Tag Archives: relationships

Compromise and negotiation

A while ago, a friend of mine suggested that all relationships depend on compromise. I argued, because I think negotiation is the key and that compromise can be problematic. These days we go into things and negotiate, and no one talks about compromising, which is how I like all of my relationships to go.

Sometimes compromise is the only option, but I prefer to get there by negotiating first. Often, when the default is compromise, what it means in practice is that one person gets to do the compromising while another gets their own way most of the time. 

Negotiating, for me, starts from the idea of doing the best job possible of meeting everyone’s needs and desires. This isn’t always possible. I feel strongly about not compromising on anyone’s needs for the sake of what someone else simply wants. I know how grim things can become when needs aren’t properly recognised, and I know that when people feel able to discuss needs, that’s a clear sign of a safer sort of space.

Compromising is fine when you vary who has to actually compromise. A negotiation that leads to doing it one way this time and the other way next time is a good way of collaborating to make sure people get what they want and need. No one should feel compromised in themselves when compromising over something, that’s a definite red flag.

When people are negotiating with each other there’s usually time to explore how things work and why. Compromise can be what happens when there isn’t time to properly look at the issues. Not having space to talk things through can in turn enable situations where one person continually compromises for the benefit of the other. If there’s no room to discuss things and one party isn’t interested in even knowing what the other person feels or wants, it can be really disempowering for the person who compromises. Being persuaded that your needs don’t matter, or aren’t worthy of attention, is not a good place to be.

Negotiating is itself an act of care. Hearing people out and understanding how their needs and preferences differ from yours helps build kind and mutually supportive relationships. Asking someone to compromise is very different from assuming they will, or making it difficult for them to do otherwise. 

If you’re constantly compromised, and there isn’t room for what you need, it’s a strong indicator that this isn’t a good relationship. The person who refuses to negotiate wants things only on their own terms.

When there are conflicts of interest, if there’s also a real relationship then the only question to ask is how we find the best way through things for everyone.

Adventures in gender identity

I’ve always had an interesting relationship with gender. The more I learn about other people’s perspectives, the clearer it has become to me that I don’t experience gender in the same way that a lot of people do. In that I don’t really experience gender except in so far as other people’s assumptions about mine impacts on me. Ideas about gender don’t inform how I feel about people. It plays no role in who I am attracted to. I’ve had extended periods of time where it wasn’t really part of my sense of self at all.

The spaces I like best are the ones in which gender doesn’t automatically play a role. It’s one of the many reasons I like steampunk spaces. People are expressive in those spaces, and creative and playful. You can’t assume anything about a person based on what they’re wearing or how they present their bodies. No one tends to assume that a sexily-presented body is an available body. There are people who express and celebrate bodies, gender, sexuality. There are people who play and subvert. There are people who express themselves in ways that have more to do with what they’re enthusiastic about than it has to do with how they relate to their gender. I like that a lot. I love the diversity.

I’ve come to realise that what goes on in my head is much more significantly me than anything that happens with my body. The people I am most engaged with are the people who share ideas with me. Looking back at my life this is no doubt why I’ve always invested heavily in my creative relationships. Those are the spaces where I get to show up mostly as a thinking being.

I’m often uneasy about my body. I’ve had plenty of uncomfortable experiences around people misunderstanding me based on what they think my body means. As a female-presenting person I’ve dealt with a typical amount of sexism. I’ve had people try to tell me who I am and what I can and can’t do because I happen to have breasts, and I’m not a fan. 

Of late it’s become increasingly apparent to me how head-led I am. How much I crave the ways in which I can connect with other people, mind to mind. I’m excited about ideas, and I’m a highly emotional entity, and the people who do best with me are the ones who see further than the accident of how I look.

To be dependent is human

I write a lot about community because I think too much solitary individualism has harmed us all. There are too many things that cannot be done as an individual, and too many things that are really hard to do alone. There are also a lot of things that we do collectively and then try to ignore. This is especially true around harm we’re causing – climate change is a collective problem and yet we focus obsessively on individual solutions.

How dependent should we be on each other? At what point does dependence become unhealthy? Do we prioritise independence too much? How does ableism inform all of this? At the moment I have more questions than answers. What bothers me is the way in which dependence is pathologised, and treated as a problem to solve. Too needy, too clingy, codependent, enmeshed… at what point is it reasonable to be worried about how involved people are with each other?

