Polyamory 201: Cultivating Jealousy

The idea that jealousy stems from personal insecurities rather than the actions of the person you’re jealous towards is a common introductory polyamory mantra. It’s important because we’re all coming at this from a culture that centers and compels monogamy (and an unhealthy and coercive extreme of it at that). One of the tenets of mononormativity is that in romantic relationships, people “make” each other jealous. You are jealous because I smiled at a cute person at the bar. I’m jealous because you spend almost as much time with a female friend as you do with me.

This mentality allows people to blame each other for their own feelings and, sometimes, pressure each other to change their behavior. I’m jealous because you spend almost as much time with a female friend as you do with me, so you’re not allowed to see her anymore except at social events, and if you do it anyway, then you have “broken a rule” and are obviously in the wrong.

While some people are probably able to make this work, they run a high risk of developing resentment towards their partners and making the issue worse rather than better. Instead of addressing why I have such a problem with you being friends with women, now I’m jealous about another of your female friends. I don’t want you seeing her that much, either.

Because this approach to managing jealousy is so common, it makes sense to encourage people to first look for the roots of jealousy in the fertile soil of their own insecurity. But once we move on from Polyamory 101, we need to acknowledge the fact that others’ actions can cultivate jealousy even in people who otherwise wouldn’t have felt it. Sometimes this is unintentional, and sometimes it isn’t. Some people try to artificially create jealousy as a way to control others.

First, a caveat that jealousy is a loaded and imprecise term that makes it really difficult to communicate effectively. That’s why I wrote this piece about different feelings that are often called jealousy. I’m using “jealousy” as an umbrella term here.

Unclear communication

Say I’m at a bar with my (nonmonogamous) partner, and while I’m off ordering a drink I notice them flirting pretty obviously with someone. After the person leaves, I sidle up to my partner and say, “Soooo, who’s that cutie you were talking to?”

There are basically two types of people at this point. One would say, “Oh, their name is Sam and they came over to compliment my Star Wars t-shirt. Think I should ask for their number?”

The other would say, “What? That was nobody. I don’t know them or anything. Why?”

Yes, even in poly relationships.

If you’ve ever had a partner get weird and cagey at you like that, you know that it’s a magical jealousy-inducing elixir. Sure, not everyone would care, but even I–with my solo poly, no-rules approach to things–would wonder why my partner is dodging the topic as if they have something to hide. Maybe I should feel bad about it.

Sometimes people get cagey like this because they’re still recovering from mononormative contexts in which virtually any interaction with a member of their preferred gender(s) needs to be shrouded in secrecy (not that caginess is effective there either). No matter how friendly or playful my tone, any variation on “Who’s that person you were talking to”/”Are you interested in them” sounds like an accusation and the learned response is to shut down.

Unfortunately, there is probably no way to have a healthy and transparent nonmonogamous relationship without occasionally asking a partner about someone they might be (or are) interested in, so you’ll probably have to work on that.

And, of course, people who have been in abusive relationships in the past may have learned to keep their cards close to the chest. But my argument isn’t that it’s always your fault; it’s that this communication style can cause jealousy even in folks who have worked through their insecurities.

Some people do it on purpose. They know that hedging and obfuscating is a way to create jealousy–which, of course, they can then blame on their partner. “I said it was nothing. You’re acting crazy.” The more subtle ones do it differently: “I’m so sorry. I should’ve been more clear with you. Of course you’d feel that way.” But then they simply do the same thing over and over.

In a healthy nonmonogamous relationship, someone’s desire to know more about their partner’s other interests/partners is treated as healthy and normal. While there are obviously things that you’re entitled to keep to yourself–especially when they involve another person’s privacy–trying to hide crushes or flirtation from a partner is a sign that something’s wrong. And if someone keeps basic information like “I’m interested in dating that person” from their partners and then turns around and blames them for feeling weird about it, that’s a red flag for abuse.

Comparison

Say my partner Alex also dates Sam. During a date with Alex, my chronic illness flares up and I regretfully ask if we can go home early so I can rest. Alex agrees, but sighs and says, “I wish this didn’t keep happening. At least with Sam I get to stay out late and have fun.”

Would you blame me for being a little jealous of Alex and Sam’s relationship?

That example was also horrifyingly ableist, but not all comparisons are so obviously awful. Say Alex likes smoking pot with their partners and finds it a really fun and meaningful way to spend time with someone. They ask if I’d be interested, and I say, “No, I’m not comfortable with pot.” Alex says, “Huh, really? I had no idea. Sam loves it.”

Alex probably didn’t mean anything by it, but saying no is already difficult for many people, and drugs are a difficult subject for a lot of people, and in this context, a lot of people would feel a little slighted. If I said no to something a partner asked me to do with them and they responded by immediately letting me know that another partner likes doing it with them, I’d wonder if they’re trying to pressure me, or subtly let me know that if I don’t do this thing with them, then something’s missing from our relationship.

Of course, in reality, poly people often do different activities with different partners, or admire different traits about them. I really love dancing, and during times when I didn’t have any partners who liked dancing, it was really nice to start dating someone new who does. In fact, it’d get a little boring to date a bunch of people who all like to do the exact same things.

But comparing people to each other, even if you mean no harm by it, is a really tricky area. The fact that Sam likes smoking pot has nothing to do with the fact that I just declined to. The fact that Sam is able to stay out really late has no bearing on whether or not my physical condition allows that.

That particular example is also a good illustration of how comparison can become coercive. If you’re comparing partners in order to make them feel bad about themselves, you’re not just triggering jealousy–you’re also abusing them.

New Relationship Energy

NRE–that feeling when you’ve just started crushing on or dating someone and you’re kind of obsessed with them and want to see them and talk to/about them constantly–is a big driver of jealousy. Long-term relationships eventually settle into a comfortable rhythm where you’re not necessarily desperate to constantly see, talk to, and have sex with each other–even though you’re probably very much in love and an integral part of each other’s lives.

When a new partner comes along, you may suddenly find yourself putting energy and attention into that relationship to a degree that you haven’t been with your preexisting partner(s). Suddenly you’re staying up all night to talk and have sex, telling everyone who will listen about this awesome new person you’re seeing, and responding emotionally to their every text or call in a way that you just wouldn’t when it’s someone you’ve been with for years. (I just can’t imagine myself screaming “OHMYGOD THEY JUST TEXTED ME” to my roommate when I’ve been dating them for two years, you know?)

For many people, NRE is normal and natural. There’s nothing wrong with feeling that way, and it can feel awesome. (Other people, like me, kinda hate that feeling, but that’s a separate issue.)

However, it can also bring up complicated feelings for the non-NRE partner. Maybe I’ve been kind of wishing we had sex more often and trying to find a way to bring it up, but now you’re having sex with someone else more in a week than we do in a month. Maybe I’ve wanted to have an occasional date night at a nice restaurant, but you said it’s not worth the money…but now you’re having those kinds of dates with someone else.

Even if you know your partner doesn’t “owe” you anything, it can still hurt when you’ve been communicating your desire for more/different connection and not getting it–and now your partner is doing that with someone else. It can also make you aware of needs and desires that you didn’t even realize you had. Maybe you’ve always thought of yourself as an introvert and a homebody, but your partner describes an exciting date spent dancing at a club and you realize that you want to try that, too.

Often, the NRE partner has no idea their non-NRE partner is feeling this way, and an honest conversation can go a long way in helping them meet each other’s needs despite the NRE.

Some people, though, really do have a pattern of going “OOH SHINY” and ignoring/neglecting a preexisting partner in favor of a new one. Needless to say, it can be really, really destabilizing when a committed partner suddenly drops off the face of the earth because they’re interested in someone new. If that describes you, you might be better off dating casually or doing serial monogamy rather than polyamory.


In all of these examples, jealousy is a canary in a coal mine. The root of the problem isn’t that someone is feeling jealous. It’s that someone feels like their partner is keeping things from them, comparing them unfavorably to others, or tossing them aside in favor of someone new.

If you’re in one of these situations and you treat jealousy like a personal problem for the jealous person to “work on,” you miss an opportunity to address what’s really going on. You may also miss a major red flag for abuse–as I’ve discussed, some of these behaviors can become abusive if they’re part of a larger pattern of controlling someone else.

If you’re unsure whether or not that’s happening in your relationship, here are some troubling signs to watch out for:

  • Your partner insists that your jealous feelings are entirely your own problem to work on, and refuses to change anything about their behavior or help you through this process. (Even in non-hierarchical contexts where it’s not expected that people will prioritize one partner over another, partners should still support each other emotionally insofar as they have the capacity to. “That’s your problem, deal with it on your own” is, at best, a red flag.
  • Your partner psychoanalyzes you in order to blame you for your jealous feelings. (“If you’d stop comparing everyone to your one ex who cheated on you, maybe you wouldn’t feel this way.)
  • Your partner holds you to a higher standard than they hold themselves. For instance, when they feel jealous, they expect you to change your behavior, but when you feel jealous, they expect you to work through those feelings without any changes from them.
  • The particular things your partner does that trigger jealousy always seem to happen right after an argument–especially an argument that ends with you doing something they don’t want you to do.
  • The particular things your partner does that trigger jealousy always seem to be a way to get you to change your behavior somehow. (For instance, see my first example under “comparison.”
  • Your partner gaslights you–denies your experiences or reality. If you saw them talking to someone at the bar and they literally deny having talked to anyone at the bar, that’s pretty fucked up.
  • Your partner refuses to provide the sort of basic information nonmonogamous people need to know to maintain safety and healthy boundaries. If they won’t tell you how many other folks they’re seeing or what their level of physical involvement is with those people, you can’t make the decisions you need to make about your sexual health. Even if you’re using barriers for all forms of sexual activity, you deserve to have some sense of what your risk level might be. Someone who keeps this information from you is either completely unprepared for any sort of healthy relationship, or is actively trying to control you. This isn’t cool or mysterious or edgy; it’s controlling and dangerous.

Just like everything useful and catchy, the idea that jealousy originates entirely within the jealous person eventually outlives its usefulness. To make an ethical nonmonogamous relationship work–especially if you’re doing it without rules and hierarchies–you’ll have to examine jealousy in a more nuanced way.


