Tactics of Intelligent Bullies

Intelligence is wonderful. It can challenge us, impress us, seduce us. It comes in all kinds of forms. It is easy to believe that if a person is intelligent that they will excel at everything. But intelligence alone is not enough. By itself it cannot make a compassionate or ethical person. That’s what I want to discuss – Intelligent Bullies. I hope to show you how to recognize when an intelligent person is being a bully and what to do about it.

It is important to remember that many people who are being harmful are not fully aware they’re doing it, or that it is wrong, even highly intelligent people. Sometimes it is because they aren’t emotionally intelligent or don’t have the awareness to realize how their actions are affecting others. Others may actually believe they are the one being attacked and are merely defending themselves. Many intelligent people were outcast and bullied as children and may even continue to be outcast and bullied as adults for being different. It can be incredibly lonely and isolating having a higher level of intelligence than those around you. Just because someone is intelligent in one or more ways doesn’t necessarily mean they have the emotional or interpersonal intelligence to relate to others in healthy ways.

Why am I telling you this? One reason is to give you a glimpse into why an intelligent bully might be acting the way they are. They may have developed their bullying tactics as a defense mechanism against a world that has been very cruel to them. Chances are they aren’t necessarily evil or intentionally being unethical.

However, this does not excuse cruel or nonconsensual behavior. Using intelligence and deliberately confusing, insulting, or gaslighting other people is unethical, and likely even more dangerous than when the average person does it. An intelligent person can hide these tactics really well, and can use gaslighting to convince you or the people around you that you are the one that is being a bully, being unethical, or doing the gaslighting. An intelligent person will be able to rationalize their behavior more quickly, and find more plausible reasons for explaining away their actions. They will also be better at distracting you and pulling you off topic. They may even be so experienced with button-pushing as to be able to goad you into acting or speaking more aggressively or unethically than you normally do, thereby giving more justification for the image they try to paint of you as illogical, hypocritical, or dangerous.

In some ways, Intelligent Bullies aren’t any different from run-of-the-mill bullies. Ultimately, bullying is about devaluing another person and putting oneself in a position of power and control over that person rather than communicating on an equal, person-to-person level. A bully will be more concerned with “winning” an argument rather than reaching an understanding as part of a discussion. A bully will find a way to paint you as a “bad,” “stupid,” “selfish,” or “unreasonable” person rather than addressing concerns with you in a productive and compassionate way.

The intelligent ones can just be trickier to spot and defend against.

I’m not saying I have all the answers. I’m writing this because I believe I’ve encountered a number of these people, and I see the damage they can do to others, themselves, and communities at large. I don’t know many good ways to defend yourself from them other than to stay as far away from them as you can if you see signs of them behaving in these ways. However, sometimes you’re already in too close to escape without fallout by the time you figure it out. The best strategy I’ve come up with so far is just to get out as soon as you can as fast as you realize it, and to stop engaging with them no matter how tempting it might be or how frustrated they manage to make you. Don’t allow them to inspire you to act in ways you’re not proud of. At this point in time, many communities don’t have an infrastructure to recognize and deal with adult-on-adult bullying, especially when one or more parties is highly intelligent. I hope that changes. In the meantime, you may need to be prepared to end up dealing with bullies alone without the aid of the people in charge.

Hopefully at some point in the future, I will be able to create a post to detail better ways of neutralizing bullying and protecting oneself and others when it happens.

The following list is in no particular order. Some of the concepts may overlap a bit. I actually may come back and edit this at a later date and I welcome feedback as far as things I can add or strategies I can share with others to deal with bullies.

-An Intelligent Bully will speak in snarky, sarcastic, or condescending tones intended to make you feel stupid. I do not believe consent culture has reached a point of explicitly dealing with this sort of interpersonal violence being considered a consent violation yet, but I hope that it does someday. Dynamics of emotional consent and emotional violence are going to be even harder to clarify than physical ones, so it may be a while. (Note for this and all other points that some adults may agree to engage in these dynamics as part of a mutually consensual power-exchange relationship. I am not talking about those people here. All of my points are meant specifically to address behavior that is not consented to and that the recipient doesn’t want.) The important thing to remember is that you have a choice in the people you will engage with, always. If someone is speaking to you in a way you don’t like, you have the power to walk away, and I encourage you to do so regularly. Whenever you let someone talk down to you or be intentionally insulting toward you without calling them out on it or stopping the conversation immediately, you are teaching them that they can get away with treating people (specifically you) like that. This bullet point includes cruel or disparaging jokes directed at you, labels you may identify with, or even labels they apply to you without your agreement. It can also include other signals like sighing, rolling their eyes, or making overly dramatic indications that you are trying their patience or that things “should be obvious.” These are devaluing tactics, something I talk about in my post about toxic relationships. If you notice this happening, the best way to deal with it is probably to immediately stop and walk away from a conversation if someone refuses to speak to you respectfully. Tell them you will readdress the conversation after an hour, a day, or a week if and only if they are willing to treat you with compassion and as an equal.

-An Intelligent Bully will rapidly shift the topic of conversation, often reversing concerns about mistreatment back on you without ever addressing your initial concern. For instance, you might say, “I really don’t like when you talk to me like that, can you please use a more respectful tone,” they might respond immediately with, “Why are you trying to control the way I talk? If you can’t take the heat, then maybe you’re not cut out to have discussions about difficult subjects.” Notice that this puts you immediately on the defensive, and does not try to relate to you about your concern. Bullies are not interested in relating to you as a fellow person. They are invested in doing whatever they want with no consequences. Learning a little bit about argumentative fallacies can help you here, but this often happens too quickly to pick up on in the heat of a conversation. Straw men, red herrings, missing the point, and moving the goalposts are all really common tactics and pretty hard to call out in the moment. They keep you constantly on the defensive, and will quickly move away from anything that challenges their superiority or “rightness.” If you notice this happening, the best way to deal with it might be to reiterate your initial point, and then refuse to discuss anything else until they explicitly address your point. If they seem unwilling to do this, or start trying to paint you as stubborn or irrational, leave the conversation. This may be very challenging to do in the moment, but it is generally never too late to walk away.

