Tag Archives: relationships

Contemplating Love

Love – at least in the romantic sense – is something we tend to treat as a mystery. How and when it will happen, no one knows, and who it will direct you to is unpredictable. Although, when you look at most people’s partner choices, you’ll see comparable age, class background, educational level and more. We’re more likely to pick people who are much like us and of course in doing this we’re more likely to have a daily life that requires few changes.

Love is a choice, not an accident.

Lust can be a bit random, but I’ve never considered lust on its own a good basis for a relationship. So many of our films and books show us people experiencing lust and getting it together, with this presented as romance. Romeo and Juliet are a classic of the form – two kids who do not know each other but really fancy each other and act on it. Love calls for more time, more depth, more involvement with each other.

Love is the choice to be open to something or someone – because of course romantic love isn’t the only option. Relationships that remain good (not habits or battle grounds) depend on choosing to keep loving each other. It’s an everyday choice, expressed in the tones of conversations, the small, affectionate gestures, the making and doing together that builds a life. Love is not something that happens to us, it is something we do, and the more deliberately we do it, the better the results are.

If you treat love as incomprehensible mystery, you are at the mercy of your desires and you can’t build anything. If you treat love as a deliberate choice, you can create it day by day. And quite possibly you can find some one(s) to co-create that with, making a life, a family, a relationship, a home, a network, a community or whatever else you want it to be. Choosing to invest deliberately in the people who love in return, who enrich your life, who delight you and who want you to be part of their existence means you have more scope for more good stuff. When love isn’t a random act of God, you can more readily walk away from what doesn’t work out, and pick where to invest your energy. The results are much better than ascribing it all to fate.

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Enjoy your community life

In this blog, I’m picking upon Molly Scott Cato’s advice for resisting fascism.

Far right politics works to divide us. When we see everyone else as a competitor, and when we feel that giving anyone else rights undermines our own, there is no community. When we think in terms of maximising our profits and benefits and never mind everyone else, we create fragmented cultures full of cracks for people to fall through as soon as anything goes wrong. In this kind of environment, fearing each other is normal. Greed, jealousy, resentment, and the capacity to harm others are all cultivated.

A culture based on care, cooperation and mutual support is one in which we all see each other as valuable. One way in which we can resist fragmentation, fear and hatred, is to actively invest in community life. All you have to do to take up this method of resisting fascism, is to join a group of people. If you can, join a group that meets up in the real world and does something. That could be a fitness class, a volunteering group, people who cycle together, a film club, a political party, a union, or anything else you can think of that gives you a warm community space.

We’re social creatures, most of us. We are happier and our lives are richer and more fulfilling when we have meaningful relationships with other people. When we are enjoying life, we’re less easily persuaded towards hatred and resentment of others. We’re less likely to fear other people if we spend time with other people. If we isolate ourselves, we become vulnerable. The little voices that talk to us from the corner of the room aren’t always on our side. News tends to focus on misery and drama, and if your sense of other people is derived mostly from that, you’ll have a sense that people are mostly awful. If your sense of people comes from your mates at the skateboard park and the book club at the library, you will likely feel a lot better about other humans.

Community life takes us beyond economic life, too. If our interactions with other humans are mostly in the workplace, our relationships will be coloured by hierarchies and economic activity. It’s good to connect with people without paying to do so. It’s good to talk to people who aren’t there purely because they want you to do something for them. People who live in the work sphere and don’t connect with people who aren’t in paid employment can get some deeply skewed ideas about what not working means.

Show up somewhere. Do it for fun. Go forth into your community and find things that enrich your life and make you happy. Surrounded as we are by political and environmental crisis, it can feel hard to justify time spent on joyful things. But, to be happy with other humans is to be politically radical. To be social is to be radical. To find joy without spending vast sums of money on it, is radical. To connect with people who are not at the same life stage or of the same economic background, is radical. Increasingly, happiness is a radical thing to embrace. Fight fascism with joy by making real connections with other people.


