Stuff I Read That You Might Like, Vol. 1

An e-reader with a cup of coffee, a notebook, a pen, and a pair of reading glasses.
Photo by Aliis Sinisalu on Unsplash

For a long time I’ve used Tumblr primarily to share quotes from my favorite articles that I read online (and sometimes books, too). Since I’m no longer using Tumblr due to their atrocious, sex-negative decision about adult content, I haven’t been able to find a better way to do this. Most so-called Tumblr “replacements” are pretty barebones and/or nonfunctional.

So, clunky as it is, I’ll be doing it here! Every so often I’ll post some quotes and links to stuff you might like.

Starting off with a very topical one:

Tumblr made sex a community experience.

—Vex Ashley, “Porn on Tumblr — a eulogy / love letter

Now that the full scope of this administration*’s political vandalism and base criminality is largely being copped to in broad daylight in various federal courthouses, a good chunk of the elite political press is moving into the Hoocoodanode? stage of political journalism. This is best exemplified byThursday’s New York Times podcast, the headline of which—“The Rise of Right-Wing Extremism, and How We Missed It”—got dragged like Hector’s corpse all over the electric Twitter machine until someone at the Times sharpened up and changed the last half of it to “…and How Law Enforcement Ignored It,” which is a little better, but not much.

To take the simplest argument first, “we,” of course, did no such thing, unless “we” is a very limited—and very white—plural pronoun. The violence on the right certainly made itself obvious in Oklahoma City, and at the Atlanta Olympics, and at various gay bars and women’s health clinics, and in Barrett Slepian’s kitchen, and in the hills of North Carolina, where Eric Rudolph stayed on the lam for five years and in which he had stashed 250 pounds of explosives for future escapades.

—Charles P. Piece, “‘We’ Did Not Miss the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism. You Did.

Inspired by online recipe sites, he’d sit down to dinner and then let me know what rating I earned. “If I give you five out of five, you’ll quit,” he joked. And I laughed because when I was in my 20s, I believed that you were supposed to laugh when someone hurt your feelings. I thought you were constantly supposed to be trying harder.

—Lyz Lenz, “Now That I’m Divorced, I’m Never Cooking for a Man Again

“As you become more acclimated to the cold, your body becomes more effective at delivering warm blood to the extremities, your core temperature goes up, and all that contributes to being more resistant to the cold,” Leonard told me.

That means the only cure for hating winter, unfortunately, is just more winter.

—Olga Kazan, “Why So Many People Hate Winter” (ugh.)

Mattis saw it up close. He bore it as long as he could, in hopes of mitigating the damage. But when Trump broke America’s promise to the Syrian Kurds, he stained Mattis’s honor, too. That, apparently, Mattis could not accept. He leaves and takes his honor with him. And now the question for Congress is: The Klaxon is sounding. The system is failing. What will you do?

—David Frum, “No More Excuses

It’s called Star Wars. Not Star Trek, not Star Peace, not Star Friends, not even Star Tales. This gargantuan fictional universe is labeled with a title that guarantees the ability to travel space… and near-constant warfare.

We can debate the relative okay-ness of this focus from a moral standpoint, sure. But in reality, I think that Star Wars is accidentally teaching us the greatest lesson of all: It’s depicting what a universe looks like when you dedicate all of your research and technological advancements to war and destruction, and unwittingly showing us what an incredibly dark place that universe is. Because the Star Wars universe is a fun fictional playground for sure, a great place to build weird and wonderful stories… but it’s not a good place. Not by a longshot.

—Emily Asher-Perrin, “Star Wars is Really a Cautionary Tale About Devoting All Technological Advancements to Death

It’s no longer socially acceptable to believe that women are somehow less than especially not during a time when feminism is wielding so much cultural power. But arguing that women are just naturally better at caretaking or domestic work has become a clever way to shirk living up to progressive values while claiming you are simply complimenting women on their stellar ironing skills.

One way to combat this line of thinking is to highlight how fully capable men are in the private sphere. It is true that American culture relishes in portraying men as dolts when it comes to parenting and cleaning, and it’s an unfair stereotype.

