Category Archives: Polyamory

The Community Does Not Need You to Stay Quiet While Your Partner Is Abused

[UPDATE: Ginny has posted a partial walkback, which articulates a substantially more reasonable position]

Have you ever read an article online, and thought “this is great information! I’m going to share this with everyone!” until you got about 3/4 of the way down, when your jaw just drops because you can’t believe the absolute bullshit place the article went? That’s what it was like when I read Ginny’s post on what to do if your partner is accused of abuse. It starts out with a lot of great advice about supporting abuse victims. I particularly like the parts where she notes the difference between actual believing victims and engaging in victim-supportive behavior. As someone who believes very strongly in the value of honesty, I appreciate that there is no pressure to be dishonest, and the pointing out that there are ways to support victims without giving up our skepticism about how we form beliefs.

Then she gets to this:

Sometimes, accusations of abuse are themselves a form of abuse or manipulation. Your accused partner might themselves be a victim, in this case. If you believe that to be true, then it is absolutely appropriate to direct a lot of compassion and support to them — privately.

I’m sorry, what? I’d like you all to read that again so you understand what she is suggesting. What she is saying is that if your partner is being abused, then you need to shut up and take it. She’s saying that if you try to speak up against the abuse that your partner – an abuse victim – is taking, then you’re not supporting abuse victims.

grumpy cat no

No. Absolutely not. Ginny’s solution creates a race to the internet, where the first person to report abuse gets to be heard, and everyone else needs to shut up or be accused of being victim-blaming assholes. It’s well-known that abusers will often play the victim to divert attention, solicit sympathy, and enable further abuse. Ginny’s system gives abuser an extra incentive to play the victim publicly. If you’re the first person to go public, then you’re untouchable! Anyone sticking up for you is an asshole abuse apologist!

Secrecy enables abusers. Abusers know that there is a bias toward victims, and will take advantage of that bias whenever possible. And they will deflect and resist any attempt at honest investigation of the facts. The key to exposing abusers is sunlight, not darkness. Establishing accountability takes effort, it takes investigation, and it takes judgment. It does not require the silencing of abuse victims and their supporters. And to suggest it does is shameful.

If you are serious about stopping abuse in our communities, there is only one solution: actual investigation. Facts must be determined, evidence gathered, statements taken, and defenses presented. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass, but nobody said it would be easy. Yes, it might take a while, which is why suspensions pending investigation are a thing. Yes, you might get it wrong, and that would be regrettable, but if you don’t investigate, your chances of getting it wrong are way higher.

Investigation can be done in a victim-supportive way. There is no need to interrogate victims, demand evidence, or even reveal their identities (in most circumstances). As shown in the linked post above, often, once you get both sides of the story, the undisputed facts will be enough to make a decision. If not, work with what you have. Respect the alleged victim’s decision to provide or not provide evidence. Allow the victim to be as active or passive in the process as possible. But if both sides are pointing toward each other, recognize that either could be the true victim, and don’t automatically weigh one side heavier than the other just because they came forward first.

But don’t you dare pretend to be supportive of abuse victims and then claim that abuse victims, or their partners, should shut up and take the abuse. If your partner is being attacked by a malicious abuser, you go right ahead and say so, as loud as you want, to whoever you want. Ginny’s system empowers abusers to keep abusing, and drafts the entire community into doing so. Do not fall into that trap.

See My FTBCon 3 Panels!

This weekend, I had the privilege to appear on three separate panels at FTBCon 3, the third annual FreeThoughtBlogs online conference. My first panel was entitled “FtBCon3: Kumbay-Ahh-Ahh-Ahhh!!!: Building a Community Around Shared Sexual Interests.” We discussed how communities built around things like poly and kink function, how to have strong communities, and how to keep them safe. It was moderated by Neil Wehnemen, and the other panelists were Karen Hill and Trina Gardinier.

Notice the festive Christmas decorations that are still up!

The next panel was the one I moderated, entitled “Reasonable Relationships: How Does Our Skepticism Influence our Romantic or Non-Romantic Relationship.” This was an idea that grew out of my Skeptical Monogamy presentation. When I gave the presentation at Atlanta Poly Weekend, a lot of the discussion became about how logical fallacies influence and distort our relationship thinking. It was such a great conversation that I thought it would make a good panel discussion all by itself. I was joined by More Than Two author Franklin Veaux, and bloggers Miri Mogilevsky and Chana Messinger. It ended up being a great discussion, and touched on a few topics in my Rational Relationships series.

