Category Archives: relationships

wanting, willing… open!

One of my earliest posts on the blog was about responsive desire, the phenomenon of not being really interested in sex until sex (or something sexy) has already started. It’s crucially important to understand this, since the mistaken belief that “desire” is “supposed” to be spontaneous – like, you’re walking down the street or having lunch and you go, “Hm! Sex please!” – can cause a person to believe that if they have responsive desire they’re BROKEN. And if people believe they’re broken, then you get into medicalization of what is in fact perfectly normal, healthy, functional sexuality.

It’s also an important concept in the context of consent. In an ideal world we’d all be able to consent when we’re definitely into it, but it’s just true that sometimes you only get into it after it has already started. I tried out the idea of calling this willing consent, following Suzanne Iasenza framework of “wanting” sex (spontaneous) versus “willing” to have sex (responsive).

But that language often feels uncomfortable for people; there’s too much room for passive aggressive “YesokayFINE” in the word “willing.” Like, “if you MUST,” rather than, “Sure, let’s see what happens.”

But I was talking with a student who both is in my class and works in my office, about responsive desire, which I had just covered in class the night before. I was talking to her about this problem in the language of “willingness,” and she said, “It’s more like OPENNESS.”

And with that word, an entire world cracked open.

Being “open” sex is connotes a kind of readiness, appreciation, porousness, and connection that “willing” just doesn’t quite get.

If you’re a responsive desire person, if you mostly begin wanting sex only when sexy things are already happening, you can frame your sexuality as “open” – to possibility, to invitation, perhaps even to persuasion. And where persuasion enters the picture, my controversially tepid advice is Go. Slow. If you just maybe wanna do something, try it out, and go slow. Keep monitoring your internal experience for what feels good and what feels uncomfortable. And remember that just becomes something feels sexually arousing doesn’t mean it feels GOOD: when it’s right, it’ll feel both arousing and emotionally certain.

My main problem now, really, is finding a word for “wanting” that sounds AS GOOD as “openness.” Wanting is so much sadder and desperate than openness!

But surely you, dear internet, will help me find a better word?

it’s not the money

The romantic euphamism is doing a Kickstarter project related to his comic, and it has been wildly successful, funded 1,000% over its original goal in the first 8 (out of 30) days, so you can rest assured that I’m not writing a post about it because he, like, desperately needs more support:

(If you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, it’s crowdsourcing site to fund creative projects. If you’re an artist with a creative idea that needs funding, it’s a fabulous tool.)

I just wrote a post about being a highly educated woman and the impact that has on my relationships – or at least on the way my relationships are perceived. And, ya know, I’ve got a jobby job, I go to an office and I write annual reports and I sit on committees. My life looks pretty grown-up, all things considered. I have benefits. A retirement plan. And here I am with this guy who makes his living DRAWING A COMIC STRIP. And you don’t have to tell me that comics aren’t just Dilbert and Garfield, I totally know, but really. Take that one home and introduce it to your mom, who’s been worried about you for the past 6 years while you floundered in singledom. It just doesn’t SOUND very promising.

(Actually my mom really likes him.)

So here I am, with my jobby job and my biweekly paycheck, attached to this person who, let’s face it, doesn’t have a retirement plan. And then along comes Kickstarter, with its financial exhibitionism….

Kickstarter looks like it’s about money, right? With its percent funded statistics and its system of pledges and rewards.

But the money part of it is a mask for the substance of the experience.

And I’m telling you, the substance of the experience has been kind of a turn on.

His creativity, his humor, his excited commitment to the project are all things I love about him, and there they all are, posted in public. And there are 700+ people in the world ready to pay for that creativity, humor, and excitement, to get something they would eventually be able to get for free. Why? Well there are people who commented along the lines of, “I have no idea who you are and never read your comic, but your Kickstarter is so funny I had to back it.”

They all share a little fragment of what I experience every day.

I have watched the Kickstarter for 7 days. I have created Excel spreadsheets to analyse the performance of various incentive levels relative to Kickstarter’s averages. It’s been a fun project to work on together – me doing all the mathy part, him doing all the creative part. And I’ve been dazzled all over again, brand new, like I was when we met.

