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.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Alex is in a relationship with Kris, who’s in a relationship with Kate. Kris is devoted to both Alex and Kate. Alex is considerate of Kris’ feelings, responsive to Kris’ needs, and has worked to build a healthy, reciprocal relationship with Kris. Kate…well, Kate is happy enough to have Kris in her life, so long as Kris is the one to put the effort in. Kate shows up when she feels like it. Kris rarely knows where they stand with Kate.
Alex has spent countless hours processing with Kris about the relationship with Kate. Alex has held Kris while they cried, given advice, helped distract Kris from all the complicated feels about Kate.
In other words, Alex provides most of the emotional support for both Alex’s relationship with Kris and Kate’s relationship with Kris.
But it doesn’t stop there. Alex has another partner, Jordan, whom Alex turns to when they need support for their relationship with Kris. Because Alex is doing work on behalf of the Kris-Kate relationship, and in truth, all the energy Kris puts into the relationship with Kate means that a lot of the time, Kris doesn’t have much left over for Alex. So it’s a good thing for everyone that Alex has Jordan to lean on. (Depending, of course, on how Jordan feels about it.)
Welcome to the polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain.
Emotional labour, if you’re late to the party, refers to all forms of effort involved in caring for another person’s feelings, from remembering birthdays or food allergies to listening to a friend vent to holding someone’s hand while they’re suffering or grieving. There’s a lot of it. And it’s not inherently a problem: it’s the glue that holds society together. The major problems that arise with it—and the reasons so many people are talking about it—are twofold: societally, the expectations for most emotional labour fall on women, and it is chronically undervalued as a form of work.
The polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain occurs any time there’s a problem in one relationship that spills over into the other relationships in a network. The emotional labour pours inward, from person to person, toward the source of the problem—as each person in turn leans outward, toward a partner who has emotional labour to give. (This happens in friend groups, too. But often the expectations are higher in romantic relationships—and boundaries can be harder to set.)
I have been part of polyamorous emotional labour daisy chains more times than I can count. I have lost friends and nearly lost partners by leaning out too hard and taking the availability of emotional labour for granted. I have also been the one to process with my partners, over and over, about their hurtful relationships; I’ve been the shoulder they cry on.
Sometimes the problem is an abusive relationship. Sometimes it’s a dysfunctional pairing of an anxious-attached partner with an avoidant-attached one. Sometimes it’s a chronic or acute illness, addiction, financial stress, a new baby, grief, or some other crisis or major life event. Sometimes someone is just being a jerk.
Not all instances of the polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain are actually dysfunctional. At its best, it’s really just a special case of the ring theory of caring for people in a crisis. This is how families, communities, and societies work—when they are working well. People take care of each other. People give when they have it in them to give, and they receive when they are in need. When that happens in a poly network and it works well, for everyone involved that’s awesome.
And so I don’t want you to read this piece and think there’s anything wrong with seeking support from your partners. I don’t want you to feel embarrassed or ashamed if you find yourself the focal point of the chain because something stressful or awful is going on in your life. You deserve love and support. And I definitely don’t want you to use this piece as a weapon for shaming partners for having needs.
However, if you do recognize an emotional labour daisy chain that you’re a part of, it never hurts to check in with everyone else to make sure everything that’s going on is consensual and is working for everyone involved. A lot of times, these things work right up until they don’t—and people need to know it’s okay to express when it stops working for them, before resentment starts to build.
Sometimes things get set up in such a way that certain people are expected—or even required—to consistently provide emotional labour, while others are consistently exempted from it. Case in point: As mentioned above, the first major discussions of emotional labour centred on the ways in which women are socialized (and expected) to provide emotional labour to men. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that often you see similar patterns play out in poly relationships. But that’s not always the case: I’ve seen—and been in—plenty of situations where one or several men form crucial links in the daisy chain.
