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.
What do you do to help you feel connected to your long-distance partners?
We’re 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.
We have twelve hours to go on the crowdfunding for the 2015 polyamory book lineup from Thorntree Press. And so, I’m doing something insane. For the next twelve hours, every time someone contributes $15 or more, I’m going to write a blog post, either here or on the More Than Two blog.
Yep, that’s right. I’m going to be glued to my computer for twelve hours. I have my tea in my “Write Like a Motherfucker” mug, I have my cat, and I am ready! If we get 30 contributions, I’ll write 30 blog posts today. If we get 40, I’ll write 40. You get the idea.
Louisa Leontiades, who also has two books in the campaign, will be joining me for the next few hours (she’s in Sweden, nine hours ahead of me, and a 12-hour all-nighter is a bit much to ask. Also, she is less insane than I am.)
I’ll be Tweeting links to the posts with the hashtag #WLAMF. So if you want to make me dance, just contribute! You’ll be supporting indie publishing of quality polyamory books and making me perform at the same time!
UPDATE: Here’s Louisa ready to go. Also with tea, I have no doubt:
Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now.
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.
Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now at Amazon or Powell’s.
“An American looks like a wounded person whose wound is hidden from others, and sometimes from herself. An American looks like me.”
–Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy
It has come to my attention that some people think we have it easy.
Apparently, in some quarters, people like Franklin, and now I guess me, and other bloggers who argue for egalitarian relationships and treating other people as full human beings are privileged, or elitist; we simply lack mental health issues or personal insecurities and thus just don’t get how hard relationships are for everyone else. Apparently we’re all lounging around with our perfectly secure asses in armchairs (when we’re not having orgies), with no self-work to do and no drama and perfect, clear communication that we inherited as our birthrights from stable, intact families with no history of abuse and great self-esteem building and high-quality, bullying-free schooling throughout our lives, and now we’re all sitting here from the vantage point of our perfectly happy, comfortable and drama-free poly networks looking down at the little people and telling them all how they’re Doing It Wrong.
I can identify a few possible reasons for this misconception.
One, Franklin is not very comfortable with vulnerability in his writing. He’s good at compelling arguments, he’s good at analysis, and he sees things (some things, usually, you know except when he doesn’t) very clearly. But he doesn’t tend to share the really hard stuff. And his writing is analytical, so even when he relates personal experiences, he doesn’t convey them with the emotional charge they carried for him (and others involved) in real life. And there are some things he doesn’t talk about. Some things, in fact, that carry such a heavy emotional weight and yet are so important in understanding how he came to his approach to poly that in order to include them in the book, I will be interviewing him and writing up the stories. (And vice-versa.)
Two, as one of Franklin’s other sweeties mentioned recently, poly people have become salespeople. We don’t want to show all the raw, ugly struggles because we’re in the middle of this PR battle to make poly look like the viable, healthy relationship option it actually is. We want to be accepted as normal, healthy and stable, so we put our best face forward. We show the happy poly moments and the glowing live-in triads with their healthy, well-adjusted kids. We talk about love being infinite and how multiple relationships aren’t always a zero-sum game (even though they often are). When we talk about our scheduling struggles and our processing conversations, it’s with humour and eyerolls, obscuring the intense emotional work that goes into them.
Third, Franklin and I are both struggling with imposter syndrome. It’s worse for me than for him, but he’s also way more secure than I am. It’s kept my brain and my typing fingers more or less frozen with writer’s block for the first week and a half of our writing (but not his, thankfully). My brain keeps telling me I’m not good enough to write a book on poly. Who the hell am I to give advice to other people on how to have relationships? I’m thinking these things because I know what you don’t: I know my relationship history and my mental health issues and all the mistakes I’ve made, some of them pretty epic. I know the drama and trauma I’ve lived through, the painful and seemingly irresolvable situations I’ve experienced and those that still exist. I know about the people I’ve hurt and the ones who’ve hurt me.
Franklin says that it’s all this that makes us qualified to write this book, after all. It’s our mistakes that have taught us what we know; we can share them with others so people can learn from them rather than making the same mistakes themselves. But knowing from the inside how imperfect my own relationships are, I can’t help but feel a little bit like a fraud every time I try to write about how you can make a poly relationship work.
On this, I keep repeating to myself something Dan Savage once said in a response to someone who called him on his qualifications to be a sex advice columnist: he’s an advice columnist because people want his advice. They read it, they like it, and they find it works for them. End of story. And Franklin’s website has become one of the most popular poly resources on the Web because people want his advice. They find it useful; several people a week email him to tell him how much his site has helped them. We’re writing a book because people want a goddamn book, so much that several hundred of you were willing to pay for it nearly a year in advance, before a draft was even written.
And then… there’s simply the immense vulnerability of writing a book, of being very publicly out, of putting our names and our decisions and our lives out there for public view and, inevitably, criticism. Franklin is used to the scrutiny, but it still affects him. It still affects him when people misrepresent his writing to use as a convenient straw man for whatever point they’re trying to make, or whatever (often reprehensible) behaviour they’re trying to excuse. And for me, it’s all still very new. So getting really real? Opening up our soft spots and broken bits for that kind of attack? Sharing the hardest and most crucial moments of our lives–the things that it’s hard even to take a good hard look at ourselves? Really fucking hard and scary. And, given the way some of our less vulnerable stories have been treated, maybe actually dangerous.
