Expectation Damages and Reliance Damages

What do we do when our relationship expectations aren’t met? What happens when someone breaks a rule, violates an agreement, or otherwise doesn’t do what we legitimately expected them to do, and it harms us?

Expectation Damages vs. Reliance Damages

In the law, there are different kinds of damages that can be awarded based on the type of injury. When one party breaks a contract, typically the other party is awarded expectation damages. Expectation damages are meant to put the other party in the position they would have been in had the contract been fulfilled.

Imagine that I agreed to sell you my couch for $200. You rent a truck for $50 to transport it, but when you show up, I say I changed my mind and don’t want to sell. The cheapest comparable couch you can find costs $300 and will require another $50 truck rental to pick it up. Your expectation damages are $100. You expected to pay $200 and a $50 rental fee, and receive a couch. Instead, you paid $300 and a $50 rental fee to receive a couch, so you are $100 worse off than you would have been had I stuck to the deal.

Another type of damages that are typically awarded when expectation damages are difficult to estimate or when circumstances are more appropriate are reliance damages. Reliance damages are intended to put the injured party in the position they would have been in had the contract never been made in the first place.

In the couch example, your reliance damages are $50. If we had never made the contract, you never would have spent the $50 on the truck rental. You paid that $50 in reasonable reliance on my promise to sell you my couch. Because I broke my promise, you’re out $50. If I break the deal before you rent the truck, you don’t have any damages, since you’re in the same position you would otherwise be in.

In a business context, there are good reasons why we typically award expectation damages for breach of contract. Unless there is an opportunity for an efficient breach, we want to encourage people to stick to their deals. Business runs on deals, and rules that encourage people to break deals would increase uncertainty. Uncertainty is bad for business, so we favor rules that increase stability and predictability.

Relationship Damages

In a relationship context, most of the time, we won’t be talking about money, but I think it’s useful to consider the general magnitude of a person’s responsibility when trying to make amends. There’s a big difference between trying to make up for wasting an hour of your life vs. ruining your career, and the amends required are different.

I find reliance damages to be the more appropriate way to think about relationship injuries. When a person breaks a promise I think it’s extraordinarily helpful to consider the conceptual difference between (a) putting someone in the position they would be had the promise never been made (reliance damages) vs. (b) putting someone in the position they would be had the promise been fulfilled (expectation damages). I favor thinking in terms of reliance damages because it’s more autonomy-promoting. It encourages people to make amends for any damage they’ve caused, but it also encourages people to renegotiate their agreements if they’re no longer benefiting from them. The thinking behind expectation damages is that people should stick to their agreements and that people have a responsibility to make sure the other party gets the benefit of the bargain no matter what. The thinking behind reliance damages is that sometimes shit happens, and people’s responsibility is to make up for any damage they’ve caused.

Examples

Let’s consider a few examples of common broken promises in relationships:

(1) you flake on a date.
(2) you fail to do the dishes as promised.
(3) you cheat sexually.
(4) you divorce your partner (after vowing “till death do us part”).

In example (1), expectation damages would seek to put the person in the position they would have been had you showed up. So from that thinking, your moral responsibility would be to take your partner out on a date, whether you want to or not, because that’s what you promised. I’m not a fan of this solution, because I don’t think people should ever feel required to give social attention when they don’t want to. It’s a pillar of consent culture that nobody ever owes another person their social energy or attention, and our ethics ought to reflect that.

Reliance damages would seek to put the other person in the position they would have been in had you never promised to go on the date. If you back out soon enough, there really aren’t any damages, since the other person has time to make alternative plans. If not, you’ve ruined their evening, so it’s on you to make amends for that. It could mean taking them out on a different evening if that’s what you want to do, but it could also mean letting them borrow your Playstation so they’re not bored all evening. Or it could mean buying them a book or (if you live together) giving them control of the living room TV for the night. Thinking in terms of reliance damages give you options that don’t infringe on your autonomy.

Example (2) is interesting because expectation damages aren’t actually very problematic. You would just need to do the dishes that have been sitting in the sink all night. Most of the time, that’s a fine solution. It’s also interesting because there likely aren’t any reliance damages. If you didn’t promise to do the dishes, would the other person not have eaten? Would they have used paper plates? Probably not. It’s likely that the dishes would have been made no matter what, so really, the person is in the same position as if no promise was made.

So does that mean it’s ok to promise to do the dishes, then back out at the last minute? Of course not. What this indicates to me is that the issue with you not doing dishes isn’t that you said you would do them. The issue is that if you never do the dishes, you’re a jerk! If you did the dishes for the past three evenings, then I don’t think there’s a big problem with you saying that you’re not going to do them tonight. You shouldn’t have said you’d do them, but I don’t think you owe the other person anything if they’re just taking advantage of your helpful nature to get you to do the dishes every night. However, if you don’t do a fair share of the housework, that’s problem whether you’ve agreed to or not. So in this situation, I still think it’s appropriate to think in terms of reliance damages. This is just a good reminder that there are other considerations aside from just broken promises.

In example (3), expectation damages would seek to put the person in the position they would have been had you not cheated. This is what most people do in this situation. It involves things like getting tested for STI’s, breaking off the other relationship, assuring your partner that it won’t happen again, and completing some kind of probationary period where your actions get some extra scrutiny. While this can be a good solution if maintaining your current relationship is your only consideration, I don’t favor it as an ethical requirement. What if you’re in love with the other person? What if you don’t want to be monogamous anymore? What if your partner is controlling and this is the excuse they need to micromanage your life?

Reliance damages put the person in the position as if you never promised monogamy in the first place. This might mean breaking up, if your partner desires only monogamous relationships. It might mean that you decide to open your relationship (although this is a notoriously bad way to start an open relationship). It might mean doing all of the same things as expectation damages and making a new promise of monogamy, if that’s what you want and your partner trusts you to keep to your word (which they probably shouldn’t).

Example (4) truly shows the absurdity of expectation damages. Expectation damages, in this situation, would mean getting remarried. Unless you’re a fanatical believer in the sanctity of marriage, I think we can agree that there is no ethical requirement to get remarried once you get divorced.

Reliance damages mean putting the other person in the position they would have been had you never promised to stay with them forever. In a divorce, a lot of this can be financial. Did the rely on your financial support and stop pursuing a career? Pay spousal support. Did they rely on your financial assistance when deciding to have a child? Pay child support. Did they take out a mortgage with you? Either figure out a compromise or sell the house and pay off the mortgage. Non-financially, there was probably a lot of emotional damage done, so make up for that as best you can.

Conclusion

When you’ve broken a promise, you’ve probably done something wrong. But what is it? Most analysis tends to view the act of breaking the promise as the bad thing, but I tend to disagree. I think it promotes freedom and autonomy much more to see the bad thing as making the promise in the first place. If you find yourself so motivated to break a promise that you overcome the psychological difficulty in doing so, I think most of the time it’s fair to say that you inaccurately predicted your feelings. Had you known that you would not want to stick to the agreements, you probably wouldn’t have made it. So I think it’s best to see the promise as the mistake.

Adopting the thinking behind reliance damages helps all parties focus on the promise as the mistake, and seeks to rectify the situation by putting the injured party in the position they would have been had the promise never been made. I want people to do whatever they want, as much of the time as possible. That can’t happen if our ethical thinking encourages people to stick to agreements even when they are no longer benefiting from them. I’d much rather adopt ethical rules which encourage the breaking of agreements that shouldn’t have been made in the first place and merely obligate people to make amends for the harm they caused.

Breaking promises is bad. Traditional morality says to keep your promises no matter what. My advice is different. I say, don’t make promises that you won’t want to keep. If you do, then making the promise was your mistake, and you are responsible for any injuries cause by another person’s reasonable reliance on your promise.

What Rolling Stone Can Teach Us About Creating Ethical Poly Communities

[CN: Rape]

In November 2014, Rolling Stone published an article by Sabrina Erdely entitled “A Rape on Campus.” Wikipedia has a summary of the article and the subsequent fallout. For those who haven’t been following, the Rolling Stone article centered around the story of “Jackie,” a pseudonym for a University of Virginia student who told a harrowing story of being gang-raped by a group of fraternity brothers, one of whom had been her date for the evening, and who had led her upstairs to where she was attacked.

Jackie’s story has largely been discredited. There is broad consensus that, for whatever reason, the story that appeared in the Rolling Stone article is not true. Rolling Stone’s publisher points the finger at Jackie, calling her a “a really expert fabulist storyteller.” However, other sources, including my friend Miri Mogilevsky, have pointed out that journalistic standards exist to deal with precisely this kind of situation, and that this was a failure of Rolling Stone to practice good journalism:

it’s crucial that journalists and editors understand that it is their responsibility, not that of their sources, to ensure accuracy and fairness in reporting. Although Jackie probably did not lie, and the inconsistencies in her story can better be explained by fairly simple neurobiology, the fact is that people do lie sometimes. Some people lie pretty often. Politicians, whom journalists frequently write about and interview, lie quite a bit. People who have committed a crime also tend to lie when asked if they did it.

Moreover, people often misremember or forget things, even when their brains aren’t operating in trauma mode. As someone who often winds up in discussions about science and research with friends, I have often watched a trusted and knowledgeable person confidently tell me something that is absolutely false, and when I presented them with evidence that it was false, they were genuinely confused as to how they could’ve believed such a false thing. The reason is that our brains just aren’t made to retain lots facts and details accurately. Our modern systems of criminal justice, journalism, and other practices that require precise recitation of facts were not designed with this in mind.

A good journalist knows this, which is why the saying “Trust, but verify” exists. The Rolling Stone staff have been misdirecting blame onto Jackie by claiming that it was the sensitivity of her situation that caused them to abandon their journalistic training, but it is when situations are sensitive that these principles are especially important.

I agree with Miri that it’s entirely possible that Jackie was not lying, and that she merely misremembered the details of what happened to her. When the story first broke, Miri explained how trauma survivors’ memories are especially imperfect, and that recalling things like names, dates, or specific details are often very difficult for trauma survivors, regardless of their level of veracity. Maybe Jackie was lying. Maybe she is a trauma survivor suffering from PTSD, and that her memory was imperfect, causing her to report erroneous information about what happened to her and mistakenly point the finger at the wrong parties. From Rolling Stone’s standpoint, I don’t think it matters. Reporters don’t have the luxury of assuming that their sources are telling the truth, even if they are. It is a bedrock foundation of journalism that one cannot merely assume the accuracy of one’s sources.

The effect of Rolling Stone’s journalist failure is disastrous. There was obvious damage done to the falsely accused parties, but and nobody is angrier than sexual assault survivors:

This makes me angry. I’m angry because what should have been a rigorous journalistic investigation has succeeded in drawing more attention to false allegations of rape and diverting focus from the problem of sexual assault and harassment on university campuses. I’m angry because veteran reporters, editors and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone should have known better than to rely on a single source to carry and verify a complex story that alleged criminal wrongdoing on the part of UVA students and neglect on the part of the university administration. I’m angry as a survivor of sexual assault, who knows the crushing hopelessness and despair that accompanies not being believed, and who also knows that every line of print devoted to false allegations makes it that little bit more difficult for people to come forward and report rape.

[…]

The frightening thing is that the hostile responses in light of the Colombia report are so predictable. Many will use Jackie’s false allegations as an example of how women lie about rape and how victims cannot be believed. The debacle is prime ammunition for Men’s Rights Activists and others who seek to deny that rape culture exists and paint victims as manipulative and untrustworthy. I will not speculate on why ‘Jackie’ fabricated her story or write angrily to blame her, but Rolling Stone’s failure to confirm the accuracy of their story is indefensible.

Rolling Stone’s journalistic failures not only make them look foolish, but serve to make it more difficult for rape and sexual assault victims to be heard. When reporting on such topics, journalists have a duty to all survivors to take their practices and ethics seriously.

I think this has lessons for our poly communities, both local and national. Much like a failure of journalism can harm all survivors, similar failures in our communities to address abuse can harm all abuse victims. Communities leaders have similar duties to journalists when investigating and taking action on abuse allegations. The consequences of getting things wrong are huge, so it’s important that we take steps to get things right.

LESSON 1: LEAD WITH COMPASSION

First, some things that Rolling Stone did right: by all accounts, Erdely treated Jackie with compassion, respect, and dignity, which is something that victims sadly are often denied. Trauma survivors are often treated as suspects or liars by investigators who lack training in how trauma can affect a person. A lot of the ways trauma manifests can be confusing to someone who has no experience or education in dealing with survivors. The result is that survivors are often treated poorly, disbelieved, or dismissed based on normal responses to trauma. Leaders have a duty to educate themselves regarding how abuse tends to manifest, and what to expect from a reporting victim. In particular, experts suggest asking open-ended and allowing victims to recall details at their own pace rather than asking for specific information first.

Emma Fett of Navel Gazing has a tremendous post on dealing with abuse. Her top recommendation is that we believe abuse victims, but adds:

This is actually not as simple as it seems. Because people who are abusive almost always hide as victims. If we believe them, unequivocally, we give safe harbor for abuse. But if we are always suspicious of people who report abuse, we do not give a safe space to survivors who already doubt their own experience.

My compromise is this: we believe that abuse victims are telling the absolute truth about their pain, and we respond with compassion. Even abusers hiding as victims are in pain. Even malicious liars are in pain. In our communities, when we receive reports of abuse, our responses should recognize that, no matter how dubious a claim may sound, we are dealing with a person who is hurting. Any response should start with compassion first.

At the same time, it’s not inconsistent to recognize that memories, especially memories of traumatic events, are flawed, and to require additional corroboration before we treat a single source’s account of an event as the truth of what happened. Doing so protects not only those accused, but also victims.

