part anyway, people in toxic relationships are not toxic people. They are people who have fallen into an unhealthy pattern of behavior vis-a-vis another person or people.
Peanuts aren’t deadly unless you happen to be allergic to them. Plenty of chemicals are inert on their own but explosive in the right–or rather the wrong–combination. Water is, like, the best thing in the world for you until you drink too much of it, and then it can fucking kill you. Forreal.
So it is with people. Some pairings are just… volatile. And we all have a nasty habit of recreating the same toxic patterns and pairings we are used to. It feels normal and familiar, even comforting, to experience that same flavor of toxicity over and over. Just like people often develop strong cravings for the very food they are allergic to.
And just like a gambling addict will sit in front of a slot machine for hours and hours and hours, we can spend months, years, even lifetimes trying to finally untangle that central problem we keep re-creating for ourselves. This time, we tell ourselves, it’ll be different. This time, I’ll figure out the trick of it, beat the system. Win that emotional jackpot. Even though we know that the dealer always wins in the end. Still, we keep trying, not just because the jackpot is so compelling but because the game itself becomes an addiction.
And the only way to let go of an addictive game is to find a new, equally compelling game to play.
So if you REALLY want to help your friend, here’s what you do: you help them find a new game. Invite them to collaborate on a project. Convince them to sign up for a class with you. Take them on a road trip. Keep them distracted, break up their usual patterns of behavior, get them out of their trigger-filled environment and give them a fresh perspective on things. Even if it doesn’t inspire your friend to leave their partner, it will certainly make them less reliant on that partner to get their needs for emotional support and stimulation met.
And hey, it’s a lot more fun than lecturing a purported equal about their terrible choice in partners. Not to mention far more likely to strengthen, rather than poison, your friendship.
Perhaps this speech sounds familiar. Perhaps you can picture the scene: you’re on a date, it’s going well, when suddenly, inexplicably, your date launches into a tirade about the parade of insane, abusive heartbreakers who came before you.
Perhaps you’ve even given such a speech. But we’ll get back to that.
You may have had any number of reactions at the time. Boredom, annoyance, suspicion, sympathy, righteous anger at all the injustices suffered by your hapless, otherwise affable date at the hands of these treacherous exes. But here’s what you should have been doing during that speech: taking notes.
Everyone has repetitive relationship patterns. You can learn everything you need to know about a potential lover by examining those patterns, and if they’re kind/foolish enough to compile and enumerate the list for you, I highly recommend you pay close attention.
Now, I don’t mean to say that you should automatically write off anyone who’s been through the wringer, romantically speaking. That would narrow down your list of potential partners to just about nil. But relationship dynamics are a two-way street, so whenever you notice that someone seems to have been through the same wringer multiple times, remember that the common element in each of those relationships is the person relaying these stories to you. So there is a very high percentage chance that if you enter into a relationship with said person that you will, at some point, find yourself on the pointy end of the same accusations being leveled against all those exes.
You may even find yourself behaving like those exes. It’s much easier than you might think to get sucked into someone else’s dramatization.
For example, I pride myself on being one of the least jealous/possessive people you could ever hope to date. I thrive on compersion, revel in sharing, and hold open communication and mutual trust as sacred foundational elements of any intimate relationship. So when an ex of mine relayed stories of girlfriends past who had hacked into his email, demanded to know why the passenger’s seat of his car had been readjusted since the last time she sat in it, given him ultimatums of the “stop seeing other women or else” variety, etc., I shook my head at those misguided, insecure ladies and looked forward to wowing him with my awesome poly powers.
This was a role I never expected to be cast in, but in looking back, it was clearly one I had signed up for. He had, after all, described it to me in advance.
And even if you manage to go against type and break the pattern, you may find that your partner is uncomfortable, suspicious, or bored out of their gourd without that familiar dysfunction at play. For example, if a girl goes out with you specifically because her last three boyfriends were volatile, violent, rageaholic womanizers, and you are a laid-back, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly feminist, don’t be surprised if she ultimately up and leaves you for someone… edgier.
Pay particular attention to the language someone uses to describe their exes. Someone who is willing to cast more than one ex as a “crazy bitch” or an “abusive asshole” is certainly not above filing you in that same category. That isn’t to say that there aren’t folks out there who absolutely deserve those monikers. And that definitely isn’t to say that there is anything wrong with a person who somehow ends up with one of those folks. Abusers and psychopaths can be extraordinarily clever, charming, and manipulative. But when a person lumps multiple exes into these same extreme categories, take it with a grain of salt. There are, after all, two sides to every story.
Meanwhile, there is something far more important than recognizing the relationship patterns of potential partners: recognizing your own.