So the result of all this is that, it seems, we’re not sharing enough of the hard stuff. That’s our fault. I’m sorry if we made it look easy. It’s not.
And so? Some people look at us think they can’t do what we’re doing because we have some magical armour of immunity from fear and self-doubt and communication breakdowns and insecurity. They think we’re saying if you could just be more like us, it would all be fine. Just be secure, man. Share the love. It’ll all be good.
Here’s something I believe: We are all, every one of us, broken in some way. Franklin may be a lot less broken now than most, but he didn’t start out that way. He’s had to do a lot of hard work over the years, and he’s made some serious mistakes that hurt a lot of people, before he got to where he is now (and even now he’s still making mistakes, cause, um, he’s human, get it?). Franklin also has the privilege of happiness–though I (and most of his other partners) do not.
I, too, play the game on an easier setting than many people, absolutely. I’m a white, femme, cisgendered North American. I was not battered or abandoned as a child. I had a great mom and a good education and enough to eat and health care and that’s a hell of a lot more than other people had, and all of those are privileges. But I did not begin my romantic life whole, either. I’m also a survivor of childhood sexual assault and moved nine times as a kid (in three states) and was bullied and beaten up in school and didn’t even start learning how to treat my romantic partners well until I was at least 30. I’ve been treated for PTSD and depression, and I have self-esteem that is, well, at least no longer so low that it is completely crippling. I’ve spent years in therapy and years more on psychiatric meds, I’ve read my weight and then some in self-help books, and I’ve processed and worked and cried and then cried more. Through that, I have finally reached a place where most of the time I don’t feel like I’m drowning in my insecurity and depression and fear, but like I’m able to stay afloat, with the undertow just sucking at my toes and now only sometimes sucking me under. I didn’t get rid of the flood. I learned to swim.
Author Brené Brown* (whom I draw heavily on in my writing) points out that for people who live what she calls Wholehearted lives—lives lived with courage, compassion and connection—Wholeheartedness is a practice. It’s something you have to work on every day. For a great many of us (myself included), it’s something you have to learn. And that. is. not. easy.
Seriously, people? When did anyone ever say any of this was easy?
The world is not divided between broken people and whole people. What I see as the difference between people like me, Franklin and our partners and this particular brand of critic is one thing:
We don’t accept that being broken is an excuse to do harm to others.
And the foundation of the ethical system on which all our writing is based is also straightforward:
Don’t treat people as things.
Let’s say that again, for emphasis:
Don’t treat people as things.
Don’t treat people as things.
Don’t treat people as things.
There, everything you need to know about polyamory. No need to buy our book now! Five hundred pages summed up in one sentence.
Simple, yes. Easy, no.
We don’t consider an ethical foundation to be a disposable part of polyamory, no matter how fucked up a childhood you had. That it is harder for some people to learn not to treat people as things doesn’t mean anyone should encourage them to stop trying. In fact, we consider it an insult to say that some people are just too fucked up to try to not treat people as things, because we also don’t believe on giving up on people’s ability to become better people. We don’t believe in telling people they’re just too damn broken to learn how to treat people as people. Everyone deserves ethical relationships. Everyone.
The journalist Khadijah M. Britton recently tweeted the following—in reference to an entirely different subject, but so relevant here—that nicely sums up how we feel about this issue:
The worst thing isn’t being the asshole. The worst thing is no one telling you about it because no one has faith you can change. When an entire culture calcifies around the assumption that you are past growth. That is the worst thing. That’s when you’re basically dead. I hate nothing worse than people writing me off, assuming I am stuck in my ways. And would truly hate nothing more than for it to be true. But I know people for whom it is true – and they’re PROUD of it. The most toxic behaviors become a badge of honor. How does that happen?
We don’t believe in building a culture based a foundation of giving up on people’s ability and motivation to learn—painfully and over time and with a lot of work, yes—how to trust their partners, communicate effectively, act with courage, and treat other people with compassion and respect. We don’t believe in writing people off, on saying, oh, we can have egalitarian relationships, but you lot, well, you just can’t handle it, and no, you shouldn’t try to grow. Just give up. Go ahead and treat people as things, if that’s what works for you.
Oh, sorry, if that’s what works for the two of you. (See what I did there?)
So here’s the thing, dear reader. We’re not going to give up on you. Not as long as you haven’t given up on yourself. No, actually, not even then: We’ll keep believing in you when you can’t. We’ll continue to believe in your worthiness even when you’re ready to throw in the towel. None of us comes from the factory perfect, and most of us get pretty beat up before we start getting into serious relationships (and often by those relationships, too). We believe that no matter where you’re starting from now, there are always ways you can make your life and your relationships better, and choose to act with more courage and compassion in your daily life. These are skills that can be learned, skills that must be practised–even by those who have them, or they will fade. To say that if you’re not born with them or granted them as part of some sort of ideal upbringing you can’t ever expect to have them is heartless in the extreme.
*See Brown’s TED talk for how she herself learned it, and what the process was like for her.
Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now at Amazon or Powell’s.