Forging an iron(ic) self: putting the border behind me October 24, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Personal.
Tags: BPD, Mental Health
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The blog has been quiet for a while. There are reasons for that, which are not relevant to the world, but I wanted to say a few words relevant to my own personal life.
Previously, I have written about Borderline Personality Disorder. It was a time when I was doing a lot of reading, thinking, and talking about what I perceived to be the closest diagnosis which fit what I was experiencing emotionally, behaviorally, etc. It started with a therapist I saw years ago, who suggested this as an explanation, and I sort of grabbed onto it as a part of my identity.
One of the criteria of BPD is a lack of solid self-identity, and this was something I had struggled with throughout my life (as, I believe, most of us have). Earlier in my life, I associated it with the concept of an existential crisis, and even wrote, recently, about how Sartre’s book Nausea always resonated with me in many ways. But in more recent years, I just piled it onto a diagnosis which helped define the emotional and behavioral struggles I have have to deal with much of my life. I started, in essence, to identify as a borderline.
That description sat as a place-holder for any real sense of self.
I’m in therapy again, and in talking about these issues and trying to find a set of strategies and concept to move forward with, I have been confronted with the fact that I, perhaps, have too closely associated with such a diagnosis. My therapist has said to me that he does not think I am a borderline, even if I have some borderline symptoms. The fact is that most of us have some symptoms consistent with all sorts of potential diagnoses, and that perhaps we are not best served by identifying with those potential diagnoses. It’s so easy to just lump yourself into a box than to struggle with the actual hard things in life on their own terms.
At this point, my best guess is that previous therapy, thinking, growing, etc have already moved me further away from being diagnoseable. I am different than I was 5 years ago. Hell, I’m different than I was a few months ago. At the same time, I do still have some real patterns of behavior which I need to struggle with towards becoming the person I want to be. That struggle will probably be one without end, as growth is a thing which must continue because life changes, our needs and desires change, and so the struggles change.
I am fearing that fact, that reality of change, less than ever before. Change, growth, and uncertainty are often terrifying realities, but these days I’m starting to understand their importance as well. There will be certain things about me which will probably always be true. I am still afraid of many things, and there are specific certainties which I will always want, but I very much want to stop making excuses for not being the human being I want to be.
And, in a strange way, thinking of myself as a borderline was just another excuse. It was a way to essentialize who I was, rather than see the particular issues as challenges to work through. My ultra criticism of myself bled onto my criticism of others; because I wasn’t good enough, I became frustrated by the imperfections in others. But it’s not about being good enough, and that critical nature blinded me to so many other things I could have been focusing on. And I rationalized it all as an essential person who could do no differently.
I am a person people like. I am a person worth knowing and being close to. I’m also not trying to convince you (dear reader) of those facts, those are things I’m trying to believe myself. Those beliefs will be more things that the person I want to be will have as attributes.
That person will not be weighed down by mistakes and traumas of the past, but will move forward and look at solutions. Those who have actively tried to make my life harder and demonize me will fail. Those who insist upon defining me by embellished and fabricated events from my past will have to seek a new target for their abuse, because I will not be limited by either the illusions of others or through my own fears. Instead, I will be motivated by what I can do, what I will do, and I will enjoy a life with people who care for me despite my flaws, and I will succeed one way or another.
I needed a swift kick in the ass, and now I have the bruises there to remind me that whenever I try to sit comfortably in the self I have grown complacent within, the need to get up and keep moving will become part of who I am, not who I want to be. The need to never receive such a kick again will compel me to remember that I don’t need to be perfect, better than others, nor even do I have to insist upon not resting for a while and see how far I have come.
Even the job of growing and learning needs a vacation for a little while, now and then. Otherwise, we risk burnout.
The illusion of perfection, feelings of superiority, and the need to never stop moving are all related. I’m glad that I know this, and I hope that such realizations are not forever bereft in others.
I think now, identifying as a borderline is too strong of a claim.
And so it’s time to move on from that part of my life, and be the person I want to be. Do or do not. There is no try.
In retrospect, I was trying to solve a lack of strong self identity by clinging to a diagnosis which wedded me to not having one. That was dumb.
Tags: love, relationships, sex
Seriously, is this not 2014? Have we not yet absorbed the radical notion that different people like different things when they’re doing The Sex? And not just, like, male-type people like These things, while female-type people like Those things, so all you have to do to please your lover is determine their gender, google a bunch of lists, and do exactly what the lists say.
Lists like this are useful for one kind of person only: the kind of person who has never realized that a potential partner’s sexual tastes might not be perfectly aligned to their own, or to what happens in the kind of porn they generally watch. For those people, a list like this may be a helpful awakening. Sort of like how, for someone who grew up eating burgers and hot dogs exclusively, spaghetti may be a good first step to the world of international foods.
