Tag Archives: love

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 and, as Exhibt A wrote, it isn’t. Survival is, but not love.

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.

I suspect that I’m hyper aware of all this because I’ve been poly for so long. 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. 

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This is What I Mean When I Say I Love You

Black and white photograph of a black cat in a window for This is What I Mean When I Say I Love You by Malin James

Photograph by Bernadette E. Kazmarski

When I was a girl, I said I love you without caution or concern. That changed as I grew up. It’s not that I loved any less. It’s that I loved so hard it hurt.

The reasons for the shift were pretty typical. In high school, I fancied myself in love but, to quote Dorothy Parker, “he didn’t love back”. Telling him that I loved him was a big mistake, but there were valuable lessons to be learned. Unfortunately, my only take away at the time was that saying I love you is fucking dangerous.

After that, I began to hold back. I didn’t totally avoid saying I love you, but I never said it impulsively or without consideration. There were too many things wrapped up in it, including two of my biggest bugaboos—trust and vulnerability. As a result, the deeper the love, the more vulnerable I felt, and the harder it was for me to voice.

That changed when my daughter was born. She cracked me open and everything poured out, soft and slow, like syrup. I found myself loving her in a way that only poetry could frame, and that strangely poetic, pure, clean love seeped right out of me without worry or concern. The experience of loving her so freely made me realize how much I kept hidden from everyone else and, more to the point, why.

When I say I love you, I’m really saying two things. The first is pretty obvious—that I love you. But the second meaning is fluid. It changes from person to person, and even moment to moment. I love you is the container for every feeling in the relationship so, while the fact of my love stays constant, it’s additional meanings flex and adjust depending on our context. For example, I love my best friend with a consistant, ridiculous, Muppet-like exuberance, but that love is shaped by gratitude, protectiveness, affinity or anything else that I happen to be feeling for her. It’s always love + more.

So, what exactly what do I mean when I say I love you?

It means I miss you; I want you; you make my heart happy; you feel like home; please be careful; I worry about you; I trust you; I relax when I’m with you; I feel like you understand me; I want to protect you; I will always be here; you can trust me; I’ll keep your feelings safe; I love your beauties and your flaws; thank you; I’m sorry….

That I’m sorry is complicated though. The other emotions I listed are, for the most part, positive. That I’m sorry isn’t – not in the way I mean it. It’s not the I’m sorry you say when you’ve kicked someone’s dog. It’s the I’m sorry that comes with sadness and guilt, and it says as much about me as it does about the relationship. In fact, that I’m sorry qualifies as a third, subversive meaning, because it’s so often present when I say I love you, regardless of who I say it to.

For the record, this next part was uncomfortable to write.

So, what am I so sorry for that it’s so woven into how I express love? As with love itself, it’s entirely dependent on the person I’m saying I love you to and our relationship at the time.

I love you can also mean that I’m sorry I’m not the person you deserve; I’m sorry I’m not the woman I want to be; I’m sorry things are hard; I’m sorry the price is high; I’m sorry I’m not easy or simple; I’m sorry I need your patience; I’m sorry I always have; I’m sorry I wear my complications like a shell; I’m sorry my love is flawed; I’m sorry I’m a person in progress; I’m sorry I’m a cat and not a dog; I’m sorry I’m not a clean, undamaged slate; I’m sorry I’m not the mother I want to be; I’m sorry I need more from you than I have a right to ask; I’m sorry I’m guarded; I’m sorry I’m not there; I’m sorry I want so many things that I can’t have; I’m sorry I’m not good for you; I’m sorry I’m hard to reach; I’m sorry that my paint is cracked; I’m sorry that loving me hurts….

Some of those feelings are accurate, but most of them are poisoned thoughts, and it’s up to me to untangle the mess and sort out the poison from the truth. Like so much of everything, love isn’t, and has never been, simple for me. It all goes back to my deep, deep need to be good for people, and my deep, deep fear that I’m not. That’s why, even now, I’m careful about saying I love you. It’s why you know, when I say it, that I mean it every time. Because my love, when I give it, is constant, and that’s a good but frightening thing. It makes saying I love you a promise.

It’s a promise that I’ll love you when I am old and gray; I’ll love you even after one of us is gone.

NB: Someone was kind enough to send me a link to a comic that recontextualizes the poison thoughts I mentioned in this post. It’s worth clicking through if any of my I’m sorry‘s resonated or felt familiar to you.

We Don’t Do That: On Vulnerability

Girl Smoking Outside a Cafe. Image courtesy WikiCommons

Girl Smoking Outside a Cafe.

