Ironic Reality

The lifetime struggle
Seeking that balance point
Riding the line between

Believing in myself
Yet knowing I’m human
That I’ll make mistakes

How to be able to see this
Perfect in my imperfection
Yet exactly what makes me perfect
Is that I can be improved

And what cost at either extreme?

Hubris
Arrogance
Walking blindly into disaster with the belief that I can’t fall

Or doubt
Paralysis
Never moving in fear that I might break something

Flow occurs somewhere in between
Not seeking to fail or destroy
But not fearing it either
A firm commitment to seeing what is
And moving in that reality

Life teaches
Some things need breaking
Even though their cost
In pain
In struggle
Might be astronomical

Sometimes those things that must break are things we’ve spent decades
Or centuries building

Those are the scariest edifices to topple
And sometimes the most necessary at that

It’s amazing to me how much building is in breaking
It’s not obvious at first
But just as with everything
Life dies to rot to make way for new life
New growth

Maybe the immortality we seek is not an ever-unchanging
Grey life like most seem to live
But an ever-changing
Death at every moment
Rebirth into new life
That careens spiraling ever upward
Laughing in the face of “I’m not ready”

Oh irony
The thing we run from is the very thing we think we are running toward
We run away from really living
So we can hide from losing our lives
We shy away from truly loving
So that we can shield our heart from having to be broken

What tragedy!
That in order to never lose we never gain
That we stifle our passions and silence our voices and clip our wings
Thinking we have victory
As we dance around the altar upon which we have sacrificed our joy

Thinking this is safe

I reject walking as a ghost upon this Earth
I am alive
To chase immortality
Okay
Yes
But only if the chase is a merry one
Only if we really grasp what this means

Only if we learn to be awake in a moment
Can we ever dare to dream of eternity

 

Just finished the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin.  Feeling inspired.

The Most Underused Leadership Skill

This is probably applicable to any type of leader, but since most of my experience is in the polyamory leadership world, that is the audience I’m going to write to.

Talking authoritatively to fellow leaders is a really vulnerable sort of endeavor, especially to write about qualities that make a good leader. It’s one of the reasons I’m writing about it. Clearly there are things I don’t know. Advice I make and positions I hold right now are probably going to need to be revised and corrected in the future. I’m probably wrong about some (read: many) things. And I’m really young as a poly leader to boot. The nerve of me!

Anyhow, within the limited spheres I’ve interacted in, I’ve noticed something troubling. Many poly leaders, myself included, have some difficulty in leading by example.

What could I possibly mean by that? To a large extent, we do our best to treat our partners the best way we know how. We take responsibility for ourselves in the ways we’re aware we need to. We respect consent. We try to approach problems within our communities with level heads and open minds. We encourage and we show compassion and we give fantastic advice. Isn’t all of that leading by example?

Well, sort of. People need good models for all of these things. We’re doing great and very important work by modeling these things. But we’re missing something critical.

We need to let people see us fuck up.

We need to let people see us be vulnerable, raw, emotional, and broken. We need to let those of our relationships that fail do so publicly, in the moment, while we still don’t know how things will resolve and while we’re still hurting (within reason and respecting the consent of our exes). We need to publicly apologize. We need to admit that we have no idea what we’re doing. We can and should do this with as much tact and grace as we have in our toolbag, but we need to do it.

Many people do this in some ways already, but my experience is that it tends to be intellectualized. We talk about breakups long after they happened and after the scars have healed. We talk about consent violations, bullying, and abuse well past the point at which some of the fences have been mended and the people involved have either scattered to other communities or have rebuilt bridges with us. We give people play-by-plays…. after the fact.

We also pressure one another to do this. Whether implicit or explicit, there is still plenty of shame about sharing from one’s personal life, giving one’s personal opinion, or (heaven forbid) being a part of some major drama. We suggest that people should “not air their dirty laundry,” or that if they are going through a challenging time it might be better to step back or step down from leadership until they’ve “got it together.” Sometimes these people are too hurt and ashamed to ever try to come back. They’ve been silenced by people who are more concerned with how something looks than how it actually is. Instead of silencing one another, we should be supporting one another as leaders, in the ways that those requesting support ask for and need. What we think is best for them and what we think they need isn’t necessarily correct. Acting like we know better, even if we think we have perspective they don’t, is patronizing and unfair. They need their process just like we needed ours.

I get it. We want to model good behavior and we want other leaders to do the same. But here’s the problem. Our good judgment comes from bad judgment. We are showing an end product without any of the process. We lead by our actions in those areas we think it is okay to end up. We do not, quite as often, lead by example in times of confusion, pain, and despair (other than to act in ways that suggest that we should just keep it quiet and pretend it doesn’t exist). How do we expect people to figure out how to get to the same place we are (as in, an authentic, more developed, and fairly stable place for them) if they don’t see any of the mess it took to get there, or the continuing mess that it can and will be?

There is a necessary concern about how the larger culture views polyamory. It’s understandable to want to put our best face forward, to not look like hypocrites, and to show people that, “No really, we’re good people we swear.” But the respectability politics come at a cost. In some spaces and in some cases, that cost is worth it, but I think we pay that price way more often than we should, and often even within our own circles lest the outer world find out that *gasp* polyamorous humans make mistakes and mess shit up just like all the rest of us. After all, isn’t one of our most highly touted qualities honesty? That means we must be honest, even about the stuff that goes wrong, and especially about the stuff we know is right when the rest of society might disapprove.

