Defending your boundaries is hard December 1, 2015Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, relationships.
Tags: arguments, boundaries
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I’ve been trying to do a better job of defending my boundaries with people, and I’m learning that it’s not easy. Not at all.
I was never taught to defend my boundaries when i was young. Being immensely insecure, I was easy to take advantage of. And people did. It became so normal that people expected me not to stand up for myself. And, of course, resentment builds…..
Feeling disrespected, unwanted, and generally unappreciated builds up. Eventually, you have to stand up. But I had been letting it become sso tense that the emotional baggage I had built up made a calm, rational discussion impossible, even if I wanted it.
So, my recent project is defending my boundaries up front, and I’m been met with a huge amount of resistance. Also, because it’s a new skill, I’m not exactly excelling at it. It’s a skill I need to practice, but I risk simply capitulating if I don’t stand firm.
I am always willing to accept my responsibility for my mistakes. In some cases, i even manage to recognize it, so that I can actually do so. What has been harder is standing up when i believe that someone else has made a mistake. Far too long was I willing to accept responsibility when it was not mine.
What’s hardest is that when other people are struggling with the same thing, and we are both being defensive and trying to defend our boundaries, then conflict arises. Somehow you end up talking past one another, cognitive biases show up, and then both of you start creating a narrative of how you are the one who is more hurt.
When you both are.
And you are both too hurt, angry, and stubborn to try and see past it. Actually, I think maybe it might be impossible to see it when really affected.
And if it’s bad enough, you lose friends, partners, and in some cases family.
And that’s life. And it sucks.
So, here’s to us all trying to defend our boundaries, while keeping in mind that it’s this very struggle which is the cause of so many conflicts. I hope we can all figure it out.
Time, perspective, and healing November 2, 2015Posted by shaunphilly in Personal, Polyamory.
Tags: boundaries, confession, growth, relationships
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Last week, I ran into this 6 word story in a listicle:
Strangers. Friends. Best friends. Lovers. Strangers.
and when I reached this story, I sort of froze inside. How many times have I experienced this? Too many? Just the right amount?
Not enough times?
Someone I used to think fairly well of used to say that relationships ending isn’t always a bad thing. A transition of a relationship from one thing to another is often good, and I have people in my life who have transitioned from lover to friend (and sometimes back again) and other transitions, in various directions, numerous times. I am on very good terms (even if we have often grown distant) with most of my previous lovers and partners, with a few glaring exceptions. Some people I thought I would never speak to again are now people I’m closest to. Others, who I thought I’d never be apart from, are now strangers.
Nonetheless there have been a number of relationships that have ended where even a friendship could not be maintained. Sometimes it was due to a mistake, miscommunication, or other problem one one or both of our parts, but quite often it was just because things changed, and our relationship changed. And, sometimes, we drift apart completely.
And, in time, no matter how I felt at the time, perspective is gained. Time heals all wounds? Maybe.
And sometimes that perspective provides greater truth and understanding, but not always. Sometimes, our own biases create stories that leave our memory of a person, and what happened with them, as a work of creative fiction. And while I try to avoid this (as all decent people try to do), I am as susceptible as anyone else (although I suspect I think about this more than most).
And through this process of greater understanding, perspective, and internal narrative creation I have come to look back on some relationships as failures (on one or both of our parts), some as escapes from something terrible, and some as really stupid misunderstandings which cannot be fixed because of one or both of our feelings (often pride and hurt).
Sometimes it’s just best to walk away, and leave a stupid situation be stupid, even if it’s for stupid reasons.
It’s frustrating, but there’s little we can, in general, do about it.
The last year
My life has changed very significantly in the last year. I was married, and now I’m not. 2014 was a tumultuous one of a household breaking up, dealing with unwanted drama, and all the people involved acting pretty terrible (yes, all of us. Some much more than others). And then my marriage went to shit (long before she left), partially due to the immense amount of tension from that situation, and it left me feeling unstable and perceptually afraid and hurt. Eventually, everything was awful and I suffered through months of the deepest depression I have ever known.
Now, I speak to none of the people I used to think of as my poly family two years ago, and have no desire to be involved with any of them again. I do not expect that to change, but I leave that to the future. I believe that nobody, no matter how awful, is completely beyond redemption. I’m just not holding my breath for any of them.