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Polyamory 201: Cultivating Jealousy
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The Intersection of Guess Culture and Sex is Rape Culture

[Content note: sexual violence]

In discussions about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a Christmas song in which a man persistently pressures a woman to stay at his house instead of going home to her family for the night, many consent-aware people point out that given the time period in which the song was written, it should be interpreted as playful, fully-consensual banter.

Even the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” is meant as a jokey reference to how strong the alcohol is rather than the way we read it today–an implication that date rape drugs are involved. Viewed in its proper context, the song is actually a celebration of female sexual agency–something that wasn’t exactly condoned at the time–because the woman in the song is clearly looking for excuses to stay with the guy she likes.

Given my own cultural background, I have a lot of sympathy for this interpretation because it’s exactly how I was brought up to expect these things to go. I’ve had consensual, fun interactions of this sort with partners. It was how I always interpreted the song growing up.

But as others have pointed out, even this interpretation means that women cannot say “yes” to sex directly and that’s nothing to be celebrated. That’s part of the problem. If men cannot expect women to say “yes” directly–if they’re taught that sometimes, “no” actually means “yes”–that creates way too much room for misinterpretation and sexual violence.

I’ve written about Guess Culture here a lot. The type of interaction presented in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a great example of Guess Culture. The man in the song never comes out and says that he wants to have sex. In fact, he never even directly asks the woman to stay the night. Instead, he encourages her to stay later than she meant, have another drink, it’s so cold outside, you wouldn’t want to go outside in that, imagine how bad I’d feel if anything happened to you…

Likewise, the woman neither says, “I really want to stay over but I can’t this time,” nor “I’m not interested in you that way, I’m leaving.” Instead, she’s supposed to understand that the man is implying that he wants to have sex, and he’s supposed to understand that…this is where things get a little hazy. Critics of the song say that he’s supposed to understand that she’s actually not interested but won’t say so directly because she’s been socialized not to and doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. People who think the song is fine say that he’s supposed to understand that she really wants to stay, perhaps even intends to, but feels obligated to first present this list of “excuses” to show that she’s a “good girl” who won’t just jump right into bed with someone.

And like I said, it could totally happen that way. I’ve had it happen that way. Maybe the specific people in this song are an established couple for whom this is an established consensual pattern. (But just because they’re an established couple for whom this is an established pattern does not necessarily make it consensual.)

The problem is that:

There is no way for the man to know if she’s saying yes or no.

And when your “yes” looks and sounds exactly the same as your “no,” you’re not communicating effectively. When your “hey, I’m really worried about you going out in this weather, please crash here for the night” sounds exactly the same as your “I’m having sex with you tonight whether you like it or not,” you’re not communicating effectively. But if you would like to violate people’s boundaries, having the latter sound exactly like the former is very clever.

That’s who this communication style is primarily serving.

When people say that we live in a rape culture, we don’t mean that all rape is considered permissible in all circumstances, or that all sex is rape, or even that all sex without clear and explicit consent is rape. What we do mean is that our culture normalizes sexual practices and ways of interacting that sharply increase the likelihood that people will have sex with someone without their consent–that they will commit sexual violence.

One of the ways this works is plausible deniability. In our culture, someone can say something like, “But I totally thought they were into it! I thought they’d say no if they actually wanted me to stop!” and people treat this as evidence against sexual assault. Someone can intentionally violate someone’s boundaries and say the exact same thing and get away with it.

That’s why “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is kind of terrifying regardless of the context it was originally written in, or the feelings of the hypothetical people in the song. In real life, a woman in that situation might feel wanted, cared about, and flirted with. Or she might feel pressured, coerced, and trapped. As the other person in that interaction, how are you supposed to know? You can’t.

I get that many people find these interactions fun and exciting. I get that it’s how many of us were raised. I get that even I might momentarily feel kind of unwanted if I playfully say, “Oh, I don’t think so, I really have to go…” and a partner immediately says, “Oh ok I’ll take you home right now then!” I get that for many of us, women and folks socialized as women especially, it can be hard to believe that someone really wants us if they don’t seem to “fight” for it.

But mind-reading is a hell of a flimsy hook to hang your bodily autonomy on.


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The Intersection of Guess Culture and Sex is Rape Culture

Niceness and Kindness

When deciding how to act, I find it helpful to distinguish between niceness and kindness.

To most people, those are probably synonymous; Merriam-Webster uses “kind” as part of its definition for “nice.” I’m probably the only person who defines these words the way I do, but that’s okay. I’m aware of how other people use them, and that allows me to be clear with others. But when I need to be clear with myself, my definitions are much more useful.

To me, niceness is making others feel good or comfortable. Niceness is being polite. Niceness happens in those moments when the way you want to treat someone aligns well with the way they want to be treated by you. Niceness is when both of you walk away from the interaction with a smile on your faces.

Kindness is being genuine. Kindness is looking out for someone’s long-term growth or needs. Kindness may be nice, but it doesn’t have to be. For instance, helping someone move into a new house is both nice and kind. Telling someone that they have hurt you may not be nice, but it is kind–both to yourself and to them, because it allows them to improve and to preserve their relationship with you if that’s what they want to do.

Obviously, there’s a lot of overlap between nice and kind. But just like authentic, meaningful, and productive interactions don’t always feel good, interactions that feel good aren’t always authentic, meaningful, or productive. If a coworker irritates and frustrates me by trying to start conversations with me early in the morning before I’m ready to interact with people, I may choose to just be polite and smile back and chat with them rather than letting them know that this isn’t a good way of interacting for me. They get to leave the conversation feeling good, but neither of us has moved forward in any way.

And a lot of the time, that’s okay. It’s tempting to elevate kindness above niceness as the clearly superior way of interacting, but it’s not. First of all, kindness tends to involve a lot more emotional labor. We may not always have the capacity for that, or be willing to spend that energy in a particular situation. Second, kindness may not always be the wisest course of action. Telling my coworker how I feel about early-morning conversation may help them be more considerate towards me and maybe others too, but it can also cause unnecessary workplace conflict and give me a reputation for being cranky and unfriendly. That sort of thing is always an individual’s call to make–for you, getting someone to stop bugging you at 8 AM may be important enough to risk that, but for me it isn’t.

Trying to insert kindness into situations where it’s not warranted and wasn’t asked for can also mean giving people unsolicited help or advice. You may think it’s kind to rush over and help a stranger at the gym when you see them lifting weights improperly, but they may see this as intrusive, nosy, and rude. On the other hand, if you’re a personal trainer, letting your client know their form is off is definitely the kind thing to do (not to mention part of your job), even if it makes the client feel embarrassed or frustrated. The difference is that your client consented to have you comment on their workout; the stranger didn’t.

The reason these redefinitions are so important to me is that they create space for me to be good to other people without necessarily making them happy. A lot of the discourse on boundaries attempts to reclaim the idea of selfishness as a positive, and while I find this extremely valuable, I also think it sets up a false dichotomy in which setting your boundaries is “selfish” (whether that’s a positive or a negative) and doing what other people want is “selfless” or “nice.”

While setting boundaries can hurt people’s feelings and is therefore not exactly a “nice” thing to do, it is a fundamentally kind thing to do–not just for yourself, but for them. When you set a boundary with someone, you are giving them important information that they need. You are helping them figure out how to maintain a healthy relationship with you. You are trusting them and letting them get to know you better. You are relieving any anxiety they might’ve had about whether or not they were crossing your boundaries–now they know for sure, and can avoid doing it in the future.

Similarly, breaking up with someone or saying “no” if they ask you out on a date may hurt them, but it’s also the kinder choice. The alternative is leading them on or confusing them when you already know you’re not interested. That’s why making it a goal to always make people feel good–that is, prioritizing niceness–can actually be very harmful in the long run, both to yourself and to others.

I mentioned earlier that too much kindness, or kindness at inappropriate times, can look like trying to help people when they don’t want it or in ways they don’t need. Too much niceness looks like trying to manipulate people’s emotions by keeping them from ever being upset–specifically, upset at you.

Excessive niceness can also be extraordinarily unkind. If you continue a relationship you don’t want to be in so that you don’t hurt the person’s feelings, that prevents them from coping with the truth, moving on, and maybe putting their energy into finding someone who actually wants to be with them.

Sometimes I like being nice. Doing little polite things for people or making small talk with a coworker may not be particularly genuine actions–especially not these days when I’m pretty depressed–but they make people feel at least a little bit good and as a result I feel good too.

Sometimes I decide that being nice is not my priority. As a therapist, I can’t always be nice. However gently I hold clients accountable for harming themselves or others, it’s not going to feel good. As a partner, I can’t always be nice either. However hard I might try to keep the terseness out of my voice when I say I’m too tired for something or that I need to stop what we’re doing, some part of my pain or irritation will seep through and that’s okay.

Some people don’t deserve either niceness or kindness from me, but distinguishing those two things helps me avoid mistreating people when there’s no need to. Just because I can’t be nice to them doesn’t mean I can’t be kind; just because I can’t be kind to them doesn’t mean I can’t be nice.


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Niceness and Kindness

How Should We Respond to Passive Communication?

[CN: probably skip this one if you think passive communication/Guess Culture is good/acceptable/necessary.]

One of my biggest interpersonal struggles is deciding how to respond to passive communication from others.

A resource from the University of Kentucky Violence Intervention and Prevention Center defines passive communication like this:

PASSIVE COMMUNICATION is a style in which individuals have developed a pattern of avoiding expressing their opinions or feelings, protecting their rights, and identifying and meeting their needs. As a result, passive individuals do not respond overtly to hurtful or anger-inducing situations. Instead, they allow grievances and annoyances to mount, usually unaware of the buildup. But once they have reached their high tolerance threshold for unacceptable behavior, they are prone to explosive outbursts, which are usually out of proportion to the triggering incident. After the outburst, however, they may feel shame, guilt, and confusion, so they return to being passive.

