Monday, May 9, 2016

"Polyamory Doesn't Work Long Term": Presenting Some (Admittedly Unscientific) Evidence to the Contrary

I can't count the number of times I have heard someone dismiss the concept of open relationships on the basis that "they don't end up working out" -- and when I counter this asinine statement by pointing out that my husband and I are still together after twenty-three years, they often dismiss my experience as the exception that proves the rule.

It makes me crazy. And I know I'm not alone in my aggrieved annoyance. (For example, see Dan Savage's response to Helen Fisher's "expert" opinion.)

Just the other day, one of my neighbors was telling me that polyamory fails much more often than it succeeds: "Out of a hundred poly relationships, there might be FIVE that could be called successful, wouldn't you say?"

Marshalling all my self-restraint, I asked her for clarification: "Are you talking about single people who identify as polyamorous, or are you talking about couples?"

"Oh," she said, as if this distinction hadn't ever occurred to her, "...uh, I guess I mean couples."

"Couples. Okay. Do you mean couples who've had an open relationship from the beginning, or couples who decide to open their relationship, or both?"

"I guess I was thinking about couples who open their marriage."

I did not ask her how many such couples she actually knows, because it was already clear that her pronouncement was not based on any actual evidence. People are biased, and they make unfounded assumptions. Shocker.

So this morning, just for kicks, I made a list of all the open couples I have known in the past fifteen years whose relationship trajectory I know well enough to chart. I came up with a total of 25, counting me and Parker, which was convenient, since I was able to multiply by four and extrapolate some percentages.

Here's what what I discovered after running some numbers:

1) Out of the 25 open couples I know, two couples have already divorced, and another four couples are currently considering divorce. In my (non-random!) sample, then, polyamory had a 24% failure rate over the fifteen-year period from 2001 to 2016. (Yes, I know, a scientist would never make such a claim based on the available evidence, but given that approximately half of U.S. marriages end in divorce, I'd say my little sample is performing quite well!)

2) After categorizing couples based on their primary "reason" for deciding on an open relationship model (FIVE couples had a pre-existing agreement, based on one or both partners stating a preference for non-monogamy; EIGHT couples experienced a crisis precipitated by one partner having an affair -- either emotional or sexual -- with someone else; and TWELVE couples opened their marriage in order to solve the problem of sexual incompatibility and/or sexual dissatisfaction with the existing relationship), I determined that couples who had opened up as a result of some form of cheating were most likely to split up later (3 out of 8, vs. 1 out of 5 couples with a pre-existing agreement and 2 out of 12 couples who were sexually dissatisfied with their originally monogamous relationship). That's not surprising.

3) Of the 19 open couples I know who are NOT considering divorce, I would classify NINE as married and dating -- that is, the original couple still identifies as a primary dyad: they live together, they have sex with each other, and their other sexual partners are "part time" or "on the side". SIX of these couples now belong to a stable triad or network: the couple is still together, but their family has grown to include one or more committed partners. The remaining FOUR couples now live together as nesting partners only, and may consider their other partner(s) to be more emotionally or sexually "primary".

4) Even if you discount the four nesting only couples, because they are no longer sleeping together (many monogamous marriages end up in the same boat, though, and -- I would argue -- they are more likely to founder on the rocks of sexual frustration as a result), polyamory still has a success rate of 60%. Which is pretty remarkable when you consider that 80% of the open couples I know originally decided to open their relationship either because of infidelity or because they were not satisfied with their sex life. It looks to me like polyamory might be a pretty decent solution to the kinds of problems that make many monogamous couples decide to split up.

4) Interestingly, of the 19 couples who are, in my estimation, making polyamory "work" for them, none has returned to being monogamous -- at least not with each other. I do know a few people in this sample who are monogamous despite being part of an open couple, either because they aren't currently dating, or because they are the mono partner in a mono-poly pairing, or because one or both members of a "nesting" couple have chosen monogamy with their new partner(s). Overall, though, I'd say that people who have experience with polyamory tend to prefer it as their relationship model.

