Like a lot of polyamorous people, I have a fraught relationship with monogamy. First off, it’s always been imposed upon me externally, via social context or romantic partner. And second, I have historically “failed” at the version that was presented to me as acceptable, to disastrous and occasionally life-threatening results. Thus I have long assumed I would live out my days splitting time between multiple partners who probably also had other partners, and believed myself content with this scenario.
But a while back, I started feeling pulled toward exclusivity. The idea of focusing all my romantic energy toward a single partner became deeply compelling to me. But because I had so much of my identity tied up in being “poly,” I fought that pull. I reminded myself that monogamy goes against human nature, or at any rate my nature if we are judging by history. I told myself it was an unrealistic expectation that I could ever find one person who would embrace the weirdness of my particular situation (i.e. I’m a not-quite-single Mom living next door to my “wasband,” his girlfriend, and their daughter, who I also think of as my kid). I thought it would be a betrayal to my community, an abandoning of my identity, and a scary and dangerous undertaking.
And then it occurred to me that these are exactly the kinds of bullshit arguments people come up with to squelch a desire to open up a relationship.
Without realizing it, I had adopted a rigid, dogmatic adherence to a single relationship style and had become unwilling to consider the possibility that it was no longer right for me.
It didn’t help that the fellow I felt most pulled toward—we’ll call him “John”— also had a long history of infidelity within purportedly monogamous relationships, and was showing no obvious signs of interest in making an exclusive go of it with me. Or did it…?
One day it occurred to me that perhaps this was an ideal case study to explore my mono-curiosity. After all, the thing I had always hated about monogamy in the past was that it was being thrust upon me from outside of myself. This situation was exactly the opposite of that. I had no reason to do this except my own desire to do it, and there would be no external pressure to continue, were I to abort mission.
So one morning, getting ready for work after having spent the night at John’s place, I announced that I wanted to stop fucking other people. His face registered confusion, skepticism, incredulity, and finally amusement. “Ooookay,” I recall him saying, “Why?”
I realized, as I started to list off the reasons, that I had never actually articulated the full list, even to myself. It was more robust than I had realized.
And, all intellectualizing aside, perhaps the most important reason:
And so it began.
Soon after followed The Challenges. I’ve always known monogamy was challenging, but I understood the central challenge to be a futile fight against one’s biological instincts. So not only did I see the secondary challenges of monogamy as not worth the trouble, I thought of them as actively harmful.
Now that I had a genuine personal interest in an exclusive romantic/sexual partnership, I discovered that the real central challenge of monogamy, at least for me, wasn’t resisting the temptation to fuck other people. Rather, it was confronting all the ways in which promiscuity had become an emotional crutch for me. And it became clear that taking on that challenge, and all the secondary challenges that stemmed from it, would not only be worthwhile, it was my only path to any sort of healthy relationship.
Thankfully, I had already confronted a lot of the ways in which my self-esteem was tied up in the desire, attention, ecstasy, and appreciation of others during my four-month celibacy stint that began almost exactly a year ago. But it quickly became clear that I still had a long way to go on that front, and that confronting those issues while in an intimate relationship with someone had it’s own peculiar pitfalls.
Challenge #1: Jealousy
The old green-eyed monster began to rear its tiresome head almost immediately. I had expected this. I’ve done enough study on human sexual psychology to know that jealousy is based in insecurity, and I had just cut off the mainline of ego-stroking I had relied on most of my life to combat it. And unlike when I was celibate, I now had a terribly tempting screen on which to project those insecurities to super-human proportions.
I found myself indulging in behaviors I had resented from past partners: demanding declarations of love, fishing for validation, trying to catch my partner cheating, and of course, losing my goddamn mind when I found even the most circumstantial evidence to support that hypothesis. This was especially unfair given that I never communicated anything resembling a boundary around my partner’s sexual behavior. I had simply declared my own intention not to fuck other people.
To his credit, though, John did not play that card. Nor did he indulge the drama by offering any of the emotional concessions I was demanding: reassurance, promises, evidence of his fidelity, etc. Instead, he simply reminded me of what I already knew: that nothing he could do or say would ever be enough.
I knew he was right, and that Possessive Partner was a shit role to play. So I had two options: I could take a leap of faith and choose to trust John, or I could break up with him. Spoiler alert: I chose trust. So far, so good.