It’s not the money, it’s the brilliant. It’s the funny. Long before we met, I wrote that humor is my number one mate choice characteristic. Well, now I let a professional comedian walk my dog.

Thinking about sex and relationships is part of what I do for a living, so I can’t help considering the larger meaning of my individual experience.

Could it be that the narrative that women are turned on by money be a misconstruction (by the men, who create the narrative), boiling the intelligence, humor, social abilities, and creativity of a guy down to the monetary reward that might, but doesn’t usually, go with it?

Could the standard “evolutionary” thinking that female humans are seeking a “provider” for their offspring be totally off-target, and actually what female humans want is not a provider of food and shelter, but a provider of inspiration, intellectual engagement, insight, humor? (Could it also be that what women want is context dependent? Why yes, I think so.)

My brother is a creative genius too, but only recently has he been able to make any kind of a living out of that work. And my dad, in his way, has that arty vibe. And both of them were supported by organized, intelligent, and (cultural conditions permitting) educated women.

No no. It’s not about the money. It’s the brilliant. It’s the funny.


So, I’ve been thinking about bullying lately – specifically girl bullies.

I just wrote this post about how to communicate, ending with the thought that, in addition to being able to tell someone how their behavior makes you feel, you really need to be able to HEAR when someone tells you how your behavior makes them feel.

Well now. For some people, asserting one’s feelings and needs is the hard part, and for other people, taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions (especially in the form of someone else’s hurt feelings) is the hard part.

Which is where bullying comes in.

Boiled down to nothing, the dynamics among girls are such that it’s not okay to tell someone you’re angry with them or hurt by them, because then you’re “in a fight,” and the other girl will rope in friends to side against you, she’ll escalate your offences in order to maintain those friends’ alliance, and they’ll use that alliance to isolate and stigmatize you.

Eventually one of you will apologize, and whoever apologizes “loses.” They capitulated.

It’s a zero-sum world where only one person is allowed to be hurt at a time, and usually that person is the one with greater social capital.

The alpha girls (“queen bees”) of this scenario are characteristically uninterested in taking responsibility for another person’s hurt feelings, insisting that that person is “too sensitive” or has blown everything out of proportion. She feels entitled to take revenge when someone hurts her, but judges and shames anyone who attempts revenge on her or even tries to communicate with her that she hurt them.

In other words, she is TERRIBLE at hearing that her behavior made someone feel bad, and she has the social capital to punish the other person for saying anything.

What on earth do we do to get this person to listen?

Better question: what is it that’s preventing her from listening?

1. It sucks to feel that you’ve hurt someone’s feelings; it doesn’t align with your vision of yourself as a good person. If you perceive yourself as a good person AND you’re very popular, doesn’t that prove you’re a good person and therefore this other person must be wrong?

2. Apologizing is capitulating, losing – specifically, losing social capital, which is the primary currency among these groups. There is more to lose (in the short term) by acknowledging responsibility for hurting this person than there is by pushing blame on to the target.

3. For some people it genuinely does not compute, this notion that you’re NOT actually allowed to do anything you want. Especially when you’re popular. “I’m allowed to do what I want and if she doesn’t like it, she can suck on it,” is what feels fundamentally true to the alpha girl.

4. In these cultures, negative feelings are viewed as weapons: simply to FEEL BAD is to hurt those around you. It’s a classic emotion dismissing framework, where people are punished simply for feeling hurt or angry or sad or lonely or overwhelmed. In such a culture, for me to say to you, “When you do X, that hurts my feelings” is to HURT YOU. I threw my hurt all over you, like vitriol, and therefore you’re allowed to do whatever you need to defend yourself.

What to do about it. Just as with other forms of violence, it’s perfectly reasonable for a person to learn to protect themselves, but prevention really lies with the perpetrator: to prevent bullying or any form of emotional abuse, potential bullies/alpha girls/whatever MUST learn to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

I don’t know how to do this. But if you’re a person who has believed that you’re allowed to do what you like and it’s not your fault if it hurts people, understand that there are rules about what is okay or not in a fight:

1. No name calling of any kind. No “bitch” or “asshole” or anything.
2. No physical touch when either person is angry.
3. No ultimatums or threats, including “I’m going to leave you” while either person is angry or upset
4. Your feelings do not entitle you to anything.
5. If someone says your behavior made them feel something, your first job is to believe them. They are reporting true and important information.

