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

Posts tagged ‘polyamory’

My story of abuse

Content note: discussions of emotional abuse and sexual assault (the assault section has its own note and is self-contained, for any who want to read the rest but not that)

This blog has always been intended to be semi-private; accessible to the public, but not linked in any obvious way with my name, and not published on social media that people like my family may read. I began it as a place to discuss my sex life. Last year, I came back to it in order to have a place to vent some of the hurt and rage I was feeling due to the behavior of my former polycule. I’ve now put those posts behind a password, as they were intended for personal processing, and not meant to be linked to the names of myself or any of the people involved, or seen by the people I was feeling hurt and angry toward.

Now, this seems to be the appropriate place to put the details of my abuse and sexual assault — details that I don’t want to have embedded in my permanent public image the way they would be if I post directly on my regular blog. My reasons for deciding to make these details public will unfold as I go. The below is an expanded version of what I have sent to several community leaders at their request. Some of it has also appeared in a document that was written last year and made available upon request to mutual friends and acquaintances. The response to that document is itself part of the story; more on that below.

Overview of the relationship
I met Wes Fenza in 2011; we dated for about four months, then I broke up with him because I wasn’t feeling attracted to or in love with him any more. After a couple of weeks I got back together with him, and we continued dating for another few months, when we broke up for good. Throughout this time my then-fiancé Shaun was dating Wes’s wife Gina, and our households continued to spend a lot of time together.

In the summer of 2012 Shaun and I moved in with Wes’s household. Although I was not romantically involved with anybody except Shaun, the five of us (Shaun, myself, Wes, Gina, and Jessie) operated closely in a familial way. We lived there for a year and a half, and then in December 2013, they asked us to move out because of some troubling behavior on Shaun’s part. Although we had all initially expressed the intention of remaining friends and continuing to work together on our various collaborative projects, in the months after we moved out relations between the two households became increasingly hostile and publicly nasty. At the same time, I began re-evaluating some of the things that happened within Wes’s and my relationship, in the light of his behavior after we left and of things that other people who had once been close with him began sharing with me. We now have no contact with each other, and my friends know not to invite me to any parties where he will be present, and vice versa. It is my strong desire never to be in his presence again.

Problematic things in my relationship with Wes
While I was dating Wes, we had several disagreements that left me feeling browbeaten and dominated, although I could not at the time point to anything he was saying that was overtly manipulative, controlling, or abusive. On one occasion I expressed that I wanted to limit the frequency with which I spent the night at his place without Shaun also being there. (Since Shaun was also dating Gina, it was common for both of us to go together for a date overnight.) Wes argued with me about this for hours, both in online chats and in person, insisting that my account of my motivations was dishonest and warning me of the damage it would do to our relationship if I insisted on setting that boundary. He insisted that I was only doing this to protect Shaun’s feelings or to coddle Shaun’s jealousy, while I tried to maintain that I had a number of reasons, my own comfort and preferred social configurations included. At the end of the night, after nearly an entire day arguing off and on, I gave in and told him that his account of my motivations was correct, just so I could end the argument and sleep. When I later told him that that’s what I’d done, he got angry with me for lying to him, without taking any responsibility for the fact that over twelve hours of badgering and disbelieving my honest accounts had left me feeling like I had no choice.

When I broke up with Wes in November of 2011, it was deeply upsetting to all of us. We’d had this dream of a cozy little family unit, and I was the one ruining that. I felt pretty guilty about it and my reluctance to mess up the nice thing we had going was a big part of why I waited as long as I did. I knew I was going to hurt people, so I went in apologizing hard. Back then, I thought that if I took as much blame as possible onto myself everything would be better. Mostly, I apologized for not being up-front about my waning interest in dating Wes the minute I felt it. Instead, I waited around for several weeks hoping that it was just a phase and that my interest would be rekindled, and I blamed myself for not speaking up about it sooner. (I had spoken to Gina about it, and she had strongly urged me to try to give him more time, because he was the best person she knew, etc. I was also dating Gina at this time, and was among other things fearful of the effect that breaking up with Wes might have on my relationship with her.)

