Tag Archives: relationships

A haircut to die for

It may seem strange that so many people are keen to get out and shop, have haircuts and do other non-essential things during a pandemic. I wrote last year about the way in which white western culture especially, pays to get its needs met. More of that here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2019/08/04/buying-your-needful-things/

Often, a haircut isn’t just a haircut.  For a lot of people, it’s also about confidence and self esteem. It’s about fulfilling that need – created by social pressures – to look certain ways. It may also be the only time someone touches you kindly.

If retail therapy was your anti-depressant, of course you want to go shopping. If being in the pub was as close as you got to having friends, then you’ll be missing the pub, not specific people. The things people are clamouring to have back may not seem worth dying for, but these are things that we’ve been substituting for quality of life for some time.

Paying to meet your basic human needs keeps the economy moving. The less able we are to meet our needs through real relationships and meaningful experiences, the more willing we become to pay for them. Little wonder then that the UK government doesn’t want you hugging people or seeing your lover, but is happy for you to get in a crowded shop with a bunch of other emotionally fragile people who just want to feel better.

Is a haircut worth dying for? No. But a lack of self esteem might kill you, and having no one to touch you kindly may well give you such a poor quality of life that you can’t face it. Right now, a lot of people are going to make risky choices as a consequence of normal life being so inadequate. Most humans could be emotionally sustained by relationships. What we’re seeing, is people turning back to the things that they used to depend on as substitutes for the things real relationships give us.

Try not to be too hard on them, or on yourself if it affects you. Colonial capitalist culture has been ill, and making people ill, for a long time. This is a new manifestation of that.


Adventures in identity

How do we explain ourselves to someone else? When do we feel  that’s necessary? I think the desire to be understood is a widespread thing and a basic human concern – many of us want the reassurance of making sense to someone else. It’s interesting to ask on what terms we do that. What are the most important things you want someone else to understand about you? How would you share that?

The capitalist colonialist structure in which many of us are caught tells us to express identity through branding. What we consume and how we display our consumption is presented as a way of expressing self. We are given a narrow bandwidth for potential identity, and we choose who we are and how we show that by paying for it.

We might share who we are by telling stories about ourselves. The urge to share stories is also a human one. But, the desire to tell another person who we are, to impose our story of self onto them is a complicated one. I’m always interested in the differences between people sharing stories about their experiences, and people who show up saying things like ‘I am this sort of person,’ not least because I so seldom agree with them!

The sharing of identity also functions to help us understand ourselves. There’s nothing like having someone else reflect back to you something of how they see you. The process of explaining ourselves to someone else can be a process of figuring out who we are, or who we want to be. Knowing how you wish to be seen can be quite telling, and the further it is from how you think you are, the more interesting it gets. Where the lines are between aspiration and untruth at this point, may be hard to define.

What does another person need to know about me in order to work with me, or co-operate with me in some way? What do I need other people to understand? Lockdown has meant I’ve not dealt much with people I do not know, but it’s also meant investing more time in online relationships, which in turn raises questions about what it is meaningful to share. Who am I? What of that can I meaningfully offer?

Mostly online I share what I’m interested in, because I find that works and is a good basis for interacting with people. I’ve experimented a bit with sharing my face, and other photos of me – which has been positive as an experience, but feels odd.

I’ve realised that I prefer to know people through what I can do with them.  At the moment my options are sorely limited on this score. But, I don’t think the best understanding of me is a story, or a set of assertions. I think it’s what can be known wordlessly by sharing the things I do. Sitting under the same tree. Wading into the same stream. Increasingly I don’t want to offer a narrative of who I am.  This is complicated online because blogs and social media alike encourage us to do exactly that, to tell ourselves to other people as carefully constructed stories.

When I get online to tell a story about myself, I can engage hundreds, potentially thousands of people with that story. When encountering me means walking through a wood with me or sitting on a hillside, I can only offer that to a very few people. I have to be very selective. I can only be properly real on a very small scale. I think that’s true of all of us, but it’s easy to lose sight of. Who we really are is not the drama of our biggest stories, it’s the moment to moment detail, the precise way in which we approach life.


