Category: thinky

Relationships as Juggling Acts

So a couple of days back, I got to thinking about relationships as juggling acts. Because Metaphors are my jam, apparently. I nattered away on twitter about it, and the nice person over at Poly On Purpose turned it into a Storify (which you can read here). I decided to tidy up the original and expand on it a little bit, because I like the metaphor. I like the way it can be applied to all sorts of different relationships. Parenting. Friendship. Romance. Work. Hobbies. All sorts of stuff.
So, here we go.
For a few years now, I’ve thought of relationships as exchanges of time, energy, and attention. Time and Energy are finite. You only have so much time to go ‘round, and you only have so much energy available. You can’t be in two places at once. All that stuff. And, yes, you’ve only got so much attention available, as well, but Attention comes in a billion nuanced varieties. If you imagine them as juggling balls, they are every possible colour you can come up with.
So start with yourself. Here you are, with your colourful collection of Attention Balls, and you can be a solo act, juggling emotional, sexual, physical, cognitive, types of attention on your own when you go to the gym or to a show by yourself, when you write in your journal or use your vibrator, when you take a hot bath or a pottery class or a walk. When you take time for yourself, to catch up with yourself, to look after yourself. That’s a juggling act all on its own, and you need to make time and reserve energy for that act. It’s important.
But every relationship you have with a person outside of yourself is also a juggling act wherein you both offer time and energy to juggle your various attention balls back and forth with each other.
Different types of relationships take up more or less of your time and energy, and have different ratios of Attention Balls that you juggle.
So the relationship that you have with an Activity Friend might involve tossing one ball back and forth for one hour every week. Maybe that Activity Friend sees you more frequently, face to face, than a long-distance romantic partner or a beloved-friend in town, but the juggling acts you share with the partner and the friend would involve a lot of emotional Attention Balls, along with whatever else you juggled together, than would be involved when juggling with the Activity Friend.
Likewise, a sexual playmate or a friend-with-benefits might juggle mostly sexual Attention Balls with you, with a few other types of attention thrown in there some of the time, while a work colleague might mostly juggle logistical balls with you – yes, even if you are an escort who does duos and your work involves juggling a lot of Sexual Attention Balls with each other as well.
A relationship that involves a limited number of Attention Balls, but whom you see very frequently (maybe a room-mate who keeps to themselves, or a work colleague or classmate who isn’t sharing a project with you) will still eat up a lot of Time and Energy when it comes to juggling the few attention balls that are in play. That stuff adds up, and can leave you feeling worn out if you find yourself needing to be On when it comes to folks with-whom you juggle a lot more balls on a less frequent schedule.
In a related vein, a polyamourous ‘comet’ relationship might only take up one weekend per year, but all your respective other juggling acts get put on the back-burner while the two of you clear your calendars and focus on juggling every ball you’ve got with just each other. A romance that is geographically closer, meanwhile, would take up more of your day-to-day time, but would also require everyone involved to be aware of each other’s respective other juggling acts. Partners with-whom you share finances, housing, parenting, elder-care, etc… would juggle a heap of logistical Attention Balls with you that less-entwined partners never have to worry about, but those less-entwined partners might get a smaller amount of your time & energy to share a juggling act because you need to spend more of your (always finite) time and energy keeping all those extra logistical Balls in the air with other folks.
Sometimes, someone with-whom you share a juggling act will need to skim time and energy from your shared act because there are suddenly more balls in play in another act they share. Someone has a crisis or a baby, it’s crunch time at work or school, maybe a relationship becomes more intimate on some level and everything gets a bit of a re-org. In those situations, some of the balls you and that person were juggling together may get dropped. Maybe it takes you a minute to find your own balance when you’re (suddenly?) juggling more balls on your own than you had been a minute ago.
…Which is it’s own thing, actually.
Those balls that get dropped? Sometimes they’re just gone, and that particular juggling partner is never going to pick them up again. Sometimes you’ll find that you can start juggling them with some of your other co-jugglers. The social balls that were dropped can be shifted into juggling acts where your fellow juggler is interested in taking on more stuff. That’s a tricky thing to do, because you won’t know if the other person can juggle with a few extra balls in place until you try. And maybe they won’t know that either. There can be some trial and error involved in this, and sometimes that’s going to hurt or be awkward or similar. (Uh… Ask me how I know… ). Alternatively, you can juggle them yourself – fill those suddenly-empty evenings by taking on a new project or doing something nice with Just You (I started a poetry show, back in 2009, for a lot of reasons, but one of them was that I needed to direct my Attention at something other than missing my long-distance girlfriend. Similarly, I spent some time volunteering at a local Food Centre in 2016, because I had a heap of social and care-giving Attention Balls to do… something… with now that my (also long-distance) partner had upped and ended our romance). Either way, you are going to have to figure out what to do with those “suddenly extra” balls because lobbing them back at the person who can’t keep up with them anymore? That’s usually not going to work. Sometimes? Sometimes it does. The crisis is temporary. The juggling partner gets their balance back and you can re-add that particular Attention Ball to the mix, albeit probably at a slower, or less frequent, rate than it was there before. But a lot of the time, that isn’t how things go (sit tight, I’m getting to it).
What I mean is that there’s more to this juggling metaphor than just the variety of Attention Balls a given relationship diad can opt to keep in the air at one time. Like literal juggling acts, relationships require everybody to be equally invested. A juggling act is a type of balancing act, as much as it’s anything else. You and a given fellow juggler might opt to keep thirty different balls in the air, but to make that work, you both have to be moving at the same speed, at the same time. You’ve both only got two hands, so if one of you can’t keep up (or if one of you is shifting things too fast), some of those balls are going to drop and somebody is going to get hurt (in the non-metaphorical sense) because of it. Likewise, because we all – polyamourous or not – have a lot of different juggling acts going on at any given time, we need to be aware of the time and energy (and number of Attention Balls) involved in maintaining both our own juggling acts and those in-which we are not directly involved. The co-worker who has a sick relative or a kid in day-care, who can’t do overtime work on Project X. The metamour who’s having a bad bout of depression right now. The teacher who’s expecting a term-paper from the friend/child/sweetheart with-whom we, too, are juggling some kind of a relationship.
What I said, above, about dropped balls and how lobbing them back at the person in question generally doesn’t work? I’m talking about unbalanced relationships. The kind of situation where either you feel like you’re being pelted with balls that you didn’t ask for and can’t keep up with (and which are making it harder for you to keep juggling the balls you did sign up for). But also the kind of situation where you feel like none of the balls you’ve tossed, so hopefully, to this new (or not-so-new) other person are being juggled back, which can mess with your head, especially if the person in question is saying things like “Woah, nelly! Look at us juggling! So many balls in the air!” …The metaphor falls apart a little bit here, since actual attention isn’t a finite, physical object, but work with me for a minute: In this kind of situation, it’s sort of like you’re stuck with fewer balls in your own kit, going “Hey, uh… Person? That Attention Ball I just tossed you? I need you to toss it back. I’m due at my buddy’s house for Fannish Night in half an hour, and if you don’t toss that ball back, I’m going to be hella preoccupied and checking my phone every five minutes”. (Like I said, the metaphor doesn’t work perfectly here. In reality, I can choose to put my damn phone away during a get-together with someone, whether or not someone else has answered my most recent text. Still, I probably will be preoccupied, and I think you can see where I’m going with this particular scenario). If you are a parent of a child who is Exerting Their Independence, you may be familiar with this kind of feeling. If you were ever a teenager with a parent who seemed over-protective or nosy (note, I am not talking about abuse situations here)? That’s part of the re-balancing of relationships (adult-child parent/offspring re-balanced to adult-adult parent/offspring), too.
In the case of friendships and romances – voluntary, chosen relationships – I can offer a warning here. One that I am, personally, utter CRAP at heeding, but am trying to get better about. If the Attention Balls you toss to a given juggling partner are Not Coming Back? What you’re doing, if you keep throwing balls at them, is basically up-ending an entire box of your attention balls onto someone who is either (a) hoarding attention balls with no plans to ever start juggling with you, OR who is (b) not really interested in juggling with you, at least not to that degree, and the message has just not sunk in yet.
An example:
I have TONNES of Attention Balls that I can share with people, and not very many people with-which to juggle them. Most of them are near-and-dear friends. Not a lot of work colleagues in my web of jugglers, and only one sweetheart. My income-quilt of semi-solitary, flexibly-scheduled jobs means that I have tonnes of Attention Balls available to be an attentive, care-giving Buddy and a friend-group social co-ordinator, while someone else – someone who works a 9-5, or whose job involves a lot of emotional labour – might be using those logistical and social Attention Balls to deal with work-related social interactions, meeting-coordination, and similar.
Another example: I am a romantic, sexual person. Amatonormative, basically. My lovely wife is romantic, and Grey A. We are both polyamourous. What all this means is that
1) While I have a dozen (or more? Who knows?) Sexual Attention Balls in my juggling kit, she only has one, maybe two at the most. I will always have spare Sexual Attention Balls to juggle with other people.
2) While I have only one romantic partner (for now), my lovely wife has… noticeably more than that. This means that, while I’m juggling my Romantic Attention Balls with her, and her alone, maybe occasionally (if I’m feeling brave, and not too burnt, and there’s someone who looks like they might be a good fit) tossing out one of my many, many spares to see if somebody else is up for juggling with me – my lovely wife needs to juggle her Romantic Attention Balls with multiple people. Note: there are a variety of ways to do this. You can juggle most of the Romantic Balls in your kit with one particular person, but occasionally juggle the few that remain with other people else (think: hierarchical poly). You can juggle 100% of your Romantic Balls with each respective romantic partner at different times (which is closer to what my wife does). You can find whatever balancing act work for you between (or outside of) those two particular options, too.
Something that relates to the above: It helps if you and a given juggling partner are working with a matched set of balls. They juggle a passion for Foucault and pizza dinners your way, you juggle your own passion for Foucault and pizza dinners towards them, and everyone is offering and receiving Attention Balls that they actually like and know what to do with. Within the context of kink, this is pretty-much built into the culture – you can be as good, giving, and game as you want, but if you’re just not that into knife play, your S/M partner will have to find somebody else to cut them up – but it applies just as much to non-kinky hobbies like knitting or motorcycle maintenance or snow-shoeing or whatever. I may have a dozen different hobby-type Attention Balls available, but I probably won’t be able to juggle all twelve of them with each specific (or even one specific) co-juggler I’m involved with. This theme is one that shows up in all the poly101 books, I know, but I’m only just starting to be able to wrap my head around how it works without spinning it like I’m expected to treat all my partners as Interchangeable Needs-Meeting Machines or something.
Likewise… remember what I said about how, sometimes, if you and a given juggling partner drop a ball, you have to either find someone else who wants to juggle it or you have to learn how to juggle it yourself? There’s a Kimchi Cuddles comic that I tend not to handle so well. I read that last panel “What if he doesn’t WANT to give me more attention?” // “Then you give it to yourself” as just the most trite piece of bullshit EVAR.
But I’m trying to sort through it.
I’m going to use an easy-ish[1] example here. If I want more sexual attention, and I can’t get it from a partner because my partner is Ace / I’m sexually insatiable / I only have one sexual partner / insert-other-reasons-here… there are things I can do about that. Jerking off is a thing. I can have sex with myself. But I’m learning to parse the different Attention Balls that are juggled into the mix when I have sex with another person. Affection. Admiration. Romance. Emotional and Physical Connections. Stuff I can’t get when the loop involves only me and (maybe) something battery-operated.
It means that, right now, I have a few balls that are just… parked between my feet, while I look for people I can trust and care about and connect with enough, and in the right ways, to bring them into play again; while I try to figure out how to trust and care about myself enough, and in the right ways, too.
I’m trying to teach myself to build intimacy slowly, rather than trying to bury someone in a ball-pit all in one go. I’ve definitely had a few (a lot of…) relationships where I moved too fast, flung too many Attention Balls (some of-which I wasn’t aware that I was trying to juggle) at somebody who might not have been up for them (at all, or just yet), a rash move fueled mostly by scarcity thinking. I’m hoping that the metaphor of relationships as juggling acts – both the balance and equal-investment required to make them work AND the vast variety of different kinds of attention that can be juggled between various people in various ways & to various degrees – will help me pace myself, but also help me gauge who is actually up for starting to juggle with me, or for adding new balls to an already-shared act.
Fingers crossed that this will work (and I’m not just Overthinking Things).
Ms Syren.
[1] I’m saying “easy-ish” because I’ve got a whole lot of not-so-easy stuff going on in my brain telling me that I’m just not supposed to “need” sexual connection with other human beings. That I should be able to Make Do with what I get with the partners I’ve got, or else be able to cobble together some mixture of vibrator + affectionate friendship + ‘non-serious’ flirting with semi-strangers at queer events + hot baths, body lotion, perfume, chocolate & other sensual stuff… or something to approximate “giving myself” the sexual attention-cocktail that I actually want. “Want less, and you’ll always be satisfied” is a damn hard indoctrination to shake.

