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Obligation is a derail: some thoughts on negotiation in loving relationships August 18, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Polyamory.
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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.

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An Open Letter to Harassers: The Volatile Space Between Desire and Action August 9, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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This post is a combination of a confession as well as an angry rant about the phenomena of harassment.  If you have not been following, there is a summary here by Greta Christina.  I will say that this issue has been especially emotional for me, because I recognize many of the patterns of  behavior within myself, and they are attributes I have long tried to re-direct into healthy directions.  This is an attempt to show that there are many powerful feelings we must contend with, as humans, but that there is a better way than the traditional harass and hide behind the wall of silence and shame that harassment puts victims behind.  There are better ways to pursue what we want, and to get it some of the time, without hurting people.

—–

While I don’t really look to meet people much, sometimes it just happens.  Sometimes you meet people you like at a conference or at work, sometimes they read your blog and then start chatting you up, and sometimes there is just a person in your life who, after being around for some time, starts to become a person you really care about or desire strongly.  In some cases, they reciprocate your interest, and sometimes they don’t (or they do but perhaps not in all the ways you would like).  And when it works out, it’s great!  When you meet someone and have chemistry flowing both ways and both can fulfill desires together, it’s a great and beautiful thing.  We should pursue those things in those circumstances.

But then there are the times when you aren’t sure.  You are into them, they seem (logically) available, respond to you positively (or so it seems to you), and you want the relationship to go further.   Of course, you should communicate your interest (this is sometimes hard for me, being human and all) and you should be comfortable with a yes, a no, or a maybe.  Also, you should be comfortable with a “yes, but…”, because sometimes shit gets complicated.

Welcome to life among humans.

Today, I want to talk about what it is like to not be able to realize one’s desires.  More specifically, I want to talk about when your desires are not shared by the object of  said desires and yet the desire persists and you feel compelled to act on it.  This is a phenomena that occurs everywhere, to many people.  But even as a polyamorous person there are all sorts of reasons I might not be able to fulfill my needs or desires.  Whether it is because the person you desire is monogamous, too far away, or they just aren’t into you in the way that you want them to be (or at all).  Whatever the reason, there are ways to handle this situation well, and ways to seriously fuck it up (such as dick stumping).  And in the worst of situations you don’t stop pursuing your unrequited desires and you end up harassing people.  That shit needs to stop; like yesterday.

Yay for timely and topical content!

If you meet someone who compels you think some sexual things–for whom you have some deep, primal, natural urges for–it can sometimes be difficult to hold it all together around them if it’s not wanted or shared.  The feeling of wanting to act on it does not merely go away because it’s not reciprocated.  It would be great if it would, but for many people (including myself) it does not go away easily.  Wanting to act on it becomes a distraction, in some cases, and that distraction will often fade in time, but for some….

For some, this becomes a challenge or a goal to achieve rather than a place to re-direct one’s intentions and behavior.   I urge those people to reconsider this reaction because in many cases this impulse is the origin of some behavior–i.e. harassment–which will not be appreciated or appropriate.  I’m saying that if ze is not interested, this is not a cause to break out your charm, your powerful intellect to convince them otherwise, or your position of power to leverage their behavior.  I’m saying, find another way to interact with this person, if at all, if you can’t keep the unwanted thoughts at bay.

Clearly, many people don’t take this advice.

I understand that the emotions pushing you towards satisfying your desires are powerful, but those desires are not aimed at objects; they are aimed at subjects.  You must remember that these people have their own minds, goals, and desires that may not have anything to do with you.  If you are unwilling or unable to do so, then perhaps you should keep your distance and think about something else.  If you are a decent and respectful person, someone else may reciprocate to similar desires, or they may not.  Life is unfair sometimes.  If you keep pushing in a direction that isn’t working, you can only get short term inflated desires at the cost of hurting other people.

Some personal confessions here; for me, the anticipation of a fulfilled fantasy is a powerful motivation and even an aphrodisiac for me.  It’s related to the feeling of NRE, except that it can happen even with people I’ve known for years, and even with people with whom I’ve already fulfilled some desires with (hopefully two-way desires).  Thinking about someone for whom I have strong desires can be a powerful experience, and the idea of acting on that desire is exciting.  But I always am aware that this excitement might be solely mine, and so I tend to be cautious in trying to act on my desires if I am unsure about how it would be taken.  And with few exceptions, usually for the good*, I have succeeded in this caution.