How do you talk about *your* exes? When you look across the spectrum of relationships past, what patterns and common themes emerge?
Whatever it is, take a long, hard look at it. Because unless/until you recognize and own it as YOUR pattern, and decide to take control of it, you will keep pulling in and playing out that same drama over and over. Guaranteed.
So the next time you find yourself swapping war stories with a date about your awful exes, ask yourself: am I willing to be cast in a similar light? And more to the point, am I able to keep myself from casting this person in a similar light if things go south?
Because the common denominator in all of your stories? Yep: it’s you.
But having narrowly escaped death-by-suffocation at the hands of my first husband, I like to think I’m something of an expert on the subject.
That’s why I was over the moon to find this amazing article on how and why so many of us are picking the wrong mates.
The article, however, is simply an introduction to the problem, rather than a comprehensive solution. So I’ve been pondering the question: What would a “psychological marriage,” as recommended by the article, look like? How can we accurately screen for, and actively create, that kind of partnership?
In short: how do we start picking the right partners instead?
Lucky for you, I’ve gone through a truly epic amount of trial-and-error on the subject, and I have some suggestions.
1. Learn yourself as a lover.
The conventional wisdom, when seeking a long-term romantic partner, is to think about the kind of person you hope to find. Their qualities, their values, etc. And though that can indeed be a useful exercise, it has its limitations and indeed its dangers.
First of all, it sets up a fabricated framework into which you will then attempt to shove actual human beings, none of whom are going to be an exact fit.
Second, it robs you of any control over compatibility with potential partners, since the burden and power of possessing the requisite qualities rests entirely on The Other.
Third, it presumes that you can know exactly what you want before you’ve ever met or experienced it.
Therefore, instead of pondering what/who you are looking for, I recommend you find out exactly what you have to offer, and the conditions under which you thrive or wither as a lover and long-term partner.
Here are a list of questions that I’ve found especially useful in pursuit of this kind of self-knowledge:
– What is important to you?
– What do you value most about yourself?
– What quality of yours do you think is most useful to other people?
– What do you most enjoy creating, and how?
– How do you express love?
– What communicates to you as love?
– What kind of partner do you wish to be?
– What tends to bring that out in you?
– What tends to hinder it?
Focusing on the kind of partner you are and wish to be puts the focus back on the only thing you can control in a partnership: yourself.
2. Seek to know The Other
You would think this would be a no-brainer. But I’m afraid it is, in reality, exceedingly rare.
When we meet another person, our first instinct is to seek agreement. We try to draw parallels to ourselves, to discover the ways in which The Other is like us and can relate to and understand us, rather than in trying to actually get a comprehensive understanding of who this person is, what they want, how they function, etc.
When we meet a potential partner in particular, we tend to look for the ways in which they fit with our image of The Ideal Partner, and to gloss over everything else. Or conversely, to look for all the ways in which they don’t fit our criteria so that we can dismiss them and move on to the next candidate.
But by treating a date like a job interview, we are missing out on the opportunity to genuinely connect as people, which, incidentally, is the only way to create genuine intimacy. Oops.
Next time you go on a date, take a genuine interest in this person as a person, not just as a potential partner. Ask them the same sorts of questions you just asked yourself, and really listen to the answers. If you, like me, find that to be a struggle, try pretending you are a writer, and they’re a celebrity you’re interviewing for a biography.
Just because someone is not a good match for you as a long-term mate doesn’t mean you can’t still connect with and appreciate them for who they are. Some of my closest friends are people I dated once upon a time (or in the case of my second husband, married) but realized we were better cast in non-romantic roles in each others’ lives.
3. Evaluate The Couple you create
Chemistry is complicated. You can put together two ingredients which are quite innocuous on their own and create something dangerously volatile, or surprisingly delicious. So it is with human beings, only we are far less able to predict the results ahead of time.
There are, however, early-return results we can observe in order to help predict future results.
After a few dates, step back and, as objectively as possible, observe the effect this person has on you. Since this person has been in your life:
– Has your overall sense of well being improved or declined?
– Have others made any observations about changes in you (either positive or negative)?
– Are you proud of your behavior? Are you acting like the sort of person you want to be?
– Are you inspired to create? To grow? To take positive action?
Meanwhile, do your best to observe the effect you have on them. This is trickier, since you generally have no baseline against which to make an assessment. But do take note as to whether their overall well-being, self-regard, and behavior seem to be improving or declining as a result of your association.
Take note also of which of your qualities they seem most enamored of. Are these the same qualities you value most in yourself? Because, make no mistake, those are the qualities they are going to want you to focus on. For example, if the thing you value most in yourself is your artistic talent, but the person you’re dating is constantly going on about how hot your bod is and doesn’t seem particularly interested in your art, don’t be surprised when they encourage you to spend more time at the gym and less time sketching.
