Love languages and polyamory

I love when writers I follow hit on relevant topics to my life at the moment. So I was delighted to read Audra Williams’s post about love languages. I’ve been familiar with the love languages concept since I was a teenager, but like many familiar concepts I’d stopped investigating how it might be helpful for my life now.

I’ve been struggling a lot in the last several weeks with feeling that I’m not getting enough time with my anchor partner. I’ve felt an unusual amount of jealousy, which for me indicates that I’m not getting what I need to feel sustained and connected in a relationship — and usually denying to myself that I have the right to get those things, because worthiness is a core issue of basically everything in my life.

In particular I’ve felt like I can’t ask for more time with my partner because that would be unfair to his other partners. I am always aware of how much one-on-one time my metamour gets with our partner, and I don’t feel okay about asking for more time unless she’s gotten as much or more than I have.

Yes, that’s silly for a lot of reasons. Worthiness: it’s a struggle.

I’ve also felt bad because other poly people I know can be perfectly happy if their domestic partners have dates most nights in the week, while I haaaate it. So all the usual questions come up: “Do I need to get better at poly? Do I need to change my sense of what a happy domestic relationship feels like? If I can’t do that, does it mean polyamory isn’t for me?”

The answer to any of those questions could be yes in a lot of cases, but it wasn’t for me. I know for damn sure that the answer isn’t for me to start dating three other people so that my evenings are always full: that’s not a happy life for me, and it won’t solve the problem of feeling disconnected from my anchor partner.

And then, while I was feeling grumpy and sad and unworthy and broken all at once, I remembered: Quality time is my primary love language. Maybe the reason I get so much crankier than other people when I don’t have enough one-on-one time with my partner is because that’s the most important way for me to feel loved? Heyyyy, genius.

I learned it a long time ago (and long before I knew about polyamory) so I’d lost sight of this: not everybody needs the same things to feel loved. If I ask for at least 20 minutes of focused one-on-one time every day, that doesn’t mean that all my metamours have to get the same time or it’s unfair. Maybe a different ritual is more important to them for feeling loved and connected. Maybe I don’t need to feel extra-needy because a time allotment that’s plenty for other people leaves me feeling parched and lonely.

Fairness in polyamory doesn’t mean everybody gets the same thing: it means everybody gets what they need to feel loved and connected. I knew this, but I had forgotten that the actual substance of what feels loving and connecting can be very different for different people. So I can stop tracking my quality time allotment against everybody else’s to make sure I’m not being too demanding or unfair. (Someday I will level up to the point where I stop worrying that expressing my needs means being too demanding or unfair, but that’s probably several classes away if we’re honest.)

Having quality time as a love language may require some extra strategizing in polyamory, time being the most finite of our resources. I’m still chewing on ways to make the most out of our limited hours. But it’s good to have some context for my needs and some language for helping me and my people understand them.

Advertisements

Polyamory and flexibility

Over the last week, I’ve had a couple different conversations with poly friends of mine where they expressed a similar idea: “Now that I’m poly, I find I’m not making plans more than a year or two down the road, because you never know what will happen.” It was an interesting point and got me thinking. The friends I was talking to all came to polyamory by opening up a monogamous marriage, so for them, there was a time when the future seemed more predictable. Monogamous marriage (or intentional long-term partnership) brings a certain stability: while jobs and education and health might be up in the air, you can make plans around your home and future with the assumption that the needs and preferences you both have are the deciding factors. You can look down the road, based on what you know about yourself and your partner, and make some pretty solid predictions about what kind of plans will suit the two of you in the long term.

By leaving open the possibility of falling in love and sharing a life with another person — somebody you haven’t even met — polyamory destabilizes this kind of long-term planning. Just about this time last year, I went to visit my newish friend Galia at her apartment, and we talked about how happy she was there and how much she loved her housemates. They had a cute little picture on the fridge that she had made, of great things that come in threes. While none of them were ready to make a ten-year plan, they were happy and stable together and didn’t foresee making any big changes in the near future.

It's still on our fridge because it's awesome.

It’s still on our fridge because it’s awesome.

