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

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

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

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

“No, never!”

“What, never?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On feelings: expression vs. endorsement

Courtesy of two great conversations I had recently, I’m pondering the difference between having a feeling, expressing the feeling, and endorsing the feeling. And, specifically, how to operate all three when you’re having a feeling that you think (or suspect) is unjustified.


Having a feeling is, well, having a feeling. Whether you feel it as a surge of emotions, a pattern of thought or sensations in your body, the feeling is there. Feeling angry. Feeling scared. Feeling resentful. Feeling elated. Having the feeling is the strictly internal experience.

Expressing the feeling is making the feeling known to people outside yourself. That can be verbal and direct, (“I feel really angry,”) it can be nonverbal (punching a wall), or it can be verbal and indirect, (“That person sucks and I hate them!”) In both the nonverbal and verbal-indirect expressions, you don’t ever identify the feeling as anger, but it’s fairly evident to observers that anger is what you’re feeling. (Sometimes, it may be obvious that you’re feeling something but unclear what. Or you may express a feeling in a way that’s easily misinterpreted, such as someone who expresses anxiety by acting cold and standoffish, leading people to assume they’re feeling something like contempt instead.)

Endorsing the feeling is saying, implying, or believing that the feeling you have is justified and appropriate. Or, if you don’t like applying concepts like “just” and “appropriate” to feelings (I’m not sure I do either), it’s affirming that if you were the ideal version of yourself, you’d still have that feeling in response to the same circumstances. It may (but doesn’t necessarily) involve believing that you should continue to have that feeling, or that other people should share that feeling. It’s believing that the person you’re angry with really has done something wrong; believing that the person you’re giddily in love with really is the finest human specimen to walk the earth; believing that the people at the party you’re anxious about really are all judging and criticizing you behind their smiles.

Having vs. expressing

There’s a common trope around emotional management that goes something like, “Feelings aren’t bad or good, they just are; it’s what you do with them that’s bad or good.” In general I agree with that statement, but it really only deals with the gap between having a feeling and expressing the feeling (where “expressing” can be anything from, “I feel resentful toward you” to leaving flaming bags of dog-poop on their doorstep.) Bringing in the endorsement piece adds another dimension. So you’ve decided that a flaming poop-bomb isn’t the most beneficial way to express resentment in your situation; that still doesn’t address whether you feel that your resentment is, on the whole, justified.

Having vs. endorsing

The gap between, “I feel this” and “it is good or right for me to feel this” is an uncomfortable one, and a lot of people try to erase it. You can do this one of two ways: you can assert that any feeling you have is justified, that of course any right-thinking person in your situation would feel the same way. This gets in the way of critical thinking ability at a fundamental level. The most easily identified people who do this don’t use any kind of rationalist or justifying language, just state their feelings as if it’s self-evident that their feelings are justified: everybody they’re angry with is an asshole, everything they’re anxious about is a dire threat, everybody they love is awesome and wonderful. Those of us who are steeped in rationalist and critical thought principles, though, still do it: we just rationalize our feelings, and sometimes we do it so skillfully that even we don’t notice it’s happening. (I feel fairly confident that every human on earth does this to some extent, even those of us who tend to err more in the opposite direction.)

The other direction is to suppress and deny any feelings you have that aren’t in line with your ideal self or sense of justice. This is the direction I went (hi, religious upbringing!) and it’s pretty crippling. “I know that anger at this person would be unreasonable, therefore I’m not angry. The grinding in my teeth and obsessive-hashing-over of imaginary arguments with them must be something else.” It’s a quick road to completely blinding yourself to some of your emotions. Over time, it leaves you unable to interact sincerely and authentically with people, because everything you feel has to go through the justification-filter, and you will strenuously deny having any feelings that you don’t endorse.

Contrary to both these approaches is being able to acknowledge a feeling without endorsing it. “I’m really pissed at Ryan. I know what happened was both our faults and I might have done the same thing in his place, but I’m still angry.” Once you get past the cognitive dissonance, this is really liberating. The emotionally-reactive self and the critically-evaluative self are not good harness-mates: they have different jobs to do and yoking them together impairs both of them. Freed from the need to rationalize or suppress, it’s possible to process through emotions effectively while retaining your sense of justice and critical thought. (At least, this has been my limited experience so far. It’s still very much a work in progress.)