Take note, also, of which of their qualities you most admire, and whether or not they seem invested in putting focus and energy toward it long-term.
Finally, take note of how many misunderstandings/miscommunications the two of you have, how many of those turn into arguments, and whether or not those numbers appear to be on the decline. If you cannot learn to effectively communicate to each other, and/or cannot maintain your affinity for each other while communicating, you’re in for a lot of fighting.
Ask yourself, in short: what sort of people do we make of one another? What kind of couple do we create? And is that the kind of couple you think the world needs more, or less of?
Most importantly: listen to that little voice in the back of your head. If you have this funny feeling that something isn’t quite right, it probably isn’t. If you have this inexplicable sense that this person is trustworthy, even though you have no solid evidence to back that up, they probably are. When you first meet someone, your mind is taking in far more information than you can rationally process. You are picking up subtle signals that may not be explained for a long time to come, but that doesn’t mean they should be dismissed. On the contrary, it is those quietest, most gut-level feelings to which you should pay the closest attention.
Sadly, there are no guarantees when it comes to relationships. People are complicated. They change over time. Even the most promising partnerships can implode without warning. So forgive yourself. Learn. Move on. And remember: not every relationship that ends is a “failed” relationship. It’s just a new kind of relationship, and an opportunity to create another intimate partnership from scratch.
I’ve been thinking a lot about consent lately. What it is, what it isn’t, and how little we seem to value it as a society.
This, of course, plays out most clearly, and disturbingly, in the sexual realm. But it has implications that go far beyond that. And today, I’d like to talk about the ways in which consent commonly gets railroaded in relationships.
I’ll give you an example.
A meets B. A is looking for commitment [i.e. a long-term, committed, more or less monogamous relationship]. A does not explicitly ask B what B wants, and therefore doesn’t really know, but gets the feeling that B is resistant to the idea of commitment. Whenever A brings it up, B goes kind of quiet and strange and changes the subject as quickly as possible. However, A believes that over time B will grow attached to A, and will eventually want to commit. Little by little, A pressures B into accepting agreements, often under dubious circumstances, and gets angry and even violent if B breaks those reluctantly-agreed-to agreements. In fact, A gets upset whenever B displays any sort of resistance to the kind of commitment A wants. A doesn’t see this as in any way manipulative or underhanded. In fact, A believes that it is A’s cross to bear to make commitment happen and that if it weren’t for these kinds of tactics, nobody would ever commit to anybody else.
Now, re-read that entire paragraph, but substitute “sex” for “commitment.” Sound kinda rapey? That’s because it is. But because it’s a relationship, the idea of “consent” doesn’t seem to enter most folks’ thought processes.
I’d like to question that logic. I think the mutual respect on which the possibility of consensual intimacy is founded begins long before sex even enters the picture. In short, I think we need to rethink the importance of consent on a very basic level in all human interactions.
And to do that, we need a working definition of consent.
By the dictionary definition, consent is simply agreeing to the proposal of another. And this is exactly how it generally plays out in our culture: so long as a person ultimately acquiesces to your will, then congratulations, you have secured consent.
I would like to throw that definition out the window. The highest possible window we can find. Actually, that’s not really satisfying enough. Let’s set it on fire and throw it off the edge of the Grand fucking Canyon. Nope, still not enough. Let’s drop it from the cargo bay of a 747 at cruising altitude. Yeah. That’s better.
Alrighty, now that we’re rid of that nasty old thing, I would like to propose a new definition, one that reflects genuine empathy, mutuality, and alignment. This is a modified version of the definition put forth by my kickass friend Courtnee Fallon Rex in her ground-breaking blog post on rape culture, I Don’t Like Being Raped; Apparently That Makes Me a Weirdo:
IDEAL (Informed Direct Engaged Aligned Lucid) Consent is:
I am fully aware that I am being propositioned, and what it is I am being propositioned for. I am aware of any surrounding circumstances that pose a risk to me. I am free to ask questions and am given clear and honest answers.
I have communicated clearly and emphatically through my words and/or actions “I want this.”
I am interested in what we’re planning and I’m enrolled in that process as well as in the results. I am decisive; even if that means I have decided that I want you to decide what it is we do.
My words and actions match up, there is no contradiction between what I say I want and how I am behaving. Furthermore, this activity is aligned with my values as I understand them; my overall feelings about participating in this activity are positive.
Lucid means I am awake, I am conscious, and I have control of myself.
