Regular readers of Polyskeptic will have noticed that 2014 has been a year of upheaval and conflict; sometimes reflected on the blog, ever-present in the life of its contributors. You’ll also likely have noticed that I’ve been mostly silent for the latter half of the year. A lot has happened, most of which is not public knowledge, and I needed to just go to ground and process and cope quietly with the support of a few trusted loved ones.

One of the things that’s happened, that we haven’t talked about until now, is that Shaun and I have separated, and been living apart for the last several months. It’s hard to know how to talk about that here, where we share so many details of our private lives, and where our relationships are one of our main discussion topics. I’ve decided I don’t want to publicly discuss the details or the reasons. I’m a little bit concerned that there will be speculation and rumors and gossip and distortions, and I do understand that it’s natural to be curious about the lives of others, and to spin stories about them when information is absent. Even given that, I’m choosing not to tell my story publicly, at least not right now. It’s my business, it’s painful, and I’ve already had my privacy violated pretty egregiously this year. I’m hoping the majority of people will respect that and not spread stories about us when they haven’t spoken to either of us directly.

We had a discussion this week about whether or not I would continue writing for Polyskeptic. Shaun has given me an open invitation to continue posting here, but for the time being at least I would rather do my writing elsewhere. I’m reactivating the blog my brother and I were collaborating on before I started writing at Polyskeptic: it’s over here at The Brunette’s Blog if you’re interested in following.

I’m also taking a very deliberate sabbatical from attending and speaking at conferences, for the next year at least. This has less to do with my marriage ending and more with other factors, but on the whole I’m feeling the need to pull my focus away from education and activism and the wider community, and work on rebuilding my personal life and face-to-face community. I hope to come back at some point, bringing with me whatever wisdom I’ve distilled from the experiences of the last few years.

May 2015 be kinder to us all.

One Cringeworthy Move I Wish All Writers Everywhere Would Stop Doing

1. Writing long, snarky lists about what sex acts all women, (or all men) secretly hate.

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.

Marriage Project post!

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.”

Read my whole post here!


Lane reading Screwtape

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:

Part Nine:

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.

Part Ten:

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.

Part Eleven:

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.

The love we deserve

This is cross-posted from my brand new tumblr! Where I’m hoping to collect tons and tons of stories, pictures, videos, etc that also go under this theme of, “these are some amazing ways people have loved me.”


Dear Younger Ginny,

I’m writing to the girl who sat across from her mentor, tearfully talking through issues with the boy you were dating. Your mentor listened for a long time, and then asked, “Ginny. Does he make you happy?” And you thought for a minute and said, “No, not really.” And she said, “If he doesn’t make you happy, you can break up. You don’t need a reason or justification.”

It was a revelation to you then, and based on what’s happened in the last 15 years, it didn’t entirely sink in. So I want to tell you some true stories.

You have always loved opinionated and argumentative men, and a part of you probably always will. One day, you were sitting on the living room floor arguing about a feminist issue with the particular opinionated and argumentative man you were dating. It started as an intellectual argument, but at some point it started to hit you personally really hard, and you began to cry. And this man immediately backed off his point, said, “I’m sorry, hon, what is it?” and listened attentively while you explained through your tears why this issue felt so personal and how you’d been hurt by this thing before. He took you seriously and treated your emotions as a sign that your point was more valid, not less, and he made sure your feelings were being cared for before returning to the discussion. (This interaction, and others like it, was a key point in your decision to marry that particular opinionated and argumentative man.)

One day your friends, who know how important your birthday is to you and how lonely you’ve been feeling, will print up signs and hang them all over campus, so you see “Happy Birthday Ginny!” on doors and bulletin boards all day long, and many classmates wish you a happy birthday.

One day, just after having sex, you will cry in your lover’s arms, and he will hold you tightly until you are done, and he will stroke your hair and thank you for your trust, and invite you to talk or not depending on what you need.