Expressing vs. endorsing

Once we’ve settled with ourselves that we can acknowledge a feeling without endorsing it, there comes the question of whether, and how, we express it to others. On the one hand, there’s the view that your feelings in the moment are what they are, and honesty demands openly acknowledging them even if you’re not necessarily proud of them. On the other, there’s the view that expressing a feeling is tantamount to endorsing it, so you don’t express anything that you don’t also endorse. This latter view makes sense if your natural tendency is to suppress or deny feelings you don’t endorse: if you struggle even to acknowledge it to yourself, of course you’re not going to admit it to others.

I think in general there’s a lot to be gained from openly expressing feelings, even if they demonstrate that you don’t meet your own standards. They’re a real part of you, and people close to you deserve to know the real you, not just the filtered, approval-stamped version of yourself. (I’m still working on this, and it’s hard.) Expressing these feelings aloud can also help you work through them and bring them into balance.

I also think there are pitfalls in doing this, especially when you don’t make it clear (to yourself or to others) that these are not feelings you endorse. Group consensus is a thing, and when you express a feeling you automatically make it easier for people to justify having that feeling themselves. If we’re not careful to demarcate the line between having/expressing a feeling, and endorsing it, we’re in danger of creating a social feedback loop where one person admits to feeling something (say, an unwarranted level of resentment toward someone), and others feel more justified in their feeling and voice that, leading the original person to begin letting go of the cognitive dissonance in favor of justifying their own feeling. And suddenly the resented person is the scum of the earth within that social group.

Expressing the feeling as well as to what extent you endorse it is a way around this. Saying something like, “I know X meant well and isn’t entirely to blame here, but I’m still furious and right now I’m not able to move past that” is a fuller and more accurate expression of your overall state of mind than just, “X hurt me and I’m pissed.” It also encourages your social circle to continue viewing the situation in a complicated light, rather than sliding towards, “I’m angry and therefore this person sucks.” To my view, it’s maximizing honesty and self-awareness, and people who express themselves this way tend to earn my respect.

Shaming and jealousy (via polytical.org)

Yesterday, Dan Jasper over at Polytical posted some thoughts about shaming and respectful dialogue. As anyone who knows me will guess, I think about the issue of respect and criticism a lot, so this was a subject which grabbed my interest.

I put up a comment (currently awaiting moderation) and wanted to put that comment up here:

Breast milk IS better. The patriarchy IS alive and well. The veto rule IS dangerous. Biblical inerrancy IS illogical. These ideas might be inferior to their counterparts, yet couldn’t that be demonstrated through respectful dialogue, as opposed to shaming?

Sometimes, yes.  But not always.

Christopher Hitchens, a personal favorite of mine actually, personally used shame as a tool against representatives of the Catholic Church (during debates with them, in some cases) in addition to rational points.  He did not respect the Church, and so why would he act as if he did?  In my opinion, Catholic doctrine and actions throughout the world are shameful, and in some cases the people in charge SHOULD be ashamed of what they have done, represent, etc.  We should not merely shame them, but sometimes emotion is the key to rational action.

Your seeming dichotomy between respectful dialogue and shaming is problematic, I think.  For me, respect is based upon honesty, truth, and a willingness to challenge and be challenged, not merely being nice.  Pure rational approaches (if this is what you mean by “respectful dialogue) are not always effective (or affective–HA!).  Unless we are to become straw-Vulcans, we have to recognize the relationship between emotions and intelligence, and that people don’t get to conclusions through purely respectful (especially if only rational) dialogue.  Sometimes the only way to get through to us is to show us how ridiculous our ideas are by playful mockery, pointing to moral failings in our ideals, etc.  In many other cases such tactics are not useful or helpful, but I don’t think shame is never appropriate.

Jealousy is a problem for many, not so much for others.  It is not a moral failing, but it is an unfortunate reality for many people.  I don’t think anyone should be shamed because they are jealous.  I think people should have compassion for the struggle with jealousy.  But if someone is not struggling–not trying to improve their relationship with–jealousy (or other emotional realities), then perhaps they are not working as hard as they could to make themselves emotionally healthy people.  Is that worthy of being ashamed? No, I don’t think so.

