Tag Archives: relationships

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.


Relationship stories and questions of self

For most of my life, relationships of all shapes have been difficult for me. It started at fourteen with the boyfriend who found me too serious, and that refrain has carried on through friendships and love affairs alike. Too intense. Too much. Too difficult. From teenage onwards I had the keen sense that most of my interactions with people would depend on my ability to fake it. If I failed to be comfortable and convenient to them, there would be no one. I developed a story that I am no good at relationships.

There have been people ready to play this story out with me at regular intervals. I doubt they will ever cease to show up and expect me to be exactly what they want, when they want it, and to turn it off like a tap when that’s not convenient. They want the work I can do because I care passionately about things. They want the raw creativity and sometimes they want the ego boost of being the focus of my intensity, but they want to be in control, un-obliged and easy about not bothering with me when it does not suit them.

So, I learned to hide. I learned to mask intense attachments and passionately falling in love with people. I learned to mask hunger for specific company, and wild delight in being around others. I learned not to say things like I miss you, I love you, I wish I could have more time with you. Every so often I’d take a risk on someone and let them see something a bit more authentic, and nine times out of ten they would turn out to prefer the carefully faked me. The one in ten folk have been precious beyond all words, and are not, it turns out, afraid to be that valuable.

What makes it tricky is that there are people who play at being serious, intense, wholehearted and authentic. They wear it as a costume, because they like how it looks on them. They often enjoy drama, which I don’t. It’s all too easy to get drama and intensity muddled up. But, after the arm flapping and the big words, there’s nothing to back it up, and they move on to their next little game.

I’ve found along the way that other intense, deeply feeling, passionate people don’t do this. They aren’t quick to self announce, often having been through the grinder themselves. They don’t want drama. I discover that my longstanding story is wrong. I can do relationships, but only interact well with certain kinds of people. Give me people who feel keenly and think deeply, and good things will tend to follow. I can’t deal with superficial folk, drama queens, or the ones who are there for cheap kicks and inclined to move on when they’ve taken what they wanted. People who feel threatened by the idea of love, who are panicked by the suggestion of being needed, and who can’t bear to let anything mean too much.

When you think no one can accept you as you are, it is easy to get locked into trying to appease people who are never going to be ok with you. It’s not a good way to live, it sucks the joy and colour out of life. If you are a passionate, wholehearted, intensely feeling sort of creature, then only people of the same ilk can and will answer the yearnings of your soul.

Saying no to unconditional love

Unconditional love can often be held up as the ultimate that love can be, and can do. Some people become obsessed with trying to find the partner who will love them unconditionally. For me it’s been about the feeling that I *should* love others unconditionally and feeling guilty because all too often, I don’t. A new kind of clarity has occurred to me in the last week or so: In matters of love, the conditions are really important. Knowing what they are and why you need them honoured is vital. Understanding other people’s conditions and whether you find them acceptable is also essential.

There are things my marriage is conditional upon. That I feel safe, that my body, my feelings, my wants and desires are honoured. They don’t have to be met all the time, but they do have to be respected. My marriage is conditional on my partner being a decent human being, and if he woke up one morning and decided he wanted to take up deliberate cruelty as a hobby, I would not stay with him. That I cannot imagine him doing this, definitely helps!

I’m perfectly happy to accept similar conditions from other people. If someone has issues – practical or personal, one of the conditions of friendship may be that I am able to accommodate those issues. I may not be able to see them very often. I may need to cope with their illness, or be accepting of their circumstances.

I’ve had other conditions raised in relationships of all kinds of shapes. That they must never be told they cause unhappiness because it is unbearable. That they must always be right. That I must do as I am told. That my feelings are irrelevant, or that I am to submit to their understanding of what it is that I need. They are not obliged to flex or change to accommodate me, I must do all the changing required to make it work. And on, and on. These are observations of relationships that I have walked away from, because these are not conditions I can work with.

I’m very wary of double standards, and of people who have every justification for their actions and no scope to hear when it doesn’t work. I’m also increasingly wary of people who run forward proffering unconditional love, because I have noticed that the people who are keen to say that they love you more than anyone else ever could, often aren’t right about that anyway.