But for women to make real progress in and out of their homes, men must give something up: the backwards dream of holding onto their feminist bona fides while seeking out female partners willing to limit their own aspirations to the home.

—Jessica Valenti, “The ‘Woke’ Men Who Still Want Housewives

So yes, forced birthers and [Status Quo Warriors], if you’re going to play it like that, I am OK with the idea of a world into which you, personally, were never born. I am equally as OK with the idea of a world where I don’t exist, either. Neither you nor I personally matters that much in a universe so vast and a sea of human experiences so rich. You and I both are accidents in our existence, possibly unhappy ones.

I would’ve rather your mother not have been forced to carry a pregnancy she didn’t want to term. I would’ve rather your father had approached your mother respectfully in an appropriate setting, or not at all. I dare to love your mother as a fellow human being more than you do and to dream of a better world for people like her. It’s rank misogyny and not very humanist at all to think otherwise.

—Heina Dadabhoy, “Why I Don’t Care If You Wouldn’t Have Existed

It is maddening to watch adult men respond to revelations of endemic sexual harassment in the workplace by instituting a series of ludicrous personal codes, rather than by learning the relatively straightforward lesson on offer: Don’t sexually assault or harass anyone.

At best, these “rules” are reflective of employers’ woefully incomplete approach to sexual harassment. Employers have long done the absolute minimum to comply with the law, relying on trite videos focused on what you can and cannot say or do in the workplace (“don’t give back rubs” or “don’t offer promotions in exchange for sex”) and sexual harassment policies designed primarily to protect them from lawsuits. The sweeping scale of the Me Too movement makes it clear that no mere set of rules is sufficient to prevent workplace harassment, especially when those rules fail to speak to all of the various power imbalances that make the critical distinctions between genuinely consensual workplace romances and harassment.

—Tahir Duckett, “Avoiding Women At Work Is A Childish, Cowardly Response To #MeToo

When you are terribly afraid of being held responsible for the emotional well-being of others, it feels very mature and responsible to decide that you should “work on yourself.” It becomes both a way of retroactively absolving yourself (wow, can you believe all of the ways my issues manifested before I decided to work on them) and a rather elegant little trick to exonerate ongoing bad behavior (dang, those pesky issues again! I guess I must keep working on them). This is especially true for those too-clever-by-half motherfuckers who think that nobly warning someone in advance they “are working on their issues” mitigates any way in which they might disappoint or harm. And even with the best of intentions, it obviates the fact that relationships themselves are a process of being made ready, not something you come to static and fully formed.

[…] We need each other desperately, in ways none of us can be ready for.

—Brandy Jensen, “Ask A Fuck-Up: I’m still in therapy. Should I be dating?


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Stuff I Read That You Might Like, Vol. 1
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How Big is Your Hard Drive?

Close-up of a hard drive.
This is relevant, I swear.

This is a cross-post from my professional blog.

Some friends and I were talking recently about the concept of “emotionally unavailable” people. Most of us have had a friend—perhaps ourselves—who has tried to date someone who seemed into them, but just wasn’t quite present. Sometimes this type of partner is upfront about their ability to commit and/or be there. Sometimes, they aren’t, and their behavior seems confusing and contradictory. These pseudo-relationships can drag on for years until we are finally able to move on, understanding that however much the person enjoys our presence, they are not interested in making things more committed or structured than they currently are.

If I knew what to do in these situations I’d probably be retiring a millionaire, but I do have an analogy that might be helpful. I thought of it on the spot to give my friend some advice. (If you’ve ever been my client, you know how much I love a good geeky analogy.)

Computers come with different hard drive capacities. If yours doesn’t have enough space for you, you can maybe buy and install a new one—but for the moment, you’re stuck with the one your computer came with. Maybe you can’t afford a new one right now.

Different hard drives also have different things stored on them, and these things take up different amounts of space. I know people whose hard drives pretty much just contain the system files, maybe a few extra apps. These people use their computers mainly to get online. Maybe computers aren’t very important to them and they don’t use them much at all.

