Commitment

The rumors are true: I’m getting married. After the most romantic proposal ever (a text message from me to Shaun saying “Hey, can I call you my fiancĂ©?”) and careful analysis of best possible timing (“Spring is nice, wanna get married next spring?”) we’ve announced wedding plans to friends and family, and changed our facebook status to “engaged.” (That’s how you know it’s for real.)

Naturally, a lot of people have wanted to know if we’re still going to be polyamorous. Yes we are; this relationship has never been about “we’ll be non-monogamous until I decide if I really want to commit to you.” What really weirds me out, though, is the people who ask what the point of marriage is if it’s not going to be exclusive.

I’m not being flip here, I really am mystified. One person close to me said “What is a marriage without sexual faithfulness*?”– and then denied me the opportunity to respond, so I’m going to respond here. In marrying Shaun I am making him a partner in all my life decisions. I am committing to upholding the health of our relationship, and prioritizing it over everything except my own growth and wellbeing. I am declaring my intention to be with him through all the changes of adult life. I am trusting him to be the primary decision-maker on my behalf if I am ever incapacitated, and accepting the responsibility of doing the same for him. These things are the bedrock of my commitment to him, and though I’ve had very different ideas about the meaning of marriage throughout my life, these are always the things I have thought of as being the essence of marriage. Once upon a time I considered sexual exclusivity part of it as well, but only because I couldn’t imagine a kind of non-exclusivity other than cheating. Exclusivity was part of the marriage contract not in itself, but as a sub-category of the “upholding the health of our relationship” clause.

When I talk to someone who seems to have trouble imagining what a non-monogamous marriage could possibly mean, I begin to have rather unflattering thoughts about them. Such as (if they’re married) “has sexual exclusivity been such a monumental struggle or sacrifice for you that it’s come to define your marriage?” Or “is marriage, for you, more about ‘nobody else can have you’ than about the positive commitment you’re making to each other?” Apart from something like this, I really can’t conceive where such a question comes from.

But enough of that. My marriage is about the commitments and intentions I named above; I believe that Shaun and I both are better, stronger, and happier together than we would be apart, and in marrying him I am making public that belief and my intention to continue working to make it a reality.

*Faithfulness is the wrong word here; as I’ve said many times before, Shaun and I are faithful to each other. We each communicate our needs, emotional and physical, and faithfulness is a matter of us each considering the other’s needs before our own gratification. Exclusivity is only part of faithfulness if you make it so.

Envy, jealousy, and longing, pt 3

Jealousy, in most cases, is both a delusion and a distraction. It is a delusion because it’s founded on two premises: that the longed-for object is a zero-sum commodity, and that you are more entitled to it than another person. One or both of these premises is usually untrue.

It is a distraction because the real issue is rarely scarcity or entitlement. The real issue is unrecognized longing, insecurity, and fear. If you have ever been really hungry and not sure where your next meal is coming from, you know that a certain desperation and irrationality creeps into your thinking about food. Whatever generosity of spirit you normally possess begins to fade, and the problem of how to get food for yourself now becomes all-consuming. I have never been hungry enough to steal food from someone else, but I have been hungry enough to become uncharacteristically selfish and greedy. The brain responds powerfully to the fear that its needs will not be provided for; in the area of love, jealousy is this response.

We all have wounds from our family of origin, and if yours is a feeling that your parents gave love only sparingly, you are more likely to experience intense or chronic jealousy. It’s not something you can wish away or talk yourself out of, but it is something you can work through; I know people who have done it. Not being a therapist and not having personal experience with working out intense jealousy, I don’t feel qualified to say much more than this: it can be done, and it is worth doing.

Smaller-scale jealousy is something we all experience from time to time. My strategy for dealing with jealousy is to separate out the layers of feeling. If I feel jealous, I know that I’m looking at 1) something I want, 2) which someone else has, 3) that I feel entitled to, and 4) that their having prevents me from having. The first piece I question is #4: does their having this thing really prevent me from having it? Sometimes the answer is yes: if I’m crushing on M, who’s monogamous, and he’s starting to date E, then her getting to be with him means that I can’t. Which sucks. Then comes the next question: am I more entitled to date him than E is?

