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.
This is part two of a three-part series inspired by the question Can a hierarchy ever be ethical in polyamory? As I said in Part 1, I have come to the conclusion that this is the wrong question to ask. To get to the right questions, we need to drill down deeper. Part 1 talked about how we define hierarchy, how hierarchies reflect power dynamics within relationships, and why they’re so hard to talk about. In this instalment, we’re going to look closer at some of those power dynamics.
Influence and Control
Any healthy relationship involves a certain amount of influence. While it’s not a good idea to rest your hopes for a relationship on your partner changing, or to make your partner into a project, good partnerships do change the people in them. You may learn new habits, new skills, new hobbies, new ways of communicating. But you also have to learn to prioritize another person’s happiness as well as your own. That means allowing your partner to influence you: it means paying attention to what your partner’s experience is, what their needs are, and working with them to help them get their needs met, along with yours. It means sometimes not doing something you want to do, and sometimes doing something you don’t really want to do, in order to make the relationship work for both of you. It means give and take.
In a healthy relationship, this give and take is negotiated and consensual. Boundaries are respected, bottom lines are recognized and not pushed. You may have to give up pizza on Friday because you’ve had it three date nights in a row and your partner’s craving Thai, you may have to move to a city that’s not your first choice (or even on your list), you might have to take a lower-paying job to make more time with the kids—you may have to make big sacrifices or small ones. But you won’t have to give up friends, family, economic or emotional security, self-worth, self-expression, or any of the things that are important to making you you. And this influence is reciprocal: your partner listens to you and seeks compromise just as much as you do. You both prioritize each other’s happiness and well-being.
The other side of this coin is control. Control is what happens when the give and take stops being consensual and reciprocal, when you stop respecting a partner’s boundaries, when you make your own happiness and meeting your own needs more important than valuing your partner’s agency. It may involve emotional blackmail tactics like threats, shame, gaslighting, withdrawal of affection or resources, or, in extreme cases, physical or sexual abuse. It’s important to recognize that an ongoing pattern of coercive control is the definition of intimate partner abuse—and those tactics I’m talking about are part the power and control wheel that’s used to pinpoint abusive behaviours. However, these coercive tactics are used all the time in both monogamous and polyamorous relationships without rising to the level of abuse.
In poly relationships, control can also manifest through hierarchical agreements where partners give each other the power to make unilateral decisions over other relationships.
You might ask how such agreements might qualify as control if they’re negotiated. That’s because of who’s missing from the negotiating process: the other affected partners. Usually, in hierarchical agreements, the rules are presented to secondary partners as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, without an opportunity to shape their creation—either in the beginning, or in the future. (This discussion makes up the bulk of chapter 10 in More Than Two.)
In a poly relationship, intimate influence may affect the choices you make about how you interact with other people. It may mean that you don’t date someone you want to date, or you limit the amount of time you can commit, or you put the brakes on a relationship that’s growing too fast and big…because of the way it might affect your other partners, or because of concerns they have. It might even affect your decision whether to be poly at all.
Or, you might make all those same choices because you have a partner who’s exerting control over your other relationships—whether as part of a negotiated power hierarchy, or as part of a pattern of coercive control.
It can often be difficult to tell the difference between the two from outside a relationship—especially if you’re affected by the choices being made.
Let’s give an example. In her memoir The Husband Swap, Louisa Leontiades describes her metamour, Elena, giving an ultimatum to Louisa’s husband, Gilles, who was also Elena’s boyfriend: It’s her or me. Elena made it clear that she could no longer remain in a relationship with Gilles as long as he was in a relationship with Louisa. I won’t spoil the book by telling you what he chose…or how Elena responded. But while I was working with Louisa on the companion guide to the memoir, Lessons in Love and Life to My Younger Self, the two of us had a discussion about whether Elena’s actions constituted a veto of Louisa.
