Romantic Jealousy: Causes, Symptoms, Cures

I just flew through another long-awaited read: Romantic Jealousy: Causes, Symptoms, Cures by Ayala Malach Pines.

Up until this point, I had adapted Kathy Labriola’s definitions of envy and jealousy. According to Labriola, jealousy is when you want to take something away from someone (“I don’t want you to have fun with your other partner”) and envy is when you don’t want to take something away, but you wish you had it too (“I am glad you get to have fun with your other partner, and I wish I could go have fun with someone, too). In contrast, Pines offers these more psychological research-based definitions:

-Envy: a dyadic emotional experience, in which you want something that someone else has, and you don’t want them to have that thing.

-Jealousy: a triadic emotional experience, in which a third individual poses a threat to a valued intimate relationship that you have with someone else.

I like the definition Pines offers for jealousy, because I think the feelings of threat are basically what jealousy comes down to. These threatened feelings can, and I think often do, have deeper roots in insecurities and fears.

One really fascinating thing to me that she mentions is the idea of dispositional versus situational jealousy:

Dispositional jealousy = “I am a jealous person.” Or “I am not a jealous person.”

Situational jealousy = “When I experience X I feel jealous.”

In her research, she found individuals who identify as a jealous person and individuals who do not identify as a jealous person have similar levels and expressions of jealousy; both groups experience jealousy and have similar reactions to similar situations. However, people who did not identify as jealous people had better coping skills than those who identified as jealous. Lesson: Shifting your framework from a dispositional one to a situational one can empower you to find workable solutions to managing and diminishing your jealousy.
Pines discusses five different approaches to understanding jealousy, and integrates them to make a more holistic approach:

-The psychodynamic approach: Freud’s theory postulates that jealousy is universal, and stems from childhood experiences. In order to “cure” jealousy, this approach says that you need to go through individual psychotherapy and delve into your Oedipal/Electra complex.

-The systems approach: This model sees jealousy as stemming from relationship dynamics. Individuals may be predisposed to feeling jealousy, but ultimately, it is the partners involved and relationship structure and situations that bring out jealousy. Thus, addressing jealousy means involving all romantic partners involved through couples counseling and couples-based solutions.

-Behavioral and Cognitive Behavioral approach: The behavioral framework views jealousy as just another learned, not innate, behavior; therefore, jealousy can be unlearned. One of the most common therapeutic techniques is Rational Emotive Therapy.

-Social-psychological approach: The social-psychological model views jealousy as a consequence of our culture. Cultural norms define the expression of jealousy- what kinds of situations are appropriate to feel jealousy about, and how to express it.

-Socio-biological/evolutionary approach: Popularized by Buss, this approach sees jealousy as an innate characteristic, bred into our genes through natural selection. Following this approach is the idea that men and women experience jealousy differently- men tend to feel jealous about sexual infidelity, while women tend to feel jealous about emotional infidelity. 
Pines integrates these approaches into a model of concentric circles, and sees these seemingly contradictory approaches as more complementary than anything else. An individual may be predisposed to feel jealousy as a result of their childhood and family experiences and dynamics, and may also tend to experience jealousy more strongly tied to sexual or emotional infidelity depending on their sex and gender role. Also, depending on the larger culture and social norms this individual grows up, this person is taught by media, religion, and other authority figures when jealousy expression is encouraged, accepted, and supported. The individual thus learns how to think about, feel about, and express jealousy from family and culture. Within a particular relationship with a particular partner this individual may experience and express jealousy more strongly, and within a different relationship with a different partner this same individual may have a very different experience of jealousy. Thus, Pines sees all of these approaches working together to explain why people experience jealousy.

Here is me as an example, in a nutshell, following Pines integrated framework:

I grew up with a mom that expressed jealousy- it was acceptable to her to say jealous-informed things about my dad’s ex-girlfriends. I also, for whatever reason, developed an anxious-attachment style- I alwaysthought my parents would divorce when they had a fight, and I was fearful of being abandoned (a pattern which has followed me in all of my intimate relationships, platonic and romantic, through childhood and early adulthood). I grew up in American culture, inundated by media messages that said that being jealous about romantic partners was perfectly normal, monogamy is the norm, you can only romantically love one person at a time, and this love entitles you to exert quite a bit of control and power over this person. According to the socio-biological approach, because I am a woman, I am also predisposed to feel more jealous over emotional infidelity; honestly, I don’t know what I am more threatened by- emotional or sexual infidelity (or in the case of my open relationship, between emotional and sexual intimacy). Most of all, I am threatened by the combination of the two (which I call romantic intimacy); one or the other is somewhat difficult, but not like the jealousy I experience when both intimacies are present. I know that my relationship structure means that I have to work through jealousy head-on because of the constant possibility and existence of a “third” (someone J is involved with), but I also have a much deeper self-awareness than when we were monogamous. When J and I were monogamous (and in my previous monogamous relationships), I experienced jealousy at the more extreme levels (getting jealous over an attractive woman working out near J in the gym, knowing that an ex-boyfriend enjoyed having close friendships with girls, etc.). Even though I now experience jealousy more frequently, and still intensely at times, I have a much larger arsenal of coping skills and a much better handle on the underlying reasons for my jealousy. In my experience, I clearly learned what situations were supposed to be jealousy inducing and learned how to express jealousy, and I have also clearly done a lot of work to unlearn those pathways and create new ones.

Coping skills that Pines offers include those informed by the different approaches described above (there are others she discusses, but these are the ones I found noteworthy):

-“Jealousy as the Shadow of Love”: this is an exercise basically asking the individual to reflect on and connect childhood experiences with adult jealousy.
-Role-reversal exercises: thinking and trying to truly understand how your partner feels; acting like one another (so the person experiencing jealousy acts like they aren’t and the person not experiencing jealousy acts like they are) to provide understanding and compassion; writing a defense from your partner’s point of view
-Desensitization: create a list of triggering situations, imagine the least triggering situation while going through relaxation exercises, with the intent of being able to use relaxation coping to manage triggering situations (somewhat like the phobia model)
-Rational Emotive Therapy: a widely used cognitive-behavioral technique. I have mentioned RET on here before because I first used it to rework some of my negative body image thought processes. RET follows a standard formula to challenge deeply held, often irrational, beliefs. I think it is quite effective, and I find it even more awesome that the creator, Albert Ellis, also was skeptical of monogamy [“The creator of rational-emotive therapy, Albert Ellis (1962/1996), has a similar criticism of monogamy, which, in his opinion, not only ‘directly encourages the development of intense jealousy, but also by falsely assuming that men and women can love only one member of the other sex at a time, and can only be sexually attracted to that one person, indirectly sows the seeds for even more violent displays of jealousy.'” (p155)]
-Physiologically Monitored Implosion Therapy (PMIT): this is basically a flooding therapy technique, and should be done with an experienced therapist. Basically, you identify the most triggering aspects of a situation making you jealous. You record yourself describing in great detail the situation, and then listen to this recording every day until it no longer causes pain, but much milder emotions like boredom. The basic idea is to desensitize you to a triggering situation through flooding and constant exposure. Pines warns that this technique can be quite overwhelming and can backfire on the patient unless the therapist can provide the support the patient needs.
-Work on shifting from a dispositional to a situational attribution; this alone can empower you to choose coping skills that work for you.

In her chapter on managing jealousy in open relationship, Pines discusses open marriages, swingers, the polyfidelitous Kerista commune, and an open commune. It was interesting to read her observations and analysis of the different groups, especially since she doesn’t really account for people in open polyamorous relationships, in which romantic love with other partners is allowed. All of those she interviewed only had casual sex as options, or in the case of the Keristas, has non-hierarchical relationships within a closed group.

Reading this book was really enlightening for me on a couple different levels. As someone who has experienced a lot of jealousy, it was helpful to read about some other techniques I can use to cope with jealousy. It was also really helpful to read about the systems approach, and how relationship dynamics can highlight jealousy issues. Because Pines also wrote the book for therapists working with individuals and couples dealing with jealousy, it was a really awesome insight into the kind of work I’ll be doing over the next few years in my Couples & Family Therapy program. I really liked filling out the romantic jealousy questionnaire at the end of the book; it was enlightening for me to reflect on what kinds of situations make me feel jealous, and to what degree. This book reads a little bit like an accessible textbook, and so it might feel a little dry to some readers, but I appreciated all of her discussion about the different approaches and the chance to reflect on my experiences.

Compatibility and LTRs

How do you know if your long-term relationship is really what you want? How do you know if you and your partner are as compatible as you can get? How do you know when to stop looking?