For the rest of us, following a list of advice like this is only going to make you a worse lover. The quickest route to bad sex is to be absolutely, 100% sure that what you’re about to do is going to be mind-blowing for your partner, without bothering to check in with them or pay attention to how they respond. (Well, I guess a quicker route is not to give a crap about your partner’s pleasure at all, but I’m talking to people who are above that level.) It doesn’t matter what some list off the internet told you women/men like. It doesn’t matter what your best friend told you women/men like, even if your best friend is of the gender in question. It doesn’t matter what all your partners before this one liked. If you saw an internet list saying, “The one color no woman can resist!” would you believe it? Would you go about assuming that you now know what every woman’s favorite color is? If all of your previous partners happened to love purple, would you assume that purple is your new lover’s favorite color? What a person likes sexually is just as much a matter of personal preference as favorite colors, or foods, or movies, or music. The quicker we can all get that into our heads, the better everybody’s sex life will be.
If you want to be a good lover, talk to your partner. Listen to your partner. Pay attention to your partner’s non-verbal cues. Make “how do you like to be touched” a fun naked game you play together. And check in every few months to see how your partner’s tastes and preferences may have changed, or if either of you have new ideas for things you’d like to try. (I’m terrible about this, but it’s still good advice.)
And FTLOG stop writing articles like this. It makes me cranky.
Fighting it off September 23, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
Tags: breakups, depression, Fall, Mental Health
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With the Summer now really over, the days getting cooler (I’m already cold. I don’t want think about January), and the days getting shorter and shorter, I’m on the edge of the seasonal changes to mood that happens to me every Fall.
That, compounded by a recent loss of a relationship that was important to me means that I am on the verge of a depressive period which I am going to have to deal with. It’s like I’m feeling the first signs of the flu coming on, and while I know I’ll get through it (you know, probably) I know that for a little while I’m not going to be OK.
And I don’t know what to think about that. It all seemed so easy and clear when I was feeling great just a month (or so) ago. I was feeling confident, I had strong relationships, and the Summer was my playground. I was Ingressing all over the city, enjoying the warmth, and I was busy most nights with friends, lovers, and partners.
And now my motivation to be social is diminishing. I can feel it seeping from me like blood from a cut, slowly draining away my ability to stay attentive, engaged, and feeling fully alive. Yesterday, for the first time in many months, I spent an entire evening playing a video game. After the first half hour, I felt satisfied with gaming for the day. But rather than get up to do something else, I just sat there and played more. And then 3 hours went by, just like that.
Last Fall it was Skyrim. Soooo much Skyrim. What a great game, but there is definitely a point at which one is over-doing it.
And then I think about last Fall. Man, so much has changed in a year. I remembered how awful it was for me a year ago. With the exception of someone I had just started seeing then, I was mostly not doing well at all. I was in a long, arduous, unhappy funk all of last Fall. Everyone around me saw it. I was moody, non-communicative, and it led to things going badly between me and someone I deeply cared for, then. There were bright spots in there, but it was awful. And so I find myself thinking a lot about what to do about this. I cannot avoid it completely, but I can mitigate it, can’t I?
I know this gets better. I don’t know exactly when, but it will. You know, probably.
So, if you see me this Fall and I seem a bit more quiet and subdued than usual, then it’s probably because I’m feeling shitty. If you are inclined, come and give me a hug. Hugs always help.
But the most obvious piece of evidence that I’m not doing well? I have not even reached 500 words and I’m done writing.
Something is wrong here…..
Swift Scales and Quicksilver Tales – A guest post by Rabbit Darling September 18, 2014Posted by rabbitdarling in Polyamory.
Hullo, Rabbit Darling, here. I’ve been thinking…
It is so hard, discovering that people you once loved are not – and likely were never – what you thought them to be. Expecting the best of people is not without risk. I’ve been told to blame myself perhaps a bit less, because dudes: when charismatic and skilled people lie, most folks get taken for whatever they had the guts to put out on the table. That’s the whole idea, right? That’s how aggressive mimicry and predation work. You lull your mark into a false sense of safety, luring them with well-honed techniques that speak to the most basic needs and desires they possess, and strike when the mark drops her guard. Ideally, you have a network of dupes and fellow mimics in place to run and signal boost plausible deniability and interference on your behalf while you shrug your shoulders and claim it was all just a miscommunication. Recently, I was reading up on aggressive mimicry in nature, and stopped, chilled to my blood and bones at this passage:
A case of the latter situation is a species of cleaner fish and its mimic, though in this example the model is greatly disadvantaged by the presence of the mimic. Cleaner fish are the allies of many other species, who allow them to eat their parasites and dead skin. Some allow the cleaner to venture inside their body to hunt these parasites. However, one species of cleaner, the Bluestreak cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus), is the unknowing model of a mimetic species, the Sabre-toothed blenny (Aspidontus taeniatus). This wrasse, shown to the right cleaning a grouper of the genus Epinephelus, resides in coral reefs in the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, and is recognized by other fishes who then allow it to clean them. Its imposter, a species of blenny, lives in the Indian Ocean and not only looks like it in terms of size and coloration, but even mimics the cleaner’s “dance”. Having fooled its prey into letting its guard down, it then bites it, tearing off a piece of its fin before fleeing the scene. Fish grazed upon in this fashion soon learn to distinguish mimic from model, but because the similarity is close between the two they become much more cautious of the model as well, such that both are affected. Due to victims’ ability to discriminate between foe and helper, the blennies have evolved close similarity, right down to the regional level.