But the measure of a person is not so much what you are given, but what you do with it.  If a person who suffers from bouts of jealousy does not confront that problem as best they can, openly and with a desire to actually change it, then perhaps shaming is not appropriate but perhaps transparent disappointment and constructive criticism are appropriate.  And the unfortunate reality is that disappointment and criticism cause shame in people–because they actually are ashamed of being ridden with something.  That is, sometimes shame is the cause even when it is not the tactic used.  So, should we avoid any sort of interactions which might trigger shame, or should we only not intentionally shame?

And if someone is shamed by our attempts at respectful dialogue, should we be ashamed of doing so?  This is more complicated than respect/shaming dichotomies.  Just some thoughts I had after reading this yesterday.  While I agree with many of your points, I think that I disagree with what I perceive as some background assumptions which I see here.

I think that people feel shame quite often not because they were shamed, but because they are ashamed. Thus, it seems that this question of whether we should use shame, while interesting, is not the whole story. Criticism is not using shame, and the post at polytical seems to create ideas which could conflate criticism with shaming, which is problematic.

(sorry for my lack of activity recently. I’ve been feeling sort of depressed recently and am doing what I can to get out of it. Apparently reading polytical.org helps…)

Recommended reading: On being insecure

I follow a few blogs about polyamory.  I specifically like polytical.org, a group of poly people in the UK who often have many good things to say.

Today a post went up that deals with what Lola O, the author, thinks of as some contradictions in the polyamory community.  But, primarily the post is about the tension between the goal (or what might often be an expectation) of becoming a non-jealous super-partner in order to be poly and the reality of human emotion, struggles with said emotions, and the stubbornness of those twice-mentioned emotions in not simply disappearing at will.

In any case, the post there is long enough without my predilection to ramble on (and on, and on) adding to your reading.  So without further ado I will supply you woth the link:

On Being Insecure



Jealousy and polyamory

No! just no....

One of the most cited reasons that people are not polyamorous, even if they are not against the idea in principle, is that they simply could not do it.  They are too jealous.

But jealousy is not a sufficient reason to not be polyamorous.  Not being polyamorous for this reason is simply a way to avoid dealing with the problem of jealousy.

Ever listen to love songs on the radio? Ever watch a sappy romantic comedy where the blunt end of the joke is the presence of competition or possessiveness? The lamenting lyrics of wanting someone’s girl, seeing someone beautiful on the train but she was with another man, or sappy words about how someone belongs to someone else is so ubiquitous that not even us polyamorous people always notice it.  But it is pretty ubiquitous.

Jealousy, whether in the form of competition, possessiveness, or destruction of property is a part of our culture.  It is, indeed, part of the mythology of love in our culture. I use the term myth here because if possessiveness or jealousy are anywhere near the core of love, something is wrong.

But it often is near the core of love in our culture.  Our culture’s use of love, expectations of relationships, and folk wisdom about how to respond to jealousy are pretty unattractive.  It is not surprising that this is the case, especially given that the Bible (which is a part of the foundation of our Western culture) seems to condone this behavior in the book of Exodus.

20:3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

and it gets better two verses later!

20:5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

20:6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

[emphasis mine]

See, god loves us, but if we were to cast a casual glance to some other god, he would smite us.  And we’d deserve it, of course! How could we be so slutty….

Jealousy as a bad thing

The problem is that people don’t see jealousy as a bad thing.  As the picture at the top of this post shows, there is an idea in our culture that jealousy is somehow an indication that the love is real, rather than imitation love or whatever.  I have been told before that if I don’t mind my girlfriend sleeping with other men, I don’t really love her.  Such people say that when I meet someone who I really love, I would not want to share her.

I suppose I don’t love either of you, Ginny and Gina.  Sorry….

Bullshit! That idea is patently absurd.  I love both of them and I don’t see how bowing to any jealous or possessive feelings I may have is someone more real than recognizing that they are both intelligent, talented, and beautiful people who anyone could love.  How is it rational to love someone (or some thing) and not expect other people to love them too?  And what right do I have to claim possession to a person just because I love them? That is the implication, right; I love them, and anyone else who does is competition.

