Tag Archives: relationships

A Reality of Abuse

Stock photos in tones of black and blue, of women shielding their face, of fists and black eyes. A stair lined with knives, tweeted by the police. They are so effective, those images, so evocative. So simple. Is that really what domestic abuse looks like? I can’t tell you. I don’t think it looks like anything in particular.

 

[Content Notice: This article discusses non-physical domestic abuse.]

 

This article was shared by someone in my facebook feed, weeks ago, and it stuck with me. Something in it made me feel uneasy, beyond the obvious horror of a stair lined with knives.

Eventually I found the answer in the quote at the end:

This picture is a snapshot of the horrific reality of domestic abuse. We hope it raises awareness of the barriers facing survivors who want to flee. If people ask ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ – show them this picture.

–Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid

While I absolutely do not deny that many women stay in abusive relationships because they fear for their lives, I know for a fact that there are many other reasons why people don’t leave their abusers.

 

Sometimes, people don’t leave their abusive partner because they’re financially dependent on them. Because they’re disabled, because they have kids, or because that was just always the plan: Their partner would take care of them, so they didn’t need to work.

Sometimes, people don’t leave their abusive partner because they’ve been convinced that they are completely hopeless and unloveable, and that this relationship is the only one they will ever have. That they’re lucky to have anyone at all.

Sometimes, people don’t leave their abusive partner because they’re codependent; because the immense gratification they get when they feel able to aid their loved one overrides all other concerns.

 

In my case, well, I didn’t leave my abusive partner for two very simple reasons:

The first was that I was in love.

But more importantly, I didn’t understand that I was being abused.

In fact, I didn’t realise what had happened until several years had passed. Sure, there were the immediate scars of a bad relationship, of lies and broken trust. But there were other, deeper things. Subtle conditioning of emotional responses that took years to suss out.

It’s been so long, and I still remember that person’s moodswings. How they would get violent towards inanimate objects, breaking stuff on a couple of occasions, because of inconsequential things making them lose their shit. But it was never about me, so I didn’t think of it as abuse. I simply lived in fear of those sudden outbursts and their interminable aftermath. Their black mood would fill the room like a poisonous cloud, and they wouldn’t lift a finger to disperse it. It was up to me to try to make them happy again, or at least not annoy them further.

And oh yes, that was another thing: They told me I was the most annoying person on earth. Of course, I was also the most amazing person on earth, sometimes. During one particularly difficult conversation towards the end, they called me a robot for being so calm and reasonable in dealing with my emotions, and later declared me overly sensitive when something they said upset me so much I had to go to the bathroom because I thought I was going to throw up. As I recall (though this may have been from a different conversation altogether), they had compared me unfavourably to the lover they had slept with behind my back for months but then claimed to have stopped seeing.

I didn’t understand that when they refused to answer a perfectly reasonable question about how they had spent some time with that supposed ex lover, saying they didn’t want to “feed my paranoia”, that was a classic example of gaslighting.

I didn’t understand that the way they hardly ever gave me compliments or showed any particular affection towards me when we were around people we knew, preferring instead to mock me on those occasions, was abusive. That it slowly ground me into a pulp, left me desperate and emotionally destitute.

And of course, there was the jealousy. They were jealous of me, of everything I did that didn’t have to do with them. I quickly learned to avoid mentioning social engagements with others. I cut short my foray into dressing more femininely and “showing off my goods” in public, because they wanted my body all to themselves. I never knew if showing myself to be skilled at something would draw some mild praise, or simply send them into a huff because it was a skill they lacked.

 

I was walking on eggshells for the entire duration of our relationship. And even today, years later, I notice the same worries and thought patterns in myself, being applied to people who never did anything to earn that sort of fearful response from me. When a later partner got out of bed to fetch something and ended up stubbing their toe in the dark, and my whole body tensed up with anxious fear … I think that was the final piece of the puzzle.

I didn’t understand that I was being abused, because to me all those things were just personality quirks. My partner was a difficult person, I knew that when we got together. They had cultivated a self-image of the tortured genius, one which I happily encouraged, as it attracted me and spoke to the codependent tendencies I do have.

Sure, they treated me like a dishrag, using me to wipe up their filth and then wringing me dry — but that’s not abusive, that’s just being a terrible partner. Is what I thought.

And I loved them. I was so deeply committed to them, I simply couldn’t let go. It wasn’t possible.