And I think I’m better off that way.
I never wanted to be divorced, so I waited to get married until a little later in life, and married someone I thought was someone who would be a good partner. I was wrong. The transition has been painful, anger-inducing, but mostly just disappointing. But I’m happier now than I have been in years, and I have, in fact, learned and grown significantly.
Anyone reading this who continues to scapegoat me as an abusive asshole can fuck themselves right off a cliff. I made mistakes, and I have always admitted my responsibility, and I will not accept your brushstrokes as reality. I’m not afraid of you, the truth, nor of myself (that, in itself, was a huge step for me). I accept the nuances that we all erred, we all had reason to be angry and hurt, and I can only hope that time will offer all of us the wisdom that it was all stupid and avoidable, even if not salvageable.
I’m responsible for my journey, and I will leave you all responsible for your own.
Am I angry? Damn right I am. But most days, now, I’m not. Most days, I’m actually doing very well. But I am angry, sometimes, and it’s for very good reason. The transition to get here has been shitty, but enlightening. And the goal is not to rid myself of the anger (that would be pointless to try, anyway), but to focus on the future rather than the past. The past is for learning, not for living.
The hardest part of the transition was forcing myself to remember that I made mistakes and hurt people. It’s so easy to allow the self-defensive narrative to write itself in my own head. Yeah, this person was awful in this way, and they did this, but I also fucked up. The other side of that is not taking all the responsibility; to stop punishing myself for mistakes I made because those mistakes happened in a specific circumstance, and I can learn both from the circumstance and from knowing how it felt to be responsible for hurting someone who trusted me and cared about me.
People who are now strangers.
And so I kept asking myself a set of questions; OK, so I fucked up. Now what? Am I going to stay the person who made that mistake or am I going to change? Am I going to solely blame others, or take responsibility? (those two are really the same question). Am I going to hide in a hole, allowing mistakes to define my whole life? Am I going to accept unquestioning support from people who sometimes said to me “they aren’t worth your time,” they are assholes,” “fuck them” or will I ask them to help me better understand what I did wrong and what I need to do going forward? When the people around you just tell you what you want to hear and feed the tribalistic impulses we all have, that’s not friendship or love; that’s part of what keeps narcissism alive.
And, perhaps most importantly for me, am I going to keep punishing myself, or am I going to remember that I made those mistakes because I was hurting, and because I tolerated people hurting to me for too long. Because I understand why I made those mistakes; I didn’t defend my boundaries and I allowed resentment turn into anger, and anger turn into being mean to people I cared about. Abuse happens for a reason, and where I have acted abusively I will simultaneously accept responsibility and fix the cause; and the cause is not that I’m an abusive person inherently, it’s that I am a person who has experienced abuse myself, over many years, and that cycle has to stop somewhere.
The Quakers have a saying, as part of one of the songs I learned while in (hippie) school;
“Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”
Well, let the cycle end with me. I will try, every day, to no longer pass on the pain given to me by others because, as I have been working on for months now, I will defend the boundaries I need for myself better. I will no longer allow resentment and hurt build up until I hurt someone because they are (or someone else is) hurting me. In other words, I will not punish myself nor others for any pain, from any source. I don’t accept the threats of punishment from an illusory god, and I will not accept the punishment for an illusory sense of personal justice. When I, previously, saw the response to being hurt or injured as Justice rather than compassion, I internalized the same megalomaniacal fury of an insecure bronze-age god (YHWH/Allah/Elohim/etc) that I have been decrying for years.
Hypocritical as shit, I know. But at least I’m figuring it out now.
(I’ll point out, here, that Nietzsche has been trying to tell me that for years, but I wasn’t seeing it clearly enough. Thanks, Nieztsche, for trying.)
And I have never felt better about myself, my relationships, and my future. There will always be work to do, but I’m no longer controlled by the pain I have dealt with all of my life. And I no longer, as I said, fear myself. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but it did happen. I’m supremely glad about that, because being afraid of oneself is, perhaps, worse than hating oneself (which I have also experienced).