An outside observer who did not know Elena would in fact not be in a position to say whether her actions were a veto or not. Why? Because the difference comes down to expectation and intent. Elena had every right to set boundaries concerning what kind of a relationship she was willing to be involved in—up to and including who she was willing to be metamours with. But in giving Gilles an ultimatum, was she prepared for the possibility that he might say no—thus leaving her in the position of having to make good on her promise to end her relationship with him? Or was she working from an expectation that he would say yes—thus making the ultimatum dangerous for only Louisa, and not for Elena? What would her response be if Gilles said no? Would she be angry? Consider his choice a betrayal? Use shame and guilt to try to get him to do what she wanted? Or would she accept his decision—and leave the relationship?
An underlying element of all these questions is this: Did Elena feel entitled to have Gilles choose her? Healthy relationships are ones in which we can express our needs and desires, but it’s when we feel entitled to have our partners do what we want that things go off the rails. Entitlement makes us feel like it’s okay to overrule our partners’ agency (and that of their partners). If we’re part of a socially sanctioned couple, this is especially dangerous, because we’ve got lots of societal messages feeding that sense of entitlement. And the most damaging parts of hierarchical setups tend to come about when we enshrine entitlement into our relationship agreements.
Back to the Tower
At this point, I really hope you’ve read Part 1, because we’re going back now to our tower and village.
If you can manage to get away from the tower argument of “hierarchy means unequal distribution of resources” and start discussing the real issues (usually this happens when you stop trying to discuss “hierarchies” and instead get into specific kinds of rules, or arrangements such as vetoes), the new tower argument becomes the question of influence. I want to be able to ask for what I want, express my concerns about my metamours to my partners, tell my partners how their other relationships are affecting me, and so on. This is a relatively easy position to defend, because in healthy relationships, partners can influence each other.
Once the tower of intimate influence is defended, however, we see the village once again reoccupied. The village is things that a person feels entitled to control in their partner’s relationship, or rules and structures that are put in place to ensure that one person’s needs are always favoured in the case of resource conflict.
Tower: I want to be able to tell my partner how I feel about a potential new partner and have them consider my feelings in their decision.
Village: I expect my partner not to get involved with a person I’m not comfortable with them being with.
Tower: I want my partner to be available to me during emergencies or when I am struggling emotionally.
Village: I expect my partner to be willing to cancel plans with other partners in order to be with me whenever I’m having a hard time.
Tower: I have a lifetime commitment with my partner, and I want to feel like they will make choices that honour that commitment.
Village: I don’t want other partners to express desires for commitment from my partner, because I fear it will undermine their commitment to me.
At the same time, I think a lot of people, when they say “I need hierarchy” (or “I need veto”), are really saying “I’m afraid I won’t be able to influence my partner.” It’s not that they specifically want control: it’s that they want influence, and they either haven’t been taught healthy ways to have or use it (especially in poly situations), or they have only been in crappy relationships in the past where they didn’t have influence—so they don’t know what it feels like.
Now, it is a fact that for most people most of the time (but with many exceptions), longer-established, more committed or more entwined partners are likely to have more influence on a pivot partner than newer, less committed or less entwined partners. And that influence is going to affect what happens in other relationships. Sometimes, it may mean not starting a new relationship, or even ending an existing one—even when no pre-established structures are in place to ensure that certain partners are always favoured, even when there’s no control.
Going back to the diagram from More Than Two that I shared in Part 1:
More Than Two p. 182, illustration © Tatiana Gill 2014. All rights reserved.
As explained in the book, the arrow coming from the left and making the circles on the right is power from within the relationship on the left, affecting the level of intensity and commitment in the relationship on the right. But what we don’t really talk about in More Than Two is the fact that the power arrow can come from influence or it can come from control. And if you are the person on the right, your experience of the pivot’s decision may be very much the same regardless.
As a result, as I mentioned in Part 1, in any situation in which there is an unequal distribution of resources—or influence—the person with less may be inclined to look at the situation and say “This is a hierarchy.” And this is where I think the questions of What is a hierarchy? and Are hierarchies ethical? are not the right questions. Because what the person on the right is saying is really “I feel disempowered.” And that matters—and is what we really need to pay attention to.