-Similarly to the point above, an intelligent bully can be well-versed in consent culture language, dynamics of abuse, and politics of oppression. They may very well use their marginalized identities against you and create situations where nothing you say is “right” or “valid” because you are in a position of privilege. BE CAREFUL HERE. Don’t get caught in the trap of defending your own privilege. Instead, make sure to acknowledge your privilege and understand the increased challenges that people in marginalized positions have. Make sure you are not leveraging your privilege and that you are legitimately allowing the other person time to speak and express concerns. However, your privilege doesn’t take away any of your fundamental rights as a human being. If someone is being disrespectful to you, shouting you down and not allowing you to talk, or talking down to you like you are stupid, this is not a healthy situation. It may very well come out of their own pain, trauma, and lack of resources, but it does not mean that you need to allow them to take their frustration, pain, and rage out on you. Please remember that most people with marginalized identities will not use those identities as a power play. The most common way that I have seen this, however, has very little to do with marginalized identities and a lot more to do with the language of consent and abuse. Intelligent Bullies will be adept at treating boundaries you set as attempts to control them, and will subsequently make you feel as if you are the one violating them by daring to ask them to stop. Intelligent Bullies will make you doubt your own perception and intelligence, and when you call this out as the gaslighting that it is, they will tell you that isn’t what they meant, it’s not their fault you’re too stupid to understand, and now you’re the one gaslighting them by projecting intent they didn’t mean into their behavior. This is an EXTREMELY delicate point. Be mindful of the boundaries the person you are talking with sets, even if you think they are only doing so out of spite or to make you look like the bad guy. The fact that they may be unreasonable with their boundaries (intentionally or not) it is not an excuse to violate their boundaries. Walk away. Admit that perhaps the two of you are incapable of having a productive or ethical discussion with one another. You don’t owe anyone conversation. Make sure to talk with other victims of abuse or marginalized people to check your privilege and behavior following the conversation (if they are willing to engage you) to figure out if you were contributing to oppression or doing some bullying yourself. I cannot stress enough how important it is to be careful when dealing with suspected bullying based on marginalized identities. It will likely be up to others with similar identities (read: not you) to call them out. The best you can do is walk away.

-On the opposite end of the spectrum, an intelligent bully is likely very aware of your own socialization and oppression, and can use their privilege or power over you in social settings much more fluidly and invisibly than their less intelligent counterparts. They may go out of their way to be incredibly respectful and clear-speaking to people in power around you or your friends, and only use aggressive, confusing, or devaluing techniques when the two of you are alone. They may pull other people into the conversation to gang up on you if they know your philosophy, identity, or concerns aren’t things that your local community knows how to deal with or is actively uncomfortable with, and use this situation to leverage respectability politics against you. In other words, they may frame you as being disrespectful or troublesome because something you believe is not consistent with the predominant view of your social group or community. Bullies that know how to do this are very dangerous, because they often know how to craft a strong position and be a well-respected person in a given social group. This makes it infinitely harder to call them out on unethical behavior, especially since other people have only seen them at their best. Unfortunately, at this point, I don’t know any way of dealing with this technique other than to cut and run away from the social group entirely. If a bully is able to triangulate successfully, and is intelligent enough to manipulate social dynamics to do it, there are very few people at all, or even leaders, who have any idea how to spot this or protect people against it. If you are willing to take the risk of being outspoken about your experiences with the bully, you may eventually act as a beacon to others who have had similar experiences, but that is a risk you will have to decide whether to take on your own.

-One way that Intelligent Bullies confuse their targets is by intentionally using jargon, extremely high-level vocabulary, specialized language without defining or setting the context, or using inside jokes that require a lot of context to understand. Now, as someone who has occasionally been teased for “using big words,” this isn’t always a bullying tactic. Sometimes intelligent people get passionate and don’t realize they’re going over someone’s head. The important thing to pay attention to is not that they use hefty vocabulary, but how they behave when you ask them to clarify. An intelligent person who is invested in communicating with you should be able to simplify, define, and clearly explain what they’re talking about. They may have to drop some breadth, depth, or nuance to do so, but they shouldn’t act as if it is shocking and unacceptable that you don’t already understand, or start treating you as if you are too stupid to get it. As I said above, disrespectful tones or trying to make you feel stupid should not enter the exchange. A good defense I’ve developed for this is to very clearly ask someone to “explain it to me like I’m five years old.” If they seem unable or unwilling to do it, this is probably a conversation you want to discontinue.

-A similar tactic to the vocabulary one above is that some Intelligent Bullies will type up mountains of text or craft long-winded and artistic-sounding responses that ultimately don’t have a lot of quality content in them. It might sound or look pretty, but it is either vague and confusing to follow, or it doesn’t arrive at a point. Give a real effort to understand what they’ve said or written, but don’t be afraid to ask them to give you their summary, “bottom line,” or to explain to you what the goal or point of the communication was. They should be able to do this. You may also be able to say things like, “I didn’t quite follow what you meant by ‘quote quote quote,’ would you be willing to try saying it in a different way?” If they seem unable or unwilling to do so, it may be a sign that they either don’t understand themselves exactly the point they were trying to make and have trouble articulating it, or they are deliberately trying to confuse you. I highly recommend avoiding people who find themselves completely unable to explain themselves clearly and in plain language. These habits can serve as an intimidation technique as well as being used to confuse others, and helps to keep Intelligent Bullies safe from being called out by most people.

-An Intelligent Bully is not interested in cooperative communication. This means that no matter how many times you try to correct for your wrongdoings, they may refuse to acknowledge, address, or repair for any of the harm they have done. They will be unwilling to work toward a mutually beneficial repair, and will keep all of the negative attention on you while making it all about their needs and their desires. If you admit to doing something incorrectly, they may cling to that and use it as a weapon going forward, or they may find something else to berate you about. They will not acknowledge the strength it took you to apologize, nor will they likely take any notice of or comment on anything positive you’ve done in the conversation. Even if you concede to absolutely all of their points, they may take this as an opportunity to gloat, make fun of you for being “stupid,” or proceed to completely ignore you instead of thanking you for acknowledging their points. This is again another situation where the only real solution I have is to walk away. If you point out that they are not contributing anything cooperative or positive to the conversation, or admitting any of their own wrongdoing, they will point out that they don’t owe that to you and then reframe the focus again on what you’ve done wrong and how you’re the one attacking them. Intelligent Bullies are “bad winners” and are unlikely to leave you a graceful retreat even if you admit to wrongdoing.

-An intelligent bully may apply a label to you that you don’t identify with, and they may use disparaging stereotypes of those labels or labels you actually identify with to devalue you. Overgeneralizing is an unethical tactic, and an intelligent bully may use it to reduce your identity and position to a straw man in their head or for the people around you, which they then make fun of or tear down and refuse to acknowledge any of the nuance in your position. You may be able to combat this by repeating something akin to, “That’s not what I believe,” over and over again. My experience, however, is that even if they concede that you don’t believe that, they may argue that most [people of X label] believe that or “real”[people of X label] believe that, and will likely continue to use the straw man stereotyping in future conversations, even if they stop for the one you’re currently in. Again, the best strategy upon recognizing this pattern is just to disengage and avoid, although you may have some success if you can manage to get them to agree to not use certain buzzwords or labels.

