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?
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Deconstructing Jealousy

Note: This is written from my perspective as someone who practices polyamory from a non-hierarchical perspective, so my personal examples are grounded in that experience. You can mentally edit them to apply them to just about any type of relationship, monogamous or poly, romantic or platonic.

I don’t think that “jealousy” is a useful concept. It’s used as an umbrella term for a variety of negative interpersonally-triggered feelings that are actually quite different from each other. Unfortunately, people don’t always realize this and may communicate about “jealousy” without noticing that they’re talking about different things.

Even worse, some of these things are very stigmatized (some deservedly and some less so), which means that labeling anything “jealousy” gives the whole conversation a negative tone. I could imagine telling a partner that I feel upset or angry, but I would never say, “I feel jealous.” Unless my partner is very aware of the concepts I’m about to discuss in this post, telling them this would shut down the conversation and keep it from going anywhere productive. Where it goes from there depends entirely on whether or not my partner says, “Okay, but what does that mean?”

This semantic ambiguity keeps us in a state of confusion about what “jealousy” actually means for us, what is causing it, and how it can be resolved. Every time we feel negatively about someone else having an experience we aren’t sharing, this gets labeled “jealousy”–sometimes when we don’t even want that experience for ourselves!

I’ve identified six different feelings that are often called “jealousy.” There are probably more than that, but I think that most of the time when it feels much more complicated, that’s because you’re feeling more than one of these at once and that can get confusing. I’ve also given the feelings names to make them easier to write about, but I totally admit that most of the names are pretty clunky and imprecise and honestly I don’t know what to do about that other than try to invent new words, which I’m horrible at. If someone wants to take on that project, have at it.

  1. Possessiveness: “I want you all to myself.” / “I should have this, not you.”

Thanks to the way our culture teaches all of us to think about romantic relationships, I spent my adolescence convinced that if someone really loves me, they won’t need anyone else. Sometimes I got irrationally jealous if my boyfriends had close female friends, because I thought I ought to be “enough.” The idea of polyamory would’ve been appalling to me at the time because, honestly, I just didn’t want to share. I didn’t think that anyone else should “get” what I’m “getting.”

This is probably the most toxic form that jealousy takes. Unlike the other five feelings that I’ll discuss, this one places the blame on the other person for “making” you feel jealous by taking more than they “ought” to take, or by having something that you “ought” to have instead.

This is also what many people think of when they think of the word “jealousy,” which causes them to attach a strong negative stigma to a feeling that may or may not originate from possessiveness.

Possible cause: Feeling entitled to all of someone’s romantic/sexual attention, believing yourself more “worthy” of certain things than others, generally having unrealistic ideas about how relationships ought to work

Possible solution: You’ll probably want a therapist for this one, because you’ll need to work on some really deeply-seeded beliefs about people and relationships. In order to stop feeling possessive, you have to really internalize the idea that you are not entitled to anything from anyone, and that just because you’re not the only/central person in someone’s life doesn’t mean the relationship is worthless or they don’t care about you. You deserve good things, but so do other people.

  1. Envy: “I want to have this too.”

I always envy my male partners their relationships with women. While I’m sure it feels anything but easy for them, they aren’t carrying the weight of institutional and internalized homophobia and biphobia and a lifetime of invisibility, of feeling like what you want isn’t even real, valid, or possible. Men have scripts for meeting women and forming relationships with them; women don’t, not really. That’s starting to change, but it didn’t start to change fast enough for me.

So, I will probably never have uncomplicated feelings when the men I’m dating date women. It’s not because I don’t think they should get to do that if I can’t, or even because I’m interested in those specific women. It’s because I wish I could’ve grown up feeling like asking out and being in a relationship with a woman is a normal, totally achievable thing that’s completely valid for me to want. I wish I could’ve grown up with older girls giving me advice on how to ask girls out to prom. I wish that when I met a woman I liked, there was a statistically significant chance that she’s even attracted to people of my gender.

While I’m sometimes envious of female or nonbinary partners dating other women, it’s not quite the same because I know that they’ve had to overcome exactly what I do, or even more. I’m envious but it’s more an envy of awe than of sadness and regret. I envy men in a different way because it’s just so much easier for them, and often they don’t even know it.

Possible cause: Having unmet needs or unfulfilled desires in your own life, especially if you feel like there’s no way for you to meet/fulfill them.

Possible solution: Rather than focusing on the people who have what you want and don’t have, figure out if there are ways to make those things more likely to happen for you too. Reach out to others for advice and support. Learn new skills. Although getting what we want often feels impossible, especially for those of us who struggle with depression, it often isn’t. When it is, a therapist can help you find ways to cope with that grief–and grief is often what it feels like.

  1. Insecurity: “I feel bad about myself, and this reminds me of that.”

Reading or hearing about people’s very serious, very committed relationships frequently triggers my insecurity in a way that others would probably label “jealousy.” But that doesn’t make much sense to me–I don’t really want a relationship like that, at least not at this stage in my life. The problem, though, is that I ultimately believe that I am Bad At Relationships and that I’ll never be able to commit to someone in such a serious and meaningful way, and that I just don’t have the capacity to love someone that way. I also kinda hate myself for how badly I need space and independence, and how much I therefore avoid any enmeshment in my relationships. Seeing evidence that others can do it just reminds me of all my relational failures and makes me feel really, really shitty and down on myself.

Is it jealousy if I don’t even want it, but maybe want to want it, but I’m not even sure if I’d even enjoy it? I dunno. I do know that it’s not as simple as looking at what someone else has and wishing I had it too (or instead). I just want to be “normal.” It has very little to do with those people’s actual relationships and everything to do with my own insecurities that have been around since long before that couple started posting sappy stuff on Facebook.

Possible cause: Having some unresolved negative feelings towards yourself that get kicked up when good things happen to someone else.

Possible solution: Work through those feelings on your own, with a therapist, or with a friend who agrees to be a source of support. Learn how to better align your perception of yourself with reality–there’s a good chance you’re not nearly as bad at Thing as you think. (Yes, this applies to me too.) Do things that make you feel good about yourself, which may or may not have anything to do with the thing you feel bad about. (For instance, I feel good about myself when I write, take long bike rides, cook, and hang out with friends.)

  1. Lacking: “I’m realizing I want/need more time/attention/etc from a particular person.”

Recently I found myself feeling “jealous” of a friend who’d been talking to me about their partner a lot. Specifically, I was “jealous” about the fact that their partner often plans and initiates interesting new activities for them to do together. I quickly realized that the “jealousy” wasn’t because I wanted to be with my friend’s partner, or with my friend, or because I begrudged them those fun things they did together, or because I felt bad about myself, or even because I was missing any particular thing from my life that my friend has. I do fun things too.

