Privacy and transparency in polyamory: What’s the balance?

One of the most common tropes in the poly community is, “The three rules of polyamory are communicate, communicate, communicate.” Communication is the lifeblood of any healthy relationship, which is why we have not one but two chapters on communication in the book More Than Two.

There’s a place where this emphasis on communication can lead us down a dark path, though, and that’s when we mistake basic privacy for poor communication.

One of the questions I hear often in conversations about polyamory is, “How much am I allowed to keep private about one relationship in another relationship?” Answers vary all over the map, but there are usually two main camps: the “we share absolutely everything with each other” (where “each other” usually means one couple within a poly network, though the same sharing rarely extends to everyone in the relationship) and the “what happens in one relationship is private unless a need to know exists in another relationship” approaches. Within each camp you’ll find some pretty extreme views, from “I share every single text and email with my partner” (an approach most commonly found in hierarchical, primary/secondary polyamory) to “I never tell one partner anything at all about my other partners.”

Finding a path through this maze means understanding what privacy is, and how maintaining privacy differs from hiding the truth.

If you read books or websites on abuse and domestic violence, one message comes through loud and clear: failure to respect a person’s privacy is one of the first and most common signs of abuse. Demanding to know everything about what a person is doing shows a lack of trust. Feeling entitled to access all of another person’s space is the foundation for almost all other forms of abuse.

Privacy is a basic human right. People involved in polyamory often talk about consent, but sometimes forget that there’s more to consent than choosing when and with whom to have sex. Consent is about access to any part of you: your body, your mind, your emotions, your space. Fundamental to the right to privacy is the right to control who you allow to have access to your most vulnerable places.

This can create some knotty problems in polyamory, because when we feel insecure or threatened, it can be easy to want to know everything about what a partner is doing, saying, thinking, and feeling. Insecurity breeds suspicion, after all.

Unfortunately, when we demand access to details about a partner’s other relationships, we are demanding access not only to our partner’s mind and emotions, but also to his other partner’s mind and emotions, too. People reveal things to their lovers–vulnerabilities, feelings, past traumas or embarrassments–they may not choose to reveal to everyone. We all have the right to expect that some things we share with a lover won’t be passed around.

I have often heard people who feel frightened, insecure, or threatened play the “What are you hiding?” card when it comes to privacy. “We should share everything!” I’ve heard. “Why would you hide things about your other relationship? That just means I can’t trust you!”

In More Than Two, we argue that all healthy relationships have a reasonable expectation of privacy. There can be no intimacy without sharing, and there are limits to what you can share if you are afraid the things you share will be given to others without your consent.

This may include sexual acts; not everyone is an exhibitionist, and many people do not appreciate having their sexual tastes put on display or described to third parties. It may include private details about past experiences. It may include our fears and doubts.

One of the hardest things for us as human beings to learn is that other people are real. Part of understanding that other people are real means understanding that other people may choose to share things with a partner that they might not choose to share with us, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean anyone is being deceitful, underhanded, or sneaky. It simply means we all have the right to maintain boundaries about who has access to our deepest selves.

I have spoken to people who say there is absolutely nothing that happens in another relationship they do not share with their partner–every email is passed along, every conversation is repeated, every sex act is shared. I believe that this approach presents troubling issues and discourages intimacy. It means that anything a person does not want to share with a metamour cannot be shared with his lover.

On the flip side, the right to privacy is not a right to secrecy. There are things that can and should be shared with all the people involved in a relationship network. Those things include any facts that might materially affect a third person, or that might prevent a third person from giving informed consent to the relationship. What kinds of things might those be? One example is anything that significantly affects a person’s STI risk profile.

It’s tricky to set down a list of things that can and can’t be treated as matters of privacy, because life is complicated. But I have noticed a pattern in people who, in my opinion, abuse the right to privacy under the guise of wanting transparency. Some questions that can help sort out whether or not the right to privacy is being infringed include:

Am I asking for my partner, or my partner’s partner, to divulge information that I would be reluctant to share myself under the same circumstance?

How does the information I’m asking for actually affect me? Does it materially affect my life in a quantifiable way, or does it simply make me uncomfortable if I don’t know?

Am I making it safe for my partner’s other partner to be open and vulnerable with my partner?

Does the flow of information go only one way?

Do I trust my partners? Do I have a clear and compelling reason to believe something shady is happening, or am I substituting a need for absolute disclosure for working on my own insecurities?