And finally:

The social rules you learned in school or from your parents are not necessarily the ones that will serve you well in life. If you cling to those old rules because they are familiar, you will be trapped in the same pattern of relationships you’ve always experienced. If you are satisfied and content with those relationships, okay. If you would like to improve your relationships, it’s time to find some new rules to follow.

how to talk about feelings.

Did a relationship talk today. Walked away realizing that I really ought to have spent the entire 50 minutes having them practice the basic sentence we all need to know in order to solve conflict in relationships:

“When you say/do X, I feel Y.”

Not blame, not anger, just a statement of reality. It just happens to be true that “When you X, I feel Y.”

That sentence is the single one that you need to communicate with your partner when they’re doing something that hurts you.

If their response is anything other than, “Oh I see, what you’re saying is that when I X, you feel Y” (i.e., anything other than reflection that they understood and have empathy), then what you do is: repeat yourself.

“No, listen. I need you to understand this. I need you to understand that when you X, I feel Y.”

“But I –”

“I need to know that you heard this, and I can’t talk about anything else until I know that. When you X, I feel Y. Can you just say that back to me, so I know you heard it?”

“Of course I heard it. What I want to say is –”

“No. Listen. Please. I really need to hear you say it back, so that I know for sure you get what I’m saying.”

“You don’t think I understood?”

“I just need to hear you say it back to me. When you X, I feel Y.”

“When I X, you feel Y.”

“That’s right. When you X, I feel Y.”

“Well but that’s not my fault! You’re the one who…[whatever].”

“But the fact remains that when you X, I feel Y.”

“…Well… Well, what do you want me to do about it?”

And then you can figure that part out together. But it starts with knowing that your partner actually understands what the problem is.

The other key skill, of course, is being able to say, “When I X, you feel Y” too.

what your dog needs, your partner needs

Ugh. So this has been me sick in bed with some horrible plague that’s going around campus. TWO WEEKS of snot and aching and struggling to keep my lungs where they belong, in the face of great resistance on the part of said lungs. UGH!!

Anyway. That’s how I’ve been lately. How are you?

calm submissive

While I’ve been lying in bed, I’ve been listening to John Bradshaw’s Dog Sense, which is chock full of fascinating stuff about the science of dogs, how they evolved, how they develop, how they learn, etc. It’s not a training book, isn’t trying to be a training book, but it does offer critiques of various training methods, inevitably supporting Ian Dunbar’s positive reinforcement approach and maligning Cesar Millan as scientifically deficient. Which is true, Dunbar totally has the science and Cesar has no science.

Then yesterday I completed a mandatory online sexual harassment training and I had the response that I imagine Ian Dunbar has when he hears Cesar talk about dog psychology: “GAAAH! NOOOOO, THAT’S NOT RIGHT OH MY GOD THIS IS GONNA MAKE PEOPLE WHO DON’T KNOW BETTER THINK ALL KINDS OF WEIRD THINGS!!!”

But. I mean. Maybe it’s okay?

A while ago I wrote me and Cesar Millan. I read his stuff and watched his show when I got a dog. I read Ian Dunbar’s book too, and watched lots of his videos, and it was helpful – ish. He taught me how to shape my dog’s behavior through reward and denial of reward. Nice.

But Dunbar’s advice was to get a puppy that had had lots of contact with humans, and train it from scratch. Which I didn’t do. I did what every dog advocate in the world would want me to do: I adopted a 7 year old dog that had been tortured and then had lived in an orphanage for 5 years. He had fears and insecurities and poor social skills and worse leash manners.

So what did I learn from Cesar Millan’s book that I didn’t learn from the science? I learned that my dog needs me to create a stable, secure psychological structure, so that he knows where he belongs in the world. I learned that needs me to stay calm. I learned WHY being calm and patient is important, which motivated me to do it. It turns out that reason is technically wrong, but it’s close enough to be very very helpful.