But it made me realize that I would really love it if my own partners made more effort to plan interesting new things to do together rather than letting me make the plans, or falling into whatever our default for that particular relationship is. I feel really cared about when someone thinks of a cool thing for us to do and suggests it and, if I agree, makes it happen. And although it does happen for me sometimes, it doesn’t really happen as much as I would like, and it took listening to my friend to realize that.

(Have I communicated that to anyone? Noooo. But at least I know now.)

While for me the feeling was triggered by a friend, the way this often happens is that your partner starts seeing someone new and does more/different things with that new partner, and you realize that you actually haven’t been getting quite what you wanted from this relationship. It may look from the outside like you’re “just jealous” about their new relationship, but it’s not that simple. You’re realizing what your own needs are, and what you’re currently lacking.

What I’ve called lacking is pretty similar to what I’ve called envy, but the difference is that lacking is attached to a specific person/relationship. For instance, I might feel envious because I wish I had a good job like my friend does, but I might feel that my relationship is lacking because I’m not seeing my partner as often as I’d like.

Possible cause: Having some unmet needs in your relationship(s).

Possible solution: Identify what it is that you need and let that person know. If they’re unable to meet that need, decide if you need to end the relationship, work on changing your expectations, or (if appropriate) try to find ways to meet that need in some other way.

  1. Hurt: “I’m not okay with the way this happened.”

Some of my most painful and confusing experiences with “jealousy” were when a partner did something that hurt me, and it happened to involve another partner. For instance, I once had a partner for whom I was their only partner at the time. I mentioned that I had been in a poly discussion group where we talked about such relationships–one of us is seeing multiple people, but the other is seeing only one–and they surprised me with: “Well, actually…I do have another partner.” Record-scratch. That’s how I found out that they’d had another partner for…weeks? Months? And never told me because…reasons? It wasn’t “cheating,” since we didn’t have “rules,” but I was shocked and hurt that given the overall seriousness and commitment of our relationship, they wouldn’t think that that’s an important thing to at least mention.

Honestly, I never felt okay about that other partner after that and I never wanted to hear anything about them. The relationship started to unravel soon after that. It’s not that I didn’t want them to date anyone else–I’d actually spent the whole relationship hoping that they would, so that it’d feel more equal and they’d be able to reach out to someone besides me with those types of relationshippy needs. But I just wasn’t okay with the way it happened. I felt hurt, ignored, overlooked. I kept thinking, “If I’m not someone they’d even talk to about something so awesome that’s happening to them, what sort of relationship even is this?” No longer a very close or healthy one, as it turned out.

This is a huge pitfall for many couples and friends because it’s so easy for the non-”jealous” person to dismiss it as jealousy and have a convenient excuse to ignore the hurt they caused. And it’s not just romantic poly contexts in which it happens! For instance, if a friend cheated on an exam and got a better grade than I got after studying really hard and taking the exam honestly, I’d be pretty upset–not because I’m “jealous” of their higher grade, but because I’m not okay with the way this happened. If a friend started dating someone new and blowing me off to hang out with them instead, I’d be pretty upset–not because I’m “jealous” of their new relationship, but because I’m not okay with the way it’s happening.

Possible cause: Feeling disrespected, ignored, insulted, or otherwise hurt by someone’s actions.

Possible solution: Let the person know how you feel, and/or end the relationship if you feel hurt enough that you no longer want to continue it. Let the person know if there’s anything they can do to repair the hurt.

  1. Disconnection: “I want to reconnect after feeling separated.”

For many poly couples, disconnection and reconnection are part of a normal and healthy cycle. A partner goes on a date with someone new, or flings themselves headfirst into an exciting new relationship, and we feel an ache of (hopefully-temporary) separation. It doesn’t exactly feel good–it may actually feel really sad sometimes–but ideally, it feels okay. This type of “jealousy” is how I might feel waiting for a partner to let me know how a first date went, or accepting that we’re going to see less of each other for a while because they’re getting really invested in someone new and spending lots of time with them.

After feeling that way, it’s normal to want to reconnect with a partner in some way that’s meaningful for both of you. Some people like to see a partner after they get home from a date with someone else (assuming it doesn’t last the whole night, obviously). Sometimes I just need a hug or some reassurance that I still matter. You could write this off as clinginess or insecurity if you want, but I don’t think it is. It’s normal to want to connect with people you love after having been separated or disconnected in some way, even if that separation or disconnection was totally voluntary for both of you.

Possible cause: Feeling separated from your partner because they’ve been doing something else that doesn’t involve you.

Possible solution: Figure out what would be a meaningful way for you to reconnect with them, and ask them to do that. If you want, you could even instate it as a ritual for the two of you.


Obviously this is all very much a work-in-progress, and not all of the feelings I described or the language I used to describe them might resonate with your own experience. In that case, I encourage you to deconstruct “jealousy” for yourself and figure out what it actually means for you so that you can communicate more effectively.

I could probably expand all of those little “solution” bits into full articles, so use those as jumping-off points, not as Complete Certified Therapist Advice.

Also, do not do a Google Image search for “jealousy.” It will be upsetting.


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Deconstructing Jealousy

You’re Not Entitled to Friendship: Further Complicating the “Nice Guy” Concept

Read first: “Having Feelings About Rejection Doesn’t Make You a ‘Nice Guy.’

Alex and Sam are friends. At some point, Alex realizes they have a crush on Sam. Alex lets Sam know how they feel, but Sam says they don’t feel the same way and they’re only interested in a platonic relationship. As a result, Alex decides to end the friendship.

What do you think of Alex and their decision?

In many progressive spaces, there’d be a lot of derision towards Alex, especially if Alex is a guy and Sam is a girl. Terms like “Nice Guy” and “Friend Zone” would come up, the latter in the sarcastic sense. (“Oh, poor Nice Guy, probably off whining on Reddit about getting friendzoned!”) Alex would be accused of being manipulative and entitled.

Sam themselves might be upset, which is reasonable when you lose a friend. They might claim that Alex only wanted them for sex and now that that’s off the table, there’s no need for them to keep Sam around. They might claim that Alex is obviously trying to get back at them for saying no to a date or hookup.

But just as Alex isn’t actually entitled to sex or romance from Sam, Sam isn’t entitled to friendship from Alex.