I’m sure I’m not saying anything ground-shaking here.  I’m sure that much of this is shared by many people.  Human beings are complicated, and our desires sometimes seek to push us in many directions which are potentially inappropriate.  We need to be able to distinguish our desires, which are not a problem in themselves, from our actions, which can be problems.

Of course I’m polyamorous, which adds a layer of complexity to this issue.  With polyamory the desire for variety and new experiences is somewhat mitigated by the presence of the people we have relationships with, but not always.  Sometimes a different specific person, action, etc which you desire cannot be satisfied by just anyone.  Desires, needs, etc are not like a universal fuel that can fill you up by spending time with any person, at least not with all things.  Sometimes specific people evoke unique feelings and satisfy specialized desires that other people, even the people closest to you, simply cannot provide.  In healthy expressions, this can take the form of a specific kink that a specific person shares with you, a hobby or interest that you associate with a particular person, etc.  It can also be as simple as you have been fantasizing about a specific person and only that person can fulfill that desire.  Thus, being polyamorous is not a cure for this problem; harassment happens within polyamorous circles as well.  Being open is not automatic consent, after all.

Sometimes your specific desire will never be fulfilled.  No matter how hard you work, how much you try, or how long you wait.  Sometimes you must leave the desire aside, and do something else.  You cannot allow yourself to rationalize coercion as being acceptable because your desire is too strong (“I can’t help it, baby, you just turn me on so much”).  You cannot rationalize harassing people because you think you can hide it (“whose going to believe you, anyway?”).  You cannot do these things and expect to be a decent human being.  Your desires, no matter how intoxicating and compelling, are not excuses for bad behavior.  That is selfish thinking.

The object of your desire may never reciprocate, and you must be comfortable with that.  It is important to allow your fantasies to have some freedom to indulge themselves, but you must remember that if that fantasy involves another person it may not be possible to satisfy and so maybe you should indulge another fantasy.  If your fantasy is reciprocated and possible to act upon with consent, then that’s wonderful.  Fulfilled fantasies and anticipation rewarded are wonderful things which we should cherish, as they happen infrequently (unless you get really lucky).  But when it becomes clear–and we need to be watching for, and asking questions concerning about, this–that the desire is not reciprocated, we need to be prepared to shift our focus immediately and  appropriately.

These days, I find myself in a situation where I have some hopes, fantasies, and anticipations which may (or may not) come to fruition over the next few months.  I find that I am enjoying the hoping and imagining, but I also have to keep in mind that some of these hopes may never materialize because they may not be shared or possible.  And while that may disappoint me, I can survive this without emotional implosion (or dick stumping) because I have many kinds of desires.

The people I have sexual desires for are more than sex objects for me.  In addition to thinking about them sexually (and I do), I also try to also develop non-sexual desires which include them.  If they don’t want to get busy doin’ it, then we can be friends and allies.  Will that suck a little? sure.  But I must approach people for whom I have desires with the attitude that even if all my desires cannot become real, there are all sorts of ways that the people that I desire can be important parts of my life, short of my hopes.  And sometimes this may mean that we simply go our separate ways too.  That has to be OK as well.

If the only desire I have for someone is sexual, I better be damned sure I communicate that and be ready to hear a “no” before setting myself up for a situation I’d like to act on it.  If my hopes are multi-faceted, I can allow the relationship to just be what it is.  If they want to bone (yeah, I went there), then we can bone.  If they want to be be friends, close or not, then that is something I can appreciate as well.   But there is no room for coercion here.  There is no room in my life for pushing in a direction that is pushing back against me.  There is no room in my life for harassment.  There is no excuse for harassment, with all the varieties of people, interests, and things to do in the world.  There is a healthy way to pursue your desires, and harassment is not one of them.