That will be the subject of Part 3.
Awhile back, Tikva Wolf, creator of the excellent webcomic Kimchi Cuddles, posted a query on her Facebook page: Can hierarchical relationships ever be ethical? I’ve been chewing on a response to that question for some time, because the answer is not simple. I mean, we spend probably a solid 50 pages in More Than Two trying to tease apart how to make relationship agreements ethical—and we still don’t really answer that question. I finally realized, that’s because it’s the wrong question. If we’re concerned about treating our partners ethically, then the right questions are not Can a hierarchy be ethical? or Is this a hierarchy?
But in order to define the right questions, we need to talk about hierarchy. And that’s a long enough discussion that I am going to break it into three parts. When we get to part three, I’ll talk about the questions we really need to be asking.
It seems to me that basically every discussion of hierarchy in polyamorous relationships eventually circles back to a discussion of what people mean by the word “hierarchy”—and then stays there, unable to reach escape velocity from the gravity of that never-ending semantic debate. I do not want to continue that debate here. Rather, I want to try to shed some light on why we keep having it. I don’t actually think it’s because people have different definitions and we can’t all agree. I think something a little more subtle is afoot.
I originally penned the definition of hierarchy that would eventually become Chapter 11 of More Than Two in a guest post on Franklin’s LiveJournal back in early 2013. In that post—and later in More Than Two—I focused on the power structures that you often see in poly relationships that are defined as hierarchical, especially those where the terms “primary” and “secondary” are preferred. Specifically, I said there:
A poly hierarchy exists when at least one person holds more power over a partner’s other relationships than is held by the people within those relationships.
Essential elements of a poly hierarchy defined this way are authority, where a person (the “primary”) has the ability to make rules about a relationship that they’re not in, and asymmetry, meaning that others don’t have the same authority over the primary relationship.
In More Than Two, cartoonist Tatiana Gill helped us portray this visually, where power from within one “primary” relationship was used to restrict the levels of connection and commitment permissible within another, relationship:
More Than Two p. 182, illustration © Tatiana Gill 2014. All rights reserved.
Such hierarchies are typically expressed through rules that may be more or less complex: things like limits on money or time spent together, sex acts that can be engaged in, and even feelings that can be expressed may all be included. Vetoes—which we define as one partner being able to unilaterally end another relationship without discussion—are common in such hierarchies, but are neither universal nor their defining feature.
Now, we know this isn’t how everyone uses the word. We acknowledged as much in More Than Two. It is, however, one of two prominent definitions used among poly people. So let’s talk about the other definition.
Many people claim that a hierarchy is any poly situation in which one relationship gets more time, energy, priority, commitment, sex, or other resources than another relationship.
So what’s wrong with that definition?
Well nothing, specifically. Except that it’s useless. For starters, that’s basically all relationships. This is the position advanced by people (including us) who argue against use of the word hierarchy in this sense.
Did I say it’s useless? I didn’t mean completely useless. It has a use, but it’s not the one you think. To the people who promote this definition, the usefulness doesn’t have to do with communicating an idea. It has to do with obscuring another one.
Things are about to get a little abstract here, but bear with me, because I’m about to talk about something that happens all. the. fucking. time. in poly communities—and it has a name.
The Tower and the Village
About a decade ago, neuroethicist Nicholas Shackel coined what he called the motte and bailey doctrine. The name refers to a kind of castle that was popular in Western Europe in the early medieval period. The motte is a hill topped by a fortified keep and often surrounded by a ditch or moat. The bailey is basically the rest of the castle: a bit of land containing the rest of the buildings and surrounded by a fence or wall (and possibly another moat). To make this a bit easier to follow, I’m going to refer to the motte as the “tower” and the bailey as the “village,” as shown in the following image:
Carisbrooke Castle, 14th century – model. Image © Charles D.P. Miller 2009, CC BY 2.0 (modified)
Now the tower, being on a hill and fortified as it is, is much easier to defend than the village. So when the village is attacked and the walls are about to be breached, everyone can run to the tower, bar the doors, and dump boilng oil on top of the attackers (or whatever other horrific defence strategies were employed in the 12th century). But no one really wants to live in the tower very long—ultimately, they need the village. So the tower is only defended until the attackers have been beaten back or have moved on, at which point everyone reoccupies the village.
