Popular Posts

31 October, 2009

Hold the Line

After talking with my compatriot over at WrongBot, I have come to the conclusion that, no, I didn't just miss that day in middle school: I'm not the only one who's never had a word of advice on how to draw emotional boundaries or even, now that I think about it, on what emotional boundaries are. I want to spend a moment on that topic before my next post.

This might be a little tricky, since I've only become consciously aware of this phenomenon in recent years, and by its very nature, it's not something that gets tested often in my life. I've tried to find some papers defining the terms more neatly, but I don't know the jargon I'd need to put into the search field. What I mean to describe with the term "emotional boundaries" is the ability to regulate one's own emotions such that one's emotional state does or doesn't depend on emotional input from another person. If you have a mentor whose every word you hang on and she makes an off-hand comment derogating the essay you just wrote, does it wring your heart out or do you incorporate her criticism and move on? If you have a lover who doesn't make that last moment of physical contact before you part, do you spend the rest of the night unsatisfied? (Oh, curse that dopaminergic system!) I submit that it is a laudable goal to become emotionally self-contained to some degree; but, at the same time, opening oneself to emotional input from someone trustworthy can improve the depth of one's emotional experience. Is it possible to have the highs without the lows? I actually don't know; I simply try not to make myself vulnerable to anyone unless I think she'll treat me right.

In a romantic relationship, there's a huge range of feeling possible. If you had a crush on someone in middle school, you probably remember the heart-crushing emotions surrounding that person's thought and behavior: did she feel the same? Did she even know you liked her? Did she even know your name? I remember the first time I asked someone out, which was also the first time anyone turned me down. I'd spent weeks working up the nerve, and afterward, I felt destroyed. I thought I'd be happy with that person, and without her, somehow I couldn't be. In hindsight, the whole debacle following that encounter is horribly embarrassing, but it serves as a useful contrast to later experiences.

Later on, with Alma (hooo, I'd almost forgotten that I was trying not to drop real names into the ol' search engine soup!), the experience was different ... but only because we were both desperately in love. I use that adverb purposefully. If either one of us had had a change of heart back then, the other would have felt horrible emotional damage; we depended on each other, rather than on ourselves, to provide an emotional foundation. I think that he grew out of that stage a little before I did, but in the beginning, we trusted each other to deliver emotional gratification to such a degree that, if we hadn't both been engaged in the project, it would have been right to call our behavior insane. Perhaps some of you have experienced this.

Then, with Zoe, it began similarly. I was effectively single, at least while at college, and when someone promising came along and actually seemed to be working out, it was just days before the walls came down. When I say "walls", I mean my emotional permeability. Normally, if I meet some random person, I'm influenced by the expression of their emotions; I do pick up moods from other people, and if I have to deal with someone unpleasant, it upsets me. That's totally normal; one sees the same phenomenon in other primates, and some of the neural systems involved have been described in an impressive level of detail. The mirror neuron system is a part of the brain that fires along certain patterns when you perform an action - lifting a glass of water, for instance - and fires in the same way when you see someone else perform the same action. It's a powerful, and relatively new, line of research, but it's born incredible fruit. People are pursuing it as an explanation for learning, for empathy ... so, you can see how it would be relevant to the subject of picking up on others' emotions.

In a close romantic relationship (and any emotionally intimate relationship, really), there's even more at stake. The emotions that you feel might be triggered by any number of things, but they happen in you. They come from you, no matter what external reason you have for feeling them. It's easy to forget that, though, and even while remembering it, someone to whom one is emotionally anchored can shake one's emotions. In a relationship with a powerful, intimate emotional link and little or no oversight of that link - hey, you remember middle school - one's partner can cause catastrophic pain even through an accidental phrase or expression. That's why these boundaries matter. If we let ourselves open our emotional control boards to the wrong people, it can be deadly.

Oh - and, happy Hallowe'en! Say hi to the dead folks for me.

26 October, 2009

Emotional Gerrymandering

One of the big questions about how to manage nonmonogamous relationships is the question of where to draw the lines of intimacy and of commitment.1 Now that I think about it, that's a question I haven't really answered before this year - at least, not in a satisfactory manner. Even in terms of monogamous relationships, no-one ever gave me a single word of advice on how to do this. Maybe other people got this in a talk from their parents or something; I feel as though it should be taught on day one of middle school. I am the kind of person who wants to break everything down to its basic parts, but still, it's possible that what follows will read like remedial math to the emotionally competent among you.

Nevertheless, it's a question that can make or break your life. In romance, where does one draw emotional boundaries? (EDIT: see this entry for discussion of what I mean by that term.)