In their book on polyamory, More Than Two, Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux define passive communication this way:

Passive communication refers to communicating through subtext, avoiding direct statements, and looking for hidden meanings. Passive communicators may use techniques such as asking questions or making vague, indirect statements in place of stating needs, preferences or boundaries. Directly asking for what you want creates vulnerability, and passive communication often comes from a desire to avoid this vulnerability. Passive communication also offers plausible deniability; if we state a desire for something indirectly, and we don’t get it, it’s easy to claim we didn’t really want it. Stating our needs means standing up for them and taking the risk that others may not agree to meet them.

Although I understand that cultural/social/familial norms differ, I’m strongly against passive communication, Guess Culture, and anything else in that vein in my personal life. (My opinion is that those things are often harmful to others too, and much of this blog is based on that opinion, but that’s up to you.) I come from a family and a culture that thrives on Guess Culture, so I’m not coming at this from some hyper-individualistic American perspective. My perspective is that I’ve seen firsthand the harm this communication style does and I refuse to participate in it anymore.

But refusing to participate is complicated for two reasons. One is that when you’re raised with something like this, you’re inevitably going to fall back into it, especially when you’re hurt, angry, or otherwise not firing on all mental cylinders. That’s compounded by the fact that I’m still very close with my family, which means that I have to communicate the way they do when I’m with them. The result is that I get plenty of practice at communicating passively, even though I try to be more direct with my family than I used to be.

The second reason is that other people use passive communication too, and it’s not always practical, possible, or desirable to just cut all those people out of your life. Sure, I find some people toxically passive-aggressive and avoid having anything to do with them, but most of the people I encounter who communicate passively are, like me, just trying to get themselves out of that mindset and they’re going to slip up from time to time. To me, that’s not something to dump a friend or partner over.

So, when I sense that someone is upset with me because they’re dropping little hints but won’t say anything directly, or when I tell someone about my weekend plans and they sigh and wistfully say, “That sounds so fun, I wish I had someone to do that with…”, I honestly don’t really know what to do. Ignoring the subtext seems like a jerk move, but taking the bait teaches the person that this is an effective (and acceptable) way to communicate with me. All that does is set up a situation where they never feel like they have to actually state their feelings and desires directly, and when I have to constantly read between someone’s lines like that, I will eventually fuck up, and they will be upset and resentful that I didn’t magically know what they felt or wanted.

You might think I’m exaggerating–what’s the big deal with inviting someone along to do Thing because they seem sad that they don’t have anyone to do Thing with?–but in my experience, passive communicators don’t choose just one thing to communicate passively about. Furthermore, it traps me into communicating passively, too, because being direct with passive communicators often backfires. When I was younger, I used to ask people things like, “Are you asking to be invited?” or “Are you saying you have a crush on me?”, only to be met with angry denials and dismissal.

As it turns out, many passive communicators seem to wish people could read their minds right up until they actually do. Instead, you end up swept up into that sort of game-playing right along with them. Most of our popular cultural scripts around sex and romance rely on this–you can never come right out and say that you like someone, and you can’t ask them if they like you, either.

Some passive communicators are hoping that you’ll ask them, though. The typical example is someone who silently huffs until you ask them why they’re upset. Then they’ll insist that it’s “nothing” and you have to keep asking until they finally unleash a whole list of things you’ve been doing for weeks or months that upset them and you had no idea. (Although the sexist stereotype is that this is a “female” thing to do, I assure you, it’s quite gender-neutral.)

It can feel like a jerk move to ignore the fact that someone seems to be upset at you, and it can seem like a very small deal to ask them if you’ve upset them. The problem is that when this becomes a pattern–and with people who habitually communicate in a passive way, it will–it creates a very unequal burden of emotional labor. Rather than just being responsible for listening to them, respecting their boundaries, owning your mistakes, and communicating your own needs and feelings, you are now also responsible for laboriously extracting theirs from them like a dentist performing a root canal.

Some people are totally fine with that dynamic. I, however, am not.

(Some people who are totally fine with that dynamic later realize they’re completely overwhelmed by the disproportionate emotional labor, but that’s a separate article.)

But there are times when being receptive to passive communication is an ethical imperative, and that’s when it comes to setting boundaries.

Because of the way that most women and many people of other genders are socialized, many of them end up uncomfortable or even unable to state boundaries directly. It’s a skill we have to relearn as adults. (I say “relearn” because most little children have no trouble with this. It’s only as they get older that they learn that saying “no” is somehow wrong.) That’s why “no means no” was insufficient as a sexual assault prevention slogan–many people don’t say “no” directly. Instead, they communicate their “no” passively–through silence, closed-off body language, uncertainty, and all sorts of other signals that are definitely not meant to communicate a “yes.”

In my personal life, I prefer to interact with people who are able to tell me directly when they want me to stop doing something or when something isn’t working for them, because for me that’s a major part of trust and intimacy. But if someone communicates a boundary indirectly, I respect it anyway–possibly checking in about it later, if appropriate, so that I can make sure I understood correctly and didn’t cross any other boundaries.

So if I ask someone if they want to have sex (to be frank, this almost never happens, but let’s pretend it does for the sake of example), and they say, “Well, I don’t know…I have to get up early tomorrow…” I just go ahead and consider that a “no,” even though it’s technically a passive way of communicating “no.”

That’s an easy call because I consider boundaries so important. But with anything other than that, I just don’t think the excess emotional labor is justified.

Refusing to read double and triple meanings into people’s words is also a way of pushing back against my own upbringing. Because, yeah, I’m really tempted to do it. My parents taught me to do it, not just by example but through direct teaching (“Maybe she said that because she’s secretly upset that you didn’t invite her to your birthday party.”). I’m also really good at it, which is both a blessing and a curse. (As I said, people rarely like it when they realize how well they’ve been understood when what they really wanted was to obfuscate.) So at some point I have to say enough and just opt out.

I also hope that it encourages people to be direct with me. The ones who can’t do that decide that I’m oblivious, selfish, or both and fade out of my life; the ones who decide that they want what they want from me badly enough to ask for it directly, ask for it directly.

Any discussion of passive communication and its nasty cousin, passive-aggressiveness, inevitably elicits rationalizations and justifications for this kind of behavior. Maybe that’s what they learned growing up. Maybe they were abused and this is their way of coping. Maybe they don’t think their desires are valid so they feel too ashamed to ask for them directly. Maybe they have social anxiety and can’t bear rejection. Maybe they can’t trust me enough to risk being direct.

Look, I’ve been through a lot of that and I get it. But just because a particular behavior once made sense as a response to a particular environment doesn’t mean it’s still adaptive or reasonable. And it definitely doesn’t mean I’m obligated to do harm to myself in order to accommodate it. Maybe if you trust me so little that you can’t be direct with me, then we have no business being friends or partners.

Passive communication doesn’t work for me. Except for boundaries, which I will always go far out of my way to perceive and respect, this is not a communication style that I can sustainably use (or have used with me).

I’m genuinely sorry if that makes anyone feel like they can’t interact with me, but not sorry enough to ever go back to being a passive communicator.


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How Should We Respond to Passive Communication?

“He was acting creepy, but she seemed okay with it…”

[Content note: sexual harassment and assault]

This is something I hear from guys a lot–they’ve witnessed another guy in their space or social group acting in a “creepy” or inappropriate way towards a woman, but because she’s smiling or even laughing along, they figure she’s fine with it and they don’t intervene.

I hate to break it to you, but even without knowing the woman in question I can say that there’s a very high chance that she’s not fine with it at all.

Women and AFAB people are socialized from an early age to politely smile, nod, and laugh along in response to men who annoy, scare, and even violate us. Sometimes this is a survival mechanism, like backing away slowly from a predatory animal or playing dead. Every day there’s a news story about a woman or trans person who was injured or murdered by a man after telling him to stop talking to or harassing them. Often, even smiling and nodding isn’t enough.

Even when it’s not a matter of life or death, it’s really difficult to explain to cis men what it’s like when you’ve been trained for your whole life to ignore your own boundaries. For many of us, smiling and nodding isn’t even necessarily a conscious and intentional strategy; it’s a reflex, something that happens as naturally and automatically as breathing. Of course, it’s not “natural” in any meaningful sense of the word. But it feels that way, and that makes it really hard to unlearn.

For many of us–until we do manage to deliberately and effortfully unlearn this shit–telling a man “leave me alone, I don’t want to talk to you” is unthinkable, not just because it’s scary and potentially dangerous but because we don’t even think it. Ditto for just ignoring the man completely. It often takes hours, weeks, or years to realize that a particular interaction was uncomfortable and violating, to finally recognize the discomfort, fear, and anger that had hidden beneath the polite smile all along. That can happen with harassing comments and it can happen with rape.

For most of us, it’s not because we read some articles about feminism and changed our minds. It’s more like realizing that a house that seems stable and well-built actually has crumbling foundations and a rotting frame. It’s not that the crumble and the rot wasn’t there before. We just didn’t see it.

So yes, when you observe a man leering at, making sexual comments to, or otherwise appearing to sexually harass a woman who is gamely playing along, there’s a chance that she’s okay with it or even enjoying it. What’s much more likely is that she’s very uncomfortable, or will soon realize it, but she’s not showing it because she’s been taught not to show her negative feelings towards men or even recognize that they are there.

So let’s talk about “white knighting,” since men are always telling me that they chose not to stand up for women’s safety and autonomy in order to avoid being “white knights.”

First of all, I’m not convinced that accusations of “white knighting” are necessarily being made in good faith, i.e. by women or other marginalized people who are upset that male bystanders tried to help them deal with a harasser or assailant. Most of them seem to be coming from anti-feminist men who are trying to delegitimize and ridicule male feminists. While there are many important conversations to be had about the motivations and missteps of male feminists, none of those conversations are going to be initiated by people who do not believe that sexism exists or that it oppresses people who are not cisgender men. These people are trying to create a safe space to further marginalize and terrorize women and trans people, and male feminists who take these “white knighting” accusations seriously are giving them exactly what they want.

Second, it’s not a choice between “literally do nothing” and “force the woman to accept your patronizing and uninformed assistance.” Yes, there’s a shitty history of men “protecting” women from other men (men they may be interested in) because they assume that women have no agency and how dare another man take “your” woman. We have to push back against that, but without using it as an excuse to let harassment and assault happen in our spaces.