When you find yourself mired in a trackless wilderness and you’re not sure which direction to move, you can usually find your way by orienting yourself to the ethical compass we talk about in the book. What choices move in the direction of greatest courage? What is the most compassionate thing to do? What shows greatest respect for the agency of all the people around you?

In my own experiences, I have found that if you say everything is open and you will pass around whatever your partners say, write, text, or do, you can’t really expect people to open up to you. They will be aware that sharing with you comes with a price attached: sharing with people they may not choose to share with, in ways they may not be able to control. If you want the kind of relationship in which people are willing to share their greatest vulnerabilities and deepest selves, it’s on you to respect their privacy.

 

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On the Relationship Bill of Rights

In June of 2003, I added a new page to my rapidly-growing site about polyamory. The new page, Polyamory for Secondaries, had a section on it called “A Proposed Secondary’s Bill of Rights.” My partner Shelly, who has contributed her thoughts on consent and “family-style” relationships right here in this blog (and whose writings and ideas about consent and ethics in romantic relationships were instrumental to us as we were crafting the ethics sections of More Than Two) contributed significantly to the Secondary’s Bill of Rights.

The Secondary’s Bill of Rights came from our experiences in a strictly hierarchical, primary/secondary relationship. Shelly first started dating me while I was still married. At that time, our relationship was bound by a large number of prescriptive rules that, essentially, made it almost impossible for her to ask for her needs to be met. Shelly wrote of that experience:

Primary/secondary structures tend to leave a special kind of emotional wreckage. While I freely admit that it is often a mutually beneficial model for all involved, there is a hidden trap. Because sometimes we walk into this structure, with heart in hand, and sometimes our partner meets us there. And then the structure becomes a maze of slamming doors and booby traps. When your partner meets you with real intimacy and love within an externally enforced and non-negotiable framework of limitations, the emotional experience of the relationship is of being simultaneously pulled in and violently shoved out.

This was absolutely the case in the early parts of our relationship. I loved her very much, in the face of a system that did not permit her to express her needs. It hurt both of us.

While we were trying to navigate this violent contradiction between creating intimacy and navigating a structure that forbade her to express her needs, we created the Bill of Rights. A friend of ours, dealing with a similar problem, also contributed to it.

Immediately, the Polyamory for Secondaries page became the most-viewed page on the site, by far. It also generated the most email—nearly all of it negative. Overnight, I received an outpouring of criticism. The two predominant themes in the criticism were “Secondaries shouldn’t expect to have rights; they should be grateful for what the primaries give them!” and “If secondaries want a say in their relationships, they should find primaries of their own!”

Over the years, the critical emails have died down, and eventually stopped. Then, about two or three years ago, I started getting a smattering of negative emails from the page, but these were different—they said things like “These aren’t secondary’s rights, they’re universal rights! Everyone should be able to voice needs and have a say in their relationships!”

When Eve and I started working on More Than Two, from deep in the woods in Washington state, we took those criticisms to heart. What, we wondered, would a universal relationship bill of rights—one not aimed only at secondary partners in hierarchical relationships—look like? The ethics chapter in More Than Two therefore contains our idea of a universal Relationship Bill of Rights. It includes such rights as:

  • to be free from coercion, violence and intimidation
  • to choose the level of involvement and intimacy you want
  • to revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time
  • to choose your own partners
  • to have an equal say with each of your partners in deciding the form your relationship with that partner will take
  • to discuss with your partners decisions that affect you
  • to choose the level of involvement and intimacy you want with your partners’ other partners
  • to be treated with courtesy
  • to have plans made with your partner be respected; for instance, not changed at the last minute for trivial reasons
  • to be treated as a peer of every other person, not as a subordinate, even when differing levels of commitment or responsibility exist

These ideas spring, by and large, from the domestic violence community, where gross violations of these rights are depressingly common—though we had to adapt them to a multi-partnered context. Eve did most of the heavy lifting on this chapter. While she was working on it, she researched existing lists of basic rights—the United Nations Charter of Human Rights, the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These turned out not to be particularly helpful. She found real gold somewhere else—in resources written by domestic violence shelters. In a way, this makes sense. The place where a person’s rights are most acutely visible is the place where they’re being violated.