As a person who is wrapping up writing a guide about relationships (it’ll be available sometime in February I think, at, this is a really useful bit of insight:

Just because something is grounded in the best science (Ian Dunbar) doesn’t mean it’s the thing that will be most helpful to people in an imperfect situation. And just because something is technically wrong doesn’t mean it doesn’t carry the important message.

It’s weird for me because I LOVE science and I share with John Bradshaw a puzzlement that the people who get TV shows as “experts” are hardly ever the people with academic credentials and scientific expertise. Yet the guy with the credentials and the expertise (Dunbar) hasn’t been anything like as helpful to me in having a positive relationship with me dog as the guy with unsubstantiated ideas but a dazzlingly useful approach (Millan).

So maybe – maybe – the sexual harassment program, despite being wrong, is actually helpful for people who don’t know about these kinds of things.

I can’t even tell you how foreign that idea is to me.

My guide is all science. I think (I hope!) it’s also really helpful. It happens to have very much the same message about human relationships as Cesar has about dog relationships: stay calm, listen, don’t assume that what your partner needs is the same as what you need, and don’t make your feelings more important (or less important) than your partner’s.

And if the science doesn’t work, turn to folk wisdom. I’ve also been watching a lot of West Wing, and there’s a whole episode grounded in Ephesians: “Be subject to one another.”

If you can’t do it because the science says so, maybe do it because it’s in the frackin’ Bible.


’tis the season

This year I’m participating in the annual Hot Chocolate Run here in western Mass, which benefits Safe Passage, our local domestic violence shelter.

It’ll be me and 5,499 others, running or walking through the relatively affluent streets of Northampton, MA, to raise money and awareness around intimate partner violence.

Shall I give you some statistics to explain why?

One in four women is a target/victim of domestic/intimate partner violence in her lifetime, distributed about equally across all ethnic groups. IPV is more common in urban areas than rural or suburban areas, and women aged 20-24 are at the highest risk.

Domestic/intimate partner violence disproportionately victimizes women: 85% of survivors are women; 15% are men. Only about 1 in 5 women (1 in 10 men) reports their abuse to the police.

Half of men who frequently abuse their wives also frequently abuse their children.

In about half of all battering relationships, one of the weapons used is sex; sexual assault occurs in about 45% of violent relationships.

IPV increases with unemployment. The national unemployment rate is 9%, roughly double what it was before the economy did a nosedive in 2008.

And domestic violences increases around the holidays. Really, it does. ‘Tis the season.

And yet Safe Passage, like so many shelters and support agencies, has to raise money with a fun run, rather than having guaranteed, permanent federal, state, and local government funding. Which seems shameful to me.

There are lots of worthy causes out there – animal shelters, global poverty, global hunger, reproductive rights, climate change, wildlife conservation, the list goes on.

For me, this is one where I can see the difference my little contribution makes, right here in my neighborhood.

Click the Hot Chocolate Run icon on your right (or right here) to “pledge” for me for the hot chocolate run, or donate directly to Safe Passage.

Or find the shelter that’s in your area (you can start by looking here) and donate to them.

Or talk with your friends and family about pooling holiday gift money to support a cause rather than buy each other more crap and carbohydrates. Last year my sister and her family gave a goat, and then she got the kids little goat-themed stuff, like t-shirts and body lotion.

And finally, if you think your relationship might be abusive, or if you don’t feel safe in your relationship, click here.

this is what sexy looks like

So it was frickin’ freezing this morning when I went to run the dog. Literally. It was 30 degrees.

So I piled on the thermals and the earwarmers and the legwarmers and the gloves and I pulled a windproof skirt over my fleecy yoga pants, plus a neck gaiter, and I pulled a neon yellow cycling shirt over all that (a color a former boyfriend once called “don’t-hit-my-daughter yellow,” because my dad bought it for me).

Just imagine that for a second. Fleecy pants with legwarmers and knee-length windproof skirt, black thumbhole thermal shirt, black gloves, gray earwarmers, black floral neck gaiter, and a fluorescent yellow long-sleeve fleece-lined mock turtleneck. And white-and-pink minimal running shoes. On a body that has spent 34 years loving cheese and chocolate, as well as dancing and rock climbing.