So… I’ve started reading Conflict Is Not Abuse.
It’s… difficult. (There are going to be a lot ellipses in this post, which I know can be irritating, but please just bear with me).
I’m not yet 50 pages in, so I have some hopes that it’s going to get easier, that the author’s theories about powerful individuals or groups reading threat & danger into what would more accurately be called resistance to oppression will find a better fit when she’s talking about white cops and unarmed black men, or occupying forces and the people they’re terrorizing (she uses Israel and Gaza, but could just as easily be talking about Canada and the many nations contained within, and overlapping, its borders). But at the moment, we’re at the “micro level” of this theory, talking about interpersonal relationships, flirting and dating, power plays, “shunning”, and… you guys, it is not going well.
It’s hard to read this book, or at least it’s been hard so far, because a lot the stuff that the author is saying – and probably feeling pretty confident about her professionalism in saying, given that her publisher is the kind of place that has a slush pile, professional editors, and a number of titles that wound up on Canada Reads – sound like the inside of my own head when I’m not doing well at all.
So I thought I’d talk about what goes on in my own head.
Which is a scary thing, in and of itself, because a whole bunch of it? Is probably really wrong.
So. Here we go…
The first thing is this:
Boundaries are complicated.
I mean, yes, they’re also really, REALLY simple. They’re as simple as “No”. As simple as “Stop”. The words that two-year-olds say over and over and over – No! Mine! – because they are at the developmental stage where they start actively differentiating Self from Other and that difference is HUGE big news.
But they’re complicated – for me, if not for everyone – because they are many-layered things. Boundaries are No and Stop. The place where I begin and You can’t cross.
But they are also the place where You begin and I can’t cross.
The place where my privileges end.
But also the place where my responsibilities end.
I had such a lightbulb moment, years ago now, when my therapist told me that she wanted to try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – AKA “talking to chairs” – with me. With much trepidation and a lot of side-eye, I told in all seriousness that I was willing to try it, but that I couldn’t guarantee that I would know where I was supposed to go with it.
And she said something along the lines of: “You’re not supposed to know where to go with it. That’s my job. Your job is to trust me and give it a shot. See? Boundaries.”
Mind. Blown.
It was a total penny-drop.
But I still have trouble with it.
I try to anticipate what a given partner or friend will want/need/feel so that I can have that base covered by the time they’re wanting/needing/feeling it. If my life were a movie, the results would probably involve Zany Hijinks, or at least Hilarity, ensuing but… this is real life so it mostly just involves me putting undue pressure on myself and then needing a lot of reassurance that I’m not doing something wrong just by existing in a not-actively-helpful way.
I try to chess game my way through Hard Conversations (job interviews, relationship transitions, crisis moments), to know how my interlocutor is going to react, so that I can address whatever comes up perfectly, so that they won’t be scared or angry, so that things won’t go completely to hell, so that the person won’t Leave Me[1]. So that I’ll (hopefully) get what I want, whether that’s a happy and invested romantic partner or a realist-artist who wants to hire me again; a friend who is eating a real meal, with protein, for the first time in three days, or an acquaintance who’s interested in meeting me for Pho at a confirmed date and time.
…And the more intimate the relationship, the more invested I am in it continuing, the higher the stakes are when I have to go into a conversation (even if it’s with an empty chair representing my own inner child, if you will) where I don’t know what the path to the other side really looks like.
So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is… My primary love language is touch.
So, yes, when a romantic partner and I have sex together, I’m speaking (and listening to) my love language. But that’s also what happens when I offer my hand across the pub table to the friend who’s having a really hard week, and she takes it. Or when I hug my favourite auntie (or my mom, even if our relationship is still a little bit fraught), and she hugs back. Or when my wife snuggles up and spoons me at night, and I twine my fingers with hers. Or when I scratch my pal’s recently buzzed scalp and they lean against my shoulder, while a big group of us chat over brunch.
And that’s all lovely. That’s all consensual and delightful and good.
But things get pretty fraught, pretty fast, when you are asking (pleading with?) your partner to start speaking your love language… and that language is touch.
I don’t think that happens nearly so much, or to such a degree, if one’s primary love language is, say, Caring Actions. In which case, maybe what you’re asking for is “Can you be at the train station to meet me? Can you call, out of the blue, to offer to pick me up from work in the car so I don’t have to brave OC Transpo during flu season? Can you know what my favourite food is and keep it on hand and make it for me sometimes, Just Because? Can you surprise me by hanging the pictures while I’m out getting groceries, so I come home to a house that feels a little more finished? Can you put a photo of us, together, on the lock-screen of your phone, or the desk of your home office, so that when I visit, I can see it and know that you are wishing me close, even when I’m far away?”
…As opposed to asking that someone to “speak your love language” in ways that, whatever they happen to be, all boil down to “Can you touch me for longer durations, and/or in more intense ways, and/or with greater frequency, than you are probably comfortable with, because if you were comfortable with them, you would probably already be doing so?[2]”
That can turn into scary-pressure really fucking fast, and I’m not sure where the line between “advocating for my needs” and “pressuring someone else” really is in that situation. (If I’m upset that someone said No (I don’t want to have sex with you; I don’t want you to hold my hand right now; I don’t want to sit next to you; etc) do I have to hide my upset forever, or can I talk about it the next day? If the next day isn’t okay, what about the next week? Can I ask for touch at all, or is that pressuring someone in and of itself? Is my level of skin hunger abnormal? Does that make it bad? If it’s not bad, why is it so hard for someone else to meet me where I’m at? Is there something wrong with me?)
So. That was the second thing.
The third thing is that I’m still trying to internalize/grok/something the relationship between “Abuse is too much closeness, NOT too much distance” and Covert Boundary-Crossings like lying, manipulation, and gaslighting. Because I think there is a relationship there. (The gaslighting link talks about a thing called “glamour gaslighting”, where someone puts you on a pedestal and then gets mad, or freaks out, and pulls away when you start asking for support or care which, like, “Oh, hai, extreme familiarity”… And it feels very much like “too much distance” to the gaslighted party, and yet… may still qualify as abuse?)
I went to Kai Cheng Thom’ and Kota Harbron’s “Monstrous Love” workshop on mental health and intimate partner abuse, about a year ago. It wasn’t what I was expecting it to be, but it was an interesting workshop. There was an example given by the presenters wherein they roll-played two conversations, in which the respective people in a romantic diad each confided in a friend about something scary and uncomfortable going on in the romantic relationship. Then the presenters asked the workshop participants to identify who was abusing whom in the shared scenario they’d just performed.
One partner was clearly experiencing anxiety because of something their partner was doing to them (asking a lot of questions about what they’re doing with whom, when, and getting angry or otherwise upset when they weren’t home or made plans to hang with other people), whereas the other partner was clearly experiencing anxiety because of something she was doing to herself inside her own head (replaying situations from a past, painfully-ended romance and assuming that the same thing is happening in her current relationship).
I have a really hard time discerning when I’m reacting to stuff in my head versus when I’m reacting to stuff someone else is doing to me.
