On Jealousy

So a little while ago I shared this article on Twitter, and no one liked it. That’s fair, I didn’t like it either. It’s poorly written and has some huge problems.

It does make a few interesting points though, and I’m still thinking about it a week later. So you win a blog post on the subject!

Towards the end of this piece, the author suggests a few tactics to deal with jealousy that are different from what I’m used to hearing.

Among them: create a “we” feeling amongst your social network and seek out social support for your relationships.

I do a lot of this already, but this article has really set me thinking about how important these things are. They’re not the whole answer to dealing with interpersonal jealousy of course, but they’re critical to my ability to have healthy open relationships.

After college I saw many of my friends and former lovers try to continue being sexually adventurous and non-monogamous in a variety of contexts. Most of them crashed and burned their existing relationships and had trouble forming new ones.

A few of us stumbled into existing communities of sexually non-mainstream people, where there was support for our relationships and the ways we wanted to be sexual with each other. That made a huge, visible difference in how successful we were able to be at creating sustainable, healthy relationships & identities that were kinky, poly, queer or otherwise outside the standard cultural script for who and how we should love.

Nothing else in my life has been as powerful and protective of my relationships as the feeling that they happen in the larger context of a supportive community. It’s fucking awesome.

Unsurprisingly, social support hasn’t completely eradicated jealousy in my life. I still grapple with it, sometimes bitterly.

Again, this Salon article stirred a lot of thinking for me even though I didn’t agree with much of it. While they pin jealousy as a social problem, they ignore the ways in which it is socially constructed as part of a larger system of oppression. The status quo *wants* me to perceive my lover’s lover as a threat, especially is that lover is another woman. Strong ties between oppressed people threaten the powers that be. Best to keep us fighting each other.

I see this powerfully in how I experience jealousy: I feel jealous of my partner’s partners and what I think about is how they’re thinner/richer/prettier/younger/fitter/smarter than me. How they’re more successful at mainstream models of beauty and wealth and responsible adulthood. I see my flaws reflected in their imagined perfection.

It makes it hard for me to work as an ally with these women (and let’s be clear, my jealousy issues tend to focus on women, even though my partners also have partners who are not women).

But I keep working at it anyway, because being a strong social support for my partner’s relationships is important to me, and because being an ally to the women in my life is important to me.

Social support for my relationships helps me deal with jealousy not by erasing its existence, but by providing me with peers who share my values and beliefs about how to do feminism and relationships and sex and all the rest.

I have people in my life who respond to my jealousy by respecting the feelings that I have, giving me space to work through them, and affirming that my relationships are still valuable even if they’re impacted by jealousy.

That’s invaluable to giving me the strength and flexibility to feel as bad as jealousy can make me feel and choose to continue doing my relationships the way I do.

That “we” feeling this article talks about is also really important. The more I feel a sense of being in community with my partner’s partners, the more I’m able to build trust with them and see them as fully human, flawed and wonderful just like me and my partners and other friends.

Social support and a sense of belonging aren’t the only things that help me with jealousy. I also get a lot of benefit from the “traditional” poly approaches this article cheerfully slams, like getting reassurance from my partners and exploring how to get my needs better met within my relationships. Taking care of myself is important too: I’m much less likely to be jealous of what other people are doing or being if I’m happy myself.

But sometimes I’m jealous anyway. It’s part of my emotional weather, like the occasional crying jag or angry outburst. It doesn’t happen out of context – my jealousy is generally triggered by real events in the world – but it does happen as a result of a complicated intersection of those real events with relationship dynamics & personal well-being.

I don’t think I’m especially good at dealing with jealousy, either when I’m feeling it or when my partner is. I glare and cry and say dramatic, hurtful things.

What I am good at is having a life where jealousy is an occasional irritant and not a life-changing disaster. I’m good at holding space for big feelings in myself and others, and in seeking out social support for both the strengths and foibles in relationships. I’m good at meeting my own emotional needs most of the time and at communicating with the people I love.

I’m not interested in denying that I feel jealous, or in eliminating that emotion from my life, both of which seem to be goals this author has. Rather, I’m interested in continuing to build strong relationships with friends and lovers who are willing to be together in loving, radical and sometimes difficult ways.

I’m really interested in hearing how you manage or experience jealousy in your own relationships. For entirely personal and selfish reasons as well as theoretical ones. Comment away!

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Like Potted Plants!

I’ve been felled by a stomach bug, gentle readers, so it’s time for everyone’s favorite game: fever blogging! Here’s how it works: I have a fever, and a blog. You can read on at your own risk. 

I often think about the relationships in my life as a garden. Friends, lovers, family, colleagues and neighbors, all require careful tending and intention and nurture, like the plants in my garden. And like a garden, they’re interdependent with each other and can nurture or harm each other depending on how they interact. I get a lot of joy and sustenance back out of my close connections, just like I do from my garden. 

