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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

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polyamory

Let’s be Friends

I know why relationships that end with “let’s be friends” are both infuriating to the dumpee and also never actually turn into friendships. The reason is simple: most relationships of the romantic sort actually skip friendship entirely and go straight from bare acquaintances to intimate lovers. In other words, friendship and romance do not exists on the same continuum of human intimacy. This is why the concept of “friends with benefits” is so hard for people to grasp properly, and also why it makes for a very appealing movie.

Friendship is something that many of us think we understand from a young age. Ideally, a friend will accept you the way you are, know your quirks and triggers, help you out when life punches you in the face and celebrate with you when things are going well. At the same time, in order to be able to do these things for you, a friend should be their own person with their own hobbies and interests that don’t depend on you. They should have their own life and their own family and be flexible enough to spend time with you when you are available, but to also be able to carry on without you when your life becomes overwhelming. Most importantly, perhaps, friends should like each other.

Romantic partners are different. Romantic partners exist inside coupledom with each of their identities being dependent on the other. A romantic partner is an object of affection into whom we pour our love and our angst. To our partner we share the part of ourselves which we believe is worthy of love and in doing so attempt to embody the role of partner ourselves. In a very real sense romantic partners “complete” each other. One of the side effects of romantic partnership is that, unlike friendship, we sometimes feel the need to hide the parts of ourselves that we feel our partners would not approve of, or that we consider unbecoming of a proper romance. Take the husband who has to go out with his guy friends in order to relax and get away from the wife. Or consider the woman who habitually chooses boyfriends so jealous of other men that she ceases contact with her male friends whenever she enters a new relationship.  Romantic partnerships, unlike friendships, do not leave room for others. We can have unlimited friendships, but only one husband.

When you understand that a Relationship is different from a friendship in more than just degree of intimacy, it is not hard to see why so many efforts at friendship post relationship fail. For one thing, a boyfriend has never had to accept the priority of other relationships over himself whereas a friend knows that sometimes he is first and sometimes he is not. For another, a girlfriend who is accustomed to defining herself as “my partner’s girlfriend” no longer knows who to be or how to act when her ex is around, but is no longer her partner. Had they been friends they would have known that it is possible to be temporarily out of communication with each other without it being a death knoll on their relationship. Finally a romantic partnership, perhaps exactly because of its closed and intimate nature, suffers from its own finitude. Whereas a friend can be one of many and be loved just the same, a romantic partner is one of one and therefore any changes in the personality, goals, or desires of the other partner is a full force affront on one hundred percent of the relationship status quo.  There is simply no room for a partner to think that perhaps “it isn’t me.” So simply being around an ex and seeing how that person is happy and growing without you can be very painful if you have never experienced a friendship with that person outside of your relationship.

I will be honest with you, I believe friendships to be superior to Relationships. However, I think that Relationships that include friendship can be strong and enduring. I have friends who are married and whose spouses are brilliant beautiful beings. Some of them, when I think about it now, are clearly friends in addition. They tend to have an air of calmness about them when they are together and of course their personalities tend not to differ all that much from when they are apart either. Of course we are all different people in different circumstances to some degree or another. Even at work we behave one way when at home we would not, so to be always and everywhere the same is not a necessary requirement. But some people I feel different around when they are with their spouses and I wonder if perhaps these people are more in a Relationship than they are friends, though I never ask. Ultimately it is a personal decision. My grandparents were never friends, but they were iron-strong partners in over fifty years of marriage. Even today my grandmother, though she has finally given voice to her discontent and struggle during those fifty years, would probably not have chosen a different path. To her, what they had was marriage and the idea of being “friends” with your husband was just not something to consider. This is ok. My hope in writing this short piece is not to criticize and say that one is better than the other, but instead to bring some level of enlightenment to our suffering as we flow in and out of relationships. Perhaps simply knowing that romance and friendship are two different animals, we can afford ourselves and our loves a level of kindness that we couldn’t before.

A Stranger’s Eyes

Have you ever looked into the eyes of someone who is supposed to love you and seen fiery, burning hatred gleaming back at you?

