You Don’t Need Your Partner’s Agreement to Break Up With Them

I hear some version of this very often, usually from women:

“I want to break up with my partner, but they don’t want to so I guess we’re staying together for now.”

“I want a divorce, but my husband wants to keep working on the marriage, so I’ll try it.”

“I tried to end my relationship, but it didn’t really ‘take.’”

Sometimes people want to break up and then they change their minds. But often, they don’t really change their minds–they just believe that breaking up, like getting together, is something that has to happen by mutual agreement.

It doesn’t. You can end a relationship (platonic, romantic, and/or sexual) at any time, with or without your partner’s agreement, with or without explanation, with or without “working on it” first, with or without meeting with them face to face, with or without apology.

“But ending a relationship without any of those things is a dick move!” Maybe? But the majority of the time I see it happen that way, it’s happening that way for a reason. The dumper may feel unsafe around the dumpee, they may know or suspect that the dumpee will try to pressure them into staying if they sit down for a conversation about it, they may have already told the dumpee many times that they will need to leave if things don’t change, and now they’re done.

It’s definitely easier if both partners agree that it’s time to end the relationship and what their interactions should look like going forward, and it’s great when that happens. But you can’t force it. If there’s a disagreement, the partner who wants less intimacy gets their way–not because the other partner’s desires aren’t valid, but because doing it any other way is a boundary violation. If you want us to hug and I don’t want to, then we don’t hug. If I want us to go on a date and you don’t want to, then we don’t go on a date. Otherwise, I would be forced into a hug I don’t want and you’d be forced into a date you don’t want, and that’s not okay. It’s not okay for anyone to be forced into a relationship, either.

Here someone often brings up “compromise.” You want physical intimacy with me and I don’t. What you really want is sex, but since you know it’s clearly wrong to pressure someone into sex, can’t we “at least” cuddle? If I wanted to, sure. But as I said, I don’t want physical intimacy with you at all. Cuddling isn’t a “compromise.” It’s a violation of my boundaries.

Likewise with ending relationships. Sometimes both exes want to stay friends after the breakup, and that’s great. But sometimes, only one of them does, and it becomes easy for the other to pressure them into a friendship as a “compromise”–especially if the person who wants the friendship is the person who just got dumped. “Can we at least be friends, then, if you won’t date me anymore?” “Fine, I guess.”

Charitably, I could say that the reason this happens is because people are modeling their breakups on their other Big Relationship Decisions, most of which involved mutual agreement or at least compromise. In healthy relationships, people take all the big steps–becoming “official,” moving in together, getting engaged, whatever–because they both really want to. Maybe to them that means that a breakup should only happen when they both really want to, too.

Healthy relationships also involve some amount of compromise, because needs don’t always perfectly align. If I really want to go out with my friends but my partner is sick and can’t cook dinner for themselves, I might stay and make dinner for them–not because I want to stay home and cook rather than going out with my friends, but because I care about my partner and want to help them.

If you’re really used to making these kinds of decisions–and most people in serious relationships are–then deciding to break up can feel similar. You’re pretty sure you want it to be over, but your partner reeeeeally wants you to stay, so you figure, “Well, I could stay for a bit longer, or I could stay as a more casual partner,” but then “a bit longer” turns into “indefinitely” and “more casual” turns into “exactly the same as it was before, except with more resentment because I thought things were going to be more casual and you’re still expecting them to be the same.”

Less charitably, though, there are some bigger issues going on. First of all, many people still think of relationships in terms like “obligation” and “duty,” which makes them very difficult to end or change. If you feel that you “owe” your partner a romantic relationship because they’re so nice to you or because they want it so much, how are you supposed to end it?

Second, women in particular (and, by extension, people perceived as women) are usually socialized to prioritize their partners over themselves. For many people, that means that even if you really want to break up, a partner’s strong desire to stay together overrides your desire to leave.

Finally, many people are manipulative and controlling in their relationships. I’m not just talking about abuse, although the line between these behaviors and abuse can be very difficult to draw. A manipulative and controlling partner can easily make it seem like breaking up with them is a grievous and unacceptable offense, not a necessary step that you need to take for your own self-care and wellbeing.

So when I hear things like, “I want to leave but they want to keep working on it, so I’m staying,” that raises a red flag. Why do their preferences override yours?

I’m often hearing about how so many people “these days” just quit relationships at the first sign of trouble rather than trying to “work on it.” From where I’m sitting, I don’t see a lot of that. I see people deciding that they’re no longer invested or safe in certain relationships, so they end those relationships.

If you still love and care about someone and want to be with them, but you’re having issues in your relationship, it might be worthwhile for you to try to “work on it.” (But even then, you don’t owe them that.) If you no longer want to be with that person, there is no “working on it” to be done. You can’t “work on” the fact that you don’t love someone and don’t want to see them anymore. You can’t force yourself to want something you don’t want. And even if you could, you don’t owe them that.

