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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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Not Okay August 10, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Polyamory.
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I’m not okay.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not okay, but that’s okay.

Family as a Ka-tet: The Dark Tower as a lesson in living well August 4, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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dt7-12So, I really love the Dark Tower series. I’ve read the books twice (I read the first three before the 4th came out, then read them again when the fourth came out, and then all of them again before book 7 came out). I’ve listened to the audio books, twice, and am listening to them again on my work commute. I’m currently on book three.

I also own some of the graphic novels, but am more interested in the earlier ones, which filled in the gaps of the story, rather than the ones which re-tell the story in graphic novel form. I’m not a huge fan of the graphic novel style, and prefer the details of the books.

As I was listening to the audio book this morning, something occurred to me. There are many reasons I love the story, the universe, and even how it ended (I know many people don’t like many things about how it ended, or even the direction Stephen King went with the later books), but something else poked it’s head out at me about the series which has, perhaps unconsciously, created a set of expectations about how the concept of family has formed for me.

I will not give any major spoilers, but if you plan of reading the books, graphic novels, etc in the future and don’t want to be spoiled at all, skip this.

 

Ka-tet, Vulnerability, and Family

Starting in book 2, we start seeing the formation of Roland’s little pack of gunslingers, on their way to the Dark Tower. We meet them, as they are drawn into Roland’s world through detailed and often deeply life-altering ways which expose the dark corners of these characters. Each character has to confront major personal struggles in order to find their way on the path of the beam, and each of them finds inner strengths through their adventure together.  It is a metaphor, I believe, for the intimacy which people must share to truly be a part of another’s world, at least as much as we can be a part of each-other’s world.

This is a story of people drawn together by what in the mythology of the universe calls ka, and is related to the concept of fate. As they become entangled into ka’s web, they become ka-tet.  They are more than friends, more than family, and they are intimately connected in ways that only the closest of friends, family, etc ever reach. Any of us are lucky if we ever have one person who gets this close, and some people may have a few people who become as close as these travelers become in Stephen King’s fantasy.

darktowerkatet

If you understand why this image pangs my heart, remember well all the times you find true love and success, and say thankee sai

They, in short, are completely vulnerable with each other, sharing their lives, thoughts, minds, and bodies with each other in ways which defy distance and secrets (as well as actual possibility; it is fantasy, after all). In the end, they are as close as people can be to each other. There are moments of anger, regret, arguing, intimacy, victory….and defeat. But whether they will all reach their goal or not, whether their heart-breaking story ends well or not, all the while they were together, they were vulnerable and intimate with each other in ways that draw me closer to them, and has inspired me to become closer to the people I love, especially myself.

They were all in, withholding nothing.

 

Taking lessons from fantasy and real research

Related to this, I have just started reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly at the recommendation of a friend, who daring greatly, recently reached out to us to reconnect. This book, and other resources of my continuing project of allowing myself to simultaneously find my inner ability to love myself and make myself more open, intimate, and vulnerable to other people, are stepping stones to a better me and a better life. And as I was reflecting on these things over the last few days, I suddenly became aware of another facet of love I have for Stephen King’s magnum opus of a series; the concept of ka-tet.

The characters in this story of The Dark Tower are imperfect, complicated, and all have traumatic personal stories. They overcome shadowy pasts of various kinds to find within themselves strengths that they needed each other to cultivate.  They have all made mistakes, have the capability to do so again, but their relationships are built upon a level of sharing and honesty which has few parallels in our culture. This leads to a level of trust, respect, and love which acts as a mysterious goal of my own–a destination not unlike Roland’s Tower.

We, in this culture, are not trained to be vulnerable, and so when we see true vulnerability we may admire it but find it difficult to do ourselves. Vulnerability, like responsibility, is an attribute admired in others and feared in ourselves. In reading Brene Brown’s book, I’m seeing that the values which our culture holds in esteem are counter-productive for mental, interpersonal, or social health. These are concepts I have been aware of, at many levels, for many years, but seeing it articulated in such a compact, vulnerable, and honest way is refreshing and perhaps a little bit of a slap to the face.

In a world (this real word) where there are no gods, no actual ka, and no Dark Tower weaving our fate, what are we to do? There is no actual ka-tet; no overarching and unavoidable power forcing us together in circumstances where intimacy is almost unavoidable. We will not literally experience the inner minds of others in order to draw them to our world, like with The Dark Tower’s second book, but we might be able to take a few pages from book three onward into our own lives.  Whether it is shared traumatic experiences, overcoming uncertainty and fear of our capabilities, or facing death together there are things which we, as real people, can relate to in book three and many other examples of literature, mythology, etc.

JericoHill-HileForwardIn walking our own paths towards our goals, we find ourselves together and have a desire, almost a need, to share our stories, find strengths and skills encouraged by each other, and to dare (greatly) to achieve successes together we will inevitably create bonds. These bonds may be rare, but however many of these deep bonds you have in your life, for your father’s sake appreciate them and cultivate them well. This is what family is. This is the only refuge of the meaningless, cold, empty universe which cares not if you are happy, sad, or bored. It is only with the people we walk the path with that make the difference between living well and living poorly.

There is a moment, I believe it is in the early chapters of book three (it’s all a blur), where Roland is thinking to himself about what he has done (there was a boy!/there was not a boy!) and the tension for his quest for the tower and the relationships he is forming. He is reminiscing how many have fallen next to him in his quest. In a sense, he has sacrificed them all, and this haunts him. He’s thinking about the balance for the ultimate goal and how he treats the people who walk with him.

It occurs to him that this developing ka-tet provides him with an opportunity for redemption, to change his ka. Whether he succeeds in this redemption is up for debate, but the moment of realization holds powerful emotional potency for me. He stands at a cross-roads, of sorts, looking back at the many people lost in his path of the Tower. He has sacrificed so many others for his quest, and the moment when he becomes aware that he’s gathering more sacrifices, like a snowball rolling down a hill gathers more snow, he decides not to be a monster. For if he were to become that monster, he would sacrifice everything that his quest represents.

Would he hurl his friends, like weapons, at anything in his path? Will his ka-tet be another means to his ends? Such is the future; all of our futures. The ends, he realizes, do not justify the means. Utility, consequentialism, and all other mere goals are not enough to rationalize the path he could take. He recognizes that in the quest for his goal, he is almost certain that these people will almost certainly die like his Hawk, David, which he chose as a weapon in his very first step in the direction of the Tower (whether he knew it then, or not).  But he decides, in that moment, that he will not use his new ka-tet as mere tools, as weapons. He will make them partners, and share a goal with them.

All the while knowing that they may all die, in this quest. As we all, eventually, will.

 

Stopping to smell the crimson roses

tower_rosesIf you have not read The Dark Tower, but you want to, I want to alert you to something. There is a point, late in the last book (book 7), where Stephen King gives you a choice. He tells you to stop reading. But before this, earlier in the book, he also asks you to stop and appreciate a moment of victory. He reminds you to stop, take a look around, appreciate the circumstances you (because you’re invested in his characters, hopefully) are in, before moving on. Later, he simply asks you to stop reading.

In both cases, you have a choice. In the first, the choice is whether you will take a break in your reading at that point and reflect on the gathered ka-tet and appreciate them, or simply turn the page. Later, your choice is whether to keep reading at all. King actually suggests, knowing you will almost certainly not do so, you to put the book away and not finish the story. The reasons for this are not important for us here (it’s also a spoiler), but it is this kind of moment which stands stark against the wall of eternity, for me.

We need to stop, occasionally, and recognize what we have in our lives. We need to halt, take stock, and appreciate when there is something to appreciate, so that we can look back later and see those moments for what they were; beauty, love, and good feelings. But there may also come a time, in our stories, where there may be nothing left to see. There may be times when you should put the book away.

And yet we do not, much of the time.

The first time I read book 7, I actually did put the book down, and didn’t continue immediately. I thought, seriously, about taking the advice and not finishing the book. I walked away, thought about it, but inevitably picked it up again. I wanted to know, needed to know–burned to know–what would happen. Many uncertainties and blind-spots in my life are represented by this metaphor, and no matter how much I might know that it’s better to walk away, I feel the pull of curiosity and (sometimes) hope. What happened next in the book, in both cases where I paused, was hard to read even if it was necessary and compelling.

We all have our Dark Towers to climb, I suppose. Perhaps it is better to not open that door, when we get to it. Perhaps we would all be happier if we simply took in the sight of reaching our destination, then moved on. But as Eve learned (metaphorically, of course), the fruit is too tempting. And just like Eve, warned against tasting the fruit, no matter how long you may be warned against the consequences of such an action, eventually, in all of eternities (and eternal returns; yes, even Nietzsche is relevant to The Dark Tower) you will eat the fruit, open that door, and climb that Tower.

Imagine Eve, obediently avoiding the fruit for years, decades, millennia! Eventually, curiosity will get the better of her. Imagine a reader, at the end of a 7 book series, poised at the edge of the secrets of the story and never finishing it (I imagine at least a few have done so…so far). Gods! No creature capable of curiosity can withstand such a temptation forever, if forever were given to us. In eternities contains all things, I suppose.