What stories shall we tell each other?

Humans are story telling creatures. We do it all the time in the normal scheme of things. We have our daily adventures, and our people we check in with about how that went. How was your evening? How was your date? How was your day at work? How did the appointment go? And of these small story interactions we affirm and build our relationships with the people around us.

How is your lockdown going?

I notice on social media that there are a lot more people posting and far less is being said. We’ve been doing this for weeks now. We are over the novelty. Most of us are not getting much done because this is all so stressful and depressing, so we aren’t doing new things that give us stories to share. For some people this makes drama and conspiracy theories appealing – they are at least something to talk about, and if you provoke someone else then you have a story to tell.

Relationships depend on stories to share. We need to find each other interesting. If we are bored with ourselves and bored with the people we usually communicate with, this is a recipe for misery.

It’s important not to be living too much in the future, as well. It’s easy to start telling stories about what we will do when this is over. But, those stories further dislocate us from where we are now. They aren’t an answer to everyday stresses. We don’t know when we will be able to do all the things, so setting yourself up to watch the things you want staying unreachably ahead of you isn’t a good long term mental health choice. It is better to think about what you can do now. If there are things you want, it’s a good time to be figuring out how to move towards that and what you can do. Have a castle in the air if you want one, but also work out the means to approach it.

I have several castles in the air at the moment. I want to move, and being stuck in this small flat with no garden makes that a powerful imperative. I have to believe I won’t be stuck here forever. Even so, I’ve taken the decision not to move at the first opportunity. I could get out of here, but I have been offered a truly lovely air castle that can more likely be made real if I stay awhile, so I’ll stay. There is a story to tell, but I’m not ready yet. As a bonus, but not my major motivation, if we can get that to work, one of my biggest and most outrageous castles in the air becomes more feasible – that daydream about setting up a small movie studio.


Love and other feelings

Love is generally presented as a reaction. It is styled in books and films as an unexpected, uncontrollable thing that just happens in response to one special person. As someone who loves plurally, I’ve always found that part of our stories about love rather difficult. And of course what just happens mysteriously can also be assumed to just go away, equally mysteriously. If we make ourselves powerless in face of it, can’t control it, can’t control ourselves… very little good comes of this.

Attraction can be very sudden – a simple animal desire based on the appearance of the other person. I chalk these up as entertaining but have never acted on it. Desire can be fleeting, and isn’t reliable. I have always been more interested in what a person has going on inside them than how they look.

It’s usually what people do that affects me – what they create, how they think, what they share of themselves, what I can do with them. Love, in all its various shapes and forms can take root in this kind of soil.

Then there are the others, the remarkable, life altering love affairs that have shaped me, and continue to do so. The people whose fingerprints remain on my soul. Looking at those relationships I am conscious of how important deliberate choice has been – mine and theirs. The choice to be vulnerable, to offer something of self, to care, to be open to care in return. Stepping deliberately into more involved ways of relating. Undertaking to love.

The most important love affairs in my life haven’t been accidents of attraction. They’ve been choices. Not just the choice to have a go, but the day by day choices about how I deploy my time and energy, what I pay attention to and what I choose to give. It isn’t something I’ve thought about in quite these terms before, though. I do not belong in the conventional narrative in which love is an accident. Love is something I choose to experience and bestow, and that people dealing with me choose to accept or reject.


Obliged to live together

I’m seeing a lot of people online talking about how difficult it is having to spend all of their time at home with their partners, and in some cases also their children. Many of the people doing this will never have done this before. I’ve been in relationships in the past where space and distance were key to keeping things viable. What do you do when you don’t have anywhere else to go and being cooped up increases frustration?

For two years, Tom and I worked and lived on a boat – 45 feet long, 6 feet wide, boy and cat also onboard. It wasn’t easy, but we learned how to do it.

The absolute key thing for surviving with other people in a small space, is not to take your feelings out on each other. It’s easy to do this without noticing – snapping at someone because you feel grumpy, getting angry over small things that aren’t really the problem. From there it’s easy to get into cycles of passive aggression, people feeling hurt and not being able to express it well – this way lies misery.

