Primum non nocere. It’s a Latin phrase that means “first, do no harm.” It’s not part of the Hippocratic Oath, but it is a central tenet of bioethics in most of the world.
It also, I think, makes a pretty good tenet for relationship ethics as well.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from Dan Savage’s personal assistant, asking if I was interested in helping craft a response to a person who’d written in to Mr. Savage with a poly problem.
The problem was that the guy who’d written in was in a relationship with a woman named Erin, and she had passed a rule that he was not permitted to date anyone else named Erin. Apparently, Erin is a popular name where he’s from, and it had repeatedly happened that he’d met and connected with someone, only to learn her name was Erin, and he had to tell her, “Sorry, we can’t see each other, I’m not permitted to date anyone with your name.”
Naturally, I weighed in against this particular rule. I’m not quite sure what motivated it, beyond the things that motivate many apparently completely arbitrary rules in polyamorous relationships: insecurity, fear of loss, fear of abandonment–the usual suspects in the lineup.
Dan Savage printed my response (which you can read here), as well as that of Dossie Easton, who was similarly skeptical of the rule.
But then he said something interesting. Talking about the anti-Erin rule, he said:
It’s common for people in open relationships to insist on a rule that seems arbitrary, even capricious, to their partners. I call these rules “Brown M&Ms,” a reference to 1980s hair rock band Van Halen. The band’s touring contract stipulated that bowls of M&Ms be set out backstage with all the brown M&Ms removed. To see if their contract had been followed to the letter — a contract that included a lot of technical requirements for their elaborate and potentially dangerous stage shows — all the band had to do was glance at those bowls of M&Ms. If a local promoter couldn’t be trusted to get something simple and seemingly arbitrary right, they couldn’t be trusted to get the bigger stuff right. And if the promoter didn’t get the big stuff right, it wasn’t safe for the band to perform.
Arbitrary rules in open relationships are like Van Halen’s brown M&Ms: a quick way to check if you’re safe. If your partner can’t be trusted to not sleep with someone else in your bed, not take someone else to a favorite restaurant, not use your favorite/special/beloved sex toys with someone else, etc., perhaps they can’t be trusted to get the big things right — like ensuring your physical and emotional safety and/or primacy.
I scratched my head when I read this. I see where he’s coming from, and yet…and yet…
The problem with this idea hit me while I was walking in the woods with Eve, something we do most days while we’re out here in rural Washington writing.
There’s something a little off about treating a romantic partner like a contract employee. If you’re approaching your relationship with the same mindset you might use to hire a producer, I would argue that the fundamental foundation of trust and mutual respect required for a healthy relationship probably isn’t there. If you feel the need to test your partner to ensure their trustworthiness, it might be time to take a step back and think about why that is.
But leaving aside the issue of whether you should place contractual constraints on your romantic relationships to help you decide whether your partner is trustworthy, there’s this:
First, do no harm.
Let’s talk about brown M&Ms.
If I am hiring you to produce a show for me, and I tell you to take the brown M&Ms out of a bowl, it’s pretty easy to see whether or not you’ve done it. More to the point, it doesn’t cause harm to anyone. Sure, you might not like picking the brown M&Ms out of a bowl; it sounds like a tedious, if easy, task. But I’m hiring you and paying you for your time, so eh, whatever.
Now let’s say I decided to test your ability to stick to the rules by using some other contractual clause. Instead of saying “give me a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown ones removed,” I wrote into the contract, “take a lead pipe, cut it so that it is exactly 12.4 centimeters long, then beat the sound engineer with it until he has exactly seven bruises of two centimeters diameter or greater, but no broken bones.”
No reasonable person would say there was anything at all okay about that. Attempting to justify it by saying “I want to make sure that the person I hire is abiding by all the requirements of the contract!” should, I think, result on howls of outrage.
That’s an extreme example, but it illustrates the point: If, for whatever reason, you are in a relationship with someone you have so little trust for that you feel the need to invent tests of their loyalty, first, do no harm. Make your tests harmless: brown M&Ms, not beatings.