What I wasn’t expecting to be blamed for was the feelings themselves. But Wes immediately started telling me that I should have done more, should have worked harder to get close to him, should have tried harder to cultivate feelings for him. He insisted again that I was lying about my motivations, that there must be some deep-rooted personal issue rather than just an absence of physical and romantic attraction. He demanded to know what it was that I disliked him for and judged him unworthy of dating for. I tried to tell him that I didn’t know, I just wasn’t feeling it, and he insisted I was being dishonest. I told him I was very uncomfortable with the idea of having a conversation about every little thing I disliked about him — I didn’t think it would be helpful to either of us. He pushed for such a conversation anyway.

I felt very strongly that I didn’t want to have that conversation, but Gina was also urging me toward it, and said that the reason he and another ex were no longer friends was that she’d refused to do the same thing. I didn’t want to lose any friendship with him that was possible, and I didn’t want to jeopardize the other relationships that were involved, so I gave in, even though I had a lot of misgivings. I started to list things, and he responded to every one with defensiveness, with “you’ve got me all wrong” and assertions that if I’d only paid more attention I’d have seen that those things weren’t accurate expressions of who he was. He insisted that these protests weren’t attempts to get me to change my mind about breaking up with him, but they certainly felt like it to me. I felt like I was being maneuvered into a position where I had to justify my reasons for breaking up, and then all my reasons were being shot down.

Whether it was intentional or not, I feel now that I was manipulated into feeling that I had done something wrong in not wanting to be with him. That, plus some ill-timed parental abandonment that left my defenses low, sent me begging him to take me back a couple of weeks later, which he did after a consultation with Gina and Jessie in which they agreed that I could have a second chance. It all seemed fine at the time, but looking back on it I recognize it as a horribly toxic episode that left me feeling emotionally shredded (again, whether intentionally or not), and triggered a period of depression and some suicidal ideation. When I realized that I was still not attracted to or in love with him, I felt it was impossible to say so. I felt convinced that I was a terrible person for feeling this way, for changing my mind again after they’d given me a second chance. I lived in a fog of self-hatred and imprisoned misery, until several months later Wes noted that I’d been very withdrawn, and when I confessed that I didn’t really want to be dating him, let me go this time without a fight, saying that he felt I’d given him enough of a chance now. I felt dimly outraged that he had felt it was on him to decide how much of a chance he should get, but I was too relieved to try to discuss it.

From this point, and throughout my living with them, I kept a certain emotional distance from Wes. I couldn’t point to anything explicit that he had done or said that I could prove was wrong or toxic or abusive, but I felt unsafe and uncomfortable with any level of vulnerability with him. Conflicts and conversations that we did have left me feeling overwhelmed and sick, and I frequently had panicky flashbacks to conflicts from earlier in our relationship.

Sexual assault (trigger or TMI warning: graphic descriptions)
I discuss this completely separately because at the time I had compartmentalized it. Twice while we were dating, Wes anally penetrated me without permission or preparation. The first time, I was frozen and had difficulty processing what was happening. I desperately did not want to conceptualize it as a rape, so instead I spent the panicked and painful seconds as my entire body went stiff thinking maybe this was normal. Maybe fucking your girlfriend in the ass without consent, warning, or lubrication was just a thing people did. I knew that wasn’t true, but that’s where my mind went to try to make it okay, to make this not be a rape in progress. I don’t remember if he said anything after my body went stiff and he pulled out and we lay down. If he did, it wasn’t much, because I lay there terrified and shaking and still in pain and trying to get up the courage to suggest that maybe he should ask next time.

I finally did bring myself to say that, at which point he said, “Oh, it was an accident.” Until that moment, the possibility hadn’t even occurred to me. I chose to believe him because I didn’t want to deal with the possibility that it had been deliberate, and “accident” was a much more viable solution than the one I’d tried to provide. So I squashed down my own feelings and suspicions that it had been deliberate. Even when his immediate follow-up to “it was an accident” was “…but is that something you’d be into?”

