Tag Archive: boundaries


So! I just watched Ten’s first youtube video in their I’m Having A Feeling series. It’s a good time. It’s a short vid about, basically, Using Your Words. It’s a good video, and I’m looking forward to more.
I’m also using their video – or a specific part of it – as a jumping off point for my own ruminations. Because, guess what? I’m having a feeling, too!
 

“Undine” by Arthur Rackham (1909, based on the story by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué)
Public Domain via Wiki Free Images
A Watery Tart in romanticized Medieval garb stands by a river (her own, one presumes) in a dark wood, her hands pressed to her face and her expression distressed.


 
Something my lovely wife and I periodically have discussions about is that I don’t tell her when something is bothering me.
Which, like, obviously this is not ideal. She loves me and would rather know when I’m getting upset about a thing that she is doing, or not doing. Which is part of why she is great.
It’s also part of why she is unusual if you look at my dating history. Whether for reasons of being selfish assholes or for reasons of unexplored and definitely unresolved traumas/Mental-Health-Stuff of their own, or for reasons of A Little Bit Of Both, most of the people I’ve developed attachment bonds with, over the course of my life, have been people who wanted me to just shut up and stop having a problem with Whatever It Is. See also: “Why are you so sensitive/needy?”
 
Now. Because I’m human, and I have this pattern, perhaps it’s relevant to ask: Hey, Ms Syren! What are you getting out of these relationships? Because it’s obviously something, or you wouldn’t keep repeating this pattern!
 
Good question!
I don’t know the answer. Though I have some theories:

1) Mommy Issues. One of the people who pulled the Why U So Sensitive on me, for the better part of 30 years, was my own mother. Which sucks. At this point, I’m pretty sure that my mom has the same kind of fight-response-oriented generalized anxiety crap that I do, so most of her jerk behaviour is/was probably due to her own undiagnosed and unmedicated weasel-brain winding her up into a state of anything from “twitchy and irritable” to “lashing out pretty harshly in order to bleed off the excess panic”. So I don’t hate my mom over this (uh… any more) BUT I do recognize that, since our first attachment bonds are generally with our adult care-givers AND since those bonds tend to set our expectations (<– see what I did there?) about what attachment bonds look and feel like, there's a solid chance that my relationships with both my frequently unavailable (he worked in a different city and was home on the weekends) Dad and my reliably available, but frequently (and somewhat randomly) emotionally-violent Mom maaaaaaaaaaaaaay have some effect on how & why I develop attachments to people who, surprisingly often, are both (a) not around that often, but also (b) can't really be trusted not to treat me like crap and then tell me it's my fault that I feel bad about it.
 
2) Shame/Low Self Worth/Indispensability. Call this one what you like, it basically boils down to “If so-and-so NEEDS me, they will never abandon me”. Which… isn’t entirely correct. They might never abandon me, but they will probably resent the heck out of me if I keep wanting to have a relationship based on mutuality and So-and-so really just wants me to endlessly take care of them without having any pesky needs of my own. (I may be a little bit bitter about some of my former romances). Basically, the idea is that For Whatever Reason, I secretly believe (have a personal cosmology that tells me) I’m unworthy of love and belonging, and so constantly need to be “earning my keep” by being necessary/indispensable lest I be cast out into the cold to die, frozen and alone, in the snow. (For real. That’s literally the end-point where all my fears are aiming. Dying, frozen AND alone, specifically in the snow).
 
3) Issues Around Vulnerability. This one is pretty heavily related to #2. (It’s also something that Ten talked about in their video. AND it’s something that Brenee Brown tends to talk about a lot as well). BUT it may also have some relationship with #1. If I need less than a given co-attachment-bondee, they will be leaning on me more often than I am leaning on them, which will mean I’m not being Too Needy (note: in situation #2? Needing anything is needing Too Much, so… this doesn’t actually work) and will – hahaha – not be abandoned or cast out due to being too much work, and similar. But also: If I need less, just in general, then when my co-attachment-bondee is… not available, or reacts with outsized anger at my expressing wants and needs, then I won’t have to deal with personal disappointment, or exposure to outside threats, nearly as often.
 
4)Saviour Complex. Otherwise known as: I actually get a lot out of looking after people, so maybe I fall for people who want/need a lot of looking after. I don’t know how much of that is due to items #2 and #3, versus how much of that is just, like, the Gender Programming just took really well over here, versus how much of it is actually me getting something genuinely fulfilling (Oh, hai, Cancer Moon) out of mending my partner’s dresses or bringing my friend a casserole. But let’s go with “at least some of it”.

 
So. Those are my theories about why I have this particular pattern going on.
But! That whole list is really just kind of a tangent because what I was saying was: It’s not typical, in my relationship history, for my bringing up unmet wants and needs to be met with a willingness on the part of my partners (mostly) to try and meet them.
Which brings me back around to those discussions that I have with my wife.
 