I can't speak for other people (although I'm curious to hear whether you've ever noticed this) but I've observed that I unconsciously sequester parts of my emotional response. I don't get the impression that I can consciously fall in or out of love with someone, but after spending a year with (primarily) one solid, longterm lover, when I started seeing another, I realized that I was guarding a part of my emotional response. I was somehow holding myself back from the crazy, precipitous "Oh god love" reaction that I get when I'm not dating anyone and strike up a promising new attachment (whether it's healthy or not!). After giving it a little thought, though, I realized that guarding myself wasn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it might be of critical importance. I do love my friends, but I don't need to worry as much about whether we're going to live in the same city. That long-term relationship receives (and deserves) some consideration when The Future is on the table, but not every friendly hook-up needs to have that kind of importance. I don't draw a sharp line between friends and lovers, though, which means that there's a no-man's land for people to fall in before they're clearly central to my life - and I don't like to leave people in the lurch!

The Lurch

When any relationship starts to grow more central to one's life, it's important to figure out how central it is. For someone who's already in at least one serious, long-term romantic relationship, the issue is doubly complex: how does one manage one's time, and just as importantly, one's attention and emotional energy, between those relationships?


When people go head-over-heels, whatever that metaphor is supposed to denote, their boundaries fall and they leave themselves emotionally vulnerable in an almost insane way. If one of them pulls out, the other can collapse completely; a broken heart is nothing to laugh at. If they stay together, the consequences are even greater. They'll end up relying on each other through hard times (read: you'll end up having to support this person through Hell and back), they'll share the best and worst of your lives (read: you'll have to sit back when they have moments of triumph and listen to them bitch when they don't), and they'll share the mundane, as well (read: do the dishes). In other words, when relationships become committed, they're serious business. Of course, with the right people, they're also completely worth it.

When you meet someone new, though, it's hard to predict how the romance will develop. If you open your heart to every you meet, eventually you're going to get stabbed. It's worth taking care to hold back, sometimes - but if you want the joy of a deeper connection, eventually you have to erase the lines you've drawn. So ... where and how do those lines develop?


Conflicting expectations can really mess up a good thing. It's been said before and it'll need to be said again, but a kiss (or a touch, or a word) means something different to everyone. "What did last night mean to you?" is kind of an awkward question, though. You might actually get more mileage out of, "What are you looking for?"

It's worth getting your goals out on the table. It might also be a more tactful way to open a conversation about how each person involved views physical and emotional intimacy, which is a conversation that needs to happen. Put it up front, too. By making what each party wants clear from the beginning, one might be able to avoid heartache later on. If one person is looking to jump into a lifelong relationship with a picket fence at the end of the rainbow but the other just wants a friend to spend nights with, you know that neither one of you is going to end up happy in that relationship.

It's worth questioning your own expectations, as well. First off, you'll need to know what you want if you're asking someone else the same. I know that's not always an easy question to answer. It's worth doing more than that, though, especially if you're going to be involved with multiple partners. Framing one's own expectations about a relationship can completely shift the direction it takes. Personally, I have a rough time holding back from slapping definitions on new relationships, but it might be worth doing. Or, at least, consider this: it may be easier to draw a line and later invite someone to cross it than to leap in completely and then ask someone to step back. I'm not talking about nominal definitions so much as behavioral definitions, by the way. Because expectations vary, it might not be as useful to say, "I'm your boyfriend and you're my girlfriend" as to say, "We'll spend time together whenever we can, we'll kiss, we'll sleep together, and I need to have time on the weekends to see my lover from out of town."

It just goes to show that it don't come easy. However, as snowmobiling Ringo Starr will tell you, "Use a little love, and we will make it work out better."

(On reflection, that song's verses are full of innuendo. He don't come easy, but we can open up our hearts and come together. It's here within your reach, if you're big enough to take it. Awesome.)

That Good Ol' Noun Again

What, you mean "communication"? Why would that word appear in an article on nonmonogamous relationships?

Everything written here is predicated on the idea that one is communicating with one's partners, and with oneself. I work to know what I want. I work to know what I require. I work to know whether my partners know, and so on - you get the idea, but I, at least, still need a reminder now and then. It really is key, though, to get the nerve up to answer straightforward questions like, "What would it mean to you, emotionally, if we were having sex?" or "Under what circumstances would you be open to a new relationship of the kind I want?" Think of it as part of the flirtation - you're getting to know each other.

I still haven't really answered the question I posed at the beginning: where and how should one draw emotional boundaries?

