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We’re coming to Europe!

March 28, 2015

Wow, you guys! It’s been an amazing six months. The book More Than Two has sold over 8,000 copies. The manuscript for Franklin’s forthcoming memoir, The Game Changer, goes to copy-editing on Monday. And we’ve been invited to speak at Poly Day North in Manchester, UK, this October… and we figured, hey! Let’s do a Europe book tour! We have lots of backers and fans in the UK and Europe, and we’ve gotten enough frequent flyer miles over the last year to cover the tickets. So, we’re doing it.

If you live across the water, we need your help! We need folks to help plan local events, and we need places to stay. So if you want us to come visit you, please fill out this short survey. Our tour route will be based entirely on where we have fan support.

Thank you all so much for making More Than Two such a success!

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Resources on abuse in polyamorous relationships

February 21, 2015
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Franklin and I have just wrapped up a very well-attended session on abuse in polyamorous relationships at the Poly Living 2015 conference in Philadelphia, which was a follow-up to Franklin’s keynote last night on “Telling Our Stories, Changing the World.” I’m very grateful that so many people came to the session, especially the numerous mental health professionals who contributed their expertise to the discussion. I wanted to make the resources mentioned at the session available here for easy access.

Here are some books:

  • Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. (Powells | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life by Robin Stern. (Powells | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems by Alexandra Stein (great for understanding the kind of trauma that can happen in abusive polyamorous networks). (Powells | Indiebound |Amazon)
  • The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence by Gavin de Becker. (Powells | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • The Verbally Abusive Man – Can He Change? A Woman’s Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go by Patricia Evans.(Powells | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You by Susan Forward. (Powells | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You by Patricia Evans. (Powells | Indiebound | Amazon)

If you need immediate help, or just need to talk to someone, you can call the National Abuse Hotline at (800) 799-7233.

 

 

Relationship rights: Can you negotiate them away?

January 18, 2015

Franklin and I had an awesome interview on Friday with blogger and journalist A.V. Flox. We talked for almost two hours—I’m kind of scared, actually. A.V. is a fantastic interviewer. She’s the kind of person who makes you want to tell her everything. Everything. So I’m a little nervous about what incriminating (or at least embarrassing) things I may have said during the interview.

One of the things we talked about was the Relationship Bill of Rights, and specifically some thinking I’ve been doing about it lately. The RBoR was tough to come up with, in large part because we were having a hard time defining what was a “right,” and where to draw the line between a “right” and something that’s just really, really helpful. As Franklin has talked about before, we ended up turning to domestic violence prevention resources for inspiration, because those folks are pretty much the only people out there actually talking about relationship rights. In the end, we sort of dodged the question of definition, though, stating that for the purposes of our RBoR, we were basing our “rights” on principles that we felt polyamorous communities should uphold as part of our attempts to be basic decent human beings.

I don’t agree with that definition any more.

I’ve been thinking about this because the idea has come up in a few places that people can negotiate their relationship rights way, as though relationship rights are part and parcel of whatever your larger relationship agreement is, and you can pick and choose from them. And I think that’s a problem. The more I’ve thought about it, the more it seems clear to me that you cannot negotiate away your relationship rights—even if you want to, or think you do. And that, in fact, may be exactly what makes them rights, and not just general principles for good relationships.

Now I know there’s a libertarian wing of poly thinkers, and this is going to piss a lot of them right off. There are a lot of people who argue quite vehemently that anything people consent to within their relationships is okay. That comes from an understandable place: most of us are used to being judged in our lifestyles, most of us are used to demands that we follow other people’s rules. We’re reluctant to sign on to anything that looks like someone else telling us how to conduct our relationships.

The problem is, that  argument can bring you to some seriously messed-up places.

There’s a reason domestic violence prevention websites have lists of your rights in relationships. It’s because the places you tend to see rights violations tend to be abusive relationships. It’s because rights violations tend to lead to abuse. Do abuse victims “consent” to be in their relationships? On the surface, perhaps it looks that way, but that is rooted in a victim-blaming, “why doesn’t she (he) just leave?” mentality and a serious oversimplification of the psychological dynamics of abuse. Abuse relies on tearing down your partner’s sense of self and personal agency to the point where consent is really no longer valid. And it doesn’t take physical violence to make a relationship abusive.*

I believe that if you’ve come to a place in your relationship where someone has negotiated any one of their rights away, that relationship includes coercion, and that invalidates consent. Staying doesn’t mean your partner’s not hurting you. The fact that your partner submits to you doesn’t mean you’re not being an abusive asshole.