“But what about the people who suddenly up and quit a perfectly good relationship without even talking about it?” What about them? Jerks gonna jerk. I’m less worried about occasional jerks than I am about an entire society full of people, especially women and people perceived as women, who feel obligated to stay in relationships they don’t want. Besides, any relationship that someone wants to end is not a “perfectly good relationship.” If it’s a relationship you don’t want to be in, it’s not good, even if the reason you don’t want to be in it is 100% about you and your own issues.

I should mention: getting dumped sucks. (Usually.) You deserve support if you’re going through that. But the person who just announced that they no longer want to be in a relationship with you doesn’t owe you that support, and they especially don’t owe you any further intimacy just because it hurts you to lose that intimacy. It sucks and I’m sorry, but you’ll need to find support somewhere else and in some other form.

And if you’re the one sitting around waiting and hoping that one day your partner will finally agree with you that it’s time to break up, know this: you don’t need their agreement.

It takes two to tango, but only one to leave the dance floor.


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You Don’t Need Your Partner’s Agreement to Break Up With Them

5 Ways to Navigate Consent with a Partner Who Has Trouble Setting Boundaries

New Everyday Feminism piece!

More than I regret any of my nos, I regret quite a few of my yeses.

To this day, I don’t understand why I’ve said “yes” to some of the things I’ve said “yes” to. Even after I discovered feminism and sex positivity, I kept agreeing to intimacy – physical and emotional – that I didn’t want, or quickly realized I didn’t want. The longer I went without admitting that I didn’t want it after all, the harder it became to speak up.

It didn’t help that when I did speak up, my partners were often confused – and even angry. “Why didn’t you just tell me before?” is something I heard often.

If that sounds a little like you – I hear you. You have a long journey ahead of you, but you’re not alone in making it. These resources can help.

And if that sounds a little like your partner, this article is for you.

Navigating a relationship with someone who has a hard time saying “no” challenges your ability to respect both your partner’s boundaries and their autonomy.

You want to trust their words and take them at face value, but you know from experience that that’s not always possible. You can do your best to create a safe space for your partner to let you know when they’re not okay with things, but they may not be ready to meet you in that space yet.

If your partner is a woman or is perceived as one, they are especially likely to have difficulty with this. Our society teaches women that their boundaries are invalid in many ways.

However, people of any gender may have a hard time setting boundaries because it’s not easy even in the best of circumstances. People with a history of trauma or abuse may have grown up with the belief that their boundaries won’t be respected no matter how hard they work at setting them, so why bother?

As much as you might want to, you cannot undo the things that made your partner who they are. You can work with them to build a relationship that honors that history while also helping them to heal.

Here are five ways you can try.

1. Remember That Only Yes Means Yes

When you’re involved with someone who has a hard time saying “no” directly, it’s important to be aware that responses like “okay,” “that’s fine,” or “I guess” probably do not mean “yes” – especially not when combined with non-responsive body language, lack of eye contact, and a monotone.

Unless your partner has made it clear to you that they intend for these types of response to communicate consent, it’s safest to treat them as “no”s.

Many people have pushed back against the enthusiastic consent model. Asexual folks and sex workers especially have argued that consent need not be enthusiastic to “count.” Nonverbal consent can be established between close partners, too (and can also be quite enthusiastic itself).

While it’s important to listen to these narratives, we shouldn’t use them as an excuse to ignore potential signs that someone is not really consenting. If you’re not sure what it means when your partner responds to you in a particular way, ask.

Read the rest here.

5 Ways to Navigate Consent with a Partner Who Has Trouble Setting Boundaries

You Are Responsible For Yourself, We Are Responsible For Each Other

One of the principles I try to live by is that we are all responsible for our own emotions. What this means to me is that, while assholes obviously exist and while we should be able to ask our friends, partners, and family for help when it comes to managing our emotions, ultimately it’s not anyone else’s job to keep us from having negative feelings.

My experiences with depression have shaped that view and without them I probably wouldn’t feel so strongly about it. Depression taught me that just because I feel hurt doesn’t mean someone is hurting me. When I broke down sobbing because a partner wanted to end our conversation so that they could go hang out with their friends, they weren’t hurting me. When I felt like shit about myself because a friend got a job and I didn’t have a job, my friend wasn’t hurting me. As a teenager, I would’ve tried to get that partner or that friend to comfort me, or even blamed them for “making” me feel bad. As an adult I’ve learned that while it’s not fair that my brain is the way it is, it’s still ultimately my responsibility.

If depression taught me that I have to take responsibility for my own emotions, polyamory gave me a chance to practice. Polyamory–at least, when practiced with self-awareness–upends the idea that just because you feel jealous, then your partner is “making” you feel jealous*. In traditional monogamous relationships, even just hanging out with a friend of the same gender as your partner can be considered unfair and wrong because it can cause your partner to feel jealous**. In polyamorous relationships, people are intimate with multiple partners and those partners are expected to take responsibility for any jealous feelings they happen to have–even if they ask for support in managing them.