I wish that all people felt the same.  Because while I share many of the desires and impulses which I imagine those who have been harassing also feel, I have enough compassion, respect, and consideration to not allow those desires to control my behavior (and I hope it stays that way).  That is, all the hardware and software for harassment exist within me, but somehow I have grown past that and learned to use those desires in healthier ways.  How unaware, how selfish, and how cowardly…how flawed and human…do these people have to be to have kept up the behavior for so long?

I will not allow myself to rationalize trying to “convince” or coerce people to fulfill my desires.  I will not convince myself that I’m just wearing down their uncertainty about what they really want (ugh).  That is a mistake I learned early, and which ended up hurting someone I cared about many years ago.  And so rather than having an awesome and interesting friend, I have a person who will not talk to me anymore.  I have acted in such a way that they no longer trust me, let alone consider me a friend anymore (let alone a lover).  What did my attempts accomplish? And what have the many people, now being named in the skeptic community, who have harassed people they worked with accomplish? At most, it gave them a power rush at pursuing, at the cost of another person’s happiness.

Worth it?

For these and many other reasons those people who have acted poorly have my sympathy, but not nearly as much sympathy as I have for those they mis-treated.  My anger is directed at you, harassers, but that anger is mostly fueled by the potential for the same that exists within me.  I am angry at our many human flaws, because they are what hurt us.  Knowing that had I had a different past, one where I was not exposed to introspection, compassion, and (yes) feminism early, I might have been more like you is humbling and terrifying.  I hope you will all take this as a learning experience, rather than as a time to dig deeper and make excuses through lawsuits and further lying and hiding behind a system that has protected you (and myself) for so long.

We need to keep challenging ourselves to be better as individuals, as skeptics, and as a culture.  I hope that those being named–and more importantly those not named or those just getting started or who somehow have avoided being called out–will take this as a moment of transformation, rather than rationalization and defensiveness.  After all, we have enough people out there rationalizing their poor behavior already.  We don’t need more swelling their numbers.

—–

A final word, about polyamory.

Polyamory is about more than romance and sex.  The fact is that the women in my life for whom I have hopes are people I genuinely like and want to be closer to, to varying degrees.  If that means we are friends and allies and not lovers, that is a positive things as well (if not a little sucky).  Polyamory is not merely about having more lovers.  It can also be about shifting the way we see desire and how fluid our desires and relationships can be.

There is no need for rush, no compelling anxiety, to pursue a desire now and here if one’s concept of relationship is based in allowing oneself to love, and be loved, by the people in your life as is shared with them.  There are many people that exist in my life, many of them for whom I have strong physical and emotional desires.  But there is no compelling reason to rush towards those desires if they are not reciprocated.  Yes, I feel an anxiety and need inside, but I don’t need to act upon it if it is not shared.  I allow the relationships to be what they are, when they are, because if they are not interested in sharing my desires my pushing will not change that (and if it does, it never brings us closer).  And if they are to change their mind, that will happen by earning their trust by being a decent person, rather than pushing them away through harassment or unwanted solicitations.

While swimming in the sea of the backlash of sexual harassment which has been plaguing the skeptic community of late (again, summary here), I can’t help but think how terrible it is that some people cannot see others around them to whom they are attracted as more than just fantasies to try and procure.  If the people who find themselves wanting what may not be possible would understand that there is more to the fantasy than just sex, especially when that is only possible through coercion, then sexual harassment would be vanishingly rare ( oh, what a nice world that would be!).  Of course, part of the problem, at least in some cases, is probably the desire to conquer, to have power, and to coerce is more powerful than basic empathy.  If that’s the case, then I don’t know what the solution is.

I fear that some people share many of the inner desires that I do, but do not share the capability for empathy that I have.  That is a truly scary thought.

*A point of honesty; I have times in my past crossed appropriate lines, and these acts haunt me from time to time.  The important thing here is that we learn from these actions and grow as people, rather than hide them and allow them to become a secret that we hide from, until they are exposed.  There are quite a few people in the Skeptic community who may wish they had considered that a long time ago, these days.

Relationship Agnosticism: process over teleology February 8, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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In conversations with people over the years, I have been asked, in a myriad of ways, if I think that polyamory is better than monoamory.  Do I think that being polyamorous is better (necessarily or generally) than monoamory?