Of course, for many of us anyway, jealousy still occurs.  Sometimes it’s mere envy, but sometimes it’s not. But what do we do about it?  Do we address the object of our jealousy or do we address the fact that jealousy is damaging to relationships and love in general? Most resources I have seen seem to emphasize that the feeling is probably unwarranted; that what we fear is not happening and we need to stop being so suspicious.  But when you share your lovers, the thing you feel jealous about is happening!  The question is whether you should feel bad about that.

Obviously, if you are agreeing to non-monogamy with your partner(s), you have no justification to be angry about it happening, even if you do feel jealous from time to time.  In such circumstances, your project should be to find ways to rid yourself of those types of reactions so that your good feelings for those people are not tainted by unpleasant experiences of feeling possessive or insecure as a result.  Eventually, you may grow to like the idea of sharing (some call this compersion.  I hate that term.  It’s still better than frubble), and jealousy may be nothing but an unpleasant memory or a curiosity for reflaction on human nature.

Monogamous people may have reasons to be angry if their partners have romantic or sexual relationships with other people (since this was not agreed upon, by definition), but the jeaousy is still something they should try and transcend.  Jealousy does not stop it from happening, and if it is not happening it causes unnecessary anxiety.  It is a sign of lack of trust, security, and can only act to drive people apart, rather than help in any way.

Therefore, there is no excuse for tolerating jealousy, even if one is monogamous.

Monogamy is not a cure for jealousy

Even if you choose a lifestyle of sexual exclusivity, your partner will probably love someone else.  They will probably find other people sexually and/or romantically attractive, they will have fantasies about those people, and ultimately they will probably want more than you are able to give.  If you decide to structure your relationship such that neither of you will pursue anything beyond friendship with others, so be it, but this will not eliminate the existence and problem of jealousy.

It will just avoid the problem by treating the symptom rather than the underlying cause.

The love you have for someone is because of who they are, and should not be dependent upon who else loves them or who else they love.  So, for someone to say that they could not be polyamorous because they are too jealous, what they seem to be saying is that they do not want to deal with the reality of human needs, desires, or the possibility that they may not be able to satisfy every need a person has.

Jealousy is not a reason not to be polyamorous; it is a reason to consider not being in a relationship with anyone.  Jealousy does not go away just because you are not sharing, it just isn’t challenged when we are not sharing.  It’s sort of like teaching children how to share toys; if you just keep them all separate and let them play with their toys separately, the problem never arises.  But when you put children together, they fight over toys.  Separating them does not alleviate the problem, it only avoids it.

Similarly, separating everyone out with monogamous pairings does not make jealousy go away, it just tries to create a dynamic where it ideally is never relevant.  It is an unrealistic expectation and is rarely possible.  So why try?

Only because it avoids the problem most of the time.  From a practical point of view, it is easier to not deal with hard problems.  But this is short-term thinking, and does not lead to us growing up to emotional adulthood.  Jealousy is one of the many aspects to human behavior which we need to address as a species, and too often it is shelved in the name of practicality.

We can do better than that.

Objections to polyamory

I have had a number of conversations about relationships, sexuality, and exclusivity over the years.  I’ve heard many proposed reasons why polyamory cannot work for people in general or for specific individuals.  But what are most interesting are the objections which are intended as critiques of polyamory, but if analyzed they turn out to be apologies for remaining jealous or possessive.  

Now, I’m not quite an evangelical for polyamory, although I believe that it would be the inevitable outcome of people being honest with what they wanted, assuming they are willing to do the necessary work to mature and be capable of maintaing healthy relationships.

But what many people who argue that polyamory is not for them or is not ideal (or sinful or some other equivalent to it being wrong) seem to be doing is romanticizing poor relationship attributes.  That is, there is a difference between saying that you are happy in your exclusive relationship and saying that you could not be polyamorous because you are jealous or possessive.