One of the things that is so damaging about mistaking a blenny for a wrasse is that we become vigilant, even growing suspicious of our true allies. Predation wreaks a lot of havoc, but one of the most lasting of its legacies is that it sends a clear and intentional message: You cannot trust yourself. You are not the arbiter of your own experiences. Whenever you risk love, you also risk becoming prey. We become wary fish, even when wariness is demonstrably not necessary. This is alienating. It places us in a space of self-enforced aloneness – the very thing that continues to make us vulnerable to a Blenny. We separate from our school, and swim cold waters alone, too busy questioning our own judgment to notice what’s lurking in the coral.
I am a very fortunate person, woman, and feminist. My life is absolutely chock full of true symbiots. But I have had recent and prolonged contact with an imposter who took a swipe at my fin, and missed. But only narrowly. So taken was I by the appearance of safety, by the sheer volume of rhetoric, by the carefully manicured and micromanaged façade of advocacy and care, that I occasionally shudder at the thought, “What if I had stuck around longer.” What’s perhaps most painful is, someone I loved even more was fully aware of the potential danger – and did not tell me. This person did not warn or even inform me. I was routinely left alone with this potentially dangerous person, unaware of their manipulation of someone they had violated. While I was pressured to engage in open, honest, and transparent dialogue about my deepest, hardest, and most vulnerable feelings (with the promise and expectation they would do the same!), in the background there was a campaign of secrecy, denial, and micromanagement surrounding the violation the blenny-posing-as-wrasse had perpetrated.
I was fortunate enough to have relied on my instincts. I severed contact with some mimics because I had begun to note a pattern of hypocrisy and exploitation independent of the truth they had deliberately kept from me. When that truth came to light, I wanted so badly to be surprised.
But I wasn’t. It was like turning the light on in a dark room, and finding out the furniture was exactly where you thought it would be.
The fact stared me in the face: This was not an isolated incident or a misunderstanding; this was a pattern I had already begun to recognize. In the weeks and months that followed my swift and final egress, micro-aggression and minor consent infractions continued to take place despite my clearly communicated, well-documented, and explicitly reinforced boundaries. This wasn’t miscommunication. It was bullying. It was fully intended to guilt, manipulate, shame, and gaslight. Everything I’ve experienced says, “Watch out: that’s a Blenny. Swim fast, little fish, and never stop. Find your school. Find your wrasse.” And I can. And I do. And I will.
It’s taken me a long time to come forward about this, largely because I’ve always struggled with finding the space to speak my own truth. I still couch it in terms of metaphor and story, partially because it helps me insulate myself against the cold vacuum of empty waters; and also because story has always been how I’ve managed to distill my own experiences into the lessons they have taught me. Fables are always stories with a moral. The morals to this story, and the ones adjacent to it are still surfacing. But as the sun glints on the surface above, distorted and shattered across waves I know exist but cannot yet feel while immersed, I feel certain that whatever those morals wind up being, I am safer now. My instincts have been tested, and have shown themselves to be trustworthy. I do not have to suspect all my fellow fish, but I do need to listen closely when my heart says, “Beware.” I need not swim these waters alone, if I vow to watch carefully, to listen closely, and to maintain a healthy skepticism about the motives and desires of other fish in this sea.
Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing September 17, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: askholes, community, faux feminism, Michael Shermer, rape culture, sexual assault
[TW: rape, sexual assault]
I still follow a number of atheist blogs, which I sometimes read and sometimes skip past depending on the topics they explore. In recent months, one of the raging conversations has been the ongoing issues related to skepticism, rape culture, and “radical feminism.” I’ve written about these subjects previously, and don’t want to deal with those issue directly (there’s already a lot of that being discussed, and I don’t feel like I have anything significant to add), but something about these conversation has felt very familiar to me recently.
No, I am not trying to snidely imply that this is an old conversation that we’ve all heard before and should be tired of. It has been one which has been happening for a while, but it is one that needs to happen because some people are still not getting it.
No, In this case, the familiarity has more to do with seeing parallels of much of this “drama” in my own life. The familiarity is one of “oh, that thing they’re arguing about concerning skeptic/atheist leaders being sexual predators, possible rapists, and general dingbats whose supporters attempt to smear you for pointing out their dingbattery…that looks really familiar!”