We need conditions on relationships. We need it to be acceptable to walk away from a person who does not uphold the basic standards of behaviour we need. If someone changes, or reveals their true face, or stops bothering, no one should feel obliged to stay and keep pouring love over them. Sometimes the act of walking away is the wake up call the other person needs to get their life in better order.

Boundless, limitless, endless unconditional language is very New Agey. “Everything is love” (even incest and murder?). Claiming everything you do is love can also be an easy way of shutting out any suggestion that what you do isn’t working for someone else. And really, there’s not much to be gained from dealing with the person who yells “everything I do is love” in your face whilst standing on your toes and stealing from your wallet. Conditions are a good thing, and we need them.

Being an object

Working through the most recent bout of depression, I’ve faced up to the way in which I tend to treat myself as an object. I see my time, energy, even my body all too often as something that exists to be of use to other people. I’ve never bought into self as object of desire or beauty – I just never had that sort of face – but plenty of people do go that way. No one does this by themselves.

We are creatures living in societies that require us to be co-operative and to act in ways that other members find acceptable. In theory this should be a good thing, and should enable to us to get along and survive. However, all too often what happens is we are competing with each other for rewards from those who control the resources. The more economically oppressed we are, the more we have to compete with each other for the resources. Never mind that we have the technology and energy to feed, clothe and shelter the world. In such a climate, how useful you can be is a very relevant issue.

It is interesting to look around and see who in your family and your social circles is allowed to be inconvenient, and who isn’t. Whose illness is treated seriously, and whose is written off as making a fuss? Who is allowed to express dislike and discomfort, and who isn’t? Who feels able to speak up and who feels obliged to stoically take it?

I think for many of us this is about how we are taught to behave as children. Some girls get to be precious little princesses and some don’t. Some boys get to be princely tyrants, and some do not. Some children are rewarded with attention and care if they act out, some if they express distress. Some get what they want for having a temper tantrum, and some will be left with bruises if they dare to express discomfort. And so we learn whether our opinions matter or not. We learn whether there is room in our lives for wanting things that are not useful to other people, not convenient, or whether we are the most important person in our little world and entitled to bawl if things don’t go our way. Those patterns, once set, are really hard to break.

In our adult social circles and relationships we will stay with what’s familiar, all too often. If we’re used to being co-operative little bees, we’ll get on with fitting in. If we’re lord of the manor, we won’t accept friends who expect us to play fairly. These patterns are so deeply ingrained, from so early a view that they shape our world view, and our understanding of who we are in the world. Our families, schools, peers and teachers help us build those realities when we are too small to know we are doing it, or what the consequences might be.

I learned to be quiet, to try hard, by busy and productive, accept what I was given with as much grace as I could muster, and not make a fuss when I wanted something different. I learned that I had a low pain threshold, so expressions of pain were trivial. As an adult I’ve been adept at finding people who would take that and exploit it, because oddly enough I feel safer being someone’s useful object than I do trying to stand on my own. Feeling useful is a form of comfort and security, and it’s that which keeps me in places where I work to mental and bodily exhaustion.

That I can see it might make it possible to change something. How do I get to feel safe without feeling necessarily that I am useful and convenient? That may take some figuring out. And as an aside, how do we get rid of all the little lords and princesses bawling for more sweeties, who get themselves into positions of power?

Of heroes and dragons

We know the imagery. The hero (of any gender) turns up with a bloody great weapon and slaughters the evil beast, and saves the day. There is much rejoicing. From our earliest fairytales onwards we are taught how good it is to put down the bad guys, and that a hero is someone who destroys monsters. In real life, it doesn’t always work out so well.

“I feel so proud of myself for standing up to you.” “I’ve been wanting to say this to you for a long time now.” Two different scenes. Two different furious, self-righteous women who have just taken down a dragon. The dragon in question is evil. It makes awful demands. Its words can be inferred as being critical. It is not happy with how things are and it said so. It is such a selfish dragon! It was long overdue taking down a peg or two, and they pause to take pride in a job well done. They are triumphant. The dragon is crushed.