My final panel, also moderated by Neil Wehneman, was entitled “Did You Remember Your (Love) Life Vest? Polyamory in the Deep End.” At FTBCon 2, there was a panel on polyamory that focused on 101-level questions, and this one was intended as a sequel, to get into some higher-level questions. During this panel, we got into some of the more advanced topics such as when/if to come out, long-distance, and poly misconceptions that grind our gears. Also on the panel were Miri and Karen from the community panel, as well as Heina Dadhaboy and Danny Samuelson.

FTBCon was a great experience, and they have lots of other great discussions up on the homepage. I encourage you to check them all out.

If you’d like to see more of my presentations, I’ll be presenting on relationship anarchy at Poly Living in Philadelphia the weekend of February 20-22, and Atlanta Poly Weekend, June 5-7.

What Do We Want?

What does it mean when we say we want something? My goal in relationships is generally to empower everyone involved to do whatever they want as much of the time as possible. But what do they “want?” What counts as a genuine desire vs. something we do to avoid the consequences? If a person buys me a gift to make me happy, does that count? If a person agrees to monogamy in order to keep a relationship, can that person be said to have “wanted” that? What if different parts of ourselves have incompatible desires? Where is the line drawn?

I don’t really have a clear answer to that. As I’ve noted a couple of times before, human motivation is complicated and context-dependent. It’s often not as simple as saying “I want X” or “I don’t want Y.” It’s usually something like “I want X, Y, and Z, but not if it means I can’t get A or B, though I’d give up B if I could get Z and X, but I need A unless I can get C, and…” you get the idea.

In relationships, when I say that people should do what they want, what it really comes down to is that our relationships should be free of coercion. Shelly, a guest poster on More Than Two, has a good explanation for what coercion looks like:

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

I would simply expand this definition to include the consequences of saying “no” to anything aside from recognizing boundaries. Intimacy isn’t the only thing that partners should be able to refuse. People should always be free to make the decisions that will make themselves happiest. But conversely, healthy relationships have healthy boundaries, and partners should be expected to respect each other’s boundaries and to suffer extreme consequences if they do not. Enforcing boundaries, though, is the only area where it is ethical to attempt to control a partner’s behavior without their consent, and the need to create consequences to enforce boundaries is often a sign of an unhealthy relationship.

In a sense, capitulating to coercion is “doing what we want.” Avoiding the negative consequences of a decision is often a legitimate motivating factor. But when coercion is at play, the consequences of the decision have been unnecessarily increased such that the subject no longer has a meaningful choice. It is the unnecessarily element that separates coercion from mere knowledge of consequences. All actions have consequences, and some will have dire consequences for a relationship. This is unavoidable. Avoiding coercion simply means that a partner is not imposing unnecessary or artificial consequences.

Often, a consequence of certain behaviors will be that the relationship ends. This is not coercion. In fact, it is the opposite. A relationship ending, while it may be very painful, is not an example of the consequences being so great that meaningful choice is removed. It is often reasonable and necessary for a relationship to end. I cannot stress this enough. However, certain similar actions are coercive. A partner threatening to leave when they don’t mean it is coercive. 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.

There are also plenty of things short of ending the relationship that can be coercive. Punishing a partner (or threatening to punish a partner) for the purpose of changing their behavior is coercive. Causing a scene when you don’t get what you want is coercive. Passive-aggressive remarks are coercive. Asking for things multiple times after you’ve received a “no” can be coercive. Continually bringing up the fact that you didn’t get what you want can be coercive. Any action that doesn’t respect and support a partner’s right and ability to make their own choices can be coercive.

When we are free from coercion, we are able to make our own choices according to our own priorities. When our will is not overridden by outside pressure, we are free to engage in our own internal debate to decide what it is we want. This is no simple task. As I pointed out above, our minds are not unified. Our hedonistic desires, instrumental goals, ethics, empathy, and identity will often be competing within our own heads. Some people find it useful to think of themselves as having multiple selves which are in constant competition to get what they want. Sometimes it makes sense to use coercive tactics on ourselves, when we don’t trust our future selves to make smart decisions in the moment. What we want is not often clear, and even when it is, it can change at any time.

The important thing in relationships is that we allow our partners room to have that internal struggle, and to decide what to do free of coercion. Sometimes, we can help, and we shouldn’t be afraid to do so, but we should be careful that we’re not substituting our own will for that of our partners’ or engaging in coercive tactics without realizing it. When I say “everyone should do what they want,” what I mean is that everyone should do whatever their internal processes tell them is best, free from coercive pressure from outside sources.