It’s a bit disheartening to read a page on a domestic violence website and reflect on how closely the descriptions of abusive relationships map onto some of the more extreme primary/secondary hierarchies that exist in the poly community. Relationships where people are disenfranchised, where people are told they may not voice their needs or object to the rules as they exist, even where people are told they must be intimate with someone they don’t want to be intimate with in order to continue their relationship with the person they do want to be intimate with…the parallels are striking (and saddening).

I’m not saying all hierarchy is abusive, of course. But I will say when a poly relationship structure closely parallels the sorts of relationships you see in domestic violence literature, it might be time to take a long, hard look at what you’re doing.

This Relationship Bill of Rights has, for the most part, been positively received. However, we have heard some pushback against it. (Eve was surprised and disappointed that people would object to these ideas; having experienced what I did with the Secondary’s Bill of Rights, I expected it.)

The criticism of the Relationship Bill of Rights echoes in important ways the early criticism of the Secondary’s Bill of Rights. We’ve heard complaints that secondaries shouldn’t expect to have a voice in the form their relationship takes; they should either accept what’s offered, exactly as it is offered, or move on. The primary couple calls the shots; it is up to the secondaries to sign on or leave. If they sign on, they’re signing on for the whole ride. If they know up front what they’re getting into, they have no right to complain.

Eve and I don’t think the notion that everyone should be able to participate in deciding how their relationships look ought to be a controversial position. Yet, apparently, it is.

Some of that, I think, might come from the notion that we really oughtn’t expect to be able to get away with having multiple partners—not really. Polyamory isn’t something we have the right to choose, it’s something a partner lets us do. It’s a privilege, and a tenuous one, subject to restriction or revocation at any time. We’re getting away with quite a bit just by shagging more than one person; what right do we have to expect any more? We ought to be damn grateful for having that opportunity, and shut the hell up about the rest!

It’s a pervasive and deeply ingrained idea, even among people who consider themselves non-monogamous by nature. Mononormative culture is not so easily shaken off. Hell, I have never been in a monogamous relationship in my life, yet for many years I believed it was unreasonable of me to expect my partners to be okay with me having more than one partner, and thought I would have to accept being kept on a short leash! I accepted restrictions that were hurtful to my “secondary” partners because I believed I did not have the right to stand up for all my relationships. I had people tell me I was lucky to be getting away with as much as I was getting away with; on what possible basis could I complain?

There’s a great deal of fear in these networks of rules and prescriptions, too. Fear of loss, fear of upset apple carts, fear of things changing. It’s hard to be compassionate when we are fearful; it’s hard to consider what other people need when all we feel is threat or loss.

We, Eve and I, know we’re expecting a lot of our readers. Throughout More Than Two, we encourage our readers to take the hard road. We are asking you, over and over, to move with courage, to face the weakest and most frightening places within you, and to accept that things can and probably will change. We ask you to trust that you are worthy, your partners love and cherish you, and the people around you will support and nurture you—and if they don’t, to seek out situations where they do.

The idea that each of us has the right to a voice in our relationships should not be controversial. No matter what forms those relationships may take, empowering people is preferable to disempowering them. In order to accept this idea, though, we must first accept that we, all of us, have the right to choose polyamory. We are poly because that is the relationship life we want, not because someone else allows us to be. We can—indeed, if we want healthy relationships, we must—seek to treat everyone around us with compassion, decency, and respect. We cannot seek to protect ourselves by shifting emotional risk onto others. We cannot seek to protect ourselves by scripting and controlling others. People are not lifestyle accessories.

We cannot control others not only because it is not ethically right, but because, no matter how comforting that idea may sound, it doesn’t work. My relationship with Shelly was a game-changer; it destroyed my relationship with my ex-wife. All our rules, all our prescriptions and prohibitions, in the end did not, could not survive contact with the real world. Had we sought to protect ourselves not by building rigid structures designed to keep things from changing, but instead by building resilience within our relationship and a resolve that we could be kind to other people and still have faith that we would be okay, perhaps we would still be together. In our naivete, we forgot we were dealing with other human beings, and we neglected to consider their needs as well as our own. That mistake hurt a lot of people, and for no reason: in the end, it did not save us.

 

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Learning that it’s Not About Me

It is a fact often unacknowledged that we are all born, and in many ways predisposed to remain, egocentric little monsters.