We want to know. We want to understand. We can avoid looking for a while, but eventually, we must peek.

tet2I see the inner lives of people the same way. My tower is understanding, of myself and of others with whom I  walk the path of the beam. Many have been lost from my path, whether through death, enmity, or because we were questing for different Towers, ultimately (“Go then. There are other worlds than these”). And each meeting and separation is a moment of choice, where we have the choice of putting the book down or to turn the page. Sometimes, I turn the page and experience the heart-break that follows, and sometimes I put the book down. Sometimes, I turn the page and find my tower where intimacy, vulnerability, and love welcome me in. And perhaps, worst of all, sometimes I put the book down, and leave the hope of all that is beautiful behind.

We don’t know what is inside each Tower, and whether we open them, walk away, or stand with curious grasps at the handle to that great door with indecision, those moments tell our stories. I look forward to the many quests for towers I will find, and I hope that those who walk the path with me will not sacrifice me, or be sacrificed by me, on the way to their own towers, because that way lies madness. Because we are the only real towers, dark or not. All the other towers are illusions, idyllic distractions, and ultimately vanity.

Just like the Dark Tower series, the beauty is in the quest itself, not any hypothetical goal. All the goal will do, ultimately, is put us back on the path where we will either make the same choices or try something else. As Nietzsche observed, if we look at any moment in our lives as a metaphor for all choices, as an option to do this again, eternally, how would we behave? With such a perspective, does the goal matter? If we are forced to reflect on this life and all its choices, would we do the same? As we approach each Dark Tower, each person, will we open it? Will we walk the path with them? Will we hurl them as weapons? Will we sacrifice them for something else?

There is only one final destination we will all approach, either suddenly or with clear foresight. That “clearing at the end of the path” is the only goal we all must travel to, and no Tower lies there. But what friends, family, and ka-tet we bring with us to the edge of that clearing will allow us to look back at our lives with the complexity and unambiguous reality. What we see there may cause us pain, a smile, and most likely both.

It’s only what happens before that which matters. Make the most of it.

Checking Ourselves: Mental Health, Cognitive Bias, and Rifts July 7, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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Proposition:

Mental health and cognitive errors are the foundation upon which we struggle with interactions with groups, individuals, and ourselves. Whether we are diagnoseable in a mental health context or not and whether our cognitive biases are significantly problematic or not, how these types of factors interact with each other will influence how we understand ourselves and the world around us. These individual concerns will supervene into group dynamics, whether for good or bad, and if we are interested in any kind of cohesion, cooperation, or truth as any kind of group then we must pay primary attention to our personal tendencies towards cognitive errors and mental health concerns.

confirmation-biasIt’s pointless to merely defend our position with logical argumentation if our very position is subject to biases and potentially mentally unhealthy attitudes. Before we can be concerned about being right philosophically, we have to first be attentive to the effects of mental health, cognitive biases, and self-justification. Being a skeptic means first being skeptical of our own internal processes, because if an error lies there then that error will expand exponentially at every level of our argument, very likely.  The very basis of motivated reasoning, self-justification, and rationalizations arise when we fail to recognize our own errors in forming opinions.

To trust ourselves or other people, we have to pay attention not only to our intentions and overt logical steps, but also to the emotional and cognitive foundations of our ideas. Thinking we are being rational, honest, and forthright is pointless if we don’t pay attention to the self-correcting steps we need to take in order to be truly authentic as feeling and thinking beings. Intention and honesty are not enough if we are blind to biases which lie under those intentions and our desire to be honest. Honesty is impotent if we’re wrong.

In terms of this, I agree mostly with Peter Boghossian in the following video:

Yes, we need to be forthright.  But in addition to being forthright, we also need to be willing to be wrong, to self-correct, and to head off cognitive biases, whether they take the form of emotional or  rational patterns. If we start out being unwilling to self-correct, this will have obvious ramifications for how we interact with the world, other people, and with our own internal concerns.

Cognitive Biases

mediocreWhen I started writing in blog-like form more than 15 years ago (college newspaper columns mostly, but also some essays I wrote for various publications as well), I was writing almost exclusively about atheism. I was writing screeds against religion, “new atheist” style, back in the lat 1990’s. In college, I studied world religions, cultures, and some philosophy, and my senior thesis was about the philosophical and cultural influences of Greece/Rome on the development of the Catholic Church. I had heard all the apologetics (I have not heard anything really new in years), became fairly good at responding to them, and this helped me discover and become part of the atheist community in early 2002, when I started graduate school.

In talking with theists and other atheists, I had come to witness all sorts of rationalization, motivated thinking, and cognitive biases. I became fairly good at spotting when people are subject to these cognitive errors.  I’m not immune to such things myself (none of us are), but I’m fairly good at noticing it during or at least shortly after doing so (especially with Ginny around to help point it out), and I try to correct it as best I can. The more emotional I am, the more likely I am to be subject to biases. But exposure and attention to these things has helped make me less prone to such things, even if I do occasionally find myself twisted up in logical rationalizations from time to time.

So, when I later started hanging around polyamorous people at meetups, private parties, etc, I started to utilize those tools which I had honed within the atheist community, and started to notice patterns of motivated reasoning, biases, and rationalizations there too.  it’s not just theists (or atheists) who are subject to these concerns.

Most of the motivated reasoning, biases, and rationalizations I ran into was pretty low-level every day stuff, but occasionally I would spot a behavior which was really dug deep in self-justification. And over the years, I have gotten to know various levels of these types of cognitive errors in belief, behavior, and preferences which exist among polyamorous people.

What I have come to believe (tentatively, of course) is that we bring cognitive biases, rationalizations, and self-justification with us into whatever communal or social networks in which we spend significant time.  Those cognitive concerns influence how we will interact with other people, how we will think about issues which come up, and will be the foundation of where we will stand in the case of any disagreements, rifts, or enmity. When things go bad, where you will be stand relative to an argument will be at least partially based upon what kinds of cognitive errors you are prone to.

Going back to the atheist community for a second, let us take a moment to recognize the various splits, rifts, and arguments which have raged over the last several years. A-plussers, slymepitters, and freethought blogs, oh my! Now, I have not seen any significantly complicated analyses of how things like cognitive biases, self-justification, and personal preferences determine where a person will lie on these battle lines, but I’d bet we would start seeing some correlations if we did (which says nothing about causation, I know).

We’re all subject to cognitive errors.  We all have to be cautious with certainty, whether we err on the side of servility or arrogance. We all have to improve at making sure we are paying attention to how our cognitive biases and mental health issues help determine our opinions, behaviors, and relationships. All too often people will demonize another person out of a need for self-justification.  We will idolize someone else for similar reasons.

We need to have the bravery to demand complete honesty, vulnerability, and willingness to be wrong (or right) when not only the facts support it, but also various perspectives on those facts support it. Because facts are also subject to bias. That is, they may seem like simple facts, but memory is subject to emotion and bias, and perhaps we don’t remember that “fact” correctly. When people disagree over events, I’m willing to bet that all sides are not only subject to memory fault, but also with their ability to think intersubjectively about the issues well enough. That is, even if the actual facts are not in dispute, certainly our values, preferences and biases will shade how we skew how those facts interact with the world.

And then all we have is arguments steeped in motivated reasoning, mental health issues conflicting into personality disputes, and rifts with people who do not understand each other. We can do better.

Mental Health

keep-talking-about-mental-healthConcerning mental health, we have a similar problem at hand. The symptoms of mental health concerns are common among all of us, to varying degrees. Even if we are not diagnoseable per se, we may have behavior patterns, emotional issues, or cognitive impairments which cause us to miss seeing important influences on how we perceive and interact with the world. We should all be willing to recognize the symptoms of our behavior, how we are seen by people, and how we can improve.

If you suffer from symptoms consistent with anxiety, depression, or even a personality disorder, then you need to understand how those symptoms effect how you behave and think. You don’t have to be diagnoseable as a borderline to be subject to problems with emotional management, for example. You might not fall under 5 out of the 9 symptoms to learn something about yourself as a person, if you struggle with some of the symptoms.

Consider the difference between having to interact with a person who displays symptoms which cause conflicts but who is aware of them and is trying to solve them, rather than behave defensively and deny or rationalize their behavior as if nothing was wrong. I know that when I have been defensive and have rationalized my behavior, I have caused immense tension for other people. I care about that and I care about my mental health, so I work to overcome such struggles.  Because I know I am capable of rationalization and self-justification, I have to check myself in order to see if I’m not just emotionally or cognitively compromised when I’m in conflict with someone else. Learning how to see past your own biases is perhaps one of the hardest things we have to do, as humans.

Watching someone who is in defensive denial about their behavior is among the most frustrating and powerless positions I have dealt with in my life. For a person to get better, they first have to admit there’s a problem. If they are not willing or able to see the problem, any conversation, criticism, or attempt to help is met with a wall, emotional reactions (feeling “attacked”), or a counter-attack. Combine this with with intelligence and you have a recipe for bullying, enmity, and potential abuse. I’ve seen both sides of this, and we can do better.