One day, you will brave ice and snow to spend a day with your sweetheart, and you will walk in the door and he will greet you with a giant smile and a hug and a kiss, and then hand you a latte he’d just made, to drink while he finishes making an epic breakfast.

One day, you will hurt someone you love. You will actually do this a lot. And the person you hurt will tell you, tremblingly and sometimes with tears, and you will apologize and they will hear and forgive you, and you will talk together about ways you can keep from hurting them like that in the future, and they will believe that you can do better and will treat you like a good and loving person who made a mistake.

One day you will write about your hesitance to open a bottle of unopened cream in your boyfriend’s house, as a symbol of your general hesitance to make waves or take up space for yourself, and two different people will immediately write to you and tell you you can always open stuff in their house because they love you and you are family.

One day you will plan the perfect birthday party for yourself, which involves ice cream and singing and Buffy, and your friends and lovers will all work with you in ways big and small to make it happen, and your husband who’s not terribly into singing or Buffy will spend his day cleaning the house and setting up a media system for it. And many people will come, and when the first song starts they will all join their voices with yours and it will be just as you had dreamed and your heart will be full to bursting.

There are so many other stories I could tell, but this is a beginning. The point is this: you can and will be loved, and loved well, according to the needs of your heart. There will be many times that you believe you don’t deserve this kind of love, or that nobody exists who could possibly give it to you. Those are lies. There is so much love in your future that is nourishing and sustaining and brings joy to your heart. Seek it. Ask for it. Rise with courage and do the hard work you need to do, not to earn that kind of love, but to become capable of receiving it.

Obligation is a derail: some thoughts on negotiation in loving relationships

You probably saw that spreadsheet of reasons a wife declined to have sex with her husband, a couple weeks back. As these things do, it’s generated a fresh round in the continued conversation about sex and obligation. The conversation goes like this:

Feminist bloggers and commentators: “Nobody ever owes anybody sex for any reason.”

Less-feminist bloggers and commentators: “What, never?”

“No, never!”

“What, never?”

“Wellll, hardly ev– no, actually never.”

All this is well and good and needs to be said and re-said until everybody gets it. But at the same time something’s been troubling me about posts that talk about how the whole concept of withholding sex is flawed. They’re not wrong; the very idea of “withholding sex” implies that sex is something granted by default, something a person can take back as a hostile act, rather than being always and every time a gift each person freely chooses to give the other. But. I also know people who have suffered in relationships because their partner was never choosing to give them the gift of sex, and in a situation like that, repeating, “Nobody is obligated to give you sex” does not really answer the issue. Nor is it just about sex. The post that I linked argues that it makes just as much sense to talk about withholding baking cookies for your lover, cookies being another way of expressing affection and care that is not in any way owed within a relationship. Nobody is obligated to bake you cookies, have sex with you, kiss you goodbye in the morning, stay in touch during the day, or hug you when you’re sad. And because our cultural dialogue is so warped around sex particularly, and because a lot of people do feel that there’s obligation around it, it’s really good that posts like the above are being written and spread around.

That being said, though, when we’re talking about a loving relationship, I think the whole question of obligation is a derail, if not an outright red flag. True, nobody is obligated to provide their partner with sex or cuddles or kind words or a certain amount of time, but in a loving relationship, obligation is not really the point. If my lover says, “I would like X from you,” where X is any form of attention or affection or caregiving or really anything that would meet their needs or make them feel happier, and my response is, “I don’t think I’m obligated to give you that,” that indicates that there’s a fundamental problem in the way one or both of us thinks about loving behavior.

The problem might be on my lover’s end: they might be in the habit of demanding things from me on the grounds that as their partner I am obligated to give those things. Sex. Cuddles. Making dinner. A ride to the airport. Whether they’re doing it knowingly and intentionally or not, if they tend to make requests with the attitude that it is something that I owe them, that is a problem. This is the side of things that the whole “no such thing as withholding sex” dialogue is coming from, and it’s an important one.