Being crap together

Being professional means putting a brave face on it, feigning competence when you feel you have none. Smiling at people because it’s your job to smile at people and not because anything inside you feels like smiling. It’s not necessarily just a work issue. Maybe in your family you are the one who is always calm, clever, able to figure stuff out. Maybe in your friend circle you’re the joker, the one who cheers everyone else up.

When you’re depressed, the roles that you usually play can feel like awkward masks. Taking the mask off and showing what’s really going on may be unthinkable. Playing the roles you’ve got when you don’t feel equal to any of them takes a toll, and that emotional cost can push you further into the dark places. Depression can tell you that no one would accept you if you took the mask off and showed them what was really going on.

What happens if we are crap together? What happens if you spend some time with other people and no one has to be clever, or shiny or on top of things? If it’s ok to be tired and have poor concentration, and the conversation lurches awkwardly and is slow and full of gaps… but those gaps aren’t awkward and no one is jumping into the spaces to make anyone else feel small or useless.

Imagine a social space where showing up as you are is totally fine. Where you sit at the table all evening and barely manage a word, but that’s ok, and no one judges you for it or makes anything of it. Imagine not having to pretend to be upbeat for the sake of those around you.

Feeling safe, feeling honest and able to be as you are is a huge gift. It is worth taking a look at the expectations we pile onto ourselves and asking if that’s really how it is. Sometimes it is worth taking the risk of showing up feeling crap and with nothing much to offer. It is always worth embracing other people’s crapness and just having space for them even when they aren’t up to much. It is a huge gift to give. Low expectations can be generous blessings in other people’s lives.

When we move away from ideas of who we are supposed to be in our social lives and make space for where we are, connections with people become deeper and more authentic. If you’ve bought into ideas about presenting as clever, successful, socially potent and all the rest of it, this is a hard crossing to make. On the other side there is more peace, ease, relief and far less stress. When we can be real with each other, when we can be crap together, the world is a far kinder place.

Depressed people are often encouraged to get over it, make an effort, give more in social situations and are often pushed (including by CBT therapy) to try and act ‘normal’. What I’ve found in practice is that if the people around you have room for you to be as you are, however gloomy that is, things get easier. Permission to be your real, hurting self and feeling seen and accepted in that state changes so much. A fake it until you make it approach does not, in my experience, fix depression. It may hide it, but it is only adding to the emotional burden. The person who can be real may find a firmer footing from which they can get back on top of their life and feel better about things.

 


Work, depression and self esteem

Here are some mechanics I have observed repeatedly in my own life, and am fairly sure I am seeing in the lives of various of my friends who suffer from depression.

Overworking → exhausted → depressed → feeling inadequate → unable to work → feeling even more inadequate → becoming even more depressed.

Or…

Overworking → exhausted → depressed → feeling inadequate → working harder → becoming even more exhausted → becoming more depressed.

When you look to work for validation, for a sense of self worth and achievement, and depression is gnawing away at your underpinnings, the odds are you aren’t going to win. But, if you don’t work (be that paid or unpaid), you get to feel even more useless. Depression is good at telling a person they are useless, worthless, unlovable, unacceptable.

Thus when depression kicks in, I turn towards work to try and feel validated. While resting might help my body, it can actually leave me more anxious and insecure than trying to crack on. Instead of turning to others around me for help and kindness, I dig in to the most utilitarian relationships. I focus on where I am most useful, not where most good flows towards me.

I’ve looked hard at the mechanics of this, as it happens in my own life and as I observe others on the same downward spirals. The conclusions I have come to are that it is very hard to get off this spiral on your own, and that once you are on it is not a good time to be dealing with the things that cause it. The real answer lies in what happens the rest of the time – how loved, supported, valued, resourced and welcome a person feels. The degree to which utility dominates relationships in the normal scheme of things. The amount of positive feedback and soul food.

This in turn leads me to thinking about how we normally treat each other. How transactional are our relationships? How much of a feeling of scarcity underpins how we treat each other? How much do we do to validate each other in the normal scheme of things? What do we do for the people around us if we suspect they aren’t ok? If we can support and validate each other on terms that are not primarily about usefulness, I suspect we can all help each other stay out of the awful downwards spirals.