 

Please, be willing to look honestly and fully at yourself. Do not merely invite criticism, but hear it. Do not merely argue your case, but try to understand your interlocutor as well. Learn as much as you can about not only logical fallacies but also cognitive biases, memory, self justification, cognitive dissonance, and mental health.  If we all do this more, there will be less drama in the world (wouldn’t that be nice!).

There are genuine causes for personal and cultural rifts. Sometimes, people are just harmful and wrong. But sometimes those narratives we tell ourselves about how terrible someone else is are based in cognitive errors and may be related to mental health concerns. Sometimes, when all sides are a little wrong, we can convince ourselves that it’s just them.

Own your mistakes, try and mitigate our blame of others’ mistakes, and do not allow tribal thinking, self-justification, and anger to shape how we interact with each other. Because even if you have reason to be angry with someone, there is often room to step back and realize why they are angry with you, and what you both might learn from each other if you just stop drowning in your own emotional and cognitive crap. If we fail to do so, we risk exacerbating conflicts rather than potentially solve them.

Of course, I don’t expect some people to hear or understand what I mean here. That might mean that I’m just wrong, but it could also mean that those people are just too biased to comprehend.

More likely, however, is the possibility that I’m a little wrong, and they are a little biased.

I still have to try.

 

Loved ones of loved ones June 2, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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This post by the always-excellent Captain Awkward got me thinking. It’s about an adult daughter whose parents began a polyamorous relationship with a third woman, who now lives with them (the parents, not the daughter). The parents and new partner are all trying to get the adult daughter to develop a close relationship with the new partner, and the daughter is balking. I think the Captain’s advice is sound, and I appreciate that she mostly approaches it like any step-parent relationship, which in essence it is, while also giving a nod to the fact that the non-monogamy aspect is playing a role in the daughter’s reactions. I don’t want to talk about that situation in particular, but it got me thinking about the larger question of what is reasonable and unreasonable to expect when it comes to our families and our partners, especially when we have more than one.

Some people would argue that it makes no difference whether we have one partner or multiple partners; our families should treat them all the same way. I have sympathy for the argument but I think it omits a lot of complicating factors. Even setting aside families that flat-out disapprove of non-monogamy (which is its own can of worms to deal with), the reality is that our culture has some deeply engrained assumptions about what love and commitment and exclusivity mean. For most of us, it took a fair amount of mental and emotional work to overcome those in ourselves; it is unreasonable to expect our families to just dump all their engrained beliefs about non-monogamy and behave the way we want them to from the get-go. And especially if our relationship was monogamous or de facto monogamous for some years, they likely have a level of investment in our first partner, and are going to have weird, complicated feelings about the way a new partner fits in. So I think there needs to be some delicacy in how we handle our family’s relationships with poly partners.

I have also, for a long time, said that in-law relationships are the best analogue we have for metamour relationships, in a lot of cases. We’re connected to somebody primarily on the basis that we both love and are loved by the same person; beyond that, we may have a lot in common and be great friends, or we may grate on each other at every encounter. The tools for handling in-law and metamour relationships are often similar.

With all that in mind, I want to lay out what I feel like are a reasonable set of expectations for how we treat loved ones of loved ones, whether we’re connected to them by blood, romance, or just intimate friendship. I’m going to first lay out my outline of what I think we are and are not obligated to do with regard to our loved one’s loved ones. Then I’ll dig deeper into the thoughts and principles that back these obligations. This post is going to be very general in addressing relationships of all kinds, and in a following post, I’ll write about specific situations that add an extra layer of difficulty or complexity, such as jealousy and differing values or beliefs.

With loved ones of loved ones, I believe we are obligated to:

  • acknowledge that person’s place in our loved one’s life
  • make an initial effort to get to know and like them; if the relationships last for many years, make repeat efforts every few years or so if the first ones didn’t take
  • do our best to understand the good things that that person brings to our loved one’s life, and even if we can’t understand it, accept that there must be some
  • accept with grace their presence at events our loved one is hosting or that are in our loved one’s honor, such as birthdays
  • show them basic courtesy and consideration whenever we are thrown together
  • avoid speaking negatively about them to our mutual loved one, unless there is a specific problem that needs to be solved
  • give our loved one room to speak happily about them from time to time

I believe we are not obligated to:

  • actually like them or love them, or pretend that we do
  • spend one-on-one time with them or interact deeply with them
  • hear about them every day or every time we see our loved one
  • accept their presence at events we are hosting or that are in our honor

Obviously, most of these are bare minimums, designed for situations when we and the other loved one don’t get along. For the most part, I think they apply even when the other loved one is not behaving well; when they’re openly hostile or passive-aggressive toward us. In those cases, the mutual loved one may have some responsibility to intervene or at least to avoid putting us in the position of having to see much of each other.

photo by flickr user Paul TownsendRelationships are not just between two people; most of our relationships exist in a communal context of some kind. We see our friends and families in groups at parties, holidays, vacations, weddings. There’s a particular joy in being surrounded by multiple people you love and like, whether it’s three people or thirty. Even my introverted self delights in the feeling of connection and support when I’m with people who all know different pieces of me, who are all there for me in different ways. When everybody in a room is getting to enjoy the same feeling — “Here I am, surrounded by people I love and like and who love and like me” — that’s real community, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Of course it doesn’t always work out that way. Just because I love Alex and Bryce doesn’t mean Alex and Bryce will like each other, or even be able to stand each other. When my loved ones don’t like each other, it means that for me to be surrounded by the people I love, at least some of those people have to be spending time with someone they dislike.The more intimate and prolonged the setting (and the greater the dislike), the harder a burden this is on them. So a balance needs to be struck.

photo by flickr user Halo EfektiIn general I believe that we should do what we can to make our partners happy — but not to the extent of abandoning our own sense of self or making ourselves miserable. This is why I say that we should make an initial effort to get to know and like loved ones of loved ones, and should make repeated efforts over the years if the first one didn’t go well. People grow and change, and two people that clash horribly at 20 may able to be great friends at 35. If we can give our loved one the gift of liking the other people they love, we should do so. (Usually the reason we might resist this, and develop an antagonistic relationship with someone we would normally like, has to do with jealousy of some kind, which I’ll talk about in the follow-up post to this.)

However, I’m pretty ferociously in favor of people’s right to feel the way they feel, and not be pressured — by themselves of others — to fake or force feelings just for someone else’s convenience and happiness. If you don’t like someone, you don’t like them, and piling on guilt and obligation isn’t going to make those feelings go away. Your loved one’s love for someone shouldn’t compel you to spend massive amounts of time in their company.

In most cases, I think it’s fair that I should get to have the people I love most near me at important, celebratory occasions that are about me, and that they should all make the effort to make the experience as pleasant and free of strife as possible: thus the obligations to accept the presence of our loved one’s loved ones at such events, and to show them basic courtesy. (The possible exception to this is when there’s a deep history of hurt between the two outlying loved ones, such as a divorce or breakup. I’ll discuss that situation more in the follow-up post.)

At the same time, Alex and Bryce should get to celebrate their important events and milestones surrounded by people that they love and like, and it’s unkind for me to impose them on each other if they strongly dislike each other, especially if it’s a very small gathering where they’ll have a harder time avoiding each other.

In US culture, at least the part of it that I inhabit, there’s a very strong pattern of viewing people who are married, living together, or long-term monogamous partners as a social unit. If one person is invited to a thing, the other one is assumed to be invited as well. In many circles, in order to have a party or group event with one half of a couple and not the other, you have to designate it a “girls’ night” or “guys’ night” — which doesn’t work so well if the couple are the same sex, or if the friend group isn’t segregated into men and women. I have a whole host of thoughts on the social unit trope, which I’d like to write about separately, but in brief: I’d love to see the assumption that people have to travel in pairs loosened, for a whole host of reasons. It sucks for poly people, at least those not using a primary-secondary model, and it sucks for single people, and it sucks for loved-ones-of-loved-ones everywhere who don’t really want to spend an evening together but can’t let go of the assumption that an invitation to one person must include an invitation to their partner.

Going back to the the list of obligations: for many of us, part of having a close relationship with someone is sharing what’s on our mind, what’s exciting and interesting and important to us. And in many cases that involves talking about another person we care about — whether it’s “Jamie did the nicest thing the other day” or “Kim and I keep fighting about this one thing.” This is normally not an issue, but when the person we’re talking to hates Jamie or Kim, suddenly it’s a huge deal. Even if they want to be supportive, they’re going to have to be managing their own feelings about Jamie or Kim while listening. Again, a balance needs to be struck between “I can’t ever talk about Kim because Jamie hates hearing it” and “Every time I hang out with you it’s Kim this and Kim that!” Where exactly the balance falls is something that should perhaps be explicitly negotiated and discussed.

