Category Archives: Relationships

Reflections 2018

I love doing reflections at New Year, but I still find it very weird to use a few days after Winter Solstice as the dividing line. None the less we must proceed:

This year has been so varied and so intense. I’ve experienced some new things, both good and bad. Have met heroes and achieved dreams but lost people, plans and projects such that I felt utterly crushed.

For the first time ever I experienced grief. A deep dark chasm of sadness that pulled my natural emotional average down by its weight for several months.

Much of it was the first half of the year and it’s been better since spring, but the sadness keeps orbiting back around with the loss, and the ramifications of that loss.

So what actually happened?

Winter

In Jan/Feb some longterm housemates who had been long term dissatisfied with living in the house had various degrees of blowup. We had round upon round of sharing circles, trying to be our best selves, but in the end people lash out. Both times at me, because I’m the most vocal when I think problems are happening. Maybe I could do it better, maybe I should shut up, I don’t know, but it hurt.

Coupled with trying to find work but suffering a few setbacks, such as a code test I just wasn’t up to, I felt beaten down personally and doubting my skills at work. I played video games for nearly two months solid to escape the emotions.

Eventually, I managed to get two weeks of work, and buy a new laptop. Thank god! The weather was grey and wet though, and the office time depressing.

I also discovered that one of my ex-lovers, a woman three years younger than me, had died. I’ve never had a friend die before. We were no longer close and she died of unknown causes, so it felt more surreal than anything else.

Spring

Then in March a sudden cold shock. We were all lined up for a Portugal trip that eventually we decided to cancel (too much rain) but I suddenly realised for myself why the team had been gradually drifting away. On a series of key decisions I was consulted, but not listened to, as if I was an advisor but not a team member. Our Land became His Land. Our House became His House. Cue another several rounds of sharing circles and meetings within which came a truth I’d been blind to for this whole project: it was no longer communal. Our investor was taking full control, despite my warning that I cannot be on a project that’s not built from a team. I was very explicit about that, about the ways it would need to be to be truly communal, and it was explicitly rejected. He just couldn’t get past needing to control.

So I lost Portugal, the Land, the plans for the next 3-5 years of my life, my hope for a new community home and worst of all, my best friend. I felt stupid for thinking it could be any other way.

Around this time it was my birthday. I had been lifting for 8 weeks to get in shape for the TopGun theme, and everyone who came said it was their favourite party so far. Indeed by the evening when I lead half the guests in a mini lifting routine on our home-made indoor beach volleyball court, I was laughing and enjoying the party. But I had started that morning crying my eyes out because nothing was going to plan, and I no longer had my best friend to help me.

Over this time I’d been having tiny moments of contact from the little “smarty pants” twitter community I inhabit, small rays of light in the dark spring. The beam of hope on my horizon was flying to SF to meet my blogging hero, and maybe some friends/lovers too.

That was due in April. I was pretty crushed to discover that my hero was having a hard time with life, and recommended I bring along friends when I visited because he would be too tired to really talk. At the same time the intended friend I was going to bring along also let me know that they were unavailable, meaning I could see neither of them.

I felt devastated, and I thought hard about why. I was really desperate for validation and encouragement in this area of my life (philosophy) that few friends can engage me on. I craved peers and importantly I craved elders.  I tried to resolve some of my needs for myself with some success. But this was when the grief started

And none the less I rallied, and resolved to meet other people in SF instead. I reached out a bit on Twitter and decided to swallow the financial cost of accommodation. I settled in to the plane, began to watch a movie and as the delays stretched from minutes to hours I listened in totally numbed disbelief that we should all get back off the plane into the terminal because the flight was cancelled.

This final twist was at least making my year so far laughable as well as simply deeply depressing. I just became numb. I stopped making any plans, stopped assuming I knew anything about what was going to happen next.

I reached out in small ways. Improved my house, offered my web dev skills to friends. It helped.

My friend’s funeral finally happened, and I found it to be affirming. I think funerals can be, but it also shows you the kind of time I’d been having up to then.