Coming clean and moving forward
I have made some pretty awful mistakes in my life. Most recently, I hit my ex wife with a pillow and yelled some pretty awful things at her while I was immensely hurt and angry at her for reasons which are not relevant here, mostly because they are not excuses. I still have nightmares about it ever since, although they are increasingly rare these days. And while many people close to me have sympathized with my own pain, and in some cases even argued that what I did was not bad enough to warrant the marriage ending, that is not my nor their decisions. No matter how much I disagree with that decision and wished there had been any room to try to go a different direction, I have done my best to respect it and made no attempt to fight the request for a divorce.
And now it’s all over. I’m mostly OK with that, I just wish it had been possible to make the divorce a transition, rather than an ending. I simply could not accept the terms I was given, to make it a transition. Had I accepted the terms I saw in front of me to try and rebuild a friendship, I would have been capitulating to what I saw as a lie. I will defend my boundaries, where previously my insecurity would have sacrificed by thoughts, feelings, and very self in order to save the relationship. That will never happen again.
Due to that same insecurity, I’ve lived through many relationships with people who were terrible to me in many ways. And rather than create firm boundaries I allowed my resentment, anger, and fear to build up until I would throw a stool, hit someone with a pillow, and yell hurtful things.
And then, of course, I don’t have much of a leg to stand on in pointing out my own pain because I’ve moved the attention to myself. I throw a stool, so it doesn’t matter if this guy is being an asshole and making other people’s lives a living hell. He can just point to the stool I threw, and now I’m the focus.
Or, I hit her with a pillow so now all the reasons I had for being furious with her are irrelevant and can be brushed off and ignored.
That’s been the pattern, most of my life and with too many people. Not in all cases, mind you, but especially with people who trigger certain insecurities within me. Had I not buried the anger, allowed resentment to build, and let fear govern it all I could have avoided the outbursts and the alienation I felt.
I have understood aspects of this over years, but it is more clear to me now, after the least few years, than previously. And I will work on, every day, making sure that this cycle is not perpetuated.
To whom it may concern
So, those of you who are reading this and don’t trust me, think I’m an abusive person, or who might continue to make my mistakes the primary story…well OK. Cool story, bro. But we define ourselves not only by our decisions and mistakes, but also by how we respond to them. I will not ignore or merely dismiss your accusations and judgments, but i will only accept them as part of the story (unless they are true fabrications, which I have also had to deal with). I will learn from you, even if you have no interest in helping me, because there might be some truth to what you say, even if it is biased, embellished, or malicious. If I ignore that, I am merely pushing the narrative closer to my own comfort zone. That won’t stop the cycle, but merely inches along rather than strides towards growth.
Changing just enough as you have to is almost as bad as not changing at all.
And I will offer the same to you (all of you, out there). If you have made, or continue to make, mistakes, my judgment of your character will also be informed by how you respond, and not merely what you did. We all hurt people, to varying degrees. Own it, grow, and in time those you hurt may forgive you. In some cases, they never will. That’s hard.
Finally, those of you who have been there for me over the last year (or years, in some cases), I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I love you all, and I owe you a lot for your listening, emotional support, and trusting me enough to see that I am not the person that others say I am or are afraid that I am. You believed that I cannot be defined by my mistakes, and made an effort to see me through the work I had to do, when it would have been far easier to abandon me. You understood that if you really believed that I could grow beyond a set of mistakes, learn from them, and truly grow and heal, you had to stick around to see it.
Alternatively, If you said that you believed I could get through this but made no attempt to stick around….
Then perhaps you are not the person you think you are either.
I know who I am, and I like that person a lot.
and into the river we’d dive August 24, 2015Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
Tags: boundaries, fear, river tubing, summer
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I have a thing about heights. Being up high, or even just standing next to subway tracks, is a source of sometimes significant anxiety, and it has always been that way. Thus, whenever I have been invited to sit on an outside patio on a high-rise building, take a look at a beautiful view from a cliff, or found myself in a position were falling was a possibility, I have a stew of unpleasant emotions stirring within me.
As a kid, when waiting for the subway (which I rode to and from school, and later work, every day), I would occasionally be faced with the reality of my mortality, and of the fear how easy it would be to just jump into those tracks at any moment.
Or slip. Or be peeking to see how close the train was along the tracks, and then lose my balance and just fall.