It’s important to distinguish between asking for support and making someone else responsible. Asking for support might sound like, “I want you to go on that date you’re so excited about, but I’m feeling insecure and it would help me a lot if we spent time together afterwards.” Making someone else responsible might sound like, “I don’t want you going on that date. You’re never this excited about anything we do together” or “You’re making me feel like shit. Don’t you care about me?”

Unfortunately, some people think that being responsible for your own feelings means that you don’t get to ask anyone for help with them–or that you shouldn’t be mindful of the people you care about and how they feel. That’s usually the pushback I get when I talk about my rules-free approach to polyamory: “So, what, you’d just go on that date even though your partner’s sitting at home and crying because they feel so bad about it?” Well, no. First of all, I try to avoid dating people who have that much difficulty with me dating other people, because that sounds like an issue of incompatibility. But sometimes things like that happen randomly, and in that case, yes, I would probably stay home. Not because we have a “rule” that my partner can “veto” my dates, but because I love my partner and care about them and I have chosen–even though it’s not my obligation–to stay home and help them feel better.

(And as a sidenote, when communicating that to the person I’m canceling the date with, I would take responsibility for my own actions. Some poly people pull out lines like “Sorry, I can’t go out with you tonight because [other partner] doesn’t want me to,” so that they can conveniently make their other partner out to be the villain even as they supposedly change their plans to care for them. I would say, “Sorry, we need to reschedule because I need to support someone who’s having a hard time. Seeing you is important to me too–what other day would work?” I would not, unless I know it’s okay with my other partner, go into detail about why they need support. That leads too easily into crap like “Oh, you know [other partner], they just get soooo jealous, so I’m always having to stay home and comfort them…” Ick.)

I’ve heard from other poly people that there are, in fact, a lot of poly folks out there who do claim that “you are responsible for your own emotions” means “so I will never do anything to help you through them.” Personally, I haven’t interacted with any–probably because I tend to obsessively avoid asking anyone for support in the first place–but I believe that they exist.

I guess if I had to pick one approach for myself, I’d choose extreme independence rather than controlling people to cope with my emotions. But thankfully, I don’t have to. To me, the corollary to “We are all responsible for our own emotions” is “We should be mindful of our impact on others.”

At first, that might seem like a contradiction. Which is it? Am I supposed to deal with my own hurt feelings, or are you supposed to avoid giving me hurt feelings in the first place?

I think it has to be a little bit of both. I think that in a world where people are careless or intentionally cruel with each other, dealing with your own hurt feelings is going to be a massive burden. I think that in a world where people refuse to place the ultimate responsibility for their feelings upon themselves, trying to take care of others is going to be a massive burden too. The only way this works is if we meet in the middle.

That’s true on a micro level, too. If you’re in a relationship with someone who doesn’t seem to care about how you feel or about avoiding making you feel bad, then no amount of taking responsibility for your own feelings is going to make you feel okay about being in the relationship. You’re going to feel hurt all the time, and you’ll get resentful, and you’ll start to wonder if you’re “crazy” for feeling this way, and your partner may or may not be gaslighting you with crap like “I didn’t ‘make’ you feel anything; you’re responsible for your own feelings.”

Likewise, if you’re in a relationship with someone who thinks it’s your job to keep them from feeling bad, then no amount of caring for them is ever going to solve the problem, because while you can do your due diligence in making sure you don’t hurt them, you cannot keep another human being from feeling bad ever. (Even if you could, that would be way too much work.) You’re always going to feel like nothing you do is ever enough (because for them, it isn’t), like you’re a terrible partner and a terrible human being in general, like you’re no good at relationships.

In a healthy relationship, partners trust each other to care about each other’s feelings and act accordingly, but they don’t feel like they’ll be helpless if their partner happens to be unavailable to support them at any given point in time. (Yes, I recognize that some people think that it’s perfectly healthy to actually depend on one partner and no one else for support, to the point that you actually believe you will not be okay without that support. I just disagree.) If you actually believe that you cannot manage your own emotions without your partner, it will be very difficult for you not to manipulate them.

And in a healthy relationship, partners know that they will support each other when they can, but they do not feel entitled to that support. In that mindset, a partner who chooses not to support you at a given point in time is not (necessarily) doing something wrong or withholding something that is deserved. In that mindset, you support your partner because you care about them and you want to, not because that’s your duty as a partner.

If you’re having disagreements in a relationship (romantic or otherwise) about how someone’s actions are making someone else feel, you may be disagreeing about something more fundamental: your beliefs about what share of the responsibility of managing one’s feelings belongs to the person having the feelings versus the person who triggered*** the feelings.

At that point, it may be more useful to discuss that underlying disagreement first, and see if you can agree on what responsibility you have to each other to manage each other’s emotions.