The dragon in question is not actually dead, but slinks back to its cave and cries, and feels dreadful. It picks over everything it has said and done, testing its perceptions against the accusations and wondering if it really is that awful, and if it really did need taking down. It looks at its dragon face in the mirror and wonders what is so innately wrong with it and why it is so hateful. What has shocked it most is the sense of how pleased the dragon-fighters are. They are so certain that they have done a good thing, bravely taking down its monster self.

Sometimes it pays to try and look at a story from another angle. How much do you have to hate a person, or feel jealous of them in the first place to enjoy crushing someone else’s spirit? Where are we in relationships when landing a punishing blow on our designated dragon feels like such a win and a source of pride? Where are we in our humanity when seeing someone else crawl off, wounded and confused, feels like a victory? How can that possibly be a win?

We don’t have stories about negotiation. No one says ‘maybe if we stopped cutting down the dragon’s forest and replacing the deer herds with our cattle the dragon wouldn’t bother us.’ None of the fairy stories of old tend to suggest that the dragon may have had feelings and needs too. When we take other people and turn them into dragons so that we can righteously fight them off, we forget that they are people too, and that there were other feelings and needs in the mix. The dragons want things that are not convenient, not comfortable or welcome. Does that make them monsters to be fought? If your dragon is trying to kill you then yes, you fight it off. If what your dragon said was ‘I could really do with some help tidying up’ or ‘I wish you felt you could be honest with me’ then putting on the armour and preparing to do battle is not the best response.

All too easily, we turn into monsters those who are merely guilty of being inconvenient, or not doing enough to feed our egos.

I’ve been the dragon. I’ve watched people glow with pride when they’ve wounded me. I’ve seen people delight in taking me down a peg or two. Or feeling proud of putting me on the floor, because they stood up for themselves, and this is automatically a good thing, in their minds. I’ve crawled back to my cave enough times to try and work out where I went wrong, and years on, the scars from the dragon-hunters remain, and the more recent ones still bleed sometimes. And yet there are other people for whom I am no kind of monster at all.

I try not to stay in spaces where I am cast as the villain and set up as the bitch to be taken down, the ice queen, the monster. I don’t want that role in anyone else’s life. I don’t want to provide anyone with something to test their metal on, I don’t want people trying to prove things by cutting me down to size. It took me until this winter to realise that maybe I do not deserve to be someone else’s dragon, and that maybe the problem in all of this is not actually me.

The illusions, fantasies and occasional uses of social networking

It’s a funny set of places, the social networking sites. People posting updates on the most mundane developments in their lives, photos of their food, commentary on TV programs. You can ‘support causes’ and sign petitions for just about everything, creating the illusion of something meaningful done. You can have hundreds of facebook friends but not really know anyone, creating an illusion of social contact. Then there’s the option of hiding behind a fake name and trolling the hell out of your victims. Oh, and there are games. We spend a lot of time on social network sites, time we will never get back and so much of what it gives is illusory.

I have, I case you were wondering, twitter, google+, linkedin and facebook accounts. I’m also on goodreads. Feel free to attempt to connect with me on any of those, although in practice facebook is the only place I reliably show up and interact with people. I have real friends there, people I actually know, or will know, or want to know, and that helps. I find that compared to the general assessments of social networking (as above) I have a pretty good experience of it. This is because my network doesn’t deliver many food photos and random trivia. I get pointers to really good articles I would not otherwise have found, and I get to find out about what some really interesting people are thinking and doing. In that way, I get a lot out of it.

Of course one of the things people use this stuff for is selling their work, big companies included. How much promo can one person take? Speaking as an author, occasional publisher and avid reader, nothing depresses me more than some author I’ve never heard of, banging on endlessly about their book. The egroups used to be full of similar stuff. I know there’s a theory that we can all go 50 Shades with our products, but maundering on about them isn’t the answer. Nobody cares. This can come as a bit of a shock, but one of the lessons the social networks have the power to deliver is that most of the time, most people do not give a shit about that thing you thought really mattered. When they do, it can be a humbling, overwhelming and powerful sort of moment, but that tends to pass. In the great noise of the internet, we might start to see our small place in the grand scheme of things, or we might equally end up with an inflated ego.

In practice the social networks are a lot like the rest of real life in that what you get out depends on what you put in and who you associate with. It can be really good. That a lot of it is tedious, pointless and time wasting, is simply down to the people who use it.