I believe that most of Nice Guy Syndrome comes from this. The feeling of jealousy insists that the desired object should be yours, even if there’s no rational basis for claiming that. People often rationalize that feeling by finding some virtue, real or imagined, that they have and the other person doesn’t. I’m not just throwing stones at the Nice Guys here… I used to do the same thing, characterizing all the girls that boys I liked were dating as vapid and weak. In truth I barely knew these girls… all I knew was that they had something I wanted. I took any superficial clues I could find that might justify my feeling that I was more entitled to it than they were.

Once again the heart of the question is longing. I wanted love, the love of a particular person, but to simply admit that, and admit that at this moment it was out of my reach, was too difficult. Jealousy was a coping mechanism that worked by diverting my attention from the raw longing and turning it to questions of merit. Injured self-righteousness is gratifying in a way that raw longing isn’t… no wonder most of us choose to indulge it, even though it’s based on false premises and damages our ability to build good relationships.

Which, by the way, it absolutely does. If M is dating E, and I choose to resent his choice and her “unfair” gain, I am missing out on the opportunity for two friendships. Even if I am socially friendly with one or both of them, my resentment will prevent any real friendship from thriving. Further, if I make this a pattern I am likely to start resenting men in general for their bad taste in women… which needless to say does not help me form positive relationships with men. If, on the other hand, I can accept that M and E’s relationship is something that makes two people who aren’t me happy, and deal with my own longing as a separate matter, I have opened the possibility of good relationships with both of them, with other friends who support them, and with men and women in general.

This is a hard, hard thing to do. My own brain hasn’t quite managed to separate my own longing for love a particular person’s love from their love for someone else. What it has done — and I have no idea how, so I’m not recommending someone try to imitate me — is create a transitive property to romantic love. Much of the time, if I’m crushing on someone, and he or she is into someone else, I become attracted to that other person too. (Obviously this is very handy for polyamory.) It’s a little weird, but I read it as my brain desperately working to transmute the intense feelings of jealousy into something more positive. I’ll take it.

Next and last: Envy, jealousy, longing, and polyamory!

Envy, jealousy, and longing, pt 2

I am very precise in my speech about the distinction between envy and jealousy. Envy is seeing what someone else has and thinking, “I want that.” Jealousy is seeing what someone else has and thinking, “I want that, and it should be mine instead of theirs.” The line is sometimess fuzzy, but jealousy always includes that sense of entitlement, as well as the sense that it’s a zero-sum game: what one person has must necessarily be depriving someone else.

Envy is a less toxic emotion, though it has its own problems. The simplest form of envy is just aggravated longing: when you see someone else enjoying what you’ve desperately wanted, it usually sharpens the longing. The danger here is letting envy corrupt into jealousy, beginning to tell yourself that you deserve the thing more than the other person does (entitlement), that it’s not fair that so many other people have it and you don’t (zero-sum thinking.) The healthiest response is to just sit with the longing, use whatever coping tools you’ve devised, and treat the fact that someone else has what you want as the irrelevancy it is. (Obviously this doesn’t hold in cases where their having it does mean that you can’t; then we’re talking about legitimate jealousy, which I’ll write more about next time.) Unless you can use their example as a clue to how you might obtain the longed-for thing yourself — which in many cases you can — it doesn’t matter that they have it. What’s bothering you is that you don’t, and you need to deal with the emotion there.

The more interesting kind of envy is the envy that arises in response to something you didn’t know you wanted. You’ve been going along more or less content and suddenly you see someone else enjoying some experience or possession, and suddenly you feel powerfully that that is what you want, that would make you happy, and your life will no longer be complete until you have it. Envy as the birth of longing.