* There <em>is</em> such a thing as deliberately acting in a way that elicits jealousy from others. But that's not the subject here, except insofar as it obviously falls under things you should not do if you're taking the "being mindful of your impact on others" part seriously. ** #NotAllMonogamy. Obviously monogamy is not incompatible with taking responsibility for yourself, but <em>traditional</em> monogamy tends to discourage this. *** My use of the word "triggered" rather than "caused" is intentional here--I use those to mean slightly different things. If you say something mean (intentionally or otherwise) to someone, you cause them to feel bad. If you choose to spend the night with your friends rather than with them and they feel upset at you because they're lonely, you didn't cause them to feel bad. What caused them to feel bad was their loneliness; your actions were just the trigger.

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You Are Responsible For Yourself, We Are Responsible For Each Other

How to Get the Most Out of Therapy

Drawing of a therapy session in progress.
Credit: Guy Shennan

When you spend a lot of money on things, they usually come with an instruction manual to help you use them in the most effective possible way. Unfortunately, therapy doesn’t.

A common misconception about therapy held by many laypeople (and, unfortunately, some therapists) is that all you have to do as a client is show up and then…some vague hand-wavey magic stuff happens, and then the client gets better. Many people think of therapy like this:

  1. Go to therapy
  2. ???
  3. PROFIT

Really, though, it’s more like this:

  1. Go to therapy
  2. Establish some rapport with the therapist before you can delve into the serious stuff
  3. Sometimes be really uncomfortable
  4. Have a lot of meta-conversations with your therapist–that is, talk to the therapist about the process of talking to the therapist
  5. Do homework (in some types of therapy)
  6. Get called on your shit by the therapist
  7. Be uncomfortable again
  8. Make changes in your life outside of therapy
  9. PROFIT

As a therapist, it’s tempting to say that you should just show up and let the therapist do their job and you’ll feel better. Sometimes that’s exactly how it works. But ultimately, you can only get as much out of therapy as you put into it.

Continue reading “How to Get the Most Out of Therapy”

How to Get the Most Out of Therapy

When Including Friends with Chronic Illness Feels Like Ignoring Boundaries

Text reads, "Plans? Yeah, I know...I cancel, I postpone, I reschedule, I delay committing. Illness sometimes controls my schedule, but I am determined it won't control me! Please keep inviting me."
I’ve been seeing a bunch of memes lately to the effect of, “keep inviting your chronically ill friends to things, even if they always say no/flake out/don’t respond at all/etc.”

(Chronic illness here refers both to mental illness and to chronic physical conditions like fibromyalgia and fatigue.)

That’s a bit of advice that I’ve endorsed and given myself, especially having so often been that exact chronically ill person. I do think that those who are close to someone with a chronic illness and want to be supportive should, if they can, make that extra effort and try to get past their own feelings of rejection to try to include that person, because even if they always say no, the invitations may be a heartening reminder that they’re still wanted and missed. That’s easy to forget when you’re in the throes of a chronic illness flareup, especially if it’s depression.

Lately, though, this advice has been giving me cognitive dissonance and I think I’ve figured out why.

Continue reading “When Including Friends with Chronic Illness Feels Like Ignoring Boundaries”

When Including Friends with Chronic Illness Feels Like Ignoring Boundaries

Nonverbal Consent, Nuance, and Objectivity

[CN: sexual assault]

An academic I follow on Twitter recently quoted this tweet with a (presumably sarcastic) comment about how if it’s true that “consent is never implied,” then they and their partner have been raping each other for years.

(I have no desire to individually call out this particular person or get into an argument about them and their specific views, so I’m not naming them. It’s irrelevant. Many people believe this.)

I was disturbed by this even though it’s not a new opinion to me, nor a new type of response, that flippant “well I guess I’m a rapist then, lol!” as if it’s something to joke about. That still makes me sad every time.

I’ve noticed a tendency to conflate a lot of concepts in this discussion. “Active” isn’t the same thing as “verbal,” and “passive” isn’t the same thing as “nonverbal.” “Implied” isn’t the same thing as “nonverbal,” either. Consent cannot be “implied,” but it can be indicated nonverbally. I would know, because that’s how it works in most of my established relationships.

Continue reading “Nonverbal Consent, Nuance, and Objectivity”

Nonverbal Consent, Nuance, and Objectivity

Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing

Lately I’ve been disturbed by the tendency among many progressive folks to conflate boundary setting with tone policing.

When I tell people that I have a very strong preference not to be yelled at or called names, they say, “But isn’t that kind of tone policing?”

If it is, then I’ll have to admit to tone policing, because being able to set boundaries in my own space is important enough to me to risk pissing people off. In fact, as anyone who sets boundaries with any regularity knows, it’s a surefire way to piss people off no matter what kind of boundaries they are.