I didn’t include any information about Alex’s internal process in that vignette, but many folks might imagine that if I did, it would go something like this:

Alex and Sam are friends. At some point, Alex realizes they have a crush on Sam. Alex lets Sam know how they feel, but Sam says they don’t feel the same way and they’re only interested in a platonic relationship. Alex feels angry and humiliated. “I can’t believe Sam won’t even give me a chance after how good of a friend I’ve been,” Alex thinks. Alex decides to totally cut Sam off, hoping that maybe once Sam sees how it feels to be rejected, they might change their mind. And if not, at least they’ll be even.

Given these details, I’d definitely agree that Alex is acting in an entitled and manipulative way. Yes, Sam isn’t entitled to Alex’s friendship, but Alex’s reasons for ending the friendship are not about setting their own boundaries or constructing their own relationships as they see fit. It’s about punishing Sam, manipulating their emotions, and controlling their experience.

It’s creepy, boundary-crossing, abusive behavior.

On the other hand, you could also fill out the story this way:

Alex and Sam are friends. At some point, Alex realizes they have a crush on Sam. Alex lets Sam know how they feel, but Sam says they don’t feel the same way and they’re only interested in a platonic relationship. Alex feels crushed, but respects Sam’s decision. Alex hopes to stay friends, but realizes that they’re heartbroken. Every time Sam posts on Facebook about going on a date or talks excitedly about their crush, Alex feels depressed, sometimes even resentful. It’s interfering with Alex’s life and with their ability to move on and get over the crush. Alex realizes that they’re not in a good place to be a real friend to Sam at this time, and that in order to heal from this heartbreak, they’re going to need distance. Alex decides to end the friendship.

Comparatively few people would insist that Alex is doing anything wrong here. Alex is taking responsibility for their own emotions by setting their own boundaries, and while this may hurt Sam, it’s ultimately what’s best for both of them. Nobody should have to stay in a friendship that’s making them feel depressed. Nobody should have to stay friends with someone who can’t help but resent them.

The problem is that from the outside–for instance, from that first vignette, which I wrote in a way that only gives an outside perspective–you can’t tell the difference. When all we see is someone’s outward behavior, it’s all too easy to use tropes like the Nice Guy to automatically fill in those missing details. Often we don’t even realize we’re doing it, and we end up shaming someone for having boundaries.

Okay, one might argue. Obviously if you’re feeling heartbroken and depressed, that’s a good reason to end a friendship. But if it’s not that bad, you should stay in it.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you can probably guess what I’m going to say about that: there’s no such thing as a “wrong” boundary. But I’ll tack on this clarification: “setting a boundary” means altering your social or physical environment in order to protect yourself or alter your own emotions. If you’re doing it in order to make someone else feel a certain way, or do a certain thing, then that’s not setting a boundary anymore. That’s manipulating.

So, ending a friendship because it makes me sad, or because I don’t feel like being in it anymore, is setting a boundary. Ending a friendship in order to hurt someone or convince them to want me after all is being manipulative.

Here’s another vignette:

Alex and Sam are friends. At some point, Alex realizes they have a crush on Sam. Alex lets Sam know how they feel, but Sam says they don’t feel the same way and they’re only interested in a platonic relationship. Alex respects their decision, and also realizes that with Sam, they were specifically interested in a sexual/romantic relationship. They’re not interested in a platonic relationship with Sam. In order to be honest with both themselves and with Sam, Alex ends the friendship.

How about that?

For some folks, this would be unacceptable even if the previous vignette wasn’t. Even though Alex isn’t ending the friendship to “get back” at Sam or manipulate them in any way, something about it still feels…off. It feels “wrong” to want someone “just for sex” (or dating) and to not want them as “just a friend.”

I can’t grok this, personally, because I’m demisexual and I literally cannot desire someone sexually or romantically if they’re not a friend, or if we’re not at least already emotionally connected in some meaningful way. But even though I can’t grok it, I don’t actually see anything wrong with it.

For instance, I have friends that I enjoy seeing one-on-one, and friends that I enjoy interacting with as part of a group, and friends that I’d enjoy in either context. But there’s nothing wrong with preferring to interact with a particular person one-on-one, or as part of a group. I have friends that I like playing games with, and friends I don’t like playing games with. I have friends I like watching movies or TV with, and friends I don’t like watching movies or TV with. I have friends that I’d happily invite to a loud party with drinking and dancing, and friends that I don’t really want to see in that context for any number of reasons.

Just because you want to have sex with or go on dates with someone, doesn’t mean you must also enjoy having a purely platonic friendship with them. It certainly doesn’t mean you “owe” them that friendship just because they want it, whether or not there’s any unrequited attraction happening.

Here’s the problem, though. If you become friends with someone just to see if that’ll lead to what you actually want, which is a sexual/romantic relationship, then that person may reasonably assume that you’re interested in being friends with them unless something significant changes (i.e. your mutual interests fade, you have a fight and don’t want to interact anymore, you move apart, one or both of you experiences a period of growth that leads them to change up their priorities and friendships, etc). On some level, any type of relationship other than a very casual sexual fling is built on that trust. We understand that things may change and the person may decide to end the relationship (well, provided we’re not being extremely idealistic and/or denying others’ boundaries and agency), but we allow ourselves to safely assume that it’s going to continue for at least a while, and that if it does need to end, then that person will be honest with us and will care about our resulting hurt feelings.

So, when you end your friendship with someone who has said no to a romantic/sexual relationship with you, they may perceive that as extremely hurtful and objectifying, because up until this point you’ve been doing a very good imitation of someone who’s interested in a friendship. It won’t seem like too far a stretch for them to assume that you’re trying to punish them, or that you were dishonest about your interests in an attempt to “get” them into a romantic/sexual relationship. And, in a way, you kinda were dishonest.

“But if I approach a near-stranger and tell them I’m interested specifically in dating/sex, of course they’ll say no, because they don’t know me!” Honestly, I don’t really know what to tell you. I don’t think that effective and ethical social interaction means always being 100% open about everything we want–I might ask someone on a date without specifically stating that I’d like to have sex with them, and just see where the night goes–but if getting what you want requires misleading people, that’s not right. Maybe it’d be better to search for what you want in the kinds of places likely to have other people who are also interested in that, such as Tinder or OkCupid.