That’s not a criticism, mind; just a statement. If you want to see unadulterated egocentrism in its purest form, before the crucible of life alloys it with empathy and concern for others, just look at a two-year-old. We ship with egocentrism as our core framework; most things beyond that are installed separately.

The reflections of this basic tenet of human nature are everywhere. For tens of thousands of years, we believed ourselves to be at the center of creation; this dogma became so integrated in the political traditions of Western Europe that challenging it would lead one to a rather gruesome end at the hands of one’s more ideologically pure fellows. And it messes us up in so very many ways.

Especially in polyamory, where seeing our partner’s choice through the lens of egocentrism leads to heartache of all sorts. When we make “but what about me? the go-to question for evaluating our partners’ decisions, we tend toward the impulse of taking away their agency and treating us as need fulfillment machines. (One trivial example: “I’m a guy, and I’ll let my girlfriend sleep with other women, but she can’t sleep with other men because I know that other women can do things for her I can’t do but I’m afraid if she has another man she won’t need me any more.”)

It’s a tough thing to get past, this tendency to think the world’s orbit centers on us. I came nose-to-nose with this habit in myself back in 1992, when I was involved with the woman I’ve identified in the book More Than Two as “Ruby.”

Ruby was amazing–beautiful, smart, outgoing, kind–and I fell hard for her. My relationship with Ruby was my first brush with jealousy, and it was also the first time I’d ever really come nose to claw with the monster of egocentrism.

She started dating a friend of mine. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t have been a big deal, except that the relationship between Ruby and I was chafing under the weight of restrictions placed on it by the terms of my relationship with my ex-wife, who feared losing me to Ruby. I knew that her new partner could give her more than what I could offer, because their relationship was not encumbered by these restraints, and that made me feel threatened by him. Naturally, as you might expect, I felt very jealous.

Egocentrism became the flashpoint of that jealousy. Ruby would tell me things she had done with her new partner, and my first, reflexive reaction would be “but what about me?” When she told me about going somewhere with him, I would instantly flash to “why didn’t you go there with me?” As their relationship grew, the only thing I could see is “but what does that mean for me?”

When I saw the relationship between the two of them only in how it affected me, I lost the ability to be happy for them, or even to think about Ruby’s needs at all. But it took the destruction of that relationship to see just how deeply that habitual egocentrism ran.

In the ashes of that relationship, I spent a lot of time looking at myself, searching my intellectual closets and emotional beds for the monsters that lurked there. And one of the things I saw was that, by looking at my partners through the lens of “but what about me?” I was denying them an essential part of who they were. I was reducing them to accessories for my own ego, considering only what they brought me instead of what they needed.

It was a humbling experience. It’s not easy or obvious to realize that other people are actually human beings, just as fully as we are, with the same crazy human patchwork of needs and desires, weaknesses and fears, longings and hopes as we have. Ruby got things from her other partner she didn’t get from me, and that was okay. It didn’t have to be a competition, a winner-take-all gladiatorial cage match with her as the prize. The relationship she had with him wasn’t about me–something I might have seen had I been able to step away from myself long enough to see that she did value and love me, and her other relationship didn’t change that.

I worked hard over the next few years to understand where I’d gone wrong, and to learn new habits–habits of looking at my relationships in terms of the idea that every person who has ever walked the earth is unique, and brings something to the table nobody else could bring. (It is common, I think, to do what I did before–to understand that I could have multiple partners without it meaning I loved them any less, without applying the same thing to them and understanding they could love multiple partners without valuing me any less.)

The process took a lot of introspection, and a deliberate, scary stepping away from old reactions. When I felt threatened by someone new in a partner’s life, I would take a deep breath, look in the mirror, and say “this isn’t about me. Even if I don’t understand what she sees in him, it isn’t about me.”

It took courage. It also took being willing to confront my own egocentrism openly, by talking to my partners when I felt threatened. It’s remarkable how difficult it can be to ask someone “so, I see you’re investing in this new relationship; you still love and value me, right?” Acknowledging the things we’re afraid of makes us vulnerable, and when we’re already feeling triggered, the last thing we want is vulnerability.

But it’s necessary. If we are to be involved in healthy plural relationships, we need to understand when things aren’t about us. When we make them about us, we invite ugliness into our relationships. We become like those early political and religious leaders, burning folks at the stake for challenging our position as the center of all the universe.

It took me years to really internalize that my partners’ other loves are Not About Me. For a long time, it was a struggle, and it required daily, deliberate reminders to myself that not everything my partners say or do is a reflection of me.

