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.”
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. 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?”
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” (I swear, Captain Awkward is how I learned what boundaries actually are in practice) and the million Totally Reasonable Reasons 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 – “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. (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 – published in a mass-market paperback, as if they were totally reasonable things to think and act on.
It’s a bit of a tough go, you might say.
So, we’ll see how I do with the rest of it, but… I don’t know if this is going to be something I’m able to finish or not.
 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.
 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… Would it? I have no freaking idea.
 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.
 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”.
 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…
 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.
 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.
 Except here, clearly, where I’m telling you all about the mess that is my insides.
Tag Archive: social morees
So… I’ve started reading Conflict Is Not Abuse.
So I’m continuing to read More Than Two. I’m enjoying the questions the authors ask their readers to contemplate, and will continue to blog my own answers here as I move along.
Right now, though, I want to talk about Communication and how it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
It’s possible that the authors, when writing up their Chapter 7 summary of good communication techniques (active listening, non-violent communication, & direct communication) are giving a coles-notes version that they’re going to expand on in later chapters. We’ll see if that happens. I know that right now, though, I’m getting really twitchy reading about “I statements” and – rather more-so, in my case – about how “direct communication” requires using one’s words rather than “hinting” through body language, tone of voice, and facial expression and how, if a partner doesn’t bring up a problem “directly” (AKA: verbally), one should take them at their (lack of) word and trust that there is no problem.
I’m not great at direct communication, so maybe that’s why I’m getting soooo twitchy, but I have a LOT of side-eye for this.
Yes, if I have difficulty with this, it’s on me to learn how to discern and acknowledge my own wants and needs, and then to Be Brave and state those wants and needs out loud with words, even when I’m not sure my requests are going to be met with a Yes. Similarly, if I have difficulty recognizing and naming my emotions, its on me to develope a nuanced vocabulary when it comes to that, and then to Be Brave and talk about those feelings, even when I’m not sure I’m allowed to feel those things or how my People will react to them.
(1) Body language, facial expression, and tone of voice are PART OF how we, as humans, communicate.
I’m sorry (or, y’know, not sorry at all) but Rape Culture’s plausible deniability relies a LOT on the complete discounting of body language as a means of communication. I’m not thrilled that the authors of More Than Two are actively telling their readers that those modes of information-gathering just don’t count.
When I ask my wife how she’s doing? I’m listening to her words, yes. But I’m also “listening” to her facial expression, her body language, her tone of voice, and paying attention to contexts such as [what she’s been doing with her spare time recently] and [when was the last time she ate something]. As such, if I say “How are you doing?” and her words say “I’m great”, but her jaw-set and her fidgeting and her tone-of-voice and the skin around her eyes are all saying “I’m not great at all“, I will double-check, mention what I’m noticing about her other modes of communication, and invite her to open up a little bit. (She says she will never play poker with me for this reason).
And, yeah, I might get an answer like “No, I’m fine. I’m just pre-occupied with work stuff”, at which point I have to drop it and let it go, because boundaries are still a thing (yes, even when your internal monologue is rolling its eyes and saying “Come on…”).
But that doesn’t mean it’s not a dick move to completely ignore a huge swath of how humans communicate with each other, particularly when those modes of communication are what we fall back on (or can’t cover up as easily) when we’re concerned about the Consequences of wanting something other than what a given partner wants (or wants us to want, or what we THINK they want us to want… there’s totally a rabbit hole you can fall into here…).
…Which brings me to my other point:
(2) Communication doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Polyamoury communities are FULL of people who are visibly and/or invisibly disabled, trans, abuse survivors, queer, some combination of the above, and/or otherwise have personal-histories or systemic-cultural-histories that include a LOT of social conditioning AGAINST trusting what our bodies are telling us we actually want/need, and a LOT of social conditioning TOWARDS looking to the social cues of other people (doctors, parents, partners…) to tell us what is appropriate for us to want/need, and when it’s appropriate to want/need those things. (Jess Zimmerman has an article about exactly this situation, which is currently my Everything, and I think you should go read it. There’s also this article, aimed at cis guys, which touches on a related communication-doesn’t-happen-in-a-vacuum topic – Point #3 is particularly relevant).
People with these histories are most likely going to (a) have a harder time even just discerning what they want want/need (or even that they have wants/needs), and (b) have more difficulty voicing those wants and needs in a direct way rather than coding them as questions about another person’s desires.
