I have been suffering from an overabundance of topics to discuss and not enough time to do it in. But I keep seeing articles and advice that address the idea of “safeguarding a relationship” by offering advice that dehumanizes our partnerships, prop up oppressive systems and essentially keep us stuck in the default mode of maximum effort for minimal fulfillment.
The inspiration for this piece was the gut reaction I had to this post:8 Rules Guaranteed to Prevent Infidelity To be clear, this advice doesn’t just appear on Christian Right pages but is found anywhere that people are fed on a diet of fear and suspicion, righteousness and possession. The jealousy, the resentment and the potential pain of an intimate partner cheating on us are well known to all of us, including those of us non-monogamous folk. However, seeking to control, to safeguard, to protect against any potential, possible, imaginary threat no matter how minor or insincere, is just another way of avoiding responsibility for creating trust, sharing honestly and openly with your partner and honoring boundaries and consent.
Healthy relationships are founded on a basis of equality
Oppressive beliefs are not a good basis for healthy intimacy
I believe that no matter how someone identifies or what they believe, that there are some basic relationship best practices that can be found when we start from a place of equality. The problem is and always will be that these best practices require us to engage with the best in ourselves, not always easy when lustful impulsiveness or rigid social conditioning urge us to do otherwise. Good relationships require thoughtful personal reflection, sincere vulnerability, and cooperative resilience toward a shared vision of the value of each person in that relationship.
When we fail to manifest these qualities in relationships, we invite our partnerships to be judged on default values. Threats are more likely to occur when your relationship is in default mode. Since needs and beliefs were never discussed, shared or revealed, what motivation does someone have to invest in the other person if all they’re getting is a pre-constructed ideal not built for them? Likewise, controlling your partner’s every communication and action to “safeguard” the relationship is the bigger threat to the relationship, a tactic of most abusers.
A healthy relationship understands that there is a balance between real life and the safety of the relationship. But treating your relationship like it’s a precious and fragile egg is more like a self-fulfilling prophecy – eventually, it will break, no matter how careful you are. Because guess what? People aren’t things meant to be locked up and protected; people need the freedom to grow, learn & develop. Successful intimate partnerships recognize that each person is whole and valuable as they are and the future is a cooperative scheme toward shared success and fulfillment.
Shame, judgment, and fear are toxic to growth and fulfillment. This includes the institutionalized shame of misogyny, the presumption that every woman is a temptress or that no man can control himself. Advice that relies on preserving rather than dismantling oppressive structures is suspect. The status quo only “worked” because people were forced to accept it, or suffer extraordinary consequences by the courts (by limiting the allowable circumstances for divorce), through family structure (by disowning kids who come out as queer) and public policy (limiting the rights of wives, daughters, mothers and sisters so they are dependent on men for basic survival – this was central to Jane Austen’s work)
For a while I’ve been tagging things with #RelationshipReboot because so much of the advice we’ve been given, not just by the Christian Right, but by magazines, talk shows, movies & books, has been built upon a framework of possession, of a right to “what’s mine” and protecting my right to “my man”. I just don’t believe that. I have never operated very well in a framework of ownership over others. What right do I have to dictate to my loved ones how they should live their lives. It’s not to say I haven’t been that self-righteous little princess before in my teens, but I outgrew it once I realized how amazing and precious the human experience is. And each person has a right to their own autonomy and consequences, their own choices and successes. I opted instead to listen and honor my partners by making affirmative agreements that speak to the commitment we each have to honor the best in each other.
So, this will be a long post because I want to take some time to reframe these examples of toxic advice. I want to reframe the issue, reboot the core ideas at play and spin alternative advice that recognizes and honors consent and human dignity. To pull the shame and suspicion from the values and goals at play and find a better way to cope. Simple, affirmative commitments that we can make to be better at our relationship agreements.
Default Toxic Advice #1
Stay away from anyone of the preferred sex who you might ever be in any context potentially attracted to or who others might perceive that you’re attracted to even if you’re not.
Column Advice #1: I never meet alone with a woman other than my wife.
Column Advice # 5. I give “side hugs.”
Column Advice #6. I don’t engage in ongoing dialogues with women on social media
If someone cannot control themselves in having a conversation with a member of their preferred gender, no matter whether it’s in person, online or otherwise, that should be deeply concerning. Period. Maintaining personal and professional boundaries is a cornerstone of building trust, an essential component of a healthy relationship, no matter the context. If there is a heightened danger that someone cannot maintain or honor reasonable boundaries, there’s a bigger problem at play here.