And there is also a necessary concern about stealing the spotlight, being a rock star, and siphoning more support and resources out of a community than we put back into it. A good leader absolutely puts work in and provides resources and does so without recognition much of the time. But we must be careful not to fall to the other extreme. We are not perfect, and we need to show that with our actions instead of our words. We need to take risks, be human, and show our authentic selves in our positions as community leaders. We can show people appropriate ways to reach out to others for support when we are hurting, and that it is okay to do so. We can use our positions of privilege to set examples for the entire range of our lived experiences.

Because when we do it, we give others permission to do the same. When we share from the bottom of our soul, we show others that we’ve been there too, that we’re going through growth as well, and that it is okay to make a mistake. It’s way too easy to never state a strong opinion, or never have a conflict in a visible social media space, or never admit that you were wrong publicly. The end result may be that we never let someone observe us making a mistake, and I think that means we are doing our communities a huge disservice. We are suggesting, even if only passively, that our emotions, our struggles, and our disagreements aren’t appropriate to share.

I disagree. Just like silence and inaction favor abusers, so too do they foster climates of shame and control on a much larger level. We are not good advocates if we become blank slates of pseudo-perfection in our ivory towers. We are not good leaders if we don’t, in the words of the great Ms. Frizzle, “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.” We are not setting a good example if we don’t allow ourselves to be transparent in those grey areas, places of uncertainty and doubt.

Now, I am not saying that people should be pressured to go public about things they aren’t ready to do so with. Some shit is so huge that the only way to deal with the trauma of it is to withdraw. Some people are in too much pain to spend time worrying about helping others to learn from their process in the moment. That is okay. They aren’t the kind of person I am talking to. But for those of us who can, those of us who have been around this block once or twice, those of us who are really only afraid to let someone see us fuck up…

Fuck up. Do it.

Fuck up loudly and shamelessly. And then, with just as much transparency, show how you are trying your best to make it right. This is what will help us to hold ourselves accountable, to see our errors and our missteps faster, to let others help to hold us accountable.

Because everybody needs good models for how to apologize after you’ve hurt someone. Everybody needs good models to see that self-punishment is an easy temptation, and a wrong one. Everybody needs good models for self-forgiveness, and those insecurities that still run through our minds. We might know how to deal with them now, but we didn’t always. If we can bare our guts more frequently, other people can learn from our mistakes instead of having to make all of them on their own.

And as leaders we need to stop shaming other leaders for this. Even if you don’t want to show people the inner workings of how you are human, shame on you if you shame other people for doing so. Shame on me because I’ve done it. Shame on the people who have done it to me. Shame on me for letting them. Shame on me for still being afraid to talk about some of it publicly because I fear backlash. Because I still am.

But no, shame actually doesn’t help anyone. Because the shame is what makes us still want to hide. See that, that was anger up there. That was betrayal. That was fear. I am admitting to you that there are things that have hugely impacted me that I am still having trouble being public about. I wish that weren’t the case. I wish I had the courage to just stand up and speak my truth without fear of how other people will react. I wish I had the strength to call people out for the ways they’ve hurt me. I’m getting there. Feel free to ask me about it. I won’t lie to you or hide from you, even if I’m not in a place where I can publish it yet. Even if you are one of the people that hurt me. I want to start having these conversations, even if they’re going to be messy. And I’d love to do them where we can be seen, where all of us can be held accountable for the path forward.

So I’m asking for us to create a new culture. Authenticity, vulnerability, compassion, these are things we talk about a lot. It’s time to start walking our talk. I’m not sure what to call it, maybe Transparency Culture. We have started building a culture of consent, which is fantastic. I think this is the next step. There are some leaders that are great at this, in some areas, most of the time. None of us are perfect at it, and none of us ever will be. But we can learn how to be better by putting ourselves out there and taking those risks.

And I apologize. There are people I’ve hurt. There are people I haven’t communicated well with. There are people I’m still trying to figure out how to reconnect with, how to repair. And with some of those people I still hold a lot of anger towards them for the ways they’ve hurt me. I’m trying to learn how to balance that with the knowledge that having them as allies will almost always be better than having them as enemies. And I’m trying to treat them respectfully, and I’m trying to make sure to communicate and enforce my boundaries for my own health in the meantime. And I still think about it a lot. And I’m still not quite over it yet. And that’s okay.

Will you work with me to do better?

p.s. One of my friends that read this first pointed out that I deflected and backhanded an issue early in the piece by criticizing myself for being young with some biting sarcasm before anyone else could do it. Thank you. You’re right. I’m leaving it there as an example of how non-optimal I can get when I’m scared to say something. I should have just come out with my message instead of being defensive right out of the gate.

 

Yes, I’m Racist

Yes, I am.  Yes, I understand that (for those of you who know me) I talk about social justice issues, including race and intersectionality a lot.  Yes, I understand that I educate people, and I do my best to update myself, my words, and my behaviors as I learn new things.  

^^^^^

That’s the important part.  I have to update.

Even putting intellectual and emotional work into seeing and trying to correct for racist tendencies in myself has not rooted it all out.

I’m not done.  Just knowing about it doesn’t fix it.  

Knowing some parts of it is only the tip of the racism iceberg.  Even if I could see the whole iceberg, I may sometimes still hit it, even if I’m trying my hardest not to.

Why?  

Before I start, try this thing out?  It is a relatively short exercise and an incredibly valuable source of information.  I recommend doing the one about race first, but absolutely go back and try other ones later if you so desire.  Go on, I’ll wait.

Do you want to know what my results were?  I have a strong preference for white people over black people.  How can my results come out like that, even with everything I do?  

