#WLAMF no. 35: Staying connected in long-distance relationships

It surprises many people to learn that Franklin and I have a long-distance relationship. Many people who haven’t yet read the book More Than Two actually seem to assume we live together, but we each actually live with other partners. We’ve managed to spend a lot more time together over the past year than we did in our first year, but we still spend huge stretches apart—and it’s hard.

Long-distance relationships seem to often come with the territory in polyamory, for a number of reasons. We may have a harder time finding compatible partners who share our relationship preferences, and we may feel more free to structure relationship in ways that don’t follow the relationship escalator model.

But it’s naive to believe that because someone has local partners, it’s not going to hurt to spend time away from a long-distance partner. The local partners don’t “fill the partner space” until the long-distance partner comes around. Needs aren’t transitive, and people aren’t interchangeable.

Different relationships naturally have a level they “want” to seek, too. Sometimes, you get lucky, and your long-distance partner is someone with whom the relationship just naturally seeks less entwinement.

Franklin and I don’t have that kind of relationship. We tend to do really well when spending long stretches of time together, especially working closely. And we tend to really struggle, relationship-wise, when we have to spend long stretches of time apart.

As a result, to make things work we’ve had to develop a number of strategies to help us feel connected during the long stretches of time we spend apart. These are fairly individual to us, so your mileage may vary. But I offer them here as possibilities for ways you might help your own long-distance relationships thrive:

Skype-work. You’re all familiar, I’m sure, with using video-calling tools for conversations with long-distance partners. Franklin and I have discovered, though, that we really like to just open up Skype when we’re working at our computers and keep the window minimized down in the corner. This way, we can work “together” even when we’re apart. (I have to keep reminding Franklin to let me work, though. He’s always wanting to talk to me!)

Just work. Franklin and I are fortunate to have a shared love language: work. Yep, that’s right. We like to co-create, for sure, but it’s not just creative projects—like More Than Two—that we like to do together. We founded a publishing company, after all, and we’ve just founded a sex toy company to research and develop Franklin’s bionic dildo. The work we do on our shared business ventures is part of our investment in our relationship.

Selfies. Okay, it’s kind of silly. But Franklin and I, like many long-distance couples, communicate a lot by text. A lot, throughout the day. And we have this unfortunate tendency to get into fights over text. Really bad fights, like we never—okay, very, very rarely—would have in person. Now the obvious thing to do is to stop trying to communicate by text and pick up the phone, right? Except that the reason for the fights is a sense of disconnection, and by the time it gets to that point, my own instinct is to withdraw and wall off even more–it becomes really difficult to reach out and do the emotional work of reconnecting in those moments.

Enter selfies. This was an idea I had a couple of months ago, just after the book tour, when I realized that part of the sense of disconnection was the experience of relating to Franklin as a disembodied entity within my phone. After awhile, I lost the sense that he was a person. So I suggested that we send each other selfies every now and then, especially when we were feeling bad or arguing, to remind each other that we are real. It helps, too, because our facial expressions can convey so much more about what we’re feeling in the moment than text can–at least, convey it in a way that the other person can also understand emotionally, without having to parse it through a filter of text.

Know thyself. This may sound out of place, but it’s something I’ve found tremendously helpful. Because having a long-distance relationship with Franklin so often involved having to process icky emotions when we’re apart, it’s incredibly useful to be able to identify when those emotions are about the distance and not about him or the relationship.

I had an epiphany on the book tour. Franklin was reading one of the sections in More Than Two where he talks about his ex, Ruby:

All I knew was…I felt scared and angry. I assumed that because I felt this way, she must be doing something wrong, though it was difficult to figure out exactly what. I remember going to sleep replaying all my interactions with her in my head, looking for that thing she was doing to hurt me so much.

Because I was starting from the premise that she was doing something wrong—why else would I be feeling so bad?—I lashed out at her, accusing her of all kinds of wrongdoing, most of which existed only in my head.