I think the simple answer to this, is when it becomes controlling. When a person feels justified in controlling another person so that they feel secure, or needed or whatever it is they get out of it. If dependence turns into wanting to make people do things, a line needs to be drawn. There’s a great deal of needing people that is possible without having to take over their lives.

I’ve never been a very independent person. I’ve never lived on my own and I never want to do that. I would always choose to live communally. I’m very relationship oriented and by that I don’t just mean romance. I’ve tried living off-grid, and it’s exhausting. I don’t want to independently produce all my own food, for the same reasons. I want to live in a community. I want to share resources. I want to give, and borrow and lend and be part of an ecosystem.

My whole state of being in the world is people centred. I’ve only ever been interested in ritual as a community activity. Shared music spaces have always been really important to me. I’m in conversations about communal crafting. I’m happiest as a writer when I’m co-creating. I move towards community projects whenever I have the chance. Reading books is the only thing I’m really invested in doing on my own. Even that isn’t truly solitary, it’s an interaction with the author.

Unless you really are off grid, in a yurt of your own making, growing your own food from your saved seeds and wearing clothes spun from your own sheep, then your life is full of interactions. Even if you live alone, someone made your shelter, your food, your clothes. Someone touched your possessions before you did. People got sick and died so that you could have cheap things. Landscapes were impacted by your diet. We’re in constant relationship, and the idea of independence is a fantasy that insulates us from knowing what kind of impact we have.

We’re all participating in exploitation, in degradation of environments and in the destructive nonsense of capitalism. Individualism is just a way of ignoring this. We are all held by countless relationships, most of which are invisible to us. I’d rather be dependent on my relationships with my friends than, for example, getting my emotional viability by buying new clothes on a daily basis.

Ghosting, boundaries and neglect

Which one appears to be happening will depend a lot on which role you are in. One person’s boundaries can look a lot like ghosting to someone else. Especially when that’s convenient to their story.

Is it ghosting? Do you have any way of contacting them? Did you try? Amusingly I was once accused of ghosting a person who had me on facebook, had my email address, my phone number and even knew where I lived. I wasn’t in a good way and I stopped making active contact with her because I couldn’t manage it. She made no effort to contact me, but apparently told mutual friends that I’d ghosted her. When someone disappears and stops answering email, when their phone doesn’t work, or they don’t pick up or reply to texts then that’s ghosting. 

Are they holding boundaries? If they’ve told you what they’re doing and why – like needing a few weeks off social media, then it’s about reasonable boundaries. If they’ve said no to something you are doing, that’s boundaries. People are allowed to say no, and to need things that are inconvenient to others – including time to themselves. If they’re doing things that really, obviously they should be able to do undisturbed – like going to their jobs, or sleeping – then their lack of response should be a non-issue. If anyone is demanding your attention when the timing is inappropriate, that’s a boundary violation.

Is it neglect? That depends entirely on the agreed parameters of your relationship. If you don’t have agreed parameters, then the thing to look at is how balanced and equitable the relationship is. If you have to be available on demand but they expect to be able to disappear for weeks and have that be fine – then it really isn’t fine at all. If you are asking for more than you are giving, then the other person isn’t neglecting you if they decide not to go along with that. If you are asking clearly and the other person keeps declining, you may not be suitable for each other. You may need a serious talk about expectations and needs.

When it comes to relationships of any shape, people will not usually have parallel needs and feelings. It’s important to talk about expectations, to deal fairly when there are imbalances, and to accept when something isn’t viable. Accusations of ghosting and neglect can be highly manipulative. Ghosting and neglect are damaging, and can be part of an abusive strategy.

Contemplating forgiveness

Where forgiveness is truly sought, my heartfelt response is to want to offer it. However, I’ve spent time dealing with people who apologise when they don’t mean it in order to have further opportunities to cause harm. Forgiveness isn’t owed, it has to be earned.

There are a lot of people who say that you have to forgive to heal. I don’t believe this at all. You have to work through your feelings, process your pain and anger, and figure out how to make peace with it for yourself. Whether that includes forgiving a person who harmed you, is really your call to make. 