Our emotional brain is a different animal from our conscious or “logical” brain.  The logical brain is the part of us that talks and thinks of ourselves as “I.”  It is the part of us that makes intentional decisions, and the part of us that we’re aware of.  It is one of the “newest” parts of our brain if you think in terms of evolution, and part of what separates us from most other animals.  The logical brain is capable of reasoning and arriving at the conclusion that it is wrong to be racist, and that black people are just as good as white people.  Yours probably believes in civil rights.  It probably believes we’re all equal.  

One problem.

Our logical brain is a very small part of our brain and what it does.  It takes more energy to use this part of our brain.  It is weaker than the “older” parts of our brain, the emotional parts.  Most of the time, our emotional brain is the one in charge.  It operates below our conscious awareness and functions in feelings and hunches, on autopilot.  The emotional brain can influence our logical brain in ways we have no idea are happening.  The emotional brain is what  is measured in the test I linked above.  The emotional brain is also very fast.  As best we can understand right now, it works in systems of associations and schemas.  It takes in information from our environment and helps us make snap decisions about things.  This is a large part of what our “gut instinct” is.  

Now, that emotional brain is necessary.  It helps us survive.  We would not be able to function without it, because there is no way we can consciously process everything that hits our senses on a moment-to-moment basis.  There are very good reasons why we have evolved with this system in place, and it is actually a really cool and complex part of what makes us human.  Remember the way you flinched last time someone threw something at you that you weren’t expecting, or the anxiety you felt when someone close to you said “We need to talk.”?  That was your emotional brain at work.  

But it is an older system.  Some of the things it does do not help us as much now, or rather, can cause us to stumble in our highly complex and changing world.  One of those things that used to be helpful is the part that figures out who belongs to our “tribe.”  To early humans this was really important.  As social animals, we needed to know who we could count on, who would be there if we needed help, who was “us,” and who was “them.”  If we were wrong about this, we could be killed, or end up trying to survive alone, which was a death sentence for our ancestors.  Fighting for and defending one’s tribe was how we stayed alive.  

That was great then.  But now we have resources that allow us to start viewing and treating all humans as fellow allies.  We don’t have to compete quite so much to stay alive.  This is a really positive development, and these are the kinds of changes we can and should start initiating from our logical brain.  But that doesn’t stop or change all the patterns the emotional brain still has built in.  Even though the logical brain can “change its mind” on a dime, the emotional brain is MUCH harder to make changes to and requires a lot more time and effort to shift.  

Here is where the problems start.  Our emotional brain does not consciously parse every single bit of information it picks up out of our environment.  It can’t.  It is built to be efficient, and to sift through lots of information all at once, and to only pick out the things it thinks are important, which are usually things that relate to survival, although it also works with stuff that “feels good” and stuff that “feels bad” as how to think about and deal with different things in our environment (think about how no one has to teach you not to touch a hot stove a second time, or to keep seeking out sweets).  

Now imagine for a second if a lot of the times your emotional brain encounters black people is when they are represented as “thugs” or “criminals” in popular television shows and movies. Your logical brain probably knows that not all black people are criminals.  That is simple and easy to figure out.  Your emotional brain, however, does not take the time to make that distinction.  As far as the emotional brain is concerned, it is good to know who violent criminals are, because that could be relevant to your survival.  Your emotional brain is more worried about “better safe than sorry.”  It doesn’t care all that much if the information it is taking in is inaccurate or unfair to other humans.  Other humans aren’t you.  It is only concerned with keeping you safe.  If your brain sees a lot of black people portrayed as violent, it is going to start assuming that black people are violent, whether you want it to or not.  

And violence isn’t the only place where our culture gives us messages about black people.  It often depicts them as poor, as incapable, as ugly, all things that our emotional brain feels really negatively about and wants to avoid.  There are many places where our value representations skew very positively toward white people and very negatively toward black people.  From a very young age, we are exposed to situations that make us associate white people with positive emotions, and black people with negative emotions.  

What is the problem with that?

Back to a few paragraphs ago, our emotional brains are in control most of the time, not our logical ones.  It is very easy to assume we can just “know” something logically and that it means all of our behavior will fall in line.  But the emotional brain is tricky.  The emotional brain also likes to think of ourselves as good people, and in order to do this it can trick the logical part of our brain.  The emotional brain knows society believes it is bad to be racist.  So it tells the logical brain that we aren’t.  The emotional brain can fool the logical brain into coming up with what seem like perfectly good reasons (see section 1.2 and 2.6) why we acted a certain way that have nothing to do with race.  If we are told that our behavior is racist, we “know” the person telling us is wrong, because “we’re not racist.”  We know that equality is good.  We know that black people are as good as white people.  Of course we aren’t racist.  

Congratulations.  Many or most of us have overcome conscious racism.  We know it’s bad to hate black people just because of the color of their skin.  But conscious racism isn’t really what is causing the problems in our society today.  What causes the problems is racism in our emotional brain.  It is racism that we didn’t necessarily put there, and that we aren’t fully aware is happening.  It is invisible to us and we act based upon it without even realizing we’re doing so.  We aren’t bad people just because it is there in our brain.  But nothing changes the fact that it is there.  How’d you do on that test?  

Why is this important?  

These kinds of emotional or subconscious racism have real ramifications in the way we think about people, what kinds of feelings we have about people, and the ways we treat people based on those thoughts and feelings.  In a world where job applicants are often called or hired based on “gut feelings,” this is huge.  In a world where a police officer has to make a split-second decision about whether to use lethal violence or not, this is critical. 