I’ve noticed that men engaging with feminist issues are often frustrated by the lack of clear answers and action steps. They want to fix it immediately and they want to get it right on the first try.

I can’t tell you how to do that. There is no flowchart for exactly how to intervene successfully when someone is being creepy. There are simply too many variables.

Instead, here are some strategies you could try when they seem appropriate.

  • Talk to the women and trans folks in your life about what (if anything) they would want from you if you witness them being harassed. Be proactive about this. Don’t wait for it to happen to them. It already does.
  • If you did notice someone being harassed but didn’t do anything because you didn’t know what to do, check in with them later about their experience and what they might’ve wanted from you.
  • If you see someone you know being harassed, step in and say, “Hey, can I steal you for a moment? I had a question for you.” If they say, “I’ll catch you later,” they’re probably fine. If they come along, ask them if they need an out.
  • If you don’t know the person being harassed, and you’re a man, it’s a little tough. Offering to lead them away is unlikely to feel comfortable for them because they don’t know you either and you could be even worse. If the space has an organizer–i.e. a party host or conference staffer–ask them to check if the person is ok. You could also ask a female friend to do the previous suggestion.
  • If you know the person who is harassing someone, find a reason to pull them away for a conversation. Tell them what you observed and why it’s inappropriate. This won’t be a comfortable conversation, but it’s extremely important and can make a huge impact. One of the biggest contributing factors to sexual harassment and assault is that many men think their male peers approve of it. Rain on that parade.
  • Talk to the organizer of the space. Ask your friend to stop inviting the harasser to their parties. If you’ve observed harassment, you don’t have to wait for one of the victims of it (there are almost certainly more than one) to speak up–they may not, because they have no reason to expect to be listened to. If someone started a fistfight, you’d kick them out without waiting for the punched person to tell you they don’t like being punched.
  • Avoid speaking for the person being harassed–when appropriate, center your own feelings. Tell the harasser that you are uncomfortable with what they’re doing and that it’s creepy and wrong. That’s one way of letting other guys know that you personally disapprove of harassment rather than just wanting to look good in front of women, and helps prevent them from trying to drag the person they’re harassing in to defend them.
  • Review the Geek Social Fallacies and remember that no one is entitled to any non-public space. That’s why you don’t have to wait for an Official Complaint to kick a harasser out of your space. Ask yourself–is this the kind of behavior I want at my event/in my friend group? If not, take steps to make it stop.
  • Confronting harassers is not safe or accessible for everyone. So if you can’t do it, do some of the other things listed here. But you can get better at it by roleplaying with a friend or practicing out loud on your own. This can be a great project for a few progressive guys to do together.
  • Let others know what you’ve observed so they can potentially intervene too if it happens again. Just like those who get harassed, many bystanders stay silent because they don’t want to “gossip” or “trash talk.” But letting someone know what you’ve seen or heard someone doing in your shared space isn’t gossiping. It’s giving people information they need to help keep each other safe.
  • If you interrupt a situation and the person you thought was being harassed says they’re fine, take that at face value. Yes, they may not feel safe telling you or they may realize later that it’s not fine, but you have to respect their autonomy. Apologize for interrupting and let them know you’ll be nearby if they need anything.

It’s important to remember that bystander intervention is fundamentally a harm reduction tactic–it will not remove the problem, just reduce the harm that the problem does. The only thing that will stop sexual harassment (or at least reduce it to its lowest possible baseline) is a massive cultural shift in how we think about sex, boundaries, and gender.

So don’t beat yourself up if you try all of these strategies and nothing seems to “fix” harassment. It won’t. It may, however, make some cool women and nonbinary folks stay in your social group who would otherwise have quietly left, and it may prompt a major attitude shift in a few of your guy friends that will keep them from harassing anyone else. That’s a small win in the great scheme of things, but it’s a massive win for those individual lives.


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“He was acting creepy, but she seemed okay with it…”

Some Totally Unsolicited Advice About Forum Moderation

If you moderate any sort of online forum, I have a suggestion for you: ban all snarking about “well if you’d bothered to search the forum before posting you would’ve found the answer to that” and “why don’t you just Google it.”

The damage done to a community by people sometimes posting easily-googleable 101 questions is far outweighed by the damage done by the silencing effect that occurs when people are scared of being ridiculed for asking a damn question.

Yes, it is annoying when someone posts a question that’s been answered tons of times in the forum. It’s annoying when someone posts a question that’s considered too basic for the purposes of that particular space. But is being annoyed a good enough reason to make people afraid to ask questions?

Theoretically, the way this sort of shaming is supposed to work is that everyone realizes that they should search the forum/check the FAQ before posting. If it worked that way, that’d be nice, although you’d still be using nastiness and ridicule to make people comply, which is a dubious way to build community. But practically, that’s not what happens. Instead, people (especially people who have not been socialized to be confident) do Google, and do check the FAQ, and then think, “Well, I’m probably missing something, and I don’t want them to yell at me for not searching well enough.”

And then they don’t post. And then they don’t get their question answered and they don’t learn more about the topic. And then they quietly disengage from the community, and you never even notice that they’re gone, and you never even know that you’re missing their unique perspective and talent. Instead, your group is overrun with people whining about each others’ poor google skills and making fun of each other–and not in a friendly way.

But then how can we stop people from posting repeat questions?

As a moderator, you can never completely prevent people from doing something you don’t want in your space, but you can make it less likely and you can control what happens afterward.

  • Include “search first” in your rules.
  • Encourage other members to respond to 101 questions with reminders, not ridicule. (“Hey [name], this question has already been answered in this forum. Please use the search feature. Thanks!”)
  • Create a FAQ and make it easily visible and accessible. Forum search features are often crappy and not everyone has the time or energy to wade through pages of irrelevant search results.
  • Simply delete posts and ban users who post these types of questions. It’s kind of extreme, but it may be most appropriate for something like a safe space for marginalized folks or a 300-level social justice space where basic questions really detract from the group’s purpose.

Here’s the thing–if you don’t want your forum to focus on answering questions that have already been answered or that are considered too low-level for the purposes of that space, the last thing you should want is for those questions’ threads to fill up with snark and ridicule of the poster’s lack of Google skills. All that does is promote continued engagement on that post (and a toxic form of engagement at that, although that’s just my opinion) and keep the post at the top of the group feed. It contributes to the exact problem that the snark and ridicule is supposedly meant to prevent.

Except, of course, that’s not really what it’s meant to do at all. In my experience, people who get something out of ridiculing others frequently come up with all sorts of post-hoc justifications for their behavior, but what they’re mostly doing is venting emotions without much forethought. You feel annoyed or angry, so you lash out. Only later do you produce rationalizations like “Well, they’re ruining the purpose of this space by posting those questions and I want them to stop.” I’m skeptical that very many of these people thought, upon encountering the offending post, “Huh, I wonder what would be the best way of stopping posts like this from happening.”

But it’s annoying!

Yeah, as I said, I’m not arguing that it’s not. But I think that a big part of the reason it feels so annoying is because of the assumptions we make about others’ motivations–assumptions that we usually have no evidence for.

Many people see a repeat question and think, “Wow, this person respects me and my time so little that they would make me re-answer something that’s already been answered.” Sure, that could be it. Or it could be that they did try searching but didn’t use the exact right search terms (a common issue for topics as diverse as social justice and coding). It could be that they’re in a hurry to get the answer and figured someone would be willing to point them in the right direction. It could be that they’re on their phone and the search box isn’t even visible in the mobile version of the page and they figured there wasn’t one. Look, it could really be anything. It doesn’t have to mean laziness and disrespect.

But they’re forcing me to answer their basic questions and I don’t want to/don’t have the spoons/can’t be everyone’s free [subject] tutor!

I’ve already written about this dynamic as it applies to social justice conversations online. But I think some of that applies much more broadly, in that many people mistake a statement about a need for a demand that that need be met–or, worse, an obligation to meet that need.

When someone asks a question, it’s safe to assume that they want an answer to that question. (Ok, fine, unless it’s a rhetorical question. Let’s not get technical.) They may even need an answer to that question. They may even feel entitled to an answer to that question from you–yes, you specifically.

But usually we don’t know what a stranger on the internet feels entitled to versus what they would simply like to have, if possible. And sometimes we assume that they feel entitled because that’s what we’re used to, or because we’re not fully confident about our own boundaries or our own ability to maintain them.

Much of this difficulty comes from Guess Culture, which we all struggle with to various extents. In Guess Culture, a question can indeed be an implicit demand for an answer, and in Guess Culture, ignoring someone’s question (even if posted on a public forum) can be a Wrong Thing To Do.

Probably the most common way people deal with situations where they feel like someone is demanding something from them that they can’t provide is to try to invalidate that person’s (perceived) need. After all, if their need is wrong or if they are wrong for asking for it to be met, then we’re not wrong for refusing to meet it.

So, you’re in a forum and someone posts a question that’s already been answered a hundred times, or is obviously too basic a question for this forum, and you’re just exhausted of answering these questions, and you resent being (implicitly) demanded to do it, and how could they expect this constant free tutoring from you–so clearly they’re in the wrong for posting it, and that means it’s okay to lash out at them and make fun of them, because after all they hurt you first.

I think what would help avoid these toxic cycles is to remember that the fact that someone has a need doesn’t obligate you to meet it, and the fact that you can’t meet someone’s need doesn’t make it invalid.

So, if you’re exhausted by these questions and they make you feel resentful and used, ignore them. Hide them from your feed. Block the people who posted them. If you think that someone has a pattern of misusing a group by trying to extract an unfair amount of intellectual labor from its members, talk to the mods about maybe banning that person. Mods, pay attention to those patterns; just because someone means well doesn’t mean they aren’t turning your group into a toxic space.

And that goes just the same for the people who think it their personal mission to comment “well if you’d bothered to use the search feature–” on every other post. Mods, ask yourselves what kind of group environment this contributes to and what it accomplishes. Do you want a group where everyone’s ridiculing each other all the time, or a group where shit gets done, whatever that means for your particular space?