Summer

In May, my year pivoted around. I took intense driving lessons across just three days, with my test on the fourth. I cried every day of lessons and barely slept, but I passed with three minors. Thanks to assistance from one of my newer housemates, I had my own (shared) car by the very next week.

The rest of the unusually hot summer was spent in a mixture of short work contracts, driving around and outdoor swimming, a new and unexpected hobby.

I helped with Bi pride, where we had a float and went to BiCon which I enjoyed very much. I have volunteered for a small role organising next year!

In my final contract of the summer though I was fired without notice from a contract I’d been working. It was pretty obviously unfair and some sort of personal power play, but it knocked my confidence yet again.

Also, a beloved housemate moved out. I’d been toying with leaving my houseshare entirely and starting a new one, but her room was amazing, so I moved into it. I left behind my home-made cube room, and the ground floor previously shared so closely with my ex-friend.

I made a new plan to work, to save money, to get up early and to be my own investor in community projects, and leave these stupid boys behind.

At the same time, 3 housemates moved out and 3 new ones moved in, in quick succession. It has been a long road to integrate and help them, but also keep the house together/cohesive. This is probably what I did all September.

Autumn

Despite my enjoyment, the summer contracts had not nearly been enough. I wasn’t covering my expenses, let alone earning enough to save. I had a few bits and pieces in September but my luck changed in October and I landed a sweet deal that had me working all the way up to Xmas, and will continue in 2019 as well.

Around that time I had the great pleasure of meeting my blogging hero, who had finally managed to visit the UK, and so I met him in my very own kitchen. He was still extremely tired, but we hung out a few times and taking him along to our local London thinky meetup made me feel like I was escorting a rock star. Fuckin’ ey.

…and just to keep me from being too smug about my positive emotions my friend and housemate, the one who is funding the Portugal project, announced he would move out from our house to Portugal to live there on his own. It felt like he had chosen that place over our friendship all over again. We’ve been so close for so long I seriously feel lost in every aspect of my life without him. From coding work to business in general to running this entire shitshow we call a warehouse, to my hobbies, to talking about guns, politics, sociopaths and everything else no-one will talk to me about. It’s a big loss. It still makes me cry. And all because of doorknobs.

Gah.

Apart from that, I have almost no life news for the rest of the year. I simply worked, kept my head down, opened savings accounts and worked some more. My ability to think drained away, and I missed my Reading Challenge target.

I’m now dearly missing thinking, and reading, and investing in new relationships and getting up whenever the hell I want. But I did feel a huge lift of anxiety as the money started rolling in.

Relationships

One relationship ended this year and their feedback was vague but negative and so knocked my confidence. I slept with a few new people this year, but just as one-offs. Multiple people I fancy have turned monogamous or are work colleagues who ignore me romantically, while people who I fancy for something beyond superficial reasons seem few and far between indeed. I would like more romantic and sexual partners and feel that those avenues don’t exist or get closed off. It is a source of sadness for me this year.

My one long-standing partner is still going strong though and is a source of much needed comfort, though the balance of that seems increasingly like I’m the responsible one who dishes out help more than receives it.

Mental health

Despite the awful year I suffered those shocks quite well. I feel I’m at baseline now that money has been relatively stable. Baseline still means occasional death anxiety, maybe once a month disturbing my sleep. I still worry too much and plan too far ahead. Now that I have money I am considering therapy.

Work

This autumn contract has really powered my savings goals, and summer was ok too. I’m quite glad I got to have lots of summer fun (and work in air conditioning when it was simply too hot!) Looks like when I make a decision, lag time to achieving savings goals is only a few months. Could work on improving my day rate though.

Thinky Work

I’ve written just 6 blog posts this year. A friend made his own version of balcony philosophy and I enjoyed being part of that. I met some people from Twitter, including the Ribbon Farm founder – swanky! I’m also part of a Slack for fluidity-types, although it’s gone quiet now.

Now

Reflecting at this time of year seems weird, as I’ve said. I feel the first half of last year was one thing, and now I’m in the middle of something else. I’m looking up interest rates for savings and options for investment returns. It’s all very unusual but hopefully the direction I’m headed.

This post has already taken far too long, let’s publish now and get it out there.

