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.

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Don’t tell me how I feel

I’ve been reading Controlling People by Patricia Evans, after hearing it recommended by a lot of other abuse survivors. I actually bought and started reading it quite a few months ago, but stopped within the first couple of chapters because I found all the warming-up text really tiresome. In general the more a writer tries to tell me how surprising and essential the insights they’re about to share are, the more skeptical and disengaged I become.

Eventually I got through that, and have found the meat of the book really helpful in the way it frames interactions that our society tends to treat as normal. Here’s an example, not from the book:

Them: You forgot to pick up this thing from the store even though I asked you to! Clearly you don’t listen to a word I say, and you don’t care at all about me if you can’t do this one little thing.

Me: I…. I’m sorry? But… I do care. But… I’m sorry. [goes away feeling both guilty and indefinably violated]

I’ve had exchanges like this since childhood, and in most of my formative relationships. Sometimes it’s about small everyday executive function things like remembering to do something I was asked to do, or arriving somewhere on time. Sometimes it’s about bigger relationship issues like not communicating about something effectively, or not realizing how hurt my partner would be when I did this-and-such.

Big or small, though, it always takes this form: they express how upset they are AND they say some things about my state of mind that they assume to be true based on what I did. And I end up feeling like I can’t say anything. Because yes I did screw up, and they have a right to be annoyed/angry. But their expression of hurt came with lots of statements about who I am and how I think and feel, statements that are almost never true.

It feels really awful to hear someone telling me, wrongly, how I feel and how I’m thinking, and it also damages the relationship. And yet I don’t feel like I can argue against because, after all, I’m the one who did something wrong.

What Evans does is treat it as completely incredible and absurd that anybody would think they can know what’s in another person’s mind. She points out the logic of that: of course nobody outside my head has better access to what’s going on inside it than I do. Of course any statements they make about my inner state are completely imaginary, made up, not based on real knowledge they have. But in my world it’s so normal for people to make such statements. It took me several chapters of Evans matter-of-factly labeling this dynamic as ridiculous and irrational before it really started to sink in.

For me, this was harder because I grew up in a religion that had gaslighting at its very foundation. I was taught that my mind and heart were entirely sinful and corrupted. It didn’t matter that I cared about other people so much it hurt — by definition, I was selfish and depraved, and if I didn’t believe this, it was a further sign of sinfulness and pride. I was never taught to know myself and trust my internal knowledge. I was always told that some outside authority knew my inmost heart and mind much better than I did.

In my teens, having somebody else tell me what I was really thinking and feeling was my ideal of intimacy and romance. Someone who understood me better than myself, who could see into my heart (and love me) — that was the dream. I can see now, looking back, that my relationship to myself was broken. My overwhelming desire for a romantic partner was largely because I did not feel I had permission to know and love myself. I needed someone else to know and love me — I craved it.

In adulthood, I started to develop a good relationship with myself and being alone became more comfortable. But I still had those long years of conditioning, that made me very vulnerable to someone telling me what I was “really” thinking and feeling — especially when the “real” thoughts were bad. That has been a factor in all of the badly-ending relationships I’ve had in the last several years. Over and over, a partner would tell me, not just “you hurt me,” but “you hurt me and you did it for this reason” or “you hurt me and that is a sign of these essential thoughts, feelings, and qualities in you.” And I would be left trying to figure out how to apologize and make amends while also asserting the truth of who I am. (I never did figure out how. I tried, a few times and a few ways, but only ever met with resistance and doubling-down.)

It took a while but I’m down to a pretty much zero-tolerance policy for this kind of nonsense. The people I’m close to now are all really good about taking responsibility for their own thoughts and feelings, and letting other people be the authority on theirs. Someday I hope I can be like Evans and look at somebody telling me how I feel as if they’re telling me I have two heads. But for now, the plan is to stick close to people who respect me as the authority on myself, and avoid people who don’t.

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.

Open Letter to an Unnamed Comedian

Dear Comedian,

I will not name you because, number one, I saw you at a late open mic night and your name was lost in the swirling rotation of participants, and number two, the odds that you actually see this are slim, and if you do, you will recognize yourself from the joke.

The joke was about a trans woman. Now, I do have a sense of humor about my transness. I like to joke about it, and I like to hear other people joke about it. There’s really only one transgender joke I don’t like. It goes like this; you expressed sexual interest in a trans woman. Haha. That’s it, that’s the whole joke. The precise wording and context varies, but the joke itself never changes. Its funny because… I don’t know. Because transgender people are inherently gross? Because being in contact with them makes you gay and gay people are inherently gross? Its simultaneously homophobic AND transphobic. Hilarious!

