Tag Archives: love

Who dictates the shape of love?

“Ye’ll have to accept that part of being loved means ye’ll have to accept that folks have concerns about ye as well. And have the right to does so. Ye cannot jes’ want the parts of this arrangement that ye likes…” (From Dance into the Wyrd, by Nils Visser)

It’s a quote that jumped out when I read it and that has stayed with me because it nails so many things. I’ve been round this one repeatedly and seen it play out in all kinds of situations. People who want some part of the love and care on offer, but want to say exactly what form that takes, and reject the bits that don’t work for them. In my experience, the care and concern of other people is often rejected. It also seems common that resenting people who care for you for wanting some of your time and attention is normal, too.

There’s often a gender aspect to this – what I mostly see is male rejection of female concern. Female concern is labelled smothering and restrictive, it is treated as an imposition, and intrusion, a limitation on the freedom the man feels entitled to. The man in question will usually want emotional labour when he wants it, sex, food, and other domestic benefits – if it’s that kind of relationship – but not to have to say when he will be back…

Of course we all need the freedom to decide what shapes we want our relationships to take. No one is obliged to do anything because someone has said ‘I love you’. However, if you are willing to take what you see as the benefits of someone else’s love, while demanding they don’t do the bits you find awkward, that stands some scrutiny.

It is easy to use apparent concern as a form of manipulation. However, simply wanting to know that someone is ok is not an emotionally manipulative activity. It’s a need to ease real anxiety. On the other hand, shaming someone for their concern is horrible. Wanting some time from a person who benefits from your love is not unreasonable, otherwise you just end up feeling used. If they take your work, your money, your support and disappear off once they’ve got it, it doesn’t look much like love returned. In a parent/child relationship, you may decide that’s just how it goes. In a sexual partnership, it may be part of casting one partner as the parent and the other as carefree and without responsibility. Again, there tends to be a gender bias here.

For myself, I have decided that I’m not doing this again. Anyone who treats my care like an imposition, does not get second helpings. Anyone who wants my emotional labour on tap, or any other forms of service from me is not going to get away with acting as though they have the right to have the whole relationship purely on their terms.

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How to experience love

Most people want to be loved. However, feeling loved is not entirely straightforward, because of course we can’t in the normal scheme of things feel an emotion someone else has about us. We can experience their care, warmth or passion and infer from what they do something of how they feel, but we only have as much information as we have a capacity to love.

It annoys me immensely that there are so many people out there touting the idea that to experience love, you have to love yourself. It simply isn’t true. I say this with the confidence of someone who has felt self hatred while being able to deeply love other people. It is the ability to love that gives us the experience of love. What we primarily feel of love, is our own love for others. It is also the basis from which we can infer what others may feel in turn.

If you don’t feel love, you don’t have that warmth and joy permeating you in response to something else. Feeling blissful, blessed, enriched by the experience of the other, comes from inside us. The easiest way to feel love, is to love.

Every now and then, I run into someone who finds the idea of love threatening. There’s a recurring theme of hearing the word as pressure or demand. The idea that ‘I love you’ reduces, demeans or otherwise harms a person is something I’ve repeatedly been confused by. The conclusion I’ve come to is that these are people who do not experience love as I do. Whatever happens when they consider that they love someone, has a very different shape. Or their experience of what happens when someone else loves them does.

If what we experience is a mix of desire, and fear of losing a person, then love can indeed be threatening. If love is a bartering tool – if ‘I love you’ means you have to do something for me; that would make people weird about it. If there only seems to be a finite amount of love in your heart that you have to ration out carefully and someone extra demands a piece by saying ‘I love you,’ that might be hard.

I’ve noticed along the way that people who are warm, affectionate, open hearted and generous don’t tend to manifest this fear. They don’t tend to resent expressions of fondness and affection. People who consider themselves unloveable can be highly resistant to being loved – perhaps in part because they have a story to maintain. People who have stories about love scarcity are much the same.

