Pressure Test

I can’t remember who it was, but I once heard a comedian tell a joke about relationships that went something like this: “Figuring out who to marry is easy. If you like someone and think you could spend your life with them then just sit down and eat some raw chicken together. Then, lock yourself in a one bathroom apartment together for the next few days. Soon there will be vomiting and explosive diarrhea everywhere. If during that terrible time, you share a single laugh with the other person then you should marry them.”

There is something valuable about pressure testing a relationship before you commit to a life* with someone. Relationships are fucking tough, but they can start our really easy. Hell, years can go by before you realize you are incompatible with someone or that they aren’t on the same path as you. If most of your experiences with a person are rosy and happy and relatively stress-free then you won’t know if you will be able to deal with the tough blows that life can send your way.

I’m not saying you should eat a raw chicken though (besides my vegan ethics, that is gross). You should probably live with someone, be around them when things are bad, and go on adventures together. You should know what the other person acts like when there is no money and no plan and when things are completely out of anyone’s control. Do you still share a laugh? Or is it constant pain? Do you turn to each other and grin because you know that as a team you can fucking conquer anything? Or do you look to the other person and feel like they are making things worse or dragging you down?

Pressure tests aren’t really about surviving a scenario, they are about enjoying it because you are with a compatible person. If pressure testing your relationship means you barely get out intact, maybe there is someone else out there that is more compatible? When I moved in with my ex-fiance (I wish I had a better title for that relationship), it brought to light a ton of things that we didn’t know before living together. Things seemed easy and rosy when we were in a long-distance relationship because every moment we spent together felt special. Living together ended the “honeymoon phase” and we realized that we weren’t compatible… we were sexually incompatible, had different views on relationships, and wanted to live different places and have different lives. All those things seemed easy to overcome when we lived apart, I think we both figured the other person would eventually “come around”, but that wasn’t the case.

Now, if we had stayed together I am sure we would have found a way to be happy(ish). The mind has an amazing way of adapting to a situation and making the most out of it or even enjoying a situation if changing things seems impossible (see: Stockholm Syndrome). Maybe I would have eventually fallen in love with Myrtle Beach, SC and enjoyed whatever shit job I found. Maybe continuing my education would have seen unnecessary and my political activism at the time felt worthless (in some senses it was, but in other’s it really helped me grow). Maybe the idea of complete monogamy with vanilla sex once a week would have eventually been enough to make me happy.

Or maybe not. Maybe I would have stuck it out for a decade or two before ending the relationship with feelings of hatred and resentment towards the person I loved, leaving me with mountains of debt and no real support network.

I’m glad I’ll never know. I’m glad that my relationship went through a pressure test that we failed. It would have been worse if we survived but didn’t end up stronger because of it. Anna and I have had lots of pressure tests. Biking around a country with someone for two years and living in a tent with them brings out stress. Not knowing where you are sleeping each night or how you will find a coffee shop to get work done can cause friction. Being within 15 feet of someone for years at a time eliminates the honeymoon phase pretty quickly. And now we are facing a new pressure test, living in a stable home and dealing with all the issues that come from that. But, despite the pressure, we’ve come out stronger and filled laughter and genuine love for each other.

If a relationship isn’t making you stronger then it might better to end it. If incompatibilities exist (or develop… we are all changing people) that is something to be taken seriously now and not pushed to the side with the hopes they will resolve themselves. It sucks when things end, but it is better to turn around when you see a dead end than to drive over a cliff just because you’ve committed yourself to that road for so long.

*I actually think committing your life to someone is foolish. We all change and grow through our life and it is impossible to commit to loving someone when you don’t know who they will be or who you will be down the road. Anna and I certainly hope that we remain compatible and loving for a long time, maybe even life, but we aren’t committed to making a relationship last until death if we aren’t happy in it. A successful relationship isn’t one where it lasts until someone dies, a successful relationship is one where both parties build each other up and are reasonable enough to end it if that is no longer the case.

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The Green Eyed Monster

I received several positive comments on my post from yesterday that all kind of touched on jealousy. I’m intimately familiar with the feeling of jealousy. In fact, I used to be an incredibly jealous person. Just the thought of my partner being flirted with would become near rage inducing, my stomach would tie up in knots and I would start to run scenarios through my head that I just knew were true. My mind and body worked together to make me as miserable as possible. It was a terrible feeling and a destructive force in my relationship. I needed to overcome it.