LESSON 2: TRUST, BUT VERIFY

Most sources agree that Rolling Stone’s biggest mistake was its failure to verify Jackie’s story. The Columbia Journalism Review investigation identified a host of mistakes, all centering around the idea that Rolling Stone trusted a single source and failed to get a meaningful response from those accused of wrongdoing. Particularly, the report found that Rolling Stone failed to provide the accused fraternity with enough information to conduct a meaningful investigation, telling them only that “I’ve become aware of allegations of gang rape that have been made against the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi.” Needless to say, this was not nearly enough information for Phi Kappa Psi to investigate.

The Presumption of Innocence

Our criminal law system assumes that people are innocent until proven guilty. It makes this assumption because it recognizes that accusations are not the same thing as evidence, and that it is unjust to punish someone without giving them a meaningful opportunity to present a defense. The presumption of innocence is generally considered an indispensable part of any just system.

Likewise, in any poly group, it’s important to recognize that just because someone has been accused of wrongdoing, that person hasn’t actually committed wrongdoing. This, of course, doesn’t mean that people can’t be suspended pending investigation, but it does mean that alleged victims aren’t the only people who need to be treated with respect and dignity. It also means that, to take any adverse action against a member, more than just an accusation should be required.

Multiple Sides to Every Story

One thing that Rolling Stone teaches us, without a doubt, is that it’s unforgivable not to get all sides of a story before making any judgments about what happened. Rolling Stone put all of their faith in the victim’s account of what happened, and did not give anyone else a chance to explain their side.

The lesson here is that no single person ever gives the complete story. When we are faced with an accusation of wrongdoing, it’s important to get all sides before making any decisions.

LESSON 3: PUT IN THE LEGWORK

One of the biggest lessons to take is that dealing with allegations of abuse takes work. It’s not something that can be done quickly and easily. By all accounts, Erdely put a tremendous amount of work into her story, and it still wasn’t enough. Investigating wrongdoing takes a lot of resources and willpower. Making sure the resources and willpower are there should be the first priority of anyone attempting to deal with abuse allegations.

Investigating abuse allegations means interviewing all witnesses, reviewing all physical evidence, reading all documents or digital communications, and figuring out what actually happened. It’s trivially easy to throw one’s hands up and say “well, it’s he said/she said, so I can’t do anything!” It’s also trivially easy to say “always believe victims! Punish anyone accused of anything!” Actually figuring out what happened is difficult, and it requires time, energy, and sometimes other resources. It is not something that should be attempted by people or organizations who are unwilling to put in the work.

LESSON 4: ADMIT WHEN THE EVIDENCE ISN’T THERE

This is probably the most difficult lesson of all, and this is the one that Erdely failed most spectacularly. She had her chosen narrative. Jackie’s story fit perfectly. More than that, Erdely’s narrative wasn’t really about any individual person. It was drawing attention to an endemic problem with college life and society in general. The individual stories weren’t the important part, it was about the problems with our own culture. Abandoning Jackie’s story would have meant either killing the piece entirely or writing a watered-down, less effective version which would draw less attention to a critical issue. Even if she had the noblest of intentions, Erdely unreasonably failed to admit that her story did not have the evidentiary support needed to publish.

Likewise, it can be extremely difficult for leaders to admit when there isn’t enough evidence to take action. Failing to take action could mean that there is a predator in the midst, and that, as a leader, you are abdicating your responsibility to protect your community. It could mean that the alleged victim feels ignored and abandoned. It could mean that you are exposing your community to further abuse.

All of that is true, but the alternative is just as bad. By taking action against a person who may be innocent, you may be committing abuse by proxy. You may be enabling and assisting a dangerous abuser from continuing to torment their victim(s). You may be vindicating and encouraging the behavior you’re seeking to prevent, thereby causing more of it in your community. You may also be setting the standard that your community has no sense of justice and turning a potential asset into an enemy.

The sad truth is that there is no way to completely stop abuse in our communities or to prevent abusers from being a part of them. Effectively minimizing the amount of abuse in our communities involves recognizing this fact and planning around it. A certain amount of risk tolerance is required in any community, and policies must reflect that all risk cannot be eliminated.

Where there is insufficient evidence to show that it is more likely than not that a person engaged in prohibited conduct, no punitive action can reasonably be taken against that person. It’s a hard decision to make, but sometimes staying one’s hand is the best choice.

Of course, actions can and should be taken to mitigate such a decision, starting with lesson 1: lead with compassion. Even if you don’t believe someone’s story, it is unnecessary to treat that person as a liar or a faker. Remember that memories are unreliable, and that a person may be acting in complete good faith, but still get the story wrong. Second, remember that just because official action won’t be taken doesn’t mean that care can’t be provided. Third, always recognize the right of anyone to tell their story. Victims always have the right to speak up about what happened to them apart from any official process. The fact that you may feel their story is inaccurate is no reason to silence them.

Creating ethical communities is difficult and full of tough questions. What to do about abuse allegations is one of the toughest and one of the most important questions. Hopefully, we can all learn from Rolling Stone’s journalistic failure and not fall into the same mistakes as Erdely, which ends up hurting victims more than anyone.

Stop Telling Fat People to Be Thin

source: fiercefatties.com

Last month, Harriet Brown published an article on Slate comprehensively laying out the science around weight loss and showing how (a) diets don’t work long-term; (b) weight loss isn’t healthy; and (c) that it’s out culture’s obsession with being thin that drives people (including doctors) to assume that being thin is healthier than being fat. The Slate article was a summary of what’s in her book Body of Truth, and reflects what fat activists have been saying for years.

In response, Julia Belluz published an article on Vox claiming that Brown’s article was misleading and that losing weight is a worthwhile and attainable goal. Belluz’s article is terrible. It’s so terrible that I have to rant about it at length here. So consider this your trigger warning for angry ranting and diet talk.

Claim One: Diets Don’t Turn Fat People Into Thin People

Brown lays out what we know about diets:

doctors know the holy trinity of obesity treatments—diet, exercise, and medication—don’t work. They know yo-yo dieting is linked to heart disease, insulin resistance, higher blood pressure, inflammation, and, ironically, long-term weight gain. Still, they push the same ineffective treatments, insisting they’ll make you not just thinner but healthier.

In reality, 97 percent of dieters regain everything they lost and then some within three years. Obesity research fails to reflect this truth because it rarely follows people for more than 18 months. This makes most weight-loss studies disingenuous at best and downright deceptive at worst.

Brown’s statements reflect scientific findings about the ineffectiveness of diets over the long-term, which more often lead to weight gain than weight loss (83% in the linked study). Nobody quite knows why that’s happening, but one of the most plausible theories is set point theory, which is the idea that each body has a certain level of fat that it wants, and without drastic interventions, it will remain at the same level long-term. Set points can change, but nobody really knows how, and most diets tend to slightly raise a person’s set point rather than lower it. Set Point Theory applies to fat people and thin people alike:

Kolata goes on to discuss a later study that demonstrated it was just as hard to gain a significant amount of weight and keep it on. Male prisoners agreed to do this weight-gain experiment, and it turned out they had to eat a ridiculous amount of food–literally up to 10,000 calories a day–to increase their weight by 20-25 percent. Once they did that, their metabolisms went apeshit trying to get them back down to their normal weights. As soon as the study was over, the weight fell off.

There is also some evidence that gut microbes contribute in a significant way to weight gain or loss. The thing about all of the theories, though, is that they are not yet proven, and more importantly, that nobody understand them well enough to say how to turn a fat person into a thin person (or vice versa).

Belluz disagrees:

Some of the best research on what works for weight loss comes from the National Weight Control Registry, a study that has parsed the traits, habits, and behaviors of adults who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a minimum of one year.

[…]

“What makes maintaining weight loss seem ‘almost impossible,'” writes obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff, “are the goal posts society has generally set to measure success.” So no to quick diets, yes to long-term lifestyle changes. They can help.

Can you spot the error? I can! A few of them in fact! But the most glaring error is the one-year time requirement. There is no question that people on diets can lose weight and keep it off for one year, maybe even two. But once you get to year three, and especially when you get to year five, nearly everyone has not only regained the weight that they lost, but put on additional weight.

The other error is what’s known as selection bias. The registry includes 10,000 people who have successfully kept their weight off. Belluz tries to use the registry as evidence that long-term weight loss is possible for most people. However, nobody has argued that weight loss is impossible for anyone, just that it doesn’t work for 97% of those who try. Given that 45 million Americans diet every year, that’s over a million people every year who are successful. The existence of a registry of 10,000 people who have successfully lost weight proves nothing other than that they are part of the lucky 3% whose metabolism is cooperative.

Belluz tries to claim that the people on the registry have valuable advice for the rest of us. I’m reminded of a parable about mutual fund management I was told in finance class. Let’s pretend that picking stocks at random will outperform an index fund 30% of the time (the actual number is probably much higher). Let’s also say that there are ten thousand asset managers in the market. That means that, statistically, there will be 24 managers who are able to say “I beat the market every year for the past five years!” They will claim that their success is due to their incredible skills and insights, and try to convince you to invest all of your money with them. Their success is actually due to dumb luck. Their stock picks for the current year are no better or worse than anyone else’s.

The same goes for people who have successfully lost weight. Yes, they exist. No, they don’t have anything to teach the rest of us. For some reason, they got lucky. However, as the vast majority of studies have found, their success is not replicable for most people. They are not role models, and they have no helpful advice for how to turn fat people into thin people. Yes, this includes you.

Claim Two: Losing Weight Doesn’t Improve Health

Brown’s article claims:

Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention repeatedly find the lowest mortality rates among people whose body mass index puts them in the “overweight” and “mildly obese” categories. And recent research suggests that losing weight doesn’t actually improve health biomarkers such as blood pressure, fasting glucose, or triglyceride levels for most people.

Brown’s claims have been well-documented by various sources. There is an effect some call “the obesity paradox” where “[o]bese patients with heart disease, heart failure, diabetes, kidney disease, pneumonia, and many other chronic diseases fare better and live longer than those of normal weight.”

Belluz takes issue:

Stokes actually looked at more than 10 years of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and death records of American adults between the ages of 50 and 84, and went back in time, accounting for people’s weight histories. This made it possible to break up the normal weight category into two separate groups that are usually lumped together: those who had maintained a normal weight throughout their lives, and those who were normal weight at the time of the study but had experienced weight loss.

Stokes found that people who were always normal weight had an extremely low risk of death, but that the other normal weight group — with people who were formerly obese — had a much higher mortality rate. After redefining the normal weight category to only include the stable weight individuals, he found much stronger associations between excess weight and mortality.

Belluz claims that this “definitely has implications for the intensity with which we should be pursuing lifestyle and behavioral modification.”

inconceivableThis was the point at which my jaw dropped. I’m still having trouble believing Belluz is serious. She just presented a study that shows that losing weight not only doesn’t make you healthier, but it makes you so unhealthy that it throws off the statistics for the rest of the group, and she uses that as an argument in favor of weight loss! Belluz discovered really good evidence against the idea that weight loss is good for you and then wrote an entire article about how we should all be dieting! And claiming that it will improve our health! I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone.

Related to the health question, Brown addresses the kind of energy is takes to maintain weight loss long term:

Debra Sapp-Yarwood, a fiftysomething from Kansas City, Missouri, who’s studying to be a hospital chaplain, is one of the three percenters, the select few who have lost a chunk of weight and kept it off. She dropped 55 pounds 11 years ago, and maintains her new weight with a diet and exercise routine most people would find unsustainable: She eats 1,800 calories a day—no more than 200 in carbs—and has learned to put up with what she describes as “intrusive thoughts and food preoccupations.” She used to run for an hour a day, but after foot surgery she switched to her current routine: a 50-minute exercise video performed at twice the speed of the instructor, while wearing ankle weights and a weighted vest that add between 25 or 30 pounds to her small frame.

“Maintaining weight loss is not a lifestyle,” she says. “It’s a job.” It’s a job that requires not just time, self-discipline, and energy—it also takes up a lot of mental real estate. People who maintain weight loss over the long term typically make it their top priority in life. Which is not always possible. Or desirable.

Belluz is unsympathetic:

But I would ask Brown: does being obese require any less mental energy?

Is it really more mentally freeing to feel tired when you walk up a flight of stairs, to have to buy two seats on an airplane because one won’t do, to not be able to play with your children because you’re too unfit, to continually worry about whether your clothes are going to fit in the morning … the list goes on.

This is where Belluz reveals what is at the root of her science-denialism and wrongheaded thinking: prejudice against fatties. Belluz assumes that being fat means you’re too “unfit” to walk up stairs or play with children? That you have to worry whether your clothes will fit? Seriously? In the same way that body size doesn’t determine health, body size does not determine fitness. Newsflash, asshole: fat people exercise! And when a fat person exercises, their muscles, lungs, and heart develop strength and endurance. Just like a thin person! Being fat doesn’t mean it’s tiring to walk up a flight of stairs. There are many fat and thin people alike who end up out of breath after walking up the stairs. There are also many fat and thin people who have no trouble walking up a flight of stairs. Body size does not determine cardiovascular health, and to suggest it does is nothing short of bigotry.

Do you know what actually uses up a lot of mental energy in fat people? Fat stigma, which is exacerbated by ignorant articles pushing tired bullshit that’s been disproven over and over again. Want to improve the health of fatties? Spread the word about Fat Acceptance and Health at Every Size.

I am fat. I have always been fat. I am actually one of the lucky few who has managed to lose weight and keep it off long-term, which I did almost a decade ago by starting low-carb and then going low-calorie. Since then, my weight has been slowly but surely creeping back up. I’ve tried low-carb followed by low-calorie again, with no effect. I’ve tried going low-carb for longer. No effect. I’ve tried Whole30. No effect. I’ve tried The Smarter Science of Slim. No effect.