I actually view this kind of envy as quite useful, as long as you’re analytical about it. We in our culture (I don’t know about others) are abysmally bad at knowing what we want. Most of us go through life with this general sense that things could be better, that we could be happier and more satisfied, but we are confused about how to make that happen. We get lots of commercial and authoritarian messages about what should make us happy, but those are produced by people working for their own goals… people who may be completely indifferent to whether we actually become happier as a result of following their advice.

I firmly believe that the world would be better if people thought more about how to make themselves happy: thought carefully, rationally, with good self-knowledge and a long-term view. But to do that we need to be able to listen to the whispers of lack and longing in our own body, which is not something that we as a society are trained to do. A moment of envy can be a valuable clue to what your body and brain need to feel satisfaction, but you often have to take that clue and analyze it carefully. What would be better about your life if you had this thing? What do you imagine enjoying about it? Would it give you a feeling of security? Of social importance? Of pleasure? Of purpose?

I play this game with myself often, and it’s usually revealing. The specific object of envy shows me an area where I feel incomplete; having seen that, I can consider ways to go about completing it.

Cowboys & Aliens: the devil’s in the details

My big beef with Hollywood is not its tendency to recycle the same formulaic plots, or its refusal to consider any but a stock good-guys-win, nice-people-fall-in-love ending. My big beef is its continued propensity to do this in the laziest possible manner, churning out those tired plots and those obligatory happy endings without, apparently, very much effort. It feels as if the writers are saying, “We’ve all seen this a dozen times before, so let’s just throw down the necessary lines and go home early.” Character development is clunky, lines are drawn from the Giant Hat of One-Liners, and they figure if there are enough pretty people and shiny effects viewers will be satisfied.

Every so often you see a movie that escapes this trap, and Cowboys & Aliens is just such a movie. I’m not saying it’s great, mind-altering cinema. It’s a movie about cowboys fighting aliens, and if that sounds stupid to you you’ll probably hate it. But if, like all right-thinking people, you saw the trailer and thought “ZOMG cowboys!! And aliens!! Squeeeee!” you will be pleasantly surprised, not just at how much Western sci-fi goodness there is, but how tightly written the scenes and overall plot are. It’s like the writers actually, you know, tried, and also have a knowledge of their craft beyond a college freshman in a creative writing class.

I could weep at the elegant brevity of the character development alone. Complicated character backgrounds are conveyed in a few swift, evocative exchanges: you can see the whole picture without having it spelled out for you. Doing that is hard, it takes effort and thought and lots of revision… and it’s what I expect from someone who’s getting paid far more for their writing than I ever will. (I was delighted to find that the one character I thought was a weak spot on the development front had good reason for being so.)

There was also a glorious avoidance of Clever and Catchy Dialogue. The pattern of dialogue in Hollywood movies has gotten so predictable that I can usually hear the line before it’s voiced. Sam Rockwell has a few cheesy Plucky Comic Relief moments, but aside from that, stuff that comes out of the characters’ mouths sounds like… things the characters had some reason to say, not someone in the studio seeing an opportunity to be clever. And there are even moments where — this may come as a shock to some of you — characters conveyed their thoughts or intents by expression and body language, rather than by ham-handed lines. It’s almost like the writers trusted their actors to do actual acting. It was pretty sweet.

(Just so we’re clear: when I say “writers” I don’t necessarily mean “the people who are billed as screenwriters in the credits.” I mean “the people who are responsible for the actual words in the actual movie.” These can be very different entities, and I know there are many talented and skilled screenwriters who have their talent and skill overridden by some exec who knows better.)

Anyway. The plot, while ridiculous, was carried out neatly. There were a few too many “demon ex machina” moments where the aliens just happened to show up when things were getting sticky for our heroes, and I still have no idea how Daniel Craig ended up with the power bracelet. (Yes, I know when and where he got it, but I don’t know why it was there so conveniently. Possibly I blinked and missed something.) But the story moves when it needs to move, exposits when it needs to exposit, and generally flows quite tidily without any major boring or WTF moments.