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Time changes

My sense of time has changed. I’ve come to notice this by being around people who are still in their twenties (I’m 33 now).

My friend Jo is 23 and to them, 6 months is an absolute age.

I’ve recently connected with a new partner who is 26. He is going away for four months, and hopes to stay away longer. He has more anxiety than me about the future of our relationship.

I recall being about 28 or 29 and realising, through polyamory, that my relationships will probably no longer follow the meet-date-acrimoniousbreakup pattern that was an unquestioned way of things in my “20s monogamy” phase. Rather, relationships can have ups and downs, recesses, corners, timeouts and timeins. The older I get, the longer relationships can be and the more they’ll morph.

Around this time I started saying “the future is long”, meaning that whatever stage a relationship is in now (normally just broken up), it will change over time and the change will happen quicker than you think. There is always the possibility of: -getting back together -becoming friends again -being thrown back into a life situation together -actually not really caring about them anymore.

Some of my longer-term relationships, like family and early boyfriends have followed so many twists and turns it’s now not very easy to describe them all. The swings from love to hatred to indifference to betrayal to empathy to love again have been numerous.

I’ve had a monogamous friend with whom I could have sex only when he didn’t have another partner. I saw several girlfriends come and go, and didn’t really feel particularly deprived when I wasn’t allowed to have sex with him for a while. The friendship was clearly going to endure much longer than these partners.

There is security in patience.

(Post-script: I am aware that one day, the longer I live the more likely it will be that my relationships with others will end. Time will speed up again. Relationship needs will be more urgent. I’m sure it will feel like a blink of an eye since I was here, now, saying these young things at this young age.)

 

 

Polyamory as stage 4 bridge

Required reading

This post uses a key framework: Chapman’s version of Robert Kegan’s theories of emotional, cognitive and social development, it is summarised here.

This post is in dialogue with, and an expansion on, Chapman’s recent post about moving through stages 3, 4 and 5 in modern society (and the lack of support for it) here.

This post will not make sense unless you have read the other two posts first. They are somewhat lengthy, but I will be returning to these ideas as a basis for my blog posts for a long time, so it’s worth settling in.

Pathways to Stage 4

Chapman outlines some ways for young adults to reach stage 4 through societal structures. They are: higher education and employment. Much of his post outlines the ways that the stage 4 bridge for humanities students is in a very bad way because ‘Postmodernism’, a critique of stage 4 structures, is now taught in higher education well before young adults have had a chance to master stage 4 systematicity itself, thus hijacking their development before it can begin.

The situation is less bad for STEM students, since systematic thinking and structures are still thoroughly taught as the major component of higher education in these fields. Chapman’s post goes on to outline ways to help potential stage 4.5ers who have no societal support to reach stage 5.

Before I get to that discussion, I wish to outline one of the ways I think stage 3 humanities students DO manage to reach stage 4, which is not sanctioned by society. That pathway is through relationships, specifically non-monogamy.

Nothing special

Polyamory is not in any way special or better than any other way of relating to others, it just happens to be enjoying a useful cultural moment. It is still ‘alternative’ to the mainstream, but it is easy enough to discover, making it edgy but also accessible. I suspect that if it ever becomes normalised, its intrigue and usefulness might subside, in fact, it may have already passed peak ‘cool’.

None the less, the tenets of polyamory focus on excellent relationship skills as a pre-requisite (otherwise everything explodes rather quickly) and makes explicit both skills and practices that are integral to stage 4 living.