Some people have a lot to store—photos, music, videos, complex projects they’re working on. These folks are buying hard drives in capacities I didn’t even know existed. (This year, the world’s largest solid state drive hit 100 terabytes. What are they storing on that hard drive???)

Don’t think of the hard drive as your brain. Those analogies are really reductive, and usually insulting to us humans. The hard drive is a symbol, and it represents something I call your capacity as a person. That encompasses a lot of things—time, energy, physical and mental ability, willpower (which isn’t really a thing, but that’s another article; it’s useful here as a concept), tolerance for uncertainty or negative emotion, and much more. For instance, not everyone has the capacity to be a therapist. Being a therapist requires having a lot of space to hold other people’s pain. Not everyone has enough space for that. Unfortunately, some therapists end up without enough space to hold their loved ones’ pain, or even their own.

Say I have a 1 TB hard drive that’s full of music and photos. Maybe there’s 300 GB left over. Then a friend asks, “Could I put some of my videos on your hard drive? I need somewhere to store them for a while.” I say sure, but then they come over with their external drive and I see that they have an entire terabyte of videos. That’s not going to fit on my hard drive. I could probably store some of their videos, and that might still be helpful for them. But maybe they really needed to store the entire drive’s worth. I don’t have the capacity.

This kind of thing happens in friendships and relationships all the time. You might have a good amount of your own shit to deal with, but that doesn’t mean you can’t listen to your friends vent about their own problems from time to time, or give them advice about a work situation, or treat them to a nice dinner while they’re going through a breakup.

You might not be able to be a friend’s primary source of support as they navigate a serious illness, however. First of all, the time factor would be prohibitive—you may not be able to drive them to all of their medical appointments, be at their house enough to care for them when they can’t care for themselves, and so on. The stress of being a full-time caregiver would be way too much. Holding their anguish as they face the possibility of death or disability is also, well, a lot. Your friend needs more people on their team.

Some people are carrying a lot of trauma, hardship, or personal responsibilities with them already. No matter how large their hard drives happen to be, there may not be space there for you.

Not only that, but some people have pretty small hard drives to begin with. I’ve known many people who just don’t seem to have a lot of space for others in their lives. They don’t tolerate much emotional turbulence when it comes to other people. They may be interested in sex, casual friendship, or even romance, but they don’t have the capacity to build interdependent, long-lasting relationships with others—at least not until they do some work on themselves, and get some bigger hard drives. Some people want to do that work; others are perfectly content as they are.

Here’s where this analogy really breaks down—buying a new hard drive is a million times easier than increasing your capacity for holding other people. And while you can buy a larger hard drive for your friend whose computer you’re always wanting to store your videos on for some reason (this is weird), you cannot increase others’ capacity for them. They have to choose to do it for themselves, and they may not want to. Or it may take them a long time, or they may not be able to do it at all.

If you are hoping for a deeper relationship with someone whose hard drive seems to be too small—or who has way too much data on it already—you have to ask yourself whether or not it’s likely that this person is going to have more space for you anytime soon, and whether or not they want that space to be yours.


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How Big is Your Hard Drive?

Polyamory and the Friendship Litmus Test

Lately I’ve been trying to work out my feelings about nonmonogamy and metamours–specifically, how to articulate to partners what I’d like my relationships with their other partners to be like.

People who practice nonmonogamy can fall anywhere on a wide spectrum when it comes to relationships with metamours [1]. On one extreme, there are the “don’t ask don’t tell” folks–they don’t want to know anything, or hear anything, about a partner’s other partners, let alone meet those people. On the other extreme, there are people whose relationship “rules” include a stipulation that all their partners be friends with each other–or even be sexually/romantically involved with each other. This is, in my opinion, obviously unhealthy and coercive even if people technically “agree.” The other extreme is a little less obviously screwy, but still leads to a lot of misunderstandings and hurt in my experience.

