Feminism Does Not Ruin Anything; Fairy tales do.


Emer O’Toole’s Ten Things Feminism Has Ruined for Me in the Guardian is a well-written satiric yet sincere read on what feminism has spoiled–mostly fun–for this writer from her cat to Catholicism to marriage and monogamy. While humorous, she raises some insightful conundrums in compromising that space of the political to enter the more relaxed place of “Hey, it ain’t correct, but it feels good, so I’ll just shut my mind off.”  
More than the insights and complaints, I love how she works through her queries in writing, watching the process of working through each dilemma. Here is just one example:
You’re a feminist. You’re questioning the gender-related norms in the world around you, trying to figure out which ones are oppressive (eg, sexual objectification; domestic violence; workplace discrimination) and which ones are OK (lipstick). And you begin to feel that a social system in which people claim rights of sexual ownership over each other’s bodies, and get very angry when these exclusive rights are violated, is a system so deeply imbued with patriarchal capitalist ideology as to make gender equality impossible.
So she recognizes the inherent intransigence of an institution, monogamous marriage, so deeply embedded in the larger socio-economic practice and mindset of a country that values possessions including others’ bodies, which is rife for abuse of women in a patriarchal society.  Men still run things around here. Marriage based on ownership filters down to men owning women and children, which was literally true only about a hundred years ago. Women were chattel as Kate Chopin’s ‘”Story of an Hour” reminds us.
Though, I do not doubt that two people can agree that they each have equal “ownership” rights over each other’s body and enjoy those rights, even with jealousy and possession as the basis of policing that arrangement. Two individuals cognizant of their needs and boundaries and respectful of the same in the other certainly can make monogamy work within the patriarchy of capitalism and monogamy. Like everything, it depends on the people entering into and honoring the agreements they make with continuing communication and monitoring about their arrangement when it is not working.
You take your head out of the theoretical clouds and look at the grounded reality of monogamy. You see lying, cheating, shame, even violence, and you think: is this because of love? Or is it because of the idea that we own the sexual function of the people we love? Love should make us happy (I’m looking at you, Anna Karenina). Yet jealousy, so often an excuse for abuse, is romanticised by the logic of monogamy, while love is vilified. Surely, with compassion, commitment and communication, we can find the courage to love differently. Polyamory is the future!
I do not know that romanticizing jealousy correlates to vilifying love, unless she means generally monogamy leads to jealousy and people focus on the keeping possession of bodies rather than the love that binds each to such an arrangement in the first place. Unless she means that love that someone can give to others is curtailed by having it wrapped up in only one other being. There are so many people one comes across in life, many lovable people, and yet many bargain away their love in an exclusivity contract, which seems rather unnatural and doomed as insurmountably contrived and unnatural.  
Polyamory, she applauds as the solution, though too quickly. The same kind of honesty and open communication, continual monitoring and negotiation that works for monogamy pertains even more so, even more than doubly so, to polyamory where there are more moving parts to consider. More people means more agreements, which inevitably means more of everything good and bad.  Polyamory is not for the lazy or the self-deluded. It is not an excuse to go fuck anyone you want as some do parading under the banner of polyamory. You know who you are. 
Compassion, commitment and communication are a lot of bloody work, though. Primary partners, secondary partners: all replete with complex emotions. Sometimes, at 1am on Friday night, when you just want to be out dancing with your friends but are, instead, “processing” with a partner new to poly, you wonder, ‘When did life become one long conversation about everyone’s feelings?’ You remember being 21, and trying to stop your boyfriend from punching a bloke who asked for your number while he was in the jacks. Brutal, yes, but alluringly simple.
Right. Sometimes you want to just fall back into easy patterns, even ones designed, implemented and perpetuated by patriarchy. The familiarity of it is enticing and the noble notion of chivalry is romanticism we have been fed since birth. 
Conscious choice to engage in agreed to relationship roles is what it is all about. A feminist is someone who believes in entering into relationships of any form or context, personal, career or academic, armed with information and analytical skills to see through the sedimented, unthinking practices of our culture. That practice does not have to be a battle within the self so much as a vigilance, an intellectual awareness directed to many aspects of life, not just spotting abuse. We are not dupes to advertising when we know what advertisers are up to, and yet we submit and purchase what’s for sale knowingly and willingly.  
Relationships of any kind are no different. I may submit my body to my partner’s jealous possession knowing all the implications and consequences thereof, and still sleep at night. The problem is not so much monogamy as much as it is about fairytales’ forever after. Humans want to nail down something for life:  this is the way it’s going to be so that I don’t ever have to think about that again.  It’s an insecurity thing. Again, it takes honesty and constant checking in with the self to see if the same old patterns are actively and consciously working or just mindless habits. That practice of checking in is a constant of good living. That is feminism in practice.

A World with no Mistresses

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credit: http://www.troll.me/images/conspiracy-keanu/

A world without mistresses is a world that prizes honor above all else. This mistress-less world or region or culture raises children not merely to believe in themselves or to obey their parents, but to honor themselves and others.

That is not to imply all mistresses are dishonorable.

What is honor? As a verb (per google), it is to “regard with great respect” and synonymous with “esteem, respect, admire, defer to, look up to; appreciate, value, cherish, adore; reverence, revere, venerate, worship; put on a pedestal.”

It also means “pay public respect to” and is synonymous with “applaud, acclaim, praise, salute, recognize, celebrate, commemorate, commend, hail, lionize, exalt, eulogize, pay homage to, pay tribute to, sing the praises of.”

The second definition is to “fulfill (an obligation) or keep (an agreement).”

The honor that means respect, defer to and appreciate is half the meaning of the honor that eliminates the need for a mistress. For what is it to honor the self?