I think jealousy is a natural feeling and, like the other negative emotions (anger, hatred, fear, disgust, etc), it was naturally selected for because it provided an evolutionary advantage to us. A person who felt jealousy may be able to spread their genetic code more efficiently than a person who didn’t really feel jealousy. Now, those methods would likely be morally deplorable to us in today’s society, but they were likely effective in a more hunter-gatherer tribe situation that we evolved from. It is always worth repeating, nature is a shitty measure for morality and just because something is “natural” that does not mean it is good or healthy.

Jealousy, in modern society, seems to be accepted more than it should. We kind of brush off jealousy in a way that we don’t with other emotions. If our friend is dating someone who “is just a jealous person” we would probably see that as less than ideal, but not necessarily a deal breaker. But, if our friend was dating someone who “just happens to be a hateful person” or “an angry person” we would be much more likely to try and get our friend out of that situation. I think some people even glorify jealousy and see it as a sign that someone truly loves them. The more jealous a person gets the more they truly care, but that isn’t the case. And, on the other side, people feel like their partner must not realy love them if they don’t get jealous, that if someone isn’t threatened by others it is because they don’t care about you. The more jealous a person gets the more they want to own or control. That isn’t love, that’s possession.

(I don’t mean this in a judgy way, I am just as guilty of this as anyone. I still feel jealousy from time to time and it is because I want to possess my partner or friend’s time or resources. Sometimes I feel I have a right to their time, mind, body, attention, or whatever. I struggle with this all the time.)

Luckily, jealousy (like all destructive emotions), can be overcome. Yes, it requires fighting against our nature, but that is something we do every day. In our post-hunter-gatherer society, many of the instincts we evolved with are destructive and we must fight against them in order to be healthy and prosperous. Our ability to act in a way contrary to our “nature” is one of the things that seems to separate us from animals.

For me, there are three things that really help me overcome jealousy. The first is meditation. I know I sound like some sort of religious zealot when I talk about mindfulness meditation, but it really has helped me immensely. I still struggle with the practice daily, but I have found myself to gain a lot from it, and there is science to back it up.

Second is communication with my partner. When I feel jealous I can come to my partner and talk about it. We go deeper than “I feel jealous” and try to get to the heart of the issue. Maybe it is something silly like “In that moment I was worried you cared more for that person than me” or maybe it is something more legitimate like “I’m having a really rough time but you prioritized someone else over caring for me and that hurt”. By verbally expressing what my concerns are we can find solutions, and expressing them often brings to light how irrational they are. Honest communication can also force us to admit some things about ourselves that we may be a little ashamed of. Maybe our jealousy stems from us feeling like we have some ownership over the other person, that we view them as our possession in some sense. Admitting that may be shameful but it is the only way to actually overcome jealousy.

Third, by taking small steps into situations that worry me I’ve been able to overcome jealousy. Most of the time I felt feelings of jealousy it was while thinking about hypothetical situations, it was all in my head. It wasn’t seeing my partner having sex with someone, it was imagining my partner having sex with another person (and thinking about how that person is satisfying her more, more her type, more attractive, etc etc etc). But, when we actually stepped into situations where I might be jealousy the reality was very different. There is no perfect Adonis waiting to steal my partner, there are only other humans with imperfections, insecurities, and fantasies they want to explore. By taking slow steps I was able to build up comfort with new situations and the old situations are no longer jealousy-inducing. Nobody should just jump into an orgy, you need to start small to build up emotional strength and realistic expectations.