Our “gut” is correct a lot of the time.  Our emotional brain is good at what it does for the vast majority of the jobs it has to perform.  There are many places where we can and should trust it.  Again, this system helps keep us alive and is absolutely necessary to our functioning.  But we need to be very careful to understand why our emotional brain reacts the way it does in certain situations, because these kinds of things cause real harm, and take real lives, even when our emotional brain is dead wrong.  In areas of race, it is wrong quite often.

And it is hard to understand the emotional brain.  It is good at hiding, and it doesn’t really like to be brought to conscious awareness, especially if it is motivated not to feel guilty.  Because if we admit there is racism in our brains, then it thinks that means we’re bad people, and that we need to feel guilty.  Were you afraid to take that test?  Our emotional brain is far more concerned with feeling comfortable and good about ourselves than it is with being right.  This is why I want us white people to start dropping the shame and guilt that come with the word “racist” and start seeing it as a natural side effect of how human brains work, combined with a larger structure of social conditioning.

There have been a lot of studies that look at these effects.  One of the oldest and most well-known involves looking at how children respond to a white or black baby doll.  See for yourself.  That video is heartbreaking.  Even children of color, who know that the black doll looks more like them, say that the white doll is prettier, nicer, and smarter than the black doll.  Can you imagine that for a moment?  Imagine growing up in a world where you already know at the age of five that you are considered less pretty, less intelligent, less nice, and less valuable, just because of the color of your skin.  What do you think that would do to you and the way that you interact with the world?  Here is another collection of resources that talks about Stereotype Threat.  These kinds of associations actually make it harder for minorities to focus, perform well, and aspire to various goals when they are reminded about how they are different from the “normal” population (read: white, male, hetereosexual, cisgendered, financially secure, and able-bodied).  

What about for adults?  Our emotional assumptions about race can lead us to be less likely to call someone back or hire them if they are black or if their name sounds black to us.  This means it is harder for black people to secure certain jobs, even if they are equally qualified, or sometimes even more highly qualified than the white candidates that apply.  And if you read the second link I posted above, you will know that we are capable of making up legitimate-sounding reasons (both to ourselves and other people) that have nothing to do with race to explain why we made the decision we did.  In one study, employers were handed identical resumes with stereotypically-sounding “black” or “white” names at the top.  People with “black” names were less likely to get called back, even though otherwise the two resumes were exactly the same.  When asked, the employers would say something like (for white people) “Well, they don’t have a lot of experience, but it looks like they did a really great job in school and that is a fantastic university for this job market,” or (for black people) “Well, they have a fantastic education, but what we are really looking for is someone with experience in the field, and they just don’t have it.”

Our emotional assumptions about race can lead us to be more likely to mistake harmless objects for guns in the hands of a black person. This means black people are more likely to receive violence, up to and including lethal force, from law enforcement and people on the street, whose emotional brains are telling them they need to be terrified of black people.  The messages we get as children when we see teachers more likely to discipline black children can influence the later behaviors of adults that are more likely to think of black people as “likely to break the rules.”  And so far I’ve only described physical violence.  There are lots of other types of violence that we are more likely to employ if we feel threatened based on incorrect information from our emotional brain.

These effects are very real.  These kinds of things permeate our entire culture, everything we do, and the ways we treat the people around us.  

Can you watch these videos, and read these articles, and tell me that we really have an equal opportunity here in the United States?  Black people make up roughly 12% of the population of the United States.  If we forget for a moment that these emotional reactions come from black people as well as white people (remember the children of color with the dolls?), can you imagine that a full 88% of the people in the world around you treat you as if you aren’t worth as much as they are, that you aren’t as qualified for a job you need to live, that you are more likely to be a life-or-death threat to them?  How do you think that would feel?  How do you think it would make you feel about yourself?

The race problem is urgent.   

Our need for human social connection is one of our fundamental survival requirements.  Babies who don’t receive touch and affection will die even if all their other material needs are met.  We thrive in places where we feel loved, accepted, and supported by the people around us.  After food, clothing, and shelter, these are some of our most basic and fundamental requirements.  Our emotional brain’s racism is preventing us from sharing these resources equally with black people as well as white people.  You know how you can kind of tell when someone doesn’t like or trust you, even if they don’t say anything directly?  Your emotional brain picks up on these types of signals too, the way someone gets stiff or avoids eye contact with you when you’re around.  Imagine now that a large majority of the people around you are more likely to act that way, just because of the color of your skin.  We commit errors in thinking about black people, who we perceive as “other” in very predictable and very natural ways.  This is why it is so hard to fight.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight it.  Humans, at a very basic level, are animals.  Our logical brain is one of the few things that separates us from other animals.  Our ability to use logic, our ability to reason, our ability to question the assumptions and decisions we are making, are things that are only possible because of this newer and more difficult-to-use part of our brain.  With enough thought, a strong commitment to awareness, and dedication to change, we can challenge the messages that our emotional brains are giving.  We can start the long process of giving our emotional brain new, updated, and more relevant information.  

We can also start pushing on a larger cultural level to stop putting out incorrect messages that children and adults alike will take in on accident in news, television shows, music, movies, and humor.  This goes far beyond any petty idea of “political correctness.”  This goes far beyond “offense” and “hurt feelings.”  People are dying.  People are struggling to be heard, to be loved, to be appreciated, to make ends meet, and to feel like equals in a society that prides itself on being the “Land of Opportunity.”  Let’s start trying to live up to that name.  It isn’t going to be easy.  It isn’t going to be fast.  We’re still going to keep making mistakes.  But the first step is to be aware.  The second step is to start leaning into that discomfort and doing the work to challenge it.  These are hard, but we can do them.