You might argue, and I am absolutely certain someone will, that a rule barring a partner from dating anyone named Erin is harmless. After all, you’re letting your partner date other people, right? So what if you don’t want them to date anyone named Erin? Other Erins of the world have no intrinsic right to date your man, right?
But here’s the thing: By the time someone is writing a letter to a newspaper columnist looking for relationship advice, people have been hurt. Damage has been done. Happy, joyful people in awesome, fulfilling relationships do not write to strangers asking for help.
In More Than Two, Eve and I (well, mostly Eve; she did the heavy lifting in the ethics chapter) proposed a Relationship Bill of Rights. This Bill of Rights is not a how-to list for ensuring awesome relationships; it’s a floor, below which your relationship probably is tending in some unhealthy directions.
In the Relationship Bill of Rights, we said that all people have the right, in poly relationships:
- to decide how many partners you want
- to choose your own partners
I think that entering into any relationship where you’re asked or expected to give up these rights should be done with great caution, and only with a compelling reason. “I’m not sure I can trust you, so I’m setting up rules to test your loyalty and your ability to take care of me” doesn’t strike me as a particularly compelling argument. Indeed, just the opposite; that argument makes me more skeptical, not less skeptical, of the health of the relationship.
At the end of the day, of course, it’s his choice whether or not he stays with Erin Prime. But it has consistently been my experience and observation that the more inclined someone is to pass rules to try to make a partner stay, the more likely it is that partner will leave. It is an enduring truth of the human condition that our fears often cause us to create the very things we’re afraid of.
First, do no harm.
Nearly all relationship advice of any sort, for any kind of relationship, can be dismissed with just one sentence: “But that would be awkward!”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those words. Suffice it to say that if I had a dime for every time, I’d be quite a lot wealthier than I am right now.
“Talk about STI testing before we have sex? But that would be awkward!” “Meet my partner’s other partner? But that would be awkward!” “Talk to my partner about how I’m feeling? But that would be awkward!” “Experiment and try new things in bed? But that would be awkward!” “Talk openly about sexual boundaries? But that would be awkward!” “Talk about my sexual fantasies? But that would be awkward!” “Ask before kissing someone? But that would be awkward!” (That last one, in fact, deserves a blog post of its own.)
These aren’t hypothetical examples. I’ve heard or read every single one of these…just in the past eight weeks.
Here’s the thing: It’s true. Every bit of it. Doing these things will, at some point or another, likely make you feel awkward.
Do them anyway.
For a lot of folks, it seems that feeling awkward or uncomfortable is the greatest hardship imaginable. Worse, it’s almost as if we have, floating around in our subconscious minds, some idea that we have a right to be comfortable all the time, and to never have to confront awkwardness or discomfort.
In the book More Than Two, one of the ideas we tried to communicate is that other people are real. In fact, it’s one of the ethical axioms we talk about: don’t treat people as things.
Part of treating people as people and not as things is understanding and accepting that you will, from time to time, feel awkward.
“Don’t treat people as things” sounds easy, but it’s deceptively complicated. Every human being you have ever met or will ever meet—indeed, every human being who has ever existed—is unique. We all want different things, we all have different priorities. Regardless of how compatible the people close to you may be, the only thing you can be absolutely sure of is there are places, perhaps big, perhaps small, where your needs and desires differ.
That’s why it’s absolutely essential to talk to people, and to hear and consider their needs. It’s not all about you.
It’s awkward when you want something and the person across from you wants something else. It brings your goals into conflict with theirs. Just the possibility of that happening feels uncomfortable.
I think that’s where a lot of the objections of “But that would be awkward!” come from. Talk about STI testing before sex? That would be awkward, because what if they have different ideas about it than I do? What if that means I won’t get what I want?
When you are willing to have those awkward conversations or do those uncomfortable things, you’re showing that you recognize other people are different from you and you’re willing to treat them accordingly.
When someone cries, “But that would be awkward!” the subtext is, “And not feeling awkward is more important to me than recognizing the differences between us that make us both people.”
