Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Conservative Backlash Towards Attempts to Liberate Relationships

When you look around the modern relationship landscape, there is both a trend towards liberation, and also a fierce, conservative backlash. For every person redefining what it means to be with another, there is someone else trying to pass legislation designed to box everyone into what they believe is the "moral, traditional" approach. And these tensions on a societal level are playing out within each our relationships to some degree, for better or worse.

In my home state of Minnesota, we will have an anti-gay marriage amendment on the ballot this fall. Driven by religious conservatives, this legislation is basically a redundancy designed to keep GLBTQ in their place as second class citizens, while also - in my opinion - attempting to reassert the primacy of Christianity in an increasingly diverse spiritual and secular landscape. Not only do I disagree with this amendment for social justice reasons, but I also think it represents one of the myriad of ways humans attempt to define and control the relationships of others. Something that's essentially impossible to do.

What's interesting to me about all of this, though, is how often those who are attempting to support GLBTQ folks in their attempts to gain marriage equality are using conservative scripts to do so. Consider these points from a recent op-ed piece in our local paper:

Paul did on several occasions discuss homosexuality, lumping homosexuals in with us adulterers on his list of people who will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

I bring this up in light of the ongoing argument that homosexual marriage is a threat to the family. We have to ask ourselves: Did Jesus see it that way?

It would appear the real threat that he saw to the family was divorce (and remarriage), and we see the wreckage that is doing to families and children all around us.

Want to protect marriage? How about enacting laws that make it tougher to get a divorce?

How about, if you do get divorced, we put in a law making it illegal to get married again? Then at least each partner would be focused on the kids who exist now and on what's best for them, even if their parents don't get along.

Now, if you read the entire article, you'll see that the author offers these suggestions partly in jest. However, the overall tenor of the piece is that divorce is sinful, or at least a mark of flawed people. And while it's true that the overall stigma around divorce has greatly reduced amongst most Americans, there is still a lot of guilt and shame-ridden stories tied to it. I'd argue that for many people, these stories have become secularized.

Here's a few common themes.

Every relationship that ends is a mark of failure.

That was all of waste of time with so and so.

I'm no good at relationships.

We could have tried harder.

I'll never find "The One."

Consider this comment by dating coach Evan Marc Katz, a self proclaimed bleed heart liberal":

I don’t think anyone should get married before the age of 30 or before 3 years of dating. Unfortunately, I have very little say in what the rest of the world does. You can certainly sleep with men on the first date, get married a year later, have a kid two years later and get divorced two years later. Most people do. I just don’t think that if I’m giving advice, I would advise people to do the same things that everyone else is doing – especially when half of all kids born to 20-30 year olds are born out of wedlock. Are relationships designed to last forever? If you choose the right partner, they can be. If you choose the wrong partner, over and over, then they won’t be. My responsibility is to provide best practices.

If you read Katz's blog regularly, what's best in his opinion is the nuclear family relationship model. It doesn't matter if you're heterosexual or queer, that's the model he's upholding. Which is fine in and of itself for those who want it. But not everyone wants it. Nor is it "the best" option in my opinion. It's simply one option, one that is heavily conditioned by current and recent historical, middle class American social norms. Since Katz brings up children, I'll say that not having a two parent intact household isn't the end of the world. In fact, sometimes it's actually "the best" option for children, given their circumstances. However, more importantly to consider though is that children have been raised in numerous different ways over the course of human history. Even looking cross-culturally today, it's easy to find healthy, well adjusted children who are being raised by single parents, extended family members, friends of one's birth family, adopted parents, a small clan of families co-raising their children together - the list goes on and on. In my opinion, more of us need to uphold different models and their success stories. Why? Because when conditions change, there are more options available. If your marriage falls apart, for example, you could look into co-parenting with other couples or single mothers.

Conscious relationships need a set of structures and agreements to succeed. I view a lot of the conservative backlash and attempts to re-prioritize heterosexually defined nuclear family relationships as a response to the turbulence of the times. While a minority of folks are brilliantly creating new approaches to relationships, including new ways to structure a nuclear family, many others are simply reacting out of fear and confusion by grabbing the old scripts and holding on tightly.

Let me go further. Dismissing or minimizing the value of other approaches to relationships in favor of the nuclear family model is like mono-cropping. Sure, those endless fields of corn might look beautiful at first glance. But because that corn has been privileged and repeated again and again, the soil has been heavily damaged, and is much less resilient then if the corn were simply one crop intermixed with others.

There's a lot more I could say right now, but I'll leave it at that. You're thoughts?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Seeking to Change Your Partner

It's a bad plan. And the reality is that if we simply cultivate a healthy, conscious relationship, change will inevitably come on it's own. Including some of the thing you are currently hoping for.

