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On Consent in Romantic Relationships (guest post)

June 6, 2019

This is a guest post by my friend Shelly.

Consent is a radical idea

I would like for this to be the shortest discussion ever. I would like to say that we each have an inalienable right to have domain over our bodies, minds, and choices and end the conversation there. I mean, good people don’t violate consent, and I’m a good person, right?

Well, it’s not really so simple. If there’s one common thread through human history, it’s that we are, collectively, really comfortable violating consent. As children, we are often violated physically, emotionally, legally. As much as we are told that we always have choice, we often find that the choice is between homelessness and an abusive working environment or an abusive living situation. As much as we seem to have finally reached some kind of consensus that rape is wrong, we still seem to be having a cultural dialogue about the kinds of circumstances under which it might actually be deserved.

We may encounter many situations in our lives where we have to put walls up and just absorb the loss of control over our lives, our minds, or our bodies. But the one place where we should never have to do that is in our loving relationships. This may on the surface, seem obvious, but make no mistake–this is a radical idea.

Axiom #1

The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship.

Consent is about me

There’s a lot of fuzzy usage around the word consent. I would like to propose a tightening of the definition, because if we are not clear about what consent is, we cannot possibly succeed in communicating about it.

Consent is about me: my body, my mind, and my choices. My consent is required to access the things that I own. You do not need my consent to act, because I do not own your body, your mind, or your choices. However, if your behavior crosses into my personal space, then you need my consent.

If my romantic partner goes out and sleeps with a dozen random hookups, he may have broken an agreement, but he has not violated my consent. If he then has sex with me without telling me about his actions, he has violated my consent because he has deprived me of the ability to make an informed choice.

You cannot understand consent without understanding boundaries

My boundaries are the edges of me. What is my personal space? What is it that I alone own, and you must always have permission to access?

This is somewhat personal, and we often don’t know where our boundaries are until they have been crossed. But I think you can roughly divide personal boundaries into three categories: My body, my mind, and my choices.

Axiom #2

Poor personal boundaries are damaging to the self.

My body

We all have an intuition about where our physical boundaries are. Our boundaries may start at our skin, or the point where we can feel breath. They may begin on the other side of the room. It is the point where we feel touched and physically affected by another person. When we share physical space with others, which we often do in community spaces, we may need to sometimes choose not to share that space depending on where our boundaries need to be at the time. You have the right to decide if, how, and when you want to be touched. Always.

In romantic relationships we often negotiate shared physical space. If touch begins beyond our skin, we may need to negotiate some space that we can control. For some people, this may be a room of one’s own. For some, it might be as simple as asking for some quiet time on the couch. However, without individual space, or the ability to negotiate for individual space when you need it, the only option for exerting a physical boundary may be to leave the shared space.

My mind

This is your mental and emotional experience of the world, your memories, your reality, and your values. When we engage the world, we let people into this personal space. Finding the edges of your mind is trickier than finding your physical edges. We are social creatures, and even the most superficial interactions engage our mental and emotional boundaries. The boundaries of the mind are, on the one hand, the easiest for others to cross over into, and also the boundaries we have the most control over.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me think I deserve it” 

It’s easy to say “don’t give people so much power to hurt you,” but that does not address our need for connection and acceptance. It does not account for the very healthy impulse to seek feedback on our perceptions of the world. I believe that the healthiest person, when persistently rejected, will witness either an erosion of their mental boundaries or an erosion of their ability to engage in intimacy. I also believe that the only way to maintain good mental boundaries, to counteract social rejection, and to assess when to disengage, is to have strong self-knowledge and self-confidence, and to engage in self-compassion and care. In other words, to engage in behaviors that build your self-esteem.

Axiom #3

Solid mental boundaries require self-esteem.

When we engage in intimate relationships, we let people into our minds. We open up our mental boundaries. We let a chosen few affect us, deeply. This is beautiful and amazing, and in my opinion, is one of the things that makes life worth living. But your mind belongs to you and you only. Your intimate partners, your family, your boss and the woman at the grocery store only ever get it on loan, and if that intimacy is damaging you, you have the right to take it back. Always.

Setting mental boundaries is different than setting physical boundaries. When I set a physical boundary, I am exerting some control over what you do with your body as it pertains to my space. Do not touch me there, do not move closer to me, leave my home. But with emotional boundaries, we have to take care to not make others responsible for our mental state. When we tell another person “do not say or do things that upset me,” we are not setting boundaries, we are trying to manage people whom we have let too far into ours. This management, and the high stakes of being responsible for another’s psychological well being, quickly introduce coercion into a relationship, and coercion erodes consent. Should we make requests of others to maximize our emotional health? Yes! Should we try to honor those requests if we can do so in a healthy way? Yes! Are you responsible for my wellbeing and what I feel? No.

My choices

At every fork in the road, each of us will bring our own values and experience to an examination of the information available. How we approach this process, and the conclusions we come to, is a large part of what makes us who we are.

I am a collection of experiences, memories, preferences, and feelings. I am one of billions of unique ways to process reality. But I am also the sum of my choices. My choices are the place where I stop dreaming and start pursuing, where I stop planning and start building. Choice, in my opinion, is where human beings become truly beautiful, and sometimes truly terrible.

Choice can be the most difficult personal boundary to defend. It seems like the predominant belief is that if we are empowered to make our own choices, we will all become monsters, and we must entrust our decisions to external authority. This permeates our society and seems to inform the way we build relationships. Without engaging in a debate about whether people are fundamentally good or bad (or option C), I ask you to look at your partner and ask yourself if you respect their ability to choose, even if it hurts you, and even if it’s not what you would choose.

Axiom #4

You cannot consent if you do not have a choice.