Therefore, I would like to propose we all would do well by confronting our fear of discomfort, and being willing to do that awkward thing we don’t really want to do. Especially when that awkward thing is awkward because it forces us to confront the differences between us, even when it might sometimes mean we don’t get what we want.
Being willing to feel awkward from time to time is the cost of entry to being a decent human being.
Eve and I are back in the woods again, in the same cabin where we wrote More Than Two, working on a new book.
The new book is not about polyamory. It’s called Love More, Be Awesome, and it’s our take on a kind of user’s guide for being a human being: tips and ideas for being awesome and living a life of compassion and kindness.
Part of the reason More Than Two turned out like it did is this place. It’s incredibly remote; we’re miles from the nearest convenience store and a half-hour drive to the closest town. All around us, as far as the eye can see, is temperate rainforest.
The remoteness helps us focus, as you might imagine, but there’s more to it than that. Every afternoon, we go for a walk, hiking along meandering paths through the trees–some of them clear, others almost completely overgrown. These hikes give us the opportunity to talk about what we’re writing, to brainstorm ideas, and to help work through roadblocks.
And we are once more, in a literal sense, on the path to a new book.
Love More, Be Awesome is a much different book from More Than Two. It’s going to be a lot shorter, for one thing. It’s a lot easier to write a long book than a short book, as it turns out.
This is going to be a difficult book to write, but I like the way it’s shaping up. There’s still a long path with many conversations beneath the shade of the trees ahead, but I’m excited about where we are going.
As we bid goodbye to 2015 (and good riddance, too; it was a tumultuous year) and stand at the doorway to 2016, I find myself thinking about what makes good relationships.
Someone recently asked the question, “What is the difference between a person who finds love easily and a person who finds it difficult to make loving connections?”
This is a question I think I can offer some insight on (at least for people who share most of my privileges), because in my own life I have gone from a person who found love impossible to a person who finds opportunities for love and connection all around me. During that transition, I learned that many of the things I assumed about folks who find love easily—that they’re rich, that they’re handsome, that they’re famous—aren’t true.
Nor, I learned, is finding love a matter of lowering one’s standards. My standards and requirements are stratospheric, some would say nigh-impossible. I am interested only in people who are polyamorous, and who are kinky, and who embrace a style of relationship that respects personal autonomy, and who are rationalists and skeptics, and who have a track record of successful poly relationships, and and and…yet I still find that opportunities for love are abundant. I’ve met people who have standards so low they’ll take anyone with a pulse who will even look at them, yet their desperation drives people away.
I grew up in a tiny farm town (242 people) in Nebraska, and I was so different from all the people around me, I didn’t have any friends at all. My parents moved to Florida my first year of high school, and I entered a school with more than 2,000 students. I had no social skills whatsoever, I was shy, and I didn’t know how to make friends—so I certainly didn’t think I’d find love. That meant I was a late bloomer: I never even kissed a girl ’til I was 19.
Today? Today, even though I have very unusual tastes and requirements, I live in a world where opportunities for love are so abundant I have to say “no” a lot.
I have observed lots of other people who find love easily, and lots of people who don’t. I’ve seen people move from one to the other, and I’ve noticed clear, consistent differences between them. In my observation, the things people who find love easily have that the people who don’t, don’t, include, in no particular order:
Courage. Not heroic courage, but everyday, ordinary courage. It does not take magic skills, special powers, looks, or secret knowledge to become close to people. But it does take courage. You have to be willing to talk to people even if you’re shy, uncomfortable, or scared of rejection. And there is a trick to it. It’s not a trick for eliminating the fear of rejection, though. The people you see walking up to other folks and talking so effortlessly? It’s not effortless. They are just as scared as you are. They don’t have a magic secret to not being scared, they just don’t let being scared stop them. That’s what courage is: Doing the scary thing in spite of your fear.