When my friend says “we should do coffee soon” but never follows up with possible dates and times (nor responds to my suggestions of dates and times), am I feeling angry and blown-off because my friend is actually blowing me off? Or am I feeling angry and blown-off because I’m hyper-sensitive and/or believe that I have a closer relationship with this person (friend, as opposed to friendly-acquaintance?) than I actually do? Is someone actually doing something to me (blowing me off, suggesting a thing and then not following through) or am I doing something to myself (having unrealistic expectations about the kind of relationship I have with this person, expecting follow-through when “we should do coffee soon” really means “it was so nice to see you at this public, group event, I hope I’ll see you here again”).
When I ask the person who refers to herself as my girlfriend to act like she likes me (see: love languages, limerence behaviours, the general idea that one can – one hopes – expect a reliable degree of acceptance, empathy, validation, and reciprocal disclosure from one’s romantic partners) and she tells me that I’m being unreasonable or needy, is she reacting to something she’s doing to herself (replaying an earlier romance that devolved into stalking, or a childhood situation where she was made to take responsibility for the emotions of an adult care-giver, or a limbic-response that relates to her ambivalent/avoidant attachment style), or is she reacting to something I’m doing (Am I actually being unreasonable for wanting those things? Am I being needy/pushy/demanding in how, or how often, I ask for them)? And is my upset/panic/spiraling at her reaction based on something she’s doing to me (punishing me for wanting care or reliability, gaslighting me about what are, or are not, reasonable things to expect from a partner) or something I’m doing to myself (my own limbic responses as relating to my insecure-anxious attachment style; replaying stuff that happened in earlier relationships – a minor schoolyard disagreement at age nine directly resulting in years of ostracizing & bullying; my ex-husband insisting that there wass nothing wrong with how he was treating me, and that the problem was clearly my having a problem at all – and believing they are happening again)?
A lot of the time, I suspect it’s a little bit of both.
But I am an absolute MESS when it comes to sorting out… basically, how much of that “little bit of both” is stuff that I’m doing and can therefore (ha, in theory) control, or at least make decisions about.
So that’s the third thing.
But. Back to Conflict is Not Abuse.
There are things that the author says in her book that are… unbalanced. I get the strong impression that the grace being asked for in interpersonal conflict situations… doesn’t go both ways.
That the author is asking the reader to extend a lot of empathy and compassion to someone whose “being interpreted as abusive” behavior is (probably) coming from a place of unexamined, maybe even unacknowledged trauma & anxiety, but that they are not asking the reader to extend that same compassion to someone whose “reacting to perceived abuse” behavior is ALSO (probably) coming from a place of unexamined, maybe even unacknowledged trauma and anxiety. Honestly, I kind of feel ike maybe we, as readers, are straight-up being asked NOT to extend that compassion towards the “reacting” person. That it’s cruel and wrong to force someone to back off (by cutting off all contact), but not cruel or wrong (quite the opposite) to force someone to keep talking, keep meeting (in person, no less) with someone they don’t want to be around anymore.
And that’s just majorly fucked up.
Even I know this. Even I have my shoulders up around my ears (when my eyes aren’t rolling skyward, at any rate) reading some of this stuff, and I understand really, really well the feelings of loss, anxiety, abandonment, and hopelessness that the author describes the “perceived as abusive” person feeling when all contact is refused.
I have SO been there.
Deep Breathing through hours of unanswered texts or days of unanswered emails & social media messages, trying to find a balance between the Captain Awkward axioms of “Silence Is An Answer” + “People Who Like You Act Like They Like You”[4] (I swear, Captain Awkward is how I learned what boundaries actually are in practice) and the million Totally Reasonable Reasons[5] that someone might not have gotten back to me yet.
Fighting off yet another goddamn anxiety spiral because I ended a message with a question mark[6] – “How’s your day?”; “I’m free for coffee and knitting on Tuesday. Want to join me?” – and the vulnerability built into one stupid piece of punctuation, the rawness of showing even that much wanting, needing, is overwhelming[7]. (I… don’t actually have a clue why it’s that overwhelming, but there it is).
That place of doubt, where you can’t actually tell if you’re really asking for way too much or if it’s within reason to expect the other person to probably be game for snuggles/hang-outs/sex/writing-critiques/confidences/coffee/whatever most of the time, or at least be up for proposing alternatives; where your own desires seem utterly monstrous specifically because (apparently) they’re not returned; where you feel so lonely and so nuts…
That’s a hell of a shitty place to be.
But you don’t get to call the other person “childish” just because they don’t want the same things as you. And you DO have to at least be willing the see the possibility that, while you feel like you’re starving or desperate, or whatever, the other person is maybe feeling crowded or eaten alive, or otherwise overwhelmed by the closeness you are asking for, however minimal that might be, or might be right now, or might be in a different situation but NOT right now, or whatever.
And I get that.
So it’s really uncomfortable to see what are basically My Worst Moments – the stuff that scares me when I think it, and that I try to never let come out of my mouth[8] – published in a mass-market paperback, as if they were totally reasonable things to think and act on.
It’s a bit of a tough go, you might say.
So, we’ll see how I do with the rest of it, but… I don’t know if this is going to be something I’m able to finish or not.
Ms Syren.
[1] Whether that means “not hire me” or “break up with me” or “retreat into shame-hiding and massively disordered eating” or some other thing doesn’t really matter in the context of this post. It all tends to boil down to “don’t leave me” when we’re talking about my brain.
[2] And here’s the thing about me: I don’t even know if that’s true. If my assumption that someone would be doing the things that tell my limbic system that I’m safe and loved in return if they were comfortable doing them, that I wouldn’t need to ask (at all, let alone over and over) because it would come naturally[3]… Would it? I have no freaking idea.
[3] As happens during limerence – AKA New Relationship Energy – when your brain chemistry tends to lead you to want to share as much time, energy, and (various forms of) attention with The Other Person, whether or not you’re actually thinking about, or putting conscious effort into, it.
[4] For some reason, “Silence Is An Answer” translates in my head as “If an answer is not forthcoming within a two (txt) or 24 (email) hour period, you should just wrap your head around the idea that the recipient of your message has finally gotten sick of your shit and is either waiting for you to get the hint that you are no-longer friends, or else has moved on already”.
[5] Phone died; driving; person is at work or has a date or other social event; their in-laws visiting; Maybe they… kind of didn’t feel like talking? (<– This one sucks SO MUCH, but it’s still an option, and it’s not actually the end of the world); they needed some introvert time, or didn’t know how to respond to the question; Got swamped on some other front and then felt embarrassed (I have been here, too); was in the middle of a really good novel and didn’t hear the phone; etc…
[6] For real. I figured out last… February? That I am waaaaaay more likely to get antsy or worse about an un-answered text or email if I’m asking the recipient a question. Because a question is a request for contact, and an attempt to build or strengthen ties, and if it’s left hanging, maybe it means that I’m the only one who wants those ties in the first place[7].
[7] Yes, I know Normal People don’t do this. That a text message, an email, or a tweet suggesting that “we should do coffee soon” isn’t actually a referendum on a given friendship/partnership/lovership/whatever. It was kind of a clue that maybe I have Actual Problems and am not just, I dunno… weak-willed or “too sensitive” or some other bullshit.
[8] Except here, clearly, where I’m telling you all about the mess that is my insides.