Poly as Stage 4

Polyamory requires a re-examination of relating to others that explictly moves away from Stage 3 communal mode. It requires new skills and beliefs:

  • one must have ownership over ones own feelings and histrionics is no longer the way to express them
  • one is not responsible for other people’s feelings, each person is resonsible for their own
  • one must have a good sense of self, ones own desires, preferences, boundaries, and how to express them appropriately
  • expressing feelings or needs no longer requires the  listener to immediately change their actions based on those feelings
  • there is a word for the feeling of “falling in to each other”, and that sensation is a phase that ends. The main part of the relationship is what comes after.
  • it is no longer good enough to prioritise relationships based on type, eg romantic, family, friends which can trump each other. There are now multiple people in the same category, and old categories no longer work
  • it encourages systematising scarce resources. For example managing free time by using calendars
  • relationships are about a system of agreements. These are flexible and change over time.
  • different ‘roles’ in different situations are explicit
  • a person has feelings or needs, and polyamory is a system to meet those multiple needs from multiple relationships in a flexible way
  • one has a separate value that is distinct from the sum of one’s relationships
  • asymmetrical relationships are explicitly addressed
  • the apparent coldness of stage 4 thinking is mitigated by the promise of more and closer relationships

Polyamory is partly so successful at delivering on stage 4 goals because it is not the norm in society. This makes it frightening, risky, but also ‘edgy’ and exciting. It can have a higher initial cost, for example questioning relationship norms that were so taken for granted makes someone also question every norm they’ve ever learned, which takes a while, and in relative isolation from friends and family.

However, the rewards offered by polyamory are fairly big – more satisfying relationships, and more of them (and yes, potentially more sex, which is great if you want that). So there is a big incentive to overcome that high initial barrier. Once the new skills of polyamory are learned, they are very thoroughly incuclated and it can be a revelatory change. Overcoming big fears successfully for high reward is deeply satisfying and can lead to embracing further personal change in the future.

Personal Anecdotes

I came to polyamory long after higher education and found it relatively easy to adopt, wheras my memories of university involve very slow progress with understanding basic systems politically, eg grasping what feminism was all about, and I did not attend until after the age of 21, graduating age 24. Poly arrived aged 27.

I’ve observed people arrive at poly during their higher education years and take much longer to grasp it, making many mistakes along the way. I don’t know if they’re eventually successful. I have a personal assumption that anyone younger than around age 25 will struggle with poly, though I know of some exceptional people.

None the less, I feel polyamory is one possible route to stage 4 for humanities majors, who might be drawn to social / relationshippy type things more than STEM majors.

I have a friend who runs support events for non-monogamously inclined people whose audience is largely young adults direct from top level universities (around 50%). I recently scoffed at the idea of tailored resources for these people, because they are too used to being spoon-fed with what to believe. Having written this post however, perhaps I should support him more as a facilitator for transitioning across stages which is now absent from some parts of higher education.

Wild

This post may be more of a winding rant than a structured argument.

I have just added “Work” as a category for posts on this blog. I worked a little throughout the year off travels, but of course I’ve been static and working for some months now.

I work.

Perhaps it feels so revelatory because I don’t feel that I work. A testament to the habit I’ve gained of only doing work that I enjoy. A habit I can cultivate only because I’m lucky, have kind friends and I’m good at being very poor.

But this post is actually about feeling wild, and being in love.

Partner A and I have been together for about a year and I’m in love with him. It feels different to other times I’ve been in love. It smacks of static and the smell of ozone. It has caught us by surprise. There is an immanence to every aspect of our relationship, but I think it will not get a sudden release. The constant threat of leaving forever brings the present moment into sharp, painful, glorious focus but the assurance of a few more months on the horizon, that have been on the horizon, ever since we started, which softened the present with small consolations, can now be counted in years.

Imagine living in a heightened present for years.

In these past weeks we have been trusting each other increasingly. Behind me is a past within which I was constantly “present”, growing with and straining against this other person. Now I feel wild in this connection.

As if I now know there is a year long bond fusing us together, such that nothing will dislodge it for now. I can be unrestrained and our fused limb will take no damage.

Wildness expressing itself through sex, of course. And it feels new. New things with a new person, but I am new as well. Last time I fell in love I wasn’t this that I am now. I am a year or so further down the line of growing in strength, security and self-knowledge. And now I am surprised to find I am able to dive deep, desiring to inextricably tangle my animus with theirs.

Let this be a testament to those people who think that poly cannot produce the intimate relationships of monogamy. Monogamy only has time on its side, and it is not necessarily time that cleaves human beings together.

Partner A has recently been dating someone new, heightening his sexual needs. This is perfect timing, right as myself and him were ready to start forging deeper into sexual abandon.