Well, then one of her housemates and I fell in love and we all moved to a bigger place so I could live with them. Destabilizing influence, right here! And while our household is basically the best and I hope we all live together forever, I never think about the future without keeping in mind that any of the four of us could, again, fall in love with somebody and want to share a home with them, which would again change our situation one way or another. I would never want to keep Galia or Claire or Greg from sharing a home with somebody they loved, just because I like what we have here now. And even if we all click and want to keep living together, a new person may have needs and preferences around where they live, and what kind of home they want, that we’ll need to work into our decisions. So there are a lot of built-in question marks when I think about the future.

It’s natural to want stability and predictability about your future — I certainly do. And a lot of poly people find ways to grasp at it. Polyfidelity, where there are multiple adults in the household but they’re not open to seeking new partners, is one such way… another is strict hierarchy, where you put limits on how much a new partner is able to impact your lives. These approaches allow people to feel like they know who is going to be shaping their future, and ensure that new people won’t have a too disruptive effect on the life they’ve built.

I also suspect that the stability aspect is a big reason some people choose monogamy; the value of getting to pursue multiple relationships just isn’t worth the trade in stability. That’s a totally reasonable decision; since becoming poly, I’ve had moments of wondering for myself whether the trade-off is worth it to me. So, while I’m about to start praising the value of planned instability, I want to make it clear that I don’t think preferring stability and predictability is a bad thing. A certain level of stability is necessary for all of us to function, and some people have a higher threshhold, and that’s fine.

I think there’s a lot of value in stretching my comfort zone around instability, and I really appreciate the way polyamory nudges me in that direction. Mostly because a planned and stable future is pretty much an illusion anyway. Another conversation I’ve had a couple of times lately is about divorce, and how one of the things you mourn during a divorce is the future you planned on having. Which is silly, because that future never existed… it was only ever real in your mind. But it’s also deeply not silly, because things that are real in your mind are real. Our dreams and plans for the future are vital parts of who we are today — I wouldn’t know how to give mine up, even if I thought it was a good idea.

But I do best when I think of the future less as a contract I’ve made with the world — “if I hold up my end and walk steadily down this path, the future I planned will be at the end of it” — and more as a way of expressing my needs, wishes, and values. When I think of the future as something I can plan and map a route toward, I feel crushing disappointment and confusion when I fail to get there, or when something unexpected makes the route impassable. When I think of it more as a way of saying, “This is what’s important to me, this is a way I can imagine being happy and fulfilled down the road,” then I can weather change and disappointment more gracefully. I can take stock of my new circumstances, and dream up a new way of being happy and fulfilled that fits with them. The needs, wishes, and values that were at the heart of my former future plan don’t change (necessarily)… I just find a new way of expressing them.

I say it like it’s easy, but it’s not, for me. I’m still very prone to latch onto a single vision of the future like a security blanket. That’s why I appreciate the built-in instability of polyamory. If I were monogamous, or in a more rigid form of poly, I’d find it easier to ignore the possibility that my carefully built plans could be thrown off by an unforeseen event. Living in a home with four poly adults, though, I’d be foolish not to expect the unexpected. And being prepared for change in the shape of someone’s new lover helps me also be ready for any other changes that may come down the road. My security comes from knowing that I’m loved, that the people closest to me will be kind and considerate to me, whatever changes may come, and ultimately, that I have the will and the resources to take care of myself.

My story of abuse

For years I’ve had a blog that was not secret, but not linked to any of my main blogs or social media accounts in an obvious way. I have now used that blog to write a detailed account of the abuse and sexual assault I experienced in a former relationship. I name names.

I did not write it on this blog because I don’t want some of those details to be part of the permanent history of this blog. I also don’t want this blog to be the center of the personal storm that’s brewing around my and others’ accusations of this person. But the story is there, now, for those who want to read it.

When your partner is accused of abuse — some additional thoughts

So, hey there! My last-post-but-one got a surprising amount of attention, and there are probably a lot of you here for the first time! Welcome.