Honoring self means first knowing the self. Those with self esteem believe the self worthy of curiosity and thereby knowledge. Knowing thyself as the ancients and moderns recommend for a happier life–or more meaningful, anyhow–is key.

To take inventory of the self, one’s traits good and bad, is the first step. It takes honesty, something simple in concept, difficult in practice but is that which makes honor work.

Taking frank inventory is difficult because we delude ourselves, suffer under preconceptions inherited by our parents’ stories and opinions of us that we mistake as our own.

Sometimes we do not know our own voice from others’ in our heads telling us we are kind, pretty or argumentative.

My mother always told me that I needed to have the last word on everything, that I was argumentative.

Did she label me so based on my tendency to challenge or her interpretation and reaction to being questioned? Perhaps that “confrontation” was actually curiosity or clarification by a nervous, perfectionistic kid who wanted to make sure she got everything right. If she told me to do something and I asked “Why?” was I challenging her or trying to understand? Her perception, as a busy mother of 5 kids, was that I argued.

We are complex beings and require vigilant and continuous monitoring, listening and considering to understand what we do and how we do what we do: our motivations, desires and traits.

A culture that prized honor would encourage in schools, on billboards and on television, deeds of self-respect. It would teach children not merely to quietly and mindlessly obey the commands of a teacher or words of an adult, but to stay quiet in order to listen to their heartbeat and breath.

Training them young to focus on their bodies, paying attention to its sounds and sensations, would be a foundational step to knowing themselves, easiest commenced with the physical. They would learn that how they feel is manifest in the physical and certain thoughts create physical reactions. They would know, “When I am afraid, I forget to exhale.”

They would learn yoga to keep their bodies in focus and minds quiet. This preparatory practice for meditation is required daily to hear, feel and understand themselves. It takes a quiet that is deeper and stiller than mere mouth closing.

Not that yoga and meditation are the formula to acquiring knowledge or a happy society. But those “indoctrinated” (we are all indoctrinates of a time and place) in the benefits–the necessity–for what these yield–inner focus and listening to one’s authentic voice–fare better in the odds of achieving self-knowledge requisite to honoring self.

To honor self requires self knowledge and honesty. If I know truly who I am, that I am argumentative, kind, clumsy, perfectionistic, fair, foolish and the rest of the adjectives to fill up the half dozen pages or so, I can fairly represent myself to others and circumscribe or expand my life to fit those known attributes or liabilities.

Able to accurately represent myself, I can choose those with whom I enter into agreements, knowing the wisdom of doing so and understanding humans as organic beings; we change and so our needs and wants shift.

This brings me to the second part of the definition of honor, which is fulfilling agreements. All relationships are agreements and thus negotiable.

If I honor you, I come to you honestly. I tell you who I am to the best of my ability. I present myself in hopes of being accepted as that bundle of stuff at that particular moment.

I look at you and run as fair an assessment as possible of who you are and then evaluate whether we bring enough to one another to enter into a relationship at all or if so, to what extent, degree or duration.

If I know that I am a monogamous person but you are not or are not to the same degree and definition as I am, then I must not expect monogamy from you or not enter into a relationship with you if I cannot change my need or expectation for myself.

This all takes the respect to accept people, including the self, as they/we are. Easier in an ideal world that values honor, honesty, knowledge, and integrity above all else, more than money, competition, power, blind obedience, or equality.

When people enter relationships with a firm grasp of their strengths and weaknesses, they offer an other both limitations and options for growth, romantically, sexually, financially, and communally. They offer avenues of achieving goals and desires.

They also bring liabilities which limit growth and possibility.

Think about the odds of finding the ideal match for child rearing and reproducing, financial and emotional support, sexual compatibility, friendship and trust. If you could design your life and honestly acknowledge that who you are and what you want requires serial relationships or multiple relationships throughout time or at any given time to achieve that, your odds of success would be greater if you found someone(s) like minded.

So, if you lived in a society of candid communicators that believed in respecting self and others, honored them, you could have the frank discussion of who you are and what you need.

And partial honesty severely limits what I can do with you, how much I can depend on you and what barriers I have to create in order to work around you to enjoy other aspects of you. I cannot place delicate and precious things in your hands.

But when the odds are in favor of meeting likeminded open and honest people, I could be engaged with people for as long as and in as many ways as I wanted and needed. I could agree to monogamy until that was not right for either or both of us with the understanding that all relationships are negotiable. Cheating would be eliminated. All would be negotiated.

Not that feelings would be spared and misunderstandings or cheating wouldn’t occur. But the likelihood of cheating would be reduced. The mistress would go out of style if the society that honors self and others, realistically, openly communicated their needs and desires.

Capable of loving many and so consensually enter into relationships with several open, honest and communicative people at once, true polyamorous people contribute to that potential of the mistress-less world.

True polyamory, to my understanding, eliminates cheating. It takes work to live in polyamory, more work than keeping up a lie of monogamy. The former is active and constant while the latter is passive and repressive.

Honesty and communication are acts of honor. They are crucial to monogamy or polyamory or any healthy, happy relationship and are a constant practice for readiness to understanding and acceptance.

The mistress exists and has existed for many reasons. Historically, she filled gaps for royalty politically not romantically married.

Today, she fills another kind of gap, which is the monogamy gap. It appears between what we say we want and need or our society prescribes for us and what we actually do.

She also exists because some live for risk, adventure and danger afforded only by secrecy and the forbidden entwined in her.

In that ideal fantasy world of honoring self and others, where would the clandestine loving seekers go for the thrill of the forbidden?

What’s in a Name? Are you a polyamorous pansexual?