I’ve dealt with the question before, but I want to take a different approach–a different perspective–on the question today.  I don’t think that polyamory, per se, is better.  I do think many of the skills and lessons that being polyamorous has taught me are superior, but those same lessons could, potentially, be learned while being monoamorous.  What I have come to see as superior is not the ends–not how many romantic, sexual, etc partners one has–but the process of how we get to those ends.

Process over teleology, in short.  Let me explain.

I’ve talked a fair bit about my annoyance that being with one person, even if that monoamory is not the short-term goal, is the mainstream default ultimate goal.  While young and dating, many people will date two or more people within the same time-frame, but the ultimate goal in our culture is to find one person to either settle with or to convince yourself that this one person is all that you need romantically and sexually.  And sometimes it ends up being true, whether for several years or a lifetime, but this model of relationships is not universally ideal.

The problem here is that this approach to relationships is teleological, which means it’s concerned with the ends, rather than the means or the process.  It views the purpose of relationships as being concerned with a set goal (or set of goals) which all current relationships should aspire to.  We should be tying to find a single life-partner, because that’s what real love is or something.  If you are not interested in that, then you might not find happiness, or you may even be doing something wrong.

Let’s take a couple of basic examples; Let’s say that you have been with someone for 5 years and are not married yet, and not considering marriage.   For many people you are doing something wrong, the relationship is a dead end, and you may need to find someone else you are ready to be serious with.  Marriage, monogamy really, is the goal for many people, and if that ring doesn’t present itself, then move on (that’s the wisdom, anyway).  Or maybe you don’t have a single partner for very long, whether serially monogamous or you keep dating more than one person simultaneously.  In this case, the common wisdom says that you might have commitment issues (which may be true), because if you were ready to commit you would stop playing the field and finally become an adult, or something.  In short, if you are not in a monogamous marriage, in a relationship moving towards monogamy, or even looking for that, then you are doing it wrong.

The problem here is not that finding one person to spend your life with is bad per se.  The issue is not about where you end up, the issue is how you were thinking about your desires, emotional and physical needs, and whether you were getting what you actually want from relationships rather than thinking about a default and expected end.

If you have read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, you will see this default set of relationship expectations turned on it’s head.  Here’s a snippet from chapter 3:

Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. But there were also husbands, wives, lovers. There were also monogamy and romance.

“Though you probably don’t know what those are,” said Mustapha Mond.

They shook their heads.

Family, monogamy, romance. Everywhere exclusiveness, a narrow channelling of impulse and energy.

“But every one belongs to every one else,” he concluded, citing the hypnopædic proverb.

The students nodded, emphatically agreeing with a statement which upwards of sixty-two thousand repetitions in the dark had made them accept, not merely as true, but as axiomatic, self-evident, utterly indisputable.

“But after all,” Lenina was protesting, “it’s only about four months now since I’ve been having Henry.”

“Only four months! I like that. And what’s more,” Fanny went on, pointing an accusing finger, “there’s been nobody else except Henry all that time. Has there?”

Lenina blushed scarlet; but her eyes, the tone of her voice remained defiant. “No, there hasn’t been any one else,” she answered almost truculently. “And I jolly well don’t see why there should have been.”

“Oh, she jolly well doesn’t see why there should have been,” Fanny repeated, as though to an invisible listener behind Lenina’s left shoulder. Then, with a sudden change of tone, “But seriously,” she said, “I really do think you ought to be careful. It’s such horribly bad form to go on and on like this with one man. At forty, or thirty-five, it wouldn’t be so bad. But at your age, Lenina! No, it really won’t do. And you know how strongly the D.H.C. objects to anything intense or long-drawn. Four months of Henry Foster, without having another man–why, he’d be furious if he knew …”

Some may think that this is the polyamorous ideal (and for some it may be), but this, as a societal norm, is equally problematic because it discounts the possibility that some people, few or many as they are, may not want more than one person (or anyone at all, for that matter).  This commits the same error as our current culture as being more concerned with the goal than how one gets to where we get.

 

Process-oriented relationships

What do you want?