As a Druid who does not have many other Druids in close geographical proximity (when you walk or cycle, ten miles away isn’t close) I appreciate the contact of being online. It’s enabled me to stay at least a little bit in touch with friends and to learn more about the Steampunk community. For this, I am very grateful. I know I’d feel more isolated without it. Not all of us can get to where the likeminded people are. But if there are real people to interact with, better not to be on facebook, I think. My Druidry calls on me to go outside, but it’s easy to hold an illusion that time playing with online Druid communities is somehow proper Druid time. Mostly it isn’t. Or it’s a pale shadow of the real thing. It worries me how readily many people seem to have replaced real world contact with social networking though. Locked away in our little rooms with our little boxes, typing words to people we’ve never met… The scope for fantasy and illusion is vast. The unfortunate outcomes of this show up on a regular basis but the hurt caused is all too real.

I know that the internet has changed how I think. I’m watching myself for good ideas to blog about, and good thoughts to share over the ether. Twenty years ago, this didn’t feature in my mind. I lived and thought differently. I’m aware that social network sites can be addictive, particularly in times of boredom or loneliness. They tend to perpetuate the problems rather than solving them. I don’t think we’ve begun to understand the social implications of what we’re doing. Or the psychological implications, for that matter. It’s a mass retreat from the real world. And yes, the real world is not a great place just now, but we aren’t going to fix that by signing a petition on facebook.
Jo over at http://www.octopusdance.wordpress.com has committed to spending one day a week free from modern communications devices. Obviously I know about this because she facebooked it… but the idea is well worth a thought. Spending less time doing it can, if nothing else, improve the quality of what you bring to it.

I may not be blogging for a couple of days, I have a lot of real world stuff to do. Gods of trains and weather permitting, I shall be in Northampton Waterstones for a book signing on Saturday and then doing family stuff on Sunday.

And they all lived happily ever after

I wonder how many people’s lives have been significantly impaired by that unfortunate fairy tale belief? It implies that once the lovers kiss and the wedding date is set, all will be well. It’s the end of the story, folks, adventures over, happiness guaranteed. And they all lived happily ever after, as though that would be the natural, magical consequence of true love. I’ve met too many people along the way who imagined that finding the right person would fix all their problems like waving a wand. They would be happier, fulfilled, inspired. They would write the best song, the novel, become able, and so forth. What a burden to put on a potential partner! Not only do you want their love, they have to set your world to rights and fix all those thing you couldn’t, or wouldn’t fix for yourself. Not so long back, someone commented here that if I’d found the love of my life, that should cure me of depression. This is the kind of madness I’m talking about.

Relationship is supposed to be a core concept for Druidry. Relationship can be magical, it can bring to us a sense of awen, of divinity, and all manner of other wondrous things. But it is not wise to assume that relationship will sustain itself as if by magic. Love alone is not enough. You need to be paying attention, listening, responding, taking note. People change, and over years people change a lot. Children, status shifts, jobs and other life experiences alter us. The relationship where it is assumed that the all living happily ever after process is under way, is the one that risks losing everything in face of change.

It’s easy to become careless in relationships if we assume they are in the bag. I know of people who invest vast amounts of time, energy, money and attention in setting up relationships, but once they think the other person is secured, they stop making the same effort, imagining that such attention to detail is only necessary at the start. Did they ask if the courted one felt the same way? I doubt it. Will the courted one come to feel ignored and uncared for a few years down the line? Probably. Too busy living happily ever after to do much living, or happiness.

What’s true of our love lives is equally true in friendships, and familial connections. Taking for granted is highly destructive and eats out the roots of whatever you had.

No matter how longstanding a relationship is, or what shape it has, don’t take it for granted. Nurture it. Give it time and attention. Do all the things you would have done when starting out, and things stay fresh and immediate rather than becoming tired and banal.

Also, don’t imagine that love will fix everything. Be prepared to put in some work yourself. Love will not pay the bills, and love will not cure all ailments. What it will do, if you’re lucky, is give you the support and belief of another human being who is willing to work with you, dream with you, share the triumphs with you and cry over the disasters with you. Love can be healing, but only when we let go of old pain. Love can be reassuring, but only when we’re listening to reassuring words from a loved one, or carrying those words with us. There are a great many ways to sabotage what love can do. Asking too much, and putting nothing in are the most reliable.