One specific example of a structural imbalance in emotional labour is the unicorn-hunting couple. If you look closely at what they say they’re looking for, often it becomes clear that what they want is a woman to provide emotional labour for the two of them, while expecting little to none in return. What makes this particular situation especially messed up, though, is that often they’ll say that they don’t want her to have other partners—in essence, denying her the ability to seek out emotional care from others.
And you know what? Taking care of each other, supporting each other and helping each other out is cool. But setting up structures whereby certain people are consistently excused from performing emotional labour and certain people are expected to always provide it is not cool. It’s not cool in society, and it’s not cool in a polyamorous network.
And those structures are really just a special case of the general case of entitlement to emotional labour. Like all forms of entitlement in relationships, the moment you start feeling like someone owes you emotional labour, things will get fucked up.
Another place the polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain causes problems is when there’s someone who has a hard time setting boundaries and consistently accepts poor treatment from partners. Often it’s these kinds of people who have a chronic tendency to be at the centre of the circle. They may consistently give more to certain relationships than they get back, and they may feel like hey, it’s okay, they have that to give.
Except that sometimes the reason they have so much to give is that there’s another partner in the background (or more than one)—people like Alex in our story—performing the emotional labour for both their own relationship and the other, lousy one(s). I think sometimes such a setup can even provide a kind of backup energy source for shitty relationships that really ought to end. I think sometimes they can make it so that even though they hurt, it never hurts quite enough to leave. So if you’re that person who can’t leave the bad relationships, think on that—because often what it means is that there’s another person absorbing your pain.
I don’t know what the solution to this is. But I know one thing: Taking care of your partners means taking care of yourself, too. And that means setting boundaries with people who treat you badly—no matter how much you love them. And it means limiting what you give to relationships that don’t give back. You may think that love conquers all; you may think that you can endlessly pour your love into someone in the hope that they’ll return it someday; you may think these are your decisions. And they are. But understand these decisions are not just about you. People you love will feel it. They will pick up the pieces.
For those of you waiting for Part 3 in my hierarchy series…I’m still working on it. I’ve hit an unexpected logical puzzle that I need to work through, and that’s taking some time. I hope to have it up in the next couple of days. This post was the one I needed to write today.
Franklin and I have just wrapped up a very well-attended session on abuse in polyamorous relationships at the Poly Living 2015 conference in Philadelphia, which was a follow-up to Franklin’s keynote last night on “Telling Our Stories, Changing the World.” We’re very grateful that so many people came to the session, especially the numerous mental health professionals who contributed their expertise to the discussion. We wanted to make the resources mentioned at the session available here for easy access.
Here are some books:
- Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. (Powells | Indiebound | Amazon)
- Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You by Patricia Evans. (Powells | Indiebound | Amazon)
- Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You by Susan Forward. (Powells | Indiebound | Amazon)
- Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs by Stevan Hassan. (Powells | Indiebound | Amazon)
If you need immediate help, or just need to talk to someone, you can call the National Abuse Hotline at (800) 799-7233.
Update: If you are looking for help with an abusive situation, please see this list of resources.
Eve and I have been writing quite a lot about abuse in polyamorous relationships here lately. We’re even doing a workshop on it at Poly Living in Philadelphia next weekend. I realize it’s a bit of a downer, and it’s not a lot of fun to talk about. Most of the poly community is awesome, and polyamory itself is wonderful and rewarding.
But I believe the community—by which I mean all the folks who are interested in polyamory and who get together to talk about this multiple relationship thing that we do—is at a crossroads. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am not impressed with the way the organized BDSM community walks the walk when it comes to abuse. It certainly talks the talk about consent, safety, and respect, but in more than sixty years I don’t think it’s managed to turn that talk into a meaningful culture of consent. I know a lot of people are working hard to change that. Some of those people are friends of mine. That’s awesome.
Right now I think the poly community has come to a place where we can either content ourselves with talking about respect and consent the way the BDSM community has, or we can work to make it a cornerstone of the social groups we create. I look at the kink scene and the path it’s taken, and I’m afraid. I don’t want the poly scene to become like that.