A solar system a vortex,
some believe so,
the sun sucking in
all in its range
in ever closing spirals.
That I am too, no matter,
a vortex with spirals,
children, pets, students,
parents, friends, strangers
and partners and lovers.
As my trajectory spans
the sky of my life,
I feel those close,
farther and further
ahead and behind.
I merge with them,
drag and spin them,
catapulting
their weight and shape
to bend to and for me.
I draw people powerfully
with my own pulse.

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credit: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/cyCtmtIu8Ks/maxresdefault.jpg

As I sometimes do, I asked my oldest daughter recently about her love interests, which appeared to be no one in particular, and as was almost always the case, she was noticeably uncomfortable with the question.

I am never sure when I ask her, that I should ask and what I should ask. My nearly nineteen year old has never been seen openly intimate with anyone thus far, though she clearly has interests to be so.

If I am honest with myself, I ask with more than mere conversational curiosity. It isn't quite concern, either. But as her mother, I want to know about her thoughts, feelings, interests and difficulties. As a budding adult human, however, she appears reluctant to share the complexity of her desires with me. Or maybe she can't articulate them and adopts a defensive posture.

However it is, I feel as uncomfortable asking her after I receive the response: "What are you trying to get from me, Mom?" Or often she will joke, "There's no one who has agreed to join the awkward club."

Yet, I know she goes out with friends, has a seemingly active social life with people of various overt and covert identities, as far as I can tell. Some are declaratively gay or lesbian. Others are more difficult to discern.

Once I asked her outright if she were in a relationship with a friend I knew to be a lesbian. After her usual overly joyous forced laugh, she steered the conversation to a more general discussion of sexual identity. Somewhere in the conversation, she declared she was pansexual.

I thought I knew what that term meant, but I wasn’t so sure she did. However, a sure way to kill the conversation was to get pedantic, probing definitions from her.

But I couldn’t help myself and asked her if she meant polyamory or pansexuality. After a blank look, she gave a decided, slow shake of the head in dismissal of me and the subject and moved on.

These morphing adults are so hard to get a handle on when they are your own offspring. I have better luck with college students I teach, though I never ask about their sexual or romantic orientation. Some offer it up unasked or wear it like a uniform, however.

After our neat little chat, I, of course, retired to my cave for some research on the topic that piqued my curiosity. There are so many terms to identify sexual and intimate orientations or inclinations that I get dizzy sometimes, despite my mastery of Greek and Latin prefixes.

The synthesis of my readings led me to believe that pansexuality is sexual openness for attraction to all gender/sexual identities: gay, lesbian, tran, cis, androgynous, to name a few off the top of an exhaustive list. Admittedly, I had to click the links to some labels.

Polyamory, as the word’s root suggests, is about loving multiply with open honesty (how else could you get away with multiple partners?). Loving is used broadly to encompass emotional intimacy and/or sexual intimacy.

What draws me often to this term–polyamory–is the notion of multiply loving that may or may not include sex. Intuitively and experientially, the idea resonates with me, especially when I reflect on all of the relationships of my life to date.

I have had love/sex relationships, love only relationships and sex only relationships with various gender-identified partners. I have known friends I have loved more than lovers, wanted to be with more than with my monogamous partner at the time. The ratio of sexual to emotional attachment or engagement has differed with each relationship long or short.

Long-distance relationships have been some of the most intense emotionally and romantically, perhaps due to the effort they require to maintain. In those, the physical to emotional calibration is far different from the daily relationship, though both are intense. The challenge of each–lack of physical touch vs. daily friction of minutia–hones different skills and underscores individual strengths and weaknesses.

I have far more patience for promise than reality, I find. Perhaps I am not much different from most in that regard–fantasy is so much more malleable than reality.

But this is why polyamory makes sense to me. I love so many people and each uniquely, which is reasonable given that each brings a specific set of attributes to a relationship. The combinations are endless in light of the global population.

I think we do largely operate polyamorously. At times, we love our girl friends or guy friends as much as or more than we love our chosen ones, our significant others. Why the term is not more widely adopted, however, is the underpinning of the term: honesty.

For all kinds of reasons, the least of which may be cultural, sociological, historical and/or biological, people around me cannot acknowledge they love to various degrees many people. It’s too threatening–to their security or sense of how things should be, as they always have been in the ways of love in monogamy.

And I am not knocking monogamous coupling as it has immeasurable benefits personally and communally. But monogamy may be not only unfit for some people as a lifestyle, but also unfit for any person at any given point along the timeline of his or her lifelong relationships.

We are a fluid people. We change, many of us. This does not suggest we are fickle or shallow lovers. It means we grow and shrink as we move through life. If we are honest, and that is not only critical but terribly challenging, we acknowledge our love and desire flux. If we are brave, we honor it and engage with others who are likewise brave enough to acknowledge it.

That takes continual checking in, open communication and honesty with self and others–a daily life practice.

So while pansexuality is a political term, in my mind, one that respects choice and a host of other attributes derivative of anatomy, biology and psychology, polyamory is the umbrella term of intimacy.

Pansexuality makes sense for my young daughter hell bent on railing against the evils of society, her youth the reason for her informed intimacy deficit.

Polyamory is not about having sex with lots of people. And the question of sexually transmitted diseases is encompassed by the honesty prerequisite. You cannot do polyamory without the honesty.

The choice and the identity is about loving people as we do, when we do and how we do–in our spanning days roaming the earth hunting and gathering, doing the business of living.

Ahimsa

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credit: image.slidesharecdn.com

Dinner table discussions around the holidays are always enlightening. The boisterous clashing of personalities of all who chime in on politics and religion, especially liven up any table, even if not recommended for ease of digestion.

Inevitably, when the shouts die down and civil conversation resumes, family members ask me about the latest on the blog. My preoccupation of yesterday I have to admit was the sticky issue of mistress morality, and how I may have mis-represented myself as rather heartless or conscience-less with respect to the cheated on wife. I have maintained that though I have felt guilt, sorrow and empathy for the wife of my married lover, I have not felt as if I cheated her.