Example 1: There are a lot of femme cis women, and a lot of trans women of various gender-presentations, who figured out they were gay-as-fuck relatively late in life because (a) trans women and cis women both get told to ignore what our bodies are telling us in favour of believing what other people tell us we should be/want/need, and (b) none of us “looked like lesbians” since “lesbian” is popularly coded (both in and outside of queer communities) as “masculine-of-centre cis woman”, so how could we be possibly be dykes?
Example 2: Folks who are abuse-survivors frequently develope a nearly-psychic (or actually psychic) ability to anticipate the wants and needs of other people (particularly those to-whom they are attachment-bound) to the exclusion of their own wants and needs. This is a serious survival-strategy that kept us alive and safe in those abusive situations… but it’s a hard “habit” to break when we’re finally not in those situations anymore. It is VERY hard to discern what *we* want or need, and then to say those things out loud, when our lizard brains are telling us to “Want what they want right now, or you are literally gonna die”. Differentiating between [what we think we’re supposed to want] and [what we actually want] is really hard to do, and feeling our way through sorting that out, especially out loud, can be overwhelming and frightening, even in a really supportive space.
Similarly, polyamoury communities are ALSO full of people who, for personal-history or systemic-culture-history reasons, have had a LOT of social conditioning TOWARDS emotional stoicism or emotional repression and a LOT of social conditional AGAINST developing a nuanced understanding of their own feelings (maybe you grew up with “boys don’t cry”, or being gaslit to the tune of “you’re just too sensitive” and “over-reacting” in your family-of-origin, or when your white friends didn’t/don’t recognize the racism being aimed at you. Maybe you grew up being taught that it was only acceptable to feel one emotion at a time (like Tinkerbell! Or like being required to remain an emotional toddler for the convenience and comfort of others), or that “emotional maturity” meant disociating from your feelings rather than courageously wading into them and articulating them even when you’re neck-deep).
People with these histories may have a harder time (a) discerning what, exactly, we’re feeling in a given situation, and then (b) naming those feelings out loud in a nuanced way, particularly if we are feeling multiple things at once. If you haven’t seen the Pixar movie “Inside Out”, I really, REALLY suggest that you watch it, as it can be extremely helpful in terms of being able to recognize the types of feelings that may be interacting inside your brain.
Example 1: “Defensive” is a mixture of sadness, fear, and anger. But maybe you’ve been taught that “defensive” is a pansy way to feel, and so you call it “jealousy” and tell your partner it’s their fault you feel that way; or maybe you call it “anger” because that’s the emotion you’ve had the most practice recognizing over the course of your life, and so that’s the part of “defensive” you can actually put a name around.
Example 2: Have you ever felt warm-hearted joy at seeing your sweetie all moony-eyed over their new squeeze? But also felt anxious that they might start to like said new squeeze better than they like you? Plus maybe sad and/or irritated at being left out, on top of that? How about a little bit squicked, in addition to the rest, because your empathy and compersion didn’t actually extend to finding your partner’s new partner attractive?
It’s totally normal to feel all those things at once. But teasing out all the different bits of that big, complicated cocktail of feelings? That can be overwhelming, frustrating, and scary, even in a really supportive space.
So here’s the thing.
If we are people who are at a disadvantage when it comes to discerning and articulating wants, needs, and/or feelings (and we may have trouble with all of the above at the same time)… we still have to do that work. We still have to be hella brave and dedicated and say that stuff out loud to the people we care about and don’t want to lose.
Our partners need to have our backs while we’re doing it.
When we are partnered with people (and we are *all* going to be partnered with people in these boats at some point) who have trouble discerning and articulating wants, needs, and/or feelings?
We need to throw them a freakin’ bone.
We need to take on the emotional labour (because this, too, is work which requires time, energy, attention, and effort) of making space for our People to figure that stuff out.
Y’know why? Because when you care about someone, you INVITE communication. You don’t half-ass your way through a relationship by expecting the other person – who is most likely hurting and stressed, sinced communicating that everything is fantastic, when it’s actually fantastic, is pretty easy to do, but bringing up scary stuff is NOT – to carry 100% of the weight of getting a heavy/difficult message across.
And, hey: We can do this by ASKING QUESTIONS and INVITING ANSWERS. By checking in with our partners.