 

They dumped me, eventually, for that lover I mentioned (whom they probably never stopped seeing). We tried to remain friends. When I landed a rebound a while later, they got upset. Called me — I think I can count on my fingers the number of times they spontaneously called me during our relationship. But now they needed me to talk to them, pick them up again, just like I had when I had been theirs alone.

And when they started feeling better, they saw fit to inform me how much all their friends had hated me, back when we were together.

That’s when I left. When they had already left me, and I was no longer rewarded with some token of affection for the immense emotional labour they required of me. That’s when I could finally let go.

 

My point is, domestic abuse isn’t always so obvious and clear-cut as knives stuck into the steps of a stair. Sometimes it’s gaslighting until you start questioning every thought and desire you have. Sometimes it’s years of tiny barbs that slowly wear you down. Sometimes it’s having to carry the entire weight of your partner’s emotional burdens, because they have no idea how to do it themselves.

I’d wager a lot of people, like myself, never understand that they’re being abused until afterwards, and perhaps not even then.((Especially if they are male, and the abusive partner is female. Because men can’t be abused by women. It simply doesn’t happen. Even if you do realise you’re being abused, what can you do about it? Who would believe you? You’re a man, after all.))

And, conversely, I suspect many abusers have absolutely no idea what they are doing. They aren’t hitting their partner, after all, or threatening them in any way. How could they possibly be abusing them?

So when we see photos of knives in stairs, accompanied by quotes from knowledgeable people saying that this, this is the horrifying reality of domestic abuse … how are we to connect that to the reality we live in, where the knives aren’t always made of steel?

 

You don’t talk about abuse openly, for many reasons, not least of which is your abuser still being alive. Mine may very well come across this blog post some day.((If you are reading this, I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive yourself for what you did to me. I probably never will.)) Every person who decides to talk openly about what happened to them have to face the fact that there may be repercussions. I’ve made a risk calculation and decided that it’s worth it, that I can write about this.

I wish I couldn’t — I wish I had never experienced it. That relationship sucked life out of me, and most certainly made my anxiety worse than it already was. And I guess the only thing I can do with the memory is talk about it, in the hopes that maybe it will help someone. That maybe, someone reading this might take a closer look at their own relationship(s) and understand that they need to leave. Or that they need to stop abusing their partner. Or that they need to talk to that friend of theirs whose partner always seems so rude to them. You get my drift.

I hope to raise awareness, just a little bit higher than the image of a stair full of knives might.

On Relationships and the False Security of Labels

A rose is a rose is a rose. And a partner is a partner, a [gender]friend, a paramour, a fiancé/e, a spouse, a lover – but what do these terms even entail? If you repeat a word enough times it starts to lose its meaning. Then you’ll have to find other words to describe it.

Shakespeare got one thing right about relationships | alexfelicia.net
Shakespeare got one thing right about relationships

When I first got into relationship anarchy, I had nothing against labels. As I have mentioned previously, relationship anarchy is for me more of a philosophical framework than a practical way to structure my relationships. Hence I don’t really see a contradiction in being a relationship anarchist and monogamous, for instance. The realisation that relationships are fluid and difficult to define, and that there is no fundamental difference between different kinds of relationships – that the labels we use only imply that certain components are present or missing in a specific relationship – doesn’t stop you from preferring to focus emotional and sexual interest on one person. And it certainly doesn’t stop you from attaching labels to your relationships.

Though this is still very much my view on things, I have become more and more wary of using labels myself. Continue reading On Relationships and the False Security of Labels

Jealousy Management: Dealing With Feelings

There are a few rare souls who are never plagued by jealous feelings. The rest of us have to find ways to eliminate, mitigate or simply live with them.

Well, you either learn to deal or you risk being miserable, and by extension making your partner(s) miserable too. So it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of jealousy management!

This post is my attempt at summarising the most useful thoughts I have gleaned from my forays into poly country. Some of them are expressly stated in lots of places, some of them are things I personally feel are relevant.

As I discussed in my previous post on the subject, jealousy management isn’t just for polyamorous people or relationship anarchists. Regardless of what sorts of relationships you prefer (and whether you like to label them or not), I hope you find something in here that is useful!

[Because I’m lazy super tired and out of photoshop mojo, this post’s illustrations are brought to you by giphy.]

Jealousy Management, according to Alex | alexfelicia.net

A Few Caveats

While these ideas can be applied to any relationship, regardless of nature or the number of people involved, my writing is geared towards intimate, romantic relationships. Though they outline some of what I find to be the most essential concepts that help me deal with my own jealousy, they are only the beginning of what can be a very long and complicated process. This post is about how to handle your own emotions, not how to work as a team with your partner(s) to create a sustainable relationship dynamic.