I’m not doing it anymore. I live a healthy lifestyle. I drink green smoothies for breakfast. I eat salad for lunch. I probably eat fewer calories than you do. I exercise regularly. I’ve started jogging. I walk up three flights of stairs to my office no problem. My doctors tell me I’m in excellent health. I have no reason to lose weight, and I’m not going to.

If Julia Belluz has a problem with that, she can kiss my fat ass.

Ethics and Philosophy: A Defense of Egoism

In my previous post about ethics, I explored the normative question through the works of Christine Korsgaard. I concluded that ethics are not normative, or at least that ethics have no collective normativity, and I rejected Korsgaard’s theory that we may ethically obligate others.

This post will attempt to provide an overview of how I do see ethics, and will primary discuss the works of Dan Fincke.

I. Ethics are About Self-Interest

In my previous post, I rejected the strongest arguments that I could find in favor of normativity, and specifically in favor of the idea that we have ethical duties to others. What remains, then, are duties to ourselves. One on Korgaard’s arguments that I do find convincing is the idea that anyone who takes an action must have a motivation. Everyone wants something. Everyone has desires. If we had no desires, we would never do anything. And so the goal of any action is to satisfy one or more of those desires. It is therefore universal among all creatures which take actions that we have desires we wish to satisfy.

Because we have no moral obligations toward others, but we all wish to satisfy our own desires, ethics becomes a discussion regarding how to best meet our own desires. This way of thinking about ethics is commonly known as egoism.

Within an egoist framework, what is “good” is whatever best satisfies our own subjective desires. Our desires are complicated and dependent on various factors, but for purposes of this discussion, the term “well-being” will be used to refer to the satisfaction of our subjective desires, whatever they may be.

Dan Fincke agrees that our our well-being is the appropriate starting point for an ethical system:

Ultimately, I think that justifying my interest in a good is going to require, on the most fundamental level, reference to my own egoistic good. My own thriving is the most fundamental, instrinsic, and unavoidably objective good I have.

Once we recognize that we have no moral duties to anyone or anything outside of our own subjective self-interest, the rest of the conversation is about how best to satisfy our desires.

II. Empowering Ourselves by Empowering Others

Dan Fincke sees the ultimate good as empowerment. In his ethics, what is “good” is whatever increases our power:

“What best advances our functioning, best advances our being, and is thereby our objectively greatest interest. This can be theoretically be determined according to facts about the nature of our characteristic functioning and facts about what effectively constitutes or advances that functioning the most.”

My disagreements with this approach are discussed below. However, if “power” is replaced with “well-being” (as defined above), I mostly agree with everything else Fincke has to say on the subject. In particular, I completely agree with Fincke that increasing our own well-being relies in part on increasing the well-being of others:

“On the purely egoistic level, the development of our own powerful functioning depends to an incalculable extent on others’ flourishing. To maximally realize our potential, we need the conditions of stability and prosperity which others’ thriving creates and sustains for us and we need the cultivation of our powers by those already powerful who can advance us far beyond where we would ever have been in isolation and make it so that our own efforts can attain to even greater extents than would otherwise have been possible.”

I’ve previously written about how I support feminism out of self-interest. This principle holds true in many areas. In most circumstances, my well-being will best be served by increasing everyone’s well-being. I have no desire to see others suffer, and tend to take substantial joy in seeing others doing well. My more material goals are likewise accomplished by increasing everyone’s well-being. I make money by empowering my employer to profit from my labor. I purchase things from people and organizations who would rather have the money paid than the product purchased. For many ways my life could be improved, society will have to improve, which benefits everyone. Most of the political changes I support would benefit the majority of people affected. Life is not a zero-sum game. In almost all ways I can think of, improvements in my well-being involve improvements in the lives of others.

Further, my strongest attachments include a desire on my part for others to have their desires met. Part of attachment, for me, is a sort of convergence between my own well-being and the well-being of another person. At baseline, I have a weak attachment like this with every other person in the world. Imagining or being exposed to unhappy people makes me unhappy. Imagining or being exposed to happy people makes me happy. Therefore, I have a strong incentive to empower others to be happy for purely egoist reasons.

III. Newcomb’s Problem, or Honesty Is the Best Policy

Dan Fincke discusses how much of morality is the process of sacrificing short-term gains for larger or more long-term gains:

What I think is ultimately happening in morality is that it is overriding our misperception of our interests and our tendencies to subjectively desire in short term and micro level ways, in order to fulfill our ultimate interests on the macro and long term level, considering our good from a third person standard of what maximizes our total power.

With this in mind, there is a strong argument that egoism is best served by, in most circumstances, conforming to virtue ethics. This argument can be understood through an understanding of Newcomb’s Problem:

In Newcomb’s problem, a superintelligence called Omega shows you two boxes, A and B, and offers you the choice of taking only box A, or both boxes A and B. Omega has put $1,000 in box B. If Omega thinks you will take box A only, he has put $1,000,000 in it. Otherwise he has left it empty. Omega has played this game many times, and has never been wrong in his predictions about whether someone will take both boxes or not.

This is referred to as a “problem” or a “paradox” because, once the boxes have been filled, nothing we do could affect what it is them. So long as Omega thought we would only take one box, we are free to take both boxes and reap the profits. However, doing so means that if Omega correctly predicted our behavior, there would be only $1,000 in the boxes. So in order to “win” the game, whether one takes one or both boxes is irrelevant. To win, one must be the type of person who would only take one box. Newcomb’s problem, then, does not depend on what you do. It depends on who you are.

The relevance is that life is made up of many situations which resemble Newcomb’s problem:

Most real decisions that humans face are Newcomblike whenever other humans are involved. People are automatically reading unconscious or unintentional signals and using these to build models of how you make choices, and they’re using those models to make their choices.

[…]

I know at least two people who are unreliable and untrustworthy, and who blame the fact that they can’t hold down jobs (and that nobody cuts them any slack) on bad luck rather than on their own demeanors. Both consistently believe that they are taking the best available action whenever they act unreliable and untrustworthy. Both brush off the idea of “becoming a sucker”. Neither of them is capable of acting unreliable whilesignaling reliability. Both of them would benefit from actually becoming trustworthy.

[…]

You can’t reliably signal trustworthiness without actually being trustworthy. You can’t reliably be charismatic without actually caring about people. You can’t easily signal confidence without becoming confident. Someone who cannot represent these arguments may find that many of the benefits of trustworthiness, charisma, and confidence are unavailable to them.

Because life resembles Newcomb’s problem, people have strong incentives to behave in ways that are seen as virtuous, as those behaviors are generally rewarded, and “bad” behaviors punished. If society is doing its job, there is no need to appeal to a higher morality to encourage people to behave in prosocial ways. Rational actors will recognize that it is in their best interest to do so.

All these tools can be fooled, of course. First impressions are often wrong. Con-men often seem trustworthy, and honest shy people can seem unworthy of trust. However, all of this social data is at least correlated with the truth, and that’s all we need.

It doesn’t matter that omega isn’t real. Overall, the best way to gain the social benefits of appearing virtuous is to be virtuous. In my estimation, the gains of doing so outweigh any short-term gains that one can obtain by taking advantage of others. Malicious behavior, in most circumstances, is ultimately self-defeating.

From that standpoint, the main goal of society is to make sure that it is in everyone’s best interest to behave in prosocial ways. Society must reward virtue and punish vice. To build a world that is beneficial for all, society must keep incentives properly aligned.

IV. Well-Being, Not Power, is Not The Goal

Because the goodness of an action is determined by our own subjective self-interest, goodness is dependent upon our own motivation. This idea is my primary area of disagreement with Dan Fincke. Fincke advocates for empowerment as the ultimate good:

But pleasures and pains or consciously formed preference attitudes, etc. are not themselves “conferrers” of goodness on things. Goodness is intrinsic and our pleasures, pains, attitudes, reasoned judgments, can either effectively align with our objective goods and contribute to maximizing our attainment of them or fail to do so.

I disagree. Fincke’s empowerment ethics rely on the idea that functioning is a good in itself. In the same way that a “good hammer” is effective at pounding nails, Fincke feels that a “good person” is effective at expressing their humanity. Human powers consist of “rational powers, emotional powers, social powers, technological powers, artistic powers, physical powers, and sexual powers” with associated sub-powers. Fincke’s argument is completely internally consistent, but I don’t find it convincing because I don’t think humans have a purpose.

A good hammer is effective at pounding nails because people designed hammers for that purpose. It’s reliant on the idea that a person using the hammer desires to pound a nail, and its goodness is derivative of that desire. If nobody wanted to pound nails, it would not be good for a hammer to be effective at that task.

Similarly, human powers are only good because people want to exercise them. If people do not desire to exercise their powers, then doing so has no intrinsic goodness. All the goodness in an action is derivative of the desires of those affected. This goes back to my original argument – that we all have motivations, and that the only reason we act is to satisfy those motivations. It’s not that satisfying our motivations is intrinsically good. It’s that, no matter what we may tell ourselves or others, satisfying our motivations is the only thing that causes us to take actions. Satisfying our own subjective, egoistic desires is our goal, no matter how we choose to conceptualize it. So, for each individual, what is “good” is what satisfies our desires.

Ethical dilemmas, then, are places where a single person’s subjective desires conflict. I may want a fancy car, but I also may want a healthy bank account. To resolve the conflict, I need to decide which I want more. Similarly, I don’t want to take the trash out, but I also want my wife to be happy. A resolution of that conflict requires me to estimate the effect that my actions will have on both me and my wife, and decide which I want more.

People have these kinds of dilemmas all of the time, and we are notoriously bad at acting in our own self-interest. While it’s up to each individual to decide for themselves what is in their own self interest, I’m partial to the idea that the degree to which something satisfies our desires is a fact about the universe, and could be measured, given enough information. AI researches refer to a concept called coherent extrapolated volition:

In calculating CEV, an AI would predict what an idealized version of us would want, “if we knew more, thought faster, were more the people we wished we were, had grown up farther together”.

Obviously, this sort of thing is impossible to measure, given our current level of technology and understanding of the brain, but I support the idea that our subjective desires are not always what we think they are, and that a lot of our thinking about ethics should be thinking about what we actually want.

V. Implications

My vision of egoism is functionally very similar to R.M. Hare’s two-level utilitarianism, which starts from utilitarian ethics, but concludes that, in most situations, it’s best to operate according to a series of heuristics, and that actually trying to estimate the full effect of our actions should be reserved for special circumstances (or for the process of selecting heuristics).

My egoism works in a similar way. As a general rule, one is encouraged to adopt the heuristics that benefit all of humanity, as those are likely the ones that benefit the individual as well. One is encouraged to be a virtuous person, as society generally rewards the virtuous and punishes those seen as wicked.

However, there are important distinctions, the most important of which is the understanding that there is no such thing as moral superiority. When one understands that the most moral thing is to act in our own self-interest, and that everyone is attempting to act in their own self-interest (even if they are doing a bad job), it is unreasonable to feel morally superior to another person. It is likewise unreasonable to feel morally inferior. Such concepts become incoherent.

From this standpoint, it is easy to see that nobody “deserves” any more or less happiness than anyone else. This has important implications for the justice system, which tends to include an element of retribution, or the idea that it is important to punish bad acts based on how intrinsically bad they are. From an egoist perspective, the only purpose of rewarding or punishing behavior is to affect future behavior, and all such rewards or punishments are measure by their effectiveness at doing so. This attitude would quickly lead to the wholesale reform of our prison system and the end of most forms of incarceration (as it is ineffective at preventing recidivism). It would also lead to a lot less moral condemnation and righteous anger, as moral disagreements would instead be seen as simple differences in preference and not high-minded judgments of a person’s value. The strongest statement a person could make about someone else’s morality is “I want something different,” or “I don’t think that will actually help you.”

Accepting that ethics are all about our own egoistic desires would also make it easier to analyze moral dilemmas. Classic moral dilemmas (such as The Trolley Problem) are much easier from an egoistic perspective – we just have to figure out which option makes us feel worse and choose the other. The same goes for questions about animal welfare. Animals have moral value to the same extent that other people have moral value, which is the extent to which we desire their well-being. If enough people desire animal welfare to a sufficient extent, society will reward protecting animal welfare and punish actions that harm animal welfare. Most advocates already understand this, and concentrate their advocacy between actual caring for animals and attempting to convince others to care more about animal welfare. Even utilitarians who love debating ethical questions understand that concessions must be made for egoistic reasons.

I’ve previously argued that

Life is a series of moral dilemmas. Every day, we make decisions that a different person, with different ideas of right and wrong, would make differently. Ethics aren’t just about political questions – e.g. war, civil rights, socialism, taxes – thought it’s about those too. Ethics tell us what time to wake up, which jobs to apply for, what to eat, where to shop, and whether to give $1 to the homeless man on the street.

Part of being able to make those kinds of decisions is a firm understanding of right and wrong. Most of the time, we rely on heuristics to make those decisions, but as in two-step utilitarianism, the process of choosing the best heuristics requires us to know what the ultimate goal of our ethics is. Once we understand that the goal is to satisfy our egoistic desires (and understand how our well-being is intrinsically linked to the well-being of others), we can more effectively make decisions.

Egoism also makes it much easier to forgive people for their bad behavior. When someone mistreats me, I understand that they are only doing what they think is right, and I understand that, no matter how bad their behavior, they deserve just as much happiness as me. This doesn’t mean that they continue to have access to me, but it does mean that I rarely wish to see people suffer (though it happens on occasion – I am human).

