relationships

SAFER mode: stay sane while triggered

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Ever have a day (or a week) that appeared to be specifically crafted by an arch-nemesis you never knew you had to set off all your most potent emotional triggers? And did that day (WEEK) culminate in a big, ugly fight with someone you care about?

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It did? Quelle surprise!

Just like a computer that is fighting off a virus on its last bar of battery life, you are unlikely to be able to make effective headway on whatever problems you’re dealing with when you’re upset. Indeed, you are far more likely to pick an unproductive, deeply damaging fight in that state. And no matter how justified (and satisfying!) that may feel in the moment, I guarantee you will regret it the moment the emotional fog lifts.

So, instead, the moment you become aware that you are feeling emotionally triggered, I recommend you go into “SAFER mode.” Here’s how:

  • Say what you’re feeling
  • Alert those around you
  • Frame your present circumstances
  • Ears open
  • Repeat back what you hear

Let’s break that down…safe_mode_android

Say what you’re feeling

In a 2007 brain imaging study, a group of UCLA psychologists discovered that putting our feelings into words significantly reduces their intensity. So whatever you’re feeling, articulate it, either out loud or in writing.

Focus on the feelings, NOT on what you think caused them. Chances are whatever external trigger you want to blame that feeling on is not its root cause, nor will identifying that cause necessarily make the feeling evaporate. And more to the point, you don’t need to justify what you’re feeling by identifying a reason for it. Feelings happen. Accept what is.

Alert those around you

If you find yourself feeling triggered in the presence of others, don’t try to hide it. Let them know in no uncertain terms. I recommend the simple, straightforward:

“I’m feeling really triggered right now.”

If you have the presence of mind to do so, it’s helpful to ask your interlocutor(s) for their help/patience in working through the emotions you are experiencing, or conversely to ask for space so that you can work through them in private. But that’s a bonus round. It’s absolutely fine to stick to the minimum and just let folks know they are not dealing with you right now, but with an irrational bundle of reactive energy.

Again, DO NOT focus on what you think triggered you. That’s a red herring, and is likely to set off a back-and-forth trigger-fest that will drag all involved down into the mire of irrationality. You can alert the person who set off the trigger to the presence of that particular trip wire once you’re back in your rational mind.

Frame your present circumstances 

Are you in immediate physical danger?

If so, fight or flight are perfectly appropriate responses. GTFO and/or land a solid punch.

If not, take a deep breath, look around, and take stock of what is actually happening in present time. I find it helpful to name the things I see, either out loud or to myself: black coat hanging on coat rack. Ticking clock. Tree outside of the window bending in the wind. Chances are your mind is reacting to another place and time, and the adrenaline coursing through your veins is neither necessary nor appropriate for the current circumstance. Occupying said mind with what is actually going on outside of it can help keep you grounded and curtail the emotional tailspin.

Armed with this real-time data, frame your surroundings as safe, and yourself as free to leave this interaction and continue the discussion at a later time when you are in a better head space.

Ears open

Now that you’ve opened your eyes to present reality, open your ears to it as well. Really listen to the words being said, not your reactive interpretation of them. And, finally:

Repeat back what you hear

This is the single most important tool in your belt. The benefits are threefold:

  1. It requires minimal mental and emotional energy to simply parrot back exactly what you heard
  2. It promotes connection and empathy: your interlocutor knows they’ve been heard and understood
  3. It allows them to clear up misunderstandings or re-think what they’ve said

So maybe you can’t always be 100% rational. But now at least you can keep yourself SAFER.

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The Ultimate Guide To Healing Broken Hearts

So you have a broken heart

I’d like to help.

Have you ever heard a caring friend tell you,

“Time heals all wounds”?

How many times have you heard this cliche from well-meaning folks as your heart is bleeding all over the cold, hard floor?

Has it ever once been of genuine comfort?

I’m betting it felt pretty shitty. We are going to fix that right now.

ain't nobody got time for a broken heart

ain’t nobody got time for a broken heart

4 Steps To Heal That Broken Heart

Instead of passively waiting for mysterious, heart-healing time magic, try my proactive 4-step process to heal that broken heart in record time.

1. Honor your choices

You may want to beat yourself up over the choices you’ve made. Don’t.  Instead, honor those choices as necessary steps along your journey. Learn from them. Remember that you aren’t wrong, bad, or stupid for having made them. You simply have new information now and can make a different choice in the future.

