Love is weird, and that’s OK

Love is really hard for me some times.

In my “smart brain,” I know that it’s a two-way street, and that there’s a strong likelihood that the people I love also love me. I have been told that I am lovable, and people keep being friends with me and stuff, so clearly there’s something to that, but part of me still feels like I have to be perfect to be loved. I realize this is an artifact of old shit that I’m carrying around, but knowing that doesn’t make me stop feeling it.

When we were talking about depression last week, a couple people sent me private messages talking about “fake it ’til you make it.” It’s a tried-and-true method for a lot of people, and it has, at times, been an ally of mine. It works great for me in social situations – I roll in there like I’m an extrovert, like I’m comfortable being myself in a room full of strangers, and play along until I actually am comfortable (though never actually an extrovert). But when it comes to depression (and particularly this depression), it doesn’t cut it for me.

One of the things that Carlos said in his great post last week took a while to settle in for me. He said, “we have to show other people enough love that we can open up to them.” It seems a little backward, to say “here is my pain” and mean it as an expression of love. I, at least, want love to be happiness and sharing joy and creating positivity, and so this instruction “love them enough to show them your pain,” it feels counterintuitive to me. But, then again, I’m a hard-wired, dedicated introvert, with plenty of issues around showing vulnerability.

The vulnerability, though, is the key. All that pain that I think I’m sharing with you by opening up? It’s because of vulnerability. Showing you that I’m hurt isn’t necessarily showing you love (there are plenty of ways that sharing hurt is definitely not loving), but letting you see my broken insides, telling you that I trust you to see my pain and treat it with care, that’s love. Giving you that trust is an act of love from me to you, and opening that door is an act of love from me to me.

I often don’t know how to behave when I find myself in a situation like this. It feels insufficient and incomplete to say “thank you for letting me show you my vulnerability and treating it with kindness.” I feel like, at 32, with a husband and a child and plenty of living under my belt, I should be better than this. I feel like I shouldn’t still fall down the hole of depression, that I shouldn’t still find painful broken things inside of me. And I am still surprised to wake up every day and discover that people love me, not because they have to, but because… I don’t know. Because they do? (The phrase I want to use here is “porque sí,” “because yes,” but I don’t know an English equivalent.)

I guess the thing about love is that it always has the capacity to surprise and delight, even in dark times. I still don’t feel like I understand it, but I am grateful to have it in my life, and to be able to share it with my people.

RockandJoe

I don’t like you but I love you

This morning when I woke up, my mom’s favorite little sweetheart was waiting for me, lurking just inside the garage door, waiting for someone to feed him breakfast and lift him up to the bathroom counter for his cat lax.

He’s a frail old dude now, but in his day he was a bitchy, territorial furball who kept a hundred-pound German Shepherd in his place with a sharp look and a slap to the face.

When he joined our family, I deeply resented him. I don’t recall ever feeling the same way about my actual, human siblings, but when Timmy came along, I was mad. There I was, nineteen, gone away to college, and suddenly my mom has this stupid fluffy cat that she clearly, unapologetically loved more than me. Dudes, I was mad.

Fast forward a couple years, to that time I dropped out of college right at the same time that my parents picked up and moved from Arizona to Washington, and we all lived in a too-small, weird old house (not the haunted one), and suddenly Timmy was my everyday companion. An everyday companion who felt the same way about me that I did about him – who is this interloper in my relationship with Mom?! That was a rough winter for a lot of reasons, but it did give me a chance to get to know that damn cat, and understand what it was that my mom saw in him. I didn’t see it, but I understood why he was so important to her, and I started to change my attitude toward him. He wasn’t my enemy. He didn’t take any of her love away a from me, and in truth, he absorbed a lot of the mom-love that young-adult Rose found a little uncomfortable.