Ask “Are we okay? How are you feeling about the way we relate to each other right now?”
Ask “Are you getting enough of what you need?”
Ask “Is there anything I can do to help with that?”
Ask “When you say you need __________, what does that look like? Does it mean I need to do X? Would Y or maybe Z work too?”
Ask “Hey, you got really quiet just now. Can you tell me what you were feeling right then? Can you tell me, even if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense?”
Ask “What does it feel like in your body? Does it feel like numbness or cold? Does it feel like a fish brushing up against you in the water and then darting away? Does it feel like too-hot and maybe small?”
Ask “When you say you want to do X with me, can you tell me what it is about X that makes it important to you? Is it wanting to try something new with me specifically? Is it the event/activity itself? Is it the potential for one-on-one time? Is it something else?”
Ask “Even if you think it sounds weird or silly, can you tell me what would feel really good right now? Can you tell me what “loved” looks/smells/feels like when you imagine it?”
Ask “You’ve been feeling really distant/far-away/withdrawn lately. Even if you feel really bad about it, or think you’re not supposed to feel like that, can you talk to me about what’s on your mind? I miss you.”
Ask “I know you’re busy and have a lot on your plate, but how are you feeling?”
Ask. Check in. Listen to, and act on, the answers (<– Do not skip this step).
Deliberately offer a space to the people you care about where they can explore (using their outside voices, no less) how they feel and what they want and need. This is how you build relation-ships that are deep and lasting and strong.
Because, here's the thing: It's not a one-way street.
Yes, there will definitely be times when one partner in a given diad or constelation is going to be experiencing a harder-than-usual time and will need extra support.
But, by and large, this asking, and listening, and making space is something that we are all doing for all of the people we care about, and that the people who care about US are all doing for us at the same time. Because we’re in cahoots with each other, accepting and offering care to/from each other in a never-ending, multi-directional flow of give-and-take.
And yes, for sure, this isn’t easy.
Chances are really good that a given person is both dating people who have trouble with this stuff, and being someone who has trouble with this stuff, at the same time.
And it’s really hard to ask those space-making questions of (for?) someone else when you, yourself, are lost in your own Stuff; to ask “What do you need to feel safe right now?” when you’re very afraid the answer is going to be something that makes you feel like you’re dying:
When “I need space” is all they can articulate, but all you can hear is “I am kicking you out of our home, I do not want you here”.
When “I want ice cream” is what they can discern, but isn’t what will satisfy the underlying need (which might be for emotional-care or body-pleasure) they can’t discern yet, and you are struggling with the tapes in your head that are telling you over and over that nothing you ever do/provide/offer will be Good Enough, or substantial enough, to make you loveable.
It’s really hard to do this stuff when everybody involved is hurting. And soooooo many of us are hurting. ❤
One suggestion I have for this is to practice under lower-pressure circumstances. Some people do this by having a regular weekly Relationship Check-In date, where they set aside 20 minutes to bring up Stuff that's kind of annoying or that's weighing on their minds, or that's going swimmingly well, or whatever. Other people ask each other "Whatcha thiiiiiiiiinkin'?" and "How's my Person?" through-out the course of a day or week, and offer honest answers in return ("I'm thinking about steam engines" or "Reading an article about emotional labour and the goddamn patriarchy" or "Feeling a little jumpy and paranoid, and I can't put my finger on why" or "Gosh I'm besotted with you" or "I think I'm maybe hungry? What do you want to do for dinner?" 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?
 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 came across a couple of pieces on Relationship Anarchy the other day. “Relationship Anarchy”, as far as I can tell, is another word for the kind of relationship-building that is sometimes called “open relationships”, “polyamoury”, or “consensual non-monogamy”, but the idea is to decentralize the idea of couple-hood (and, in some (all?) instances, romance itself) as a determining factor in how much one prioritizes a given relationship.
It’s funny. I’ve totally been one of Those People who heard the phrase “platonic poly partner” and rolled their eyes, thinking “’Cause, what, calling them your ‘friend’ or your ‘roommate’ isn’t radical enough??” and yet… I kind of get it. Defining a given relationship as a “partnership” isn’t the same as calling it a “friendship”.
One of my wife’s long-term partners is her Best Friend. They don’t live together. They’re not sexually involved, they not particularly romantically involved. But they’re life-partners, none the less. (I once explained the term “Zucchini” to someone as “A friend who gets as much time, energy, attention, and influence as a romantic partner, but who is not a romantic partner”… whatever that means).