All too familiar…
So how about the polyamorous community?
Hiding in plain sight
Thinking about all of this got me wondering about how many people fly under the radar, not only in the mega-communities of all kinds, but all of the local communities. How many people who consistently lie, manipulate, and take advantage of people for their own benefit (among other terrible behavior) are there all around us? I mean, it’s a behavior set which operates best in the shadows, and the very success of such behavior necessitates hiding, creating a false facade, and having sympathetic advocates. The perpetrators of such things are usually not simply loners waiting in alleys, they are people within your own community, hiding in plain sight and pretending to be something they are not.
There are strategies which some people use to hide their awfulness. If you are racist, it helps to have non-white “friends” or co-workers to keep around to make any accusation of racism seem absurd, except for those who know better. If you are a misogynist, keep your female friends and partners close, so that if someone says you treat women badly you can have them speak up for you. Similarly, if you have problems with sexual consent, make sure you have your feminist friends and partners willing to speak up for you, so that when you do decide to just do what you want with a woman who you think you can get away with it with, the accusation will look ridiculous (especially to your partners who you emphasize consent with!).
How many people are there like this around us all the time? Well, the terrifying answer is that we don’t know. That’s why it’s so scary. Often, they are around us all the time and we have no idea who they really are, because they hide it so well. This is compounded by the fact that many people who have had bad experiences with someone may choose to be quiet about it, and only close trusted friends will know. A desire to not stir up drama, unwanted attention, or possible backlashes are among the many reasons that people who behave poorly don’t get outed more.
Yes, backlashes. Because sometimes victims get blamed, by both bystanders and those guilty of the infringement. If someone knows they are guilty or wants to hide a mistake, sometimes the best way to hide is to redirect attention or to just ignore it and hope it goes away. Some people faced with accusations will not only refuse to accept any responsibility (or really acknowledge the accusation at all), but will go further and re-direct the accusations elsewhere. A good defense is a good offense, I suppose.
Other people will just depend on the background noise of normal every-day life to drown it out, knowing that some people who get hurt will just slide into the crowd and not pursue more conversation or desire for some recompense. Others may simply believe they didn’t do anything wrong in the first place, and will view accusations as absurd, annoying, or an attempt to sully their reputation (you know, rather than a description of the violation of another person).
But there’s a deeper, and more disturbing, set of strategies I have seen employed as well.
Some people are especially skilled at pretending, hiding, and creating support networks to vouch for them. It’s much better to have advocates than to appear defensive by responding oneself, after all. As a close friend said, in reference to someone neither of us trusts, “if you rape 1-in-5, you will still have 4 to vouch for you.” That is, if someone talks about consent often and practice it with most people, the exceptions will be easier to hide in the shadows of consent’s facade. If a person gets off on being in control, having influence, and doing what they want to other people while ignoring consent now and then, such a person is much more likely to keep getting away with it by talking a good consent game.
Sometimes the best way to appear innocent is to clothe yourself in the garb of, and to mimic, those who would be the first to convict you if they knew who you really were. The terrifying idea I’m describing here is to hide among those that would be your greatest critics (if they were to see the other kind of behavior) while saving that other behavior for people who seem unlikely to fight back or actually matter to you. It’s essentially being careful who you victimize, while making sure that you surround yourself with advocates of (for example) social justice who you stay within bounds around, so they can be your character’s alibi and voucher.
Here’s one example I’ve seen. If you are a guy who wants girls to like you, then start by calling yourself a feminist, talk and write about consent and befriend and partner up with feminists who you treat mostly well, then occasionally feed that deep desire to take control and power over people with some other people who you perceive as being “safe” to ignore those feminist consent lines. If anyone calls you on it, all you need to do is turn it around on the accuser and then sit back and watch your feminist partners defend you while you can sit back, feeling…well, I have no idea how that would feel. I have no inclination to find out, either.
On top of that, you get to be around attractive feminist women who you might get to sleep with and whom will act as ways to attract other women to you, since those women will vouch for you. You get to treat most of the women in your life relatively well while creating a situation where you can occasionally get away with some power trip (or perhaps it’s just a deep desire which cannot be denied all the time. Either way, it’s manipulative and deeply troubling). You get to occasionally treat people like crap all the while maintaining a flock of feminist women who will pronounce you safe to other approaching women.
Except you aren’t safe. You are a predator, camouflaged among feminists so you can get away with your crossing consent lines when it suits you. And it does happen, doesn’t it? Perhaps not very often, but when it does happen you don’t have to atone, apologize, or even acknowledge it because you’ve created a believable facade of a person you are not. You have created a facade of a decent human being.