Most people don’t take things quite that far in either direction, but many nonmonogamous people end up clustered on two ends of that spectrum, whether by “rule” or by happenstance. In some nonmonogamous relationships, metamours never really meet or interact, and partners tell each other the bare minimum about those other partners/relationships based on what they’ve agreed to. In others, metamours tend to be acquaintances or friends, leading to large “polycules” in which folks often hang out together, have game nights, and may even end up involved too.

I’ve often struggled with articulating my own preferences to my partners. On the one hand, I struggle with insecurity and negative automatic thoughts, which my partners tend to be well aware of. That makes them shy away from talking to me about their other partners more than they have to, even though I’ve expressed that polyamory is my choice for a reason and that I like the opportunity to work through that panic by approaching it directly.

On the other hand, I’ve also had a really hard time expressing things like, “I’d like to meet your new partner” or “It’d be cool if all three of us hung out sometime” because I worry that it makes me sound controlling. Of course, it isn’t–the reason I want to meet them isn’t because I need to “make sure that they aren’t a threat” or similar sentiments that I often hear from monogamous people wanting to meet their partners’ friends. I want to meet them because there’s a good chance that anyone my partner likes a lot is someone I’d probably enjoy hanging out with, and because knowing my metamours and having friendly interactions with them helps me reassure myself that I’m not getting abandoned.

The idea that you’ll probably like someone that someone you like also likes gets a bad rap in my communities sometimes; “friendship is transitive” is one of the Five Geek Social Fallacies that we all love to reference. [2] But while taking it to that extreme is indeed a fallacy, it’s also demonstratively true that I tend to like my friends’ friends, and my partners’ friends, and–when I get to meet them–my partners’ partners.

But then the little voice in my head says, “But why should your partner let you meet their other partners? You’re not entitled to that.” True. I’m not entitled to that, We Don’t Owe Each Other Anything, etc. However, I’m learning that expressing a preference or a desire to a partner isn’t the same thing as believing that I’m entitled to it. Otherwise, we’d all be horribly entitled every time we ask someone if we can have sex with them.

So crunching all of this over and over in my mind (I’ve been on medical leave for almost six weeks, so I’ve had plenty of time), I realized that there’s a much simpler way to make sense of this, and it helps me conceptualize other common issues in nonmonogamy, too. I call it the friendship litmus test.

The friendship litmus test is simply this: if this person were my partner’s friend instead of their partner, how would my partner communicate with me about this person?

Most of the time in committed relationships, we’d think it’s a little weird if a partner has a really cool new friend that they’re really excited about, but they just…never mention that friend. Like at all. Many people, no matter how secure they are in their relationship, might wonder if something boundary-crossing is going on.

Likewise, most people would find it odd if a partner has a new friend that they’re spending a lot of time with, but all they say about them is their name and that they’re meeting up with them on a given night. When I have a new friend I really like, I usually want to gush about that person to everyone I know.

It would be unusual if my partner had a close friend who’s important to them and I literally never met that person–not because the opportunity hadn’t come up, but because my partner intentionally socializes with them only when I’m not there, and never invites them along when we hang out together or with their other friends.

Sometimes these things happen incidentally, because my partner just hadn’t had much to say about their newer partner yet, or because that person’s schedule prevented them from hanging out, or whatever. But over time, it starts to feel weird. It starts to feel artificial. Like my partner is intentionally choosing to keep these parts of their life completely separate.

That approach may work for many people. But it doesn’t work for me, and the friendship litmus test is a helpful way for me to articulate that.

For me, having a partner insist on keeping their partners “separate” so that they never meet or hang out is a red flag. I instinctively distrust that kind of compartmentalization because it suggests that the partner distrusts me, distrusts their other partner(s), and/or isn’t actually very comfortable with nonmonogamy (and isn’t working on that). In a healthy relationship, it’d be normal for a partner to say, “I’m going to hang out with my sportsball buds and I’m guessing you won’t be interested in that.” It’s also normal for someone to say, “I’d like some time alone with [other partner/my friends/etc], so I’ll see you later tonight.” It’s utterly weird, though, for them to say, “I don’t want you to ever meet [partner/friend] or socialize with them.”