As a practical example of how baby-steps worked for me and can be applied to all types of situations from BDSM to swinging to whatever your fantasy is (this took place over about two years so far):

  1. I express an interest in swapping with another couple and we discuss what that would look like and any emotional concerns we have.
  2. We watch an educational video about how to do something like that safely and making sure we take care of each other’s emotional needs. We talk about the video.
  3. We go into an environment where sex may be happening but there is no expectation that we will play with other couples (or even each other). Everyone here is strangers and there is no concern for awkwardness from seeing friends or whatever. We talk before we arrive about our expectations and concerns, and we talk after the experience to see how we felt with everything.
  4. We return to the previous place several times to continue to get comfortable with the idea of having sex near people who are having sex.
  5. We talk about what we think the next step should be and agree that same-room sex with just one other couple would be a good experience  and that some soft touch (making out, handjobs, etc) are okay.
  6. We have sex in the same room as another couple and communicate with them before and after.
  7. That happens a few more times with different friends that we trust.
  8. We agree that the next step is a threesome with a male and that a stranger would probably be better than a friend.
  9. When an opportunity arises for that threesome we communicate before, during, and after.
  10. We talk some more to discuss the next steps and decide that a foursome may be okay at this point but it would still require discussion before and depend a lot on the couple involved.

When we love someone we want them to be the best they can be. We want them to get the most out of life and experience their desires. We don’t want our relationship with them to hold them back or cause resentment. Jealousy can get in the way of our relationship and our ability to truly express our love, but it can be overcome (not completely, but it gets easier and easier). And, with some work and luck, you can start to feel joy when you see your partner in the throws of ecstasy. You can feel joy and excitement when someone you love is having a good time. You can feel pride knowing that you, as a partnership, have such a strong relationship and such effective communication that you have defeated the green-eyed monster. Instead of jealousy, you have compersion, and that has allowed you to have a partnership that is filled with new adventures, variety, and love.

Need

I love my partner, but I don’t need her. I want to be with her, I want our lives to be intertwined, I want to grow and explore and experiment with her. But there isn’t a need there, and because of that I think our relationship is healthy.

Our relationship is built on a desire to be together and we both know that we would be fine if the relationship broke up. It would suck. There would be great sadness and mourning over what we thought our lives would be, but we would be fine. We would both thrive as we ventured out into the world. We would find new loves, or maybe live our lives perfectly content alone. We would grow and explore and experiment, with or without each other. The direction and speed of those things would differ, but they would still happen because we are not “two that have become one”, we are two who make each other stronger as individuals.

To need someone (or something) is to enter into an unbalanced relationship. It is giving too much power to the other person, it is to lose your identity and take on theirs. It is to pursue an addiction that is unhealthy. It is juvenile to need a person and it is unhealthy.

By needing another person you give them control of your life. When things end (whether through breaking up or a tragic death or being fired or being injured) you are unable to strive again until you break that need… and the need for a person can go on long after they are gone.

It is not only romantic relationships that can involve such imbalance. It can be an adult child who isn’t stable without their parents supporting them (emotionally, financially, etc). It can be a friendship where one person needs the other person to face the world. It can be a professional relationship where one person needs the job in order to survive and doesn’t have the skills to find a new one. It can be a hobby that requires your mind or body, things that will eventually fail.

When these relationships break down it destroys a keep part of our being. We have defined ourselves based on our relationship instead of as an individual. We become a boyfriend, instead of a person who has a partner. We become a father, instead of a person who has a child. We become a writer, instead of a person who writes. By defining ourselves in relation to other people we destroy ourselves, we become dependent on someone else’s acceptance, love, and stability. Then, when we find ourselves alone we can’t cope.

And that is suicide.

I love my partner. Each year with her has been better than the last. We continue to grow and challenge each other. With every day I spend with her I find new depths and strengths and passions. With her I feel strong.

But I don’t need her, and she doesn’t need me… and that is one of the best things about our relationship. Need takes away the voluntary nature of our relationship. Need means dependence. We don’t have that, and I hope we never will.

Passion and Partnership

I love my partner, but I have never had some sort of earth-shattering passion for her. We had the normal “new relationship energy” when we met, but our relationship developed along unconventional grounds. We were a one-night stand and then we didn’t see each other for about three months because I was on a cross-country bike ride. We texted (and probably sexted) a bit, but there was nothing particularly emotional about it. When I arrived in Los Angeles, the city she had recently moved to, we became friends with benefits but both still dated other people. Eventually, over time, we realized that we had a lot of important things in common and our relationship grew into what we are today.

