Compassion

In the book More Than Two, Eve and I talk several times about compassion. The word appears 100 times in the book. Compassion, we say, is a necessary part of a successful relationship.

On another forum, someone recently asked, “So what is compassion?” And it occurred to me that we talk about compassion assuming everyone knows what it means, but we don’t really talk about what compassion is, or how we exercise it.

So maybe it’s time to fill that gap.

The dictionary isn’t terribly enlightening. If you look up “compassion” in the dictionary, it will probably say something like: “The experience of pity and concern for the suffering or misfortune of others.” Look up “pity” and it says: “Feelings of compassion caused by the suffering or misfortune of others.” That circular definition does not exactly illuminate the subject with a bright light that can shine as a beacon for the ages.

So I want to talk about what compassion really is. Before I do that, though, let’s first talk about empathy.

Human beings are born narcissistic little monsters. It has survival value. We cry when we’re hungry. We don’t know or care that mom might be asleep or busy or whatever; in a literal sense, we are capable only of thinking to and responding to our own needs. We are, as infants, not even capable of realizing that other people have needs, desires, or an internal life.

Over time, ideally, we learn empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand that other people are just as real as we are, to understand that other people have needs and desires, and to be able to imagine what it is like to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective. As we grow up, it becomes natural to most of us, but only to a certain point. Most people never become really good at it. We empathize with people we like, or people who are part of our group. We don’t empathize with people we don’t like.

Compassion is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, imagine things from their perspective, and then to feel kindness for them and seek understanding of them even if what they do is harmful to us, goes against our needs and desires, is at odds with our own experience, or hurts other people. Compassion is empathy on steroids. It’s the ability to understand the view and perspective of someone we don’t like, or someone who is doing something we think is bad.

Compassion requires that we have good personal boundaries—that is, that we are able to advocate for and defend our own needs. If you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes and view them with kindness and understanding even if their needs are contradictory to your own, but you can’t assert or advocate for your own needs, you risk allowing them to take advantage of you, or becoming codependent. Compassion lies in viewing someone in the best possible light, understanding their needs, looking upon them with kindness—all without allowing them to manipulate, control, or abuse you. You have to be able to understand and even value someone else’s perspective without becoming a doormat. As Brené Brown has written, the most compassionate people tend to have the best boundaries.

So the essential prerequisites of compassion are empathy, boundaries, and the willingness to see others in the best possible light even when they are being hurtful. Not an easy combination, which is why so few people are compassionate.

An example of compassion is compassion for an abuser. Most people will say things like, “A guy who abuses his wife is a monster” or, “Abusers are just bad people.” The truth is, abusers aren’t monsters. They’re human beings. And abusers don’t abuse because they wake up one day and say, “Hey, I know what I want to do today! I want to abuse someone!” Abusers abuse because they are in pain. They are looking for an answer to their pain, and the answer they come up with is control. They abuse because they need control. They need control because they are suffering.

Empathy is what allows you to imagine yourself in the abuser’s position. Compassion is what allows you to understand that an abuser isn’t a monster; an abuser is a person who is in genuine pain. Boundaries are what allow you to assert that the abuser should not be excused because of pain—that yes, the abuser is in pain, but abuse is not okay, and the abuser must still be held accountable for it.

So why do any of this? Why would you want to understand the perspective of someone who is doing something harmful?

Because compassion is what stops you from doing horrible things.

To an abuser, controlling others seems like a reasonable way to deal with fear, pain, and insecurity, because the abuser is acting without empathy or compassion. The abuser does not put himself in his victim’s shoes. The abuser feels pain when the victim doesn’t obey his control, but the abuser does not look at the victim with kindness and understanding. He does not try to comprehend the victim’s needs, or to understand why the victim is resisting his control.

People who say abusers are monsters are wrong. If you reassure yourself that only monsters abuse, and you tell yourself that you are not a monster, you will conclude that clearly that means you are not an abuser…even if you abuse others! The same goes for people we care about: if we believe only monsters abuse, then clearly when we see or hear about a loved one committing abuse, it must be something other than abuse.

Compassion is a tool that reminds us that other people are similar to us, and that means we, and people close to us, are capable of great evil if we do not watch ourselves carefully.

Abusers do not believe they are monsters. In fact, many abusers see themselves as victims. Compassion is the tool that lets us avoid that mistake. It is the thing that allows us to connect with other people in ways that help promote treating them without malice.

Relationship rights: Can you negotiate them away?