She is not mine to betray, the wife of the married man I have loved. I have made no promises to her.

Yes, we all owe others the duty of non-harm. Ahimsa. I came across this term several years ago when I renewed my yoga practice, probably in a yoga journal. In my readings over the years, I have come to understand that the Vedic meaning is non-violence, though it has been modernly used as a wider term embracing all non-harm, whether in word, deed or thought. While I embrace non-harm as a measure of ethics, I confess I find the practice challenging, perplexing at times.

How far does that duty of non-harm/non–violence extend? Some say as far as the improbable. There is no Sanskrit exception to the rule. I would hope the love thy neighbor biblical axiom would likewise have no exception clause. But I am neither a Sanskrit or a biblical scholar, just an ordinary person trying to live well among others.

How far does my duty to others extend? Am I obligated to stay home when I have the sniffles in order to prevent someone I may come in contact with in the street, on the bus, or at work from contracting my cold? Or is my higher duty to go to work, the grocery store and the pharmacy in order to keep my life, and those whose lives depend upon me–children, husband, parents–from suffering damage, i.e., jeopardize my job, feed my children or medicate my father’s diabetes. Whose harm do I avoid? In this hypothetical, I would do what I could to protect others in a compromise position: keep my distance from others and protect them from my coughing and sneezing by directing my germs away from them and wash my hands frequently. But I would go out.

We always weigh our priorities, and often, we hurt others in picking one priority over others. Okay, I am not equating the possibility of spreading a cold to hurting a wife in the event she finds out her husband is cheating. I am simply stating that our choices are relative to circumstances, and we are often forced to choose the lesser of evils. I’m also concluding that there is no way to completely forego harm to others.

The mistress to a married man risks injuring his wife, that the wife will find out and the fallout from the discovery will unleash the untold misery of hurt and immeasurably blasted trust. I have suffered it. And I also have caused it. Neither end of it escapes the scarring.

There is nothing equal to the hurt that comes from betrayal. It overturns the world of belief most adhere to just to get by, feel safe and experience love and peace day to day.

My children betrayed me recently. In light of the depth and length of our relationship, betrayal is the appropriate word. I felt betrayed. The predominant emotion was hurt, not anger.

I raised my daughters under the banner of honesty is the best policy. I reminded them frequently since they were born that honesty and trust go a long way to buying freedom. As they approached teen hood, I spelled out more concretely the concept: the leash is longer if you follow the rules of checking in and answering your phone, telling me where you are when I ask. I’ve explained the consequences of lying and deceit, that it causes all parties to suffer from constant vigilance: verification of the whereabouts and alibis and lockdown when verification isn’t a possibility.

I depend a lot on trust. I relax my vigilance some in faith that they will do what’s right, that I raised them with a good guiding inner voice. I depend on their bond with me as the cradle of their freely confessing their fears, hopes and mistakes, knowing that my love overcomes disappointment or disapproval to rescue and forgive. I depend on that bond.

But they are kids. My 15 year old crawled into my bed early the other morning like she hadn’t done since she was little, complaining of a stomach ache. She slept uneasily by my side for an hour or so. I let her stay home from school, something I am loathe to do unless fevers, broken limbs or other severe maladies present. A teenager will want to stay home from school for a ripped cuticle. Concerned and questioning her symptoms and possible alleviation, I determined to let her stay home.

Later, I went off to work but came home mid-shift to pick up some lunch, something I hadn’t done before. On the way home, I called the older, my 18 year old, asking if she had seen her sister, was she okay, and did she think she was faking. She said she had seen her but didn’t know if she was faking. She seemed a bit stuttering and cagey. When I arrived home, I went up to see the infirmed one, who was nowhere to be found. Checking in with my father, I found that she went out with her sister somewhere.

Now the rule in my house is that if you are too sick to go to school, you stay home. Even if you have a miraculous recovery, you stay home to convalesce or catch up on missed school work, work ahead if you have to. So, this was not only a clear violation of rules, but a deception maybe even from the start on the part of the supposed ill daughter. However, the cover up of the older was just as if not more culpable. She defended herself by saying it wasn’t she who broke the rules; she just provided the ride. However, I found her lack of responsibility to advise her sister about the consequences and to consider the choice, to be disappointing, but to lie by omission to me was the worse of the two indiscretions.

She had broken the trust between us that she would not sever the bonds of faith built upon her good character.

My younger daughter was contrite, desperately apologetic. However, I countered to her apology and explanation that I did not know whether she was sincere or just telling me what I wanted to hear, that that is the real tragedy of deceit. It puts all actions, all words, in a new light, suspicion.
As to the older, I finally got through to her about her part in deception by offering her insight into my misgivings going forward.

My daughters are close and enjoy spending time with each other. I allow the younger to go places and do things, like concerts and late night movies, that I did not allow the older to do or go to due to safety concerns. The younger, however, is permitted to do what her sister could not at her age, when she is accompanied by her older sister.

Now, however, I explained to my older daughter, I did not feel comfortable allowing her to be the guardian of her younger sister, given that she does not have the moral compass I entrust her sister to. If she cannot be a guide to her good choices and her safety, cannot make her sister consider her actions in light of what the consequences might be at minimum with her own mother, I cannot entrust her with a minor for whom I am responsible. She got the point.

We are all on lockdown when trust is broken. The suspicion is taxing on mental space and energy. The process of verification, of having my daughters prove their whereabouts or my confirming their stories by others or checking up myself physically, is not only fatiguing physically but psychically. It’s a lot of negative energy.