At first I wasn’t sure that that is what I was seeing. How could it be? This man is a fountain of inexhaustible affection and romance. It must have been a misunderstanding. We don’t communicate in our native language, after all, so misunderstandings are bound to happen. I ignored it, telling myself that I would go crazy if I reacted to every glint, twitch and shrug. Communication must be intentional if it’s going to work, and the only way to get that is to be firm about only responding to intentional messages. Then it happened again. In fact it happened several times exactly during a period when our relationship was particularly tense.

I believe I have mentioned that I am polyamorous. I am more emotionally stable in a triad or quad of some form than I am single or as a couple. More than that, I have fuzzy sexual bounaries so that I become stressed when artificial barriers, such as the confines of monogamy, prevent me from expressing myself sexually with others. My boyfriendlike partner is a romantic and a pretty solid monogamist (masochistically monogamous, if I may coin the term) so when he was faced with meeting and interacting with my long term partner he lost it. Unfortunately he wouldn’t admit that he was losing it. Instead he tried to bottle up his feelings and chase them down with a glass or ten of beer every day for three weeks. It was during this period where I became aware of the look in his eyes.

It would happen whenever I tried to assert myself. He wanted me to stay out drinking with him and I wanted to go home and sleep: the look. He wanted me to agree that I misused some vocabulary word and I insisted that I said what I meant: the look. Last night he wanted to cuddle and I wanted circulation in my leg, so I shifted off my side, and there surfaced the look again.

When I see him looking at me that way, I am suddenly in a different dimension where reality isn’t what it was. There is this beast in the room that shouldn’t exist according to the normal rules of nature, but there it is and it is filled with pure, boiling hatred directed entirely at me. I don’t know what it is that contains that beast and I don’t know what it is that calls it out. All I know is the eery sensation of wrongness that seeps through my pores when those eyes focus on me. I’ve never seen eyes like these before.

True Love

This is the third time I’ve tried posting to my blog this week. It’s been a rough month. Between my teaching responsibilities resuming, my partners meeting each other, and me realizing that a dream is building in my that will take me away from everything I know, but that I know I can’t ignore…

well, it’s been a rough month.

My boyfriend and I have been having difficulties lately. My SLAMpig came to visit me in Japan for the second time and he stayed in my apartment, just like before, but this time my boyfriend was also living there. When my boyfriend moved in I was clear with him that we would have to tread carefully and see how things work out; and I was also clear with him that Mr. Pig was coming to visit and that I had at the time already offered him to stay in my place. The boyfriend said he was ok with it all, and at the time I really think he believed he could handle it, but my god! did it explode!

My Pig was, and still is, incredibly patient through it all. My boyfriend and I have also since the explosion (which included threats of suicide and much ignoring and twisting of my words) begun the meticulous steps necessary to repair and move forward. I don’t have a lot of experience with people being willing to work on relationships with me. Most of the time things go great until there’s a critical build up and a critical explosion. I discover that I’ve been making accommodations that I’m not really ok with and the other person turns out to be unwilling to compromise or even listen to my needs. It all just goes to hell from there and I end up running away. I hope that we are able to work things out, but I was so blindsided by the explosion that right now I feel wary and uneasy around him.

At this point in my life I’m incredibly frustrated with how hard it is to have relationships with people. I get it, relationships come and go and they’re fun for a while and they end and then it hurts, but why does it feel like I’m the only person* in the world who actually practices active listening, self awareness, and honesty in my relationships? Why is it so hard, even when you ask point blank, to find people who understand how polyamory works and who have the presence to recognize the difference between “this isn’t working” and “you’re an awful person, you never loved me and you never will!”? That’s the way my marriage went down and that’s what the explosion with my boyfriend was alll about. No matter how many times I tried to explain, “This is nothing new and, no, I will not compromise on it in any way. I care about you and want you to be happy. Please tell me what you need so that I can try to make it happen,” it felt like there was a filter in his brain that converted everything I said into “No, I don’t love you any more, and by the way, no one will ever love you again because I’m the only one”. It’s maddening!