There’s been some remarkably brave writing getting posted recently. Tamsin Flowers wrote with eloquence and honest grace about writers and self-doubt, Dumb Domme reflected on the difficulty and necessity of asking your partner(s) for what you need, and recently, Sharyn Ferns at Domme Chronicles wrote several posts about choosing if and when to share and enact fantasies of a more violent nature.

These aren’t the only examples. People have been posting on everything from stone sexuality to condescension in D/s dynamics with an openness that humbles me. There is so much strength in these essays and articles, precisely because the writers’ vulnerabilities shine through.

I used to be vulnerable. I used to feel like an open wound. But as I grew older, I receded into a very sweet, but impregnable shell. Now, I’m cagey and guarded, though I try to pleasant about it. For the longest time, I couldn’t fathom why this should be. Nothing horrific has happened to me. Of course, I’ve been hurt – everyone has been. But any real damage I’ve incurred has been entirely due to the choices I’ve made. Because I started shutting down. Because I started to fear vulnerability.

I’ve spent a long time, (years really), trying to pinpoint the moments that led to my armoring up. When I found them, they were so small that I could have held them in the palm of my hand. Yet, they sliced deep enough that I still can’t address them head on. So, here they are in a set of non-fiction vignettes. I just couldn’t write this any other way.

San Francisco, 1994: South of Market

I am sitting across from a boy. Let’s call him S. Our knees are not quite touching. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, I am as new as a freshly peeled egg, which is to say, that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve just turned sixteen.

The boy I am sitting across from is a friend, but let’s be honest. I’ve been in love with this friend since I saw him cross the street my sophomore year. We’re going to a concert together. He’s taking me to a concert – Dogstar, at Slim’s – because I like Keanu Reeves, (but not half so much as I like him). We’re going to dinner first. He has just broken up with my best friend, a girl I’m drifting away from for reasons of my own.

The Italian place he takes me to is tiny and family owned – a warm little grandmother’s house in the industrial SOMA woods. South of Market, a former warehouse district, is, like the rest of the city, reinventing itself, nudged along by developers and club promoters. But this little place, with its brick façade and possibly hand-painted sign, feels like it’s always been there, tucked away in an ally off Folsom St. It’s all very proper and sweet, with its red-and-white checks and plastic grapes. I can’t breathe for how sweet it is.

A votive candle sits on our table next to a pink carnation in a vase. The carnation is ruffled and charming – fair more charming than a rose. It’s practically bursting with chaste exuberance. Its candy scent reminds me of my grandmother, a woman I adore but whose presence I, nevertheless, want nowhere near this dinner. I fidget, bumping the table, which, in turn, bumps into my friend. He wobbles in his chair. We’re both of us off balance, rocking in our seats – closer, farther, closer. It’s a nervous little game.

We order food. We hunch. We make small talk while our glasses collect condensation in fat, suggestive drops. Minutes drip by. The silence rolls between us like a red, rubber ball. When our food finally comes – gnocchi, or something, in cream sauce – I poke it and try to eat. No one likes a girl who doesn’t eat. But I kind of want to throw up. I’m too conscious of angles – the slope of my neck, the tilt of his head. What is he trying to tell me with that bashful, slanted grin?

I eat a pea. I take a breath. I open my mouth.

Is this a date?

That’s what I’m too scared to ask. That’s what doesn’t come out. That was my mistake, my first of many with that boy.

San Francisco, 1999: North Beach

I’m turning twenty-one. Rather than go out with my girlfriends, who are dying to take me to Bondage A Go-Go and Lucky 13, I am out with S. We’ve been sleeping together on and off for a little over a year. He has a girlfriend. I don’t care. I’m too hungry and stupid to care. I’m desperately in love with him. He does not love me. He’s beginning to hate me in fact, because he can’t stop fucking me.

We’re in a dive bar in North Beach, when they still had blues in bars. We both love the blues. We both love jazz. He made me mix tapes full of Miles Davis and Nina Simone in high school, when we were still just friends. When the attraction between us was tensile and untouched. I still have those tapes in my car.

He orders me a gin and tonic. It’s my favorite – I’ve been ordering them since I was 18. Forget the legal drinking age. I’m rarely carded and when I am, it’s easily gotten around with a smile, (I had a really sweet smile then). The bartender brings it and S’s beer. We clink. And then I forget myself. I let myself think, for a second, that we’re on a date. I rise up on my tiptoes and kiss him, to thank him for the drink.

S jerks back his head.