As he read, it hit me: I’m doing this. That’s why we fight so much when we’ve been apart for a few weeks. I’m feeling hurt and angry because he’s gone, and because I’m feeling hurt and angry, he must be doing something wrong. So then I go looking for what he’s doing wrong, and BOOM! Off we go.

Well, it’s only been a couple of months—not even that—since the book tour ended. And since then, we’ve managed to not have to spend much more than two weeks apart at a stretch (instead of the three or four we often do). And it’s actually pretty hard work to recognize when this is happening and stop it. So it’s hard to know how far this insight will take us in the long term, but so far just the recognition that just because I’m feeling bad, doesn’t mean he’s doing something wrong, and then remembering to look for the actual source of those feelings, has kept us away from that brink—even in the times I’m feeling lousy.

And the selfies do help. They really do.

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What do you do to help you feel connected to your long-distance partners?

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#WLAMF no. 33: Black belt mistakes

Some time ago, I wrote about dating black belts. I prefer to date people who have already demonstrated the skills required to treat others well in a relationship–that is, people who are black belts at relationships.

It’s a common misconception among folks who’ve never done any martial arts that a person with a black belt has mastered the techniques of his discipline. That’s not true; in fact, a black belt merely shows you’ve got a handle on the basics, and are now ready to start learning the more advanced stuff.

What does it mean to have a handle on the basics? In that post, I tried to make a list of specific relationship attitudes and skills that show a good foundation in how to behave reasonably toward other folks.

Being a black belt doesn’t mean someone is perfect, nor that they know everything there is to know. If you have a black belt at bicycling, it doesn’t mean you can do a triple back spin in a half pipe; it means you can ride the bike without falling over, you know the rules of the road, you can deal with it if someone unexpectedly jumps out in front of you.

A black belt still makes mistakes. The difference between the mistakes made by a beginning student of a martial art and the mistakes made by a black belt is that the mistakes made by a student tend to be simple, easily recognized and easily corrected, but the mistakes made by a black belt can be subtle and difficult to correct.

The same can be true of relationships. Longevity in a relationship does not necessarily prove mastery of relationship skills; in a healthy, dynamic relationship, there is always more to be learned. And sometimes, mistakes made in an established, long-term relationship can have deep roots and subtle consequences.

Non-monogamous relationships are complex animals. Polyamorous relationships require care and feeding, and as with any relationship, mistakes are inevitable. Some of these mistakes can be very subtle indeed.

Poly mythology

Every subculture creates its own mythology. It is shared ideas and a commonality of interest which define a subculture, so it’s no surprise that subcultures give rise to their own set of mythologies; and the poly community is no exception. We sometimes like to make fun of the “monogamous fairy tale,” yet there are polyamorous fairy tales too.

One of the myths that seems on the road to becoming entrenched in some quarters of the polyamorous community is the idea that polyamory represents a state of “spiritual enlightenment” beyond that of mere monogamy. Monogamy, or so the idea goes, is the unfortunate result of a benighted culture enforcing a tradition of patriarchal oppression and property values. Polyamory is for people who have broken free of these artificial constraints and reached a deeper level of human understanding, one free of petty jealousy and possessiveness.

It’s easy to see why this myth is seductive. People who choose to live in polyamorous families are met with a great deal of resistance; to be polyamorous in the face of a non-stop barrage of cultural values that reinforce the Prince Charming metaphor requires a strong sense of self-identity (and no small measure of courage). Often, people are driven to polyamory because they are fundamentally incapable of being happy in a monogamous relationship. When you’ve been inculcated by values that contradict your own sense of self, and you finally gather the energy to break free of those values and live your life on your own terms, it can become easy to believe that you have transcended some petty and outmoded idea and discovered the key to enlightenment.

But this myth breaks down quickly. It’s not reasonable to assume that the number of lovers a person has is the measure of that person’s enlightenment; if that were the case, rock musicians might have us all beat! The measure of a person’s compassion lies in how she treats the people she loves, not in how many of those people there are. And polyamory represents a system that is not right for everyone, just like monogamy. It’s easy to imagine that if we lived in a culture steeped in polyamory, the mavericks who chose to buck the trend and carve out monogamous lives for themselves might also believe they have discovered the key to enlightenment!