This is a complex topic so I will do my best to be nuanced about it. I’m going to state upfront (and I will return to this later) that tone policing is a real and harmful phenomenon, and that sometimes (not always) setting boundaries can include tone policing. That is true, and it is also true that the concept is sometimes misapplied in ways that are intended to justify cruel or even abusive behavior.

What is tone policing?

Tone policing is when more-powerful people dismiss the real concerns and call-outs of less-powerful people because of the tone they use. For instance, if I see a person of color posting “FUCK these racist-ass cops” and I respond, “You may have a point there but aren’t you being a little too angry about this?”, then I’m tone policing. Either the person has a point or they don’t; the tone is irrelevant to that. More-privileged people tend to assume that if someone is being really angry about an injustice that affects them, then their assessment of the situation is not to be trusted because it’s too clouded with emotion. In fact, the opposite is probably true; they’re probably so angry because it’s so damn awful. Not only is it perfectly healthy and appropriate for them to express anger at situations that are truly infuriating, but that anger can be an important signal to those who don’t experience that particular injustice, because it lets them know: pay attention. There’s something going on here.

Tone policing can also happen in a more interpersonal context. If a man I know refers to another woman as a slut and I say, “Whoa, what the fuck, don’t ever call a woman that!”, it would be tone policing for him to totally dismiss my concern and respond by criticizing my tone. Tone policers often also add a patronizing little bit about how “if you’d said it differently I would’ve listened to you,” proving that they are, in fact, perfectly capable of listening, they’re just choosing not to in this moment.

Anger vs meanness, intent vs impact

Sometimes the concept of tone policing is over-applied. For starters, people sometimes conflate anger and meanness. It’s possible to express anger without being mean. For instance, you can say, “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit,” or you can say, “What you just said is really messed up and really pisses me off.” Part of the problem of tone policing is that people will often misinterpret the latter statement as mean and overly angry, too, but they would be wrong. The latter statement is honest and direct and not intended to hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s intended to express anger.

If someone hears “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit” and responds with, “Whoa, it’s not ok to speak to me that way,” they’re often told that they’re tone policing and trying to prevent someone else from expressing anger. That’s not the case. The fact that someone has a boundary around being referred to as a “worthless piece of shit” doesn’t mean they’re unwilling to hear that someone is angry with them, or that they think the other person’s feelings are invalid.

And yes, sometimes the person who’s angry is so hurt that all they’re able to say is “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit.” It happens, and I think we should all, if we can, try to practice compassion for people who say mean things from a place of deep (often structural) hurt.

However, that doesn’t actually negate someone else’s boundaries. As we’re all fond of saying, intent isn’t impact. I don’t have to accept being called a worthless piece of shit just because someone else is legitimately upset.

Continue reading “Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing”

Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing

How To Make Talking About Sex With Your Partner Easier

I have an article up at Everyday Feminism about why it’s hard for a lot of people to talk about sex openly with their partners, and ways they can make it easier.

I have a confession to make.

Despite writing about sex on the Internet, facilitating workshops about consent and sexuality for dozens or hundreds of people, and being openly queer, feminist, and polyamorous, I sometimes choke up when it comes to talking about sex with one of my actual partners.

I want to tell them what I want, or to set a boundary around something I don’t want, but all of a sudden, words completely fail me.

I feel like a hypocrite – but I think there’s more to it than that.

Even in spaces that emphasize celebrating rather than stigmatizing sex, such as feminism and LGBTQIA+ communities, people often have trouble putting their ideals into practice and opening up when talking about sex with partners.

Being part of a sex-positive community can create a lot of pressure: If we’re really sex-positive, shouldn’t we be ready to spill all our deepest fantasies to whomever we want to sleep with?

Not necessarily.

If you have a hard time talking about sex with partners, you’re not alone.

There are a lot of reasons why people might have difficulty with it, and many of them apply across cultures and subcultures. After describing a few ways in which our experiences and the society we live in can make talking about sex challenging, I’ll suggest some strategies for making it a little easier.

5 Reasons Why Talking About Sex Is Hard

1. Internalized Sexual Stigma

Even if you really want to believe that there’s nothing shameful or inherently dangerous about sex, it’s not always easy to internalize that when you’ve grown up in a society that stigmatizes sexuality, especially that of anyone who isn’t a straight, white, cis, able-bodied man.

This can make talking about sex embarrassing or anxiety-provoking, and it doesn’t mean you’re a “prude.”

2. Not Knowing the Words to Use

Sometimes talking about sex is hard because most of the words we know sound either cold and clinical (like vagina and erection) or vulgar and pornographic (like cunt or pussy).

Of course, there’s nothing about these words that makes them inherently wrong or weird to use, and many people do enjoy using them. But if we’re used to seeing them in the context of a high school health textbook or a terribly inappropriate OKCupid message, it might be hard to use them in a more positive way.