It happened again some weeks later. This time he just said “Sorry” and we moved on. I was outraged that he hadn’t been more careful, after what had happened the first time, but I didn’t say anything about it. I just wondered a lot, privately, obsessively, about whether that was really a mistake that a person was likely to make. Twice. I didn’t tell anybody about it until over a year later, and I didn’t start to process it as a rape until I read his response to another victim and realized that I no longer had any difficulty believing him capable of that.

Conflict and fallout
Around the time our household fell apart, there were (quite valid) concerns being raised about Shaun’s anger problems and his treatment of Gina. I attempted to both recognize those concerns as legitimate, and also raise my own concerns about Wes’s behavior and his treatment of me. I never wanted to make it an issue of “Shaun vs. Wes” — I wanted to be having a conversation about the multiple toxic dynamics that were operative in the household, and to hold both Shaun and Wes accountable. Any attempt of mine to bring up problems with Wes, though, were deflected, ignored, or treated as evidence of personality flaws in myself. I didn’t try very hard to push these dialogues — I had already learned from experience that conflicts with Wes sucked up huge amounts of time and emotional energy, and rarely led to any positive outcome.

I am not here to write about Shaun. Wes has argued (here, and I’m sure in other places) that my motivation for accusing him is to deflect blame from Shaun over Shaun’s treatment of Gina. So let me be quite clear here: Shaun is no saint. I believe Gina has every right to identify as an abuse victim at Shaun’s hands. Although I did not witness any abusive dynamics directly, I have no difficulty believing that such dynamics occurred in their private interactions. When Shaun and I were still together, I did a lot of encouraging him to self-examine and change the patterns that I saw in him as most likely to lead to emotional abuse. Shaun and I are no longer together, and while I have hopes for his continued personal growth and our ability to have a friendship again in the future, I have zero interest in protecting his reputation. I have spoken my experiences with Wes, privately to community leaders and now publicly, because I was hurt by Wes, and because I want to see him held accountable for his actions. I am frankly furious (and at the same time completely unsurprised) that my motives in doing this are being spun and my agency being denied.

Feeling frustrated, silenced, and invalidated by the continued narrative that the Fenzorselli household was spinning, that Wes was blameless in our household’s breakup, I added some of my own words (many of which appear above) to an account that Shaun was writing of his own mistreatment at Wes’s hands. This account was made available to anyone who asked for it, in the summer of 2014. Wes read it, and wrote his own lengthy response which was likewise made publicly available. I am copying below the part of it that pertained to me:

Ginny is a much more sympathetic character than Shaun. She is affable, friendly, intelligent, and is often kind and compassionate. However, she also has some serious mental health issues for which she refuses to seek treatment. Most of her issues are related to her relationship with her father. According to Ginny, her father is confident, outgoing, and strong- willed, and so (she admits) she projects a lot of her issues with him onto me. Her father is also a strict conservative Christian, and raised Ginny in a very oppressive household, from which she has many issues that will require decades of therapy.

Ginny often describes herself as not feeling any emotions most of the time. According to her, the majority of the time, her emotional existence is simply blank. I’ve heard some credible speculation that she perhaps has a dissociative disorder. Because of this, she admits, she has trouble understanding others’ emotions or motivations, and gets anxious when it seems like she is causing emotions that she didn’t intend. She also regularly admits that she doesn’t understand her own emotions. Apparently, pointing out this (undisputed) fact made her feel like “an emotional infant.” I cannot say that I completely disagree with that characterization.

Ginny is also truly committed, in a very deep part of herself, to Guess Culture. Ginny is terrified of making anyone angry or upset, and so neurotically monitors her own behavior to avoid conflict. Conflict of any sort petrifies her. As a result, she displays all of the behaviors of a socially adept Guess Person referenced above. She will constantly project an image of calm, or even enjoyment, when on the inside she is in turmoil. She will use everything at her disposal to hide the way she is feeling when she thinks that her feelings might lead to conflict or make someone upset with her. She does this unapologetically. It makes her a pleasant person to have around socially, but in any sort of close relationship, it’s a disaster.

