Tag Archives: relationships

Who I Am With You Isn’t Who I Am With Him

M.C. Escher

M.C. Escher

I wrote a story a few months ago called “Looking Glass”, in which a woman looks forwards to having sex with the guy she’s seeing, not just because she wants to fuck him (though she does), but because

“sex is her looking glass. It lets her see who a person is, (or rather who they are with her). It lets her see who she is with them. She wants that view more than she wants to get off. She wants to see if they fit.”

At the time I wrote the story, I made a mental note to circle back to the idea that sex can be a mirror, not just for you or your partner, but for who you are together. Identity and personality are pet topics on this blog, so I’m not going to waste time saying that personalities are fluid. Anyone with a secret Twitter account can tell you that Secret Twitter You is just as authentically “you” as Dinner with Gran You. It’s just not the “you” your gran is used to seeing…probably.

Instead, I want to look at how that fluidity plays out in sexual dynamics. Most of us slide up and down a sexual scale. Even people who identify very strongly as one thing (submissive, dominant, vanilla, etc.) tend to play that thing out differently with different lovers. Part of what makes for sexual chemistry between any two people is how well you intuit each other, and that’s different case by case.

That’s why I’ve always been curious about what sex would be like with different people. Like the protagonist in “Looking Glass”, my anticipation in the build up to my first time with someone new is rooted in curiosity—who will I be with them, who will they be with me, and what will be together? In other words, what will we bring out in each other?

Ages ago, I was seeing two very different men. Let’s call them A and B. My dynamic with A was emotionally and sexually intense. We went dancing and did a great deal of staring intensely into each other’s eyes. The sex was fucking hot.

My dynamic with B was different. Mostly, he and I laughed. We went to diners and dive bars and told rambling stories. The sex was also amazing, but in a super playful, peaches and cream kind of way.

One day, B and I went to an event and met up with A and his date. Everything was great, so much so that I didn’t give the meeting a second thought until the next time I saw A when he commented that he’d had no idea I was such a goofball.

Here’s how that conversation played out in semi-fictional dialogue.

A: Hey, M?

Me: What’s up?

A: So….

Me: ….yes?

A: Do I keep you from being you?

Me: (blank stare)  No. Why?

A: Because you seemed so relaxed with B the other day. I mean, I’ve never seen you so relaxed and goofy and I was kind of wondering if I was keeping you from that because, you know, I’m not relaxed. Or goofy.

Me: Aw, babe…. (sits on his lap and gently bites his neck) Who I am with you isn’t who I am with him. I’m goofy and relaxed with B because B and I are goofy and relaxed together. I’m pouncier with you because that’s how we are. One isn’t more me than the other. It’s all me. You’re just seeing what naturally comes out with you.

A: (melts because he loves having his neck bit) Okay, so…what you’re saying is…it’s all good.

Me: (straddles him) It’s all good.

The conversation ended there and all was (extremely) good – because that’s how it worked naturally for A and I. Had that conversation happened with B instead of A, I probably wouldn’t have nibbled on him and gone straight to sex because that’s not how it was with us. We’d have had a good conversation, probably gotten philosophical, and then had slow, lazy sex before watching The Matrix and eating take-out.

In either case, the set of impulses I had with A were just as authentic as the ones I’d have had with B, they were just very different. That’s why the first time with a new partner is exciting, even if it isn’t magical right off the bat. It’s not just about chemistry. It’s about curiosity and mutual potential; how we connect, and how defined that connection is.  Do we share one wavelength, or do we slide over the scale together?

All of those questions hum along, fueling attraction, chemistry, and sex. And the answers, as variable and context dependent as they are, form a hell of a good mirror for anyone, so long as they are authentically engaged. It’s why relationships fascinate me in all of their brilliant, curious, mind-blowing, toxic, soul-deep, casual variations.  It’s one of the biggest reasons I love sex…aside from the obvious.