But the problem is, I don’t have all the answers about how to make it a place that genuinely enshrines consent. Dealing with people who abuse is hard. It’s hard to stand up and speak out when you see something happening in your community that’s not okay, but that doesn’t involve you directly. It’s hard to get involved. It’s hard to tell someone, “Look, you’re not welcome in this space because you did that thing you did.”
And hard as that is, it’s only the start.
This is something that hits home to me. I’ve seen abuse happen in my polycule. It’s incredibly disempowering to see someone you love being abused by, for example, your metamour—especially when your metamour is also your friend. Folks who have never experienced it cannot easily understand how disempowering it feels to see someone doing things that are harmful and destructive to someone you love, and to know you can’t make them stop, or make your partner leave.
The thing we don’t like to admit is that people who abuse are not necessarily evil. They’re not necessarily bad people. If you ask someone, “What makes a person abuse?” you will hear a lot of answers like “some people are just monsters.” That black-and-white, Marvel Comics caricature of what “an abuser” looks like helps nobody. Often, people who abuse are friends. Often, people who abuse are hurting themselves. Often, people who abuse genuinely do have good things about them. Often, they’re not committing physical violence, and the abuse is hard to spot.
See, here’s the thing. Abusers often sincerely believe themselves to be victims. That was, and is, the case with the person in my polycule.
People don’t wake up one morning and go “You know what? I think I’m going to become an abuser today! Boy, doesn’t that sound like fun? I’ll undermine and mistreat the people close to me!” Every person who commits abuse that I’ve ever met, without exception, is someone who is in a lot of pain. They feel that the abuse they do isn’t abuse—it’s a reasonable and natural response to the pain they’re in.
As people working in domestic violence prevention will tell you, abuse is about power and control. Lots and lots and lots of people, abusers and non-abusers alike, believe that if your partner does or says something and it makes you feel uncomfortable, threatened, jealous, or hurt, it’s okay for you to control them in order to deal with your feelings.
Look around. This idea has a lot of social currency. Among monogamous folks, you’ll find tons of people who say things like “if your girlfriend talks to other guys and that upsets you, don’t let her! Make her stop!” “If your boyfriend is still friends with an ex, tell him he can never speak to her again!” “If your girlfriend likes some other guy’s Facebook posts, tell her she has to stop doing that!” In the poly community we don’t do that, but we still cling to the idea that if something your partner does makes you uncomfortable, it’s reasonable and appropriate to try to get them to stop.
Is everyone who believes this an abusive person? Of course not. But the idea that if you feel something bad, it means someone else is doing something wrong and you should be able to make them stop doing it…well, that’s the root of all abuse.
And people who abuse genuinely feel that if they tell a partner to do something and the partner doesn’t do it, they’re the ones being abused. I’ve talked to so many people who complain, “My partner isn’t doing what I tell them to!” It hurts me when my partner doesn’t let me control them! That’s abuse! My partner is abusing me by not obeying me!
There’s an essay that sums this up brilliantly at The Community Response to Abuse:
“I was victimized by acts of control” is not the same as “I was victimized by the other person’s resistance to my control.”
Because a person who abuses is in genuine pain, and genuinely feels victimized, and sincerely can not distinguish between “victimized by someone else’s control” and “victimized because I can’t control someone else,” it’s really, really hard to show these folks why their actions are wrong. They believe that if someone else sets a boundary, that boundary is an abuse of them.
In order to crack the problem of abuse, you have to cut all the way down to why we think it’s okay to control other people, and that’s extremely difficult. Look at all the people who agree with this idea! Look at how many social messages say that if someone does something that makes us uncomfortable, the best way to handle it is to control that person! Everything social message we’re confronted with reinforces this idea.
So people who abuse aren’t (necessarily) monsters. They’re just like us. They’re hurting. And that presents one hell of a problem—one that we need to be able to talk about, and get a handle on, if we are to make safe spaces for survivors of abuse.
Yes, we need to be willing to step up when we see abuse. Yes, we need to be willing to confront those who abuse, and to be willing to exclude them from the spaces we make.
But that isn’t enough.