I mean, what do you desire?

This may not be as easy a question as you think it is.  The reason is that many of our wants are a result of the acculturation we receive as we grow up.  We are guided towards the social and cultural ideals of the world we live in, if not out-right trained or programmed (in some extreme cases), which informs the kinds of answers that come to mind when asked what we want.  When I ask you what you want, here, I’m not asking you what your long term goals are, what you hope to achieve, and especially not what you think you should want.  No, in this case I’m asking what you desire, generally and right now, from people around you.

What types of interactions do you desire with people?

What we actually desire may conflict with the cultural norms around us, and when those things conflict we may find that we automatically, or possibly feel compelled to, lean towards the norm rather than the desire (and for many the opposite is true as well, but that’s an error I’ll not address right now).  People who find themselves attracted to their own gender may pretend otherwise, especially if they are bisexual, due to religious or cultural expectations which devalue homosexuality and bisexuality (especially for men).

If you find yourself desiring two or more people, in our culture the appropriate thing to do is to spend time with all of them, in order to determine which one you will pick, or to simply decide which to pursue so as to avoid conflicts or jealousy.  But this is absurd from a point of view where one is agnostic concerning where one ends up.

If you are not very concerned about what is expected of you from your culture, and you rather follow what you actually desire, then there is no reason to openly, un-apologetically, and unabashedly pursue all of the people whom interest you.  And you should then stay with the people with whom you share some mutually-pleasurable relationship, whether it be purely physical, purely romantic, purely friendly, or any combination thereof.  You should not be concerned about what expectations there are whether from your culture, society, religion, or family.   You should pursue what you want with concern only for the people with whom you have relationships.

In short, love each person as you actually love them, no more and no less.

And wherever that takes you, whether monoamoryy, polyamory, or some other non-monoamorous option, that’s fine.  If you end up being with one person for the rest of your life, then fine (that’s what I call “Accidental monoamory/ monogamy“) and if you end up being with 25 people (to varying degrees or not), that’s fine too.  The point is not to be perpetually strategizing what type of lifestyle you will have, but to simply allow your relationships to go where they naturally lead according to the desires that everyone involved has.

Of course, you should be transparent about this; you should not claim to be exclusive while not being exclusive, for example.  You need to pursue your desires with care and consideration for the people with whom you have relationships.

To sum up, polyamory is not better per se, although I think that what people can learn from polyamory might raise our cultural consciousness about the nature of desire and relationship possibilities which most people don’t consider.  I don’t necessarily want everyone to be polyamorous, but I think everyone should be aware that monoamory is not the only healthy option.  If we allow our actual desires to fuel our pursuit of love and sex, I think many more people will find options more like polyamory, rather than automatically and unthinkingly choose monoamory out of cultural habit.

Loving Authentically January 22, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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We should love the people in our lives as we actually desire to do so. We should not unnaturally inflate or deflate our feelings for anyone. We, speakers of English, suffer from the poverty of words to express the varieties of love.  The Greeks knew better, having multiple words for the various kinds of love we feel for people, and perhaps there is a lesson here. Not all love is erotic. Not all love is adoring. Not all love is brotherly. Sometimes we will only feel brotherly (or sisterly) towards a person, while other times we may feel the hot coal of Eros burning within us to touch, savor, and embrace another (or many others) with pure passion. Sometimes we will feel a deep sense of attachment and affection for a person, such that we could not imagine being without them in our lives.  Sometimes you have a little (or a lot) of each.

Whether we are monoamorous, monogamish (a term I’m somewhat annoyed with, personally), “exclusive”  but cheating, or polyamorous we can experience a phenomenon of either inflating or deflating the nature of a relationship based upon social or personal expectations. This happens because how we actually feel for people around us may not fit the categories our culture has for relationships, at least mainstream culture.  In recent decades we have invented new categories, such as friends with benefits, asexuality, etc, but there is still room for better defining what kind of relationships we want from people.