-An Intelligent Bully may get a rush out of causing frustration and anger, and may intentionally push others’ buttons just for the thrill of it. One of the ways you may be familiar with this behavior is through the idea of a “troll.” Bullies of this kind often announce themselves, and are proud of this as a sport. This is not ethical behavior. If a bully is doing something to you that pushes your buttons or triggers you even after being asked to stop, then refuse to converse with them after that point. Once they figure out a way to push your buttons, it is incredibly easy for them to re-trigger you and incredibly difficult for you to get out of the emotional rut caused by this interaction. This is, in my mind, the worst kind of bully (intelligent or otherwise), because they are literally getting pleasure out of the (nonconsensual) misery that they cause for others. There may still be insecurities and defense mechanisms running under their motivation to do this, but instead of their harmful behavior serving only a defensive purpose for themselves (and causing harm to follow), they also take pleasure in hurting others. Run like hell, block them, do everything possible to not engage with this person again. My experience of people with this tendency is that they usually eventually do it to everyone around them, and they are generally human wrecking balls of drama, but they get to seem cool as a clam while everyone around them is triggered and furious. People who hurt others, against their consent, simply for their own pleasure or amusement are the worst kind of toxic person. People are not toys. Don’t let anyone treat you like a toy. They may defend their behavior by telling you that you need to “get a sense of humor,” “don’t bring a knife to a gun fight,” or “need to stop being so sensitive.” None of these things are valid excuses or justifications for treating you in ways you have asked them to stop doing. This is a consent violation. Full stop. It may mean you need to avoid engaging with them, even if you see them doing it to other people that you would wish to defend. That sucks. It really sucks. However, you need to make sure to take care of your own mental health before doing battle with bullies. If a bully is picking on someone you care about, it can take a great deal of self-control not to get sucked in yourself. Obviously, standing up and calling things out is a good way to stop bullying, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of your own mental health or safety.

-Just like with any other type of bully, an intelligent bully is also likely to make threats. Within alternative communities, these can take the form of threatening to reveal someone’s identity or “out” someone against their will. They can also take the form of threatening to spread rumors (true or not) with the intention of turning your friends, partners, or community leaders against you. I don’t have too much to add on top of this general idea that threats are bad and indicate that you are dealing with a bully. Intelligent Bullies are likely to just be more sophisticated with their threats, and more likely to be able to behave in ways that are harder to prove or trace back to them.

-Intelligent Bullies know how to make it look like your boundaries are unreasonable. They may act in friendly or familiar ways after treating you horribly, and act shocked and dismayed when you are no longer interested in being around them. They are able to appear to “take the moral high ground” of “they’ll come around when they’re ready,” to people who ask about it, but they won’t usually be willing to discuss real repair or acknowledge the harm or hurt they’ve caused. They will expect you to forgive them or to believe that their actions were justified (thus, you have no right to be angry) without them doing any work at all.

-One of the things an Intelligent Bully will often do when you try to set boundaries with them or leave an abusive conversation is to insinuate that you are a coward for not wanting to speak with them. They might indicate that your silence or lack of response means they are “right,” and that if you really had a valid point, you would be willing to keep engaging with them. They will use your boundaries as an excuse to call you a bad communicator or pick on you and make fun of you for “not being able to take the heat.” They will always find a way to have the last word, even if you have asked them to stop politely. They are doing this to keep you engaged, and the only real defense against it is to let them have the last word and not to re-engage. The above-mentioned button pushing will probably be used in these sorts of situations in an attempt to get you to respond to them. It can be incredibly difficult to ignore, so if you want to, you may have to take to the extremes of blocking or completely avoiding this person.

-On the flip side of the previous point, Intelligent Bullies will often also accuse the people they are arguing with of “trying to get the last word” even when they themselves continually rebut. I almost never see someone who is actually in an argument use this phrase who isn’t themselves interested in having the last word. This is a way a bully can shame you into silence, by making you feel as if you are unreasonable to keep discussing with them. And then they very may well use the point before this one to shame you for your silence as well.

Many of these points are difficult to remember and enact. Intelligent Bullies don’t want to make it easy to get away from their sphere of control or to set boundaries with them. Many of the tactics have roots in valid ideas about communication. For instance, it is probably a good idea to avoid someone who always stops a conversation dead in its tracks the minute challenging topics come up for them. However, the consent-based response to that is to simply stop having conversations with that person. The bullying response of teasing them, insulting them, or intentionally pushing their buttons for leaving conversations is not okay. Bullies will use the social stigma against “drama” and cutting people off to make you look like the bad guy when you avoid them or relate your experiences with them to others.

These are not things most people are trained to deal with, including many community leaders. Often, someone who is the target of bullying will get fed up with trying to play fair and start using unethical tactics themselves in a desperate attempt to regain some control. This almost always works to the bully’s advantage. They’ve been doing it longer, they’re better at it, and they know how to spin it to make it look like you’re the one guilty of treating them horribly and that they are just an innocent victim. Even if you don’t lash out or behave unethically in response to them, they may still manage to spin the situation in their favor in a given social group. I cannot stress enough how important it is not to stoop to a bullying level yourself.

It’s entirely possible I’ve used some of these tactics myself when I felt threatened. As a matter of fact, I know I have started engaging in some of these behaviors when I’m confronted with another bully, because it is very tempting to fight fire with fire. Maybe many of you have as well. My intention with this post is not to demonize people, but to recognize unethical behaviors and find ways to start eradicating them from our personal spheres. Sometimes that is really difficult. Managing to stay engaged ethically while being mindful of one’s own mental and emotional health is not an easy task. It is very tempting to punish those who have harmed us, even in small ways. It is my belief that this just perpetuates the cycle of harm, though. I’m not perfect at this yet. I still sometimes get triggered and behave in ways that I’m not proud of. I’ve done it to my friends. It is important to hold ourselves and one another accountable, and to be willing to see where we might be doing harm. It is good to be able to distinguish between someone who is a bully and someone who is slipping up. Someone who is slipping up is able to correct and repair for what they’ve done wrong. Someone who is a bully will not have any interest in this.

Seven Effects of a Toxic Relationship

There are a lot of articles like this.  I’m writing another one because a great many of the articles and posts I’ve read about toxic, unhealthy, or abusive relationships feel incomplete to me.  I’m going to attempt to explain why a lot of the resources I’ve read up until now don’t feel like enough, and how we can start thinking and acting differently about these relationships going forward using seven basic effects that seem to happen to people existing in a toxic framework.  

First and foremost, I want to correct one of the easiest temptations we have when it comes to thinking about toxicity.  It is one that I struggled with for many years, and can still sometimes stumble on today.  You might already know this or it might seem surprising to you.

Toxic people are typically not evil comic-book supervillians.  