But I got there, and it’s been a powerful boon to my life ever since.

 

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Rules: Why we make them, where they can go wrong

Folks already familiar with my writings over the years won’t be shocked to hear me say I’m deeply skeptical of rule-based romantic relationships. It’s a theme throughout most of my writings on polyamory, and in the book More Than Two, Eve and I argue that rules-based systems rarely seem to create structures that work (at least for everyone, including all the people who are not present when the rules are made), and often create harmful structures. When they do work, it’s quite common to credit the rules for the success of a relationship even in situations where the relationship likely would still have succeeded without them.

Wesley Fenza has just written an interesting essay with a different take on rules. In it, he says,

Without a rule, a person would do their own analysis regarding whether to take an action, weighing the pros and cons, factoring in the effects on other people, and making a decision. A rule puts a thumb on the scale, weighing the analysis in favor of the prior commitment.

For some people, this is fine. Some people don’t trust their in-the-moment decision making, so they feel the need to commit to a course of action ahead of time. This is especially effective with safer sex rules. It’s common for a person to feel that, in the moment, they may be tempted to forego safer sex practices, and so they (and their partner(s)) make a rule in order to give them some extra motivation in the moment.

I think he might be onto something here. The idea of rules as tools to help compensate for deficiencies in in-the-moment decision-making is interesting, and I can see value in it.

In fact, many years ago, I did something similar myself. I was extremely attracted to a woman who reciprocated the attraction, but who was, for various reasons that are unimportant to my tale, a terrible match for me. I knew that I was attracted to her strongly enough that I would, if I found myself in a sexual situation with her, probably toss those incompatibilities aside…so I resolved to avoid those kinds of situations with her, nipping the problem in the bud. At the time, my ability to make good partner-selection assessments in the face of overwhelming throbbing biological urges was a bit rubbish, so setting a rule for myself was an effective way to prevent the future me from doing something that would make the even-more-future me unhappy.

To me, rules I place on myself because I know I have a deficiency in my decision-making skills are distinct from rules made by a partner, or rules mutually negotiated between my partners and me. (Solopoly blogger Aggie has a great essay about self-imposed behavioral guidelines.) For example, if I know that it’s hard to think about sexual health in the middle of a lust-crazed frenzy of sexual appetite, having my rational self place a restriction on my future, irrational self is a sensible, prudent thing to do.

But there’s a trap when it comes to partners making rules for each other to, ostensibly, compensate for poor decision-making or impulse control.

A couple months back, there was a Twitter hashtag about identifying abusive relationships. It wasn’t poly-related, but was about relationships generally. I scrolled through it, though I foolishly forgot to note exactly what the hashtag was.

One of the things that came up on that hashtag again and again, though, was the idea that abusers can gain power over their victims by making their victims doubt their own judgment. “You can’t be trusted.” “You don’t make good decisions.” “You mess things up.” “You have poor judgment.” “I have to make decisions for you or you’ll screw up.” “You’ll hurt me if I give you a chance.” I saw dozens of variations on this theme all through the hashtag. And it got me to thinking.

“I will limit my behavior in this way because I know my in-the-moment decision skills are a bit crap” can be a reasonable approach to healthy boundary-setting. But I see the potential for abuse when it becomes “I want this rule because your decision-making skills are crap; you can’t be trusted to keep your commitments.”

Can it still be healthy when it’s turned around that way? Maybe. But it’s hard to say.

Gaslighting can happen even in relationships that aren’t overtly abusive. We are, generally, the heroes of our own stories; we tend to assess other people’s choices based on how they affect us. Unless we are very careful to avoid it, it can be tempting to frame someone else’s decisions as poor simply because we don’t like or approve of them, and to do our best to create doubt about other people’s decision-making skills. We also want the approval of those we let close to us, so if they tell us our decisions are rubbish, we’re vulnerable to internalizing that idea.

What that means is we can easily persuade others, or be persuaded ourselves, that decisions are poor when it’s not necessarily true. I’ve seen this play out in a thousand ways, some of them very subtle, one or two of them as part of a destructively dysfunctional dynamic.

So I do agree that certain kinds of rules concerning in-the-moment decisions can be valuable. But when you start applying them to others, well… It’s a bit like using a chainsaw. Yes, when you need it, it’s a great tool to have, but you have to pay very close attention to how you use it. Mistakes can have serious consequences. It’s all fun and games ’til someone loses a limb.

