Hell July 21, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: Ayn Rand
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I know I said I was done with the Ayn Rand, but this is just too good not to post.
Moving on July 21, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
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The clouds are parting.
The last three nights I spent no time unable to sleep due to immense anxieties, self-doubts, or anger. For context, nearly every night over the last few months have been full of anxiety, anger, and pain keeping me up way too late, and this my not getting enough sleep. I know that this does not mean I will never have insomnia again. I know that this does not mean that I am forever out of the woods of mental health concerns. What I also know, however, is that I have dealt with the majority of the trauma that has plagued the last several months of my life, and I am finally ready to move on.
Yes, I will still have some processing to do about what to learn and how to grow, moving forward. Yes I will still have to deal with the presence of our former family as part of our local poly network, which will cause continued tension for us. But rather than drowning in the effects of those things, they will become small obstacles now, and I can try and create a newer, better, sense of self. I can re-build and re-define what this blog is and what I have to say with all of my experience as am atheist, polyamorous skeptic.
I have seen a lot, done a lot, understood a lot, and been completely vexed and overwhelmed by a lot more. What I have been through has made me stronger, wiser, and better able to see myself and the world around me. One consequence of this is I will be writing things which will contradict some older posts which exist here.
But this is not a contradiction in any personal sense. Anyone who would potentially quote something I wrote 2 years ago, compare it to what I would say now or in a month to demonstrate that I’m inconsistent, confused, or perhaps just a flip-flopper will fail to understand what growth and change means on a personal level. The person I was 2 years ago is, in many ways, not the person I am now or who I want to be. I was very angry 2 years ago, about things I didn’t even understand at that time.
Take, for example, the tag line of this blog: “criticism is not uncivil.” The idea behind this, originally, was that the truth is primary to any other concern. The idea was that if a disagreement about some fact, interpretation, etc poked its head up, rationally constructed criticism was not an inappropriate response. If you believe that a god exists, my criticism of this idea did not have to consider your emotional association to this idea, because there is a distinction between attacking an idea and attacking a person (is what I argued). And no, emotional attachments do not change the truth of a thing, but they should change how we have the conversation.
Now, if we were unemotional robots we wouldn’t have to worry about such things. The problem is that our very rational thinking itself is at least partially dependent upon not only emotion, but cognitive biases and self-justification. Our opinions, even if they happen to be opinions which would stand up to careful and empathetic scrutiny, exist in a soup of feelings, associations, rationalization, and will often have room for improvement.
So, what of that tagline? I am not sure yet. I don’t know if I want to keep it or change it. I could still keep it, and have it mean more that criticism, at least when done with consideration of all our human facets, is not uncivil. I still believe that criticism is essential for our personal and cultural growth, I just don’t accept that our criticism has to be unconcerned with our emotional realities.
Empathetic criticism is not uncivil?
Nah, I don’t like that.
In any case, the blog will indeed go on. The podcast may also continue (we did some recordings, but much of it was either lost or was not really good enough to release), but we’ll see when and how often that happens.
If you have any suggestions, thoughts, etc, please share them.
My version of the record July 20, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
For months now, Ginny and I have remained quiet about our side of the unfortunate events that led to and followed the breakup of our former family in Collingswood (including our former co-bloggers). I have felt that making any of our own version of events public would be a bad idea. It probably still is a bad idea, but writing it has been necessary for my own healing and for my ability to move on.
There are things about those events which are not known to most people, but which are very relevant to anyone who has any kind of opinion about me or what happened between the five of us.
Ginny and I have collaborated on such an account and it is available to [almost] anyone who wants to read it. You cannot search for it, but I can send you a link if you want to see it. I doubt many, if any, will want to read it, but if I’m wrong, let me know (either privately or in the comments below).
I may decide to publish the link publicly, at some point in the future, depending on how I feel about it going forward. I have been vacillating about doing that since I started writing it. I would very much rather move on and put this behind me, but months of nightmares, inability to sleep, and many long and difficult conversations with Ginny would only start to give way as I started to write about this.
And yes; I have been vague about my issues in the past (intentionally), and had reasons for doing so. That stops now, as I have recorded the essential events of what transpired from our point of view, to stand against a narrative which I have seen trickle through various channels to me over the last several months.