Part of the problem with these suggestions is the presumption that all human contact with a member of the preferred sex is always sexualized. Handshakes aren’t any more or less sexual than a hug is – I’ve had men give lingering handshakes, holding both of my hands in theirs as they stroked my fingers or palm in a way suggesting way more than a simple hello. A hug can comfort someone in emotional distress and is a signal of friendship. Touch is a basic human need. These rules declare that the only person allowed to provide touch is the spouse, a pretty heavy job for one person alone, particularly if they are stunted in any way in how to express love and compassion through touch. It sexualizes a basic human need making it inaccessible anywhere else, and shameful to want to share with anyone else.
Much of this specific advice is rooted in the appearance of impropriety rather than the actual engagement of it. If a spouse is so suspicious of a professional lunch or a personal coffee, the marriage is already in trouble. There is nothing to safeguard because basic trust hasn’t even been established or was broken by past infidelities. Lunching alone with a member of the preferred gender isn’t the issue – trust and integrity are. There has either been a breach of trust or a failure to provide it in the first place. If fear of what others might think comes into play, perhaps there is already a reputation for not adhering to commitments that would cause others to jump to that conclusion.
At best this advice is performative, not reparative.
Relationship Reboot Practice 1:
I maintain and respect appropriate boundaries with others
Relationships are built on trust. There is no better way to create trust than to:
- Recognize that we each have a right to set boundaries for ourselves;
- Demonstrate through actions and words that you not only recognize but will work to honor yours and others’ boundaries;
- Be accountable for the commitments we make to others.
One of the things I’ve loved about my relationship with Warrior is that I know that when he hangs out with others, even if there’s an attraction that he’ll maintain his boundaries and our agreements. Likewise, when he was a practicing therapist he and I both know that there are distinct mechanisms, consequences, and laws in place that protect both him and his clients from inappropriate behavior.
Likewise, even though I stay friends with a lot of my exes, my partners know that I have my own personal code about how I’ll choose to engage that person in the future. Meeting with a married man is no more or less dangerous for me than meeting with a single one. Having coffee with a potential business partner isn’t more or less dangerous to my relationship than going out to drinks with my law school classmates. By maintaining good boundaries around my various interactions, staying consistent with what my partners can expect from me, I’m able to maintain the trust they’ve placed in me as well as signal to others what our interactions should consist of.
Finally, every day affords us an opportunity to model good consent practices. We have the right to refuse a hug. It’s okay to say “I’m not a hugger” and move on. It’s okay to refuse to go to coffee with a fan if they make you uncomfortable. We all have the right to both say and hear the word “No” without any further explanation. By honoring the boundaries of others, and ourselves, we create space for others to feel safe, to be more authentic and less suspicious of their trust in us.
Toxic Relationship Advice #2:
If you don’t give your loved one complete and total access to every corner of your life, you are untrustworthy and uncommitted.
Column Advice #2. My wife gets copied on all of my text messages.
Column Advice #3. I share ALL my passwords.
This advice not only violates some pretty serious personal and professional boundaries, but this advice could also violate some pretty serious legal boundaries if taken too far. It violates the consent of everyone involved – the person on the other end of that text pouring their heart out about their father’s cancer diagnosis, the employer who has liability for HIPAA, the client who uses text to confirm their appointments. The potential for exploitation, abuse, fraud and identity theft with this advice is very serious and should be avoided at all costs.
What is really at issue is here is transparency, an accountability measure for trust. I think in our hearts, we all want to be honest and transparent, but little white lies can stack up over time and make truly innocent situations, such as calls with the neighbor about her father’s cancer diagnosis, seem suspicious. And as tempting as it is to give your partner 100% access to everything in your life to prove your devotion, this is dangerous for two reasons:
- No one else consented to your partner having THEIR information
- There is significant potential for legal liability or at least illegal shenanigans to take place as a result of this
It will backfire because transparency and honesty have to exist together. Requiring a partner to give passwords doesn’t guarantee that they haven’t built yet another profile under a different name. Nor does giving full access guarantee that something won’t be taken out of context. This strategy will backfire in a big, spectacular way.
Relationship Reboot Practice #2:
My priority is to keep my partner relatably informed of the important people, events, and situations in my life.