So going back to my original questions – any of those examples could be the result of an internal process of deliberation OR the result of coercion. It would depend on the context and the individuals involved. The important thing, in our relationships, is that we recognize the inviolable right of people to decide for themselves what will make them happy, and to do what they think as best so long as it isn’t crossing any of our boundaries.

Being Honest About Our Motivations

There is no better way to destroy my trust in you than to lie to me about your motivations. It’s canon polyamory that healthy relationships require trust. Trust is built by behaving in a trustworthy manner. The best way to build trust is to tell the truth even when lying is ostensibly in your best interest. One the most common ways to do this is when asked about your motivations.

Asking someone about their motivation is a metaphorical trust fall. Because motivations occur only in our minds, there is no way to independently confirm what someone tells us. Unless their actions are so dramatically inconsistently with what they say that it’s obvious, it’s nearly impossible to tell when someone isn’t being honest. A person’s word is very nearly all we have to go on.

When someone asks you why you did something, they are showing vulnerability. They are trusting you to tell them the truth. Abusing that trust is a great way to show someone that you can’t be trusted in the future.

In my motte-and-bailey post, I talked a bit about motivations:

Human motivation is complicated, and there are often multiple reasons motivating us for a single action or position. Often, when examining our motivations, we will seize on the most palatable motivation and ignore the others…. The only real solution is to rigorously examine and communicate our motivations, which can be incredibly demanding and difficult. It’s not easy to sort out your primary motivation from numerous contenders. The key question is this: but for your stated reason, would you be comfortable with the behavior at issue? …If you would still object, then your stated reason is not your actual reason.

This is all still true. Often, our motivations will be unknown even to ourselves. And that’s fine! “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer, when someone asks why you did something. “I don’t want to talk about it” is likewise a perfectly acceptable answer. There’s nothing about being honest which requires you to give people information that you don’t have or that you don’t want to give.

Even if you think you know your motivation, have some epistemic humility about it. Understand that motivation is complicated, and if your apparent motivation sounds a little too noble, maybe take a second look. If someone points out to you that your words and actions don’t line up, consider that you may be mistaken. Ask yourself whether, if your stated motivation changed, your behavior would change. If the answer isn’t an unequivocal “yes,” then there are other motivations at play that should be discussed.

Trust is most important when it’s easiest to violate. Lying about our internal thoughts is one of the easiest and least verifiable ways to violate someone’s trust. If you value honesty, then value it when it counts.

Rational Relationships: The Motte-and-Bailey Doctrine


The motte-and-bailey doctrine is a concept created by Nicholas Shackel as a critique of post-moderism. I was introduced to it through Slate Star Codex

The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

An example:

The religious group that acts for all the world like God is a supernatural creator who builds universes, creates people out of other people’s ribs, parts seas, and heals the sick when asked very nicely (bailey). Then when atheists come around and say maybe there’s no God, the religious group objects “But God is just another name for the beauty and order in the Universe! You’re not denying that there’s beauty and order in the Universe, are you?” (motte). Then when the atheists go away they get back to making people out of other people’s ribs and stuff.

SSC give several more examples, which are very helpful if you’re not quite getting the concept. To me, it refers to a situation where your position is not easily defended, so you retreat to a stronger position when challenged. Then, after the challenge is over, you go back to the weaker position.

We do this all of the time in relationships. The most common area I see this in is STI risk. STI’s are a real danger, and taking precautions against STI’s is an extremely defensible position. “What?! I just want to be safe” is the motte. The bailey ends up being all kinds of emotional needs, accommodating jealousy, or soft veto power. There is almost no restriction that one could put on a partner that could not be somehow justified by pointing at STI risk. Want veto power (bailey)? Just say you don’t trust the other person’s sexual safety (motte). Want to cut your partner’s dating pool significantly (bailey)? Insist that all partners receive extensive STI testing every six months (motte). Want to be the only person who gets to do kink with your partner (bailey)? Point out that it’s riskier from a sexual health perspective, and say you’re not comfortable with that risk level (motte).

It can also be used with other legitimate concerns. Don’t want your partner to stay overnight with other partners (bailey)? Claim that you can’t sleep alone (motte). Want to limit the amount of time your partner can spend away from home (bailey)? Come up with a household duty schedule that conveniently requires your partner to be home most of the time (motte). Want to make sure your partner stays closeted (bailey)? Say that your boss is a total bigot and would fire you if they found out you were poly (motte).