I read this article and I thought… a bunch of things, actually. I thought how well this dovetails with my idea of “tribe” and the kind of poly family I want to build, the extended network of friends who are closer-than-friends, of family that uses cheerful letchery as a way to say “I love you”; how my wife’s heart works like this without having to think about it.
And I also thought about things like how I differentiate between “friend” and “partner” based on emotional vulnerability & trust as much as sexual desire or Romantic Stuff (I’m not entirely sure how that’s defined, really – gods know I’ve been on what I’d think of as “dates” with my friends without being Confused about what we were Doing Together), how sensuality and affection slide so easily into sexuality for me, how sex is tied up with emotional vulnerability for me, how I watch myself so carefully, how the reason I wanted polyamoury to begin with was so that I wouldn’t have to police my affection as much as I had been while identifying as monogamous.
But I also asked myself things like: If I met someone asexual, would I let myself fall “in love” with them? Would I be able to? How does that related to having crushes on heterosexual friends (which tend to happen a lot more slowly, and eventually morph into something non-romantic)? How would/could I let that turn into non-romantic love? How would I differentiate between romantic and non-romantic love at all? Would I need to?
And that particular spiral basically ends up where all of this ends up, which is “Don’t assume anything, talk everything out”…
I’ve heard non-poly people (well, Captain Awkward, specifically) say that Endlessly Discussion Your Relationship is awful, unless you’re poly, in which case it’s called “foreplay”. Which makes me grin while simultaneously banging my head against a wall because… kinda, yeah. 🙂
The Relationship Escalator – of-which Relationship Anarchy is basically the opposite/antithesis(?) – is designed to sort of let people coast to the top (or abort-retry as many times as “necessary”, as the case may be, just remember that it’s unidirectional and you can’t go backwards once you’re on it with a given person) without needing to check in a lot… sort of.
One of my wife’s People both (a) is super-new to poly, and (b) says stuff like “I don’t know where I fit” fairly frequently. And it’s… let’s just say I can relate. When you get off the Relationship Escalator, you’re basically flailing around without a road-map, let alone a GPS with a handy little red dot saying that You Are Here. I’m one of those people who gets really nervous when I can’t tell if I matter to someone as much as they matter to me. Those “naming and claiming” actions on the Relationship Escalator are really handy for that, even if the “naming” part means diddly squat if there isn’t behaviour to back it up.
So the other response I have when reading about Relationship Anarchy is, well, a hell of a lot of discomfort and defensiveness. All that ragesaurus stuff about “What, so now I’m ‘not radical enough’ if I want to know if/how I matter to people who matter to me?” and “I’m pretty sure if I told my friend-who-is-relocating that I was totally going to move to be near her that… I would creep the FUCK out of my friend. Boundaries are important!”
That kind of thing.
There’s a funny (“funny”) kind of anger that comes with meeting something that bangs up against your cosmology and says “Yeah, but what if? What if the way you do things isn’t the only way? What if you’re hurting someone by doing it like that? What if you’re missing out on something, too?”
And, yeah, that’s Privilege in a nutshell. And, yeah, it took me long enough (like… 10 years of working my way towards it in a fairly active way?) to start recognizing it for what it is. But I’m finding that the trick – like the one where either It’s About You, in which case maybe listen & improve your behaviour, OR It’s Not About You, in which case maybe shut up and don’t worry about it – is to differentiate between the general and the specific. Like: “Romantisupremicism demands that non-romantic relationships NEVER be valued as deeply as romantic relationships” – which is just a True Fact – versus “the way I, personally, build & define relationships means that there is more emotional vulnerability and inter-dependence involved in a partnership than in a friendship and, as a romantic person, my partnerships tend to include romantic feelings; I’m conscious of this and aware that How I Relationship will grow and change over time”… or what-have-you.
Maybe I’m just messing around here, but that’s where I’m at with this one.
 As a sexual person, a big part of what makes romantic love “romantic” rather than “platonic” is whether or not there’s mutual sexual interest going on there. (Similarly, what makes it a “crush” rather than a “fascination” or, like, being “someone’s biggest fan” or whatever, is whether or not I want to make out with said person.