When we enter into a romantic relationship, we make a choice. Over time, we build a life. This may involve legal and financial commitments and responsibilities. When we make those commitments, we should do what we reasonably can to follow through. But there is a difference between life-building and intimacy. Consent is about intimacy, and in every moment of every day, we should feel that we have a choice in the intimacy we participate in.

Consent exists in the moment 

You cannot pre-consent. You can state intentions. You can make commitments that don’t involve your personal boundaries. But consent exists right now, right here in this moment. Let’s say I tell my partner “I want to have sex in five minutes. If you want to, I will definitely 100% want to have sex with you. I guarantee you that it is absolutely 100% ok. I commit to it. Here is a notarized piece of paper with my signature.” And then let’s say in five minutes, I say “no.” If my partner has sex with me anyways, it’s rape. (If you engage in consensual non-consent, you will recognize that you still have to negotiate a safe word or a way to recognize when consent has been revoked. If you don’t, you’ve crossed into abuse.)

Axiom #5

Previous consent for intimacy never, ever overrides withdrawal of consent in the present.

I’ve given a pretty extreme example, but one that hopefully everyone will agree with. However, we often make all kinds of agreements to future intimacy and then proceed like those agreements override our boundaries in the moment.

Coercion erodes choice

Being in a consensual romantic relationship means you are never committed to any future intimacy. In a consensual romantic relationship, you always choose the intimacy you engage in. Intimacy is anything that enters into your personal boundaries. It can be sleeping together, sex, hugging and kissing, emotional sharing, living together, having certain shared experiences, or making shared choices.

Again, you can state intentions, but you cannot pre-consent, and both people must recognize and respect personal boundaries right now, regardless of intentions stated in the past. The reason this is so important is that when there is an implied obligation, the relationship can easily become coercive.

It is actually really difficult to avoid coercion in romantic relationships, because boundaries are most likely to be set during the times when intimacy is already in trouble and there’s a lot to lose. When relationships are good, they make us better, they make our lives bigger, and it’s easy to forget about our boundaries, because there is no reason to enforce them. When communication erodes, when trust comes into question, when we feel out of control or deeply unhappy, and then one or both people try to set a boundary, it can be terrifying.

What does coercion look like?

Coercion is when you make the consequences to saying “no” to intimacy so great that it removes any reasonable choice. There is more obvious coercion, such as threats, either externally or internally directed. But I find that coercion just sort of organically arises when you believe that your partner, in that moment, owes you intimacy. If you think your partner owes you intimacy, and you are just “expressing your feelings,” there’s a good chance you’re being coercive. If your partner says “no,” and you start preparing for a fight instead of accepting their choice, you’re probably going to be coercive.

If your partner is trying to set an intimacy boundary, they probably have a very good reason. It might not even be about you. The chances that your partner has had their consent violated in their life are really high, and it may have been really bad. Show appreciation for your partner’s self-advocacy and self-knowledge, be grateful for the intimacy they have shown you, and make it clear that you respect their autonomy and ability to make choices, even if you don’t understand what’s happening or why.

It’s also possible they are being manipulative and using boundary-setting as a way to coerce you. Withdrawal and silence are classic techniques of emotional blackmail and can be initially difficult to distinguish from healthy boundary-setting. It’s even possible they are setting boundaries just to punish you.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter. The solution is never to try to force someone to do something they don’t want to do. Thank them, and respect their choice. If you can’t respect their choice, it’s time to examine your own boundaries.

Why you shouldn’t lie

I’m going to take a little bit of a detour here to talk about the intersection between mental/emotional privacy, choice, and consent. When you enter a romantic relationship, I believe there is one kind of intimacy that you must participate in, and if you find that you can no longer participate in it, you have a responsibility to end the relationship. I’m referring to honest, open communication.

Being able to share, to the best of your ability, who you are in a relationship, is critical for that relationship to be consensual. You must give your partner the opportunity to make an informed decision to be in that relationship. If you lie to your partner or withhold critical information, you remove their ability to consent to be in the relationship. The important information that needs to be shared should be negotiated early and is unique to each relationship.

Most important is to communicate those things that might be deal-breakers, or might be threatening to your partner’s emotional or physical health. Your partner deserves to have the ability to make a choice about how they want to participate in the relationship given the new information. Examples might be sexual behavior with others, drug use, the acquisition or use of weapons, violent impulses or behavior, or depression or suicide attempts.

You can force someone to make a certain choice, or coerce them into that choice, but if you lie or withhold information from a partner, you deny them even the ability to know there was a choice to be made.

Fear, the telltale sign

Why am I so afraid in this relationship when there’s no imminent physical danger?

If you find yourself asking yourself this question, check your boundaries. Do you know where they are? How much power have you given to others to affect your well-being, your self esteem, even your desire to live? Remember, when you give someone the power to affect you and to come into your mind, you are only loaning what belongs to you. If you are afraid, you have given too much. When you look forward, do you see choices? Is leaving the relationship a viable option? Is changing the relationship a viable option? Is setting boundaries a viable option? What happens when I say “no”?

You see plenty of relationships fall apart in sadness, anger, hurt, and feelings of betrayal. It is unnerving when a relationship becomes permeated by fear, but I believe this is often the trajectory of a relationship that lacks consent. It’s from here that we begin to bend ourselves around our fears instead of embracing our dreams.

Axiom #1

The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship.

If there is one safe place in the world, it should be with the people you love. I’m not talking about the safety of guarantees, but the safety to be everything that you are. It’s the safety to be dynamic, to change, and to dream. But to be safe, we have to be whole.