5) The average length these couples have been together (counting only the 23 relationships that have not yet ended) is 15.8 years, with 30 years as the longest and 5 years as the shortest. I don't have exact numbers for how long each couple has been open, but I can say with certainty that at least 14 of these 23 couples have been open for at least five years. In other words, I'm comfortable calling these relationships "long term".

I've no doubt that there are other conclusions that could be drawn from these data (have at it, y'all!), but I think you'd be hard-pressed to find any evidence here to suggest that the folks in my sample are doing any worse than the general population when it comes to the success of their relationships.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Giving Jealousy a Little Love

The following is an excerpt from an email one of my partners sent me a couple of days ago, after he realized that a group sex experience had precipitated what he jokingly referred to as a morning-after “Mini Mental Meltdown”:

I think, for me, the up-side of jealousy (thank goodness there IS an up-side!) is that it helps to maintain the balance between my individual self ("Cam"), and my (more complex and exuberant) collective self ("Cam & Viny"). This may not feel like a good thing when jealousy causes an acute shift back towards individuality because this shift is invariably accompanied by feelings – to various degrees – of loss, loneliness, and alienation, but it is nevertheless beneficial, and necessary for maintenance of a confident and comfortable sense of ME. I have no doubt you can relate to this.

What I take from
[my reaction to] this [recent experience], at this point, is that I need to cultivate a life *outside* of our life together a little bit more actively than I have been. For a time, any opportunity that I have for such things will probably be taken up by my current projects of life transition, but in the near future, I need to get out and involved in some personal growth, ya know? Perhaps get back into music, surgery, and lost wax casting?? I’ve got to have at least one foot planted in places where you do not always stand, just in case I need to temporarily unwrap my leg from yours in order to protect my heart and head from angina and migraines.

I asked Cam if I could use his reflections as a starting point for a more general discussion of the “up-sides” of jealousy, partly because it would give me an excuse to brag about him (isn't he amazing?), but more importantly because his letter reminded me of something I often forget: jealousy is fundamentally a regulating mechanism. It performs a valuable function by calling our attention to the fact that something is out of whack. Our job is to listen carefully, so that we can figure out what is out of whack, and fix it.

Unfortunately, whenever jealousy starts talking to me, all I want is for it to shut up.

“You're basing your sense of self-worth on a fucking mirage, lady. Who cares if you're smart and funny? There are lots of people out there who are smarter and funnier than you. Oh, so you think you have nice breasts? Well, I've got something for you: GRAVITY. Boom. Wake up and smell the bitter beans, 'cuz there's not a single thing you have to offer that can't be eclipsed by someone else or lost entirely, through age or accident. And what's gonna make you lovable then? Huh?”

(Good question, right? Really important stuff to consider. But boy howdy, does that voice ever grate on my nerves!)

Yes, jealousy is horribly unpleasant. But the truth is that it can be a great teacher. So I wonder: What would happen if we were to approach jealousy with curiosity, instead of dread and resentment? How might our future experiences of jealousy improve if we cultivated a sense of gratitude for what we've learned from jealousy in the past?

Maybe I owe jealousy an apology for hating on it so much. Huh. Now that's a strange thought.

Friday, April 15, 2016

When "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Is Really Just Cheating

Hello there, Viny! I came across your blog as the result of a search for "poly advice." I appreciate your thoughtful responses to questions in the past, so I thought I would throw one your way. Well, maybe more like 15 questions. :)

Backstory: I'm a 40-something mom in an outwardly monogamous-seeming marriage, with a lovely supportive husband. My nesting situation is happily taken care of (thank goodness!).
I've been dating outside the marriage for the last 8 years or so, and overall it's been a fantastic adventure! I've had the freedom to date people I never would have chosen back when I was focused on finding someone to marry and spawn with.
My problem comes from a play partner who has a Don't Ask, Don't Tell relationship with his wife. This is someone whom I would have ruled out if I'd met him the regular way. I would have ruled him out because of the DADT.

To be clear -- this is not just any old DADT. This is the Dread Cthulhu of DADTs. My husband has requested that I please not share anything X-rated with him, because those are images he really doesn't want in his head; so I get that, and respect it. But at least my husband knows (1) that I date, (2) the people I date, (3) when and where I am going on dates, (4) that I am happy in my dating life!