My dear, long-time friend called me this past weekend, very upset, because she and her long-term boyfriend had had a fight. They have two recurring fights, and they are also going through major life transitions (ending grad school, moving together, trying to find jobs, etc.). All of that alone is enough to make two people go a little bananas (I can attest to that, too). Add in some recurring fights, that never seem to resolve satisfactorily, and you’re bound to feel at least a little upset, depressed, frustrated, and unsure about yourself and your relationship.

My friend told me: Sometimes I just don’t know if this is the right choice for me. I’ve only ever been with him. I don’t have anything to compare my relationship with him to. I don’t know if we’re just trying to force two puzzle pieces together when we shouldn’t be. How do you know if you are as happy as you can be? What if there is a better fit for me somewhere else? How do you know? What if I just wonder my whole life if I settled for this?

When J and I started dating, he and I had a handful of pretty heated conversations in which he asked me those same questions: How do you know when to stop looking for a better fit, a better partner, someone with whom you are even more happy?

My response then, and my response now, was: if you are happy now, you should keep doing what you’re doing. If you’re not happy, then change something.

(Looking back on these conversations, J and I see what was going on: I was threatened hearing him question his happiness with me, and he was freaking out about a potential lifelong monogamous relationship starting, for him, at age 17.)

I listened to my dear friend and offered emotional support. The things I didn’t tell her on the phone, but wanted to (she wasn’t really calling for advice):

You and your boyfriend have been together since high school; you are both each other’s only romantic partner ever. You both deserve the chance to meet, get to know, and discover other people to have the knowledge about what kinds of people you are compatible with. I don’t know if this means that you two would have to break up in order to go through this discovery process; ideally, you could do it together. But wondering your whole life if you just “settled” sounds crappy. You need to make a choice: choose to focus on the positive aspects of your relationship and go with it, or negotiate a change with your partner. In my experience, relationship satisfaction goes way, way up once you have a more solid idea that the partner you are with is someone you are highly compatible with (and if you discover you aren’t as compatible as you thought you were, then you can make a choice about who you want to be with a in long-term relationship). If you are happy, genuinely happy, for the most part in your relationship, and if the crummy times are worth all of the happy times, then stick with it. Count yourself lucky that you created such an awesome relationship so early in your life. Be open to change and to the ever-changing dynamics of your partner and your relationship. Welcome change and be open to negotiation so that your relationship and love can be open your changing needs and desires as you grow together.

Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex

I am finally trying to get through a bunch of sexy books I bought over a year ago- I just finished one. And loved it (for the most part).

Sallie Tisdsale’s Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex is engaging, informative, and thought-provoking. It was published in the early 90s, and some of what is in there is a bit dated, but a lot of her philosophizing on gender, sexuality, orgasm, sex, and love still applies. I bookmarked so many pages because her poetic words captured feelings of my own. (The parts I didn’t love as much were sentences here and there that I found surprisingly gendered- sort of a men-are-from-mars-women-are-from-venus sentiments. Otherwise, it was a solid read!) I also really enjoyed the parts about the intersection between law and politics and sexuality (porn, prostitution, medical laws surrounding transgender surgery, religious influences, etc.).

The book is separated into four chunks, each with a few different essays on different topics: Desire (discussions of sex, the myth of Adam and Eve, sexual orientation), Arousal (discussions of porn, prostitution), Climax (discussions of erotica, orgasm), and Resolution (discussion of breaking taboos, BDSM, transsexuals and transgenders).

I bolded my favorite parts of quotes (sorry for how many there are!! can’t help myself). Some I added explanation to, while many I let stand on their own.

Favorites from Desire

One of her opening quotes that I loved:
“Sex is, truly, not important– that is, something we can cease worrying about- only to the extent that we look at sex and see it for what it really is, and nothing more” (p6).

“Now I can see I’d lost my virginity- and lost is not the right word at all, because I never went looking for it again– years before that, when someone or other had touched me in a way so pleasurable, I couldn’t wait to be touched that way again. Sex begins, for each of us, when we feel as though we’d gone through a door and won’t be going back. Don’t want to go back” (p 34).
I love that line: “because I never went looking for it again.” I’ve thought before about defining virginity as somehow “lost” or “gone” once one goes through puberty. Her description (“when we feel as though we’d gone through a door and won’t be going back”) feels accurate for me.

