Category: Relationships

Essays on subjects that have to do with how we relate to each other, with non-monogamy and motherhood being of primary interest.

A Case for Good Men

Propaganda style poster of Captain America for The First Avenger Film, for A Case for Good Men by Malin James

Design by Eric Tan

A few weeks ago, after a little Avengers marathon, a friend asked me why I have such a thing for Steve Rogers. Aside from the fact that Chris Evans is hot, the real reason I crush on Captain America is because Steve Rogers is a Good Man ™ ie: the kind of guy who’ll jump on a grenade (pre-superhero makeover) when everyone else runs away.

My friend didn’t get it. Aside from agreeing that Chris Evans is hot, (because holy hell, c’mon), she thinks Cap is pretty boring and would take Loki over him in a heartbeat. And coming from where she’s coming from, that’s understandable. She’s in the somewhat rare position of never having been hurt, either in love in or life. Her career, marriage, and status are as stable Mt. Rushmore, so when she see’s an iconically good man like Captain America, she sees what she’s always known, which is not what fantasies are about. That’s why she’s all over fictional bad boys like Loki. For her, danger is a novelty. For me, trust is.

And why wouldn’t danger be a novelty? If you’re lucky, real danger is rare. That’s why you get kryptonite when you dress a sexy guy up in reluctance and black leather. Not that I don’t get that sexy, edgy, bad boy thing. I’ve dated a lot of bad boys and a few bad men (there’s a difference, but I’ll get to that) so I get the attraction in spades. I doubt I could’ve written this post if I didn’t.

In the end, my appreciation for good men is due entirely to contrast – good men have qualities that dating bad men have made me value, like integrity and trustworthiness. My natural attraction has always been to the black leather end of the spectrum, but I’ve developed an aversion after glutting myself through my twenties and early thirties. In fact, if my history were full of men I could trust, I probably wouldn’t fetishize it now. My attraction to good men is purely adaptive but no less real for it.

Now, before I go on, I need to undermine my own argument.

The good man / bad boy dichotomy I’ve set up is bullshit. No one is entirely good, or entirely bad. At least, most people aren’t. The exceptions tend to live in supermax prisons or Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood. Most people live on a scale that slides from good to bad depending on context. A generally awful person can still help an old lady cross the street, and a generally good person can still be a troll.

This makes defining the Good Man ™ tricky, which is why I’m using the dichotomy. While it’s a ridiculous reduction of complex human behavior, simplicity can be useful. So, for the sake of this post, a good man is a man whose behavior is mostly guided by principles rooted in the well-being of others, while a bad boy’s behavior is mostly guided by impulse and desire, regardless of consequence.

A Few Brief Words About Bad Men:

A few paragraphs ago, I said that bad men and bad boys weren’t the same thing. A bad boy might be careless or act primarily in his own self-interest but, generally speaking, he will dig deep and act on others’ behalves when the context or person is right. Think Spike from Buffy, Loki, Han Solo, James Bond – the bad guy with the heart of gold.

A real life bad man doesn’t have the heart of gold simmering under the smirk. A real life bad man has a passport full of places you’d never, ever want to go. He has a name he wasn’t born with. He gives you a knife for Christmas and then holds it to your throat (not in a sexy way). He has no problem with gaslighting, undermining or turning you into something he owns. It’s not that a bad man can’t do a good thing. It’s that he’s only likely to do it if it serves his bottom line, and the bottom line is always him.

We fetishize antiheroes and bad boys because they combine a good man’s virtues with a bad man’s danger and sex appeal, so much so that a standard bad boy story arc is his journey to finally doing the right thing. (Think Han Solo’s saving the day during Luke’s Death Star run).