The motte and bailey doctrine describes how this same tactic can be used in an argument. You have two positions: one (the tower) is easy to defend, but ultimately not the one you really care about. The other (the village) is a lot harder to defend, but it’s also the thing that matters to you. So in an argument, you defend the village—until you can’t, at which point you retreat to the tower, and defend that. Once the pressure has lifted, you can relax and head back out to your village.
A good example comes up sometimes when trying to converse with people who believe strongly in astrology. If you don’t, and say as much, there’s a response that some people will bring out: “Well, you can’t deny that the moon and the sun have some influence in our lives! Just look at the tides and the seasons.” And, well, sure. No one can deny that. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a thing, circadian rhythms are a thing. As for the moon…that’s out of my wheelhouse, so I won’t comment, but I wouldn’t find it all that surprising to learn that there’s empirical data supporting some effects of the moon on our mood, emotions or hormonal cycles. So that’s the tower: some celestial bodies affect our lives in some ways. That’s relatively easy to defend.
The village, of course, is the idea that there’s some complex system through which dozens of celestial bodies affect our lives in intricate ways that can be predicted by mathematical formulas—right down to who’s the best partner for us or what day is a good day to sign a contract. If you want to convince me of that, well…you need to have more evidence than pointing out the tides and seasons.
The motte and bailey doctrine is an indispensable part of the way poly communities talk about hierarchy and whether it’s an ethical way to structure your relationships.
In this version of the argument, the hierarchy-means-everyone’s-a-special-snowflake argument is the tower. It’s easy to defend, because this is true of, well basically every relationship on the planet. No two relationships—even those prescribed by rigid gender and social roles—are or can ever be exactly the same, and no sane person would argue that they should be. The counterpart to this argument is the notion that “egalitarian” polyamory entails an expectation that all the relationships be the same. As we say in More Than Two, “Expecting the same level of commitment and entwinement from each [of your relationships] would be high-order foolishness.”
The fact that this form of hierarchy exists in every human being’s relationship life does not, as one might expect, make it a useless concept, though. In fact it’s a very useful concept indeed—because it doesn’t actually exist to communicate an idea. It exists to protect the village.
The village is the definition of hierarchy I gave at the beginning: where certain partners expect to be able to control other relationships that their partners are in. It’s usually clear that this is what’s really going on because people don’t tend to stay in the tower very long. Once someone has defended their tower—getting everyone to agree to the obvious statement that yes, all relationships need and consume different resources and have different priorities—you can often see them creeping back out onto the village.
An example of this is when people start talking about the idea of “respecting” the primary (or marital, or nesting, or parental, or whatever you call it) relationship. With the possible exception of some relationship anarchists, most people will accept at face value the idea that you should respect a partner’s other relationships, in that it’s a good idea to support your partner in keeping their commitments and doing things that support the health of their relationship life, and also in that most people understand that long-established, entwined relationships (particularly with children) tend to involve more time, energy and priority than newer or less entwined relationships (tower).
But are members of a couple saying that “respect” means not voicing criticism of abusive or manipulative behaviour? Not advocating for your own needs in a relationship? Not expressing your own feelings of love or attachment? Never asking for your relationship to take some priority some of the time? Then that’s a power hierarchy: the village. Watch what happens when you challenge this. Does the couple retreat to the tower? Do they say things like “Well you wouldn’t give someone the keys to your house on the first date!” “We’ve been together 10 years, we just have more sweat equity!” “You can’t expect everyone to be equal.” And the classic “We have to put our children first.”