As is inevitable, some questions have come up about nuances in the whole “what do you do when your partner is accused of abuse” question. By far the stickiest is the case where you, the partner, feel that your accused partner is themself being victimized by these accusations. Eve Rickert of More Than Two (and it is cool to admit that I squee’d like a fangirl when Eve and Franklin reblogged my post?) messaged me directly to discuss that point, and ask for some clarification. So here it is.

Situations where a person (or several people) is self-identifying as an abuse victim, while simultaneously being accused by others of perpetrating abuse… these are hard. And not uncommon. How can you support victims and hold abusers accountable when you don’t know who is which?

The thing I think that was sticky for people in my original post was that I suggested that if you believe your partner is being victimized by accusations of abuse, you should support them privately, while still sticking to the victim-supporting behavior I had named above of not attacking the victim publicly. In general I think this is a good principle, but I want to make a couple of clarifying points and perhaps note some exceptions.

1) My advice is absolutely only meant to apply to intimate partners of the accused person. I do not think that a community needs to default to believing and supporting the first person to come forward with abuse accusations — that would be disastrous. I do think that an intimate partner of the accused person is likely to have some pretty strong biases toward coming to the conclusion that attacks on their partner are themselves a form of abuse, and that having intimate partners come out swinging at their partner’s accusers is not usually going to be conducive to truth or healing for anybody.

2) There are things I think it is completely appropriate for a partner to do, when their partner is being accused of abuse and they feel that this is unjust. If there are any facts that they are a direct witness to, I think it is completely appropriate for them to give their account. “X said Y punched him on the night of August 4th. I was there the whole time, and I never saw any physical contact between them.” Other people can make their own judgements about the reliability of the partner’s testimony, but it is completely reasonable to speak to things that you have observed.

I also think it’s appropriate, as I said in the original post, for partners to speak about their own perceptions and beliefs, as long as they are careful to frame it in those terms. “Based on what I’ve seen between them, I feel that Y has been hurt and controlled by X at least as much as X has been hurt and controlled by Y… and honestly, I think a good bit more.” That’s a very different statement from “Y never abused X!” (Which, again, is not something you can really speak to of your own knowledge, no matter how close you were to their relationship.)

3) I’m still thinking on this one. When there is an overwhelming tide of community support toward person X, such that their social standing and ability to move and speak freely are pretty well unaffected, while person Y is functionally ostracized… I think maybe it’s fine for partners, or anybody, to be more aggressive in defending person Y. I’m thinking of situations like the one described here. When the tide of public opinion is strongly in favor of one side, the power differential has shifted such that having a couple of partners speak more loudly in defense of the accused is not going to do the damage it might otherwise do. If it’s a situation like Shea Emma Fett describes, where the abuser had successfully manipulated the community into viewing himself as the victim, then you’re standing up for an oppressed person where no one else will. If, on the other hand, the community opinion has accurately and rightly weighed the situation and come down against your partner, your words in their defense aren’t going to have the same detrimental impact that they would in a more open playing field.

I still think it’s inexcusable in any circumstance to attack a self-identified victim in ways that are dehumanizing, shaming, or devaluing. You can say a lot of words to the effect of, “I don’t think that person’s accusations are true” and “I have suspicions about their motives” and “I actually think they treated my partner really horribly” without undermining their personhood. Especially, I think it’s never acceptable to attack a self-identified victim on the basis of their sexuality or mental health — which are two of the ways abuse and assault victims are most often discredited.

The overall goal of my “advice to partners” post was to avoid creating situations where a community rallies unfairly around an abuser at the expense of their victim, or where a victim fears coming forward because their abuser has several partners who will participate in counter-attacking them. We are naturally prone to support and defend our intimate partners against negative accusations, and I wanted to think and talk about some ways we can balance that impulse of loyalty against the need to create whole communities that support victims. One unfortunate fact, whenever giving advice of this kind, is that people who are conscientious, self-critical, and primarily concerned with doing the right thing may follow the advice even to their own detriment, while people who are blind to their own biases and/or primarily concerned with serving their own interests will ignore it or distort it in order to cause further harm. I don’t have a solution for that problem.