I experience a great deal of love primarily because I feel a great deal of love – and not just for people. If I can see in what someone else does something that mirrors how I love, I can appreciate it. It is not possible, from the outside, to pour love into a person who doesn’t feel love. There is nothing that can be done by loving that will plug up the feeling of not being loved that comes from not being able to love. I’ve dealt with people who never felt loved, who always needed more proof, more demonstrations, more… more… because I realise now they were looking outside for love to come to them. There was a feeling they craved – and perhaps had once in the form of unconditional parental love – and they crave something to fill them up. But no one else can give you that. You can only find it by feeling.


Grief and love

Grief is the painful but necessary process of dealing with dramatic changes around love. If that which we have loved is gone, there’s a process to go through responding to that. Either we choose to let the love go as well and move on, or we learn how to carry it. We adjust to loving that which is no longer present in our lives. I’ve always felt strongly that no one should be obliged to get over a loss of someone or something they truly loved.

Learning how to carry the grief of loss is not at all like letting go. It is a process of making that love a part of you, no longer dependent on anything exterior to you. To accept the loss, and refuse to let go of the love. To decide that the love you have is bigger than death, bigger than distance, or destruction. I think it’s a good choice to keep what you loved alive by continuing to love when it is no longer there to directly inspire that love.

Sometimes grief takes another form and of the two, I find this one harder to deal with. If we are betrayed by someone we love. If what we loved turns out to be lies and illusion, if we have been manipulated, let down, led astray. If our love has been accepted only to control us and put us on a leash… And there comes a point where this is visible. The object of our love may be right in front of us, just the same as always. What dies here is our capacity for love. The grief that follows the death of love is different from the grief that follows the death of a loved something or someone.

It may be that the illusions were of our own making. We put our faith and trust in an idea we had, and reality can’t bear it out. That hurts, and is likely to bring a lot of soul searching and distress. Unpicking and understanding the illusion after it has been revealed is tough work. Dealing with the memory of love for something unfeasible can be painful, humiliating. It can be waded through, and it is better to be free of such illusions even if the short term cost of dealing with them is really high.

It may be that we have been deliberately misled and betrayed. The death of love in this way is an entirely human issue. A creature won’t do this to us, nor will a landscape, a house, a musical instrument. They are what we are, and if we love such things for what they are they will never deliberately let us down. People are a whole other issue. Whether we love enough to endure betrayal is something you only find out on a case by case basis. Sometimes it may be a good and noble thing to keep loving in the face of terrible let-downs. Sometimes it may be the bars on your prison that keeps you locked in something abusive. Sometimes it is better if love dies, and you live.

Most spiritual traditions uphold the idea that love is good, and ideal and what we should be working with. There’s not much practical advice out there as to what to do to stay sane and functional in face of serious betrayals of trust. We have plenty of cultural information around us about dealing with the loss of what we’ve loved, but precious little to help a person navigate around the death of love itself. We tell each other that love should be eternal and unconditional, and we don’t tell each other what to do when we find we really can’t deliver on that.

As a consequence, the death of love can feel like a personal failing. Having been monumentally betrayed, the victim of this may be left thinking that they should still be able to love and give and feel compassion for the person hurting and harming them. It may seem that the onus is on them to be bigger, kinder, more generous. I know from experience that if you have what it takes to keep loving someone who abuses that love, they will just keep cutting you down and making you smaller and less able to function. Sometimes the death of love will save your life in a really literal way.


After the abuse

One of the things that can be very tough for someone leaving an abusive situation, is the emotional aftermath. Where romantic partners and friends are concerned, the process of coming to terms with abuse can be very difficult. I think coming out of bullying in the workplace is easier because the odds are you didn’t have that much emotional investment to begin with. That makes it simpler to recognise the bullying and to put it behind you.

You love someone – be that romantically or in friendship. You love them, and trust them and invest in them. You assume that they love you. When they tell you they were only trying to help, or it was for your own good, you believe them. When they tell you it was a mistake or an accident, you believe them. We’re all human, we all mess up. You accept your friend, or your lover, and you accept their flaws and shortcomings. Victims of abuse are often persuaded by their abuser that nothing wrong has happened. It is the love the victim has for the abuser that makes such persuasion possible.