Worthiness. Whenever someone talks about relationships, inevitably people will talk about how important “confidence” is. Okay, so what is confidence? Stripped to its essential core, it’s the belief that you have value. Really, this is a sense of worthiness. It’s tied to the belief that if someone rejects you, it doesn’t mean you are a pathetic loser nobody who totally sucks and doesn’t deserve to be with anyone; it just means that person has different tastes than you. There’s a trick to worthiness, too. You can’t wait for something to happen to “prove” that you have worth (like “if I just make more money I’ll be confident,” or “if I just lose weight I’ll be confident”). You have to take a leap of faith. You have to start believing you have worth and value right now, even if you don’t see it, and act like it’s there even if you think it’s not.
Kindness. I do not mean “niceness”: the fluffy, vaguely defined trait people think they have if they never express contradicting opinions or always let other people walk on them. I mean kindness: treating others well even if you don’t especially like them or don’t want anything from them. If you’re nice to that hottie you want to date, but not nice to the server at the restaurant, you’re not kind. If you are kind because you expect something from it rather than because it’s the right thing to do, you’re doing kindness all wrong. Kindness comes from genuine understanding of the essential humanity of others. Oh, and one more thing: Kindness begins at home. Kindness means being kind to yourself, too.
Directness. Look around online and you’ll find a gajillion questions like, “She flipped her hair and looked into my eyes; what does it mean?” and, “He chews on his pencil and starts humming the ‘Imperial March’ from Star Wars whenever I pass him; what does it mean?” And when folks aren’t asking questions like that, they’re asking things like, “I love this person madly—I would do anything for them; how can I subtly let them know?” And that misses the whole point of human connection. Be direct. If you want to know if someone fancies you, ask. If you want to know what someone means by something, ask. (Ask that person, not the Internet.) if you like someone, say so. This goes back to point 1: Direct communication takes courage. But you have to do it. Suppose you have a crush, and you’re looking for indirect signs that your interest might be reciprocated. While you’re spending months reading tea leaves and agonizing over what it all means, the person who’s direct will walk up to your crush and say, “Hey, I like you, want to go out?” And wham, just like that, your opportunity is gone. And then you sit on the sidelines wondering, “How come other people find love easily and I don’t?”
Integrity. This is made up of a lot of things: honesty (saying what you mean, not misleading or manipulating people), trustworthiness (meaning what you say, even if you feel hurt or the other person does something you don’t like), not taking advantage of others (this goes back to kindness), and consistency (other people see that you’re reliable and can be trusted at your word). And it matters. People without integrity can charm and manipulate people, but that’s not the same thing as genuine connection. People who tell little white lies might think they are saving other people’s feelings now, but they do it at the cost of their own integrity (I’ve blogged about this before), and that means other folks trust them less. Are you trying to screw someone over in a leveraged buyout, or are you trying to find love? If it’s the latter, integrity carries you a long way.
Transparency. This means being open with who you are and open about what you want. It relates back to integrity and directness, but it also means not trying to hide things for fear of “scaring off” a potential partner. If someone would be scared off by something about you, that’s a good thing, because it means that person isn’t compatible with you. If you want something but you’re not open about what you want, well, you can’t expect to have it, can you?
Resiliency. You’re going to get hurt. Sure as night follows day, it’s going to happen. At some point your heart will be broken. How you deal with that when it happens…that’s where your true character shows. I once had a lover who told me she will never date anyone who has never had their heart broken. What happens when you’re hurt? Do you lash out? Do you blame others? Do you retreat into a cave and build walls around yourself to “protect” you? These things will only cause you more pain. Or do you accept that pain is a part of life, believe that you can get through it, and come out the other side saying, “Man, that sucked, but hey, look, I survived it! It didn’t kill me! I can be hurt and still know I will be okay, so I don’t have to be afraid of it any more!”?
Respect. I’ve said this countless times before but it bears repeating: Treat people as people. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard folks say things like, “I don’t know how to act around women,” or “I don’t know what men want.” Women are people. Men are people. Non-binary people are people. If you know how to talk to people, you’ve got this covered. Men and women are not different species. Men and women are individuals: If you’re trying to figure out what “men want” or what “women want,” then you’re thinking of people as objects and not as people. Treating people as people, talking to them like they’re people, and understanding that they’re individuals will take you 60% of the way toward finding love in abundance. It’s sad that the bar is set that low, and yet so many folks still can’t seem to manage it, but that’s the world we live in.