Unfortunately, that joke also accounts for 99.9% of the transgender related humor out there, which is a shame. There are so many other jokes that could be told. I loved the one on Orange is the New Black where the only woman in the whole prison block who knew how female genitalia worked was the trans woman. I love this webcomic. I love the penultimate episode of Freaks and Geeks (which is about an intersex girl, but much of the episode could have easily been about a trans woman).

But I’m getting away from myself. You didn’t actually tell that joke, or perhaps you did, but put the first truly original spin on it that I can recall seeing. You told it about yourself. You described a beautiful woman on television who you were very attracted to, and then revealed to the audience that she was trans, and that you knew that at the time you were attracted to her.

Is that offensive? I’m conflicted. On the one hand, its one thing to put someone else down for finding trans people attractive, and another thing to state it publicly about yourself. The latter suggests that there is something okay about it. At the very least you were okay enough with it to admit it to a room of strangers. On the other hand, that wouldn’t be funny or provocative if it wasn’t for the general knowledge that being attracted to trans people is stigmatized. The question is whether or not the joke reinforced that stigma. I wish you had gone on to criticize the stigma, to make some joke questioning why it is, exactly, that we treat attraction to trans people as something shocking and bizarre? Especially at a time when being gay is more acceptable, when many of your fellow comedians that night were themselves openly gay? You could have made us all laugh at the fact that we applaud Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres, yet still mock a heterosexual man for being attracted to an adult woman whose breasts and vagina were relatively recent additions to her anatomy.

I also wonder if it ever occurred to you that a trans person could have been in the audience? I wonder if, to you, transness is something that happens on TV and in bad jokes, not in real life. Would you have told your joke differently if you knew that someone sitting in front of you had personally dealt with the issue of dating while being transgender?

Here’s what dealing with it looked like (for me, not for everyone who is trans). First of all, it meant being prepared for the fact that some people won’t want to sleep with me, on the basis of my transness. That’s okay. Everybody has the right to say “no” to someone they aren’t attracted to, whatever that reason. You don’t have to say “yes” to someone who is fat, thin, tall, short, possessing of a hair color you don’t love, possessing a fashion sense you don’t love, etc. Second, it meant being willing to answer a lot of questions to potential partners that I wouldn’t be willing to answer otherwise. I knew there were some people who wouldn’t be interested and some people who would be interested and also come pre-educated, but that most people who were interested would have some questions. Questions about my surgical history and what I can and can’t do in bed aren’t for the knowledge of the general public, but someone who is considering sleeping with me does have a right to know what will happen. Third, it meant being willing to shut people down and get away fast if their questions were not polite in tone, or if in any way they began acting predatory and disrespectful.

If all of that sounds scary to you, it was. It was exactly as intimidating as it sounds. And in the end, it was worth it, because you might notice I was using past tense in the paragraph above. I found someone online who seemed nice, we wrote, I answered some awkward questions because he asked them politely and reasonably. We met in person, we clicked, and we celebrated our one year anniversary last week. As it happened, we celebrated at the open mic night where you, dear comedian, told your joke.

And this brings me back to why I’m not sure whether I’m okay with it. I recall that at first my boyfriend wasn’t sure what to do, but then he talked to another gay man he respected who shared a story about hooking up with a trans man and how it went well. That gave my boyfriend the extra bit of confidence he needed to meet me in person. So maybe, by admitting that you found a trans woman attractive you made someone else feel like, despite what society says, they weren’t weird for finding some transfolk hot (cause seriously, tons of us are really, really hot).

Still, the joke didn’t make me feel good. It still made me feel like you were mocking yourself, like in the end you were affirming that there was something weird about your reaction. I didn’t laugh at your joke. I laughed at every other part of your set, because you are a very funny man, but I didn’t laugh at that one. It felt like, in order to laugh at it, I would have to laugh at myself, not in a good and healthfully self-deprecating way, but in a way that affirmed that yes, I am a filthy, strange and unlovable thing. I wasn’t really in the mood to do that. It was my anniversary.