Having been in a number of relationships (and most of the examples below has an analog in my experience), I have noticed that many people will artificially inflate or deflate the nature of that relationship in the name of having that relationship fit into the social context we are used to, or possibly to try and make the relationship look appropriate.  That is, the reality of a relationship may not always mach what it appears to be from the outside, often at the fault of those displaying their relationship.  This phenomenon, of falsely displaying our relationship one way or another, is inauthentic.

What I want to explore here are the implications of this phenomenon on a set of relationships, in order to start thinking about how and why we define our relationships the way that we do and how we might do better.

 

Inflating Relationships

Monoamory,* in some cases, will force us to inflate how we care for someone unnecessarily and unnaturally. Because people are insecure or afraid, we may have to overcompensate for moments when we may show interest in other activities, other people, and even other potential loves. If we err by having an affair, we try to soften the damage by saying things like “she/he means nothing to me” or “I only want to be with you, nobody else” which are obviously not true in many cases.  Except in rare cases, monoamory is based upon a lie, or if not a lie then an inauthentic approach to who we love.  We try to convince ourselves, and often we tell our partner, that we only want one person, and that we are happy only with them.  We create a mythology of happiness and fulfillment in exclusivity, when the actual behavior–cheating is rampant–says otherwise.

The result is that we try and inflate our partner to being all that we need, everything to us, and the object of all of our romantic and erotic desires. Now, there may in fact be cases where this is actually true, but I suspect that in most cases such claims are an exaggeration of the truth. We may, in fact, have a substantial amount of affection, respect, and attraction to our monoamorous partner, but there is always room to have similar affections, respect, and attraction to other people. To claim to not have such feelings for others is to either deceive or to be a very rare case, if not an unhealthy one.  There are times of course, when we do not lie about our other desires, but for various reasons agree to not pursue them.  This is not as inauthentic, but is perhaps absurd and an accommodation to our fears and insecurities.

When we are single, taking steps into the wilds of polyamory outside of our existing relationship(s), or even when we are in the beginnings of what might become an illicit affair, we may end up either inflating or deflating how we feel for someone. There are times when the way we care for someone is mostly physical. We may actually like the person, rather than hate or be annoyed by them them, but here the primary connection is sexual, sensual, and erotic. For a number of reasons, we may feel that this base desire is insufficient, disrespectful, or possibly immoral in terms of continuing a purely physical, but not emotional or “spiritual” (whatever that means) relationship with them. In such times, we may feel compelled to communicate a feeling of love and try to make more out of the relationship than which actually exists.

This inflation may result in a relationship that walks and talks like a serious relationship, but it does not feel that way inside, perhaps for either of you. You may call the other person your partner, you may be exclusive with them, but the relationship lacks an emotional, intellectual, etc depth that one of both of you may crave. Now, there is no necessary reason to discontinue the physical relationship because of this, because all you need to do is find someone with whom you share the other things you desire in a relationship. So long as the sexual connection lives and is reciprocated, then there is no reason to stop it, but there is also no reason you should pretend the relationship is more than what it is. There is nothing wrong with having acquaintances, friends, or even people with who you have no emotional connection to as a lover, so long as the arrangement benefits both people.

When we are polyamorous, something similar may happen. We may have an ideal that all of our partners should be of similar seriousness, that we should try and develop an emotional depth with all of our lovers or else a relationship will be inferior or unworthy. We may feel, in short, like promoting sex partners to the rank of full romantic partners, when what the two people want from each other is a good time now and then. We need to love the people we love as we actually desire to love them, even if that love is solely erotic in nature, or solely romantic in nature for that matter.

In short, no matter how many relationships we have some or all of them may be presented to the world as more than they feel like inside.  We may do so for all sorts of reasons having to do with the society in which we live, but all of those reasons are inauthentic.  We need to be honest with ourselves, our partners, and the world around us (insofar as it is their business) about what our relationships are, and not inflate them unnecessarily.

 

Deflating Relationships

Let’s say you’ve been committed, for some substantial amount of time, to a wonderful person with whom you share a deep affinity, share many enjoyable days and nights with, and with whom you share a healthy and active sexual relationship. You have decided to remain exclusive, whether overtly or by mere assumption or accident (based on cultural norms and such), and are happy with your partner.