 

Unrelated PSA:

For months now, I’ve been working on a collection that I’m very excited about. I’m lucky enough to be working with an amazing editor, but life is getting busier and I need to clear more time for it, so, for the next little bit, the blog will be moving to a slightly less regular posting schedule. It’s definitely not going anywhere. There will just be a slightly longer gap between posts.

In the meantime, feel free to dig into the archives and cringe at what a catastrophe of a baby blogger I was. It’s the blogging equivalent of refrigerator art –  precious, precious stuff. 😀

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.

On Validation

Black and white photograph of a woman's back as she looks out of a window, for Validation post by Malin James

Photograph, Malin James

There are things that I’m painfully aware of. One of them is my deep, long-standing need for validation.

It’s gotten worse in the past few years. I’ve always had it but, recently, it’s kept me from taking risks. The need for validation has drawn me away from projects that would further my career because long-term gains haven’t been able to compete with that short-term need.

That impulse has kept me safe in the cocoon of a loving community, which is a comforting alternative after years in the less friendly world of literary fiction, but at something of a cost.

It’s a strange thing. On one level, I give zero fucks what anyone thinks. This is the level I try to live on. But beneath that is the fact that sometimes I give way too many fucks, which is why I can’t say that I don’t need validation for my work. The brutal truth is that I do and the same goes for my worth in relationships.

I grew up having internalized the idea that my primary value was in my face and, even more toxically, that the value of my face was arbitrary because I relied on a choreographer, director or photographer to decide whether or not I was right for a call or a role. It’s a conviction that dogs me even now, and the result is an over-reliance on what other people think.

That need for validation shows up in all kinds of subconscious ways. It’s in how I engage social media and how I blog. It’s in what I write about and when. It’s in whether or not I compromise myself in relationships and for how long. It’s what drives my inner sadist – the one who loves to rake my inner masochist over coals.

The need for validation is natural. We all feel it. But the degree to which I’ve allowed that need to dictate my professional, creative and personal choices disturbs me. The primary reason I stopped acting was because my dependence on external (and arbitrary) validation wore me down. Unfortunately, I’ve created a similar framework for myself by reinforcing a comparable need in my writing and relationships.

I’m ok with wanting a certain amount of validation. Like I said, it’s pretty natural. But I’m not ok with needing it to the point where it compromises my emotional autonomy. Validation is, essentially, a salve – an illusory guarantee that everything is ok. In my case, this is what validation usually looks like:

Yes, your writing matters.

No, you aren’t wasting your time.

Yes, he still wants you.

No, you aren’t a disposable fraud. (This one comes with a nice dose of self-loathing. Self-loathing fucking sucks).

The real problem isn’t wanting validation, it’s misunderstanding what validation does. It’s like ointment on a cut – it’ll soothe the surface, but it doesn’t address the bleeding you can’t see. For me, the internal bleeding is the fact that sometimes I give too many fucks, and that those fucks aren’t even the right fucks to begin with.

What makes validation so addictive is that it acts as a short-term guarantee that everything’s ok. And sure, everything might be okay – for now. But what about the next now? And the next? Pretty soon, validation stops being a relief and becomes part of a feedback loop, one that slowly blows everything out of proportion and gets you stuck on a hook, one where your insecurities take over and drive your behavior.

So, when you put all that together, my need for validation is the subjective measure of worries that are way more existential than concrete:

Is everything okay?

Am I okay in the world? (Or this job, or relationship, etc.)

What the hell does okay even look like? I don’t know but please make it okay….

Those worries aren’t something that should shape your work or relationships because the only thing that can comfort them are guarantees, and the bottom line is that there are no guarantees. There is only the fleeting right now, and no amount of validation can get you off that hook.

It’s a big, ugly, exhausting tangle, but I can’t be a productive writer or a fully present person if I don’t stop chasing false guarantees – guarantees that, for me, define okay as the external validation of my value.

