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Trying it July 18, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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2 comments

My partner just recently went through a breakup with a guy she’d been seeing recently. He was new to polyamory, and from what I could tell, he was not handling the newfound relationship territory well. At some point towards the end of the relationship, he requested that she try monogamy for him, since he was willing to try polyamory for her.

You know, in order be fair. Since he tried a new relationship configuration for her, she should try something similar for him.  50/50 compromise, right?

Nope. That’s not how that works.

OK, so I think I understand what’s going on here, in his head. It seems like there is some serious blindness occurring here, which I’m not especially surprised about but which I am somewhat fascinated with nonetheless. The assumption seems to be that he is putting a significant effort into trying to understand polyamory (whether he actually was doing so is another question. She seems to think not), and is not finding that it is what he wants so in order for the relationship to have the equal give and take on both sides, he’s requesting that his partner, who is also my partner, try being monogamous with him.

It’s only fair, right?

I mean, it would mean that she’d have to break up with me to do so. But that’s hardly the important point here. The important point is that in our culture, a person who is polyamorous is almost certainly extremely aware of what monogamy is, how it works, and does not need to “try it” to understand how it is likely to go. The important point is that he either does not understand that we, polyamorously-inclined people, already know what being monogamous entails and how it’s likely to work for us, or he does understand and he is trying to guide his fear, jealousy, etc into a comfortable box within which he can assert control.

In fact, it’s somewhat analogous to when a Christian evangelical tries to introduce non-believers to Jesus, as if we don’t know it, already. They seem either completely unaware that we understand their message and their worldview, or they are so afraid of their own uncertainties about said story that they want to pull others into their little box in an attempt to placate their fear with vindication through company.

Poly people, especially those of us who think and write about it, are aware of monogamy in a way that monogamous people, in many cases, are not. We see it from multiple perspectives, because we are faced with the various facets, assumptions, and problems of the traditionally monogamous world. We don’t need to try it because not only, in many cases, did we come from the monogamous world, but we also tend to have a greater understanding of relationship dynamics in general.

[I’ll add, here, that this is not an argument that we are smarter, more wise, or right, just that we have a perspective which grants us the potential for greater vision of the relationship/sexuality landscape]

So, no. We don’t need to try monogamy for those partners struggling with the shift to polyamory. We certainly can if we choose to, but such a request comes across as more of an attempt to manipulate and control than to lead towards a more healthy and satisfying relationship.

And, to my relief, she said no.

Which is great, because I love her and I wouldn’t want her to leave me for some monogamous bloke, unless it was what she actually wanted.

 

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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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4 comments

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.

Religion: circumventing critical thought one childhood at a time July 29, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Jesus loves the little children

Jesus loves the little children

At some point in our lives people will wonder about meaning, truth, and purpose.  Whether it is a time of plenty (and thus luxury of time to ponder these things) or of great struggle (and thus the seeming necessity of thinking of such things), people will find themselves considering what our purpose is, what the meaning of life is, and what is true.

Now, what matters, in my opinion, more than the answers to these questions is the method by which we get to them.  And one of the problems with our American culture is a lack of critical thinking skills as well as a terrible education system that focuses on answers rather than method.  Tens of millions of people in this country do not know how to think well, especially when it comes to questions of meaning, purpose, and truth.

So what do they do when they find themselves wondering what it is all about? What cultural factor comes to mind first when they wonder about why we are here, what we should do, etc? Religion.

Because most of us were exposed to going to church, synagogue, or temple (among other names for the places we go as a child to see religiousy stuff), this is the window through which many people begin to enter the realm of philosophical questions.  And there should be no doubt that philosophy and theology have been intertwined throughout history.  As the saying goes, “philosophy is the hand maiden of theology.”

Now, philosophy has certainly found new employment and has created a strong secular home for itself, but there is still much in our philosophical endeavors that look like theology to me.  It is precisely because we are exposed to religious ideas as a child and we rarely are exposed to much critical thinking or philosophy divorced from religious sources that this is the case.  What is that phrase? Oh, right; “Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man.”  Those Jesuits, they surely knew how to party.

After all, what other source can one turn to, especially when they reach adulthood, when questions of meaning come up? A person who has not been exposed to philosophy and critical thinking will surely remember the sermons on those early Sundays (or Friday evenings…whatever).  It is, thus, no surprise that when people look for meaning in their lives that they turn, or return, to religion. What other tool have they been given?

I’ve known a good number of people that could fit into the following description to varying degrees; A lack of interest in religion or god as a child, but exposure nonetheless.  As a teenager other things concern them as their hormonally raging bodies are distracting them towards boys or girls and other high school sort of things.  College; freedom, responsibility, parties, drinking, poor decisions, guilt, shame, boredom, unfulfilled, looking for something better.  Campus Crusade for Christ (or some other similar organization), Jesus loves you despite your “sins,” redemption, social support group, born again Christian, new life.

Credit goes to God.  They could not have done it without his grace.  No credit goes to them, for their decision to change, or even to the community of support that they surround themselves with.

Now, this is not my story, not by a long shot.  I was lucky enough to have been exposed to multiple religious traditions while young, an excellent education, and a strong mind. And in my travels I have met more than a few people who have described something very much like the previous paragraph as having been their experience.  Of course, there are other models for how people find their way back to religion.  They may even describe themselves as having been heathens, atheists, etc before their change.  Just look at Kirk Cameron.

No, people like that, in the vast majority of cases, just never took the time to really think about it.  And so when they were introduced to the message of the religion they return to, they were not equipped with the tools they needed to evaluate the claims made.  They were susceptible to a manipulative message because they felt like they needed something, some explanation, and they were approached by an evangelical at the right time.

And it is not that these people are completely bereft of critical thinking skills.  It is just that people have the ability to compartmentalize their minds such that they do not apply critical thinking skills to certain things that are accepted for emotional reasons.  Smart people are able to rationalize all sorts of things they accept to be true.

Our early exposure to religious ideas gives those types of ideas a kind of emotional association and import that sticks with us through our lives.  And so while for most of our childhood we may not think too much about these ideas, they remain assumed to some degree and our critical thinking slips right past them like they were cloaked in some invisible field that our intelligence just slides off of.  And when we, upon finding ourselves in need of answers, the evangelical message has a secret door to our mind held open by years of emotional associations and thus can circumvent the skeptical filters that we build up for just about everything else we evaluate.

This is one of the reasons that atheists are so vilified in culture; religion is a subject that causes emotional defensiveness when criticized.  Religion is held in our culture as an exception.  We are built to defend our religious beliefs and so they have a special place in the cultural conversation.

No more.  Stop making this exception.  It’s time for us to grow up and challenge our notions about religion, belief in god, and its role in our lives.  Learn critical thinking skills and apply them to your deeply held beliefs.  It will hurt.  It will be difficult.  But all growth involved the destruction of the ediface on which it is built.