By way of example, I want to look at a couple of the rights we list in More Than Two:

  • To revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time.
  • To end a relationship.

These are really two facets of the same principle, since ending a relationship is revoking consent to intimacy—but the second right is such an important corollary of the first, we felt it needed to be stated on its own. It is, well, pretty much the most obvious and inalienable of the rights. And yet…there are people who think you can negotiate this one away. It’s most common to see such thinking in D/s relationships. Franklin likes to tell the story of a couple he used to know who were in a Master/slave relationship that the Dom insisted was “real.” He owned his wife, he swore, just as surely as he owned his toaster oven. He continued to maintain this right up until the moment his wife had him served with divorce papers.

In BDSM, some of us may play with non-consent. But—and this is going to piss some people off again—the key word here is playing. It’s a game, and at some level deep down, even when you’re absorbed in the role, you always remember it’s a game. But even in a 24/7 relationship, even when you say you agree to be another person’s slave—what happens when you step outside the role? If you say, “Whoa, can we talk, I need to renegotiate some things here”? Or even, “I’m not into this anymore, I don’t think it’s working—I need to move on.” Is that okay? It needs to be. Because you can’t, literally can’t, negotiate away your right to leave a relationship, or to revoke your consent.

You’ll see arguments against this outside BDSM circles sometimes, too. In the flush of NRE, it’s really tempting to say things like, “I will always love you.” “I won’t ever leave you.” Wiser folks who have been through a few heartbreaks may tend to resist the urge to utter such things in the heat of the moment. But even if you do… you can’t be held to them. These are not promises you can keep. You cannot promise to feel or want something forever; you cannot pre-consent to intimacy.

Yet there are people who believe that they can hold their partners to these kinds of promises—even extract such pledges of eternal love early on. There are people who will shame and coerce their partners to keep them from leaving—and if your partner is trying to keep you in a relationship that you don’t want to be in? That’s abuse. No matter what you said before. You can never. Negotiate away. Your right. To leave.

I could make a similar argument for many of the rights in the RBoR. But this line of thinking has forced me to re-evaluate the RBoR from the standpoint of this new definition of rights. If a right is something you cannot give up in a relationship, do all of the rights in our RBoR still stand as rights?

To answer this question, we need to consider, for each right, what it means for that right to not exist in a relationship. Does consistently violating that right lead to coercion? Does it violate ongoing, informed consent? Will it lead to abuse?

I read through the RBoR again with these questions in mind. Amazingly, I found that all of the rights still meet the bar for being a right. There are certainly cases where you might choose not to exercise a right. It might be easy enough to say you don’t need the right to leave when, well, you don’t want to leave. But when you decide you do want the right? It’s still there.

And that’s what makes it a right.

 

*Read more about abuse in poly—and all—relationships here.

 

 

Evolution of the More Than Two book cover

December 28, 2014

Like most of the rest of the book, creating the cover for More Than Two was something of an adventure. We’re quite pleased with it, and so are most of our readers—the response to it has been overwhelmingly good. We thought you might enjoy knowing a bit more about the process that took us to the final cover, as it says a lot about the evolution of our own thinking about polyamory and the book itself.

About a year and a half ago, in one of the first posts published on this blog, Franklin wrote about why we decided to change the More Than Two logo from the image he’d used on the site and his own LiveJournal blog for years: three people working together on a heart-shaped blueprint. He was responding to an idea we developed later in the book: relationships are grown, not built. So he revised the logo slightly (and very quickly), so that the three people were working on a garden, not a blueprint:

blueprintlogo gardenlogo
© Franklin Veaux 2013

Of course, as many people commented there, there were a lot of things wrong with the second image (for one, you don’t use ladders to work on gardens in the air). And certainly, it was no book cover. We were also troubled by the “polyamory is a closed triad” stereotype that the image seemed to promote—we’ll come back to that later.

