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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.)
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?
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.
I’m doing a book club! Read my other posts about Brideshead Revisitedhere.
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.
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.
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.