 

Now that I have your attention, I hope that you have gained something or learned something new from reading what I’ve written.  If you’ve even gotten through the whole post, you know more about this issue than most people do.  But if you’ve read carefully, you might realize that one of the reasons you were interested in reading the article was because I’m white, because I have a white sounding name, or because a white friend shared it.  If you are white, you should share this.  We need to start owning our racism just like I am here.  We should use our position of privilege to help signal-boost for those who don’t have that kind of power right now.  Take the shame away and start doing the work to change.  But we should also go start reading things written by people of color, and boosting their signals. (Feel free to include some that you are personally aware of below in the comments section.  For some people of color, writing is a primary source of income and linking to their content will give them the freedom to produce more of it.) They are the ones who can see it even more clearly than I can.  They are the ones that struggle to have their voices heard when they speak up about these things.  They are the ones that need you to start listening.  I’m glad you read my article, but that is only the beginning.  Go start looking into the world that was invisible to you before now.  

Yes, I’m racist.  So are you.  We can’t change it until we own it.  But we can start to change it.  If we really want to say that all lives matter and that we are all one human family, we must.

#BlackLivesMatter
#YesImRacist

 

If you’ve read all this, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed.  It is a lot of information.  Take some time to digest it and address the discomfort is has probably created in you.  I encourage you to not get discouraged and to keep educating yourself not only on implicit bias (the emotional brain), but on the myriad of ways systemic racism is unfair to people of color.  Other topics of interest might include:

  • The School-to-Prison Pipeline
  • Redlining and Housing Discrimination
  • Unequal Outcomes of Medical Treatment (specifically looking at pain medication distribution and treatment disparities in mental health diagnoses)
  • Appropriation (specifically making sure original artists and members of a culture get credit for work and earn profits off of cultural successes, and reducing violent or stereotypical references in popular culture)
  • Respectability Politics and Tone Policing
  • Coded Language and Dog Whistle Politics
  • Drug War Impacts on Race

Our implicit bias and emotional brain functions are only the tip of a much larger iceberg.  None of this is going to be fixed overnight, but nothing will change if we don’t start educating ourselves and trying, in the small ways we can, right now.  No one is going to get it perfectly right away, and you aren’t expected to.  Many of us have areas where we struggle or are marginalized on other axes like gender, sexuality, ability, and religion that make this kind of thing even harder, but please do what you can.  We all deserve to be treated as humans, with dignity and respect, and you have the power to start making that happen.

Relationship Anarchy Means We Choose

I see a lot of stereotypes and fear surrounding the idea of Relationship Anarchy from a lot of people. Perhaps these are inspired by real people calling themselves Relationship Anarchists. I haven’t personally run into many that fit these stereotypes, but I’ve heard intelligent people that I trust say they have. So I am going to assume for the moment that they exist, that they call themselves Relationship Anarchists, and that they’re assholes.

Guess what. Assholes exist in every relationship structure. There are monogamous assholes, celibate assholes, hierarchical assholes, poly-fi assholes, Relationship Anarchy assholes, and solo poly assholes. There are assholes in every group I didn’t mention.

It would be fantastic if we could all stop defining other groups by their assholes.

Yes, it is good to point out various weaknesses in every structure (or lack thereof), and the places where people make most mistakes within them. But for us to reduce any other group to the people within it that do it the worst is unfair and unethical. Each philosophy has its own strengths and weaknesses, and unique system of challenges to overcome. Being aware of these things helps us to know the risks we are taking at any given moment and what to prepare for in the various styles of relationships we might try on.

My purpose in writing to you right now is to communicate what Relationship Anarchy means to me, and what it doesn’t mean to me. Now, other Relationship Anarchists may disagree. That’s one of the terrible and wonderful things about the philosophy. Far be it from me to tell other Relationship Anarchists what they should think about it and how they should do it, or to speak for them. A unified definition is pretty much excluded as a possibility, based on the very nature of the philosophy. So is the idea of any one authority having the power to say exactly what Relationship Anarchy is. That’s kind of the point.

I’ll also make an argument for why I think this is the best way to do Relationship Anarchy, which I will from here on out refer to by its abbreviation, RA. It doesn’t mean anyone has to listen to me, but hopefully they’ll be motivated to do so if they find value in it.

At its most basic level, RA means that no one has any power over anyone else at a fundamental level. We each get to choose what is right for us, the agreements we enter into, and the commitments we’re willing to make, and if and how we’ll uphold them. We can give some powers to others, like the power to impact us emotionally, decisions to live in power-exchange relationships, and the power to move toward greater interdependence in areas like finances, cohabitation, and coparenting. But those powers are always ours. We give them always as gifts. We can take them back at any time.

This is the place where many people balk. It sounds scary to hear that someone you love and care about has the power to break a commitment at any time, to choose to walk away from the things you’ve built together, and to drastically change or scale back the level of intimacy you share without any input from you. It sucks when that happens.

But do hierarchical, monogamous, or any other kind of commitments protect us from this? Do they really? How many of you know someone who got married under vows saying “Till death do us part,” that are now divorced? How many of you know someone who has broken promises or commitments? How many of you have done it? Be honest.

The reality is that any concept of safety we have is ultimately an illusion. Just like anyone could be hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow, so could anyone change in a drastic and fundamental way that makes them incompatible with us, no matter what kinds of precautions we take to avoid that. RA is simply the only philosophy that I have found so far that doesn’t run from that or hide from it. It walks full in the face of that reality and allows for the space to love in authentic ways in spite of it.