Looked at from that angle, the appeal of the bad boy trope is, in fact, that bad boys are really good men buried under a pile of scoundrelly sexiness. The only difference is that a good man’s integrity (and trustworthiness, etc, etc.) isn’t playing hard to get. It’s not waiting for that one special woman or situation to activate it, nor is it conditional. It’s just there, guiding his behavior, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

That’s why I love Cap but kind of loathe Superman. Steve Rogers never stops doing the hard thing, even after he becomes, for all intents and purposes, invincible. His integrity puts him at odds with the world, whereas Superman, to my knowledge, just does his thing. He got the super for free. Good men aren’t good because being good is easy. They’re good because it’s hard and they do it anyway. That is bad ass and fucking hot.

While I absolutely get the bad boy appeal, the bad man experience has made me wary of it. If a man is good, I want to see it. If I can trust him, I want to know it. If I can relax my guard with him, that’s better than gold and (for me) just as rare. It’s not an issue of safety – at this point, I’m good at keeping myself safe. It’s not having to think about it that makes a good man sexy as hell.

NB: 

The wonderful and incredibly perceptive Honey over at Happy Come Lucky made an excellent point in the comments and on Twitter that warrants a note here. Built into all that is good in good men is the question of how good they are for you. You could date Captain America and he could treat you like a queen, but if duty is his first priority, he will leave you to do the right thing. Just ask Agent Carter.

A man’s goodness won’t save you from getting your heart broken. It won’t guarantee that he never leaves you, nor will it guarantee that he’ll put you first. All it does is tell you that his integrity, principles, and priorities are generally aimed at what he considers to be right. This is where the dichotomy fails and the gray area comes in. What’s good for everyone else may not be good for you as his partner. The best man in the world can still hurt you. The only difference is that he probably won’t mean to when he does.

How Do I Love Thee: On Comparing Relationships

Sepia historical photograph of a woman dressed as cupid next to a lion for Post How Do You Love Me by Malin James

Woman with Lion, courtesy of the Getty Museum

Every so often, my daughter asks me if I love her best.**

This is a tricky moment as a parent, because my impulse is to say, Yes! Of course, I love you best. It’s the answer she’s looking for and by far the simplest to give. But as much as my love for her is one of the most overwhelming things I’ve ever felt, to say that I love her best does something that I’m not quite comfortable with – it accidentally reinforces a way of thinking about love that can lead to insecurity later on.

I realize that I might be overthinking this. Is there really any harm in telling her that I love her best?  There are so many things I don’t bother worrying about, like Santa’s existence or whether or not she believes in god. But reinforcing emotional comparisons feels oddly dangerous to me. It implies that love is a zero-sum game.

Love, like so many things, is contextually unique. For example, a person’s love for their child can be catastrophically powerful, but what if you have two or more children? Who do you love best then? That question is almost impossible to answer (without screwing up one of more of your kids), which is why “I love you all differently” is such a great response. It reinforces the love while avoiding the comparison.

Why is avoiding comparison important for all relationships (not just those involving multiple kids)? Because when you start to comparing the different loves you feel, you risk diminishing all of them. Love isn’t measurable or quantifiable, but comparing relationships with the intention of weighing who is loved best imposes finite limits on an emotion that is naturally infinite.

The real question is what underlies the comparison. Not to get all cold and pragmatic about it, but what it really comes down to is resource distribution. We’re a fundamentally competitive species because our survival depends on it. We commodify resources because resources, whether emotional or physical, have a value rooted in survival. That’s about as fundamental as it gets.

So where does love fit into that? Love is a resource too, or rather, the safety love signifies is. As a species, we evolved through dark nights full of predators that wanted to eat us. Abandonment = death. We are literally hardwired to fear being cast aside, and one of the best guarantors of that not happening is love.

When my daughter asks me if I love her best, she’s expressing a really basic concern: If a lion grabbed Daddy and me, would you save me, even if it meant not saving Daddy? (For what it’s worth, the answer is yes. Her dad’s okay with that). The anxiety that underlies the question is instinctively human – so much so that it shows up in all kinds of relationships, not just those between a parent and child, but friendships, business partnerships and romantic relationships.

While love is definitely not a zero-sum game, survival is, and at a very basic level, we have tied security to love and pain to exclusion. That’s why, in poly relationships, it’s important to be patient with a partner’s fears and insecurities. That sort of status anxiety is hardwired into us and, for most people, it takes a bit of effort to work through.