“We don’t do that,” he says, looking around, as if his girlfriend had just walked in. She hasn’t, of course. She’s in Oregon. She trusts him. She told him so.

My face is burning as if I’ve been slapped. My lungs hurt. There’s too much sharp, sudden hurt. I hurt to much to cry.

We don’t do that. We don’t do that.

“We don’t do what,” I ask.

He gives me a look, like I should know better. And the reality is that I should.

“Never mind.” I say. “Forget it. Thanks for the drink.”

I look away, into the grimy mirror behind the bar. My face is sharp and my mouth is hard. I look cold and dangerous. That isn’t my face. Except that now it is.

San Francisco, 2002: Nob Hill

It’s 2002. Another Italian restaurant, upscale this time, tucked high up on Nob Hill. I’m standing outside, hips canted, arms wrapped tight around my waist. I’m smoking and it’s cold.

Below me, the city tumbles towards the water, at once fluid and concrete. But I don’t really see it. I’m too busy to see. I only know it’s there because I know that view. I’m resisting the compulsion, practiced over years, to tilt my face up to his.

I smoke too much. I rarely blush. I am no longer as new as an egg. And the guy I’m standing with is no longer my friend. We are no longer friends. We are no longer lovers either – we burned through that label years before without it ever being acknowledged that it was ours. Now, we’re something else, something painful. Sand under skin…. I am moving to LA, mostly, though he does not know it, to escape the mess we’ve become.

I smoke to be alone, but he follows me outside, quietly, I suspect, slipping away from our friends. They’re throwing me a party, in honor of my move. His girlfriend is inside too. The wholesome Oregonian girl, waiting, smiling, wary, while everyone drinks champagne.

We hunch, he and I, outside in the cold, swaying, closer, close. It’s a dangerous little game. I finish my cigarette and light another. I’m not ready to go inside, not while he’s standing next to me, silent, just a body, just a presence, him. Even now, I want him to love me. I want him to want what I have to give. But he doesn’t and he won’t. From me, he wants only one thing.

I take a drag and stare at the Bay, pouting through the exhale, biting my lip. It’s a fully reflexive move. Without suing for consent, my mouth is asking to be kissed. I force myself to stop. I feel, but don’t acknowledge, his eyes on my face, and I know he’s still attracted. It’s the string I have to pull, and I’ve pulled it hopefully, desperately, savagely for over seven years. It’s the crumb I content myself with.

He moves closer, away from the windows. Now we’re safely out of view. Stolen moments, intense, predictable, like hits from a custom drug. This is what he wants from me. This is what we do. I angle my head to look at him, feeling longing. Feeling resigned. But for once he goes off script. He takes the cigarette from my hand without touching me, and holds it like a pro. He doesn’t smoke. He never has.

“I wish my mom would quit.”

You wish your mom would quit?

Rage and bitterness fill me, hugely out of proportion with what he’s just said. I want to shove off the wall and deck him. I want to sink my fist into his mouth. I hate him for holding my cigarette with a hand that has cradled my face; I hate him for holding this vice of mine and thinking of his mom. I hate him, I hate him, I hate him. But I hate him far less than myself, which is why all I do when he says this is raise my goddamn brow.

He looks at me, really looks at me, his face an unreadable blank. Then he leans in, still expressionless, to kiss the hard line of my mouth. Ah. There it is. It’s an oddly perfunctory kiss, as if he knows he’s going to do it and wants it over with. He doesn’t want to kiss me, and I don’t want to want the kiss. But, predictably, sickeningly, like it always does, the kiss becomes something else. An act of recognition.

Oh no. Not again.

He draws back with some reluctance and I look at him. There are tears in my eyes, and I hope, romantically, foolishly, that the tears look lovely to him. They don’t. At best they make him feel awkward; at worst they make him feel trapped. He backs away one, two, three steps. He’s in front of the window again. Safe. I’m always trapping him. I don’t even try. I trap him by being there.

Why can’t you love me?

That’s the question I will not ask.

I tip back my head to keep the question in my mouth, but he knows me well enough to read it on my face. To his credit, for once, he doesn’t look away. For a moment, we’re sixteen and I’m sweet and he’s sweet, and we’re listening to jazz in his room. For a moment, we’re back at the start. But there’s so much wrong between us. It’s years too late. He hands me back the cigarette. It’s just a filter and ash, but it’s a heavy little thing. I take it and flick it into the street.

His eyes slide off mine to the window, to the collection of people inside. Our friends. His girlfriend. His life. Not mine. He turns and goes inside. But I stay where I am, with my back against the wall. I need something solid behind me. I know I won’t see him again.