Does every RA person do this perfectly? No. Does any RA person do this perfectly? Probably not. We’re human. We all have traumas in our past and places where we hurt, and ideals that we really love but haven’t quite lived up to yet. In my experience, those in the RA world that tend to be abrasive to those outside of it are the ones that have been severely burned by abusive and controlling relationships in their past. They might be hostile to hierarchy because hierarchy has been used as a weapon to control them. They might be hostile to the idea of commitments and agreements because they’ve experienced partners that use those things as a way to make their fears and insecurities their partner’s responsibility instead of their own.

But you know what? They’re allowed to take that space away from intensely committed relationships while they heal, or forever. They’re allowed to set their own boundaries around what they will agree to or not. And if that’s not what you’re looking for, you’re allowed to say no and walk away. What you shouldn’t do is shame them for being afraid or unable to commit. What you shouldn’t do is treat them like the relationships they do have are invalid or not “real.” What you shouldn’t do is assert that this means they are just “using people for pleasure,” and “not caring about anyone else’s feelings.” If they’re honest and up front with you, they don’t owe you closeness or intimacy they don’t want to give.

They don’t owe it to you anyhow, but being dishonest is one of those behaviors that lands people in Camp Asshole. There are some dishonest RA people. There are some RA people still struggling with deep emotional issues that create spaces of blindness and make self-awareness challenging. However, RA people do not have the market cornered on that and it is intellectually dishonest to suggest this is the case. These problems exist in every philosophy and every place on Earth where humans are.

But this is the gem I find in the middle of all of that. RA actually means people can be assholes. They can. They will, no matter what pet name they are giving their asshole behavior today. But it also empowers you to walk away from assholes. It empowers you to find relationships that fulfill you and make you happy. It means that there is absolutely no requirement to give second chances, to be emotionally available for someone who is hurting you, or to be understanding and patient with people who are treating you like shit. Instead of trying to guilt, shame, or force assholes to stop being assholes, it gives you the freedom to leave the assholes to deal with their own mess. It’s up to them to clean it up, not you.

Now, you can still choose to give those second chances. That’s up to you. You can choose to be patient and compassionate. I do these things all the time because I want to in the part of me that knows what is best for me in the long run. I prefer to act thoughtfully rather than on impulse because my experience has shown me that is usually what works best. People that are unforgiving and cruel often lose friends. But I also take responsibility for the risk I take in trusting someone who has already betrayed me. They’ve shown me what they’re capable of. It’s on me to decide if I want to give them that power again or not. The beauty and the terror of this philosophy is that no one call tell you what is right for you. Well, they can, but you don’t have to listen, and they’re probably wrong.

I actually feel a lot more security in this system. Seems paradoxical right? But think about it. Would you want someone to stay with you, even if they didn’t want to, just because of a commitment they made? Would you really want to have someone in your life that feels obligated to spend time with you and give you attention if that isn’t what fulfills them anymore? Would that be fulfilling for you? It might be. But I’m guessing for most of you, it won’t. I’m guessing that most of us want to be with people that want us right back. When I encourage the people in my life to be honest with me, to do what they want, and to set boundaries with me, then every person that I have around is someone that really and truly WANTS to be there. They have their freedom and their choice, and they choose me. If that isn’t a huge honor and a gift, I don’t know what is. I also don’t really want anything less. Why would I want to spend my own time and energy on someone who doesn’t want me (which is a valid choice for some people, even if I don’t understand it)?

Rather than extracting illusions of security for the future, I feel security in this moment that the person spending time with me is here because they haven’t chosen anything else, and they didn’t want to. One of the biggest gifts a person can give me is their unfiltered heart and soul. But in order to get that, I have to be willing to stare in the face of the things that might hurt me, the places they might reject me, and the things they don’t share mutual desire for. And I have to love and accept all of that if I want them to feel safe showing it to me. I really can’t think of any better way to show I truly treasure someone than to appreciate them for who they really are.

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t have your feelings about rejection, broken commitments, or spoiled expectations. However, your feelings are yours. You are responsible for deciding what to do with them. The only person you can control is yourself. Absolutely express your feelings. It hurts and it sucks to be rejected or told “no.” Be authentic. But consent is important. Your feelings do not mean you get to control another person. Your feelings do not make it okay to degrade them or abuse them. The fact that your feelings are about them do not mean they are obligated to engage with you about those feelings. You may need to express yourself to someone else. And I agree, they probably are a bad partner for you if you have a lot of needs they aren’t meeting. But the correct conclusion following that observation is not to pressure them to be a better partner for you if they don’t want to. Some correct possibilities might be to leave them, to transition your relationship to something less intimate, or to see if they are willing to negotiate different behavior in the future.

You can always set your own boundaries. They can always set theirs. You don’t owe them anything. They don’t owe you anything. It is shitty if they try to control you. It is shitty if you try to control them. Humans are messy, and sometimes people get hurt without anyone doing anything wrong. And I’m with you. That sucks. It’s great to be able to blame someone when we’re hurt. But sometimes there really just isn’t room for blame. We can’t really control how we feel about another person. It doesn’t make any sense to punish someone for their desires changing, and for them to act in accordance with their desires. This doesn’t help anyone to heal and only perpetuates the hurt.

Now, there are people that do this more gracefully than others. Some people like to set the world aflame, burn all their bridges, and leave a nuclear wasteland in their wake. Those people live with the consequences of that. It might be worth it to them. It’s why I move slowly with people who seem to be surrounded by a great many “hot spots.” Believe people when they show you who they are, even with other people. You aren’t special. Expect that they will treat you the way they treated their other partners. Sometimes people change, but change is a really slow and painstaking process. Setting up your own defense against high-risk people is your responsibility.