I read this book a few months ago with an unfortunately long title. The author talks about how we need a new Story of the World. Bryan and Cecilda talk about the Standard Narrative which includes notions of finite resources, working hard to earn your keep, and one true love forever. Maybe I’m universalizing my experience, but I really do believe that we need a new Story. It felt like everything I said to my boyfriend had to get converted and muddled because in his world it was impossible for my feelings for him and my actions to coexist. It was just outside of his reality.

More and more I’m beginning to inhabit the idea that normal isn’t just boring, it’s killing us. For many years now I have fought with the ever present sense that I am not human, but some kind of alien species. The feeling has been so strong for me at times that I really believed that a clever enough scientist might even be able to detect it in the molecular structure of my being. I used to despair that as an alien species among humans, I would always be alone. Thanks to the language given to me by Charles, Bryan and Cecilda, I can say that it is not my nature which is alien, but that my story is different. Seeing how the Standard Narrative is destroying the planet we live on, it gives me comfort to know that nearly anything that is considered good, successful or virtuous by normal standards is most surely going to kill us. I find freedom and peace in the knowledge that, if you want to save the world, weird is really the only way to be.

So, in the light of “weird is the only option”, I am embarking on a journey to discover what it is that calls me so urgently in the quiet hours. The first step on my journey is to cut the ties between my mind and my colleagues’ notion of what it means to be a good economist. I know that economics has much to say about the world and how we can save it, but I also know that fighting to be successful in a job defined by the Standard Narrative is a surefire way to miss my chance to save the world. In order to free my mind I have come up with a list of duties that constitute the minimum I need to do to still be in compliance with my employment contract. Research is not on this list. In place of the energy I used to spend trying to produce publishable research, I am going to let my mind wander to the places that call it. I believe that only by listening will I be ready to understand what it is that I need to do. Already the path is becoming more clear, though I have no idea where it leads.

I’ve said this before and it is no less true now: I am frightened. To follow my heart is to step into the unknown, but the known is a path to destruction. It is a clear path and a simple one to follow, but it goes straight into oblivion. Those who follow their hearts sometimes arrive in a place of fame and success. History looks at where they are and traces the steps they took to arrive there. Sometimes those steps become absorbed into the Narrative as another acceptable path to take. People will then encourage others to attempt to reproduce that journey in the hopes that similar success will be achieved. But we know better, right? Freedom of the heart comes because we choose our own path regardless of what company it brings.

I talk about following my calling and about saving the world and about loneliness. I can’t explain to you why but I know that these three are one and the same. My heart aches for company, but the Narrative tells me I have no company and that other than my One True Love, all other human affection is an illusion created by the forces of evolution over millenia in order to for us to better compete against each other. I see the destruction that the global economy wreaks on the oceans, the forests, and the humans that depend on them for life, but the Narrative tells me that this is inevitable and even acceptable because if it really mattered someone could make a profit from fixing it. Yet somehow, some part of me knows that if I follow my calling I will feel a communion with the world around me and I will have love and that, somehow, love is really all we need.

The Differences between Polyamory and Monogamy (part 2)

Monogamy has a long history rooted in social status and political maneuvering. Nomadic humans used marriage as a way to establish family ties that would save lives in times of crisis, specifically food shortages. When technology advanced far enough that people could store their food and wealth and pass it along down the generations, marriage was a way to legitimize the property transfer process. Fast forward thousands of years to Medieval England where the Catholic church struggled with the Anglo kings for political control. At this time it was common for marriages to be made and dissolved between clans as was politically expedient. By declaring marriage a Holy Sacrament, the Catholic church forced all future political contracts to be subjected to its approval. This is where the moral notion of monogamy arose.

Along with its moral imperative, the history of western marriage means monogamy comes with several other assumptions about what it means to be in a relationship. Among these are the notion ownership and control over another human being as well as the idea that being in a relationship with someone somehow prevents others from initiating a similar relationship with that person.