I will always need to feel valued, especially by people I care about and respect. That need is carved into me like grooves on a record. But for all that, the fundamental validation I actually need, the one I’ve been chasing my whole life, is my own.

My need for validation isn’t about the story or the editor or the relationship. It’s about me. And because it’s about me, it places pressure on situations and relationships that shouldn’t have to bear it. That’s why self-possession and emotional sovereignty are so important to me. The weight of that need is, ultimately, my responsibility. It’s up to me to decide (logically, rather than reactively) how many fucks I want to give.

The Love That Destroys You

Fine art nude of a woman sitting in a human sized bird's nest for The Love That Destroys You by Malin James

The Nest by Serena Biagnini

Ages ago, (it was actually just last year, but it feels like ages ago), I wrote the initial draft of this post. A lot has happened since then and my understanding of how love works for me has changed.

So, rather than starting from scratch, I’m inserting commentary into the draft I initially wrote. The italicized bits are me now. Me a year ago is in standard text. It may end up being contradictory, but love is complicated – so complicated that, in the end, it’s fairly simple. If that’s not contradictory, I don’t know what is.

I recently had a conversation about love – specifically, the “love that destroys you”. My initial response (and the one I ultimately hold to) is that, for me, this kind of love can happen once or twice in a lifetime. While some people stay open enough to get destroyed (in a good way) again and again while, for others, the damage incurred makes staying open hard. I fall into the latter camp.

My initial response was impulsive and, quite honestly, defensive. Having been decimated twice, I was trying to distance myself from the possibility that it could happen again. But buried within that anxiety is the fact that, for me, loving means vulnerability, and that’s terrifying because love routinely destroys me, to varying degrees, on any given day. A special kind of super combustible love is not required. 

What is “the love that destroys you”? It’s love on a cellular level – love that hurts in its absence, like a phantom limb. It’s the kind of love that changes you, slowly over time, or all at once. Either way, it alters you. You aren’t the same person you were before you met and loved (and possibly lost) that person.

I do agree with this definition, though I remember thinking purely in terms of romantic or sexual love when I defined it. The truth is that any love can do this to you, from the love you feel for your mother to the friend you can’t live without. It just depends on context and circumstance.

I have loved in that insane, chemically induced, destructive way and, in both cases, I got dismantled and had to rebuild. As a result, I became a more solitary thing. This isn’t to say that I can’t love passionately. I can and do. I just can’t love in that young way anymore. Over the years I’ve developed barriers – the ability to jump in with both feet was burned out of me.

It wasn’t really, it was just safer, at the time, to think so. Loving in any way – sexually, romantically, platonically, maternally – is a fucking risk. There are no guarantees. Guarantees create the illusion of control, but control goes out the window when you make yourself vulnerable. It’s impossible to predict who you’ll love in that cellular way, but regardless of who it is, barriers won’t stop it. You can either shut down and avoid it completely, or accept it and take the risk.

My daughter is the exception to all of this. Loving her destroys me every day because barriers don’t work with her (nor would I want them to). Every time she wraps her hand around my thumb or cries because her “feelings are big”, part of me crumbles and has to rebuild. Loving her is compulsive and holistic. I could never not love her. But there was something in those early experiences that changed me. I can’t seem to stop protecting myself, even (shamefully) sometimes with her.

Which makes me sad, because what I couldn’t consciously see is that nothing in me had fundamentally changed. I was just so used to guarding myself that it felt like a state of being rather than a choice.

The odd thing is that I still feel that crazy love in random pockets. It’s in the way my mom smiled when she bought orange shoes or how my brother limps when he’s tired. I feel an intense pop of love in small, unconscious moments. Those pops get under my heart, and in those moments, my love for them is so huge that it undoes me. But destruction on a grand scale, I suspect I’ll only feel once or twice.