3. Cultural Scripts About Sex

In romantic films, the couple usually has an amazingly passionate and satisfying first hook up without ever talking to each other about what they like in bed.

Although we understand that movies aren’t real life, many of us nevertheless end up believing on some level that there’s no need to talk about sex explicitly, and that if the couple “really” clicks, they’ll automatically connect sexually without any prior discussion.

That’s just one example of sexual scripts and how they influence our behavior.

4. Bad Previous Experiences

Some of us are initially enthusiastic about discussing sex openly with partners, but after some bad reactions from others, we lose that openness.

I’ve had partners shut down in response to my attempts to tell them what I like or ask them what they like, or respond with “Uh, that’s weird.”

If this has ever happened to you, I can see why you might not feel too confident about talking about sex anymore.

When it comes to setting sexual boundaries, you may fear that the person will get angry or push you away because that may well have happened in the past.

5. Past Trauma

If you have a history of sexual trauma, sex may not be a topic that you can discuss casually, even with someone you’re close to. Conversations about sex may be triggering or just deeply scary and unpleasant.

This is not your fault, and you can heal with time. These articles may help you.

But whatever the reason discussing sex is tough for you (whether it’s one of these or one of many more), the good news is that there are ways to make it easier.

Here are a few you can try.

Read the rest here.

How To Make Talking About Sex With Your Partner Easier

"You're in my prayers."

[Content note: mentions of grief, loss, illness]

I follow The Best of Tumblr on Facebook for the cat photos and pop culture jokes, but recently I saw this:

[Text version here.]

I’ll admit that I used to subscribe to this way of thinking, even as an atheist. But a few things changed my mind: 1) understanding more about what it means to comfort someone, 2) learning about the dynamics of Christian privilege, and 3) listening to the experiences of those who found religion abusive.

First of all, the point of comforting someone who’s going through some shit is to help them. To help them, not yourself. While that doesn’t make intent totally irrelevant–I’ll get to that in a bit–it does mean that you need to at least try to help them in the way that they would want to be helped, not in the way that you would want to be helped. The Golden Rule is a nice thing to teach children but eventually we need more nuanced and empathic ways of looking at things.

That’s why, as I discussed in my previous post, “How can I support you?” and variants thereof is a great approach. But many Christians don’t even pause to consider that the person they’re speaking to might not be religious, and that–as I’ll also get to in a bit–is an example of Christian privilege. Much of the time, they’re not going out of their way to alienate and irritate atheists; they just conveniently forget that atheists even exist. The idea that someone might not pray, or care about your prayer, is simply invisible.

Where does intent fit in? Well, it can make a difference, but not a huge one. As I’ve written previously:

Not intending to hurt someone is different from intending not to hurt them. If someone accidentally breaks my nice vase, I might be glad in the back of my mind that they didn’t do it on purpose, but I might still be annoyed that they weren’t being careful around my nice vase, especially if they are often clumsy and break people’s things by accident. The analogy holds up for saying/doing bigoted things, too. People who say/do them rarely do so just once.

I’m not going to respect you just for not meaning to say hurtful things. That’s one of those bare-minimum-of-being-a-decent-human-being things. Actively seeking information on how not to be hurtful, on the other hand, is a rarer and more important habit to have.

The intent of phrases like “You’re in my prayers” can be especially difficult to parse. For many atheists, intentionally manipulative deployment of such phrases by Christians is a really common microaggression. They say it to us not because they don’t realize we don’t believe, but because they know we don’t. It’s a power move: “I know this means nothing to you [or even hurts you], but I’m going to say it anyway.”

That doesn’t mean that all (or even most) Christians say it for that reason, obviously. It does mean that almost all atheists have had it said to them for that reason, though. It shouldn’t be surprising that many atheists really don’t want to hear it anymore.

At this point, someone usually puts forth that, yes, sometimes referencing religion in these situations can be self-serving or even passive-aggressive and manipulative, and sure, it’s not ideal, but can’t we just assume good intent and force out a smile and a “thank you”?

Well, assuming good intent and being polite are definitely things I generally encourage because they make social interaction smoother and less stressful, but it’s a heavy burden to place on someone who just lost a loved one or got diagnosed with a terminal illness. I’m glad we seem to have all this empathy for socially awkward Christians who just want to comfort you the best way they know how, but how about some empathy for the person going through the fucking trauma? Maybe they’re not at their best when they’re burying their mother or lying in a hospital bed. Maybe that’s okay.

Further, being able to assume good intent is a privilege. It’s a function of your position in society and the experiences you’ve had as a result. That doesn’t mean it’s bad! It’s great! But not everyone can do it and it’s unreasonable and small-minded to demand that they do.

(This applies along all axes of oppression. When you see a police officer approaching, do you worry that you might die? If not, you’re probably not Black.)

Why might an atheist be unable to assume good intent from a Christian? Religious folks and more-fortunate atheists often erase or disregard the fact that many atheists have had coercive and abusive experiences with religion. Some consider their time in religious spaces to have been traumatizing.