Empowerment

Around last spring, I made a decision that kindness was going to be one of the primary ways I evaluated new friends or potential partners. In the past it had been fairly low on the list, with features like cleverness, shared beliefs, or shared lifestyle ranking higher. I followed through on that decision: my primary social circle now is one of deeply kind and compassionate people, and I’ve never been happier.

Recently it’s occurred to me that I want to add a second criterion to my Must Haves list for an intimate relationship: empowering. Does this person, in the way they interact with others, habitually empower others? And more particularly, do they interact with me in ways that are empowering to me?

When I talk about empowering others, I mean helping people to feel stronger, more capable, more worthy and able to be in charge of their own life. A person can be very kind and very, very disempowering: every “white knight” or “white savior” story is the story of someone kindly taking care of someone else in a way that reinforces that person’s dependence on the knight/savior.

Even the notion of empowerment can be a trap, because empowerment by definition has to come largely from within. Once you start thinking of empowerment as something you give them, you’re back in dependency territory. A lot of empowering others, then, is mostly in avoiding disempowering behaviors, although I think there are also ways one can be concretely empowering.

Empowerment has a lot of methods and a lot of facets. It can be simply telling someone, “I believe in you; you’ve got this.” It can be listening to someone talk through their thoughts until they’ve found their own solution. It can be assuring someone that you will love and be there for them no matter what decision they make.

To feel empowered in a relationship, I need my partners to believe these things, and demonstrate the beliefs through action:

– I am fully capable of deciding what is best for myself and my life.

– I am fully capable of learning and growing in areas where I am weak, flawed, or underdeveloped.

– The values and priorities I have set for myself are valid, and are more relevant to my decisions than any values or priorities any other person might wish to impose on me.

– Mistakes I make are not signs of fundamental character failings in me, but of habits and traits that I have not yet learned to overcome. They do not indicate that I need someone else to take charge of my life or my growth; they just indicate that I’m a person who has weak spots like any other person.

The essence of empowerment is respecting that the other person has the right and the ability to make decisions about their own life; to determine and pursue their own values; to live and star in their own story. While many of us would agree with these things on principle, we’re quick to draw the conclusion that we know better than the other person in THIS situation; that we have perfectly clear insight into what they need here, and if only we could just show them they’d be so much happier! Empowerment, on the other hand, persistently sets the other person up as the #1 expert on their life, their needs, and their feelings. They are the captain, you are first mate or crew member (when it comes to their problems and their life, of course. You get to be the captain of your own ship!)

It is possible to give advice and guidance in an empowering way, but it is tricky. First and foremost, the advice has to be welcome. Just jumping in with, “Well, here’s what I think/here’s what you should do” when the other person hasn’t asked for your opinion is a way of centering your own perspective, and carries the implication that the other person NEEDS your help whether they want it or not. Prefacing any kind of advice or input with “May I give you some advice?/Would you like to hear my thoughts?” reinforces to both of you that the other person is in charge here. My therapist, who I basically pay to help me figure my life out, makes a habit of asking, “Would you like feedback?” before sharing her advice and perspective.

Second, empowering advice honors the other person’s values and priorities, even when they differ from yours. For example, the importance of blood family and maintaining those ties is different for different people. Some will walk away from a family that consistently treats them badly, some will work hard to stay connected. Empowering advice honors the values of the person making the decision, even if the advice-giver would make a different choice based on their different values. (If your values are so different from the other’s that you have a hard time imagining why they’d make the choices they do, or if you believe their values to be objectively wrong, then you are not well-positioned to give them empowering advice. Better to stick to being the sympathetic, “I’m sorry this is so hard” voice.)

Third, empowering advice frames itself clearly as one option, which the other person gets to take or reject according to their best judgement. Advice that frames itself as, “I have solved your problem, this is what you need to do” is not empowering; it presumes that you know better than they do in this situation. Advice that comes with an unspoken “If you reject my advice, I’ll be hurt” is both disempowering and manipulative. Advice is a gift you give someone, and attaching emotional baggage to it is unfair.

This whole notion of empowerment is still something I’m rambling my way through, and figuring out as I think and write about it. Questions I’m still exploring (and may write about in future) include:

– What are some modes of conflict that are either empowering or disempowering?

– How much diversity is there in what empowers different people? (This might be one for Lane and I to talk through together, since our needs and preferences in intimate relationship power dynamics are very different.)

– If a relationship has had a strong dependency component, when and how do you move it toward a more mutually empowering dynamic?

I’d welcome thoughts on any of these as I continue to think this through.