Then, at some point, something happens to make you question this. You catch them in a lie. You find you just can’t take any more of how they treat you, and you reconsider what their behaviour means. Or perhaps they turn on you, telling you they despised you all along. Perhaps they are the ones who leave, and they knock you down hard as they go. All of their previous behaviour is now reframed by something that makes it look like perhaps they never were your friend or ally. Perhaps they hated you all along. Perhaps you were a resource to use, an ego boost, a whipping post.

If you’ve never been there, you may think at this point, shocked and heartbroken, that it would be easy to walk away. It isn’t. What you end up with are two incompatible realities. In the old reality, this was your beloved, or your dear friend, someone you were open hearted with and trusted. In the new reality, this person thinks ill of you, may be a real danger to you. It is painful thinking so badly of someone you loved so you may try and resist that. You may hold onto the old love, and try to find excuses for what’s happening. You may want to fix things or try to change things. If they come back after this latest offence and make sorry noises and offer excuses, you may accept that and go another round with them.

This is part of why domestic abuse victims often find it so hard to leave their abusers. If you love someone and are in the habit of forgiving them, it’s a difficult turnaround to accept that you can’t afford to keep doing that. It is really hard to believe the worst of someone you love. It is often easier to carry on believing they are ok, even when they are manifestly mistreating you.

If you have other people in your life who truly care for you and support you, then you will be able to compare them to the abuser, and it will help you see what’s not acceptable. This is one of the reasons abusers will often try to isolate their victims. If you are alone, and the abuser is the only person you’ve got, you may cling to them because there’s nothing else. Letting go is very hard in that context, as is believing that anyone else could ever treat you well.

It takes time to change the story of your relationship with a person. It takes time to unpick what seemed like love or friendship, and accept that it wasn’t. It is a hard thing to swallow, when you suspect that you’ve opened your heart to someone who has abused your trust. It is natural to resist that interpretation and to want to think the best of people. It is a hard thing admitting that your friend or lover is full of shit, and has no love for you at all. During that unpicking time, you are likely to feel disorientated and vulnerable.

There are no easy answers in this sort of situation. I think the important thing to know is that there’s nothing weird about finding it difficult. In the aftermath of abuse and the lies that always go with it, figuring out what’s real takes time.


Heroic Romance

Last week while hanging out with Meredith Debonnaire, we got talking about the lack of pragmatism in love stories. Especially in terms of how this applies to women. I went away and pondered – as I like to do, and a thing struck me.

Western patriarchal societies have not given actual or fictional women much scope in their lives. Mostly, the role of women has been to be prizes to win, or defend, or capture or the harming of women has been a motivation for male characters to do stuff. There are odd exceptions – Lady Macbeth springs to mind, but mostly women in stories aren’t like her. Women in stories are passive. Their job is to be beautiful and to inspire the men to do things, one way or another.

Only when it comes to love are women reliably allowed to do more dramatic things. Women are allowed to die for love, like Juliet. They’re allowed to throw their lives away waiting years to see if the man comes back, like Penelope. They’re allowed to ruin their lives, like Isolde. The can be dramatically murdered by their menfolk, like Desdemona, and so on and so forth. When you look at the dramatic things women are allowed to do for love, it’s clear this doesn’t benefit the women much.

As I was pondering this, it struck me that we have the word ‘heroic’ to indicate the stand out stuff that heroes do. We have heroines, but there is no ‘heroinic’. Heroines just are, it’s not about what they do. If we want to talk about women doing dramatic, brave, important things, it can only be called heroic, because they’re doing guy stuff.

If wrecking your life for love is the only kind of heroism you’re offered, it’s easy to see why women keep telling these kinds of stories, too. But, if you think that taking damage in the name of love is the best and most noble thing you can do, it has consequences. It might make you more willing to put up with violence, jealousy and mistreatment. It might leave you feeling there’s something heroic about standing by your man, no matter what he does. It might encourage you to feel that your worth is defined by what big gestures you can make for the man in your life. It’s a very narrow field to operate in, and it props up ideas about women not having lives separate from the lives of their men.

How many famous historical stories do we have in which women save women? I’ve counted Goblin Market so far. How many historical female heroes do we know of who get to act dramatically and it not be for the sake of a man? There’s Boudicca. There are probably others that I’ve not remembered, but on the whole these kinds of stories are in short supply in terms of the back catalogue.  I can think of modern examples, but what we’re steeped in has a very different flavour.