So I’m continuing to read More Than Two. I’m enjoying the questions the authors ask their readers to contemplate, and will continue to blog my own answers here as I move along.
Right now, though, I want to talk about Communication and how it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
It’s possible that the authors, when writing up their Chapter 7 summary of good communication techniques (active listening, non-violent communication, & direct communication) are giving a coles-notes version that they’re going to expand on in later chapters. We’ll see if that happens. I know that right now, though, I’m getting really twitchy reading about “I statements” and – rather more-so, in my case – about how “direct communication” requires using one’s words rather than “hinting” through body language, tone of voice, and facial expression and how, if a partner doesn’t bring up a problem “directly” (AKA: verbally), one should take them at their (lack of) word and trust that there is no problem.
I’m not great at direct communication, so maybe that’s why I’m getting soooo twitchy, but I have a LOT of side-eye for this.
Yes, if I have difficulty with this, it’s on me to learn how to discern and acknowledge my own wants and needs, and then to Be Brave and state those wants and needs out loud with words, even when I’m not sure my requests are going to be met with a Yes. Similarly, if I have difficulty recognizing and naming my emotions, its on me to develope a nuanced vocabulary when it comes to that, and then to Be Brave and talk about those feelings, even when I’m not sure I’m allowed to feel those things or how my People will react to them.
(1) Body language, facial expression, and tone of voice are PART OF how we, as humans, communicate.
I’m sorry (or, y’know, not sorry at all) but Rape Culture’s plausible deniability relies a LOT on the complete discounting of body language as a means of communication. I’m not thrilled that the authors of More Than Two are actively telling their readers that those modes of information-gathering just don’t count.
When I ask my wife how she’s doing? I’m listening to her words, yes. But I’m also “listening” to her facial expression, her body language, her tone of voice, and paying attention to contexts such as [what she’s been doing with her spare time recently] and [when was the last time she ate something]. As such, if I say “How are you doing?” and her words say “I’m great”, but her jaw-set and her fidgeting and her tone-of-voice and the skin around her eyes are all saying “I’m not great at all“, I will double-check, mention what I’m noticing about her other modes of communication, and invite her to open up a little bit. (She says she will never play poker with me for this reason).
And, yeah, I might get an answer like “No, I’m fine. I’m just pre-occupied with work stuff”, at which point I have to drop it and let it go, because boundaries are still a thing (yes, even when your internal monologue is rolling its eyes and saying “Come on…”).
But that doesn’t mean it’s not a dick move to completely ignore a huge swath of how humans communicate with each other, particularly when those modes of communication are what we fall back on (or can’t cover up as easily) when we’re concerned about the Consequences of wanting something other than what a given partner wants (or wants us to want, or what we THINK they want us to want… there’s totally a rabbit hole you can fall into here…).
…Which brings me to my other point:
(2) Communication doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Polyamoury communities are FULL of people who are visibly and/or invisibly disabled, trans, abuse survivors, queer, some combination of the above, and/or otherwise have personal-histories or systemic-cultural-histories that include a LOT of social conditioning AGAINST trusting what our bodies are telling us we actually want/need, and a LOT of social conditioning TOWARDS looking to the social cues of other people (doctors, parents, partners…) to tell us what is appropriate for us to want/need, and when it’s appropriate to want/need those things. (Jess Zimmerman has an article about exactly this situation, which is currently my Everything, and I think you should go read it. There’s also this article, aimed at cis guys, which touches on a related communication-doesn’t-happen-in-a-vacuum topic – Point #3 is particularly relevant).
People with these histories are most likely going to (a) have a harder time even just discerning what they want want/need (or even that they have wants/needs), and (b) have more difficulty voicing those wants and needs in a direct way rather than coding them as questions about another person’s desires.
Example 1: There are a lot of femme cis women, and a lot of trans women of various gender-presentations, who figured out they were gay-as-fuck relatively late in life because (a) trans women and cis women both get told to ignore what our bodies are telling us in favour of believing what other people tell us we should be/want/need, and (b) none of us “looked like lesbians” since “lesbian” is popularly coded (both in and outside of queer communities) as “masculine-of-centre cis woman”, so how could we be possibly be dykes?
Example 2: Folks who are abuse-survivors frequently develope a nearly-psychic (or actually psychic) ability to anticipate the wants and needs of other people (particularly those to-whom they are attachment-bound) to the exclusion of their own wants and needs. This is a serious survival-strategy that kept us alive and safe in those abusive situations… but it’s a hard “habit” to break when we’re finally not in those situations anymore. It is VERY hard to discern what *we* want or need, and then to say those things out loud, when our lizard brains are telling us to “Want what they want right now, or you are literally gonna die”. Differentiating between [what we think we’re supposed to want] and [what we actually want] is really hard to do, and feeling our way through sorting that out, especially out loud, can be overwhelming and frightening, even in a really supportive space.
Similarly, polyamoury communities are ALSO full of people who, for personal-history or systemic-culture-history reasons, have had a LOT of social conditioning TOWARDS emotional stoicism or emotional repression and a LOT of social conditional AGAINST developing a nuanced understanding of their own feelings (maybe you grew up with “boys don’t cry”, or being gaslit to the tune of “you’re just too sensitive” and “over-reacting” in your family-of-origin, or when your white friends didn’t/don’t recognize the racism being aimed at you. Maybe you grew up being taught that it was only acceptable to feel one emotion at a time (like Tinkerbell! Or like being required to remain an emotional toddler for the convenience and comfort of others), or that “emotional maturity” meant disociating from your feelings rather than courageously wading into them and articulating them even when you’re neck-deep).
People with these histories may have a harder time (a) discerning what, exactly, we’re feeling in a given situation, and then (b) naming those feelings out loud in a nuanced way, particularly if we are feeling multiple things at once. If you haven’t seen the Pixar movie “Inside Out”, I really, REALLY suggest that you watch it, as it can be extremely helpful in terms of being able to recognize the types of feelings that may be interacting inside your brain.
Example 1: “Defensive” is a mixture of sadness, fear, and anger. But maybe you’ve been taught that “defensive” is a pansy way to feel, and so you call it “jealousy” and tell your partner it’s their fault you feel that way; or maybe you call it “anger” because that’s the emotion you’ve had the most practice recognizing over the course of your life, and so that’s the part of “defensive” you can actually put a name around.
Example 2: Have you ever felt warm-hearted joy at seeing your sweetie all moony-eyed over their new squeeze? But also felt anxious that they might start to like said new squeeze better than they like you? Plus maybe sad and/or irritated at being left out, on top of that? How about a little bit squicked, in addition to the rest, because your empathy and compersion didn’t actually extend to finding your partner’s new partner attractive?
Like that.
It’s totally normal to feel all those things at once. But teasing out all the different bits of that big, complicated cocktail of feelings? That can be overwhelming, frustrating, and scary, even in a really supportive space.
So here’s the thing.
If we are people who are at a disadvantage when it comes to discerning and articulating wants, needs, and/or feelings (and we may have trouble with all of the above at the same time)… we still have to do that work. We still have to be hella brave and dedicated and say that stuff out loud to the people we care about and don’t want to lose.
Our partners need to have our backs while we’re doing it.
When we are partnered with people (and we are *all* going to be partnered with people in these boats at some point) who have trouble discerning and articulating wants, needs, and/or feelings?
We need to throw them a freakin’ bone.
We need to take on the emotional labour (because this, too, is work which requires time, energy, attention, and effort) of making space for our People to figure that stuff out.
Y’know why? Because when you care about someone, you INVITE communication. You don’t half-ass your way through a relationship by expecting the other person – who is most likely hurting and stressed, sinced communicating that everything is fantastic, when it’s actually fantastic, is pretty easy to do, but bringing up scary stuff is NOT – to carry 100% of the weight of getting a heavy/difficult message across.
And, hey: We can do this by ASKING QUESTIONS and INVITING ANSWERS. By checking in with our partners.
Ask “Are we okay? How are you feeling about the way we relate to each other right now?”
Ask “Are you getting enough of what you need?”
Ask “Is there anything I can do to help with that?”
Ask “When you say you need __________, what does that look like? Does it mean I need to do X? Would Y or maybe Z work too?”
Ask “Hey, you got really quiet just now. Can you tell me what you were feeling right then? Can you tell me, even if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense?”
Ask “What does it feel like in your body? Does it feel like numbness or cold? Does it feel like a fish brushing up against you in the water and then darting away? Does it feel like too-hot and maybe small?”
Ask “When you say you want to do X with me, can you tell me what it is about X that makes it important to you? Is it wanting to try something new with me specifically? Is it the event/activity itself? Is it the potential for one-on-one time? Is it something else?”
Ask “Even if you think it sounds weird or silly, can you tell me what would feel really good right now? Can you tell me what “loved” looks/smells/feels like when you imagine it?”
Ask “You’ve been feeling really distant/far-away/withdrawn lately. Even if you feel really bad about it, or think you’re not supposed to feel like that, can you talk to me about what’s on your mind? I miss you.”
Ask “I know you’re busy and have a lot on your plate, but how are you feeling?”
Ask. Check in. Listen to, and act on, the answers (<– Do not skip this step).
Deliberately offer a space to the people you care about where they can explore (using their outside voices, no less) how they feel and what they want and need. This is how you build relation-ships that are deep and lasting and strong.
Because, here's the thing: It's not a one-way street.
Yes, there will definitely be times when one partner in a given diad or constelation is going to be experiencing a harder-than-usual time and will need extra support.
But, by and large, this asking, and listening, and making space is something that we are all doing for all of the people we care about, and that the people who care about US are all doing for us at the same time. Because we’re in cahoots with each other, accepting and offering care to/from each other in a never-ending, multi-directional flow of give-and-take.
And yes, for sure, this isn’t easy.
Chances are really good that a given person is both dating people who have trouble with this stuff, and being someone who has trouble with this stuff, at the same time.
And it’s really hard to ask those space-making questions of (for?) someone else when you, yourself, are lost in your own Stuff; to ask “What do you need to feel safe right now?” when you’re very afraid the answer is going to be something that makes you feel like you’re dying:
When “I need space” is all they can articulate, but all you can hear is “I am kicking you out of our home, I do not want you here”.
When “I want ice cream” is what they can discern, but isn’t what will satisfy the underlying need (which might be for emotional-care or body-pleasure) they can’t discern yet, and you are struggling with the tapes in your head that are telling you over and over that nothing you ever do/provide/offer will be Good Enough, or substantial enough, to make you loveable.
It’s really hard to do this stuff when everybody involved is hurting. And soooooo many of us are hurting. ❤
One suggestion I have for this is to practice under lower-pressure circumstances. Some people do this by having a regular weekly Relationship Check-In date, where they set aside 20 minutes to bring up Stuff that's kind of annoying or that's weighing on their minds, or that's going swimmingly well, or whatever. Other people ask each other "Whatcha thiiiiiiiiinkin'?" and "How's my Person?" through-out the course of a day or week, and offer honest answers in return ("I'm thinking about steam engines" or "Reading an article about emotional labour and the goddamn patriarchy" or "Feeling a little jumpy and paranoid, and I can't put my finger on why" or "Gosh I'm besotted with you" or "I think I'm maybe hungry? What do you want to do for dinner?[1]" and similar).
It may feel clunky or weird at first, or you may be tempted to gloss over the maybe-not-so-great stuff because you figure you'll be able to solve it yourself once you've got it All Figured Out. But try. Try to build kind-and-honest information-giving AND kind-and-active (not just with your ears, folks) information-requesting & -receiving into your relationships from the get-go. It won't make the scary conversations any easier or less frightening. But it will make YOU more aware of your ability to actively participate in them, and survive them, with each other.
We signed up for consensual non-monogamy, folks.
We signed up for a love-style that is pretty-much guaranteed to smack us in the face with our worst fears (of being abandonned, of being devoured, of being unworthy of care or kindness no matter what we do). Open relationships are graduate-level relationships because of this. But every one of us has decided “I am up for this challenge”.
So be up for it.
Ask questions, even when it’s exhausting and frustrating, even when you’re not sure if you’re asking the right questions, even when your partner might offer dead-end answers that aren’t any help but *are* all they’ve got to go on right now.
Offer information, even when it’s terrifying, even if you’re offering it unprompted and you don’t know how the recipient will react, even when you’re not sure you’ve found the right answer, or the whole answer, yet.
Every time we do this, every time we (request)-offer-recieve information with kindness and courage, with care and attention and action, we strengthen and deepen the connections we’re building together. And what are we here for if not for that?
Ms Syren.
[1] Did you notice how this answer involves (a) the recognition of a possible need/want (“I’m maybe hungry?”) but also (b) the coding of its possible solution through the lens of someone else’s desire (“What do YOU want to do for dinner?”)? This stuff is hard to unlearn, folks.