Vulnerability. This is going to get all head-bendy, so buckle up, Dorothy, because Kansas is about to go bye-bye. The best way to protect your heart is to be vulnerable easily, trust often, and not build high walls or fortresses around yourself. There’s a thing I’ve seen happen where people say, “I’ve been mistreated, so I am not going to trust easily. I’ve learned my lesson. I will not let people close to me.” And what happens? They get hurt and mistreated again. And again. Why? Because when you build a fortress around your heart and hold everyone at arm’s length, kind, respectful people say, “Oh, you’re not letting people close. Okay. I will respect your boundaries,” and then don’t get close to you. Who does get close? People who don’t respect boundaries. People who bulldoze through your walls. Who is most likely to mistreat you? People who don’t respect boundaries. So what happens? You get mistreated. And you build even bigger walls, until finally you’ve put up so many walls only a full-blown psychopath can get in. What’s the solution? Vulnerability. Invite people in easily, expect kindness, and assume good intent. That doesn’t mean being codependent or having no boundaries, of course. There are evil people in the world, and it’s important to pay attention to others and to learn how to identify the ones who might mistreat you. Have healthy boundaries, absolutely. Don’t allow yourself to be treated badly.. But don’t start out assuming everyone will treat you poorly.
Authenticity. Every piece of dating advice ever written says “be yourself.” It’s like a mantra. You know why? Because it’s important. Be yourself. Be who you are. Don’t think, “Well, girls only like this and such,” or “Guys want blah blah blah,” and then try to conform to that. If it works, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot, because guess what? You’ve just attracted a partner who is looking for something you’re not. Good luck making that relationship work! We live in a world with seven billion people. I don’t care how weird you are, how exotic your fetish is, or how strange your quirks are. There are people out there who share your weirdness, your fetishes, your quirks. You only need to find them. You find them by being openly, unabashedly, proudly who you are, and looking for the folks who connect with your style of being human.
Respect for autonomy. Other people are real. Other people are people, just like you are, and their needs and desires are just as valid as yours. They do not exist for the purpose of giving you what you need. You do not get your needs met or deal with your personal fears or insecurities by controlling other people—indeed, if that’s your go-to way of dealing with fear or discomfort, you are well on the way to becoming abusive, if you aren’t already. It is okay to express your fears. It’s okay to say, “Honey, I get uncomfortable when you have male friends because it makes me worried that you might replace me. Can you talk to me and tell me what you like and value about me so I can work through this insecurity?” It is not okay to say, “Honey, I get uncomfortable when you have male friends, so I don’t want you to talk to other men.” It is really, really, really not okay to say, “Honey, give me your phone so I can check and make sure you’re not talking to other men.” If you’re doing that, that is a warning sign of abuse. Talk to a therapist. Get help.
Abundance thinking. You ever notice how some people think love is easy to find, and some people think love is hard to find? It seems logical that people who think love is easy to find believe that because for them it is easy, and people who think it’s hard to find believe that because for them it is hard. And it’s true that the privileges and the social and sexual capital you have will shape your opportunities for romance. But when it comes to finding partners, how you think does shape the world you live in. When people think, “I can afford to be picky because there are lots of people who value me and lots of opportunity for connection,” more people value them, and they have more opportunities for connection. When people think, “I have to take whatever I can get, because I will never find anyone,” they find it harder to find anyone. Why? Because what you believe influences how you behave. When you have a starvation mindset that says love is hard to find, you act in ways that make you look desperate, a feature that’s attractive only to predators. When you believe that opportunities for love are all around, it’s easier to be confident, it’s easier to be transparent, it’s easier to be open, you are less likely to be desperate, and you’re more likely to be authentic, because you start from the assumption you will find love. See how it all fits together?