And what’s worse is when such people do a little of both with other partners, all based upon what blind-spots each partner has. Such a person will know that some can be manipulated and influenced and still be an advocate, at least for a while. After the influence starts to wear off and it becomes clear that they see you more as a means towards their own needs and desires than someone interested–or capable–of a genuinely mutually beneficial relationship, all such a mind needs to do is move onto another person. In extreme cases, such a person might (for example) assassinate the character of the disillusioned person and gaslight them, attack them, and write them off because they aren’t useful to you anymore.
The above description* is a recipe for coldly calculated patterns of using other people for one’s own purposes rather than creating genuinely mutually beneficial relationships in which the needs and desires of others are considered. Creating healthy relationships is not a game about what you can get away with while trying to appear acceptable by the community in which you participate while doing so. But this is only one of many descriptions of problematic behavior. It just happens to be one I’m more familiar with because I saw it up close.
Victims of such behavior will look at the advocates of these manipulative people and can only shrug their shoulders and crawl back into their hole of self-doubt, fear, and trauma which will never be dealt with on the advocates’ end because he would never do that. Except, he did and many will believe.
Celebrities as proxies
I’ve met Michael Shermer. It was years ago, and I remember that everyone in the room wanted to talk with him. He’s smart, engaging, and tells fairly good stories. He’s also done really excellent work in the skeptic community, written some good books, and has some really important things to say. He’s also a douchebag. He may, in fact, be a rapist and a sexual predator. There have been a number of accusations, arguments about responsibility, and many have come out in support of him in light of these accusations.
There is no contradiction between a person having very good qualities, friends, and advocates and someone who is just terrible. People like Michael Shermer are popular examples, and in a sense stand as a lightning rod for conversations about things like sexual predation, rape, and rape culture. But these celebrity examples of these conversations are community proxies for conversations about the kinds of people and issues we are surrounded with in our own lives, perhaps every day.
Our local communities have people who are known to be problematic in specific ways. That group of people is known for being really tribalistic, dismissive, and gossipy unless you agree with them about whatever they care about. This guy over here is known to get into heated arguments, and sometimes fights, especially if he’s drunk. That girl is known to make racist comments and jokes, but mostly she’s pretty cool (I guess). Oh, and that guy? Oh, he’s a known to take advantage of women when they’re drunk or just to do what he wants to them unless they specifically ask him to stop. You know, maybe he’ll stop if you ask, so just don’t get paralyzed by fear because silence is totally the same thing as consent (pro-tip; no it’s not). You know….he’s probably a sexual predator. But you know, whatever. He’s smart and fun to be around and he throws good parties, so as long as he cuts that out, you know most of the time, we’ll look past it and pretend it’s not happening.
Also, there are askholes (which is among my favorite new words).
There is an idea that one reason celebrities are a thing many people talk about with each other is that since communities have become so large, most people (especially if they live in other parts of the world) don’t have a common set of concerns and people to gossip about. Celebrities, whether they beat their fiance, did something really awesome and generous for someone, or got married, are a proxy for the old village gossip about the locals. Michael Shermer, being well-known in the skeptic community, is the person we talk about when we talk about things like rape and rape culture, but in smaller communities perhaps have their own Michael Shermers.
We have our local examples of such people, and a lot of the same infighting, smear campaigns, and tribalism which takes place on the blogoshere and at conferences is also happening on the local level, on smaller scales.
And it’s hard! It’s hard because unless you see certain behavior you can’t be sure about the veracity of an accusation, especially if the accused behaves normally or acceptably most of the time. It’s hard if the person in question is someone you work with, hang out with, and maybe even generally like. It’s hard because sometimes you aren’t sure if you should believe it, and if you want to be a good skeptic you need more evidence than an accusation.
And shadowy people are really good at covering their tracks with the aforementioned facades, advocates, and mostly good behavior (especially with certain people) which is what most people will see.The distinction is not what they do, it’s about how they proceed after the deed is done. A decent person will take responsibility and try and use it as a lesson for growth and potential change.
We all make mistakes. I have certainly made many myself and I have worked to not hide them, but instead to make them part of my motivation to grow and change. I have hurt people in the past, I have been a poor partner, and I will probably make more mistakes in the future. The issue is how we move on from mistakes and misdeeds, and it is quite tempting to try and shift the narrative to shift the focus on our mistakes onto something else, or to avoid the responsibility which is ours.
Accusations can have repercussions for our standing in a community, but it is ultimately our actions which matter. Michael Shermer, might never recover (professionally and within the skeptic community) if he were to admit to any sexual assault, but it would be the right thing to do (assuming the accusations are true). But such a guilty person would recover far better if they didn’t shirk their moral responsibility from the beginning, and rather just admitted their misdeeds.
If such a person, celebrity or not, is guilty, then worrying about reputations and community standing rather than the affect upon victims is behavior which demonstrates a lack of perspective on what is important and moral in scope. The people around us who behave poorly need to be given room to atone for mistakes, but in some cases the mistakes were more like decisions. Sober, calculated, and intentional decisions are harder to forgive.