Ultimately, I favor egoism because it is true. As my friend Kaveh Mousavi recently wrote,

We need people whose main concern is not activist effectiveness. We need intellectuals whose primary concern is speaking the truth. We need people who push the boundaries of our thinking, who dare think the impossible, we need moral watchdogs saying things they know will be unpopular, we need people who are willing to be polarizing and controversial, we need people who are harsh and blunt. Without them human history would be impoverished, and they have achieved much in other areas of life if not in activism.

Likewise, even if the implications of egoism were terrible for the world and would result in disaster if widely adopted, I would still believe in it because I think it is true. I just probably wouldn’t write blog posts about it.

Not-So-Radical Honesty

“If you once tell a lie, the truth is ever after your enemy.” – Eliezer Yudkowsky

I. Radical Honesty

Radical Honesty is a philosophy developed by psychiatrist Brad Blanton, which has as its principle tenet that lying is the primary source of human stress and that to become happier, people should tell the truth in all situations.

Lying is the major source of all human stress. It kills us. When people engage honestly, energy that was wasted maintaining a performance to make an impression is suddenly available for real creativity. When we admit our pretenses we can refresh our relationships and powerfully create our future together. Radical Honesty is direct communication that leads to intimacy in relationships.

Unfortunately, Blanton himself seems like kind of a crackpost. He says things like “the primary cause of most both psychological and physical illness is being trapped in your mind.” He is also reportedly an abusive shithead. Still, the source of an idea has no bearing on its value, so I think it’s worth considering Blanton’s ideas on their own merits.

Blanton advocates against telling lies in any situation, but he goes further than that. A critical part of Radical Honesty is the idea that we should share our opinions and feelings all of the time.

He says we should toss out the filters between our brains and our mouths. If you think it, say it. Confess to your boss your secret plans to start your own company. If you’re having fantasies about your wife’s sister, Blanton says to tell your wife and tell her sister. It’s the only path to authentic relationships. It’s the only way to smash through modernity’s soul-deadening alienation. Oversharing? No such thing.

My biggest issue with Blanton’s conception of Radical Honesty is that it’s intrusive. It’s often said that opinions are like assholes – everyone’s got one, and they all stink. So it’s a pretty hard sell to claim that the world would be a better place if everyone went around telling everyone else their opinions all of the time. Further, expressing thoughts or feelings that people don’t want to hear can create pressure, or even lead to coercion. Blanton’s system seems to privilege the preferences of the speaker over the preferences of the audience. I would reserve any suggestion that people ought to freely share their thoughts for situations in which we have reason to believe that the other person wants to know what we think. This can be because they’ve asked a question, they are in a situation where our input would be valuable to them, or merely that we know them well enough to know that they would want us to speak up.

However, there are parts of Radical Honesty that I find appealing. I agree that telling lies saps our energy and sabotages intimacy. I agree that vast amounts of energy are wasted trying to maintain our facades. I agree that being completely honest is the only way to have an authentic relationship with another person.

One of the things I like about Radical Honesty is that it erases the distinction between lying and other forms of dishonesty. Our societies tends to view outright lies as somehow different from other intentionally misleading actions, but from a Radically Honest perspective, telling a lie, giving a false impression, and failing to correct a known assumption are equally wrong. Since the effect of each is the same, and the mental state of the dishonest party is the same, they all seem equally dishonest to me.

II. Where Dishonesty Is Coercive

Contra Blanton, I think the amount of honesty a person should display varies with situation. Ethically, I feel that honesty is required where honesty is necessary to respect another person’s boundaries and autonomy. This most often comes up in intimate relationships. As More Than Two puts it:

Perhaps the most common justification for dishonestly in a relationship is the notion that the truth will hurt worse than a lie. A person who cheats on a partner may think, If I tell the truth, I will hurt my partners, but if I don’t, my partner won’t need to experience that pain. This reasoning says more about the person making the argument than it does about the person he is “protecting,” because consent is not valid if it is not informed. By hiding the truth, we deny our partners the opportunity to consent to continuing a relationship with us. Controlling information to try to keep a partner (or to get a partner to do what we want) is one way we treat people as things.

Everyone has boundaries in intimate relationships. We might not always know what those boundaries are (though asking usually helps), but we can be confident that every one of our intimate partners has boundaries about who they are willing to have such relationships with. Sadly, one of the most common ways that intimate partners are dishonest with one another is that they hide things about themselves that they thing their partner won’t like. While I think that is foolish for practical reasons, it’s also virtually guaranteed to prevent a partner from giving informed consent to continue the relationship. Intentionally hiding aspects of ourselves is a way of preventing a partner from enforcing their boundaries or making informed choices about who to partner with. While hiding aspects of ourselves will not always result in a boundary violation, it’s likely enough that doing so shows a reckless disregard for our partner’s agency and boundaries.

Wherever a person’s boundaries are dependent upon knowing something about us, being dishonest is coercive. There are no exceptions. There are situations, however, when coercion is justified. The classic example is defense of self or others. If someone punches you, it’s ok to punch them back. But it’s important to remember that being dishonest with a person is likely a boundary violation. If you wouldn’t feel justified hitting someone, you shouldn’t feel justified being dishonest with them.

For this reason, lying in intimate relationships is never justified unless it’s a temporary measure to protect yourself while you exit the relationship. Intimate relationships run on trust. As More Than Two points out, being dishonest with an intimate partner means that, from then on, your relationship is non-consensual. Dishonesty, in this sense, is a form of controlling behavior. It’s a way of managing others rather than connecting with them. It’s a hostile act, and it abuses the trust that a partner has given.

However, I part ways with Blanton at his suggestion that we have an affirmative duty to tell the truth. While I tend to value privacy less than most, people still have a right to it, even from intimate partners. However, this doesn’t extend to a right to be dishonest. The key difference between privacy and dishonesty is that an honest person will admit to keeping things private. An honest exercise of privacy will involve phrases like “I don’t feel comfortable telling you that,” “I don’t want to talk about that,” or “that’s private.” Rather than misleading or misdirecting, an honest private person will merely state that they don’t wish to disclose.

Sometimes, honesty can be dangerous. In intimate relationships, people will sometimes react to our honesty (even if it’s merely a request for privacy) with hostility, rage, or even violence. Often, we can’t know how a person will react to our disclosures. In such circumstances, dishonesty can be a weapon we use to defend ourselves. When we are faced with a situation in which we feel that we should be dishonest with an intimate partner to protect ourselves, unless there are coercive forces keeping us there (see below) the only ethical choice is to leave the relationship. Once a person has been dishonest with an intimate partner, and refuses to correct their dishonesty, that person has robbed their partner of the ability to consent to continue the relationship. The only ethical choice is to end it.

Other times, honesty is merely difficult. It might cause people not to like us, to break up, or to get justifiably angry. Being honest might make us feel shame, guilt, or fear. Being honest might mean we don’t get what we want. But none of that justifies recklessly violating another person’s boundaries. None of that justifies coercing someone into a nonconsensual relationship.

III. Where Honesty is Ethically Optional

Pragmatically, I’m a fan of honesty in most situations. As stated above, I feel that honesty is a requirement to have a genuine connection with another person. There are also social benefits to being seen as an honest person, and the only reliable and lasting way to create that image is to actually be an honest person. However, that’s a subject for a different post.

As we’ve seen above, being dishonest with a person turns a consensual relationship into a nonconsensual one. However, where a relationship is already nonconsensual or coercive in nature, dishonesty can be justified. The biggest example is employment. In the United States, most employment relationships are coercive. Employers generally have vastly more power than employees, and employees are dependent upon employers for even basic necessities. Most employment relationships are based on a foundation of coercion, and so a prospective employee has no ethical duty to be completely honest with an employer. There, it’s more a pragmatic decision about what is safe to disclose or not. The same applies in mostly consumer transactions, or really most interactions between individuals and large businesses.

Similarly, other personal relationships can be coercive, where the power imbalance becomes so great that one party cannot simply leave without unnecessary consequences:

When leaving the relationship means destitution, social isolation, estrangement from family, or other avoidable and destructive consequences, it is coercive. When a partner attempts to make a breakup unnecessarily difficult or painful, it is coercive.

So where a person is already at such a power disadvantage that they have no meaningful choice but to stay in the relationship, that relationship is already nonconsensual, and the disadvantaged party is justified in using dishonesty to protect themselves. Abusive relationships, in particular, often create this type of coercion, where the abused party feels that they have no meaningful choice but to stay with the abuser.

However, there’s a pretty high bar. Where a person knows that leaving the relationship is a reasonable option and has no insurmountable barriers to doing so, dishonesty is only justified as an exit strategy. It’s critically important not to overuse this justification. “You made me do it” is an excuse that’s much more likely to be used by an abuser than a victim, so think hard before you decide that you have no choice other than to violate another person’s boundaries.

Sometimes, dishonesty can be consensual. In certain relationships, there is a “don’t ask don’t tell” understanding about certain topics, or even an understanding that a person should lie or hide certain information. Practically, this can be difficult. Ethically, it’s not a problem. Honesty is never required if the audience doesn’t want it. This enables a lot of familial relationships that would otherwise end up being antagonistic. It also tends to facilitate getting along with coworkers or other people that we don’t choose to be around. In other friendships, it’s understood that people aren’t sharing their full thoughts, and that’s ok too, so long as both parties are aware of what is being disclosed and what isn’t.

IV. Conclusion

Radical Honesty seems like a pretty silly idea, but there are elements of it that I like. My own policy would look something like this:

Dishonesty is a hostile act. This includes lying, intentionally misleading people, or knowingly failing to correct assumptions. Tell the truth in most circumstances. The importance of telling the truth increases with the amount of trust the other person is giving. Share your thoughts liberally, but only when you have reason to believe that your audience wants to know them. If you wish to keep something private, say so explicitly.

Avoid telling the truth where dishonesty is the least harmful alternative. Situations like this in social relationships are rare, and should be exited as quickly as possible. Where exiting is not a meaningful option, long-term dishonesty may be the best policy, though we should be highly skeptical of this option as we are all biased to favor it.

Where a person does not want honesty, there is no need to be honest with them.

Corporations are not people. There is nothing coercive about lying to a corporation.

________________________________

Addendum (4/9/15):

I left this out the first time, but I think it’s important to recognize that the More Than Two Relationship Bill of Rights recognizes that “You have the right, without shame, blame or guilt, in all intimate relationships, to be told the truth.” Eve Rickert has convincingly argued that this right cannot be waived:

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.

The Great Escape

Every year, so I have been told, I get a year older. It’s a pretty meaningless contruct in every way except for the obvious marking of the passage of time. I feel the same every birthday, the same as the year before, not one lick older. Basically, I have never felt like a Grown Up.

Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m doing a lot of grown up things because I’m supporting myself, have worked at the same company for ten years, pay bills, file taxes, have a mortgage, all that. But I’ve always felt like I was doing these things while being outside of the realm of adulthood.

Until now.

To celebrate my 34th birthday a couple of weeks ago, I took a couple of days off from work and did many fun things. I got a massage and ate delicious food and drank wine and expertly crafted gourmet cocktails. I wore a dress each day and waltzed around feeling pretty.

On Sunday night, I was curled up on the couch relaxing, centering myself for the return to real life the following Monday…

When I got a phone call. From the Collingswood Police Department. And then from Camden County Animal Control.

We are lucky enough to have a fenced in backyard at our house. We have a dog door that allows our little terrors to go in and out as they please. Unfortunately, we recently discovered that the dogs (especially the puppy) are good at leaping over short fences, ramming holes into older wood fencing, and getting out of the yard and running amuck around the neighborhood. Wes and I have been patching the holes as we find them, but ultimately we realized that we had to get new fencing installed.

I had already started the process of finding a contractor to do this for us when I got the phone calls from various county authorities. I was informed that Lola had gotten out, trotted all the way over to the vicinity of the police station, and gotten into a fight with some other dog around there. I was then informed that Lola had been taken to the Camden County Animal Shelter (henceforth to be referred to as Dog Jail) and would be spending the night there and that I could come bail her out the next morning.

It was then that I realized that I was a grown up. Not only was I attempting to find the best priced contractor for a vinyl fencing installation, but now I had to go to Dog Jail to bail out my hooligan dog (a hooligan dog WITH A TROUBLED PAST) after she’s spent the night in the, er, dog tank? To think about what she’s done.

I called out from work and retrieved the pooch. This is her in the backseat of my car that morning. I don’t think she thought about any of this at all at any point during the night:

Lola Dog Jail

I then called two more fence companies and arranged for consultations that day, went grocery shopping, did laundry, patched more holes in the fence, tripped over debris in the yard injuring my hand, went for a run, made dinner, and then fell asleep on the couch while attempting to watch a show.

Adulting like a boss.

I then realized that working myself to the bone with mundane adultness was perhaps not the kindest way to treat myself. And thus the sticker chart was born, to make sure I do things like draw and eat and all that.

Here’s hoping that the dogs stay out of trouble while we’re waiting for the fence project to be completed. Although, if they get “arrested” again, I might ask the shelter to take a “mug shot” of them. Lola has a great “Man, this is the worst thing ever” face.

“Because it’s there” or “Oh, my aching hip gosh darnit!”

Ten years ago I had the great fortune to go to Yosemite with my parents as a college graduation gift. It is a truly gorgeous and awe-inspiring place. Nothing at all could ruin its amazing vistas.

Nothing except for, perhaps, being completely out of shape and unprepared for Real Hiking. Most of the hiking in Yosemite is of the Ass-Kicking® variety and if you want to see the views that truly make the park great, you should not be faint of heart.

The trail head for the three vertical mile trek up to the top of Yosemite Falls is, no joke, boulders. You have to climb over boulders to get to the first steep path. Needless to say, I was feeling done for pretty early in the game, and then I remembered that I’d have to hike back down again. My mother, who has a runner’s lungs and heart, practically flew up the trail. My dad would have also if he had hiking boots on that actually fit him. His shoes made him hobble along and my inferior lung capacity made me do the same.