Another thing that makes these relationships fraught is the implicit value judgement in saying, “I dislike this person that you love.” Are we saying that we think their judgement and taste in friends is lacking? Even if we don’t mean that, are they going to think we do? Saying something like, “I don’t know how you can stand Dallas,” or “I don’t know what you see in Shelby,” can come awfully close to saying “What’s wrong with you that you like this person?” And “what’s wrong with you that you feel X?” is pretty nearly always damaging to hear from a loved one.

photo by flickr user Jorge BernalSo while I think it’s important to own and acknowledge our feelings about our loved one’s loved ones, whether they’re positive or negative, I also think we need to be careful not to make the false jump from “I dislike Jamie” to “Jamie is a sucky person.” A key hallmark of maturity is being able to separate personal, subjective feelings from objective realities. To say that another person is unbearably annoying is true, as long as I’m only making a claim about their effect on me. I can find someone unbearably annoying, while someone else finds them funny and adorable, and neither of us has to be wrong. Even with more arguably objective traits, such as how self-centered or intelligent or polite a person is, we each have our own priority list of the things that make someone likeable and worth spending time with, and our lists will likely not match perfectly with our loved one’s lists.

This is why I say we should make an effort to understand and appreciate what our loved one values in the other person. If you’re like me, it’s really fun to spend time doing the, “Oh, I see, to YOU it’s really important that someone be self-aware and socially skilled, while I don’t really care about that as long as they’re kind and well-meaning” kinds of calculations with your loved ones. You get to figure out what qualities are important to you in your friendships and what’s important to your friends in their friendships, and how all those things dovetail and intersect. Even if dissecting personalities isn’t a hobby of yours, it’s worth taking the time and effort to notice at least a few positive qualities in the loved ones of people you love. It helps build a barrier against the resentment you might feel at the way this person hits your own personal buttons, it protects both you and your loved one from feeling like your dislike of that person is a negative pronouncement on your loved one, and — most importantly to me — it exercises your understanding that your loved one is a distinct person from you, with values and needs and interests that are different from yours, and that you need to be able to acknowledge and honor those things if you are going to love them effectively.

 

When the abyss looks back: Polyamory and emptiness May 13, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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Sartre_Nausea_1964I first read Jean-Paul Sartre when I was about 15 or 16.  And, being an angst-ridden teenager, much of his writing resonated with me.  For many years after first reading it, Nausea was a specific novel which stuck with me.  Here, for example, is a scene about half way through the book.  Here, the narrator (it takes the form of a diary) is recording his thoughts about writing a biography of a deceased “M. de Rollebon.”

M. de Rollebon was my partner; he needed me in order to exist and I needed him so as not to feel my existence.  I furnished the raw material, the material I had to re-sell, which I didn’t know what to do with: existence, my existence. His part was to have an imposing appearance. He stood in front of me, took up my life to lay bare his own to me. I did not notice that I existed any more, I no longer existed in myself, but in him. I ate for him, breathed for him, each of my movements had its sense outside, there, just in front of me, in him….

From here, our narrator moves on to realize that he exists.  Profound, I know. Through the rest of the novel, this existence presents itself as a sort-of ubiquitous, nauseating, inescapable heaviness of things.  Much later, in the climax of his “nausea,” our narrator sits in a park where he looks at the root of a tree beneath where he sits. The tree, and its existence, becomes a metaphor for all of existence, and therefore also for ourselves.

…I was floating. I was not surprised, I knew it was the World, the naked World suddenly revealing itself, and I choked with rage at this gross, absurd being. You couldn’t even wonder where all that sprang from, or how it was that a world came into existence, rather than nothingness.  It didn’t make sense, the World was everywhere, in front, behind.

It was unthinkable: to imagine nothingness you had to be there already, in the midst of the World, eyes wide open and alive; nothingness was only an idea in my head, and existing idea floating in this immensity.  This nothingness had not come before existence, it was an existence.

This tension between feelings of nothingness and the ubiquity of existence has always resonated with me.  The feeling of emptiness, of meaninglessness, and of nothing has an inescapable insistence about it.  I exist, certainly, but this existence often carries with is a heavy, unyielding, absurd sense of emptiness.

In other words, I was a fun teenager to hang out with at parties.

 

Lack of identity

identitycrisis copy_860One of the aspects of a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder is the lack of clear identity.Without a clear sense of self, one can easily define themselves via their relationships, and hold onto that relationship as a defining part of themselves long after the relationship is healthy. This makes letting go of a relationship difficult, because a sense of self, of identity, is still wrapped up in another person either gone or going.

We can dress our inescapable existence, our identity, in any way we like.  We can take on the persona of M. de Rollebon.  We can feel the absurdity of ceaseless existence in the dark bark of a tree in a park.  We can peel away at the layers of ourselves to realize that there is no sense of self which is not constructed and narrated.  For me, the sense of self is largely an illusion, if not an out-right delusion.

We are stories that we tell ourselves.  And sometimes, when we really like a certain kind of story, we insist upon it at the sake of the truth.  The truth is that we are often contradictory, inconsistent, and variable.  We are a legion of selves, many parts of the brain processing many things which (in a metaphorical sense) fight to achieve consciousness and control.  I believe that those people who maintain a static sense of self are just much better at weaving one narrative than I am, but ultimately that narrative is still woven and illusory.*

If we were to take a person with a strong sense of self, and take away the things that they define ourselves by–whether it be a place, a group of people, or an activity–such a person might be left with a kind of boredom and restlessness.  In order to relieve that boredom, a person might yearn for meaning, fulfillment of empty desires, and other people.  In some cases, thoughts about suicide, impulsive (often destructive) behavior, and ultimately the fear of abandonment (or pain from having been abandoned) might feed depression and loneliness.

Being a borderline is like having the definition of who we are never quite forming in the first place. This lack of identity, at least in my case, is generally not felt as a lack at all.  A borderline (in many cases)  never had their identity taken away, they never  had a solid sense of self to begin with, or at least had one grown weakly or stunted. And so long as we aren’t borrowing our identity from other people, leading to a dependent relationship, we might occasionally become aware of this emptiness.

And, what’s worse is that this feeling of emptiness can exist even while surrounded by people.  It is a perception of emptiness, not an actually being alone and without loved ones, necessarily.  It is a feeling that can happen while at a party, at home with people who love you, or even if you have a wife and two girlfriends.  It is a sort of delusion which insists itself upon you, and colors everything you feel, think, or are surrounded by.  For me, this emptiness is a depression and it feeds off of fear (of abandonment, for example) and does not believe that people can actually love you.

 

Filling the void with others.  Lots and lots of others.

There are good reasons to seek companionship, and there are less good reasons to do so.  There are also ways to evaluate the means by which we do so. Many borderlines will seek out solutions of this boredom and emptiness through destructive behavior, including seeking out sex and relationships merely in order to distract themselves from the loneliness within them.  The tension of the desire for intimacy and the fear of being engulfed leads to them sometimes seek out temporary solutions.

This has not been a major factor in my own life, but I have sometimes felt the pull of this emptiness pushing me in that direction.  That is, even if I had not often sought companionship in this way,  I am familiar with the impulse.  If I’m feeling lonely, I do sometimes feel the impulse to go out to a bar, hoping to meet someone.  Many years ago, when I would occasionally do this, I realized that not only do I not meet people this way (at least, not often), but that even if I did it would not fill the emptiness.

For me, this feeling takes a different path.  Sometimes, the people you love are not there when the feeling of loneliness and emptiness strikes.  I have had moments of severe anxiety and emptiness while (for example) Ginny was on a date that was running much longer than I expected, especially if I receive no communication about it.  While I can be fine alone for much of the time (whether through writing, reading, etc) there comes a time when the feeling of emptiness and loneliness becomes overwhelming, and then each minute of the lack of presence becomes painful.  And this feeling can come on suddenly, without obvious cause, and become quite compelling.

Just because it's bizarre and strange, I include this

Just because it’s bizarre and strange, I include this

In those moments, the desire to seek out more people can arise.  And here is where I think some people might use polyamory (or, in the case of monogamous people, affairs or serial and shallow relationships) as a means to fill in the emptiness, rather than for the sake of pursuing a healthy relationship.  It must happen sometimes to us poly people, us being human and all.  The question is the extent to which this impulse is universal, and thus part of all of our behavior to some extent.

The question is how much of our healthy seeking of others contains some of this emptiness and loneliness at its heart, and whether this heart is always an abyss or whether this perception of darkness and pain are the illusions. I am not sure these questions have good universal answers.

I say this because I am not convinced that any of our motivations are purely good or bad.  I believe that when I feel a genuine desire to be closer to someone, part of this is because they are a person worth being close to but also because there is a need to fill up the emptiness inside of me.  In the end, all there is in this absurd and ultimately meaningless world is each other.  And so to fill up the emptiness with people we love is a wonderful thing, so long as this desire to fill holes in ourselves is more than just a dependency or a temporary fix.

Relationships can be co-dependent, and this is is equally true within polyamory.  The ability, and practice, of loving other people does not prevent co-dependency.  The trick, I believe, is to navigate the waters of filling the emptiness inside us without either creating a narrative of ourselves, others, or the relationship which cannot be shattered or dirtied.  We cannot allow ourselves to create a visage of ourselves, our partners, or our relationships which are not subject to criticism or change.  In creating identities for ourselves, we cannot allow ourselves to create ideals which cannot change, heroes which cannot be questioned, or spaces which cannot be profaned.

We may need identities, but those identities don’t have to be static, idealized, sacred facades.

(see the next post in the series: Instability Multiplied)

_____

*This, by the way, is one of the major differences between Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality disorder; where the narcissist is quite good at creating a narrative sense of self–an identity which cannot be questioned!–a borderline lacks this singular definition of self.