Polyamory and monogamy represent two different relationship models, nothing more. There is absolutely nothing intrinsic to polyamory that makes it better than monogamy, and there is nothing that makes monogamy automatically better than polyamory. There are wise, compassionate, enlightened people who are monogamous; and there are selfish, crass, inconsiderate louts who are polyamorous. Neither relationship model has yet to corner the market on wisdom or spiritual enlightenment.

A related myth is the idea that polyamory represents an “ideal” or “natural” state of man, and everyone would be poly if only it weren’t for social conditioning. People are inculcated with monogamous values and ideals from a very early age; the myth says that without this conditioning, which traces its roots back to social constructs designed to ensure parentage and establish conventions for property ownership and inheritance, people would tend to be polyamorous.

It’s true that we live in a culture steeped on monogamous values, and that these values are reinforced from a very early age. But there’s no reason to believe that without this conditioning, all people, or even most people, would be polyamorous. Monogamous ideals serve the needs of a great many people quite well. Human beings are a varied bunch. There’s no single philosophy or way of life that works for everyone. In a polyamorous society, it’s quite likely that someone would write a book extolling the virtues of the maverick idea of monogamy! A society works best when it allows its members the freedom to determine what works best for them.

Another common myth in the polyamorous community is the idea that love is limitless. It just ain’t so. Human beings are not capable of forming intimate, meaningful emotional bonds with limitless numbers of people; even if time and energy allowed, we simply do not have the emotional resources for it. We’re hard-put just to remember the names of, say, six hundred other people; to think that we could not only remember but actually form close, romantic ties with six hundred other people seems a bit of a stretch.

How, then, could we love six thousand other people? Or sixty thousand? Six hundred million, perhaps? Six billion? After a while, our capacity to form a personal connection with other people becomes exhausted.

In fact, the number of close, intimate emotional ties we can form may be determined at least in part by our biological inheritance.

And really, it doesn’t even matter whether or not love is infinite; even if it were, time and energy certainly are not. The number of meaningful personal relationships an individual can sustain must necessarily be limited by time and energy. A relationship will wither without care and attention, and there are only so many hours in a day. Practically speaking, then, the number of people that one can love in any meaningful way is always bounded.

Doubling down

There will be problems in any poly relationship. There are problems in any relationship at all. None of us is perfect.

But in polyamory, we can be vulnerable to trying to map out exactly what we want our relationship to look like. It’s hard, sometimes, to let go of our assumptions about how relationships work; we can try to want to deal with our fears by controlling the outcomes of our relationships, and try to control the outcomes by controlling our partners, the structures of our relationships, or both.

When we run into problems–and we will–we can be tempted to respond by doubling down on the rules. A relationship broke up? We felt jealous or threatened? The problem was there weren’t enough rules, or they weren’t strict enough! Someone has done something that hurt us? We need more controls on the form our relationship can take! When we step back and look at it, doubling down on structures that haven’t succeeded in taking us where we want to go sounds silly…but in the middle of dealing with crisis or pain, doubling down can seem like a reasonable thing to do.

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#WLAMF no. 32: Relationship negativity

There is a concept in sex-positive circles of “sex negativity.” Sex negativity is the notion that sex is intrinsically bad, dangerous, dirty, or wrong, unless it occurs within certain tightly prescribed conditions (for example, in marriage for procreation).

Sex positivity, by way of comparison, isn’t the idea that sex is always good, but rather the notion that it’s not intrinsically bad–there are many ‘right’ ways to have sex, and sex doesn’t need to be fenced in or constrained in order to be a positive force.

I’d like to propose a similar idea about relationships. I think it’s possible to have relationship-positive or relationship-negative views; that is, I think it’s possible to start from the premise that relationships, unless they’re abusive or otherwise destructive, are generally good things, and come in many shapes and sizes that can all be healthy…or, the reverse, that there’s only one ‘right’ way to have a relationship, and other kinds of relationships are intrinsically bad.