At one point, I got some stupid idea in my head that running up a few switch-backs would solve some issue I was having. It, unsurprisingly, didn’t, and instead it was the first time in my life I thought my heart was going to explode and that I was perhaps going to pass out and roll down the mountain, hitting every cactus and fuzzy marmot in my path.

marmot

I also somehow managed to yank something in my left hip, rendering me a limping mess for the remainder of the trip. Luckily, this hike was going to be the toughest we were planning on. Impressively, this injury still haunts me whenever I am super active (running, hiking, long walks, etc.).

Back then I said to myself, “Never Again”. Never again would I go to some kick-ass natural wonderland and not be able to fully enjoy it due to the shitty condition of my respiratory system!

Of course, that triumphant statement didn’t seemingly inspire me to actually get into shape. I went to Colorado and hiked (slowly and steadily) to the top of the Continental Divide and managed not to die and enjoyed the process somewhat, but I still was disappointed in myself for not finding the hikes invigorating, and instead finding them on this side of debilitating.

Which brings us up to now. Wes and I decided that we would go to Yosemite together next year to celebrate five years of Wedded Bliss. I think Amber’s going to come too, because hiking around and living in a sweet cabin for a week is much more her kind of vacation than Disneyworld. Wes and I want to hiking every other day with trips to local wineries in between.

Sounds delightful, right? Yes, it does! BUT it will only be truly delightful to me if I can enjoy the hiking and that means get my thirty-four year old ass into shape, once and for all. And by “once and for all”, I mean figure out how to do it, get there, and then maintain it.

To me, being in shape for serious hiking means having fabulous respiratory health and capacity, increased strength, and wicked flexibility. Respiratory health means not getting out of breath after getting over a couple of moderately sized boulders, and it means quicker recovery after harder parts of the trail. Strength means my muscles are prepared to hold me up and get me up those steep inclines. Flexibility means that if I do something weird, or fall, or whatever, I am less likely to get really hurt.

At least, this is my current theory about all this. I haven’t read any books on the subject and am kind of talking out my ass, but these fitness goals seem legit enough to try focusing on.

Yoga is my attempt at flexibility and it’s helping. My hip and other problem joint things feel much better when I’m practicing yoga consistently. The trick right now is to pick a schedule and stick to it. While I like the idea of going to a 6am class every morning and starting my day in such a positive way, it’s really rough to consistently get myself out of bed that early. The studio I go to offers tons of evening classes as well, so I just need to commit to when I’m going just like my art classes or work.

Yoga helps with strength building as well, but I think I also should work in some kind of weight training along with it. I don’t want to do anything super elaborate, but I should learn how to use dumbbells and all that. I have a gym membership that would be good for that.

Finally, Wes and I decided that the most efficient and effective way to get out hearts and lungs into shape was with running.

I’ve tried this before, but my experience has shown me that it is damn hard to get in shape enough for running to be enjoyable. I tried the Couch to 5K program but the fun to benefit ratio was just not good enough. Plus, I was doing the program myself so I had no one to commiserate with. Wes had similar experiences, but admitted that he never felt healthier than when he was running regularly.

And so it was that I found Up and Running. We’re almost done week 2 of their 5K course and it’s hard but better for a number of reasons.

  1. I paid for it, which holds me a bit more accountable to actually doing it. For the price, I get eight training plans, one for each week of the program. I also get access to the course blog, which has a lot of interesting and useful information. For instance, next week I will be learning about nutrition for the runner, and you all know how fascinated with that I am!
  2. Each week involves different warm-up exercises and approaches to the week’s running, so it’s easier to stay engaged.
  3. Wes and I are doing all the workouts together. We do them after work or on weekend mornings. We hold each other accountable for getting out and doing the thing. This is really the biggest motivator for me. We are relying on each other to not weasel out.

So, that’s happening and I’m still slow and get winded easily, but I’m going to keep going! It also turns out that a lot of the feeling lousy issues I was dealing with had more to do with not exercising than what I was or wasn’t eating. Or, at least, if there are some food issues, exercise seems to keep them at bay.

I set some other goals for daily/weekly achievements and have a sticker chart. On it, I have things like eating a bunch of veggies every day and drinking enough water and also a list of household chores that I officially take responsibility for and trying to delegate everything else. We started getting help every other week from a cleaning service (so lovely…there are things I just don’t have to think about now) and we were introduced recently to FreshDirect for online grocery shopping. I “went” shopping this morning and we’ll be getting our first delivery tomorrow afternoon. I’m pretty sure this is completely amazeballs, but I’ll know for sure tomorrow. I’m excited about having ways to free up time for me to do more things like exercise, art, music, silly video games, an, you know, maybe sitting down sometimes.

Last night, Amber was like “did you schedule enough time for putting stickers on the sticker chart?” I told her that I CAN PLAY WITH STICKERS FOR AS LONG AS I WANT BECAUSE I AM AN ADULT AMBER. She asked snarkily, “Won’t that cut into something else???”

Whatever, Amber. There’s always time for stickers.

Capitalization and Polyamory

Jana Lembke of NYmag.com has an article up about capitalization in relationships:

When something great happens in our personal lives, it’s exciting to share the event with people close to us. But at one time or another, you’ve probably disclosed some good news that wasn’t met with the degree of excitement or encouragement you had hoped for. It can be disappointing — even irritating — to expect someone’s ardent interest and get a lukewarm response instead. The process of telling others about our successes and getting a positive reaction is called “capitalization,” and research suggests it has major benefits for romantic relationships.

This concept reminded me of one of the reasons Gina and I decided to open up our relationship in the first place. There came a point, about five years into our relationship, where we realized that when the other had good news, instead of feeling positively, we got jealous instead. The typical example was a time when I got an unexpected day off from work. When I told Gina, instead of the active-constructive response I hope for, she got annoyed that she didn’t get a day off. I often reacted similarly when she got some unexpected benefit, thinking only of myself and failing to take joy in her good fortune.

When we talked about it, we realized that it was a toxic dynamic and we resolved to change it. From there, it was a direct line to polyamory. Once we realized that each other’s gain wasn’t our loss, monogamy no longer made sense. If we were able to take joy in a partner’s day off work, why couldn’t we take joy in a partner’s fun sexual experience? Or in a partner’s new relationship energy? Or in a particularly well-thought-out gift from another partner?

It wasn’t instantaneous of course. It took a lot of work and processing before we were able to stop thinking in terms of “fairness” or poly guilt and get to the point where we could feel real compersion. But it all started by realizing that capitalization was an important relationship skill, and that things that made each other happy should not be harmful to us.

Lembke also endorses the idea of making an effort:

Once you realize the importance of capitalization, there’s no reason not to make a conscious effort to do a better job of it. So the next time your beloved shares a personal success, remember that a heartfelt “congratulations!” goes a long way toward fanning those warm feelings that sustain relationship happiness.

It’s a lot easier to eliminate or mitigate sexual and romantic jealousy when we’re working to eliminate jealousy from all parts of our relationship. While jealousy tends to be stronger when it comes to sex and relationships, there are plenty of places where it can creep into our relationships. Making an effort to capitalize the small things can make it easier to be happy about the bigger things.

My Poly Nightmare

“A lot of unethical behavior comes from people trying to protect themselves by controlling partners”

— Franklin Veaux, Poly Living 2015

This is a story about how the polyamorous community failed me my family. It details our abuse and mistreatment, first at the hands of several of our partners and friends, and then at the hands of community leaders.

I was happy to have this conversation in private, and much of it has been. However, my antagonists have since moved the conversation into the public sphere, and therefore I think a public response is necessary. I am writing this for several reasons. First, I wish to address the public accusations against me, as they are, by and large, false and misleading. Second is purely self-expression. There are a lot of people attempting to shame me into silence, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to give in to those kinds of tactics. But more than anything, I am writing this in the hope that it will help the poly community improve.

I’m hoping that my story can help the rest of the community see how even well-meaning policies can end up furthering and reinforcing abuse if they aren’t well thought-out in advance, and how lazy, irresponsible, or corrupt leadership can mean disaster. Above all, this story is meant to show that we are not building communities that reflect our values, and to hopefully inspire some changes in the way that we do things.

One of my favorite quotes from More Than Two is the following (pp. 51-52):

We keep hearing that polyamory is hard work. We don’t agree-at least not for the reasons that people say. But developing the skills to be successful in poly relationships? That’s a different story. Learning to understand and express your needs, learning to take responsibility for your emotions… that’s hard work. Once you’ve developed those skills, poly relationships aren’t hard.

In the above quote, authors Veaux and Rickert identify two key skills that make poly relationships easy: (1) understanding and expressing your needs; and (2) taking responsibility for your emotions. This is a story about people who do these two things and people who don’t, and the conflicts that arise between them. At different points in this story, I fall into both categories. But if you don’t agree that it’s best to be in the former category, then you can save yourself a lot of reading and just conclude that I’m a jerk and our communities are fine, because that’s all this story is going to show you.

This story is completely true, as best I can remember it. However, memory is seriously unreliable, easily distorted, and even falsely manipulated.  Many of these events took place years before this account was written, making all memories of events especially unreliable. Wherever possible, I’ve relied on written records. Unless otherwise indicated, anything that appears in quotation marks is a direct quote from a written source. Any description of emails, texts, or IM’s has been made after a thorough review of all such communications, and I’ve attempted to give a reasonable amount of context for any such communications where appropriate. I’ve also attempted to verify accounts with witnesses whenever written accounts aren’t available.

Still, several of the events contained in this account are not recorded anywhere, and so rely purely on memory for their descriptions. The necessity of this is unfortunate, but unavoidable. I’ve tried to make it easy to tell which portions are from memory and which are from records, and the portions relying on memory should be viewed with greater skepticism.

This story is told in ten parts. It carries a trigger warning for abuse, sexual assault, gaslighting, victim blaming, and just generally people being awful to each other:

  • Part 1: About Me. Background about my views on relationships, Ask vs. Guess Culture, certain boundaries I have, and how I respond to criticism.
  • Part 2: Opening Up. A short summary of Gina and my early experiences with open relationships, my game-changing relationship with Jessie, and some poor partner- selection decisions that Gina and I made.
  • Part 3: Failure to Communicate. This part discusses my relationship with Ginny Brown and her massive dishonesty, which I consider the worst romantic relationship of my life.
  • Part 4: Gina’s Abusive Relationship with Shaun. The story of Shaun McGonigal’s abuse of my wife Gina for over a year, Ginny’s enabling and excuse-making, and its effects on my household.
  • Part 5: The Community Abandons Gina. A short interlude about the lack of support that Gina received from the poly community after reporting that she was an abuse victim.
  • Part 6: Terry. My greatest regret: my first date with a friend of Ginny’s, my own negligence, and our mutual inability to see each other’s lack of enthusiasm about sexual activity.
  • Part 7: Idealization, Devaluation, Discard. Our ex-friend Hilary Nunes, her unwavering support for us, and her complete 180 after we stopped giving her what she wanted.
  • Part 8: Ginny and Shaun Attack. Ginny and Shaun’s first attempt to blame us for Shaun’s abuse of Gina and Ginny’s dishonesty and enabling.
  • Part 9: The Second Attack and the Community’s Disappointing Response. Shaun, Ginny, and Hilary’s February 2015 offensive and the shameful and counterproductive way it was handled by the Polyamory Leadership Network and Billy Holder of Atlanta Poly Weekend.
  • Part 10: Waking Up From the Nightmare. A discussion of how to establish real accountability in the poly community.

Amber has also told her story, which people may find relevant.

On Culpability

Culpability is a general theme of this story. Culpability is a term from the criminal law, and generally depends on one’s mental state. I feel that’s a reasonable way to judge what degree of blame someone bears when someone else gets hurt in our personal lives as well as the legal system. Our system generally recognizes four categories of culpability for harm done (in descending order):

  • Purpose: a person is considered to have acted purposefully when the harm done was the conscious goal of the actor. When a person takes an action with the explicit goal of causing harm, their mental state is considered purposeful.
  • Knowledge: a person is considered to have acted knowingly when they were aware that their actions would almost certainly cause harm, but such harm was not their conscious goal. When a person takes an action that they know will cause harm, their mental state is considered knowledgeable.
  • Recklessness: a person is considered to have acted recklessly when they acted in conscious and unreasonable disregard of a known risk. A person is reckless where they are aware that their actions have a substantial risk of causing harm, and such risk is unreasonable under the circumstances.
  • Negligence: a person is considered to have acted negligently when they took an unreasonable risk that they should have known about, but were not consciously aware of. Where a person is unaware that their actions pose an unreasonable risk of causing harm, but they should have known the risk, their mental state is negligent.

Except for the unusual situation where a person announces their intentions, a person’s mental state is inferred from circumstances, which usually requires a rather comprehensive understanding of the facts of the situation. People are presumed to intend the natural and probable results of their actions. Factfinders will properly consider the “totality of the circumstances” in order to determine a person’s mental state. If there is evidence to suggest that someone acted with a certain level of intent, then any such evidence is worth considering.

Outside of certain exceptional circumstances, our legal system does not punish people for actions unless their mental state falls under one of the categories above. The theory is that, unless we are at least willing to say that someone should have known that their actions would cause harm, they are not responsible for the harm done. In terms of degree, a negligent mental state generally carries far less punishment than a reckless mental state, which carries less punishment than a knowing mental state. I consider this a reasonable way to judge how blameworthy a person is, so it is the standard I apply in my personal life as well, and the standard I feel we should use in our shared spaces.

