“An American looks like a wounded person whose wound is hidden from others, and sometimes from herself. An American looks like me.”
–Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy
It has come to my attention that some people think we have it easy.
Apparently, in some quarters, people like Franklin, and now I guess me, and other bloggers who argue for egalitarian relationships and treating other people as full human beings are privileged, or elitist; we simply lack mental health issues or personal insecurities and thus just don’t get how hard relationships are for everyone else. Apparently we’re all lounging around with our perfectly secure asses in armchairs (when we’re not having orgies), with no self-work to do and no drama and perfect, clear communication that we inherited as our birthrights from stable, intact families with no history of abuse and great self-esteem building and high-quality, bullying-free schooling throughout our lives, and now we’re all sitting here from the vantage point of our perfectly happy, comfortable and drama-free poly networks looking down at the little people and telling them all how they’re Doing It Wrong.
I can identify a few possible reasons for this misconception.
One, Franklin is not very comfortable with vulnerability in his writing. He’s good at compelling arguments, he’s good at analysis, and he sees things (some things, usually, you know except when he doesn’t) very clearly. But he doesn’t tend to share the really hard stuff. And his writing is analytical, so even when he relates personal experiences, he doesn’t convey them with the emotional charge they carried for him (and others involved) in real life. And there are some things he doesn’t talk about. Some things, in fact, that carry such a heavy emotional weight and yet are so important in understanding how he came to his approach to poly that in order to include them in the book, I will be interviewing him and writing up the stories. (And vice-versa.)
Two, as one of Franklin’s other sweeties mentioned recently, poly people have become salespeople. We don’t want to show all the raw, ugly struggles because we’re in the middle of this PR battle to make poly look like the viable, healthy relationship option it actually is. We want to be accepted as normal, healthy and stable, so we put our best face forward. We show the happy poly moments and the glowing live-in triads with their healthy, well-adjusted kids. We talk about love being infinite and how multiple relationships aren’t always a zero-sum game (even though they often are). When we talk about our scheduling struggles and our processing conversations, it’s with humour and eyerolls, obscuring the intense emotional work that goes into them.
Third, Franklin and I are both struggling with imposter syndrome. It’s worse for me than for him, but he’s also way more secure than I am. It’s kept my brain and my typing fingers more or less frozen with writer’s block for the first week and a half of our writing (but not his, thankfully). My brain keeps telling me I’m not good enough to write a book on poly. Who the hell am I to give advice to other people on how to have relationships? I’m thinking these things because I know what you don’t: I know my relationship history and my mental health issues and all the mistakes I’ve made, some of them pretty epic. I know the drama and trauma I’ve lived through, the painful and seemingly irresolvable situations I’ve experienced and those that still exist. I know about the people I’ve hurt and the ones who’ve hurt me.
Franklin says that it’s all this that makes us qualified to write this book, after all. It’s our mistakes that have taught us what we know; we can share them with others so people can learn from them rather than making the same mistakes themselves. But knowing from the inside how imperfect my own relationships are, I can’t help but feel a little bit like a fraud every time I try to write about how you can make a poly relationship work.
On this, I keep repeating to myself something Dan Savage once said in a response to someone who called him on his qualifications to be a sex advice columnist: he’s an advice columnist because people want his advice. They read it, they like it, and they find it works for them. End of story. And Franklin’s website has become one of the most popular poly resources on the Web because people want his advice. They find it useful; several people a week email him to tell him how much his site has helped them. We’re writing a book because people want a goddamn book, so much that several hundred of you were willing to pay for it nearly a year in advance, before a draft was even written.
And then… there’s simply the immense vulnerability of writing a book, of being very publicly out, of putting our names and our decisions and our lives out there for public view and, inevitably, criticism. Franklin is used to the scrutiny, but it still affects him. It still affects him when people misrepresent his writing to use as a convenient straw man for whatever point they’re trying to make, or whatever (often reprehensible) behaviour they’re trying to excuse. And for me, it’s all still very new. So getting really real? Opening up our soft spots and broken bits for that kind of attack? Sharing the hardest and most crucial moments of our lives–the things that it’s hard even to take a good hard look at ourselves? Really fucking hard and scary. And, given the way some of our less vulnerable stories have been treated, maybe actually dangerous.
So the result of all this is that, it seems, we’re not sharing enough of the hard stuff. That’s our fault. I’m sorry if we made it look easy. It’s not.
And so? Some people look at us think they can’t do what we’re doing because we have some magical armour of immunity from fear and self-doubt and communication breakdowns and insecurity. They think we’re saying if you could just be more like us, it would all be fine. Just be secure, man. Share the love. It’ll all be good.