The problem might also be on my end: I may be using “obligation” as a handy way to justify not caring about my partner’s needs and wants. Especially if my lover is a self-effacing type who is easily convinced that they’re not worth effort and care (and so many of us have those voices within us), the exchange of, “Baby, I would love it if you did this,” “Nah, I don’t feel obligated to do that,” can completely shut down the conversation, and make my lover feel guilty for even asking.

Putting obligation behind a request is a means of coercion: it’s a way of attaching moral value to a person’s answer, which is a very coercive thing indeed for those of us who like to think of ourselves as moral. Putting obligation (or lack thereof) behind a denial is a way to make someone feel unvalued, uncared-for, and not worth the effort, while retaining the moral high ground for yourself. Nobody could fault you for saying no to something you were never obligated to do! Case closed, no need to consider further. And that does its own kind of damage.

Obligation is a distraction from the real issue, which is, “Do I feel that making you happy in this way is worth what it will cost me?*” Sometimes the answer is no, and that is an acutely uncomfortable thing to say, which is why we shy away from it and use “obligation” as a screen. We are social beings and most of us are taught that caring for others is a virtue, while refusing care in order to meet our own needs is a suspicious act that must be justified. (Women, in general, receive this message about 2-3 times as strongly as men, but everybody gets it.) Just saying, “No, I’m going to prioritize my own needs here” is incredibly difficult for most of us, and we often feel a strong impulse to justify it, by invoking obligation or another concept that gets away from the central question.

Sidebar, but an important one: some people use the “obligation” screen not because they’re uncomfortable with prioritizing their own needs, but in order to mask how little they actually care about the other’s happiness. “Caring for you isn’t worth it to me” over and over is likely to get the other person questioning why they’re even committed to the relationship, why they’re investing so much in a person who is manifestly uninterested in meeting their needs unless it’s convenient. “I’m not obligated” pushes it back on the person making the request, highlighting how unreasonable they are to keep asking for things, and encouraging them to make themselves and their needs smaller and smaller. It’s a tactic for emotional abuse, and I recommend running very fast in the other direction if you see it in play.

Back to the realm of relationships that are sincerely caring, but have some toxic beliefs swimming around (which is most relationships). It is important for everybody in a relationship to really internalize that they get to have needs and wants. That the presence of other people’s conflicting needs and wants does not obliterate their own. That it is okay to prioritize their own needs and wants, even if that means denying the other person something that they want. That my need to not have sex right now, to not make you dinner right now, to not drive out in the cold to pick you up right now, is just as valid and worthy as your desire to have me do those things. This is essential, and it’s hard to grasp.

But the conversation doesn’t end there. It can’t. Because if my needs and your needs are in conflict, at least one of us is not going to get what we want, and the way those conflicts play out makes up a goodly portion of the overall health of the relationship. For some people, bringing in obligation seems like the only way to resolve the standoff. I want X, you want not-X. Let’s ask Obligation to arbitrate and decide which of us gets what we want! But, as I said above, this just brings in an aspect of moral coercion and guilt, which is super not conducive to long-term relational and individual health. (I lived the first 25 years of my life under heavy burdens of moral coercion and guilt. I know whereof I speak.)

To resolve the situation in a way that’s going to strengthen the relationship, you have to look head-on at what’s really going on here: Person A wants something that it will cost Person B to give, and Person B is judging whether the happiness or relief it would bring to Person A is worth the cost. Sometimes the answer will be yes, and sometimes the answer will be no. Sometimes you need to do a lot of talking through the situation in order to reach the answer that will be best for both of you and the relationship. (Because this post started out talking about sex, let me point out that submitting to sex you don’t want to be having is usually very costly; a partner that is comfortable with their partner bearing that cost is likely either uncaring or unaware. On the flip side, for many, going without sex for months or years because they are in a monogamous relationship with someone who isn’t inclined to have sex with them is acutely painful. Again, a partner who is both caring and aware will not be complacent about this situation.)