 Possibly related? I’ve been known to develop sexual feelings for people who, aesthetically & emotionally are sexually unpalatable to me, but who talk a good game, make my brain fizz, and similar. I don’t know what’s up with that, but it’s there and I… have to keep an eye on it.
So, quite some while ago – actually, a whole year ago, give or take a week or two – I was in Toronto for a conference that included a workshop on exploring gender through visual art. It was a grand old time, and I was surprised to see how much of my sense of gender was rooted specifically in femme rather than woman and, additionally, how much teary, shaking, rage was built into it.
I don’t know why that is.
I mean, I have theories. The little voice at the back of my brain singing girl, girl, girl was never told to shut up, never silenced. Whereas femme was something I had to find and, to some extent, fight for. I’m cissexual, so any time I gravitated towards a thing that was culturally coded as “girly” or “feminine” I got a big old “YES YOU ARE DOING GENDER RIGHT” from everyone around me (and, yeah, backwards much? But there it is) and, because I tended not to gravitate towards “boyish”/“masculine” things I didn’t get much “Yer Doing It Rong”. Except when I did what I now think of as “femme stuff”.
Which I guess means I need to offer up a personal working definition of Femme, how I was introduced to the word, and what it means for me.
I started finding femme – the word, the possibility that it might fit me – during my first marriage. I was shaping up to be a whole lot gayer (and kinky, and probably non-monogamous) than I’d originally thought, and the social expectations around being a hetero(normative) wife – with all the stuff that goes along with that, the expectations of modest-but-not-too-modest officially vanilla (but unofficial/unspoken submissive) heterosexuality, desire for kids & motherhood, even religious/political views and career aspirations (which starts digging into class stuff, but it’s tied up with the idea of “wife”, too), of not rocking the boat, of knowing when to keep quiet – was really, really uncomfortable. I spent a lot of time at family functions escaping to the bathroom so that I could let my shoulders come down from around my ears.
So finding femme – a word that is intimately tied, for me at least, to (a) being Girl, (b) being feminine rather than masculine, (c) being openly sensual & sexual, but also and very importantly (d) owning my own body & having physical & sexual autonomy beyond a Yes/No switch that could only be flicked once – was kind of a massive big deal. Like “Wait, that’s an option??”
I’ve heard Femme described as “broken femininity” and also – frequently – as a femininity that is “too much”.
I’ve always been “too much”. Too big. Too loud. Having been hearing the Social Disapproval version of STFU about things like my voice and my body and my sensuality since I was about ten, maybe a little younger.
So finding Femme was like “Wait, I don’t have to be masculine on some level to be all of myself at once? And not get punished for it? ZOMG!”
I wrote a poem, years ago now, where I talked about how becoming femme had been a process of unraveling the strictures of Mandatory Femininity that had been knit around me from birth so that I could be the feminine person that I am without having to squeeze myself into a garment that had always been too small, too constricting. Yes, it was a total metaphor-fest. Welcome to Poetry. 😉
It’s not that woman isn’t a significant part of my identity. It’s is, very much so. But what I am, this galaxy-sized creature that I am, bombastic that I am, can hold “woman” in its core and still be too big, too much, to be contained by it. Femme can stretch and mould to the whole of me. Femme actually fits.
 The day we went out to buy wedding dress fabric, my mom took one look at my tattered and patched army boots and told me I should replace them specifically because “[…] You’re gonna be a bride”. Brides, apparently, do not wear army boots.
 Tell that to my wife, who wore them on our wedding day. ❤ 🙂
This is another old Kink of the Week topic, but it’s one that’s dear to my heart, so I’m going with it.
I am, as-you-know-bob, an exhibitionist. I suppose, when you’ve been getting stared at since you were fourteen, or whenever it was that I topped six feet tall, you tend to decide that you might as well make it work for you and give ’em something to stare at.
The reality, though, is that I’ve actually spent a huge amount of time trying to make myself smaller, less intimidating. I took a burlesque class (years ago, now), and I remember the look of fear – like, “Oh, god, is she going to run me over??” – on the face of of a class-mate (who, at that point was acting as A Member Of The Audience) when I started taking up the amount of space I’m capable of during performance.
Now… I’m a (performance) poet, a long-time singer, and a professional naked chick who makes her living taking her clothes off in front of strangers. I’m not sure that I don’t qualify as an exhibitionist just because of that.