ALL of the above must be true in order for any cooperative activity – sexual or otherwise – to be consensual. Otherwise what you have is not an agreement. It is a nuclear bomb of resentment and trauma waiting to happen.
I strongly encourage you to look at every relationship in your life, every activity that requires agreement from someone else, and ask yourself: “Do I have IDEAL consent?”
If not, for your sake as well as for theirs, please make a change. Like, now.
Hurt feelings. We will all run into them at some point, be it with a lover, a friend, or even a stranger on the internet. But there’s no reason they should have to derail a relationship, a perfectly decent day, or even a conversation. So here’s a practical guide on handling hurt feelings, from both sides of the equation.
I’m going to keep the focus narrow here. We are only dealing with accidental hurt feelings, i.e. when someone with no harmful or malicious intent tramples on someone else’s feelings without realizing they’ve done so. If someone is being intentionally hurtful, that’s a whole different bucket of trolls.
To illustrate the simplicity of the mechanisms at work here, I’m going to use a central analogy for the accidental trampling of feelings: the accidental trampling of toes.
So. Someone has just stepped on your foot as they walked past. You realize that they probably didn’t do it on purpose, but you’re in pain and having an emotional response to that pain.
Here’s what you do:
1. Acknowledge that this pain is your pain, and this emotional response is your emotional response. Nobody can *make* you feel something. If they could, unrequited love stories would turn out very differently.
2. Bravely speak your truth: that you are hurting. No matter what anybody tells you, simply feeling that pain and the accompanying emotions is not a wrong action, a counter-attack, or anything other than an internal reality of yours.
3. Alert the person who has just trampled on your toe to it’s location so as to avoid further trampling.
Here’s what you DON’T do:
1. Exaggerate or dramatize the pain to garner sympathy. This is likely to have the opposite effect, especially over time.
2. Cast blame or aspersions on the toe-stepper. This will only result in more toe-stepping in the future, as people have a need to assert their rightness when someone insists they’re in the wrong.
3. Analyse the toe-stepper’s general behavior or character based on this incident, and/or tell them how to behave.
i.e. “You really need to watch where you’re going”; “You’re such a clutz!”; “Your negligent, toe-trampling ways are going to get you in trouble some day!”; etc.
4. Hide or swallow the pain. This is likely to result in A. more unintended toe-stepping (since the stepper still hasn’t been alerted to the location of your toe), and B. unexplained and seemingly irrational emotional outbursts on your part further down the line.
So, you’re walking along, minding your own business, when suddenly someone calls out,
“Ow! You just stepped on my toe! That really hurt!”
Here’s what you do:
1. Assure them that it was an accident. Action and intent are not the same, but both matter. A simple, “I didn’t mean to,” can go a long way.
2. Empathize. You’ve had your toe stepped on, right? It sucks, right? Put yourself in their shoes (pun intended), and let them know you understand and relate.
3. Let them know their pain matters to you. Saying you’re sorry isn’t accepting blame or admitting to ill intent. It’s simply letting someone know that you care about them and that you are sorry they are feeling hurt.
Here’s what you DON’T do:
1. Insist that, since you were not aware of stepping on any toes, they must have imagined it.
2. Insist that, because you are a good person, not some cruel sadistic toe-crusher, you could not possibly have stepped on their toe.
3. Deny that their pain is real for any reason.
i.e. “Oh come on, I barely touched you”; “Don’t be so sensitive”; “Quit playing the victim”; etc.
4. Cast blame or aspersions on the injured party
i.e. “You shouldn’t have been standing there in the first place”; “You provoked me”; “You need to toughen up”; etc.
5. Escalate by reminding them of times in the past when they’ve stepped on your toes.
6. Demand they stop feeling what they are feeling. That’s not just unfair, it’s patently counter-productive. The best way to dispel a negative emotion is to have an external focus. A walk, looking around, some kind of real-time distraction. Telling someone to control their emotions is a good way to insure an internal focus, which will only amplify their current emotional state.
7. Bludgeon yourself with guilt. You didn’t know that toe was there. It’s okay. Learn and move on.
8. Take abuse. Just because someone is in pain doesn’t give them carte blanche to lash out. You aren’t obligated to listen to someone who is treating you with undue cruelty, and you’re not doing them any favors by allowing them to hurt you, either. It’s always okay to walk away and allow time and space to work their magic.
9. Give a snarky non-apology, i.e. “I’m sorry you chose to feel hurt”
Finally, it’s incredibly helpful (though admittedly very difficult) to step outside of your own role for a moment. Consider how you would react to this person’s pain if you were not the one who unintentionally created it. Pretend you are an outside observer, just there to make sure the injured party is okay. In that role, there’s no need to defend yourself, only to offer comfort and help.