The impulse to compare is an instinctive attempt to see if our position in the relationship is safe. Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to torture yourself into fearing that it’s not. In the end, it’s about security. The surest way to avoid the trap of comparison is to address the underlying concern. If a person is secure in your love for them, they are less likely to be worried about your love for others.

In the end, it’s not about who is loved best, but how you are loved. Are you  loved well? Is your person’s love a revelation? A homecoming? A whetstone? Is it a soft blanket on a rainy night or a delicate porcelain vase? The how says so much more than any comparison could. The how is about the two of you. The how is solid ground.

**NB: Chunks of Browning’s Sonnet 43 are the answer I give my daughter when she asks me how I love her…that and “I love you bigger than the galaxy and 9 million stars”, which is really pretty big. 

 

Little Monsters: On Jealousy

From an illuminated manuscript, (c. 1400)

Illuminated manuscript, (c. 1400)

Last week, I posted this on Tumblr:

“Jealousy isn’t a failure to transcend. It’s a persistent human reality. It requires acknowledgment and compassion and the gentle refusal to let it rule you developed through practice and patience – patience with the situation and, most especially, patience with yourself.”

This was not a random, theoretical musing on my part. It was a reminder, one I wrote to myself years ago – the last time I had a really good, serious bout with jealousy; because while I’m not fantastically prone to it, I still get jealous like anyone else. It’s just rare enough that, when I do, it really gets my attention.

So, why did it flare up? Something innocuous caught me off guard and I found myself slammed by an irrational, makes-no-sense case of the green-eyed monster. But here’s what really fucked me up (far more than the jealousy itself did): the fact that it happened.

I’ve written about non-monogamy before and, after being non-monogamous for a good fifteen years, I’m fairly practiced at dissecting my feelings. Very often, in the case of jealousy, there’s a territorial impulse at the heart of it (I get so impatient with myself over this). Other times it’s envy regarding time and proximity. Sometimes, it’s just old-fashioned insecurity (often stemming from the two things I just mentioned). This time though…this time it was much less clear-cut and, as a result, far more unsettling.

I’ve been sitting with it for a while now and I’ve finally begun to realize that even more than jealousy, frustration and proximal envy (all of which were mixed up in in there too), what really threw me off was the fact that I felt vulnerable quite suddenly, and that’s a frightening thing.

It’s one thing to love someone. It’s another to realize at a deep, cellular level that loving them means they could hurt you, and no one, including my ego-driven self, wants to get hurt. It was realizing how vulnerable I am that rattled me more than anything else.

In a strange confluence of circumstance, this subject has been making the rounds a bit. Rachel Kramer Bussel used a couple of my quotes in her excellent article on polyamory last week, and since then, I’ve had some good conversations with people about non-monogamy, jealousy and how to deal with it in poly relationships. Here’s how I manage, for what it’s worth:

  1. I try not to lash out because I’m having feelings. If possible, I try to understand what’s going on before I express how I feel to anyone else. Unfortunately, this time I dropped the ball and vented, which rattled me even more because it indicated how totally consumed by my feelings I was.
  1. I try to look at the source of my jealousy and figure out why it triggered me. In this case, it wasn’t the trigger so much as the fact that having tangled, jealous feelings made me realize how vulnerable I am.
  1. I try to reframe the issue in a way that puts me in control of those feelings rather than allowing them to rule me. In this case, I could A. shut down, shove my partner away and not feel vulnerable B. double-down on my initial response and make everyone miserable or C. acknowledge that I feel vulnerable and gradually bring myself to a place where that’s okay. For the record, I chose C. because I’ll be goddamned if I let my emotions own me – they are mine, not the other way around.
  1. Finally, I try to talk to my partner. This can be really fucking hard, because to admit to being jealous is, in fact, to admit to being vulnerable. That takes trust and a leap of faith. I was very lucky in that he was great when I told him, and though I’m still getting comfortable with the vulnerability, I don’t feel nearly so rattled anymore. In the context of our relationship, it’s just a fact and I own that because, at a very basic level, loving someone means you might get hurt. It’s just part of the deal. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to connect those dots, but I’m glad I did.