During last year’s crowdfunding campaign, we bought a stock image to use in our social media and marketing materials, building on the idea of “growing” love:

heart tree small
© Shutterstock/musicman

In December, we shared Franklin’s post about the two images with our cover designer, along with some additional feedback: we wanted to move away from the idea that poly is a couple opening their relationship, or three people in a triad. We wanted to make the book accessible to people of a wide variety of poly persuasions, and to give people new to poly the idea that there were lots of configurations available.

The designer we were working with at the time, Vanessa Rossi, wasn’t also an illustrator, so we started out trying to see if we could find some stock images, or illustrations we might be able to buy, that fit the bill. Vanessa filled a Dropbox folder with images, and we picked a few that were headed in the right direction, but not quite right:

tumblr_mp5e2a9Q7w1sxmo85o1_500  diversity-people-tree-set-336d656   23514923-dna-molecule
Images © Rene Campbell 2013Shutterstock/Cienpies Design; 123RF/Olga Ieromina

Of all of these, the people-tree was the best, but the couple-plus-child wasn’t the right base. In fact, we were worried that any image involving more than one person as the trunk would invoke the couple-centric idea that becoming involved with someone who is already in a relationship is “entering” that relationship, or else imply a default primary-secondary model of relationships. We decided the trunk needed to be a single person, with deep roots (the self-work we stress in the book) sustaining many loves.

So Vanessa did a second round of research:

isolated-diversity-tree-people-2474d2e stock-vector-spring-tree-with-women-silhouette-45949855 Isolated Diversity Tree hands
© Stockfresh/cienpies; Shutterstock/Lindwa; Depositphotos/cienpies

Closer—so much closer—but still not there. We could get one person as the trunk, but no people in the tree, or people in the tree, but no person as the trunk, but not both. At that point, Vanessa advised us to hire an illustrator. We were fortunate enough to be able to engage the very talented Paul Mendoza, who reviewed the research done so far, as well as the blog post, and came up with some quick sketches.

Morethantwo_sketch_composite_1 cropped

© Paul Mendoza 2014

We liked the colours in the top right thumbnail, but wanted something less stylized and more like a watercolour painting, more akin to the lower right. I had imagined the trunk and roots fairly rich in detail, something like Mercer Mayer’s depiction of Father Forest from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, one of my favourite childhood books (seriously, it’s beautiful—buy it).

FatherForest
© Mercer Mayer 1987 

We also went back and forth about the hand-holding figures in the top right image. One of the things Franklin had liked about his original images was the sense of everyone working together to build something. At the same time, we were afraid that having all the beloveds holding hands would, again, promote a stereotype: of closed-group polyamory, “polyfamily,” group intimacy or polyfidelity.

We had both grown quite wary of the “polyfamily” concept as a normative model as opposed to one option among many. Not everyone wants that model, not everyone who wants it is able to create it, and not everyone can be close, or even get along. All of that’s normal, and people in poly networks need to learn strategies for building relationships that work within the particular dynamics of the people involved. We didn’t want a cover that implied that the circle of happy people holding hands was what poly is “supposed” to look like, and people who don’t achieve that are somehow doing it wrong. So, no hand-holding. But Franklin has on a few occasions since then expressed some wistfulness that the cooperative sense of the early images was lost. In retrospect, it might have been nice to have had some people in the tree holding hands. But the cover as it is offers a snapshot of where we were in our thinking at the time, as we worked to integrate our new insights about polyfamily and consent into our own ideals about polyamory.

So Paul tinkered a bit, and came up with a more detailed “painting” (in quotes because he created it digitally):

Morethantwo_B
 © Paul Mendoza 2014

At this point, we (well, I) decided to post the work in progress to the More Than Two Facebook page. That turned out to be a mistake. I’d intended it to be a “whee! Look what we’re doing! Isn’t it exciting!” post. Our readers understood it as a “Hey, look what we’re doing, we’d like your feedback and input!” post, and we immediately got an onslaught of comments and suggestions, many contradicting each other or our own creative vision. Many commenters would have had us essentially go back to the drawing board—likely thinking that this was just a rough concept sketch, and not the culmination of what was, at that point, several months of research and revisions.

After some discussion with Paul of the feedback we’d gotten, he offered the following sage advice:

The moment we allow Facebook posts to become the art director, we enter an new type of hell. One thing we learned a long time ago is to never post pre-production work as it was being done, just as an after its done insight into the process. Otherwise we suddenly got far too much advice. It can be helpful to an extent, but you can never make everyone happy.