There is a massive amount of power in telling someone you value them, and that their value is not conditional on what they do for you.


Lessons in letting people go

I’ve always been a people pleaser. I’ve always cared what other people thought of me, and whether they thought I was good enough. Demands (implicit or explicit) to give more, do more, be more useful, ask for less, make less fuss and so forth, have tended to impact on me. I’ve spent much of my life trying to be good enough for other people. As a consequence, I’ve spent more time than was a good idea in the company of people for whom I could never be good enough.

One of the things I’ve done this year is to ask at every turn, what’s in it for me? I’ve found it massively helpful as an approach. On a number of occasions now, I’ve identified situations where there really was nothing in it for me, but I was being asked to give rather a lot. I’ve learned to say no to that, and to walk away.

In the past, I would have felt guilty about not being good enough for someone. No matter how preposterous the situation, or how impossible the hoops I was being asked/told to jump through. Failing to do what other people wanted of me would leave me depressed, anxious, guilt ridden and trying to cut bits off myself so as to better fit through the endless hoops. It’s taken me a long time to learn that some people can’t be pleased. It’s usually the most demanding people who are the hardest to actually make happy.

Alongside this I’ve learned that I can have people in my life who just like me being around. People who don’t need me to do anything in particular for them. People who enjoy me being happy. It makes a lot of difference. Unsurprisingly, the more time I spend with people who accept me as I am, the happier and more relaxed I am.

The people who want me to be things I am not, have, with hindsight, wanted some weird and incompatible things. They’ve wanted things on their terms that should never be entirely one sided. They’ve wanted all the consequences of being unconditionally loved, while being free to act like they have no obligations. Conditional love is never enough for some people. The idea of reciprocal love, care, affection and support offends them. They’ve wanted the devotion that gets the work done, and the freedom to pretend that the devotion does not exist. They’ve wanted absolute care and attention while making it clear that it must never be apparent that I’m making an effort, so that they don’t feel awkward or pressured by it. And so on. Some games are not winnable.

I have learned this year that I do not have to feel guilty about the people I am unable to please. If I’m not good enough for them, they should let go and move on. It’s no good standing around telling me how rubbish I am, or how problematic, and expecting me to fix everything. Also, I’ve never yet got into one of these where it seemed possible to really fix anything or ever be good enough. The people who treat me as though I am the villain in their life story while at the same time asking for saintly levels of tolerance, forgiveness and indulgence, are people I don’t need. Onwards!


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.


Danger signs in human relationships

How do you tell when a relationship has crossed a line and become genuinely toxic rather than merely uncomfortable or challenging? When you’re in the thick of things, especially if it’s impacting on you emotionally, it can be hard to make good decisions about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. To further complicate things, a deliberately abusive person will try to persuade you of their world view in order to keep abusing you, and that can make things incredibly confusing.

Here are some things I think it’s fairly easy to spot even in emotive situations. These are danger signs. The amount of them and the context will of course matter, and people in crisis can flail about in horrible ways and still deserve our sympathy, but on the whole if it looks like this, be very careful.

Double standards – rules for you that do not apply to them, and/or entitlements they have that you are not allowed.

They can only be right and you can only be wrong unless you totally agree with them and do everything on their terms.

Not being allowed to express any kind of pain or discomfort. If you are punished, verbally or physically for expressing pain or discomfort, this is a very dangerous situation. Leave it carefully – leaving is when abusers are at their most dangerous.

De-personing you – not allowing you to think, or feel anything that isn’t agreeable to them. Refusing to hear you if you express something that doesn’t suit them. Rubbishing your opinion. Minimising your distress by telling you that you are over reacting, making a fuss, that it’s drama and attention seeking. Being very quick to dismiss you. Decent people tend to be slower to complain that other people are doing drama.