Going forward, I want to put this situation behind me. It’s harder to do so while the people who have hurt us (and have continued to do so) are part of our extended polyamory network. Therefore, I a offering to give a link to anyone who wants to read it so that their side of events is not the only side available.
The full account will not appear as a blog post, here, most likely.
PhillyCOR 8th annual Unity Picnic: July 27th @1pm July 11, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: Philadelphia, PhillyCOR, picnic
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For the last 8 years, the Philadelphia area branch (PhillyCOR) of the Coalition of Reason has thrown an annual picnic, and this year’s picnic is coming up. My friend Staks, who is the coordinator for the local group, wants to get the word out for this event, so I figured the 3 of you who read this might be interested. I’m hoping to make it, so if you’re interested please join us!
Here are the details:
PolySkeptic page-thingies! July 8, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: bookmarks, books
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So, sometimes we mere humans don’t finish a book in one sitting because we might have to go to work, take a shower, or maybe eat something. Neither you nor I want to have to remember what page we’re on, because that’s hard. This is a problem that has plagued the human species for millions of years.
Here at PolySkeptic R&D, we have been working on a new technology to make your book-reading life easier. We call it a page-you-left-off-reading-marking-device. Marketing still needs to come up with a better name, but for now I’m calling them ‘page-thingies,’ for short.
In any case, they look like this:
Linky McLincolnstein (he was Abe’s Jewish cousin, I think)
Let me know if you think of a better name for these things, and let me know what you’re reading. I’m currently reading Middlemarch, by George Eliot. I have not finished it yet because I keep having to start from the beginning, since I forget where I left off. But no more! Finally, I can read past page 3 (or so)!
Tags: cognitive bias, Mental Health, relationships, rifts
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Mental health and cognitive errors are the foundation upon which we struggle with interactions with groups, individuals, and ourselves. Whether we are diagnoseable in a mental health context or not and whether our cognitive biases are significantly problematic or not, how these types of factors interact with each other will influence how we understand ourselves and the world around us. These individual concerns will supervene into group dynamics, whether for good or bad, and if we are interested in any kind of cohesion, cooperation, or truth as any kind of group then we must pay primary attention to our personal tendencies towards cognitive errors and mental health concerns.
It’s pointless to merely defend our position with logical argumentation if our very position is subject to biases and potentially mentally unhealthy attitudes. Before we can be concerned about being right philosophically, we have to first be attentive to the effects of mental health, cognitive biases, and self-justification. Being a skeptic means first being skeptical of our own internal processes, because if an error lies there then that error will expand exponentially at every level of our argument, very likely. The very basis of motivated reasoning, self-justification, and rationalizations arise when we fail to recognize our own errors in forming opinions.
To trust ourselves or other people, we have to pay attention not only to our intentions and overt logical steps, but also to the emotional and cognitive foundations of our ideas. Thinking we are being rational, honest, and forthright is pointless if we don’t pay attention to the self-correcting steps we need to take in order to be truly authentic as feeling and thinking beings. Intention and honesty are not enough if we are blind to biases which lie under those intentions and our desire to be honest. Honesty is impotent if we’re wrong.
In terms of this, I agree mostly with Peter Boghossian in the following video:
Yes, we need to be forthright. But in addition to being forthright, we also need to be willing to be wrong, to self-correct, and to head off cognitive biases, whether they take the form of emotional or rational patterns. If we start out being unwilling to self-correct, this will have obvious ramifications for how we interact with the world, other people, and with our own internal concerns.
When I started writing in blog-like form more than 15 years ago (college newspaper columns mostly, but also some essays I wrote for various publications as well), I was writing almost exclusively about atheism. I was writing screeds against religion, “new atheist” style, back in the lat 1990′s. In college, I studied world religions, cultures, and some philosophy, and my senior thesis was about the philosophical and cultural influences of Greece/Rome on the development of the Catholic Church. I had heard all the apologetics (I have not heard anything really new in years), became fairly good at responding to them, and this helped me discover and become part of the atheist community in early 2002, when I started graduate school.
In talking with theists and other atheists, I had come to witness all sorts of rationalization, motivated thinking, and cognitive biases. I became fairly good at spotting when people are subject to these cognitive errors. I’m not immune to such things myself (none of us are), but I’m fairly good at noticing it during or at least shortly after doing so (especially with Ginny around to help point it out), and I try to correct it as best I can. The more emotional I am, the more likely I am to be subject to biases. But exposure and attention to these things has helped make me less prone to such things, even if I do occasionally find myself twisted up in logical rationalizations from time to time.