I was astounded and enraged by the level of invasive speculation about my mental health and its roots, from somebody whom I had described feeling victimized by, and from whom I’d withdrawn trust and intimacy well over a year before. Fortunately, by this time I had recovered a lot of emotional resilience and built a support network, so that the effect of reading this was to make me feel validated in my observations that he was controlling, manipulative, and had no respect for my wellbeing or my privacy. I’m copying it here for that reason, and in anticipation of similar messages being written and spread around in the aftermath of this post.

In the same document, he saw fit to publish as an appendix a number of private emails and chats between him and myself. Needless to say, I never consented to this. He also suggested that my descriptions of depression and suicidal ideation at the time we were dating were just attempts to manipulate and falsely paint myself as a victim. Fearing that accusation was exactly what had prevented me from talking about them at the time, so again, I felt validated even through my anger.

Current events and public accusations
Since that time in mid-summer, I have remained largely silent about my former polycule, both in public and with common acquaintances. I have continued to process the trauma I felt, and made the decision to avoid going to any events or joining any groups where I was likely to encounter them. At the same time, I couldn’t completely avoid becoming aware that Wes was beginning to write and speak frequently on the subject of consent. At one social gathering, somebody (who had no reason to guess how triggering it would be for me) brought up an article about consent Wes had posted to social media. I had to leave the room and spent the next little while crying outside. Every time something like this came up, I was sickened and hurt and torn over whether I ought to speak out about my experiences.

A few weeks ago, I was contacted and invited to share my story with the Poly Leadership Network, as Wes had been given a leading voice in discussions of abuse and consent in the poly community. I did so, fully aware that it was likely to unleash a storm, but grateful to finally have an opportunity to discuss what had happened to me and perhaps see some accountability for him.

As things have unfolded, other community leaders have requested my story, and I have shared it with anybody who’s asked. In response to this, I’ve seen the following collection of behaviors from Wes:

– continuing to write on his blog and twitter about abuse and consent, without any acknowledgement that he currently stands accused by a number of people

– responding to The Frisky Fairy’s outlining of events, wherein he again suggests that all the accusations coming toward him are due to Shaun’s anger with him and desire to deflect blame

– emailing Rabbit Darling, the only person who has so far publicly spoken about her experiences with him, with both an apology and request that she apologize to him (the full content of those messages, with her response, is here)

– privately contacting people; I have no idea the extent or detailed content of these messages, but I know that he has written some people to claim that the accusations are a result of a personal vendetta by angry exes, and others to demand that they denounce Rabbit Darling’s claims. He has also apparently circulated some kind of more general response in which he hints at legal action against Rabbit Darling.

– [Update 03/17/2015] Wes has written a long (74 pages, I am told, I didn’t count) response to all his accusers and to the poly community at large. It is accessible from his blog; I won’t link to it here. I read the sections that appeared to pertain to me and to events that I was involved in. There are some truths, a lot of distortions, and many outright lies. It also, consistent with his previous actions, includes revelations of personal sexual encounters and private conversations, without the consent of the people involved. It contains the particularly egregious assumption that when one of his victims consented to have her story told by a trusted friend, she was also consenting to have her story discussed by her rapist. I won’t be responding publicly to it beyond this post, but if anybody reads it and has questions for me, I will be happy to answer them in one-on-one conversation.

I may continue to update this list as events warrant.

I am now writing publicly, for a number of reasons.

1) I’m tired of being silent, and I don’t believe my silence is serving the truth or our community.

2) After Rabbit Darling posted her account, other people (of whose identities I am unaware) have felt empowered to come forward and communicate privately to community leaders about their experiences with Wes.

3) If Rabbit Darling is going to come under fire, either by character assassination or by legal action (although I don’t take that threat terribly seriously), I don’t want her to stand alone.

4) I believe that it is safe for me to come forward, in the grand scheme of things. I believe that the community will, by and large, have my back. And it is my hope that if this happens, other survivors of abuse and assault (at any hands) will feel empowered to speak clearly and publicly about their experiences, if that is what they feel will serve them. Silence has been the default response to being victimized for too long; if I can help change that, I want to.