However many of us are impatient. We want that annoying habit pattern to disappear now. Or for that decision to be made about X to be done yesterday.

One thing that is important to consider is whether or not you can fully embrace your partner as he or she is. Some choose to enter relationships with people who have "issues" they hope to "help fix." The same folks tend to stay around long after it's time to end it out of the hope that someday, what they say or do will spark something within the other person to stop feeling depressed all the time, stop drinking themselves to sleep, stop getting jealous at every little thing you do with others.

It's not that sparking change in another is impossible, but more that your entire relationship with the other becomes warped towards a story of how it "will be" in the future, instead of how it is right now. And this is a recipe for trouble if you ask me.

Last year, I went on a few dates with a woman I'll call L. I felt some attraction to L. and we seemed to have a fair amount in common. However, I quickly realized she was looking for a project. We had only known each other a few hours, and she was making comments like "We'll have to get you driving a car in the spring" and "I'm sure you'll look good with a little bit shorter haircut." At the time these were said, I just responded with a "We'll see," but was mostly thinking that this is a lousy road we're going down here.

When someone seeks to change you, resentment and/or feelings of rejection often come up. You wonder if the person wants to be with you, or with some modified version of you that suits their desires.

I remember distinctly the realization towards the end of a long term relationship that most of the concerns I had about my girlfriend's job - which she seemed to greatly dislike, but couldn't get herself to leave - were really about me. Sure, she might have been happier and more fulfilled moving on to another job. But for the most part, I was upset because she wasn't being the partner "I wanted." I wanted a partner that wouldn't stay stuck in place for years on end, complaining about it, but not doing much of anything.

Although it's true that I became a dumping ground for her work-related angst, it's also the case that I maintained a hope that I would eventually say or do something that would spark her to make a career move, or at least take more risks at her current job. And because I had that hope, I often made comments that attempted to fix things, or offer answers to questions she couldn't answer herself at the time. And this, of course, led to resentment and conflict.

Of course, there are times within a relationship where each of us has to say things that might be about the other changing their behavior in some manner or another. And certainly, some changes might be make or break decisions within a relationship, such as ending patterns of abuse.

But all too often, what you desire to change in your partner really reflects something about yourself you don't like, and/or reflects the degree to which you don't have a realistic image of your partner.

So, it's worth investigating what's behind those desires for change first, before you unleash them onto your date, partner, or spouse.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sluts, Studs, and Straightjaket Sexuality

There is a kind of schizophrenia that society works mightily to induce in women about beauty, sexiness, body image. The main thread of it goes like this: women ought to be both stereotypically gorgeous, and unaware of it. If we are not beautiful enough, then we face penalties everywhere — even the workplace, where women who are “very thin” earn nearly $22,000 more than their “average weight counterparts,” and blonde women make 7% more money than women with other hair colors.

But if a woman who manages to meet these standards expresses any awareness of it whatsoever, then she risks being attacked as shallow, vain, self-centered and even manipulative. Or she risks being seen as “asking for it,” because awareness of your sexuality is “slutty,” and that’s what slutty slut sluts do: sluts “ask for it” and deserve whatever they get.

The above is from a post by Clarisse Thorn, which centers on the public persona of Britney Spears as a jumping off point for considering sexuality, visual presentations, and gender narratives. I found the above selection compelling for a few reasons.

First off, the word "slut" has been all over the news in recent months. Most notably, perhaps, was Rush Limbaugh's use of it as an attack on women seeking birth control access. (Actually, the undercurrent of Limbaugh's comments was basically an attack on women demonstrating any form of power, as well as seeking any form of equal rights.) But I digress.

Back to slut. Slut has become a strange word.

It's regularly used by social and religious conservatives to damn women who express any sense of desire for the pleasure and beauty of sexuality and sexual expression.

It's also regularly used by a certain segment of women - primarily educated and younger - who are attempting to reclaim the word as a part of reclaiming sex itself. One more recent manifestation of this effort are the Slut Walks, during which women have marched through downtown areas, many dressed in what you might call "skimpy" clothing, as part of an overall rally for women's rights, especially the right to full expression of sexuality. Besides the unexamined race issues that have appeared in these gatherings, I also wonder, in focusing on "slutty" dress for example, if the women in these gatherings aren't also reinforcing a limited, superficial understanding of sexuality.

It's also the case that another group uses the word slut - on occasion: people you might call "polite, middle class liberals." In these cases, the use is reserved for times when someone's behavior crosses the "norm line." What is that norm line?