I like how Westerns are being increasingly absorbed into the science fiction genre. The Old West has always been a fantasy, a recent heir to medieval romance and classical epic, and in our age, and abandoning any pretense of realism gives the writers freedom to play with the conventions of the genre… in particular with race and gender issues, which have always been a problem in Westerns. I have some thoughts about both subjects in Cowboys & Aliens, but I need to muse on them a little further before writing.

Anyway. I’ve been looking forward to this movie since I first saw the trailer last winter, and it did not disappoint. In fact, for the first time in a long time, an unpretentious Hollywood blockbuster exceeded my expectations.

Envy, jealousy, and longing, pt 1

I already linked to Figleaf’s rather brilliant insight that jealousy, for him at least, is mainly just a feeling of longing. It is when you crave something or feel unsatisfied that jealousy has the potential to rise. The interplay between jealousy, envy, and longing is complicated, and I’m going to try to write a series of posts here delving into each one. (I am notoriously bad at follow-through on planned series: naggers, get nagging!)

First longing. Our culture is really, really bad at dealing with longing. Most of our stories have happy endings, which is to say that the story’s grand “I WANT” is rewarded with a “Here you go!” Now I actually like happy endings, but when it comes to narratives of loss and disappointment, we are horribly fragmented. One of the main messages is “just try harder!” …because we find it difficult to believe that the great I WANT of ours or anybody else’s life could really be unattainable. Failing that, we default to “you must not really deserve it” (these two can ping-pong nicely with an overarching message of “you don’t deserve it because you haven’t tried hard enough,” no matter how hard you have actually tried.) Then we sort of muddle into stoicism or asceticism, with a “maybe you shouldn’t be wanting it anyway.” Manifestly absent is the ability to just live with unfulfilled longing, to accept it as one of the many experiences of life. (One reason I love/hate the movie It’s a Wonderful Life: if you pay attention, you notice that George Bailey never realizes his childhood dream. Not even close.)

I guess it’s part of the “American Dream,” this idea that if you work hard enough you can have anything you want. And in areas of material achievement, it has its merits. But you know where it completely fails? Love. It is flatly untrue that if you work hard enough, you can have the love you want… despite the fact that we create lots of narratives saying otherwise. (I’m looking at you, Patient Unrequited Lover Finally Gets the Guy/Girl.) I have — um — LOTS of experience dealing with unfulfilled romantic longing. About a decade’s worth, all told. And there were years in there where I tried hard, years where I felt I didn’t deserve love, years where I decided not to want love (it worked for a couple of months). I could say I eventually made peace with the unfulfilled longing, but “peace” is not usually accompanied by occasional nights of racking sobs. “Peace” isn’t the right word… but I did learn to live with it, in some way. And the key to doing that was rejecting all of the coping mechanisms that our culture offered. I was trying as hard as I could without reaching the self-sabotage point; I did deserve to be loved, as much as anybody does; I did want it, more than almost anything I could name. Trying to deny those facts only made things worse. Accepting them, I could in a perverse way make friends with my longing, accept it as part of my life, not something to be escaped before real life could begin.

Which, as it turns out, was a good move, because now I’m very happy in love and guess what? Happiness in love does not mean immunity to longing, even to romantic longing. Having learned to cope with it during those long single years has been a profound advantage in conducting my current love life. More on that to come.

Conflict, consent, and blirtatiousness

My new gentleman friend requested that I write about blirtatiousness. I assumed that he had made a typo, and thought, “What do I have to say about flirtatiousness? Other than how bad I am at it?” Then he sent me this link. So, okay, blirtatiousness. Stupid word, useful concept. The article linked to, after defining “blirtatiousness” (for those who don’t want to click, it’s basically a measure of how quickly and easily you say what you think), talks about problems in relationships where the woman is highly blirtatious and the man is not. But since my relationships tend to be the opposite, I’m not really interested in that, and if I wrote about it I’d probably wind up writing about the insane cultural pressure we put on males and females to act in certain ways, and, um… I write about that a lot.