The friendship litmus test also helps me make sense of a lot of other poly situations. For instance, a lot of folks in the poly community debate whether or not it’s fair to ask/want/expect your partner to share intimate details about their other partners with you. Some people even have “rules” that they must disclose everything that goes on in their other sexual encounters.

Others–for instance, me–think that’s pretty fucked up, because that other partner didn’t consent to have details about their sex life–because it is also their sex life–shared with someone they have no intimate connection with, and may not even know. People who practice hierarchical polyamory [3] often discount the boundaries and feelings of “secondary” partners, and this is one common way that that happens.

Would it be appropriate for someone to tell their partner private sexual details that a friend disclosed to them without that friend’s permission? Most would say it’s not. So why is it okay when that friend is (also) a partner?

Admittedly, the friendship litmus test is probably only useful to a small subset of nonmonogamous people because it’s pretty much based on the idea that platonic relationships are not categorically different from romantic or sexual relationships. It’s an approach best suited to relationship anarchy [4]. But if it works for me, it probably works for others.


[1] A metamour is one of your partner’s other partners. I hate to get jargony, but there’s no non-awkward way to say that.

[2] http://www.plausiblydeniable.com/opinion/gsf.html

[3] https://www.bustle.com/articles/161962-7-poly-terms-everyone-should-know-whether-youre-new-to-polyamory-or-monogamous

[4] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/andie-nordgren-the-short-instructional-manifesto-for-relationship-anarchy


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Polyamory and the Friendship Litmus Test

“I was such an asshole back then”

If you are a woman or nonbinary person who dates men, you’ve probably dated a man who, when talking about his past relationships, admitted to you that he “used to be such an asshole.”

Sometimes this is accompanied by a story, told shamefacedly, about how he was manipulative or even coercive in his past relationships, or how he made his female partners do all of the emotional labor in the relationship (although he rarely uses this term). Sometimes untreated mental illness is part of the story, although of course, mental illness doesn’t make people assholes. How they choose to deal with it sometimes does.

Regardless of the particular details, many men in their 20s and 30s have these stories. In fact, I think this describes all of the men I dated except for the ones who were still assholes at the time I dated them.

I was talking about this with a friend recently and we started asking ourselves how exactly all of these men ceased to be assholes. How did they figure out that their behavior in their past relationships was wrong? Who told them?

The answer is as obvious as it is depressing: usually, the women in their lives told them, either during the course of the relationship or while breaking up with them. Often, the lesson didn’t sink in until the relationship was long over. I know a few men who learned to be better by reading blogs like Dr. NerdLove and Captain Awkward, but for the most part, it takes a person you love pushing you to do better.

It brought to mind all of the emotional labor I’ve done with men in my own life—telling them to stop comparing sexual assault to totally asinine things that have nothing to do with structural oppression; pointing out to them that every time I disagree with them, no matter how mildly, their tone almost instantly becomes irritated or even resentful; reminding them that “no” is a complete sentence and I don’t owe them further explanations; explaining to them that they can’t refuse to be in a committed relationship with me and then get upset at me for dating other people; telling them to stop pressuring me to have an orgasm like it’s a referendum on their sexual abilities; and so on.

How many of these men now tell their girlfriends with an embarrassed chuckle that they used to be “such an asshole”? How many of them give credit where credit is due?

In our conversation, my friend and I laughed mirthlessly as we realized that so many of our relationships with men involve us essentially preparing these men for future relationships with other women. And our own loving partners were prepared for their relationships with us by other women, too. It’s a cycle of emotional labor that’s rarely acknowledged.

If you are a man who dates women who’s ever found yourself reflecting on past relationships and realizing that you used to be an asshole, I want to invite you to ask yourself these questions:

1) How were you an asshole?
2) How did you learn that you were being an asshole?
3) How were you able to change that behavior?
4) Who helped you?
5) Have you thanked that person?