Long before I met my wife, I got to have “counseling in exchange for odd jobs” and, during these sessions, I started addressing my tendencies to lean towards martyrdom through Not Using My Words to express my wants and needs. So I’m better at expressing that stuff out loud than I was. I still have a tonne of fears around “asking for too much and thus losing everything”, and I still tend to get kind of choked up and… unable? to talk about stuff when someone asks me directly about what I specifically want, especially if there’s some kind of audience involved (because the only thing worse than being vulnerable in private is being vulnerable in public, am I right?), so I’m not exactly out of these particular woods. But I’m far better at it than I was.
 
Which brings me to the point of this whole post.
The reason (the other reason?) why I have a habit of not bringing it up when I’m having The Feels around something that… maybe?… pertains to unmet wants or needs, is this:

When I find myself experiencing feelings like resentment or consternation or frustration or anger or disappointment around A Thing that is or is not being done, I have trouble discerning WHY that feeling is happening.

 
Maybe I’m feeling those things because my liquid anxiety is sloshing around trying to find something to define itself by, and so I’m aiming my anxiety-derived irritability/snappishness/frustration A Thing because it’s conveniently available and I can tell myself “Oh. See? I’m not upset because my idiot brain is convinced that Some Nebulous Bad Thing is going to Happen. I’m upset because of This Specific Thing that pertains to one of my attachment relationships. I’m not a high-strung mess because I’m a high-strung mess! I’m a high-strung mess because Co-Attachment-Bondee is mistreating me in some way!
E.G.: Back when I worked for Rainbow Health Ontario, I generally had a couple of all-staff meetings in Toronto every year. This meant that I generally went traveling on my own while my wife stayed home. Around about the second night in TO, I would get ridiculously angry/frustrated with my wife over some dumb thing like “She says ‘um’ a lot on the phone”. This is something which I fervently hope never actually showed up in my behaviour, but which was definitely going on. It took me a few rounds of this to realize that this was actually a mix of (a) stress due to interacting with a LOT of people for many hours a day, and (b) anxiety around having deprioritized someone else (my wife) in favour of myself (by traveling and not being available by text for a lot of the day) which, as we know, is The Worst Sin according to my own shitty metanaratives/cosmology. This was 100% coming from inside my own head, a preemptive “Fuck you! I don’t need you!” born of a fear that Someone Will Be Mad At Me For Letting Them Down.
 
Maybe I’m feeling those things because I’m Hangry.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory.
See also: I need a nap, or a shower, or some introvert time, or to know for sure that I’ve got enough money for the heating bill this month.
 
Maybe I’m feeling those things because I’m not nearly as self-aware or good at self-soothing as I’d like to think, and this is actually a problem I can solve myself by taking a bath, doing some anti-panic breathing, eating some protein + having a glass of water, journaling to try and figure out why this call might actually be coming from inside the house, and otherwise doing self-care and self-work rather than expecting other people to manage my feelings for me.
E.G.: I am, by now, well aware of how threatened I regularly feel when a partner gets a new partner, or when one of their already-existing partnerships levels up or becomes more entwined in some way. But, as recently as five years ago, I didn’t really know that my generally pretty negative feelings about new metamours were at least in part due to my own fears of abandonment and being replaced. Learning how to better self-sooth, as well as doing a bunch of self-work to figure out where those feels were coming from, went a long way to smoothing my relationships with my metamours.
 
Maybe I’m feeling those things because A Specific, Concrete Thing that I asked of a co-attachment-bondee, in order to meet a particular need… isn’t actually doing the trick, BUT I can’t figure out why, and so can’t articulate a new Specific, Concrete Thing to ask for that will better meet that need.
E.G.: I once asked a long-distance partner to text me when they got up in the morning and when they went to bed at night. My live-in partner does this pretty reliably with most of her non-live-in sweethearts, so it seemed like a very reasonable thing to ask of someone one theoretically would be missing me as much as I was missing them.
I thought the need I was addressing was for contact. The kind of thing that might be named “quantity time” and that might be related to stuff like the “parallel play” of two adults hanging out on the couch next to each other, each one reading a book, not interacting much but being close together and getting something out of that proximity.
I was SO wrong.
Which is maybe (or maybe not) why a couple of auto-texts per day were really not doing it for me.
The needs I was actually trying to meet were
1) The need to mutually affirm “I’m here for you. I’m listening and will be as available as I can be given stuff like work hours, other partners, and life in general” in the morning, and to assure each other “I’m still here for you, I still care about you, even though I’m sleeping and/or on a date and will be mostly not available for the next 8-12 hours”. I wanted to let my partner know that stuff. I needed to hear that kind of stuff from them, too.
and
2) The need for frequent, albeit brief, emotional connections at regular intervals. My primary love language is touch. In a long-distance relationship, I don’t get to speak, let alone hear, that language very often or even very reliably. Which means I need to lean more heavily on secondary love-languages like “words of affirmation” or “quality time” or the kinds of “caring actions” that can be done by text/phone such as asking me about my day/life, listening to the answers, and then responding to what I’ve said as though it matters.
But it took me until several months after that partner and I broke up for me to understand why my Specific, Concrete Action (text me at regular intervals) wasn’t getting me what I actually needed (affirmation of mutual love and care; reliable and frequent-ish moments of emotional connection and mutual support through the gifts of our respective time, energy, and attention).
 