I will say, though, that “good behavior guidelines” and advice are generally best self-applied. Reading, reflecting, and deciding to hold yourself to a certain standard, is all great. Pointing to someone else’s behavior and saying, “See? See how they failed to follow this guideline here? That proves they’re bad/wrong/certainly less good than me, anyway” — that is not, in my opinion, conducive to building a better world and better relationships. Doubly so if you’re waving them in the person’s face to prove to them how bad/wrong they are, which can get downright coercive. (I grew up in a moralistic religion. I know whereof I speak.)

The larger question of how communities can and should respond when there are accusations of abuse flying around in multiple directions is — well, it’s a larger question. It’s also very timely, and I may or may not try to tackle it in a future post. I am encouraged that the poly community is so concerned with these issues, and I’ve been pleased to see people trying hard to do the right thing, and self-correcting when they recognize they’ve made a mistake. I’m confident that, as we keep talking and listening to each other, we can make our communities safe and affirming.

What to do if your partner is accused of abuse

There is a lively and timely conversation about abuse in polyamorous relationships, and the ways poly structures uniquely contribute to abusive situations, in both positive and negative ways. I have a lot to say about this. For today, though, I want to tackle one particular question: how one should behave if one’s partner is accused of abuse or consent violations.

One of the ways abuse in poly differs from many monogamous situations is that the abusive dynamics may be created and fed by several people in the poly network. While there may be a centrally abusive, controlling figure, often other members of the poly circle contribute in their own ways to creating a toxic environment that leaves one or more people feeling powerless and oppressed. This can operate a lot of different ways, but the simplest is when other partners of the abusive person insist that nothing is wrong, that the abusive partner is great and wonderful and thus any problems must be your problem. Whether this comes from a Stockholm-y place, or whether the abusive partner only operates abusively toward some partners (or some complicated mix of the two), this often leaves the abuse victim convinced that it must, indeed, be a problem with them. There’s no gaslighting like community-reinforced gaslighting, even when it’s completely unintentional on the part of most of the community members.

Despite the common (and appropriate) admonishment to “believe the victim,” when the accused abuser is someone that you love and don’t believe capable of abuse, I don’t think that you, in your heart of hearts, are obligated to believe the victim. I don’t think it serves anyone for people to try to convince themselves on principle to believe something they don’t believe. If you believe the accusation is false, for whatever reason, then you don’t need to pretend otherwise.

I do, however, think you’re obligated to behave and speak in victim-supporting ways. The only way to create a community that battles abuse and supports victims is for everybody to practice certain victim-supporting behaviors, even if they have doubts about the accuracy or severity of the accusations. The damage of siding with an accused abuser over their victim goes far beyond the immediate situation and the added pain caused to the victim; it tells all other victims of abuse that if they report, there is a danger that their community will rally around their abuser and they will feel further ostracized, victimized, and vulnerable. This fear, in turn, acts to protect and enable abusive behavior, as abuse goes unreported.

So much for the general principles. What are the victim-supporting behaviors that a partner of the accused should adopt?

1) Absolutely do not attack or question the victim, publicly or privately. You may have your doubts; you may be convinced the accusation is false; and in that case the instinct to rush to your partner’s defense may be strong. Resist it, for all the reasons stated above. By doing so, you’ll be harming not only that person, but any other current or future abuse victims in earshot.

2) Don’t try to put yourself on Team Victim if that’s not where your heart is. Being told “I totally support you” by someone whose behavior and words actually suggest that they doubt and question you sucks. It can become its own form of gaslighting and contribute to the vortex of powerlessness and self-doubt a victim feels.

3) If you must communicate with the victim, stick to validating their pain. “It’s clear this is a very painful situation for you, and I’m very sorry.” Their pain is real, and you can be compassionate toward that even if you disagree about the facts of the situation.

4) If you must express your own opinion of the situation, frame it very clearly in terms of your perspective. “He never abused you” is very different from, “I personally didn’t witness anything that I would call abuse.” This applies whether you’re talking to the victim or to outside parties. Keep in mind that you cannot actually know what happened within the privacy of their relationship.

