sex, love, and relationships for those of us who don't quite follow the rules

Posts tagged ‘human nature’

jealousy and insecurity: a beginner’s guide, written by a beginner

Today’s “things even monogamous people can learn from polyamory” is brought to you courtesy of Shaun’s mother, whom we’re visiting this week. He’s been open about being polyamorous for years, and while she doesn’t seem to have any moralistic objections, it makes her anxious. Particularly, she’s convinced that jealousy and insecurity are inevitable, and will cause the downfall of any non-monogamous relationship. Hearing that I went on a couple of dates before our trip, with gentlemen I hope to see again, she asked him, “Aren’t you afraid, if she keeps seeing these guys, she might start to like one of them better than you?” (And now I know where he gets his bluntness.)

So we’re going to talk about jealousy and insecurity.

One of the most common misconceptions in people who are just learning about polyamory is that successful poly folk claim to never jealous. I thought that myself, and I was a little nervous. My jealousy quotient is fairly low, but I have felt it pretty intensely two or three times in my life, so I didn’t know that I’d be able to keep up a “never getting jealous ever” kind of lifestyle. When I did a little deeper reading, though, I found that this wasn’t the expectation. In most of the blogs and forum posts I read, mature people in secure poly relationships acknowledged feeling jealous and insecure from time to time. The difference is in how they treat these emotions.

For some reason, we tend to view jealousy as a fire that needs to be put out. Stop the presses, hold the phones — if someone is feeling jealous, then something is WRONG and everything else in the relationship needs to be on hold until it gets fixed. But jealousy is a feeling, and like any feeling you can choose how you deal with it. You can suppress it and pretend it’s not there, you can attack and blame yourself for feeling it, you can attack and blame the other person for making you feel it, you can succumb to it entirely and let the feeling make all your decisions for you.

Any of those approaches will do damage to you and your relationship. But you can also take a meditative, accepting approach, which goes something like this: Acknowledge what you’re feeling. Acknowledge that it hurts and it sucks. Remind yourself that this feeling does not define your emotional landscape, and that like all feelings it will fade. Promise yourself that when it has faded, and your rational brain is freer, you will assess the reasons behind it and see if there’s something you need to address or adjust.

I recommend this approach for dealing with just about any negative emotion. These feelings, like physical pain, are signs that something is wrong, misaligned, damaged. The difference is, while for many of us our bodies are in good working order most of the time, our emotional and relational centers are pretty well battered before most of us hit puberty. From our parents onward, the people we loved and depended on have failed to give us all the support, the care, the attention we needed from them. We have to think of feelings like jealousy and insecurity the way a veteran thinks of an old injury that still hurts from time to time. There are circumstances that trigger the feeling, but the damage that it springs from was caused long ago, and no amount of frantic questioning, pleas for reassurance, or desperate ultimatums will cure it. It’s a chronic ailment that we simply have to live with, and deal with as best we can.

When not in the grips of the pain, we can take various steps to become healthier and stronger, to quiet that old war wound and make it less sensitive to flare-ups. I’m not an expert in this area, since as I said I suffer from jealousy and insecurity only rarely. But generally I find that things I tell myself rationally, and dwell on contemplatively, eventually make their way into the deeper levels of my psyche. So here are a few rational thoughts around jealousy and insecurity.

1 – Love is not a zero-sum commodity. I think of two people I love very deeply and intensely, and consider how little my love for each of them has to do with my feelings for the other (unless they are close themselves, in which case my feelings for both of them usually enhance each other). They are entirely separate, and they co-exist in my heart without difficulty. Why should it not be the same for my lover and anyone else they love?

2 – I am lovable. Few of us escape childhood and adolescence without the delusion that we are unlovable, that the warmth and care that we feel for other people is never truly extended back toward us. We need to recognize that this is a delusion, and that most of the people around us feel the same way. And when our lovers say “I love you,” we should try to believe them.

3 – I am irreplaceable; I offer things to my lover that no one else can give. This, like the previous one, is a negation of a delusion most of us seem to have. When my lover starts spending time with someone new, I look at all the wonderful qualities she has, and think, “I could never compete with that! Of course he’s going to love her more than me.” When I catch myself doing this I find the best strategy is to remind myself of some wonderful qualities I have that she doesn’t. If need be, I ask my lover to name a few. I don’t ever try to get an exhaustive list, because that tempts me to start comparing lists to see which of us stacks up best overall; the idea is just to give myself a concrete reminder that I bring some things to the table which nobody else does.