It is possible to forgive someone without also giving them a second chance. Forgiveness can be part of a letting go process. No one is owed a second chance by someone they’ve hurt.

Forgiving someone is not a kindness or a virtuous act if you’re just enabling them to do harm, to you, to themselves or to others. Standards and boundaries also matter.

We all mess up. We’re all flawed, complicated life forms, and even when we’re doing our best, we don’t know everything. We can make mistakes in all innocence, trying our best and falling short or just not knowing enough to make a good call. Sometimes there are no good options anyway. It’s important to be able to forgive yourself for these, and to forgive anyone else you encounter who meant well but messed up. Expecting perfection is a form of cruelty.

It’s ok to be finished with someone. Not because they were unforgivable and did terrible things, but just because not everything works. Some things run their course. That I can forgive people for being flawed, foolish or wearying is one thing, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to go another round with them. I am at my least compassionate when I’m bored with someone else’s behaviour, tired of seeing the same mistakes over and over, tired of the dramas that seem small to me. I’m not good when I’m bored. It does not bring out the best in me.

I’m not going to forgive where that requires me to be smaller. I’ve had enough of cutting myself down to make other people comfortable. I’m not going to seek forgiveness from people who just find me too difficult – better for all of us if we move on. I don’t need to be forgiven for being myself. I don’t want to deal with people who have been so offended by me being myself that forgiving me seems relevant to them. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point.

When traumas collide

This winter, Tom and I have done a lot of very deliberate work on changing our relationship. We both came to this marriage with a lot of history and with triggers – some of which we knew about, and some we didn’t. 

Usually when people talk about triggering, it goes like this: There is a person with a trauma history who encounters something that evokes that trauma. They are then thrown back into that history, like a soldier thrown back into the trenches by the sound of an explosion. Once you’re back in the trenches, everything you experience seems to be part of that scenario, and the original terror takes over.

When the trauma involves relationships, and when both of you have triggers, it’s entirely possible for both parties to set each other off. One person’s trauma response can become the other person’s trigger. Historical coping mechanisms can also be a big issue in all of this. If you have one person with a freeze response to panic, and one person whose emotional abuse history includes being totally ignored as punishment, that can be a messy combination.

It’s taken us a long time to get to the point of being able to talk about what happens when historical experiences collide like this. When it happens, we’re effectively functioning in two totally separate realities, not making sense to each other, unable to help each other and often adding to each other’s distress. It’s been messy at times. It’s taken work to get to the point of being able to pick it open and make changes.

One thing we’ve found that helps is to flag up problems as fast as possible. Tom tends to freeze around panic, and that intersects with what his ADHD brain does when he’s not coping. However, if he can tell me that he’s having processing issues, I don’t then take it personally, and we’re better able to work things through. 

I tend to make things worse because, thanks to my history, I act from the expectation that basic needs won’t be met and that in asking for small things I will be asking for too much. This creates the impression that the help I need would be impossibly difficult to achieve – an easy thing to persuade someone of if they’re used to being put under pressure to deliver impossible things. This means I don’t get the help, reinforcing my feeling that I don’t deserve to have my basic needs met and thus making me less able to ask for help. It’s really easy to get stuck in vicious circles like this.

I’ve learned to push back against my panic to ask clearly for what I need. Often it’s things like needing to be talked to so that I’m not simply trapped inside my own head with my escalating panic. You can see how well that works with Tom’s tendency to freeze when panicking…

Mental health problems aren’t solitary, personal issues. We didn’t get into this on our own. Much of where we are both struggling has everything to do with what happens around other people and in the context of relationships. Healing as a single-person project has never really worked. However, working together to support each other, deal with difficulties and find strategies for coping, is proving really effective.

Notes from inside a haunted meatsack

The most peculiar breakup I’ve ever had happened over the phone. He called, and told me he could not continue with the relationship. I admitted I was surprised because as far as I knew, we weren’t in a relationship.

It’s often really hard to get people to talk about how they want things to work. I hate having to infer. I really like it when people can be clear about what they want to do, and how they want to do it and what sort of relationship they think we have. 