These are victim-supporting behaviors that apply no matter what the situation is. The other side of creating a culture that rejects abuse is supporting the abuser. This set of guidelines will vary a little bit based on the situation you’re in.

Sometimes, accusations of abuse are themselves a form of abuse or manipulation. Your accused partner might themselves be a victim, in this case. If you believe that to be true, then it is absolutely appropriate to direct a lot of compassion and support to them — privately. “I believe you, sweetheart, it’s not your fault, I can’t believe they’re throwing these accusations at you on top of everything else they’ve done. I’m so sorry.”

It is also possible that the accused has behavior patterns that don’t function abusively for you, but do and did for other people. We are each vulnerable to different things, and it is possible to create an environment of manipulation and control without intending to. Also, people’s thresholds for labeling something “abuse” can vary, especially for emotional abuse. So maybe you agree that your partner treated another partner badly, but you feel that abuse is too strong an accusation.

In any of these cases — where you can see how your partner may be at least partially culpable, even if you don’t see them as abusive — you can support your partner and strengthen the community by holding them accountable in the areas where they are prone to cause harm. You don’t need to be their Personality Makeover Coach (I have a severe side-eye for relationships where one person is actively engaged in teaching the other to be a better person), but if they come to you complaining, “Can you believe X said that I was abusive because I did p, q, and r?” you can say, “I love you, but when you do those things it can feel really dominating/manipulative/invalidating to people, and I’d love to see you work on that.”

It is also possible that you, yourself, are being dominated, abused, and manipulated by the accused partner, and that at some level you feel or suspect this but are struggling with the conflict, fear, and cognitive dissonance that abuse victims so often suffer. If that’s the case, I’m so so sorry. You are in a really hard place, and my heart goes out to you. If you’re even able to acknowledge that this might be the case, you’ve come a long way. How to find your way out of the dark is way beyond the scope of this post, but know that if you keep coming back to the question, “Is there something fundamentally wrong with my relationship?” the answer is probably yes. Start reading these resources for abuse victims — maybe not for yourself, maybe just to gain a better understanding of what’s going on in your poly network and why community support for victims is so important. (But maybe also for yourself.) Follow the victim-supporting guidelines I wrote above (and if your partner is angry at you for doing that, or pressures you to go to battle for them, that is definitely a problem), but also, do what you need to do to be safe, and know that if you got co-opted into participating in an abusive dynamic, forgiveness waits for you on the other side.

*** Edited Feb 24th to add ***

I’ve gotten a few questions and requests for clarification, so I wrote a follow-up post which you can read here.

2012

Happy New Year!

2011 for me was, if not quite as surprising as 2010, at least as momentous. I moved to the city which will likely become a long-term home for me. I was accepted into, and began, a master’s program and began shaping actual grownup-style career plans. I decided I wanted to marry that ridiculous, smart, caring, and passionate boy I live with, and happily for me he decided he wanted to marry me too. I rejoiced as several of my dear friends made similar decisions in their own relationships. I met two more amazing lovers, who nurture me, challenge me, and have shown me incredible forgiveness and acceptance when I needed it most. I began building family, traditions, and support networks of my own.

I have big plans for 2012, mostly building on what I’ve done in 2011. Get married; inch my way toward financial stability; continue building my relationships in our extended poly family; get close to completing my master’s, and decide whether to apply for a doctorate; begin teaching and speaking about different aspects of human sexuality.

Apart from these I have a few specific resolutions. One is to keep writing fiction regularly, if not prolifically. I find that I still have a mental and emotional need that is only satisfied by writing stories, and amid all the other work and play I have to do, I think I’ll be healthier and happier if I continue to make time for it, even if it’s only a few hours a week. Another is to begin engaging in debates with people who disagree with me, particularly about religion and sexuality: I still have a pretty deep discomfort with expressing my opinions if I know I’m in a hostile room, and I want to get better at that. A third is to continue the work, which I began several years ago but let fall off, of getting more in touch with my sensations and emotions, through awareness meditation, deliberate attention, and continually confronting the fears that motivate the disconnection.

I wish for all of you a year filled with growth, happiness, and love.

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 fiancé?”) 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.