While both parties may be tempted to control the outcome of this conversation, by bringing in obligation or guilt or consequences (like, “If you don’t do X, I won’t do Y for you in the future), any of these entities are going to do damage. What the conversation needs to center around is both people understanding, as deeply as possible, what the request really entails for the other person. What feelings lie behind the need, and the cost? What fears and insecurities, what unresolved baggage is attached to it? What joys and hopes and satisfactions go along with having the need met? What symbolic meanings does each person attach to this action?

The most productive conflict conversations I’ve had always happen when each of us cares deeply about the other’s happiness, and trusts that the other person cares deeply about ours. When you trust in someone else’s love for you, you don’t have to manipulate and threaten and guilt them into doing what you want. You don’t have to bring in Obligation to arbitrate. You can lay your need or wish before them, and explain to them exactly what it means to you, and you can listen to their explanation of what the cost is for them, and what that means to them. And you can work together to resolve the dilemma in a way that makes both of you feel loved and cared-for.

Another part of this is accepting that sometimes you will do something that causes your partner pain, or decline to do something that would bring them happiness. One of the valuable things about poly is that most of us have to grapple with this pretty regularly. A very few of us are lucky enough to have partners that never feel jealousy, but most of us have to cope from time to time with the fact that our new love is causing another partner some pangs. It is so, so hard to say, “I see that this is hurting you, and I choose to do it anyway,” even when that’s the choice our partner wants us to make. It is much easier to get angry with our partner for feeling hurt (I’ve done that), or to feel guilty for even wanting the other thing (I’ve done that too), or to construct sets of rules that delineate what each person has a Right or No Right to do, thus again bringing in the moral weight of obligation to distract from the reality of feelings (I’ve done that less, because I started my poly life with an experienced partner who stayed away from those pitfalls.) It is easier to do those things, but it is healthier in the long run to be able to say, “I love you, and I see your pain, and it hurts me, and I am choosing to prioritize my need in this case.” (This is made significantly easier when the partner can say, “Yes, it hurts me, but I want you to have this joy and freedom and I am willing to bear that cost.”)

Here is the final piece, and for some of us it’s the hardest: the decision has to be made together, and sincerely together, with both people’s full input. I have been in conversations that look a lot like the one I recommend two paragraphs up, where both people are talking about what they need and want and the feelings that lie behind those and seeking a mutually agreeable solution, and it seems at first glance to be a healthy discussion, but in reality one person is controlling the conversation. They may be telling the other person what they’re “really” feeling, or they may be casting the other person’s feelings as wrong or invalid or harmful, while their own are rational and correct and embody what’s best for everybody. Nae good. That’s another “run very fast in the other direction” situation.

But another, more common dynamic is that one person will look at the dilemma and decide for themselves that their need is not worth what it would cost the other person, without even expressing the need to the other person. I do this all the time, and so do most of my intimates, because we tend to be giving and self-effacing to a fault. “I want to go out tonight with Lover, but that means Spouse will be alone and sad, so I can’t.” And Spouse never even realizes that you’ve given up something you wanted for their sake. Over time, if you’re me at least, this leads to a feeling of resentment and entitlement: “I’ve made so many sacrifices for your emotional comfort!…” And you will at some point become upset when they ask you to absorb some emotional discomfort for their own enjoyment: “…how can you not be willing to make the same sacrifices for mine?” (Because they never even realized you were making the sacrifice, dumbass. Meaning me, on many past occasions.) Or you might decide abruptly that you’ve earned some guilt-free enjoyment, and get frustrated when they still express pain over your choice because OMG, can’t you ever do anything for yourself? (When, again, they didn’t even know you were choosing not to do things for yourself on other occasions, and are likely to feel some nasty whiplash at your sudden, unprecedented, and highly defensive selfishness. And yes, I’ve done that too, and it sucks.) Or, in a specifically poly context when making a sacrifice for Spouse’s sake often involves some sacrifice on Lover’s part as well, your bond with Lover may dwindle because they are never being prioritized.