Resources on Abuse in Polyamorous Relationships

February 21, 2015

Abuse is, unfortunately, common in polyamorous relationships, just as in monogamous relationships. Polyamorous abuse can look different from abuse in monogamous relationships because of the characteristics of group dynamics. In addition, most polyamorous relationship advice assumes non-abusive relationships, but may be harmful when applied to abusive situations, and many resources for abuse survivors aren’t necessarily friendly for polyamorous people.

Several of the resources below contain checklists of behaviours common to abusive relationships and to healthy relationships; however, the following are some possible signs of abusive polyamorous situations, specifically*:

  • You feel frequently demeaned or humiliated by a partner or metamour.
  • You feel that acceptance by your polycule depends on your participation in group sex.
  • A partner or metamour reads your messages, emails, journals or other private information without your permission.
  • You find yourself doubting your own grip on reality, especially as it pertains to a relationship or your polycule.
  • You feel like a partner or metamour is “two different people,” or like you never know whether a partner or metamour will hurt you or support you in any given moment.
  • You feel discouraged from communicating with your metamours.
  • You feel you are expected to keep secrets from or about your partners or metamours.
  • You only or primarily hear negative things about your metamours.
  • The things a partner says and the things your metamours say often don’t seem to match up.
  • You’re made to feel that you are “not really polyamorous” if you express a concern, ask for a limit, or communicate your feelings.
  • You feel shamed for seeking out social supports outside your polycule.
  • A partner or metamour invalidates your feelings or internal experience.
  • A partner or metamour claims to be a gatekeeper, or the only or best source of reliable information about polyamory.
  • You feel that no one else will want to be with you or “put up with you” if you leave.
  • You feel like the sole problem in a relationship or polycule.

Resources and reading

The following are some resources that you may find useful to help you decide whether your situation may be abusive, help others, or heal from abuse:

Here are some books:

  • Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft—hands-down the single best resource available for understanding abusive men and patterns of misogynistic abuse. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life by Robin Stern. This is the book that originally popularized the term “gaslighting.” (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems by Alexandra Stein is great for understanding the kind of abuse that can happen in abusive polyamorous networks. (Powell’s | Indiebound |Amazon)
  • The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence by Gavin de Becker. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • The Verbally Abusive Man – Can He Change? A Woman’s Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go by Patricia Evans(Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You by Susan Forward. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You by Patricia Evans. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival by Kelly Sundberg is a heart-rending memoir of surviving and leaving an abusive relationship. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)

First-person accounts

Enough people have come forward describing their own experiences of abuse in polyamorous relationships that there’s now enough for a whole section on first-person accounts.

If you need immediate help, assistance with safety or exit planning, or just need to talk to someone, you can call the Network/La Red hotline at (617) 742-4911, or the National Abuse Hotline at (800) 799-7233.

*Thanks to Samantha Manewitz, LICSW, for assistance with this list of red flags.

Answer: Why did my abuser target me?

July 1, 2021

Reposted from a September 25, 2018, answer on Quora. I have deleted my account there due to harassment, and will be reposting some of my favourite content here.

Originally answered: “When you figure out that a narcissist targeted you, do you agree that means you were lacking boundaries, had low self-esteem, were gullible and easily manipulated and that’s why he was able to destroy you?”

Abusive people (with and without narcissistic adaptations) target very specific traits in people, and these are not bad traits.

In her book Stop Signs: Recognizing, Avoiding, and Escaping Abusive Relationships, author Lynn Fairweather writes about “super traits”:

In her book Women Who Love Psychopaths, psychologist Sandra L. Brown, founder of The Institute for Relational Harm Reduction and Public Psychopathy Education, writes about “super traits” in women who become involved with dangerous men. Most of the characteristics are seemingly positive, but when presented to an abusive mind, they become weaknesses ripe for exploitation. While all abusers are not psychopaths, their characteristics often match up, as does the mental and physical damage they inflict on intimate partners. Sandra’s discoveries are important because they warn about traits we may unconsciously possess that enhance our vulnerability to a batterer’s victim-tuned radar. The super-traits include:

• Hyper-empathy
• Extreme altruism
• High relationship investment and high attachment
• Hyper-focus on the sentimental aspects of the relationship
• Low impulsiveness
• High resourcefulness

In my extensive work with abused women, I have found that women who become involved with pathological and nonpathological abusers alike share similar traits. Women who are “savers”—those scoring high in empathy, altruism, tolerance, and sentimentality—will almost always be drawn to a relationship where they think they can help or reform a “diamond in the rough” partner. Highly invested, nonimpulsive, and attached women will often try to stick it out and fix a bad situation. Those who are highly resourceful frequently try to handle risky scenarios all on their own without seeking the necessary assistance of others.

I will say that anecdotally, this fits with my own experience. The abuse survivors I know are some of the kindest, strongest, most resourceful people I have ever met. It’s a weird, bittersweet sort of compensation for surviving misogynistic abuse: you suffer indescribable psychic damage, but find yourself in this amazing sisterhood of incredible women and nonbinary folks, bound together by an experience only those who have been through it truly understand.

If you were targeted for abuse, it was likely because you possess these “supertraits,” and that is nothing at all to be ashamed of. It takes a special kind of evil to turn these wonderful, valuable human traits into weapons. This is especially devastating since there seems to be a cultural idea that people who’ve experienced abuse are somehow weaker, more unstable or more manipulable than people who haven’t—and abusive people will turn this idea against you in the process of abusing you, making you believe you are weak and unstable. There’s also a related idea that people with strong partners cannot be abusive; nothing could be further from the truth.

It wasn’t your fault. Avoiding future abuse doesn’t mean snuffing out these qualities, but learning to recognize dangerous and exploitative people early on and swiftly removing them from your life.