Maybe I’m feeling those things for the reasons Ten talked about in their video: I don’t feel like I have the right to ask for my partners’ time, energy, and attention.
E.G.: Because demanding those things makes me a shitty metamour or Bad At Polyamoury. Because if she really wanted this power exchange, I wouldn’t have to ask for X Task to be completed anywhere near as frequently as I do. Because they’re going through a really hard time right now and don’t have the emotional energy or attention to offer, even if I psyche myself up and ask for it. Because if they wanted to prioritize spending time with me, they would take some initiative and ask, instead of leaving it to me 100% of the time. Because, if she wanted to spend more time with me, wouldn’t she be kinder to me on the phone? Because if I keep reminding them about X Significant Date in my life, they will feel stupid or like I don’t think I can trust them to remember stuff that’s important to me. Because asking for stuff, when that stuff isn’t forthcoming after asking once, is being a pest at best and being abusive at worst, and I don’t want to give them reasons to be uncomfortable with, or irritated at, me. The list goes freaking on.
 
Maybe I’m feeling those things because I have asked for The Thing, and my co-attachment-bondee is dismissing my want or need by telling me that I over-think things, or that my emotions are exhausting, or that I’m too needy (or too sensitive), or that expecting fair treatment and basic kindness from someone who says “I love you” to me is expecting waaaaaaaaaaaay too much. Or whatever. (Which, btw, is why I was having such a feeling of Consternation while watching Ten’s video). Maybe my co-attachment-bondee’s behaviour is not matching up with their stated feelings/intentions, and I’m feeling Actually Fucking Bonkers on top of feeling frustrated and angry.
 
See?
Sometimes those feelings are a definite indicator that something is wrong in one of my relationships, and/or that I need to talk more explicitly (or even just remind a given partner) about what I need and how to help me get it.
But a lot of the time, those feelings are the result of stuff that I’m kind of doing to myself. Brain weasels. Limited and relatively new coping techniques for dealing with same. Ignoring basic stuff like feeling hungry, tired, or socially drained.
Between that and a history of my needs being poorly received, and often dismissed, when I’ve expressed them?
I find it’s generally a less risky, but also more-likely effective, plan of action to take a look at how I can solve my problems myself.
 
Which would be great, if some of those problems didn’t take literal years to solve.
Which would be great if, by doing so, I wasn’t also reinforcing the hopefully-false belief that “People only want me if I give them things am compliant and low-maintenance (easy to ignore when they don’t want something from me)”.
Which would be great if these behaviours and assumptions didn’t make it easier for other people to manipulate and gaslight me around whether the things I want and need are “reasonable” or not.
 
It’s kind of fucked up. Equal parts necessary self-work and possible/probable self-sabotage, and I’m not sure what to do with it all.
Clearly I have more work to do in this area.

One of the reasons I originally wanted polyamoury was that I wanted the chance to get better at Doing Relationships faster. I thought – and was probably super mistaken – that if I were involved in multiple relationships at once, I would get to practice Having Relationships with lots of people, and therefore work out some/most of the “bugs” more quickly. I think I was approaching romantic partnerships sort of as if they were like writing novels. To hear my writer friends tell it, when it comes to novel-writing, you don’t learn how to write A book (and then you know how to write books forever more), you learn how to write THIS book, and you have to learn it all over again with the next one, and the one after that.
And, yeah, you learn how to Do a given relationship and it will not be the same way you do a different given relationship. I kind of love the metaphor of romances (or sex) being improv music, in that you’re co-creating something that does have some rules and expectations built in for functionality, but beyond that is up to everyone involved to create something together.
But also I feel like a bit of a jerk for having thought of relationships with actual people as “practice” for later relationships down the line in any way.
 
None the less. That’s not how things actually worked out, and I’ve spent almost all of the last nearly-ten years being in relationships with one person at a time.
Consequently, most of what I’ve learned “about polyamoury” isn’t actually about maintaining more than one romance at a time. Most of it is about me and how I do relationships, what I need in and from relationships. A lot of it is boundaries stuff.
 

Screenshot from Labyrinth. Wide-eyed protagonist Sarah realizing (and stating) that the Goblin King has no power over her.

Screenshot from Labyrinth.
Wide-eyed protagonist Sarah realizing (and stating) that the Goblin King has no power over her.