**Note on #4: It’s important that you communicate your feelings to your partner in a productive way, not in a knee-jerk reaction kind of way. That’s why I try to figure out what’s going on before I get anywhere near discussing it. The point of telling your partner is not to make them to stop doing the thing that makes you jealous. The point is to help them understand what’s going on so you don’t accidentally create a wedge in your relationship. It also has the nice side effect of giving them the opportunity to give you a bit of slack while you’re dealing with it.

And that’s the key – you dealing with it. Because your feelings are your feelings and you’re the one who has to deal with them. As Cunning Minx over at the Polyamory Weekly podcast says, it’s all about owning your own shit.

Here’s the bottom line (or, at least, my bottom line specific to this instance). The fact that I feel vulnerable isn’t bad. It’s not something to fear. It’s just a statement of fact. What I have to do is adjust my self-perception to include that vulnerability. Now, thanks to the discomfort of jealousy, I’ve realized that I am vulnerable and I’ve accepted that as part of being with my partner.

Jealousy is only a monster if you let it be monstrous. Like anything else, you can use it – not to change your partner or your relationship, but to better understand yourself. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s legitimately hard, but the alternative is even harder in the long run. I’d rather keep the little monster firmly on its lead.

**NB: I had a lovely conversation with Molly Moore about communicating and receiving admissions of jealousy, and she very correctly pointed out that this is much easier said than done. I’ll be writing a follow-up post or two soon exploring this in more depth.

**NB 6/1/15: As part of the lovely conversation I mentioned above, Molly Moore invited me onto her podcast, the KissCast to talk about jealousy in more depth. You can listen to that episode HERE.

On Rom Coms & Porn

Ryan Gosling Hey Girl meme - boyfriend materialA version of this essay first appeared on my other blog before I’d conceived of having a site devoted to erotica and sex writing. Now that this has become my primary home online, I’m dusting off the relevant content and moving it over here. I hope you enjoy. xx.M

Sometimes you overhear things that you’d rather not hear… like a relationship-ending fight. And yet, even as you desperately study the pastry case, part of you is fascinated and can’t tune out. This post, dear readers, is the result of one of those overheard fights.

The combatants in question were a couple in their early twenties, obviously past the relationship’s first blush. According to what I, and the rest of Starbucks, overheard, she was “pissed” and “revolted” that she had caught him watching porn. She felt that it was a “betrayal of the relationship” that he should get off on fantasies of other women.

The fight progressed along these lines for several uncomfortable minutes. Just when the two marketing-types in front of me started placing bets on her soon-to-be ex’s imminent castration, the boyfriend countered with what I considered to be an interesting point:

“What’s wrong with me watching porn when you watch The Notebook on loop so you can off on Ryan Gosling?”

To quote the skater at the corner table, “Dude. Good fucking point.”

Now, I’m going to leave this particular couple so I can focus on the general usefulness of the boyfriend’s question. Because it is a useful question. Is there a substantive difference between his porn and her Ryan Gosling fix? Adjusting for their private history and the terms the girlfriend asserted when she called pornography a betrayal of their relationship, there isn’t much of one. Here’s why: The issue at the heart of the boyfriend’s question isn’t betrayal or even sex. It’s intimacy.

Let me say up front that I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with watching porn, (or romantic comedies for that matter). As long as a person doesn’t allow media to subsume real life, both are perfectly acceptable forms of entertainment. That said, no matter how good the entertainment is, ultimately, it’s just a collection of manufactured experiences projected for the viewer’s proxy enjoyment. Real life has to win. The question is, are you fostering intimacy with real people as well, or are you engaging exclusively in solitary fantasies of intimacy?

In this, porn and romantic comedies pose a similar challenge. Porn sells the representation of sexual fantasy while Rom Coms sell emotional fantasy. Both fantasies treat intimacy as entertainment which, in and of itself, is generally fine. Watching porn or Rom Coms, (or anything else for that matter), only becomes a betrayal when it begins to interfere with real life, when the viewer eschews real intimacy with real partners for fantasies in media.