Asking another person to bear some discomfort or pain or inconvenience for our sake is hard. So, so hard. I can barely bring myself to do it unless I feel completely justified (see again: Obligation and its dysfunctional uses.) But I know my loves love me, and desire my happiness, and that there will be times when they’re more than willing to absorb a little cost to see me happier. After all, I do the same for them all the time, and it’s insulting to behave as if their love is weaker than mine or their ability to handle some discomfort is lower. (Sometimes it is… but not usually as much lower as my private decisions would imply.) And I need to give them the opportunity to do that, by asking for what I want. And I need to do it in good faith, without invoking rules and justifications and obligations. If I am truly loved, the fact of my feelings, my needs, my wishes and hopes and desires, is enough to make them at least consider giving me what I want. And if they decide the cost is too high for them, it’s not because I don’t deserve happiness or because it was wrong of me to even ask: it’s because sometimes, the cost is too high. That’s okay. By talking out our different needs and feelings, we both understand each other better, and can continue to love each other well.

*This sentence is adjusted slightly from the originally-published version, which read, “Do I care enough about making you happy in this way to accept what it will cost me?” Midnight Insomnia Brain threw out the revised sentence, which is a better expression of what I mean.

New GP post! No such thing as safe sex

My long-overdue next post at Grounded Parents is up! Wherein I fisk an article that bemoans the teaching of safe sex. Didja know that sex is only sex if you’ve been married for 20 years, otherwise it’s just masturbating with assistance? And that if you have sex without a Spiritually Sanctioned Union you’re going to need to load up on terrible things like pills and condoms and explanations of your intent? I didn’t, but I do now. Well, and then I wrote a post arguing against it, so now I don’t again. Or something.

Not Okay

I’m not okay.

I’m a pretty stoic and self-reliant person, so those are hard words for me to say. I was telling a new love just recently the story of when my brother and I were waiting anxiously at the kitchen table, to hear whatever news had been making our mother cry that morning, and he asked how I could be so calm. I was calm then — I am calm usually — because I felt like I had to be. Too many people relied on me, growing up, for me to be able to melt down. I’m the person who holds it together in a crisis, who works the problem and saves my emotions for later, who’s always able to lay aside what I’m feeling and what I need this minute to take care of someone else. It’s a skill and quality I value in myself.

But sometimes I’m not okay, and that’s slowly becoming a thing I can say out loud. I’m learning that being not-okay today doesn’t mean I will be not-okay tomorrow. I’m learning that, instead of the entire world crumbling apart if I stop being okay because I am the last bastion of stability, when I’m not okay, other people will gather around and be okay for me. They will hold me and love me, and sometimes they’ll lay aside what they are feeling and what they need this minute to take care of me.

I’m not okay a lot these days, and my friends and lovers and metamours have been wonderful to me.

I loved Shaun’s post about family as ka-tet. Family, whether born or chosen, is such a powerful thing. It shapes us, changes us, tells us who we are and where we belong in the world. Like any powerful thing it can be incredibly destructive. It can hobble or cripple us, it can tell us that we are weak and bad and that where we belong is directly under someone else’s foot — and because it is family, those words will affect us no matter how hard we fight them. Like any powerful thing, it can be creative and uplifting and life-giving. It can give us support to stand when we tremble, it can tell us that we are strong and loved and believed, and that where we belong is out in the world, living joyfully and creating beauty.

I’m so thankful for the people who are family to me, whose lives are intimately bound up with mine and who have used their power to make me feel strong and loved and believed. I’m not okay a lot these days, but I’m also amazingly wonderful a lot these days, and while the ping-ponging is taking some getting used to, I feel safer than I ever have. I feel like I can sink into the depths of the not-okay when I need to, to work on and work through the stuff that’s down there, because I have a strong lifeline back to the surface.

I’m not okay, but that’s okay.

