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Loving Authentically January 22, 2013

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

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

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

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

 

Inflating Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Deflating Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding thoughts

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

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

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

 

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

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An unchallenged value is not worth much; or why your values might be wrong December 11, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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In recent weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the question of the relativity of values.  What do we value? Why do we value those things rather than other things? Might we be more content, happy, or more mature if we were to value other things? Can we change what we value? What the hell are “values”?

Today, I want to sketch out a rough analogy which may pave the road for future posts (or not, if the analogy breaks down or if it just ends up being a stupid idea).

[Also, apparently I was thinking about this last December.]

 

The Analogy of Tastes and Values

In order for our bodies to function, we need to eat food.  But the kind of food we eat, how much of it we eat, and how often we eat it will have an effect on the efficiency of that functioning, the body such a diet will maintain, and will effect our general mood and ability to accomplish various tasks.

In order for our brain to function as a contributor to our personality as part of a social landscape, it needs information.  The kind of information it receives (especially early in its development) and how (and how often) we exercise it will influence what kind of mind we have.  It will effect how we react to new or old information, what we believe about the world, and what we value.

In terms of our diet and our health, what we want to eat (both what we merely desire and what we think we should eat) is our set of tastes.

In terms of our worldview and moral inclinations, what we think and feel (both what we are inclined to and what we think we should believe and think right) is our set of values.

 

Desires and Wants

I want to make clear the distinction between what we unwillfully desire and what we want.  If I see a piece of chocolate (especially dark chocolate), I desire it.  My mind is inclined towards eating it, and it is by act of will (free or not) that I either eat it or I do not.  My set of beliefs, values, etc will be responsible for that decision.

In terms of values, there is also a difference between my unconscious, automatic reaction to information and my conscious deliberation about information with emotional content.  It is unconscious and automatic that I feel annoyance, even disgust, when seeing an obvious injustice perpetrated by someone against others (an unequal set of behaviors based upon a logical contradiction, for example; a violation of Kant’s categorical imperative as one rationalized example).  But there is a difference between that feeling of annoyance or disgust and my subsequent deliberation about that behavior.  I, for example, have a visceral feeling of annoyance, sometimes leaning on anger, at seeing some level of clutter (especially if ignored for some time).  But rather than start Hulk-smashing (which just creates more clutter) I take a deep breath and remind myself that this anger is not rational;  that I can either clean it, ask the person responsible to be aware of this emotional response I have and request they clean it, or I can distract myself with another task or activity (and hope it will be remedied in the mean time).

That is, what I desire to do when seeing clutter is to express my anger at the person responsible (a symptom of my personality disorder), but what I want to do is motivate my behavior towards healthier solutions, with the long term goal of correcting the automatic reaction to doing those more pragmatic solutions.  I do not merely bow to my destructive desires, but try and re-orient my emotional reactions to something healthier, and over time it works with diligent effort.  It has become essential and necessary for me to do this every day, and sometimes it’s easier than other times.

Similarly, what I desire is to eat salty snacks, chocolate/ peanut butter, and low fat wheat thins ( much better than the regular ones, IMO) while drinking a couple of delicious beers.  I desire sweet, salty, (low) fatty foods all the time, but what I actually eat is much more healthy and I feel better because my wants govern my desires.  They don’t repress or stifle them, but I feel that mitigating the effect of my desires is wise.

 

Authenticity

There are things that we desire and want.  There are also social structures around us, with many competing (and sometimes harmonizing) ideas about how we should behave.  Some of those ideas tell us to repress or even eliminate certain desires, because those desires are wrong.

But I think that we need to accept our desires as a given, and decide how we want to act while 1) not pretending those desires don’t exist 2) trying to find a way to express these desires in ways which do not non-consensually harm others and 3) not allowing those desires to consume our life such that we ignore what else we care about.  These guidelines can be applied to conservative religious repression of homosexuality, social stigmatization of our innate sluttiness, or even the use of drugs (including alcohol).  If you are gay, bisexual, or asexual, then you should find the ways you want to express those sexual inclinations.  If you are slut, then you should be a slut. If you like a drug, then if you can do it without it being destructive to the world around you, then do it.

In short, we need to start deciding how to behave, what to believe, and what to value by being authentic.  We cannot ignore the truth, even if we don’t like the truth.  Because in many cases, the part of us that doesn’t like the truth is a part of us that is either broken or was imposed by an exterior idea (such as conservative moral views).  We should care about what is true about our desires, and form our wants based upon those truths.

 

In Case Your Values are Wrong

If you find yourself living in such a way where you have desires which are unrealized, then you need to ask yourself why they are unrealized.  If you go to church regularly and find yourself plagued by skeptical questions in response to what a religious authority says, then you might need to seek out alternative views.  If you are in a monoamorous relationship but find yourself attracted to others, and even thinking about acting on those desires, then you might need to reconsider how you think about sex and relationships and consider some sort of nonmonogamy.  If you can’t just have a couple of drinks, are getting high every day, or even if you never tried getting high but are curious about it but have always been afraid, then you might want to reconsider your association with those things.

There are diets which are good for us, others which are not.  There are values which are good or us, and those which are not.  How do you know that your values, your emotional relationship to the world, are the best set of values for your inclinations?  And even if they are, have you considered if they are damaging to people around you? (That is, are they moral values, rather than Randian selfish values?).  Do you even care if your values affect other people in ways they don’t want? Also, if they do affect others in ways they don’t want, are their current values, with which yours currently conflict, wrong? If their values are wrong, how can you demonstrate this to them in a way that will not result in them being defensive, yelling at you, or punching you?

What’s more important; standing for the right values knowing that they might actually be ultimately wrong, even if they are better relative to other value sets) or respecting all potential values (even the obviously wrong ones)?  Assuredness or accommodation? (some might call it “temerity or tolerance?”, but that’s simply the other side of the coin).

I don’t have an answer to that question which everyone will accept, or even one that convinces myself all the time.  My inclinations, my desires, often tell me to stand convicted to what I value, because those values are best. But what I want is to actually have the best values, which requires a certain level of uncertainty and skepticism.  I must perpetually challenge my values the way I challenge my beliefs, and thus my certainty about my values is proportional to the amount of beating those values take from challenges both external and internal.  An unchallenged value is not worth much, yet an unchallenged value is worth everything to its owner.

That is, we should be skeptical not only about facts, but also values.  I, along with people such as Hilary Putnam and (seemingly) Sam Harris, think that the qualitative distinction between facts and values is dubious.  Therefore, I also think that the common moral distinction made in our culture between criticizing a person’s facts and criticizing their values is dubious.  I do think that criticizing a person’s values is a harder task to do well, especially if we care about their likely defensive reactions, but it is not an invalid criticism.   There is no logical contradiction to pointing out that values can be wrong, at least in the sense of not matching up with reality and what might provide optimal well-being, emotional maturity, and authenticity.  People are too often attached to their values (as well as their facts), and this should not be accommodated.

In a similar way that what we want to eat (in terms of our health) is something that is subject to criticism, what we value (in terms of being a fully realized and authentic person) is subject to potential criticism.  If you tell me that I cannot tell you what to value, I will nod in agreement with the fact that I cannot force values on you, but that I can tell you that your values may be wrong.