2. Give your broken heart emotional support

Allow yourself to grieve in whatever way works for you. Shower yourself with the love and support you’ve been craving. Make a list of your greatest strengths and post them prominently. Proactively reach out for support from friends and loved ones. They have been where you are and you may be surprised how happy they are to help. And speaking of help…

3. Help someone else

This one is huge. You’d be amazed how useful it is to turn your attention outward and focus on someone other than yourself. This can be as formal as regular volunteer work or as informal as posting on social media that you’re looking to help someone out and see who pings you. Send a thank you note to anyone who has helped you. Text someone that you are thinking of them (NOT YOUR EX).

4. Work on yourself

Right now is the perfect time to put in some significant work on becoming the person you want to be. Take some time to reflect on:

  • who you are
  • what you need to do to become the person you want to be
  • Then do it

The truth is…

do the work

So get to work on that broken heart.

Making Peace With the M-Word

monogamy-300x224Like 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.

Oops.

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.

  1.     I didn’t actually WANT to fuck other people. With a couple of notable exceptions, those interactions contributed little to my life beyond an added layer of physical and emotional risk. Yet I continued to pursue them out of boredom, loneliness, escapism, insecurity (i.e. to have a back-up plan), a desire for emotional leverage (i.e. to make John jealous), or simply to fit the narrative I had created about myself as a non-monogamous person.
  1.     I was finally confronting the irony that my polyamory was rooted in a dangerous kind of romanticism; deep down I still believed that THE ONE was going to come along and sweep me off my feet, and if I was in an imperfect monogamous relationship with some non-magical human I would miss my chance at true love.
  1.     I had experimented with a wide range of polyamorous relationship configurations, and with the polar opposite, celibacy. But the middle ground of voluntary monogamy remained unexplored.
  1.     I wanted to connect on a very deep level with another person, to learn the art of genuine intimacy with someone just as flawed, and just as awesome, as I am. And, at least for me, that requires concentration.

And, all intellectualizing aside, perhaps the most important reason:

  1.     I was in love with John. So, I wanted to focus all my romantic and sexual energies on him.

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.

green_eyed_monster_by_citrisblossoms

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.

Betty White in Entertainment Weekly. FOR GATECRASHER ONE-TIME USE ONLY; DO NOT ARCHIVE Photo by Entertainment Weekly/Michael Elins Original Filename: Betty White by Micha#8321182_RGB.jpg

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.

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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?

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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.

Toxicology

toxicImagine 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.

  • Do not, I repeat, DO NOT tell your friend that their significant other is toxic, abusive, or otherwise “bad.”

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.

The Ex-Factor

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“And then there was Denise. She was even crazier than Shayla. She slashed my tires and keyed my car just because I failed to text her for a couple of days…”

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.

  • Imagine my surprise when, months later, I found myself straining to see his phone screen from over his shoulder, demanding lists of names, sending messages through mutual friends to women I suspected were unaware metamours of mine, and even making ultimatums of my own.

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?

  • Maybe your last four partners cheated on you. Or maybe you cheated on them. Or both.
  • Maybe both of your ex-spouses were impossible-to-please control freaks. Or spineless yes-men who let you walk all over them.
  • Maybe you keep falling for drama queens who are fond of messy emotional scenes in public. Or emotionally unavailable engineers who are allergic to the “l-word.” Or emotional vampires. Or saps.

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.

 

My approach for picking a partner

ChoicePoor relationship choices. We’ve all made them.

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.

How to destroy a relationship in 6 easy steps!

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).

broken_heart-1501

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:

  • – Things they can’t (easily) change

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!

  • – Things that are important to them

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.

  • – Insignificant details

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!

I wanna see you be brave

confront

“Say what you wanna say

And let the words fall out, honestly

I wanna see you be brave

– Sara Bareilles, Brave

The first time I heard that song, I was oh-so-smug.

I thought: “Now there’s something I’m really good at! Being BRAVE!

I thought about how often I’m the first to say “I love you.”

I thought about how brazenly I put myself out there in the public eye.

“Hey everybody! I’m bisexual! I’m polyamorous! I have herpes! I’m a survivor!”

I thought about all the little ways in which I make myself vulnerable in the realms of sex and romance. Brené Brown would be so proud,” I told myself.

And I gave myself an emotional pat on the back.

I thought about all the other people who really needed to hear, and heed this song. People who weren’t being honest with themselves, weren’t being honest with other people, weren’t being brave enough to confront the reality of their situation, let alone change it.

I wanted to send a benevolent, benignly supercilious singing telegram to every last one of them.

But as recent events in my personal life have proven, Sara was singing to me.

Because bravery isn’t just about telling people what you do want, it’s also about telling them what you don’t want. Or, even scarier, what you did want, but don’t anymore.