I also feel that if you do find yourself having misled someone about your interest in a friendship (or any other sort of relationship), you should own that and accept accountability for it. It’s hard for me to suggest what this might look like, though; I’m probably a bit unusual in that I prefer people I’m not super close with to just ghost on me rather than to inflict on me some tortured and patronizing conversation about how I’m totally a great person and it’s not anything I did wrong but you just don’t see us as friends or whatever.

But most people aren’t me and would appreciate some clarity, closure, and accountability. If you know you’ve hurt someone by appearing to offer friendship and then withdrawing it when you didn’t get what you were actually looking for, apologize.

More to the point, I want us to be clearer about what the problem is with being a “nice Guy,” or whatever you want to call it. The problem isn’t having feelings about getting rejected. The problem isn’t deciding not to be friends with someone who has rejected you as a partner. The problem isn’t only being interested in someone as a partner rather than as a friend. The problem is not having personal limits about how much involvement you can handle with someone you have painful unrequited feelings for. The problem is not being unable to magically wish away those feelings.

The problem is believing that anyone owes you any sort of physical or emotional intimacy. The problem is also habitually misleading people in your attempts to find the types of relationships you want.

The problem is also expecting anyone you reject as a partner to simply have no feelings about that and continue being your friend as if nothing had happened. Sometimes that’ll happen; if you’re fortunate/unfortunate enough to be my crush, you’ll find that I feel very little about that sort of rejection because I prioritize sex and romance so lowly, and am almost always happy to continue the friendship unchanged unless you were cruel or awkwardly vague about rejecting me.

But, as with the weird ghosting preference, that’s not nearly everyone.

It must be okay to end friendships that you’re no longer comfortable, interested, or invested in. Otherwise, you get this:

Alex and Sam are friends. At some point, Alex realizes they have a crush on Sam. Alex lets Sam know how they feel, but Sam says they don’t feel the same way and they’re only interested in a platonic relationship. Alex feels crushed, but they don’t want to hurt Sam or look bad to their friends by trying to get some distance. They continue the friendship, forcing themselves to act happy when Sam dates other people and pretending not to be heartbroken.

Although Alex still likes Sam very much as a friend, it’s impossible to prevent resentment from creeping in when Alex is forced to hide their emotions and constantly put themselves in painful situations (presumably for Sam’s sake). Eventually, that resentment starts bubbling up through passive-aggressive comments or mixed signals that Alex doesn’t even mean to make and may not realize they’re making.

Sam feels confused and hurt. They sense that Alex is deeply unhappy, but whenever they try to bring it up, Alex just says that everything’s fine and of course they’re happy for Sam and Sam’s new partner, what kind of horrible friend wouldn’t be? The conversations get nowhere, Alex is never able to be honest both with themselves and with Sam, and the friendship is never quite the same again.

Rejection hurts. It hurts whether it’s platonic, familial, sexual, romantic, or professional. It hurts when someone you want to date doesn’t want to date you, or when someone you thought was a friend decides they aren’t.

That is a pain to walk towards and through, not to run away from by trying to create rules about what is and isn’t an acceptable reason to end a friendship.

From a personal perspective, I do feel very wary of people who seem to have left a trail of confused and hurt ex-friends in their wake. I see that as a red flag. That they may have had perfectly good reasons for ending those friendships does not increase my interest in becoming one of those ex-friends.

If that pattern seems to describe you, that may be something to explore on your own or in therapy. But the solution isn’t to just force yourself to stay in friendships that don’t fit, harming yourself and probably others in the process.


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You’re Not Entitled to Friendship: Further Complicating the “Nice Guy” Concept

How To Feel Better About Ending Relationships

At Everyday Feminism, I wrote about ending relationships:

The hardest breakups I’ve gone through have been the ones I’ve had to initiate myself.

Like most women, I’ve been socialized not to trust my own gut feelings, and the days or weeks (or, in a few sad cases, months) leading up to those breakups were full of second-guessing and invalidating myself.

Did I really have to leave such a nice person? Were things really that bad?

As embarrassing as it is to admit how long it sometimes took me to do what needed to be done, I’m not exactly surprised – my brain couldn’t stop debating itself long enough to say the words.

Most resources for dealing with breakups are aimed at the person who’s getting dumped. That makes sense – having someone break up with you is often really painful, and it’s often a more sharp and surprising sort of pain than what I’m going to talk about here.

But being the one who realizes a relationship needs to end and takes action to end it can also be really hard.

My intention isn’t to compare these two experiences – most of us have gone through both and might have very different perspectives on which is relatively easier or harder. Point is, they both suck.

Since there’s less out there on doing the actual breaking up, I want to use this space to affirm those of you who are struggling with it.

Breaking up is hard to do – but these affirmations can help.

1. You Don’t Owe Romantic or Sexual Interest to Anyone

Many people, especially women, are socialized to feel like the mere fact that someone likes them means they have to try to like them back. If someone likes us, we see it as a favor – and it’s only polite to return favors.

This can cause a lot of us to end up in relationships we never really wanted to be in. It can also make it really difficult to end relationships that we no longer want to be in.

Just because you’re a feminist, that doesn’t mean you’re completely finished unlearning the many ways in which you’ve been taught to prioritize others before yourself – I know I’m not.

If you’re having a hard time ending a relationship you know you don’t want anymore, it might be because some part of you still feels like owe your partner that relationship.

In those moments, it can be helpful to remind yourself that you don’t owe any sort of intimacy to anyone, ever, no matter how much they want it.

Read the rest here.

How To Feel Better About Ending Relationships

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

[book club] Brideshead Revisited: Chapter One

The cover of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
I’m doing a book club! Read my other posts about Brideshead Revisited here.

When we last left Charles, he was a middle-aged army officer who had just arrived at Brideshead, a place of such deep personal significance that he’s literally left speechless when he realizes where he is. Now he takes us back in time 20-25(?) years to his student days at 1920s Oxford, where he first met Sebastian Flyte, whose family lived at Brideshead and with whom he would quickly become entangled.

Young Charles comes from a middle-class(-ish?) family and is studying Intellectual Things(?) at Oxford and is interested in art. Honestly, much of the Oxford-related parts were really hard for me to fully understand because there are constant references to Oxford culture–perhaps specifically 1920s Oxford culture–that I don’t understand, and can sometimes resolve with a Google and sometimes not. For instance, I learned that Eights Week is some big rowing competition thing that still happens at Oxford every year. I also learned that back then Oxford students basically had servants whose job it was to clean their rooms for them. Also, even a not-filthy rich student like Charles had “rooms.” Rooms, plural! Not one shitty little dorm room that you share with a random roommate!