I am also aware that individuals have different needs and may benefit from different models and analyses; I absolutely do not think this is the be-all, end-all of jealousy management. It’s simply my way of looking at things, and I have written it down in the hope that it might be of some service to others.

Important!

All of what is written below assumes that there has been no breach of trust or of some explicitly stated contract/agreement, and that your partner is treating you well.

There are obviously perfectly good reasons to feel awful, such as your partner lying to you, ignoring your well-being, gaslighting you when you raise concerns, etc. Believe me, I know. But that is not what is being discussed here.

A Working Definition of Jealousy

It’s hard to effectively deal with something if you don’t know what it is. After spending quite a while thinking about it, I decided on the following working definition of jealousy:

A complex of negative emotions associated with a particular relationship, when it feels as though that relationship may be threatened by an external factor.

This definition may seem vaguely worded, which is because I have tried to cover all eventualities. Jealousy can occur within any kind of relationship, not just a romantic one (parents and their children, between friends, etc), and it may be directed against/triggered by anything, not just people (the person’s hobbies, their work, sex toys, etc). In fact it can even be triggered by things that don’t actually exist; hence the careful wording in the last clause.

Assumptions Are Treacherous

To start out, get rid of all assumptions about your relationship. A lot of people assume that words like “partner” or “boy-/girlfriend” have obvious, set meanings. They don’t.

If you are in a relationship with someone and you haven’t discussed what your relationship actually is, then chances are pretty high you don’t have the same view of it. Similarly, if you haven’t discussed what kind of behaviour might trigger jealousy in yourself or your partner, you can’t assume you’re on the same ground there, either.

You might be super relaxed about physical contact with others, while your partner isn’t. Or you might be completely new to jealousy management, while your partner has been thinking about these things for years. Your frames of reference will not be the same, and this will have to be remedied before you can have a successful communication. And without successful communication, there is no way to help each other to manage jealousy.

It’s Okay to Get Jealous

Jealousy is an emotion, or several emotions (see the next point). Emotions are never wrong. How you decide to deal with it can be wrong or right depending on what your goals are and how it affects your partner, but the emotions themselves are just… emotions. They’re there. Accept them and let yourself feel them so that you know what you are dealing with.

There is no point in shaming yourself. It doesn’t matter if you think your feelings are silly and that whatever it was that triggered them shouldn’t have done so: You reacted the way you did, and now you have to deal with your reaction.

Jealousy Is Not One Emotion

Jealousy is not just one emotion. Well, it can be, but then it is one out of several possible emotions that all go under the same umbrella term.

If you examine your jealousy closely, you will likely find that it’s not some uniform thing with a clearly defined label, but rather a cover-up for a deeper feeling that may have its roots in any of a myriad different worries. Just to name some examples:

  • You are afraid of being replaced.
  • You are worried about your abilities in bed, and think that someone else might satisfy your partner better.
  • You feel as though the worth of the experiences and feelings you share with your partner is lessened if they have similar experiences with others.
  • You’re worried about being betrayed, as you have been betrayed before.
  • You have an intense desire to control your relationship and your partner, and feel jealous when you’re reminded that you can’t.

You may be feeling afraid, anxious, worried, insecure, depressed or angry, or a cocktail of different emotional responses. Whatever the case, allowing yourself to feel your emotions and examining them for their root causes is vital to the process of dealing with them.

You Own Your Emotions

Jealousy is not something that is done to you. It is your reaction – and it may be a response to real, external stimuli, but it is still your emotion and you have to own it. There are a number of ways your partner could and should help you deal with your emotions, but the ultimate responsibility is still yours.

As bleak as this may sound, this actually implies freedom and power. If you discover that you feel jealous, and are aware enough to realise that it is not through anyone’s malice or stupidity but simply an emotional reaction to something that happened (or that you imagined), this awareness allows you to take charge of it and dealing with it in a way that does not hurt your relationship. Blaming your partner or whatever it was that triggered the feeling is not a constructive response.

Avoidance Is Not Dealing

If you’ve decided that you want to be self-aware and that you want to work actively with trying to free your relationship of the burdens of jealousy, the most important thing to learn about dealing with it is this: You can’t do it by removing everything that triggers jealousy from the relationship.