But… As an exhibitionist, I’m maybe a little weird? Or possibly I’m calling it “exhibitionism” when it’s really something else… It’s not that I crave a audience – though having been a performer of one sort or another pretty-much since I was seven, I’m kind of used to having an audience around, and enjoy putting on a good show – it’s that, sexually speaking, I like being so “swept away” by desire that the random bystanders stop mattering.
Yes, I like public sex.
But I like public sex for reasons like “I like sex with clothes on” and “I like making out up against a wall or a bar”. And, sure, I also like the idea of my lover’s hand sliding up under the hem of my skirt, of grinding together on a dance floor or in a shadowy corner, getting each other off – or at least really, really on – in a big crowd of people. But… I don’t actually want the Big Crowd of People to be watching. I want them to be happily going about their business while my sweetie and I get it on in a little world of our own.
Is that still exhibitionism?
I’m not sure that it is.
I like that something can be so public, so easy to spot – convenient alcove, or bathroom stall, or whatever notwithstanding – and yet so intimate and personal, so “our little secret”. It’s delightful and really titilating… but I’m not sure that it qualifies as exhibitionism… Hm…
 Re: Bathroom stalls. As mentioned, I’m quite a bit over six feet tall. Most bathroom stalls aford zero privacy for folks of my stature, at least from a fucking-while-standing perspective. I think I’ve come across two whole washrooms that allowed for this – one was in a government building, and the other was in a dance studio. Get with it clubs. Seriously. O.O
So I wrote a letter to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne with regards to bill #C36 and what she can do to protect her sexworking constituents and make sure these laws, too, gets struck down as soon as humanly possible.
A lot of people are doing this – hard copy letters, emails, even tweets – and it’s a bit of an informal campaign at this point.
There’s a templete available here if you’d like to write to your provincial/territorial Premier on the same subject.
You may also find some inspiration in Nikki Thomas’s impassioned open letter to Kathleen Wynne – I know I did. Likewise, POWER’s press release on the subject of C36 may offer further insights.
You can probably find a contact form or appropriate email address by googling “Office of the Premier” + your province or territory. That’s how I found Kathleen Wynne’s contact information.
Sexworkers are not “disposable people”. They are not “non-people” either. They have agency and they have rights, the same as everyone else in this province and in this country. Their lives matter and that doesn’t stop just because someone with a lot of power finds their work distasteful. (Me)
Please refer this bill immediately to the Ontario Court of Appeal for a constitutional reference, and do not pursue prosecutions until they determine its constitutionality. (Nikki Thomas)
Normally, when I write about cooking, I’m doing it over at Urban Meliad (the food-gardening-religion blog). But this particular subject also has a lot to do with gender (and gender expectations, and social norms) and class – or at least income, which in this neck of the woods amounts to more or less the same thing, so it’s being put over here.
See, over at NorthWest Edible Life, Erica has a post up on The Ethics of Dinner. Apparently, Amanda Marcotte wrote a very short piece about home-cooked meals, gender expectations, and the burden of The Second Shift that so typically and frequently falls to women. And then Joel Salatin wrote a response wherein he both upheld the importance of cooking from scratch and eating meals together (which gets a thumbs up from me), but also dismissed Amanda Marcotte’s legit critique as nothing but “whining” (how condescending can you get?).
Here’s the thing: Joel Salatin is a good farmer. He knows what he’s doing. And I’m totally willing to cut a guy some slack for leaving all the cooking and processing of household food to his wife and daughter-in-law when he’s the one out raising and harvesting the animals and plants that the women in his life are then cooking and preserving. But he’s also a Conservative-Christian Libertarian, and that particular worldview frequently comes with an absolute refusal to acknowledge wide-spread and socially-based conditions that effect the situations of any particular individual. It’s an attitude that believes people are poor because (a) they’re not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps the way they should be, and/or (b) they’re clearly just squandering their money on cigarettes, flat screen TVs, and gossip magazines (as if rich people don’t squander their money on exactly the same crap, wtf), and it’s an attitude that leads to statements like this one (made by Joel in his response):
[…]Since when are women the only ones who are supposed to shoulder the burden for integrity food?
Sorry, Joel, but as much as I approve of a world where it’s socially normal – not just a lip-service idea of “expectation” but actually normal – for het dudes who live with their partners to routinely cook, clean, and parent even while sick or sleep-deprived just because it has to get done and not because someone else isn’t around to do it that day… that world does not describe any kind of wide-spread North American reality.
