Tag Archive: boundaries


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…

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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!

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.
But.
 
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).
AND
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.
 
 
TTFN,
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.