Now imagine that outfit stepping out into the dark and cold of 6:30am in late October in New England, onto the frozen wooden front steps… and INSTANTLY sliding ass-first down the stairs, to bump skull against stair.

I just lay there on my ass for a minute, in that dark and cold.

I lay there sprawled and checking in with all my various body parts (none of which were injured), while the dog waited for me at the far end of his leash, and I thought, “This is what sexy looks like.”

See, I’m a REALLY good dog mom, to pile on all those clothes at that time of day, to run with 65 pounds of shedding, slobbering attention-hog. It makes him happy. And making the dog happy is part of how the romantic euphemism can tell I’m a nice person, as sexy on the inside as I am on the outside. It’s the emotional, personality equivalent of pneumatic tits and a bouncy ass.

And so I ran with the dog, just a couple miles, and I picked up his poop and ran him home and fed him breakfast. Then he went back to bed and I went to work. And this right now, me sitting at my desk, having spent the day talking with students, this is what sexy looks like. Sexy smells a little of coffee and local, heritage apples.

And later tonight – SO late, not til 8:30pm – when I get home at last and the euphemism is waiting for me on the couch, with that shedding, slobbering dog asleep at his side, that’s what sexy looks like too. It looks like white dog hair on an army surplus jacket, and like root vegetable curry warming in a crock pot. And also like 6 feet of brilliant, funny, tolerant, patient, generous, sexytime boy, let’s not forget that.

I want to make my partner come.

So here’s a question I get pretty regularly:

I can’t make my partner come from oral sex. They say they’ve never come from oral sex and that they aren’t particularly interested in it. But I really want to make them come from oral sex. What can I do?

And I get it from everyone, regardless of the genital or gender construction of the asker or their partner.

And part of me is like… “YOUR PARTNER SAID NO! NO MEANS NO!! FOR EVERYBODY!!!!”

And part of me is like, “What is this magical power that orgasm has over people?” I mean, what *is* it about orgasm? I concede that it has powerful sway, culturally; these days, your partner’s orgasm is held up as the holy grail of Competent Lovemaking. And I’m the last person to argue that such a feeling is purely socially constructed. Orgasm definitely is a kind of physiological destination, particularly for the male-bodied among us. Beyond a certain point of arousal, when you’re just a few steps away, your body really does push you along toward orgasm, and arriving at orgasm really is a different kind of experience from non-orgasmic sexual pleasure. All of your physiology changes, with tachycardia and waves of entrained muscle contractions that change your breathing patterns. Orgasm, physiologically, is an EVENT, no question.

And after orgasm, you’re likely (though not guaranteed) to experience yet ANOTHER physiological state, the recovery and/or refraction period of relaxation and general sense of wellbeing – yet another kind of pleasure that sex can bring.

So I get that orgasm is A Thing for people, and that it’s a thing we want to give our partners, the way we want to give them pretty flowers and delicious chocolate treats and jewelry and any other thing that we think is a pleasurable thing to have.

But all these lovely things – orgasms as well as flowers, chocolate, jewelry, and the rest of it – are lovely only if your partner is interested in receiving them, and no amount of You Being Interested in Giving It to Them will make them more interested in receiving them.

Let’s use a metaphor: Suppose you LOVE giving flowers. You LOVE it! You love shopping for them, buying them, carrying them to your partner, handing them over, and seeing the look on their face. You love seeing them in the window the next time you come over. And then suppose that your partner is… well… kinda tired of receiving flowers. They know you love seeing the flowers, so they keep them out, even though they’d really rather just chuck them. The pollen is getting to them and they’re considering taking allergy meds so they can tolerate all this flower-giving. And they’ve tried to hint gently about the things you could bring that might be more relevant, meaningful, or tolerable to them, but you’re just so STUCK on giving flowers, that they can’t get the message heard without feeling rude.

It’s like that with orgasm. There are lots of beautiful ways to give pleasure. And orgasm, though a lovely destination, is not always easy to get to, and if it’s difficult to get to, sometimes you’d rather just go someplace that also lovely and not such hard frickin’ work. (Another metaphor: the Cape! A lovely place, but is it worth a 3-hour drive in Labor Day weekend traffic, when you could just stay home and watch Netflix? You see what I’m saying?)