So, concerned that we were miscalibrating expectations by posting the work in progress, we took down the post. We had gotten some useful feedback in the process, though: the drawing was too diffuse and floaty, too grey and “haunted”-looking. And most of this mirrored what we’d already been thinking: we knew we needed more detail, brighter colours, and a sharper “face” in the tree.

And so, after further adjustments, we ended up with the final image:

More-Than-Two-cover-illustration-Eve's-tweaks---small
© Paul Mendoza 2014

Then came the typography, done by designer Mari Chijiiwa (after Vanessa left freelancing for a full-time animation career), who also created the book’s interior. That was yet another journey, and one I won’t go into here. However, you may notice that the image on the illustration above is flipped from what’s on our final cover: this was done because of typographical considerations. That was harder than it seems, because the background had been painted to match the tree, and it’s resulted in no end of trouble as we try to hunt down and remove any last remaining instances of the earlier draft cover, with the reversed tree, still lingering out there on the Web.

And at last, we had the beautiful, eye-catching design you see on the cover today:

cover-KDP
Image © Paul Mendoza / Typography © Thorntree Press 2014

We’re incredibly grateful to have had the chance to work with the many talented people who helped bring our vision of the book to life. Our thanks go out to Paul, Mari and Vanessa for their part in making More Than Two a success.

Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now.

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#WLAMF no. 35: Staying connected in long-distance relationships

December 16, 2014

It surprises many people to learn that Franklin and I have a long-distance relationship. Many people who haven’t yet read the book More Than Two actually seem to assume we live together, but we each actually live with other partners. We’ve managed to spend a lot more time together over the past year than we did in our first year, but we still spend huge stretches apart—and it’s hard.

Long-distance relationships seem to often come with the territory in polyamory, for a number of reasons. We may have a harder time finding compatible partners who share our relationship preferences, and we may feel more free to structure relationship in ways that don’t follow the relationship escalator model.

But it’s naive to believe that because someone has local partners, it’s not going to hurt to spend time away from a long-distance partner. The local partners don’t “fill the partner space” until the long-distance partner comes around. Needs aren’t transitive, and people aren’t interchangeable.

Different relationships naturally have a level they “want” to seek, too. Sometimes, you get lucky, and your long-distance partner is someone with whom the relationship just naturally seeks less entwinement.

Franklin and I don’t have that kind of relationship. We tend to do really well when spending long stretches of time together, especially working closely. And we tend to really struggle, relationship-wise, when we have to spend long stretches of time apart.

As a result, to make things work we’ve had to develop a number of strategies to help us feel connected during the long stretches of time we spend apart. These are fairly individual to us, so your mileage may vary. But I offer them here as possibilities for ways you might help your own long-distance relationships thrive:

Skype-work. You’re all familiar, I’m sure, with using video-calling tools for conversations with long-distance partners. Franklin and I have discovered, though, that we really like to just open up Skype when we’re working at our computers and keep the window minimized down in the corner. This way, we can work “together” even when we’re apart. (I have to keep reminding Franklin to let me work, though. He’s always wanting to talk to me!)

Just work. Franklin and I are fortunate to have a shared love language: work. Yep, that’s right. We like to co-create, for sure, but it’s not just creative projects—like More Than Two—that we like to do together. We founded a publishing company, after all, and we’ve just founded a sex toy company to research and develop Franklin’s bionic dildo. The work we do on our shared business ventures is part of our investment in our relationship.

Selfies. Okay, it’s kind of silly. But Franklin and I, like many long-distance couples, communicate a lot by text. A lot, throughout the day. And we have this unfortunate tendency to get into fights over text. Really bad fights, like we never—okay, very, very rarely—would have in person. Now the obvious thing to do is to stop trying to communicate by text and pick up the phone, right? Except that the reason for the fights is a sense of disconnection, and by the time it gets to that point, my own instinct is to withdraw and wall off even more–it becomes really difficult to reach out and do the emotional work of reconnecting in those moments.

Enter selfies. This was an idea I had a couple of months ago, just after the book tour, when I realized that part of the sense of disconnection was the experience of relating to Franklin as a disembodied entity within my phone. After awhile, I lost the sense that he was a person. So I suggested that we send each other selfies every now and then, especially when we were feeling bad or arguing, to remind each other that we are real. It helps, too, because our facial expressions can convey so much more about what we’re feeling in the moment than text can–at least, convey it in a way that the other person can also understand emotionally, without having to parse it through a filter of text.