Belief in ownership of another human being leads to behaviors that are hurtful to the person being viewed as property. Traditionally when marrying, a woman became property of her husband. The two became “Man and Wife,” further reducing the woman from the category of a human to the category of being related to a man. To her, the man was her livelihood and just as she was his property, both had reason to defend their relationship against outsiders. Other women become enemies, specifically those who are unwed, because their affection detracts from what is available to the wife. From the perspective of the husband, other men close to his wife pose a threat to their social status because the ability to protect one’s property is part of masculinity, but also because a bastard son screws up the whole inheritance process. Unfortunately because the wife is viewed as an inferior being to the men, and because one woman who is dependent on her husband for sustenance is easy to control than an entire city of strangers, often enforcement of monogamy became a matter of punishing the wife rather than fending off the other men.

Today marriage is less about inheritance and livelihood, but it is still very much about social status and peer respect, and even couples who do not marry, but date within the monogamous framework, operate as though they were practicing for a marriage of the traditional sort. Jealousy is common and is sometimes interpreted as a sign of affection while being cheated on is a source of embarrassment. Society also expects that a monogamous couple in a Long Term Relationship will eventually begin to merge their lives, sharing finances and living spaces even before marriage becomes an explicit topic of discussion. Merely introducing someone as your significant other in any way means that friends and relatives will expect you to know that person’s whereabouts at all times, count you as two people when arranging carpools or parties, and communicate with that person as if they were you. And for many couples, these assumptions are not far off point.

To contrast, the history of polyamory is very different. To begin with, polyamory means many loves. Sometimes this is a fixed number of partners and sometimes it is fluid. I would like to focus on the types of polyamorous relationships that are open in the sense that there is not a predetermined number of partners that commit to each other exclusively. As an official socially acknowledged romantic structure, polyamory has only been observed in a small minority of cultures, notably those without the concept of paternity. Familial ties must necessarily pass through the mother, as does property transfer, and without the notion of paternity, the idea of sexual fidelity holds little value. As a corollary, economic security is also independent of sexual ties and so the choice to become romantically involved, or sexually involved with another human means little in terms of changes to one’s identity or social or economic status.

So polyamory exists inside a culture that has no social framework or historical basis on which to accurately acknowledge romantic partners, and it also lacks the moral imperative that monogamy holds. What this means for polyamorous people actively in polyamorous relationships is that, among other things, they lack the language to describe themselves or their partners. Members of a polyamorous relationship often find they have to explicitly undo the assumptions that others carry about their lives when discussing their partners. One particularly difficult one is the notion of availability. A polyamorous person in an open relationship is never officially unavailable, but declaring the presence of any romantic partner means that potential partners will keep their distance out of respect for the assumed ownership. Attempting to correct this assumption is full of all sorts of social pitfalls including replacing it with a different assumption that one is sexually loose or indiscriminate. It also means that there is no pre-existing commonly accepted template on which to build a relationship and that polyamorous people must negotiate their relationship structure and their boundaries on a case by case basis. Compared to monogamous relationships, polyamorous relationships must essentially build themselves from scratch both internally and externally with every new partner.

Much of the difference between polyamory and monogamy comes from the assumptions made by people, both inside the relationship and out, about the purpose of having a romantic relationship. Much of the rhetoric today praises true love and romance and assumes that the blind pursuit of these virtues will naturally lead to lifelong monogamy. In this paradigm marriage is a natural conclusion of the process of romance and monogamy is self enforcing. Polyamory builds itself on the idea that “true love” may be nurtured between more than one pair of people and as a consequence has no natural conclusion for the results of this love. While monogamists can use their social roadmap to plan their lives, trusting that when things fall apart there is already an infrastructure available to help them back on their feet, polyamorists must carry all the tools to plan and all the tools to recover from failure with them at every step of the way. The result of these differences is that the identity of a monogamist fluctuates with their relationship status while the identity of a polyamorist remains more or less constant.