Louisa Leontiades expresses the importance of intentions for reasons other than culpability:

For me there is a striking difference between continuing to be an abuser when it is intentional and conscious and being an abuser when it is unintentional and unconscious. The difference has less to do with levels of culpability, and more with understanding which source to tackle in order to prevent further abuse even whilst acknowledging that all abuse has severe ramifications whether it is unintentional and unconscious or intentional and conscious. The goal must be to become conscious of it, in others and especially in ourselves.

It’s often said that “intentions are not magic,” which is true. Nothing about a person’s intentions erases the harm done by their actions, so a person’s intentions are not relevant to the question of whether harm was done. Such harm should be acknowledged and appreciated regardless of fault or intent. A person’s mental state is only relevant to the question of how much responsibility that person bears for the harm done. If we are unable to conclude that a person knew or should have known that their actions were unreasonably harmful, then it makes no sense to place any blame or fault on that person for harm done. If, on the other hand, we can conclude that a person was aware of the harm they were causing and did not have a good reason for doing so, then it makes sense to hold that person accountable for that harm.

“Abuse” is itself a loaded and vague term. Some people describe any relationship where a person is significantly harmed as abusive. Others reserve use of the term to describe a situation where a person’s behavior was intentional. Some people use it to describe mild irritation. No single use of the term is correct or incorrect, but inconsistent use leads to confusion. For purposes of this document, “abuse” will be used only to describe situations where the abuser has been at least negligent, and a person will not be described as an abuser unless I’m willing to say that, at the very least, they should have known that their actions would be unreasonably harmful.

Culpability, Guilt, and Emotional Blackmail

My girlfriend Amber and I are reading Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward. A general theme of the book is that guilt is a favorite weapon of blackmailers. A blackmailer’s favorite statement is “you hurt me,” because it’s an easy way to create guilt which can then be leveraged to control people. From the book (p. 69):

Love and respect are equated with total obedience, and when that’s not forthcoming, it’s as though a betrayal has taken place. The party line of the blackmailer, repeated with infinite variations, is You are only doing this to hurt me. You care nothing for my feelings.

Keeping the focus on culpability short-circuits the blackmailer’s attempt to create guilt by requiring a discussion of facts and competing needs, not just one person’s feelings. Blackmailers are used to a situation where the mere acknowledgment that someone was hurt means that the other person feels guilty and usually gives in to whatever they’re asking.

One of the first points made by the book is that “blackmail takes two.” Because it’s difficult to make me feel guilty unless I also feel culpable, emotional blackmail is mostly ineffective against me. A person can’t just say “you hurt me” to create guilt unless my culpability is apparent. To create guilt, they must say “you hurt me by doing this specific thing, which you should not have done because….” which is difficult to do without a legitimate case. Would-be emotional blackmailers usually give up when it becomes clear that just saying “you hurt me” isn’t enough to create a fog of guilt. I consider this one of my most important defenses against emotional blackmail, and probably the biggest reason that would-be emotional blackmailers have such a problem with me.

Rejecting the idea that one should automatically feel guilty over another person’s pain also helps with good communication. It’s much easier to inform someone that their actions hurt you when you’re not worried about them collapsing into a pile of guilt or getting overly defensive. When both people in the conversation require culpability to assign guilt or blame, it’s easy for “you hurt me” to be the start of a conversation, not the end of one.

The Right Way to Have Relationships

I feel very strongly that people should be allowed, free of negative judgments, to conduct their relationships however they please so long as everyone involved gives coercion-free, informed consent. What is a healthy relationship for one person may be severely damaging to a different person (and vice versa). I know that the relationships that are healthy and enjoyable for me can be miserable for the wrong kind of person, and can even result in feeling abused. The converse also applies: relationships that are healthy for others can be seriously damaging to me, leaving me feeling abused and mistreated. I believe that everyone should be given the choice for themselves about what kind of relationship(s) to have, and how to express them. So long as people give informed consent that is free of coercion, I don’t think anyone ought to tell them how to behave with each other. I also have no tolerance for the attitude that that one’s preferred way to practice relationships is obvious, and that everyone should conform to that preference without even being told what it is.

Because legitimate consent must be informed, I consider it unethical to be dishonest about anything that you know (or should know) will impact someone’s decision to be in a relationship or how to practice that relationship. A person cannot consent to something they don’t know about, so misleading people into forming relationships is a serious consent violation.

On a practical level, it is impossible to give someone all of the information that may impact their decisions about your relationship. Different people care about different things, and nobody can guess everything that’s going to be important to someone else. So just like in any other situation, people should not be blamed for failing to make disclosures unless they knew or should have known that such disclosures were necessary to establish informed consent.

Part 1: About Me

Living with Elephants.

I’ve been wanting to write something about my personal experiences with abuse in adult relationships. I’ve spent the last decade working very hard to become the person I am, and I’ve learned a lot of unexpected lessons along the way, some of which I’ve never written about before.

I’m writing this in part because I ended up in a really good place and I’m proud of the life I’ve built, and in part because I know there are people who believe that the way my partners and I practice direct communication and firm boundary setting is dysfunctional and harmful. I wanted to tell my story so anyone who’s curious can understand how I got here. I want to invite you into my headspace.

This is by no means, a comprehensive list of everything I’ve ever been through or even a complete telling of each of these stories, but hopefully it’s enough to give a decent background.

Trigger warning for emotional abuse and physical and sexual assault.

Lesson 1: Sometimes Love Just Isn’t Enough

So when I was 19 I met my first serious boyfriend. I’ll tell you right off the bat, I was extremely codependent. For as long as I can remember I was obsessed with the idea of being in love, and I thought this guy was amazing. He was smart, he was funny, and he was ridiculously charming. So of course my entire life revolved around our relationship, and I did everything in my power to make it work. I worked very hard to be whoever he needed me to be because I was operating from a place of scarcity. I thought if he left me I’d have an impossible time finding anyone I loved half as much as I loved him. My self-worth and happiness was completely wrapped up in him. It wasn’t a healthy situation.

I quickly learned he was not a good dude. He isolated me from my friends by picking fights with me when I spent time with them, he got into screaming fights with me in public, he gave me the silent treatment and withheld affection when I didn’t do what he wanted, he accused me of cheating on him with every male friend I had, he lied to me all the time, he broke my favorite possessions when he felt rejected, he pushed me into walls, he threw things at my head, he regularly tried to initiate sex with me while I was asleep even though I expressed that it was not okay dozens of times, he pushed me out of bed while I was sleeping, he kept me awake until 4 am arguing with me about sex, he pressured me into sex acts I wasn’t comfortable with, he actually said the phrase, “you’re my girlfriend, you’re not allowed to say no”, he told me I was fat, he scaled a wall and tried to kick down the door after I locked him outside after a particularly nasty fight, he threatened to kill himself when I tried to leave him, and after our breakup I told him to never contact me again and he showed up at both my jobs and had his friend drive him to my parents house at 1am. That’s just what I remember off the top of my head.

The day I finally left him, he shook me awake at 4am and told me that he’d scoured my computer, hacked into my private online journal, and searched through all of my things looking for evidence that I was cheating on him. What he found was that I had a weird website in my browsing history (a website where dudes pay girls to pretend to be their girlfriends that my friend had sent to me as a joke) and an entry I wrote in my private journal where I complained about him calling me fat and said that he was an asshole because he was the one who was 200lbs. (Which was super mean! And I didn’t even mean it. I liked his body a lot…but I was tired of him constantly trying to use my weight – 115lbs, btw – to make me feel bad when I wouldn’t do what he wanted.) So he told me this, and I sat there, and I listened to everything he had to say, and I nodded my head, and I was like…say whatever you have to say to to keep him calm until you can leave for work. (It was only about two weeks before that he’d shoved me into a wall during a fight and punched the refrigerator across the kitchen.) I vaguely recall him crying about the weight thing, and giving me a speech about how he didn’t trust me because I didn’t tell him things, but that he was happy he didn’t find any evidence that I was cheating. When I got to work I begged my coworkers to help me move out.

Breaking up with him was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Because I didn’t want to leave. When it was good, it was so good, and I was clinging to that feeling. I wanted to believe that if I just changed in this or that way, that he would be the guy I fell in love with all the time. But that morning something in my brain snapped and I realized there was nothing I could do to make it work. That he was a broken person and I couldn’t fix him and I needed to get away from him before he really hurt me. I remember crying to a friend of mine, “I don’t know how to not be his girlfriend anymore.”

Lesson 2: Learning To Be A Whole Person

At 21, I was a person whose entire identity was wrapped up in being this person’s girlfriend. I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t have healthy boundaries, and I didn’t like myself very much.

All I really knew at that point was that I wanted to do the hard work be the kind of person who wouldn’t last five minutes in that kind of relationship. I wanted to be the kind of person who would stand up for herself at the first sign of trouble, and who wasn’t afraid to walk away. I wanted to look at a guy like that and say, “Holy crap, I cannot get out of here fast enough.”

Within a few days of breaking up with him I started reading about codependency and I was like yeah, this is why I let it get this bad, and I spent the next SIX YEARS being single and doing the hard work of figuring out who I was, what I wanted, and how to communicate effectively. I knew the first thing I needed to do was learn how to be independent and take care of myself.

It was really hard. My relationship with my first boyfriend was terrible, and I didn’t know how terrible it was because I’d never had a good relationship. I thought I was proving my love for him by tolerating my misery. I thought everyone treated everyone badly, and the only way to be close to anyone was to be willing to tolerate treatment you didn’t like.

There’s a quote from Stephen King that fits.

There’s a phrase, “the elephant in the living room”, which purports to describe what it’s like to live with a drug addict, an alcoholic, an abuser. People outside such relationships will sometimes ask, “How could you let such a business go on for so many years? Didn’t you see the elephant in the living room?” And it’s so hard for anyone living in a more normal situation to understand the answer that comes closest to the truth; “I’m sorry, but it was there when I moved in. I didn’t know it was an elephant; I thought it was part of the furniture.” There comes an aha-moment for some folks – the lucky ones – when they suddenly recognize the difference.

I was 23 when I started casually seeing someone who was really cool to me and super respectful of my boundaries, and my mind was blown. Omg, is this a thing I can actually expect from people? We dated about a total of five minutes because it didn’t take me long to start acting kind of weird about it.

Before he dumped me for making it awkward (I mean, he claims it was because he was going through his own recovery and was working on himself and didn’t want to get too wrapped up in anyone, buuut I think it was because I was stupid-into him) I remember spending about three hours waiting for him to call and it was giving me terrible anxiety, and I was like, wow, this exactly the person I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be so into someone that I can’t live my life when they aren’t around. And I decided then that I really shouldn’t date anyone until I could handle being with someone awesome and not not losing my mind over it.

So then I was single a bunch more, and worked really hard on not needing other people to validate my existence. I also worked really hard on managing my feelings and learning how to be a decent communicator. I casually dated five or six people between the ages of 21 and 26, but nothing really happened there because I quickly figured out we weren’t very compatible or there were problems I wasn’t willing to overlook.

Lesson 3: No More Nice Girl

When I was around the age of 24 I was sexually assaulted by a manager from work. He invited me to go out bowling with him and a group of his friends, and I almost didn’t accept his invitation because I found him a bit skeevy, but he assured me it was just as friends and nothing would happen. He was laying on the pressure pretty thick and was acting hurt by my resistance, so I confirmed with him three times that it was not a date and that I wouldn’t go if he thought it was a date, and he assured me it was just as friends. I went because we had a ball-busting kind of relationship and I thought it would be really fun to play a competitive sport and shit talk and also because he made me feel guilty. At what I thought was the end of the night he hugged me and asked if it would be cool if we went back to his friends house for an hour or so. He was my ride, and I didn’t know how to express my discomfort with the idea without hurting this feelings and making it awkward, so I said sure. Once we got there, he made it a point to have ONE shot and then claim he was too drunk to drive. Eventually his friends left, and the couple who owned the house left the room and began having loud sex in the next room. A few minutes passed and without any warning, he grabbed me really hard and shoved his hand down my pants, hurting me in the process. He immediately apologized saying he was drunk. He was 250lbs and he was claiming he was losing self control over a shot he’d taken over a half an hour ago. Shaking, I did everything I could to make sure I didn’t upset him until I was able to get him to take me home, then he locked me in the car and begged me not to tell anyone what had happened. For the next few weeks he texted me frantically, “You’re not going to tell anyone, right?” and I told him very firmly over and over again to leave me alone. Not long after he was fired because as it turned out I wasn’t the only female employee he’d assaulted.

This is when I stopped being afraid to hurt people’s feelings. I learned I don’t value other people’s emotional comfort more than I value my own safety. I felt like I’d fallen into a trap designed specifically to prey on girls who valued being nice over being honest and I vowed that night to stop being a nice girl.

Lesson 4: Learning to Put Myself First

Not long after the incident with my manager, my roommate moved out and I had to interview for new roommates. I ended up picking someone who told me that she was trying to escape an abusive relationship. She was a terrible match for me personality-wise, but I really wanted to help her because I saw something of myself in her story. Not long after she moved in, she started seeing her abusive ex again and I was like oh god, what did I get myself into? But she broke up with him for good when she found another boyfriend and things seemed pretty okay. A few weeks in her new boyfriend started stealing from me and I said something and she was like, “Yeah, I know. He’s kind of an entitled asshole.” Then one day I came home to find the living room completely wrecked. Apparently they’d gotten into an argument the day before and he decided to come to our apartment when no one was home and flip furniture to demonstrate his anger. He also put his fist through her bedroom window around this time. I was like, “Okay look, I can’t live like this. You can’t bring him here anymore.” She agreed, but then two days later started telling me I couldn’t tell her what to do. This was my very first experience having to set firm boundaries with someone. I was like “hey, if you want to keep doing this that is entirely up to you, but if you do, you can’t live here anymore. I don’t want this in my life. This is my apartment. I invited you to move in with me. I’m not going to leave, you are.” She responded by harassing me. Trashing my room, breaking things, threatening me…so I told her she had a week to get out, and when she didn’t leave I packed all her shit for her and was like, no really, goodbye. You don’t live here anymore.