I stopped telling him that I didn’t like him, though I did still keep in him his place – he might be Mom’s favorite, but that didn’t give him permission to be bitchy to me. I moved out, and saw less of him, and he started to seem happy (happy-ish) to see me when I came around. He started to get old, older than his years. He still ruled the roost, but he clearly became the dowager princess.

Like any dowager princess, he has become crotchety, and set in his ways. And now, creeping up on his 13th birthday, he clearly knows that he’s the old guy, and that he needs help. He needs my help, and he knows that I’ll give it to him. After all these years of figuring one another out, he knows that, even though I don’t love him like mom does, I’ll stand beside him to remind the dogs who’s the boss, and lift him up to the places he can’t jump to anymore.

Young me probably would have done the same things, but this morning as I stood next to the bathroom sink waiting for him to finish drinking, I didn’t feel the impatience and eye-rolling that I used to. I didn’t ask him to hurry up. He’s not my little life’s companion, but he is my family. I don’t have to like him to love him.

20130304-090722.jpg
I do like him, actually. The crotchety old grump; how could I not?

Rose’s boyfriend and Carlos’s frenemy

This morning, Carlos and I both had dates with our long-time other significant others. He took the train to see to his, and I’m taking care of mine on the living room floor. As I write this, RJ is napping, but he’ll be part of my date once he wakes up.

In general, I don’t love talking about stuff I’m working on. This is an old habit of mine – my mom describes catching me practicing faces in the mirror as a baby, testing them out before trying them on other people. I want to have a finished product before I share with people, but the truth about life is that sometimes there just isn’t a product at the end of the process. Sometimes we just do a thing every day, because it’s what we do, and we have to talk about it while it’s in process, because there is no end to it.

What does that have to do with my Monday morning date?

In my process of growing more comfortable in my own life, I have this lesson that I keep learning: everything in my life needs some care, and what that means is different for everything. Dita Lily needs food and exercise, adventures outdoors, cuddles on the couch, and to be reminded that she’s part of our pack. The kiddo needs the same things, but the way I deliver them to him is totally different (well, mostly). Carlos has needs, my relationship with him has needs, I have needs. And critically, I need to recognize what those needs are and how to address them.

One of the needs that I have struggled with mightily over the last, well, forever, is taking care of our home. Before I shared a home with Carlos, I struggled with taking care of my own home, my parents’ home, The House of Doom, all of the homes I have had. I like having a calm, clean house, but I have a hard time with the work that goes into it. That was a major motivation for me in going to Shaping Home. And it has been important in the conversations that Carlos and I have around relationships. Even in the most traditional, monogamous marriage, there are things outside of the primary dyad that require attention and energy, which are acknowledged as important by all parties. The most obvious one is children, and other family. Your love of your children doesn’t come between you and your spouse, it’s just a fact of family life.

And the same is true of the significant relationship I am tending to this morning. It doesn’t take away from my love of Carlos, though it can be a point of difficulty (just like kids!). Neglecting it makes our life harder; giving it a little time and attention makes things easier all around. As much as I struggle with it, I know that I need it, so I make the time. Sometimes it can be hard to do that, but it’s worth it.

So, what’s all this about, then? Who is this mystery that matters so much!? It’s laundry. In today’s case, three loads of clean laundry, sitting on my living room floor, waiting to be folded and put away. And Carlos, you ask? What’s his date about? Work, out of the house, in someone else’s quiet office.

I kind of hate that laundry is my boyfriend (yes, we do refer to it that way all the time). But I have power over this relationship, if I’m willing to exercise it. I don’t think Carlos feels as grumpy about work as I do about laundry, even though he describes it as his frenemy. We get different kinds of things back from the energy we put into these relationships, and that’s just a fact of life. Every relationship you have is different, has different needs, pays out different dividends. We don’t always get to pick our other significant others, but we always have to choice to make our relationships with them the best they can be.

A flatter kind of love.