 

Update: Wes Fenza has replied.

 

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Some thoughts on love and sacrifice

Note: This entry is crossposted from Franklin’s personal blog.

I recently encountered, during the normal course of my regular trawling across the width of this thing we call the Internet, an essay posted on the Psychology Today Web site. The article is a rejection of the notion that adultery is okay (an argument made by a different essay on a different site) and, as far as that goes, I have no quarrel with it. If you’re going to make a promise of sexual fidelity, keep it. If you can’t, renegotiate the relationship or end it.

But the problem comes near the essay’s end, where the author says:

More generally, the author doesn’t seem to appreciate that the value of commitment is based in part on the value of what is given up for it. Of course, sexual desire has a unique pull on most of us. But promises of fidelity would mean much less if we were promising to give up something we didn’t want! The fact that most of us want sex so much is why it means so much when we promise it to just one person…

And I find this argument to be very problematic indeed.

I reject this premise wholeheartedly. I do not–I cannot–buy the notion that in order for something to be valuable, we have to sacrifice something in order to have it.

This idea is one of the malignant gifts bequeathed on us by our Puritan ancestors, who believed it so passionately they never saw the hypocritical self-contradiction in it (they yearned for an afterlife in which there is no want, no suffering, and everything is perfect forever, and they thought the way to get there was by rejecting what you want, by suffering, and by working against basic human happiness…something they regarded with suspicion at best and hostility at worst.)

I think, rather, that the value of a thing is not what we give up in order to have it, but instead whether that thing is an authentic expression of who we truly are.

There is nothing noble in denying who you are in order to get something you want. Just the opposite: that is the most craven sort of commerce, exchanging truth for gain. We rightly deride dishonesty in politicians and businesses; we understand that pretending to be something you’re not in order to get votes or money is a perfidious act. Why don’t we understand the same thing about love?

There is no virtue in exchanging your true self for the affections of someone else. Love admits no such cynical transaction. Love is most meaningful when those who love us know who we truly are and love us anyway. It is not about what we can make those we love give up; it is about how we can help those we love be the most genuine, the most honest versions of themselves.

We do not make an act of fidelity meaningful because we don’t want to do it. We make an act–any act–meaningful when it most truly represents who we are, when it most honestly shares what we actually desire. Believing that sex is valuable because we pledge it to one person when we really want to do just the opposite is the most crass kind of commoditization of both sex and love. Matters of the heart are not about artificial scarcity and transactional gain.

 

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Backer question: From lovers to friends

We’re still deep in the midst of editing–still finishing the final chapters to send off to our substantive editor, while simultaneously polishing the chapters we’re getting back from him to send to our copy-editor. The book is turning out to be quite a, er, substantial piece of work: currently at 160,000 words and counting, 25 chapters covering every poly scenario you (or at least we) could think of. (For comparison, The Two Towers is about 155,000 words). And it’s good. Really good (if we do say so ourselves). Alan, our substantive editor, agrees: he gave us a very flattering mention over at Polyamory in the News earlier this week.

We’ll be announcing our pub date and launch parties soon–as soon as we get the rest of this book to our editors. Which will be soon.

(See how we got to 160,000 words? Thank goodness for editors.)

But by special request, we’re setting the book aside for a moment to address another question from one of the people who backed our Indiegogo campaign last fall. This one comes from a backer who asks: What are some strategies for successfully “de-escalating” relationships, say from romantic or sexual to friendships?

We’re doing this post as another dialogue, this time with a special guest–Franklin’s sweetie Joreth, who has posted on breakups in the past on her blog here and here (we’ve also addressed breakups before from a slightly different angle, here).

Franklin: Shortly after I moved to Portland, I started a relationship with a woman who was a partner of a good friend of mine. She and I were romantically involved for perhaps six months when she decided we really weren’t terribly compatible as romantic partners. She took me aside one day and expressed that she didn’t want a romantic relationship, clearly and directly. I told her that I was completely in love with her, and that meant I wanted whatever made her most happy–if that was a friendship that wasn’t a romantic relationship, then that’s what we would have.

I think she was a little surprised; she expected a much worse response. We are still close friends, and still very fond of each other.