When you can step away from each other, there’s less frustration. If you are taking your feelings out on each other, normally you at least get some breathing space in which to recover. Many people no longer have those options.

The trick is to share your feelings rather than venting them. There need be no problem being sad, bored, frightened or frustrated if you deal with it by saying that’s what you’ve got, or by expressing the feeling in relation to what’s causing it, not dumping it on the person nearest to you as though this is their fault. It takes a certain amount of self awareness to do this, but, you’re probably going to have lots of time to practice…

When you share your emotions with the people closest to you, trust is built. Support and understanding become available. There’s scope for cooperation to alleviate problems. Good things can come of this, everyone gets to feel better, no one is ground down. Using a person as your emotional punch-bag is a terrible thing to do, and will make their life a misery. It also deprives the person doing it of any meaningful comfort or support.

Living and working in a small space with other people and never having much scope to be away from them isn’t easy. But it is totally possible. Care, cooperation, negotiation and patience make all things possible. Also remember that the people around you do not magically know what’s going on in your head. They aren’t psychic. If you think they are supposed to know, or supposed to understand and you get cross with them when they don’t… this may not be their shortcoming. If you can explain calmly, using small words, they have a chance of understanding, where resentment of their lack of psychic insight will only make things worse.

For some people, isolation is going to make apparent that the other person in their home likes using them as an emotional punchbag. I am worried about the way in which extra stresses and forced proximity might escalate abusive relationships, and how much harder it will be to get out if we end up in lockdown. I can only hope there will be resources in place for people who find they aren’t safe.


Relationship assumptions

The dominant stories we have about the kinds of relationship shapes available to a person, are, from my perspective, unhelpfully narrow. Emotionally speaking I’m polyamorous – I can choose fidelity, but it is fundamentally in my nature to love. I’m attracted to pixies and wizards – gender has never really been a factor. As someone with wizard and pixie attractions, it makes no sense to me that one set of genitals equates to potential lovers and the other to potential friends and that you shouldn’t be friends with people who have different genitals to you.

I find the hard lines we draw between friends and lovers a tad perplexing. It doesn’t leave me much space for adoration, for people I want to hold and kiss but maybe not shag. It doesn’t allow for my massive and very intense creative crushes or for what happens with me when people inspire me.

Conventional relationships tend to assume similarity of age. Again, this has never worked for me. There’s a huge age range across my love/friendship relationships.

For me, entering into a relationship with a person has always been about finding the shape that is right for that particular exchange. That may, or may not be sexual, it may be affectionate, it may be a creative collaboration, or something else entirely. I’m interested in what might happen, and not in getting an interaction with a person to fit a pre-determined shape.

I’m also entirely comfortable with unbalanced relationships. I often love people who do not feel the same way about me, and I’m fine with that. My emotional response does not create an obligation. I might want things that aren’t available – again I’m fine with this. I am confused by people who expect balance. I am very confused by people who think I should feel about them something that reflects how they feel about me! I am largely convinced it’s because we tell each other so many stories in which two people fall in love with each other at the same time and to the same degree that we assume this is normal. It’s never worked that way for me.

I want there to be more room. I don’t want to be told what I am allowed to feel, or be cut down by the limited nature of other people’s stories. I’ve had more than enough of that already. I want space, for all of us, to be who we are, explore who we might be when dealing with each other, and to engage on whatever terms actually make sense.


Being a bit rubbish with people

I’ve carried the idea that I was rubbish at dealing with people ever since I landed at playschool and found I had no idea how to relate to other kids. Shy and nervous, I did not do well socially at school, although I am blessed with some good friends from that period of my life. I’ve never found relationships with people very easy. I’ve spent my life to this point looking for places to belong. I’ve fallen out of all sorts of communities and spaces.

There are so many things I can’t cope with. Any situation in which a person needs to be tough, emotionally robust or able to deal with pushy people interested in power-over… I don’t cope. People who move goal posts. People who want everything you have and then rubbish you when they’ve burned you out. People who mock and belittle mental health problems. People who dish out all kinds of crap while expecting saintly patience in return… all of these things seem normal in spaces with people in, and I can’t deal with them.