The woman in the unhappy couple felt betrayed by her boyfriend’s use of porn, so much so that she felt justified in engaging him in a public fight. Now, had his porn become a habit, or were he rejecting her sexually, there might be a legitimate problem, but, thanks to lowered inhibitions on the part of both parties, I, and everyone else, found out that they had sex fairly frequently and that porn was, apparently, an occasional indulgence for him. Granted, one has to take the participants at their word, but for all intents and purposes, it didn’t sound like he was glued to a screen. It was her shock at the discovery, after all, that prompted the fight.

She, on the other hand, acknowledged that she did watch The Notebook a lot, but that it was only because he “sucked.” So, at this point, we have a guy who, (apparently), watches porn on occasion while still having sex with his girlfriend, and a girlfriend who watches a romantic fantasy because her boyfriend sucks. If we’re talking about betrayal stemming from intimacy rather than from sex, her emotional / romantic fixation is as much of a betrayal as his porn watching.

At this point, we’re entering into highly subjective territory. If the guy doesn’t care that his girlfriend fantasizes about Ryan Gosling, there’s no betrayal because his feelings weren’t betrayed. That said, I’m going to stick with the general principal from here on out – the comparability of his sexual fantasies and her emotional, (and sexual), ones.

This guy was caught watching other people have sex. By his girlfriend’s analysis, he engaged in a sexual behavior without her, and which is why she felt betrayed. And yet, it would appear that she, in her own way, did the same thing when she watched The Notebook on loop and engaged in emotional and sexual fantasies, (to give full credit to Ryan Gosling), without him. Her romantic fantasy excluded her boyfriend just as much as his sexual fantasy presumably did her. It’s the exclusion that takes each of them out of their relationship.

Drilling down through hurt feelings and knee-jerk morality, it’s the exclusion that was the actual betrayal, if one is going to start thinking about fantasy as betrayal, which I patently do not.  After all, what is so wrong with occasionally indulging in separate sexual and emotional fantasies? Nothing that I can see, but then, my moral compass has always pointed to a slightly different North.

In the end, I’m simply going to suggest that what’s good for the gander is good for the goose. If she wants her boyfriend to give up porn, it’s only fair that she give up The Notebook. If it’s the betrayal of shared intimacy that she objects to, she might do him the courtesy of leaving Ryan Gosling alone.

All in One Person: On Non-Monogamy

A woman sitting on a railing between two men for All in One Person: On Non-monogamy by Malin James

The Game of Life by Jack Vettriano

Updated: 6/22/16

I’m in an open relationship and have been for eleven years. My husband and I have been married for nine of those years, and in that time, I’ve had a very small handful of lovers, which is not what people expect. After all, I’ve been given carte blanche to cheat…uh, sleep around…er, whatever the hell you people call it, (I can hear my dad saying). But just because I can sleep with other people, doesn’t mean I will…at least not lightly.

There are all kinds of non-monogamies. Ours is selective to the point of qualifying as monogamish. Other happy, successful non-monogamous couples are more open about their open relationship. In fact, even within a relationship, it can be different for each partner. My husband tends to date more than I do though we’re both careful about starting anything new because any relationship outside of our marriage will naturally take time away from us, which means that we’d both want the secondary relationship to be worth that sacrifice.

 It’s like buying flowers. He’s more likely to see what’s in bloom, whereas I’m never actively looking. It’s more that, every rare now-and-then, I meet someone and when I do I’m free to see where it goes.

Those parameters work for us and always have, but they may not for someone else. It all depends on the people involved and the nature of the dynamic. That’s one of the reasons why open relationships are so easily misunderstood.