So how much more is the bond of spouses severed when one person cheats and deceives the other? Similarly, the faith that each operates on daily, the one that feels like a guarantee that the other will not do injury to his or her loved one, gets shattered. He thinks: “She really does not have my back but is only out for herself.” Not only is that faith gone, permanently or temporarily, but in its place is the pain of betrayal: “I gave her my body, my secrets, my love, my all, and she gave the same to me. That was our bond, something we silently swore is what makes us, us. When she gave her body, shared intimate pleasure with another, shared her secrets, maybe, gave her heart, even for that moment of orgasm, she severed what was our bond of sole sharing. Now I cannot trust her to protect me for my safe keeping, not of my body nor of my mind and heart.”

The injury slices deeply. It is a death. One person kills trust which is the root of allowing the self to deeply connect and surrender. It is a promise between two, to love and be loved.

So when one strays, and the other finds out, trust is broken and the suspicions turn what was once sailing on the calm seas of faith in doing no harm, into the turbulent waters of where is he and what is he doing, feeling, thinking? It is the difference between the peace to pursue one’s own dreams supported by another and the anchor of watchfulness in keeping another.

Most, I suspect, opt not to keep the trust breaker after that wounding and aftermath of recovery. The one I cheated on chose not to keep me. Others learn to trust again after determining that there is a good chance that it won’t happen again and believing in time as healer. Some may also remember that there was something good enough in the first place to keep that person (their others) so close, to let him/her in that far.

When my husband told me early on in our marriage that he loved someone else, a purported friend that he had just gone camping with for a few days, I was devastated. He hadn’t had sex with this person as the friend would not engage, but I believed the love was reciprocated. No matter, the fact that my husband was in love with someone else was the hurt.

The circles of suspicion kept my mind imprisoned. It rolled back to days and months past. Was he anywhere he said he was when he was not with me? What had been said between them to make this happen? He must not love me, and here I was loving him, giving him all I had. It hurt so much that I could not stand to be near him as it felt like the Promethean stab to the liver time after time. I moved out.

I forgave him eventually. I think I did. I accepted that it happened. I also accepted that he wanted to be with me and would get over the other, the outsider. I accepted the risk that he would do it again. There was and still is no guarantee. My heart wanted him, and I accepted that too.

In the 32 years after, he did stray again. However, there were still more practical and impractical reasons to stay together than not, and not only children, despite those others who were in the woodwork, crawling about the gaps in our marriage.

Jealousy, isolation and hurt, large and small, is part of the history of our marriage. If it wasn’t another person, it was his dedication and love for other things he spent so much time and energy on to the exclusion of me: his job, his sport, his music, his friends, his family, his depression. I learned to adapt. I learned about him, and me, how I could not make him something he was not. I took inventory constantly. I weighed priorities.

As long as I could be sure that I was physically protected by my own measures in addition to assurances from him, I had to be okay with the way things were or leave.

Our marriage has morphed over the many years to adapt to the changing individuals that comprise it. As our needs have changed, so has our marriage. What was once the passion of two young people is now the mature steady support and backbone of each of our lives, which also forms the silent sturdy scaffold of many other people’s lives: his, mine, our children, our parents and siblings, our employers.

We are able to perform our life duties and pleasures by virtue of knowing there is someone in each our separate corners. Someone to defend us and pick us up when we feel no strength to get up on our own volition. Someone who will defend us even when we are not deserving, not judge us when we judge ourselves more than anyone else could, make us feel like something when we feel like nothing, love us when we cannot love ourselves and love us even as we are not loving in return. Each does that for the other. Those doings are more important to me than sexual fidelity. But for some, it is all or nothing. And that is theirs to negotiate.

When I carried on an affair with Wayne, I could have contributed to his wife’s injury, only because it would have been me and not someone else that facilitated his infidelity had she found out. And only now I realize just how much. Did I intend to harm her by being kissed that first time so unexpectedly? No. And neither did my kids when they conspired to flout the rules, nor my husband when he fell in love with another. No one declared, “Let’s hurt mom/my wife today.” Did I intend to harm her when I accepted his invitation to meet a second time knowing that it was to continue a clandestine act? No, but the probability of injury was higher. If his wife has not found out to this day, have I harmed her? No. If I had not found out about my kids’ or my husband’s actions, would I have been harmed? No, not then. And I believe that the greater responsibility for her hurt goes to the one who specifically promised not to hurt her in the very manner he would have–by loving another–whether explicitly or implicitly by the marriage contract.

Did I hurt Wayne in carrying on an affair? I did not help him to stay faithful to his wife if that was what he wanted to do. I did not help him if he suffered a bad conscience. Did I cause his suffering of bad conscience or infidelity? Indirectly, I suppose, as catalyst. Had I rejected his advances, I would have protected him from the injury of conscience he may have suffered.

With respect to his wife, I believe I did no harm–in actuality. In fact, I may have even done her a good turn as I have maintained before by causing him to stay in his marriage when all was said and done–if that is indeed a good place for her. It’s all speculation just as much as if she had found out is speculation.

But rules of conduct and the practice of non-harm only make sense as rules and practice in view of potential harm, even if ahimsa was not originally meant to address possibility. Otherwise, rules are not rules but relative applications of labels after the fact. And what of self harm? Did I cause myself injury in engaging an affair? Yes. I suffered the injury of bad conscience and dishonesty. I forewent my principles that structure how I live and how I expect others to live. I did not support monogamy or fidelity, even though I was a believer in them both at the time. In fact, I contributed in some fractional way, to the erosion of those principles.

In light of my use of ahimsa–non-harm–I did harm in engaging in affair, as did my children and my husband to me, though the degree and duration of each specific instance of suffering may differ. And just as I have taken inventory of harm, I could take inventory of the blessings I bestowed and were bestowed upon me, especially if I follow the cause and effect chain far enough. Is it a blessing to love someone and cause him to feel loved and worthy of love? Yes, and more so when he feels unworthy and unloved. Did my children’s awareness of my hurt change them for the better, gear them to be better people, and strengthen our relationship? I believe so. Did my husband’s affairs teach me about myself, make me wiser and stronger? Yes.