I’ve started saying ‘I am rubbish at doing stuff with people’ out loud, and it is an incredible relief to own it. I can’t do spaces with people in, in the way that other people do. I can’t care insufficiently to just ignore problems. I’m not emotionally robust enough to deal with casual sexism, or spaces that can’t make allowances for the anxiety I suffer.

I’ve tried, and tried again, and failed, and failed again. I’ve had plenty of people along the way tell me what I rubbish person I am to deal with – I don’t give enough, I make too much fuss, I don’t forgive enough in them… and I’ve thrown so much energy into trying to prove I’m better than that.

And now I’ve stopped.

If I’m not good enough for someone else – fine, so be it, I will go away. If I’m not robust enough to function in a space, I will leave that space. I am a bit rubbish at dealing with people in the way that many of the people I have encountered expect to be dealt with. Fair enough. I cannot change me, and I cannot afford to stay in these kinds of fights, so I won’t.

I am a bit rubbish at doing stuff with people. And every time I say it, I feel a weight on me easing. I don’t know how much there is to let go of, how much more relief there is to find. I can’t do this stuff. I can’t do conventional workplaces and I can’t do community membership, and maybe that’s ok. Maybe I can just wander off and be my anxious, cranky self places that won’t be a problem, and the people who are ok with me can seek me out when they feel like it.

Maybe I never properly feel like I belong anywhere because there is nowhere I could belong. Maybe that’s ok. I’ve spent my whole life to this point aching for a place to belong, so putting that longing down is one of the most radical things I’ve ever done. What I want doesn’t exist, and there is no need to keep hurting myself trying to fit into spaces that aren’t there. I accept that I cannot do the things with people that have proved necessary in every community space I have ever explored. I can’t do it. There is so much relief in saying it, and a kind of grief for that which never was, but that’s ok.


Building relationships

One of the great mistakes people make around relationships of all shapes, is assuming they should just happen ‘naturally’ and with no effort. The relationship that works by magic seems to prove its own value and significance, which taps into a lot of the unhelpful stories we have about romance. However, it’s just as relevant when thinking about working partnerships, friendships, and how we create community.

There are things that tend to happen if we let relationships unfold in unconsidered ways. We bring all our habits and assumptions with us, unquestioned. We keep playing out our stories, our ancestral wounding, our family dramas and everything else that might limit us. In group situations, this can also lead to giving the loudest the most power, facilitating bullying, and excluding anyone who isn’t a neat fit for what the group considers normal. Able-bodied groups of people tend not to even notice the ways in which disabled people are excluded. White people can be totally oblivious to how their group is difficult for everyone else.

If you want functional, substantial and powerful relationships, you have to work at them. You have to look for those unspoken underlying assumptions and what they mean. You have to consider what the unspoken rules are and what effect they may be having. And then you have to talk about it – which can feel weird and exposed. However, when we collectively check our assumptions and question our beliefs, all kinds of interesting change becomes possible.

Communication doesn’t happen by magic. Inclusion is something you build. Making safe space is a consequence of considered effort, not happy accident. The reality of a relationship is there in every detail of how it plays out. Who has a voice? Who is allowed to disagree? Who gets the extra time? Who gets to do the work and who decides who gets to do the work? Whether you’re talking about a marriage, a start up business or a community group, these questions are necessary and need revisiting.

The trouble is, that for the people best served by this, there is the least incentive to make change. If you’re in the central clique with all the power and influence, do you want to open that up and let other people in? If you’ve rigged things so that they suit you, or such that people you don’t want to deal with can’t get involved, why would you change that? So often it comes to people on the margins pushing for inclusion against the resistance of people who have it all working nicely for them.