The other difficulty with talking about non-monogamy is that there’s no single set of terms to use. There are, however, a lot of misconceptions. Non-monogamy isn’t “swinging”, though swinging is one form of non-monogamy. It also isn’t “sanctified cheating,” polygamy or polyandry, though it can be (and often is) polyamory. As you can see, it’s somewhat difficult to define. Part of the problem with (and the strength of) open relationships is that there’s no one way to do it – non-monogamy can take as many different forms as there are people and situations.

In the end, regardless of flavor, open relationships require the same things that any functioning traditional relationship does – trust, communication, honesty and work. Let me stress that last one. Open relationships take a lot of work – as much, or possibly more, than their traditional counterparts. That doesn’t make them more enlightened (as some poly factions would have you think). It just means that, for some people, it isn’t right. For others, it means being in a happy, fulfilling relationship with the person (and people) you love.

Here’s a snap shot of how non-monogamy works for me:

* My girlfriend being a bridesmaid at my wedding, (she looked beautiful, by the way).

* Watching my (then) boyfriend have sex with a woman we both loved, and feeling peaceful, content, and so very happy.

* Cooking Thanksgiving dinner with my (then) fiancé, my girlfriend, my lover and our friends.

* Making travel plans around three different work schedules and two different time zones so I could fly across the country to see my most recent partner.

Non-monogamy requires a lot of attention to detail, logistics, emotions and moods. There are more feelings to get hurt and schedules to fuck up and feet to tread on. But there is more of everything else too – love, connection, satisfaction and joy.

There is an Amy Bloom story that I love called “Love is Not a Pie.” It was the first time I’d ever encountered the notion of non-monogamy as anything other than cheating. I was in my early twenties and I cheated a lot, not because I liked cheating (I hated it), but because, despite being actively in love with the person I was with, I would occasionally fall in love (or serious like) with someone else.

Loving, (or being attracted), to two different people at the same time is an odd notion and acting on those feelings has been, historically speaking, the opposite of ok. As a pretty inexperienced 22 year old, the fact that I often did made me feel like an awful slut. That’s why Bloom’s story resonated so deeply with me. The protagonist’s mother tells her that “love is not a pie” – it’s something you share. Sometimes you share it with one person, sometimes with many, but there is an infinite amount. You will not run out. And that, made sense to me.

This is when most people think, that’s fine when you’re the one with the lover, but what about when the shoe is on the other foot?

Well, as long as I’m not getting lied to, the shoe fits very well. I don’t tend to feel a sense of competition with my partners’ partners. Their relationships with their lovers, girlfriends, subs, flings and fuck-buddies have nothing to do with me so long as they are honest, open and safe about it. The fact that they have casual sex or a long-term relationships with someone else isn’t a referendum on our dynamic. The relationships exist separately (for me), and it’s important that they do because it’s too easy to escape problems in one by starting another. Everything has to stand on it’s own.

That doesn’t mean I don’t get jealous. I do. I think most people do, no matter how much you hear about the virtue of compersion, (and compersion is real. What’s more, it’s a wonderful thing). What keeps me grounded is the knowledge that my partners’ lovers do not indicate a lack in me. To paraphrase John Updike, it’s difficult to find everything all in one person. It’s that understanding that helps me keep my perspective when jealousy flares up. And that is a big part of the work.

There’s acceptance and contention in equal measure, but there isn’t much of a cultural dialogue yet. One is starting—you know things are changing when Salon and Fox News Magazine run features about open marriages—but it’s still a challenging thing. Homosexuality, atheism, kink and non-monogamy have existed despite the pressure of cultural norms for centuries, but it’s only in recent decades that they’ve announced their presence without apology or excuse. It’s an important time in our culture, one that requires tolerance, curiosity and dialogue – as do love, sex and relationships, monogamous or not.

Non-monogamy isn’t perfect – far from it. It depends too much on the honesty and integrity of the people involved to ever be perfect. But the same can be said of any relationship. So, for what it’s worth, this is my experience with non-monogamy so far. I’ve no idea how it will look in 5, 10 or 15 years but I can’t imagine not being non-monogamous in some form. It’s given me healthy, loving, long-term relationships and, for that, I’m incredibly grateful.

© 2017 Malin James

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