Here’s the thing. Those small destructions, like the orange shoes, are no different than the big destructions, like the attraction that poisons you or the loss of your right to kiss him. Regardless of scale, those feelings reveal, if only for a moment, the true extent of your attachment. Sometimes that awareness is AMAZING. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it guts you. That emotional intensity means vulnerability and loving enough to be vulnerable means loving enough to be hurt. 

I’ve known great love with friends, lovers, partners and family members. But the love that destroys you, that remakes you in some way…that’s happened twice. I’m not saying I couldn’t feel it again, or that others don’t feel it all the time. I just suspect that, for better or worst, I’ve had that experience and won’t have it again.

Comforting at the time, but wrong. While not every love destroys you, the reality is that, barring complete emotional shutdown, how a love affects you is out of your control.

People die. People leave. Feelings change. While not every love destroys you, any love could if you experience it fully, (which isn’t to say that’s the mark of “real” love. All love is real love. It’s just one way that it can go down). A year ago, that scared me too much to contemplate, so I wove a self-image that helped me feel safe:

Sure, I love. I love like a champ, but I can’t get hurt because everything flammable has already been burned.

Like I said, comforting but wrong. If I can love, I can be hurt. That’s just the way it is for me. So, rather than tell myself pretty stories, I can acknowledge my vulnerability and get on with it. It’s not exactly comforting but it’s honest and, at this point, honesty, even painful honesty, is better than the illusion that I won’t get hurt again.

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. 

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 10.36.51 AM

Love is Not a Pie

“Love is not a pie, honey. I love you and Ellen differently because you are different people […]. I don’t choose between you. And it’s the same way with Daddy and Bolivar. People think that it can’t be that way, but it can. You just have to find the right people.”

-Amy Bloom, Come to Me.

Art deco ad for a German cabaret for Love is Not a Pie post by Malin James

What if the woman in red were his wife?

Reading Amy Bloom’s story, “Love is Not a Pie”, was my first encounter with something like polyamory. Bloom didn’t call it “polyamory” or even “non-monogamy”. It was just a woman’s relationship with her long-term lover—a relationship supported by her husband because, for those characters, “love it not a pie”—there’s enough to go around.

In the scene that most stayed with me, the narrator’s father and her mother’s lover take a nap together, exhausted by grief over the death of the woman they both love. They lean on each other because they are the only two people in the world who can understand the immediacy and depth of the other’s loss. That, to me, makes sense. Those are good, healthy loves.

Sometimes I forget that what I experience as normal is not, in fact, the norm. When I look at the image above, I don’t see a man checking out a hottie behind his wife’s back. I wonder if the hottie in red is his wife…or the woman in black’s mistress. It does me no credit, but I tend to walk around in a sort of bubble, protected against the unconventional nature of my relationships by a community that is fundamentally accepting.

As a result, I get lulled into a false sense of normalcy. Of course, my husband has had girlfriends (one of them even became my bridesmaid). Of course, I go to London to see my boyfriend-partner-person. Of course, my boyfriend-partner-person has other emotionally committed relationships. It’s a lifestyle that feels healthy, honest, and stable because, to me, love is neither a pie nor a competition. In fact, The Other Livvy wrote an excellent piece about precisely that.

For all that though, sometimes I’m reminded that what I take for granted is, for some people, unconventional, unhealthy, and pretty confounding. I bring this up because I’ve gotten a surprising number of questions about the status of one of my relationships recently. After talking it over with Exhibit A (my partner in that relationship), I’ve decided to write a post addressing some of the questions / curiosities people have put to me.

Without getting into specifics, the issues are generally this:

  1. How can you love two people at the same time?
  1. How can you maintain different, emotionally connected relationships without one of those relationships suffering?

Before I launch into my thoughts, Exhibit A has been good enough to let me share his take on the subject….

Most of us are brought up with pretty traditional – and narrow – ideas about the nature of love and relationships. We’re taught that romantic love at least is finite, and acceptable only when focused on one person at a time. I struggled with that perceived constraint for a long time – it didn’t fit how I felt, but I also couldn’t see a way around it, and the relationships I formed suffered as a result.