Why do I say “relatably” informed? Because this is about giving your partner the level of transparency and honesty that you need from them. If you want to know if your partner is viewing porn, it’s important then to share information about your own porn habits. If you want to know who from work is “just a friend” then you model this by providing them with the same information. And all of this can be done without invading someone else’s privacy or violating professional confidentiality policies.
I would much rather have my partner tell me, “Our neighbor, Sonia, is having a hard time, her father was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I’m lending her support over text after losing my own father to cancer a few years ago” rather than invading Sonia’s privacy with an unprecedented level of access to Sonia’s words and feelings.
And if you cannot believe your spouse when they tell you “oh it’s just a friend”, the more worthy investigation isn’t into their personal texts and messages but into an examination of why you cannot trust them. Is it something they’ve done or something that has gone unhealed in yourself? Either way, full access to passwords won’t give you what you’re looking for – just more fuel to the panic you already started with.
Toxic Relationship Advice #3:
Stay away from any material that has any hint of sexual content so as to not be tempted to view anyone else as sexually desirable than the person you are permanently partnered with.
Column Advice #4. I don’t watch porn or sexually-explicit content.
His next line is “porn is an act of mental infidelity” and he goes on to spout the normal, tired and debunked statistics on porn and porn addiction. These beliefs are rooted in some very flawed misunderstandings and misdirections about sex, attraction, and masturbation. These beliefs are built upon a premise that sexual desire for anything or anyone other than who you’ve chosen as a lifetime partner is shameful and weak, rather than normal and expected. And the judgments that are delivered because of these beliefs manifest in harmful ways that can damage rather than enhance a person’s ability to sexually bond with another. It incentivizes secrecy.
Yes, there are some whose porn viewership has reached a level of damaging, addictive behavior, where say, they are viewing it at work or instead of going to work. Again, it comes back to really recognizing and understanding boundaries. But if that’s the case, the compulsive pattern is the bigger issue, not the porn itself.
Relationship Reboot Practice #3:
I am comfortable sharing my intimate experiences, sexual fantasies, sexual values and feelings with my partner.
Instead of cutting it out entirely, use this opportunity to further the intimacy and trust to discuss sex, including porn habits and expectations with your spouse/significant other. Understand what are your own values around this, and be honest with yourself and your partner. Make choices together about works for you both. I know plenty of monogamous relationships that successfully integrate porn viewing into their sexual lives and have no infidelity concerns. Likewise, if your relationship cannot survive an honest conversation about sex, avoiding it will only make the issue grow more unsustainable. Discussing fantasies, experiences, values, wishes, disappointments go a long way toward eliminating the influence of shame in your relationship, making it more authentic, full and healthy.
Our happiest relationships should allow us room to grow, to be authentic, to be recognized and heard. Healthy relationships are robust, resilient, restorative, repairable, and redeeming. If it cannot withstand the storms of say, having lunch with a female work colleague, is it really worth saving? If a small whiff of attraction can dismantle your relationship so easily, will building additional walls really be worth the time either of you will invest in building new buttresses and moats?
At some point, if you’re constantly playing defense and cannot seem to let go of the rules, the suspicions, the fears, the jealousy, you have to look at what it is you’re really protecting here and ask “Is it really worth it?”
So, I made the last Origin Story post more about how, positionally, we were primed and prepped to open our relationship, but this is the nitty-gritty mechanics of how it came about.
There were too many moments to count where my ability to stay “faithful” by society’s definition was tested not just in my marriage but in pretty much every relationship I ever had. And there were too many moments where I didn’t abide by those standards and others where I felt resentful and caged.
I remember, a week before our wedding, during law school finals, I confessed to Husband that I had done more than just kiss Navy Boy on a recent trip out to visit him. I didn’t want to start our marriage with a lie and I felt a strong urge to share the truth with him. “I know. I just wish you had told me about it at the time,” was Husband’s response.
He knew about the people I habitually flirted with and understood. He knew about my desire to revisit with old flames and understood. He knew about how I desperately wanted to explore my bisexuality (another Origin Story to add to the growing list) and understood. He’s always known me so well and always understood.
By the end of law school, a year after our wedding, I was pregnant with our son. We were buying a house and I was studying for the bar exam. Midway through the pregnancy, because of the physical impact on my old injuries, I could no longer have sex. There was no position where I didn’t feel pain or numbness. Those were a lot of lonely days and nights for us, especially since neither of us had thought about this side effect.