Some would judge me as justifying for even considering the benefits since avoidance of harm should be the first principle. Perhaps they are right. I weigh costs and benefits and assess risk in much of what I do by examining facts and the principle of cause and effect. I don’t always believe in that method but I do it, nevertheless. I also aim to behave with compassion and empathy as a general rule. It’s a practice, never finished or achieved as a constant.

Though the tendency is strong to generalize about marriage, cheating, betrayal and hurt, to pay attention to what is universal in the human condition, the specific promises each person makes to another is made upon the particular intentions of the person making the promise, the intentions of the person receiving it and the bits and pieces of their lives coming into the relationship and living their relationship together. Each bond between two minds is unique. It cannot be parsed and judged except on knowing the story of each case. My life as an attorney, teacher, wife, lover, mother, daughter, sibling, friend and citizen has taught me so.

The mistress blog contains many stories. Each who weighs in on the moral, ethical and experiential of her own or another’s story, does so to tell, teach and entertain others–to share. Judging, urgent and unconscious as it is in all of us, curtails or stifles the conversation and may snuff out someone else’s story. Who wouldn’t recoil after being labeled a cheater or having her motives or morals questioned?

While judgment is necessary to a citizenry, to curb behaviors that break down social bonds, there is a time to listen and learn without judgment. There is also a time to judge (discern?) in order to act within one’s own conscience with respect to others, i.e., I won’t date a married man because I don’t want to risk hurt to his wife and me, inevitable with a man who cannot be trusted to be faithful. But too many judge others to silence or control them, using judgment as a weapon rather than as a tool, i.e., if you date a married man, you are as bad as the cheater.

I harp on this point about judging. Without restraint, the importance of the human condition generally and particular human choices specifically do not get revealed and discussed, not only on this blog but in the market place of ideas upon which the American democracy has any chance of survival.

So let’s be scientists or possibilians with respect to stories of love and marriage and mistresses, and suspend judgment until we can definitely rule out certain possibilities. An open mind that does the work of understanding from study, listening, and paying attention, and not knee jerk reaction or bandwagon mimicry (yes, I’m judging) is crucial to preserving awe and wonderment in the world and democracy over militancy and violence in our country. It is not a plea for tolerance as much as for cogent consideration. Ahimsa.

Holiday Mistress Blues: Revising Snow White

credit:  deviantart.com
credit: deviantart.com

Gina Barreca, PhD, has a clear agenda writing about the mistress during the holidays in a 2010 Psychology Today article entitled The Mistress at Christmas. It is under the site section “Show White Doesn’t Live Here Any More”. She paints the profile of a mistress (the proffered everyday mistress), who is single and involved with a married man, and relies on stereotypical mistress-life facts to tell the story of a coming to conscience during the holidays.

Barreca tells the story of the circumspect mistress in whom conscience and self esteem triumph over delusional love, repressed empathy for her lover’s wife, and low self-esteem. She portrays the mistress who realizes that the game is not worth the candle–she has sold herself short. Though this holiday epiphany belongs to a recognizable type of mistress, the one of an over 35 year old who is not married herself but wishes to be, it is not a one size fits all moral realignment applicable to all mistresses.

The persona in the article is the conscience of the mistress, but the psychologist behind the persona is a critic making a case for the misguided one’s recovery. Story crafting is a great way to hammer some message home subtly and clandestinely. The reader gets a story–and who doesn’t love a story?–without suffering the heavy handed pedantic writer’s moral. And there is a clear moral to this story.

The author unravels the details of the mistress’s situation slowly; she is not unlike many other “typical” mistresses who are pining away for their men, lonely and disillusioned or hopeful about marrying her lover–eventually. They are also self-deluded in thinking that they have “the best of him” and of all worlds.

If she’s over 35, she probably suspects she isn’t getting that ring.

Maybe she tells herself she doesn’t want it: After all, she already has a full life and why clutter it up with a full-time relationship? Where would she find the time, the energy, the metaphoric and literal space? She gets the best of him and his wife gets the rest.

But this reflection, the reader soon discovers is a trap. The writer will steer the reader down the path of silently nodding in agreement or grimacing in revulsion with this assessment–best of both worlds–before she undercuts the mistress’s mere self-justification, as it turns out.

But holidays make it harder to find a safe place in her head. It’s as if the world conspires against her from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.

Innocent enough observation by the mistress, but Barreca’s project is to advocate for the mistress’s rehabilitation, not support her cheating ways. “It’s as if the world conspires against her,” sounds like someone very egocentric and unrealistic. Yes, it is metaphoric and not meant to show the mistress as a paranoid delusional, but it certainly suggests self-absorption, even if as just a passing thought. She feels the outside, uncontrollable forces are responsible for her predicament, her loneliness.

Halloween is her holiday, with masks and disguises, with catsuits and pirate outfits. She’s a shape-shifter, a plunderer, a thief, and she knows it.

Call her all the names you want, and you’ll discover that she’s called herself worse. It’s not like you’re telling her something she doesn’t know. She’s the backstreet girl, the booty call in perpetuum.

She’s Jezebel. She’s Little Suzy Homewrecker.

And there it is: the out-with-it shame and judgment of the mistress by her own internalizing of society’s mores. Yet, while the good doctor is working her reader’s sympathy (not empathy) in reminding the reader that yes, this mistress has a conscience and suffers from it, she is also reinforcing societal notions that the mistress, any mistress, is all of those: shapeshifter, plunderer, thief, booty call, Jezebel and home wrecker. All of those names encompass the socially accepted and reinforced moral dimension of a three-person relationship: deceit, plunder and self-debasement. She cheats the wife of time and money, steals it as her relationship is not legitimated morally or perhaps even legally in the court of public opinion and religious indoctrination, even as she cheats herself of pride, self-respect and open, “valid” public love.