The motte-and-bailey doctrine is so dangerous precisely because the “motte” positions are really good reasons. It’s totally legit to want to minimize your STI risks, and communicating that to a partner is something we should all do! Some people can’t sleep alone! Some people have terrible bosses! There is no way to tell the difference between when someone has an honest issue and when someone is just trying to control their partner.

Worse, we can even fool ourselves with motte-and-bailey thinking. Human motivation is complicated, and there are often multiple reasons motivating us for a single action or position. Often, when examining our motivations, we will seize on the most palatable motivation and ignore the others. So it’s possible that we can have legitimate fears about STI’s, but weigh those fears more heavily because we have unaddressed insecurities which motivate us to control our partner(s). Our fears about coming out may be less about getting fired and more about wanting to avoid conflict or awkwardness with our friends.

The only real solution is to rigorously examine and communicate our motivations, which can be incredibly demanding and difficult. It’s not easy to sort out your primary motivation from numerous contenders. The key question is this: but for your stated reason, would you be comfortable with the behavior at issue? For example, if there was no risk of STI’s, would you be ok with your partner dating promiscuous people? If your job was safe, would you have any objection to coming out? If you would still object, then your stated reason is not your actual reason.

Knowing and admitting our motivations is a key step toward personal growth, and the growth of a relationship. We must always be vigilant that our motivations are what we think.

Rational Relationships: The Sunk Cost Fallacy

“We must do whatever it takes to justify what we’ve already done” – Stephen Colbert

The sunk cost fallacy is one of my favorite concepts. I first encountered it in business school. In the business word, “sunk costs” are any past costs that cannot be regained. The sunk costs fallacy describes an occurrence whereby managers will overvalue a project based on the sunk costs invested in it, rather than the prospective future gains.

A simple example is buying a stock. If you pay $1000 for ten shares of stock, that $1000 is a sunk cost. The current value of the stock is independent of the price that you paid for it. The only way to accurately value the stock is to determine its price at the current moment or to attempt to estimate its future value. However, if the market will currently pay only $900 for your ten shares, then there is psychological pressure on you to continue to think of your stock as worth $1000, even if its actual value is less than that.

The sunk cost fallacy comes from people’s natural tendency toward loss aversion. For almost everyone, the pain of receiving something and then losing it is greater than never having it in the first place. In other words, we tend to feel losses more strongly than we feel corresponding gains. Because of this, we tend to try to avoid losses more than we try to pursue gains. The sunk cost fallacy is a result of loss aversion, because we tend not to see sunk costs as “losses” until we dispose of the object paid for. When you buy those shares of stock, you have lost $1000, but it doesn’t feel like you’ve lost $1000 because you’ve simultaneously gained a stock that’s valued at $1000. If the price of the stock drops to $900, you’ve lost the equivalent of $100, but it doesn’t feel that way unless you sell the stock. If you sell the stock for $900, you’ve gained $900, but it feels like a loss of $100. This is the feeling that enables the sunk cost fallacy.

This is a problem for business people. Let’s say my company decides to research a new widget, incurs substantial R&D costs, and tasks me with the decision whether to introduce the widget into the market. There is a temptation to see the large amount of R&D put into the widget and conclude that the widget will be profitable and we should launch it. However, the amount of R&D spent has no bearing on whether there is sufficient demand for the widget. If I actually relied on the sunk costs to make my decision, it would be a disaster. Profitability depends on demand, production costs, overhead, advertising, and a whole host of other factors, none of which are sunk costs. Sunk costs are completely irrelevant to the value of the widget.

The sunk cost fallacy is that little voice that encourages us to finish the book once we’ve read half of it and decided that we don’t like it. It’s what keeps us driving the wrong direction rather than turn around (literally and figuratively). It’s what keep us using the fancy $150 universal remote long after it’s apparent that the cheap $10 remote is more user-friendly and useful.

It’s also what keeps us in bad relationships. People change. Often, those changes will result in formerly good partners no longer being good matches for each other. In those circumstances, it’s best that couples break up or transition to some other form of relationship. It is often the case, though, that couples will look at their history and conclude that too much time, effort, and energy has been invested in the relationship to end it.

This is a mistake. There are certainly plenty of reasons why long-standing partners might not want to break up. Their experience with each other may show them that they are only in a temporary rough patch. Their lives may be so entangled that leaving the relationship would be incredibly painful. Their issues may just not be as bad as they seem.