We live in a society that sanctions only one kind of romantic relationship: a monogamous cisgender man and a monogamous cisgender woman. Same-sex relationships are gaining ground, but it’s been an uphill struggle; there are still many people who label them ‘deviant’ and ‘perverse.’ A natural consequence of the notion that there’s one socially approved model of relationship is the idea that other types of relationships are abnormal or unhealthy, and view them with a skepticism rarely applied to “normal” relationships. This is the essence of “relationship negativity:” the idea that relationships are only healthy if they’re carefully kept within the constraints of what’s construed as “normal,” and any other form of relationship is to be viewed with distrust or even hostility.

Even in polyamory, it is possible to see some of this lingering relationship negativity. It manifests in ideas like an unwillingness to step too far from couple-oriented relationships, a desire to seek safety and comfort by preserving as much as possible of “normal” relationship structures, an idea that if people aren’t couple-centered in their approach to polyamory then the result will be anything-goes anarchy, and an idea that if the people involved in a relationship aren’t kept on a tight leash, there will be nothing to stop them from running around hooking up with everyone they meet.

I’m not trying to suggest that if a relationship that has some of the features of traditional relationships is what a person prefers, that means they harbor relationship negativity. Just as a person can be sex-positive and still prefer monogamous heterosexual missionary-position sex, a person can be in a mononormative relationship and still be relationship-positive. The idea of relationship negativity means seeing unconventional relationships as intrinsically bad, not just for you but for everyone, simply because they don’t resemble “normal” relationships.

Polyamory is not a “normal” way to do relationships. It benefits us as poly people, I think, to acknowledge that, and to be conscious of the fact that poly can be healthy and positive even when we let go of the trappings and structures of monogamy. We don’t need to be afraid that letting go of those last remnants of monogamy will plunge us into anarchy and despair. Our partners still want to take care of us, even when our relationships don’t follow the social script.

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!

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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.

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!

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#WLAMF no. 18: Feeling worthy

I have said many times that one of the core secrets to good relationships is good partner selection. A huge number of relationship problems can be avoided up front simply by choosing good partners: partners with compatible ideas about relationships, with good communication and problem-solving skills, partners who are not abusive or controlling or entitled.

But there is a prerequisite to good partner selection. It’s one I don’t often think about, because it’s something I’ve always taken for granted. And I’ve become aware that I can’t take it for granted; indeed, it’s far from a given for many of us.

In order to choose good partners, you must first believe you are worthy of having good partners.

That can be tough. We don’t live in a world that equips us to feel worthy and empowered. Indeed, it sometimes seems to me that many of our social systems are predicated on, or even depend on, making us feel unworthy. When we feel worthy and empowered, what hook can advertisers use to market to us? How can politicians frighten us into voting for them? How can we be controlled?

Eve and I talk about worthiness in More Than Two. We argue that it’s a necessary part of good relationships, but I think it might go even deeper than we talk about in the book. We can not seek partners who are good for us if we do not feel worthy of partners who are good for us–if we do not believe that, intrinsically and for no reason other than the essential nature of our humanity, we deserve to be treated well.

Worthiness is hard. We offer resources in the book for helping to build a sense of worthiness. But I think it starts with faith. Even if we can’t explain why we’re worthy, we need to make the leap of faith that we are–not because we have done anything to earn it, but because being treated well is something we shouldn’t have to earn.

That faith doesn’t come easily. It means stepping off the edge of the cliff and believing there’s a net down there to catch you. I wish I knew what the magic roadmap toward feeling worthy was. I was fortunate; I had awesome parents who equipped me with fantastic tools to build self-worth, even when I was living in rural Nebraska and had no friends or peers.

It’s possible. I know it is. It starts, I think, with faith.

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.

Relationship assumptions: The good, the bad, and the WTF?

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about the assumptions we make in our relationships, and how those assumptions can influence our relationship outcomes, for good or for ill.

I’ve been meaning to revisit that idea for quite some time, specifically with an eye toward the assumptions we make in polyamorous relationships. While those of us in polyamorous relationships might think we have thrown off the shackles of conventional monogamy, the ideas we’ve grown up with can insinuate themselves quite deeply into our worldview. Like dandelions, which have evolved resistance to the hoe and the spade by developing very deep roots, those ideas are not so easily plucked.