And now I’m thinking about all the ways in which I’ve failed to be brave in my relationships. Like how long it took me to be honest with that guy who was convinced I was “the one,” when I knew I wasn’t. Or how many times I said, “I love you” to that girl, knowing that I didn’t. Or how long it took me to leave my abusive first husband. Or all the times I’ve failed to speak up when I didn’t like what was happening, and then got resentful about it.

I’m thinking about all the myriad ways I’ve allowed my boundaries to be trampled, my integrity to be tarnished, my needs to go unmet.

Then again, in every case, I eventually did the right thing. The hard thing. Despite grave personal and emotional risk.

I gave that guy his ring back.

When that weeping woman asked me point-blank, “Do you love me?” I answered, “No. Not the way you need me to.”

Despite the death threats and blackmail, I left that abusive bastard for good (third time was the charm). And I’ve come clean about a lot of those harbored resentments after the fact, and done my best to make amends.

Because it’s never too late to be brave.

The longer you wait, though, the more bravery will be required.

Look, I’m willing to put money on the fact that you–yes, YOU–are not confronting some truth.

Yep, that thing you thought of just now. That’s the one.

And now you’re probably mentally listing off all the perfectly rational reasons why you’re absolutely justified in not confronting it.

But here’s the truth: that thing is screwing up your life, diminishing your joy, and sapping your resources in ways you aren’t even aware of. And you don’t have to settle for that.

So I’m lancing you an official challenge:

  • DO IT TODAY.

Not tomorrow, not next week, not after squandering another year, or ten years, of your life on living a lie.

I promise you’ll thank yourself for it. Not right away, of course. At first it’s gonna suck hairy, sweaty monkey nuts. But someday soon, you will.

  • There is never a good time to do the hard thing. The time is now. Go. Do it. Be brave.

Because nothing feels better than being true to yourself.

“Don’t run, stop holding your tongue
Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live
Maybe one of these days you can let the light in
Show me how big your brave is”

 

Is this relationship good for me?

should-i-leave-him-quiz

“I need help,” said the frazzled woman sitting across from me, wiping tears with the back of her hand. “I can’t decide if this relationship is good for me or not.”

As I handed her a box of Kleenex, I thought, “If I had a quarter for every time I’ve had this conversation, I wouldn’t be sitting in my office, having this conversation.” But, as usual, I asked her to enumerate both the positive and negative aspects of her relationship. And, as usual, she listed off all the things she liked and didn’t like about the way her boyfriend interacts with her.

When she had finished, she looked at me, waiting for a verdict.

“And what about you?” I asked her.

She seemed genuinely confused by the question.

“There are two people in this relationship,” I reminded her. “What have you done to change things for the better?”

She protested that she’d told him many times about the things she doesn’t like, but that he still hasn’t fixed them.

And there was the rub: she was focusing on things she had no power to change, i.e. his behavior, rather than focusing on things she could, and should be doing to work toward her relationship ideal.

Women in particular seem to be prone to this behavior, though it’s not gender-specific per se.

  • There is this sense that a relationship falls into our laps ready-made, and either it’s worthy of our time and energy or it isn’t.

This creates a feeling of powerlessness, as though we ourselves are incapable of affecting change and must therefore pester our partner to do so. And since people are not generally fond of criticism, particularly within romantic relationships, those petitions are, at best, simply ignored, and at worst labeled as “nagging” and used against us in a court of love.

  • The truth is that both partners are equally responsible for creating and maintaining the kind of relationship they want. And that begins with focus.

You see, focus determines reality. So the more you focus on what you think your partner is doing wrong, the more real that problem becomes. And the more energy you send toward worrying over whether or not that problem is a deal-breaker, the less energy you have to devote to creating the kind of relationship you actually want.

So, the first step is to decide what kind of relationship you want. Until you do that, you have nowhere to put your focus and no goal to work toward. So, envision your ideal relationship. Write it out on paper. Keep it somewhere prominent so you can remind yourself on a daily basis exactly what you are working toward creating.

Then, put your focus on taking positive action. That is, on doing whatever you can do to make your relationship more like that ideal you described.

Finally, when you find yourself in a negative interaction with your partner, try simply re-focusing your energy onto figuring out what you are both trying to accomplish.

Ask your partner, and yourself for that matter, “What do you want?” or, if you want to get more technical, “What is your desired outcome for this interaction?”

Once you’ve gotten an answer to that question, for both of you, give no focus to anything that does not work toward one or both of those goals.

To sum up:

  • Ask not if this relationship is good for you, but if you are good for this relationship.

 

How to Cheat Chronic Cheating

CheatingHi. My name is Ava, and I’m a recovered cheat-a-holic.