I wish it did.
I think we’d be living on a very different continent if that were the case.
But the fact is that domestic work – child care, elder care, cooking, cleaning, mending, preserving – is heavily gendered as “women’s work”, and has been the case for pretty much all of recorded history in most parts of the world. The fact is that this work is also deeply undervalued – in terms of whether or not it’s okay to pay for it, in terms of who’s doing the work when it is paid work, and in terms of how frequently that work is taken for granted or rendered invisible when it’s not done for a paycheque – is directly tied to the fact that men (typically) don’t do it, or aren’t expected to do it – at least not for free. The “private sphere” and the work that goes on there-in has been valued less and less since the first Industrial Revolution led a lot of men to jobs-for-money outside the home and it’s within this culture, this particular set of norms and values, that yes, actually, women are, if not the only ones expected to shoulder the burden of finding and preparing “integrity food”, certainly the ones assumed by default to bear that responsibility.
Please understand me: I, too, believe really strongly that cooking from scratch is an amazing way to save money while also eating better quality food, and that eating together in an absence of cell phones (ye gods) is an important and necessarily way to keep one’s family – whatever its configuration – connected and strong. But I think that preaching the gospel of the kitchen without recognizing both that (a) people’s circumstances totally effect the degree to-which they can do this, and (b) that a surrounding culture that lionizes workaholism and treats any household with more (or fewer) than two adults as “weird” or “non-normative” (despite evidence to the contrary)… is ignorant, frankly.
In Joel’s response, he writes that Great Grandma split wood, fetched water, cooked on a fire-box stove, and still managed to feed a large family… and he’s right. My great grandmothers did all of those things (well, most of them – I suspect my paternal grandmother’s mother had The Help to cover off most of that stuff). But they also weren’t doing it alone. They had sons and husbands splitting the firewood and slaughtering those home-raised pasture-fed animals rather than buying them with income that had to come from somewhere else. They had sisters and daughters on hand to help pull together those meals-for-twenty as well as to watch the kids, and the kids were fetching the water from the spring. They had household staff or farm-hands to help manage it all, too, some of them (and the people who were the household staff? Well, they’ve been relying on prepared foods for at least 200 years now, so it’s not exactly a new thing under the sun).
I look at my over-worked friends, the ones who earn the lion’s share of the household income, then bullet home to do the lion’s share of the parenting and the cooking as well; the ones who feel guilty about asking The Grandparents to watch the kids for a day just so Mom can have a few hours to get the chaos under control at home, or who are nervous about asking for that help too often lest it be withdrawn entirely; the ones who are ashamed to be paying someone else to do the vacuuming because they feel Less Than for needing the help, or because it’s an expensive reminder that the spouse at home isn’t providing that help as part of the deal that is Partnership; the ones who rely on prepared foods – whether from the shawarma joint on the corner or the yuppie-hippie Food Shoppe on Hipster Street – because the only time they will have to themselves all day long is the walk to the store and back to pick up dinner.
That’s not the situation that my Great Nan was dealing with (except, possibly, the lack of time to oneself). The situation my Great Nan was in was probably closer to that of the Poly Triad with two working-for-incomes parents and a third one who is at home, doing lots of cooking and greeting the kids when they get off the school bus; or those who, while being single working moms, are part of a tightly knit and closely located (this is key) community who can be called upon for emergency baby-sitting when needed; or maybe to the situation I’m in, where working from home lets me multi-task in productive ways – cooking from scratch in between laundry and freelance writing pieces, for example, or picking up groceries at a leisurely pace (and in an uncrowded grocery store whose lack of line-ups means that I’m probably home faster than I would be with a car if I were grocery shopping during rush hour) on my walk home from a modeling gig – where cooking is a joy, not a stressor, because I have all the time in the world in-which to do it and because my hard-working-for-the-money spouse is both always appreciative of my wacky dinner concoctions and recognizes the value of someone providing that labour, free of charge, and on a tight budget.