Well, I think it includes everything from women who outspokenly embrace their sexuality to any form of kink. Specifically, I'm convinced that anything which is perceived as a threat to standard middle class sexuality - hetero or homosexual - triggers the crap out of many liberal folks. And when it comes to women doing the triggering, the word "slut" as a way of making an appearance.

So, there's the word slut, and then there is this issue of awareness of your sexuality.

I have to say that somewhere along the line, early on, I swallowed some of this pill myself. It's taken years of my adult life, and a lot of experience, in order to be able to speak much about sexuality. In fact, I would argue that for most of my teens and 20s, I was often way out of touch with my sexual needs and desires, entangled in some male version of internal slut shaming. Which is to say that I had my share of relationships and sex, but there was nearly always something missing, and entirely too often a sense of guilt and shame attached to my experience.

Fantasies - not something to develop or share. Masturbation - best kept hidden away from everyone, including my partner. Experimenting in bed, or elsewhere - reserved for the rare occasion when my guard was down. Usually after the consumption of alcohol.

I have never been one of the guys, in terms of hanging out and going on in graphic detail about sexual experiences or even attractions to women. Instead of figuring out life-affirming ways to express all of that, I've often dismissed such talk as objectification - which a lot of it tends to be - and simply offered little of myself in such situations. In other words, there has been a distinct "withdrawal" that has occurred with others - even those who I am dating - when it comes to talking about and sharing stories about sex and sexual expression.

Women, as Clarisse points out, face a large amount of socialized judgment around sexuality that men tend not to.

I, though, have internalized some of that same judgment - enough that it has been only in the past few years that I have begun to feel more comfortable in my own (sexual) skin. And there's still a long way to go.

I know I am not alone. And when I think about the accepted ways in which men - dudes, good old boys, guys - are able to express their sexuality, it's pretty limited as well. We are judged in different ways. Boxed into a "penis performance" corner. And often do not have full body sexual experiences as a result.

We might be labeled a "stud" by other men and women, but it's almost all about the cock doing a few specific things, in a few specific places, with X number of partners.

There's little room for subtlety. Little room for the sharing of dynamic energies that can occur between people who deeply love and care for each other.

The label "foreplay" itself assigns much of sexual expression to a warm up position: something necessary, but not sufficient.

It's all pretty troubling. And for the majority of us out there - regardless of gender - we are experiencing sexuality in a straightjacket. Often without awareness.

Your thoughts?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Not Good Enough"

Growing up, I frequently took - or was placed into - the role of peacemaker. Whatever struggles occurred in my family, or between friends, I tended to be the person who tried to calm things down, offer support of some kind, or defend those who were being treated poorly. On the positive end, this helped fine tune the call to serving others in the world I have always had. On the other hand, it also fine tuned my desire to be liked, as well as people pleasing skills like excessive efforts to get along and avoid conflict.

With dating, especially early on in the process, some of that old baggage can still come in and take over. So, I was interested in the following post by Natalie from Baggage Reclaim. She writes:

Earlier on in my life, I came to believe that it’s really important to do what people expect or tell you to do or be. No-one specifically stated this but through interactions and observations, I deduced that you get loved, respected, cared for, trusted, and valued when you’re what others want you to be, which feeds very ‘nicely’ into believing that this is why love and like doesn’t happen or is withdrawn. Me being happy and others being happy with and liking/loving me became intrinsically linked to looking for some tipping point of pleasing others where if I loved, gave, twisted, and contorted myself into a Transformer, I’d be ‘good enough’.

Not being "good enough" is a view that has plagued me, probably since my early childhood. Although it's impact on other areas of my life has diminished, when it comes to dating and love relationships, I still find myself working with internal monologues coming from that place. Much of it, for me, is tied to how the women I am dating or have an interest in might view my unique and unorthodox ways of living and seeing the world.

When I have gone on first dates, reoccurring thoughts like the following have sometimes been hard to shake:

"She really liked talking with me, and was impressed with me, but only as a friend."

"She was just saying she admired your courage to do such and such, or live in such and such way, because she didn't know how else to respond."

"She'll find someone more "tangibles" (i.e. material benefits like a house, car, and well paying, stable job) and disappear from your life."

Even when in relationships, different, but similar in spirit thoughts have sometimes caused a lot of problems.

When I look back at one long term relationship, which ended about three and a half years ago, I can see how "not good enough" narratives ruled both of us. So many of the arguments we had came from a place of the other fearing total rejection, and bouncing back and forth between trying to do or say something to maintain "getting along," and then, when that got too exhausting, spilling into charged dialogues about mostly insignificant details or actions. Kind of sad stuff, but pretty common, isn't it?

Natalie writes:

When your chief concern is being validated by others, little do you realise how greatly that affects your actions because your focus isn’t living authentically – it’s trying to be what you think others want.