Borderline Personality Disorder and Polyamory: An overview May 12, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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In reading about borderline personality disorder, talking about my symptoms and finding solutions to the problems they cause, and in evaluating the mistakes I have made both recently and in the more distant past in terms of my relationships, I have come to worry about a few things that pertain to being polyamorous.  Over the unpredictable number of coming weeks while I will be writing about this issue, I want to tease apart some complicated, troubling, and ultimately interesting questions (at least to me) about how some personality disorders affect relationships, how relationships can best work for us regardless of such disorders, and what these things can tell us about how we should re-think the expectations of relationships as individuals and as a culture.

I want to deal with these issues in short bursts, rather than one large analysis (you’re welcome, readers).  Today, I want to paint a very tentative overview of the terrain I plan on covering in the next several posts.

There are 9 criteria for diagnosis of Borderline Personality disorder.  While many of them may seem disparate in many ways, they are linked in complicated and often distressing ways, especially in my mind.  There are 5 of these criteria which I believe have immediate effects on relationships whether they are  sexual, romantic, or platonic in nature.  I want to deal with each of these criteria one at a time, but here I just want to summarize them.  I’ll qualify that not all of these criteria are especially strong or problematic for me personally, even if they have some relevance for me.  I cannot speak for any other people who have symptoms consistent with this diagnosis, so the experiences and opinions of others may differ from mine.

(edit: I will add links to posts as they appear)

 

Fear of abandonment

For many borderlines, although not so much me (being an introvert), temporarily being alone can be perceived as part of a perpetual isolation.  The feelings which arise at times like this can include depression, but also rage at the world in general (depending on the specifics)  There are times, whether late at night, at a party with people who are not trusted or close, or merely between social visits where the feeling of being alone feels heavy and infinite.

I yearn for intimacy, companionship, and love.  When alone, I often feel empty (we’ll get to that next).  I want someone to help make that loneliness go away.  But I’m also too afraid, much of the time, to break the silence by actually reaching out, because deep down I’m afraid that they are over there because they don’t want to be around me.

Chronic emptiness

This is related, closely, with the above fear of abandonment. The overwhelming sense of being alone, rather than being able to simply enjoy the relaxing and uninterrupted freedom of that time, is sometimes potent.

Personally, I am able to enjoy some time alone, but sometimes I cannot do so happily.  Sometimes I can enjoy the time alone until expect someone to be with me.  Waiting for a date, a friend, or just Ginny to come home after I expected them home is among the hardest things I ever deal with day-to-day.  If I expect to be alone the next 4 hours, but then am alone for 6, the last 2 hours are often excruciating. If I have a date at 6, but they show up (especially without letting me know they’re running late) at 7, that last hour is often filled with anxiety, sadness, and feelings of lack of validation. What is usually a case of unforeseen delays or merely differing values of timeliness feel like lack of consideration and lack of care, which are huge triggers for me.

When someone is late in seeing me, the feeling I have is that they don’t care enough about me to be on time.  This, of course, is a perception, and not reality (most of the time).  It is a constant struggle for me, and I try to maintain perspective that someone being a little late is not really a big deal.

Unstable relationships

This, for obvious reasons, will be the most pregnant of issues in relation to polyamory, but because I want to keep this post short I will gloss over much of it today.

Essentially, there is a tension between the desire for intimacy and the fear of engulfment.  There is a dynamic of alternating between being clingy (or merely intimate) and avoidance (or merely distant).  One day I may be wanting all your time, thoughts, and affection, and the next I may be absorbed in a game, book, or other project and barely speak to you.  This is often hard for partners to understand, and has been a source of conflict and hurt feelings for people I care about.

Also here is behavior within relationships which looks manipulative (and sometimes is, but not always).  There is a kind of emotional amnesia that happens within the scope of BPD, related to a lack of object permanence (this may be a result of a problem with the separation-individuation stage of development), which makes borderlines behave in a somewhat self-absorbed and not-completely-empathetic way (I am certainly guilty of this, at my worst) which comes across as manipulative (for me, this is never intentional, although I can recognize it after the fact).

This criteria is where Borderline Personality Disorder is close to Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is a related disorder, in many ways.  One of the major differences is that with BPD, the subject is more likely to accept fault and responsibility, whereas the narcissist often shrugs off, rationalizes, or completely deny said responsibility or fault.

The result, with both disorders is often repeated mistakes, which for me is among the more frustrating parts of myself which I want to change. I very much want all of my relationships to be healthy, and sometimes I need more than I can give back.  As I progress towards potential remission of these symptoms, I hope to achieve this more than anything else.

Impulsiveness

This criterion, of the 9, is one which is less powerful for myself personally.  For many borderlines, this takes the form of addiction, including extreme sexual promiscuity (which is why I’m including it in a discussion of polyamory, because some people’s eyebrows will raise at the seemingly obvious relationship there), and other behaviors which ultimately seek to overcome the emptiness and lack of strong identity within the borderline.

Seeking that moment of excitement (NRE-junkies, anyone?) to break up the monogamy…I mean monotony…of life is a means to distract ourselves rather than solve a problem (assuming there is a solution).

Radical mood shifts

Anyone who knows me well knows I have struggled with this all of my life. One moment, I can be happy, fulfilled, and contentedly working on whatever I’m doing.  A trigger can change that quite suddenly, and the shift is almost unbelievable in quickness and scope, although this severity has softened very much since I was diagnosed.  What those triggers are, how they relate to being polyamorous, and how to deal with them are issues I have been struggling with very strongly over the last few years.

If you were to go back and chart many of the posts I have written about problems, conflicts, and fears of mine, many of them would be rooted in this arena of mood instability.  But the question I will want to tackle, when I get there eventually, will have more to do with how we might be better off shifting our expectations, defaults, and ideals about how different people can fill roles for us in our life.

If I have learned anything in the last couple of years, it is that no matter how much you love someone, no matter how much you want to be with them, some people are just not any good at certain roles in your life, and so you need to nourish your relationship with them in ways that are mutually beneficial for both of you, if that’s possible, rather than try to have all of your partners be everything to you. Intimacy does not have to cross all thresholds for all relationships. Each relationship needs its own type of intimacy.

Unlike monogamy, polyamory does not create a pressure for your partner to be helpful or great at everything you need.  Some people (for example) can handle wild mood swings, and others cannot.  And while the ultimate goal, for me, is to find ways to minimize those swings, the people who can help me get there will have to do so within their strengths, which may mean that some of the people in my life may not be able to help with all of that struggle, even if I very much would like them to.  Some people can’t be there for some of what I’m struggling with, that has to be OK.

So, that’s the road map.  This is barely a sketch, and I’m sure that I am missing many parts still and more of it will be filled in as I think more about these issues.  For now, I need to get over this insomnia (a result of feeling empty, anxious, and isolated as everyone around me sleeps) and try to get some sleep.

[I’ll be scheduling this post to go live for the morning, but as I finish this, it’s about 4:30 AM]

Shock absorption: evolving thoughts on anger and social justice April 24, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Culture and Society.
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Over the last couple of years, I’ve been circling back repeatedly to the questions around the intersections of anger, marginalization, oppression, and social justice. I came to it with a knee-jerk, “Of course it’s better to restrain your anger and express yourself calmly and civilly no matter the provocation” stance, born out of my own Stoic Peacekeeper personality and the cultural values I picked up from my white educated middle-class environment. I did a lot of listening to the arguments that challenge that stance, and because this is the way I develop my understanding of knotty ethical problems, I threw myself as completely as possible into the “an oppressed person should get to express themselves however they feel like, even if it sounds unreasonably hostile and aggressive to others” viewpoint. I argued that side to others and put myself into communities where it was the rule, to see what the outcomes of having that rule are.

Based primarily on those experiences, I’ve pulled back a little and am working on settling myself somewhere in the territory between those two stances. I’m still working on where, exactly, that will be. But it’s distressing to me that the majority of the conversation I hear about the issue is pretty much either “How dare you say hostile things you mean meanyface!” or “How dare you silence someone’s expression of anger, whatever [verbal] form it took!” So I loved this post by Aoife over at Consider the Tea Cosy, which had a practical and nuanced view, affirming the right of marginalized people to express anger, allowing that the anger is not always going to be contained to the immediate oppressors, and exhorting people on all sides to be aware of how much they don’t know about the people who are in the immediate vicinity.

Bits I particularly appreciated:

 When the status quo is oppressive (it is), then staying neutral just keeps things as they are.

The status quo needs shaking up. Anger- even messy outbursts of I CAN’T FUCKING DEAL WITH THIS SHIT ANYMORE WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING- shakes things up. Anger is a sign that someone’s been stressed to a breaking point. Anger reminds us that something is rotten. It knocks away a little of our complacency.

It has taken me a long time to really grasp that staying calm and absorbing emotional strain doesn’t always help situations. Sometimes it just allows really bad situations to linger far longer than they needed to. I will likely continue to struggle with this — stoic peacekeeper, over here. But I’ve been in enough situations where just quietly coping turned out to be a maladaptive strategy, and some anger, even messy and poorly-targeted anger, would have driven us much more quickly toward solutions.