 

On the Differences Between Monogamy and Polyamory (part 1)

Polyamory is in many ways the opposite of monogamy. If monogamy is the practice of forming and maintaining romantic relationships with only one person at a time, the polyamory is the practice of being open to multiple romantic relationships at once. While most people are familiar with the concept of monogamy and polygamy, polyamory has many subtle differences that overlap with both of these concepts. Like monogamists, polyamorists are capable of deep emotional bonds with their partners and often aspire to the same ideals of honesty and love. However, unlike both monogamists and polygamists, polyamorists may or may not aspire to lifelong commitment, and in addition to having multiple partners of their own, their partners are also free to have multiple partners as well. This is a key difference between polyamory and polygamy; polygamy is inherently imbalanced. Perhaps, however, the most important difference between polyamory and monogamy is that in a monogamous relationship, both partners are committed to achieving all of their fulfillment within the boundaries of their relationship with each other whereas in a polyamorous relationship two partners can choose how much fulfillment they want to receive from each other and how much they want to receive elsewhere. The implications of this subtle difference are profound.

I am at the age where many of my friends are marrying or at least beginning to contemplate marriage. While as a divorcee I am deeply suspicious of marriage, my friends often say to me, “but we already live together and neither one of us intends to ever break up, what’s the difference?” The difference is huge, I assure them. What is it exactly? Once married, you lose your outside option. To my married readers, have you ever wondered where all the affection and romance went from your relationship? Does it not seem as if as soon as you got married, your husband stopped offering you foot massages with scented oils, your wife stopped going to the gym? Once you marry, your partner can no longer walk out on you as easily. This means that you lose the motivation to care for yourself and to care for your partner in the same way you did before you married. Many of us swear to ourselves that we will be different, that we will not change when we marry, but we also swear to ourselves that this year we will finally lose those last five pounds, too. Marriage gives us comfort and certainty that we will not be abandoned (as easily), but it also relaxes our standards of care. It is true that many couples can survive happily decades into the marital contract, but it is folly to believe that every one of them will be able to maintain the relationship they had before tying the knot.

In a similar vein to the bounds that marriage provide, monogamy provides a closed context within which we can feel safe, but also lax and trapped. A single individual is required to provide emotional and sexual satisfaction in addition to providing companionship and partnership. This package deal is very attractive for the same reasons that it is restrictive. Take just one aspect of a relationship: emotional support. Over our lives we wax and wane in our need for support and our ability to provide it. If we are in synchronization with our partner, then we can trade the support we need with ease, but if both of us are in crisis, or if one partner is simply exhausted and no longer able to provide the support needed by the other, then there is no outlet for the build up of pressure. No amount of love, care or commitment can cure exhaustion; only rest can do this. So what we get is that in a closed relationship the exhausted party and the needy party erupt into conflict.

Compare this situation to an open relationship. When one party is in need of emotional support, there is no designated provider of that support. If she has two partners, she can ask one or the other, and when it is clear that one source is exhausted, she can turn to the other to fulfill her needs. Certainly there is no guarantee that this will satisfy her need, but it does provide relief for an overextended partner both because there are other alternatives and also because morally he is not obligated to solve her emotional crisis. The knowledge that exhaustion on his part is not an indication of failure to uphold his responsibilities in the relationship by itself can provide a soothing balm to the tension a crisis engenders. It can give him patience. It can also serve as a check to the partner in crisis. Because she has no commitment on the part of her primary partner to solve her emotional problems, she must be careful not to overload him and to maintain a healthy sense of awareness of her own responsibilities towards her own emotional health.

While a monogamous relationship provides an implicit guarantee of emotional support, the supply of that support is restricted by the ability of one’s partner to provide it. On the other hand, a polyamorous relationship does not provide such a concrete guarantee of support, but its inherent openness means that when provided, that support can be given more honestly and received more fully. Which relationship structure is preferable depends on one’s own tolerance for uncertainty and one’s ability and commitment to personal health. A monogamous relationship is a guarantee of a sort. It allows one to “play cards” such as the “if you love me” card, or the “this is your responsibility” card. These can be incredibly reassuring as can the notion of ownership that monogamy provides. The polyamorous structure means accepting in advance that those cards hold no value. Any partner can walk out, or form a new relationship at any time which means at every moment all partners must take care to ensure that they all still desire to maintain the relationship with each other. Many people are unwilling to tolerate this kind of uncertainty in their most intimate relationships. For all things, there is a cost.

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