Over the last few years, I’ve learned to take a more fluid, open view of love. Forming a primary bond with one person doesn’t preclude maintaining equally deep, valid, loving connections with other partners – indeed, as long as there is good communication, openness and honesty, each relationship actually supports and enhances the other. Not only am I much happier as a result of finding that out, I’m a better partner too, and finally feel like I’m able to express my feelings in a way that works for me.

-Exhibit A

The notion of fluidity that Exhibit A mentions is important. There are no guarantees in poly relationships, just as there are no guarantees in life. There is only the desire to take care of the people you love, and part of that care is allowing your relationships (and those of your partners) to change and grow.

For example, while my husband, James, and I have always been non-monogamous, we temporarily closed our relationship once. Of course, it helped that neither of us were in serious relationships at the time, but even if we had been, those other relationships would have been considered in that decision and quite possibly maintained, even if new relationships weren’t started. The key is open communication with everyone involved so that each relationship is allowed to grow and shift naturally.

Now, to bring it back around to the first of the two questions –  how can you genuinely love two people at the same time?

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure—it’s a bit like asking the caterpillar how it walks. All I can say is that it is possible though I think it has a great deal to do with how a person is wired and the nature of the relationships they find themselves in. Some relationships are safer and more emotionally supportive than others. I’ve been very lucky in that all of my serious poly relationships have been, with one exception, remarkably healthy, so my natural tendency to love / lust simultaneously has been positively reinforced.

The second question is easier to pin down. In fact, I suspect it might be simpler to address the first question through the second. The way you maintain two (or more) relationships without letting one negatively affect the other(s) is to engage your relationships honestly. Not every relationship will be a long-term love – some will be casual and some will run deep, but they all deserve respect and a certain level of investment. In other words, you need to feed the connection you have to each of your partners regardless of what’s happening in your other relationships. Here’s an example….

My roles as a wife and mother, while being an integral part of who I am, don’t negate my role as a partner in my other relationship. My relationship with Exhibit A doesn’t threaten my marriage (or vice versa) because James and I laid a foundation of trust and communication very early on. My marriage doesn’t threaten the health of my commitment to Exhibit A for the same reason, and it’s for that same reason that his other relationship(s) don’t detract from mine with him.

A lot of how polyamory works (or fails to work) has to do with a person’s motives for being in an open relationship to begin with. I’m not with Exhibit A because of some lack in my marriage. I’m with him because we share a genuine (and pretty fucking awesome) connection. That’s important because if I were using our relationship as an escape hatch for problems at home, both my marriage and my relationship to Exhibit A would be on pretty shaky ground. Instead, both are rock solid, existing side by side without one detracting from the other because one isn’t supplementing a lack and vice versa.

To that end, feeling secure in both of my relationships is the critical factor. That sense of security makes accepting and embracing Exhibit A’s (and James’s) other partner(s) a natural and happy thing, because I trust that our foundation is solid regardless of who or how he loves.

Admittedly, the only reason any of this works is because there is genuine love, attraction and connection on all sides, and because the principle relationships involved are emotionally committed and have been for some time. In addition to honest attempts at communication, everyone involved has genuinely good intentions. No one is angling, lying or undermining. While we don’t exist in a utopia where birds talk and mice do your laundry, everyone is honestly trying their best, and that counts for a lot (don’t ever discount how important awesome metamours are).

So, all of this is a long way of saying that you love whoever you love and the loves you feel are specific to each person. Sometimes that means falling in love with two (or more) people at the same time. If you’re, lucky, you’re able to love without losing anyone. And if you’re extremely lucky, you’re able to establish healthy, honest relationships that change and grow (if a relationship is what you want).

I know that isn’t normal. In fact, it’s rare enough that I’m extremely grateful for it, but it’s also not impossible. Because, sometimes, in some relationships, love is not a pie.