The urge to be a “saver” or to “reform” someone is incredibly dangerous, though, and won’t lead to healthy relationships even if those relationships don’t become abusive. If this is something you have a tendency to do, then it’s worth working on—it will make all your relationships, and your life, much better.

Answer: What are your thoughts on the movie Cuties?

June 23, 2021

Reposted from a September 17, 2020, answer on Quora. I have deleted my account there due to harassment, and will be reposting some of my favourite content here.

Originally answered: What are your thoughts on the new movie Cuties?

I was impressed with how realistically and sensitively it portrayed the reality of being an 11-year-old queer girl trying to navigate her nascent sexuality between two polar extremes that seek to either exploit it or suppress and deny it completely. I think it’s not all that different from other coming-of-age movies that deal frankly with young girls’ sexuality and the perils that accompany it in today’s world—like 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, a much more disturbing film that didn’t generate anywhere near the controversy of Cuties.

And yes, I said a queer girl. Amy is very obviously coded as queer, and I think that’s a very important part of the movie—but it has been completely overlooked in the moral panic about it.

We see multiple scenes where Amy’s friends show interest and excitement over boys—interest Amy never shares, but reluctantly joins in on in order to fit in. At the same time, Amy’s fascination with girls’ bodies is far more than curiosity or wanting to match an aesthetic ideal. And the way she looks at Angelica…well.

Anyone who’s ever been a babyqueer knows these feels.

Amy pretty much only has eyes for Angelica the whole movie, and it’s definitely not just because she wants to be like her. In fact, arguably, it’s Amy’s unrequited crush on Angelica, and her inability to recognize it or act on it, that drives a lot of the plot.

Some articles I found helpful:

The Only Thing You Need to Read About the Inane Cuties Controversy

The people freaking out about ‘Cuties’ should try it. They might find a lot to like.

Watch ‘Cuties’ on Netflix For Yourself, Then Apologize to Maïmouna Doucouré

A Survivor’s Bill of Rights

June 15, 2021
tags: ,

“We will all do good things and bad things, and we will all hurt the people we love. Sadly, we will probably hurt them the most in the service of what we believe is right. What makes you good is not perfection in action or strictness to code, but the willingness to question, to change, and to listen to your heart when your life stops matching it.”—Shelly

For many survivors of abuse or assault, the worst trauma doesn’t come from the abuse itself, but from the way it is handled by the community afterward. A safe and supportive community can facilitate healing—and the converse is also true. It is just so easy when we view someone through the lens of “victim” to frame them in a way that allows us to further strip them of agency, at the time when they most need to have it supported. Unless we are actively working to counteract it with our every breath, rape culture, misogyny and patriarchy make it almost impossible to genuinely centre and support survivors while consistently treating them as whole human beings with agency—as equals and peers rather than objects to be displayed, examined and preserved behind glass.

If we want to be really serious about addressing abuse, we need a survivor’s bill of rights.

I expect there are a lot of people who won’t agree with my proposed list below, but it’s not written for them: it’s written for the survivors who thought they were out safely and now are wondering what the fuck is happening to me and is there something wrong with me (there isn’t) as the people around them try to “help” in ways that are deeply destabilizing, crazy-making.

It’s not you, and it’s not okay.

This is a starting place. I expect others can make it better, so I am releasing the text below under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA) licence: feel free to adapt and build on it, as long as you credit me and link to the original, share your new work under the same terms, and don’t monetize it.

A Survivor’s Bill of Rights

I have the right:

To define what help and support look like for me, and what kind of help, support and advocacy I need.

To decide whom I want in my support circle, and to distance myself from people who are not helping me.

To define my own emotions, thoughts and experiences of harm, and not to have my experiences reduced to such psychological catch-phrases as “triggered,” activated” or “re-enacting”; not to have others tell me what my motives are for telling my story.

To not be diagnosed, evaluated or otherwise “therapized” by anyone with whom I am not in a professional, consensual therapeutic relationship.

To not have others justify my abuse or excuse my abuser because I have character flaws, have made mistakes, or have caused harm myself.

To honestly name harm I am currently experiencing, and not have others blame it on past abuse or trauma, or question my experience of reality because of what I have survived.

To choose whether, how, when and to whom I describe my abuse or name my abuser.

To give and withdraw informed consent to the sharing of my story.

To honestly tell my story privately or publicly without risk of ongoing harassment or abuse, and without inviting deeper scrutiny of my character, behaviour or flaws than others in my community receive.

To act in accordance with my own values, and to have others act in accordance with my values when purporting to act in my name or on my behalf.

To be held to the same standards of accountability for harm I have caused as others in my communities are held when they cause similar harms; not to be held to a higher standard because I am out as a survivor or have named abuse.

To be imperfect in how I describe my abuse and express my feelings about it, and to be imperfect as a person; not to have the validity of my claims or worthiness of support judged or dismissed based on my imperfections. This includes not being attacked by people who don’t like it when I express anger or emotion, and not to have my attempts at communication dismissed if I do not modulate my tone to the extent others desire to prevent their discomfort.

To not be expected to perform labour to make others comfortable when they discuss my abuse, or to be expected to ease their experience.

To protect my own safety and well-being in the ways I find most appropriate— including self-defence, fawning, placating, silence or avoidance. Not to be pushed into conflict or confrontation with my abuser or judged for how I choose to survive.

To decide what actions I want to take or do not want to take in response to my abuse or concerning my abuser, including whether or not to involve the police, the courts or other state mechanisms.

To decide for myself what I want people in my support circle to share with me when they become aware of actions taken by or directed at my abuser or enablers; not to have information that may affect me withheld from me against my will or to “protect” me.