I set firm boundaries in a potentially violent situation, and I still can’t decide if that was incredibly badass or extremely reckless, but my take away was if I could set boundaries with her, I can set boundaries with anybody. It’s kind of hard to find dumb reasons to be scared of people after something like that. It was also a lesson in why I shouldn’t make important life decisions based on other people’s problems. I didn’t feel good about choosing her for my roommate, but I thought I was doing the right thing. I let myself feel obligated to save her when my obligation should have been to myself to pick the best roommate.

Lesson 5: Learning to Tackle Problems As Fast As Possible

Unfortunately, that wasn’t my last bad roommate situation. When I was about 26 I had a best friend/roommate who I had to break up with because she never talked to me about any issues she had with me and she had so many issues. I was constantly having to guess at what I did to upset her. She was bipolar so the things that would set her off were usually pretty tiny and her reactions were really disproportionate. She was frequently running around slamming doors and being passive-aggressive. Of course, I think she recognized that her reactions were really intense, which is a large part of the reason she didn’t say anything, but at some point I suddenly figured out that I wanted to learn how to talk to people about any and all problems ASAP and never ever let things get like this with anyone ever again. It was the worst friend break up ever because she was my favorite person in the world but I couldn’t take it anymore. I was like look, I have to go become a whole other person who doesn’t get involved in this kind of shit because this is a nightmare.

Lesson 6: Learning to Be the Partner I Want

When I was 27 I started dating a guy I met through some good friends of mine. He was a direct communicator, and I REALLY liked that about him. I never had to guess what was going on with him. He always told me what he thought regardless of the consequences and I loved this about him. He often hurt my feelings by being a little too honest, but I strongly preferred this relationship style to anything where I had to guess at what someone wanted or what they were thinking or I had to worry that what they were telling me wasn’t the whole truth. I quickly realized his honesty empowered me to make informed decisions about my own choices.

A year into our relationship we decided to explore polyamory, but we had a difference of opinion about how polyamory should work (he was more on the mostly-for-the-sex end of things and I was a full on relationship anarchist right out the gate) so we spent the next two years debating how we thought it should work. I dated two other people during the course of our relationship, but neither relationship worked out for reasons independent of our relationship. He “dated” (I feel like that’s maybe a strong word for what he had going on) a few other people, but it didn’t work out because the people he chose were very monogamous. One day he came home and announced, “I really like this woman I met at my kids’ soccer practice and I want to go on a date with her!” and I was like, “Cool. You should! Tell me about her.” and he was like, “Well…she’s monogamous and I think she has a problem with the fact that I have a girlfriend.” And I was like, “Well, let me solve that problem for you.” And that was that.

I was really tired of trying to navigate non-monogamy with him, and by then I was so committed to the idea of polyamory that I found our relationship controlling (he very much didn’t want me to date other men or have serious feels for other people) and it was making me miserable. I mean, there were a lot of other things factoring into our break up (sexual incompatibilities, my lack of interest in being a parent to his kids, etc.) but his desire to go on that date was a clear indicator that it was time to walk away.

But I learned a lot about myself in those three years. He was the most independent person I’d dated up to that point, and he respected my autonomy more than any other person I’d been with before. (Except for with my dating choices, he was rarely trying to manipulate me into capitulating to his feelings.) It actually hadn’t occurred to me that it was possible to have that much autonomy and still maintain a serious relationship.

And it’s important to know that the first year of our relationship was hard for me because I wasn’t used to so much honesty and I often wished he was a little more wrapped up in me. It took me some time to realize that most of the time, I couldn’t actually argue with what he was doing. I realized I thought he was entitled to share things if they were true (because I wanted direct and honest communication), and he was entitled to his choices/boundaries even if I didn’t like them (because I wanted us to be autonomous and in control of our own choices.) And it wasn’t up to me to try to change what he was doing, it was up to me to manage my expectations and communicate my desires so we could both make informed decisions about what we were going to do.

I realized I could be in a relationship with someone who shared their feelings with me and did what they wanted if I stopped expecting them to be responsible for me. I was like…this is it. This is the key to being the person I want to be and having happy relationships.

At the time I had a hard time articulating to friends why I stayed with him despite our incompatibilities and my frustrations, and it was because I trusted him in ways I never trusted anyone else. And truth: he cheated on me several times. People are so outraged on my behalf about that and I’m like oh no. I never trusted him in that way. I always trusted he would stick his dick wherever he wanted. But I also trusted he would tell me about it afterward, and that’s what was important to me.

But eventually I was like man, I can’t deal with your nonsense anymore. I need to go be poly and navigate the scary world of building relationships that feel right for me. I broke up with him and two days later I found Wes. I read his okc profile three times and I was like, “omg, this guy is guy sounds perfect for me.”

Lesson 7: Putting These Lessons To Work

Let me just say right now, I approached Wes with a great deal of skepticism. Because I always assume people are lying about who they are and what they want. (A lesson I learned from my first boyfriend, who figured out what I wanted and pretended to be that guy, and then surprised me with a serious personality disorder.) But the reason I showed up for our first date was that I thought these were weird qualities to lie about since most people probably don’t look for those things in a partner.

I kept some emotional distance from Wes for the first few months we dated because I had this rule I’d made with myself about not letting anyone get too close to me until they’d shown they could be consistent and act with integrity. I absolutely refuse to let NRE open me up to abuse and manipulation. But don’t get me wrong, I knew I liked him immediately.

So a few weeks into our relationship I was contacted by one of his exes through a mutual friend, and she told me he’s a manipulative asshole and she suggested I “run not walk” away. I was like holy crap. That is a really bad sign. I tried to warn someone about my first boyfriend and she didn’t listen, so the fact that this person was reaching out to me said A LOT.

I considered dumping Wes on the spot. Being like, “Sorry bro” and never talking to him again. I didn’t talk to Wes for an entire day while I tried to figure out what I was going to do. I didn’t immediately approach him about it because I figured it would open me up to manipulation. I decided that I would keep hanging out with him, but I would be REALLY careful about developing more feels for him, and I would look even harder for red flags. After two weeks of trying to find red flags and coming up empty-handed I confronted him about it.

He was like, “Oh god, is that why you’re acting so weird?” And he explained to me why his ex hates him, and Gina and Jessie confirmed his story. (Mostly that he argued with her opinions and motivations and she HATED it. And he explained what some of those opinions were and I was like eww. Then he showed me public blog comments she made and I was like yeesh.) I was like, okay. Well, we have a lot of the same opinions and values so…I’m going to keep an eye on you buuuut I’m guessing I’m not going to have the issues she had. I mean, she said he was bad in bed and I already didn’t agree with that. Also, he managed to prove she was lying in the three sentences she shared with me. I was like well, if that was a lie, it calls the rest of it into question.

That was a weird experience for me because I was scared to reject such an obviously bad sign because overlooking bad signs isn’t something I do anymore. I was like, I really hope I don’t feel like an idiot about this a few months from now when I find out you’re a total asshole. But I reminded myself I can walk away at any time. After spending two years trying to navigate polyamory with someone who just didn’t agree with my relationship style, I decided not to let myself get suckered by the sunk cost fallacy again, which is where you keep investing in something even after you learn it’s a bad idea because you’ve already invested so much already. I made a deal with myself right then that I wouldn’t hesitate to leave if I found a good reason.

The first year of our relationship went really smoothly. All our arguments were about things he’d said to other people. Because I was like, “*I* know what you’re saying, but I also know what they’re hearing, and I think you should approach it differently.” We didn’t have these fights ourselves because our values are so similar and I can typically figure out his motivations really quickly after just a few questions, but I understand where other people are coming from because I haven’t always thought the way I think. I had to really work to get here. So I often feel I can bridge the gap in understanding.

Of course, more often than not, the more I talked to him about it the more I realize his approach makes more sense than mine even if my immediate reaction is, “Hey, don’t do that ever.” As part of my recovery from codependence, I’ve become someone who’s really big on owning my feelings and being productive, so if something I’m doing doesn’t make sense or is counterproductive to my goals, I want to know. So I want to have these conversations. I figure the end result can only be positive because one of us will come out with a better understanding.

But Wes and I did go through a rough spot a little over a year into our relationship because I started to feel like he was taking me for granted. I was like…what is up with you having a super packed schedule and leaving it up to me to make sure we spend time together? And I straight up told him like yo, I will break up with you if you expect me to do all the leg work to keep this relationship going. That is not something I’m willing to do for anybody. And he was like…wait, what’s happening?

Here’s the transcript of us resolving that fight forever:

Wesley Fenza: I’m really concerned about how you’ve been talking about our relationship recently

More Than Two talks about not seeing people as need-fulfillment machines, and that’s kind of how I feel to you

like, you sound like you’re saying that you need X amount of attention, and it’s my job to give you that, and if I only give you 80%, then our relationship is worthless and you should just leave

and I worry because, even if I do want to give you that level of attention, it feels suffocating to me to feel like I can’t play a video game or go on a date without it upsetting you

 Amber Lea: I feel like what I want from you is really basic and reasonable.

 Wesley Fenza: I still don’t know what it is

from what I can tell, it’s time and exclusive attention

what is it that you want from me?

 Amber Lea: I mean, I basically want you to reach out to me for attention because that’s how I know my attention is wanted.

 Wesley Fenza: but how much and how often?

or are you saying that I never do that?

 Amber Lea: I feel like a bare minimum of like 15 minutes a day would do a lot, and then a couple hours here and there. I mean, basically what you’ve been doing lately.

 Wesley Fenza: ok

I definitely want to do that

I’m just confused because your blog post led me to believe that what I’ve been doing since our last talk isn’t enough

 Amber Lea: Well when I said I felt like you were trying more before and you responded with something along the lines of, “Am I? I don’t know what I’m doing differently” I got the message that you weren’t actually going to do anything, and that the additional attention I was getting was just a temporary increase, and had nothing to do with what I was saying.

Like I want to know that you’re willing to put in a little effort to meet my needs and you’re not going to just ignore me and hope I stop complaining. And it sounds like you are willing to do that, and that makes me feel better.

 Wesley Fenza: well

I get nervous using words like “effort”

 Amber Lea: yeah yeah

 Wesley Fenza: I think if spending time together takes effort, then there’s a problem

 Amber Lea: You know what I mean

I want to know that my needs matter to you

 Wesley Fenza: ok

they do

but not to the point where I’m going to spend time with you when really, I’d rather be doing something else

like, that’s more a hard line I draw

it’s not about how important your needs are. It’s that I think that’s a thing people shouldn’t do under almost any circumstances

but the effort I’m making is to remind myself that spending time with you is an option whenever you’re not in the room, and ask myself if I want to do that

 Amber Lea: And it’s like…I’m not mad at you because you play video games for three hours. Like I am perfectly capable of getting sucked into something (a game, tumblr, GoT) and ignoring the world for hours and I don’t think that’s a terrible thing to do. It’s just when you haven’t hung out with me in a long time and I’m like hey heyheyhey, and I get nothing…and I know you’re going to go on a date later or do whatever and there’s not a lot of space for me in your schedule, I start to feel like I’m less important than pretty much anything else you could be doing. Like man, you can make time for hours of video games and you can’t make 15 minutes for me?

 Wesley Fenza: ok

I think, in those situations, I never understand that you’re feeling that way

like, it’s hard to tell the difference between when you’re just poking me because you think it’s funny and when you’re poking me because you feel neglected

so it would help if you were like “hey, let’s spend some time together” or something

 Amber Lea: If I’m poking you when you’re already engaged with me it’s because I think it’s funny.

Would it help if I just walked up and said, “Fuck you, give me ALL THE HUGS!” and then tackled you?

Because that’s more my style.

 Wesley Fenza: yes

especially if you only want attention for like 15 minutes, you can do that whenever

I’m rarely doing anything I’m unwilling to stop for 15 minutes

 [I deleted talk about lunch.]

 Amber Lea: But yeah, I feel better. I’ll PROBABLY stop writing journal entries about how I hate you.

Maybe.

No promises.

 Wesley Fenza: you can write journals about how you hate me

just write them for better reasons

 Amber Lea: whatever!

 Wesley Fenza: there are like a million reasons to hate me

really good reasons

I was trying to explain this to xxxxx last night

 Amber Lea: Yeah, but none of those reasons bother me.

 Wesley Fenza: she was all “…you don’t SEEM like a jerk”

 Amber Lea: omg, you’re such a jerk

 Wesley Fenza: I KNOW!

I told her you pretty much can’t be an Ask person and not be a jerk

and this was after I’d just spent 20 minutes talking about how social etiquette is stupid!

For the record, Wes is a jerk because he’s a direct communicator and he has really strong boundaries and he doesn’t let people bully him into doing things he doesn’t want to do. Like, if you decide you want to get Wes to put your feelings before his, good luck to you. But this isn’t something I fault him for. This is something I admire about him, because really, we should all be better at asserting ourselves and not letting people push us around just because they had a feeling.

And I’ve personally never felt pushed around by Wes, but that’s because I understand that Wes isn’t trying to cross my boundaries. He’s asserting his own. Like when he said, “I’m [not] going to spend time with you when really, I’d rather be doing something else.”…a lot of people might feel really hurt, or find it abusive, or think he’s a complete jerk. But he’s asserting a totally legit boundary. One most people would be too afraid to articulate. And I don’t want him to spend time with me if he’d rather do something else. That’s not fun for anybody. And it’s obvious to me that if that’s what he’s doing…maybe it’s not because he’s an asshole, maybe it’s because it’s time to break up.