“I want to make my partner come,” is this very sweet and beautiful sentiment, but it’s only really relevant if it’s accompanied by “… and my partner wants me to make them come.” Otherwise it’s just creating a dynamic where they feel obligated.

I mentioned in a recent post that insisting that making a partner come is a purely generous sentiment – “I want to make them feel good!” – is either delusional or misguided. If you really just wanted to make them feel good, you can do that LOTS of ways that don’t necessarily involve orgasm. If you want to make them feel good, lick them until their toes curl, by all means, OR give them a back massage or do the dishes for them or tell them what makes them the awesome, heart-stopping person they are.

If you want to make them COME, that’s something else. That’s wanting to make them come. That’s your desire. Try not to confuse your desire with theirs.

more on being nice.

affectionate tigers

I’m looking at the relationship talk feedback and noting that someone was looking for more details about, essentially, how to fight with their partner.

A difficulty in giving relationship advice is that it’s actually very simple to say, while it’s often very (and sometimes very, VERY) difficult to use.

Example: preventing escalation in an argument is quite simple. You just stay nice to your partner. Simple.

Yet not always easy.

In a previous post, I write about the importance of being nice to each other, and I said that the biggest reasons we sometimes fail to be nice to our partners is that we get stressed out, which shuts down both our capacity to listen empathically and our senses of humor, which are totally necessary in order to be nice. So to fight effectively, you just be nice, which is approximately the same as saying, you just stay calm. As in:

1. Start out gentle.
2. When you feel criticized, take time to relax.
3. End with positive stuff.

Now, this all feels pretty simple, I think, but it’s quite contrary to what a lot of people think of as “a fight.” Like for a lot of people a fight starts with something like, “Dude, you’re late again; you’re always late.” That sentence has no sense of humor, it’s already stressed, it’s critical and even contemptuous.

Why not say instead, “I’m really grateful for how you always call me when you’re on your way home to see if I need you to get anything. There is one thing though, that I’d like to ask for your help with, and that’s being on time. Can we talk about that?” a gentle start up helps your partner stay calm, so that they can continue listening.

Even “I” statements, which every therapist on earth will tell you are A Good Thing, don’t necessarily cut it. “I really need you to be on time” is certainly better than “You’re always late. Stop it.” But tone of voice makes all the difference. “I really need you to be on time,” spoken in a demanding, judgmental, non-negotiating tone of voice just shuts down the discussion. An “I really need you to be on time,” in a gentle and supportive, almost questioning tone helps to prevent the other person from feeling criticized.

You might even say, “I really need you to be on time,” in a tone that pokes gentle fun at your own not-necessarily-ideal need for precision. On-timeness is not a universal need, you see, culturally or individually, so it’s equally valid for your partner to say, “I really need you to relax about being late.” Wouldn’t you rather they said it in a playful, relaxed, gentle way than an aggressive, demanding way?

So what makes it hard to keep stress out of your fights? What makes people resist such simple (if not easy) advice? Seriously, WHY NOT start up gentle?

Well, something I’ve noticed among my students, at any rate, is that they find that Being Nice fails to provide adequate opportunity to express their sense of injustice, anger, and hurt, all of which are absolutely, unquestionably WELCOME in an honest, fair argument. Effectively communicating with anger and hurt about an injustice (e.g., “I was waiting for you for two hours, with grumpy kids, and it’s not fair that I was stuck that way, expecting you to be back to HELP ME!”) requires that your partner be able to listen while ALSO being nice.

But of course your anger could all too easily trigger them to defensiveness, which would lead to escalation.

Being Nice, you see, requires a whole lot of listening and understanding the other person’s story, when quite a lot of what a person wants in a fight is for their OWN story to be understood! “You don’t understand! You’re not LISTENING to me!” is a common battle cry.

ONE OF YOU, either of you, has to back down, sit down, stay calm, and LISTEN to the other one. Let’s call the person who does this Person A.

Here’s the big part: if you find yourself in a position where both of you feel that to be Person A is to “lose,” then you’re in a dangerous position, vis a vis the stability of your relationship. The notion that Being Nice = your partner wins and you lose is a zero-sum construction and it’s an indication that things are QUITE sticky in your conflict.