When in doubt, ask the magic question:
“What do you need from me right now?”
You’d be amazed how quickly and thoroughly that one little question can de-escalate even the ugliest of arguments. Because when it comes down to it, all anybody really wants is to know that someone cares about their needs. Hurt feelings, or otherwise.
There’s a new Cracked.com article that’s been all over my Facebook feed this week, outlining the horrifying results of an online experiment: create the most abhorrent female personality imaginable, but with a really hot profile pic, and see how men respond.
If you guessed that it would be absolutely inundated with propositions, then you’d be correct.
But that isn’t what I’d like to address. It’s the author’s conclusion, which betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of *why* so many men wrote to this woman.
The author writes:
“There are any number of cynical conclusions I could draw from the results of this experiment. For example, I could extrapolate from my data that men have been so deeply socialized to value women solely on their appearance that many of them seem unable to take any other aspect of who she is, such as intelligence or capacity for self-reflection or suffocating douchiness, into account.”
The reality, however, is even darker than this. The men who wrote to “aaroncarterfan” weren’t simply willing to overlook her personality flaws because of her hotness. I posit that her vacuous, morally bankrupt personality made her even more attractive to them. Why?
Here we come to the dark heart of the misogynistic, porn-fueled sexual economy of contemporary Western society. It’s all become like a massive real-world video game, and the rules are as follows:
A woman like aaroncarterfan, on the other hand, is so repugnant that not only can a man quite easily use her and lose her, he can justify the act to himself with minimal effort. After all, she makes no secret of her pregnancy scare tactics, thereby justifying A. not using protection, B. denying it after the fact, and C. calling her a liar and a scammer if she does cry pregnancy. Or STD. Or assault. Or abuse. Or pretty much anything else. This woman has no reputation to fall back on, and no redeeming qualities to work in her favor. She is the ideal target for the kind of blase psycho-sexual violence that a truly demoralizing number of people have come to accept as The Dating Scene.
Online dating has, in many ways, for many people, become an auxiliary to online porn. You browse through, looking for the stuff that turns you on, and project your fantasy onto it, with little to no real-world repurcussion. And aaroncarterfan’s popularity suggests that the stuff that turns on a whole lot of men, more than you probably care to think about, is the lived equivalent of internet porn: a semi-anonymous, largely one-sided encounter with an entirely disposable, impossibly hot chick. Preferably with some hard-core sex stunts that are painful and degrading for her but super awesome for him–or, if he’s submissive, painful and degrading for him and a fuckton of work for her. Bonus points if she is such an unlikable skank that he can do it guilt-free.
Pretty depressing, yeah?
But like the horrified creator of aaroncarterfan, I refuse to “follow these results into the darkness.” Instead, I challenge every single person reading this to do one simple thing: stop awarding points for this behavior.
Better yet, start issuing social sanctions for people who treat other people as disposable sex targets. When you hear an offhand remark like, “She was crazy, but man was she good in the sack,” don’t let it slide. Hold the speaker accountable.
And most importantly: be accountable yourself. Don’t sleep with people you don’t respect or who don’t respect you. To be clear: I have absolutely nothing against casual sex, so long as it’s mutually casual and mutually enjoyable. And everybody makes mistakes: someone who seemed perfect for you last night might send you screaming for the hills by noon. But if you find yourself repeatedly screwing folks with whom you would be loathe to get stuck in an elevator, let alone a relationship, then you have a problem. And if you are doing so on purpose, then YOU ARE THE PROBLEM.
Like a lot of folks these days, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, I identify as Polyamorous, or more colloquially, “poly.” For those unfamiliar with the term, that means that I believe it is possible, and generally desirable, to love more than one person at a time.
Now, those of you who also identify as poly might be feeling a mite defensive already, based on that title. So before I get into what I have come to regard as a serious, and under-acknowledged, problem with polyamory as a relationship structure, allow me first to explain why I still consider myself polyamorous despite the fact that I am currently single (as in, I have no primary or secondary partnerships at the moment, by choice).
It simply can’t accommodate the complexity of human sexuality and psychology. The chances of finding a single individual who fulfills each and every one of your needs, and whose needs you fill entirely, are astronomically low. Chances are, no matter how much you love your partner, someone else is eventually going to capture your fancy, and couples who aren’t able to acknowledge and effectively deal with the reality of their desires are doomed to be miserable, unfaithful, or more likely some combination of these two.
That being the case, more and more couples are opening up their relationships to some degree, ranging everywhere from the “monogamish” couples who occasionally invite a friend in for a threesome, to the poly conglomerate that is tenuously linked via a veritable web of overlapping agreements. These more open-plan arrangements can, and indeed must, be tailored to each individual relationship, and thus they have a much better chance of providing exactly what those individuals genuinely desire.
