Category Archives: Relationships

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.)

 

 

Advertisements

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.

This Was Not In The Handbook

This is a testament to My So Amazing Life and is not even a #firstworldproblem or a #middleclassproblem rather a #mylifeistooawesome problem or #poorlittlepolygirlhastoomanysexpartners kind of problem but STILL it has become a fact of my life that group sex is easier, happier, simpler and freer than traditional one-on-one sex.

My friends in the bi-poly world tend to agree. We’ve all been in situation whereby we know the people around us are all 1)bi  2)non-monogamous 3)actively practicing safe sex and due to feeling safe, happy & fuzzy, some chatting has turned into cuddling has turned into kissing has turned into fondling has turned into sex with more than one other person. I call situations like this (parties, conferences) ‘euphoric’ spaces, because something about the safety and large numbers of people feeling friendly towards each other can build a sense of giddy abandon. In ‘euphoric’ spaces it seems easier to have sexual interactions with people, to do sexual activities you might not otherwise do and do these things with people you might not otherwise do it with. Within group sex situations, things are easier to do because there is less pressure to perform, individual acts have less overall meaning, experimentation is the only option and there is a sense that anything is worth trying and anything that feels good is a bonus. There are also simply ‘more’ body parts to play with and more minds creatively attacking the problem, if you’ll excuse my phrasing.

It’s really rather lovely.

Now we come to my (not really a) problem. I have lately been thinking of the etiquette of seeing the people you have been ‘euphoric’ with outside of those spaces. The first instance is fine, you all had sex when high on hormones at a party and now you’re not so interested in each other. But what happens when another ‘euphoric’ space comes around? Is it ok to have sex with someone again in a euphoric space when you wouldn’t normally? Does it sort of imply, “I only fancy you in a heightened state, but when we’re on our own together you turn me off” ? In poly circles it’s traditional to just have a chat about it, and if everyone is ok with it, then it’s fine.

But sometimes getting to know the person actually turns you off them as a person and so you wouldn’t want to be in a sexual relationship with them, you also can’t really find common ground to ‘have a chat’ but when you’re in a euphoric space, all you can think of is the lust and it’s tempting to chuck away the knowledge that you don’t like them that much and dive on in. Is such a course of action duplicitous? Callous? To be avoided? Is this monogamy ethics, within which one is supposed to both fancy, love and be a friend to your only partner, but which does not necessarily apply in poly?

It still feels wrong, but am I overthinking this?

It seems I’m one of the only people in my friendship group to be wondering about these things. They believe you should follow your positive feelings in the moment and it is unlikely to create problems. If problems do arise, we’re all poly, we can talk about it. Nonetheless, for me it seems a bit too laissez-faire considering we’re normally so good at looking after people’s feelings, particularly when tied in with other thoughts I’ve had about dominant type people and submissive type people (and I’m not talking about kink, here).

Myself and my friend term these people ‘carers’ and ‘chargers’. ‘Carers’ are people who naturally incline towards accommodating other people’s needs before looking after their own. ‘Chargers’ are people who go forth into the world, doing their own thing and even though they ask if everyone else is ok with their actions, they don’t know they have carers in their life who don’t speak up for their own needs. Chargers can trample other people with no idea they’re doing it. I am certainly a charger who was once with a carer. In a broader sense, there are people who are less able to communicate their needs or desires and the more loud, confident people need to take care to create a space (which could take time and lots of shutting up) so that the less loud people can express themselves. I feel that charging into euphoric spaces might lead to quieter folks developing crushes or stronger feelings for people who do not return the affection. Those quieter folks with the crushes might wait until the next euphoric space to be with their crush, and rationalise that they enjoy what they can get, but surely an unspoken desire where the object of affection has no idea of the feelings involved is bad for everybody.

All of that was just an aside to another non-problem I’m having right now. I’ve noticed that I have ups and downs with individuals in my life, both in terms of relationships and in terms of sexual problems, which is to be expected, however I sometimes find myself in potential group sex situations with these same people and I find (I think) that I’m perfectly happy to be in these situations with the individuals. I’m happy to see them having sex, I think I’m even happy to have sex with them. Even if the problem between me and them is about sex. Again, it’s something about the dilution of individual elements into a greater whole. Personal problems seem small and far away when in a group of people who just want to touch each other in pleasant ways. (It kinda goes without saying that, as a poly with a few year’s experience, I don’t really have many feelings of jealousy and I do have big feelings of pleasure when I see my partners having fun with other people.)  This is not to say that I haven’t also felt uncomfortable in group sexual spaces, but I’m very happy to leave such situations to look after my own feelings, and it’s normally my own vague discomfort rather than raging jealousy or sadness. In general, group sex is an extremely positive experience.

I really don’t know how to navigate this at all. This was not in the handbook of life. Shall I, more or less, avoid these euphoric spaces when I have problems with individuals so that I don’t put the problems constantly on the back burner? Shall I make sure all problems are sorted before something like this happens, and withdraw from these spaces if there are unsettled issues? Or shall I go with my feelings, engage in a happy way with these spaces, and perhaps, in the best possible of instances, use these euphoric spaces as a way to heal problems, with myself and with individuals? If the problem is about sex, then having positive sexual experiences in a less high stakes context might be an excellent way to move forward.

(Indeed, just to get hippie for a moment, I think the absence of group sex in mono/Christian cultures might go some way to explain the pathology our society seems to exhibit at the moment. I wonder how easy it would be to decide to cut people’s benefits if the deciding person was regularly in a room of 100 bodies all having sex together.)

I don’t know the answer to these questions. All I know for now is that group sex can be easier and happier than couple sex, and that fact is complicating my decision-making process considerably!

#lifeistooamazingproblems