“I can’t be nice because THEY aren’t being nice!” is a toxic dynamic in the relationship. I’d recommend that you talk to your partner about it (“Honey, I’ve noticed that we’re having a hard time being nice to each other because we’re afraid that if we’re nice the other person will take advantage of it”) but that’s not very useful because, hell, the whole problem is you can’t talk about shit without being defensive.

Well. To keep this post under 1,000 words, I’ll use a shortcut idea – not the only idea by any means (and therapy is always an option!), but a fairly simple one:

Go through your Story-of-Us with your partner. Talk about when you first met and how you got together. Look for fondness and admiration in the narrative. Look for “we-ness,” a sense of us-together, even us-against-others, and look for awareness of each other’s needs and values (“love maps”), and look for a sense of purpose and meaning in your various struggles together. Does it just seem like one random fuck up after another, or have you been collaborating through challenges in a way that helps you each to grow, and helps you grow together? Are you disappointed with your life and your relationship, or do you feel that where you are in life indicates a positive movement toward the life you’ve wanted for yourself and your partner?

If your Story-of-Us is serving its purpose in your relationship, you’ll find that reviewing it helps you to remember that it’s not really a zero-sum; being nice doesn’t mean you lose. Being nice means you BOTH WIN.

And if your Story-of-Us is not serving its purpose? Well. That’s another post.

not if you’re with the right person

A couple people wrote blog posts, some emailed, and one commented that my “Is He a Cheater” assertion that “monogamy is hard” is wrong if (a) you’re with the right person and/or (b) you’re “oriented” toward monogamy.

I’m not even going to touch the “monogamy orientation” idea right now – suffice it to say that there is no such thing as “monogamy orientation,” except perhaps in such a loose conceptualization of either of those two words that no English-speaking human could disagree. Like, sometimes you’re only in love with one person; then monogamy is pretty easy. For some people.

For now, let’s just think about “the right person.” “The right person” implies that a single individual will, at all times and without exception, create an emotional environment in which no one else seems more appealing, or in which you are never tempted to retaliation, “seeing if you can get away with it,” or being beguiled by someone’s crush on you, or in which you feel so sexually satisfied that the idea of sex with someone else fills you eternally with blank indifference or active repugnance.

At its worst, the “not if you’re with the right person” argument can be turned into blaming your partner for your violation of their trust. “If you were more attentive…” or “If we had sex more often…” or, god forbid, “If you were more attractive…” are scofflaw excuses that attempt to make someone else responsible for something that you would otherwise have to feel ashamed of: the betrayal of trust with a person whom, in theory, you love and respect.

It is never your partner’s fault that you broke their trust. And it is never your fault that your partner broke your trust. Everyone always has a choice.

So when does monogamy become hard, even with “the right person”?

In any healthy relationship, there will be phases of close intimacy and communion and others of emotional distance. And if your need for intimacy at any given time happens to coincide with a phase of emotional distance in the relationships… then monogamy is not easy.

And in any relationship there may be people with insecure attachment styles, avoidant or anxious or disorganized, who try to manage distance by keeping their options open (avoidant) or never being able to say no, in case someone goes away, even if that someone is not your partner (anxious).

And in any relationship, there is the risk of getting trapped in a cycle of “zero-sum” thinking and conflict escalation that predicts relationship doom, making it easy to feel that other options are both available and appealing.

I think “not if you’re with the right person” is claimed by people who feel they are, or have been, with the right person. It’s a kind of “It’s easy for ME,” claim, without malice or judgment, just a calm, not to say smug, sense of, “Why would anyone need to look elsewhere if they’re in a good relationship?”

Good relationships have rough patches, and good relationships are simply fundamentally DIFFERENT from NEW relationships; they meet different needs. One does not necessarily preclude the other.

Monogamy is hard. It’s a choice, every day, every moment. It’s not the rightness of your partner but your own evolving sense of the role of your relationship in your life.

I’m not a monogamy advocate. It works for some people, not for others. But whether or not it works is not predicted by being with “the right person,” as though there’s a magical person who can eliminate your motivation for extra-dyadic sexual connection.

Just, ya know, for the record.