I have, along the way, been in some good relationships and some lousy ones. I’ve seen a great deal of other people’s love lives, and their hopes for what romantic involvement will give them. I’ve seen people throw away what they have because they’ve lost sight of the value. There may be true love, but refusal to believe in it or nurture it will eventually kill that love off. I also know that where there is mutual support, care and listening, where time is invested in actually having a relationship with another person (or a place, or an art form or whatever else you invest yourself in) good things come. What we get out depends so very much on what we put in. When both people are putting in their hearts, souls and energy, so much more is possible. I spent a lot of years without that, I have it now, and am conscious of the difference of dedication underpinning things.

And they all lived happily ever after is not the end of the story, it’s where a whole new thing has to begin.

Non abusive relationship

A few weeks ago, someone I know raised the question, is it possible to have a non-abusive relationship, or are we all on a spectrum of abuse? I’ve done a lot of thinking since then, and here’s where I’ve got to.

The basis of abusive relationship – be the abuse ever so mild – is a lack of care and respect. We’re in it for what we can get. We wheedle, cajole, manipulate and otherwise compromise the other person into letting us have our own way. We get out of the housework, the gardening, we don’t do our share of caring for the child. We make unreasonable sexual demands, or we make sex conditional on something else we want. When we don’t get our own way we strop, sulk, break things, make our displeasure known so the other one will think twice about doing that to us again. When we don’t get our own way, we feel terribly sorry for ourselves and we make sure other people know about it, and suffer.

Are we all doing that, to some degree?

One of the questions this raised, for me, is around how we express need and distress. I think for a healthy relationship it has to be possible to say ‘this is not ok’ ‘I cannot do this.’ ‘I am unhappy about what you have done.’ I’ve considerable experience of that kind of expression being treated as emotional blackmail, and abuse. Am I an abuser? I feared so for years, and did everything I could to ask for less, take issue with less, accept whatever came my way, and cause as little distress as possible. This was not actually doing me any good.

There is a difference between saying you are hurt, or troubled by something, and emotional blackmail. Partly it’s to do with intent, partly with honesty. Abuse involves making people do things they do not want to do, while you remain in control of the situation. Control is critical. When you raise a problem, you blame the other person, it is their fault. Raising a problem in a non-abusive way, you may simply say ‘this does not work for me, please can we do something different.’ No blame, just recognising a thing that does not work and needs changing. The differences are huge in terms of impact.

Let’s imagine a scenario in which your partner hurts you. It appears to be accidental. You say ‘Actually, that hurts, can you please not do it again.’ This is a fair request. The response should be ‘sorry, and what exactly did I get wrong there’. And then them not repeating the thing that hurt. If the response is ‘well it shouldn’t hurt’  or ‘you are upsetting me by making a fuss’ this is abuse. This is making it harder to flag up problems.

Let’s imagine a similar scenario, in which you are, or claim to be hurt. “Why did you do that to me? You did that on purpose. That was horrible.” Now, if it wasn’t deliberate, the other person is on the back foot, defensive and in the wrong. Not a good relationship scenario.

If you are too tired to do a job, or don’t fancy doing it, and you just acknowledge that, and do it another time, that’s fine. If you do it anyway, fair enough. If you refuse to do it, and complain until another, equally tired person does it instead, that’s not playing fair. If you always assume that how you feel and what you want is simply more important than how things are for anyone else, you are going to act in abusive and damaging ways. If you think you are entitled to use, take, and manipulate, because you are clever than them, or better than them, or more deserving, you are going to abuse.

Good relationship starts from mutual respect, from seeing the other as equal in value, and treating them accordingly. Good relationship is honest. It doesn’t try to get round people, or persuade them, it doesn’t involve getting your own way. In a good relationship, the idea of winning or point scoring is a nonsense. What you’re after is the good of both, the wellbeing of both. Yes, you can have non-abusive relationship. I’ve got one. They take work, diligence, determination and paying attention, but they are also works of joy and beauty.