We also need to recognize the essential humanity of people who commit abuse. Our first priority needs to be to protect and make safe spaces for survivors, to believe survivors, and to support survivors.
But if that’s all we do, if we think it stops there, we can end up perpetuating the cycle.
Anti-rape activists say, rightly, that if you tell women things like “Don’t drink alcohol” or “Don’t go down that alley,” what you’re actually saying is “Let the rapist rape someone else.”
But when we kick a person out of a poly group for abusing someone and then pat ourselves on the back for this amazing thing we’ve just done, we do the same thing. In refusing to engage with people who abuse, we say, “Let him abuse someone else. Let him abuse in some other community. Let him abuse out of our sight.” And we leave the abuser in an echo chamber.
That’s not good enough.
Survivors of abuse need support. Abusers also need support. They need a different kind of support, though. They need someone to hold them accountable. They need someone to challenge their feelings of entitlement to control. They need someone to call them on their bullshit.1 And even if, for whatever reason, we can’t get through to them, we still need to work to change the cultural idea that controlling others because you’re hurting is okay. As Eve says, “Rape culture is founded on the idea that women’s bodies are presumed available; abuse culture is founded on the idea that it’s okay to control our partners.”
When abuse happened in my polycule, I was not able to do that. Two people I love were hurt by the same guy. He’s not a bad guy. He’s not an evil guy. He’s an insecure guy who is carrying a tremendous pile of sexual insecurity around with him. He believes—really, sincerely believes—that it is okay to control his lovers when he feels insecure, and he really, sincerely believes that if someone resists his control, they are doing something wrong to him.
He’s not a monster.
But I am not able to engage with him. I just can’t do it. He hurt people I love, and I can’t separate myself from that enough to be able to talk to him again, to say, “Dude, what the fuck? It’s not cool to try to tell someone else what to do because you feel insecure. Someone isn’t abusing you by refusing to surrender her bodily autonomy to you.”
But someone needs to do that. I can’t do that in this particular case because I am too close to this particular situation. But I can do it in other situations. And someone needs to be able to do it.
It’s not enough to cast out the person who abuses. That often does need to happen, don’t get me wrong. But that’s the beginning of accountability, not the end.
I’m not sure what the rest of the path to accountability looks like. But I really, really want to learn. And I really hope that other people in the poly community want to learn, too. I’m asking for a lot. I get that. But we need to be able to do this.
The cycle has to stop.
1 There’s a really, really good episode of the Polyamory Weekly podcast that talks about this. I recommend you listen to it.
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 the Cabin Kitty
I’m typing this blog post in front of a huge picture window overlooking a temperate rainforest in rural Washington state, which means I’m back at the cabin where Eve Rickert and I wrote our polyamory book More Than Two. The cabin kitty, Whiskers, has been happy to see us, and has scarcely stopped begging for treats since we got here.
This time, I’m here to write my memoir, The Game Changer, about my relationship with my partner Shelly and the many and varied ways it changed my life. Poly folks–especially those of us who are poly activists–tend to be salesmen for polyamory, which means we don’t really talk about the ways polyamory can be disruptive…even when we have years of experience and think we have a pretty good bead on how to make it work.
A lot of folks contributed to the croudfunding of this book, and yet, I’m feeling kinda stuck. For years, I’ve written about the lessons I’ve learned and the conclusions I’ve come to, without really writing about how I got there. Now, in this memoir, I’m trying to write something very different from anything I’ve done before: I’m trying to write the personal story of how I came to be who I am, and how I learned the things I’ve learned. And it’s really hard! They say you get good at what you practice. I haven’t practiced this kind of writing.
And that means, for the first time I can remember, I’m grappling with imposter syndrome. I know you all helped support this book financially, and that means you want to read it…and I don’t want to let you down. But I am struggling with how to write this book.
So, for those of you who want to read The Game Changer, I would love if you could tell me a bit about why you want to read it. I’m trying to get this thing out of my head and into the computer, and I could use your encouragement.
Whiskers and I both thank you.