Poly can speed things up as well as slow things down.

I’m feeling his absence very strongly this time. When things become quiet in the night, I can hear myself keening for him. This is why I like being premenstrual, I love actually feeling things, with minimal intervention from that ego monologue.

I hate being interrupted when I’m writing blog posts, it makes it impossible to think of an end.

Life Isn’t Hard

In numerous ways, I have come to observe that people think something is more worthwhile if it is difficult to achieve, or even more strangely, if it is painful to achieve. Additionally, if ‘the norm’ is to do one type of thing and someone comes up with an easier thing that achieves broadly the same goals, people caught up in the norm will not leap to celebrate and change their lives, rather they will mock and criticise the person who has found an easier way and enjoin them to come back to the hard way.

The first example I observed referred to jobs and working. Since I was homeless, jobless and drifting I had opportunities to hang out with other people in similar situations. I visited some squats, and I was struck by the industry of the people living in them. Everyone was either studying, volunteering, fixing things or making art. Their mental health levels seemed very high. When I was on a protest against the current government’s austerity measures, the most common shout hurled at the people protesting was “get a job”.

If the intent of this request was “be a useful member of society” then the speaker is simply wrong to think that these people were not doing so. I think, however that the speaker did not desire the person to be a useful member of society, they actually did expect the protester to get a job. And not because that’s the ethically correct thing to do, but because everyone else ‘has’ to, everyone hates it, and it’s not fair if some people can get away with not having to. Of course the penalty of not having to is living in insecure, frightening housing circumstances with few utilities or comforts, in all weathers whilst living outside of a society so frightened of them that they are actively legislated against as a group.

It seems to me that creating some kind of system of very basic shelter for extremely low rent would enable many others to be able to not have a job. This may involve changing what we value in our society (such as art and caring for others), which of course would enable the emancipation of disadvantaged groups, particularly women. But no, if ‘the norm’ is to toil and suffer, then we all should, according to popular wisdom.

I feel there are echoes of this argument when people question me about non-monogamy. I often hear the assertion (or its implication) that a non-monogamous person is not truly committed to their relationships or is in some way losing a level of depth or intimacy by having more than one partner. I normally reply that time is a factor, so it might take longer to reach the same level of intimacy with one of my partners as a monogamous couple might do (although, I work very few hours and spend much more time with my partners and friends than people who are full-time workers).

After this argument of taking slightly more time, the defender of monogamy normally has a perplexed look on their face because they want to put into words the feeling that exclusivity is somehow more committed. I think it’s because they are trying to indicate that monogamy involves sacrifice. Monogamy involves shutting off certain parts of yourself and your life, in favour of the relationship  (this can happen in poly too, of course, but we’ll continue to examine the point). If you are willing to do that for a person, you are ‘committed’, you must ‘really’ love the person. And this sacrifice somehow gives you something in the relationship. Well, if this psychological state gives you other benefits, then perhaps, but I don’t believe personal sacrifice on its own confers any specific benefits, it just feels like it should because it is hard, and painful. People often believe that if something is hard or painful, it must be better than something that isn’t.

Not only that, but when people are presented with a better way of doing something that really is easier and less painful, they become angry or resentful. There are several psychological factors in play which create this response including: embarrassment, attachment to the past, resistance to change and feeling their efforts have been devalued. It is much easier to reject the new idea than change their own.

Indeed, psychological factors can go far deeper than that. I was raised in a religion that encouraged extreme sacrifice in the present for a promised rosy post-apocalyptic future. I think this particular religion is successful because of the difficulty of the present-day sacrifices, rather than in spite of them. Pain and suffering seem worthy because they seem real. Like the self-harmer, many people feel tossed around by whirlwinds of emotion, hormones, depression or even imagination and seek to ground themselves in reality with pain.

In addition, the matrix of protestant work ethic perpetual expansion capitalism implies that anyone who toils will receive their just reward, which unfortunately is simply not true. Toil and pain for its own sake will not automatically earn benefits.