So, when I later started hanging around polyamorous people at meetups, private parties, etc, I started to utilize those tools which I had honed within the atheist community, and started to notice patterns of motivated reasoning, biases, and rationalizations there too. it’s not just theists (or atheists) who are subject to these concerns.
Most of the motivated reasoning, biases, and rationalizations I ran into was pretty low-level every day stuff, but occasionally I would spot a behavior which was really dug deep in self-justification. And over the years, I have gotten to know various levels of these types of cognitive errors in belief, behavior, and preferences which exist among polyamorous people.
What I have come to believe (tentatively, of course) is that we bring cognitive biases, rationalizations, and self-justification with us into whatever communal or social networks in which we spend significant time. Those cognitive concerns influence how we will interact with other people, how we will think about issues which come up, and will be the foundation of where we will stand in the case of any disagreements, rifts, or enmity. When things go bad, where you will be stand relative to an argument will be at least partially based upon what kinds of cognitive errors you are prone to.
Going back to the atheist community for a second, let us take a moment to recognize the various splits, rifts, and arguments which have raged over the last several years. A-plussers, slymepitters, and freethought blogs, oh my! Now, I have not seen any significantly complicated analyses of how things like cognitive biases, self-justification, and personal preferences determine where a person will lie on these battle lines, but I’d bet we would start seeing some correlations if we did (which says nothing about causation, I know).
We’re all subject to cognitive errors. We all have to be cautious with certainty, whether we err on the side of servility or arrogance. We all have to improve at making sure we are paying attention to how our cognitive biases and mental health issues help determine our opinions, behaviors, and relationships. All too often people will demonize another person out of a need for self-justification. We will idolize someone else for similar reasons.
We need to have the bravery to demand complete honesty, vulnerability, and willingness to be wrong (or right) when not only the facts support it, but also various perspectives on those facts support it. Because facts are also subject to bias. That is, they may seem like simple facts, but memory is subject to emotion and bias, and perhaps we don’t remember that “fact” correctly. When people disagree over events, I’m willing to bet that all sides are not only subject to memory fault, but also with their ability to think intersubjectively about the issues well enough. That is, even if the actual facts are not in dispute, certainly our values, preferences and biases will shade how we skew how those facts interact with the world.
And then all we have is arguments steeped in motivated reasoning, mental health issues conflicting into personality disputes, and rifts with people who do not understand each other. We can do better.
Concerning mental health, we have a similar problem at hand. The symptoms of mental health concerns are common among all of us, to varying degrees. Even if we are not diagnoseable per se, we may have behavior patterns, emotional issues, or cognitive impairments which cause us to miss seeing important influences on how we perceive and interact with the world. We should all be willing to recognize the symptoms of our behavior, how we are seen by people, and how we can improve.
If you suffer from symptoms consistent with anxiety, depression, or even a personality disorder, then you need to understand how those symptoms effect how you behave and think. You don’t have to be diagnoseable as a borderline to be subject to problems with emotional management, for example. You might not fall under 5 out of the 9 symptoms to learn something about yourself as a person, if you struggle with some of the symptoms.
Consider the difference between having to interact with a person who displays symptoms which cause conflicts but who is aware of them and is trying to solve them, rather than behave defensively and deny or rationalize their behavior as if nothing was wrong. I know that when I have been defensive and have rationalized my behavior, I have caused immense tension for other people. I care about that and I care about my mental health, so I work to overcome such struggles. Because I know I am capable of rationalization and self-justification, I have to check myself in order to see if I’m not just emotionally or cognitively compromised when I’m in conflict with someone else. Learning how to see past your own biases is perhaps one of the hardest things we have to do, as humans.
Watching someone who is in defensive denial about their behavior is among the most frustrating and powerless positions I have dealt with in my life. For a person to get better, they first have to admit there’s a problem. If they are not willing or able to see the problem, any conversation, criticism, or attempt to help is met with a wall, emotional reactions (feeling “attacked”), or a counter-attack. Combine this with with intelligence and you have a recipe for bullying, enmity, and potential abuse. I’ve seen both sides of this, and we can do better.