In short, I see all sorts of cons and no pros to allowing this sort of interaction to happen in online forums. (Besides maybe some nebulous commitment to Free Speech and Anything Goes, but I don’t see much value in that when it comes to closed online spaces.) My advice as a longtime group moderator and participant is to ban this toxic and useless behavior.


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Some Totally Unsolicited Advice About Forum Moderation

The Collective Gaslighting of the Trigger Warning Debate

I consider emotions to be a valuable source of information. When I noticed that I was getting much more emotional about the trigger warning debate than about most of the topics I write about–sensitive and personal as they often are–I knew something was up.

Both the content and the tone of the debate has been making me feel very angry, frustrated, and hopeless. The anger is a different sort of anger than the one I sometimes feel when engaging with discussions about sexual violence, homophobia, or other issues–issues that affect me much more strongly and urgently than trigger warnings. That anger is one of passion; this is one of defeat.

I don’t even really need trigger warnings very much. I am no longer a student (thank literally every possible god), and in the situations where I do find trigger warnings very helpful, they are typically provided, because the people in my life care about accommodating people with trauma and mental illness backgrounds.

So why the anger and hopelessness? Why the “taking it personally,” as some 3edgy5u conservative dude would probably love to accuse?

I realized that the debate on trigger warnings has largely turned into a sort of collective gaslighting.

I don’t use that word lightly. Gaslighting means denying someone’s thoughts, feelings, or perceptions so that they end up doubting their own reality. It’s not the same as arguing with someone’s opinions or with their interpretations of their perceptions. If a patient sees a doctor and says, “I have a headache and I think it must be brain cancer,” it’s not gaslighting for the doctor to say, “Well, I doubt it’s cancer. Let’s check it out.” It is gaslighting for the doctor to say, “Oh, come on, you’re probably just imagining it. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

So before you jump in with Just Because We Disagree With You About Trigger Warnings Doesn’t Mean We’re Abusing You Oh My God, I’ll draw a very fine distinction.

Yes, not all anti-trigger warning arguments are gaslighting. For instance, it’s not gaslighting to say, “I hear that you want this accommodation, but we can’t provide it because [reasons].” It’s not even gaslighting to say, “I hear that trigger warnings help you, but the research shows that they may do more harm than good in the long-term.” I still disagree with that, because the classroom is not the place for exposure therapy and exposure therapy cannot proceed without informed consent and trigger warnings. But at least that doesn’t deny anyone’s internal experiences.

What’s gaslighting is when we say, “We need trigger warnings in order to be able to engage with content rather than automatically shut down,” and you respond, “You’re just trying to avoid engaging with difficult content.”

If people are telling you that they are trying to engage with trauma-related material and you insist that they’re actually saying that they want to avoid it–or literally ban it from being taught–you are gaslighting them. You are insisting that you know better than they do what’s inside their own heads. You are pretending that they said something other than what they actually said, making them doubt their own thoughts and words.

That gaslighting has affected me. I’ve spent months, years, however long this bullshit debate has gone on, wondering if I’m just being unclear, if something in the words I’m using somehow communicates “I want to ban trauma-related material from college classrooms and I want students to never engage with it,” because that’s what people keep telling me I’m saying. Literally, I would write out all these in-depth articles like I always do and people would comment “So you just want to stop professors from teaching anything that ‘triggers’ you” or “But it’s important to engage with challenging material.” As if I ever even implied that it wasn’t.

There is nothing wrong with my communication except perhaps that I’m too charitable. The problem is that people insist that I literally spoke or wrote different words than the ones I actually spoke or wrote. They don’t even say, “I know you said this, but I think you really meant [blahblahblah].” They simply proceed with the argument as if I’d said, “Professors should not teach material that may trigger students” or “Students should feel free to avoid any reading assignment they find challenging without any consequences.”

I also wouldn’t care that much if it were only happening to me, because then I probably would just write it off as a quirk of my writing style. But I’ve been seeing it all over the internet. It happens in comment threads on Facebook and it happens in opinion pieces published in major outlets.

#NotAll anti-trigger warning opinions are framed in a gaslighting way, but many are. And no, it’s not enough to claim “Well some students at [university] do actually want to ban everything triggering from the curriculum,” not only because I have yet to see any evidence that that’s happening but also because they aren’t who you’re arguing with. If you’re presenting me with a claim I disagree with, then I need to argue with the claim you made, not with another, barely-related claim. (In fact, the idea of including trigger warnings in syllabi is literally incompatible with the idea of banning triggering material from the curriculum. It makes no sense to advocate for both of those things. If someone is advocating for trigger warnings, then by definition there is something still there to be warned about.)

I am willing to grant that in many of these arguments, the gaslighting is probably unintentional because their reading comprehension is simply that bad. Obviously if you can’t understand what someone is arguing, you are liable to argue against something other than what they argued. But 1) it doesn’t have to be intentional to be gaslighting, and 2) I simply can’t believe that all of these journalists and professors are that bad at reading.

I also don’t want to imply that every time you misunderstand someone’s argument and argue against something other than what they said, that’s gaslighting. It definitely isn’t. But when someone is including their personal experiences as part of their argument–a perfectly valid thing to do when the topic concerns mental health and education–then you need to respond to their argument without denying their own experience.

If I say: “I need trigger warnings so that I can engage with material related to sexual assault without shutting down and dissociating,” here are some responses that are gaslighting:

  • “You just want to avoid difficult material.”
  • “So you’re saying that professors shouldn’t ever teach anything related to sexual assault.”
  • “Come on, I’m sure you’re making it sound worse than it is.”
  • “Yeah, well, a college classroom can’t be your therapy session.”

Here are some responses that are not gaslighting:

  • “That’s valid, but we can’t require professors to include trigger warnings because that goes against our policy.”
  • “I hear you, but my concern is that other students will use that as a way to skip readings not because of any personal trauma, but because they just don’t want to confront that subject.”
  • “Sure, sexual assault is a common trigger and easy to warn about, but how could we possibly implement trigger warnings that account for all of our students’ various traumatic experiences?”
  • “But some students say they find trigger warnings harmful. How would you accommodate them?”
  • “Is there any other way the university community could support you without requiring that professors implement trigger warnings?”

I don’t agree with all of these hypothetical responses, but they at least do not rest on a willful misinterpretation of what I said. If I say I need trigger warnings to engage with something, then it’s not your place to disagree with that unless you are a mental health professional working with me and you have strong evidence that I’m misinterpreting what’s going on, and even then that is a conversation to be approached very, very carefully.

(In fact, as a therapist, I often have to gently nudge clients into letting go of interpretations that are not accurate or helpful. But as a therapist, I also have access to a lot more information than most other people do. I don’t have to claim that my client is lying; I can just make observations about their own statements and behavior. For instance, if a client who has a substance use problem and has relapsed says, “Actually, I can control my use,” I don’t need to disagree with their experience. All I have to say is, “I hear that you feel in control of your use. I’m wondering how that fits with what you told me about last week, when you drank enough to black out and say some things to your partner that you regretted.” And guess what? If I have no evidence that they can’t control their use, then I nod and ask them to tell me more about that and keep my baseless assumptions to myself.)

You might disagree that this type of discourse is harming anyone, even though it operates as gaslighting. Maybe it hasn’t harmed me all that much, all things considered. But I still wonder why we shouldn’t aim for debates in which people respond to what was said rather than continuing to read from their own personal script that they wrote before even engaging in the debate.

That’s why I don’t argue about trigger warnings anymore. (No, this isn’t me having an argument with you. This is a blog post and my comments are still closed.) I’m tired of being gaslit and I’m not going to allow it to continue.


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The Collective Gaslighting of the Trigger Warning Debate

What Do College Administrations and Crappy Poly Couples Have in Common? Not Taking Responsibility for Their Decisions

Now that we’re deep in the latest irritating round of internet hand-wringing over college students and their political correctness, I’m watching again this dynamic:

Students want something. They want a “controversial” (read: openly hateful towards women, people of color, etc) speaker disinvited from a campus event, or they want a designated safe space, they want a professor investigated for what they perceive to be a Title IX violation, or whatever. They advocate for this via newspaper editorials or marches or signs. The administration agrees and does the thing. Then the administration and the media blame the students for the action as if they had the power to make it happen themselves rather than simply argue in its favor.

And I’m thinking, where have I seen this before?

Oddly enough, I have seen this before in polyamorous relationships.

It happens like this: John and Jane are in a serious open relationship that involves a pretty high level of emotional support. Jane and Jill are also partners, but a little more casual. Jane has a date with Jill tonight, but John is having a pretty bad day and would like her to reschedule it and stay home with him instead. He’s not telling her to cancel, but makes it clear that he’d really prefer it if she did and that his mood will probably get even worse if she doesn’t. Jane wants to be supportive of John, but she doesn’t want to cancel on Jill at the last minute because that’s not fair to her and implies that John is more important to her. At the same time, she also doesn’t want to feel responsible for John’s even-worse mood or risk the possibility that this will erupt into a fight later.

So Jane does what many poly people do in this situation. She cancels with Jill, saying, “I’m sorry, but I can’t go tonight because John’s having a bad day and he wants me to stay home.”

It may seem like a totally reasonable thing to say, but notice how it conveniently displaces the responsibility for the decision entirely away from Jane and onto John. It’s not that she doesn’t want to go on the date; it’s that John doesn’t want her to.

In fact, it would’ve been more accurate to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to cancel tonight because John is having a bad day and I want to be there for him.” Jane didn’t cancel because John forced her to. It’s not that she “can’t go tonight”; it’s that she is choosing not to go because she wants to stay home with John. This can be spun in either a positive or a negative direction: on the one hand, she’s staying home because she cares about John’s feelings and doesn’t want him to feel even worse; on the other hand, she’s staying home because she wants to avoid having a difficult conversation with John about these types of situations and she doesn’t want to deal with her own feelings about potentially making John’s bad day even worse.