Now here’s where I get really contentious. I think someone can be RA and still participate in a hierarchy. Yup. You read correctly. It’s actually not that crazy of an idea. I believe that an RA person can participate in hierarchy just like I believe someone can be RA and participate in a 24/7 Total Power Exchange (TPE). An RA person can choose what agreements they make. They don’t have to avoid commitments forever and always to be RA. Personally, I don’t see any good reason to choose hierarchy. But other people might. That is their right. The important part is that everyone involved is choosing it, willingly and with information that is as complete as possible. This includes secondaries joining up with a hierarchically partnered person. Know what you are getting into. Don’t agree to stuff you don’t want. Don’t blame anyone else for the risks you take. Some relationship mistakes and hurts are part of the learning curve in how we figure out how to love other people. Sometimes we’ll get burned. That’s when we start learning to avoid the type of people that burn us.

The important part is choice. Just like an ethical 24/7 TPE should have some kind of safeword in place for renegotiation or termination of the relationship, so should hierarchies have these structures in place. People can negotiate away their power in limited and temporary ways based on their preferences and the kinds of lifestyle they really want to live. But it is important to remember that consent overrides everything else. Always. Anything else is (nonconsensual) slavery. Anything else is abuse. If you can’t safeword out of your own hierarchical dynamic, something is toxic and needs to be addressed.

All of this makes RA a pretty broad umbrella, maybe so much so as to make the idea meaningless to some people. But I really like a definition that is this simple, and this powerful. The idea that each and every person out there has the right to choose their life path, to change their mind, to do what they want to do, it’s scary. It’s a lot of power. It’s a lot of responsibility. But there is no other place I’d rather live from. I own my mistakes. I own my successes. I don’t have a predetermined path set out for me. It isn’t easy. It isn’t comfortable. But my goodness the adventures I’ve had, the lessons I’ve learned, and the joy and fulfillment I’ve gained out of life. I wouldn’t trade it for all the security in the world.

Because RA might not be quite so much a relationship philosophy as it is a philosophy of life. See reality for what it is. Radically accept it and radically move within it in the way that is right for you. How we relate to others is an extension of how we relate to ourselves. Do you give yourself the right to choose? Do you embrace freedom and personal empowerment?

I trust myself to make choices. I trust myself to be able to deal with the consequences of my choices. I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t trust me with these things.

Relationship Anarchy means I choose. Relationship Anarchy means you choose. Relationship Anarchy means we choose. That’s all.

Hard Polyamorous Truths

You may be thinking about trying polyamory for the first time, or you may have already started. Below are a few observations from a fellow traveler about some of the hurdles that must be crossed if one wants to keep at it. As you will see, I don’t think they mean people should avoid polyamory, but I think it is good to know and understand the risks you are taking on some level before you jump in. Some people aren’t ready for these challenges. Those people are going to struggle a lot harder with polyamory than others. Some people aren’t ready, but then rise to the occasion when the obstacle presents itself. Those people are the ones that can use polyamory for something positive. Actually, no one is really ready, but the willingness to grow, change, and keep moving, even if you are moving at a snail’s pace, is what will help you navigate your relationships, and your life in general, even if you decide polyamory isn’t your thing.  With that being said, here are some of the “ugly truths” about polyamory that people may not warn you about up front.

1) Polyamory will change you, and it will change the people you are close to.

Relationships are a mirror that help us to view ourselves through the eyes of another person. Other people are also infinitely variable, and no two people will reflect the same image back to us. As poetic and cheesy as the previous two concepts might sound, they are extremely true, and extremely relevant to anyone who enters a polyamorous relationship. The more people you have to relate to, the more you learn about the ways you relate to others, what feels good and what doesn’t, and what you really want out of life and relationships.

This can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, having more experience will help you to find more relationships that work for you, but on the other hand, the way to gain that experience is usually through making a lot of mistakes first, which can be a painful growth process (see point 3). The increased opportunities to learn raise the chances that you will be able to do more growth and actualization if you are prepared to do that kind of work, but they also raise the possibility that you and the people around you will grow into and out of relationships at different rates than anyone planned for or expected (see point 2).

Even if you ultimately decide polyamory isn’t for you, a person that you are in love with may decide it is very much for them. In that case, you will need to decide if you want to remain connected to someone who is poly while they have polyamorous relationships, see if they are willing to lead a monogamous lifestyle with you, or accept the reality that the two of you have now become incompatible, which means that you will still be leaving your polyamorous experience with a lot of changes to process and deal with.

It is a rare person or couple who can come to polyamory and walk away for any reason without having learned something new about themselves and/or their partner(s) that they can’t unsee.

2) If you enter polyamory in a relationship, even if the two of you intend to be primaries and lifemates, you are not safe from having that relationship change or end, even if neither of you does anything wrong.

Humans are humans. We change, sometimes drastically and very quickly. Our hearts are fickle, and there are many things about ourselves and the world we don’t know. No matter what our intentions are, sometimes we simply don’t know and aren’t prepared for what the world gives to us. This can mean falling out of love with someone we were absolutely convinced we’d spend the rest of our life with. This can mean falling deeply in love with a new person in a way that we never thought we could accomplish while still being in love with another.

The harsher version of this harsh truth: You should mistrust people making promises to you about “always” or “never.” They might be right, and they might be able to hold to those promises, but those promises can easily become something toxic, especially if they were made in a different mindset than the one a person is currently in. If someone promises to “always love you more than anyone else,” then it is very likely going to feel like a betrayal if they fall in love with someone on comparable if not identical levels. If someone says, “I’ll never want to have children with anyone but you,” it is likely going to feel like a betrayal if they meet someone amazing and suddenly have a strong desire to have children with that person.