My play partner's DADT is, in my opinion, unreasonably strict. He has to arrange everything so that no hint, no breath, no whisper of a hint that he *might* be dating anyone else can *ever* get back to his wife.

As you can imagine, there's really no way for me to tell that this is a true DADT or whether he's cheating.
I just don't know whether engaging in this play relationship is cheating or not. It might be. Here are some things that seem awfully cheatery to me.

* He subscribes to a phone service such that, if anyone calls his cell phone, the service only passes the call through if he's marked himself as "available," and then he punches in a numeric code (that his wife doesn't know). The Caller ID will show the service's number, not mine.
* Everything on his computer is triple protected behind multiple firewalls and passwords and whatnot, so there's no chance his wife will ever be able to casually read his emails.
* He doesn't carry his membership card to our local sex-positive space, because she might find it going through his wallet. 

* He can't go out in the evenings, or on weekends, unless his wife is already going out to do something else. Then, he can sometimes get away, if he can find a good excuse that is easy to back up afterwards (such as seeing a movie he's already seen, in case she asks plot questions about it).
* Once, during a date with me, he had a medical emergency. Rather than getting help, he lay quietly until he felt fit to drive, then drove himself to the hospital -- not the closest one to our location, but the one close to his house, so that no one would know where he'd been. (I had no idea what sort of emergency he was having or how bad the pain was until later, or I never would have let him drive away.)
* Although I now know his real name, that only happened a year or so in. Until then to me, and even still to anyone in the kink community, he has an alias that he uses consistently. (I don't blame him for that -- I use a fake scene name also!) But once, someone else who knew him from this life ran into him and his wife at a convention and tried to greet him by his scene name. My play partner just walked right past as though he didn't even hear; he couldn't admit to his wife that he is sometimes known by another name to some people.
* I can never meet his wife, talk to her, write to her, phone her, visit their house, or interact with them in any way. If I see them in public (which has never happened), I would have to ignore them, and he would ignore me.
* I can't friend him on Facebook, or connect with him on LinkedIn, because his wife might ask how we know each other. Never mind that he has hundreds of Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections, so what's one more -- nope, can't be done.
* He gets regular STD/STI testing just in case, but not from his regular doctor. Instead, he uses, which allows you to make lab appointments under any name you choose, for $300 a panel. It's obviously pretty expensive for him to do this, when his health insurance would cover the STD tests. I asked him why he does this, and he said that he and his wife share a doctor and they all discuss everything with each other, so he has no expectation that his doctor would keep private the fact that he gets tested. I asked, What about HIPAA?, and he said she could still find out. I have also asked, So what? So his wife knows he gets testing; big deal, everyone should! But apparently that would be too big a hint to her that he might *need* to get testing? And apparently even *that* would be over the line? 

So at this point in reading my letter, you may be thinking, "This guy is clearly cheating! He is a cheating cheatery McCheaterson who cheats, and you should definitely proceed under the understanding that he is cheating." But here's where it gets complicated. Or does it? :P
I've now known this man for 3+ years, and one of my dearest poly partners has been seeing him for 9. This entire time, his story has been identical: he's never given us conflicting information about his situation. His information is that, 19 years ago, his wife was interested in trying poly. They had a negotiation in which they agreed to give it a try. She attempted to date a friend, but that didn't work out. Meanwhile, my play partner had started to date also. At that point, his wife decided that poly wasn't for her. Furthermore, she told him that he could continue to see other people, but only if he made sure that none of it would affect her in any way. Like, *ever.*

Since then, he's put all these complicated failsafes into practice so that no breath of his dating life will ever get back to her. We only meet during weekdays for a few hours, once a month or so. A few times a year he can get out for an evening, but he always has to be home by midnight -- no overnights. No weekend classes, workshops, overnight trips -- no spontaneous anythings. No introducing each other to our friends. We can't go to certain stores where someone he knows might be working. Etc. etc. etc.