And while that latter alternative might seem monstrous to many people, it’s not as unreasonable as it seems and it is in fact how many people, for instance me, prefer their relationships to work. I have been the person feeling crappy and knowing that I would feel better if my partner canceled their plans and spent time with me, and yet I wanted them to keep their plans anyway. I wanted them to go despite my feelings. I wanted to have the opportunity to practice coping with the feelings alone. Sometimes they did keep their plans, and sometimes they decided that they’d rather cancel and care for me, but either way it was a mutually informed decision and nobody was pressuring anybody. You may not want your relationship to work that way and that’s fine, but that doesn’t make it a ridiculous way to do relationships.

Jane probably isn’t being intentionally obfuscating when she cancels with Jill using that wording, but on some level she wants to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to avoid the negative consequences of leaving John alone at home–such as feeling bad because John is sad and potentially having a fight about it later–but she also wants to avoid the negative consequences of choosing to cancel on Jill at the last minute, such as feeling bad about being flaky and potentially having a fight with Jill about how she being flaky. So she makes it seem like canceling the date wasn’t really her choice, that she had to do it because of John and his feelings.

(Later on, she will be surprised and angry that Jill and John aren’t getting along, and will probably blame it on “jealousy,” when in fact she’s been accidentally playing Jill and John against each other all this time by blaming one for her own decisions regarding the other. Given that framing repeated over a period of time, I wouldn’t blame Jill for thinking of John as “that guy who always makes my girlfriend cancel our dates,” or John for thinking of Jill as “that girl who would apparently totally flip out if my girlfriend canceled with her to help me through a really shitty time [whether or not she actually would totally flip out].”)

What Jane needs to do if she wants two healthy relationships is:

  1. talk to John about how the two of them will handle times when he needs support and she may not be available to support him, such as other friends/partners, activities, professional help, or being able to text her while she’s out or reconnect later that night or the following morning, and make sure to clarify what sorts of expectations each of them already has about these situations. Does John actually expect her to cancel her plans at the last minute, or did he just want to express his feelings, get some empathy, and see if maybe canceling the plans was at least an option? Does Jane feel like the emotional labor she is doing for John is balanced with the emotional labor he does for her? If John would like her to be willing to cancel other plans to support him, is he willing to do the same for her? (By the way, even if Jane doesn’t necessarily want that type of support from John, it’s still important that both feel that things are balanced.)
  2. talk to Jill about how the two of them will handle times when Jane feels an obligation to another partner that conflicts with her commitments with Jill. How does Jill feel about being canceled on? Maybe she honestly doesn’t care. (Even if she doesn’t, this is something Jane will need to regularly check in on, because feelings change and it will be hard for Jill to suddenly say, “Hey um actually, I’m no longer okay with being canceled on even though last month I told you I was.”) How can Jane reassure Jill that she cares about and values her in the aftermath of having to cancel to take care of John? If Jane and Jill are interested in growing their intimacy and commitment, how will this work if Jane always prioritizes John first? Can it work? Can Jane rethink how she thinks of commitment and priorities? By the way, are there times when Jill would really appreciate it if Jane would consider canceling plans with someone else in order to support her? Or is that a privilege only John gets?
  3. own her decisions and take responsibility for their consequences. That means that even when someone’s feelings influence her a certain way, she needs to acknowledge that the decision was hers to make. If your partners are making you feel like you have no choice but to accommodate their feelings, that’s a red flag for abuse.

Wow, that sounds like a lot of work! Well, it is, and I hope that John and Jill will contribute equally to that work by fully engaging in these conversations with Jane when she starts them, being upfront about their feelings and expectations, and being as willing to compromise as Jane is.

Ok cool story, but what does it have to do with college campuses?

College administrators are in a bind when it comes to student activism. They don’t want to come across like they’re ignoring it, especially when it’s very loud and angry. But they also don’t want to do the thing the students are asking for, because it will be unpopular among their colleagues and/or people who write for Atlantic and New York Times. So they do the thing the students are asking for, but then make it seem like the students somehow “forced” them to do it. (Y’all, seriously, if campus newspaper op-eds had that kind of power, I’d have kept writing mine for longer than a semester.)

Sometimes the administration doesn’t even have to make that implication, because national media does it for them. This is how we get articles written by people who have not been on the campuses in question or interviewed the students involved, claiming that student activists “caused” a speaker to be disinvited or “made” professors add trigger warnings to their syllabi. (In fact, the most unpopular speaker disinvitations and trigger warning demands to be featured in the media have overwhelmingly not actually happened, and yet the students are ridiculed for even asking for it*. So much for Free Speech. Oh, what’s that you say? “Free speech” only applies to governments regulating speech? That’s not the definition of the term you were using a minute ago. And if we’re talking about chilling effects, the large-scale ridicule of student activism certainly constitutes one.)

I understand that college administrators may perceive students as having an enormous amount of power. After all, they can say whatever they want (there’s that pesky free speech again) and theoretically ruin the university’s reputation. They can, I suppose, transfer themselves and their tuition money elsewhere. But practically speaking, they’re probably not going to transfer (if anything, students whose needs as survivors of violence or as marginalized people are ignored may quietly drop out of school altogether). I’ve never heard of a university catching serious media flak for inviting a controversial speaker or refusing to add trigger warnings to syllabi; if anything, they are regularly praised for this by publications as influential as, y’know, the New York Times. (The linked article includes some balanced voices, but I think it’s pretty obvious just from the headline which direction it leans in.)

My impression as a former college student who’s been watching these debates play out for years since is that universities often acquiesce to student demands because they are uncomfortable with the discussions that those demands create. I’m not saying that all student demands are valid, well-argued, or charitable–I think that a few invalid, poorly-argued, or uncharitable claims are to be expected from people who are in school to learn how to think and debate. But will you as an educator join these discussions and use them as learning opportunities, or will you shut them down, either by categorically refusing the students’ demands or by accepting them just to get them to shut up?

I suppose if a university administration wanted to try to resolve the issue rather than sweeping it under the rug, they could take a similar approach as I suggested for that poly couple. Administrators could meet with student activists to try to understand what they’re asking for and where they’re coming from. They could also meet with other stakeholders, such as professors or a speaker if there’s one involved, to get their point of view. If they reject students’ demands, they could do so without invalidating their feelings or opinions–for instance, instead of “DON’T EXPECT ANY CODDLING HERE” they could say, “We understand that [controversial speaker] may express opinions that are considered harmful and oppressive by certain students, and we acknowledge the hurt this causes. However, we’ve decided to invite the speaker because [reasons] and we encourage students to decide for themselves whether or not to attend. Students who are looking for support are welcome to go to [counseling services, Women’s Center, LGBTQ safe space, etc].”

Lest it seem like I’m unfairly dumping on college administrators here–I’m sure many of you are lovely and do a great job. Just like many poly couples are lovely and don’t pit their partners against each other. But some do, and that’s who I’m writing about. If the shoe fits, and so on.

Nothing that I’ve suggested here is at all easy, but just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not important. Just because something will not be attainable every time doesn’t make it any less of a best practice.

And by the way, just as Jane may be in an abusive situation where John really does make her feel like she has no choice but to acquiesce to his demands, there are situations–although they are rare–when students can act in a similar way. For instance, if students make threats of violence against a speaker, it is completely reasonable for the speaker to cancel, for the university to choose to cancel the speaker, and/or for law enforcement to get involved. Obviously, don’t make threats of violence; I don’t give a fuck how much you hate the person.

However, both administrators and speakers sometimes misperceive students’ power in significant ways, just as Jane may assume that John’s stating his feelings constitutes a passive-aggressive demand in and of itself. (Unfortunately, people who are accustomed to passive communication tend to see it everywhere they look.) For instance, sometimes administrators or speakers cancel events because they know there will be protesters, even though no threats of violence have been made and the protesters have stated an intention to peacefully hold signs, hand out pamphlets, or whatever. This is not the same as students “forcing” anyone to cancel anything. They are exercising their First Amendment rights. If you’re an ~~~edgy~~~ “””controversial””” speaker who can’t handle people holding signs at your speech, then maybe you shouldn’t be a speaker.

And while John and Jane might each have some sort of power over the other, when it comes to the administration-student relationship, the administration holds an overwhelming amount of the power. Students, even otherwise-privileged students, can’t practically do anything besides write op-eds or march with signs if a university administration is determined to do things they don’t like. All they can really do is be annoying. But being annoying isn’t the same as forcing someone to do something.

tl;dr Abuse and coercion are things that happen, but otherwise, strongly expressing a desire isn’t the same thing as forcing someone to fulfill that desire. That applies to relationships and campus activism and probably a lot of other things.


*Similarly, a Northwestern professor raised hell online because she was investigated and then cleared for an alleged Title IX violation. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? Someone accuses someone of something, an investigation happens, and, if the accused is deemed innocent, they’re cleared? Yet somehow this is still Political Correctness Run Amok or whatever.


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What Do College Administrations and Crappy Poly Couples Have in Common? Not Taking Responsibility for Their Decisions

Selfishness is a Valid Response to Entitlement and Boundary Crossing

At first it sounded like a typical argument where my siblings are concerned.

Little Brother: “[Little Sister], give me your phone.”

Little Sister: “Why?”

“So I can take a photo.”

“Use your own phone.”

“Mine is out of battery. Give me yours.”

“No. That’s your own problem.”

“Give me your phone!”

“Noooooo.”

“Come on. I just want to take some photos. What’s the big deal? Just give me your phone.”

“I SAID NO.”

“Where is it?”

“It’s in Mom’s bag.”

[Little Brother looks for Mom’s bag, but she had taken it with her when she left to use the restroom.]

“Why did you leave it in her bag?”

“None of your business. It’s my phone.”

“You should’ve taken it out of her bag before she left.”

“It’s MY PHONE.”

[Mom arrives.]

“Mom, give me [Little Sister]’s phone so I can take a photo.”

“NOOOOOOOO”

Mom jumps in: “What’s wrong with you? He just wants to take a photo. Why are you being so selfish?”

“I just…I don’t want him to use up all the battery…he shouldn’t have used up his whole phone charge on Pokemon Go…”

“But he’s only going to use it for a few minutes!”

On and on it went.

If that’s all you heard, you might assume that my sister really is a petty and selfish person. Is it that hard to lend your phone to a family member for a few minutes so they can take a photo of a beautiful sunset?