Charles fills his rooms with art, books, and wine, although he acknowledges that they’re not as nice as what he would like to say he could afford. In fact, Charles freely acknowledges that he ends up spending way too much on unnecessary things (so much so that he has to spend his summer vacation at home with his weird-ass dad–the horror!). I think Charles is struggling with something familiar to anyone from a modest or low-income background who suddenly finds themselves surrounded by really rich people, which is that being relatively poor tends to hurt worse than being absolutely poor.

Longchamp Le Pliage tote bag
This fucking thing haunted my college experience

It’s hard to feel sorry for Charles for having to have reproductions of art rather than originals hanging in his multiple rooms and “meager and commonplace” books rather than “seventeeth-century folios and French novels of the second empire in Russia-leather and watered silk,” but when you’re a young person on your own for the first time and you’re trying to fit in with an entirely different social context than you grew up in (something that definitely described my own painful college experience), things like that can suddenly take on huge significance. When I was in college, I felt awkward and out of place because I couldn’t afford Urban Outfitters clothes and Longchamp bags, which everyone else seemed to have, but now I’m amazed that I ever gave a fuck and also regretful that I went to a school with such a lack of socioeconomic diversity that that ever became an issue.

Initially, Charles falls in with a bunch of similarly middle-class and intellectual friends, the kind he’d always had at school. But although he enjoys their company and loves college life, he remembers, “I felt at heart that this was not all which Oxford had to offer.” Indeed, everything changes for him when he meets Sebastian: “At Sebastian’s approach, these gray figures seemed quietly to fade into the landscape and vanish, like highland sheep in the misty heather.”

Charles’ and Sebastian’s first meeting is literally a scene out of a gay 1920s British romcom, if such a thing existed. Charles is chilling with his friends in his multiple fucking rooms–ground-floor rooms against which his older and wiser cousin warned him for the exact reason he’s about to discover–and drinking wine. They hear drunk people stumbling around outside, and suddenly one of them approaches the open window, looks at Charles, and proceeds to literally throw up right into the room.

One of his friend apologizes for him in what I can only imagine is a typical Oxford manner: “The wines were too various. It was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault. It was the mixture. Grasp that and you have the root of the matter. To understand all is to forgive all.”

Anyway, Charles’ room-servant dude (they’re called scouts, and his name is Lunt) is pretty irate at him in the morning because, yes, scouts cleaned up your vomit for you at Oxford, but when Charles returns later that day, Lunt says that “the gentleman from last night” sent a note and literally enough flowers to fill up the whole room. Guys. Can we talk for a sec about how adorable that is.

Sebastian with his teddy bear and his impeccable fashion sense, as portrayed in the 2008 film.
Sebastian with his teddy bear and his impeccable fashion sense, as portrayed in the 2008 film version of Brideshead Revisited..

Charles had already known Sebastian by reputation, and that reputation is that he’s hot as hell and that he carries his teddy bear, Aloysius, with him everywhere and talks to/about it as if it’s real. Seriously. Apparently he once went to a barber shop to buy a brush for Aloysius, not to groom him with but to spank him with. Like, he told this to the barber. Anyway, I love that in this social context a dude can be known all over the college both for being hot as hell and for talking to his teddy bear that he carries everywhere.

So of course I have to speculate about what’s up with the teddy bear. I think some readers would be tempted to consider the whole thing an affectation, a way to get attention by being ~~~so weird~~~ and ~~~so edgy~~~ and even kind of ~~~fucking with traditional masculinity~~~. But I don’t actually know exactly what traditional masculinity looked like for this particular segment of 1920s Oxford. Clearly Sebastian does get a lot of attention on account of the teddy bear, but Charles seems to think that he’d be getting it regardless. His family is kinda famous and weird, and he’s hot, and he’s rich, and he has a ton of friends and drinks a lot and throws up into people’s rooms.

There’s also the theory that Sebastian actually has a delusion that the teddy bear is alive and all that, but I don’t think so. He doesn’t seem to show any other signs of delusional/hallucinatory thinking. He doesn’t seem any more out-of-touch with reality than any other rich college student would be. Besides, this would be the most boring answer, and Waugh is not a boring writer.

I do think it’s part affectation–I think Sebastian likes being seen as the weird guy who carries a teddy bear everywhere–but there’s more to it. Even now it’s already obvious that Sebastian uses Aloysius as a way to admit to feelings that are otherwise difficult to admit and perform actions that are otherwise difficult to perform. For instance, in his apology note to Charles, he writes, “I am very contrite. Aloysius won’t speak to me until he sees I am forgiven, so please come to luncheon today.” (Oh yeah, that too–in the note, he invites him to lunch. CUTE.) Although Sebastian is apologizing, he displaces the agency from himself onto Aloysius. The teddy bear isn’t speaking to him, so he has to seek forgiveness from Charles. See, it’s not because he really wants forgiveness for himself; it’s all because of Aloysius.

So, long story short, Charles starts hanging out with Sebastian and his teddy bear and all his cool friends. It’s not without reservation, though, at least not at first. He goes “uncertainly,” with a “warning voice” telling him not to. “But,” he says, “I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at least, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that gray city.”

What the heck is he talking about? Excitement? Romantic love? Belonging? This is one of the passages folks cite when arguing that Brideshead Revisited is at least in part about a queer relationship (though there’s a lot more evidence for it than that), but I don’t think Charles is talking about just that, and more importantly, I don’t think he realizes himself what exactly he’s talking about. He’s chasing a feeling, a feeling that he gets in connection to Sebastian. He’s drawn to him for a lot of complicated reasons–some to do with family, some to do with class and money, some to do with social status, and probably some to do with attraction.

There are a lot of moments so far in the book that can be interpreted as hints that Charles and Sebastian are falling in love with each other–the fact that Sebastian becomes possessive of Charles and doesn’t want his family to “take” him away, the fact that Charles refers to Sebastian as “entrancing,” the fact that Charles has spring break plans with one of his soon-to-be-former friends but recalls without any guilt that he would’ve ditched him at a moment’s notice if Sebastian had invited him somewhere.

I doubt this view will surprise anyone who’s read anything I’ve written about art and literature, but I don’t think that “Do Charles and Sebastian like each other That Way?” is a particularly valid or interesting question when we’re talking about fictional people. The more valid and interesting question is, “Which different readings of Charles and Sebastian’s relationship can we justify using the text, and how can we justify them?”