Franklin and I had an awesome interview on Friday with blogger and journalist A.V. Flox. We talked for almost two hours—I’m kind of scared, actually. A.V. is a fantastic interviewer. She’s the kind of person who makes you want to tell her everything. Everything. So I’m a little nervous about what incriminating (or at least embarrassing) things I may have said during the interview.

One of the things we talked about was the Relationship Bill of Rights, and specifically some thinking I’ve been doing about it lately. The RBoR was tough to come up with, in large part because we were having a hard time defining what was a “right,” and where to draw the line between a “right” and something that’s just really, really helpful. As Franklin has talked about before, we ended up turning to domestic violence prevention resources for inspiration, because those folks are pretty much the only people out there actually talking about relationship rights. In the end, we sort of dodged the question of definition, though, stating that for the purposes of our RBoR, we were basing our “rights” on principles that we felt polyamorous communities should uphold as part of our attempts to be basic decent human beings.

I don’t agree with that definition any more.

I’ve been thinking about this because the idea has come up in a few places that people can negotiate their relationship rights way, as though relationship rights are part and parcel of whatever your larger relationship agreement is, and you can pick and choose from them. And I think that’s a problem. The more I’ve thought about it, the more it seems clear to me that you cannot negotiate away your relationship rights—even if you want to, or think you do. And that, in fact, may be exactly what makes them rights, and not just general principles for good relationships.

Now I know there’s a libertarian wing of poly thinkers, and this is going to piss a lot of them right off. There are a lot of people who argue quite vehemently that anything people consent to within their relationships is okay. That comes from an understandable place: most of us are used to being judged in our lifestyles, most of us are used to demands that we follow other people’s rules. We’re reluctant to sign on to anything that looks like someone else telling us how to conduct our relationships.

The problem is, that  argument can bring you to some seriously messed-up places.

There’s a reason domestic violence prevention websites have lists of your rights in relationships. It’s because the places you tend to see rights violations tend to be abusive relationships. It’s because rights violations tend to lead to abuse. Do abuse victims “consent” to be in their relationships? On the surface, perhaps it looks that way, but that is rooted in a victim-blaming, “why doesn’t she (he) just leave?” mentality and a serious oversimplification of the psychological dynamics of abuse. Abuse relies on tearing down your partner’s sense of self and personal agency to the point where consent is really no longer valid. And it doesn’t take physical violence to make a relationship abusive.*

I believe that if you’ve come to a place in your relationship where someone has negotiated any one of their rights away, that relationship includes coercion, and that invalidates consent. Staying doesn’t mean your partner’s not hurting you. The fact that your partner submits to you doesn’t mean you’re not being an abusive asshole.

By way of example, I want to look at a couple of the rights we list in More Than Two:

  • To revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time.
  • To end a relationship.

These are really two facets of the same principle, since ending a relationship is revoking consent to intimacy—but the second right is such an important corollary of the first, we felt it needed to be stated on its own. It is, well, pretty much the most obvious and inalienable of the rights. And yet…there are people who think you can negotiate this one away. It’s most common to see such thinking in D/s relationships. Franklin likes to tell the story of a couple he used to know who were in a Master/slave relationship that the Dom insisted was “real.” He owned his wife, he swore, just as surely as he owned his toaster oven. He continued to maintain this right up until the moment his wife had him served with divorce papers.

In BDSM, some of us may play with non-consent. But—and this is going to piss some people off again—the key word here is playing. It’s a game, and at some level deep down, even when you’re absorbed in the role, you always remember it’s a game. But even in a 24/7 relationship, even when you say you agree to be another person’s slave—what happens when you step outside the role? If you say, “Whoa, can we talk, I need to renegotiate some things here”? Or even, “I’m not into this anymore, I don’t think it’s working—I need to move on.” Is that okay? It needs to be. Because you can’t, literally can’t, negotiate away your right to leave a relationship, or to revoke your consent.

You’ll see arguments against this outside BDSM circles sometimes, too. In the flush of NRE, it’s really tempting to say things like, “I will always love you.” “I won’t ever leave you.” Wiser folks who have been through a few heartbreaks may tend to resist the urge to utter such things in the heat of the moment. But even if you do… you can’t be held to them. These are not promises you can keep. You cannot promise to feel or want something forever; you cannot pre-consent to intimacy.