To be included in conversations about me and in decisions that affect me.

To expect others not to take action against my abuser in my name, except by my request or with my consent.

To seek spaces where I do not come into contact with my abuser or their words; to distance myself from people and groups who cannot or will not provide those spaces.

To request or seek protection from enablers or “flying monkeys” who harm me.

In cases of cross-accusations, to have those who wish to take action engage deeply with all the available information and to inform themselves about DARVO and abusers who claim victimhood, or to seek out analysis from those who have done so.

To decide what survivorhood means to me rather than performing it to someone else’s standard.

To process and heal on my own timeline.

To experience ordinary conflict, grief and loss, relationship struggles, mental health issues, and ups and downs of life without everything being linked to or blamed on my trauma or my abuser, or have extra meaning inferred because I am a survivor.

To decide how to define myself beyond being a “survivor,” or to choose an alternate identity.

To not fear retaliation for asserting my rights, setting boundaries, or asking questions.


Survivor support is not transactional. I don’t owe others for supporting me or for holding my abuser accountable. I am not less worthy of support if I have not supported others — or not supported all others who have asked for my support (as may often be the case with “celebrity survivors” upon whom many others may lean heavily, or survivors who have limited resources, both material and intangible). The whole community is responsible for addressing abuse.

The restitution/repair to which a survivor is entitled should not depend on their willingness to cede their agency, voice or anger, to subscribe to the values of a perpetrator’s process, to act conciliatory, or to perform gratitude.

I’ve had every one of the rights on this list violated — and I’ve violated many of them myself. I suspect most people have. I suspect we’ve done a lot more damage than we realize, or can even really come to terms with, in our attempts to “help.” But we can stop now.

Note: After I wrote this, I discovered “A Recovery Bill of Rights for Trauma Survivors”, which shares a lot of characteristics with mine. This tells me a couple things: that I’m on the right track with my own list, and that others have found the same problems widespread enough to find a need to address them in this way. It’s very good, and worth reading and bookmarking.

What happens to you if you start a relationship apologizing? (guest post)

May 5, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on June 30, 2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

Part of the process of recovering from an abusive relationship is deconstructing the beliefs you had about the world and yourself that helped you to accept the situation. This is really important, because it puts power back into your hands, and gives you the tools to create a better life for yourself. But I don’t think you can effectively do this unless you look at the bigger forces at work. For instance, I will never take any book on abuse seriously unless it recognizes the role that misogyny plays in so much abuse.

I had a therapist ask me once: why did you hate yourself when you began that relationship? And, in earnest, I tried to think of all the reasons why I hated myself. Much later, I realized that she was a terrible, terrible therapist, but that’s another story.

I want to ask a question. A question directed directly at the polyamory community.

What happens to you when you start a relationship apologizing? Apologizing for taking up space, apologizing for wanting things, apologizing for feeling passion and love? What happens when you go into a relationship accepting the premise that you’re doing something wrong?

I haven’t been to a poly meeting in quite some time, but what I remember about them, is that there were often an abundance of couples talking about all the horrible things that had happened to them by secondary partners and “thirds.” She wanted him to herself, she was unstable, she was needy, she was cRaZy. And I nodded, sympathetically, and put these imaginary women into the little slot I had in my brain for the home wrecker. That sociopathic siren who just wanted to come in and set things on fire and see what she could walk off with. We just need to learn to spot her sooner…

And it’s interesting what happens when you believe in her, and decide to show everyone that you’re not her. And you apologize from day one, and you do everything you can to accommodate. And you become a part of their lives and don’t ask them to change to accommodate yours. But you still have self respect, and so you still ask for things, and you speak up and you bring up problems, and you suggest changes that could help. And sometimes you’re wrong and emotional and so very very human. And every time that happens, it goes into a book somewhere. And when you leave, because you cannot bear the pain you seem to be causing, they pull the book out and shake their heads and say we should have seen it… she wanted him to herself, she was selfish and unstable and needy and crazy.

Why did I hate myself? Well, that’s an interesting question to me, because it suggests that you think that hating myself was necessary. Maybe I’ll answer your question with a question, and we can reconvene later.

What happens to you when you start a relationship apologizing?

“Trapped – The Tragedy That Should Not Be Staged” © Karl Rudhyn 2013, CC BY-NC 2.0.

How to apologize, how to not apologize, why it’s hard, why it’s not hard for the reasons you think (guest post)

April 28, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on May 4, 2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

This morning I had a procedure scheduled. It’s a medical test that takes 4 hours, and involves eating radioactive eggs. I’m not going to talk about the test, because it’s not really related to what I want to talk about it, but I thought I would mention it because I had this intuitive hunch that mentioning radioactive eggs would be attention grabbing.

I didn’t actually have the test because I forgot my prescription. I forgot the prescription so thoroughly that I never even thought to bring it at any point. In fact, while I can say with certainty that I held it in my hands at one time, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist any more. 

And that’s totally on me. I had to get there at 7:30 this morning, and I stumbled in, in my sweats and definitely not brushed hair. And when she asked for my prescription, I wanted to tell her how much stress I’d been under, and that I don’t seem to get along with mornings any more, I mean, look at me. I wanted to ask her why the fuck they don’t fax over to the doctor to get the prescription for early morning procedures? You can’t expect people to remember that sort of thing! But instead, I looked at her, and I said “I’m really sorry. This is 100% my fault. What can I do?”

It felt so good. I cannot recall in my memory, the last time I had the opportunity for such a pure apology.

I’ve seen a lot of articles about how to give an apology. Without exception, the tacit or stated assumption in these articles is that it’s hard to give an apology because of pride. Every guide I’ve seen is about how to admit you’re wrong when you’re unequivocally wrong but your ego won’t let you admit it.