I can made due with limited funds because I have tonnes of time. I don’t have little mouths to feed, and I don’t need to worry about squeezing dinner in before an 8pm bed-time. I don’t need to worry about whether or not the adults whom I routinely feed will refuse to eat what I’ve cooked and, instead, demand a burrito (and, frankly, even if they do, they can pick it up and pay for it their own damn selves, so it’s rather less skin off my back should that ever be the case) or be super cranky for the rest of the night. I have the hours (and occasionally days) it takes to prepare and slow-cook a tough (and therefore less expensive) cut of meat and a mess of root veggies, or to preserve fruits and veggies while they’re in seasons (and therefore cheap, or at least cheaper, to buy). When I’m working full time, however, I too rely on prepared foods – BBQ’d pork, chicken-in-a-dome, frozen lasagna, pre-diced squash – to cut down on prep time and tend to fall back on tried-and-true combinations purely because my inspiration has been drained away at whatever day-job I’m working, and I don’t necessarily know what I have on hand to work with.
Amanda’s piece about how cooking is seen as a burden primarily because it is one… is true. For many, many people (many, many of them women), cooking is both a basic skill of resilience (as Erica Strauss has put it) and an added element of stress that, unlike the stress of having kids or the stress of house-based chaos or the stress of arguing with your spouse because you’re both stressed out about the kids and the house-based chaos… can be easily avoided. I understand why so many people take the out when it’s offered, even as I’m incredibly glad that I don’t have to.
Someone posted an article to facebook the other day, someone writing about how sick they are of hearing about French (as in France) kids and how they eat healthy meals and love vegetables and are oh-so-much-healthier than kids in the US because of it… without those Praise The French folks looking at the cultural context that facilitates this apparent love of the green stuff.
In frugal-foodie world – you know, the one I live in – I hear a lot about how “the American way of life” (and, as a Canadian, I’m aware that my own culture is dealing with similar stuff) is all about eating take-out at our desks or drive-through on the way home, and how it’s How We Eat that’s making us sick and destroying the planet at the same time.
While I think there’s definitely something to this, I also think the reality is rather mor of “the American way of life” being one that glorifies 14-hour work days, scoffs at sick-leave (have you ever picked up a package of cough drops and read the awful little guilt-trips written all over the wrappers and passed off as “pep talks”? They’re appalling!) let alone vacation time, insists on hiring the lowest bidder (see: internships), offers “flex time” to workers but really means “be on call for us every hour of every day”, and generally under-values humanity on many levels… Within that context, the time, energy, and attention needed to cook from scratch, and with good ingredients, is hard to come by and often written off as frivolous – as “hobby time” or “a luxury for the wealthy” or as one more thing for-which to criticize women (“Oh yeah? And who exactly is watching the kids while you play suzy home-maker in the kitchen???”) or whatever.
It’s not. But as long as those obstacles of time-pressure and money are weighing on so many of us, as long as cooking-for-pleasure (and, as such, cooking as pleasurable activity) is being pitted against the idea that Good Women, and inparticular good mothers, are martyrs who would never be so selfish as to take time for themselves, as long as those are still the case, then cooking-as-fun will continue to be treated as a nice-to-have or an extra (but, girl, you’d better be remorseful about when you’re failing to put three from-scratch meals on the table every day!) and that attitude will continue to be used to uphold the cultural status quo, to keep us chained to our wage-labours and our guilty consciences at the expense of everything that matters.
 Both in terms of “Should I expect to pay money for this service, because it’s a valuable thing that I want done” and in terms of “What does my paying someone else to provide this service say about me and how well I’m living up to the expectations to-which people of my gender are commonly held?”
 See “Counting for Nothing” by Marion Waring for more on that subject.
 A fairly literal thing for me, as a kitchen witch, and a Pagan for-whom food (the growing of it, the harvesting, the preparing, and the sharing there-of) has some seriously religious connotations.
Okay, so as-you-know-bob, I have this pet theory – based on not a whole lot, I admit – that many of the people who are Wired for polyamory in the sense that they Just Don’t Get Jealous are possibly coming to it from a place of Insecure-Avoidant attachment styles and the need to always have an escape route available. That said, not everybody who goes “Poly! It’s what’s for breakfast!” is going to attach in an insecure-avoidant way. A lot of us – self very, very much included – are insecure-anxious attachment types who are terrified of Being Abandoned, and carry around a secret (or not-so-secret) fear that the only reason anyone is hanging out with us is because someone better hasn’t come along yet.
And today, I kind of want to talk about making the switch from Monogamy to Polyamoury (where “Polyamoury” means the whole spectrum of consensual non-monogamy), as an insecure-anxious person, when the only road map I’ve ever had has been the one for Monogamy. Continue reading →