One of the biggest factors is something I can't speak to, gentle reader: your own goals. What do you want? Can this person provide it? If there is a heuristic for emotional boundaries, it might be to keep them solid until you at least know whether the person you're seeing can actually meet your wants. It's possible to get to know each other, enjoy each other, explore, but hold back on lowering the last walls until you both want to take the next step. If you're speaking clearly and making your minds clear to each other, you'll probably be able to tell.

I do want to throw out one piece of actual advice. If you - or the person you're seeing - has one or more other partners already, hedge up your emotional boundaries as you enter the new relationship. Slow yourself down. Spend time together among your friends, talk or write - you have a topic, the relationship itself, that I'd bet is hard to exhaust - and watch the emotions develop. I really am of the opinion that a dyad in a social vacuum is one of the least healthy relationship models, especially if the people in that dyad are also part of other romantic pairings or groups. Put yourself and your new lover together in your normal social environment, and let the relationship take a little time to root there. If it continues to blossom, that might be when it's time to allow the boundaries to slip.

Ok, so this isn't loving with wild abandon, throwing caution to the wind and gambling everything for love. So what? It's happiness, and that's awesome. If you know what you want and don't let yourself form an attachment to someone who's going in a completely different direction, you should be fine (unless you want your heart broken!). Know your emotions. Communicate with yourself. If you and your fuck buddy are falling in love, go for it; if one of you isn't, pull back before it gets ugly. Is it simple? Not in the real world. But reminding yourself to think might be the best tool you have.

So hey guys, what of the above is totally incorrect, flies in the face of all you hold dear, and will send newbies spinning into a hideous cycle of pain and violence? I know next to nothing about emotional experiences of this type other than the ones I've experienced firsthand, so rock out a comment or two. That's all for this time. Next time I get around to posting, I think it'll be on nonmonogamy and community.

1 I'm steering slowly away from the term "polyamory" because polyamory is specific to longterm, loving relationships and, in many peoples' definitions, doesn't cover a lot of gray area between "poly" and "swinger". I submit that we need a term other than "polyamorous relationships" to describe, as a category, ethically conducted relationships that aren't monogamous. I further submit that this new term be "awesome relationships".

07 October, 2009

American Tail

America has a bizarre relationship with sex. Our colonial ancestors shipped over here after the Great Reformation and during the Counter-Reformation, the period during which the confession became a more important part of daily life and sexuality became a more important element of sin.1 The Mayflower contingent were protestants of an unusually ascetic stripe (rumor has it that the first man to carry my family name here moved to what would later be Connecticut just to get away from those nuts!), but they were protestants, and so is a central factor in U.S. culture. We've been host to a couple of "Great Awakenings", not to mention some sexual revolutions.It's well known (pdf) that states voting for conservative Presidential candidates tend to have more online porn subscriptions, and according to the New Scientist report on that article, "Residents of 27 states that passed laws banning gay marriages boasted 11% more porn subscribers than states that don't explicitly restrict gay marriage." Hot damn, kids. What's the haps?

So, there are a couple of major trends in U.S. culture that seem relevant. I've tipped my hand a little here (I'm crap at poker); the first is Protestantism. The Reformation took Christianity and cut out the middleman, emphasizing an individual relationship between God and each worshiper. As I remember vividly from Durkheim's Suicide, which I read for an otherwise tragic sociology class, predominately Catholic regions have lower suicide rates than predominately Protestant regions; Durkheim's analysis led him to conclude that one of the main factors was not the religion itself but the greater individuation in Protestant nations. That item has stuck in my mind, and when I started to consider this issue, the individualism in the U.S., owing to the Protestant culture that informed its founders, struck me as a critical component of the American Sex Paradox (wouldn't that be a GNFARB?)
The emphasis that the U.S. places on individual rights and self-determination has lead us to a number of advances; we weren't the first country to enfranchise women as voters, but we were by no means far behind the curve. I'd say the sweet spot for that advancement was around 1910 - 1920, and we just made that range. We've also had some time periods with striking upsurges in our emphasis on self-determination: our colonial days are often seen in those terms, the "Roaring Twenties" were filled with hedonic self-interest, including Virginia Woolf's poly sister, and everyone remembers the Sixties (except the people who were there). But what of the floor show? Crap, wrong movie -- I mean, but what of the Puritans?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, our friendly neighborhood Puritans were off fervently cutting holes in sheets. I'd like to imagine that, since they hailed from the UK, they had a little time to pick up on the confessional culture before heading over. The church joined back up with Catholicism for a brief period between Henry and Elizabeth, and confession to an intermediate priest is in practice today. Likewise, there's apparently some practice among Protestants of personal confessions to God, and I somehow can't imagine the Puritans missing out on a chance to count their sins. The important element here is that, with the emphasis on confession and on confession of sexual acts and thoughts, specifically, people ruminated more on their sexual failings (where, in this context, winning is failure) and internalized guilt over their naughty, naughty actions.