When we talk about toxicity, it is good to keep in mind that those who are being toxic or abusive usually either aren’t aware of it, have no idea it’s unhealthy, or don’t have enough resources to grow and change in healthy ways even if they do.  They probably come from toxic and abusive backgrounds themselves, and the way they act is the only way they know how to process their pain and their insecurity.  

What does this mean?

It is more appropriate to ask what doesn’t this mean.  This does not mean that you yourself should become abusive, controlling, or violent to the person in question.  They are usually acting out of hurt, and hurting them further only perpetuates the cycle down the line.  Do what you can to protect yourself, but try to avoid doing more than that in terms of hurting them, or acting out of spite.  You may be able to find ways to set boundaries in compassionate ways, but if you can’t do that, you are always free to leave without any explanation.  Trying to control them or change them in return does not help you and it does not help them.    

But this also does not mean you should feel obligated to stay with someone who is toxic for you.  It doesn’t mean that you need to give them second chances, offer them emotional support, or stay anywhere near them at all.  No matter what their pain looks like, you should make sure that you are taken care of first, and only try to help the other if they genuinely ask for it (their consent is important too) and you feel like you are in a strong place with excess to give (probably unlikely if you are working to overcome a toxic dynamic yourself).   

I want to note at this point that you yourself could also be a toxic person to someone in your life.  This isn’t hard to do.  When someone tries to stay in a relationship with someone they’re incompatible with, it is a near certainty that the relationship will become toxic at some point, for both parties.  As you read this article, try thinking of the signs from the point of view of the person you are in a relationship with as well.  This will help you to figure out from both sides if there are warning signs of a toxic relationship.

With that being said, the thing I would like to focus on in this post is that the signs I give you of a toxic relationship should not be read with intent in mind.  Try to be more concerned with effects.  If a toxic person does not mean to hurt you, that doesn’t change the fact that they are hurting you.  It is the effect that is causing you pain, not necessarily their intent.  The effect is what you need to get away from, no matter how much they mean for their actions to be destructive or not.  

It is also possible that some types of behaviors fit into more than one type of effect.  For instance, nearly all of them have some direct or indirect relationship to the idea of control.  It is not critical to get hung up on exactly which effect a certain behavior has.  If it has one or more of these effects at all, you have a problem.  I will try to provide some examples for each effect, but my categorization will not be perfect.    

Some of these examples might seem insignificant, mundane, or petty.  Keep in mind that we are only just now as a culture learning about the nuances of consent and how it should work.  We are immersed in a culture that has power, authority, and control in its center.  Lots of this may seem to you like “normal” behavior.  Some of these effects may be small indeed, and not all of them necessarily indicate that a relationship has become or will become abusive overall.  That is solely up to the person that is in the relationship to decide for themselves.  Some of us have thicker skins and more patience than others.  However, it does not mean that those who are sensitive or easily hurt should be devalued or that they just need to “toughen up.”  We all deserve the ability to choose relationships (both romantic and otherwise) that feel good to us and that help us to be the kinds of people we want to be.  

You might also realize that you do some of these things to yourself.  This can happen from past toxic relationships or a toxic upbringing, and can make you more vulnerable to other toxic people and relationships in your present and future.  If you catch yourself doing these things to yourself, I highly recommend therapy with a licensed professional.  You deserve to have relationships in which you are treated well, including that which you have with yourself.

I will include some specific examples of each main type of effect, some of which can be observed in the other person, both toward yourself and other people, and some that rely on you being aware of something happening inside yourself.  These lists will not be all-inclusive.  Toxicity likes to hide and can manifest itself in lots of different ways.  Just like I am telling you to do with intent, try not to focus on my specific examples and instead focus on the effects.

The Seven Effects

1. Devaluation

Devaluation is anything that makes you feel “less than.”  When someone insults you or implies that you aren’t as smart as they are, that you wouldn’t be anything without them, or that you are worthless, this is degrading you and devaluing you as a person.  Most of the things that fall under devaluation also fall under the next heading, Doubt.  However, devaluation effects specifically make you doubt your own worth and value as a person, which is incredibly toxic.  When you feel worthless, you are more likely to give up your autonomy and control to people who you think “know better” than you do, or who you perceive to be better people.

Remember intent versus effect: If you are feeling devalued as a result of someone else’s behavior, there is likely a toxic dynamic, whether they are trying to make you feel worthless or not.

Some possible examples:

  • They talk down to you in a condescending way.
  • They insult, mock, or scoff at you or your concerns.
  • They criticize your character rather than focusing on a specific issue at hand.
  • They demonize their exes.
  • They disrespect or treat poorly other people in their life.
  • You feel guilt or shame in yourself when expressing needs.

 

2. Doubt

Doubt is anything that makes you second-guess your own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.  Gaslighting is one of the most well-known and common forms of instilling doubt.  Toxic people can use doubt in many ways, such as rewriting history, telling you that things didn’t happen the way you think they did, or telling you that you are overreacting to something they did that hurt you.  This is one of the places to be careful to read effects rather than intent, because a toxic person may genuinely remember differently from you due to their own cognitive distortions or think that your reactions are inappropriate.  That is why this is also a difficult effect to battle, because we sometimes worry (admirably so) about gaslighting the other person as well.  

A nuance here is how forceful and insistent the person is that their version is superior to yours.  Dangerous statements look like, “I didn’t say that,” or “That’s not what happened,” or “You’re making that all up in your head.”  A better approach if memories are at odds would be, “I don’t remember it that way, but we were both really heated, so let’s try to find some common ground and I will try not to do anything like that in the future,” or “I apologize if I said that to you.  I can’t recall saying that at the moment, but you don’t deserve to hear something like that.”  Memory slips and disagreements over what happened are normal when emotions are high, and can be expected from time to time.  This should not be a regular occurrence or pattern, though.  If you are feeling the need to start audio or video recording your conversations, this might be a sign that toxicity is present and needs to be addressed.  If one or both of you is always so heated as to not remember correctly what has happened, this indicates a serious problem in communication and conflict.

Remember intent versus effect: If you are experiencing a lot of doubt surrounding your relationship and interactions with someone else, there is likely a toxic dynamic.  Some people like to have relationships that are more competitive and employ a lot of aggressive humor, but this should always be understood as a game, and it should only happen when both parties consent to it.  This consent can be revoked by either party at any time, and these dynamics should not be evoking real feelings of doubting one’s self or reality.  

Some possible examples:

  • They tell you how you feel or should feel.
  • They put you on a pedestal and then use that standard to make you doubt your “less than perfect” behavior.
  • They create unrealistic expectations, making “always” or “never” promises.
  • They show resentment at boundaries you place.
  • You feel stress or anxiety about a relationship over long time periods.
  • You repeatedly forgive things that you know are cruel or unethical.
  • You find yourself questioning the quality of the relationship a lot.