My year-at-a-glance horoscope for (big shock) the year my Saturn Return began said “Scorpios can stay in a bad situation longer than is healthy for anyone” (or words to that effect).
I think I’ve only (sort of) initiated a break-up once in my life, and it was kind of by accident. I’d been trying to tell my then-boyfriend that I needed him to shape up and contribute financially to the household (hahaha, in retrospect this was so unlikely to happen it was a joke I even asked, but hey) and, well, that wound up being the end of the relationship. Now, something like a decade-and-a-half later, I find myself contemplating a more-recent breakup (The Archivist and I stopped dating at the end of January). Maybe it’s because I’m hitting that particular stage in post-breakup grieving where I get pissed off, or maybe it’s for some other reason, but I find myself thinking a lot about how much of that (long-distance) relationship I spent feeling exhausted, anxious, lonely, frustrated, or otherwise in the Seriously Unhappy end of the emotional nebula.
It’s not their fault. They were giving me everything they could (and, as such, were probably feeling a lot of similar things, a lot of the time). I just needed more than what they could give me[1].
Which is what brings me to my titular question: How Do You Know When To Quit?
If you’ve been here for very long (or know me in person), you know that I’ve had very little dating experience. Like: Six people. Two of whom I full-on married, and two more of-whom didn’t make it past the 3-month mark. I’m still just starting to learn the patterns of my own romantic Healing Process (e.g.: I’m at the familiar, slightly heart-achy, slightly embarassing stage where I think about how “five years from now”, after we’ve both done a lot of Emotional Growing and got our business in a bit more of a heap, maybe we could be lovers/confidants/neighbours/partners (pick a stand-in for “close”) again, and not fuck it up so much. Note: This has yet to actually happen – though I’m on fairly friendly, if “acquaintancy”, terms with the guy I think of as “my first boyfriend” – but you never know) and my data sample is pretty scant when it comes to trying to figure out My Patterns.
None the less, that thing from my horoscope rings pretty true for me.
You know all that Brené Brown stuff I’ve been reading? The stuff where, if it feels like someone is hurting you because they are understepping, rather than overstepping some line, somewhere, it’s still an issue about Boundaries?
I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around that one, but I think I’m starting to get it. Not grok it, by any stretch, but get it.
And yet.
Because, so often, those situations feel circumstantial. She’s not emotionally available because she’s trying to do DIY therapy. He’s not making time for me specifically, because he’s out of town for the summer and can only come in for one day at a time. They’re not around as much as I’d like because they’re trying to find their feet in a new city. She’s not interested in sex because she’s exhausted from working two jobs.
…Sometimes that stuff is true. Sometimes that stuff is true, but there’s other stuff going on that they’re not telling you about, or that they can’t yet name. Sometimes that stuff (the circumstantiality of it) isn’t true at all, and they’re never going to smarten up and treat you as well as you treat them, make as much time for you as you make for them, love you the way you love them, want you the way you want them. Sometimes they are just not that into you, and sometimes they’re totally into you but… they still can’t give you what you need.
So. How do you know?
I was talking (elsewhere) about how “relationships, even when they go through sucky periods, are only hard when they are not what you want them to be”.
…And I’m still not sure how to discern that. How to catch it when those clouds aren’t just a passing storm, a temporary grey period, but a situation that you can’t Process or Self-Care your way out of?
Brené Brown – among numerous other people – basically says that when someone’s behaviour is not meting your needs:
1) You have to actually use your words and make sure you’ve stated your needs out loud to the person in question. (I can do this bit. I’m graceless about it, halting and stumbling and sometimes needing to try a few different ways of saying it before I actually hit on The Thing that I actually need, but I can say that stuff out loud).
2) You have to leave if they say no.
Which is maybe over-stating things a little bit, but that’s what it boils down to. You can’t force someone to turn their “no” into a “yes”. That’s not on. Which means either (a) you change what you need[2] so that you don’t need The Thing, (b) you accept that the price of admission for having a relationship (or whatever kind) with Person X is that The Thing is not going to happen, and you will need to get The Thing via some other avenue[3], or (c) you do not have a relationship – or at least you don’t have that kind of a relationship – with Person X[4].
And it feels like such an ultimatum. “Do what I want or I’m leaving you!”
Maybe it’s just because I have big ol’ fear-of-abandmonent Issues, so this tactic feels like the nuclear option from where I’m standing. Like: How could you threaten someone you care about with The Worst Thing In The World???
Or maybe it’s the bone-deep suspicion that if I actually pulled that on someone who was already not ponying up on the kind words, quality time, or caring actions fronts, they would be like “Fine. G’bye.” Either because they don’t have the energy to play That Game, or because they’d really rather just get rid of me and I’ve just presented them with a way to not be the Bad Guy while doing it.
Maybe it’s because I have a ridiculous degree of Scarcity Mentality going on when it comes to Love And Belonging, and some part of me really does believe that I have to take what I can get when someone I’m nuts about has – for some inexplicable reason – decided that they want to be with me at all. (Yeah, I know. 😛 I’m working on it).
Regardless, it seems like a Horrible Idea. The kind of thing that’s doomed to failure and regret and wondering how you could have been so stupid as to let them go or push them away.
And I need to stop feeling like that.
I keep thinking – wrongly, I know – that if I could just stop caring about people I care about then I could have relationships (well, no, not really) and they would never hurt. Or – maybe more accurately? Maybe not? – that, with enough practice, you just get used to functioning and getting things done through small but constant injuries, the way you do when you work in a kitchen or a workshop and just get used to burns and nicks on your hands and forearms.
How do you know when to quit? Even if you do know how.
My first queer relationship was one hurdle after the next and, yes, I was prepared to stick it out for years (that mythical five years, as it happens, though she broke up with me after a year-and-a-half), even though I was miserable more and more of the time and my girlfriend was unreliable and, frankly, mean to me quite frequently.
My second queer relationship? Reader, I married her. And we have had some BIG bumps in the time we’ve been together, but our relationship is also solid and still working.
My third queer relationship just (well, “just”) ended.
Do you know it’s time to quit because you’ve said “Hey, this Thing keeps happening. How can we deal with that?” and the answer has been “Let’s break up”, and you officially know that they can’t (or won’t, depending) do the Big Scary of fumbling and talking and trying again? And, if that’s the case, does that even count as you doing the quitting?
Do you know it’s time to quit because you’ve said “I need The Thing” in half a dozen different ways, and the answering actions have been consistently Not The Thing?
I think maybe you (I?) know it’s time to quit when you are consistently more unhappy in that relationship than you are happy in it… I just don’t know what the time-line is for that. How long do you let something run to see if it gets better, if the Crisis Machine of someone else’s life will let up enough that she or he or they have the emotional energy to turn towards you and try to collaboratively fix The Thing, or if it’s just… time to pull back, pull away, even though it hurts.
Ms Syren.
[1] …And didn’t neccessarily know many of the underlying needs my wants were pointing to, or standing in for – which is kind of a key thing that I may revisit in a later, more generalized post.
[2] I have yet to make this work, in spite of trying it in every relationship I’ve ever had.
[3] Not always an option. If you need consistency and reliability from all of your partners, the fact that Partner Q is solid as a rock is not going to make it any easier if Partner X is a big flake who never calls when he says he will. If you need all your friends to be up on the latest episode of Jessica Jones, or Orange Is The New Black, or whatever, and I don’t want to get a netflix account just to hang out with you, then I’m sorry, but we’re not going to be friends. (I’m sure you’re awesome).
[4] Not always an option. Sometimes you have to grit your teeth and deal with the fact that your coworker participated in March For Life (I am so sorry) and you can’t just fire him for believing his uteris-enabled co-workers don’t have a right to bodily autonomy.