Obviously, if you don’t think that person wants to hear from you, then don’t do #5. But most of the time, your exes would probably be relieved to know their labor had an impact. I know I would be, when I think about all the thankless hours I spent calmly explaining things to my male partners only to have them respond with “ok, fine,” and then years later tell their new girlfriends what assholes they used to be.

I forget who said it now, but I saw a tweet once along the lines of “behind every ‘woke’ man is an exhausted feminist.” I believe it.

Whether or not you ever go back and thank the people who made you who you are today, I would love to see more men reframe the way they approach this conversation. Instead of “I was such an asshole back then, lol,” I would love to hear, “I used to be a really difficult person to be in relationship with, but my ex taught me a lot about how to be better and I’m in her debt for that.”

None of us become better people by accident. We have to be taught—by parents, by friends, my partners, by writers whose work we read. Yes, you make an effort too, and that matters. But someone helped you make that effort, and they deserve recognition.


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“I was such an asshole back then”

I Still Feel Anxious About Communication Every Day

I get asked a lot about how I set boundaries or communicate my feelings or do anything else in that constellation of terrifying interpersonal tasks.

Sometimes people are looking for concrete suggestions or scripts because they’re simply unsure how to put their thoughts into words. But more often, especially these days, they already know how to do that. So there’s usually something tacked onto their request, almost as an afterthought, although it’s really the main thing on their minds: “How do you set boundaries…without hurting their feelings?” “How do you tell someone they’ve upset you…without having an anxious breakdown about it?”

These are the questions I can’t really answer. I guess there’s strategies, ways you can make it easier for yourself and the other person. But you can’t control how other people feel, and often you can’t control how you feel either.

So how do you make myself vulnerable and communicate what you really feel without being anxious about it?

Maybe you can’t.

Here’s a confession: despite the fact that many people identify me as a role model when it comes to communication skills, I am not free of anxiety when it comes to communication.

Sure, it’s better than it used to be. I find that the more I cultivate relationships in which everyone intentionally and honestly shares their inner experiences–so that it’s not just me blabbing about my feelings all the time–the easier it gets. As I build up histories with people who are gentle with my vulnerability and who let themselves be vulnerable too, I gain trust that that vulnerability won’t implode, and that eases the anxiety a bit.

But I can’t tell you how to set boundaries and share your feelings “without anxiety.” I don’t do it without anxiety. I do it with anxiety, every single time.

Every time I set a boundary, I feel afraid that the person will lash out or abandon me. Every time I share negative feelings, especially negative feelings about someone’s actions, I worry that this time it’ll be too much, it’ll be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and they’ll decide that dealing with me and my feelings isn’t worth it anymore. Every time I am honest about my depression and anxiety–which often means letting them out into the open rather than suppressing their symptoms–I fear that people will recoil and withdraw.

I hate telling people they’ve hurt me. There’s no satisfaction or schadenfreude in that for me. I hate knowing that they might feel like bad friends/partners and that their guilt will be painful. Every time, I wish I could keep it to myself and get over it so that we wouldn’t have to talk about it and I wouldn’t have to take that risk. But I have to, or else those relationships will rot from the inside out.

I hate telling people I can’t make time or space for them in the way they’d like. I hate knowing that they might worry that I dislike them, and I hate that, honestly, sometimes I DO dislike them because I can’t like everyone. I hate that a lot of the time, giving them a reason would turn this into the kind of honesty that’s no longer kind or helpful. What’s someone supposed to do with the knowledge that I think they talk about their trauma too much and it exhausts me, or that they talk too loud and fast, or I don’t find them interesting because we don’t really care about any of the same things?

In my communities, we tend to cheer people on in their boundary-setting and emoting, applauding dramatic demolitions and disclosures in the hopes of helping each other feel better about being vulnerable. I’ve been praised for it and heaped praise onto others, relishing someone’s crisp shut-down of an online troll or a thoughtful post about their emotional needs.

But for the most part, real communication isn’t an Upworthy moment. It isn’t You Wouldn’t BELIEVE What Miri Did When Her Partner Accidentally Made Her Feel Like A Piece Of Shit. It’s more like, I’m crying and I hate myself for crying and I hate myself for saying that I hate myself because I’m not supposed to say that anymore and I’m trying to tell you that I hurt.