Know thyself. This may sound out of place, but it’s something I’ve found tremendously helpful. Because having a long-distance relationship with Franklin so often involved having to process icky emotions when we’re apart, it’s incredibly useful to be able to identify when those emotions are about the distance and not about him or the relationship.

I had an epiphany on the book tour. Franklin was reading one of the sections in More Than Two where he talks about his ex, Ruby:

All I knew was…I felt scared and angry. I assumed that because I felt this way, she must be doing something wrong, though it was difficult to figure out exactly what. I remember going to sleep replaying all my interactions with her in my head, looking for that thing she was doing to hurt me so much.

Because I was starting from the premise that she was doing something wrong—why else would I be feeling so bad?—I lashed out at her, accusing her of all kinds of wrongdoing, most of which existed only in my head.

As he read, it hit me: I’m doing this. That’s why we fight so much when we’ve been apart for a few weeks. I’m feeling hurt and angry because he’s gone, and because I’m feeling hurt and angry, he must be doing something wrong. So then I go looking for what he’s doing wrong, and BOOM! Off we go.

Well, it’s only been a couple of months—not even that—since the book tour ended. And since then, we’ve managed to not have to spend much more than two weeks apart at a stretch (instead of the three or four we often do). And it’s actually pretty hard work to recognize when this is happening and stop it. So it’s hard to know how far this insight will take us in the long term, but so far just the recognition that just because I’m feeling bad, doesn’t mean he’s doing something wrong, and then remembering to look for the actual source of those feelings, has kept us away from that brink—even in the times I’m feeling lousy.

And the selfies do help. They really do.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 10.50.08 PM

What do you do to help you feel connected to your long-distance partners?


We’re writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign at midnight tonight, December 15, 2014. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015!

Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now.

#WLAMF no. 31: There is always missing information

December 16, 2014

“Did you feed the cat?”

It’s a simple question, right? My husband and I both feed the cat, though to be honest, usually these days it’s him.

So why is it that I feel guilty and defensive when I hear it? (Oh no, was I supposed to feed the cat? She wasn’t acting hungry, I thought he fed her already!)

“Did you scoop the cat box?”

Well, actually, usually my husband does that to. But when I get a text message from him, “Did you scoop the cat box?” I immediately feel defensive. Instead of a simple “No, do you want me to?” I’ve found myself typing, “No, you didn’t tell me it was needed! I thought you did it yesterday.” And he replies: “It’s okay! I just wanted to know if it still needs to be done!”

Or how about this: we had some guests recently. When they left, they made the bed nicely. We were having another guest, and weren’t sure if we needed to change the sheets. So we sent a message: “We were just wondering if the sheets on the bed were clean.”

“Oh no, sorry! That slipped by us! So sorry.”

Well, okay, they’re Canadian. Even so. We didn’t mean to tell them they were supposed to clean the sheets! We just wanted to know!

So what’s going on here?

Well, one answer is passive communication. But this is a totally normal way for us to communicate in North American society. The question “Did you…?” very often includes the assumption that the person being asked was supposed to do the thing in question; there’s often even a veiled recrimination in the question. If your response is no, it’s a confession, not an answer.

I’ve been pondering this over the last few weeks, perhaps because I’ve been asking “Did you…?” questions a lot. And I’ve realized something.

No matter what we say or how we say it, there will always be information missing from what we say. And our brains are exceptionally good at filling in missing information. Franklin talks about this in his Making Relationships Suck workshop: in experiments with people who’ve had the left and right hemispheres of the brain separated so they can’t communicate, a person’s left brain will completely fabricate reasons for actions taken by the right brain, and then believe them.

If I ask a question like “Did you scoop the cat box?” the missing information could be that I’m at home, contemplating whether to scoop the cat box. It could be that the cat has just pooped on the floor, and I’m trying to figure out why. Or it could be that I expected you to do it, and will be upset if you didn’t.

There is always missing information.

In my case, I guess I feel pretty guilty about never scooping the cat box, so it’s pretty easy for me to get defensive when asked if I did it. Funny how that works, isn’t it? My brain fills in the missing information—He asked if I scooped the cat box. OMG I never scoop the cat box. I AM A TERRIBLE KITTY MOM—and then inserts that information into his message, reflecting back at me.