So I read this thing, and also this thing, on the internet.
Relevant quotations (respectively):

I have noticed something important: they often can give, but they can’t receive. They can reach beyond their walls, but their walls don’t let anything in.

I bought into the bullshit that my value was only worth what I could do for other people.

Take those words. Couple them with this passage from Cuntext’s Hurt People Hurt People:

Last relationship’s shit fucking this one up good, and most of the time, we don’t get to compost it and we don’t get to take that rich soil and grow something better next time.

…And you are going to get an idea of what this post is about.
Twenty-five years ago. Twenty-five fucking years ago, that’s a quarter of a century, people! Twenty-five years ago, my brother – in the way of elelven-year-olds looking to find out where their power lies – gave voice to my most deeply and dearly held fear, the metanarrative that has been shaping my life for waaaaaaaaaaaay too damn long.

They only like you ‘cause you give them stuff.

I believed him.
I believed it.
I still believe it.
And I have no idea how much having those words said out loud by someone other than me, as though it was obvious to everyone and not just some horrible suspicion I held, made it true – or truer – to my ears, my mind, my heart… But it’s something I’ve been dealing with ever since.
It’s more than a bit of a piss-off, I don’t mind telling you.
Because this stuff goes deep and it takes for fucking ever to get through.

Linear time is a coercive lie of the white colonial patriarchy and it is fucking all of us up. Growth happens in circles and so does healing. We come back to the same hurt over and over, we come back to the same patterns over and over, and this is not failure, just life.

I know that my jerkbrain tells me stories – you know the ones (maybe your jerkbrain tells you the same ones) about how the people who say they love you don’t really love you, how you’re unloveable, unwantable.
And my jerkbrain is reeeeeeeeeeeally good at spotting the signs that it’s right, finding the proof, noticing the patterns that back it up, but completely missing the ones that contradict those stories.
I’m getting better at catching it, but I’m a long way from “fixed”, and I fall down my own rabbit holes a lot. Like weekly. Sometimes I can pull myself out of it without letting it show, or without saying anything more than “Brain weasels. I’m dealing with it” and then just dealing with it… And sometimes I need a lot of help.
It occurred to me, today, that I’m thinking of my partners – on some level – as though they’re stray cats. They’ll come around as long as I keep feeding them, as long as I don’t try to get too close, too fast, or start expecting them to turn up.
They couldn’t possibly want me because there’s something good about me that they actually like. Oh, no.

So I think it is really important […] to acknowledge how hard it can be to receive. Because receiving a gift is risking closeness. […] Each time someone gives you the gift of any kindness—acknowledge the gift, breathe and take it in like a long drink of water. Drink it way, way into your roots like a tree that has lived through a drought. Because it has.

I keep a file of text messages from people who love me, saying kind things to me. I keep it so that I can read them when my heart hurts, when I can’t physically remember the last time someone said “I miss you” or “you’re beautiful”. I can open up that file and find examples with fucking date-stamps on them. They’re not wishful thinking. They’re right there.
They help.