Some things are hard and painful but also have a tangible benefit, like working hard at a skill or sport, or (perhaps) putting money in a high interest savings account, but the level of difficulty or pain involved in a project does not automatically indicate its worthiness or utility. As with anything, a quick check on your assumptions about things is often a worthwhile exercise.

Some things are really easy, and fun. Some things that seem difficult don’t have to be. In the affluent parts of the world in particular, life isn’t pain. Life isn’t hard.  Don’t bring down the people who have found a better way; copy them.

Sex is hard to talk about

I recently watched an old Dan Savage video where he answers the question “do threesomes ruin relationships?”. He answered that if there is a problem or some kind of lack in a relationship then adding another person into it for a charged sexual liason might very well ruin a relationship, but successful threesomes happen as well. It’s just that you don’t hear about the successful ones. The people having successful threesomes are not running around telling their friends and family about their hot three-way over dinner; they are not “out” about it.

Over the course of the last year, certain features of my life have enabled me to have regular fulfilling sex – including group sex – in the context of varied yet stable and emotionally fulfilling relationships. These features include being bi, being poly, having good communication skills to establish consent, having bi poly friends and places to hang out together. Safe sex is a top priority, as is consent, as is communicating openly about needs and preferences. If someone finds a new partner, this news is greeted with joy and maintaining other relationships and activities outside of this friendship group is also a priority.

The nature of this sexual contact is such that we find ourselves talking about being happy, being fulfilled, finding positive effects on our mental health and overall wellbeing.

Personally, I have been on a deliberate journey to make sex as positive an experience as possible due to starting from very negative beginnings. The success of this journey is a source of happiness and pride for me.

In the context of the wider world it seems clear that the more sex is talked about with children and young people in an open and honest manner the better their subsequent choices are and the more healthy they can be. Sex can and should be a topic of conversation that is as normal and natural as one’s other activities and hobbies.

As an activist, I would like to be ‘out’, especially about the benefits of group sex, which I have spoken about before. But when I imagined going in to work and someone asking me about my weekend and my reply being that I had a birthday party that involved a select guest list of comfortable friends and we all had amazing sex, I couldn’t see that being taken as an acceptable detail of conversation, even though I’m out to my colleagues in every way I can think of.

I have someone in my life who takes great pains and great pleasure in pointing out that I don’t know what the boundaries are of “normal” conversation and regularly go too far with what I’m willing to say. I find it emotionally draining to trigger someone else’s sense of discomfort (much more so than dealing with my own), even though in most cases of people being ‘out’, it is very much to the greater good that people are exposed to things so that they start to perceive them as normal, or everyday.

It is to everyone’s benefit if we can talk openly about sex (including lack of it), but the social pressure in the UK that bears down upon anyone who wants to start the conversation is weighty indeed.

Poly is all about sex

One of the first comments one hears when one is discussing polyamory is something along the lines of “so, it’s just a way to have more sex” which of course, it isn’t. Polyamory is about maintaining the personal skills of emotional honesty and non-judgemental, effective and timely communication in order to be able to build multiple relationships with other human beings. The idea of “more sex” is a relative concept that is entirely useless and was surely only invented for marketing purposes.

Implicit in the “more sex” (or “lots of sex”) comment is the judgement that wanting to have more sex is in some way an undesirable or negative goal to have. Which is isn’t.

Sex feels nice and pleasure is good for you – The Ethical Slut

However, since we’re on the topic, polyamory is in some ways all about sex, because it is an alternative to monogamy and monogamy is all about sex.

There are differences between a romantic relationship and other kinds of relationship, such as with friends and family members. Monogamy comes with an elaborate set of rules and of course, you can only have one person in a romantic monogamous relationship. But the ultimate way to tell if someone is in a romantic relationship with you, is married to you, or is faithful to you is if they have sex only with you. Despite acknowledging that other kinds of fidelity are desirable, for example emotional fidelity, it is only the sex thing that has instant power to change a relationship within monogamy.

Since polyamory typically involves the removal of sexual activity as the ultimate marker of fidelity, instead using more personal and fluid ideas of how to maintain security and happy feelings between people who are emotionally involved with each other, polyamory is all about the sex.