That said, after ten years of living la vida poly, I’ve come to the conclusion that it has a pretty glaring design flaw, as least as it is most commonly practiced: it encourages mediocre relationships to 1. persist beyond their usefulness and 2. stay mediocre, or actively deteriorate.
I read this article recently, the TL:DR of which is that if something is not a “FUCK YES” for you, then it should by all rights be a “NO.” I couldn’t agree more. Life is too short, and your resources too limited, to bother with people you like okay, or who think you’re a decent second or third choice. But poly, as a relationship structure, invites the collecting and stringing-along of multiple lukewarm associations.
Say you’re dating someone, and the sex is fantastic, but they’re just not very communicative. The monogamous model gives you two options: deal with it, or move on. But the poly model offers a third, far more attractive option: find someone else who fills that unmet need. So you find someone who’s super communicative, but also super serious and intense and thus kind of draining. So you find someone else who is super playful and makes you laugh til you wanna pee, but who’s also kind of inattentive and self-focused and leaves you feeling sort of insecure. So you find someone else who is super attentive, but also super needy. And suddenly all your free time is filled, and you’re dealing with an exponential amount of emotional and physical considerations, and you STILL haven’t found exactly what you’re looking for.
Meanwhile, you have no motivation to fix any of those issues, since the other relationships act as release valves for that tension. So you’re still dealing with continual miscommunications, and arguments, and insecurities, and emotional meltdowns, etc. You simply have more options for escape.
Now, I’m absolutely not saying that’s the inevitable result of polyamory. It isn’t. However, one must actively fight against this tendency if one wishes to avoid it, just like monogamous couples must fight against the tendency toward infidelity and dishonesty.
Regardless of how you identify, regardless of your ideal relationship structure, it is your responsibility to actively create and continually nurture that ideal, and it is your responsibility to make sure your needs are getting met. That doesn’t mean you should attempt to wait around to find The One who will magically fulfill all your needs and vice-versa. I’m afraid that’s still a steaming pile of Disney-doo.
But what it does mean is that when you choose to love someone–and there are, as I was just reminded today by this fabulous article on the multiplicity of terms for love in ancient Greek, many different ways to love–you are choosing to divert your precious resources (time, energy, etc.) toward the project of making that relationship ever more like your ideal association. You are committing yourself to helping that person get better and better at fulfilling your needs, and to getting better at fulfilling theirs.
You are agreeing to connect, ever more deeply, with that person, not merely to use them as a band-aid, a release valve, or a supplemental insurance plan. Because that’s a pretty shitty way to treat someone you claim to love.
So, how do you combat The Poly Problem?
You choose wisely. You focus on what you’ve already got rather than continually looking for the next shiny crush to flood you with New Relationship Energy. You treat each and every relationship you maintain as your only relationship, and only consider starting a new one when someone truly exceptional, something genuinely extraordinary, comes into your life.
That is the true beauty of poly: that you can accommodate those rare and beautiful interlopers with whom you connect so deeply that you simply must have them in your life in an intimate context. Because life is too short to say “no” to a “fuck yes,” too.
It’s been a while since my last post, and though I could cite all sorts of truthy reasons for that extended silence, the reality is that I went and got my heart broken. And, you know, it was just kinda hard to write about romance, what with the blood and tears spewing all over the screen and gumming up the keyboard.
To be more precise, I smashed my heart repeatedly against someone else’s, someone who was never gonna open that thing up to me no matter how hard I knocked, no matter how patiently I waited, no matter how many brilliantly creative tactics I used to sneak past his defenses. I did this until it was mangled to the point that I could no longer find enjoyment in the attempt, and so I left the arena.
Here’s the truth of the matter:
That is not to say that there aren’t people in the world who will be happy to use, abuse, and betray you, who will fail to return the love you offer them, or who will up and stop loving you for no good reason. There are, and they will. But no one can take, break, or so much as breathe on your heart without your consent, and in most cases, with your full participation.
But here’s another, equally important truth to wrap your brain around:
Quite the contrary. A broken heart is a badge of honor, a battlescar that bespeaks remarkable courage. Because opening your heart to another person is always a risk, and it takes true bravery to keep taking that leap of faith anydamnway.
The true shame is in keeping your heart locked up tight and never letting it play the bloodsports it was designed to play, dangerous and insane though they are.
Claim the honor that is rightfully yours. Stop giving your power away by claiming that someone else broke your heart. YOU did that. And not because you’re weak or foolish. Because you’re smart enough to know that opening your heart is the only way to win the game of love, and you’re strong enough to lose an alarming number of rounds and keep coming back for more.