So she makes the round of holiday parties, makes cookies and makes pies, makes jokes and makes new friends. She makes nice. She is nice. It’s not bad, but there’s a blanked-out figure where the man she loves should be.

Why does he need to be there? Is it her need or one she believes she needs because there is a constant bombardment of messages that remind and convince her that the holidays is a time for family and loved ones, and you can not be complete unless you have an other that is acceptably, normatively yours to exhibit. How can you be validated and happy and fulfilled, unless you can show up to holiday parties with a man? Where is the cheer in that holiday cheer?

Now, I am not implying that the mistress is wrong in feeling lonely and lost without a mate she can show up to parties with or that Barreca is profiling a mistress with aberrant ideas and feelings. What I question is how the mistress even knows how much is her belief and picture of herself and how much is her societally derived perception of herself in her unconscious or conscious absorption of the judged self.

Regardless of the speculated cause of her self-vilifying, there is no doubt that the mistress is an outsider and her relationship is inconvenient, frustrating and lonely–in fact.

She can’t call him; too risky. She can’t email him; anything in writing is out. She’s tempted, at her worst moments, to drive by his house in order to catch a glimpse of him through the window when his home is brightly lit after dark. Is his car there? Is she there? The wife?

She is an onlooker from the outside and wishes to be inside. Or does she? What is the measure of the frequency of her wanting to stay on the outside and enjoy the best of him against the frequency of her wanting to give it up for something full time and exclusive? The holidays are a mere smattering of days compared to the rest of the year.

Finally, Barreca shows the weighing mistress mind examining the endearing traits of her lover, what has drawn her to him and had her risk so much to be with him, against the sacrifice on her part to enjoy those alluring qualities.

In the past, she’s always found that little-kid-with-a-secret-look endearing. But today she’s less impressed. Maybe she looks at the wife, a woman more like herself than she’d care to admit. Usually she thinks of her as the woman who has everything and doesn’t appreciate it, but today his wife looks restless, tired, overworked, needy, a little frantic around the eyes. She looks older, but then who doesn’t?

Can this really be her rival? Is this the enemy she cries herself to sleep over on those nights when she can’t convince herself that she has the best part of the deal?

Well, it seems the scales are so obviously tilted that this mistress must be an idiot: “that little-kid-with-a-secret-look” versus crying herself to sleep at night “on those nights when she can’t convince herself” of her good fortune. Her attraction to his cute ways is juxtaposed to her painful self-delusion.

The picture might look different, however, if she quantified how often she lost sleep, one night a year or every night? It would also be another article entirely if the qualities the mistress gloms onto in her crisis of conscience are his traits that complement and fulfill her, like his ability to love her like no other can because of their compatibility in every way except for his being married and not to her. Perhaps she has never met a man who could kiss her in the exact way she could not even have dreamed of before because she didn’t know it existed until he named it with his kiss. Or maybe they love the same movies and find humor in exactly the same situations, let alone that they share the same world vision, values and goals. She may have not met anyone else like him before for the way he makes her feel so deeply loved. Oh, and he has that cute little boy look too.

But this is the doctor’s fiction, her probably anecdotally-derived composite of a certain mistress.. She wants to focus on that mistress who makes poor choices and, in doing the cost-benefit analysis, concludes that the costs to others’ lives and hers are not offset by the benefits because there is no prize–him/marriage–at the end.

She thinks about how the only thing to do when you want to stop going in circles is to stop.

And upon this rational thought, she, like the skaters on the ice before her lonely view on her lonely holiday walk, can joyfully whisk away her troubles and cares to a new life of legitimate love. Which is true, right? She can do better–maybe. But if she wants to have the kids and family like “the wife” has, with all of the drudgery of frictional living as well as the shared painful losses and ecstatic gains that come with coupledom, she needs to move on.

This is a story of a species of mistress, not a specific mistress. It is tailored to fit the message sculpted from the given details, and is merely a thin slice of the mistress pie. What if both were mistresses/misters? Does the distribution of power or deprivation change the equation? The question is not geared to elicit the cliche’d response that two wrongs do not make a right.

If a reader comes to the mistress story, any mistress general or specific, with pre-set notions of absolutes on the question of religiously-induced, societally induced, individually-realized and/or family-enforced rules, the accepted right and wrong of it without further indulgence in details, then those readers are resolved to condemn each mistress without exception. If, however, a mind can meet the material of each case as an unbiased observer of cultural, philosophical, psychological, social, scientific and spiritual facts, she might find that discrete individuals enter into discreet relationships, not types, and that all relationships, legitimate or otherwise, are a cost-benefit analysis.

I want to tell a mistress tale about a woman who is petite and strong with red hair or brown hair and adores both her lover and her freedom, whether she is over 35 and single or 55 and likewise married with children. She understands that the relationship comes with grief, conscience clutches and inconvenience, but she feels the situation is right for her at this time as it adds to her life goals more than it detracts from them. Perhaps she is in a sex-less marriage and her husband secretly or openly wants her to stay with him but satisfy her needs elsewhere because he can no longer do so. Perhaps they have great communication and connection but have outgrown each other as lovers even as they have deepened their well-seasoned friendship.

In this story, the wife of her lover is secretly or unconsciously grateful her husband gets his tiresome sexual needs satisfied elsewhere while she gets the benefit of his name, economic security, friendship and fathering of her children; she closes her eyes to her husband’s dalliances on the side because it takes no noticeable time away from her and the kids. Yes, he is more distant emotionally, but she still gets the day to day rote gestures of affection of the peck on the cheek and pinch of the ass. And from time to time, they do have intensely intimate moments that only marrieds can have by virtue of suffering failures and successes together and raising their kids. She may feel lonely at times, the loneliness that comes with not having all of someone in all ways, but she is not alone.