 
For example. I (very recently, maybe even embarrassingly recently) realized that… that it’s not on me to “make do” with whatever relationship another person is inclined to give me. I’m not talking about “using my words” here. I’m talking about leaving if someone isn’t offering me the kind of relationship I want to have.
TBH, this discovery kind of blows.
I mean, I’m not saying that it’s good to think that it’s on me to modify my wants and needs so that I can be theoretically (uh… >.>) happy having a low-entwinement, low-time-commitment relationship with someone when what I actually want is something significantly more emotionally intimate and time-intensive or, for that matter, happy having a high emotional-intensity, heavily entwined relationship with someone who can’t offer me mutual care or whose personal coping mechanisms press my buttons in all the wrong ways.
I’m just saying that recognizing that I have the power to walk away from romances – or potential romances – that aren’t giving me what I want… It kind of leaves me feeling complicit in my own loneliness.
Which is bizarre, and probably has a lot to do with a scarcity-based understanding of the world.
It’s like, on some level, I’m thinking “Gosh. If only I’d settled for being taken advantage of, or having constant anxiety spikes and deep unhappiness, at least I’d be Really Polyamourous (TM) because I’d have more than one partner at a time…”
What on earth, right?
Right.
But it’s still a thing that I’m grappling with.
Anyway. Other things I’ve learned:
 
I have a pretty small dance card. This isn’t particularly surprising. Ten years ago, I wasn’t particularly expecting to have more than two heavily-entwined partners and maybe a friend or three who I did occasional scenes with was wasn’t emotionally entangled with more than I would be in a non-sexual relationship. So the bit where juggling two romances at a time feels… just about right? I mean, sure, it might be because I’ve never had more than two relationships at a time, and those relationships generally take a lot of energy because I tend to go deep or go home. But two seems… nice. More than that might be too hard to handle. (Granted, I only have one right now, so… we’ll see what the future holds, I guess?)
 
I am CRAP at casual flings. I seriously wish I wasn’t. I wish I could – and am trying to figure out how to do the Boundaries to – do casual hookups and low-attachment sexual encounters. I wish I could be playful about sex without getting my heart caught up in it. Right now, sex is kind of fraught for a whole heap of reasons, and needing to “make sure” that I’m hooking up with someone who will do right by me – or otherwise constantly be doing the dance of retracing my own boundaries with myself– just adds to that stress. I’m not saying that there’s a line-up or anything, but I would like sex to be fun. I’d like to be able, in the hypothetical situation where this kind of proposition even happens, to say Yes to the friend-of-a-friend who I met at a party or a community dance, to have a short 5-10 minute negotiation rather than having to spend a week of each others’ time hashing out the specific details of where hands and mouths can and can’t go, before we even end up in the same room again.
 
I am way better at spotting other people Meta-Narratives and Self-Defeating Stories than I am at spotting my own: As is obvious to anyone who talks to me for, like, five minutes at a stretch, I have a maybe-not-so-great tendency to hand out unsolicited advice. (I’m trying to keep a better lid on that, FYI). Humans love narratives. These big, multi-layered, complex patterns made up of other, simpler patterns. We use them to tell us how the world works and how we fit into it. And, as individuals, a lot of us – particularly when we’re trauma babes and abuse survivors – have narratives we rely on to explain Why Someone Does That in a way that lets us treat “That” as normal, forgivable, understandable behaviour, rather than abuse. It’s so much easier to catch on to other people’s Stories. The things that come up over and over again. I had a girlfriend, once, whose Story was that “everyone leaves me in the end”. In all the times I decided to actively counter that narrative by Not Leaving, I never once asked myself whether my decision to be perpetually available to her, to upset her self-defeating narrative, happened to have anything to do with maybe reinforcing one of my own.
I finally (good grief, after a decade plus…) figured out that my OWN self-defeating narrative is one that says:
“If I center my own wants and needs instead of those of [other person], I will be letting [other person] down, and they will LEAVE ME to die, frozen and alone in the snow”.
It wasn’t polyamoury that helped me realize this. Not by a long shot. (And it probably had more to do with various personal growth projects and getting some life-coaching than with striving for anything in the realm of relationship anarchy). But being able to see my own narrative playing out on multiple fronts, and (eventually) being able to ask myself “Hey, Ms Syren, what story of YOURS is having the play-button hit because [other person] is playing out one of their own?”, has definitely been part of why I was able to recognize it as, ha… “fast” as I have.
 
I don’t have to “drive off a cliff” but can (and must) meet people where they’re at. What I said about getting some life-coaching? Some on-going therapy? Up until about a year ago, I had (and still have – though I’m trying to get a handle on it for Many Reasons) a bad tendency to respond to “Hey, would you like to go on a date?” with “Sure, I’d love that” and then follow it up by “modeling” the kind of relationship I wanted to have with said person by… being reliably (and, um, endlessly) available, getting in touch regularly, pitching plans for us to spend time together on a frequent (but hopefully appropriate) schedule, opening up emotionally and being brave when it comes to talking about what I want/like/need, etc… even though said individual may not have asked for, or expressed interest in, any of those things. I wrote about this more extensively here, but basically this Thing that I was (and still am) doing can both (a) open me up to being very easily, and very badly, taken advantage of, but also (b) can put my date in an uncomfortable position of basically fending off my overwhelming attentions.
I need to try and meet people where they’re at. Sometimes this means waiting to see how often
 
So. Here I am. Ten years in, and still very-much getting the hang of things.
I’m trying to teach myself to be open to the possibility that The Unexpected might not be a total disaster. Trying to teach myself that it’s not on me (not my responsibility, but also not my right) to manage – or micro-manage – other people’s relationships. Trying to figure myself out enough that I can say what I want, and what I need, without freaking the fuck out that “I will keep my own boundaries in mind” doesn’t feel like a dangerous deal-breaker, and without falling apart when someone else says “that’s not something I’m up for” either.
 