That’s when I realized that polyamory had effectively insulated me from my long-standing trust issues. With multiple lovers, I never needed to fully trust any one person not to betray and abandon me, and thus I maintained a comfortable illusion of security. Now that it was just John, I was working without a net, and it was terrifying.
Happily, though, confronting those fears with a partner is a lot less wretched than doing it alone. And little by little, I’m building the kind of security that comes only from experiencing the benefits of well-placed trust. Which is a much more secure security indeed.
Challenge #2: Getting my needs met
Another reason I have long identified as poly is that I embrace the reality that no one person is going to fulfill my every need. But in practical terms that’s meant building a kind of Frankensteinian conglomerate of desirable partner traits in the form of what could be referred to as a harem. One partner to satisfy me sexually, another to be my intellectual equal and challenge me to improve myself, another to provide emotional support, and yet another to be a companion / partner in crime to laugh and be silly with. And even when my harem was complete, STILL I wasn’t content. Still I had needs that went unmet.
But it wasn’t until I was monogamous by choice that I realized why: because it isn’t just that no ONE person is going to fulfill my every need. It’s that my every need is never going to get fulfilled. At least not by any kind of external source. It became clear that I was going to have to look inward to discover what was missing and figure out how to create it for myself.
Challenge #3: The scarcity myth
The next challenge I came up against was time and energy. As in, he didn’t suddenly, magically have any more of it to offer just because I was now focusing all of mine on him. And I started to feel annoyed, frustrated, and slighted that he chose to prioritize things like work and self-care over me.
Again, I took a long, hard look at my behavior. Did I really want to be that co-dependent lover who demands every moment of her partner’s time, even at the cost of his/my/our well-being? Did I want to view his time and attention as a finite resource for which I was in constant competition?
Hell no. That’s exactly the kind of bullshit I became poly in order to avoid.
I want, and have always wanted, to be the lover who encourages my partner to take care of his own needs and to live exactly as he pleases. I just happen to be so fucking awesome that he chooses to spend time with me anyway.
So, I decided to focus my energy on filling my own life with awesomeness, and stop worrying about how much time we were or were not spending together. After all, that’s exactly what I would be doing if we weren’t together.
And this is where my celibacy training has really come in handy. When in doubt, I ask myself:
WWCAD: What Would Celibate Adrienne Do?
In other words: what would I do if I didn’t have this other person to lean on / blame / hook into playing out my cyclical psychodrama? Try doing THAT instead.
At one point, I even attempted to downgrade our relationship to “friends with benefits” so that I would be forced to stop projecting all my expectations of what a “boyfriend” is and does onto him. To my great surprise, rather than relief that I was finally over this silly monogamy experiment, he expressed hurt and disappointment. It hadn’t been a test, but that was, as it turns out, the answer my heart needed to hear. After that, I was IN.
I’ve still got a lot of healing to do. A lot of radical self-love to express. A lot of fears to face down and challenges to see through. But for the first time in my life, I am confident that it can, should, and will be done. Not because I think John is “the one.” But because I’ve finally admitted that I am the one. The one with the power to fulfill my own needs and create genuine intimacy with another imperfect human.
And so far? I gotta say: intimacy is pretty fucking awesome.
I’ve written a lot about love. Specifically, about it not being a state that one magically and mysteriously falls into and out of, but an active verb that one can, and indeed must, continually choose. But it’s come to my attention that I have never applied this to my relationship with the very most important person in my life:
This is a pretty massive oversight. But as I’ve attempted to remedy it, it’s become increasingly clear how it got overlooked.
It turns out that of all the scandalous, taboo love affairs I’ve ever embarked upon (and I’ve had some doozies), radical self-love takes the proverbial cake.
I mean, I’ve long understood that self-love was taboo. A brief history:
Age four, my mother forcibly removes me from the front window where I’ve been happily exploring my anatomy. I bawl my eyes out as she tries in vain to explain to me that what I’m doing is “private” and must be done behind closed doors.
Age fourteen, my first real boyfriend accidentally walks in on me getting freaky with some Clairol Benders and a Penthouse I swiped from my dad. The next day at school I am socially crucified and forever after referred to as The Dyke Who Bangs Herself.
Age twenty, a University counselor diagnoses me with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Nymphomania; hits on me almost immediately afterward.
Age twenty-four, my first husband tells me that if he catches me cheating on him, even with myself, he will kill me.