The sad truth is that maybe some people cannot be redeemed. One has to be able to recognize error in order to be redeemable.
See also rabbitdarling’s contribution
*Yes, it is based on real experiences. I will not name him, but many of you know exactly who I’m talking about.
Barrier Protection September 12, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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I think this is a wonderful article, and I’m passing it along.
Originally posted on Slut, Ph.D.:
I love and hate the way poly people use condoms.
Before I go any further, I suppose I should explain that I spent years theorizing and researching the way men and women around the world make decisions about and negotiate contraceptive use; it’s what my dissertation was on, and I have written several academic papers on the topic. Amusingly, my academic background makes me at best only slightly better at actually negotiating contraceptive (condom) use with real people than your average monogamous person, and I’m definitely less skilled at it than your average poly slut. I manage it, but without much finesse. Instead of being helpful, my academic background just makes me very conscious of how profoundly mediocre I am at it, and leaves a voice in the back of my head continually affirming a theoretical paper that I wrote in graduate school arguing that contraceptive negotiations are all…
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Marriage Project post! September 10, 2014Posted by Ginny in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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I recently sent in my contribution to The Marriage Project, a blog which collects women’s thoughts about marriage, whether they are married, wish or intend to be married, or plan never to marry. It’s a cool project and it was fun to think and write about the questions. I like the pull quote she chose for the title of mine, and also this one that follows immediately:
To me there’s a big difference between saying, “I plan to spend the rest of my life with you, and I will work to make sure that is a happy and fulfilling experience for us both,” and saying, “I promise I will be with you forever.”
Description v. Prescription in Polyamory September 9, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
Tags: hierarchy, intimacy, monogamy, polyamory, primary, relationship anarchy, relationships, secondary
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In the past, I’ve talked about whether monoamory or polyamory is better, and concluded, essentially, that so long as we are aware of either possibility and we pursue our desires authentically, I’m not concerned where we end up. Today, I’d like to take a look at a set of issues within relationships which fall under the same logical structure, and tease out why I think things like rules and promises, especially when they are intended to remain in place indefinitely, are not only unwise but may be self-defeating.
Negotiation as an Ongoing Process, and not a Scripture
Our culture has a handy trope for a rule which is set “in stone.” Whether the image come from the old Ten commandments movie (or the Mel Brooks version), or from the Old Testament itself, we understand what it means to create a rule or promise which is not designed to change. The idea is that some person or group has handed down a rule which is meant to be kept indefinitely. It is either thought of as a moral commandment or an agreement with no defined end. In other words it is treated, in some cases, as scripture.
The absolutism of this set of circumstances is comforting, at least to some, but it has an air of moral absoluteness which simply does not fit with the nature of relationships (or anything, really) which depend upon communication, growth, and adjustment to change. The stability and structure of such an agreement might be comforting, but this comfort is an illusion and is often short lived.
Such rules can take the place of agreements, requests, or demands but in any of these cases the same fundamental problem will arise. Of course, the issue of coercion, abuse, or simple fear might also play a role, but at bottom all of these situations suffer from the simple mistake of thinking that it’s possible to create a set of rules which will be relevant after new experiences, growth, and changed circumstances have thrown aside all of our assumptions and intentions.
If we make such rules, we must keep in mind that as we experience more, as the circumstances change, and as we grow (both in our set of desires and our ability to handle new situations), the rules we made might not be relevant anymore. In some cases, the rule might end up no longer being necessary, and yet many people hold onto them out of habit. Because it’s the rule. Because it became scripture, and as many people can attest to, scripture sometimes just stays even after you don’t have any need for it.
In other cases, the rule might end up becoming a crutch upon which we lean in order to avoid facing the fact that the circumstances have, in fact, changed or that the rule was a smoke-screen for some fear. But the bottom line is that the rule may not match up with current needs, desires, and relationships, and so it might be better to see that rule as a temporary agreement to be reconsidered now or in the future.
Especially people new to polyamory, the tendency is to create some hard boundaries, rules, etc in order to create some sense of safety or protection against all sorts of things. But as time goes on, relationships form and new desires may arise which run against these rules created early on. So, what do you do? Do those rules become scripture or do you re-evaluate, re-negotiate, and possible change the nature of your relationship as a result?
Prescription versus description
Thinking of rules as a means to protect ourselves is problematic, at best. No rules we can create will protect us from the things we fear, because the things we fear might always happen no matter what rules we adopt. Fear needs to be dealt with directly, and not through defense mechanisms. Rules, in this case, are often more about identifying what our fears are, and making such rules absolute seeks to avoid dealing with that fear as much as actually avoiding harm.