In talking with poly folks all over the place, I’ve observed correlation between some of the assumptions we carry into our relationships and the way those relationships look.

One of the relationship assumptions that can creep into polyamory is the Highlander: the idea that, at the end of the day, “there can be only one.” One relationship that’s “best,” one relationship that’s the “main” or “most real,” one relationship that matters more than the others. This relationship is, unsurprisingly, usually the one that’s been there for the longest time and has had the most opportunity to develop mutual commitments, obligations, perhaps even children.

It’s surprisingly easy to confuse relationship commitment with financial or practical entanglement, and to believe that losing those practical entanglements must mean a loss of commitment. There’s also, I think, a bit of holdover from our Puritan ancestry: we measure value by work and investment, but work and investment are unpleasant things we do only as long as we believe we have to. Given a choice, we’d discard them in a heartbeat, to go dancing through fields of daisies without a care in the world.

What does this assumption reveal? It reveals a deep idea that monogamy is actually right. There really is only one commitment that matters, when you get down to brass tacks. Sure, we can have other dalliances, up to a point; but really, you can’t fully commit to and fully love more than one person–at least not romantically. (You can, apparently, fully commit to two children, but that, we are solemnly told, is different.)

This assumption often speaks to our fears: “If I’m not on top of the heap, someone else will be, and I’ll lose what I have; my partner, in committing to someone else, will withdraw commitment from me.”

An assumption that is sometimes proposed as an antidote to this is the Archie Bunker: the notion that everyone involved with a common partner is “all in the family.” It’s often coupled with assumptions about sex and sexual availability (“If you’re sleeping with her, I get to sleep with her too!”) or about interpersonal relationships (“You don’t have to worry, honey, she will be your sister-wife!”). If the Highlander seeks to contain fear through systems of rank, the Archie Bunker tries to control it by enforcing mandatory connection. These may seem like opposite ideas, this king-of-the-hill approach vs. the all-for-one-and-one-for-all family, but ultimately, they are both two sides of the same coin: We manage fear by controlling the form our relationships take.

Another relationship assumption that we can carry into polyamory is the Parts Is Parts Hypothesis: the idea that there’s nothing really special or compelling about us, so we need to be wary of anyone with the same parts. Parts are interchangeable, after all. If you find an alternator for your car that works better than the one that’s already there, you wouldn’t need the old one any more. Ergo, if I’m an alternator, I can let my partner have spark plugs or fuel injectors, but I best keep her away from other alternators! If I’m a dude, I can let my gal have other women, but if she’s with another man, I’ll be as obsolete as an old alternator.

It can be surprisingly hard to see the value we bring to our relationships. We don’t live in a society that teaches us to be secure, confident individuals; after all, secure, confident individuals can’t be easily persuaded to buy stuff to prove their value. Polyamory challenges us to see our own worth, and that’s no easy thing to do.

What assumptions help make for healthy polyamorous relationships? Unsurprisingly, the same ones that help to make healthy monogamous relationships: Our partners love and cherish us. Our partners want to be with us, and to build loving, happy relationships with us. We are, each of us, unique and irreplaceable; we are more than the sum of our parts. We are wanted. We are loved.

Believing we are loved is hard; it can seem seductively easy to accept, on an almost unconscious level, the idea that our partners perpetually have one foot out the door, that we must force, cajole, bribe, or police them into staying with us. And, should a partner choose to leave, we can tend to double down…it happened because we didn’t force, cajole, bribe, or police them enough. If only we’d enforced the rules more strictly, they would have stayed.

I would like to propose the radical idea that believing we are loved and cherished is the assumption that underlies nearly all successful relationships. I would also like to challenge everyone who reads these words to put this idea to the test. I am, after all, an empiricist. Let’s build relationships predicated on the notion that we don’t have to make our partners stay with us; we merely need to accept that we are cherished, and cherish those around us in return, and our partners will want to stay with us.

Who’s with me?


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