People can ascribe such radically different interpretations to the same experiences. There are some people who will assume that if you have sex with them, that means you are in a romantic and exclusive relationship. There are also people who won’t assume that at all. It’s not just about romance, this. It’s about how we do any kind of relationships between people.

I have been surprised on a few occasions by how other people thought about friendship. People I thought I was closer to than I turned out to be. I was once dumped via email by a person who said she couldn’t invest any more energy in our friendship. That was odd because I barely knew her but had done a few things to help her out when she’d asked for help.

People have all sorts of interesting expectations – about what’s normal, or what should be forgiven. I’ve got into states of confusion with a few people along the way because we had differing ideas about what might be fair, or appropriate. The people I am most caught out by are the ones who expect a great deal from me but don’t hold themselves to the same standards. The kind of people who can ignore me for weeks and then get cross with me if I don’t respond to them within a couple of hours.

People are mystifying, sometimes. I know I must make as little sense to the people I’ve described as they did to me. Befuddlement seems to be a frequent feature of human interactions. I think the most important thing is to be able to talk about it. Wanting to understand helps a lot. Caring enough to find out what’s going on for the other person can be a game changer. Or letting them go if you find you don’t care enough to figure out what’s happening.

Did I miss a memo? Are there rules that are obvious to everyone else but invisible to me? Or are we just mostly crazy things, bouncing about in our meat sacks with really no idea how anything, or anyone else functions?

Being in love is not enough

Tom and I have been married for over eleven years now. We can say with some confidence, that love is not enough. Feeling love alone doesn’t sustain a relationship. It doesn’t magically solve problems. It doesn’t heal you all by itself, although it can help with that.

We both came to this relationship with a lot of baggage. We’ve both had a lot to get to grips with – old protective behaviour to understand and let go of. Triggers to deal with. Assumptions to wrangle with. We’ve had to do a lot of work separately, and a lot of talking to each other. We’ve had some very bumpy times, because of the baggage and considerable external pressures along the way. But we’re still together, still invested in each other.

Love isn’t an event. You don’t fall in love with someone and that, magically, will be your relationship sorted for all time. I am advantaged around this because my background includes both kink and polyamoury and those things require negotiation and communication. Tom came to me from a much more conventional, hetronormative background so he’s had quite a steep learning curve just to make sense of me, and to get round to seeing why my way of doing things might be better. One of the problems with the hetronormative stuff is just how normal it is for a marriage to be an uncommunicative battlefield. 

There are two things I think stand out in all of this. Firstly, we talk about everything. All the time. Every day. We check in with each other, we talk about how we feel or what’s impacting on us. We raise problems as soon as we can. We work together on finding effective solutions. We get better at this all the time. We try not to assume things about each other but instead to ask. We both have issues around how our heads work – and sometimes don’t work – and we’re getting better at flagging up to each other when things should not be taken personally. 

Thing the second, is that love is not an idea. It’s not something that lives in your head, or for that matter in your heart or your genitals. Love is what you do. It’s not about the big gestures, either. It’s the small, every day stuff. The sharing, the taking care of each other, the supporting and encouraging each other. Love is learning how the other person(s) thinks and feels, what works for them and what doesn’t. It’s finding new things to be interested in, new sources of joy and delight. Every day. Marriage is being committed to that non-dramatic every day involvement in each other’s lives. 

Love in other shapes may involve different levels of commitment, but the gist is the same. It’s about showing up for each other and being available to each other in a genuine and wholehearted way, at a frequency that works for the people involved. You can be a queer platonic hosuehold on those terms. You can sustain deep and enduring friendships that way. You can have a messy polycule with some people you don’t see all the time. It’s the commitment to being involved and the showing up for that which makes the difference and makes love into something real and significant.

The feeling of love is not enough. Wandering around in an oblivious cloud of romantic feelings can be largely meaningless. The love that makes a difference is the love that acts.

How not to be lonely

Loneliness is very much a modern plague and has terrible, health-undermining impacts on people. Some of it can simply be attributed to the amount of time we spend working and the consequences of being exhausted from that. People are often quick to blame TV, streaming, computer games, the internet and anything else involving a screen. I’m doubtful about that – I’ve formed some powerful, life-changing relationships through the internet. Turning to screens for comfort and distraction strikes me as being a symptom more than a cause.