Tonight, in my cheerful fever state, I’m thinking about how romantic relationships in particular are a bit like potted plants. The size of the container you give them affects how they grow, and how healthy they are. In a too-tiny pot, the plant may whither and die, or it may just stay small but healthy. Give it too big a pot and it might grow to take over your whole room.

But this isn’t Goldilocks’ story. There’s not one perfect pot that each relationship belongs in. You can choose to give it a little more space or a little less, and how you contain it will affect what needs it grows to have and how it fits into the rest of your life. 

Changing a relationship can be like repotting a plant, too; even if it’s a wanted and welcome change for everyone, you can anticipate some shock to the system and a period of stress for your relationship as it adjusts to it’s new circumstances. That’s a process I’ve been through numerous times.

I’m finding it at least momentarily useful to think about my relationships through this gardening lens because a) it’s seedling season, b) I seem to be going on a lot of first dates lately, and c) putting the two together is letting me articulate my expectations about how relationships grow and change in my life. Also, fever.

How do you think about the shape and structure of close relationships in your life?  

Adventures with OKCupid

[ed. note: yes, I totally abandoned this project for six months and then piped back up today because I suddenly had something to say. Maybe I’ll do that again, maybe I’ll keep posting on the regular. Who can say?]

Like most of my friends, I’ve had an OKC profile for approximately forever. I’ve used it to answer quizzes, check out the profiles of people my friends are interested in and occasionally respond to someone who sends me a particularly interesting message.

I’ve never really been active with it for its primary purpose as a dating site. Until this month.

A few weeks ago, A. and I decided we’d like to meet some new play partners, ideally together. I brushed off my OKC profile and started using the site “for real”.

So far I have no entertaining horror stories. I’ve exchanged emails with a few really nice interesting people, set up a couple of first dates and gotten one shout-out from a random dude congratulating/ thanking me for my volunteer work with my local rape crisis center. It’s been pretty great.

It’s also been fortuitous timing for me as a poly person to start engaging with OKCupid. Just this week they rolled out some big changes to the way you can talk about your relationships on the site, finally recognizing the existence of non-monogamy as a legit choice.

That seems huge to me, and I want to throw kudos to all of OKC, and in particular to Jeff L Jones who appears to have (maybe? probably?) authored these changes.

I think that’s especially important because he doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of love from his target audience. The poly mailing lists and Facebook communities where I’ve seen this discussed are kind of up in arms about it.

The major changes are two-fold. One is that where it used to give you a drop-down menu that included the option to say you were “Available”, it now says “single”, “seeing someone”, “married” or “in an open relationship”. I cheerfully and immediately toggled mine from “married” to “in an open relationship”, but I do see the complaint here: what if, as is the case, more than one of these applies to me? the phrase “in an open relationship” is also pretty couple-centric, suggesting that you’re only in one relationship but that one is open. Which doesn’t make sense if you think about it, but most people haven’t.

The other big change is that there’s a new spot in the details section where you can set a preference to be monogamous or non-monogamous and identify as “strictly” or “mostly” either of those. A. had some hilariously snarky things to say about the notion of being mostly non-monogamous, like “I’m only monogamous at parties.”

Snark aside, I basically love the four-part set of switches you can toggle to distinguish quickly between monogamy and not monogamy. I love less the “in an open relationship” status, for the reasons mentioned above. It feels like that would be a good place to put a big menu of descriptors, like Facebook recently did for gender.

But whatever I think of the details of this first attempt to make non-monogamy part of the conversation in OKC’s magical formulas, I’m glad someone there is paying attention to the poly community and choosing to do this. It makes me feel like less of an invisible alien using the site.

Desire vs Love

Aaron, in your post below you write:

The idea that doing crazy things for love proves your love is almost totally incompatible with the idea that you keep your promises to people you love.

This reminded me of Esther Perel’s wonderful TED talk about desire and love, where she asks “Can we want what we already have?”

In this talk, Perel explores pretty deeply the divide between desire and love. She talks about the need to reconcile our need for safety with our need for adventure. The person who gives us permanence sort of by definition doesn’t offer us novelty.

On the surface, non-monogamy sort of steps around these issues: you can have a lifelong spouse and a new lover every year.

As many of us know, though, we don’t want to walk away from our existing loves. Whether we have one lover or ten, we want the sex to stay hot and interesting and novel while also wanting our relationships to grow and deepen, offering us safety and comfort and emotional intimacy.

Perel has some interesting ideas about how to keep passion alive – go listen to her talk!

The one I’m most interested in sort of recapping here is the idea that sex & love require skill & intention. They’re not actually magic, or weather.

The more practice and planning I bring to my relationships the better they get, sexually and romantically. It’s not that I have a roadmap for every move in a relationship, and that’s even less true if we’re zooming in to look at a particular sexual encounter or conversation or date.

But in the same way that learning good consent practices has acclimated me to asking with words before kissing someone, thinking about intention and skill in romantic relationships has led me to do a lot more of saying with words what I like and want, and to ask a lot more directly what my lovers like and want.