What you wouldn’t know is that my sister is in fact a remarkably selfless and caring person. When it’s me or our parents asking, she never hesitates to help us out, lend us some of her very limited money when we’ve forgotten to bring cash, provide words of support that sound remarkable coming from an 11-year-old, give fashion advice, join in our joys even when she personally doesn’t care about the thing we’re happy about, and ask if we’re okay when we seem like we’re not.

Leaving aside the fact that it’s still her phone and she still gets to decide who gets to use it and for what–a very important fact that I’m only leaving aside because I’m writing about something else–our brother has a pattern of entitled, demanding behavior towards her. He treats her time, belongings, and energy as if they’re his to take. Unfortunately, that happens a lot to selfless and caring people.

Because of that pattern, my sister has stopped being as giving with our brother as she used to be. Often she angrily refuses to do even tiny favors for him, like letting him borrow her phone for a few minutes to take some photos. Occasionally he makes his requests in a more appropriate way, but sometimes she still reacts with knee-jerk irritation and, raising her voice, tells him no.

Watching the argument unfold, I couldn’t help but remember myself in some of my past relationships. Only I wasn’t being asked to lend a phone or fetch something from the kitchen; I was being asked for emotional labor, for support, for validation, for “can you just remind me again that you really do like me,” for “can you please explain to me again why you’re not interested in [sex thing] because I mean it’s fine that you don’t want to do it but I just want to understand.”

At first, I gladly provided what was asked for, even though, if I were really honest with myself, I’d admit that I didn’t always like the way the requests were made. But over time, the quantity of emotional labor expected was just too high, and–more importantly–I felt that my partner felt entitled to it. Although they would never be so obvious about that entitlement as my younger brother was in his–they’re much too well-versed in feminism for that–in other ways, subtle ways, they made it clear that they considered that labor to be my obligation as a partner and that if I couldn’t or wouldn’t provide it, I was doing something wrong.

Once I realized that my partners thought that it was my job to do emotional labor for them, I started rapidly losing the desire to do it. I started saying no more often, although I was never as blunt about it as my sister is. I would say, “I’m sorry, I’m not in a good place to listen right now.” (True.) I would say, “We’ve already talked about how you feel like I don’t really like you and you’re not good enough for me, and I don’t think there’s anything else I can do to make you feel otherwise.” (I didn’t add that they were well on their way to turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy, though.) I would say, “I already explained that to you. If that explanation didn’t suffice, another one won’t help.”

Even now, even to myself, I sound selfish and cold. But so does my sister, out of context. Neither of us is selfish or cold. What we are is exhausted. What we are is tired of being unable to set any boundaries. What we are is totally done doing things for people who have never, ever asked us what we need.

And before you judge either of us as selfish based on a few snippets of conversation, ask yourself what could happen to make someone act and talk that way.

When someone’s reserves of compassion get drained like that, they start setting boundaries that are much stricter and tighter than what they would’ve been otherwise. No, you can’t borrow my phone for even a few minutes. No, I don’t want to listen to your feelings at all. No, I honestly don’t even have enough emotional energy to give you a compliment to make you feel better about yourself.

That slow draining away of compassion is so hard to notice and understand that many of us don’t even realize what’s happening or why. When pressed for explanations, especially couched in language that naturally makes us feel defensive–“Why are you so selfish?” “Why don’t you even care enough to ask me about my day?”–we stumble around in the dark until we think we’ve found something. “I don’t know, I just don’t want him to use up my phone battery.” “I’ve just been having a hard time lately.” “I guess I just don’t want the kind of relationship where we support each other all the time and talk about stuff like that.” (Oh, how false that last one turned out to be. I’m in a relationship like that now and it’s wonderful.)

Asking people questions that start with the word “why” is dangerous precisely for that reason–it puts them on the spot and forces them to come up with an explanation (not all of us are comfortable answering “I don’t know” to a question about our own internal processes, even though that would be the honest and accurate answer). The confabulation that often results is rarely intentional or conscious. Unless someone already has a clear and self-aware understanding of their actions–not likely in emotionally charged situations like this–“why” questions are more likely to hurt than help.

Maybe in that moment, my sister really did feel that she was worried about her phone’s battery draining. When our irritated mom demanded an explanation, her brain helpfully supplied one. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the real answer was that…she just didn’t want to. She really, strongly didn’t want to. Because others’ entitlement often shuts down our desire to help them, and when we’re constantly afraid that our boundaries will be ignored, one strategy that many of us feel compelled to use is to start loudly, bluntly stating and defending those boundaries, as if to remove any plausible deniability from the person who continually crosses them.

Believe me, I’ve seriously considered the possibility that I’m just selfish. I even bought into it for a long time, until I got into some relationships where I’m able to give gladly of myself and where I find that the more I give, the more I want to give. Yes, with certain partners I got to the point where I couldn’t bring myself to even the smallest act of emotional labor (at which point those relationships obviously collapsed). Yet with others I would drop what I’m doing to bring them food when they’re sick or listen for hours to their worries.

What’s the difference? No, it’s not How Much I Like Them; I was head over heels for all of them at some point, and besides, I often do lots of emotional labor for people who are practically strangers. The difference was entitlement. When people act entitled to emotional labor from me, I stop wanting to do it. When they treat my emotional labor as an act of love that I get to choose to give, I want to give it more and more.

These days I’m not optimistic about rescuing relationships that have broken down to such a point. If every request for emotional labor that your partner makes causes you to feel overwhelmed, irritated, or angry, then that relationship isn’t working out. If your partner is refusing every request for emotional labor no matter how respectfully and non-entitled-ly you make it, then that relationship isn’t working out. I don’t know whose “fault” it is and it probably doesn’t matter. But if you’re more optimistic than I am, I suggest getting counseling as a couple. Otherwise, things tend to devolve counterproductively into “Well, you’re just selfish and never want to do anything for me!” and “Yeah, well, you ask for too much and act entitled to it!”

These days I’m also trying not to label myself with negative character traits. Personality is fluid and entirely context-dependent. Some people bring out the worst of my selfishness; some people bring out the best of my selflessness. I’d rather be involved with the latter people.

All relationships are, in one way or another, built on emotional labor. When my roommate listens to me vent about my workday and I feel supported, that’s emotional labor. When my mom is worried about a sick relative and I worry with her and make her feel less alone, that’s emotional labor. When I pick out a present for a partner that’s exactly what they wanted and it makes them feel closer to me, that’s emotional labor.

But none of these things mean anything if they’re forced, if you feel like the other person will resent you for not doing them. If saying no isn’t a real option, then the yes is meaningless. (That applies to way more than just sex.)

My sister and I have in common a fierce and uncompromising selfishness towards people who cross our boundaries and demonstrate entitlement. I’m trying to stop beating myself up for that, and I hope she takes my example.


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Selfishness is a Valid Response to Entitlement and Boundary Crossing

For Poly Folks Who Desperately Need Autonomy

I recently discovered this amazing piece by Nora Samaran about relationships, gender, and autonomy that has really resonated with me and many of my friends. Go read it.

Here are some of the key points I took away from this article:

  • If you’re afraid of being relied on, you’ll probably treat your partner inconsistently and any “acts of care” that you will do for them will feel inauthentic.
  • If you treat your partner like their needs are unreasonable and unmeetable–like they’re “crazy”–they are much more likely to act “crazy” with you. That same person, with a partner who treats their needs as reasonable and meetable, might seem a lot more stable. (Sidenote: this is one of several reasons I absolutely refuse to listen to any “crazy ex-girlfriend” stories from guys.)
  • Sometimes, in order for your partner to feel comfortable with distance, you have to establish real closeness first.
  • A common way that people (especially men) deal with their own fear of attachment, closeness, and interdependence is to blame their partners for having “unreasonable” needs or wanting “too much.”  This is gaslighting.

I encourage you to read (and reread) the entire article. It seems to be making a huge (positive) impact on many people I know.

That said, I have some deep disagreements with the author–not necessarily about any of these main points, but about the basic philosophical place that she comes from. We do relationships very, very differently.

For instance, one of the main ideas in the article is that autonomy is not something you “take,” but something you “build.” The author seems to believe that the default for healthy relationships is interdependence and intertwinement (to an extent that I would personally consider codependent), and she states that the reason she is able to trust her partner is because he has repeatedly met her needs no matter how inconvenient or difficult that was for him. Only then has he “built” autonomy; only then does she “give” him that autonomy; and only then does he “get” to do something like go away for weeks for a job without her being upset about it.

I see things the other way around. The default is independence and autonomy. The default is that we are each a ship at sea, setting our own courses, and we get to choose when and how and for long long to dock in someone else’s harbor. True, we don’t “take” autonomy, but that’s because we already have it.

For me, it’s interdependence that gets “built.” It requires immense trust for me to become more interdependent with someone else. If you want that from me, you first have to create a safe space for it.

And for me, I don’t “give” autonomy to anyone. They already have autonomy, and they have it no matter what I say or do or what our relationship is. They get to choose to reduce certain aspects of their autonomy if they want to, but ultimately it–just like their time, their body, and their emotional reserves–belongs to them.

The difference in our philosophies was made very clear to me in this paragraph about her breakup with the partner she had written about:

What we are no longer giving each other is sex, romantic feeling, and partnership – we are no longer committing to live together or have children together or make our lives in the same geographical location. His new girlfriend and eventual life partner will have priority decision-making power over how close he and I can be. We cried and grieved those parts.

I had such a viscerally negative reaction to this I almost had to stop reading, despite how much I had loved the article up until then. No. No no no. I would never accept someone having this kind of power over me, whether they are my partner or my ex’s partner. I would never accept a friendship or relationship with someone who agrees to let someone else control our closeness.

Moreover, I would never, ever want to exercise such a power over someone else. When I imagine one of my partners having as close and meaningful a friendship with an ex as this author has with hers, and I imagine telling that partner to destroy that closeness, I honestly feel that it would be monstrous of me. I can’t even imagine wanting to do that. Such connections are so rare, so precious, so difficult to build–who the fuck are we to tell others to destroy them for the sake of our own comfort?