Being a good helper

There’s been a lot of conversation going on in one Captain Awkward post about “helping” relationships, where one person is needier, more vulnerable, and often advice-seeking, and the other is giving, caretaking, and wisdom-dispensing. I looove when the Awkward Army addresses this topic because it’s been a very common dynamic in my life, and there are a lot of ways it can turn sour for both parties. The helper can become overly invested in their helping role and refuse to see/accept when the helpee has developed strength and wisdom of their own. The helpee can feel completely entitled to the helper’s support forever and suck the life out of the helper. The helper can use the helpee’s perceived weakness as an excuse to control and dominate them. The helpee can consciously or unconsciously keep generating problems because they feel like that’s the only connection they have with the helper.

It’s potentially bad news all around, if both parties aren’t careful about boundaries and responsibility and self-care. That said, sometimes a person is in a more vulnerable or more needy place and needs extra care and support from loved ones. And some of us *cough* find that pouring out love, support, and nurturance just feels good, feels satisfying, makes us feel at home in the world. I don’t think that all relationships need to be perfectly balanced forever. But I do think that both parties in a helping relationship need to be very careful and self-aware, if the relationship is going to sustain time and growth and avoid becoming toxic.

Over the years, I’ve picked up a lot of attitudes and skills that have helped me have some functional helping relationships. These are all from the helper side, as I have very little experience being the helpee. I’d welcome further thoughts and additions.

1: Take care of yourself. Since I went to school with educators and therapists, we talked about “self-care” a lot. Every single one of us is way better at preaching it than practicing it. Have your own support network in place, the people you can go to with your stuff no matter how trivial or burdensome you feel it is. Have your personal rituals for when you need to be kind to yourself and recharge. If you’ve never taken all that compassion and lovingkindness you have and directed it at yourself, do that. Figure out what that looks like for you. And do it, on the regular, and especially when you’re in the middle of a strenuous helping situation.

2: Own your shit. I think most of us helpers have some not-100%-healthy baggage behind our helping instincts. Narcissist parents. Feeling like we’re only valuable if we’re giving. Feeling like helping allows us intense intimacy without making ourselves vulnerable. I don’t think you have to be past that and come at helping with an entirely balanced, zero-dysfunctional-history perspective in order to be a great helping person — I don’t think that’s even possible. We’ve all got our shit, and learning to use our shit in ways that make us and the world better is a pretty stellar way to handle it. But definitely know what your shit is, and how it can turn toxic.

Owning your shit can help you spot the line between those helping dynamics that feel good because they’re meeting both people’s needs in a productive way, and the ones that feel good because they’re scratching an itch deep down inside you that keeps getting inflamed. It also protects against internalizing the sense of “I’m mentally stable and healthy, and you are damaged and fucked-up” that can sometimes come into helping relationships. You can be mentally stable and healthy and damaged and fucked-up all at the same time, actually. Drawing a sharp line between the two just makes it harder for the helpee to ever imagine being in a position of strength. And it makes it harder for the helper to actually work on their own damage, because you have to see something in order to fix it.

3: Give yourself permission not to help. This really incorporates both #1 and #2. Not helping, whether it’s for the afternoon or the week or maybe forever, is sometimes the only self-care that matters. But it can be really hard, if you’re dealing with some of that baggage that says you always have to help or you will be unloved and unworthy and alienated. Being able to say “No, I’m sorry, I can’t listen today” and walk away without guilt (hahahahaha ok I mean without soul-crushing guilt that will make you spend your time off just as focused on the helpee as if you were actually talking to them) is a pretty essential skill — I think it’s a prerequisite for a functional helping relationship.

Taking a short break also tests whether the thing is sustainable on the helpee’s side. It takes two to have a functional helping relationship. If they cannot go a day (or whatever) without drawing from your well of support and compassion, it strongly suggests that they are not up for their side of this tango. They need to have some level of respect for the fact that you are also a person with needs and priorities that don’t revolve around them.