Once I had given birth, I was anxious to be able to get back to being able to have sex. It had been at least 6 months and I was ready.
I don’t want to go into a lot of detail here because I still hold shame about this part of my story: I cheated. It was March 2004 and because of the way the pregnancy affected my body, I wanted to feel desirable and beautiful still. Husband would probably say that he just couldn’t keep up with me, but that isn’t true. My sex drive wasn’t the issue, nor was his. The issue was a need for approval – from someone other than the person who just watched me birth his child. I needed to find myself sexy through someone else’s eyes.
When Needs Backfire
That need hit me like a ton of bricks. I had gained a significant amount of weight during the pregnancy. The doctors assured me that I had so much fluid and he had been such a big kid (9 lbs 1 oz at a month premature) that I would likely go back down to my normal size in no time. But I didn’t. I never did.
I went back to the flirting I had done before. But instead of staying safe and monogamous, I was actually entertaining meeting these men. I needed to feel desirable again, a vital slice of anyone’s self-worth that in carrying all this extra weight I didn’t know myself anymore.
In my younger days, I may not have been the prettiest girl on the block, but I could more than make up for that with charm and wit and intellectual intrigue. I relied on my adaptability to be valuable and thus desirable to others. I had insecurities about my body, like most women, but I never felt it was unfuckable or undesirable in some fashion.
They don’t tell you about how you’ll feel about your body after motherhood. You spend most of your life being told that you need to be attractive to find yourself a spouse. And once you have kids, you devote yourself to them but stay attractive and available enough so that your husband doesn’t stray. That’s the national romantic “happily ever after” narrative, right? But no one tells you how you will feel as a woman, as a sexual woman, once you’ve pushed a live being into the world. Or that there will be a thousand conflicting messages and judgments about your value. Or that the very act of being sexual is somehow dirty and wrong, but if you don’t bounce back to your pre-baby shape you’re somehow a failure of femininity.
Cheating wasn’t planned or deliberate. I sort of slid into it, driven by this need to prove myself. The men I eventually met up with, one was a yuppie banker type cheating on his wife, the other was a bulky personal trainer type who worked security at night. Both were not just disappointing, but downright insulting. Banker dude asked to see under my skirt and told me I was “good enough for a blowjob” but nothing more. Personal trainer dude got up to go to the bathroom during lunch and left me with the check. When I confronted him in the parking lot, he told me I must have sent him an old picture because I wasn’t at all hot or worth his time. Although neither situation involved intercourse, I had definitely broken the agreement that Husband and I had set with each other.
I was devastated and on the verge of suicide because these encounters had been so shaming and I had been deceiving Husband and not telling him the truth.
And I had no one to talk to.
Facing my truth
At the time, I had just started writing on LiveJournal and was becoming more and more active in the communities there. I carried a lot of shame and guilt over what I had done and I was passively reading others’ journals to gain some insight.
Our anniversary that year followed my first Mother’s Day after giving birth. Both days were marred by these feelings, the burden of the half-truths I had been hiding from Husband. We fought more, picked at each other more and had more difficulty seeing eye to eye.
I remember standing in our makeshift office in the basement, him asking me to tell him why I was crying all the time, what he could do to help. Eventually, I broke down and told him what had happened with both of those men–how each rejected me because of my body and how I was on the verge of killing myself over it.
Again, he forgave me–far more than I had deserved from him. And once again, he told me that all I needed to do was talk to him about what I was feeling and what I needed. That he didn’t object to me getting attention from others if that’s what I needed, but that those interactions would have an impact on me, and thus in our household and that he needed to be included in that, no matter how embarrassing it might feel.
Calling it by name
The more I was on LiveJournal (May 2004), the more I was exposed to others who were in or considering open relationships. It wasn’t a new concept per se, but at the time if you looked it up, all you’d find are swingers groups. Husband isn’t very flirtatious or outgoing, so swinging would never be something we could be comfortable doing together. I kept seeing allusions to the term “polyamory” but had trouble finding out more about it.
One of my newest followers at the time, a guy in Seattle, introduced me more fully to the idea through his blog. He and his wife were polyamorous and had been foIr at least a few years. Through our conversations, I started becoming more familiar with the term and heard some of the tales of people who actually lived this way.
It’s amazing how much your world opens up when you say find an identity that fits. This not just fit, but was focused on the love that I felt for so many people. While many people have floated in and out of my life, they have all mattered to me, contributed positively to my life and left me a better person. Polyamory seemed to welcome this–not just the sex, it was never just about the sex for me–it was about the connection.