While as oppressed people it’s often a good idea to focus our anger at appropriate targets when we can, when we are privileged it’s our responsibility to.. deal with it. Take some breaths. If we need to stew and simmer (we’re only human!), be careful about where we direct that hurt. Understand that whatever anger we’re receiving is magnified many times by the other crap the person has had to deal with. Accept that it’s not fair. It’s not fair for anyone involved.

I really like that she handles both sides of the coin here. The hurt I, as a privileged person (in a hypothetical scenario) feel from being lashed out at unfairly, is real. It counts. It’s not nothing. But it’s also (in this same hypothetical scenario) way less than the person doing the lashing-out has had to deal with, so it’s my responsibility to suck it up and cope in a way that doesn’t create more hurt for that person.

And then there’s the cases where maybe the hurt I feel isn’t way less, because of whatever shit I’ve got going on:

 If the world were divided neatly into privileged and oppressed, we could all portion out how much anger we can take (and from who) and how much venting we get to do. It’s not, though. It’s messy- messier than our anger, messier than the hurt that leads to that anger or that results from it.

As people who are hurt and angry, intersectionality, I think, reminds us that other people could be dealing with things as opaque to us as our experiences are to them. There’s no such thing as the Last Acceptable Prejudice. All prejudices are the Last Acceptable Prejudices. While they all hurt us in different ways, the fact of that harm is always there. Vent if we need to, but understand that not-in-my-group doesn’t equal never-hurt, that not all things are visible to bystanders, and that this person might have a load of microaggressions of their own tipping them over an edge you never knew existed.

This is the piece of things that had me tearing my hair out when I was active in a heavily social-justice-oriented community. Situations would arise where one person’s hurt and anger and oppression redounded on another person in a way that aggravated that person’s hurt and anger and oppression, and trying to adjudicate those situations was frankly more than I was able to cope with, especially when I was one of the people being hurt.

Read the whole piece, it’s great.

Shock absorption: a model for looking at hurt and response

There are two different ways I’ve seen people look at anger, hurt, and response. The first is what I’ll call the “conflagration” model. People who love and trust each other, and have the right temperament for it, can get into screaming fights, yelling all over each other and maybe even breaking a dinner plate or two, and then once they’ve expressed themselves as loudly and fully as possible the anger dies down and they can hug and laugh and be close again. As far as I can tell (and I really don’t know, because this is an alien dynamic to me) the things each person said get filed away under “things I say when I’m angry” and both people know that they weren’t really meant, and don’t have a lasting hurtful impact. Maybe both people just grok that those are feelings expressed but not endorsed? The point is, in that model both people’s anger and hurt flares up like a bonfire, feeding on itself and growing for a while, and then naturally burning itself out and leaving very little residue to deal with.

Then there is what I’ll call the “shock absorption” model. In this one, hurtful things that were said and done while angry (or irritated or sleep-deprived or distracted) don’t go away… they react and rebound like shock waves. Jo, coming home from a shitty day at work, says something carelessly hurtful to Sal, who then has to do something with that hurt. Ze can bounce it right back to Jo, snapping back at hir, or ze can take it out on someone else, or ze can hold onto it and let it stew and fester, where it will likely gain momentum and fly out later at Jo or someone else with even more force. Any of these actions are going to cause an echoing effect, where the person who got hit by the rebound will then bounce it back to someone else, and on it goes. (If it’s just Jo and Sal volleying back and forth, hey presto! you have a fight.)

Sal can also do some conscious shock absorption, where ze thinks, “I know Jo is having a terrible time at work. I know Jo loves me and didn’t want to hurt me. I’m going to let that slide, and maybe bring it up later when Jo is in a better place to have a conversation about it.” This kind of shock absorption — reacting to hurt with understanding and patience — is what stops the endless cycle of hurt and anger rebounding all over the place. In the shock absorption model (which I think applies to any relationship where love, trust, and/or conflict-friendly temperaments are not firmly established, including nearly all the interactions social justice is concerned with) somebody, somewhere, has to do this before things will calm down. Often multiple people need to, as everybody takes deep breaths and works to get to a place of understanding and kindness.

A person’s ability to act as a shock absorber in this way is limited: by their temperament, by their maturity, and by the level of stress they’re currently under, including how much shock-absorption they’ve already been doing in the recent past. Once your shock pads are worn down, you’re back to Sal’s original choices in response to hurt: lash out (at the person who hurt you or someone else) or let it fester inside you, where it will only get worse and eventually emerge to do more damage. I didn’t mention it above, but sometimes if you go the “let it fester” route, the damage it does is to yourself and your own self-esteem. Taking on a lot of hurt and never dealing with or expressing it can eventually have you believing that you deserve to be treated badly, that you can’t expect any different in relationships, that this is just how things are.

When we’re talking about anger and social justice, asking a more privileged person to suck it up and deal with the occasional misdirected outburst is essentially saying, “The person who lashed out at you is likely near the end of their shock-absorption capacity. You have plenty left, so use it.” It’s saying, “One of the hazards of dealing with constant micro-aggressions is internalizing that sense of inferiority, starting to believe that you don’t deserve better. The person who lashed out at you is protecting themselves against that outcome; let them.” As long as you have some shock-absorption capacity left, it’s best to use it in those situations.

This is complicated by the fact that the apparently privileged person might also be at the end of their shock-absorption capacity, for any of a number of reasons (including having some invisible sources of marginalization.) This is what the third quote I pulled from Aoife’s post touches on. Saying, “you have to be the shock absorber here because you haven’t been hurt the way the other person has” is really, really upsetting — not to mention sometimes impossible to grant — when you’re staggering under the weight of your own stress and hurt.

And on the flip side, a lot of people who have the capacity to absorb hurt choose to rebound it instead. Absorption takes work, lashing back is easy. This is one reason I’m wary of the extreme “marginalized people get to express themselves however they want!” position. In some cases, I think it can turn into an abdication of any responsibility for acting as a shock absorber when you do have the capacity. This especially happens with people who are somewhere in the middle of the privilege ladder (assuming such a thing is a sensical concept, which it’s not, but it’ll do for the moment.) It is impossible to know what’s going on from outside: whether the person lashing out is doing so because their shocks are worn too thin, or just because they feel entitled to lash out. But I will say, that of the many and varied outbursts I’ve seen, statistically some of them are almost certainly being perpetrated by people who could have healthily chosen to absorb the hurt instead, and that just increases the strain on the system for everyone.

It’s even further complicated by the fact that, if you’re an internalizer, it can be hard to tell the difference between internalizing the hurt so that it festers, and absorbing it so that it dissipates. Impossible to tell the difference from the outside, and not always easy from the inside. If you’ve gone through most of your life acting as a shock absorber for other people, you can slide from “productively exercising patience and understanding” to “self-destructively internalizing hurt” without even noticing it. Another dynamic I’ve seen play out in social justice circles is that a bunch of people who tend to externalize are loudly rebounding hurt all over the place, while the people who tend to internalize are just getting quieter and quieter and eventually slip away from the circle, when they realize they’ve crossed that line and participation is becoming self-destructive. The people who externalize hurt are not always the ones most deeply hurt, but this tends not to get recognized in the conversations about anger and social justice.

Sometimes a situation is so tense that there’s just not enough shock absorption capacity to handle the level of hurt that’s bouncing around. When things get to this point, there’s nothing to be done except back away; any interaction is going to cause more damage, whether it’s internalized or externalized. If the connection is valuable enough, and the parties involved are able to replenish themselves elsewhere, they may be able to regroup and try again. But maybe not. I’m convinced that the main reason many relationships and communities fall apart is that the total shock absorption capacity of the group is worn too thin to handle the next wave of stressors.

Implications of the shock absorption model

What does this mean, both for social justice circles and for relationships? The guidelines I’m tentatively staking out are these:

  1. In most situations, if you can be a shock absorber, do. If you can react to being hurt with patience, understanding, and kindness, and do so without damaging your own sense of self-worth, do that, because there are likely plenty of people in the situation whose capacity is lower than yours.
  2. Recognize that for some people in some circumstances, letting hurt rebound so that it strikes someone else is the healthiest option. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, per se, but it’s the best way to deal with a bad situation. It also doesn’t mean that you personally deserve the attack that was sent your way. Draw a line between, “this person needed to vent their hurt toward me” and “I deserved what they said/did.” You don’t have to draw it publicly, in fact you shouldn’t. Just note that it’s true, and go seek reassurance and comfort somewhere else if you need to.
  3. Work on being self-aware about when you absorb and when you don’t. If you’re an internalizer, get smart about the signs that you’re unhealthily internalizing rather than productively absorbing, and find ways to express your anger when you’ve hit the limit of your absorption capacity. If you’re an externalizer, don’t take “I get to express anger however I want” as carte blanche to throw your hurt around. Again, if you can be a shock absorber, do, because the fewer shock absorbers there are in a situation the more likely the whole group is to reach critical dissolution point.
  4. Be wary of making judgements about how much absorption capacity the people around you have. The less you know them, the less clue you have about what’s going on with them and how thick their shock pads are at the moment. What matters (to you) is your hurt and how much you can take. You get to draw boundaries to protect yourself whether someone is willfully and carelessly throwing hurt around, or reacting in the only way possible to them.
  5. When everybody’s shocks are wearing thin, the best thing to do is back away. Let everybody go off and replenish their emotional reserves. Sometimes, getting a situation resolved right now is not going to happen, and continued attempts are just going to wear everybody down even further. One of the sucky things about certain kinds of oppression is that it becomes very hard to find a retreat space where you’re not constantly being worn down by new stressors and microaggressions. This is part of why “safe spaces” are so important, and why people shouldn’t complain about being excluded from them. Having a space to vent and express and restore makes it easier for someone to come back and have a conversation that will be productive and healthy on both sides.
  6. And my overall, foundational principle for these kinds of discussions: Be excellent to each other. We’re all hurting, in various ways and at various times. Wherever it’s possible, let’s do what we can to make less hurt, not more.