 

3. Silence

Silence is a tricky effect to put your finger on, because it plays around the edges of consent.  Everybody deserves to have boundaries respected, including the ability to walk away from a conversation that is too emotionally overwhelming.  You never have to participate in a conversation that you don’t want to, and neither do the people around you.  This is important to remember.  Sometimes silencing techniques do exist in otherwise healthy relationships on a temporary basis when a situation gets too intense.  However, some people use silence as a way to never address problems in a relationship.  They do not have to address the problems, but it is also part of a healthy relationship to be able to communicate openly and authentically with one another.  If, for one reason or another, you or the other person become completely unable to engage with a certain issue on a more extended basis, it is probably a sign that you are incompatible, which is toxic even if neither of you is doing something wrong.  It may be that one or both of you need individual therapy to overcome certain barriers to communication.  Go gently here.  But remember that if you feel like you can never get any resolution, or that a topic that you need to address is constantly avoided, that this is a toxic dynamic.   

Remember intent versus effect: If you are feeling like you cannot get someone to communicate with you about something important, there is likely a toxic dynamic.  Even if they need to set these types of boundaries for their own health and security (which you should respect), it may mean that you need to leave the dynamic to have relationships with people who find it easier to communicate with you.

Some possible examples:

  • They are “high maintenance” in regards to how they must be approached or confronted, they might focus on your technique instead of the problem.
  • They are unwilling to clearly state their desires and intentions.
  • They refuse to talk at all about how previous relationships ended.
  • They don’t come to you directly with concerns or complaints, you always hear things through third parties.
  • They avoid you or avoid talking with you in general.
  • They can only have difficult conversations with the aid of alcohol or other drugs.
  • You find yourself frustrated or helpless to start a discussion.

 

4. Control

Control is present in nearly all these toxic effects, but here I am talking about specifically controlling your behavior.  This category includes things like direct consent violations, not taking “no” for an answer, and pressuring you to do something you don’t want to do.  If at any point you feel like you do not have the power or ability to make your own decisions or set boundaries that you need to set, there is most likely a control dynamic in your relationship.  Threats are included in this category.  This is one of the most widely talked about factors in toxic and abusive dynamics, and I do not feel the need to expand much upon it here.

Remember intent versus effect: If you feel like you are unable to make your own decisions or exercise your own autonomy, there is likely a toxic dynamic.  Some people may have many strict requirements about what they need in a person to be compatible.  It does not mean their needs are unreasonable or invalid, but it also does not obligate you to be that person for them.  

Some possible examples:

  • They violate your consent or physical boundaries.
  • They get jealous easily and use that to control you.
  • They make threats or demands toward you.
  • They talk about you in ownership terms.
  • They pressure you to get closer to them than you want to get.
  • They have double standards regarding what kind of behavior is acceptable from each of you.
  • They try to make rules for you that you don’t agree to.
  • You find yourself afraid to set boundaries.
  • You feel like you must do something you don’t want to do to salvage the relationship.

 

5. Deception

Deception includes lying by comission, where someone tells you something that they know isn’t true.  But it also includes lies of omission, where a person doesn’t necessarily tell you something untrue, but they leave out important information that might significantly change the way you interact with them.  

An example to illustrate this concept is that some people have different boundaries around information and what they need to know in order to feel safe and consent to a relationship.  People with stricter boundaries who require more sharing of information are not being unreasonable.  For instance, if someone you are close to does not like to inform you about their sexual behavior, that is something they should state up front, and let you choose whether to engage with them sexually or not.  If you need to know about their sexual behavior in order to have a relationship with them, they are deceiving you if they agree to this or accept the information without then telling you that they have no intention to inform you.  They may feel like it is “not your business.”  That is a boundary they can set, but it needs to be done explicitly.  Anyone can also set boundaries around being intimate with people who have high need for privacy.  You do not owe them sexual intimacy if you are not comfortable with the level of disclosure they are willing to provide.  If someone doesn’t want to share something with you, they need to at least let you know that they don’t plan to share that information.

Remember intent versus effect: If you are feeling deceived or lied to in a relationship with someone, there is likely a toxic dynamic present, whether they think it is reasonable to share specific information or not.  Trust is important to a healthy relationship, and if you find yourself unable to trust a person in your life, it is not a good idea to stay close to that person.

Some possible examples:

  • They have a history of lying to or cheating on people.
  • They lie to you.
  • They demand high levels of privacy or secrecy between their mutual friends, for instance getting upset if you talk to friends about the relationship.
  • You hear different stories from them and from others around them.

 

6. Blame

Blame is one of the more common toxic patterns, and falls into the areas that may feel petty or insignificant.  It is also a challenging concept to navigate.  We absolutely need to be able to hold people accountable for the ways that they violate our boundaries, and to express emotions we have about the ways they treat us or talk to us.  However, it is important to remember that no one can “make us feel” anything.  We own our own emotions.  We own our own reactions.  Blame is often found when someone who is toxic or abusive is called out for this behavior.  “Well you were so out of control I ‘had’ to take charge of the situation and make you behave.”  There are many options in response to someone’s actions being upsetting to us.  We can walk away or we can set boundaries.  However, if someone chooses to control you in response to their emotions about your behavior, this is not okay.  They should not be making you responsible for their emotions or their actions.  This is blame, and foists the responsibility of their own choices onto someone else.  Someone else being toxic to you is never your fault.  Conversely, blame can manifest from the opposite side, such as when people claim to do things “for your own good,” when you haven’t asked for this.  It shows that they do not see you as responsible for your own behavior and may be an indication that they will not see themselves as responsible for their own behavior in the future, or do not generally see people as being agents or responsible adults.

Remember intent versus effect: If someone else is blaming you for their feelings or actions, there is likely a toxic dynamic present.  They may very well have a lot of strong feelings in reaction to you or what you do, but that is not your responsibility, and you shouldn’t feel like it is. (Please keep in mind that all of this is assuming that you are not violating their consent.  If you are not controlling or attempting to control them, and if their emotions are a result of you not letting them control you, then the responsibility is theirs.  If you are violating their consent, then they have a very good reason to be upset.)  

Some possible examples:

  • They refuse to accept responsibility for their actions.
  • They frame relationships around the concept of need instead of mutual and enthusiastic consent.
  • They display signs of addiction to substances or behaviors.
  • They dismiss your concerns because “their problems are worse.”
  • They project their own feelings or behaviors onto you.
  • They make you responsible for their happiness.
  • They have high levels of insecurity and demand constant reassurance.
  • They tend to manage you or do things “for your own good.”
  • They imply that they are a burden or a bad influence on you and that you are incapable of telling them “no.”
  • You find yourself cleaning up after their messes a lot.
  • You find yourself giving them advice or find them giving you advice a lot.
  • You spend a large amount of time obsessing over the relationship or trying to figure out how you can fix it without involving them in the process.
  • It seems like all the problems in the relationship are “your fault” and the entire responsibility for fixing them is put on you, rather than making a team effort.