Now, there are those who will tell you that I don’t exist. That cheaters will always be cheaters, and that change is but a temporary illusion.  And I’ll admit, that attitude is probably a safe, if not 100% accurate one. Because I can tell you from first-hand experience that change is really fucking hard. So hard that most fail, and ALL fail who try to change in order to please or appease someone else. 

However, I am living proof that change is possible, if (AND ONLY IF) the cheater in question genuinely wants to make a change. So for those brave few who are ready to turn over a new leaf (or rather a giant, mud-covered boulder), and all those of you who want to better understand chronic cheating, read on.

While I’m sure there are as many reasons for cheating as there are cheaters, most of those “reasons” are merely after-the-fact justifications. After much observation and self-exploration, I’m convinced that there is a single underlying reason for nearly all chronic cheating:

GUILT.

Guilt over transgressions (or even imagined transgressions) of the past creates a feedback loop of never-ending dishonesty and disloyalty by triggering the following behaviors:

Repeating the same bad behavior over and over to assert its rightness. People have a need to be right, and to feel like good and ethical people. So when they make a bad choice, it’s a very common defense mechanism to simply delude themselves into believing that the choice wasn’t so bad after all. And in order to do that, they have to keep on making it. Over and over.

Let’s say you’re going to a pot luck, and you decide to make salmon mousse. Now, you’ve never made it before, and you know that it carries a high risk of food borne illness, but you make it anyway. And sure enough, after the potluck everybody comes down with a terribly case of salmonella. You know you shouldn’t have made the mousse, and you feel guilty. But you can’t accept responsibility for making all those people sick! You had the right intentions, after all, and you aren’t some kind of sadist who likes to make people sick for fun. Right??

So when your sister asks you to make something for her wedding reception, you (subconsciously) see an opportunity for redemption, and make yet another, equally terrible, salmon mousse. The entire wedding party is hospitalized, your sister’s honeymoon is postponed, the guilt is compounded, and it becomes more and more difficult to confront the consequences of your actions. So what do you do? Make another salmon mousse, of course, to bring to your sister in the hospital!

The same thing happens with cheating.

You cheat once, it turns out badly, your Significant Other (hereafter SO) accuses you of being a terrible human being. But you know in your heart that you aren’t a terrible human being. And so, to prove this fact to yourself, and to the world, you must cheat again. And again. And again.

Ironic, bizarre, and absolutely true.

Creating justifications. After a while it isn’t enough just to rationalize to yourself and others why it was imperative, or at least not so bad, to break your romantic agreements. The guilt becomes so overwhelming that you actually have to start creating justifications for your actions. So you pick fights, or you make yourself unattractive enough to your SO that s/he stops having sex with you, or you simply stop having sex with your SO, thereby pushing him/her toward cheating on you, etc. Then when you go and screw the neighbor you can say to yourself,

“S/he drove me to this!”

– Lying. Lying and cheating go hand in hand. You break an agreement, you fear the consequences of the broken agreement, and so you withhold that information from your SO.

But it doesn’t stop there. Lies in a relationship multiply like fruit flies on a compost heap. You need lies to cover up your lies. You need lies to back up those lies. After a while you have so many lies built up that you feel like your entire relationship is built on those lies, and that if your SO ever learned the truth they would despise you.

Furthermore, because of your guilt, you begin to believe that if anyone knew the real you, they would despise you. And so you lie to everyone. You lie unnecessarily. You lie gratuitously. You lie to make yourself look better. You lie to make yourself look worse. You lie so much you don’t even remember what’s true anymore.

Your life becomes a lie.

You feel guilty about all the lies, and thus the cycle continues ad nauseum.

Encouraging others to transgress. Like an alcoholic uncle who is always trying to talk you into having a drink with him, the chronic cheater isn’t content to simply break his/her own agreements. S/he is continually pushing others to break theirs as well. To make poor choices, put themselves and/or others at risk, and to lie about it.

Again, this is behavior is directly linked to guilt. Because the cheater knows what s/he is doing is wrong, s/he needs others to take wrong actions, too, so that the relative badness of her/his own actions appears diminished. But of course, corrupting others only ends up making him/her feel more guilty, and so on.

Needing approval from others. Because guilty people question their own status as good and ethical people, they desperately need others to see them as good and ethical. They cannot stand being made out to be a villain, especially over some misunderstanding or incorrectly perceived wrongdoing or character flaw, and will go to ridiculous, often self-destructive lengths to change that perception. They are therefore dangerously easy to manipulate emotionally.