Further, many arguments against polyamory could be viewed as arguments against relationships in general.  This is true especially when people ask me why I’m getting married if I’m polyamorous.  The assumption seems to be that to marry is to sacrifice through exclusive commitment, which somehow makes it more meaningful.  Perhaps it is a reminder that marriage’s origins (as a cultural institution) are ultimately derived from a property relationship.

Essentially, much of our modern concepts about relationships are based upon the model of marriage, or at least engagement, which are ultimately derived from property relationships.  And so when people argue for the conservative idea of monogamy, they are stuck in a cultural tradition forged in the fires of seeing our romantic partners as our possessions, rather than true equal partners.

Yes, I think that’s it.  Much of the romanticization of exclusivity are essentially about thinking about other people as property.  How many “love songs” talk about belonging to each other, being mine, etc?  The myth is that the closeness of that special exclusive bond creates something which is unattainable or at least cheapened by non-exclusivity.

And being in two serious, intimate, and loving relationships, I can safely say bullshit.  Much like there are many myths about the worthiness of faith, love of god, etc there are myths about relationships.  And much like faith being irrational and unhealthy, assumed exclusivity in relationships, which is ultimately derived from property relationships historically, is unhealthy.

Your lovers and romantic partners are not your property.  You are not sharing what is yours in being polyamorous, you are just recognizing the reality that they will love other people and are grown up enough to not demand that they ignore this fact.

When it rains it pours

I am just in a great mood! I had such a wonderful weekend, and I want to share it with the world.

Being polyamorous with someone as wonderful as my dear Ginny is amazing in itself.  I feel very lucky to have someone who fits me so well, who is so beautiful inside and out, and who I can expect to spend a fun, nurturing, and challenging (in the good way) life.  But recently we met a couple who just got married, and since they are also polyamorous (and they are not exactly a couple; there is a third in there), we started to spend some time with them over the last couple of months or so.  And just this last few days it blossomed into a great situation where I find myself beginning what I hope will be another intimate and meaningful relationship.  Of course there is no way to know at this point whether it will be successful or not, but my instincts are good.  I am able to be objective enough to know that intense emotions can cloud judgment and foresight, but I have every reason to believe that all the ingredients are quality, the chemistry is right, and our desire to create something awesome is mutual.

In other words, I met someone I really like, and am feeling really positive about it.  (I have not asked her if I can use her name here, so for now she will remain nameless).  In fact, not only has my fortune been good, my fortune hit the jackpot and doubled.  In addition to the one nameless (girlfriend? Hmm, I guess we have not discussed titles yet) woman I just left less than an hour ago, I have also started to see another woman who I clicked with very easily.  Just yesterday (Saturday) I had a fantastic first date with someone I had met a couple of years ago (before my brief stint in Atlanta), but she recently discovered me on OKCupid (where all the awesome poly peeps are, apparently) and we went out and have a fantastic time.  That on top of seeing my new lady friend both Friday and tonight…I’m a little worn out, I have to say….

And on top of that, Ginny is having a great time with her new boy toy…ok, I don’t know what to call him either.  I suppose all that will work itself out in time.  We are just happy and evolving little poly family here, and I am loving every minute of it.

For those of you who think that this polyamory thing cannot work, that it is destructive and can only lead to hurting people, all I have to say is bullshit! I am happy to see Ginny happy and enjoying herself with another person, and she is happy to see me happy and enjoying myself with another person.  (This phenomenon is what is referred to as compersion, or sometimes as frubble.  Google is your friend).  We love each other, are affectionate and open with each other, and we have other people we care about and have sex with.  And, while ultimately I just want people to find what makes them happy, fulfills their desires, etc I think that many monogamous people who say that they could not do this are really missing out on something awesome.  But, again, I’m riding high on emotion and am, perhaps, not seeing it all clearly at the moment; I just know that right now I am feeling the poly high.

So, now that I am on the verge of finding a way to build three relationships (of varying significance and intensity), I find that I’m looking forward to it.  What more could a person want than more love, friendships, and hot, hot sex with sexy people?

Life is good.