4 – If my lover ever does end the relationship, it will be because of inadequacies in this relationship, not the allure of another. This one requires more partner participation than the others. Novelty has its own unique appeal, and I and my lover both need to know how strong this appeal is for us and how far we’re going to indulge it. But if a person desires a long-term, stable relationship, novelty itself is not likely to pull them out of a good one. I need to trust that my lover and I understand our needs and desires, and are continually communicating them. I am responsible for making sure my lover knows how to make me happy, and I need to trust that he is accepting the same responsibility. If all this is happening, there is little need to fear that I will be left for someone else, and if I am, there should be plenty of warning.

None of these considerations are going to help when you’re in the grips of roiling jealousy or insecurity. At those times, you just have to ride it out. But when you’re calm again, meditating on them and doing your best to internalize them (it takes time) can help a lot.

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How we got here

Having now read all of Sex at Dawn, I’m going to tell you why I think it’s an important book.

It’s not important because it tells us something we didn’t already know. There’s no new research (as far as I can tell), and it doesn’t question common understandings of the way we are today. Its interest is in how we got here. One could claim that its basic message is trivial: that the confused sexual structure we currently live in (ideals of monogamy but frequent rule-breaking and temptation) is the product not of our evolutionary roots as a species, but of adaptations to the changed environment we created with agriculture. That’s it. “We are the way we are because of something that happened 10,000 years ago, not because of something that happened 200,000 years ago.” That’s the basic message, and one might be justified in asking, “So what?”

I’ll tell you so what. When an evolutionary psychologist says that strict monogamy is not natural to humans (and they pretty much all say that), someone usually responds, “Yes, but we have free will; we can choose to rise above our animal nature.” Now that’s a debatable point, largely depending on your definitions of “free will” and “animal nature,” but let’s set aside that question for now. A more pertinent reply to the “we can rise above our animal nature” argument is, “Maybe, but why should we?”

The standard evolutionary-psychology model, which I outlined ever so loosely here, frames nonmonogamy for both males and females as, quite literally, cheating. There’s a mutually beneficial arrangement (monogamy) to which both parties agree, but they can do even better in the grand genetic steeplechase by cheating on the agreement. It’s not pretty, but hey, red in tooth and claw. If this is the best account of the monogamy/nonmonogamy tension in society, then people have some justification for calling on us all to rise above it. We owe it to our partners to put aside our selfish urges toward outside gratification, and to devote ourselves to maintaining the pair-bond we’ve formed. If they really love us, they’ll do the same. That’s the narrative we’re often given.

Sex at Dawn takes that narrow perspective and splits it wide open, suggesting many more possibilities for human sexual behavior that are cooperative, loving, and beneficial to everybody involved. The narrative it offers goes like this: Humans evolved in small, egalitarian, hunter-gatherer communities where men and women both benefited from frequent, free, promiscuous sexual encounters. Paternity wasn’t an issue because nobody was hoarding resources to pass on to their children, and securing male providership wasn’t an issue because women were gathering the bulk of the food anyway. When we developed agriculture, suddenly it became advantageous to accumulate land and livestock, and to pass these on to your own genetic offspring. So men became concerned with controlling women’s sexual behavior. At the same time, being the bearers and nursers of children became much more incapacitating for two reasons: farming is more labor-intensive than foraging, and with property comes theft and territory conflict. So women had a much greater need for men to provide for and defend them.

At this point the narrative converges with the conventional model. Male sexual infidelity doesn’t hurt women that much (from an evolutionary perspective) since sperm is cheap and plentiful. The woman is concerned more with making sure that he continues to provide material support and defense for herself and her children. Hence, “emotional infidelity” is more of a threat to women. Polygamy works out okay for both men and women (again, from an evolutionary perspective), so a lot of societies do that for a while. Then we become more enlightened. We start to see the harm in oppressive patriarchy, the injustice of viewing women as property, and we work to correct the situation. But by this time the ideal of female sexual fidelity has become deeply engrained in our cultural morality; sexual jealousy in men has gained a strong memetic, and possibly genetic, foothold. We know the polygamous patriarchy is unfair, but allowing women sexual freedom feels “wrong.” (We’ve also, in our efforts to control female sexuality, repressed and denied it for long enough that it’s easy to believe that women wouldn’t really want, or benefit from, sexual freedom even if we gave it to them.)