The thing is that none of these statements are wrong. That’s why someone is saying them—because they’re the tower, easy to defend. But it’s not about these things, not really. It’s about the village: how much control someone has over what happens a relationship they’re not in.
Defining egalitarian polyamory as “everyone gets the same” and hierarchical polyamory as “every relationship is different” makes non-hierarchical poly seem easy to dismiss, and people who try to practise it, impractical ideologues. This conversational trick is devastatingly effective at shutting down discussions about the ethical implications of power dynamics in poly networks.
Lest I be accused of being too hard on primary partners, let me point out that secondary (or satellite, or peripheral, or whatever you like to call them) partners can also employ rhetorical tricks to confuse discussions of the power dynamics in poly networks.
A common one is to look at any unequal distribution of resources and call it a hierarchy. Since the idea of hierarchical relationship networks has, over the last few years, become increasingly frowned on in at least some poly subcultures, an accusation of having a hierarchical relationship is often a criticism—and can really sting if it comes from someone you love, especially if you’re actively working to avoid the power imbalances that we describe in More Than Two as hierarchies. Sometimes the accusations are true, but sometimes they point to other kinds of problems, which I’ll discuss later in this series.
Unfortunately, I do think that in many instances where I’ve seen these tactics used, the driving force behind them is just straight up intellectual dishonesty. But very often, I think it’s more innocent than that, and comes from a genuine confusion over what power within healthy relationships looks like—and from the fact that very often it can be hard to tell, from outside a relationship, exactly what the power dynamic is within it.
That’s what Part 2 is about.
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?
Cross-posted from my blog
It’s probably no surprise to anyone who’s read my writings for any length of time that I’m not a fan of dishonesty in relationships–of any sort, big or small. I have always championed the cause of open, honest communication, especially in romantic relationships. A great deal of human misery and suffering in relationships can, it seems to me, be addressed by the simple but nevertheless radical idea that communication is good.
That doesn’t mean I embrace the idea of Radical Honesty™, at least not as it often shakes out in the real world. I’ve written about that before.
But I am no fan of intentional dishonesty, even in small ways. The little white lie? It has effects that are farther reaching and more insidious than I think most folks realize.
People who advocate for the little white lie often argue–indeed, seem to believe–that they are being compassionate. The function of the little white lie is to save someone from hurt or embarrassment, the reasoning goes. What is the harm in that? Isn’t it cruel to tell a hurtful truth, if there is no purpose to it?
I have oft observed a very strange thing in romantic relationships, and that is good things our partners say to us tend to bounce off as though our self-conception were made of Teflon, whereas bad things have amazing power to stick. If our partner tells us “I think you’re beautiful; I am totally attracted to you,” it is easy to say “well, he doesn’t really mean it,” and not to internalize it. But a partner saying “I don’t think you look good in that dress” sticks tenaciously, and can haunt us for weeks.
Why is that?
There might be a lot of reasons, but I think one of them is the little white lie.
We live in a society where there are certain things we are “supposed” to say. There are certain lies that we are encouraged to tell–little soothing words that we set up like fences around anything that might potentially be hurtful to hear.
Each of them might, in and of itself, not be that big a deal. Who cares, really, if your partner’s butt looks big in that skirt? You’re not with your partner because of the size of their butt, after all; it doesn’t matter to your relationship.
But here’s the thing.
When you tell little white lies, however harmless they may seem, you are telling your partner, Don’t believe me. Don’t believe me. I will lie to you. I will tell you what you want to hear. Don’t believe me.
Is it any wonder, then, that positive stuff bounces off but negative stuff sticks? You are establishing a precedent that communicates to your partner, straight up, do not trust positive things I say. They are empty words. They do not reflect the reality of what I believe. So how, given that, can we really expect our partners to trust it when we give them affirmation?
Little white lies are corrosive. They communicate a very important truth: I will be dishonest to you to save your feelings.
When we make a habit of telling the truth all the time, something wonderful happens. We tell our partners, You can believe me. I will not say what you want to hear; I will say what I actually believe. That means when I tell you positive things, I mean them.