Eve: So it sounds like you’re saying that you think the key–or at least an important first step–in backing away from a romance to friendship is clear, open communication about what you want? I would agree; I think the compassionate and ethical thing to do is to talk to your partner openly about how you want the relationship to change. I have been in situations where a partner has tried to cool off the relationship passively, by becoming unresponsive or backing away. That’s a painful thing to experience.

For me, I think the critical element has always been time. I can’t go straight from being lovers to being friends, or at least I have no experience of successfully doing so. When I’m still in love with someone, it is painful for me to be around them without having access to them, emotionally or physically or both. I need time for my feelings to resolve before I can be comfortable in their presence. In the cases where I’ve been deeply in love but have become close friends later, usually a couple of years elapse between the end of the romantic or physical part of our relationship and the beginning of the friendship.

Joreth: I’ve been in both situations: where I was able to transition almost seamlessly from a primary-like romantic entanglement to a platonic friendship with no time in between, and where I needed a good several months or years in order to reset, as it were, the feelings category in my head. I don’t think there is a formula that will say “spend this much time apart and you can transition to another type of relationship,” certainly not a blanket one for everyone, but not even one that will apply across the board for a single person. Each relationship we have will have different needs even in the breakup, so we need to listen to what our emotions are telling us about where we should take things with each soon-to-be-ex partner. I think flexibility and letting go of expectations for how the breakup *should* go is probably the next step in a smooth transition. We can possibly have goals for where we eventually would like to end up, but how we get there will need to be tailored to the participants. That said, there are some guidelines that have higher chances of success than other methods of breaking up and transitioning peacefully.

Franklin: I definitely think clear and honest communication is a key piece of the puzzle. It’s hard, though, and I’ve fallen flat on that bit myself. Another important part, I think, is the expectation management I described in our earlier post. Letting go not just of expectations about how the breakup should go, but of expectations about how the relationship should look, is really important.

I value consent above just about everything else. I don’t want to be with partners who don’t want to be with me. I try very hard to let go of expectations that a partner “owes” me love and intimacy just because we’ve had it in the past. My partners don’t owe me a relationship; I’m not entitled to it. If I am to be serious about valuing consent–and like I said, this is really important to me–I have to acknowledge that my partners have a right to choose not to be romantically involved with me. They have a right to break up with me if the relationship isn’t working for them.

It’s not always easy. I want my relationships to continue. But it seems to me the best way to have that happen isn’t to hold on to the idea that they owe it to me, or to punish them if they don’t want to be involved with me, but rather to be the best possible version of myself. Even if I occasionally mess it up and fall short.

Joreth:  There’s a whole episode in the TV show Sex and the City about the worst way to break up with someone. I will be referencing this in my upcoming workshop on breaking up.  The punchline is that Carrie says, “There is a good way to break up with someone, Alan, and it doesn’t include a Post-it.” She points out in her rant that people just want a breakup that honors what they had together and offers them some closure. Normally, I would tend to twitch a little bit at typical pop-psych words like “closure,” but if you are the one doing the breaking up, and you want to transition to a friendship or FWB, you will have better luck if your breakup conversation is one that expresses your honor and respect for your former partner and what you had together and, as said above, clearly closes the door on this particular chapter of your relationship, to mix a metaphor.

Eve: I want to address the “good way to break up” (without a Post-it) idea. A lot of people, I think, get hung up on the proper medium for breaking up (with emails and text-messages being universally frowned upon). A lot of people will say that the only acceptable way to have a breakup is in person. Dan Savage did a column awhile ago about the text-message breakup, where he says, “When I listen to someone complaining about how he was dumped, SMS, what I often hear is someone complaining that he was dumped.” I think often the medium can be a distraction: people latch onto it as a way to make their ex the bad guy–look at how mean he is, he dumped me by email. A considerate, well-thought-out email can be a good way to handle a breakup, if a partner is someone you don’t see often. So is a phone or Skype call. I think it’s more important to be direct and clear, and not leave it to linger once you’ve made your decision. And, if you are hoping to keep a connection with this person long-term, to keep a two-way line of communication open for the person to express their feelings about the change.

I also don’t think it’s possible all the time to go from a romantic relationship to something else. The obvious case is when there’s been abuse, of course, but many romantic relationships end after there’s been a serious breach of trust or breaking of intimacy. Those things, when they can be repaired, take time and work. Often, when a person isn’t willing to put in the time and effort to fix them within a romantic relationship, they’re certainly not going to do so outside of one. That was the case with my last partner.