Had both of us been working from an internal locus that said "I'm inherently an excellent, lovable person right now," things would have been different. The mistakes we made would have been easier to work with, and differences of opinion or view easier to not only accept, but even, perhaps, embrace as a benefit to the relationship.

When it comes to something like a first date, though, these tendencies to want to get along, please, and be pleasant can be difficult to shrug off because to some degree, they are kind of expected.

The only thing that has really helped with break free of all of this is doing my best to drop off any expectations at all for a date. To just be in the experience, with the other person, and let things unfold as naturally as possible. Sometimes, that happens pretty well, other times, not so much.

How about you? Do you struggle with feelings of being "not good enough?" What have you done to work with them?

Monday, March 12, 2012


Confidence. In the dating world, it's one of the gold standards. Simply put, confident people are attractive. Sexy even.

However, it's fine line between confidence and arrogance. And furthermore, for those who are attached to how others view them, it doesn't take much to be thrown off into doubt and timidness.

People have told me before that I am a confident person, and to some degree, that's true. In recent years, I have been more direct and clear in my intimate relationships. For a good decade, I stood before classes of learners everyday and usually could talk or direct things so that learning occurred. In addition, I have been a leader in multiple non-profit communities, and have done a lot of social activist work, including lobbying legislative leaders.

At the same time, I have learned that such confidence can be fragile. Perhaps you have heard the kind of voices I sometimes hear. Like "You're not good enough" or "It will be really bad if you fail." Or maybe you're saying these things to yourself, but don't even hear it.

Whether you are still single and looking, or are in a relationship, it's important to pay attention to what you are telling yourself. Especially when you feel afraid, confused, or angry.

Simply developing an ability to hear undercutting self-talk lessens its power over you. Even if you still sometimes believe you aren't good enough, or that whatever mistake you made renders you a failure - just bringing those stories into a conscious place is a major step.

I think a lot of us have this idea that confident people rarely feel afraid, upset, or confused. That they sail through dates without worry, and have little trouble when they are in intimate relationships.

But all of that is simply a story. You don't have to be superhuman to be confident.

Just learn to see negative self talk for what it is: a story that doesn't serve you.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Chasing After Instant Chemistry is Foolish

Instant chemistry. The story goes that when you meet "the one," you'll have this explosion of attraction that will lead you down wedded bliss for the rest of your lives. Hollywood movies and television shows gush variations on this theme. Dating advice columnists build manifestos on it. Teenagers dream about it as they begin dating, and even through the challenges and hardships, carry pieces of that narrative with them far into adulthood.

There's much to pick apart in the story, but for today I'll just focus on the chemistry thing. The following is from a blogger who has been posting her online dating experience stories. She writes:

It was going on two hours and we decided to call it a night. I was disappointed in myself because I couldn’t see anything wrong with Kevin, but for some reason again, I wasn’t interested. I didn’t find that chemistry—that elusive instant chemistry—that I’ve been looking for.

When I read this, I felt a twinge of sadness. Because in my experience, instant chemistry has almost always been a lie. The times I have had that flash-bang chemistry, that I gotta screw your brains out and never leave your side kind of thing, have been crash and burn events. A few weeks or a month of hotness, followed by the realization that we had little in common. Or our values were wildly different.

With every woman I have dated for a longer period of time, including those I ended up having long term relationships with, there was a more gradual build up. Which is not to say that it began with nothing. Some connection was there right away, but the level of that connection to time to uncover. Took shared experience to see whether it was fleeting or something deeper.

Here's the thing about chemistry. Unless you know someone from a different context (friendship, co-worker, etc.), you are meeting a total stranger. You tend to know next to nothing about them, and so whatever is pulling you towards them is unclear, unexamined, and untested. You have no idea if what you experience on the first date is their true selves or some mask they have developed to weather the dating storm. You don't know how this person will react when the inevitable stresses/conflicts of a relationship occur. You don't even know if they will want anything more than a hot night or two of sex.

Seriously, believing that instant chemistry is the main ingredient of your dating dish is delusional. Painfully delusional. It's as if people have this idea that everything will just fall into place right away, which doesn't happen even between couples that experienced that kind of chemistry in the beginning.

In fact, I would argue that the worst aspect of the story is the ways in which it lies to us after you meet someone. The challenges of learning each others' way in the world are either diminished, or considered signs that things aren't working out. The natural, and needed, growth that comes from working through conflict together is left out entirely. And the pressure for everything to be fucking fantastic all the time is heightened. Which is tragic, given how nothing is always fantastic, not even the most wonderful, fulfilling relationship.

It's time to shed these lies. They aren't serving anyone, and they don't lead to lasting love.