Which brings me to my third and final truth about heartbreak:
Be honest with yourself: you got something out of it. Even if it was simply the exhilaration of attempting to surmount an insurmountable barrier, or the smug righteousness of being the lesser asshole, or a masochistic enjoyment of martyrdom. You must have gotten *something* out of it, or you wouldn’t have bothered in the first place. The more you focus on what you got out of the deal, the less you will feel like a victim. And only by letting go of your victimhood and seeing yourself as the active participant you were/are can you finally let go of your heartbreak and heal.
But what if there’s someone out there who’s convinced that you broke their heart?
As we’ve already covered, that’s not really possible. They are fully responsible for their own condition, and you are fully responsible for yours. But let’s say you did some things that, in retrospect, were kinda shitty. And let’s face it, it’s pretty damn near impossible to get through an intimate relationship without doing something, at some point, that qualifies as some degree of shitty. What’s the best way to go about attempting to repair that damage?
Step One: Check your intentions.
Really scrutinize ‘em. Interrogate yourself to make sure that this is not simply a veiled attempt to win one last round, get the last word, relieve your guilt, or obtain forgiveness.
THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU. AT ALL.
This is about offering the other person a no-strings-attached apology because it’s the right thing to do.
… ABORT MISSION!!
It is kinder, and just all-around better, to leave that person in peace than to make contact before you’ve fully worked through your own emotional baggage and made peace with the situation.
If, however, you are genuinely seeking nothing in return, proceed:
Step two: Write a letter of apology. Make it clear that no response is necessary. As we’ve established, this is a no-strings-attached apology, so make sure the recipient feels zero pressure to offer forgiveness, acceptance, or anything else.
Step three: Explain your wrongdoing in your own words. This is not what they or anyone else believes you did wrong, this is what you know in your heart was the wrong thing to do.
Step four: Express empathy/compassion for any consequences that befell them on account of that behavior.
Step five: Wish them well.
Step six: Fully accept that you may get a strongly negative response, or no response at all. Know that you did the right thing anyway.
I’ll give you a true-life example, which I sent out to an estranged ex just last week:
This is a long overdue apology. No response necessary or expected.
When you set a totally legit boundary with me, I got irrationally angry and lashed out at you. I was a jerk, and you deserved better. I can only imagine how awful it must have felt to make yourself vulnerable like that, only to get a verbal smack-down from the person you most needed to be on your side. Thank you for bringing so much joy to my life, and for caring enough about our relationship to communicate your needs. I wish you peace, and so much love.
Happily, I did get a positive response, but I wasn’t expecting one, and that’s not why I did it. God knows I’ve gotten plenty of nasty responses, too.
If you *do* get a negative response: remember that you are not obligated to respond either. Just listen. When it comes to their feelings, do your best to empathize. But when it comes to accusations or evaluations about your behavior or character more generally, take it with healthy lump of salt. If something strikes you as true, feel free to fix it. As to the rest? Just let it go. Arguing about it isn’t going to change their mind or make you either of you better people. It’s just going to degrade any hope of either reconciliation or peaceful parting of the ways.
Whatever you do, don’t take pity on the heartbroken party. They don’t need your pity, because as we’ve established, heartbreak is a mark of bravery and will only make them stronger in the end.
Instead, honor them both inwardly and outwardly. Honor the risk they took in opening their heart to you. Honor their hurt feelings without taking on any blame. Bow to them as you would a worthy, now injured adversary at the end of a particularly rough karate match. And then leave them alone to heal as they damn well see fit.
Are you tired of ending up in healthy, long-lasting relationships? Here are some simple steps that will keep your turn-over rate sky high!
I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this method (I’m not proud, just honest).
Step 1: Be dishonest
True dishonesty begins by being dishonest with yourself. Try to be someone you’re not, and to want things you don’t. That will make it much easier to make agreements you can’t effectively honor. Before you know it, you’ll be breaking those agreements!
And when you do, you’ll think, “Hey, I’m a good person. So I must have had a good reason for breaking that agreement.” And you’ll find a way to rationalize your action, and to cover your tracks.
You might even get good at it. And before you know it, you’ll be a bona fide liar. It’s that easy!
Lying is an especially effective way to destroy relationships, because even if your partners never find out (and they probably will), you will feel the need to justify having lied to them. And thus you will start to subtly villainize your partners.
Which will lead you directly into step two…
Step 2: Find fault with your partners
Although it’s plenty effective to simply think badly of your partners, this step is most effective when you actually let your partners know just how dissatisfying and inadequate they are, both as a partner to you, and as individuals.