I suppose I should feel somewhat hypocritical for advising people to be honest about their feelings even though I have panic breakdowns about being honest about my feelings, but I don’t, because it’s not hypocritical. I never said it was easy; I only said it had to be done if you want better relationships than your parents had, or at least ones that don’t look like a TV sitcom.

The good news is that your communication skills aren’t measured by whether or not you can implement them without panicking, crying, or stumbling over your words. They aren’t really measured by anything at all, but if they were, it would be by your willingness to approach that scary swamp and wade around in it, and maybe even get stuck in it sometimes.

Nobody ever said you have to feel good about it.

You just have to do it.

And I can promise that it’ll get easier, and I can also promise that it probably won’t get easy.

I’m coming around to the conclusion that those feelings I described–the fear of abandonment, the guilt, the panic–are, like their cousin awkwardness, just the price of admission to being human. They certainly make it a lot harder to communicate openly, but they don’t make it impossible.

Those feelings are there because they speak to real possibilities. Sometimes you ask someone to stop hurting you and they decide that they’d rather not bother with you at all. Sometimes you try to set a boundary and the person would rather argue about it than respect it and move on. Sometimes you express your feelings as kindly as you can and people still take it personally, feel attacked, and blame you.

The only way to not have any anxiety about communicating is to do it falsely, or to stop caring if you lose people you aren’t ready to lose. Neither of those options appeals to me at all.

So if you could know–and accept–that you’re going to feel anxious and uncomfortable about speaking your truth no matter what, and if you could release yourself from the responsibility of controlling or preventing those feelings, what would you do instead?


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I Still Feel Anxious About Communication Every Day

Polyamory 201: “Monogamous for the Right Person”

When it comes to relationships, I usually try to let myself rely on my gut feelings a little more than I do in other situations. They tend to be pretty spot-on when it comes to relationships, and ignoring them has usually been pretty regrettable.

One of the things I have a gut feeling about is ostensibly polyamorous people who say that they’d be “willing” to be monogamous…”for the right person.”

Recently I was listening to a new-ish podcast called Hannah and Matt Know It All, in which the titular polyamorous married couple reads advice columns from around the internet and adds their own perspective. Lately they’ve been getting their own listener questions, too. I love Hannah and Matt’s progressive, consent-aware takes on things. Polyamory doesn’t actually come up all that often on the podcast, but recently they did a whole episode on it since they’ve been getting more questions about it.

One question in the episode (at 9:38) was from a woman who prefers monogamy, but is giving polyamory a shot because she’s really into a guy who prefers it. He has another girlfriend too, but he’s also mentioned to her that he’d be “willing to be monogamous for the right person.” The letter-writer is asking for perspectives on polyamory to help her understand it so that she can make this relationship work, but Hannah and Matt (and their guest, Laurel, who happens to be Matt’s girlfriend [cute!]) focus in on that “monogamous for the right person” bit.

Laurel points out that by framing his preferences in this way, the guy in the letter is setting up a competitive situation between his two girlfriends–never a healthy thing–and not-so-subtly implying that if he doesn’t agree to be monogamous with the letter-writer, then…she’s not “the right person.” Ouch.

And there it is. I’d never thought about it in those terms before, but what really bothers me about these “monogamous for the right person” folks is that, intentionally or otherwise, they’re ensuring that any partner they have who may prefer monogamy feels like they have to prove themselves worthy of it.

I’ve met poly people who are okay with monogamy. That’s been many of my partners. But their framing was entirely different. They usually told me that they’d be totally fine just being with me, but that if I want to be polyamorous, that’s cool and maybe they’ll take the opportunity to date other people too. Sometimes they have, sometimes they haven’t.

And while I didn’t understand at first–it always seemed like polyamory versus monogamy is a divide you’d fall clearly on one side of–it eventually made more sense.