As any monogamous person likely knows, the rule to not have other sexual or romantic partners does not necessarily prevent our partners from the interest in other people, which is the real source of the problem as much as the potential acts themselves. When polyamorous people employ similar rules about levels of intimacy, the difference is one of quantity, not quality. Making the exclusivity limited to one person or a few does not solve the problem of fearing the loss of intimacy. Trying to defend this intimacy is absurd; if they want to give it to us, they will regardless of whether they also give it to other people.
So, what if we thought about rules as a description of an idealized reality rather than a defense? What if we thought of it as a guideline to staying on the path or achieving the kind of life that we want to live? That is, rather than a defense or a set of ways to protect ourselves, what if we thought of rules as a means to keeping ourselves pointed in the right direction and not distracted by road-side attractions along this path?
That’s certainly an improvement over looking at rules as absolute dictates and Hobbes-esque defenses against harm (although guidelines will be this as well), but what if we went even further than this? What if we stopped using the model of prescribing the direction we were going, and adopted a model of exploration? What if instead of defining where we are going, where we will be, and what the destination were to look like, we were looking towards the horizon and discovering what we found?
What if, in our relationships, we are map-makers rather than law-makers?
Laws have to be changed, reinterpreted, and often simply scrapped in order to keep up with our lives. Laws and rule are, in many ways, fundamentally conservative and traditional approaches to reality. Necessary for many reasons, but they are not a force for change or growth in themselves.
In order to change, we need to be explorers, curious and skeptical. As Nietzsche said, we need to be attempters in life (cf Nietzsche, BGE §42 and §210) reaching for the possibility just beyond us. Rules may be relevant for a while, as explorers, but eventually we will run into a new land where the rule simply does not apply. Eventually, we will have to start being ethnologists and adopt a new perspective, and realize that not only is the land upon which we walk different, but the walker is different as well. As we explore, we will change, and the person who left our home shores with notions about right, wrong, civility, etc might no longer exist.
Carrying your civilization into another and remaining the same misses the point of traveling. The point is to grow and change, not to carry your old self to new lands. We don’t want to be imperialists, do we?
An example; Primary and Secondary
Consider this; the difference between the rules set up in monogamy and the rules polyamorous people set up around primary and secondary relationships are usually logically similar. In monogamy, you surround your partner with a metaphorical fence and say “no more in here,” while with polyamorous relationships you might say “only one, maybe two or three, in here. The rest of you are relegated to second-class relationships.”Why prescribe this hierarchy? Why go out of your way to define it as such? If someone feels at home in that fence, why would you make a rule saying they can’t come in?
When we set out on our journey of relationships, if we define these roles beforehand we might find a couple of things could happen. First, we might find that it creates unnecessary distance and feelings of inadequacy for “secondary” partners. It’s one thing to actually be less intimate and close to someone, it’s quite another to be defined as such regardless of whether it’s true or not.
Meeting someone, dating them, getting close to someone is already a complicated enough without having artificial boundaries set on how important that person is allowed to be to you in addition to all that. If someone defines my relationship for me, as would be in the case if I were a relegated secondary, it would not change how I would feel about my new partner but it would make me wonder how close I’m allowed to feel or how close I’m allowed to be.
I’m just not sure if “allowed” is a relevant concept when it comes to how we feel about people. Rules, in many cases, attempt to define how we are allowed to feel in addition to how we are allowed to act. Setting boundaries and rules on actions is one thing (and is important). Setting rules about how we are allowed to feel is quite another (and absurd). So the question is whether things such as relationship status is a function of actions or feelings, primarily.
Are statuses–things like being primary, secondary, etc–things we prescribe or are they things we describe? It’s probably both, but I think that how we actually feel is the primary factor in the nature of a relationship. And so no matter how much we may want and try to prescribe that from the start, how we actually feel will be the primary factor in how close a person is to us. Holding someone at a distance merely because of a rule is, in my opinion, not a decent way to treat another person. And it feels shitty when it happens to you.
Further, you may find that no matter how much you try and pre-define a relationship, that rule might be impotent in terms of actually preventing a person from getting really close. This can lead to situations where someone calls person A their primary, but person B (relegated to secondary status) might end up being equal or greater in terms of intimacy in the long run. Trying to prescribe these statuses thus simply seeks to create rules about territory you have not explored yet, like trying to decorate a room you’ve never been in. You don’t know how close your partner will be to their new partner, and trying to set a rule about it will have as much effect as defining how many chips you’re allowed to eat from the bag.
Clearly, there will be distinctions in terms of how close you are to a person, how much time you spend with them, etc. Clearly, terms such as primary and secondary are useful terms to describe how relationships actually are right now, and I would not try to argue for any “relationship anarchy” which would attempt to argue for use ridding ourselves of labels.
But just like how the dictionary does not prescribe meaning (they simply log use of words, and reflect the world rather than define it), labels such as primary, secondary, etc are descriptions of the nature of a relationship more than a pre-ordained rule about what role someone will play in our lives.