Please, be willing to look honestly and fully at yourself. Do not merely invite criticism, but hear it. Do not merely argue your case, but try to understand your interlocutor as well. Learn as much as you can about not only logical fallacies but also cognitive biases, memory, self justification, cognitive dissonance, and mental health. If we all do this more, there will be less drama in the world (wouldn’t that be nice!).
There are genuine causes for personal and cultural rifts. Sometimes, people are just harmful and wrong. But sometimes those narratives we tell ourselves about how terrible someone else is are based in cognitive errors and may be related to mental health concerns. Sometimes, when all sides are a little wrong, we can convince ourselves that it’s just them.
Own your mistakes, try and mitigate our blame of others’ mistakes, and do not allow tribal thinking, self-justification, and anger to shape how we interact with each other. Because even if you have reason to be angry with someone, there is often room to step back and realize why they are angry with you, and what you both might learn from each other if you just stop drowning in your own emotional and cognitive crap. If we fail to do so, we risk exacerbating conflicts rather than potentially solve them.
Of course, I don’t expect some people to hear or understand what I mean here. That might mean that I’m just wrong, but it could also mean that those people are just too biased to comprehend.
More likely, however, is the possibility that I’m a little wrong, and they are a little biased.
I still have to try.
More Than Two: the poly book we need right now July 3, 2014Posted by Ginny in Polyamory.
One of the things that makes poly hard, as we often say, is that there’s very little guidance. Monogamy in something like its current form has been going on for over a century (depending how narrowly you define “its current form”), and there are shelves and shelves of books and entire journals of research devoted to it. This wealth of resources means people who are dealing with challenges in their monogamous relationships have a lot of wisdom and outside perspectives to draw on. You can find books on marriage from within just about every religious and philosophical tradition, and addressing just about every conceivable problem. Polyamory’s not there, and it adds an extra layer of difficulty to problem-solving when you only have a few places you can go for the aforesaid wisdom and outside perspective.
We need research and clinical insight, but we also need some in-the-trenches views, words of wisdom and experience from people who have struggled, succeeded, failed, changed, and thought long and hard about their experiences and what lessons to take away. More Than Two, by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, is a strong entry in this gap. At different points while reading it, I felt reassured that my mistakes and struggles are more common than I thought; I felt challenged to work on the weak spots I have that could hurt my partners and metamours; I felt reaffirmed in my belief of how joyful and worthwhile this life I’ve chosen can be. I strongly recommend the book to anybody practicing or considering polyamory — and I think the first several chapters are great for relationships of any kind.
More Than Two is a practical guide, rooted in strong principles. The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship. Don’t treat people as things. These two foundational ethical principles are laid out near the beginning and returned to again and again, but there are other core principles at work in the book. Trust is essential. Growth is good. Change isn’t bad. With these and other principles as its bedrock, More Than Two gives concrete advice and insight on most of the common aspects of poly life.
Most poly advice falls on one of two sides: the rigid, “There are right ways and wrong ways, and this is the right way!” or the wishy-washy, “Whatever works for you, if it makes you happy it’s right!” For the most part, More Than Two steers clear of both of these camps. It is unapologetic about its core ethical principles, and often expresses firm opinions about whether a particular poly pattern is helpful or harmful in general, but it spends a lot more time on the reasons behind the opinion than the opinion itself. You get the sense that the goal is not to argue to a conclusion (as is often the case when someone is preaching a This Is The Right Way message), but to lay out as much information and analysis as possible, and let the conclusion speak for itself.
So, when discussing hierarchy, it doesn’t say, “Hierarchy is great!” or “Hierarchy is terrible!” It says, “Here are some common reasons why people want to establish a hierarchy de jure, and here are some issues that frequently come up in enforcing it, and here are some common ways that people can be hurt and expectations can be shattered in those situations.” It’s pretty clear that the authors don’t think enforced hierarchy is a good idea, but they lay out their view based on experience and principle, and they construct their argument such that a couple who’s hierarchical and proud of it could still take away valuable insights for making their relationship the best hierarchical relationship it can be.
In addition, Veaux and Rickert are careful about language in a way that pleases my communicator heart. When they talk about controversial subjects like hierarchy and veto, they clearly lay out what they do and don’t mean by those terms. They also point out a number of commonly-used words, such as “respect,” that tend to lead to trouble because of how ill-defined they are. Rather than just reinforcing the old poly chestnut “Communication is essential!” they dig deep into the details of what aids communication, what obscures it, and the ways communication can slip into coercion.