For these folks, unlike for me, monogamy doesn’t feel like a suffocating trap. And for these folks, unlike for many monogamous people, polyamory doesn’t feel like getting cheated on or left behind. So they’re happy to do either one, and if either one is particularly important to their current partner, that’s what they go with.

But it wasn’t a matter of “monogamous for the right person.” It was a matter of, “I don’t really care, so let’s do what you prefer.”

While I hate to play No True Poly, something reads a little weird about the idea of labeling yourself as polyamorous while searching for The One Partner To Rule Them All or whatever. Back when my parents were getting together, I think folks just called that “dating.”

In fact, I read a book about the history of dating recently and it turns out that this idea of being monogamous before you get engaged (or close to it) is actually fairly new. It used to be that people–especially young people who aren’t ready for marriage–commonly dated several people fairly casually until they felt a special connection with one of them and chose to invest all of their romantic energy into that.

When I was in high school and still dating monogamously, my parents thought it was totally bizarre and kind of unhealthy that teens took “exclusivity” so seriously. What, they asked, is the point of forcing yourself into a relationship that has all the trappings of engagement when you know you’re not even remotely likely to stay with this person after graduation? It’s like the worst parts of commitment and none of the best.

I didn’t get it then, but I see the point now.

Obviously, I don’t think that preparing for marriage is the only valid reason to be monogamous. Plenty of people like monogamous relationships whether or not they’re intending to take things up the escalator. But “monogamous for the right person” implies that your choice to be monogamous isn’t really about you and your comfort level or preferences; it’s about your partner and whether or not they’re “right” to bestow this great honor upon.

I don’t think there’s really a way to have a healthy committed relationship with someone who identifies as “monogamous for the right person.” If you prefer monogamy, and you’re hoping that you and this person will be “the right people” for each other, you still have to go through a waiting period while this person dates around and figures out which (if any) of their partners is “the right person” to be monogamous with. It’s literally The Bachelor with a faux-progressive veneer and probably not even on a beach.

And if you prefer polyamory, then there’s no point in wasting your time, because sooner or later this person will either want monogamy with you–and that’s a non-starter–or they’ll dump you for someone else.

The only way this really works is if you’re only interested in something casual, and it doesn’t bother you too much if the person ends up cutting things off to be monogamous with someone else. That’s not polyamory. That’s casual dating.

Regardless, waiting around for your partner to either dump you or to dump their other partners is not a healthy polyamorous situation. Polyamory is not about worrying that your partner will “pick” someone else, or trying to decide which of your partners to “pick.” It’s about being open to multiple loving relationships.

Sometimes that means that one day, for whatever reason, you find yourself committed to just one person, and they are committed only to you. But if you’re looking for a monogamous relationship, then you’re a monogamous person. Own it.

I can only imagine there’s a huge overlap between “monogamous for the right person” poly people and “wow my partners are just so jealous of each other all the time, I can’t deal with all this drama, why can’t you guys just get along” poly people. That’s because cultivating jealousy, like managing jealousy, is a skill, and it’s one that people deploy somewhat intentionally, even if they don’t realize exactly what they’re doing.

The way that we make polyamory work on an ethical and psychological level is by reminding ourselves and each other that being with multiple people does not mean that anyone is better or worse or enough or not enough. It means that, just as we may love more than one friend, child, parent, sibling, cat, or sourdough bread recipe, we can also love more than one partner—for whatever definition of “love” you’re using.

“Monogamous for the right person” blows that right up and destroys the sometimes-fragile trust that polyamory requires. These folks want you to laboriously prove to them that you’re The One. Forget it. As polyamory shows us, there are plenty of wonderful humans out there to love.

And cats. Also cats.


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Polyamory 201: “Monogamous for the Right Person”

Polyamory 201: Cultivating Jealousy

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

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

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

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

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

Unclear communication

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

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

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

Yes, even in poly relationships.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Relationship Energy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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Polyamory 201: Cultivating Jealousy

Niceness and Kindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Niceness and Kindness

How Should We Respond to Passive Communication?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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How Should We Respond to Passive Communication?

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