There are kinder and less kind ways to take a break. “Hey, listen, I need to take some time for myself right now, I will call you again on X day to hear all about it, ok?” sends the message that you are not abandoning them forever, but that you also have needs that are a priority for you. Helping and helping and helping until one day you just can’t take it and stop answering their calls — not so kind. (I have done this. Urgh, and I’m sorry to those people.) It’s one reason I think it’s so important to work in self-care and time off early. If you’re suffering severe burnout, you might just have to do that, especially if they roll right over your first “Hey, I need to deal with my own shit today,” but it’s better to avoid that situation by taking regular breaks and making that an understood part of your relationship from the first.

If you say “I’ve got some of my own stuff going on, I need to take a break,” they may come back with “Oh I’m so sorry! Let’s talk about you!” This might be okay, but it’s often a (likely unintentional) trap. We have this idea in our culture that all good relationships are balanced with equal give and take. The helpee likely feels uncomfortable with the idea that this relationship is unbalanced, and would welcome the chance to be the one helping you for a change. The problem is, if they’re usually the helpee in relationships, their helping skills may not be very well developed. Listening and lending compassionate, appropriately critical but non-judgemental support is hard. Setting our own stuff aside to be present for another person and their needs is hard. To us helper-types it often feels easy and natural, but someone who isn’t practiced in it will likely end up floundering and feeling inadequate. Or they will end up listening for about 45 seconds and then turning it around and making it about them, because they just don’t know how else to operate. Or you, the helper, will find that you’re not actually comfortable being vulnerable with them, because that’s not how your relationship functions and you likely have some vulnerability issues that mean it’s only a select few people you can feel okay going there with (high-five, fellow vulnerability-averse helpers!)

So I think it’s better, if they counter-offer with “Let me help you!” to say, “Thanks, but I really just need some me time, that’s how I process best.” Me time can mean talking to your go-to support buddy, they don’t have to know. And if they can’t deal with this or have a shit fit or try to get you to help them process their feelings of rejection around not being allowed to help you, that’s all the more reason to get away. Which brings us to…

4: Boundaries. You get to have them, they gave to have them. Everybody has to respect them or this thing is fucked. Just because you’re a helper doesn’t mean you get to know or comment on every little detail of their life. If you’re giving them a lot of care and support over their relationship with their mom, that doesn’t mean you get to tell them how to relate to their boyfriend, if they don’t want your help there. They are a grown-ass adult who is talking to you because they respect your wisdom and perspective in one area. That doesn’t mean you get an all-access pass to their life, or that you’re responsible for making sure they don’t screw up elsewhere. Maybe they’re making a mistake. Grown-ass adults get to do that.

Just because you’re a helper doesn’t mean they get access to you all the time for everything. YOU don’t have to listen to details of their sex life if that’s uncomfortable for you. You don’t have to invite them to everything you do (or anything you do). As discussed above, you don’t have to and probably shouldn’t be available to them at all hours of every day.

When one person sets a boundary, the other person needs to respect it, period. If the boundary is confusing or upsetting to you or you think it means something really uncomfortable or bad, you can say this: “Okay, I will respect that, but I have some concerns. Can we make time to talk about them at some point?” And the boundary-setter gets to say yes or no, and the boundary-setter gets to decide when that conversation happens, and the boundary-setter gets to decide when that conversation needs to be over. And the other person respects the boundary before and after the conversation (with any revisions or improved understanding that happened in the course of the conversation.) If anything else happens? Run away and don’t look back.

I’ve had a lot of helping relationships go bad. I’ve had a lot of helping relationships successfully convert into more balanced relationships. (Because I lean helper, I tend to gravitate toward people who lean helpee, and a lot of my intimate relationships involve me doing more listening and caretaking than vice versa. I can and do turn around and receive support from them; it just happens less often than the other way around. That might be another whole blog post.) I’ve had a lot of helping relationships that were good for both of us at the time, and then we drifted apart because they were moving on to a new stage and there wasn’t enough in the relationship to sustain a friendship built on anything other than that one helping dynamic. That’s an okay outcome too. These are the principles I’ve found to be essential to making a helping relationship constructive on both sides. I’d love to hear from others who have insights of their own, and especially from people who tend to be helpees, on how things look from their side.