Hey there.
So one of my partners and I were fooling around the other day, and she wanted to check in to see if I was up for something a little more hot and heavy than making out for the sake of making out. The way she asked was… a little awkward, to say the least, but it gave me some Useful Information about my own sexuality and what my pacing is like. So, in true Challenger Generation[1] fashion, I’ve decided to talk about it on the internet.
See, one of my Nearest and Dearest identifies as Grey-A, and we’ve talked about it using the metaphore of “mainland” and “island”. It goes like this:
Non-sexual interactions take place on the mainland. Sexual interactions take place on the island. (This is where the metaphor starts getting a little bit clunky, but bear with me). Most people live on the mainland, most of the time (some people live on the island, most of the time, but that’s another story) and, if they want to have a sexual interaction with somebody, they need to take the bridge across to the island.
With me so far?
My Grey-A Interlocutor says that, for her, there is no bridge. She either has wings that day (and can fly across the water, which is also tiring) or she doesn’t, in-which-case the island might as well not exist no matter how much she wants to get over there.
For non-ace-spectrum folks, it’s more like “how does a given person cross this bridge?”
Which is what I wanted to talk about.
I figure that, for some people, there’s the mental/emotional/cellular-leve equivalent of a shuttle bus that goes by every 10 minutes if you happen to want to hop on and go to Sex Island for a quick stop-over or an afternoon of fun. For others, there might not be a shuttle bus, but maybe they can phone a private car that will, at a moment’s notice, turn up to collect them and deliver them to their destination in style and comfort. For still others, there might be a swaying, rickity footbridge of rope and half-rotted planks, and getting to Sex Island means edging along above turbulent waters, one very-carefully-placed step at a time, with a lot of safety precautions in play… and they might still have to abort the mission unexpectedly.
In my case, my footbridge is no-longer the swaying death-trap it once was (Woohoo!!!), but it’s still a long-ass bridge and it takes a fucking while to cross it. Like, yes, sure, sometimes – as with OC Transpo, funily enough! – I can catch a bus when I’m part-way across and the stars have properly alligned, and yes, sure, like all good bridges, it has a bit of an arc to it, so things move a little faster and more easily once I’m past the halfway point, but generally speaking I’m getting to Sex Island on foot, at walking pace[2].
Which is good to know.
As in: It’s information I can give a partner.
For Example:
“I’m totally down for beating the fuck out of you, but I need you to be gentle and receptive about how gradually I do the build-up, because this is also the warm-up for me, and I’m a better, more solid and less literally-shakey, top when I don’t rush myself by trying to get to your desired intensity-level faster than I’m actually comfortable with”.
“I’m definitely up for switching sexually, but are you cool with taking the Bottom spot first? That way, I can warm myself up while I’m doing Wonderful Things to you, and I’ll be ready for you by the time we trade places.”
“I’d love to [receive intense-for-me genetal play] but, before that can happen, I’m going to need a solid hour[3], give or take, of slow, full-body carresses, deep kissing, and breathing each other’s pheremones.”
I like the footbridge metaphor. It helps explain (to myself, if to nobody else) why so many of my “reliable go-to” sexual activities are the kind of “still a virgin” things that geeky-nerdy kids (and probably other kids?) do when they’re not quite emotionally/mentally ready for Actual Fucking, but definitely have all the hormones and neurons and what-not to be physically into it. Things like making out and sensual massage and fooling around with our clothes still on and cuddling & whispering together and, okay, also hanging out together in the miniature hot tub and nuru-gel wrestling in the inflate-a-pool. But you get the idea. I may not know how to turn wrestling into sex, the way S. Bear Bergman describes it in his essay, “Brother Dog”, but – if someone wants to get there with me – I definitely know how to turn cuddling and gentle closeness into sex. It’s the road I know best. I may walk it at a heartbeat pace, but it gets me there every time.
Ms Syren.
[1] you can blame/thank Catherynne M. Valente for that term – though I can’t find the post where she first used it. (There’s a handy definition here, though).
[2] I’ve tried to get there at a run on so many occasions, and it mostly just means that I get tired half-way across and need to straight-up stop, or else I get to Sex Island only to realize that I’ve got a stitch in my side and everything hurts and I need to catch my breath and just… enjoying myself now that I’m here isn’t going to be easy.
[3] Maybe more, depending on the day and/or how long it’s been since I’ve seen you.

So I came across a couple of pieces on Relationship Anarchy the other day. “Relationship Anarchy”, as far as I can tell, is another word for the kind of relationship-building that is sometimes called “open relationships”, “polyamoury”, or “consensual non-monogamy”, but the idea is to decentralize the idea of couple-hood (and, in some (all?) instances, romance itself) as a determining factor in how much one prioritizes a given relationship.
It’s funny. I’ve totally been one of Those People who heard the phrase “platonic poly partner” and rolled their eyes, thinking “’Cause, what, calling them your ‘friend’ or your ‘roommate’ isn’t radical enough??” and yet… I kind of get it. Defining a given relationship as a “partnership” isn’t the same as calling it a “friendship”.
One of my wife’s long-term partners is her Best Friend. They don’t live together. They’re not sexually involved, they not particularly romantically involved. But they’re life-partners, none the less. (I once explained the term “Zucchini” to someone as “A friend who gets as much time, energy, attention, and influence as a romantic partner, but who is not a romantic partner”… whatever that means).
I read this article and I thought… a bunch of things, actually. I thought how well this dovetails with my idea of “tribe” and the kind of poly family I want to build, the extended network of friends who are closer-than-friends, of family that uses cheerful letchery as a way to say “I love you”; how my wife’s heart works like this without having to think about it.
And I also thought about things like how I differentiate between “friend” and “partner” based on emotional vulnerability & trust as much as sexual desire or Romantic Stuff (I’m not entirely sure how that’s defined, really – gods know I’ve been on what I’d think of as “dates” with my friends without being Confused about what we were Doing Together), how sensuality and affection slide so easily into sexuality for me, how sex is tied up with emotional vulnerability for me, how I watch myself so carefully, how the reason I wanted polyamoury to begin with was so that I wouldn’t have to police my affection as much as I had been while identifying as monogamous.
But I also asked myself things like: If I met someone asexual, would I let myself fall “in love” with them? Would I be able to? How does that related to having crushes on heterosexual friends (which tend to happen a lot more slowly, and eventually morph into something non-romantic)? How would/could I let that turn into non-romantic love? How would I differentiate between romantic and non-romantic love at all[1]? Would I need to?
And that particular spiral basically ends up where all of this ends up, which is “Don’t assume anything, talk everything out”…
I’ve heard non-poly people (well, Captain Awkward, specifically) say that Endlessly Discussion Your Relationship is awful, unless you’re poly, in which case it’s called “foreplay”. Which makes me grin while simultaneously banging my head against a wall because… kinda, yeah. 🙂
The Relationship Escalator – of-which Relationship Anarchy is basically the opposite/antithesis(?) – is designed to sort of let people coast to the top (or abort-retry as many times as “necessary”, as the case may be, just remember that it’s unidirectional and you can’t go backwards once you’re on it with a given person) without needing to check in a lot… sort of.
One of my wife’s People both (a) is super-new to poly, and (b) says stuff like “I don’t know where I fit” fairly frequently. And it’s… let’s just say I can relate. When you get off the Relationship Escalator, you’re basically flailing around without a road-map, let alone a GPS with a handy little red dot saying that You Are Here. I’m one of those people who gets really nervous when I can’t tell if I matter to someone as much as they matter to me. Those “naming and claiming” actions on the Relationship Escalator are really handy for that, even if the “naming” part means diddly squat if there isn’t behaviour to back it up.
So the other response I have when reading about Relationship Anarchy is, well, a hell of a lot of discomfort and defensiveness. All that ragesaurus stuff about “What, so now I’m ‘not radical enough’ if I want to know if/how I matter to people who matter to me?” and “I’m pretty sure if I told my friend-who-is-relocating that I was totally going to move to be near her that… I would creep the FUCK out of my friend. :-/ Boundaries are important!”
That kind of thing.
There’s a funny (“funny”) kind of anger that comes with meeting something that bangs up against your cosmology and says “Yeah, but what if? What if the way you do things isn’t the only way? What if you’re hurting someone by doing it like that? What if you’re missing out on something, too?”
And, yeah, that’s Privilege in a nutshell. And, yeah, it took me long enough (like… 10 years of working my way towards it in a fairly active way?) to start recognizing it for what it is. But I’m finding that the trick – like the one where either It’s About You, in which case maybe listen & improve your behaviour, OR It’s Not About You, in which case maybe shut up and don’t worry about it – is to differentiate between the general and the specific. Like: “Romantisupremicism demands that non-romantic relationships NEVER be valued as deeply as romantic relationships” – which is just a True Fact – versus “the way I, personally, build & define relationships means that there is more emotional vulnerability and inter-dependence involved in a partnership than in a friendship and, as a romantic person, my partnerships tend to include romantic feelings; I’m conscious of this and aware that How I Relationship will grow and change over time”… or what-have-you.
Maybe I’m just messing around here, but that’s where I’m at with this one.
Ms Syren.
[1] As a sexual person, a big part of what makes romantic love “romantic” rather than “platonic” is whether or not there’s mutual sexual interest going on there. (Similarly, what makes it a “crush” rather than a “fascination” or, like, being “someone’s biggest fan” or whatever, is whether or not I want to make out with said person[2].
[2] Possibly related? I’ve been known to develop sexual feelings for people who, aesthetically & emotionally are sexually unpalatable to me, but who talk a good game, make my brain fizz, and similar. I don’t know what’s up with that, but it’s there and I… have to keep an eye on it.