 

7. Confusion

Confusion can be very similar to doubt and deception, but this is the category that most clearly illustrates that effects are more important than intent, and there is a reason I am distinguishing it from the other two.  It is one of the most “passive” categories.  Confusion happens, in its most basic form, when a person is a hypocrite.    A toxic person may genuinely think they are living by their high ideals.  They may not even be going out of their way to convince you of this (which might more accurately fall under gaslighting).  Their reputation might precede them, as is the case with many “big personalities” and deep thinkers.  But this doesn’t change the fact that when someone’s words and actions don’t line up, it makes it hard to call them out and to believe our own perceptions.  If we are motivated to think highly of someone, and to give them the benefit of the doubt, it can be really hard to recognize that they are doing the exact opposite of what they claim to be doing much of the time.  We might think they are unaware they’re doing it, and that is possibly the case.  But if this type of thing is hurting us, we are absolutely justified in leaving, no matter how well someone talks their talk.

Remember intent versus effect: If you are feeling confused and unable to put your finger on what a person is doing that is making you uneasy or hurt, there is likely a toxic dynamic.  If their actions and words don’t seem to line up or if their behavior doesn’t seem to make sense, this is an important red flag that something may be amiss.  

Some possible examples:

  • Their actions and words don’t line up.
  • They don’t seem able to be honest with themselves.
  • They keep bringing up an issue that you thought was resolved.
  • When having a discussion, they shift the topics rapidly to avoid resolving individual issues, otherwise known as “Moving the Goalposts.”
  • You feel like you are getting mixed signals.

 

Now, there is a lot of nuance in talking about power, consent, and boundaries.  These things can be complicated and confusing.  I’ve given some examples above, but I’d like to talk about them more in depth.  Everyone has a right to set boundaries.  Actually, I’d say everyone has a responsibility to set boundaries.  This is the only way we can communicate authentically with one another.  I’d even go so far as to say that most toxic relationships exist because people either fail to set clear boundaries, or ignore unclear boundaries even if they notice them.  They might not clearly set boundaries because they are afraid the other person will leave them if they do.  They might ignore unclear boundaries because they want something out of the relationship and don’t want to understand that the other person doesn’t want it the same way.

Please start setting boundaries.  The people in a relationship are more important than the relationship.  Always.  In order to be able to give consent to a relationship, the people within it must have a clear and accurate picture of who the other person is, to the best of their ability to communicate, in each moment.  It is a form of deception to not set boundaries with someone, and it opens to the door to feeling consistently violated when someone walks all over boundaries that were never told to them in the first place.  

In my observation, most toxic relationships are a result of one or both people deciding that their ability to stay in the relationship is more important than respecting the consent and well-being of the other person.  This is, on some level, understandable.  Our culture is riddled with examples of violating boundaries that seem completely normal.  “If you loved me you would….,” “I’m doing this for your own good,” “You should want to…..”  The dominant cultural romantic narrative is one of sacrifice and martyrdom for the ones we care for.  Because we have grown up in such a culture, these kinds of things seem normal, or even desireable.  However, I have not observed many cases of relationships governed by this narrative being healthy or sustainable.

Here’s the thing.  What you want is valid.  What they want is also valid.  If what you want and what they want are incompatible, then the two of you are incompatible.  That sucks, but it’s true.  Neither of you is a horrible person for not wanting what the other person wants.  However, if you decide to try to change yourself to fit another person, or if you decide to try to get another person to change to fit you, you are laying the groundwork for creating something toxic.  Yes, someone you are in a relationship to should want to meet your needs (within reason) and want to bring you happiness (while remembering that your emotions are your own).  But it is YOUR responsibility to find a person that really and authentically wants that.  It is not the responsibility of someone you want in your life to give those things to you just because you want that and you want it specifically from them.  It is not your right or responsibility to try to guilt, pressure, or force them to give it to you.  

While every single person out there deserves love, and deserves relationships that are fulfilling to them, there is not a single person on this planet that owes that to any other person on this planet.  The reality might be that people that are compatible with you are hard to find.  That reality might be challenging, and it might be unfair to you, but it does not entitle to you start pushing other people around to fit into what you want.

This is a long post.  It is long because toxicity is nuanced and rarely completely one-sided.  The only thing this post can do is to help you notice and pay attention to those things that don’t feel right.  It can’t tell you when it is right to leave.  It can’t tell you the best way to protect yourself or keep yourself safe.  It can’t tell you if a relationship is salvageable or not.  It can’t tell you when toxicity crosses the boundary into abuse.  The best that any of us can do in the face of toxic dynamics is to stop participating in them, whether that means setting, enforcing, and respecting boundaries, or whether it means walking away in full.  Ultimately, you are responsible for deciding if something is worth sticking around for or not.  I would encourage you to set high standards for this.

 

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.

Some Common Polyamorous Rookie Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them)

Dear Polyamorous Newbies,

It’s wonderful that you have decided to try something new and scary, something that has the opportunity to expand your horizons and stretch your comfort zone. Welcome to this complex and challenging world, where you are sure to learn something about yourself and/or your relationship(s) whether polyamory becomes a lasting piece of your identity or not.

That being said, there are a number of errors that those new to polyamorous communities often make. One of the biggest and most often talked about is unicorn hunting. This is a situation where a couple decides to look for a third person to form a triad in an unequal balance of power. This is often a heterosexual couple looking for an attractive bisexual female. Since this has already been written about many times, I recommend doing some of your own reading on that subject if you aren’t already familiar about it, but I will not be focusing on that here.

What I am here to talk to you about are the things beyond unicorn hunting that don’t get as much air time, but can be just as detrimental to a smooth transition into a polyamorous lifestyle. Below are a few pieces of advice that will help you navigate the new environment you find yourself in, and understand why some of the things you might think are perfectly reasonable seem to be off-putting to other polyamorous folk.

1) Aggressive partner seeking

One thing I frequently see in people trying on a polyamorous identity for the first time is that they are incredibly enthusiastic to meet their next partner. While the freedom to partner up with someone other than your current relationship (or anyone at all if you are single) is very exciting, it is usually best to reign in that enthusiasm and instead point it in the direction of developing your polyamorous identity and figuring out what you want.