Borrowing a metaphor from More Than Two, imagine you own a refrigerator and it breaks down. Now, one way to handle this is obviously to stop buying food that needs to be refrigerated. You could even put a big blanket over the fridge and pretend it doesn’t exist. But it does exist, and it’s still broken, and you’re missing out on a lot of good food. A better way of dealing is to fix the refrigerator.

Similarly, if some action on the part of your partner triggers feelings of jealousy in you, the obvious solution should not be to tell your partner not to do that anymore, but rather to look inside, figure out why it feels bad, and find a way to eliminate or mitigate this feeling. In terms of relationship contracts, avoidance would be to add a new clause to your contract every time you encounter something uncomfortable, rather than accepting the terms as they are.

Accept Your Limits … But Not Right Away

Everyone has limits. If you can’t function in an open relationship, if the thought of your partner being with someone else makes you break apart every time, then maybe that’s a kind of jealousy you are not capable of dealing with. That’s okay. But if you feel like that about your partner watching porn, or smiling at someone other than you, perhaps you need to examine the feeling more closely.

Feelings aren’t rational and don’t have to be justified, but some are more likely to destroy or put a damper on relationships than others. While it’s relatively easy to find partners who will agree not to have sex with others, finding someone who’ll agree not to have friends is rather more difficult, and also very unhealthy (for them).

However, even if you decide to accept your own limits, you have to recognise that your partner might not. If you truly think that your partner hanging out with someone they may be attracted to is the highest form of betrayal, it is entirely possible that you will find yourself without partner soon enough. And if your partner would be miserable in a monogamous relationship while you are miserable if they see other people, it’s time to renegotiate.

Trust Your Partner’s Feelings

Trust that your partner is with you because they want to be. This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not. The point is that your jealousy does not protect your relationship.

If you ask your partner not to, say, hang out with a particular person because you’re jealous of them, and your partner agrees, you have not protected your relationship from an external threat. All you have done is restrict your partner and potentially made them unhappy. If they are actually attracted enough to that other person for this to be a threat to you, then it will be a threat no matter what restrictions you place, as your partner will either be miserable or go against the restrictions. And if they’re not that attracted to that other person, them hanging out shouldn’t hurt you anyway.

The bottom line is this: If your partner wants to have a relationship with you, they will. If they want to prioritise that relationship above others, they will. If they don’t want to be with you, or want to be with someone else more (and you can’t negotiate a polyamorous relationship), then your relationship will end, either by a clean break or by the situation becoming unbearable for one or both of you as a result of their actions and your jealousy.

In a way, this is the flip-side of owning your emotions – your emotions are yours to deal with, and that goes the same for your partner. You cannot control how they feel about you or anyone else. All you can do is try to make your relationship the best relationship it could be.

Footnote

In no way do I claim to be original in this text, as I am sure that there are plenty of people who have trodden this path before me. But an idea doesn’t have to be original to be good.

If you know of any good resources for these topics, or have tips I forgot to mention here, please leave a comment!

Relationship Anarchy, Jealousy and Me

You know what time it is? That’s right, it’s business time. And by that, I mean the business of talking about relationships.

I’m a relationship geek. It’s taken me a good long while to realise this, because “relationships” aren’t really seen as a legitimate interest to geek out on (which may well be one of the reasons autism is underdiagnosed in women!). But I love thinking about relationships every bit as much as carrying them out in practise – sometimes probably more.

Despite this, I was stuck in what I like to call The Narrative for most of my life. Abandoning culturally ingrained ideas of what kind of relationships there are and how to pursue them took meeting the right people in the right context, plus a lot of reading and thinking. These days, relationships is one area of my life that I feel requires almost no improvement. And a huge part of this has been adopting the idea of relationship anarchy and learning to handle jealousy.

Relationship Anarchy, Jealousy & Me | alexfelicia.net

The Obligatory Scars

It wasn’t always this way, of course. I used to joke that my first encounter with non-monogamy was “non-consensual polyamory”. It’s really not that funny – my then partner broke my heart over and over again, and gave me scars that would come to haunt me in every intimate relationship I’ve been in since.

However, even then, I recognised one interesting fact: I really didn’t think him being with others was much of a problem in itself. The problem was that he lied about it, and that he wasn’t treating me well outside of that aspect of our relationship either. In short, dealing with jealousy wasn’t much of an issue for me – what ruined our relationship was breach of contract, ruined trust, neglect and psychological abuse. (The last part, I didn’t quite see for what it was until after our relationship ended.)