Here are some especially effective areas to focus on:
Do they have a small penis, or perhaps mismatched, pendulous breasts? Be sure to point that out every chance you get! Oh, and be sure to unfairly compare them to other people! Bonus points if those other people are other lovers of yours (past or present), celebrities, porn stars, or friends or relatives of theirs.
Triple bonus points if they were bullied in school because of it!
Tell them how to do their job! Contradict them on matters in which they are vastly more qualified than you are! Oh, and by all means, offer unsolicited critiques on the stuff they’re most passionate about.
Did they mispronounce a word in conversation? Correct that shit! Bonus points if you roll your eyes.
Do their favorite shoes squeak when they walk? Complain about it until they feel so self-conscious they stop wearing them!
Oh, and be sure to lecture them about shit they post on Facebook, where they happened to go grocery shopping most recently, how they dress themselves, their grooming habits, etc.
Show them just how wrong they are on a wide variety of topics. This will drive home the importance of your approval, while simultaneously making them despair of ever living up to your standards.
Step 3: Always be right
Okay, so you’ve made it clear just how superior you are to your partners. But why should they trust your opinion? You’re going to need to make sure they understand that YOU ARE ALWAYS RIGHT.
So, you’ll need to take every possible opportunity to assert your rightness. Jump on any mistakes you see a partner making, no matter how insignificant, and don’t let anything go until you’re satisfied that you have won!
Never admit fault, and for god’s sake never learn anything from your partners.
Above all, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO EMPATHIZE. If you start looking at things from your partner’s perspective there’s a good chance you will achieve understanding. And that’ll lead you straight to compassion and reconciliation, which is the LAST thing you want when trying to make a relationship spontaneously combust.
Pro-tip: be sure to generalize! Make whatever is going on now about everything else they’ve ever done wrong. That way you’re not just right, you’re META-RIGHT.
Step 4: Throw your partners under the bus in public
So now anyone you’re dating should be painfully aware of just how often you are right, and more importantly, how often they are wrong. But if you really want to annihilate the relationship, you’re going to need to make sure that everyone else knows it, too!
Whenever you disagree with something a partner does or says, proclaim your disagreement loudly, and in front of as many people as possible. Social gatherings, social media, Thanksgiving dinner, all excellent opportunities to let folks know you’re not afraid to side against your partners. Bonus points for snark and sarcasm!
If you skip this step, people might start to think that you are on the same team and have each others’ back, and that’s bound to give your partner a sense of security and a desire to show the same kind of loyalty to you. Now, is that any way to fuck up a relationship beyond all hope of recovery?
Step 5: Don’t communicate effectively
Now, if you’ve followed all the steps above, your relationship should be on the train to splitsville. But there’s still a chance that train could be derailed by effective communication. So you’re going to need to be extra vigilant about keeping those channels full of static.
For example: have you been clearly stating your needs and wants? Well, cut that out! If they’re aware of your needs and desires, they’re much less likely to fail to meet those needs and fulfill those desires. You might end up feeling loved and supported, and you’d be surprised how much damage that can do to all your hard-earned dysfunction.
Instead, simply expect partners to be psychic and magically know what you need and want. And each time they fail to guess correctly, be sure to assume that they must have known, and simply failed to provide you with what you wanted on purpose. That’s sure to produce the maximum amount of resentment, which is a key ingredient in all failed relationships.
But don’t say anything about it! Let that resentment build! Resentment, like a fine wine, needs time to mature in order to reach its full relationship-crushing potential. The time will come to unleash the torrent. In the meantime, you can communicate just how unhappy you are by cultivating the fine art of passive-aggression.
Meanwhile, be sure to discourage your partners from expressing their needs and wants by reacting poorly any time they try. Bonus points if you mock their “neediness” and/or make negative judgments about their desires!
Pro-tip for the advanced relationship saboteur – do communicate your desires, but phrase them as demands rather than requests! This is extra-effective because it not only destroys any chance of your partners freely offering you what you want, it also fosters resentment, and undermines your partners’ sense of self-determination. And what better way to discourage someone from communicating their own needs and desires than to convince them they are not in control of their own life? Genius!
Finally, don’t forget to…
Step 6: Focus on the past
Be careful! If you focus on what you actually want to accomplish in the present, there’s a possibility that you could actually achieve mutual satisfaction and move forward together! And that could lead to…
FIXING THE RELATIONSHIP. *gasp*
So, instead, be sure to focus on things that have already happened and cannot be undone. That’ll ensure an endless battle that can’t be won. By anyone. Ever.
That oughta do it. Now get out there and start ruining your love life!