Yet there are people who believe that they can hold their partners to these kinds of promises—even extract such pledges of eternal love early on. There are people who will shame and coerce their partners to keep them from leaving—and if your partner is trying to keep you in a relationship that you don’t want to be in? That’s abuse. No matter what you said before. You can never. Negotiate away. Your right. To leave.

I could make a similar argument for many of the rights in the RBoR. But this line of thinking has forced me to re-evaluate the RBoR from the standpoint of this new definition of rights. If a right is something you cannot give up in a relationship, do all of the rights in our RBoR still stand as rights?

To answer this question, we need to consider, for each right, what it means for that right to not exist in a relationship. Does consistently violating that right lead to coercion? Does it violate ongoing, informed consent? Will it lead to abuse?

I read through the RBoR again with these questions in mind. Amazingly, I found that all of the rights still meet the bar for being a right. There are certainly cases where you might choose not to exercise a right. It might be easy enough to say you don’t need the right to leave when, well, you don’t want to leave. But when you decide you do want the right? It’s still there.

And that’s what makes it a right.

 

*Read more about abuse in poly—and all—relationships here.

 

 

From here to there: Developing a mindset of abundance

I am blessed today with a life that is extraordinarily filled with love and connection. I find it easy to connect with people and to find love, warmth, and intimacy, and that has let me create a rich, joyful personal life in which I feel cherished and supported.

In the book More Than Two, Eve and I talk about the abundance model and the scarcity model of love. We say,

In the starvation model, opportunities for love seem scarce. Potential partners are thin on the ground, and finding them is difficult. Because most people you meet expect monogamy, finding poly partners is particularly difficult. Every additional requirement you have narrows the pool still more. Since relationship opportunities are so rare, you’d better seize whatever opportunity comes by and hang on with both hands—after all, who knows when another chance will come along?

The abundance model says that relationship opportunities are all around us. Sure, only a small percentage of the population might meet our criteria, but in a world of more than seven billion people, opportunities abound. Even if we exclude everyone who isn’t open to polyamory, and everyone of the “wrong” sex or orientation, and everyone who doesn’t have whatever other traits we want, we’re still left with tens of thousands of potential partners, which is surely enough to keep even the most ambitious person busy.

The sneaky thing about both models is they’re both right: the model we hold tends to become self-fulfilling.

But we don’t really describe how to get from a mindset of scarcity to a mindset of abundance. When you start with a scarcity model, your experience will be one of scarcity—so how can you even imagine that love is abundant, let alone begin to internalize a model of abundance?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot.

I get email from my polyamory site. Lots of email. Far too much email for me to be able to respond to all of it, and sometimes I feel guilty about that. The emails sit in my inbox, making me feel like a bad person for not having time to reply to every one. (That’s partly why we wrote the book.)

Each of those emails is different, but they often fall into broad themes. I get emails from people whose spouses are cheating, and want to know how they can turn an affair into an ethical open relationship. I get emails from from people who have hit turbulence in their journeys and want to know if I can give them the magic words of wisdom to solve the problems they face. And I get emails—many of them—from people who really, really want to have more than one partner—or even just one partner!—but can’t seem to attract anyone, no matter how hard they look, no matter how much effort and time and energy they pour into the search.

And I get emails from the flat-out incredulous. “Why on Earth would you want more than one partner?” they say. “It takes huge investments of time, energy, effort, commitment, and resources just to find one lover! I can not imagine how much it would take to find more than one!”

What’s interesting about that is it has not been my experience that finding love takes time, energy, effort, commitment, or resources…at least not in the way people seem to mean when they say things like this. Quite the reverse, in fact. Opportunities for love and connection are so abundant that they tend to waltz in the front door at the most inconvenient times. I live in a world of abundance. But how did I get here?

Right now, I’m sitting in a remote cabin deep in the heart of Washington State’s temperate rainforest—the very same one where we wrote the first draft of More Than Two. I’m here working on a new book, a memoir of my life called The Game Changer. I spend a good part of every day sitting in front of an enormous stone fireplace with a cup of tea at my side while Whiskers, the cabin kitty, sprawls on my lap or paces up and down by the window watching the birds at the feeders outside.

As I work on the memoir, I’ve been revisiting the person I used to be, writing stories about my early, fumbling experiences with polyamory and all the many things I got wrong. And I’ve realized that I started with a starvation model of relationships, and over the years, that starvation model has become an abundance model.