Let’s say that through work, social circles, or merely by mere chance you happen to meet a person with whom you develop a healthy rapport, you become friends and find that not only do you respect and care for them, you are very attracted to them (or perhaps you are only attracted to them sexually.  If so, the following is equally true). This relationship is a threat to that exclusivity, and in many cases an affair will happen in such cases, often damaging or destroying the primary relationship.  But an affair and damage are not the only options.

In some such cases something different happens. Whether you and your new friend admit an existing attraction or not, it exists but it is suppressed, pushed away, and ignored. You decide to remain platonic friends (or to avoid one-another), despite the reciprocated desire for more. You deflate the appearance of the relationship from what it feels like, inside. You are pretending not to love them in a way that you very much want to love them, so you try and redirect that erotic love into brotherly or sisterly love or to a lack of any relationship at all.

Why do we do such things? The feelings already exist, why do we lie to ourselves about them? Is that love, which already exists, going to do more damage if actually acted on? Yes, you should be honest about your feelings, not only to your new friend but to your partner with whom you have had, perhaps up until then, an agreement to exclusivity. It is such circumstances which support my belief that the vast majority of humans have the inclinations towards polyamory within us already, we just need to be honest about them.  Thus, another option here is to explore non-monoamorous solutions, whether swinging, polyamory, or mere monogamishness.  One does not merely have the choice of either suppressing the desire or cheating, in such circumstances.

Of course, this does not happen only to people involved in a relationship. Single people deflate as well. Some people may have insecurities, fears, or etc which affect their ability to pursue their desires. We may have strong feelings for a person, but not communicate them out of fear of rejection. We may do so because they are not seen as good enough or socially appropriate for us, especially in view of peers or family. They may be single and interested in somebody who is already polyamorous, and be unsure about their ability to handle the emotional consequences of pursuing someone they have to share.

Non-monoamorous people can do something similar as well, especially when they are relatively new to polyamory, or who are involved in the swinging community. Poly people who pursue others may deflate how they feel for a partner in order to protect the feelings of others they are with; to defend jealousies. Jealousies need to be addressed, not merely accommodated to or coddled. We should not pretend that our new love is merely a mild interest, or that our mild interest is merely a friend. Be direct about what what people mean to you, and encourage them to do the same for you.

Swingers, in some cases, ignore or avoid romantic feelings for sexual partners because most swingers become so because they are seeking, primarily, new sex partners and not romantic partners. They may realize that an emotional connection might be destructive to their primary relationship. There are some people inthe swinger community who, if they start to have feelings for their sex partners, stop hanging out with those people. They may decide to suppress those feelings, much like the hypothetical you did above with your new friend, except in this case it is the romantic love which is suppressed, rather than the erotic.

In short (again), no matter how many relationships we have some or all of them may be presented to the world as more than they feel like inside.  We may do so for all sorts of reasons having to do with the society in which we live, but all of those reasons are inauthentic.  We need to be honest with ourselves, our partners, and the world around us (insofar as it is their business) about what our relationships are, and not inflate them unnecessarily.

Concluding thoughts

I encourage all of us, especially myself (as I struggle with this phenomenon as well), to have the courage to admit how we really feel, or to allow ourselves to find how we really feel about the people around us. We may be suppressing feelings without being aware of it, leading us to miss out on a relationship or to remain in one we may not wish to continue.

If the way you feel about a person is erotic, let that attraction be known. If you feel an abiding reverence, deep affection, or romantic impulse for someone, then express that as well. If you see someone as like a brother or sister to you, and while you may not be attracted to them you want them as part of your life, your family, etc, then let that relationship grow as well. And if you feel all of these things, whether in abundance or not, let that relationships—let those relationships—be what they are, informed by your desire and authentically pursued..

Love each person according to your reciprocated desires, and do not artificially inflate or deflate that love out of respect for any cultural, religious, or psychological expectation. In short, love authentically.

 

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*I use the term ‘momoamory’ and the correlating ‘non-monoamorous’ in the interest of being aware that not all relationships are marriages.  Monogamy is an exclusive marriage, technically, and while it is applied to cover all exclusive relationships between two people, I prefer to be more precise and inclusive with my terminology.