Sometimes our dates get canceled, and that sucks. Luckily I have lots of other partners, so I'm not too cast down over that, but it seems so unfair to me that he's bending over backwards to spare her from knowing That Which She Does Not Want To Know, and meanwhile *his* needs are not even voiced, much less fulfilled. I know he *wants* to be much more open, but he's doing *this* instead, as though her needs are all that matter.
Recently, he and his wife apparently had a brief conversation in which she said something like, "I bet you have dated [Person A]. But, don't tell me anything about it -- I don't want to know." (Person A is actually someone she knows, and someone he has been dating! So she definitely sensed something going on there.) This is all hearsay from him, of course.
I have asked him why he can't just ... talk to her about it, to make sure they're still on the same page. After 19 years, maybe something has eased or shifted, and maybe he doesn't need to go through all this rigamarole anymore. But, he says that talking to her about it would be disrespecting her request that she never be impacted by it in any way. He says that she never consented to having these discussions. I ask, Even if it matters to *you*? and he says, in effect, Yes.
I asked if maybe next year on the 20th anniversary of the dreaded DADT they can have a 20-minute conversation to ensure it's still in effect. He laughed, and I knew he wouldn't be initiating that sort of conversation. He's afraid she would take away his right to date outside the marriage altogether, I assume, so he's playing it safe by keeping what he has rather than asking for more.

At this point, I am Schrödinger's Cheater. I don't know if I'm helping him cheat or not. What's more -- I can never open the box to find out for sure.
Am I being ethical? Should I stop seeing him? My longtime poly partner will never break up with him (even though she's had other relationships get into rocky territory because of this guy's DADT and her other partners being uncomfortable with the setup). So even if I broke up with him, he and she would still be seeing each other. I'm very dear to both of them and I know they both love me. Breaking up with him would cause them both much grief. And to top it all off, my longtime poly partner is probably not going to live more than another few years. Do I want to darken her last few years with a breakup and coping with that aftermath, when I could just enjoy our time together for what it is?
At this point I should mention that the sex is phenomenal. He's very attentive and he's really learned what I like over the last 3 years, and he's so... drunk on me when we're together. It's as though I'm an escape from the drudgery of his life. And I understand that, because doing all that work must be exhausting! It must be nice to spend a few hours sexing up a woman who doesn't require all sorts of complicated backbends to hide who he really is.

Then again, since he IS hiding so much from his wife, how much can I trust someone who is willing to live a lie at that level? To hear him tell it, he's not actually lying -- he's just ensuring that there will never be a situation where he needs to out-and-out lie. He's doing that by obsessively grooming how he appears to his wife, so that she will never know what he's doing on the side. And this is all supposedly to protect her.

I do believe him that it is to protect her, especially since his story has been so consistent for 9 years (with my other poly partner) and 3 years (with me). But isn't it robbing his wife of a chance to grow as a person, to shield and baby her like this? Shouldn't she have to do *some* of the lifting in this relationship? He takes care of her in a zillion ways, doing all the cooking and laundry and house repair as well as earning all of the money, so it doesn't surprise me that he's killing himself to meet her requirements here, also.

It just makes me sad, especially if it turns out to be totally unnecessary. What if this whole thing is just an exercise in futility, and she'd actually be able to meet this challenge better than he or she thinks? What if shielding her this way is patronizing to her? Then again -- she is the one who asked to be shielded, so shouldn't I allow her the agency to make that decision for herself?

I've gone around and around on this over the past three years. I've decided to let things lie where they are. But I still worry that I am enabling a cheater. Transparency and honesty are important to me. That, and it stresses me out to think that he might have another medical emergency while we're out on a date.
I'm coping with this sucky situation by drawing back, regarding him only as a play partner and nothing more, not introducing him to my kids, and not "investing" in him a lot emotionally. Everyone in our polycule gets tested for STDs/STIs every 6 months, and he and I always use condoms. We are a closed loop, so there's little risk of outside infection, which is good. Recently, I've started seeing someone new, and he is totally out with his partner, and it's so refreshing! I'm trying to focus more on this new person and let my play partner take care of himself.
If you have any advice on what I should do, how hard I should push him to make a change (he will not listen), or how to protect my own heart and make sure I'm not harming anyone, I would love to hear it. Sorry for the length of this letter.