Here’s something I believe: We are all, every one of us, broken in some way. Franklin may be a lot less broken now than most, but he didn’t start out that way. He’s had to do a lot of hard work over the years, and he’s made some serious mistakes that hurt a lot of people, before he got to where he is now (and even now he’s still making mistakes, cause, um, he’s human, get it?). Franklin also has the privilege of happiness–though I (and most of his other partners) do not.
I, too, play the game on an easier setting than many people, absolutely. I’m a white, femme, cisgendered North American. I was not battered or abandoned as a child. I had a great mom and a good education and enough to eat and health care and that’s a hell of a lot more than other people had, and all of those are privileges. But I did not begin my romantic life whole, either. I’m also a survivor of childhood sexual assault and moved nine times as a kid (in three states) and was bullied and beaten up in school and didn’t even start learning how to treat my romantic partners well until I was at least 30. I’ve been treated for PTSD and depression, and I have self-esteem that is, well, at least no longer so low that it is completely crippling. I’ve spent years in therapy and years more on psychiatric meds, I’ve read my weight and then some in self-help books, and I’ve processed and worked and cried and then cried more. Through that, I have finally reached a place where most of the time I don’t feel like I’m drowning in my insecurity and depression and fear, but like I’m able to stay afloat, with the undertow just sucking at my toes and now only sometimes sucking me under. I didn’t get rid of the flood. I learned to swim.
Author Brené Brown* (whom I draw heavily on in my writing) points out that for people who live what she calls Wholehearted lives—lives lived with courage, compassion and connection—Wholeheartedness is a practice. It’s something you have to work on every day. For a great many of us (myself included), it’s something you have to learn. And that. is. not. easy.
Seriously, people? When did anyone ever say any of this was easy?
The world is not divided between broken people and whole people. What I see as the difference between people like me, Franklin and our partners and this particular brand of critic is one thing:
We don’t accept that being broken is an excuse to do harm to others.
And the foundation of the ethical system on which all our writing is based is also straightforward:
Don’t treat people as things.
Let’s say that again, for emphasis:
Don’t treat people as things.
Don’t treat people as things.
Don’t treat people as things.
There, everything you need to know about polyamory. No need to buy our book now! Five hundred pages summed up in one sentence.
Simple, yes. Easy, no.
We don’t consider an ethical foundation to be a disposable part of polyamory, no matter how fucked up a childhood you had. That it is harder for some people to learn not to treat people as things doesn’t mean anyone should encourage them to stop trying. In fact, we consider it an insult to say that some people are just too fucked up to try to not treat people as things, because we also don’t believe on giving up on people’s ability to become better people. We don’t believe in telling people they’re just too damn broken to learn how to treat people as people. Everyone deserves ethical relationships. Everyone.
The journalist Khadijah M. Britton recently tweeted the following—in reference to an entirely different subject, but so relevant here—that nicely sums up how we feel about this issue:
The worst thing isn’t being the asshole. The worst thing is no one telling you about it because no one has faith you can change. When an entire culture calcifies around the assumption that you are past growth. That is the worst thing. That’s when you’re basically dead. I hate nothing worse than people writing me off, assuming I am stuck in my ways. And would truly hate nothing more than for it to be true. But I know people for whom it is true – and they’re PROUD of it. The most toxic behaviors become a badge of honor. How does that happen?
We don’t believe in building a culture based a foundation of giving up on people’s ability and motivation to learn—painfully and over time and with a lot of work, yes—how to trust their partners, communicate effectively, act with courage, and treat other people with compassion and respect. We don’t believe in writing people off, on saying, oh, we can have egalitarian relationships, but you lot, well, you just can’t handle it, and no, you shouldn’t try to grow. Just give up. Go ahead and treat people as things, if that’s what works for you.
Oh, sorry, if that’s what works for the two of you. (See what I did there?)
So here’s the thing, dear reader. We’re not going to give up on you. Not as long as you haven’t given up on yourself. No, actually, not even then: We’ll keep believing in you when you can’t. We’ll continue to believe in your worthiness even when you’re ready to throw in the towel. None of us comes from the factory perfect, and most of us get pretty beat up before we start getting into serious relationships (and often by those relationships, too). We believe that no matter where you’re starting from now, there are always ways you can make your life and your relationships better, and choose to act with more courage and compassion in your daily life. These are skills that can be learned, skills that must be practised–even by those who have them, or they will fade. To say that if you’re not born with them or granted them as part of some sort of ideal upbringing you can’t ever expect to have them is heartless in the extreme.
*See Brown’s TED talk for how she herself learned it, and what the process was like for her.