Franklin: Yeah, that’s kinda the thing about transitioning a relationship to a friendship–it only takes one person to end the relationship, but it takes two to keep the friendship after.

I think a lot of the problem people have with the idea of a breakup in an email or text message is that it feels like the initiator isn’t really being sensitive to the recipient of the breakup. That’s what it felt like when a partner broke up with me in instant message a long time ago. But looking back on it now, it wasn’t that she broke up with me in IM, it was that she didn’t have any sensitivity to my feelings. Had she dumped me in person, I think that would still have been true.

Joreth: I agree that we get too hung upon the medium, as if the communication tool is solely responsible for the pain the breakup caused.  But, at the same time, certain mediums are more challenging to that goal of showing your honor and respect of the relationship that you are now trying to end. A post-it does not show respect because it is not enough space to give explanation, it doesn’t give that two-way line of communication, etc. Making public declarations like changing a Facebook status before you’ve had the conversation in private: also much more challenging to honor the relationship in that method, because the other person doesn’t have the opportunity to be vulnerable and to react in a safe space.  Expecting one to handle a vulnerable moment and react authentically in public is kind of the opposite of being respectful.

There’s also a lot of truth in that it takes one person to end a relationship but two to keep the friendship after. That’s why I do not make a goal of becoming friends with my exes–that requires my exes to acquiesce. Instead, I make the goal of being a friendly ex. That places responsibility entirely on my own shoulders for my own behaviour towards my exes.  And I believe that giving someone the space they need quite squarely falls under the heading of being “friendly.”

Franklin: Refocusing a little, are there strategies beyond being flexible, managing expectations, and being a friendly ex, that help make the transition easier? I’ve rarely been the initiator in a relationship ending, I’m more often the recipient. What can the initiator do to make the transition easier?

Eve: I, too, have usually been the recipient. The first time I was the one to end a relationship, I actually found it harder than being the one on the receiving end–and have consistently ever since. But it seems to me that our experiences on the receiving end should give us some good perspectives to offer on how to make it less painful. The short answer to that is: you can’t. Losing a relationship you value–and “de-escalating” is a loss, of intimacy, of physical closeness, perhaps of a shared vision of a future together–is going to hurt, and there’s not much you can do to soften that initial blow, I think. But I do think you can create a space where healing will be able to happen in the future.

For me, the most important thing is not to have expectations placed on me that I’ll be ready for friendship too soon. I’ve had exes want to go immediately to friends status, and that’s usually not possible for me–but then I feel like I’m the one in the wrong, because I’m being an “unfriendly” ex. So giving me time and space after a breakup is really one of the best things a partner can do for me. But another thing that’s really important is what the relationship looks like in the ending stages. Do I feel like my partner has been trying to work on issues with me, and we’ve just come to a standstill? Have they been making an effort to listen to and understand me? The hardest endings for me have been the ones where things ended long before they ended: my partner stopped seeing or hearing me well before formally ending the relationship. That’s hard to recover from.

Joreth: For me, the hardest endings (or, the endings that were the most difficult to transition from to friends or more) were the ones where I didn’t feel respected as a person, regardless of whether I was the initiator or recipient. Sometimes that meant that my space wasn’t respected and I felt imposed upon. Sometimes that meant that my feelings and opinions weren’t being heard during the breakup or in the relationship leading up to the breakup. Sometimes that meant that the method of breakup communication did not take certain things into account, like my opportunity to react, or put me in an overly vulnerable position (because being dumped is already a vulnerable position). Sometimes that meant that the reasons given felt like direct attacks on my character as a person, or on those traits about myself that are the most valuable or most important to me, like my integrity. If you want to guarantee that you hurt your soon-to-be-ex partner so much that they will not desire to transition to friends or something more, those are all good ways to go about that. Bonus points for a truly catastrophic ending if you can do all of them at once.

Franklin: It seems to me like the factors most necessary, then, are honesty, directness, flexibility, expectation management, and good faith. None of those things will guarantee that a friendship can rise from the ashes of a relationship, but if any of them are missing, it most certainly won’t.

And, as always, you can’t really control anyone else. You can do the best you can to build the foundation for a friendship, but if that isn’t what the other person wants as well, it ain’t gonna happen. Perhaps the best thing to do is to let go of attachment to just one outcome.

 

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