But it’s a mistake to think that the amount of investment in a relationship automatically adds value to that relationship. It doesn’t. The value of the relationship consists of what is happening in the present and in the future. The past is done. The past is useful in predicting the future, but the past by itself doesn’t actually add any value. The length of a relationship or the amount of effort put into a relationship doesn’t actually add value. If it’s clear that a relationship won’t serve you in the future, your previous investment in the relationship won’t change that.

Rationally evaluating our relationships requires acknowledging that their value is derived only from our reasonable future expectations. Sunk costs are unrecoverable.

Copyright 2014 by Wesley Fenza

Consent-Based Relationships

As part of this year’s Beyond the Love polyamory conference, I gave a presentation on relationship anarchy. Most of the content has already appeared on the blog in my previous posts about relationship anarchy, and it drew heavily from my posts about rules and decision-making.

The presentation closed with a discussion of how anarchic relationships actually work in practice. The main idea is that anarchic relationships are completely consent-based, down to the smallest details. This is how I visualize it:
anarchic relationships

As you can see, the idea is that “a relationship” consists of the activities that both people genuinely want to engage in. Anything that I want to do that you don’t want to do, we don’t do. I either do that with someone else who consents, I do it alone, or I just don’t do it.

This can sound somewhat harsh, but in practice it isn’t that far from what most people believe. What I want to do is infinitely changeable. The fact that a partner wants to do something can easily move something into the “I want to do that” category. There are many things I do with my current partners that wouldn’t be enjoyable without them. Just knowing that something would help a partner to be happy is often all the motivation I need to do it. But sometimes it isn’t, and that’s ok too. And that’s the key difference in a consent-based relationship. When your relationship is based on consent, you will affirm and support a partner’s decision to say “no” to you.

I don’t actually know too many people who disagree with this outlook. But I know a LOT of people who will get angry at a partner for not doing what they want. My theory is that the anger is inspired by the fact that their happiness is not a sufficient motivating factor. I also think that people are very good at fooling themselves into believing that their partner is acting free of coercion, when really their partner is just doing what they want to avoid a fight or other negative consequences. It’s easy to say “I’m angry because you wouldn’t come with me to my cousin’s wedding.” It’s more complicated to say “I’m upset because my happiness wasn’t enough to motivate you to want to come to the wedding.” In the former, the solution is easy – just go to the wedding! With the latter, there is no clear solution, and you may just need to adjust your future expectations to reflect the reality of the situation.

Despite that, however, I think it’s a good idea to affirm the general idea that a consent-based relationship involves only activities that both parties genuinely want to do. If you find yourself doing things that you don’t actually want to do, it’s worth thinking about why you’re doing them. If fear of consequences imposed by your partner is motivating you, it may be a sign that there is a problem in your relationship.

It is my firm belief that all ethical relationships are consent-based. Coercing a partner into doing what you want is never an ethical thing to do. Just as consent is the foundation of sexual ethics, consent is also the foundation of relationship ethics. It forms the base on which all other relationship ethics are derived. Relationship anarchy is about ensuring the maximum freedom for everyone, and that starts with respecting everyone’s consent.

Beyond the Love: the Midwest’s Only Polyamory Conference, and One of the Best Anywhere

BTLlogoBanner800x180This past weekend (November 7-9, 2014), I had the good fortune to be able to attend Beyond the Love, a three-day polyamory conference in Columbus, Ohio with Gina, Jessie, and Amber. Jessie I attended the first-ever Beyond the Love last year, and were totally blown away. The organization did a great job putting together an engaging and enjoyable program, and they exceeded expectations yet again this year.

The con started on Friday night with an Intro to Poly orientation. My partners and I arrived shortly afterward, and participated in the human scavenger hunt meet & greet, which was a variation of what they’d done last year. They gave us a list of ~20 items such as “someone who has performed in a burlesque performance,” “someone who can juggle (prove it!),” and “someone who has the same birth month as you.” The idea was to get people talking to each other and asking questions, and it works great. Everyone got up from their seats and moved around the room, interacting with everyone else. It’s a great idea, and I’d like to see it used more often.

Opening ceremonies were next, where Sarah Sloane gave a terrific keynote. Highlights included:

Opening Ceremonies
This was followed by a poly speed mixer. We were all divided up by our dominant love language, and sat across from each other. After a few minutes, one side would shift down a seat. I got to meet a bunch of interesting people. Between the scavenger hunt and the speed mixer, I’d somewhat effortlessly been able to meet a good portion of my fellow attendees, which is always appreciated by out-of-towners like me.