We are going to do this. We can’t stop it; it’s how our brains work. And I think a big part of the difference between direct and passive communication doesn’t just come down to how completely or directly you convey information, but how you handle it when your brain fills in the missing bits. Do you recognize it when that happens? Do you check yourself and say, “Hey, why am I feeling defensive? Actually, they just asked for information.”

Our brains are buggy. They lie to us. Our feelings lie to us. Even our gut responses to straightforward statements or questions can lie to us. A big part of good communication consists of learning to identify the information gaps in what we hear, understanding how we’re filling them in ourselves, recognizing that we’re going to get it wrong, and asking the speaker to fill in the additional information.

Another good strategy is just to take the words at face value.

“Did you clean the cat box?”
“No.”
“Could you?”
“Okay.”

It’s not always this easy, of course. Sometimes you really do need that bit of missing information. But it’s often a good way to start. And trust me, not filling in that missing information at all is a big step up from filling it in with your own story. If you’re not sure what to ask, taking their words at face value leaves space for the other person to help fill it in—if it matters.


I’m helping Franklin and Louisa write one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign at midnight tonight, December 15, 2014. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015!

Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now.

Emotional outsourcing: Why structural approaches to jealousy management fail

September 16, 2014

Earlier this summer, a writer who goes by the pen name Elizabeth Stern published an article in Salon titled “Jealous of what? Solving polyamory’s jealousy problem.” Franklin and I wrote the following as a response.


Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?

—Proverbs 27:4

Elizabeth Stern has hit the polyamory jackpot. She has two loving, secure partners who are highly compatible not just with her, but with each other. The two loves of her life like each other, share interests, and are actively supportive of each other’s relationship with her. And none of the trio has ever felt jealous.

We hope, for Stern’s sake, that she and her partners manage to remain forever in their blissful Eden. For many people, jealousy emerges just when it’s least expected, without foreshadowing. (Coincidentally, Franklin first experienced jealousy four years into his first serious polyamorous relationship.) If this happens to Stern, we hope she will be able to grant her partners, her metamours (her partners’ other partners) and, perhaps especially, herself more patience, compassion and empathy than she has granted her readers.

Based on her description of her relationships, we can venture a few educated guesses about Stern and her partners: they are probably secure, with high self-esteem; they probably have good communication skills and a reasonable amount of experience in healthy relationships; Stern clearly has good partner-selection skills. We stress the importance of developing all these assets in our new book More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory. They are also highly educated, financially stable and engaged in meaningful, fulfilling careers—that is, they have strong identities outside their romantic relationships.

Like someone who’s never suffered depression giving advice to someone who has, or someone who’s never encountered economic hardship critiquing the moral shortcomings of the poor, Stern looks to her own happiness and tries to decide what she’s doing right and others are doing wrong—because obviously, if everyone else would just do what she’s doing, they’d be as happy as she is. Like many people with unchecked privilege, she scoffs at those who must actually work at the things that come to her naturally. Advice aimed at those who must make an effort at learning communication, developing emotional self-awareness and building self-esteem only “soaks in a sea of middle-class self-actualization.”

Stern believes her lack of experience with jealousy makes her an expert on the subject. She conveniently chooses a solution to jealousy that most cleanly fits her personal worldview: the problem is individualism, and more specifically, the kind of bourgeois individualism that following the traditional Marxist line, always serves the interests of the ruling class.

To bolster her position, she invents a fantastical human past. It’s not clear what societies Stern was imagining when she talked about jealousy being a “non-issue” before the Industrial Revolution: does she long for lords and ladies, rosy-cheeked peasants and noble savages? Surely she cannot imagine that a return to feudalism and arranged marriages is the solution to jealousy we should be seeking? While it’s not clear exactly what kind of world she wishes we lived in, what is clear is that it’s not the world we do live in: Stern’s analysis is woefully uninformed about both human history and animal behavior.