I’ve had strong passion for people in the past (particularly when I was a teenager and in my early 20’s), but those relationships were almost always bad ones. The passion and fire to be with a person blinded me to how incompatible we were and how abusive the relationship was. Passion is often illogical and it prevents us from making decisions that are good for us. I think we all have said at some point in our life (or know someone who has said), “I know we aren’t good together but I love them so much!” or “I know this can’t work long term but I love them!” or “I know they don’t treat me well but I love them!”. If the only thing that is keeping two (or more) people together is a passionate love then that relationship should probably end. Passion is the worst reason to stay with a person.

My partner may have more passion for me than I do for her, but that would be okay. There is nothing about a relationship that needs to be a 100% equal exchange. In fact, it is probably dangerous to shoot for that or to “keep score”. If both people are happy and getting what they need then the actual acts are unimportant, there can be an inequality in the number of times someone washes the dishes, says I love you, gives oral sex, buys gifts, feels passion, etc., as long as everyone is feeling satisfied and can communicate their desires.

So, I don’t have that passion that poets speak of for my wife, but I do love her. I miss her when she is gone. I long to spend my life with her. Our relationship is based on many things (including love), it is based on our compatibility now and in the future. We have similar life philosophies that naturally revolve around a mixture of stoicism and minimalism. Neither of us want kids and we both want to travel a lot in our lives. We would like to experience new things, live a variety of places, enjoy recreational drugs, and only work when it is necessary. We have similar views on non-monogamy and what defines “cheating”. We both want to grow as individuals, as well as partners, and we support each other in our pursuit of things that may not interest the other person.

We also both realize that there may come a day when this partnership is no longer good for us. Hopefully, we will grow and change over time, bit that means there is the risk that we will grow apart and become less compressible. We both agree it would be better to end it and remain friends instead of dragging it out in the name of “love” or because we spent so much time together (sunk costs are everywhere).

I feel like she is my first true partner. She isn’t just my spouse, which is a title that can be given to anyone with the proper court documentation, whether the people like each other or hate each other, whether they are truly compatible long term or not.  My partner is someone who helps me become a better person, and I work to help her become a better person. Neither of us is a crutch for the other person, instead we accomplish things as a partnership that we couldn’t do alone. We are both “in good working order”, as Dan Savage would say, and we aren’t dependent on the other person for emotional, physical, or financial health. We could survive (and thrive) without each other, we just don’t want to right now.

So, I have a hard time relating to the poets or people who say things like “marry the person you feel an intense burning in your soul for” (I don’t know if that is an actual quote but I’m pretty sure I heard something like that somewhere). That type of fire is a fickle beast, it can burn out during a rain storm or it can rage out of control and devastate everything in its path. Human relationships should have a foundation that is more stable than passion, especially partnerships you hope will last a lifetime

Relationships

It is hard to know the right thing to do. Within any decision there are competing forces that make appropriate decision making difficult. Generally, we want our decisions to be logical. But we also want decisions to be made by people who are closest to the issue, local knowledge is king. Unfortunately, the closer you are to an issue the less likely you are going to be able to view the issue through an objective lens. This is particularly true within a family or a relationship.

Generally, we think that parents know best what is for their kids, or people who are dating can most accurately measure the health of that relationship (as opposed to someone on the outside). In fact, we have strong cultural norms against providing advice to parents or dating couples unless explicitly asked, even if the relationship seems incredibly unhealthy or dangerous. When it comes to child rearing the response is particularly strong if you don’t have children but try to make recommendations to parents. It is often you will hear things like “You don’t have kids so you don’t understand”. While that may be true, it could also accurately be said “Because they are your kids you aren’t seeing the situation clearly”. Though, I would expect to be slapped or blocked on Facebook if I said that latter phrase.

The truth is, sometimes we our knowledge is “too local”. We are so close to the situation and our view blinded by love for a person that we can’t see that things aren’t healthy. We need people on the outside who can be more objective and give us straight answers. In short, we need therapists. A therapist is someone that you can share the details of your situation with but who is outside of it and can provide a more objective perspective. Sometimes a friend can act as a therapist, but often friends are also emotionally attached to you and the situation, and will provide guidance that is overly negative or positive. I think we’ve all had friends who dated someone who was terrible for them, but if we gave honest advice we would risk losing the friend. Because we are emotionally invested in the friendship it is impossible for our point of view to be objective or considered objective.