I think I have, too, been seduced by the idea of same-sex sex, under the idea that this other woman will be just like me and know exactly what I want. What a silly idea.
“I have at various times in my life been seduced by homosexuality, by the very idea of it, to the same degree and with a similar sexual charge. I want its possibilities, its infinite variations on a theme. Women I recognize; they are the familiar, the known, different patterns cut from one fabric. One and one combined into more than two, additive rather than diminutive. The fantasy of homosexuality isn’t about being completed; it’s about being increased. And this is as much fiction as reality, too” (p 66).

“All relations spark with conflict from the movement toward anyone outside ourselves, since all others are inevitably apart from us, separate, ultimately unknowable. For all the ease in female friendships, my romantic and sexual attractions, my romantic and sexual attractions toward women have never felt safe or bland or controlled. They are just as risky and terrifying and pregnant with possibility as any involvement with men” (p 67-8).

“We are all in search of balance, and evening out of things, and whether we seek in our lover the ‘other’ that is missing or the ‘self’ that we recognize, it is our selves with which we are stuck” (p70).

“I believe most people are bisexual to varying extents. This seems so obvious as to sound mundane…I believe we are all penetrable, we can all penetrate, we can all be top, bottom, masculine, feminine, up and down…When we describe what attracts us, we are usually thinking too narrowly, and forgetting where our loyalties in fact lie, who our lovers really are and what they look like and how little that matters.
The range should not be zero through six [referring to the Kinsey scale], but zero through six hundred, or six thousand…Perhaps there is one sexuality for each of us…” (p 76).
I think perhaps so!! One sexuality for each person. 🙂

“The more I watched pornography, the more layers peeled off my experience of lust, one layer after the other, because I didn’t always like my response. When something dark and forbidden emerges, I resist still. My body is sometimes provoked by what my mind reproves” (p 97).

Favorites from Arousal

“Even when I’m not bashful in the act of purchase [of porn], I’m bashful watching. I can feel that way with friends, with my lover of many years, and I can feel that way alone. Suddenly I need to shift position, avert my eyes. Sex awakens my unconscious; pornography gives it a face. Bashful is not a bad thing, either; I’m repeatedly reminded this way that sex holds, perpetually, a special place” (p 133).

I think her views on porn and anti-porn feminists are fascinating (she is very pro-porn):
“There is so much wrong with traditional pornography. It just plain disgusts me sometimes, with its juvenile assumptions, boring repetition, lack of depth. But as much as what is wrong with porn, I see what is right: In porn, sex is separated magically from reproduction, marriage, and the heterosexual couple, all of which most feminists would argue have been oppressive to women….
Women like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworking have allied themselves with a political camp that is also against reproductive choice, gay rights, and gender equality. Dworkin’s lurid antisex prose reads like arty dime-store pulp to me. She looks down on me and shakes her finger: Bad girl. Mustn’t touch. I’ve heard those words too many times before” (p 157-8).

I loved her essay on prostitution and sex work. She interviewed Samantha Miller, one of the co-directors of COYOTE (Call Off Your Tired Old Ethics, the oldest organization in the US for prostitutes and sex workers), and I love this passage:
” ” ‘Doing sex work is damaging,’ people say. ‘Giving all those blowjobs is damaging, it’s degrading.’ I think society’s attitude toward blowjobs it what’s degrading. Not the actual act,” says Samantha Miller. “My belief, and this is really a hard one for people to take, is that given economic equality for women-all things equal- there would still be women who would choose to do sex work, to call themselves prostitutes, to sell sex for money, however you want to say it.” ” (p 173)

She also interviews a young woman, Alex, who paid her way through college by being a prostitute. Alex’s points are right on:
” “To me, feminism is about choices for women, period…
I went to school with upper-middle-class self-identified feminist women who would argue with me in class about how prostitution contributed to the oppression of all women and how by participating in sex work I was furthering the oppression of women. Here I was, the only working-class kid in this whole classroom of upper-middle-class kids, and they were all going to tell me how horrible sex work was and how it was against feminism, and blah-blah. And it was, like, ‘Fuck you! Mommy and Daddy are paying for everything. I have nothing. Don’t you dare tell me what I can and can’t do.’ ” ” (p183).