So Del has a post up called “Sometimes You Just Gotta Open Your Mouth” wherein he talks about a lot of things – primarily mortality – but, at the beginning, specifically about feeling overwhelmed when faced with the blank blogging-page.
I can relate.
There’s a zillion things that I feel like I “should” be blogging about here on Syrens – Bill C36 and its (negative & appalling) effect on sex workers’ rights and safety; Jian Gomeshi and the situation where predators sometimes use an identification as kinky to hide their abusive behaviour; Bill C279, which would protect gender identity under the Canadian Human Rights Act and enshrine it from protection against hate crimes under the Criminal Code as well, and which is currently being held up in the senate by one or more Conservative senators who – apparently – are hoping it’ll die (AGAIN) before being passed, due to another election; … Along with my own growth/struggles/you-name-it around poly, power exhange, and personal sexuality.
So I sat down over waffles this morning and “just opened my mouth” onto a piece of paper. And what came out – surprisingly or otherwise – was another discussion of loneliness.
I often joke to people – my friends, anyone who reads this blog, y’know: people – that I’m “the most monogamous poly person I know”. I admit that I’m starting to wonder if I’m not shooting myself in the poly foot by saying stuff like that. :-\ Between this and the slight possibility of my wife getting yet another person in her romantic life (ye gods…), I wound up thinking about loneliness and how it relates (sort of…) to polyamoury. Basically, I wound up thinking about Fear Of Abandonment and how loneliness makes assholes of us all by messing with our ability to feel empathy, among other things.
Look, I don’t have a study to back this up (though the loneliness stuff I linked to, above, isn’t far off), but I’m developing this theory that Fear Of Abandonment makes people incredibly self-absorbed. I’ve talked about this before, although possibly not on this blog, about how the fear of (and pre-occupation with) What Other People Think of us, and how (not IF, but how) people feel about us can lead us to believing that every little thing is some kind of a referendum on whether So-And-So likes us for real or not.
Someone didn’t send a thank-you note after that thing, that time? Clearly this is because They Don’t Really Care about me, and has nothing to do with their work-life being kind of overwhelming at the moment.
Someone didn’t text me back immediately? Clearly this is because they’re punishing me [in a really passive-agressive way] for some unknown Thing for-which They Are Going To Leave Me with all haste, and which couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that I texted them while they were on a date, at work, or possibly driving.
Someone didn’t come to my birthday party? Clearly this is because They Hate Me and has NOTHING to do with the fact that they’d made plans to do something else six weeks ago, while my party invitation was kind of short-notice.
Seriously. Captain Awkward is FULL of stuff like this, so I heartily recommend that you go and read it if you need more examples. But do you see what I mean? Starhawk wrote something – in either Dreaming the Dark or Truth or Dare – about being “King Nothing”, about how being the Most Hated is, in a weird, backwards, upside-down way, kind of like being the Most Loved.
It makes sense.
For those of us who secretly, or not-so-secretly, believe that we are worthless, that we’ll never be worthy of love and kindness, that being wanted isn’t really something we understand as possible… knowing ourselves to be the Lowest Of The Low is, in a way, a chance to be special in some way. Being the “Best Loser” is still being the best something, right?
Gawd. Even just writing that down. It feels so self-pitying, so very much an unneccesary (“unneccesary”?) cry for sympathy and attention and what-not, so very, very “poor little rich girl” to be sitting here with my neuroteypical brain that does not pre-emptively re-absorb its serotonin, that doesn’t plague me with disturbing thoughts of how nobody would miss me if I just happened to die on day, y’know, “by accident”, that the people I love would be better off, and happier too, without the burden of my neediness[1] always weighing on them.
And yet I beat myself up – often emotionally, sometimes physically – on really bad days when I’m so overwhelmed with shame that I slap my own face, tear at my hair, claw at my skin, while my Jerk Brain puts on the skin of someone who woould never hurt me like this, and laughs inside my head. While my self-loathing rages and screams at it Are you happy now? Are you happy now? If I hate myself enough, will I be worthy of your crumbs? If I hurt myself enough, will your indifference feel like love??
Whew. Yeah. So that’s the inside of my brain for you.
But I was talking about loneliness and how it can make you really self-absorbed.
I wonder if everyone who deals with loneliness, who is afraid of being abandoned, ditched, replaced “as soon as Someone Better (and wouldn’t anyone be better?) comes along”, if we aren’t all secretly carrying around that same horrible, cruel, world-devouring voice that never stops telling you you’re bad, it just changes up the volume periodically.
At Unholy Harvest this year, I got to take part in a ritual. It was a really good ritual, and I hope that we get to have another one next year[2]. Part of that ritual involved partnering up and one of you saying “I love myself. I love myself.” and the other acknowledging it, saying “You love yourself”. It was so easy, when my ritual-partner said that she loves herself, to respond with a grin and “I know. You love yourself!”
But I don’t know. Maybe she was faking it just as much as I was, and her confidence and her 1700-lumen smile that actually does light up the room, are just a cover-up for the same loathing and self-directed rage that are gnawing at me all the damn time.
All I know is that when she said “You love yourself” to me, I laughed in that awful “this is actually a living nightmare and I just told a really big lie” kind of way.
I have no idea how to like myself better[3]. Every time I see someone make a note of how they’re resolving to treat themselves with as much compassion and care as they treat their friends, I wonder if it would be okay for me to do something like that, or if acting like I’m mean to myself, publically acknowledging that I’m mean to myself (I am mean to myself, and acting like it doesn’t count because I’m not taking a razor to my own arms is… possibly part of how I’m doing it?), if, given that I spend most of my days cooking good home-food, making different kinds of art, going for walks and/or doing yoga, and getting in a number of more-than-occasional hot baths (you know, living the life I actually want and getting to do it in spite of my own income being kind of uncertain?), it isn’t a little bit ridiculous to act like I’m entitled to, I dunno, also believing that I deserve that stuff. Or something.
I don’t know.
I don’t know how to like myself better. But I think I need to.
I think I need to.
Take care,
Ms Syren.
[1] … Er… Mostly. I’m not suicidal. Not suicidal thoughts. Not suicidal ideation. DEFINITELY not PLANNING anything. But that “burden of my neediness” thing… That eats at me sometimes. :-\
[2] Although heaven and earth know I’m not up to facilitating it at this point… Maybe I can figure something out?
[3] And I mean that in the sense of “like myself more” but also in the same sense meant by phrases like “laugh yourself healthy”. Funny how that works out, isn’t it?

Okay, so as-you-know-bob, I have this pet theory – based on not a whole lot, I admit – that many of the people who are Wired for polyamory in the sense that they Just Don’t Get Jealous are possibly coming to it from a place of Insecure-Avoidant attachment styles and the need to always have an escape route available. That said, not everybody who goes “Poly! It’s what’s for breakfast!” is going to attach in an insecure-avoidant way. A lot of us – self very, very much included – are insecure-anxious attachment types who are terrified of Being Abandoned, and carry around a secret (or not-so-secret) fear that the only reason anyone is hanging out with us is because someone better hasn’t come along yet.
And today, I kind of want to talk about making the switch from Monogamy to Polyamoury (where “Polyamoury” means the whole spectrum of consensual non-monogamy), as an insecure-anxious person, when the only road map I’ve ever had has been the one for Monogamy. Continue reading

So there’s this article up on Salon right now, talking about polyamoury’s age-old bugaboo, jealousy, and how one poly triad handles theirs.
In addition to talking about “transitivity” (which is fascinating, particularly when considered in conjunction with things like the annual Phamily Reunion that is Unholy Harvest), the author goes into some theories about where the whole idea that “jealousy is a problem that originates within the individual and so must be handled by that individual” comes from. She links it to the 20th Century (“Industrial”, “Modern”, “Capitalist”, etc) idealization/lionization of The Individual. Which I admit is a neat way to look at it if you want to situate polyamoury in opposition to a system (see: Nuclear Family) of isolation, alienation and the resulting anxiety that can be used to, ah, encourage people to buy a lot of stuff they don’t really need to buy. (Although her brief segue into class analysis is also kind of fascinating – again in the context of Queer Leather Tribe with its working class and broke-ass-chosen-family roots). Continue reading