Attributing things to you that are of their making – ‘you made me angry’ and ‘you made me hit you’ are classic examples of this, but it can be more subtle. For women, the effect our bodies have on male bodies is something we are routinely blamed for and made responsible for. There’s a limit to how responsible you can be for the effect you have on other people, and this stuff is definitely on the other side of the line. Also, the same people will not take any responsibility at all for the impact they have on you, even when we’re talking bruises. They will treat these things as comparable – their anger and your bruise. Either you’ll find that if you can be heard, everything they feel is then blamed on you using that as the justification. Or, if you can’t be responsible for how they feel about you, they can’t be responsible for anything either. It’s twisted and difficult to sort through. Watch out for un-nuanced, binary thinking in which one thing is taken to mean another.

Changing the story. Now, we all change stories as our understanding of a situation shifts over time. It becomes a danger sign when the changes are rapid, illogical, contradictory, if you are clearly being lied to, and then lied to in a different way to cover the first lie, and when you are expected to go along with the ‘truth’ that the other person has at any given moment and they get angry if you can’t keep up or make sense of things. This is a mind game, and a form of gaslighting. If they treat you like you are crazy for not being able to make sense of their shifting story, it is definitely gaslighting.

This is by no means a definitive list, but I think it’s a useful place to start.


This Fragile Life – a review

This is an incredibly emotionally intense novel. It’s contemporary, set in the real world and is not fantastical in any way. It’s a book that explores the human heart and psyche with a mix of razor sharp insight and compassion.

Martha, after five rounds of failed IVF treatment is coming to terms with the idea that she is never going to have children. Martha is a successful business woman with a classy flat and a nice husband and from the outside she looks like she has it all. High School friend Alex didn’t get (or want) the snazzy college place or the high powered job – she works in a cafe part time and teaches art to disadvantaged kids. She has no money, no healthcare, and a tiny home. Alex is pregnant, and Alex does not think she has what it takes to be a decent mum. And so how could she refuse Martha’s suggestion that she give her baby to her friend?

Nothing, it turns out, is that simple. This is a tough story, and while avoiding spoilers, I will say that it made me cry, a lot.

There are lots of themes here. Poverty and privilege. What makes a good parent. What giving birth looks like when you’re dealing with private health care and have no insurance. What success means and what good relationships require. No one in this story is how they first seem. Some of them act terribly, or think really awful things. As you find out more about who they are and where they come from, many of those things make more sense. This is a story about how wounding is passed down through families and how hard it is to break out of family patterns of behaviour. It’s a story that makes clear that we do all have the power to choose and that none of us are obliged to keep repeating the things in our histories.

Events in this story bring out the best and worst in people. It’s a tale that demonstrates our capacity to grow and change, that we can all decide to be better than we were and that we may all have qualities we won’t know about until tested. Do we pull apart under stress, or prop each other up?

If you’re feeling fragile, this may not be a book for you – but it may also be cathartic. It’s well written, and it has a great deal to offer.

 

 


Shapes of relationships

Some of our relationships are necessarily structured. When there’s a professional shape to a relationship, all kinds of rules and requirements are in place and this is good and necessary. Professional relationships create obligations, responsibilities and power imbalances that need managing. Some family relationships have some of the same issues. Even so, there are choices to be made about how we shape such involvement – how much power over? How many arbitrary rules? How much service? How much expectation?

As Druids, we may often take on informally the kinds of roles that can be held professionally. Priest, teacher, counsellor, life coach… If we stray too far from what’s professional, we can end up abusing power and mistreating people. If we over-invest in our semi-professional status we can end up arrogant, self important and doing ourselves no favours whatsoever. As in most things, there’s a fine balancing act to achieve. Unlike professionals, we aren’t automatically keyed into a system that has support networks, resources, information and reliable paychecks, and it’s worth thinking about how that impacts on our relationships, too.

We tell each other a lot of stories about relationships – in fact friendship and romance are often central to our stories. In all kinds of ways – including adverts and laws – we tell each other about the shapes we think those relationships could and should have. Over time, that changes. It used to be much more acceptable for a man to beat his wife. We used to see marriage as a well defined relationship with a definite power imbalance in it. We seem willing now to explore less authoritarian approaches to parenting while at the same time being far more controlling of our children’s time and activities.