And when you’ve experienced a trauma, little reminders of it can be overwhelming.

Before you rush in with #NotAllReligiousSpaces, remember that it doesn’t matter. Not all religious spaces, but theirs was. It would be good to see more religious folks and more atheists acknowledge this reality. Many are still dismissive or openly contemptuous of the idea that religion can be traumatizing.

Viewed through this angle, a certain amount of snappiness or impoliteness from an atheist being told that “At least your mother is smiling down on you from heaven” makes much more sense. But there’s another way in which Christian privilege plays out in this situation, and that’s in our (yes, atheists’ too) perceptions of tone and “politeness.”

Look at that post again. “Some egotistical shit about being an atheist” often, in my experience, refers to comments like “Actually, I’m an atheist.” Not “fuck you I’m an atheist,” not “take your religion and shove it up your ass,” but “Actually, I’m an atheist.” This is what’s so often perceived as “some egotistical shit” and people who say it are apparently viewed by some as “emotionally inept morons.” (Sorry, the ableist wording was not my choice.)

And while it’s apparently “egotistical” to reference one’s atheism in response to an explicitly religious comment, it’s somehow not “egotistical” to reference one’s religion in response to someone else’s trauma. It’s somehow not “egotistical” to offer unsolicited help that’s not what the person needs, without bothering to ask what they need, and then getting offended when that help is rejected as irrelevant.

This sort of double standard pervades all oppressive dynamics, and religion/atheism is no exception.

When a person with a marked/stigmatized identity does something someone doesn’t like, that identity often gets dragged in to explain it. That’s why an atheist getting snappy about a religious comment following a tragic loss is obviously snappy because they’re an atheist, not because they just lost a loved one and don’t have a lot of emotional energy left to micromanage their responses and perform politeness.

And, look, getting snapped at is an occupational hazard of interacting with someone who’s going through a ton of pain, whether it’s physical, mental, or some combination. If you want to support someone in pain, you need to set a bit of yourself aside and be prepared for some rudeness. That doesn’t mean you have to put up with it indefinitely, and it certainly doesn’t justify anything abusive, but you also don’t get to demand that they be impeccably polite and patient with you while they’re in pain, especially if you’re (unintentionally or otherwise) making that pain worse.

Just as people often try to help others in order to satisfy their own needs, people often reference religion to those going through bad things for the sake of their own coping. Watching someone go through a terrible illness or a painful loss is difficult, and praying or thinking about God’s Ultimate Plan can be comforting for those who believe in such things. So naturally they’d verbalize what they’re thinking. It’s not necessarily the grand selfless act this Tumblr post makes it out to be. Neither is it necessarily a cruel and manipulative act (though it can be); it’s very human to assume that others’ minds work the way ours do.

That it’s human doesn’t make it empirically accurate. It also doesn’t make it kind, let alone the kindest sentiment someone could possibly express. It doesn’t obligate someone who’s suffering a trauma or tragedy to put on a good face to spare that person’s feelings.