Or, you know, what was actually stopping me from jumping? And this last thought was not about depression or suicide, it was just a realization that I could, if I wanted to, just jump off that platform, that cliff, or that high-rise patio. This was a disquieting realization, that I started having when I was around 7 or 8, if my memory serves me.
Later, when I was in high school and I discovered philosophy, I read bits and pieces of Jean-Paul Sartre’s work, and was somewhat relieved, but also somewhat gobsmacked, that this experience was not mine alone.
Sartre describes the experience of radical freedom, and being burdened with the realities and consequences of that freedom, and I felt like I had found someone who understand what it was like inside my head, most of the time.
Because did I distrust myself? Was there reason to think that, given the radically free choices I could make, I could make one which could end or significantly damage my life? Always.
Sometimes, what becomes most clear to me is how easy it would be to destroy everything, how fragile it all is, and how even if you were to act in such a damaging way just because you can, you cannot take it back. Because knowing that you could have not done something (whatever that means, right Dan Dennett?*), when in fact you did is not sufficient if you did it, right?
Perhaps. But I think that we know ourselves best when we can tell the difference between something we could not help doing and something we could have done differently, but didn’t do so for bad reasons. And what’s worse is that when those who have been on the receiving end of those actions cannot understand, will not hear, or don’t care about that distinction.
River Tubing, Ropes, and climbing that tree
Cut to this past weekend.
A few weeks ago, I went to party at a college-friend’s house. I had not seen him in a couple of years, I had the day free, and so I drove out to the Lambertville area to see him with my girlfriend Kristen and some other people close to me, and we had a great time eating, drinking, and enjoying his well-kept grounds on a lovely summer day.
At the party, my friend mentioned that he was going river tubing on the Delaware, north of New Hope, PA, and this sounded like a lovely idea and so Kristen and I planned to go. While tubing (which was awesome), someone mentioned a rope swing. Having a good time and being carried away by their enthusiasm, I proclaimed some interest in swinging out on a rope. And we floated on some more.
And then I saw the rope.
I saw people swinging out, and it looked like fun. And then I saw the rickety steps going up the side of the tall tree from which the rope hung, and as I thought about climbing up to the platform (which was essentially some wood nailed to a tree), I felt my stomach tighten. But I climbed up anyway (not to the highest platform, because I’m not crazy like Kristen is, who climbed up there like she was strolling in the park), and grabbed a solid hold on the rope and felt the acceleration of gravity swing me over the water, until I felt the rope reach it’s maximum height, before it would swing back, and I launched myself into the air and landed safely into the water.
It was so much fun that I did it again. And, of course, my stomach clenched as I climbed the side of the tree the second time, but it didn’t stop me. The fear was still there. It was unpleasant, but I knew that the effort would be worth it. I would not allow my fear to prevent me from enjoying the thrill of flying through the air before plunging into the cool water on a hot summer day.
And then we got back onto our tubes, rafts, and inflatable boats and kept drifting down the river with friends.
And I’ll do it all again, if I’m lucky enough to have the chance.
We all have our internal emotional and psychological landscapes, and we all have these little things that are terrifying to us which seem like nothing to other people. Climbing up on that tree was not easy for me, but I knew there was a payoff that I wanted. And the second time climbing up? It was slightly less scary. Perhaps the 3rd and 4th, next time I float down the river, will be easier yet.
Boundaries are important to recognize and to communicate, both with ourselves and to others. But we need to push those boundaries from time to time, or we stagnate. Is something scary? Fine, but don’t let that, alone, stop you from making the attempt to find out why it is scary, if perhaps the fear is unfounded,, and maybe to see if there is something on the other side of that fear which is worth investigating anyway.
If you don’t push your own boundaries, and if you ask that others do not do it for you, then you will never grow. And sometime, the scariest things are the things we should challenge the most.
Carpe Diem (et noctis)!
FYI, The title of this post is derived fro a lyric from Bruce Springsteen’s The River, which was a favorite of mine from my childhood. Here it is, for all of you not familiar with The Boss’s deeper tracks.
* “l have not yet touched the central issue of free will, for I have not yet declared a position on the “could have done otherwise” principle: the principle that holds that one has acted freely (and responsibly) only if one could have done otherwise. It is time, at last, to turn to this central, stable area in the logical geography of the free will problem. I will show that this widely accepted principle is simply false.”