Turning from Stern’s misty-eyed, nostalgic Utopia to the real world, a casual look at history and literature shows us that jealousy has always been part of the human condition. The Greek story in which Zeus’ wife, Hera, is consumed by jealous rage over the affair between Zeus and Seleme and engineers Seleme’s death; Unferth’s jealousy of Beowulf in the epic saga; Othello’s mad and destructive jealousy, constructed from whole cloth by Iago; Scheherazade’s husband Shahryār’s consuming jealousy at his betrayal, which sets the stage for One Thousand and One Nights; Rama’s abandonment of Sita in the Ramayana…all these show how deeply the roots of jealousy are embedded in the human condition.

Some people might argue that some of these cases of literary jealousy are not actually about sex or romance, but about status, property, politics or ideology. This observation is true, and it offers an important insight: jealousy is often not about relationships at all. It can be about social status, division of resources, or violation of taboos, among other things. In More Than Two we refer to jealousy as “a chameleon emotion.” Learning to recognize its many faces—and its many causes—is key to its management and ultimate banishment.

Jealousy starts young: it can be seen in infants as early as six months of age. Children get jealous of siblings, parents, other kids at school, mom’s or dad’s new partners—anyone they feel threatens the affection they rely on. This phenomenon is wellknown. Would Stern have us believe it only occurs in the children (indeed, infants) of neoliberal capitalist parents?

As anyone who’s ever owned pets can tell you, jealousy is also not uniquely human. In The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People, David Barash and Judith Lipton delve deep into the sexual behavior of non-human (and human) animals. It turns out, many animals display an array of behaviors that look an awful lot like what we call jealousy in humans. We see evidence of “jealous” behaviors in primates, birds and dogs (but presumably only capitalist dogs), among other animals.

We do not deny the social element of jealousy. In their book Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá argue that pre-agrarian societies were openly promiscuous, and monogamy an invention to protect the accumulation of property. If one accepts their arguments, it may be that at least part of human jealousy is in fact a post-agrarian (though not post-industrial) invention, socially programmed and heavily linked to social status and economic security.

So what is jealousy, then? It’s a surprisingly tricky question, for unlike most emotions, jealousy is an amalgamation of many feelings and impulses. The word dates back to the 13th century, and the dictionary defines it as “intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness; disposed to suspect rivalry or unfaithfulness.” That says little about what causes it. We’re often told that jealousy is provoked by possibility: if a lover spends time with someone who could be a suitor, we feel jealous. Yet many people don’t feel jealous when a lover has sex with someone else, while others feel jealous if a lover even talks to someone of their preferred sex. Clearly, it’s not the external situation per se that creates jealousy. Jealousy is an individual internal response, but one almost certainly shaped by both nature and nurture.

Jealousy is often the fear of being replaced. It starts in us so young because it is, arguably, the first and purest expression of the ego. We cannot outsource the taming of our own egos; we cannot export the job of facing our own insecurity. Jealousy is not a one-size-fits-all problem, so a mass-produced, one-size-fits-all solution won’t succeed.

Stern’s conclusions about the roots of jealousy are naive, because she believes that since she and her partners have never experienced jealousy, it means they never will. They’re arrogant, because she believes that her single four-year polyfidelitous relationship with two men can serve as a model for all poly relationships. But her assertions are also dangerous.

One of the most common—and devastating—relationship mistakes a person can make is to assume, “I am feeling bad, so that means someone has done something bad to me.” Sometimes it’s true: abuse happens, cruelty and gaslighting happen, people can just be inconsiderate and unkind. Jealousy can be a signal: that something is wrong in a relationship, our needs aren’t being met, our partner really does have one foot out the door. Or it can be a social cue: our status is threatened.

But sometimes jealousy comes from inside, revealing insecurity or anxiety we need to confront and work through. Or it can be utterly irrational, arising blindly out of seemingly nowhere, perhaps from our social training—or perhaps an ancient biological urge encoded in our DNA. Perhaps a partner’s or metamour’s well-intentioned words or actions have tripped over deeply buried emotional trauma and unleash demons that make us feel like our world is going to end. The network is supportive, everyone is communicating—then a new situation is encountered and BAM! Jealousy. Feeling bad doesn’t always mean someone else is doing something wrong.

Stern’s view is dangerous, then, because often people feel jealous when no one is doing anything wrong. Treating jealousy as a purely social issue (and we’ve seen it done) can lead to an endless circle of judgment, recrimination and accusation. It’s the ultimate in outsourcing: the outsourcing of emotional responsibility. True jealousy management involves listening to the jealousy to find out what it’s trying to tell you, and communicating with your partners (and metamours) to discover whether there is truth behind your fears—and if not, to get the reassurance you need.