If I’m making the book sound dry, it’s not. It’s filled with rich and vivid metaphors that illustrate the concepts involved and inspire creative thinking about them, as the best metaphors do. And nearly every chapter has a personal story, sometimes about the authors’ relationships, sometimes about other people they’ve been close to. Some of the best insights and quotes come from within the stories, as the principles under discussion are brought into messy real-life situations.
Since I am in a de facto (although not de jure) primary relationship, and most of the people in my extended network are as well, I can’t speak to how thoroughly the book addresses the needs and experiences of people doing solo poly or other structures. I do know that the authors were making deliberate efforts to avoid couple-centric language and to reflect the wide range of poly structures, and as far as I can tell they did a good job of this, but because of my perspective I’m less likely to notice weaknesses in this area. What they definitely do well is calling out the double standards and assumptions that often come into play when there is a primary or domestic couple. Even though I think of my relationship as pretty resistant to hierarchical assumptions, I found several moments where I had to stop and think, “Huh… I do that. How do I feel about it?” Again, I didn’t feel scolded for slipping into some hierarchical behaviors — I felt challenged to think about those behaviors, the values underneath them, and the unwanted effects they might have.
Ultimately, the thing I value most about the book is how honest it is about the hard stuff. The personal stories tell about big mistakes, big hurt, big betrayals. It does not flinch from talking about the losses and changes that can happen as a result of poly. We in the poly community have been working hard to convince the world (and sometimes our own voices of self-doubt) that polyamory can be a healthy, happy, fulfilling way to live, and as a result we tend to downplay the agonizing choices, shattering mistakes, and relentless parade of “learning experiences” that come with the territory. Then, when things do go badly, we tend to feel alone and ashamed, like we’re the screwups who are letting the entire poly community down by having actual serious problems and making actual serious mistakes. (Did I say “we”? Obviously I’m talking about myself here, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.) More Than Two makes it clear that actual serious problems and actual serious mistakes are part of everybody’s poly experience. That the hard times are survivable, and that what matters is facing up to them with honesty, courage, and compassion.
Discussion post! PolyskeptiCast 6/26/14 June 26, 2014Posted by Ginny in Skepticism and atheism.
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It’s back! We’ve finally got a new episode of PolyskeptiCast, with hopefully many more to follow. We talk about a lot of things, and we’re guessing you have some thoughts and opinions about them
Discussion questions: What are your personal red/green flags with new partners? Things that indicate early on that someone might or might not be a good partner for you specifically?
Where do you draw the line between looking for specific character traits and hunting for people to fill a particular slot?
Other thoughts from this podcast?
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In an earlier post, I set about writing some basic guidelines for how we are and are not obligated to treat people to whom we’re linked by a mutual loved one: in-laws, metamours, close friends of lovers and lovers of close friends, etc. In a nearly unprecedented act of follow-through, I’m back as promised to discuss some situations that often complicate those relationships. These don’t erase or supplant the obligations I outlined in the first post; they provide extra considerations, and sometimes extra obligations for at least one person involved.
While we tend to think of jealousy as primarily a factor in metamour relationships, the truth is it can be involved in any of the others as well. It might not be specifically sexual jealousy, but the fear that a loved one’s other relationships will threaten our own, the fear of being supplanted, of becoming unnecessary, of being suddenly found lacking and cast aside — those can factor into any kind of close relationship. The role of jealousy in friendships is much bigger than usually gets acknowledged; quite recently I was having a conversation with a monogamous friend about some relationship tensions with his best friend and new boyfriend, and I found myself using a lot of poly-derived insight, as the feelings involved were very similar.
Jealousy is a common human emotion, and its presence doesn’t mean that anyone involved — the person feeling it, the person triggering it, or the mutual loved one — is a bad or inferior person. It just means that someone’s core insecurities and abandonment fears were triggered, and that needs to be dealt with. There are tons of resources on managing jealousy in the poly community, and a lot of them will be helpful in non-romantic contexts as well.