So instead we’re going to talk about conflict and consent, because I’ve noticed sort of an interesting pattern. It’s related to my recent post about social status updates, and the core question is this: does a person always have the right to engage another in verbal/ideological conflict? Or is there a question of consent and mutual willingness that needs to be considered?

When put in terms of physical conflict, this is a no-brainer. I don’t get to decide I’m going to have a friendly boxing match with you: it’s something we both have to agree on. If I try to initiate a friendly boxing match by hitting you without prior discussion, that is what we call assault, and most of us will agree I’ve done something morally wrong… even if I back off immediately afterward and say, “Okay, no problem, we don’t have to fight, I just wanted to put it out there.”

On the face of it it seems preposterous to draw a comparison between physical attack and verbal challenge. Throwing a punch hurts someone, whereas questioning someone’s beliefs (for example) doesn’t. Oh wait… yes it does. Plenty of people feel acute emotional discomfort when somebody is challenging a cherished idea of theirs. Social conventions aside, a lot of people would suffer less from a moderate-strength punch on the arm than from a bluntly-worded “You’re wrong about this.” The pain of the punch lingers for a few minutes and then is forgotten… the ideological conflict tends to stick in the brain, to keep eating at you. What specifically bothers you will vary: perhaps it’s feeling that the other person thinks less of you; perhaps it’s the niggling fear that maybe they’re right; perhaps it’s the frustration of not having had a good response.

Blirtatiousness, I think, is a good predictor of how much the first and third factors will bother someone who’s been on the receiving end of a verbal challenge. According to the aforementioned article, high-blirt people tend to be less worried about whether others think badly of them, and by definition they’re more likely to be ready with a response. A low-blirt person, on the other hand, is likely to be plagued with anxiety that the other person thinks has a low opinion, and with frustration at knowing they have a response to the person’s challenge, but not being able to access it in time. So a low-blirt person is more likely to view the challenge as an unwelcome assault, and a high-blirt person is more likely to either engage in argument or dismiss it with scorn.

If I polled people on the question whether it’s rude to challenge someone’s ideas in a non-debate forum (i.e. not a blog, classroom, editorial, etc) I’m guessing answers would correspond with the responder’s blirtation level. Overall I think our society comes down on the side of the low-blirters. It was interesting to me, in the article I linked above, to read that high blirters tend to be better-perceived socially: “The high blirters were seen by the others as more competent, sociable, emotionally reactive and extraverted than low blirters.” Since most of the high blirters I know also tend to have strong and controversial opinions, their readiness to say what they think is often a social liability. Our cultural norms act to protect the low-blirters from unwanted challenge, which they feel as a kind of assault.

If this were all there was to it, I’d tend to side with society, especially since I am a mid-to-low blirter myself (although I also have strong and controversial opinions, which is an interesting space to occupy.) But there’s that second reason I mentioned for people’s discomfort with ideological challenge: the niggling fear that the challenger might be right. It’s very easy for a person to protect themselves from questioning their own ideas by crying rudeness when another person questions them. And I don’t think that’s healthy. I think we would all do better in life if we questioned and reconsidered our ideas on a regular basis. (And yes, that is an idea that I have questioned and reconsidered.) So I don’t think “shut up about your controversial ideas unless the other person has indicated willingness to get into a debate” is the right answer.

I have to go back to work now, so I’m throwing the floor open: what do you think? Are you highly blirtatious or not? Do you think it’s rude to challenge someone’s ideas without an invitation? What is your perception of the social conventions around verbal conflict, and do you think they should be different?

Read it!

I finally have internet again and only a kajillion blogs posts in my reader to get through. Going through the last week of No, Seriously, What About the Men? I found myself thinking “I should share this!” for about four posts in a row. Which made me think, Gee, maybe I should just plug the whole blog. So here it is: if you’re interested in the issues of gender in our society, you should read NSWATM. And if you’re not interested in those issues, you should be. So you should read it.

Here are several of the posts that struck me from the last week:
On the taboo against male emotional vulnerability
On rape culture
On objectification
On the transactional model of sex