You should read All About Love: New Visions. It is a thought-provoking collection of essays on love by bell hooks. One of the very important points that she makes is that you don’t have to marry your soul mate, and you don’t have to hate your exes.

bell hooks was instrumental in me being able to say this: “I believe in Flat Love.” By flat love I mean that I try to approach each relationship the same; negotiate a mutually beneficial expectation, do my best to communicate my desires and my interest in the other party. Whether it is my wife, a friend, or a lover I have the same goal, enjoy our time together (however that ends up working).

And Here Is Why I Feel This Way.

Being a friend and being a lover are often measured by the same marks: time and intensity. Being a good friend or a good lover is limited by the same skills: communication and attention. So, why should our language or behavior treat them as different entities? I feel like we should call a date a date. Whether I am meeting you at the bar to complain about work, watch a game, or to tell you stories about my deepest secret I am still making time and attention for you. If the night ends with hugging from “a socially approved distance” or a polite peck or with breakfast the next morning I am still trying to communicate my level of affection for you.

I think that my life is simpler when I treat my son, my wife, and the guy I brew beer with the same way: I tell them what I like about them, I express my desire to make a time for them, and I show attention to their needs and communications—in different degrees, but the same way.

I would do the same with work and the dog, but the dog doesn’t really care for much beyond a butt-scratch. And, work, it is more like a frenemy, so I try not to obsess about it (much).  In reality there are many people that treat their job or hobby with greater care than their lovers, but we will save that discussion for another time.

Whatever and whoever you love requires time and attention. If you let that be the primary guide they will all grow with you.

More Love

Sharing Joy

Today, let’s talk about a concept that is familiar to almost everyone, but which didn’t have a name until we started talking about open relationships.

You know that feeling you have when something good happens to someone you like, and you’re happy for them, even though it doesn’t necessarily have any direct effect on you? In broad terms, that’s empathy, right? It’s just a basic part of sharing emotional life with people. But sometimes we want to be able to talk about that specific moment, without having to explain the nuances of how we get there. Luckily, there’s a name for that feeling! You ready for it? The feeling of happiness triggered by joy in another’s life is called compersion!

[A side note: Carlos enjoys using the construction ‘co-joy,’ because it makes a clear reference to the concept’s origin as the opposite of co-misery. We all recognize the act of commiserating, so why not its opposite, cojoying? Rose finds that a little too neologism-ish, and prefers to use the more widely-accepted “compersion.”]

When we talk to people about relationships, talking about compersion is often my favorite part. Who doesn’t like to talk about the good stuff, right? People are often so concerned about the potential negative impacts of changing the way that they think about relationships that they overlook the potential positives. Talking about compersion is a nice way to remind people that they started out in their relationship from a place of sharing happiness with one another, and that sharing should still be a goal as changes are undertaken.

On that note, here’s something Carlos wrote about the role of compersion in our daily life:

Compersion is the child of a healthy relationship. Compersion is finding joy in the joy of others. When your relationship is happy it is very easy to find joy in the things that your partner likes. But when your relationship, or mental health, hits the skids it is much harder to feel joy in any context.

In the darkest times strong relationships reach for that little bit of light or ground that can be shared. For me and Rose that is our baby. We have both had days where we get to be with him all day and days where we are out working through some his cool milestones. We both have great love for our little jerk, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have those twinges when we miss a moment. Joy-sharing means letting that twinge go and focusing on that light in your partner’s eyes and the energy in their voice when they describe something that you may wish was your story.

Just because you feel jealous doesn’t mean you can’t share your partner’s joy. Even on the hardest days of postpartum depression and posttraumatic stress disorder our little jerk serves as our common light that we get to share. There have been some days that the moment where we share the story of what RJ did on our day is the only moment of smiling or laughing. In my model for compersion, if Rose gets to share the story and have an extra laugh that is important to me.

That moment is an amazing barometer for how you feel about a person. If the other member of your relationship is sharing joy about something that you don’t care about and you don’t feel anything, you should ask why. It is very easy to share someone’s joy when you are imagining yourself there with them; it is harder when you didn’t want to be there in the first place.