People in established poly communities will most often respond eagerly and openly to someone who is engaged in learning everything they can about polyamory, asking questions about what has worked for them in the past and what hasn’t, and actively challenging assumptions about their own ideas and relationships. They tend not to respond quite as readily to new people who are obviously just trying to get them on a date. Treat the people you meet early on in your explorations as friends and community members instead of potential partners.

This isn’t because they don’t like you. They don’t know you. Alternative communities are often tight-knit, and have a great many people in them who have learned from experience that people new to poly are prone to a lot of very predictable mistakes. It gets old being someone else’s training wheels. My advice is to take time learning from people around you as community members first, and only start approaching for dates once you’ve had a few months to develop non-sexual and non-romantic friendships within the community.

This isn’t just for the benefit of the experienced folk. Often the more experienced folk who are willing to jump right into relationships with people new to the community are predatory in nature. They might be taking advantage of someone who doesn’t know problem behaviors to watch out for and who isn’t involved in any of the drama they’ve built up for themselves. Taking some time before dating lets you observe community dynamics and maybe keep you from stepping in a land mine. Exercising patience makes it more likely that when you do make a romantic connection, it will be a better fit for you.

2) You already know exactly what you want

While it is a good idea to know what you want, rigidity about those desires is generally a bad idea, especially if you haven’t done a lot of reading about polyamory or talking to people who have actually done it. Many people who are new to poly have a significant number of preconceived notions about what will work and why, and while it isn’t always the case, they are often wrong.

While unicorn hunting is a good example, so is the idea that a particular format and particular types of rules are going to lead to a fulfilling experience or keep your current relationship safe.

One thing you are almost guaranteed to learn is that human beings are unpredictable, including you! There are probably some things you haven’t thought of that you may want, but you won’t realize it until it happens. Same goes for your partner. Same goes for the people you connect with. What happens if that new desire bumps up against an established rule? Are you and/or your partner(s) equipped to renegotiate your agreements or do the agreements have any flexibility built in for these inevitable surprises? If not, then requests to change the terms of the agreements can lead to many feelings of frustration, fear, and betrayal.

This isn’t to say you can’t have very specific things you are looking for, but also be prepared to be frustrated in your attempts to find the perfect person for the perfect relationship. The more specificity that you are searching for, the more difficult it will be to find it. People are messy. Generally, the harder you try to stuff them into a box, the more stubbornly they resist it. If you plan for this to begin with, and allow more flexibility and openness in the ways you think you can relate to others, you will likely be making things far easier for yourself and everyone else involved, even if it is a little bit scarier or seems more insecure to begin with.

3) You try to make it on your own without a community

Okay, maybe all these poly communities are just too pretentious and don’t understand you. You can stick to OKCupid and find people to date on your own.

I am sure this approach works for some people, but it is likely to be much more difficult to navigate this uncharted territory without the support, understanding, and experience that a community can offer. (Note: I am not talking to people who actually don’t have any local communities near them to interact with or for those who have found their local community to be unhealthy or toxic for them.  For individuals in that type of situation I highly recommend trying to plan to attend one of the many conferences around the country to at least participate in some classes and get a little bit of immersion in a poly world if only for a few days at a time.)

In any given community, when someone goes through a difficult experience, there is almost guaranteed to be someone who has gone through a similar experience. Having people around who have already been there once (or more than once) is an invaluable resource. These people can offer the kind of support and guidance that you may not be able to get from your monogamous social world. They also may be able to point you to professional resources that are poly-friendly in your area, like therapists and medical professionals, or even attorneys.

The note about predators above applies here too. Without community support, new people are unlikely to pick up on all the warning signs that a person might be toxic or manipulative. One way that some more toxic polyamorous people operate is by searching for freelance polyamorous folk, where they can be one of the only other poly people a person or couple knows. This is a good way to make sure the people they get involved with don’t get warned off of them before they get a chance to form an emotional attachment. If you are seeking partners outside a community setting, be careful and move slowly.

4) Getting bitter and discouraged on receiving a “No” response

Remember what I said about communities being tight-knit above? Many times, in polyamorous communities that are trying to build a healthy environment, consent culture is heavily educated and practiced. If you don’t know about this, please see this article and do plenty of your own reading up about it. This is one of the single most important pieces of information you can have when entering a poly world. Many of the things that consent culture require are not intuitive, do not come naturally to us, and go beyond just stopping when you are told “No.”

If you want to be successful in finding well-adjusted and ethical partners, you will need to learn to fully accept, respect, and even appreciate the boundaries others set with you (as well as learning to practice setting and enforcing your own). Try not to just walk away when someone tells you “No.” If you can, thank them for being truthful with you and having the courage to set boundaries for themselves. This shows that you are willing to accept and appreciate them for who they are, even if they don’t give you what you want. It also means that if this person ever does tell you “Yes” that they probably mean it, and aren’t just doing it because they feel guilty or out of a sense of obligation.

Many people over the course of their lives have been abused, or had their consent violated repeatedly by others, likely people they cared about and loved. Maybe they are still going through that now. When you act frustrated or hurt when someone declines a request you make, you are ratcheting up the price they have to pay to tell you “No.” Please don’t do this. If you experience frustration and hurt, that is a very valid response to rejection, and there is a time and a place to express these feelings. The time is not right when you receive the answer, and the place is not in front of the person you were asking. Vent to a completely uninvolved party and do it where the person who denied your request does not have to engage with it. Your emotional response to their rejection is not their problem, and you shouldn’t make it so. By taking responsibility for your own emotional reactions, you will start demonstrating to others that you are a safe person to be honest with, and it will make it more likely that people will warm up to you more quickly.

If you practice saying “Thank you” when people tell you “No,” you might be surprised at how very many “Yes” responses you start getting over time. Those who have been trained in consent culture appreciate people who ask questions or make requests and can be equally sure of themselves and content with either answer. If “Yes” is the only answer that won’t cause an issue, whether you are aware of it or not, you are engaging in manipulative behavior. Make it just as pleasant to tell you “No” as you do to tell you “Yes” and see how it works for you for a while. I think you will be pleased with the results if you do your best to make this your authentic approach.

5) Trying to make everything “equal”

Equality is a very lofty ideal, and while in some respects it is a good idea to keep in mind as you explore polyamorous relationships, in other ways it can create much more difficulty than it solves.

The things that should be equal in a polyamorous context are the amounts of respect, autonomy, and consideration as human beings that you grant to yourself and to any and all of your partners.

However, things like how much you love someone, how much time you spend with someone, and the types of activities you participate in with someone are incredibly difficult to measure and guarantee that everyone is getting an equal share.

And not everyone will want an equal share!