Obviously, you can read the whole thing is Totally Not Gay At All and simply an allegory about wishing you had been born someone and somewhere else. It’s not that Charles is in love with Sebastian, it’s that he’s in love with the idea of him, with the idea of being so at ease in the world (this is an example of Charles’ naiveté and tendency to project things onto people–I don’t think Sebastian is at ease anywhere or with anything much at all), with his own idealization of Sebastian’s family, with Catholicism (I’m told this is going to play a massive role in the book, and is actually what Waugh intended for the book to be about, not that that means we have to agree with him).

You can also read their relationship as a romantic friendship, which means it falls into that interesting historical space where you cannot assign labels like “gay” or “straight” to people who did not use those labels. (I’m not entirely sure that 1920s Oxford lacked them, however; another character who becomes prominent in the next chapter was apparently thought of as “a homosexual,” but nevertheless, romantic friendships are probably impossible to categorize using modern sexual orientation terms.)

To me, the fact that you can’t really “know” if a romantic friendship was Actually Just Dudes Being Pals or Actually Totally Gay is part of what’s so fascinating about the concept. Sure, it rankles that part of me that hates and fears queer invisibility. But on the other hand, I love the idea of people engaging freely (or somewhat freely) in same-sex play and love under cover of what was actually a genuine and meaningful friendship. I also love how valuable those relationships must’ve been even when they involved no sex whatsoever, and I love how they subtly pushed back against the idea that the Serious Romantic Couple should be at the center of our interpersonal lives, and I love how they showed that the distinctions we now draw between Liking Someone As A Friend and Liking Someone That Way and Being Attracted To Someone are a lot less clear and obvious than most of us are comfortable admitting.

Anyway, I love romantic friendships and I love the reading that Charles and Sebastian have one.

On the other hand, you can definitely also make the case for a more explicit relationship, especially considering the jealousy stuff and Charles’ focus on Sebastian’s looks and other stuff that comes up later in the book that I won’t get into now. The 2008 Brideshead Revisited film actually took this route and had them kiss, although obviously movies can and do reinterpret the books they’re based on in lots of ways.

But honestly, every time I try to draw a line between what it would look like if Charles and Sebastian Liked Each Other That Way versus if they were Just Really Good Friends, I can’t. Yes, at that time it was probably pretty normal for friends–including men–to express their friendship in grandiose romantic terms. And at that time–meaning 1945–Waugh could not have published a book with explicit gay sex in it anyway. So did they or didn’t they? I have no idea, but it sure is fun to think about.

People interpret their own feelings based on their social context and the narratives they subscribe to about what different feelings mean and how people are supposed to interact. In a liberal American city in 2016, two men feeling the way Charles and Sebastian may have been feeling might decide that they’re into each other, and they might go on dates and have sex and eventually become boyfriends and move in together and get married and host really fun parties and have kids. (Or not.) In a conservative Christian small town in Texas in 2016, two men feeling the way Charles and Sebastian may have been feeling might decide that there’s something wrong with them, that they need spiritual help, that they’re sinful, or that, fuck it, we’re gonna meet up in the park late at night and hook up, or leave this fucking town entirely.

Of course, people can and do switch up these narratives all the damn time–otherwise there wouldn’t have been any queer people fucking in most of the world until recently–but it’s hard. Based on my read of this book so far, a man at Oxford in the 1920s could openly pursue sex or love with men and become known as The Campus Homosexual and be subject to lots of ridicule (but still find a social group, it seems like), but otherwise he was probably going to interpret any sexual/romantic feelings for other men in a different way–especially if he is also, like Charles, attracted to women.

So, long story short, Charles and Sebastian meet and become fascinated with each other and do whatever it is they’re doing. At the end of the chapter, Sebastian borrows a car from a friend and takes Charles home to Brideshead–not to meet his family, apparently, but to meet his former nanny.

From the start, Sebastian is acting kind of sketchy about his family. “Don’t worry,” he says about them to Charles, “they’re all away. You won’t have to meet them.” As if he’s concerned about Charles here rather than himself.

When Sebastian visits his nanny, he finds out that his sister Julia is actually staying at the house and is about to come home, at which point he mysteriously rushes Charles away. “What are you ashamed of, her or me?” asks Charles. Sebastian responds:

“I’m ashamed of myself. I’m not going to have you get mixed up with my family. They’re so madly charming. All my life they’ve been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charm, they’d make you their friend not mine, and I won’t let them.”

This is fascinating given that Charles and Julia eventually fall in love. (Sorry, spoiler. You can’t really avoid them when talking about classics. If it makes you feel any better, I had half the book spoiled for me just by reading the introduction, and anyway you don’t read these books for the plot.) What has Sebastian’s family already taken away? How much resemblance does his perception have to reality, or to their perceptions? Hopefully this is something that’s going to get clearer later.

Before leaving, Sebastian shows Charles the Brideshead chapel. When they enter, Sebastian crosses himself and does some other churchy stuff that you’re supposed to do, but when Charles copies him he gets “cross” and demands to know why Charles did that. He responds that it’s good manners, and Sebastian says, “Well, you needn’t on my account.”

What’s up with that? Charles and Sebastian haven’t discussed religion yet (at least, not in view of the reader), and as far as I know nothing’s been said about Charles’ religion. Yet Sebastian seems to assume that he’s faking, and finds that offensive, annoying, or both. I’m guessing that back then you sort of knew who was Catholic and who wasn’t because shit like that would’ve come up in conversation, but I still find it interesting that Sebastian doesn’t appreciate Charles doing the churchy stuff that you’re supposed to do. Maybe he sees him as encroaching on his territory or trying to get involved in parts of his life that he doesn’t want him to be “mixed up” with, just like his family. Maybe he’s lost his faith himself, so seeing someone else pretend at it is irritating.

In any case, Sebastian’s definitely annoyed at Charles for showing what Sebastian perceives as excessive interest in his family. Charles explains that he’s curious about people’s families because his mom died in the war (World War I, presumably) and he has no siblings, so it’s just him and his dad and the aunt that his dad “drove abroad” so she’s not really around either. So now it kind of makes sense that Charles idealizes Sebastian’s family and is totally fascinated by it even though he literally knows nothing about them besides whatever random gossip he may have heard at Oxford.

But then again, why Sebastian’s family specifically? Charles tells him that he’s “rather curious about people’s families,” but we haven’t seen him show any interest in anyone else’s families, certainly not those of his friends that he’s abandoned now that he’s got Sebastian. Soooo. Since I favor the queer reading myself, it feels to me like he’s doing that thing people do when they have a crush on someone and they’re desperately curious to know everything about them. That, mixed with Charles’ probably-genuine bitterness that he never really got to have a “normal” family (whatever the hell that is) and his wish to sort of become part of someone else’s.