The road goes ever on (as the saying goes).
 
 
Cheers,
Ms Syren.

So. I signed up to take part in (meaning receive videos from) this year’s Explore More Summit.
I’m feeling equal parts excited/anticipatory and… prepared to be disappointed?
 

An oval. Around it are arrayed the words "Thought", "Behaviour", and "Outcome",with arrows leading from one to the next in an endless loop.

An oval. Around it are arrayed the words “Thought”, “Behaviour”, and “Outcome”,with arrows leading from one to the next in an endless loop.


 
I’m feeling “prepared to be disappointed” because the last/first time I signed up for this (Free, I should mention, so I’m not out anything but time – and that’s pretty flexible right now) series of discussions, I found that there seemed to be a significant amount of centering or assuming… something that looked a lot like heterosexuality even when it wasn’t necessarily so (a lot of stumbles around what “sex” looks like, what the gender of a woman’s partner is likely to be, and what kind of genitals she and said partner(s) are likely to have). I felt this to the degree that I actually wrote to the (turned out to be queer) organizer to complain about how othered I felt, even as a cis woman who periodically dates people whose genders don’t overlap (er… much) with my own[1].
So, in spite of the glorious array of queers who are signed up to present at this year’s summit, I’m prepared for the possibility that those same assumptions will be present.
 
THAT BEING SAID…
 
I’m also excited and looking forward to this. I like me a good workshop series. I like having ideas to poke and prod at. I like a “facilitated discussion” as much as the next Harvister, and there’s bound to be a lot of food for thought going on here.
Seriously. There are so many talks about “messiness”. About uncertainty and navigating trauma in sexual (and maybe non-sexual?) situations, about desire, self-compassion and pleasure, along with discussions around dominance, sex magic, femme-daddying[2], “writing towards pleasure”, sexual creativity, and other stuff that is really relevant to my interests.
 
Speakers I’m particularly looking forward to include:
Cristien Storm
Alok
Sage Hayes
Cavanaugh Quick
Alayna Fender
Imran Siddiquee
Rafaella & Dalychia
Steve Haines
Lorena Olvera-Moreno
Karen B.K. Chan
Fran Tirado
Barbara Carrellas
Joy Harden Bradford
Vivienne McMaster
Sinclair Sexsmith
Mia Little
AND
Leonore Tjia
 
Which is, I think, slightly more than half of the presenters.
I think it’ll be good. 🙂
And I think it’ll be good for me to do a bit of a write-up about (or jumping off from) each of the talks I take in. So that’s the plan.
It all starts tomorrow! 😀
 
 
TTFN,
Ms Syren.
 
 
[1] Dear Queers: I love us. Please feel free to center your queerness in all things and in all ways. We get to be our whole selves, no matter who we’re dating.
 
[2] Not me, but… probably related.

Why am I still so bad at this?
That’s one of the questions that hit me when I realized I’m a few short months away from my personal ten-year polyversary.
Ten years ago, I definitely had a daydream about what my polyamourous life would look like after ten years of practicing and – also on the very pressing to-do list at that time – getting myself some on-going therapy. And, yeah, I imagined having significant romantic attachment bonds[1] with, oh, roughly two people, neither of whom lived with me and neither of whom were dating each other, but both of whom had other partners. I imagined me and my hypothetical beloveds giving each other a lot of our time, energy and attention. At the time, I probably would have talked about this by saying “I have two primary partners”. At this point, I’m aware that hierarchical language like this has multiple meanings, that it can be used to talk about degrees of entwinement and (often-related) availability, but it can also be a flag for how much consideration and care a given partner is “allowed” to expect or rely on in a given polycule (which… often seems to relate to some sort of seniority thing?[2]). What I mean when I use it is something like “Primary Partner vs Friend-with-Benefits” and it means “someone who (mutually and in an agreed-upon way) refers to me as their partner/girlfriend/wife/sweetie rather than their friend/pal/It’s Complicated/FwB”. Ten years ago, it was a way of referring to how much time, energy, and attention I was giving to my partners. These days (and quite recently at that) it’s become a little more nuanced, but I’ll get to that in Part Three.
 
Where I’m going with this is that, ten years ago, along with all that other stuff, what I imagined was that I wouldn’t be so scared all the time. I wouldn’t police myself so much. I wouldn’t HURT so much.
 