Age thirty-four, several men on OK Cupid take the time to write me scathing diatribes detailing what an arrogant, self-absorbed cunt I am, and outlining all the ways in which I am not as valuable as I think I am.
So now that I am knocking on forty’s door, I suppose it shouldn’t come as such a shock that I still struggle with the concept of openly and unabashedly adoring myself. But I had no idea how much I still struggle with it until last week, when I was challenged to set an hourly alarm to say out loud, “I love myself.”
The first time I attempted to say it, the only thing that came out of my mouth was a groan. Like an ornery camel with an epic toothache.
Next, I managed to get it out, but immediately followed it up with an even louder and more ornery camel groan.
Next, I said it with an exaggerated, ironic lilt, as if I were speaking in scare quotes, and punctuated it with jazz hands. Yes, actual jazz hands.
Finally, I managed to say it just fine, only with a look on my face like I’d just licked a slug. Progress!
By the end of the day, I was saying it with something approaching sincerity.
The next day, something remarkable happened. I started looking forward to my hourly declarations of self-love. I said it to myself in the mirror. Then I wrote it on my mirror. I sang it to myself in the shower. I wrote it on a post-it note and slipped it into my purse for me to find later on. I whispered it to myself while wrapping my arms around myself in the elevator. I doodled it in a notebook. I yelled it out loud, over and over, as I came while masturbating. I spoke it softly and sweetly to myself as I fell asleep.
But even as I rode that oxytocin high through the next day and beyond, glowing and smile-sighing like a teenager whose crush finally asked them to prom, I knew that I would have to be discreet.
Imagine the humiliation that would ensue were a coworker to walk in on me petting my own hair, cooing “I love myself” aloud. The fallout would be far more embarrassing, and quite possibly more damaging, than if I had been caught fooling around with someone I oughtn’t.
Forbidden trysts, extramarital affairs, mixing business and pleasure, these are scandals for which we have a frame of reference. But carrying on a passionate love affair with oneself? That’s either pathologized as insane, pitied as a pathetic substitute for a “real” relationship, or dismissed as a bit of new agey nonsense. It certainly isn’t viewed as anything approaching a respectable, honorable, or worthwhile pursuit.
And yet, these same people who roll their eyes at the idea of someone taking her/himself out on a date will fervently recite the old cliché:
“You can’t really love anyone else until you learn to love yourself.”
Well, I’m here to make an indecent proposal. I propose we stop buying into the notion that we need to learn how to love ourselves. We already know how to love. We simply need to start speaking our own love language aloud to ourselves, to extend to ourselves those same acts of adoration, those same poetic and passionate gestures we are inspired to bestow upon our beloveds.
I hereby challenge you to do something terribly taboo. Something that might get you into a lot of trouble if you do it too flamboyantly or publicly. But something so powerful it might just transform your most primary partnership, and radiate outward into all of your relationships.
I challenge you to have an affair with yourself.
Start with a simple declaration of love. Repeat it as many times as necessary for it to really sink in that you mean it.
Spend some quality time with yourself. Take you out someplace nice. Take you to see that movie you’ve been wanting to see. Treat yourself to a massage. Whatever you think you would enjoy (conveniently, you have a massive advantage in terms of insider knowledge here).
Be your own muse. Write yourself a love poem. Make yourself a playlist. Dress up for yourself. Draw a self-portrait. Be romantic. Be creative. Sweep you off your feet. Do that thing for yourself you’ve always wanted someone else to do for you. Challenge the notion that these grand gestures only make sense in relation to another person. Enjoy them in spite of the world.
In short: make love to yourself. Make love for yourself. Discover that wellspring of love inside of you that you’ve been reserving for that magical worthy recipient, and acknowledge it at long last as your birthright. YOU are that worthy recipient. YOU have within you that boundless love that you seek. And try as they might, nobody can actually stop you from tapping into, and reveling in, that primary source. That’s all yours, baby. It always has been, and it always will be. Plumb it to the depths.
Yes, it feels weird. Just like talking to yourself feels weird. Yes, other people will give you funny looks, and might think you’ve gone a bit soft in the head. Embrace the weirdness. Embrace the social scorn. Come out as an autoromantic with me. Yes, I just made up that word.
Okay, say it with me now, as loud and as proud as you can muster on a first try:
I LOVE MYSELF!
Now go get a room, you crazy kids! And don’t be afraid to wake the neighbors.
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.