I’ve been in those spaces. I’ve gone up against the people who made themselves feel powerful by forming an inner cabal. I’ve challenged people who couldn’t see who wasn’t at the table because of their assumptions. I can’t say I’ve won a great deal of ground for anyone by doing this. It is a hard thing to do from the margins, and the comfortable middle of such arrangements seldom cares to be discomforted. Although, it is bloody amazing when that happens and very exciting and totally worth the effort.

When we let things evolve ‘naturally’ or ‘grow organically’ what this means in practice is that we give the most ease to those with the most power. If you can’t make it into the room, you don’t get to participate in growing it organically. If you find yourself in the middle of anything, look around to see if anyone wanted to be there but cannot get in. Take down barriers. Expand opportunities. Give people the chance to be involved and the chance to be heard. It’s a wonderful, radical, life changing thing to do. The relationships we make deliberately are so much richer and more enabling than the ones that we allow to carry on by default.


Creatively doing nothing

One of the trickier things around being creative is the issue of time spent apparently doing little or nothing. It can be awkward in terms of how you see yourself. It can be very awkward around how other people relate to you. Ideas require time and space – and this isn’t just a creative issue, either. This is an issue for living well.

Time to think gives us room to explore what we want and how we feel. We can digest experiences and reflect on them and decide what to do next. For anyone who wants to be creative, in any sense, there needs to be this process of input, assimilation and then making something new.

There are of course important balances to strike. Being creative doesn’t mean you are entitled to take time other people in your household don’t have. Make sure the time to productively do nothing is shared about. If one person gets to sit around contemplating only because another person is working themselves to the bone, that’s not acceptable. It is all too easy to use the need for creative non-productivity to justify doing very little.

How do you tell, from the outside, if someone is doing the needful inner work to keep their life and/or their art in order? How much space do you give someone to stare dreamily into the middle distance? The odds are it will depend a lot on what they do the rest of the time, and how much you value that. None of us are under any obligation to find anyone else’s processes acceptable – it’s all about negotiation in the end. How we make space for each other is an important question in all relationships.

Appearing to be busy is of course not a measure of worth, either. If you’ve just knuckled down to spending every spare hour on revision twenty four of the three hundred thousand word long novel you’ve been working on for the last ten years and still aren’t happy with… that business may not be any measure of the worth of the work.

It’s also important to remember that being productive and being economically viable aren’t the same issue, either. You can create the most beautiful, inspired and worthwhile things and not be able to make a living from it.

Even so, it is good to gather wool. It is good to sit and let your mind wander, considering anything and nothing that floats through. It is good to make time and space for your own reflections. Without this, it is difficult to sustain any kind of creativity. It’s in the quiet, unstructured spaces that we come to know ourselves and can figure out something about who we are and where we might be going.


Buying your needful things

So much of what we need is for sale. If you want someone to touch you kindly and be affirming, there’s always the hairdresser, or the nail technician, or a paid-for massage. If you need to talk to someone sympathetic, there are counsellors, therapists and life coaches. Any human need you have, you can pay some other human to answer. Some of the options of course being more legal than others…

I’ve been thinking for a while about the way in which commerce and human relationships intersect. Money is our primary expression of valuing people, so when we don’t pay for services rendered, we don’t always value what’s done for us. But, when we put a price tag on things sometimes we lose that sense of duty to each other. Natural and non-financial modes of caring and sharing may become distorted by the dynamics of seller and client.

With loneliness known to be on the rise, there must be increasing numbers of people who could only hope to meet their basic needs for human contact, by paying for it. And with poverty on the rise, paying to meet your basic needs becomes ever less feasible for many people.

I have no simple ‘we should be doing this’ answers to this area of experience. It bothers me that if you can’t afford to pay someone to meet your emotional needs, you may struggle to have those needs met in other ways. It bothers me that we are often so isolated from each other that some of us have to pay to have people touch us kindly or listen to us carefully. At the same time I’m deeply grateful that there are people who have taken these areas on professionally and can bring training and experience to bear when we need them.

What do we give? What do we assume others should do for us? What do we willingly pay for? What do we think should be done for free? What worth do we ascribe and how does that connect with what we pay? Answers to such questions are of course always going to be personal. I am certain they are questions we need to ask ourselves.