But I don’t think that’s why it’s hard. At least, that’s not why it’s hard for me. 

I watch a lot of soccer. One thing I’ve noticed is that everybody hates the referees. No matter what call they make or don’t make, somebody is upset. And sometimes they make a bad call. In soccer, they don’t stop the game to look at video footage. The ref on the scene makes the call in that moment based on what they saw or didn’t see.  And sometimes a bad call decides the game – sometimes a really important game, and they just have to live with that. Do you know what they do at the half time and after the game? They look at the video footage, and they look at what they did wrong. And a ref has to be able to look at a bad call, and learn what they can from it, and move on with their life. They have to look at that bad call, and know that they did the very best that they could, or know that they could have done better, and that everyone hates them for it, and they have to go back out there and get on with their life.

What do we apologize for? I have to say, I’m so messed up when it comes to apologies that I’m not even sure anymore. Is an apology the same as admitting I made a mistake? I don’t think so. I think something more is expected. A ref doesn’t make an apology. Everyone knows they made a mistake, they know it, but it comes with the job, and they can’t stop it from happening and neither can we. Making mistakes comes with the job of life. Every moment is the culmination of my experience and my training and my instincts and how tired I am and what I had for breakfast this morning and a million variables that I.don’t.have.control.over. I made a mistake, and I am also breathing.

Is an apology the same as acknowledging that my actions hurt you? Certainly not. We hurt each other sometimes, and we are also breathing. I know when you are looking for an apology you want more than an acknowledgment of your emotional reality. 

Is an apology a plan of action? I think this is closer. I think an apology is an admission of my mistake, and acknowledgement of the price you paid for my mistake. But most importantly, an apology comes with a plan to prevent the hurt in the future. But if I made a mistake, and I am also breathing, sometimes it is hard for me to make the kind of plan that will actually work.

I can remember next time to bring my prescription. I acknowledge that I wasted a technician’s time, and I feel bad because she’s a real person. I can do something about that, by putting a reminder on my calendar next time. This is a change I can make. 

But did I do something that hurt you because I was grumpy or sleepy or daydreaming or distracted or confused? I will make that mistake again. I am also breathing. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.

Is an apology about what is wrong with me? No. But how many people think it is? How many people think it’s not an apology until someone is grovelling? Too many. 

I have a place inside of me. A weak spot that is made of self hatred. I have a lot of trouble apologizing when I don’t have a clear plan for correcting it. When I made the best choice I could and I’m not sure what to do differently in the future. When I’ve made a mistake and I am also breathing. First I try to blow it off, and when that doesn’t work I become defensive. I don’t really know how to apologize, because apologizing used to be paired with self hatred, and I don’t know how to un-pair it. I don’t know how to separate a request for an apology with a request for my self hatred. And once the conversation makes three or four rounds I only want to crush myself into oblivion. 

And that’s not helpful.

I don’t think it’s that hard to apologize. And it feels good. It feels like growth. It feels like responsibility. It feels like resolution, and peace. I feel robbed of that peace.

I don’t think we need another article about how to apologize. I’d like to see an article or two about all the ways a sincere apology is claimed and then used as a weapon against someone. Against a child, against a loved one. I’d like an article about how when that happens we have to build cages around the chasm of shame and self hatred that our apologies dug inside of us. 

Apologies could go a long way to healing our relationships with each other and ourselves. But let’s stop ignoring all the damage that the perversion of the apology has done to us. We have to fix that too.

Dead Soon (guest post)

April 21, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on May 16, 2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

I read somewhere an anecdote of a person who dealt with their stage fright by writing “Dead Soon” on the top of their notes. It’s the kind of funny to me that lives in the space of “what else can I do but laugh?” I think about it all the time. It’s a strange facet of the human mind. I flip flop between an unbearable sadness that we must struggle so hard for meaning and purpose, and relief that none of it matters all that much.

Most people who hurt other people feel vindicated. Most people who hurt other people are hurting themselves. And yet we all seem to have this need to believe that the people who hurt us did so for some kind of sociopathic gain. But the truth is, if that had been the case, they probably would have hurt us much less. It’s hard to remember that the people who hurt us are hurting themselves. It’s hard to disengage with someone you feel sympathy for. But the cardboard villains we create aren’t the truth, they’re just tools.

I want to be someone who has empathy. I want to have some shot at seeing some truth in the few short moments I have. And that means being willing to let things be very complicated. It means being willing to let things get to me. It means trying to remember the humanity in people who are harmful to me. And that, it turns out, makes it hard to recover sometimes.

The process of rebuilding myself isn’t what I want it to be. it’s not a smooth trajectory. It’s just littered with moments of rising above and then looking down and falling. And the thing that makes me so sad is that the people who hurt me the most are often the people who take up the biggest space in my heart and mind. It really seems backwards. the people who have been kind to me get pushed out, and I take up that space with imaginary battles with imaginary people in my life who seemed to have known me only enough to know what would hurt.

It’s been a hard process to disengage. It’s a process I can only measure statistically. I can measure it in the lessening moments that I’m lost in the past, trying to resolve things I can’t resolve, trying to purge guilt that sticks like glue, trying to forget the particularly acute memories that shock me, sadden me, and scare me now.

And it’s in these moments that I’ve learned to write at the top of the paper “Dead Soon.”

Because I have that same thing inside me that everyone has. That thing that wants to hit back. That thing that says that it’s fine, that they are bigger and stronger than you, and that you can hit as hard as you want. I have that thing too. I have that thing that says that I can rebuild myself by knocking other people down. It hides in a million different ways, but I can always see it in that fantasy of saying or doing the perfect thing, the thing that makes me powerful again, and that hurts someone else.