But I get that given the way most people do relationships, that’s perfectly reasonable. It’s a common monogamous dictum that you get to control (though most people wouldn’t use that word) your partner’s relationships with their exes.

More to the point–Samaran’s conception of emotional safety is that it develops when (and only when) partners are able to meet each others’ needs every time they’re asked to. But what if they can’t? What if they cannot be available on demand like that? What if they have other partners–hell, what if they have friends, family members, jobs, passions, responsibilities–that matter just as much? What if the author’s partner, during his camp when he was mostly unavailable, wasn’t able to take even that half an hour to be with her? What if he had his own mental health issues that impacted his availability? What if romantic relationships are not your primary focus, but one of many domains of your life that you balance? What if you do not agree that your romantic partner (just one) will be your first (and, really, only) priority?

Do people like me just have to give up on feeling emotionally safe, and on building emotional safety for our partners?

I don’t think so.

I think Samaran creates a false choice between fully meeting your partner’s needs every time and saying (in her words), “My needs matter and I will meet them regardless of the impact on you.” She is correct that we must treat our partners’ needs as “normal, healthy, [and] eminently meetable”; I don’t think she’s correct, at least not for people like me and my friends and partners, that we must be able to commit to this:

“So, if I actually need you, you’re always there, right?” I ask.

“Of course,” he says. “Look, I really need to be able to focus on being here. But if you really need me, of course you can just come by the desk and ask where I am and I’ll come help with whatever you need.”

(I do appreciate how honest her partner is here about how it will impact him if she does need to access him during the camp. But what if he were unable or unwilling to be available during that time? Would that make him an emotionally unsafe partner? I think she might say it would. I say it wouldn’t.)

(Also, I may be misrepresenting the article unfairly; at times the author seems to imply that she doesn’t need her needs to be completely met in order for trust to develop, but at other times she implies that she does, and that she needs her partner to always put her first. In any case, though, the article is clearly based on a style of Primary Relationships that I don’t do myself.)

[Edit: I’m having a great chat with Nora on Twitter and she clarified that she does not mean that you have to fully meet your partner’s needs every time; we both agree that that’s too high a bar. But Wired for Love, the book she cites, does claim that. Seems that we both disagree with that aspect of it!]

So. I’m not trying to criticize how Samaran personally does things because that’s her own business, but this piece left me (and a bunch of people I know) totally unsure of how to incorporate these insights into a poly framework, and specifically a poly framework in which individual autonomy, not any particular relationship, is what’s “primary.”

Here are some thoughts I had:

1. Just because you can’t meet a need doesn’t mean it’s an unreasonable need.

One of the ways we cope with our own feelings of helplessness in the face of loved ones’ unmeetable needs is to try to delegitimize those needs. If you have real needs that I can’t or won’t meet, that makes me a bad partner(/friend/family member). I don’t want to feel that way, so maybe your needs aren’t legitimate after all, so there’s nothing wrong with me not meeting them.

Of course, this mental process usually isn’t so conscious. I think most people who do it don’t realize they’re doing it.

As Samaran writes in another piece, gaslighting doesn’t have to be intentional to be deeply harmful. If your defense mechanism against feeling powerless to help someone is to make that person feel like they shouldn’t have even asked or needed that in the first place, you’re gaslighting them and that’s abusive. You need to own your own limitations and take responsibility for them rather than blaming the other person.

Which brings me to…

2. You must own your boundaries and limitations.

There’s a huge difference between saying, “[I’m sorry], I’m not in a good place to listen to you right now” and saying, “I can’t listen to you because you’re too emotional.” Both might feel true to you–your own current state of mind may limit the amount of strong emotion you can hold space for from others. But the root cause here isn’t your partner’s emotions; it’s your limitations.

Yes, it’s true that if your partner were less emotional in that moment, you might be able to listen to them. But when you set a boundary and implicitly blame the other person this way, you’re telling them that their feelings and needs are wrong. The message your partner hears is, “My partner won’t support me because I’m too emotional,” rather than what they should hear, which is, “My partner can’t support me right now because they need to take care of themselves.”

3. Not meeting needs doesn’t mean disregarding needs.

There’s a dangerous false dichotomy that a lot of relationship advice reinforces, and Samaran’s article does this as well. That’s the dichotomy between “meeting your partner’s needs” and “not giving a fuck about your partner’s needs.”

I’ve noted before that every time I talk about my autonomy-based form of polyamory, the first question I get is “So what you don’t even care if your partner is sitting at home alone crying while you’re on a date?” Of course I care. And if that’s really how it would be, I probably wouldn’t go on the date. But it wouldn’t be my duty to not go on a date, and it can’t happen every time I have a date, and I would not choose to continue a relationship with someone who regularly gets that upset about me going on dates because it doesn’t sound like we’re compatible.

If you’re unable or unwilling to meet a partner’s need at a particular point in time, that doesn’t mean that you’re saying, as Samaran writes, “My needs matter and I will meet them regardless of the impact on you.” It might mean saying, “My needs matter but yours do too–what solutions can we come up with?” It might mean saying, “I hear that this is hurting you, but this is something I need to do. Is there any way I can help you through it?” It might mean saying, “Let’s do what you need this time, but later let’s talk about what we can do to make sure that next time I can do what I need.”

4. You might be able to find comfort in your partner’s care and concern for you, even if they can’t meet your need.

Say I have a very intense job that doesn’t really allow for many (or any) breaks to chat on the phone with someone. Say I have a partner who really needs to be able to call me during the work day if they’re having a hard time. Say that, due to the limitations of my job, that’s an unmeetable need at this point.

How would my partner feel if I said, “Sorry, can’t do that. I already told you that I’m very busy at work. We can talk about it when I get home”?

How would my partner feel if I said, “I’m sorry, I really wish I could be there for you during the day, but my job just doesn’t allow for that. I’ll be there for you after work if you want to talk then”?

If they’re anything like most people, they’d probably feel pretty different in those two scenarios, even though I’m still declining to meet their stated need and offering the same alternative. What I’m doing is the same, but how I’m doing it is totally different.

If you’re someone who, like Samaran’s examples of men who aren’t ready to be relied on, treats every request for your care as overwhelmingly too much, you are liable to respond in that snappy, detached way from my first example. And that’s going to really hurt your partner, and they may come to the conclusion that they feel hurt because you aren’t meeting their needs, not because of the way you aren’t meeting their needs. This will lead to arguments about how you aren’t meeting their needs enough, and you will respond that you can’t and why can’t they understand that, and it’ll be a mess. (I may or may not have been on both sides of this at various times.)

Whereas if you respond to unmeetable needs not only by treating them as valid (as I discussed above) but also with real compassion and concern, that may go a long way in healing your partner’s pain at having their needs unmet.

5. Compromise is key.

If you can’t meet your partner’s need, what’s the next best thing?

In my work phone call situation, it might be that they can text me while I’m at work and I’ll respond as I’m able. It might be that they can call and leave me a long voicemail that I’ll listen to as soon as I’m done–that way, they can at least talk their feelings out and know that I’ll hear it even if I’m not responding right away. It might be that we set aside time that evening to cuddle and talk. It might be that they find a friend or another partner who can talk during the work day, even though they’d rather have talked to me. It might be that they work on finding a therapist who can help them develop other coping skills that they can use independently. It might be that once a week, I set aside my brief lunch break to talk to them on the phone during the work day.

It doesn’t have to be a choice between “fully meet your partner’s needs” and “ignore your partner to suffer alone.”

6. Patterns tell the truth that individual cases don’t.

Everyone has bad days, bad weeks, bad years. There will be times when your partner comes to you for support and you snap “Leave me alone, I can’t deal with this right now.” As Samaran writes in her article, these things happen and they can be repaired–as long as they don’t become patterns.

When I talk about the importance of taking care of yourself and your needs before others–putting your oxygen mask on first, as I sometimes refer to it–someone often says, “Well, my partner is always putting themselves first and they never seem to have any time or energy left over for my needs.”

That’s a pattern. If your partner consistently can’t or won’t meet your needs, maybe you’re not compatible. (Or, in a polyamorous/non-elevator framework, you might be compatible in a different way than you’re trying to be–for instance, as good friends who have sex, or as occasional lovers.)

And because it’s painful to acknowledge that you might just be the wrong partner for someone, it’s tempting to say that they’re “selfish” or “detached” or “not ready for relationships,” when in fact they might make a great partner for someone who isn’t you and has a different set of needs and expectations.

7. We’re not bad people for not being able to meet each others’ needs.

In the first point, I wrote about how people try to delegitimize others’ needs as a way to protect themselves from feeling bad for not needing those needs. Rather than resorting to gaslighting, we should remind ourselves that our goodness is not tied to what or how much we give others. My own philosophy is that goodness is about respecting and valuing others (and, more broadly, valuing your community, humankind, and our planet). I am good as long as I treat people with respect and remain mindful of my impact on them and on the broader systems and ecosystems in which I exist. None of this requires me to do what others need or want all (or even most) of the time. You are free to develop your own philosophy (especially if you, like me, are an atheist who is not provided with any preformed religious answers to these types of questions).

If you detach your sense of your own goodness from meeting others’ needs all of the time, you might find that you have an easier time meeting those needs, because you’ll have less anxiety about it. When we hang a whole bunch of baggage onto an otherwise-simple task, it becomes much impossibly difficult. What have you attached to the acts of care you do for others? Do you feel like doing (or not doing) those acts makes or breaks you as a Good Person?

That might seem like it’s going in the opposite direction of Samaran’s article that inspired this post–and maybe it is–but I think that one of the great paradoxes of life is that sometimes you have to let go of something in order to get it. If you’re struggling with feeling like you can’t meet anyone’s needs, try to let go of feeling like you have to meet those needs and it might become actually doable.

Moreover, we have to stop telling ourselves that we either have to be there for our partners all of the time or we’re not supporting them at all. Open yourself up to other ways of supporting and of being supported, and try to let go of the myth–perpetuated by a culture that glorifies and centers romantic relationships–that partners are the only ones who have any meaningful support to give.


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For Poly Folks Who Desperately Need Autonomy