Compersion is more about the relationship you are sharing than about the action you are talking about. When you really care about someone it is easier to be in that moment of the telling to share their emotion. This is where the child metaphor comes back: compersion is that piece of ground that you share in the ocean of things that are happening. It isn’t you or your partner; it is something that exists because of your overlap, and it lives and changes day-to-day. If you don’t overlap you can’t make that moment happen.

Compersion, like many habits, works best when we make it a regular practice. Give it a try one of these days! Make a habit of being happy about the things that make your partner happy.

Why we’re talking about non-monogamous relationships

Several weeks ago, when I started writing for this blog again (yay!), I told you that one of the things that we’re going to be talking about is ethical non-monogamy. I realize that this comes as something of a surprise to many people, and I’d like to take a moment to talk about why we’re going to be talking about it. (nota bene: we call this meta communication) This post and others will be bringing some new language into the blog, and perhaps into your life. Bear with us, we’ll be adding a glossary and explaining terms, but this post needs to be posted.

Carlos and I have never been in a monogamous relationship. For most of our time together (the 2009-present era, anyway), I have not wanted to talk about it, but it has been a reality of our life, one that we entered into with our eyes open and around which we have invested a significant amount of energy.

In the early days, I was very much still figuring out how I was going to relate to that part of our life. I had recently been witness to some really really bad open relationship nonsense that had done a number on my friend group, and I didn’t feel ready to share that part of my life with the wider world. I was then (as I am now and have pretty much always been) highly inclined toward privacy, especially regarding parts of my life where I felt uncertainty.

And, significantly, despite being in an intentionally, thoughtfully, highly communicative and supportive non-monogamous relationship, I didn’t identify myself that way.

But recently at a meet-and-greet for a polyamory group, a young woman who had grown up in a poly family told me, “you have really smart things to say, for someone who doesn’t practice polyamory.” At the time, I responded with something like, “well, most of good poly practice is just good life practice,” (which is true!), but by the time we were getting on the train to head home, I realized that, actually, no. She was totally wrong. I do practice poly, just not the same way that she does.

For most of our relationship so far, I have identified myself as the mono half of our mono-poly pairing. Practically, it has made sense: I haven’t dated, nor even wanted to. I love what our life is, and what Carlos’s other partners bring to it, but I interact with it in a very different way than he does. As a non-dater, I didn’t feel like I was really part of the poly community, and it didn’t occur to me to identify myself that way.

The truth, though, is that how I choose to identify myself is only a part of my identity. The fact that I haven’t pursued one avenue of poly life doesn’t mean that I’m not living it in plenty of other ways. I don’t date, but I live and practice polyamory every single day of my life. One of the defining principles for us has been that this life allows us possibilities. Not every possible path is open every single day, but there is virtually no limit to the things that are possible. And, critically, things change.

Change is scary, but it is inevitable. This actually isn’t a statement about polyamorous relationships, it’s about every relationship you have. Everything changes. Your relationship with your parents, with your friends, with your coworkers, your children, your partner. You’re not the same person you were when you met, and your relationship isn’t the same now as it was then. And that’s good.

Part of changing the way that I identify myself is about recognizing my changing needs, and the way that I am meeting them. But the change is also about recognizing the reality that I am, in fact, living a poly life. We are live our life this way to build a community, and conspicuously identifying myself as ‘other’ to it is counter productive to that purpose. We are poly because we are responsible for our own fulfillment, and changing how I identify myself reinforces that possibility and responsibility to myself. The same goes for actually talking about these things. Carlos and I spend a lot of time talking to one another about our relationship, and we believe that the other relationships in our lives deserve the same respect. It’s important to invest in the things that matter, and so we’ll be talking about the community of amazing people that we have build and that we value.

Please join us in this conversation. We like hearing what you have to say.