But then I remember that there’s a much worse coming for you and me. For all of us. None of us is immune. And when that much worse comes, I will have to be my own company and you will have to be yours. When those moments come, we will all be human. And those moments are more important to me than this one right here. This one where I want to hit back. This moment isn’t big enough to spend what little time I have.

There’s a much worse coming for all of us. And that thing you’re doing to try to hurt me, because you’re hurting, and because you think I deserve it, that thing you’re doing because you think you can hit as hard as you want because I’m only a cardboard villain, it’s not as big as I thought it was.

A painting of looking upward through a colourful body of water towards the sun shining through above.
“Under Water,” © Carrie Jenkins, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

“Controlling People” and the Backwards Connection (guest post)

April 14, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on February 1, 2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

This past month, I read Controlling People by Patricia Evans. It was an incredibly useful book to me, and I wanted to write a brief summary of the key themes in case it is useful to anyone else.

First, the book does not provide a framework for all controlling behavior. There are people who engage in abuse and manipulation as a pure act of dominance. The book does not talk about this. What the book does cover, very well, are those dynamics that so many of us find ourselves in, where a partner’s abuse lives side by side with a conviction of love. Where a partner’s abusive behavior seems to be prompted by an inner pain that, no matter how much you try to change and adjust, they continually insist is caused by you.

The central theme of the book is that of a backwards connection.

“A backwards connection begins with an assumption or definition of the other that ends all possibility of a relationship, at least in that interaction… A backwards connection is just a small step away from where control of the other is the (often unconscious) objective.”

A backwards connection happens when you decide who someone is and then attempt to connect with that image. The examples she uses are very basic, and it demonstrates how often we are just one step away from a control connection, and the justification of abuse.

For instance, imagine a mother is buying ice cream for her child. “I want vanilla,” the child says. “No you don’t,” the mother says “you like chocolate, you want chocolate.” “No… ,” the child says, “I like vanilla. I want vanilla.” And so on. The truth is, the mother likes chocolate, and she is trying to connect with her daughter, but instead she is connecting with a pretend person. The more pressure she places, the more she corners her daughter, the closer she gets to trying to disintegrate her daughter and replace her with the pretend person.

Evans uses the example of a teddy bear that becomes an imaginary friend. Teddy knows everything you are thinking, gives you everything you need, never complains. But one day Teddy shows a sign of separateness, and you feel attacked, violated, and alone.

When you try to connect to Teddy, instead of to a real person, you establish a control connection. The control connection substitutes for connection to self.

When someone is connecting backwards, Evans says it is like they are under a spell. They do not understand that what they are doing makes no sense. You cannot know what another person is feeling. You cannot know what is inside of them. And yet someone who is under the spell is so sure, it can be easy to doubt yourself if you are the object of this connection.

“If Pretenders don’t get out from under the influence of the spell, they launch even greater assaults, especially if their definition of the other is not accepted, that is, they can’t make ‘Teddy,’ their pretend person, appear. In this way Pretenders exert increasingly oppressive behavior. In relationships, while they may believe that they are only getting closer (bringing Teddy to life, so to speak), they are, in fact, aligning with the forces of oppression.”

To take a simple example, we often do not know the difference between “I am hurt,” and “you hurt me.” The extent to which you insist that you can know the other person’s experience and the extent to which you feel justified in enforcing that, is the extent to which you have the capacity for abuse.

The truth is, we have to mind read to a certain extent in order to make choices about our lives. If you are intentionally hurting me, you may not be a good person to have around. I think we have to create basic models of the motivations of the people around us to be able to function. The danger is in your attachment to these models. Sometimes we build these models to try to judge our relative safety with a person. And sometimes we build these models to try to connect with them. But at the end of the day, you cannot know someone else’s inner experience. When you think you do, you are under the spell. When you feel victimized by someone’s separateness from what you imagine them to be, you are under the spell, and you are behaving in a way that does not make sense. It is important to be aware of the very real danger of this kind of mind reading.

On a personal level, this book was incredibly helpful to me. Because underlying so much of my self doubt has been this idea that they were so sure. Not just one person, but several. How could so many people be so sure that they understood who I was? Surely I must continue to consider that they may have been right! But I see now that their insistence that they knew my motivations and my feelings didn’t make any sense, and it gives me the space to say “No. I like vanilla. I’ve always liked vanilla.” Evans actually covers this a little bit when she talks about groups. She talks about bonding together against someone.

“Bonding together against others is, like all Control Connections, a backwards connection. The bond is based upon an agreement, sometimes unspoken, to act or to be against an authentic person or persons in order to sustain an illusion.”

I understand now that at times I bonded together against someone in the group, and at times they bonded together against me. But it was never a real connection. And the reality we created together never made sense. And it feels really good to put that burden down.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand control in their lives and in their communities.

“No Strings,” © Carrie Jenkins, all rights reserved, used with permission.

The problem with your request for my compassion (guest post)

April 7, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on January 18, 2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

The core elements of every manipulative exchange are remarkably simple. There is a carrot and a stick. If you change your behavior in this way, I will reward you, if you do not, I will punish you.

This project is going to take a lot of extra hours. Are you the kind of team player who is willing to make sacrifices?

  • The carrot: you will be seen as a team player which gives you both a social reward, and potentially a career reward
  • The stick: you will not be seen as a team player, leading to disapproval, alienation from your team, and possibly getting fired
  • The behavior: Working unpaid hours

The thing that separates manipulation from enslavement on one end, and influence on the other, is the illusion of choice. It is also why being manipulated will degrade your self esteem so rapidly. You watch yourself make choices against your own self interest, and it chips away at your self respect.