Relationships aren’t things that happen by magic. They depend a great deal on what we’re willing to give of ourselves, and I think that’s where a lot of people get into trouble. Relationships require you to be emotionally available and honest, to be willing to be vulnerable and to make the time for someone.

Along the way I’ve run into so many people who were clearly averse to doing some or all of those things. People for whom investing time and care in other people seemed too much like work. People who wanted the freedom of being unaccountable. If you feel uncomfortable about people caring about you, then you aren’t going to have much of a relationship with them. If you want to be able to disappear off for days, or weeks on end without checking in, you can hardly expect people to invest in you emotionally and just put up with not knowing what’s going on. A person cannot keep everyone else safely at arm’s length and realistically expect to have substantial relationships.

Of course there are many ways in which we can have fleeting, superficial contact with other humans. We say hi to the person at the checkout, we nod to people we see each day when commuting and so forth. In face of desperate loneliness, these small points of contact can offer some relief. But not much. Being around people doesn’t ease loneliness in the way that being involved with other people does.

I think there’s an emotional immaturity around wanting the unconditional care of a parent from people who are not your parents. The desire to have care and affection bestowed by someone to whom you feel no obligation in return is something I’ve seen repeatedly. Casting other people in the role of your mother (more often than making people into fathers, in my experience) and then feeling free to also punish them for being too mothering/smothering is a pattern I’ve seen play out a few times now. I have no desire to be cast as mother in the life of someone who wants to be a perpetual teenager cliche, acting out, demanding freedom and expecting unconditional love.

Unless we are willing to face each other as equals, with equal responsibility for the relationship and comparable investment on both sides, loneliness is inevitable. We should not be looking to other adults in our lives to replicate the relationships we had with our parents, or step into the role if that’s been lacking for us. People who cannot or will not give of themselves are bound to be lonely. If you’re waiting for someone to come along and offer you unconditional love, that’s the essence of your problem right there.

It is of course possible to be alone without feeling lonely. Not everyone wants or needs a great deal of contact with other humans. What’s on my mind in writing this is the people who talk about being lonely but also don’t seem to recognise that their unwillingness to give of themselves is a key contributor to all of that.

Love is not difficult

People are not hard to love. Children especially are really easy to love and in many ways we are biologically programmed to respond warmly to children. Humans find round faces with big eyes cute and appealing and this isn’t any sort of accident. Or at least, many of us do.

I’ve never met a person whose woundedness made them unloveable. I’ve never met someone who was too badly hurt to be worth caring for. Some of the people I love can be hard work, because of what they’ve been through and how difficult it is for them to trust, or open up, or accept help. There are quite a lot of people on this list, and they aren’t hard to love, they just don’t always know how to let anyone do that. 

Along the way I’ve also met the people who complain about how difficult other people are. How difficult I am. People who have told me I am hard to love, or too difficult in other ways. These were often people who wanted things from me – my love,  my work, my energy, my support… but were very clear about why it wasn’t reasonable of me to expect anything in return.

It took me a long time to stop thinking that the problem was me. 

The issue isn’t about whether a person is hard to love, the issue is more often about whether you are able to be open hearted. What is hard to love is coldness, selfishness and disinterest. I hit my limit when it comes to deliberate cruelty as a sport. I can stay in for people who do dysfunctional things because they are hurt and not handling it well. I can love people who find it necessary to test me, although that can be complicated and it isn’t ideal. 

If someone tells you that you are hard to love, consider that they have just confessed something important about their own insufficiencies. Ask them who they think it would be easy to love, if you’re feeling equal to challenging them. Deliberate cruelty is the only trait worth outright rejecting a person for. Anything else is just the messy consequence of being alive and dealing with the shit that brings. A person can be messy, complicated, challenging and difficult and still not actually be hard to love, because love is a very natural response between people who are involved in each other’s lives.

Love is also not the same thing as having the skills or resources to properly support someone who is struggling. You can love someone without being able to help them. You can love someone and need your own boundaries for your own reasons. The person who tells you that you are hard to love has some serious issues, and you may not be able to help them with that. If you love the person who cannot love you, don’t be persuaded that the problem in this is you, because it probably isn’t.