Now, take a peek at contemporary U.S. sexuality (Oh, close the curtains!). We're downloading porn left and right, it's almost impossible to be a pop star without being attractive (at least, if you're a woman it's impossible), there are strip joints all across the nation, and on every corner there are GODLESS HOMOS faggin' up the joint (and of all these, which is bemoaned?).2 Wow. God bless America, but despite all this interest in hardcore patriot-on-patriot action, we still have some kinks to work out. It's easy to see the resistance show up if one looks at political discussions of, say, pornography, sex work, and the like, but remember that someone voted for those old white dudes. In fact, a whole lot of someones ... someones who subscribe to more online porn than the someones who voted for the Dems who kind of keep quiet and try to pretend they weren't in that free love commune back in '68. (I do sometimes wonder whether the red state pr0n phenom only tells us that Republican voters are less likely to hit the /rs/ board on 4chan.) And let's not forget Twilight.

Oh, Twilight: in which an entire series of books is fueled by sexual tension, as the protagonist cannot shag her undead beau for fear that the sex will literally kill her. He spends hundreds of pages warning her; she, similar hundreds trying to get in his pants anyway. That's right, kids. Sex is death. But let's not forget how fun it is!

Similarly, if you are or have ever fucked a kinky person (please, give it a try!), you've probably heard someone ask to be "used" or "punished". That's a story that captures my imagination. Some quite consciously, explicitly, get off on being punished for their sexual transgressions. Some folk enjoy the thought that they're being used for sex - that the other person (or people, if you're awesome like me) is (are) using his or her body for sexual pleasure, as if anyone with the right holes would do. My thought, of course, is that this is a manifestation of the Great American Sex Paradox. Sex is no good ... but if someone else is just taking over your body and using it (how many people have a rape fantasy? Answer: lots.), then you can relax! Likewise with the punishment: how great is it to get your sin and your punishment wrapped up in one package? Think of the time you'll save! Yes, I realize how silly that might sound, but remember that we're dealing with emotions. Emotions don't stop to ask whether they make sense, they just hang out and motivate behavior.

Beside that, there's the simple reality of kink acquisition (see Holloway, Cornil & Balthazart's "Effects of central administration of naloxone during the extinction of appetitive sexual responses"). Once a connection between some arbitrary stimulus (say, high-heeled stripper boots or spanking) and sexual reward is established, according to folks like our man Holloway, it's practically impossible to extinguish that association. When the previously arbitrary stimulus appears, one gets turned on. Obviously, humans are as complex as can be, and the way in which those kinks get established is, I imagine, more complex than it is for lab animals. Nevertheless, the point of the unkillable association stands. If something becomes part of one's sexual experience, it will probably continue to be a turn-on (though not a necessary element for enjoyment).

So, the hypothesis here is that there's a trend among U.S. citizens to establish an emotional link between sex and guilt (or the feelings of breaking rules and needing punishment or an excuse). That's right, lads and lasses, to excuse our naughty behavior we've created a delightful cycle. We think about sex, and that makes us feel guilt; the guilt turns us on, so we think about sex, so we feel guilty, so eventually you just have to shag the preacher! One nation under God, baby. Or under Edward Cullen, evidently. Sex is death; therefore death is sexy.
There are open questions, though, even if this analysis is on the right track. Fro Instance: does framing sex in terms of punishment or being used allow one to enjoy what would otherwise just make one feel sinful, or does the guilt itself serve as a source of pleasure? The answer might depend on the mechanism of sexual conditioning, if that explanation has merit; and one could actually test to see whether the answer predicted by sexual conditioning theory (if that's a term) is the result we see in real live sexy people. OHO! That's right, everyone: sure, this hypothesis is thrown together from the odds and sods of half a dozen liberal arts classes and a few tipsy nights in bed with the right people, but we can still do science to it!

1The line of thinking I'll pursue here owes a lot to Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, a great read. Pick it up sometime; it's great stuff. I wanted to smack him until I started to agree with him.

2Being an atheist who's pressed his hetero self as far as Kinsey'll let him, I hope you understand me when I insist that some of my best friends are godless homos. Let freedom ring, baby.