And, to some extent, that has turned out to be true. I can hook up at a play party and do a scene with someone I’ve been ever-so-slightly crushing on for years. I can having make-out dates and play dates with friends-with-various-types-of-benefits. I can hang out with a metamour, or send my wife off on an overnight with one of her partners, and feel comfortable and happy rather than tense, irritable, anxious, and threatened.
Which is all great!
But I’m also anxious, in general, and tend to spin on the things that did, or could, Go Wrong, so maybe it’s not surprising that I still feel Very Bad At This.
 
The thing is, I’m not sure what it would take for me to feel like I was otherwise.
I think about the theoretical still-unfilled spaces on my non-monogamous dance card, the ones that must be there because otherwise I wouldn’t keep getting crushes on people (right…?), and how worried I am about what will happen to my current relationship – the one with the woman who is ready and willing to wait patiently for me to get back from The Land of NRE when those other beloved people come along – if I fall deeply for someone else again.
I think about how confident I was, eventually, in my current relationship, how much I believed I’d licked the insecurities that had me spinning in anxiety and fear of abandonment for the first couple of years with my now-wife, thinking that I’d figured out how to navigate the fear that gets labeled as jealousy. Thinking that I’d Fixed Myself without understanding that a big part of that was being in a relationship with someone who cared about my well-being, treated me kindly, showed up reliably… but also not understanding that, in a situation where the person I was with wasn’t doing those things – was unreliable, cruel, careless or thoughtless when it came to how they treated me – not only would those insecurities (understandably) surface again BUT that if they did, it didn’t necessarily represent a flaw in me or a problem in myself that I needed to fix.
 
I think “why am I still so bad at this” relates to some sort of dearly held but false belief that If I were good at this, none of my relationships would fall apart, or otherwise deviate from what I wanted them to be, because I’d magically be able to discern who would love me, and behave lovingly towards me in ways I could discern, For Ever vs who would get bored of me in a couple of months, think I was too much, or have unrealistic expectations of selflessness from zir partners, and just… equally magically… not fall for people in the latter group.
Because that’s realistic…
 
One of my Brene Brown books – I have so many at this point – offers this little fill-in-the-blank thing as one way of sorting out where your Shame Stuff lives.
“I’ll be worthy of love and belonging when I ____________”.
The blank is supposed to get filled in with stuff like “lose ten pounds” or “get that promotion” or some other specific theoretically achievable, but always moveable, goal. Mine looks like:

I’ll be worthy of love and belonging when I no-longer need them.

 
So maybe it’s not surprising that, when I read and re-read Polyamoury101 books (or comic strips, or podcasts or-or-or), I have a hard time not interpreting them as saying that Good Polyamourous People don’t actually get anything from each other, or even want anything from each other, because Good Polyamourous People are capable of meeting 100% of their attachment needs without actually attaching to anyone.
That isn’t necessarily what they’re saying (I certainly HOPE it’s not what they’re actually saying), but it’s easy for me to read that into the text (or wevs) because I’ve got this unhelpful core belief around how I’m not supposed to want or need things, not supposed to burden other people by Having Expectations of anything what-so-ever.
 
It’s dumb. And I’m not sure how to fix it. But I think that’s where a lot of my “why am I still so bad at this” feelings are coming from.
Anyway. Onwards.
 
 
Cheers,
Ms Syren.
 
 
[1] Though, ten years ago, I’d never heard the term “attachment bond” – among many, many other terms – let alone what it meant or why it mattered.
 
[2] Which… I can sort of get behind, to be honest. Like, I’ve had to remind myself on a number of occasions not to update my will to include someone I’d been dating for less than a year, no matter how much I cared about that person, because I had zero way of knowing whether or not they would for sure be in my life two years down the road. The problems start (well… “start”) cropping up when those more-recent partners have also been around for YEARS but are still being told that they can only ever expect to be treated like a new and untested fling.
 
[3] Which means I need to make a bunch of art about this, basically. Time to write more poetry. 🙂

Tops, Bottoms, and Boundaries

So, Heather tweeted:

 
And I thought… It’s been way too long since I actually wrote something for Syrens, so let’s use this as a bit of a jumping off point and see where we go.
 
So. What tells me that a possible scene-partner knows and is able to communicate their boundaries, even when things get intense…
I think the first part of this is actually to ask “How likely are things to get intense?” because the vast majority of what might be called pick-up play (hooking up with someone and negotiating a scene while at a party, rather than beforehand) that I do isn’t exactly “play”. It’s more like the scene version of running a “sensation station” at a kinky exploration event. Meaning that I’m “topping” in the sense that I’m “doing the doing” but not in the sense that I’m “running the fuck”.
In these situations, “intense” in the opposite of what I’m going for and I’m working/interacting with someone who hasn’t done The Thing (usually The Thing is play-piercing, but sometimes it’s other stuff) before so I’m working from the understanding that (a) they want to try The Thing, but (b) they don’t actually know if they like it, or how their body/mind/body-mind are going to react to it. It means we go super slowly, keep everything light, and front-load a lot of information in both directions. I ask questions about what experiences they have with related sensations (kink-wise –> stingy sensations) and with related experiences (e.g.: medical –> booster shots and blood tests and so-on; body-art –> tattoos, piercings) and about how they tend to respond to those situations/experiences (like whether they get light-headed, how/if they tend to scar, etc). And I offer information (and/or answer questions) about why I’m suggesting starting with thus-and-such gauge of needle or thus-and-such location on their body, stuff like that. There are a LOT of check-ins, way more than I would do in a play-scene, a lot of “Now I’m going to do X, are you ready?”, as opposed to a “fun scene” where the kind of a heads-up I give is more like “Mwahaha, what shall I inflict up on you next… Ooooo! How about THIS one?” when changing toys.
 