“Say ‘sex work’ to almost anyone outside the industry, and that person will hear the word ‘sex’; ‘work’ is a distant and seemingly unimportant echo. To look at sex work as work first can turn every assumption on its head.” (p 195)
I love this point; rarely do people consider sex work as work because of the simple fact that sexual energy is involved. But the same issues involved in any other kind of work are involved in sex work- customers, colleagues, reputation, safety, skill, etc.

“The urge to romanticize the prostitute and her life is just like the urge to imagine her as infinitely sordid or as an inevitable victim- more about us than the whore. The whore scares us, the happy whore most of all, because she doesn’t need conventional rules to survive and thrive. She makes up her own” (p 204).

I love her description of her fantasies (too long to type and include here)- but it is so similar to my own. Just snapshots of different images, without any real storyline or plot:
“Some images, which have gotten so fragmentary they hardly qualify as fantasy, are twisted and nasty, and some are postcard-romantic” (p 221).

“…dominance is really about cowardice and courage, our unwillingness and inability to let go completely for even a second, and our wish to be dominated by our wish. To have sexuality itself say to us: I know what you want, baby, and I’m going to give it to you” (p 222).
Mmm I just love this one. 

Favorites from Climax

“Penis envy is about something bigger, darker, more amorphous, more instructive than the body alone. We dress up in various symbolic ways to confuse and confound others into thinking we do have one after all, a real phallus- that is, power over others, potent and permanently erect… It’s [a penis] not as dangerous looking as a vagina, the most, dark cave out of which new people come, into which goes appetite, appetite almost ceaseless” (p 238-9).

“Adam fell when Eve fed him. Sex is food, and food is sex. Hunger leads to sin, and one solution is to eat again…” (p 252).
I like this one because of my own behavior and emotional patterns around touch, sex, and food. I notice that when I am craving touch, and find it hard to get, I overeat. I look for food to satisfy the desire for touch. Sex and touch and food are, somehow, intimately intertwined in my brain.

“Young [Wayland Young, author of Eros Denied] dislikes saying one ‘has sex’ because of the obscure and evasive meaning of ‘have.’ To have something is to possess it, and a sexual relationship is a kind of possession. It means possessing moments in time that are unique, irreducible, unrepeatable. It means having had a share of another’s surrender…To ‘have’ something is a passive state, static, and experience of being rather than doing. To fuck is to do…” (p 256).
I love the word “fuck.” So good.

“I catch myself talking about safe sex now and then, glibly, as though it had no psychic meaning. But for all the simplicity of latex, for all that protecting ourselves from sexually transmitted diseases is largely a matter of a few moments of forethought, there is a great price required. In the depth of sexual passion the skin of the other has the quality of treasure; the mundane secretions our bodies make are honey, manna, light. To be cut off from each other’s fluids is a terrible thing; our fluids are meant to mingle, we long for this mingling that is both so outrageous and so pure” (p 279-80).
When I first read this, I recoiled a little- a mixture of both my public health background and my own personal insecurities around giving up fluid-bonding as a measure of primacy in my own relationship (at some point, I am sure either J or I or both will have sex without condoms with another person, and I have come to recognize this as pretty inevitable. At one point in our open relationship, I used this fluid-bonding as a marker of our primary relationship, but it shouldn’t be. Our primary relationship is about life decisions and compatibility. And while safer sex is a big concern for both of us, when one of is seeing someone else long-term, I am sure it will come up as a desire for the people involved. And I am good with that.) And I think what Tisdale says is really accurate- there is a large part of my body and brain (and I’m sure for others as well) that craves the skin-on-skin, fluid-sharing part of sex. Also- the whole idea of “fluid-bonding” (at least in how I have approached it thus far in my open relationship) needs some improving. I have swallowed other men’s come, I have scissored with women, I have unprotected oral sex with men and women. There is fluid sharing there.

“Libido, to Freud, meant more than sexual energy, it mean energy, a life force, full of emotion. Reich took Freud’s theory of libido and expanded it: If individual sexual repression led to individual neurosis, then socialized sexual repression led to socialized neurosis. Sexually repressed cultures were violent cultures, despairing, tyrannical. Sexual freedom would lead naturally to socialism” (p 287). 