Being Haunted

View from the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill

View from the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill

This past weekend, James (my husband) and I went into town for our 10th anniversary. We live less than an hour outside of San Francisco, but for much of our twelve year relationship we lived in the city proper. It’s still our favorite place, so rather than take a bigger, going-away type vacation for our 10th, we decided it would be more fun to go into the city, stay in a hotel and enjoy our old haunts.

I don’t write much about my marriage, not because I’m trying to hide it but because I feel very protective of it (as I do with all of my close relationships). The truth is that things have not always been easy for us. In fact, things were pretty hard (though not in the way people might assume for a non-monogamous marriage). Our beginning was complicated and that set the tone for many years.

One of those complications is a former lover. Let’s call him Patrick. I’ve mentioned him in passing before, most recently here. Patrick and James were good friends when James and I started dating. I started seeing Patrick and his partner several months later. James had his own relationship with them, so the four of us made a very happy quad for about six months. Then James asked me to marry him and it all began to deteriorate.

I’m going to skip details here because this relationship has pounds of material in it and not all of it is relevant. Suffice it to stay, my relationship with Patrick became toxic just as my relationship with James was flourishing. The abuse was subtle – Patrick never hit me or left marks. He never did anything that would raise red flags. He was too smart for that.  Everything was intensely reasonable and impossible to argue. He was a lovely steel-trap.

When James and I told him we were engaged, what had been a good secondary relationship took on a different tone. Patrick decided that if James was getting what he later called “an official claim”, he deserved an even bigger one. Apparently, he’d been biding his time, waiting for me to leave my nice, stable primary. When I didn’t, he quietly and systematically went about cutting me off from the portions of my life that didn’t revolve around him – everything from my work and studies to my family and James. Why did I let that happen? Because I didn’t realize what he was doing until much later.

This is incredibly difficult for me to admit. Even now, when I read over that last paragraph I think, what a fucking idiot. Where are your boundaries, girl? All I can say is that I went into this situation distracted by serious, pre-existing problems. By the time it was bad enough for me to notice, I was in quite deep.

So, why didn’t I leave Patrick when I realized how bad it was? For all the regular reasons. I loved him and I didn’t know how. It was like standing at the edge of a cliff, knowing I had to jump but not being able to. Something had to push me. The thing that finally did was realizing how reflexively I’d begun to lie and hide my stress from James, because he and Patrick remained friends after the quad failed. I was weaving excuses because I knew things with Patrick were fucked up. That’s when I finally left.

I broke up with Patrick abruptly, via text, because I knew if I spoke to him he would try to reason me back. I felt immense relief when it was done and a general sense that everything  was okay. A few months later, Patrick and I had tea. The dust had settled by then and it seemed that closure would be good. So I sat across from him at one of my favorite cafes and we had a very civilized conversation in which he told me that he had seriously considered killing me after I left him.

I realize that sounds like a melodramatic threat, but it was not. Not from him. He told me because he meant it. What’s more, he wanted credit for not doing it. The truth is, he could have done anything to me at any time and there was nothing I could have done to protect myself. He was not a “bad boy”. I’ve never liked bad boys. He was, however, a legitimately bad man. Civilized, yes. But only insofar as it suited his ego. He was the sort of man who would put a knife to your throat to prove that you could trust him. I know, because he did that too. And no, that is not the point at which I decided to leave. It took me close to another year. Thankfully, he decided not to follow through on the impulse he had after I left, mostly (he informed me) out of respect for James. He spoke as though my life were a token of his enduring respect for his friend, a fact that still nauseates me. I haven’t seen him since.