When we’re jealous of someone, the overwhelming urge is to want them out of the picture. We’ll be looking hard for any signs that they’re unlikeable, wrong for our loved one, gross and smelly and mean. We need to be aware that there’s a pretty strong cognitive bias in play. This is where expressing but not endorsing those feelings of jealousy becomes really important. Trying to sweep the jealousy under the rug, because we feel we should be better than that, is only ever going to backfire as the core insecurities are left unaddressed. But letting the feelings rule our rational assessments is going to result in some severely distorted judgement about the person we’re jealous of. In my experience it’s best when we can say, “I’m feeling a lot of jealousy toward this person right now, so I’m not able to assess them fairly. I’m going to work on coping with the jealousy before I actually decide whether I like them or not.” That might mean not meeting them or spending much time around them while you’re working on it. Or it might mean spending more time with them (sometimes this can help with jealousy), but recognizing that jealousy is a contributor to any feelings of dislike you may have toward them.
Sometimes you’re on the other side, aware that a loved one’s loved one is jealous of you. In these cases, the best thing to do is stay out of it unless you’re brought in. Although it doesn’t feel like it, jealousy is always about the two people in a relationship, not the third party that someone is jealous over. When we’re aware that someone is jealous of us, it’s common to feel some combination of guilt, anxiety, and resentment. Assuming we haven’t done anything wrong, it’s useful to remind ourselves that the presence of jealousy doesn’t mean anyone — ourselves or the person feeling it — is a bad person. It’s for our loved one and their loved one to work out between themselves.
We’re not obligated to efface ourselves or make ourselves scarce in order to accommodate someone else’s jealousy. If a loved one’s loved one is demanding accommodations that make us feel unloved, undervalued, or second-class, it’s okay to stand up for our own needs. That said, it’s helpful if we can show some compassion for the person feeling jealousy — if not for their sake, then for our loved one’s. I’ve had a partner express contempt and resentment for another partner’s jealousy, and it made the whole situation many times more emotionally stressful for me. Remember that your loved one cares about both of you, and likely feels some pain and distress about the pain that their jealous partner is feeling. Don’t make that worse by putting yourself in an adversarial stance.
Where there is a difference of beliefs and values
There’s a special kind of tension that comes in when one person disapproves of a loved one’s loved one on some kind of moral, religious, or philosophical ground. This often happens when adult children develop different beliefs and values than the ones they grew up with, and then have friends and lovers who come from one religion or value system, while their family of origin comes from a very different one. It also happens in other ways, such as my friend’s formerly liberal mother-in-law becoming an evangelical Christian, and newly having issues with her adult child’s queerness.
Obviously some people can get along just fine with big ideological differences between them. They can adopt a “live and let live, if it works for you, sing your own special song” kind of mindset, and it doesn’t cause a lot of relationship tension. For many people, though, their beliefs are a matter of what’s right and wrong, true and untrue about the world, and it’s not so easy — or even desirable — to just let things go. This can be true for liberals and conservatives, Christians and Muslims and pagans and atheists. At some point, it will come up, and in addition to any personality conflicts, the mutual loved one might find themselves in the middle of a fraught conflict of ideologies.
This can get especially sticky when the mutual loved one’s evolving values are attributed to the presence of other loved ones in their life. A young adult shifts religious beliefs around the same time they start dating somebody in their new belief system, and their family and friends feel that the new lover is responsible for the change in belief systems. The personality and character of the new partner (or close friend) are completely eclipsed by the fact that the older friends and family feel that their loved one is being somehow stolen from them and lured into a new value system. They react to the person from a place of threat and often anger, thinking that if they weren’t in their loved one’s life, their loved one would go back to sharing their values and beliefs.
Occasionally this is true. People do shift their beliefs and values in response to the people close to them, especially lovers but also friends and social groups. It does sometimes happen that someone shifts beliefs radically to match a new lover’s, and then on breaking up returns to their former beliefs. Much more often, though, a person’s beliefs and values start to shift, and then they find new friends and partners who match them; or a new person in their life shows them the way to a new identity that fits them much more comfortably than the old one. In other words, the new person’s presence in their life is more a result of their own changing values than a cause of them.
Regardless of the order of operations, little good usually comes of trying to separate a loved one from a new friend or lover because we disapprove of their values. In saying that the new person is responsible for the change, we are denying our loved one’s agency and responsibility for their own life. While we may not mean to, we are implying that they’re easily swayed and that their convictions aren’t sincere, and this implication is usually felt by our loved one. It’s a quick path to resentment and bitterness — even in the rare cases where our suspicions are correct.