Chapter One establishes the sort of person Charles was going into his young adulthood, the life he created for himself at Oxford, and the way he first became fascinated with Sebastian and his family. I find myself wishing that the class difference were a bit more fully explored, but maybe that’s coming later. (Maybe it’s not the only thing that’s coming later? Eh? EHHHH? Fine, I’ll show myself out.)


Reminder: comments are open! Please feel free to comment if you’re reading the book or have read it previously.

For more about queer readings of not-specified-queer characters, here’s my take on that in a much more modern context.

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[book club] Brideshead Revisited: Chapter One

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

Are All Boundaries Valid?

Follow-up to “Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing.”

[Content note: abuse]

When I discuss the importance of respecting people’s boundaries, I sometimes encounter this pushback: “But aren’t some boundaries wrong? What if someone sets boundaries in a way that’s abusive?”

I can think of a few examples of boundaries that someone might place in this category: boundaries around receiving criticism or being educated about a social justice issue, boundaries around providing some minimum level of emotional labor or support to one’s partner, boundaries around which emotions you can handle hearing from someone.

Most of these apply especially/specifically to close relationships, which is usually the context in which people bring it up. Is it really okay to tell a partner that you can’t handle them expressing anger at you? Is it really okay to tell a friend that they can’t tell you if you’ve hurt them? Is it really okay to tell someone that you will not be able to listen to anything they have to say about their mental illness?

In particular, folks are concerned that such boundaries will be set not because of genuine triggers or sensitivities, but out of laziness or neglect–“I don’t feel like dealing with this, so I’m going to set a boundary that says I don’t have to.”

First of all, let’s acknowledge that it’s really hard to distinguish “okay” boundaries from “not-okay” boundaries if we’re judging by how much the boundary hurts someone else. Many (if not most) boundaries have the potential to hurt. It probably hurts people when I tell them to stop giving me unsolicited advice–advice that they no doubt meant as an expression of care and concern, but that I nonetheless find insulting and want them to stop. It certainly hurts me when I want to vent to someone about my problems but they ask me not to because they’re not in a good place to listen. But I don’t think anyone would say there’s anything wrong with these boundaries.

In particular, many people feel very hurt when a partner sets a boundary regarding sex–for instance, “I don’t want to have sex tonight” or “I need to figure some stuff out and don’t want to be intimate for a while.” Some people even consider it neglectful or abusive for a partner to choose not to have sex with them. While that’s obviously really entitled and coercive in and of itself, any boundary can be rejected on similar grounds–“You’re not giving me what you owe me,” whether that thing is sex or open ears or a willingness to adjust based on criticism.

That leads into the thorny issue of what, exactly, we are entitled to from each other, versus what is up to individuals to give or withhold. If your boundary is that you won’t give someone something that they’re truly entitled to, that’s likely abusive. For instance, children are entitled to care from their parents or guardians. If you’re a parent or guardian, your boundary cannot be that you won’t care for your child. (If it is, then you should–and will–lose custody.)

But outside of parent-child relationships, which are a special case, there’s very little that we can persuasively claim to deserve from a specific person–as opposed to people in general. I deserve love and respect, but that doesn’t mean that you–you specifically–must love and respect me. If you won’t do that, I have to find someone else who will.

There are things that we’re entitled to in relationships, such as the right to set boundaries and the right to express how the other person has made us feel. But if the other person sets boundaries like “You can’t tell me if I’ve hurt you,” I don’t think the solution is to try to force them to listen to it anyway. I think the solution is to run away.

But what if you can’t “just leave” because the relationship is abusive? Well, in that case, the primary problem isn’t the person’s “invalid” boundaries; it’s the abuse that keeps you in a relationship that can’t possibly work.

This is why I think that a better question than “Are some boundaries wrong?” is “Are some boundaries incompatible with having a healthy relationship?” Yes, I think some are. I think that if your boundary is that you will not hear the other person’s feelings, including feelings about you and/or the relationship; if you will not provide them even a minimal amount of support and emotional labor; if you cannot handle having boundaries set with you–then you aren’t prepared for a healthy relationship.

And some people pass through periods like that in their lives due to trauma or grief or whatever else, and that’s okay. Their boundaries aren’t wrong. They’re just not particularly conducive to relationships (platonic or otherwise), and rather than shaming them for having those boundaries or simply trampling over those boundaries as if they aren’t there, you should give them space to move through that.

But can’t you abuse someone by setting a boundary?

I’m not sure. Most definitions of abuse focus on the fact that it is an attempt (intentional/aware or otherwise) to control another person. Depending on the type of abuse (and they often go together), an abuser might control their target’s finances, location, body, property, behavior, emotional expression, or even (in the case of gaslighting) their perception of reality. Abuse is too much closeness, not too much distance.

What is a boundary? The most basic way I can define it is that a boundary is a condition I get to set about how others will interact with me–how (or whether) they will touch my body, how they will speak to me, what our relationship will look like, what kinds of things we will do together. Some people see boundaries as rules we set for other people, but I see them as conditions: do this [wear a barrier/discuss your STI results/check in with me every step of the way/let me know who else you’re sleeping with and what safer sex methods you’ve used with them], or else I will not have sex with you. Don’t do this [scream/call me names/talk about your sex life/comment on my body/use the wrong pronouns], or else I will not interact with you. You do have the option of disregarding my boundaries, but then I have the option of cutting off contact with you.

When conceptualized this way, boundaries cannot possibly be abusive because they do not control any aspect of anyone else or their life–except where it intersects with mine. Controlling what you do with your money is abusive; controlling what you do with my money is not. Controlling what you do with your body is abusive; controlling what you do with your body when it is interacting with my body is not. Telling you that you are not allowed to feel angry at me is abusive; telling you how I can handle hearing anger is not.

Generally, abuse harms because it destroys the healthy distance between one person and another, replacing one person’s thoughts, preferences, choices, and perception of reality with the abuser’s. When boundaries hurt, they hurt because they create distance, and it’s more distance than you wanted.

Obviously there are some murky areas here. For instance, some people are triggered even by appropriate expressions of anger because of past abuse. I’ve had times when even if a partner said to me calmly, “It made me angry when you made that comment about [thing],” that would be way too much. Had I known the language of boundaries, I might have tried to tell them that they cannot tell me that they’re angry with me.