I’m what you might call a “soft target.” I care a lot about my self identity. I care a lot about what people think of me. I’m conflict averse. I was a part of a manipulative dynamic for a long time, and by the end of it, I was incapable of standing my ground.

Do you know what it’s like to know that that’s in you? That you can be so weakened, by someone you love, without them lifting a finger against you? It didn’t start out that way, though. It started out with a carrot and a stick. The carrot was peace. The stick was turmoil. My behavior was quiet. It was a no-brainer at first. And then he found my hook. Compassion.

At first the exchange was simple. Listen to him, so that he will be able to listen to you. Validate his experience, so that he will be able to validate yours. But that’s not really what happened. I would listen, and validate, and then the conversation would end. Because there could not be two stories or two perspectives. And when this upset me, my identity was threatened. Listen, validate, stay in line, and be seen as compassionate (carrot). Choose differently, and be seen as self centered and cruel (stick).

Every time you give into a manipulative bid, you reinforce the behavior. But far more important than that, is that you reinforce the reality in which the manipulation exists. Every time I conceded to keep the peace, every time I listened and validated, and let my experience go unheard, every time I capitulated to preserve my identity, I reinforced a very specific model of reality.

And this is why manipulation and gaslighting make such perfect bedfellows. Because when I tried to stand up for my reality, I couldn’t under the weight of the other reality that I had given so much credence to.

I used to believe, in good faith, that compassion would always build a bridge between two people. But now I also understand that my compassion can be used as a weapon against me. And so I would like to ask you now. What were we doing when you asked me to show you compassion? Was I pointing out a problem? Was I speaking up for myself and my experience?

It’s important that I understand what you hope my compassion will accomplish. Do you want to build a bridge with me? Because I would like that very much.

Or do you want me to change my behavior, and accept your reality instead of my own? Is the carrot your approval of my compassionate nature? Is the stick your judgement that I am really self centered and cruel? Is the behavior you would like my complicit silence?

Because I have been there before, and I will not be a soft target anymore. So don’t threaten me. Showing compassion is my choice, and I do not owe it to you.

A painting of a silhouette of a person walking across a small bridge in winter, composed of greens, browns and whites.
“Winter in the Nitobe Garden,” © Carrie Jenkins all rights reserved, used with permission.

The Big Lie (guest post)

March 31, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on January 16,2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

Most of us will do the most damage to others when we are in pain. Not when we’re angry or bitter or vengeful. No. I will hurt other people, I will drain other people, I will fail other people and I will fail to consider other people the most when I am hurting the most.

And I truly believe that the only way out of toxic self focus is loving self focus. I believe that the only way you can regain the capacity to see other people and to care for other people is to see and care for yourself.

And the interesting thing to me, is that when faced with that reality, I fought tooth and nail to discard it. It’s a pile of cliched self help bullshit — it’s just a justification for selfishness and self indulgence, I thought.

It was trivial for me to accept the harm that my self hatred did to me, I bore it stoically. And even when faced with the harm it did to people who cared about me, I still wanted to cling to it. Because self hatred felt noble, and self care felt selfish, and I wanted to believe that I was noble, and so my identity became more important than the reality of what was happening.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think there’s an intentional mind-fuck that most of us have been subject to, that keeps us from showing ourselves compassion and acceptance. It keeps us from setting boundaries and asking for what we need and filling our tanks up. It keeps us from getting angry at how we’re treated, and demanding that we be treated better. Ironically, because we’ve been told that our self hatred makes us better than our self love ever could.

But that’s a lie. From every angle. I’m quite certain of it now.

“Whispering Little White Lies,” © Danny O’Connor 2012, used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.

The Windows Were Fine to Begin With (guest post)

March 24, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on December 5, 2014. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

Imagine someone walked around your house, and busted every window with a sledgehammer. And at first you pretended that they weren’t broken, and you slept with the cold and the rain blowing on you, and somehow people believed you, even though you looked in the mirror every morning and saw twigs and mud in your hair. And imagine one day that you picked up a hammer and wood, and started to repair. Imagine how good it felt, to finally board the windows up and sleep in a dry room. But then it started to snow, and you needed warmth, so you got a book on rebuilding windows, and you began the painstaking process of rebuilding every window. This time they were strong. This time they were beautiful and clear. But the job was never done, and the project became a drain on your energy, eating up everything you had leftover after you took care of your survival. Eating up everything for years.

But you looked at the windows, and you saw that they were beautiful and strong. And you started bringing friends over, to show them how to build their own windows, and how to look for cracks. And you thought to yourself, maybe something good came out of all of this. Look at what we’ve done.

But at night, you remember all the rooms that are still dark. All the rooms where the wind still blows and the floors are wet and dirty. And you cannot escape the reality that you lost all that time, and the original windows were just fine.

Sure, the original windows weren’t perfect. Some were foggy, some were dirty and some had cracks. But they were your windows, and they were just fine. And you think about all the time you used to have. Time when you didn’t have windows to rebuild. Time when you could just be. And you wonder if you’ll ever have time like that again.

I didn’t understand this. I think a lot of people don’t understand this. This is the long term tragedy of abuse, and rape and choicelessness. I wanted to tell myself a story that I was better for the experience. But this is the tragedy that persists long after you’re safe, long after you finally told your story, and long after the point when you are supposed to be better. That all the strength and beauty was always in you. Someone smashed the windows and there’s really nothing you got out of it that you didn’t already have. And you’ll never get back the time that you lost.

The windows were fine to begin with.

A broken stained-glass window set into a brick wall.
Broken stained glass window at Kinnell Church, ©Neil Williamson 2012, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.