But Stern’s conclusion is dangerous for another, more insidious reason. The dense-network “polyfamily” model she describes is a good one for many people. Polyamory advocates, in fact, tend to choose closely networked co-habiting triads and quads (usually with children) as their poster families. When it works—and we’ve both seen many situations where it has—it’s amazing. It’s understandable to crave such a structure; many do, and some successfully create it. Those who are suited for such a life and have managed to build it themselves, as Stern has, are fortunate indeed.

But there’s a hidden trap when such structures become prescriptive. When everyone is expected to be “family” in order to stay in their relationships—or the converse, to stay in relationships in order to keep their “family”—such networks can easily, and with the best of intentions, slip into coercion. One of Franklin’s partners has written on our blog about how prescriptive family structures can become coercive, undermine consent, and strip away the most essential of relationship rights: the right to leave a relationship.

Stern advocates a structural approach, something actually quite common among people new to polyamory. “We just need to find the right social structure for our relationships!” “We’ll have a closed triad, where everyone loves everyone else, and then there will be no jealousy!” It’s easy to understand why; dealing with unpleasant emotions is hard, messy work, and we will reach for any excuse not to do it. Yet structural approaches to jealousy rarely succeed—and when they do, it’s usually because of luck, coincidence, or an already solid set of interpersonal skills.

In fact, we see, over and over again, that when we outsource responsibility for our relationships onto “society,” whatever “society” means in a given era, we end up with systems that strongly discourage any form of non-traditional relationship. For example, polyamory.

In fact, research has shown that societies that attach great social importance to specific, sanctioned social and sexual roles—for example, societies that highly value marriage and proscribe sex outside of sanctioned relationships—have greater incidence of jealousy, suggesting that reinforcing socially approved roles, far from being the “solution to the jealousy problem,” actually makes the problem worse.

Certainly it is true that in cases where everyone is able to share their feelings, where they feel seen and heard by their partners and their metamours, jealousy can be less likely to arise, and it’s usually easier to cope with when it does. And when multiple partners are able to enjoy each other’s company, time management and division of relationship “resources” can be much easier.

It is also true that poly relationships go much more smoothly when everyone actively supports each other’s relationships—and this idea is certainly nothing new to the poly advice literature. Columnist Mistress Matisse talked about “rooting for the home team,” and in More Than Two, we talk about the importance of “teamwork”:

Teamwork [among metamours]—or at least the possibility of it—is one of the things that makes polyamory stand out from other forms of non-monogamy. When they are going well, metamour relationships enrich the lives of everyone in a romantic network. Many people, in fact, see metamour connections as a prime benefit of polyamory. (p. 398)

It is not true, however, that close metamour relations, dense networks and social support make jealousy a “non-issue.” We’ve seen polyamorous groups of three or four people all closely connected with each other dissolve into jealousy, recrimination and, ultimately, dissolution. Ironically, Stern’s solution to the problem of jealousy is something we’ve seen cause jealousy: having strong social support for particular relationships can backfire dramatically when someone perceives a rival to be encroaching upon the socially approved role.

Stern claims that an “individualistic approach to relationships is also ‘convenient’ in that it allows partners to be dispensable.” But by seeing our partners as individuals, we recognize their uniqueness and irreplaceability. By seeing them in terms of their social role, instead, we make them interchangeable: it’s not the person who matters, it’s the role. And when partners feel interchangeable, jealousy tends to emerge.

Stern offers abstract sociopolitical theorizing about an emotion she is, by her own admission, unfamiliar with. To someone in the grip of a crisis, who’s struggling to deal with jealousy, this sociopolitical theorizing can come across as insensitive, even condescending. It offers no tools for dealing with the problem short of “rebuild your social network to look like mine and hope for the best.” To someone hip-deep in jealousy, what’s needed is not theorizing, but real-world experience in coping with and resolving the problem.

“Jealous of What?” is aimed at “those who don’t want to be faced head-on with the green-eyed monster,” but there is no other way to deal with jealousy. We cannot outsource facing our own fears and insecurities. If we are to become the best possible versions of ourselves, there is no other way than to assume command of our own potential.

 

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