Unfortunately, many people cannot afford or are not willing to see therapists. I think everyone should see one occasionally, even if they aren’t in a relationship that could be destructive. It is really sad that people who can’t afford a therapist are unwilling to research the science on things like child-rearing or making relationships work before entering into a lifetime commitment. People (myself included) seem to intentionally go into things unprepared and hope that things will just work out.

It is simply false to believe that any of us will “naturally” know what to do to raise a child in the modern world or make a 50+ year relationship work.  It is just as dangerous to adopt cultural norms as your guiding force, just because our parents did something some way or you see other relationships operating in some way does not make those ways best. Evolution and most of our social norms developed in very different worlds than the one we live in now, and many of those lessons are no longer applicable. We only encourage unhealthy relationships if we refuse to seek objective viewpoints on our situation. None of us will naturally know what to do and cliches like “love is enough” are simply not true for healthy long-term relationships to thrive in 2016.

 

It Isn’t Up To Me

My partner and I are occasionally in situations where people are more comfortable with non-monogamy than in average society. Sometimes it is a festival, Burning Man, or a small intimate gathering with like-minded people. Despite these non-traditional locations filled with open people there are still some reflections of our male-centric society.

In particular, people will ask me if they can do something physical with my partner*.

If you want to kiss her, ask her and not me. Her body is not mine, even though we are in a relationship. She is free to do what she wishes with other people, and if she does something that violates our agreed boundaries then that is between her and I. It isn’t between me and someone she may connect with because her commitment to me does not mean she defers to me when she wants to do something. I am, under no circumstances, someone who grants permission to her. She is still an autonomous person.

I guess some people may have the best intentions, but it isn’t their place to prevent her from cheating or betraying me. That is between her and I, though I doubt that would ever happen. We communicate and are open enough about our feelings that neither of us feel like our actions are being restrained by each other. But, if one of us did cheat it would not be an relationship extinction level event. We’d talk through it, figure out if there are some core issues that caused it (or if it was just a one time mistake) and correct our boundaries to make things work.

Each of us has “veto” power because our relationship with each other comes first, but that has never really been exercised. We trust each other. Jealousy comes from the unknown and when you know that your partner will tell you about any crush or kiss then there is no unknown, nothing to be jealous of.

Maybe this problem only manifests itself in this way with polyamorous, open relationships, and monogamish couples, but I think it exists in monogamous couples as well. People ask one partner if another person is allowed to do something. A partnership does not destroy autonomy. Being connected should make us stronger, give us more opportunities, and provide new experiences.

* The one situation where this doesn’t bother me is if I am friends with the person asking. I can understand checking in with me first to make sure our friendship won’t be compromised.

Coming Out

It seems that not a week goes by that a celebrity or someone with status comes out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Transgender individuals, in particular, seem to be all over the media. So, why is that? Are there more LGBT individuals now than there were in the past?

Probably not.

What I think is happening is as our society becomes more comfortable and accepting of people who don’t fit into conservative boxes, more people come out. Whether that is someone’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or relationships preference, people no longer feel the need to pretend as much.

Celebrities, being wealthy and surrounded by generally liberal people, are in the best position to come out and provide a safer society for others.They provide an example that it sexuality and gender are not binary, that human sexuality and gender is more complicated than that. I do hope that someday none of this will really matter, that everyone will just be treated as individuals, but we aren’t there yet.

In fact, I think it is important to recognize that we aren’t even close to that point. Yes, it is easier for rich celebrities and, generally white, wealthy people living on the coasts to fully express their gender and sexual orientation, but that isn’t the case for most people. People of color, youth, and individuals who live in conservative areas face very real danger of being discriminated against, assaulted, or even killed because of who they are. Things are getting better, but we have a long way to go.

I expect we will see much more of this, and probably new terminology popping up until the point it is impossible to keep track of what all the identities and orientations mean. And maybe, just maybe, that flood of individuals seeking a word that most accurately describes them will make us realize we should just treat each other as individuals and stop trying to classify each other. We should respect and love each other for being true to ourselves. Instead of people seeing me as Peter (cisgender, heteroerotic, sexually fluid, monogamish) they will simply see me as Peter.