What if we could be pragmatic about love? What if we didn’t tell each other that love is enough and will overcome all obstacles – because life demonstrates routinely that love does not in fact fix everything. What if we don’t celebrate putting your life on hold for a man or sacrificing yourself for a man? What if we stop telling stories that make romantic love the centre of women’s lives and the primary focus for any heroism we might go in for? What if we make it equally ok for male heroism to revolve around sacrifice for love, rather than violent responses to love thwarted?


Resisting despair

Every day when I get online there is some new awfulness. An email or two in my inbox I have to delete without looking at because I know from the subject matter that I can’t take it. Some appalling and cruel political decision revealed on Twitter. Something in the news to weep over. There are new ones every day, and it is exhausting and demoralising, and what are we to do?

It would be easy to give up all hope, to decide that humans are awful and we cannot be saved from that. It would be easy to decide that trying to care for the planet is too hard, too painful. It would be easy to decide to ignore every new source of heartbreak and stop trying to do anything. To accept that all is futile. To give up. To let feelings of despair and cynicism in.

Of course, nothing is won by people who give up. No good change is brought about by people not caring. Perhaps the single most important fight any one of us faces right now is the fight not to succumb to despair.

I think that’s an important point to recognise right now. Your heart is a battleground, a microcosm in which all the big fights of the world are going on right now. If you give in, then all that is worst about humanity gets to move into your heart as well, and even if you don’t actively support it, in your silence and inaction, you’ll tacitly support it. If you can win this one in your own heart, if you can stay caring and compassionate, and stay hopeful, you can be part of the solution.

If we can keep our own hearts open, we can help the people around us to do the same. For as long as there are people prepared to keep caring and trying, there is hope. That’s all hope is – someone who hasn’t given up yet. We can hold each other up, and remind each other of what we’re fighting for rather than focusing always on what we’re up against. We can share good things – love, friendship, kindness laughter, gentleness. We can be the good in each other’s lives in so many small and every day ways. We can keep each other going. We can do this.


You have to love yourself

The oft repeated ‘wisdom’ that if you can’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone else enrages me. It’s wrong, it simplifies something really complicated, and adds pressure to people who were already not feeling good. Lack of self love goes with lack of self esteem and confidence. It’s a likely consequence of abuse – and especially of growing up in an abusive context. The people most effected have likely spent chunks of their lives, if not their whole lives, being told they are worthless, not good enough, not able to do the things. And then some twat swans in with their meme and stabs you with it.

I’ve spent most of my life dealing with self-hatred. It has not been pretty. Alongside that, I loved wholeheartedly, intensely for the long term as a child, as a teen and as an adult. I do not find it difficult to love other people, places, creatures, books. I am not happy about being told that this isn’t real or happening – the implication of that whole suggestion that if you can’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone invalidates my experiences.

In the last few years I’ve managed to deal with the self-hatred and get to a place of mostly being ok with myself, mostly being able to accept myself and my limitations. This is not the same as self love. The idea of self love still leaves me feeling queasy and in danger. But, self-okayness means I’m not constantly beating myself up, and that’s liveable with and good enough. I have not noticed any changes at all around my capacity to love anyone else.

The person who cannot love themselves may find it hard to accept and trust love from other people. That has a huge impact on relationships. It is not easy (and I speak from experience here) to love someone who thinks they are awful. They may reject or resist you because they don’t know how to make room for what you feel. They may desperately need to be loved, but may not be able to let it in. They may love you in turn, but their inability to accept love and their own self loathing may lead them to sabotage the best things that come their way.

The person who cannot love themselves may have some really distorted relationships. They may feel most at ease when lavishing their love, energy, resources etc on someone who treats them with disdain. They may feel safest when not loved in return. It’s easy to stay in harmful relationships that will further damage your poor self esteem if you have such low expectations.