 

 

 

Why I loved the HIMYM finale April 2, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Culture and Society.
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My opinions about the season finale of How I Met Your Mother have grown stronger in the days since I watched it, and saw many other people’s reactions. My first response was, “I never thought I would be okay with this but… I kind of like it.” Reading a lot of people’s negative responses, and the reasons behind them, has pushed me firmly into This was one of the best romantic comedy endings ever territory. And here’s why.

The whole premise of the show, we thought, was ultimately going to be a fairy tale, Ted questing for his true love and then getting his happily ever after. Ted buys into that narrative whole-heartedly. Words like “the one” and “destiny” get thrown around. While he has a number of good relationships, alongside the multitude of not-so-good ones, he clearly views them as failures and false starts on his way to finding his One True Love.

All romantic comedies are fairy tales, and meeting or marrying the destined partner is the happily ever after. Plenty has been written about how inadequately that storyline reflects reality: that there are just as many (almost certainly more) messes and tears and misunderstandings after the big I Do or I Love You as before; that the most dramatic stories don’t usually lead to the happiest love relationships; that maybe teaching ourselves to view meeting The One as the endgame of life isn’t the healthiest pattern. But it’s a compelling story and it’s easy to get invested in it.

One of my big worries throughout the show was that The Mother couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. But she did! She was fantastically written and fantastically cast, and pretty much charmed the pants off me in every scene. She was a perfect match for Ted without being at all obnoxious, which in itself is a minor miracle. (I don’t hate Ted nearly as much as a lot of people do, but I grant his frequent obnoxiousness.) I loved her and if she’d shown up as a character and NOT been The Mother, I suspect the writers would’ve had a riot on their hands.

So it was that much more surprising (although in retrospect, it was telegraphed throughout the season at least) that that turned out not to be the story at all. The entire show was never about finding the one person who completes you, the one true love that give you your happy ending. It was about how love can be amazing and perfect and right at the moment, and then three years later, maybe it isn’t right any more. Or maybe you lose that person through circumstances neither of you can control. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real love, doesn’t mean it wasn’t amazing and perfect and right when it was happening. And if you later fall in love with someone else, you don’t have to pick which of the two is your “real” love story, your true destiny and the love of your life. They both are.

I was rooting for Barney/Robin from the moment they suited up and drank scotch together. (Hotttttt.) And their relationship was important to both of them: it let two commitmentphobes get a genuine workout in their issues, and when they broke up, it wasn’t about lack of trust or the impulse to run away or the inability to resist that one little fling… it was just that they weren’t making each other happy any more. And they were both honest enough, and cared for themselves and each other enough, to admit it. That’s a brave and positive step, and one that I wished we saw more in stories. They had a great relationship, and the fact that it ended doesn’t erase that.

And then The Mother’s death. (Even though we find out near the end that her name is Tracy, she’ll always be The Mother to me.) I’d read speculations that that was going to happen, and the way the last season played out brought me closer and closer (and with a heavy heart) to believing it. That one episode with the flash-forward of them going back to the inn and the “What mother would miss her daughter’s wedding?” bit? Yeah. I got it, and I cried, and I hugged Shaun. One of the things HIMYM has done brilliantly is the tragedy of untimely death. In our medically advanced, “wars happen on other continents” culture, that’s a thing that we try really, really hard to pretend doesn’t happen. Or we try to give it a bigger meaning or significance, to distract from how much it hurts. HIMYM has never done that. People die, it hurts, it doesn’t make sense. The only comfort is that we got to love them while they were here.

Tracy’s own story foreshadows this really nicely, and it tells us (in case anyone was unclear) exactly how to take her death. We never met her former lover (what was his name? Mike maybe?) but it was clear she thought of him as her One True Love, her destiny… and when that destiny was cut short, she thought that was the end of love for her. And letting go of him, finding the ability to love again, didn’t erase her love for him. The whole episode “How Your Mother Met Me” was great both in that we got to know Tracy better, but more so in that it pre-figured the process Ted was going to have to go through. We don’t see him going through any of the steps Tracy did in the six years between her death and his telling of the story, but it’s easy to imagine him slowly letting go of the idea of One True Love, and instead thinking of her as a true love.

And then we come to Robin, and here’s where the show fell down a bit. (Or a lot.) Ted’s pining for Robin in the latter seasons was SO obnoxious that it became impossible to root for them, even if the show hadn’t been insistently telling us that they wouldn’t get together (or so we thought, because we didn’t question the assumption that “the mother of my children, the woman who made my life incredibly happy” = “the only woman I’ll ever be with for the rest of my life.”) I actually did root for them in the early seasons, or wanted to: there were a lot of moments where I was like, “Dammit! Why can’t it be Robin?” But by the end it had turned from “two people who are so close to being right for each other, but agonizingly not close enough” to “OMG Ted will you GET OVER IT?” I can see why he didn’t. He loved her, and he was fixated on the idea of romantic destiny, and when those two things go together it can be very hard to let go of someone. But it dragged on too long and was too one-sided, and ultimately that “I love you + destiny = obsessing futilely over you for years” equation is not attractive or healthy.

And I guess, because of the whole destiny delusion, it was easy for people to read the whole story as, “Robin was Ted’s ultimate destined True Love, Tracy was just another distraction that happened to give him kids.” But I don’t see that and I don’t think the actual writing of the show supports that. The Robin-as-destiny concept was false and flawed and childish. Ted had to grow up and grow out of it. He sort of did, in the last season, but it was too little and waaaay too late to have any impact other than “my god, finally.” And then the whole locket thing brought it back in in a way I really disliked. I think it would’ve been better if Ted had had his “actually letting Robin go” moment a few seasons back, and then their continuing chemistry and love could have been gently hinted at at moments here and there, without it ever being about one of them helplessly pining for the other.

I also get why a lot of people feel betrayed by the way it all played out. In a lot of ways, the whole show was a huge bait-and-switch. The entire premise was supposed to be a traditional love story with a fairy-tale happy ending, and it turned into a story about how love takes many forms, and loving someone sometimes means saying goodbye, and there are actually no happy endings at all, because the story keeps moving and changing and what you actually get (hopefully!) is a sequence of happy middles, sometimes very different from each other. That is a much better story! Or at least it’s a much truer story, and one I wish our culture would tell itself more often.

And it’s not that lifetime love never happens, either. Marshall and Lily provide a counterpoint story, one of a single love that flourishes over a lifetime. But theirs is realistic too: they have to fight and struggle and sometimes their dreams conflict, and they have to make tough choices. I loved that moment when they said new wedding vows to each other, and agreed that they’d probably need to do the same thing again multiple times in the future. They keep choosing each other, through all the changes that happen, and it’s a free and happy choice for both of them.

There were other little things in the finale that I loved: I loved that becoming a dad was Barney’s real transformative moment, and goddammit if Neil Patrick Harris didn’t make that well-worn trope moving and beautiful. I like that Marshall had to go back to being a corporate lawyer for many years more before getting his judgeship. Having to take jobs you don’t like is another harsh, oft-denied reality that the show’s done a good job with over the years. I like that Robin fulfilled all her personal dreams: if she had ended up giving up on them in favor of a relationship with anyone, I’d have burned shit down. I like that there were long periods where the group of friends had grown apart and rarely saw each other; their lifelong friendship wasn’t about things always being the same between them, but about the fact that they could always come together after a long separation, and always wanted to.

I dunno. I thought it was great.

Boundaries and Metamours March 12, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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Each relationship is it’s own thing. Yes, when you date people who know each other, are friends, or who may also be lovers, there will be aspects of your relationships with them which overlap and interact, but each relationship needs to be its own entity, at least to some degree.

There are many levels of desired control, information, and involvement with metamours (partners of partners). Some people don’t need or want to know much, and they may never be close to your other partners. Some people really love the idea of closeness, friendship, and possibly more from metamours. There are all sorts of conversations about boundaries, rules, or possibly even vetoes that happen in the polyamorous community when it comes to the people our partners have relationships with. Some people set close guidelines, others do not.

My preference for how boundaries, rules, and even vetoes should be applied leans more towards relationship independence, while recognizing that our partners should be listened to, at very least, when it comes to the other people we develop intimacy with.  The closer we are to a partner, the more their opinion should matter, but it should never be the only factor.