The BtL staff also did two other things to encourage flirting amongst the attendees. First, they offered red, yellow, and green stickers that attendees could put on their badges to indicate that they were open to flirting, unsure, or were not open to flirting. I sometimes worry that those kinds of systems can backfire, but this one seemed to work well, and nobody (that I know of) took a green sticker to mean that consent wasn’t important.

The other innovation was the flirt board! Attendees could write their name on an envelope and tack it to the flirt board. Anyone else could write something on a scrap of paper and drop it in their envelope. It’s an incredibly simple system, but people had a lot of fun with it, and it was a very low-pressure way to signal interest in friendship, flirting, or any kind of interaction with a person.

After the opening ceremony was the relationship styles summit, where the staff put balloons around the social space with different relationship styles on them. You could hang out at the balloon that represented your style, or you could go around and try to learn about other styles. It was kind of a cool idea, and I had fun hanging out at the relationship anarchy balloon and fielding people’s questions.

The last activity for Friday was a burlesque show, by Big Girl Burlesque. I only caught the first few numbers, but Jessie saw the whole thing and loved it. After the show, I was able to spend some time with some new friends and some friends that I’d met last year. I didn’t get to sleep until 4am.

Saturday, classes started at 9am. I attended Billy Holder’s class “Coming Out Poly – Why?” Billy runs Atlanta Poly Weekend, and was recently featured on several news outlets. He told us about what coming out meant for him, and what it might mean for us. I’ve been out for years, so I didn’t need to be convinced, but I really liked Billy’s message. Highlights included:

Coming Out Poly

For the next sessions, I jumped around between a few classrooms. I started in “Poly as an Avenue for Growth” from Michelle Vaughn. She had some good things to say about how nonmonogamy can inform our values and change us as people. Then I jumped over to “For the Love of Labels: What Does it Mean to be Poly?” from Dr. Antoinette Izzo. I was only there briefly, but it ended up being one of my favorite parts of the con. Dr. Izzo discussed how labels can mean something to us on multiple levels, reflecting knowledge, feelings, identify, and practices. I often struggle to identify with people’s attachment to labels, and Dr. Izzo was able to shed some light on that for me.

Next, I went to Jessie’s presentation: “Healthier Hierarchies & Communicating Compatibility.” This was a two-part class exploring hierarchies in relationships and how they affect our partners. Part two was focused on metamour relations. Some highlights:

Healthier Hierarchies
After Jessie’s presentation was my presentation on OkHacking: OkCupid for the Polyamorous. I’ve done it a few times before, including a Beyond the Love last year. It went well, apart from a few brief technical difficulties getting the projector to work (I’ve since ordered a TouchPico, so I shouldn’t have those problems in the future). If you’re not familiar, it’s in written form here.

After the class session, VIP ticket holders were invited to eat with the presenters, then there was an evening program where people were invited to ask any questions they liked of the presenters. The audience didn’t seem to have many questions, but such is life. We then moved on to Rent a Presenter! Staff and presenters had been given “Love Bucks” at the start of the weekend, and were encouraged to hand them out for good deeds, participation, and otherwise beneficial behavior. Saturday evening, attendees could use their Love Bucks at an auction to rent a presenter for a 15-minute Q&A session. It was a cute idea, and people had fun with it. I volunteered (of course), an I was rented by a very cool woman going by “Snu Snu.” I traded her OkCupid tips for Muay Thai instruction.

Saturday night was the masquerade ball, which finally gave us an excuse to wear the Carnivale masks that Jessie and I got for everyone in Venice on our honeymoon. The ball was great. The dance floor was in heavy use, song selection was good, and everyone seemed to have a great time. Afterward was more socializing. This time, I stayed up until 5am.

Sunday had some great-looking classes at 9am… but they were at 9am, so there was no way that was happening for me. At 10:30, I gave my Relationship Anarchy presentation. I had a great audience (standing room only!), and after a few more projector difficulties, the workshop went great. This was the first time I’d done that one, and I wasn’t satisfied with how my RA presentation went in Atlanta, so I was nervous. It ended up going very well, the audience seemed engaged, and I had a few people tell me afterward that it really gave them a lot to think about. If you’re curious, my writing on the topic is here, my presentation slides are here, and a Relationship Anarchy Facebook discussion group is here.