“The “could have done otherwise” principle has been debated for generations, and the favorite strategy of compatibilists – who must show that free will and determinism are compatible after all — is to maintain that “could have done otherwise” does not mean what it seems at first to mean; the sense of the phrase denied by determinism is irrelevant to the sense required for freedom.”
Tags: altruism, boundaries, communication, desire, family, happiness, intimacy, jealousy, love, manipulation, needs, relationships, rules, selfishness, shame
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?”
“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.
polymoons, set theory, and boundaries June 12, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
Tags: boundaries, polymoon, relationships, trust
1 comment so far
Ginny and I returned from Austin, Texas yesterday. Gina, who had been with us for s few days, had returned a few days before that. Ginny and I had decided to go to Austin for a few reasons. One, she attended a conference which would be helpful for her academically and (potentially) professionally. Two, Austin is pretty awesome, and three, there is a very active atheist community there.
Oh, right…we also just got married. So, it was partially a honeymoon.
So, for those of you not paying full attention, what happened here is that my girlfriend came with us for part of our honeymoon. In a sense, it became a polymoon. That’s right folks, a polyamorous honeymoon.
There was some discussion while planning this trip, as to whether it was appropriate to have one’s other significant other (OSO) join them for their honeymoon. Ginny and I agreed, months before the wedding, that this relationship is not all about us. Neither of us feel very strongly about the idea of hierarchies in polyamorous relationships, and so there does not need to be a sacred space, time, or vacation that is just about us. Yes, we wanted some of it to be just about us, but all of it did not need to be so.
At the wedding itself, Gina was not only there, but she was a central part of the party as well as the ceremony, as I chose her to be my signing witness on the license. For most of my relationship with Gina, she has played a central, integrated, and important part of my life. So why wouldn’t she come with us to Austin? And being that Austin is one of the best places to hear live music and be around the vagaries of hipster culture, Gina and I had a great time watching ridiculous and down-right awesome live music while enjoying some good local food and drinks.
A new paradigm of relationships
What I am not sure many people fully understand about polyamory, at least as I view it, is that it is not merely about adding relationships to our lives. It isn’t merely having a girlfriend and a wife (in my case). It’s about discarding the very foundation of traditional monogamous culture. It’s about saying that there may, in fact, be something fundamentally broken about the way our culture looks at relationships.
In short, I am trying to destroy so-called “traditional marriage” in our culture. But more precisely, I’m trying to show that this “traditional” idea is not particularly good nor even very traditional. It is a broken, largely unhealthy, and unskeptical approach to relationships which does not answer our needs and desires in this short life. Some changes need to be made, if we are to live this life on our terms, not the terms of obsolete ideas about sex, love, and relationships.
Why do we make the logical leap from “I like this person and want to be with them” to “they are mine, and nobody else can have them”? Well, partially because this is not a logical leap at all, but it is a leap based upon emotions which are largely driven by uncertainty and fear.
Surely, at the beginning of relationships we are often genuinely distracted by the relationship, but why, upon having the relationship mature, do we continue along the path of exclusivity? Why do we seemingly forget that a relationship with another person does not have to be a contract of exclusivity, setting one person above all, forever, forsaking all other loves?
Why do we place other relationships second, third, etc hierarchies below that one special place? I don’t mean the people we are not very close to or perhaps don’t like; why do friends, other potential love interests, etc all become somehow demoted below that relationship necessarily and automatically?
Don’t get me wrong, when people voluntarily enter into relationships of their choosing, they can do so in any hierarchical fashion they like. But why (as I ask again and again) is their a default setting to put your significant other into a role of unique importance? Why can’t anyone else be placed there, or at least near there, as well?
The problem isn’t that people are not more or less important to us and our life, it is that we artificially have a slot for that one special person, when in real life things are not so simple. There is no reason to have to choose one person to inhabit that special part in our lives.
Poly set theory?
What I offer as an alternative is something like the following. Let’s think of relationships as fitting into sets. Each set may or may not overlap, especially over time, but they have levels of intimacy, care, and importance attached to them.
- Let’s start with what I will call strangers. These are people with whom you interact at a very superficial level, and who you either don’t know or don’t know well. These people are not close to you, you probably don’t know their name, and they are less likely to become part of your life in any meaningful way.