In some cases, the complicated inter-relations between multiple partners will create unique situations where 3, 4, or more people all mesh together in a special way, and the individual boundaries may disappear (to some degree, at least) and give way to shared intimacy. Insofar as this can and does occasionally happen, the one-on-one nature of intimacy starts to give way to some degree, and if this happens then it can be rewarding. But in most cases, whether with polyamory, monogamy, etc, each relationship will build up its own intimacy and boundaries, and those intimacies need to be respected.

That said, I’d like to address some thoughts about various factors that come into play when it comes to establishing guidelines, rules, and vetoes.

 

Physical risk

Obviously, the more people we are having sex with, and the more people those people are having sex with, increases the likelihood of STIs. Within a responsible community or network of people, this can be minimized by regular STI-testing, by creating a sort of firewall either through family fluid bonding or other methods of creating a physical boundary between you and the general population and other families/networks. But no matter how you address it, the reality of STI’s is usually an important factor for anyone who is sexually active with more than one person, whose partners are in the same situation. If your sexual network reaches outside of an enclosed group, and reaches the general population, STI’s can get in.

Some people are much more anxious about this than others. But whether you are one of those people who is more anxious about such a consideration or not, if someone you are involved with is, then it should become an important consideration for you. Setting guidelines or rules about safe sex sex is a legitimate request for a partner to make, because the consequences extend beyond the two people involved, and could possibly effect other partners. Assuming, of course, that an STI makes its way into your network, which can again be minimized by regular testing, maintaining good safe sex firewalls around your network/family, etc.

I’m of the opinion that the degree to which a partner is closed off from the greater network or population, sexually, the anxiety about STI’s should decrease, and the rules and guidelines around protections against STI infection should reflect that by being relaxed, assuming that everyone involved is comfortable with that. Being a person who is less anxious about those considerations, I realize I’m in a place of privilege here, and will not expound as to what degree people should attempt to overcome such anxieties.

 

Emotional risk

Even in a world without the concern for unwanted STIs (and pregnancy, of course), there are still emotional considerations to take into account. In previous posts, I have argued that emotional concerns are the responsibility of the individual, and that other people are not responsible for how we feel about their relationships with other people. And while I agree that feelings of envy, jealousy, etc are ultimately our own responsibility, I believe that it is morally superior to take the attitude that how our actions with one partner affect our relationships with and the feelings of our other partners is relevant to us all. In short, we need to care about our partners, but we should at very least be aware of how our actions might emotionally affect their other partners.

The closer metamours are, in space or intimacy, the more it matters that consideration and care are accounted for. Depending on the closeness of metamours (especially if they cohabitate), there is a responsibility to consider the effects of their actions and relationships on others, as well as the effect on their immediate partners. So while I don’t think that a metamour is always responsible for how another feels, in general a metamour should be considerate and aware of how their behavior and attitude might affect those around them. They may not be responsible for the feelings, but they should at least attempt to be aware that those feelings exist and why.

Insofar as what a pair does in private, the emotional effects of those actions will depend on many factors, perhaps too many to diagram or parse out (so I won’t try). Outside of actions with health consequences, what people do in private should have little or nothing to do with what any of those people might do with other people or how those other people feel. Private intimacy is private (if you want it to be), and those relationships we have are important in their own right, even if another tangential relationship might have existed longer or may even be a marriage.

My partner going out and having a kind of sex that I might be envious or jealous of is my problem, not theirs. And while there may be specific examples where some moral responsibility comes into play in such cases, in general creating boundaries, rules, and even vetoes in terms of what your partner is allowed to do with other people is usually a means to protect our feelings, which are usually fears. And while those feelings matter, those feelings are not sufficient by themselves to create rules or vetoes about specific kinds of actions.

If my partner really wants to have sex with someone, and I’m uncomfortable with that, my demanding that they don’t do so is crossing a line in most cases. I may choose to have their decisions effect how I want to relate with them, but I should not demand that my feelings effect what actions they take elsewhere, assuming those decision will not expose me to physical risk. If I’m in a situation where their acting on desires will hurt me, I have some responsibility to find out why I’m being affected, not merely demand they don’t do the affecting thing. If that ‘why’ turns out to be that I don’t want to share, that’s different from a feeling of inadequacy or fear of my partner leaving me, and needs to be addressed by a different solution.

And while some temporary boundaries may be helpful for beginners, in the long run they merely address the symptoms (the feelings themselves) rather than the cause (insecurity concerning the strength of the relationship, for example). Those causes are not fixed or addressed with boundaries, they are addressed by dealing with them directly. That’s harder, but it’s also a means to a long-term strategy rather than the emotional triage which rules and guidelines seem to be designed to deal with. Triage may be a useful skill when shit gets hard, but they are temporary solutions at best. In the long term, the goal should be to deal with the fundamental causes, rather than the fears about this particular action or feeling.

The intimacy, love, and quality of activities I have with a partner are about that partner primarily. How my other partners feel about that does matter, but they are not always the primary considerations I have to be aware of in deciding how to continue or discontinue those activities. My relationship with person A has to be it’s own thing, and how much I involve other people in that relationship will depend on the desires and comfort of all involved. Sometimes, that involvement can be quite open. Sometimes, the boundaries between relationships melt away into transparency and shared intimacy.

 

Voyeurism and Sharing

There are times when the relationship we have with one person will open up or bleed into a relationship we have with another person. There are times when you can all hang out together, be intimate (whether emotionally or physically), or possibly even make commitments as a group. But even when these things are true, there will probably always be aspects of individual relationships that won’t be shared. There will be special inside jokes, ways you show affection, or even places you go that are special to that relationship. It is the idiosyncratic little bits of private moments, feelings, and times which set relationships apart from each other, and it is these things that we may miss most if the relationship ends.

In situations where groups of people decide to make their lives more intertwined, it is possible for the walls that separate the individual relationships to become more transparent. Whether people cohabitate, enter into group commitments, or merely spend lots of time with each other the likeliness of this happening increases. And once people get to theses stages of polyamorous intermingling of relationships, those walls usually do become thinner (both metaphorically and literally). Boundaries, in those cases, become a different animal because of the increased intimacy.

With increased closeness with metamours, come greater need for consideration and attention to how we interact with the world around us. And at this point the question becomes less about what our partners do with their other partners in private (although that may still be an issue), but also what they do in more open settings. The closer we are with the network of people we are involved with, the more we will see of the intimate moments between people we love and who they love. This can have rewards, but it can also expose areas of conflict. Boundaries, rules, and vetoes becomes a question of everyday, or at least frequent, attention. Where metamours might become family, all of the dynamics of family interaction and negotiation come into play.

And when polyamory becomes family, all the issues will surface. Your issues, their issues, and issues you may not have known existed. Issues may develop that never existed before. Respect, communication, and honesty with oneself are necessary if such a thing will succeed. Because as boundaries melt away, we remain exposed to each other in ways that we might not be prepared for. And when it falls apart, it can be devastating.

 

Walls

Many of us build walls around certain aspects of ourselves, for varying reasons. Sometimes, those walls surround us completely, sometimes we build them towards specific people, and sometimes we merely pull a person or two inside our walls and keep the rest away. Boundaries, rules, and vetoes are like walls.

Walls can be useful things. They keep out those who might harm us, they protect us from the cold outside world, and they help support the metaphorical roof over our head as well as define what is our space. There are harmful things in the world, and walls help keep them at bay, when they need to be kept away. Boundaries, when they are devised to protect us from physical harm, are an important tool to use, and when they seek to create safe spaces for ourselves and those close to us. They help keep us emotionally and mentally healthy.

But walls can also separate us when they don’t need to. Sometimes they only seem to protect us, rather than to unnecessarily push people away when letting more people in might bring us more perspective or positive relationships which we might bristle against at first. When we find those who we want to be within our walls, it is greatly beneficial to allow them inside, but it isn’t always obvious who those people will be before we let them in.

In practice, I tend to build walls to easily and end up keeping people further away than they need to be. It is a part of myself I seek to change, and this behavior has consequences for me and people close to me. Therefore, I worry about the impulse to keep people out as a default more than I worry about being too open. Those who have been hurt by being open (and I include myself in that category) may tend to be more cautious, for perhaps good reasons. And yet I worry whether that the reactionary nature of such wall/boundary building is problematic. I also worry that if I manage to heal my wounds and open up more, I might be equally reactionary in the opposite direction, in exposing myself too much to harm.

I worry about putting walls or relationship boundaries where they do more harm than good, or which are merely unnecessary. I worry about putting bricks in unnecessary walls. I also worry about being hurt when I take those walls down.  I also worry that I worry too much. I never meta-worry I didn’t worry about, I suppose.

Our relationships, and the intimacy within them, are important and–dare I say it–sacred. The boundaries we make around them should not be about protection only, they should be more about creating the necessary space we desire to enjoy that intimacy. They should not be primarily about keeping others out, they should be primarily be about creating the desired space to let the person we are with in. And if that means keeping others out sometimes, then so be it. But we should, perhaps, error a bit on the side of letting other people in. That’s my bias, anyway.

I’m striving to let more people in. There’s lots of room inside the palatial walls I have built for myself.