And one final note, on the assumption that Wes and his family will read this:

I am not asking for an apology. I do not want or welcome direct communication from Wes Fenza in any form. At this time, I am convinced that any such communication, even if couched in the form of an apology, will have the primary goal of defending his own reputation and self-image, rather than of repairing my hurt. I may reassess this belief if, over time, I see a new level of humility and self-examination in his public discussions of these events, but until that time I request that he not try to initiate direct contact with me for any reason.

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.

Shades of Past Lovers: or, what I learned from my wacko fundamentalist past

This is part 1 of a possibly one-part series (I’m notoriously bad at follow-through) on “Things even monogamous people can learn from polyamory.”

We’re going to talk for a minute about serial monogamy vs. absolute monogamy. It’s something a lot of people don’t think about, because a lot of people don’t even contemplate absolute monogamy. I grew up in a nice little conservative religious community, so I did; in fact I planned on it. I bought into the “courtship” model and read all of Josh Harris’s books. I thought that if I was going to have only one lover in the course of my life, I should really have only one lover: no boyfriends, no passionate but doomed affairs. Even if I never had sex with a previous boyfriend, the emotional entanglement would taint my future relationship. I would be giving my future husband a heart that had already been passed around a few times. It sounds ridiculous, but I was sixteen and a romantic. I wanted to save love, intimacy, and sex for one man and one man only.

Ah, if I could see me now.

What I’ve learned since, of course, is that that whole story is a fairy tale. I got over the extreme version of it by the time I was nineteen. But I was still troubled by the pattern of serial monogamy. I don’t let people go easily: if I’ve loved someone once, I love them forever. A new lover might get all of my current attention and my future dreams, but the new relationship doesn’t erase the connection with the old lover. There are precious memories and specific joys I shared with that person that I can’t share with anyone else. In that respect, the Josh Harris ideology was quite correct. My past relationships form a part of who I am, for better or for worse. The emotional ties that ran between me and my former lover don’t just dissolve; I feel differently about them than I do about a friend or acquaintance I’ve never been intimate with.

I don’t know why I was so sure that this was a bad thing. I guess it was part of the “one true love” idealism, so persistently displayed for me in stories, and reinforced by the ridiculously functional marriage of my ridiculously functional parents, neither of whom (as far as I’m aware) had any significant exes. I just thought it would be better that way, better to avoid the complications and possible confusion of having to acknowledge my profound love for one person then, and my equally profound love for a different person now. Better to just have the one lover for past, present, and future. Much simpler that way.

Well, now… how can I put this delicately?…

Fuck that shit.

Simpler is for babies. We repackage the world into simple truths in order to give children some sense of orientation, some sense that they can cope with reality — a reality which, they will eventually discover, is hella complicated. “Love” is not this discrete feeling, identifiable in a lab; it’s a mishmash of emotional and physical responses to someone, layered on top of past experiences and future expectations. It’s a useful category, but if we make the mistake of thinking it’s something simple, we are going to miss out on what reality has to offer us. And what reality has to offer us is a whole array of kinds of love, degrees of love, moments of feeling profound love for someone you’ve barely met and will never see again (Christian of Berlin, I’m looking at you), old loves that reach from the past to enrich our lives (and, yes, sometimes confuse them), new loves that open wide new vistas of possibility to us. Reality, real life, grownup life, is carving your twisted path through all these different manifestations of love, steering as best you can according to what seems most important to you, but always, always, with gratitude and rejoicing at the different loves that are available to you. Because love, my friends, is one of the great beauties of this human life, and if we hide from it or try to compartmentalize it out of existence, we impoverish ourselves.

So. I started off saying this was something that monogamous people could learn from polyamory, but for me it happened the other way around. Coming to terms with the “consequences” of serial monogamy, i.e. having more than one lover in my world, (even if all but one of them were officially retired), made it easy for me to accept polyamory. But serial monogamists (yeesh! Written like that, sounds like I’m talking about some kind of sociopath, doesn’t it? I really don’t mean it that way… some of my best friends are serial monogamists, honest! … um, let’s try this again.) Serial monogamists People who date one person at a time can benefit from recognizing the truths that poly folk have to come to terms with very quickly: love is complicated, love is many-faceted, and the intensity of your feelings for one lover (even if they’re in the past) does not detract from your feelings for another. Instead of trying to deny the feelings you had for a previous lover, let them exist as part of your sense of who you are. In some way, they helped get you here, and if they have some role to play in your current and future life, that’s not a disaster. And extend the same grace, the same confident understanding, to your lover’s exes. They’re probably only a threat if you make them one.