This dispels the popular romantic notion that you should “just know” what your partners need and be able to meet those needs effortlessly. That’s a little painful, honestly. There’s something very comforting and sexy in that cultural myth.

The trade-off of getting your needs met and more securely meeting your partners’ actual needs instead of her imagined ones is a pretty great trade though.

the heat of the moment

I’m reading Martha Nussbaum’s Sex And Social Justice, which is pretty great, and ran into this interesting passage:

Are our romantic ideas about the difference between sex and art good, or are they bad? Some of each, I suspect. They are problematic to the extent that they make people think that sex happens naturally, does not require complicated adjustment and skill, and flares up (and down) uncontrollably. Insofar as they make us think that sex fits badly with reliability, promise keeping, and so forth, these ideas are certainly subversive of Anderson’s goals of “intimacy and commitment” […]

http://books.google.com/books?id=hHY_kjkAYKQC&pg=PT492

I think this (and the surrounding paragraphs) actually points out multiple interesting contradictions within modern romantic ideals about sex. One is that it’s meant to be

  • spontaneous, and yet
  • a profound expression of how you feel about someone.

We don’t treat art that way; my thoughts about food are (rightly) considered to be expressed better in how I cook than in how I eat, and if you want self-expression in hip-hop you look for lines that someone wrote, not at freestyle raps (which are considered shows of technical skill).

Second, it’s meant to be

  • uncontrollable, and yet
  • faithful.

I’d thought before about how the idea of getting “carried away” made it possible to integrate cheating into a monogamous narrative but didn’t open the door to non-monogamy, but I hadn’t thought about how totally not a coincidence this is until now. The idea that doing crazy things for love proves your love is almost totally incompatible with the idea that you keep your promises to people you love.

I come down on the side of sex being expressive and true to promises, of course. But it’s not that hard to fix the contradictions! Sexuality doesn’t need to be spontaneous to be improvisational. It doesn’t need to be uncontrollable to be inspiring.

Can the popular romantic ideal of sex cross the distance from “spontaneous” to “improvisational”? It doesn’t feel like it, to me. Imagine someone with stars in their eyes after a first date saying that they were “winging it” during the whole sexual encounter. That has a strong implication that normally one might plan out actions during sex, which doesn’t seem strange or unromantic to me— BDSM sex, for example, would be very different if nobody ever schemed ahead of time– but which flies in the face of the conventional ideas about romance that Nussbaum is describing.

How Do You Know How Many ,,Cookies,, You’ve Had?

Sometimes I get fascinated by personal data gathering. Diet tracking, financial tracking, sleep and exercise tracking. I’m terrible at keeping these records, but I love them. I passionately launch myself into keeping track of what I do and how I do it, and then forget after a few days.

This week’s obsession: tracking the sex I have. I’ve been in the habit for awhile of writing scene reports about particularly interesting encounters, but this week I got interested in more data collection, less narrative.

It started with stumbling across the Kinsey Reporter, a tool for mapping sexual activity through self-reporting. It looks really cool, but appears to be broken – it failed to add the new data I reported. Also I felt super awkward about adding data, because it drops a pin on the map and all my friends know where I live. Hello, world. Want to see exactly what I was up to Thursday night? Not super eager to share that level of detail.

Then some discussion about this moved the conversation towards how useful and fun it would be to have your own personal records, to follow trends and habits in your own life. I think this would be awesome! Though as mentioned I’m unlikely to stick with the record keeping for very long.

I went looking for a good tracking tool anyway.

The coolest thing I found was Boffery, but it seems like it was probably abandoned in 2009.

The thing I found that I’m actually playing with is Bedpost. It’s a mixed bag. The format is pretty simple and easy to use, but very limited. You can only list one partner per encounter, for example.

Cataloging and tagging and rating sexual encounters is EXTREMELY WEIRD. How many stars should I give this adventure? Um. What? I have never thought about judging the sexytimes I’m having that way before.

I’m intrigued enough to be playing around with it some. So far, I’ve added data for May. I’ve learned that I have more partners than I’d thought, and that a greater percentage of them are male. Also I’m having more sex than I think I am. Or just having a very exciting month.

Do you keep track of your sexual adventures?

What is a Partner?

Today I was babysitting, as I often do, and one of the little kids I was hanging out with said, “You’re Rio and Serena and Martin’s mama.” 

Rio and Serena are my kids. Martin is their dad, and my partner. 

“Martin is my partner,” I said. 

“What’s a partner?”

“A partner is someone you do this important stuff of your life with,” I told her. 

Now, I’m pretty happy with that definition. I’ve been involved in some hot and heavy conversations lately about what partnership is, what “primary relationships” are, whether it is ever OK to even use those words, etc. And then talking to a three-year-old there was this pretty simple answer on the tip of my tongue. 

I like it because it doesn’t suggest exclusivity or hierarchy, and leaves open to interpretation what the important things you do with a partner are. 

How do you define partnership?