- Then there is a set of acquaintances. These are people with whom you share familiarity, but not closeness. You may like them or you may dislike them. You may, in fact, like them or hate them a great deal. They may be people from work, people in your network of social ties, neighbors, or distant relatives you see occasionally. These people may become close to you under certain situations, but likely only for short periods of time before returning to their relative distance.
- Also, there is the set of what I will call platonic friends. These are people with whom you share commonalities of interest, background, etc and with whom you have no romantic of sexual interest. You like, possibly love, these people and you enjoy spending time with them and may do so often. There is no rule that you cannot be lovers with them, but one or both of you is not interested in this arrangement, for whatever reasons, and so you do not. A good example here is your best friend from high school, college, work, close family members, etc.
- Then there are your friends, perhaps we could call them poly friends, with who you share romantic, sexual, etc relationships. These people are not your partners, not in the sense of a “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” kind of way, but they are people with who you have more than a mere friendship. Whether you do kink scenes with them, have occasional sex, or just like to spend time with them talking, sharing emotional intimacy, etc they are not mere friends, but also lovers and people with whom you share some level of intimacy. But they don’t quite make the set of partners, significant others, or even spouses.
- That last set, those with who you are closest and with whom you share highly integrated lives in addition to sexual and/or romantic intimacy are your partners or perhaps your family. In mainstream relationship culture, this role is set aside of one person, usually your wife, husband, etc. These are the people with whom you plan long-term lives with. You consider these people in making life-choices, they know you very well and care for you, and you may hope to spend the rest of your life with them around as part of your life.
But why should this last set, your partners, be defined as being a set of one ideally? What is the rational explanation for this? The fact is that any of these sets can have many or few people in it. And, I would argue, many forms of polyamory probably maintain the arrangement of that last set being set aside for one person.
Hierarchy in Polyamory
In my experience, many forms of polyamory still include this idea that one person is still relegated to this last set. Some poly people see the primary relationship as sacred, unique, and other partners should not transgress the boundaries set by a primary partner. Now, clearly boundaries agreed to are important, but I wonder to what extent those boundaries are necessary or ideal.
The idea that my girlfriend should not join my wife and I on our honeymoon assumes a boundary around such times and places. It assumes a sacred space into which another person should not tread. Now, if my wife and I decide to set that boundary, a girlfriend should not cross it, but the question is whether such a boundary should be created.
In polyspeak, are rules and boundaries necessarily a good thing to require, or do they perpetuate the very basis of mainstream monogamous culture?
Basic rules about safety, property, etc are good ideas, but it seems to me that any healthy relationship would not have to enumerate such rules. Why, for example, would I want to be in a relationship with a person who would flaunt and disregard safety, property, etc?
If a new lover said to me something like “don’t bother with the condom. I know we haven’t talked about it or cleared it with your partner, but I’m clean and I won’t tell anyone,” then not only am I most-certainly using a condom, but I might decide to discontinue the sexual relationship under some circumstances.
Why? Because it shows that this person cannot be trusted to respect safe sexuality. How many other partners has this person said that to? How many of them are usually safe? There are too many uncertainties for me to follow this request and still consider myself a loving partner. It shows that this is a person I should not want to be very close to me because I already know they are willing to lie and deceive. Such a person could not enter my last set of partner, and may not last long as a poly friend, depending on other factors.
Boundaries are rules that grown organically out of actually loving and being considerate of the people we are with. It seems to me that to enumerate such rules demonstrates some level of distrust. And so the more a person moves from one set to another, the less rules should be necessary. When we have people we wish to think of as partners, family, and spouses, we should not have to have rules so much as respect and good decisions. We should want to keep them as safe, or safer, than we would be willing to keep ourselves.
Bottom line, Ginny and Gina are my partners. I trust both of them, even in their times of human weakness and uncertainty. My life is entangled with both of them, and as a result their lives will be entangled with each other, and also with the people with who they are entangled. Therefore, Gina does not need to be relegated to a second-class place in my life any more than I would want to be relegated to a second-class place in hers.
And through this tangled web of sets, a family forms. Not that we are all extremely close, that we are all necessarily intimate, but that the decisions I make affect them and vice-versa. Rules and boundaries for such arrangements only betray lack of trust, and I want trust as part of my life.