The kindest thing you could do for someone in pain is to set aside your own opinions on how they ought to be helped and help them the way they want to be helped.

~~~

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"You're in my prayers."

"How can I support you?"

When people share mental health struggles online, well-meaning friends and followers often rush in to give them unsolicited advice. That’s something many of us find irritating and push back on. One of the responses we get often goes something like this: “But I give advice because I need to say something. How am I supposed to know exactly what they need?”

These days my response is usually the same: “Have you tried asking them?”

It’s both surprising and unsurprising how often the response is: “Oh. I didn’t think of that.”

It’s surprising because, rationally, that seems like the obvious thing to do when someone is struggling and you have no idea how to help them. It doesn’t make sense to waste your time and energy and risk upsetting or pissing them off by guessing what they might want and offering that. When you need information to make a good decision, and the information is readily available by asking someone who is as close as it gets to being an authority on the subject, it makes sense to just ask them.

At the same time, it’s also utterly unsurprising that people so rarely do this.

For one thing, we have all these cultural scripts about how this stuff is supposed to go, and one of them is that if you’re really a good friend/partner/family member to the person who’s struggling, you will “just know” what they need and be able to offer it without needing to be told. On the flip side, you might believe that if someone is really a good friend/partner/family member to you, they shouldn’t have to ask you what you need; they should just know. If they do ask, and you tell them, and they do that thing, then that might be nice and all, but it’s not as special as it would’ve been if they’d just known.

You’re probably familiar with these dynamics from discussions of sexual communication and the importance of asking/telling partners what they’re/you’re into, but this applies to so many other interpersonal situations.

That second part is talked about a little less often than the first, because the first seems on the surface to do more immediate harm. But they’re two sides of a coin. We need to get rid of that sort of thinking in order to be able to intentionally create strong, communicative relationships of all kinds.

In fact, I suspect that a small part* of the reason many people are vague about what they need when they let close ones know about their struggles is because they hope that those close ones will be able to help them without being explicitly told how. When you’re neck-deep in some sort of life shit, that sort of effortlessness can be so incredibly affirming. It satisfies a need many people have to feel taken care of.

(*Note I specifically said “small part”; there are many other, probably more significant reasons people do this, such as not knowing what they want, not having the emotional energy to communicate extensively/clearly, fearing criticism or pushback for stating what they really want, etc)

Besides cultural scripts about Just Knowing what someone wants, another reason people might not ask “How can I help?” is that they worry about annoying the person or putting an additional burden on them (that is, making them explain what it is they need). While that’s definitely a risk, especially with someone who expects you to Just Know, it’s significantly less annoying than shoving useless (or even harmful) advice or assistance at someone.

In her article about unsolicited advice online, Katie Klabusich lays all this out in a great way:

“How can I support you?” is a question that works in almost every situation imaginable. It preempts judgement and assumptions while oozing humility. Often the person won’t have an immediate answer—likely because they aren’t used to being asked a question that’s about what they actually need as a unique human being. If they look stunned, I suggest something like: “It’s OK if you don’t have an answer or don’t need anything right now; the offer’s open for whenever. Just let me know.” And then use an emoji of some sort or make a face that conveys warmth so they know you mean it. (This could be a unicorn, the two señoritas dancing, or the smiling poo. Up to you.)

*Here’s the fine print: you have to believe their answer, whatever it is. If they tell you they don’t need anything, you don’t get to push or pressure or demand they give you something to do so you feel less helpless. Remember, this isn’t about you.

Following up a few weeks or months later (whatever equals “a while from now” with the two of you) is totally fine. Asking clarifying questions about what they need if they need something is also totally fine. Being unsure and having to ask along the way if the thing they asked for that you’re trying to provide is helping or being provided in a helpful way is also totally fine.

Telling the person you don’t know if the thing they need is something you can do is also totally fine; no one expects you to be everything they need, and we’d all rather you not promise than drop the ball. These are all honest, humble, supportive responses and, frankly, just being asked “How can I support you?” will make the person feel less alone and more cared for.

 

As Katie notes, the fact that many people won’t have an answer right away doesn’t mean that the question was wrong. It could mean that they’re surprised at actually being asked, and it could also mean that they’re not used to thinking of some of their needs as needs. For instance, we might ask someone for advice or for practical assistance, but it feels a little weirder for most people to ask someone to just listen or to tell them something affirming. Being asked “How can I support you?” can help shift them into that way of thinking about it: “Hm, what would feel supportive for me right now?”

Feeling supported is not always the same as Making The Right Decision or Growing As A Person or whatever, which is another reason people are sometimes hesitant to ask others what they need to feel supported. “But what if they’re making the wrong decision!” they might protest. “I need to tell them they’re Doing It Wrong!”

Yes, there are some cases in which it’s probably a good idea to speak up and rain on someone’s parade because you’re seriously concerned about their safety or wellbeing. But most cases are not that and most people are not the kinds of people you have that relationship with (i.e. children, little siblings, partners with whom you have that sort of understanding, etc). I have watched friends and partners make decisions that I personally thought were bad decisions, but because they were clear with me that they wanted support/affirmation and not constructive criticism, I kept my concerns to myself. For the most part, those people turned out okay, because they are adults and they have the right to make their own decisions.

I’ve written before that self-awareness is really important when you’re trying to help people, because you need to make sure you’re not just doing it to try to relieve your own feelings of helplessness. Even if you are doing it to relieve your own feelings of helplessness, you can still go ahead and try to help, as long as you acknowledge those feelings and understand that they are your responsibility and not that of the person you’re trying to help. Only then can you focus on helping them in the way they need rather than in the way you need.

Asking what they need is a big part of that. Don’t try to show off how amazing you are at magically intuiting what they need. You’re likely to mess up and cause more trouble than you solve. Just ask.

“How can I support you?” is not a magic question. It will not necessarily get you the answers you need or them the help they need. Maybe that phrasing sounds weird and stilted to you; try not to get too caught up in that and find other ways to ask the same essential thing. The point isn’t the exact words, but rather the idea that you should figure out how best to help someone before trying to help them. They might not always know, but they certainly know better than you do, even if it takes them some time to be able to access that knowledge. They are the expert on what they need, or as close to an expert as anyone is going to get.

Be prepared, too, for the answer, “Nothing.” Sometimes people share their struggles not to get help or support but to be heard and witnessed. Sometimes they don’t know why they’re sharing at all. Sometimes they will tell you that the best way you can support them is to hear what they have to say; sometimes they will tell you, “Nothing.” Thank them for their honesty and move along. “Nothing” is a difficult thing to hear, but it is also a difficult thing to say.

~~~

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"How can I support you?"