Favorites from Resolution

“When people complain about how ‘exploitive’ or ‘degrading’ something like a sex club is (having never been to one), they fail to acknowledge how terrible and exploitive marriage, monogamy, and the nuclear family can be for millions of people; how painful and harmful are traditional gender roles for many people; how downright dangerous heterosexual, patriarchal culture is for all women. If radical sexuality works, if sex clubs, underground magazines, anarchic sex shows, and safe-sex education do what they aim to do, then a falling away will happen. Yes, as is feared, a crumbling of boundaries: between male and female, feminine and masculine, top and bottom, gay and straight. The center will not hold” (p 325)
I love the shivery, revolutionary feeling of this. I believe in this. 

“An erotic reality would be one in which everyone is connected to us, where there is no moral distinction between friend, lover, and stranger. Erotic reality doesn’t mean promiscuity, though promiscuity might occur; nor does it mean celibacy, though certainly celibacy would exist. Both, and everything in between, would be equivalent acts. An erotic vision is one of engagement in the lives and experiences of other people, embracing them as they are, and living fearlessly” (p 333).
I think, too, inherent in this statement is the idea that romantic love is not put on a pedestal, and seen in relation to and balanced by the the love we feel for other people in our lives. Romantic love wouldn’t be for just one person, necessarily, and it wouldn’t be seen as “better” than any other, but just a different kind of love.

“There is peace in the chaos of sex, because it is one place we can find each other in ourselves and our selves in each other” (p 337).

And from her closing paragraph; this also makes me feel strong and confident and revolutionary to read it:
“My personal sexual revolution will come when I do what I really want to do sexually, don’t do what I don’t want to do, let others do what they want to do, with a whole heart. It’s not how mundane or exotic our behavior is, but how wholehearted we are that counts. I want to be the agent of sex. I want to own sex, as though I had a right it, as though sex belonged to me, to us all. Sexual freedom in my life means forgetting about sex because sex is so much a part of me as a healthy human animal that I can hardly see it at all anymore…” (p 338).

Looking for Group Sex

My next article on DA went live: “Looking for Group Sex?” It’s not my favorite post I have written for DA, but it’ll do. Specifically, I approached it more from a partnered perspective- a couple seeking a third and fourth. But I think there are probably of single people looking to have group sex as well. It made better sense and flow to use one perspective to write it, but I don’t want to ignore that population. I also didn’t want the post to be heteronormative, and I did my best to identify orientations (gender and sexual)- although there is room for improvement.

I am more excited about all of my upcoming posts for them: safer sex in open relationships, dirty talk, positive threesome experiences, when group sex isn’t fun, a description of our swingers’ club, and more. I will be blending more of my personal experiences in (or my personal experiences will be the primary focus of the post), and I feel really comfortable sharing things from my personal experience. I can easily speak from my point of view and share things that have been awesome and less awesome in my love and sexual life. I am excited!

I’ve been distracted from blogging by the Maui weather, but I have some posts coming up soon 🙂

Talking About Open Relationships

So as I have posted on here, I have been guest blogging for My rationale for doing so was mainly to reach a wider audience, and to reach people who perhaps hadn’t been exposed to open relationship ideas before. I was excited to also start some engaged conversations with readers.

Well, so far, the only “conversation” I have had so far is with someone who commented on my Monogamy versus Open Relationships post. A supposed Marriage & Family Therapy intern, he operates from a self-proclaimed and scornful position of “expertise.” There is no winning over this guy (even by concluding together that we believe a healthy relationship looks differently); he thinks he is right and I am wrong, and too young, stupid, and hormone-driven to even understand that. I have continued to engage with him, mainly to continue to provide my perspective for anyone who reads that post of mine and the comments.

But- how do you talk to people in your life about your relationship choice, when they simply believe that open relationships are “wrong”? I think it is similar to anything where a belief is so entrenched and black-and-white that you can’t have a conversation and dialogue- it becomes instead two heads talking (or yelling) just to hear themselves talk. There isn’t an exchange of information and ideas or a willingness to learn and grow, but simply an opportunity for each person to word vomit about everything they think is “right.”

For the record: I certainly think that monogamy can work for two people. I think the key is that it is a conscious choice for both people. I don’t think monogamy is “wrong.” I do think our society does us a disservice by making monogamy the default relationship structure. Instead, I think the default should be marked by clear and open communication; the structure of the relationship should follow from that.