It takes a lot longer and a lot more effort to learn how to do relationships well, if you aren’t in a good relationship with yourself. It requires some really good people in your life who aren’t expecting you to just make them feel comfortable. People who pressure you towards self love will say they want to help, but it’s a basic refusal to accept you for who you are and where you are. That doesn’t build confidence or self esteem. If you have to fake things to be tolerated, the self-loathing will grow, hidden away, and get worse.

If you deal with someone who cannot love themselves, telling them to love themselves won’t save them. Having come at this from all angles, the answer is to love them anyway. Don’t ask them to change, accept them. Love them as best you can, and don’t take it personally when they don’t respond in more normal ways. If you can do that, and if they will let you, then you may eventually get them to a point where they can believe that you care for them, love them, value them. When they get there, they may be able to reassess themselves in light of your care.

Lack of self-love doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It will have been shaped by experience, or by perception of experience. It doesn’t change quickly, or on demand, or without something to change the story of the person who feels themselves unloveable.

You do not have to love yourself in order to love other people. But, if you can get to a place of being ok with yourself, comfortable enough in your own skin, not punishing yourself, that’s good enough. It makes everything else easier. Acceptance is key to healing this stuff, and people who don’t accept you are not actually helping you.


Polyamoury and fiction

Here’s a kind scenario I’ve seen repeatedly, in various forms of fiction. Usually it starts because a man has been discovered having an affair. “But I love both of you” says the man. “But you can’t,” says the woman. And thus the polyamorous possibilities in the situation are disappeared.

Love triangles are popular in stories – and not just romances. Tales where male opponents are fighting to win a woman are not unusual. Tales where a man must choose between two women, or a woman must choose between two men abound. I have no idea if this same structure is normal in queer writing, I’ve just not read enough to know.  Love triangles create tension, which makes them attractive to authors. Who will be chosen? Or will someone conveniently be killed off?

The underlying story is that choosing is the right thing to do. You are only allowed to be in love with one person. It is only good and natural to be in love with one person. This is pretty harsh on those of us who don’t fit the model.

I have spent many years talking about being a plural sort of person, because I want to challenge the shame around this way of being. It isn’t a lifestyle choice – in fact for a long time now it’s not been an active feature of my life at all. How I feel is not something I have much control over, and my capacity to love is what it is.

I have fantasies about a world in which being able to love more than one person is something to be celebrated. Where having more space in your heart doesn’t make you wrong, or shameful, and where the ‘happy endings’ to not mean having to choose one love over another. Of course, you might choose to do that, and if that’s your free choice then fair enough. Love who you love, express it how you will – it should all be fine. But the dominant narrative that love must be all focused on one person, is something I find really difficult.

I’d like to see polyamoury expressed as generosity, not greed. I’d like to see it out there in fiction as a possibility, not the impossibility we’re so often shown. I’d like a world in which honestly open relationships are more socially acceptable than going behind an established partner’s back.

I’d also like a world in which bisexuality is not automatically equated with plurality. A bisexual person is no more likely than anyone else to be polyamorous.

I’d like a world in which we do not see other people as things to possess, to own and to jealously guard. Where we do not feel diminished by people we love loving people other than us. Where we don’t automatically feel threatened by that. There’s so much competitive thinking around relationships, and the portrayal of relationships in fictive forms does a lot to reinforce it. We’re told every day through the media we interact with how it is that we’re supposed to be with each other, and those stories are very narrow, and have fear laced through them. Cling tight, own, control, fear the interloper, fear the lapse of attention, fear the sexier competitor… it does us no good at all, and better stories are certainly a possibility.


Infinite love, finite time

I tend to think of love as at least an infinite possibility. It’s not something to guard jealously or ration out, the degree to which I love one person does not reduce the amount of love I might be able to feel for a second person. The bigger issue is the simple, practical point that as a living mammal, I have finite time.

Love, for me, is not simply a concept, it is a lived thing. Love without expression is of limited value. It might create some warm and fuzzy feelings for the person experiencing it, but it does nothing, changes nothing. Love in action is much more powerful. Love in action shows up, spends time, listens, does things with, or for the focus of this feeling.

This is not simply about people either. Love for the landscape takes you into the landscape. Love for the ancestors takes you to ancestral sites. Love for wild things takes you to where you may encounter those wild things. It requires you to know them, hear them, feel for them, help them, be active in your care for them.