It wasn’t always this way. For a long time, I had trouble just finding friends, so the notion of finding a girlfriend seemed as remote as the notion I might quit my job and climb the Himalayas. I could not understand how to get a woman to want to be with me, so I did exactly the wrong thing. I tackled it the way I would tackle a computer programming challenge. I looked at women as a puzzle to be solved: How do you get a woman to become your girlfriend? What steps do you use to get a woman to love you?

That made me clumsy. I came across as entitled and desperate. I accepted anyone who showed me even the slightest hint of interest, no matter how mismatched we were, no matter how little we had in common.

It took time, energy, effort, commitment, and resources to get to the point where love and connection are so plentiful. But I never invested time, energy, effort, commitment, or resources in the process of searching for love—at least not directly. Instead, somewhere around the time I started thinking about being an ethical person and what that might mean, I began investing that time and effort in myself, in becoming the best version of me that I can be.

I wasn’t doing it to find love. I was doing it because my relationship with Shelly showed me there was something fundamentally broken in the way I had approached my relationships in the past: that in trying to do whatever I could to honor my “primary” relationship, I was being dishonorable to the other people close to me.

So I started spending time, energy, effort, commitment, and resources in becoming secure in myself. I began working to understand my own fears and insecurities and eliminate them. (If there’s a figurative monster living under my bed, I said, I’m not going to hide from it any more—I’m gonna make that fucker pay rent!) I made a conscious choice to live with honesty and integrity, even when being honest was hard.

Doing that meant I had to spend time and effort learning good communication skills, even when (in fact, especially when) I was faced with talking about things that were hard to talk about. It meant I had to battle the parts of me that feel shame or embarrassment about who I was, and become a person who lived life openly and on my terms without compromise. It meant I needed to learn understand my needs. It meant I had to develop tools of good partner selection, so I could choose partners who fit well with me instead of believing that I had to accept anyone who showed interest in me. (I can’t overemphasize how huge this was. Choosing partners whose goals and needs were aligned with my own did more, in one stroke, to eliminate the problems that caused me to sacrifice my own needs for the needs of a partner than any other single factor. Looking back, it seems obvious…but when I was in the middle of all this, it was anything but.)

It meant learning that other people are real and that it’s important to interact with them as human beings, not as things for me to try to get my needs met with. It meant becoming a self-confident person. It meant learning and accepting that I make mistakes, and other people do too, and that’s okay; we are all born of frailty and error and if we are to share this world with one another, the first fucking rule of existence is that we must pardon reciprocally one another’s failings and seek wherever possible to treat one another with compassion.

I did all those things, and something happened. People started noticing me. People started offering me genuine connection. People started trusting me, being vulnerable to me, wanting to be close to me.

And that was the turning point. That was when I started to realize that love is abundant. It made me understand that I don’t need to have a desperate, starvation model of love that says love is scarce and hard to find and I have to spend my time and effort and energy searching for it. Understanding that love is abundant made me calm down about love; when you think love is all around you, you don’t freak out about trying to find it. People noticed that, too, and opportunities for love and connection grew even more.

It seems to me that yes, you do need to spend time, energy, effort, commitment, and resources finding love…but if you direct those things outward, in the pursuit of love, you’re not likely to have great success. Turn those things inward. Spend them on yourself. Become the best, most secure, most confident, most kind, most compassionate, most honest version of you. Do that, and love will follow in abundance.

 

whiskers
Whiskers the Cabin Kitty

#WLAMF no. 23: Relationship rights

Way back in 2003, I proposed a “secondary’s bill of rights” for polyamorous relationships. This Bill of Rights, much of which was written by my partner Shelly, came out of our attempts to navigate the hierarchical relationship I was in at the time with my ex-wife. My wife and I had radically different goals in relationship (I am intrinsically polyamorous, whereas she identifies as monogamous; I wanted to be free to let other people in to my heart, while she preferred to be the only person I loved, or, failing that, the one I loved the most), and the hierarchies we had in place were our clumsy attempt to negotiate those differences.

We made our rules with little or no thought to the effects they might have on other people. When I started dating Shelly, she found that the rules we had in place disempowered her…which is, when you get right down to it, exactly what they were supposed to do.

So Shelly and I hashed out the first draft of the Secondary’s Bill of Rights, which still exists on the site today, though it hasn’t been updated in rather a long time.

My own ideas about polyamory have changed and evolved over time. In fact, I plan eventually to write an essay about how they’ve changed.

If I were to go back and revisit the Secondary’s Bill of Rights today, I would likely add a new element to it:

I have a right to be aware of problems in the existing relationship.