~ Maybe Cheating


Dear Cheating,

The cat is dead. You don't need to open the box to find out for sure.

Just look at all those bullet points: any one of them could have been lethal. But all of them, one after the other? That poor cat didn't have a chance. Even the one piece of evidence supposedly in your lover's favor – "this entire time, his story has been identical: he's never given us conflicting information about his situation" – is a bullet straight through the heart, because a well-rehearsed story is a made-up story. I'm reminded of the opening scene of The Lives of Others, in which a Stasi (East German secret police) instructor is explaining how you can tell when someone under interrogation is lying: “People who tell the truth can re-formulate things, and they do. A liar has prepared sentences which he falls back on under pressure.”

But for the sake of argument, let's say your lover really did make that “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” agreement with his wife, nineteen years ago – or at least that he genuinely believes he did. I think it's very plausible that at some point, the two of them had a conversation in which she told him, basically, “If you were ever to have sex with someone else, I wouldn't want to know about it.” Many people feel this way. For example, I know a man in a DADT relationship whose wife still reproaches him for having been so crass as to ask for permission before starting to date other women. In her opinion, it would have been kinder and more respectful just to cheat. To her, discreet cheating is more ethical than honest non-monogamy. It's possible that her preferences are culturally mediated (she's Japanese), but regardless of why she feels the way she does, those feelings are valid, and ought to be taken into account. I can see why DADT would seem like a reasonable compromise, given the situation. Although I would not consider dating this man myself, I trust that he is telling the truth, and I believe he is behaving as ethically as he is able, under the difficult circumstances. Why do I trust him? Because he behaves like an honest person. If he and his wife encounter one of his lovers in public, he says hello. He doesn't have a special phone screening service, or multiple firewalls. Although he may not write “Date with Hotty @ Club 69” in black Sharpie on the wall calendar in the kitchen, he doesn't have to come up with a failsafe alibi to explain his absence, either. It doesn't matter if his wife figures out where he is, or whom he's seeing, because nothing about their relationship is going to change as a result of that information. She knows what she needs to know, and she chooses to protect herself from knowing any more by not asking questions or snooping around.

You see, there is a necessary corollary to “Don't Ask, Don't Tell.” The corollary is this: “If Asked, Tell.” Couples who have jointly agreed to a DADT arrangement understand that this corollary is also part of the deal, and they do not ask a question unless they want to know the answer.  It's essentially an issue of continuing consent. People in ethical DADT relationships understand that their partner has the right to revoke consent at any time, simply by asking for more information. Any direct question – Where are you going tonight? Who is calling? How do you two know each other? – functions like a “safe word”. By making sure his wife never has occasion to ask any relevant questions (and by lying to her when she does inadvertently ask relevant questions), your play partner is depriving her of her ability to continue giving consent. What's worse, he obviously believes that if she ever had an opportunity to revoke her consent, she would do so. He is therefore behaving unethically even if he is telling you the truth about their original DADT agreement having been his wife's idea.

As you so memorably put it, your play partner is a cheating cheatery McCheaterson who cheats. And in my estimation, he's also a lying liary McLiarson who lies.

That's harsh, I realize, but some part of you knew I would say what I'm saying, and what's more, that I would say it with absolute certainty. You aren't really asking me if I think you are enabling a cheater.  You're asking me to help you understand why you have been going around and around on this for so long, when the situation is actually quite clear-cut.

I suspect that the biggest source of your confusion is the cognitive dissonance you experience when you try to reconcile your lived experience of this man with your well-grounded suspicions about him. This is a person you know intimately: a thoughtful man, a fun companion, a passionate lover. In all the ways that feel most important, he has been consistent. Your poly partner, who has known him for even longer than you have, has remained loyal to him all this time, and you respect her judgement. How could it possible for both you and her to be wrong about the basic goodness of his character?

Then there's the mismatch between your professed beliefs and your actions. How could it be possible for you, as smart and well-intentioned as you are, to have allowed yourself to be duped into betraying your values?