We had an 8-10 drive ahead of us, so we had to go shortly after my presentation. On the weekend, I had only two small disappointments: first, nobody presented on consent culture. Polyamory as a community is still in its infancy, and now is the time that we’re going to decide what kind of community we’re going to be. Top priority for me is that we end up being a consent-focused community. There was some great discussion of what that would mean at Atlanta Poly Weekend, and I was disappointed that Beyond the Love didn’t include it.

Second, most of the classes that I and my partners attended seemed rather beginner-level. Nothing was exactly Poly 101, but there also wasn’t a lot that was that informative to someone who’s been active in the community for 4+ year (though I did find Dr. Izzo’s class on labels to be very relevant). Next year, I’d love to see some more advanced concepts that assume the audience is familiar with more intro-level ideas. I’m already trying to think of presentations I could give that would appeal to the more experienced crowd.

All in all, it was a fantastic weekend, and I’m still riding a bit of the con high. I got to see some old friends, I made a lot of new friends, and I got to spend the weekend talking, communing, and flirting with like-minded people. I would recommend it to anyone who can make it next year.

Trust and Imperfection

In a previous post, I said that

I can’t imagine going to a partner and saying “we need this rule because your judgment sucks.” Or rather, I can imagine someone saying that privately, but not really admitting it publicly. So I was very surprised to see people using this idea as some sort of justification for partners making rules in relationships. To me, if it becomes necessary for me to say to a partner “I can’t trust you to make good decisions,” it’s time to end the relationship.

As I sometimes do, I feel I overstated the case there a bit. Trust is a flexible concept, and is certainly not a monolith. It’s perfectly reasonable to trust someone to make good decisions about certain topics, but not others. For instance, I might trust my wife to make good decisions while driving, but not to make good decisions if she’s trying to give legal advice. The type of trust relevant in a relationship is unique to each relationship, but generally look something like this:

  • Do I trust my partner to care a sufficient amount about my well-being?
  • Do I trust that my partner, given sufficient information, is able to accurately judge how their actions affect me?
  • Do I trust that my partner will be honest with me, even when it’s to their short-term advantage not to be?
  • Do I trust my partner to behave consistently, and with integrity?
  • Do I trust my partner to value me in the ways that I want to be valued?

So what happens when you don’t trust a partner in those ways? Some would say break up (or don’t get together in the first place). There’s a reasonable case to be made that it’s a good idea to get to know someone reasonably well before starting a romantic relationship. That’s the safest route, because you can develop the trust you need outside of a relationship context and enter the relationship with all necessary trust in place.

But that doesn’t work for everyone. Some of us have a higher risk tolerance, and see the advantages in giving a romantic relationship a try before we’re quite sure it’s a good idea. Some of us are just impatient. Some of us don’t draw a clear distinction between friends and romantic partners. There are plenty of reasons why a person might end up in a romantic or otherwise close relationship with a person they’re unsure that they can trust. It’s also unfair to expect our partners to be perfect. Nobody is able to make good decisions all of the time, people screw up, and people do things that hurt us. It’s not reasonable to ever trust another person (or ourselves) completely, so in any relationship, there’s going to be a trust deficit.

Some people try to manage this trust deficit with rules. As I’ve previously written, creating relationship rules won’t guarantee good behavior, but it can provide some addition psychological pressure to keep one’s commitments. I’m not a fan of this as a solution, for reasons that I’ve previously written.

So we’re faced with a situation in which we can’t completely trust our partners to make the decisions we want them to make. So what do we do? Your answer to this question will say a lot about you. Some people will try to control their partners’ decisions. Some will attempt to stay emotionally closed off to avoid risking being hurt. Some will put limitations on the relationship unless and until more trust can be developed. Some will stop dating entirely.

My choice is to take a risk. Risk being hurt. Risk being mistreated. Risk having my heart broken. All relationships involve that kind of risk, so I say embrace it. Like Franklin Veaux says, fortune favors the bold!

Here’s another question that’s particularly illumiating: if you partner wants to take an action that benefits them, but harms you (without crossing any of your boundaries), what should they do? My answer is: do it. I want my love to be empowering, not limiting. I don’t want people to feel like they shouldn’t make themselves happy because it will make me unhappy. I think, so long as people’s boundaries are respected, everyone is happiest when everyone focuses on making themselves happy. I don’t want a relationship with me to mean sacrifice.

I can’t ever be sure that my partners will make the decisions that I want them to make, and that’s ok. Certain decision will hurt me, and certain decisions will cause the relationship to end, but that’s ok too. My partners are worth the risks, and my partners are their best selves when they are their most empowered selves. Love without limits.