“Relationship broken, add more people” is such fertile ground for problems in polyamory that it’s a trope among many poly folks. Consent to a relationship–any relationship–is valid only if it’s informed, and informed consent in polyamory, particularly in prescriptive primary/secondary hierarchies, means disclosing things at a high probability of causing drama or harm.

Yet many couples facing problems in their relationship are reluctant to disclose those problems to a perceived outsider. Even if that outsider is, in theory, someone that one or both of them loves.

It’s hard to talk openly, especially about problems or failings. Disclosure makes us vulnerable, and vulnerability is often uncomfortable.

But people have a right to know what they’re getting into, at least in general terms. There might not be a need to air every bit of dirty laundry, every he-said-she-said argument. But when there are serious structural issues in a relationship, they can put new people in an extremely vulnerable position. Integrity and compassion demands we let people know what kinds of problems they may face.


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#WLAMF no. 20: Shelf-stable consent

A couple of months ago, I was presenting at a poly event. We were talking about consent, and someone used a phrase I’d never heard before, but which the linguist in me (who’s basically an eight-year-old squeeing over the neat things people do with language) was absolutely delighted by. She and her partners had, she said, shelf-stable consent.

Consent is not a thing that’s given once and lasts forever. You do not consent to sex with someone for all time simply because you’ve consented to it once in the past, or because you’ve married that person. Consent exists in the moment, as my sweetie Shelly said in this guest blog post that is one of the most popular things we’ve ever published on this blog.

And that’s all true. Consent is ongoing; it’s a process, not a product.

Sometimes, though, we make the choice to give shelf-stable consent. Sometimes, when we’re in a healthy relationship that meets our needs with partners who see us and who we see in turn, we don’t need to negotiate consent before every ass-grab. (Of course, it can be really, really hot to negotiate every ass-grab, don’t get me wrong!) Sometimes, we know our partners well enough to know what they like. I have a partner for whom grabbing her by the hair and throwing her against the wall is an awesome form of foreplay, sure to get her motor going. But we have a history that stretches back for years.

This is shelf-stable consent. It’s not irrevocable; consent never is. We can always change our mind. Nobody can ever assume access to our bodies, our minds, or our space now and forever. Like those little containers of shelf-stable milk, once the container is opened, it might go bad if you don’t take care to store it properly.

Within those limits, though, when it’s freely given and not assumed, when it’s treated with respect, shelf-stable consent is a lot of fun. It’s a gift, and one of the most special gifts we give each other.


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#WLAMF no. 3: Being the best version of yourself

A little while ago, someone asked me the question “How can I be the best version of myself? What skills and attitudes does it take?”

So I thought about it. During the times I feel I’ve reached for the best version of me, what qualities have I strived for? What kinds of attributes have I had? I came up with, in no particular order:

– Compassion. It might sound obvious, but compassion is the cornerstone for treating others with dignity and respect.

– Courage. When you’re in a situation where you don’t know the right thing to do, moving in the direction of greatest courage will generally steer you right. It’s hard to be the best version of yourself. Doing many of the things on this list means having the courage to act with integrity when it’s uncomfortable to do so. And speaking of which:

– Integrity. Everyone says integrity is good, but few people have it, because integrity means accepting responsibility for your actions (including your screwups and mistakes!) and being honest with those around you even when being honest means you don’t get what you want.

– Resilience. The world doesn’t always go your way, and that’s okay. Wake up every day believing that even if things don’t go the way you want them to, you can still find a way to be happy.

– Empathy. Other people are real. Like you, they are trying to muddle through this world as best they can. Being human is fundamentally baffling and terrifying, and we’re all trying in the face of uncertainty to get our needs met. Other people’s needs and experiences are just as valid as ours.

– Forgiveness. We are all born of frailty and error. It is incumbent in all of us to forgive reciprocally one another’s follies.

– Confidence. This life is ours to live. It is nearly impossible to be compassionate when we are frightened or insecure. The more we build confidence and self-esteem within ourselves, the more we become proof against life’s slings and arrows, and the easier it becomes to treat others with compassion.

– Kindness, both toward ourselves and others. The more we give other people the benefit of the doubt, the more we assume good intent unless proven otherwise, the easier everything else on this list becomes.

And finally:

– Compassion. Being the best version of yourself begins and ends with compassion.

What do you think? What traits, skills, or qualities make you the best possible version of yourself?


I’m writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign at midnight tonight, December 15, 2014. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015!

Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now.