These kinds of promises can also be a cage. If I promise to want to be by your side forever, I may feel guilty if I fall out of love and if I decide I want to leave. I may stay in a relationship that doesn’t feel good to me anymore (which isn’t fair to me or to you). I may feel like I have betrayed you and that I am an awful person for that.

The bottom line is that life and people are unpredictable. You may feel dead certain of something today. That doesn’t mean tomorrow is going to look like you think it will. It is better to avoid the comfort and temptation of making or asking for these kinds of promises. It is better to ask people not to make them to you and to refuse to make them yourself. Leave yourself and the people in your life room to grow. You’ll be happier for it in the long run, even if things get scary and challenging in the middle.

Now, there are some things, like treating people with respect, consent, and the best form of love they have available to them at the time, that seem like they might be reasonable to make these kinds of promises for. This is understandable. But people still fuck up. If someone acts disrespectfully, violates your consent, or treats you in cruel and unloving ways, this is already going to suck. Do you want the additional feelings of betrayal over a broken promise on top of that?

Humans are generally really bad at predicting themselves, their feelings, and their future behavior. This effect will multiply with added people. Be prepared for that. Make space for that.

3) You will likely experience more heartbreak, and it can even happen in more than one relationship at once.

Polyamory may be attractive to some people because they are looking for relationships that fill perceived gaps in their lives, or needs that aren’t being met. However, polyamory rarely acts as a fix for problems that are more adequately solved with personal growth. People may not take into account that if the possibility of one relationship ending is frightening, then it is exponentially more difficult to deal with more than one ending at the same time, or in quick succession.

This isn’t to say this is a guaranteed outcome for anyone who explores polyamory, but it is wise to make sure one is exploring polyamory for the right reasons. Polyamory will not fix insecurities, fulfill empty places in your heart, or do anything to fix an otherwise broken or toxic relationship. Polyamory is relationships on advanced mode. Instead of learning to communicate well and interact in a satisfying way with one other person, you have to learn more than one person at a time. Each individual is a universe unto themselves, and it is even more difficult to develop and maintain healthy intimacy with more than one other person than it is with one other person.

I talked in point 1 about how polyamory changes people. It is very relevant to this point as well. On top of keeping track of relationships to two other individuals that can grow and change at their own pace, you will need to be able to keep track of your own change and growth. Sometimes, you will find that you grow right out of all the relationships you are in at the moment, and that they either need to change or end for you to move forward in a healthy way. Being able to process and accept such a massive change is one of the most difficult and potentially most rewarding things that can happen in one’s life, and polyamory, in my experience, makes this sort of event far more likely to happen. It is good to be prepared, as much as one can be, for this possibility.

One of the quickest lessons many people who are new to poly learn is that you are ultimately learning how to have a good relationship with yourself. If you can’t do that, you are going to struggle to succeed in other relationships. Even though we all need love and affection and support as social creatures, we quickly learn that we can’t rely on those things from others to feel fulfilled. Learning how to self-soothe is important, especially when we take the risk of having our heart broken in more than one place at once.

4) Polyamorous people are not all enlightened relationship experts. There are still predators, otherwise toxic people, and holier-than-thou judgmental individuals in every community.

In my experience, many poly people and communities spend a lot of time thinking about relationships, how they relate to one another, and finding ways to do it all better. To an outsider coming into a community or interacting with other poly people for the first time, it can feel like you’ve stumbled into a nest of insight and enlightenment.

There almost assuredly is a lot of value and positive things to learn from these people. They probably do have perspectives you will benefit from.

However, it is good to remember that everybody grows in different areas at different paces. Someone who is incredibly enlightened and emotionally mature in one area can regress to a frustrating and childlike immaturity and irrationality in another.

Because of this, you will need to do your own work as well as learning from the work of others. You will need to learn to be able to discern the kinds of things that are right for you and what kinds of things won’t work for you at all. No one can do this for you. People you look up to might tell you you’re wrong, and they might be wrong. You won’t be able to just rely on other people to tell you how to do relationships right. Many of us are still learning. The wisest ones will recognize that, but even those people fuck up from time to time too. If something doesn’t feel right, pay attention to it. It could very well be that you have things you’re avoiding, but it could also very well be that something is wrong, even if a more experienced person is telling you everything is fine.

5) I’ve missed some pitfalls here.

These are just the main dangers that I’ve noticed that await the person trying out a polyamorous lifestyle for the first time. I’m one person, and this is a large, still-somewhat-uncharted territory. New philosophy about love and relationships is springing out of the polyamory world every day. Old philosophy that didn’t catch on right away or only caught on in isolated communities is just now finding its way to the mainstream and social media world. Not all of the mistakes have been made. I’m going to keep making mistakes. You’re going to keep making mistakes. The people you love are going to keep making mistakes. Our information will always be somewhat incomplete.

However, there is a bright side to all these hard truths, one that is a hard truth itself. They’re all necessary. The pain, the fear, the doubt, these are all tools we can work with to find our way to better selves and better relationships. Finding these truths out the “hard way” is often the best way, and sometimes the only way, to get to a much better place. As hard as these things will be to manage in their time, you can do it. If you really want to do better, none if this can stop you. If you really feel it in yourself to love not only multiple other people, but yourself as well, these are likely the price you will have to pay.

It’s been worth it for me. You are the only one that will decide if it is worth it for you.