And he gets the same from his wife and mistress as they get from him. All around, the parties are satisfied for the time being if not for the long run, but none can tell the future, and the kids get to grow up with their parents in truce, or peaceful co-existence if not in marital bliss. The only glaringly volatile risk to everyone involved is the arrangement’s public disclosure with resulting judgement that causes the participants to act according to what is expected of them. Then everyone is screwed.

This is one fictional story of another account that is neither aberrant nor atypical in the human domain of mistress-dom and monogamy. I merely present a competing version to consider. And before I get accused of mere advocacy of a moral relativism, I remind my readers that my campaign, if I can be ascribed one, is for consideration of the specific over the general, the study over the selective moral quipping, and indulgent compassion over unmindful condemnation.

Some people are what they are accused of: a wicked poisonous-apple-toting witch of a stepmother. Some are not, not entirely or not at all. Was Snow White innocent or stupid to trust a stranger? Does she get a free of judgment pass for naiveté, for representing an ideal of innocence pure and sweet? After all, she did steal into the bed of a stranger in an empty house. What was she thinking?

The magic mirror shows you the truth you want to know. The more fruitful option is to question, to work at ‘seeing’ by paying attention to the details as well as the big picture. To withhold judgement until all pertinent facts are present takes strength, a healthy skepticism. The Snow White of my idyllic tale is not the innocent goddess of ignorance but the mistress of doubt, compassion and curiosity.

Those scenarios, hypothetical musings in a magazine or real experiences of the newsworthy, that cause knee-jerk powerful reactions in us are the ones that afford opportunities to test our beliefs and flex our mental, moral and empathic muscles. These muscles need a daily workout to keep them strong and healthy. Stories are the workout gyms in which to sweat it out.

Polyamory: a bouquet of lovers

credit: johnstore.com

I woke up with angst this morning, and when that happens, all the ugly appears. Today’s ugly came in the form of jealousy and not just the kind commonly thought of in relationships–the other man or woman–but the all encompassing kind that takes in a little of everything including envy, such as how come some stoned guy who repeats “double rainbow” twenty or thirty times in a video can garner such attention and semi-fame?

However, the sharpest jealousies come from the investments I make with other human beings. My teenage daughters and I have discussed the friend jealousy, the one where the best friend gets a boyfriend and then has no time for the friend. Then there is the jealousy that comes with a significant other spending time with an ex-lover/girlfriend or boyfriend, the jealousy of time spent at work over the family, the jealousy of a significant other’s memories of past loves, etc. Jealousy is a host of ugly, and I don’t mean the emotion itself, which is merely an emotion. I mean the way it makes me feel and think.

Poking around the Internet for enlightenment on jealousy, where it comes from and how to deal with it, I came upon an extremely informative article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled “Multiple Lovers Without Jealousy” so thorough and well presented that it was impossible not to share. I had heard of polyamory before but had never read about the psychology and lifestyle but lightly. This article challenges the reader to think about the basis of our relationships, monogamous or otherwise, and intimates not surprisingly that successful relationships are based on ever-negotiating agreements, long-term and moment by moment. Seen through the prism of polyamory, monogamy or polygamy or communal living comes down to understanding the nature of jealousy, i.e., the self, taking responsibility for one’s own emotions, and of course, trust in the other person’s feelings and commitment, whatever the parameters of the relationship is determined to be whether pre-determined or negotiated as it goes.

It sounds ideal–to have multiple partners because the pressure to be everything to someone is overwhelming as is the expectation (and probably disappointment) of someone to be that everything. But can the green-eyed monster be controlled? Is polyamory realistic? Probably not for everyone–in practice–but for some it certainly can be.

Here are a few teasers to this thoroughly interesting article, but I recommend taking the time to read it even for the tidbits of the history of monogamy and the studies to dive into further if the subject interests:

There’s a phenomenon within psychology called obsessional review, which refers to the kinds of questions that the partner that finds out about the infidelity asks the unfaithful partner,” Shackelford said. “Men ask, ‘Did you have sex with him? How many orgasms did you have?’ etc. Women ask, ‘Are you in love with her? Did you buy her gifts? Did you take her to our restaurant?’ and so on.”

Those of us who are in monogamous relationships will probably never stop being jealous—and that’s healthy. What’s not healthy is the way some monogamous people manipulate their partners’ jealousy and devotion. According to Shackelford, women in monogamous relationships “are more likely to use sexual assets to induce jealousy in their partner,” while “men will manipulate access to resources.”

By contrast, the way polyamorous people tend to resolve their conflicts is more above-board. When extramarital relations are already out in the open, it seems there’s little else to hide. “A big part of what makes someone feel jealous is when their expectations for the relationship are violated,” Theiss said. “In poly situations, where they’ve actually negotiated the ground rules—‘I care about you and I also care about this other person, and that doesn’t mean I care less about you’—that creates a foundation that means [they] don’t have to feel jealous. They don’t have uncertainty about what’s happening.”

For example, as Conley, the polyamory researcher, has noted, “polyamory writings explicitly advocate that people revisit and reevaluate the terms of their relationships regularly and consistently—this practice could benefit monogamous relationships as well. Perhaps a monogamous couple deemed dancing with others appropriate a year ago, but after revisiting this boundary they agree that it is stressful and should be eliminated for the interim.”

People in plural relationships get jealous, too, of course. But the way polys get jealous is unique—and possibly even adaptive. Rather than blame the partner for their feelings, the polys view the jealousy an irrational symptom of their own self-doubt.