Should We Make Rules?

Last week, I posted about Why We Make Rules, the gist of which was that making formal commitments (in the form of agreeing to rules) adds a layer of psychological pressure to stick to the commitment. Doing so is useful only when we don’t trust the in-the-moment judgment of either ourselves or our partner(s).

To my surprise, a number of people (online and off) took this as an endorsement of rules. I was cited in a post by Rose at entitled “In Defense of Rules.” Franklin Veaux, in response to my post, saw the value in making self-imposed rules, but talked about the danger of partners making and/or enforcing rules for each other:

One of the things that came up on that hashtag again and again, though, was the idea that abusers can gain power over their victims by making their victims doubt their own judgment. “You can’t be trusted.” “You don’t make good decisions.” “You mess things up.” “You have poor judgment.” “I have to make decisions for you or you’ll screw up.” “You’ll hurt me if I give you a chance.” I saw dozens of variations on this theme all through the hashtag. And it got me to thinking.

“I will limit my behavior in this way because I know my in-the-moment decision skills are a bit crap” can be a reasonable approach to healthy boundary-setting. But I see the potential for abuse when it becomes “I want this rule because your decision-making skills are crap; you can’t be trusted to keep your commitments.”

I completely agree, and, in fact, thought this was implicit in my original post. I can’t imagine going to a partner and saying “we need this rule because your judgment sucks.” Or rather, I can imagine someone saying that privately, but not really admitting it publicly. So I was very surprised to see people using this idea as some sort of justification for partners making rules in relationships. To me, if it becomes necessary for me to say to a partner “I can’t trust you to make good decisions,” it’s time to end the relationship.

Franklin’s commenter Shelly made an important point about the difference between making rules and setting expectations:

In my experience, there isn’t much of a difference until someone actually breaks or challenges the rule. Then the difference is kind of huge. When you break a rule, you betray the other person or the relationship. In the aftermath, there is a clear moral victor, and there is a clear power differential. The “thumb on the scale,” the “just in case,” I believe speaks to this power differential. In case of emergency, let’s be really really clear who is wrong. In other words when you do something hurtful or disruptive, I need shame on my side in order to bring you back.

I believe that people who fight for rules instinctively feel a need to have this this power differential in place, and I expect it comes from a sense of personal powerlessness in most cases. Unfortunately, I agree that this kind of power differential, combined with shame, creates a fertile ground for abuse. However, in a “consequence”-based relationship, there is still a fundamental respect for the other person’s right and ability to make their own decisions. Even if those decisions are shitty or hurtful.

This really gets to the heart of the matter to me. Informing someone of the consequences for their behavior assumes that they are going to make their own decisions, using their own judgment. Informing them of the consequences just means that you’re giving them relevant information to make their decision. There is no moral judgment or condemnation, no matter what they choose, so long as they are willing to accept the consequences.

Rules are different. Rules set a required course of behavior, and any deviation from that behavior is considered “wrong.” As Shelly said, a rule-breaker has committed a betrayal, and there is a clear moral high ground.

Rose submits that rules are useful for two reasons:

  • “they give each party an opportunity to communicate honestly about fears, expectations, past experiences, and other factors of real life that affect the functioning of relationships”
  • “negotiating agreements with new and existing partners allows us to establish trust in one another.”

Certainly, if the alternative to making rules is to remain silent, then those are important functions of rules. Thankfully, though, that is not the case. The alternative to rules that I (and, to my understanding, Franklin) advocate is the process of expectation-setting, which accomplishes both goals without the attendant issues inherent in making rules.

Setting expectation involves simply communicating your needs, what you expect to do, and what you expect your partner to do in any given situation. This can also include things that you expect to do if your expectations are not met. This way, each party has an opportunity to talk about “fears, expectations, past experiences, and other factors of real life,” but doesn’t need to put any pressure on the other party.

It also gives partners an opportunity to develop trust. When there are no rules, partners are free to behave however they like. It gives partners a real chance to see how each will behave in the absence of any control measures (but still aware of how their actions will likely affect each other). Trust is then build when partners gradually learn that they genuinely want to treat each other well (or they learn the opposite and break up).

Rules can be useful if we make the decision to create them for our own behavior. As Franklin put it, “having my rational self place a restriction on my future, irrational self is a sensible, prudent thing to do.” But rules can be harmful when we try to control our partners’ behavior for our own benefit. Expectation-setting can create all of the benefits of rules without the attendant problems, and is a much better alternative.