What about when talking to people who are open-minded? My way of discussing relationship choice go along these lines:
-Speak from my personal experience. I know what is best for me, and that may not be best for you. But my personal experience is valid life experience, and I can share it with you.
-Talk about the experiences of those I am close with, and how I have had similar and different experiences than them. This includes long-time vanilla friends and sexy friends (never-partners, past partners, and current partners) that I find similarity and difference with- from our motivations for what kind of relationship we want; our specific needs, desires and wants; and the challenges and “easy” parts of the relationship structure we want.
-Reference books that articulately discuss relationship choice (Sex at Dawn, Opening Up, Love in Abundance, etc.)
-Validate the other person’s experiences, feelings, and desires. Even if they are vastly different from my own, they are valid. Tell the other person that they know what is best for them. Ask questions with curiosity and compassion. Empower through validation and support. Remember that even someone who hasn’t critically thought about their preferred relationship structure has valid experiences, feelings, and desires; in this instance, I would gently provide my perspective and some simple education. Leave the conversation open.

Mama’s Day

I have mentioned my mom a lot on this blog, because my relationship with her has greatly impacted my experiences around sex, love, and relationships. A lot of what I have written has been pretty angsty, and in honor of Mother’s Day, I wanted to write about her and my relationship to her in a bit more complex way.

My mom told me many things growing up, and implicitly taught me many things as well (about sex, love, and relationships):
-You have sex with someone you love and who loves you back.
-Don’t flip off people who drive past you and honk/catcall, because you don’t want to make them mad.
-I was like Persephone for wanting to have sex “so young”; I couldn’t wait for the underworld, so I just went rushing for it.
-How I look dictates how people treat me- my weight, my shape, my clothing choices, my hair, my makeup, my overall demeanor.
-Don’t be so serious about dating and relationships; just have fun.
-You should marry someone who is your best friend.
-If you are bi, you have to make a choice between having a relationship with a man or a woman. You can’t have both (at once).
-You have to “be sure” about your partner before you get married.
-Boys in high school are after “one thing.”
-Kids are too young in junior high to decide that they are LGBTQ.
-If she had had the family that I had, she would not have gotten married at 20.
-If she had had the family that I had, she would not have changed her name when she got married.
-I was beautiful and a babe and could do anything I wanted and succeed in whatever I wanted.
-You can’t trust men you don’t know: fathers of friends, men on the street, teachers, coaches, etc. You just don’t trust them.

There were so many mixed messages: don’t date seriously, but expect to meet your One and commit to them; you are smart and should do your own thing, but if you want people to like you then you need to always be pretty and presentable; you should never have an abusive or coercive relationship, but it’s your job to make sure that doesn’t happen.

My mom’s messages make a lot of sense to me, now that I am older and that I can see her as her own person with her own life before mine and with her own bag of challenges. Growing up in a rural, poor, and abusive home meant that she was so ready to leave, however that was possible. Being molested by her step-dad for years created an incessant fear of men that she didn’t know intimately. She met my dad at 19, married him at 20, and had me at 30. She went through her 20s not sure if she wanted kids, but heavily invested in her work. Once she decided that she wanted a couple of kids, she was determined to create a life for her kids that was clean, middle class, loving, peaceful, stable, and pure.

My sister and I became the symbol for the childhood she never had, and we had to look and act the part. Matching clothes every Christmas and other major Christian holiday, new school clothes in the fall, participating in band, swimming, softball, soccer. Things that we were not allowed to do reminded her too much of things she didn’t like about where she came from: we couldn’t be in Cheer because many of the cheerleaders she knew got pregnant young, we couldn’t go to the Rodeo so central to our town because it reminded her of crass and “icky” cowboys in her rural hometown, we couldn’t go to sleepovers because she didn’t know the fathers well enough. We had to look nice (freshly showered always, combed hair, matching clothes), but not “slutty” (fake nails and dyed hair were no-gos, as were tops that had low fronts or backs). We got to go on family vacations to the coast and to neighboring states. My parents wanted us to enjoy “culture”: plays and art and music and literature. It was a middle class upbringing, which is of course comfortable and pretty easy for a kid. But it was also heavy with an air of racing away from a dangerous, toxic past; my mom was so determined to not let the same things hurt my sister and I.