The essential principle, then, is to separate your feelings about your loved one’s changing beliefs from your feelings about new people in their lives who share these beliefs. Assume your loved one came to be where they are for their own reasons. Get to know their new loved ones as people, not emblems of your loved one’s change.
Things get even harder when the relationship itself goes against the beliefs or values of the older family and friends, such as when someone from a conservative background is in a same-sex or non-monogamous relationship. The temptation for older family and friends to view the new partner as a symbol of their loved one’s new value system is even stronger when the very nature of the relationship goes against the old value system. If they want to maintain a positive relationship with their loved one, though, they will do their best to separate the idea from the person. I’ve known conservative parents of gay children who do fairly well at this; while they still have don’t believe that same-sex relationships are morally right, they get to know their child’s partners as people in their own right, and acknowledge the ways those partners bring happiness to their child. There’s still a lot of pain in that situation for everyone, but there are also positive connections and loving bonds.
People have a right to believe what they believe. They even have a right to believe wrong, untrue, and harmful things. They don’t have a right to have those beliefs go unquestioned or unchallenged, but in the context of a close relationship, questioning and challenging each other’s beliefs usually goes best when our beliefs are pretty closely aligned in the first place and we’re just working out the details. Arguments between a queer liberal agnostic and their conservative Protestant family members are rarely going to be productive (I have a fair amount of first- and second-hand experience to back this up.) Often, we have to make a choice: is it more important to bring our loved one around to our views, or to maintain a relationship that has space for our differing views? If we invest all our effort into trying to change them, rather than building the best relationship we can with them as they are, we’re likely to find that the relationship itself crumbles.
When the other relationship is troubled
It’s challenging when someone you love is in a troubled relationship with someone else, especially if you often play confidant or advisor to your loved one. Whether it’s a matter of a specific conflict that’s causing strife in an otherwise balmy relationship, a persistent discord that comes up repeatedly, or an ongoing pattern of unhealthy interactions, this can be a tough situation to navigate cleanly.
Some people make the mistake of rooting too hard for the relationship: “But you guys are so great together! I’m sure it’ll sort itself out. Just give them another chance.” Sometimes, a person needs to be able to really imagine ending a relationship, even if ultimately they’ll end up staying in it. (None of this is exclusive to romantic relationships; close friendships and even blood relationships sometimes need a hard look at whether they’re really serving the people on both sides.) Sticking with a relationship because the alternative is inconceivable is not a recipe for healthy relationship growth and change; it’s much better when both parties can honestly reassess and think, “On balance, is this person still someone I want to have this intimate relationship with?” But it’s hard enough to do this calculation on one’s own; being surrounded by friends who view the relationship as inviolable makes it that much harder.
On the flip side is the mistake of seizing on the trouble as a reason to advocate for ending the relationship. Obviously, this is going to be especially tempting if you generally dislike the other person, and even more so if there are the jealousy or value-difference issues discussed above. Raise your hand if you’ve never felt that little surge of glee when someone you love is talking about a conflict they have with someone you’re jealous over. Go on, I’ll wait.
Nobody? (I hope nobody, or very few people, or suddenly I’m going to feel like a much worse person.) It is very, very hard not to engage in some serious motivated reasoning at this point. Instead of listening openly to what our loved one is saying, we’ll seize on every negative thing they say as evidence that their relationship is terrible and the other person is terrible and clearly it will be best for everybody if they end it. Best for everybody, not just for you, although obviously it would be nice for you, but that’s not the point, because you’re just looking out for your loved one, and clearly they’re unhappy…
Yup, very tempting. So the first responsibility I believe we have is to be very aware of our own biases when we’re talking with a loved one about their conflicts in another relationship. And the stronger those biases are (whether positive or negative) the less we should say about the situation.