New Relationship Energy

I’ve been in a relationship for some time now with a wonderful woman called Ginny.  The circumstances of how our relationship started have to do with a heart-wrenching break up in January of this year and the right person at the right time and place.  Due to the timing of this meeting, it took a while to allow myself to grow closer to her, although closer I grew and I would not want to imagine life without her now. She will never fully understand how her presence in my life was essential for me through an awful time that still occasionally causes sleepless nights.

Because of the slow emotional growth that occurred between us and my emotional fragility in which it grew, there was not that intense emotional high that often punctuates the beginnings of a relationship.  I was emotionally cautious, having been hurt so badly so recently, and didn’t allow my emotions to flower in ways they had with previous lovers.  I had missed the high of the New Relationship Energy (NRE).

This is not to say that I don’t have intense feelings for her, only that they developed slowly, and thus settled deeper.  There is depth that may not have been created under more normal circumstances.  Well, normal is relative, right?

What I mean is the situation I am in now is relatively normal within polyamorous circumstances, but not so normal outside of that worldview.  You see, there is this girl (who I will leave nameless because I am not sure she would want to be identified)  that I have liked for quite a while now.  In fact, she was among the first people I met when I traveled to Atlanta last Summer to look for apartments for my ex and I to move into.  It just happened to be the weekend of Dragon*Con, so of course there was that too.

When we met, I was instantly attracted to her (and her to me), but I was not in a place to pursue a relationship with anyone else because my ex and I had decided to be exclusive for a while before opening up our relationship.  With us moving from Philadelphia to Atlanta and her constantly traveling for work, the amount of relationship tensions were going to be high so the arrangement seemed prudent.  I respected that arrangement in act and intention (not like it mattered in the long run) and kept a respectful distance between us despite the mutual attraction.

But once the ex abandoned me (after inviting me to move down here 3 months previous) I re-connected with her and re-initiated a friendship.  (You see, the ex didn’t approve of her at all, even as a friend, so…).  We have been talking over the last few months, spent some time together, and then this past weekend we spent a lot of time together.  She met my girlfriend, they liked each other, and I asked her is she wanted to be my girlfriend as well.  The answer is forthcoming (and it looks like she may say yes, but we shall see) but in either case the last couple of days have been filled with that high, that NRE, that I had not felt since the ex who I will not name (not out of any hatred or resentment on my part, but out of reverence for her wishes) and I first started spending time together. Ah, for the blissful days of innocence before the fall….

In any case, I’m experiencing NRE big-time, and I look forward to seeing her again (I will tonight).  I’m all giddy, tingly, and excited just thinking about it. I hope that she will say yes to my proposal, but even if she does not I will want to remain close with her because even if she does not want to be my lover, she’s gotta get with my friends…sorry.

So, what does this mean for Ginny? Well, she approves of my proposal and is happy for me being happy.  There are concerns about how it will effect our relationship, but we have talked (and will continue to talk) about any concerns she has. Open and honest communication is paramount in relationships, especially in arrangements like this.  If she accepts, it will change the dynamic of my relationship with Ginny to some degree.  The ideal is to add to the dynamic in ways that benefit everyone.  Whether that means a triad (three people in relationships with each-other), a “V” (me having separate relationships with both of them, ideally with them on friendly terms), or something in-between is yet to be seen.  But for now I will ride the NRE wave as long as it will last and try to allow it to settle into a relationship of genuine love, affection, and mutual growth.

The key is to not allow the NRE to take away from my existing relationship.  It is easy to get caught up in that NRE and to leave the other person feeling under-appreciated.  This is a difficult avenue to navigate, one that I have made mistakes with in the past, but I hope that I have learned sufficiently to not make those mistakes again.

And certainly this phenomenon is not unique to Polyamory.  How often have you noticed that early in an intense relationship you see your friends less, get less sleep, and otherwise get caught up with the intensity of it all?  Now imagine having this while another lover of yours sits aside watching you ride this wave.  While frubble or compersion might come into play (as it has for Ginny in the last couple of days), often some envy or jealousy might as well.  It is really important to be aware of this (even if it is with friends rather than other lovers), because those close to you will miss you while you ride that wave.

So, be aware that your NRE will affect others around you.  And if you can, try and spread some of those good feelings around; share some of that intensity with others so that they can get an idea of how good you feel.