I submit that you can be right about your play partner's basic goodness – that he cares about his wife, and he cares about you – and wrong to trust his ridiculous story about how his wife requires him to take these draconian DADT measures. You can be an intelligent, socially-savvy person with the best of intentions and still find yourself in an ethical morass. You care about your partners, and you want to continue to be there for them. So you fudge a little here, and you fudge a little there, and before you know it, you're up to your eyeballs in sticky stuff. That doesn't make you a bad person. Listen, I once dated a cheater myself. I understand how it can happen.

I'm familiar with the rationalizations. I'm familiar with the carefully cultivated confusion, the ruse you use to keep your brain distracted. And underneath it all, the sadness and fear. It's like you and your lover have built this beautiful house together, and you don't want to have to move out just because somewhere down in the basement there's a creepy old box with a dead cat in it.

Now, what should you do? I can't really answer that question in concrete terms, but I have a suggestion. You expressed quite a bit of anger and frustration at your lover's wife for being so selfish and unreasonable, for insisting that he put her comfort over his needs. I think your anger is misdirected. It seems to me that YOU are the person who has been bending herself into a pleasing pretzel, and HE is the person making unfair demands. Perhaps it is time to start thinking more about your comfort in this relationship.

Amnesty & Honesty,

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

My Wife Is Upset about My New Girlfriend. How Do I Help Her Feel Better?

Dear Viny,

My wife is really struggling with a new relationship of mine. I...don't really know what to do about it. It's true that I've fallen hard, and it's only been a month, but there is nothing family-threatening going on here. Not even remotely. And, I think my wife knows that. We have been happily poly for years now. Yes, I am in love, but I'm definitely not going anywhere.

I'm trying to be supportive, but it's difficult. My wife is all over the place.

For example, last weekend, my wife was obviously super-upset. She said some...unkind things. (Fair enough. I let her say them.) All very understandable, all things considered. So we talked, and we cried, and I thought things ended really well.

A little while later she says that she should meet my new girlfriend, and doesn't even know what she looks like. So I start trying to see when would be a good time for them to meet. But apparently I was being way too pushy.

So, ok, fine. I dropped it.

Then, a few nights ago, my wife is again really upset, and we talk, and we cry. And again, I feel like things are really good! We're solid. Life is returning to normal, she and I are spending quality time together. But...something is still wrong. What is it??

She says it's not about me. She says it's not about us. Part of it is flashbacks to a relationship I had a long time ago, which ended badly (which, ok, I fully get that). But there's some other part that I don't get. But she doesn't want to talk about it.

In fact, she doesn't want to talk about my new relationship at all. Something wonderful and magical is happening in my life, and my wife doesn't want to hear anything about it! That's her request.

So now I have all this stuff on my mind, but I have to keep it all from her. And that is starting to trigger me. I don't want to be sneaking around! My wife and I have always talked openly about our other relationships in the past. “Don't ask, don't tell” always seemed like a fucked-up arrangement to us. I don't want this to be fucked up... but if she refuses to talk to me and makes me hide this...that's just not going to go anywhere good.

But I can't say any of this to her, because she doesn't want to talk about it. She says she just needs a break from thinking about this.

Lay it on me, Viny: What am I supposed to do?

– At Wits' End


Dear AWE,

Be patient. And then be patient some more. And then continue to be unrelentingly patient, for as long as it takes your wife to get over the crisis of confidence she is currently experiencing.

If you're wondering, “But how long will that be?”, just take whatever you believe to be a reasonable amount of time, and triple it. People in the flush of NRE are notorious for being on the fast-track to fantastic. I suspect that you have been bombarding your wife with “hurry up and be happy!” demands in every conversation you've had with her thus far, whether you mean to or not. Please, back off. Give her the time she needs to work through her difficult emotions.

Physiologically, the acute phase of jealousy (yes, I think your wife is struggling with jealousy) is kind of like being love-sick – except that there is no hand whose touch will make it better. There's no relief in sight. And it is accompanied by feelings not of openness and expansion of self, but of smallness of self: the fear (or, worse, a feeling of conviction) that one is not enough.