That was roughly 10 years ago, very shortly after James and I got married. In a way, our wedding anniversary is the anniversary of my leaving Patrick too and, as with all anniversaries, it ended up being a good time for reflection. This may sound unlikely, but there are things about that relationship that I’m intensely grateful for. Because of Patrick, I know I’m freakishly cool under pressure and that I tend towards anger instead of fear. He was the first person who showed me how to play with my dominant sexual impulses. And because of Patrick, I know that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, you can still get played. As a result, I have a fantastically low tolerance for bullshit and manipulation, balanced by a weirdly tenacious compassion for most of the people who try. They can fuck off forever, but I still can’t hate them. I’ve been gamed by the best. I have no patience for also-ran’s.

I’ve often wondered, in the intervening years, what I would do if I ran into Patrick again. I’d like to think I’d be distant and cordial. I’d like to think I could pull that off. For better or worse, I am not the same woman who was so thoroughly taken in by a charming sociopath that she almost lost herself. But I haven’t been tested. I haven’t seen him, so I can’t really know, which brings me back to this week-end in San Francisco with James.

There are parts of the city where we just don’t go, because they are crowded with the past. A bar here, a restaurant there…. While I don’t fear Patrick anymore, there are still places that feel cold and aversive because of him. He’s a ghost – after ten years, he’s still a ghost. I resent that this relationship still has the power to haunt me.

The fact is that whenever we go into the city, I could see him. But over this week-end, for the first time, that possibility filled me with impatience rather than dread. While I’m not idiot enough to seek him out,  it’s time to undo those last, tiny, persistent hooks – the ones that make my skin crawl whenever I walk down certain streets. I’ll be honest, I would be perfectly happy to never see Patrick again. I fact, I would prefer it. But if I should run into him some day, it would be worth it to snip the final thread and exorcise that ghost.

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 relatively selective. 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 but that’s because I don’t date casually. 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 fuck 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 current partner this fall.

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.

On Jealousy

Occasionally, I’ll invite a thinker or writer whom I respect to come on and do a guest post on a particular topic. This guest post on jealousy, by @modern_apostacy, comes with the perspective and clarity of a considered mind, and the experience of a person who understands non-monogamy from a practical point of view. Enjoy…

I remember sitting in bed once, with a woman’s head resting on my left shoulder.  She was not my primary lover.  As I was gently brushing her hair back from her face with my fingertips, she was listening, lazily, to the sound of my primary lover having sex with her primary lover on the sofa across the room.  About the time I’d finished tucking her hair behind her ear, this other man was just burying his hand up to the wrist inside the woman I cared for more than anything else in the world, who cried out “Oh, God!” and proceeded to buck & scream loudly.  Almost a minute(!) later, she finally collapsed into the sofa, breathing raggedly.  Afterwards, I watched her clutch onto him tightly for a long time, watched her rest, quaking, in this other man’s arms.

Pretty interesting, so far as memories go.  One of the things that’s really interesting, in retrospect, is that neither of us on the bed were at all disturbed by the intense moment that had just transpired between our lovers.  On seeing one’s lover ravished by another, most people would have felt anguish, rage or humiliation.  We felt none of that, which is actually pretty typical for the polyamorous.  One might wonder how that might be, and the answer, more than anything else, is that polyamorous people are connoisseurs of jealousy.  Some polyamorous people feel a twinge of jealousy every now and then, and others are vexed by it constantly, as if jealousy were a wayward mosquito one wished would go away.  Irrespective of the particulars, jealousy is something poly folks deeply understand.

Envy, the condition of seeing that someone has something that one lacks, and feeling pained by the lack, can be a highly productive emotion.  Musicians, athletes, writers, and other people of all stripes find themselves driven to achieve what they see others enjoying.  Envy by itself is value-neutral, not the green eyed monster that it’s often made out to be.  Combine envy with hope, and you get aspiration.  Combine envy with humility and you get admiration.  This sort of combinatorics holds true on the negative side of our emotional ledgers as well: envy and despair produce bitterness, for example.