I can look at that statement and say that now, because I’m really good at not being codependent and trying to save the relationship at all costs, or making people responsible for my feelings.

That was our first and last fight about our relationship.

Lesson 8: Revisiting Bad Relationship Dynamics.

But Wes isn’t my only partner. I’ve also been in a relationship with his wife and partner of 11 years, Gina. Not long into my relationship with Wes I realized, uhh yeah, I have super gay feels for her because she is amazing, and several weeks later I learned that Gina was in an abusive relationship with her other partner, Shaun. I hadn’t quite anticipated what it would be being in an abusive metamour situation.

I was there for the second condom-gate, where everyone found out that Shaun was fucking one of his partners without a condom and didn’t tell anyone. Then it came out that he had a pattern of pressuring his partners into foregoing condoms and then pressuring them not to tell. Gina also revealed a pattern of trust violations and poor treatment, and she was struggling with the idea that she should break up with him, but couldn’t bring herself to do it.

Shortly after that I spent New Years with Wes, Gina and the rest of the polycule. New Years is also Wes and Gina’s anniversary, and I spent the night crushing on Gina super hard and the three of us spent the night together.

She woke up in the morning to find that Shaun had sent her a bunch of cruel text messages because he was jealous he wasn’t invited. Shaun had had a long history of carelessly fucking anyone he wanted with total disregard for Gina and had in fact just locked us out of the greenroom at a show to have sex with someone the previous night, so it was heartbreaking to watch him guilt her to tears. At the time Gina was struggling to feel safe being sexual with people, and that fight shut the whole thing down. Eventually she stopped having sex with anyone at all because she’d begun to associate sex with drama.

Living In A Supportive Bubble

I’m not really sure of the timeline here, but Gina also started dating Hilary around this time. Hilary was extremely loving and supportive, and I decided not to actively pursue anything with Gina because I didn’t want to pressure her, and I felt that Hilary was an amazing partner and I found it kind of intimidating.

At some point Shaun snapped over how much shit he was in for the condom situation and he started throwing chairs around the house and he threatened to punch Wes in the face.

I was about two months in at this point and I was pretty freaked out. I was thinking, Jesus Christ, I’ve tried so hard to stay away from this shit…what did I get myself into? I wasn’t sure how to handle it, so I waited and watched how it unfolded. I didn’t want to hold everyone responsible for the fact that Shaun had a violent outburst, so I decided to see how they reacted.

I ended up feeling really good about the way they handled it. They were like, “Okay, that was totally unacceptable. What are we going to do about it?” and they had a house meeting and discussed options. I believe it was decided that Shaun either had to work on getting better in a very real way (therapy) or he had to leave. I was so glad it was not okay. It make me feel really safe to know that this kind of behavior wouldn’t be swept under the rug.

It became pretty apparent that Shaun wasn’t really interesting in trying, and Gina was concerned about the safety of everyone in the house, so she asked Shaun and Ginny to move out.

Throughout all of this Hilary was there, supporting us and showering us with compliments about how well we were handling it and how much she admired us, and I grew really fond of her. She used to come over and start conversations about how terrible Shaun was and how amazing we all were and I found it cathartic because Shaun reminded me so much of my first boyfriend.

Over the next few months I grew really happy and comfortable with my new family, and I felt surrounded by love and affection. The only thing that was hard for me was watching Gina hurt over Shaun, but Hilary was on it, saying all the right things and I felt that between the four of us (Wes, Jessie, Hilary and me) we were taking care of Gina to the best of our ability.

Once Shaun was finally out of the house, Hilary was our cheerleader and our advocate through all his attacks, public and private. And I grew to trust Hilary in a way I haven’t trusted anyone, possibly ever. She was super validating. She made us believe we could do no wrong, and it felt really fucking good.

But she was a super busy lady, and she started coming around less and less. She also started drinking more, and she always drank a lot, and I actually remarked at one point, “Is Hilary okay?” Hilary and I didn’t have a texting relationship or anything so she was fading from my life. At one point I emailed her, sad that she’d deleted her facebook, asking how to keep in contact. I’d generally felt that all my communications with her were getting weirder and weirder, so I didn’t press the issue. She kept us pretty separate from the rest of her life, so I assumed there was a lot going on that she didn’t feel comfortable talking to me about.

Reality Sets In

Then I get this text telling me Hilary blew up at rehearsal. I made them tell me the story about 15 times because I didn’t understand what they were saying. I kept saying something along the lines of, “…first of all, this story doesn’t make sense, second of all, that doesn’t sound like Hilary.” And they kept shouting at me, “I KNOW!”

I’ve probably grilled them on what went down about 87 times by now because I was like, “But no really, what happened? You must be leaving something out.” Because as most people know by now, it turned into this whole big thing about how my partners abused Hilary and I can’t understand how. And I’ve been dying to ask Hilary about it ever since it happened but I never felt like I could because she immediately started stating all these boundaries about us not contacting her and I felt like any attempt on my part to reach out to her would be met with hostility.

Gina broke up with Hilary a few days after her blow-up and I was heart broken. I was like…what happened? I don’t understand. None of this makes sense.

Then Hilary started sending Gina these really shitty emails I was like okay, I can’t even begin to imagine you guys doing anything to deserve that. I watched Gina fall apart. Then I watched Hilary become super good buddies with Shaun, Gina’s abusive ex.

At this point I slowly began to realize she had been treating us all like we were in a crisis negotiation. She was using her training as a crisis counselor on us 24/7, and she never told us what she really thought or felt. And I trusted her completely, thinking she was a good friend.

And now this person who’d only ever showed us with love and support was tearing us apart, and networking with everyone who’d ever felt wronged by us because she wanted us to suffer.

Realizing You’re Not Okay

The situation with Hilary wrecked my ability to trust. I walked around in a daze repeating, “I don’t understand.”

I was resisting the use of the word abuse for myself in this situation until I realized how deeply traumatized I was starting to feel. I watched Gina fall apart, and I was helpless. I was completely unable to shield Gina or give her the tools to deal because I’ve never experienced anything like this. Now not only was she trying to recover from an abusive relationship with Shaun, she was getting vitriol from the person who’d been supporting her throughout it all.

I’ve been trying to build a healthy relationship with Gina for the past year, and it’s been really difficult to establish any kind of stability because her exes don’t stop. We spent six months trying very hard to not engage with them in anyway, and they never stopped. (In all seriousness, Gina is Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim and she has a League of Evil Exes who you have to deal with if you want to be with her.)

Lesson 9: Learning to Put It All Out There

I went through a period of time where I became really worried that Gina was keeping things from me because she never came to me with any issues. I grew super distrustful and pulled away from her without telling her why, and she simultaneously felt triggered by things I was doing because she was worried my motivations were the same as Shaun’s…and we broke up over it.

I was a complete mess. I realized I love this person so fucking much, and now it’s all falling apart because these people will not let us heal.

After curling up in a ball and crying for a week, I went to Gina and told her that I’d been keeping this fear from her that she wasn’t telling me things and that’s why I was acting so distant, and that I hadn’t been talking to her about my feelings because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t pressuring her…and blah, blah, blah I felt like absolute garbage about my choices, and this wasn’t the kind of relationship I wanted to have at all.

We recovered because we finally talked about our feelings around what was happening.

Revisiting A Dark Time

At some point I became aware that Shaun’s history with abuse was a lot darker than I realized and he once hurt a woman so badly she missed three days of work. (I had originally heard he’d put her in the hospital, but some fact checking on Wes’s part revealed this fact was misremembered by the person who originally shared it with us.) The account of what happened reminded me so much of my first boyfriend that I spent three days crying.

At one point I confronted Shaun about it because he and Ginny were trying to tell me they were afraid to be in a room with Wes and I snapped and was like, afraid of Wes?! Shaun physically assaulted someone. He has a history of violence. I’m afraid if I make him angry he might hit me. But nobody’s cowering in his presence… so… excuse me if I don’t feel super sympathetic.

But I, personally, was fully prepared to deal with Shaun’s bullshit. I have spent the last decade learning how to not let myself be manipulated by people exactly like him. The second he started his whole, “I’m the real victim here!” campaign I was like, oh no you’re not.

My first boyfriend also insisted he was the real victim. He hooked me into a relationship with him by playing the victim. I later found out that nothing he told me was actually true, and he’d twisted the facts to make himself look like he barely had a choice but to act how he acted. “Like yeah, technically I did those things…but she DROVE ME to do it! Here is a list of things that didn’t happen at all how I’m saying they happened that totally justify why I did that.” Then you know, I drove him to do all the things he did to me. And the girlfriend after me drove him to do even worse things.

Gina’s accounts of Shaun’s behavior are totally inline with my experience with my ex. And nearly all the tools in my abuse prevention belt are for dealing with the Shaun’s of the world.

This is why I didn’t think twice when Hilary jumped on board the Shaun Hate Bus and took the wheel. She presented herself as an expert in dealing with abusers and manipulators.

My inbox is full of emails from Hilary saying shit like, “Shaun is having his own little autoerotic pity party. I am loathe to add to his pathetic ‘I’m such a martyr’ spank bank. He will counter by comparing his behavior to Wes’ when there was drama over the blog. I have some responses to that but it’s still fucking horseshit that I know that’s what he will do. I have zero interest in Ginny charging in to rescue him from the mean bitch who is sucker punching her husbo.” (The “mean bitch” here is Hilary.)

Here is part of an email Hilary sent to Shaun: “As for me, you’ve officially earned my invective – no small feat, so some congratulations would be in order if I gave anything resembling a damn. Respond however you wish, but consider the gloves off. I will not be kind, loving or considerate with you again. You have given me all the evidence I require to be confident in my assessment of your behavior and character. I suffer fools rarely, but the openly and unapologetically manipulative and poisonous never.”

Here is an email she wrote to Gina: “I love this, and you. What you wrote here took tremendous strength, resilience, and bravery. I am so proud to know you, and count you as one of the dearest loves in my life. Having only been close to you for some of this journey, I cannot hide my admiration for the brave, reasonable, and self-advocating woman I see in you. You are a champion.”

Imagine my devastation when she swiftly exited our lives and reappeared in Shaun’s camp, saying all the same types of things but with the names switched around.

The Aftermath

Both Gina and Jessie are working through their feelings around Hilary with their therapists, and I’m seriously considering seeking professional help very specifically to deal with my trust issues surrounding Hilary. She snuggled up close to us and got us to open up and be extremely vulnerable with her, and she never gave us any indication that she had an issue, and then she flipped out, and she didn’t just leave…she came after us.

Jessie recently said, “once you have no further use to her, you are garbage, an old pair of jeans or a red dress that she now despises, it isn’t good enough to donate you for someone else to enjoy, she has to slash you up to destroy all evidence of the memories.”

And that’s how it feels. Like she’s done with us, so she needs to slash us up and destroy us. She couldn’t just walk away. She needed to make sure we were of no use to anyone else.

I’ve been trying to figure out what happened here and how I can protect myself in the future. I’ve picked up a pretty thick stack of books to try to sort through it. To be clear: this is something I’m currently struggling with and I don’t have a nice neat little lesson I learned. Other than maybe to be super suspicious of anyone who tells me I’m amazing and that they understand all my feelings and never seems to take issue with anything I do.

Lesson 10: Learning How To Be In the Right Relationship

The only people who have consistently treated me well in the context of a romantic relationship are Wes and Gina. We’re nearly to the year and a half mark and going strong. And I think it’s because I was prepared to be in a relationship with them. I showed up with the skills and tools I needed.

I couldn’t have been in either of these relationships 10 years ago. I would have felt completely overwhelmed by Wes and his confidence and confrontational style, and I would have worked way too hard to make him happy in ways he never asked for while never letting him know I was doing any of it, and I would have grown really resentful when he didn’t reciprocate by constantly guessing at my needs, and I think I wouldn’t have had any clue how to treat Gina well. I probably I would have let her do everything for me and then failed to notice how easy she was making my life, and I can’t imagine I would have been able to tell her anything about my feelings. I probably would have sat on them forever and willed her to be clairvoyant and held it against her when she wasn’t.

I had to learn how to communicate and set clear boundaries. I had to learn who I am and what I want. I had to learn to be someone I like and validate my own existance. I had to learn to manage my expectations and take responsibility for my feelings. And most importantly, I had to learn some goddamned self-awareness. I had to learn those things before I could have a healthy relationship.

I can’t tell you what a relief it was to meet people who were already where I am in terms of personal development, and not have to meet someone who was part way there and explain to them what I was doing. Wes, Gina and I haven’t had to teach each other much. We started out on the same page.

I feel like everything I’ve gone through has lead me to this place in my life and all the hardships I went through to get here were worth it. I’ve discovered that it’s possible to have exactly what I want even though it’s incredibly unconventional. That because I was brave enough to be the person I want to be and put myself out there, I was able to find people who love and support me as I am.

Reading List

If anyone’s interested here’s a short list of books I recommend:

Facing Codependence by Pia Melody This is the first book I ever read on codependency. There are probably better books on the topic, but this one really helped me.

Looking Out, Looking In. This is an interpersonal communication book. I’ve read it cover to cover three times. If you want to learn how to have productive conversations this book is awesome. (This is a college textbook so I recommend buying an old edition for cheap.)

More Than Two by Franklin Veaux. I cannot recommend this book highly enough if you want to know how to treat your partners ethically.

The Game by Neil Strauss. I recommend this book so you can be aware of common manipulation tactics that pick up artists and general douchebags use on women.