This is not about you. It’s not about your new person. It's about your wife. I'm guessing that the reason she “doesn’t want to talk about it” is that she wants a break from being herself. Right now, her life feels like it's out of her control – in a very bad way. But her previous life, the one she was living before you fell for this other woman, seems colorless and boring – not worth returning to. She wants to feel better about herself, but she doesn’t know how. And unfortunately, there isn’t much that you can do to help her.

And yet she needs your help, or at least she needs to feel like you want to help her. She probably wishes she didn’t. She probably worries she's being a drag, and if so, the last thing she wants to do is remind you what a drag it is, dealing with her – except that she can’t help herself. So, you are going to get the hot & cold treatment. You are going to get the “I need to meet her, ASAP – no, not NOW, I can’t handle it!” tap-dance. Count on it. Prepare accordingly.

Be patient, and then be patient some more, because your wife needs TIME to see that there is nothing family-threatening going on here. There is no way around the several months (or even longer) that it will take to prove this to her.

Be way more than your fair share of patient, because you have resources she doesn’t have right now. You have reserves of self-esteem you can tap into. You have a sense of excitement about the future. And you have the support of someone new, someone who sees you at your best, someone who is going to see your failings as adorable quirks and who will feel honored by your vulnerability when you lay the worst parts of yourself bare, as opposed to thinking, “Oh yeah, here’s this thing about my partner that I’ve been banging my head against for years.”

One final suggestion: please, while you are being patient, remind your wife why you love her. It's not enough just to tell her that you love her, because right now she can't imagine why anyone would love her. She's too busy disliking herself.

This is the only thing you can do for your wife besides simply being patient while time goes by: help her rediscover what is lovable about her. (And not just lovable, but also exciting, potentially, to someone who has yet to discover her, in the way you and your new partner are currently discovering each other.) Your wife may protest that she doesn’t need this kind of attention and reassurance from you, but chances are, that’s only because she wants not to need it. Tell her what you love about her, specifically her, anyway. It will help. It may not seem like it’s helping, but I promise, it will turn out later to’ve helped.

Compassion & Kombucha,

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Prioritizing the Family Ecosystem

Hi Viny, 

I saw your blog post a while back and had meant to write in, but of course got distracted - anyway really I don't have a question for you particularly but I wanted to say that your advice got, and continues to get, me through some very dark and confusing times. I really wanted to thank you for doing what you do. I'm so grateful that you lead a life that has its ups and downs like the rest of us, because you're able to give real advice as a result. This loving people thing isn't always straightforward and I'm so glad I have you out there blazing a trail and reporting back on how to handle it.

Thanks again! 

-- A Reader


Dear Reader,

Your kind words are much appreciated. In evaluating what I want to do with this blog in the future, and what other venues might exist for advice-giving, I have been thinking a lot about two questions:

1) Given that there are a limited number of activities/pursuits/goals I can reasonably expect to cram into my "spare" time, what are my priorities?

2) What is the value of making my private experience public? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? And what about the fact that my stories are almost always other people's stories as well, and that I cannot always get their permission/buy-in?

The topic of priorities came up in a conversation my husband recently had with his mother. 
My mother-in-law has done a pretty good job of accepting our unconventional approach to marriage, and she's made a point of welcoming my boyfriend Cam into the family. But she was upset that on our recent family trip to Utah, Cam and I booked a Bed & Breakfast for one of the nights we were there. She would have preferred for us to stay at her house for the entire vacation, since it was such a short visit. Yes, she'd given me and Parker the guest bedroom, and Cam the living room couch, but handling the sleeping arrangements any other way would have felt awkward to her. Surely, Cam and I could stand to sleep apart for four measly nights, right?
She complained to Parker, "It's clear that Viny's first priority is Cam. And her second priority is [Parker's and my 8-year-old daughter] Sienna. But I don't even know where you fit in, Parker -- it seems like you're pretty far down on the list of priorities."

Granted, she was frustrated and angry when she said this; she was also probably worried about Parker feeling left out, given that he wasn't spending the night at a cool B&B. But I figured I'd better address her concerns directly. So I asked her about what she had said to Parker, and asked her for an opportunity to explain what I think my priorities are.