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.

monogamy vs. fidelity

I was going to title this post “monogamy vs. commitment,” but “commitment” is kind of a cold word, and what I’m talking about is warm and vital. Fidelity, faithfulness… there’s a fire under those words. Commitment allows for a certain doggedness, a certain “because I have to” quality. You can be committed to a job or a diet. You can only be faithful to a cause, a passion, a love.

You can be faithful without being monogamous.

It’s so evident to me that this is so, that there’s no necessary connection between the concepts, that I almost don’t know what else to write. But let me try to spin it out further.

“My lover and I are faithful to each other.” What does that mean?

It means that your lover’s needs and wishes affect your behavior even when your lover is nowhere near. You think about how an action will impact them, whether it will enhance or impede your ability to love them. You give the whole question “will this strengthen or damage our relationship?” far more weight and prevalence in your life than you would give the same question asked of your close friends, or parents, or siblings.

I hope it need not be said that the question whether a certain action will strengthen or damage a relationship may have very different answers for different relationships. To take a non-sexual example: religious faith. For some couples, their shared religious faith (or lack thereof) is one of the pillars of their relationship, and a move away from that shared ground threatens the relationship. For others, it’s not that important; difference in their beliefs may fuel some interesting debates from time to time, but it doesn’t have much more impact than, say, one person loving musicals while the other hates them.

Similarly, for one couple sexual exclusivity might be a cornerstone of their relationship, while for another it’s not even expected. Definitions of fidelity vary widely from couple to couple. Some people feel cheated on if their partner masturbates or looks at porn (way over on the “unreasonable” end of the spectrum, in my opinion.) In the greyer areas, you have things like going to strip clubs… flirting with other people… getting cyber-married in Second Life. And the all the way over on the “laying no claim to monogamy” side of the spectrum you have swinging, relationships open to outside flings, and polyamory.

You can be faithful anywhere along this spectrum, as long as you and your lover have a sound understanding of what you each need from the other, and how your romantic and sexual activities will affect them. Your place on the spectrum is not likely to be static — I don’t think it should be. People grow, relationships grow, life circumstances change. It’s healthy to continually evaluate your wants and needs and the reasons behind them. Regardless of what boundaries you mutually agree on, it’s not exclusivity that makes a relationship secure — it’s fidelity.

What is monogamy?

I’ve had some conversations lately — I feel like every blog post I write could start that way — with self-identified “monogamous” people, and they’ve left me wondering: what is this  “monogamy” they’re talking about? I also had one conversation with Shaun, my very dear oh-so-poly boy, and it became clear (after much warm debate) that we were using very different definitions of “monogamy” and “polyamory.”

So, people who identify as monogamous, tell me what that means to you. I’ll get you started with a few ideas.

1) It means I hate the thought of my partner sharing sexual or romantic intimacy with another person. The idea of it gives me an awful feeling, and if it ever really happened I would be devastated. (If your answer is something like, “I don’t mind sharing a partner sexually, but I don’t want them to share romantic intimacy with anyone else” then can you please define “romantic intimacy”? Because it seems to be a concept that means something to people, but I really don’t know what.)

2) It means I can’t imagine giving sexual or romantic attention to more than one person. When I’m in love with someone, I’m blind to all other potential interests.

3) It means that even though I’m occasionally attracted to other people, I don’t want to assume the risks and possible costs of developing those relationships. I’d rather focus my time and energy on my single relationship.

4) It means that one of the most important things about a relationship to me is knowing we both come home to each other at the end of the day, every day. I want one person to be at the center of my life and my plans, and I want to know that I’m at the center of theirs.

Do any of these ring true? More than one? Do they capture the whole story or is there something I’m missing? I’m just curious about what monogamy means to people who choose it.