Perhaps you, like me, enjoy taking long walks at night for hours during the summer. I’ve had partners that have no interest in walking any more than a half mile. I don’t try to give them an equal share of long night walks with me because they don’t want it. Even if they did want it, maybe they’re slower than other people I take walks with and I don’t want to walk with them as often as I do with faster walkers. While it might be disappointing for them if I don’t want to go walking with them as much as I want to go walking with someone else, what I want to do is also important in the equation. For any activity to be truly mutually consensual, both people have to want to be doing it. This includes you!

It is good to set boundaries around how we divvy up our time, so that we make sure we are bringing our fresh and full selves to the time we spend with others. While sometimes we do things that aren’t first on our priority list in order to connect with our partners, we need to make sure that when we do this we understand that we are giving that time as a gift and not expecting our partners to do the same in return as a tit for tat. If we really don’t want to do it, or are spending time or participating in an activity with someone that we don’t really want to do on a long term and consistent basis, then we are doing damage to ourselves and our relationships. Trying for straight equality in all fields is a good way to fall into this trap.

6) Trying to convert monogamous people

Okay, so if the experienced poly people won’t date you, maybe you can just try to get involved with other people who are new to poly, or maybe you can even introduce someone to the idea.

This is also a practice that is likely to lead to drama and heartache. While you might be very excited about the brand new poly identity that you’ve discovered, and you might think it is superior to all other relationship styles, and that you are bringing gifts and knowledge to those poor uneducated monogamous folk, I would encourage you to put the brakes on.

Polyamory works best when it is approached by people who want to be there, not people who are dragged kicking and screaming, or people who just indulge someone in the hopes that this “poly phase” will pass.

Not to mention the fact that if you and/or your partner are very new to poly yourselves, then you are piling the education of a completely new person on top of your own education (and I promise you, you have plenty of your own education to do).

Again, this isn’t something that is utterly impossible, but some strategies are more successful than others, and new poly folk are generally some of the worst people to educate other new poly folk, especially if they still have a bunch of emotional things to work through with themselves and/or their partner. Which brings me back to

7) Aggressive partner seeking

This one is so important it bears repeating. Many of the mistakes above can be boiled down to this. I encourage you to view your polyamorous adventure as one of being open. Being open does not necessarily mean out looking for something. Being open means being open. Open your mind, open your heart, open your social life. Work on yourself and your already existing relationships. Make friends and carve yourself out a niche in your local community, whether it is the poly community, or a poly-friendly community that you enjoy spending time in.

It may seem like it takes an excruciatingly long time, months or even years before you have more than one partner. I implore to you take full advantage of every bit of that time you spend either single or with your existing partner. The stronger and sturdier you can make yourself, and the stronger and sturdier you can make your existing relationship, the more attractive you will become to others.

 

Sincerely,

Someone who has observed (and made) many of these mistakes

Greetings

Greetings Fellow Traveler,

It is wonderful to meet you! It is always such an honor to run into another universe of a being, a whole constellation of experiences and memories, hopes and dreams, an entity formed by the beautiful organized chaos of existence with its own unique perceptions and perspectives.

I’d like to tell you a little bit about myself, from the core of my being, to open the possibility that we might communicate to one another, soul to soul.

I love you.

I want you to experience all the wonderfulness life has to offer, and all the growth you are able to manage. That might mean pain and loss, but every loss makes space for something else wonderful, and I hope that is always the case for you. I want you to stand and love yourself and love others, openly, freely, wholly, and without fear.

I will do what I can to support you in this endeavor, although it may not always look like you want it to. I hope that you love me enough to tell me no, if what you need for wholeness is to refuse what I want. I will do my utmost to love you enough to tell you no, to share my truth and my honesty with you, if I cannot give what you need without destroying myself.

But I’ll make mistakes. So will you. We are human and that is what we do. That’s okay. I still love you. I can forgive you, even if I can’t return to the place we had before. I still hope that life brings you to the highest point you are capable of achieving, no matter how much pain or suffering your presence has brought to my world. Because loss is also a gift. I try to accept that gift, even if I do it imperfectly, because I want to love you enough to hear you when you say no.

I want to share what we can share together, in joy, in pain, in wonder, as long as it is mutual, as long as we both share it freely. I want to listen, to hear your stories ringing out of your heart, your magnificent beacon of being that you pour into our shared reality. These are the lifelines of our connection to one another, the way we communicate and replicate, and cross the vast distances between one being and another.

I want you to flourish. I want you to grow. I want to meet, and meet again, in the many forms we all take, in the many persons we are throughout our life, and in the ever present unfolding we live in each moment.

And I want to part ways, because at the end of it all, we each have our own paths to wander, and I would not dream to follow another’s. Nor would I steal yours from you by forcing you to walk mine. We forge our journey forward and upward, together but ever separate.

You are you. This is the best compliment I can pay you. You are everything you want to be, and everything you think yourself capable of becoming. You have already touched my life, and I have touched yours. Our fates have collided and who knows for how briefly or how long? But now we have seen each other.

If we are never to meet again, farewell. I will hold you in my unconscious memory if not my conscious one. You have been the flapping of a butterfly’s wings into my world, whether you were ever aware of it or not.

If we are destined to share some bit of life together, I look forward to knowing more of you, even as I know I can never know all of you, nor you all of me. For we are all ever shifting beings, and keeping up with ourselves is challenging enough.

Thank you for the gift of your presence. Thank you for the gift of your absence. Thank you for being you and for the place you hold in my world and any other. Thank you for the lessons you teach me, the pleasures you bring me, and the pain you show me I’m strong enough to endure.

I love you.

Just Because

Ablaze

Sneaking into my head again
Unbidden
Tantalizing pieces of fantasy
Imagined things
No matter how often I banish them
It is never long
Before I am again ensnared
Daydreaming
Lost in thought

And now
With words reaching out to me
Buttons pushed
And suggestions more maddeningly insistent
I find myself caught
Again and again
In delicious fragments
Of the delightful things I can imagine
And even these
Enough to catch my breath
To stun me momentarily

What, then, is the reality to be?
When my senses are flooded
With those things I cannot successfully create within my mind
Smells
Touches
Presence
When the keening builds to a fever pitch
An unbearable, unrelenting burning
That threatens to tear my sanity from me

What overwhelming blaze are we to ignite?
Scintillating stroking
Eliciting tingling electric energy
Charging heart pounding
Dissolution
Into waves of ecstasy
Blending boundaries
Becoming
Joining
Joy

We fight fire with fire
Should we be concerned
Playing with flames like this?
Remembering what we must
To enjoy the heat
The light
The beauty
And destroying only that which wants oblivion.

This is something I wrote while solidly in new relationship energy with a long distance partner at the time.  I hadn’t been able to meet them face to face yet, but I was very eager to do so.  He and I communicated mainly via email, and sometimes wrote poetry back and forth to each other.  While the relationship ended before we could meet, I still love this poem as one of the spicier things I’ve written.  🙂