Swing & a miss
Our very first foray was with a man on the east coast I had been talking to through LiveJournal. I had been given permission to play with him and would stay in contact with Husband about how it went. It wasn’t just the play that drew me in, it was the fact that this guy saw me like really saw who I am. I needed that. And I was falling for that now that the reins were cut loose and I could connect and lov and be who I truly am.
So, before a Sarah McLaughlin concert, between dinner and walking into the Pepsi Center, I had a conversation with Husband about this new guy on the east coast. I was falling for him. Talking to him multiple times a day and wanted to take things to an actual relationship. I told Husband about polyamory, about open marriages, about the fact that I felt we were solid and supportive of each other and we could make this work.
Jumping into the rocky end of the poly pool
Things never worked out with the guy on the east coast. The moment I confessed my feelings to him, when I bought a ticket to go out to DC to meet him a month later, he cooled off. (He also requested a full body photo of me and never responded to that, compounding how I already felt about my body). It was a shitty choice of a first try. I not only was rejected but felt I had been played and neglected once I wanted to take things into a less pixelated realm.
After that, Husband started instituting some rules and expectations. I don’t even remember those early rules anymore. At one point it was the “only girls” rule. While common for many who are just starting poly, it was a rule only because men were hurting my feelings so terribly by their rejection of my body (hence the body shame I still carry today). Husband thought that the women would be at least nicer and give me a chance to understand my bisexuality that I still hadn’t embraced. I wasn’t ready yet to fully embrace that part of my sexuality–so that rule went to the wayside.
Lots of rules came and went during those first few tenuous months as polyamorous. I went to DC to visit that guy–where he didn’t respond to my messages until the final day I was there. Guilted by our mutual followers he at least met up with me for a drink. But it was clear I had crossed a line by making our online interactions real and I was let down and dejected. Was this what polyamory was all about?
That was until I found Laz. In November of 2004, the day after the election, a smart, witty Texan found his way to my LiveJournal. He quickly moved into the role of a trusted friend and flirty confidante. And while he wasn’t the ideal partner (he was married with kids at the time), he was my first poly love and eventually, 6 months later, became my first poly husband.
Others would follow, but Laz will always hold a special place in my life for the role he played, for the support he gave and for the full realization that polyamory was right for us. I might not have ever stuck with polyamory had he not shown up in my life when he did.
To be continued…
At some point in the future, I’ll address Husband’s feeling about poly, how he manages his jealousy and all of the other little how-tos that people usually want to hear. But the how of it was more simple than people want to hear: He fully accepts me for who I am including the gift I have for connecting with multiple people and he gives me support and encouragement to be the best me that I can possibly be. And that…that’s why he is Husband.
For the past few days I’ve been reading posts about polyamory. For full disclosure, I do describe myself as polyamorous (poly). And I suppose I identify sooo much that people have accused me of being a poly advocate. I would actually describe myself more as an advocate for healthy relationships. No matter what form they take. I don’t necessarily advocate poly for everyone, but instead I use it as an example of a relationship structure that not only works for me but works fucking well for me.
And here is a quick summary of my relationships: I am legally married to one man, let’s call him Husband and we have two marvelous children. I am spiritually married to another man for the past 3 years, let’s call him Warrior, who is legally married to another woman (and she has another partner as well). I date both women and men and those that identify in between. So does Warrior. Husband is only now starting to consider getting involved in other relationships. Husband and I have been poly for 7 years this July, which is more years we’ve been poly than not (we’ve been together for 12 years). So, yeah, poly is working quite well for me.
Over the past few weeks, I found myself getting hyper defensive of what I’ve been hearing about poly lately. Maybe this is how the rest of the world feels when their relationship dynamic is under attack. Except, you know…they’re the majority and still have power, control, rights and shit. Most of the people making complaints about poly have been either those who are new to it or had a terrible experience with it. Anyway, I thought this might be a good place to start a blog about relationships, sexuality, culture and where they all intersect in my life.
This is by no means a coherent or even competent defense of poly. It’s just a reaction. A knee-jerk reaction that wasn’t at all appropriate for the person who originally inspired this…but was something I needed to say after redefining over the past year the way in which I practice poly. Again, I don’t advocate poly for everyone…but I do advocate conscious relationship building. Read the rest of this entry