I used this one simple trick to make my language more gender-inclusive!

The clickbaity headline is there because it amuses me, but also because when this dawned on me today it felt pretty much that way: there’s a really simple tool for gender-inclusive language that I feel like I didn’t fully appreciate before. We use it a lot, but it hadn’t dawned on me just how many applications it can have.

The tool is “people.” The word itself, not the referent. People are not tools. The word “people” is a fantastic tool that most of us have already recognized as being a pretty great way to talk about … well, people, in a gender-neutral way. But this week I’ve been discovering more and more ways of using it effectively, and it’s surprisingly cool.

It started when I was preparing a lecture on anatomy and physiology for my online sexuality class. (Wait… have I not written about that here before? Bad blogger! Bad!) One of the perennial problems of being a sex educator is that we do a lot of talking about things that are mostly gender-specific: things like penes* and vaginas, or gendered socialization. Most people with vaginas are women, and vice versa, but not all of them, and it’s very important to me to acknowledge this verbally so that the women-without-vaginas and the not-women-with-vaginas feel fully included in the discussion. And yet saying “people with vaginas” gets unwieldy fast, especially when the sentence you’re trying to construct goes something like, “People with vaginas sometimes find that their vaginas lubricate more…” Ugh, no. Way awkward.

Because this is an online class, a lot of my lectures are written, which means I can be very precise and thoughtful about my language, and so it was that it occurred to me: I can just say “people.” If I’m talking about vaginas, I can say “people sometimes find that their vaginas lubricate more…” and nobody is going to be confused. People pretty much know what sexyparts they have, and can apply the appropriate sentences to themselves without my needing to specify a gender category.

I also like it because it increases the universal identification. One of the things I hate most about the way our culture uses gender is that it’s treated as such an essential categorical distinction. Men are a completely different type of people than women, and men can understand other men the way that women can’t, and vice versa. As a slightly genderqueer person myself, and someone who has always been closest to people who have a lot of cross-gender traits, this has always irritated me. My innate instinctive understanding of Femme-Lady-Women is just as poor as my innate instinctive understanding of Manly-Man-Men. (Nothing against people who are strongly gender-identified and gender-congruent at all… I just don’t really get you.) I get really uncomfortable and grumpy when I’m expected to consider Men as a category strongly distinct from myself.

And I think it’s better for human relationships all around when we start to think of other people as people, first and foremost, rather than as members of a gender category. We listen differently to a sentence that begins with a person-descriptor that doesn’t apply to us: a man, hearing a sentence beginning “Women often…” is going to listen differently to the rest of that sentence than if it began “Men often…” By starting the sentence with “People…” I feel like I’m more likely to have everybody tuning in as if the sentence following might apply to them. And even when they find it doesn’t, maybe they listen to the rest of it with a closer sense of identification with the people to whom it does apply. If I hear the sentence “People on cruise ships often get seasick” I don’t feel alienated from the people described, even though I’ve never been on a cruise ship and likely never will be and don’t get seasick. I feel like we’re all people together, those people just have different circumstances and experiences than I do. And that’s the feeling that I hope, maybe, using “People…” can encourage about even very sex-linked things.

I used it again today, when asking a question about typical male socialization and how it impacts an exercise we’re doing for the class. As I was asking for feedback, the automatic way to write the sentence would have been, “Men, what do you think about this? Is this true for you?” Instead I wrote, “People who were socialized in that ‘be tough and manly’ way, is this true for you?” This does more than be gender-inclusive: it also allows for the fact that cultures and families differ, and some men didn’t receive much if any of that “be tough and manly” socialization (and some women did!). It allows the reader to determine for themselves exactly to what extent the sentence applies to them, rather than being automatically included or excluded by a gender category that only imperfectly matches the category we’re actually talking about.

People. It’s a good word. I’m going to use it more often.


*Little-known fact about me: I find the irregular plural of “penis” delightful for reasons I cannot explain, and I often go around repeating it to myself inside my head.