I don’t know what to say here except that that’s your challenge to work through. As I said before, I don’t think that healthy relationships are possible if you restrict which emotions people are allowed to express to you. I also think that there will be potential friends and partners who accept such terms, and whether that’s healthy for them or not is their business.

Even if boundaries themselves can’t be abusive, the boundary-setting process can be. There’s a huge difference between, “I’m sorry, I’m not in a good place right now to listen to what you’re going through” and “Leave me alone, I don’t care about your stupid feelings.” There is also a huge difference between treating the person’s needs as valid and reasonable–but just not meetable by you in that moment–and treating them as invalid and unreasonable. If you’re invalidating your partner’s experience, that’s abusive.

If you’re concerned that you’re not getting this right, try checking whether or not you are taking responsibility for your own boundaries: “I can’t because I’m not in a good place right now” versus “I can’t because you’re too emotional,” for instance. No, they’re not too emotional. You are not currently able to process their emotions with them.

Usually when someone insists to me that boundaries can be abusive, the examples they give aren’t really boundaries at all. That’s not out of bad faith–abusers are really great at making their preferences seem like needs and your needs seem like preferences or inconveniences or even abuses in and of themselves. Here are some examples of boundaries that are not actually:

1. “My boundary is that you can’t have sex with anyone but me.”

I’m sure this is an unpopular opinion for any monogamous folks reading this, but bear with me for a sec. This isn’t a boundary because it is an attempt to control another person’s behavior outside of your personal bubble. In that way, it’s no different from saying “My boundary is that you can’t be friends with anyone but me.” Now, this may be a reasonable request in a monogamous framework, but that doesn’t make it a boundary. That makes it a request that the other person has to voluntarily agree to meet, and if they’re cool with meeting it, no problem. (A big problem with how most people practice monogamy is that it’s not truly voluntary because it’s considered the unspoken default. More on that in a future post.)

There are ways to restate this as a boundary: “I cannot have sex with you if you’re also having sex with other people because it makes me uncomfortable/because of STI risk/etc.” “I cannot be in a relationship with anyone who wants multiple partners.” While some may argue that the difference is semantic, I would argue that the difference lies in whose responsibility it ultimately is to meet your needs. Does your partner have to stop having sex with others whether they want to or not, or do you need to find a partner who is interested in monogamy?

(And again, if you say “Could you stop having sex with anyone but me?” and they say “Sure!”, then there’s no issue.)

In my view, framing monogamy as a boundary is one of those murky areas and I’m not really comfortable with it. The idea that your boundary can be what other people do with other people doesn’t sit right. The only reason most of us view monogamy as a valid boundary is because of the privileged status that romantic-sexual relationships hold in society. As I said, most people would recognize it as abusive to tell your friend that they shouldn’t have any friends but you.

2. “My boundary is that you can’t be angry at me.”

This isn’t a boundary because it’s an attempt to control another person’s feelings. Feelings and expressions aren’t the same thing; someone can feel angry at you without expressing that in a way you’re not okay with. Other people get to feel however they feel, and so do you. As soon as you get into the Dictating How Other People Get To Feel game, you’re well on your way to establishing an abusive dynamic.

3. “My boundary is that I feel unsafe if you don’t support me/have sex with me/agree with what I say/comfort me after you’ve set a boundary with me/etc”

This is a very insidious type of emotional abuse that, unfortunately, proliferates in progressive/feminist communities. The language of “feeling unsafe” is co-opted, usually by men with their female/femme/AFAB partners, to get your partner to do what you want.

First of all, your boundary cannot be that someone has to do something for you. That’s not a boundary; that’s you wanting someone to do something for you. And that desire may be very legitimate, and you may want it very badly, and you may indeed feel very bad (or even, in your perception, “unsafe”) if you don’t get it, but that doesn’t make it a “boundary.”

Second, you may only be interested in relationships where support/sex/agreement/comfort are things that generally happen, and you can leave relationships that aren’t meeting your needs, but you can’t claim that a partner who is not meeting your needs is violating your boundaries and you cannot try to require your partner to do any of those things. That’s such a perversion of what boundaries and bodily/emotional autonomy are all about that it makes me shudder.

This brings me right back around to how I started this article. Are some boundaries invalid? Is it invalid to say that you’re not okay with being called out, or listening to someone’s emotions, or supporting someone with their mental illness?

Let’s flip that around. Is it okay to say that someone else must listen to your call-outs or emotions or mental illness details? Is it okay to say that just because you’re angry at someone, they must hear that out?

Because if we say that that boundary is invalid, we’re saying that it’s okay to violate it because it’s not really a boundary at all. We’re saying that if we see a “no trespassing” sign on land that we know we’re allowed to access, we can legally and ethically disregard that sign and go there anyway.

On the other hand, we can say, “Your boundaries are valid, but I don’t see how I can have a healthy relationship with you that way, so I need to leave.” We can say, “I cannot date someone with this particular set of boundaries; thanks for warning me.” We can say, “If that boundary changes, let me know.”

It will be tempting to create a hierarchy of who gets to set particular boundaries and who doesn’t. “Okay,” you might concede, “if you have a Real Certified Trauma™ or Mental Illness™ then you can request that people not call you out or talk to you about being angry at you. Otherwise, sorry, you gotta do it.”

But here in the real world, there is not a single traumatized or mentally ill person who has not at some point believed that their trauma or illness is not real or valid. Most of us are still battling that fear every single day. Informal mental illness accommodations like these must be available to everyone or else very few of the people who need them will use them. There is no certification process for trauma or mental illness, and if there were, it would probably be monstrously unfair.

It’s also a rare woman or AFAB person who has not lived a lifetime of gaslightling. We are very quick to tell ourselves that we must not really feel the way we feel, and even that we must not have really experienced what we’ve just experienced. Boundaries must be easy to set, and they must automatically be treated as valid, or else they will never get set.

So, in conclusion: yes, there are complications to All Boundaries Are Valid. There are complications and nuances to everything. All Boundaries Are Valid is Boundaries 101, just like Atoms Consist Of Protons, Neutrons, and Electrons is Physics 101. You don’t need to get right into quarks and positrons and whatever-the-heck right away, especially if you haven’t yet learned about protons, neutrons, and electrons.

I’ve written often about the tension between getting the nuances exactly right and giving people information they desperately need. This is another example. Most of the people I write for have a lifetime of gaslighting and boundary violations behind them. Right now, they need to hear that their boundaries are valid. Once they’ve mastered that, we can get into the quarks and positrons of it.


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Are All Boundaries Valid?

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