Lies, however innocuous, breed insecurity. They cause your partner to second-guess everything you say: does he really think this is true, or is he just trying to placate me? Is he genuine, or is he just trying to avoid saying something I might not want to hear?
A question I hear often is “When I tell my partner things I like about them, why don’t they believe me?” And the answer, of course, is that we live in a society that cherishes comfort above truth. We are taught from the time we are children that we should tell white lies, and expect others to lie to us, rather than say anything uncomfortable. That leaves us in a tricky position, because we don’t have any way of telling whether the positive words we hear are lies.
Oh, we know we can believe the negative words, because those aren’t little white lies–the purpose of a white lie is to avoid discomfort, and negative things are uncomfortable. We trust the bad stuff implicitly. But the good stuff? We have no reason to trust that! We don’t know if it’s real or if it’s a white lie.
So here’s a thought. If you want your lover to believe you about the good stuff, give them a reason to. Let them know it’s honest. How? By embracing honesty as a core value. What’s the harm in little white lies? They create an environment where we suspect dishonesty from everyone. We can never quite be comfortable that anything positive we hear is the truth; there is always–there must always be–that niggling little doubt.
It is very difficult to develop positive self-esteem when we can not trust the good things people say about us. And yet, taking away our trust to believe the good is exactly what little white lies do.
Don’t do that. Be compassionate in your truth–but be truthful.
Finally, after incredible struggle, the manuscript for my memoir The Game Changer is finished and in copyediting. You can preorder it now on Amazon.
Writing this book has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I’ve been thinking of it as The Big Book of Franklin Gets It Wrong, because it tells the story of the most awful things I have ever done, the greatest mistakes I’ve ever made, and the various ways I’ve hurt people close to me in the quest to figure out how to make this whole polyamory thing work. It’s been written and re-written and re-re-written (I went through four complete drafts and numerous smaller revisions and edits, prompted in large part by the incredible support and comments I’ve received from people who looked at the early versions).
Writing this book meant reliving some of the most painful times in my life. Along the way, I had to wrestle with my first-ever feelings of imposter syndrome (“Who am I to be writing a memoir? Who’s going to care about the relationships I screwed up?”), with feelings that I wasn’t good enough to write this book (it is radically different, in style, tone, and content, from anything I’ve ever written before), and with my own inner demons: my guilt and shame over the people I’ve hurt and the things I’ve screwed up.
In the end, I wrote this book because I believe there’s an elephant in the poly living room, a great gray pachyderm we don’t often acknowledge. We like to say that one of the biggest benefits of polyamory is we don’t have to choose; when we connect with someone new, that connection doesn’t have to threaten our existing relationships. Indeed, some poly folks look down on those benighted monogamous heathens, those poor struggling savages who aren’t yet enlightened enough to realize that a new love doesn’t have to mean discarding the old.
But sometimes, we connect with someone new, and that person changes things. Or changes you. Love is not always safe, or tidy, or neat. Sometimes, it’s disruptive. Sometimes, a new love makes us realize that our existing relationships no longer work for us.
These relationships are game changers.
Game changers, by their very nature, create turmoil. Game changers upset applecarts. And we, as polyamorous people, need to be aware that game changers happen.
My first game-changing relationship showed me that for years, the compromises I had made to be with a monogamous partner were damaging to the people around me. I was both easy to love and dangerous to love. I did not think about the consequences of my agreements for new partners who might want to be close to me, and I did not recognize the ways I failed to take responsibility for my own emotions or actions. And so, predictably, I hurt other people—people who loved me very much.
The Game Changer is a love story, but it’s also more than that. It’s the story of how I learned to be honest about my needs, to recognize that other people are human, and to take responsibility for myself.
It’s also the story of things I did very, very wrong.
It is still, years later, hard for me to deal with some of the things I got so badly wrong, and the damage I did to people who loved me. Maybe, just maybe, other people will read this book and be a little bit less wrong, a little bit more compassionate, in the way they handle their game changers.