That means that even if a guilty person doesn’t particularly want to have sex, or continue to have sex, with someone, they may be so concerned with the emotional repercussions of not doing so that they capitulate in order to please, appease, or earn the approval of that person.

They are also easy to take advantage of or talk into transgressing, since they have lost their moral altitude, and thus feel that they have no right to judge the actions of others or to stop others from taking wrong actions.

All of which leads to…

Apathy about doing the right thing. When in a fairly clean environment, a dirty dish stands out, and so we feel a kind of social pressure to put the dish in the sink. But when the whole apartment is a disaster area, we feel no compunction over leaving our dish right where it is.

So it is with our conscience.

The cleaner your conscience is, the more compelled you feel to do the right thing and take responsibility for the few wrongdoings that do occur. But when your conscience is saturated with guilt, you become apathetic in regards to ethics. Knowing how much work it would take to make the place presentable, you don’t even bother to clean up after yourself anymore. You stop questioning your own actions, stop trying to make amends for wrongdoings. You just give up and declare yourself a hopeless case.

Maybe you even label yourself evil, or a super-villain, or a siren/succubus, or just plain bad.

And therefore you start…

Pushing people away. Your guilt makes you feel like a bad person and therefore dangerous to good people, and because you are, underneath it all, a good and ethical person, you want to protect good people from danger. Therefore, ironically enough, you keep the people you care about the most at an arm’s length. You destroy healthy relationships, and run screaming from anything that reeks of intimacy. Conveniently, this also serves as a justification to cheat, since you were only protecting your SO from the force of chaotic evil that is you.

***

Unless/until a chronic cheater addresses the underlying problem, their guilt, it is very likely that they will continue to cheat.

If you’re ready to address that problem, then I have an assignment for you.

It’s a deceptively simple assignment, but trust me, if done correctly it may well be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.

Get yourself a notebook and a pen. Write down, by hand, every wrong action you’ve ever taken in regards to sex and relationships. Every transgression, every omission, every action you took or didn’t take that you know to be wrong. Not that someone else told you was wrong, mind you, but that YOU KNOW in your heart to be wrong. Describe each event in stark, factual terms. No justifications, no backstory, no emotionally charged language. Then describe any known consequences.

For example:

  • Wrong action: 1996, I made out with my buddy’s girlfriend in the back seat of my car. We were both pretty drunk. We kissed, I felt her up, she rubbed me through my pants. Neither of us ever told him about it.
  • Consequences: We both felt really guilty. They started fighting a lot and broke up not too long after. My buddy and I eventually had a falling out over something unrelated and haven’t spoken since.

Here’s an example of how NOT to do it:

  • Wrong action: 1996, I was drunk at a party and my buddy’s girlfriend threw herself at me. I wasn’t even all that into her but somehow we ended up making out. I stopped it before it went too far, though.
  • Consequences: None, really. He never found out and we never did it again.

This is not a trial: you are not here to defend your actions, only to describe them.

Another example of how NOT to do it:

  • Wrong action: 1996, I seduced my buddy’s drunk girlfriend. Totally took advantage of the poor girl and blatantly lied to my buddy about it.
  • Consequences: I destroyed their relationship, and our friendship too.

This is not about clobbering yourself over the head with guilt. Feeling guilty hasn’t helped you in the past, and it isn’t going to help you now.

The point is to fully confront the reality of what occurred, and to take responsibility for having caused any consequences that resulted.

If, in the process of writing this (and it will probably take you hours if not days or weeks to complete it), you discover a consequence that you could still help to fix, or in some way positively affect, do it. In the example above, you could reach out to your old buddy, come clean and apologize for making out with his girlfriend all those years ago, and if possible, try to mend the friendship.

As to the rest, simply confront. See it there and sit with it without trying to justify or explain it away. Recognize what you caused, and hopefully, at the end of it all, you will recognize that you are neither a helpless victim nor an evil villain. You are a good person who made bad choices. You are a powerful person whose actions have a powerful effect. And it isn’t too late to start choosing to have a different, more positive effect.

The final step is to show your list to another person. That’s right, you’re going to have to make yourself that vulnerable to another human being. Pick someone you trust, and ask them to read through the whole shebang. Let them know you aren’t looking for judgment, empathy, or even for help. You simply need a witness.

This does two things: 1. It unburdens you of the stress of carrying around all those secrets, and 2. It gives you an opportunity to be seen, and hopefully accepted, exactly as you are.

But truthfully, the only person whose acceptance you need is you. Because once you have that, you can start the process of becoming the person you want to be.

Take it from me: it’s never too late to be the person you know yourself to be, underneath it all.

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