There’s a parallel line of development around the “family.” Human beings need each other, need to exist in a small, interdependent network of other human beings, where regardless of how much they like or dislike one another, each one assumes some responsibility for the well-being of the others. In small hunter-gatherer tribes, the entire tribe can function as a family in many ways. Children are mothered and fathered by many adults; resources brought into the group are shared evenly with everybody. The bond each person has with their neighbors goes far beyond emotional affinity: they bear a responsibility to care for one another despite any conflicts or personality clashes.

With the advent of agriculture, territory, and a protected paternal line, this circle of familial interdependence was reduced to the immediate blood family: parents, children, grandparents. It’s been that way for so long that we’ve come to consider that kind of devoted interdependence as a unique feature of blood family relationships, and to consider other groups that have that quality (military units, for example) as an exception to the rule.

So we as a culture have talked ourselves out of believing that women want or should have sexual freedom, and into believing that the nuclear family is somehow sacred in the kind of bonds it creates. Which means that the obvious answer to the “polygamy is unfair, women aren’t property” realization is prescribed monogamy for everyone. If women shouldn’t sleep around, then clearly sleeping around in general is wrong. If the nuclear family is the source of familial love and bondedness, then we should protect and encourage it. Hence: monogamy. Now we’re expected to fall in love with someone whose lifestyle and personality will be compatible with ours in the long run, marry them, and make that our one sexual and romantic relationship.

It’s not working all that well; anybody with eyes to see can see that. Infidelity’s one problem, but even the honorable, conscientious folks typically engage in serial monogamy, and lots of it. The age of marriage and the divorce rate have both grown tremendously. Basically, we’re really just not all that good at monogamy. Religious conservatives will tell you that it’s not working because we’re letting our fallen sinful nature get the better of us. Evolutionary psychologists in the classic vein will tell us… actually pretty much the same thing, only with a secular story behind it instead of the religious one. The writers of Sex at Dawn suggest that maybe there’s nothing specially virtuous about monogamy; maybe the fact that we suck at it doesn’t mean we’re doomed as a species. Maybe there are other ways of being, ways that still allow for love and intimacy and deep concern for the people we’re closest to.

I think that’s a damn important message.

Negotiated fidelity

I finished reading Sex at Dawn, and I’ll have plenty more to say about it. The last chapter was mostly about application to modern life, and this post is taken partly from that and partly from my own thoughts and observations.

As a culture, we need to get rid of the idea that sexual exclusivity should come easily and naturally if a person “truly loves” their partner. Sometimes, for some people, deep love comes with a lack of any interest in other potential partners, but this is more likely to be true in the short term than in the long term, and should never be taken as a litmus test.

Whether a given couple should attempt sexual exclusivity is for them to decide, and ideally it should be decided after long, exhaustively honest conversations, and should be periodically revisited. Men and women both experience hormonal changes as they age, and are likely to find themselves feeling differently about ideal sexual behavior at different times in their lives.

In short, what I’m advocating for every committed couple is negotiated fidelity: a relationship where both partners can present their wants, needs, feelings, and fears on an ongoing basis, without either one feeling that the bedrock of their relationship is threatened if one of those feelings is something like, “I really like the idea of having sex with that barista.” It requires a lot of trust and security, a lot of willingness to delve into one’s own feelings and struggles, a lot of uncritical openness with oneself and one’s partner. If either party is feeling like they have to continually repress certain feelings to make the relationship work, then it is a bad relationship.

Repression is not the same as self-control. There is a huge difference between, “My partner wants me to be sexually exclusive, so I will refrain from having sex with others,” and saying, “My partner wants me to be sexually exclusive, so I will hide from myself and from my partner any inkling of a thought that I might be interested in having sex with others.” And, to be even-handed, there’s a difference between saying, “My partner wants an open relationship, so I will work to get more comfortable with their interest in other people,” and, “My partner wants an open relationship, so I will deny and suppress any feelings of jealousy and insecurity I experience.” In both cases, the former statement is an expression of self-control exercised to accommodate a partner’s needs; the latter is a repression that will only cause damage, both to the individual and to the relationship.

Negotiated fidelity. Give it a try.

who’s your girl?

I’ve been having a lot of conversations about gender and attraction lately, from “what kind of guys/girls are you attracted to?” to “what happens when one member of a lesbian couple transitions to male?” I know so, so little about this subject, but I’m just going to meander through my thoughts and observations, and invite other people to contribute theirs.