All the same is true for people. If love is something we feel privately, stepped back from the world, it is a hollow sort of thing.  Love is better expressed by doing. In some contexts, that might have a sexual aspect to it, but energy, like time, is finite, and shagging people takes both time and energy, and doesn’t make sense in all contexts. Physical affection can of course exist without manifesting lust as well, but that too doesn’t work for all situations, and sometimes it doesn’t go far enough. What we do for each other, what we make for each other and what we make together is key here.

It is possible to hold the idea of love at a distance and without contact for any amount of time. However, what we hold then is the knowledge that we love and the idea that we are loved. Without active expression it can all get a bit speculative and one sided. Letters, phone calls, emails, packages in the post can affirm bonds of affection over great distance, where silence does not.

If love is something you do consciously, day to day, then the choices of how to deploy your time may shift. How much time will you give to people who do not care about you in the slightest? How much time will you give to time-wasters and people who just want to use you? How much of your life will you invest in superficial acquaintances? There is only so much time available to you, in which to love the people, places, creatures that you love. Every hour given to something you do not love, every hour squandered on someone who leaves you feeling empty is an hour you did not get to spend doing something your heart was in.

And while life may involve cycles, afterlives, reincarnation and such possibilities, this moment is only available to us once. Today is unique. Today’s possibilities are unique. Will you grasp them wholeheartedly, or let them be lost in something insignificant and forgettable?


Romance – we do it to ourselves

I am very partial to a love story, and happy to find love in a story as part of some other narrative, but I hate romance. It is a genre written for women by women, and I recognise that many women love it, but I think there’s much to be uneasy about. I’ve read a lot of romance, one way and another, trying to get to grips with it, and how it has changed meaning over time.

The end point of a romance novel is that the woman gets her man. Either in marriage or in something that looks like a settled and dedicated relationship. It is a story shape that tells us we are to aspire to this. It is the big moment for any woman. Your wedding day will be the most important day of your life. That’s a really dodgy message. It was dodgy when Jane Austin was doing it. It remains dodgy.

It’s not unusual for the man to start out hostile, unpleasant, dangerous, threatening, or something else of that ilk. We are to take from this the good old message that he’s horrible to you because he fancies you, just like the way we were told at school that boys hit us because they liked us. We are told that the heroine will magically turn the beastly man into a good man. This keeps us trying to tame abusive men and imagining that we can change them. This is not helpful.

Romance is a hetro-normative genre. My experience of writing in it is that readers and reviewers get really cranky if you write lesbian, or gay romance. It has to be labelled clearly as such, and then they can avoid it. You can’t have polyamoury in the romance genre, either. Its one man and one woman for the happily ever after. So, whole swathes of ways of being are excluded. Romance is on the whole a straight genre. LGBTQ people are expected, too often, to call their love stories something else. I’m not cool with that.

On the whole romance is a genre where being young and beautiful matters. Winning the man tends not to involve saving him from burning buildings, or any kind of adventure. This is a genre of the domestic sphere, more often than not. Because that’s where we are to understand that women belong. If there is any drama, it is usually the woman must be helped, rescued and so forth.

Medieval romance gives us forced marriage. I have a lot of trouble with ‘medieval romance’ as a concept knowing it was an era when women’s bodies were political game pieces and children could be married off to be raped by men they’d never even seen before. By finding ways to make these setups seem romantic, I think we’re trying to normalise some pretty appalling things.

Captive romances take this a bit further – and there’s too many of them out there. Women are captured, taken prisoner (usually in a historical context) and fall in love with their abuser so that makes it ok. That doesn’t make it ok. Not ever. I do not think these are good stories to tell each other.

I wonder how much of the genre is about trying to make inexcusable male behaviour palatable to women who aren’t encouraged to think they can have anything else. We do it to ourselves. I think we need better stories – stories about love that don’t just focus on the start of a relationship but which explore what it means to lover over a longer time frame. I want romance to be a genre that does not assume the preferences of the main characters, and I want there to be room for people who can be romantically attached to more than one person.  Most of all, I want women to stop telling other women that shitty, domineering, controlling and even violent men are in some way sexy.