On the flip side, it can be hard to think positively about a loved one’s loved one if all we hear are complaints and struggles. There’s a pattern that can develop when friends complain to each other about their partners, looking for support and validation and commiseration, but rarely talk about the good things and happy times the partners bring. Over time, this can sour each person’s view of the other’s partner(s), even if they initially liked them. A lot of the responsibility here is on the person doing the complaining, but we can help by noticing when the dynamic is developing and calling it out. “Hey, I’ve noticed that lately all I’ve heard is bad stuff about Jordan. Do you think there’s a problem, or are you just venting when you’re upset and not bothering to mention when things are good?” Obviously, this is also helpful because if our loved one hasn’t been happy in the relationship for a while, explicitly acknowledging that is the first step towards actually changing something.
Being a good confidant for a loved one in their other relationships requires a lot of judgement, self-awareness, and emotional management. I don’t think it’s something we should ever feel obligated to do. If it’s making it too hard to think charitably of the other person, or if it’s causing stress because we’re invested in the success of the other relationship, or if we’re starting to feel that our relationship is being coopted by all the time spent troubleshooting the other one, it’s fine to draw boundaries around how much the other relationship gets talked about. Having other people as a sounding board is helpful when a relationship is troubled, but ultimately it’s something that needs to be worked out between those two people.
When there was a previous intimate relationship
For most of these two posts I’ve been talking about a situation where the mutual loved one brings two people together who had no previous connection. Things get even stickier when you have had an intimate relationship with someone else, that relationship is now broken or estranged, but you’re still bound together by the people who love you both. It’s probably most common with acrimonious divorces and breakups, but it can also happen when there’s a major falling-out or betrayal in a friend group, or when a child is disowned by their parents and some of the siblings try to maintain good relationships with both the parents and the disowned sibling.
In the other cases we’ve discussed, it’s natural for your relationship with the other person to center around your mutual loved one, at least in the beginning stages. In this case, though, your connection with the other person is independent from both your connections with the mutual loved one. The important thing to do is keep it that way, as much as possible. Sometimes this is hard, especially when the mutual loved one is the only thing keeping you in touch with someone you could otherwise write out of your life. But the history between you is still between you, and doesn’t involve them.
It’s easy to fall into a zero-sum mentality: the mutual loved one can’t possibly love and respect both of you, so any affection or positive feelings the mutual loved one expresses toward the other person must negatively reflect on you. At some level, hopefully, you know that’s not true, but it’s easy to feel that way. When that twinge comes up, name it: “I’m unhappy because our mutual loved one said something nice on Kim’s facebook wall, and because Kim and I have such a bad relationship I feel like that reflects on their love for me somehow.” And then remind yourself that that’s not true, that this is not some competition where your loved one has to pick sides, that their feelings toward Kim actually have nothing to do with their feelings toward you.
This is one case where graciously accepting the other person’s presence at your loved one’s special occasions may not be possible. While it’s good to make the best of being around each other if you can… sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it hurts too much. My general rule here is that you get to set, and express, your own boundaries for whether you will or won’t put yourself in the same space as somebody. You don’t get to tell your loved one who they can and can’t invite to something (or guilt-trip or coerce them into inviting or not inviting someone.)
“Hey, I’d really like to come to your party, but I can’t if Kim is going to be there” puts your loved one in an awkward and unhappy position, so only use it when being around Kim is really going to negatively impact your mental health. The more important and singular the occasion (weddings, graduations) the harder both people should try to suck it up and be there for their loved one, but even in those cases there are times when a person shouldn’t be blamed for saying “Sorry, I just can’t.” The important thing is to leave your loved one with a free choice about what to do in that situation: if you put it as a dilemma between inviting you or inviting the other person, they should get to make that decision without additional guilt or pressure from you (or, of course, the other person.)
You and your loved one also each need to set boundaries on how much you talk about the other person. In general, they are not the best person to complain about your ongoing issues with the other to, and you are not the best person for them to tell happy stories about the other to. If you want to make space in your relationship for some of that talk, you need to communicate very explicitly about what each of you can and can’t handle hearing.
In our individualistic culture, there’s a lot of writing and talk about relationship skills, where the focus is on the way two individuals connect. What I’ve been writing about here — and will probably continue writing about, because it’s becoming increasingly interesting to me — are community skills, where we’re dealing with larger networks of people and the ways all of their needs and feelings interact. I think there are ways to build stronger, healthier communities without sacrificing the individual freedom and autonomy of the people who make them up. Creating workable relationships with our loved one’s loved ones is a first step; whether we like them, tolerate them, love them or hate them, they’re part of our community, and we can improve the lives of everybody involved by treating them decently.