Basically, um, gender identity and sexual attraction are complicated and many-layered, and the more set you are on consistency and rationality, the more mind-fucked you’ll feel. Yeah? So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

My “type” in men is often consistent: I like slender, bookish men, smart and/or artistic, and particularly there’s a certain lithe grace about the way some men move that I adore. Every so often there’s a category-buster, but on the whole it’s a solid trend. My “type” in women has been harder to pinpoint, maybe because I haven’t been thinking of myself as bi for as long, but I’m starting to pick up on trends. The women that turn my head when I’m out and about have a look of strong, abundant femininity about them: thick, curly hair; full, curvy mouth; dark coloring (which for some reason connotes strength and capability to my animal brain, as opposed to fair skin and hair.) Medium-to-full breasts, although I think that’s mostly just because I like breasts, whether they’re on me or someone else.

Several of my lesbian or bi friends are only, or primarily, attracted to androgynous or masculine-presenting women. Also, a couple of these friends who identify as lesbian have said that they generally find muscled, tough-looking men more attractive than the slim fellows I like. Russell Crowe and Bruce Willis, as opposed to David Tennant and Jude Law. I’ve never understood that (I like a pretty face, on a man or a woman), and of course my sample size is much too small to be significant, but I find it interesting.

I’d love to see a survey of people who admit some level of bisexual attraction (whether they ever care to act on it), that asked them to pinpoint their most common “type” on the gender-expression continuum for both men and women. I’d be interested in finding out whether more people are attracted to masculine (or feminine) traits in both men and women, or whether their attractions tend to cluster around androgyny for both types, or conversely, to strongly expressed masculinity in men and femininity in women. Or whether there’s no trend at all, just all-over-the-map craziness.

Of course that question presupposes a pretty binary notion of gender, which is what I meant when I said I don’t know much about this topic… I’m not yet terribly well-informed on the nuances of gender study. So if a better-informed reader wants to come in here and deconstruct the entire question I’ve just asked, they’re more than welcome.

I find it interesting to see how trends in attraction change over a person’s life. My sister Laurel was famously into Asian men for most of her teenage years. Eventually this broadened to “Asian and Middle-Eastern, and sometimes African-American” and then eventually she just dubbed it her “melanin fetish.” I guessed, and she confirmed quite recently, that this had a lot to do with feeling like an alien in her own culture. Recently she’s found herself more able to be attracted to Caucasian guys as well, at the same time as she’s found herself freer and freer to express things about herself that clash with the conservative, religious, suburban world we grew up in. Likewise, Charis’s preference for androgynous women loosened as she became more and more comfortable with her sexual identity (am I right, Char? We haven’t talked about this in a while.)

For myself, I wonder how much my own current attraction to strong, feminine women owes to my recent embrace of the power and beauty of being a woman (something noticeably lacking in my mental landscape as a child and teenager — I’ll post about that another time.) I wonder if it will change over time; whether I’ll become more or less attracted to women in general and that type of woman specifically. I expect it will.

I’ve found myself able to identify trends in the “types” of hetero male friends as well. My brother is drawn to women with small facial features (something he didn’t notice until I pointed it out). Shaun, on the other hand, seems to like women with strong noses. Is this just a fluke, or does it say something about the degree of power or intensity each desires in a woman? (Of course I suspect the latter, or I wouldn’t have mentioned it… but again, small sample.) And will my brother’s “type” shift if he dates other women after his current girlfriend (a very curvy, strong-featured, strong-personalitied woman indeed)?

But back to the queers. I like to hear stories from people whose lovers have transitioned, because of how radically that has to uproot your thoughts on gender and identity and attraction. I’m equally interested relationships that survived the transition and those that didn’t. I’m not so interested in questions like, “If you’re a lesbian with a girlfriend who becomes a man, and you stay together, are you bi now?” Those questions assume a rigidity of categories that seems kind of obsolete in context.

What I’m more interested in is questions like, “How did your attraction change over the course of the transition?” And, for both those who have been through it and those who haven’t, “Would it be harder to stay attracted to your partner if they changed gender or changed weight?” (I’m pretty sure my attraction to Shaun would better survive his becoming a woman than his gaining 200 pounds.) And, “What about intermediate, less-dramatic changes?” What if your girlfriend who has always worn makeup and skirts starts dressing androgynously, cuts her hair short? Or vice versa?

I told you this would be a rambly post. I don’t have a lot of concrete thoughts or answers, just questions, observations, and curiosities. And there’s lots and lots of territory I haven’t covered. Please feel free to ramble and ruminate in the comments.