At first blush, it would seem that jealousy, especially in a sexual context, doesn’t quite fit this analysis: if I have difficulty with the notion of my lover having sex with someone else, it can’t be that this someone else has something I lack — the woman in question is already my lover.  In this hypothetical situation, I’m not reacting to witnessing something I lack, I’m putatively unhappy with someone else also having what I have — not wanting to share.  As any parent can attest, love is not a sandwich: sharing love doesn’t diminish it, it strengthens and deepens it.  So, something deeper is clearly going on with jealousy.

If one attends sufficiently to the feelings inherent in jealousy, one finds that the emotional cloud comprising jealousy has a sense of risk, of danger.  It’s terribly unsettling.  The reason for this is that jealousy isn’t rooted in the present, but in the future.  Relationship jealousy is an extrapolation of present feelings and circumstances to the anticipation of envy and loss — it’s primarily a present anticipation of future grief.

At its core, jealousy is caused by insecurity.  Very often, this insecurity is illusory, and is simply a lack of confidence in one’s self.  Other times, the insecurity inherent in jealousy is based on known but unacknowledged instability within one’s main relationship.

For example, in many cases, marriages end not when one of the married folks starts having sex with another person, but long before that, when a spouse who is lacking emotional intimacy with his or her mate starts to find this need readily met in another person.  As time goes by, the cheating person’s emotional focus drifts until the marriage becomes not much more than a background technicality — by the time sexual “cheating” occurs, the core of the marriage has long since become dry rot.  A person with such a dessicated marriage might be quite prone to jealousy, and would be wise to heed the warning that his or her jealousy provides.  Perhaps the relationship can be fixed; perhaps it cannot.  Regardless of the particulars, in this kind of situation, the warning of jealousy is serving a valid and useful role.

This scenario, by the way, is not solely the province of the monogamous.  Open relationships, should they be taken for granted, are equally susceptible to this sort of emotional drift, and a poly person who neglects his or her primary relationship in favor of his or her secondary relationships isn’t going to be happy with the long-term results.

Mostly, though, for the polyamorous and monogamous alike, jealousy is not a warning sign flashing “Hey buddy, your relationships out of whack!”.  Most of the time, jealousy results from more garden-variety insecurities.  Sometimes, a jealous person might be willing to let his or her current lover go, except for lack of confidence that they might be able to find a replacement.  Other times, one might feel that one’s lover is more desirable than one’s self, whether due to clinically realistic analysis or having put one’s lover up on a pedestal.

In most of these situations, the jealousy that one feels isn’t signalling that a real problem exists, but rather that one has more personal growth to undergo.  The more that one understands one’s own emotional landscape and is able to rectify unreasonable insecurities, or, at least to recognize them as present but undesirable aspects of one’s self, the more that one is freed from jealousy’s sting.  For many, jealousy completely disappears; for others, it remains, but loses its power to disrupt, like a mild headache when the barometer falls.

In the polyamorous community, jealousy is very much disrespected.  Poly folks instead advocate an emotion they call “compersion”, which can essentially be summed up as joy resulting from witnessing one’s lover in a happy relationship, generally in a sexual context, but not exclusively so.  If the thought of one’s lover being pleased (or pleasured) by another fills one’s heart with warm fuzzies, that’s a great thing.  But just because an opposite of jealousy is espoused in the poly community doesn’t mean that jealousy deserves the disrespect that it gets.

The problem isn’t that jealousy arises: the problem lies in how jealousy is handled.  Jealousy is a great indicator that something, either small or large, isn’t right.  One should never blindly obey a negative emotion, especially a socially destructive one, but nor should one bury one’s head in the sand, either.  Consider jealousy to be like a car’s “check engine” light — safe to ignore if you know the situation’s trivial, unsafe to ignore otherwise.  The upside of doing the hard work of understanding one’s jealousy is that one can become completely liberated from it.  By heeding jealousy, we grow free of it, and are able to adore our lovers passions purely, without fretting over where we fit in.