Intergenerational hurt is so interesting. I am thankful to my mom, because she shared with my sister and I her childhood trauma, she went through counseling, and she made a conscious decision to keep her family (including her mom and siblings) at a distance so that their toxic dynamics didn’t impact the relationship she had with us. Not talking about trauma gives it even more power, and I am grateful that she has talked about it. And so I know that the impact of her trauma is substantially less than if she hadn’t taken any measures to alleviate her pain. And yet, that trauma had a lasting legacy on my life- my body and sexuality were constantly scrutinized and controlled so that she felt I was safe, and my decision-making capabilities were stunted until I was able to leave home.

I love my mom, and even though most of my work in counseling has been to undo a lot of the messaging I got from her, I am so appreciative of who she is a person and where she has come from. Other messages that she was clear about, and that have had very positive effects on my life, include:
-Education is important. Never stop learning.
-Take care of yourself: hot showers, sleep, good food, manicures and pedicures, taking a walk, crying.
-Find ways to be spiritual, and find the stories and myths that make sense to you and that you can appreciate.
-Spend time doing things that you want to do.
-Don’t be afraid of something that you want, even if it’s not conventional or the easiest thing to achieve.

The values my mom raised me with and the environment I grew up in meant that I gained and honed critical thinking skills at home and later in college. Those skills allowed me to grow in ways I never imagined when I was in high school. I am proud of where I have come from, even if it has also meant learning to undo and leave behind some of what my mom taught me.

A Nude Beach, Gay Hot Tub, & My Thong

J and I had the amazing opportunity and privilege (money, time, etc) to take a spontaneous trip to Maui to celebrate his graduation. We got here a couple days ago and will be here for another 12 days. I can’t quite believe we get two whole weeks here. Amazing.

We intentionally planned on staying on the south part of the island so we could be closer to the nude beach (Little Beach), because I just absolutely love being naked in the sun, and J doesn’t find it half bad either 😉 I love the assumption that I go off of when at Little Beach: that nakedness is embraced by all of the sunbathers there, that it’s not weird or shameful, but something to welcome and embrace and enjoy. My body is mine to enjoy. Naked.

Three days at the nude beach and we have been completely befriended by the locals, including one gem/character of a man. On our second day, he came over to our spot on the beach and asked if I would do him a favor and walk on his back. I was super nervous- I have never given anyone an ashiatsu massage. But I was game, and he gave good instructions, and I did a good job (according to him). Because he was so appreciative, he gave me a massage (with his hands not his feet). He told me that I was really great at giving massage because of how “in my body” I am, and he commented on how “plugged in” J is and how joyous and big his energy is. After rubbing my back and shoulders, he said he was going to feel my “etheric body” (like my aura, I think). After a few minutes of his hands above my back, he put his finger right into the sorest part of my right shoulder (it’s been chronically sore for a few months), and told me how that spot is associated with the heart and freedom. (I’ll take that and chew on it for a while- sort of like reading my horoscope…)

Everywhere else we go, I put on a thong bottom with a bikini top. I love it. I love my ass, and I love the way it looks in my thong bottoms, and I could care less where I am walking around when I wear it. Embracing my ass and my near-naked ass, and giving up shame.

Tonight, we were in our condo complex’s hot tub, and it was by far the most fun night so far, in terms of who we met there and what the conversation was like. There was a family with adult children, and a group of three gay men. Once the family was gone (they made it clear they were friendly but more conventional), the conversation took a turn for the better, and we found out that the group of gay men also frequent Little Beach (they had also been there the past couple of days) and we had plenty to talk and laugh about together. They found out that I strip, after one of them made a comment about my ass and my thong. I wanted to tell them about J and I being open, but I had this weird thought process about not wanting to be looked as a “weirdo” by people part of a community that has (typically) thrown poly people under the bus. I don’t know how they would have responded (and I still have ideas that they may have been a triad), but it was the first time I have found myself caught in a weird space of being with people that I felt pretty comfortable around, and yet not having the best idea as to whether they would be open-minded to my own marginalized community.

I am so grateful that J and I are able to be here and relax together and enjoy each other here. 88 and sunny, breezy, coconut milk smoothies, nude beach, hot tubs, walks, sex (I happened to wake up to myself riding J in my sleep- I guess he’s not the only one who is a sexy sleeper. ha!)… it’s a blessing. And getting to experience the alternative communities here is also awesome.