Which, I guess, is a good place to start talking about the “fun scenes” that I do get up to.
 
I’ve been pretty lucky in that, when I do pick-up play that is A Scene Where I Have Fun Too rather than, like, Providing An Experience Through My Emotional and Physical Labour (<– Note: I do volunteer to do these things and I do get stuff out of them, this is just marking the difference for me between one type of scene and another), it's been with people who are generally more experienced kinksters than me.
You know that Grand Olde (Mythologized) Leather Tradition where you learn how to top from other tops?
I learned how to top by listening to my bottoms.
 
Related Tangent: I realized a few years back – after I'd had a couple of pretty unsatisfying impact-play scenes (don't get me wrong: spanking and caning are tonnes of fun, but these ones in particular didn't work out) with people I'd only just met, that I needed to change up how I went about negotiating – or even just suggesting – scenes.
There were things I was still yet to figure out (I will get to that in a minute, as those things are really RECENT discoveries), but I realized that I needed to (a) play with people I actually find attractive[1] and (b) play with people who are into the same things I'm into, rather than… service-topping whoever happened to come along.
So I tend to ask people what they like to get up to, and what specifically they'd like to do with me (provided the “with me” part has already been established as something they’d like), and then pick stuff from what they suggest.
It’s… There’s stuff in here that points to “Tops get to want things, too” and my own difficulties recognizing and owning – acknowledging and naming-out-loud – my own desires. Xan West has some stuff on sadistic desire and sadists’ consent that pertain to this, and Betty Martin’s wheel of consent has, more recently, been a major eye-opener for me with regards to how I tend to hide what I want to take[2] (link goes to a half-hour video) as a top, a sadist, a dominant, or even just as a fairly vanilla[3] lover, under the guise of what I’m willing to give.
I can go on at length (and have) about how I feel like my own wanting – wanting-to-do and wanting-to-take – are monstrous and unforgivable. I get that this isn’t really true, but it’s a hard one to navigate[4] and it means that I’m being dishonest when I hide my “I want” (to pull your hair, dig my nails into your thighs, fuck your mouth with my fingers, slap your face, go down on you, carve words into you, sink my teeth into you, leave my marks on you) behind my “I’m game to do what you’ve already said you want”.
It’s cowardly[6].
 
But anyway.
I learned to top by listening to my bottoms, by topping people who were old hat at this and were looking for a new play-partner, rather than a new physical experience[7]. Maybe some of those have involved them Providing An Experience Through Their Emotional and Physical Labour for me, although I kind of hope not. Maybe that’s had an effect on what I look and listen for when it comes to sorting out whether or not someone else is Good Enough At Boundaries to be someone I can play with safely. Some of those things are:
 
* If I’m with someone who I haven’t met before, are they going slowly? Are they looking for a conversation before they look for a scene. E.G.: The woman who is now my wife originally approached me with an invitation to get together to talk about maybe doing a scene, which suggested a solid sense of self-preservation. This can also look like chatting me up between workshops if we’ve met at an event.
 
* Do they talk pretty directly and specifically about what they like and want? I, myself, am hella bad at this – see above. But if we’re BOTH hella bad at this, it is (a) just not going to function at all, but also (b) going to annoy the heck out of me because I can’t Do The Doing if I don’t know where The Doing is invited to go.
 
* Do they talk about “Where can I touch you and what do you call it?” (to use an S. Bear Bergman phrase). Do they talk about what they’re not okay with? Do they talk about what “yellow” looks/acts like in terms of body language if spoken language isn’t an option (because things are intense, because they’re gagged, because they’re non-verbal, because we’re in a loud-ass dungeon and my hearing is kind of fucked). Do they know what “yellow” looks/acts like, when it’s them?
 
*Something it occurs to me I should maybe be on the look-out for, when it comes to people I’ve know for a while, but which I don’t think I’ve been doing (at least not in any kind of intentional way): Have I seen/heard them cross their own boundaries before? Like… “I am so tired but said I’d do xyz social thing, so I have to“. Have I seen/heard them do this frequently or consistently, or is it something that seems pretty rare?
 