The mental scars this person left me with had me convinced that polyamory wasn’t for me. I liked the idea in theory, but I thought that there was no way I could ever find the level of trust and safety I would need for it to work.

Then I fell for a person who identified as a relationship anarchist.

Abandoning the Narrative

Relationship anarchy is an ironically self-contradictory label, given that for many, eschewing labels is one of the central ideas of RA. For me, RA supplied a new philosophical framework for how I thought about relationships.

In retrospect, the conclusions reached seem obvious: Relationships are fluid. Each one is unique, because the people in it are unique. Labels and definitions may be useful for communication, but are treacherous when they lead to lack thereof, replacing communication with assumption.

Though some see RA as belonging under the umbrealla of polyamory, I see RA purely as a philosophical standpoint. In my mind, it is entirely possible to be RA and still prefer monogamous intimacy. In fact, it seems that I’m pretty mono myself when I’m in love. Though I’m open to sexual encounters with others than my romantic partner, the prospect doesn’t really interest me much and it’s not something I pursue actively. (I am however quite happy for my partner to be involved with others, and have found a wonderful friend in my metamour.)

The point of RA, rather, is to abandon the notions our cultural narrative indoctrinates us with, when it comes to relationships – all relationships, not just romantically and/or sexually intimate ones. RA makes you ask questions such as what it is, exactly, that differentiates “friendship”-type relationships from “partners”, and if it’s really necessary to follow the standard relationship escalation programme of dating-[insert gender]friend-house-babies (or whatever is appropriate in your culture), or if perhaps you would prefer to let your life take another path.

Once you start thinking along those lines, you’ll discover what a ridiculous number of ideas and assumptions go completely unexamined. Both huge life decisions such as whether you want kids or not (of course you do! especially if you’re AFAB, this is obligatory!), but also small, everyday things. For me, one of the big eye-openers was challenging the notion that you always want to share a bed with your lover!

A Normalized Evil

And, of course, jealousy as a natural part of life is one of those notions that can be challenged. Jealousy is so deeply entrenched in the narrative that I think most people don’t ever consider the idea that it’s something that can be managed. But it can be, and I will be writing more about how I do it.

Jealousy is a complicated topic because it’s not one easily definable and identifiable feeling, but rather one or several emotions that arise because of one or several different reasons. It’s also complicated because to a large extent it is socially sanctioned. The mono- and heteronormative society we live in teaches us that jealousy is a sign, sometimes even the sign of deep affection.

Thus, instead of being encouraged to work on it and try to lessen its prevalence and ill effects, couples are actually often encouraged to feel and express jealousy, even to the extent where they start imposing limits on each other’s behaviour. Conversely it’s not uncommon for people to actively try to elicit feelings of jealousy in their partner, either as a tit-for-tat revenge strategy or simply because they feel that expressions of jealousy prove that their partner really cares for them.

Jealousy is romanticised in pop culture. | alexfelicia.net
Hey remember in that movie where that dude tries to stab that other dude with his eyes because the other dude was friendly with his victim love interest?

Jealousy in Monogamous Relationships

Skipping the part where I argue why jealousy is a problem at all (because I hope it’s self-evident why negative emotions are bad), jealousy is as much a problem for monogamous couples as for less traditional relationships. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that it’s actually a bigger problem, at least if you’re looking at sheer numbers.

Regardless of how one feels about polyamory personally, one thing polyamorous people often do incedibly well is handling jealousy. Or, if not well, they are at least trying, because their lifestyle often forces them to. Thus, it strikes me as profoundly strange that monogamous people often ask non-monogamous people, “But how do you deal with jealousy?!” It seems to me that it is far more common for those who follow the narrative to do everything to avoid dealing with jealousy in any meaningful fashion.

So How Do I Deal, Anyway?

Basically, proclaiming that “we are in a monogamous relationship” does not mean you have dealt with any jealousy that may and probably will occur. In this light, I think it would do individuals as well as society at large a favour to spread the word of jealousy management beyond poly circles.

It would be nice to say I don’t have to deal with jealousy anymore, but I find ideology shifted rather more easily than emotions. I still get jealous, and I doubt I will ever be entirely free of those feelings. But as I was to discover when I set out to date a relationship anarchist, the poly community has produced lots of fantastic resources. These resources and a lot of introspection as well as discussions with my friends produced a mental framework I use for handling my emotions. And that will be my next post on the subject!

As for the person who introduced me to RA, we lived together for a while but ended up renegotiating our relationship. They are still one of the people closest to my heart, even if we have both moved on to new adventures, romance-wise.