I told her that my first priority is actually what I call the family ecosystem. This system is made up of individuals, yes, but it is far greater than the sum of its parts, because it also encompasses the dynamic interplay of the relationships between those individuals. Put more simply: I try to make decisions based on what is going to be best for group functioning. Sometimes that looks kind of like utilitarianism (maximizing happiness by thinking about which choice is likely to result in the greatest good for the greatest number). Other times, it may seem on the surface to be favoritism. Or even pure selfishness. Maybe sometimes it is favoritism, or selfishness -- but I try very hard not to indulge in either, unless I feel that doing so will ultimately be in everyone's best interests.

Mind you, I don't always succeed in prioritizing the family ecosystem. But it's always my intention to put the overall healthy functioning of the group first.
Luckily, my mother-in-law seemed to appreciate both this explanation and the intentions behind it. Family feud averted. Whew!

I still have to finish packing for yet another family reunion -- my side of the family, this time -- so I'll have to post this in its half-baked state. Thanks for giving me that little nudge, and a reason to reflect.
Applesauce & Dental floss,

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Confession

I find it difficult to pose as a “relationship expert” whenever I am feeling uncomfortable about how I am handling one or more of my own intimate relationships, or when too many other people's relationships seem to be going really badly, or when I'm pessimistic about the likelihood of human beings ever learning how to get along with each other for long enough to build anything worthwhile.

All three of those are operative right now. (It's Super Tuesday here in the U.S., and our country was desperately in need of therapy before this divisive primary election.)

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you might have noticed that I haven't written a real post since early December 2015. I'm pretty sure that's due, in large part, to the fact that on December 11, one of my most dysfunctional relationships came back to bite me in the ass. That day, the friend I wrote about in my post The End of a Relationship surprised me by sending me a long string of texts. She had read the post, and she thought I had not represented her fairly or accurately. She was hurt. I was thinking about responding with an apology, but wasn't sure it would be wise to re-engage. I decided to sleep on it. I woke up to another volley from her, sent in the middle of the night while my sound was off, which began thus:

“You throw fucking quotation marks around whatever you want as if you are expressing another verbatim. How would you like to be treated like that? Do you think you are the only person who can create a public space in which such liberties exist? How about I create a blog in which I quote you however the fuck I want? Would you like that, [Viny]? Let's find out. You took the step. You created the challenge. I accept.”

Although I seriously doubt that she has made good on this threat – since I assume she has better things to do with her time than post vitriol on whatever VinySux platform she might have been envisioning – it did take the wind out of my sails.

So, since then I've been focusing on showing up for my friends, and friends-of-friends, either in private emails, or over the phone, or in person. Most of my Dear Viny questions come from people I know, or from people who know people I know, anyway, so not showing up on my blog hasn't made much of a difference in terms of what I do.

Then yesterday I got a message from one of my cousins, who doesn't know I write (or used to write?) an advice column, and who may not even know that I'm not monogamous. He was just writing to me as his cousin, filling me in on the last three years of his twenty-year marriage, because I had noticed a strange first-person singular in a Facebook post about him moving to a new house, and had written him a private message to inquire about his relationship status. He thanked me for checking in, and told me he was “tired of pretending” and had decided to “acknowledge reality” – namely that his wife, after “multiple affairs with multiple men in multiple parts of the world” had chosen “freedom over relationships.”

There are only a few things one can do to help people who are in emotional pain: distract them (with amusing prattle or interesting stories, or by engaging their senses in some way, or by giving them an activity that shifts their focus); listen to them; remind them of the temporary nature of all experience (“this too shall pass”); help them breathe through it, moment to moment; and just be there with them, so they know they aren't alone.

I'm grateful to my cousin for inadvertently reminding me that my real goal for Dear Viny is to help people, and that I can't help people if I'm pretending to be better than I am – if I'm so wrapped up in my persona that I forget to be a person. The fact is, no one gets to be a relationship expert by getting things right all the time. I've made a lot of mistakes, and I'm going to keep making mistakes.


I'm still not sure what I'm going to be doing with Dear Viny in the future. But do feel free to write me ( if you've got a relationship problem that's been puzzling you. Chances are, it has puzzled me, too.