Anyway, so hey.
A thing I’m finding as I’ve been writing this is that I look for people who are better at recognizing and articulating their boundaries than I personally am.
I’m not sure what to make of that. I mean, on the one hand, I’m basically administering tests that I couldn’t, myself, pass. On the other, if I’m that bad at acknowledging that I want specific things, let alone asking for them, and have a tendency to… keep going with things, or allow things, or put up with things, or whatever that aren’t actually things I’m enjoying, it’s probably better that I stick to topping (rather than bottoming), and that I stick to topping people who are GOOD at recognizing and naming what they want and need, as well as what they don’t.
Anyway.
Not sure what to do with all that, but there you have it.
 
 
TTFN,
Ms Syren.
 
 
[1] I have a lot of Feeeeelings about this, just because it feels SO shallow to say out loud, but there it is. My sadism and my dominance aren’t separate from my sexuality and my desirousness.
 
[2] “Take” meaning, in this context, what I want to do (consensually) because it gives ME pleasure, as opposed to what I’m willing to do (joyfully, excitedly) because someone else has already told me it will give THEM pleasure. (This from watching Betty Martin’s videos on the subject).
 
[3] For a given value of “vanilla” that includes spanking, biting, hair-pulling, and digging my nails in… >.>
 
[4] It makes me wonder if the folks who are bottoming for me are looking for flags around “does this person know their own boundaries and can they articulate them when things are getting intense?[5]”, or it they’re only (understandably – you need to put your own oxygen mask on first) looking for flags around “Will this person recognize and respect MY boundaries?”
 
[5] Which, P.S.: It took me a loooooooooong time to understand that I was allowed to have boundaries as a top. That my purpose as a top wasn’t just to Provide A Community Service, sure, but also that in a given scene with a given partner, that I was allowed to set the pace so that I got the warm-up I need in order to enjoy the scene and not end up exhausted. I’m still getting the hang of how that functions in a D/s situation, as the habits and feelings around that have been built over a much longer period of time.
 
[6] It’s also a convenient Domme Cheat Code, though, because it makes the other person be all sorts of vulnerable with you. But… still cowardly.
 
[7] Not that I necessarily understood it that way in real time. When I told my wife I was writing this, and that her wanting to meet me and have a conversation before deciding whether or not to do a scene with each other had been a Green Flag for me, she said “Well, yeah. You’re a human being”. Which… In the eight years we’ve been together? It never once occurred to me that she asked me out on our first “proto-date” (or… something…) because she wanted to get to know me. I thought that happened later. O.O

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]”
Yeah.
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.
O.O
 
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.

Also this (suuuuuuuuch a big deal, go read it all): “If you have shamed something in yourself – like a normal need for intimacy – so early and so completely that you don’t even notice you are doing it, you will interpret that same need as shameful when you see it in others.”

Dating Tips for the Feminist Man

The opposite of masculine rape culture is masculine nurturance culture: men* increasing their capacity to nurture, and becoming whole.

The Ghomeshi trial is back in the news, and it brings violent sexual assault back into people’s minds and daily conversations. Of course violence is wrong, even when the court system for handling it is a disaster. That part seems evident. Triggering, but evident.

But there is a bigger picture here. I am struggling to see the full shape emerging in the pencil rubbing, when only parts are visible at a time.

A meme going around says ‘Rape is about violence, not sex. If someone were to hit you with a spade, you wouldn’t call it gardening.’ And this is true. But it is just the surface of the truth. The depths say something more, something about violence.

Violence is nurturance turned backwards.

These things are connected, they must be connected. Violence and nurturance are two sides of the same coin. I…

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Someone I still love did this to me.

Dating Tips for the Feminist Man

There are two kinds of boundary violations: overt and covert.

We know a lot about one half of boundary violations: the kind acted out in an anxious way.

This first kind of boundary violation is hopefully already obvious. This is when you say no, or are unable to consent, and someone goes ahead and touches you anyway. This is the kind of boundary violation that occurs when someone touches your body when you are drunk, or are unconscious, or are drugged, or do not say an enthusiastic yes, or your body language communicates trauma, fear or hesitation and someone goes ahead anyway.

It is the kind of boundary violation when men insist that we smile for them on the street, or smile before they will give us our food at a restaurant, or when they insist we talk to them and placate them and flirt with them when…

View original post 6,282 more words

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.
 
BUT!
 
(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.
BUT!
Our partners need to have our backs while we’re doing it.
AND
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?
 
 
Cheers,
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.

So, I (finally) picked up a copy of More Than Two because someone posted a screenshot of an excerpt (on twitter) about how part of asking for what you need is being able to handle refusal (regardless of whether it’s “can’t go there (yet / at all)” or “don’t wanna go there with you (yet / at all)”) with grace. Which I am really, really bad at[1].
 
So far, I am… skipping the first chapter entirely. It’s the “Might you be poly?” chapter. I am already polyamourous. I know that bit.
BUT
I really like that the authors (Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux) have included Questions To Ask Yourself at the end of each chapter, and I’m inclined to answer them – in blog form, no less! – just to find out what my answers are.
 
So here we go!