It’s easy to default to a standard relationship shape, an off the peg, one size fits all, it was good enough for some other person so it’s good enough for me kind of approach. This can have us replaying dysfunctional family stories, acting out what we’ve seen on the telly, aspiring to advert-family lifestyles that could never suit us and all sorts of other self-defeating things.

We have a notion that friendship means people of the same gender and about the same age, but life, and communities are much richer when there’s inter-generational contact. There are no stories about the natural friendship patterns for queer and genderfluid people. We tend to move towards people of similar class and educational background, but again that’s really narrowing. Some of us need big networks of friends, some of us need to deeply invest in just a few people. Some of us need a mix of that. There are no right answers here, but there can be wrong ones. If you end up doing what you think you should do, not what’s right for you, then you suffocate yourself.

Every relationship should be unique, because it is a meeting of two people. Each relationship may be framed by a context, or multiple contexts. We may give each other roles even when they don’t formally exist. It takes a certain amount of deliberation to refuse standard-issue relationship shapes and let something find its own form. It takes a certain amount of confidence as well, to do something with a relationship that is not what others might expect. People can be unpleasantly judgemental about having their expectations denied. Coming out can be a case in point for denying your family’s expectations.

It may seem easier to have all our interactions neatly arranged and tidily categorised. It may be simpler that way. There are no doubt some people whose natures mean that tidiness and simplicity are in fact the best choices. But not for all of us. Not for all relationships. Putting down the assumptions and seeing what happens can let magic in.


Negotiated relationships

(trigger warnings, some domestic abuse content)

One of the big problems, as I see it, with straight, vanilla type relationships is that people assume a lot. If you think you are normal, and that your partner is normal, it is easy to assume you want the same things. This results in at best a lack of communication, it can lead to frustration, boredom and at the worst end, people doing things to each other that weren’t welcome or wanted. My impression is that people whose sexual education was watching porn can have some odd assumptions about what constitutes ‘normal’ as well.

People who come from a kink and/or polyamoury background tend to know that what they want might well not be what anyone else wants. I think it’s also true for LGBT folk – who don’t start out thinking they are the default setting, or assuming that the people they encounter will want the same things. Straight people can be surprised when other people turn out not to be straight.

We tell ourselves a lot of stories about what straight monogamy looks like. These stories tend to focus on the establishment of the relationship and then it all gets vague about how you keep it going. Negotiation isn’t a feature. Our culture has stories of power over, or commercial bargaining, but not much at all about relationship negotiation.

In my experience, negotiating clearly is a good idea in any relationship – professional, romantic, sexual, platonic… whatever you’ve got, it pays to talk about it and not to assume you know what the other person thinks or feels.

The thing is that in practice, most of the straight and monogamous people I’ve encountered along the way have not all thought, felt and wanted the same things, even while plenty of them seemed very confident that they were just normal and like everyone else.

One of the great relationship myths is that we should magically know what our significant other person thinks and feels. Most of us don’t. If we don’t say to each other what we think and feel and then get cross with each other for not knowing – that way lies only misery.

Most of us do not fit neatly together. What we think and feel, what we want and desire does not always align neatly. If we deal with this through power, the one with most power forcing their choices on the one with least power, that way lies misery and abuse. If we take a commercial approach – I will do this if you will do that – we find ourselves in situations where people repeatedly do something they don’t want to do. There’s usually a power aspect. I will buy you the winter coat you need if you will consent to be tied up and beaten, is not in fact a fair exchange, or a consenting situation, but this kind of thing happens a lot. It is a way of abusing someone while convincing the victim that they have consented and have no recourse.

Negotiation means finding the answers everyone can be okay with, only doing the things everyone wants to do. It means taking the risk of finding that there isn’t room for what you want. It requires the vulnerability of being honest without taking control to push your wants onto others. It means care, respect, an open heart, a willing ear, the desire to understand and co-operate with the other person. It means wanting an outcome that does not hurt or diminish anyone else. Even if you try that and can’t do it very well at first, the outcomes are far better than any other approach.