It is undoubtedly true that some relationships are closer and more intimate than others. Insofar as words like primary and secondary have use in the context of relationships, they should be descriptive terms. But these descriptions are not chiseled in stone, and in 2 or 5 years things might be different. We must be aware that this might happen, and that when it does we have to be allowed to re-define our relationships to reflect reality, rather than impose our preferred reality onto our relationships.
The feelings we have for people will exist no matter what labels and rules we have. Prescribing our relationships is, at best, a conservative attempt to maintain the status quo of the intimacy we have with someone. But that intimacy will remain, grow, or diminish not based upon any prescription, but instead upon the actual changing nature of the relationship. And as relationships change and grow themselves (and sometimes they grow apart), we should view the journey as an exploration, and we should be map-makers, not law-makers, of our lives.
In short, we should be curious, open, and skeptical of the new terrain which is the future and not merely carry our assumptions, preferences, and comfortable spaces with us. Let our experiences, and not our presumptions, define us.
Power Corrupts August 25, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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I really like DarkMatter2525’s new video:
I’ve thought a lot, over the years, about how people respond to power. It was the primary theme of my science fiction novel, which is entitled Power. In many ways, this book, as well as many things I have written, thought about, etc over my life have been an exploration of how a person might react to any power, whether given or earned.
Would I trust myself to have ultimate power? Would I trust most people with such power? Would I trust anyone with ultimate power?
The simple fact is that nobody should have ultimate power, whether we could trust them or not. The power we have should be limited and given carefully. Our political process, currently, is not especially good as it favors the wealthy and more often than not gives power to people who seek it for their own ends. And while I don’t agree with Plato that “Philosopher Kings” would be the best solution, I think that the seeking of power is indeed part of the problem and perhaps some reluctant leaders might be a step in the right direction.
All the power I want is the power to make my own decisions, affect people positively wherein I have the intimate relationship to do so, and to prevent harm where I can. I don’t want to manipulate, not even if I believed that it was for the good of the manipulated. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I could tell the difference between my selfish interests and what is actually good for someone else. I don’t want power over people, nor do I want people to have unnecessary power over me. I will grant power where I think it’s fair to do so (a la John Rawls), as I believe we all should.
Our own lives, how we manage our selves, relationships, and projects are the test we are all taking every day. How our society looks is an epiphenomenon of many cultural concepts which cause individual actions and behaviors. In short, our individual decisions add to the whole, and the influence of ideas we spread has some small effect upon the world around us.
Currently, many parts of our society are not doing well on this test. The question is whether you are part of the problem or the solution. My goal is to be part of the solution more than I am part of the problem, knowing that we all will make mistakes and that the good actions of others may make up for my errors, and my good may outweigh their errors. Together, we can help each other err less, and grow more.
But if on the whole we are doing more good than harm, we should see the steady progress which we humans are capable of.
And those who seek power should, perhaps, be taking the orders sometimes, and not giving them as much. The ability to be louder is not a sign of being a good leader, and perhaps the quiet have things we should be intentionally listening for.
Not that introverts should take over, necessarily. Only that the noisy should learn to shut up and listen now and then.
Good luck on your test.
Lane reading Screwtape August 23, 2014Posted by Ginny in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: atheism, Christianity, religion, theology
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I feel like I’ve linked to this before, but my brother is still going on his terrific series of rereading The Screwtape Letters as an atheist. Lane and I grew up with the works of C. S. Lewis pretty much right next to the Bible in prominence and influence, and I love his project of looking back on them to extract the good and criticize the bad.
Some choice quotes from recent entries in the series:
Self-hatred is not humble. Objectivity is humble. Telling somebody their hair looks nice is humble. Humility is reminding yourself that life is not a competition and you don’t need other people to suck for you to be awesome.
I do often hear “live in the present” stated in a way that encourages complacency. It is often paired with ideas about leaving the future to itself, which is advice that is hard to take seriously when our action and inaction really does affect the future. Furthermore, it often comes paired with images of smiling people in pretty dresses looking out at the beach or some such thing, communicating the idea that living in the present always means being happy in the present. Sometimes the present is troubled and unhappy. Sometimes the person who is experiencing the present has depression or anxiety disorders. Being told to be happy now is not helpful when you are sad now. It’s not happiness or sadness in the present that Screwtape cares about, but use or neglect of what the Patient has in the moment. Fear and complacency are both potential allies, but if neither anxiety nor comfort are obstacles to the Patient doing today’s work or enjoying today’s pleasures, they are losing the battle.
Here’s where I agree, though; I think he’s trying to make the point that when you set yourself up as a judge, you take from yourself the ability to be a scholar. A judge is stuck between good and bad, guilty and innocent, winner and various degrees of loser, but a scholar gets to investigate and pick the good out from a message, no matter the flaws of the messenger, and use the good for their own edification. That, I think, is a point worth remembering.
He’s a smart dude and I’m proud to be related to him, is what I’m saying.