Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Testing Relationship Strength: Ken's COSMO Quiz

Note to readers: I promised to refrain from more than one "poly" post a month. This post, while it does have poly content, is primarily about relationships in general. If you would like to skip the poly stuff, just look for the break and start reading there. --Ken

The Aztecs had a goddess named Tlazolteotl who was, quite literally, a shit-eater. Figuratively, what she swallowed was sin, often but not always sexual. Each man and woman would appeal to Tlazolteotl, often on their deathbed, and thus be ritualistically purified as his or her lifetime's worth of sin was swallowed.

I think of myself as a stress-eater. Friends and loved ones have been coming to me for a quarter of a century now with all manner of problems: personal, professional, you name it. I can't always solve them, but I do try to leave everybody just a bit better than I found them...and my capacity for the stress of others seems to be virtually unlimited. I appreciate beyond words the faith and trust that so many place in me.  
Lately, it's as if I have hung out a virtual shingle, because total strangers have chosen to confide in me and seek my advice. Often, this is in the context of polyamory.  
There's a saying in the poly community that "there is no right way to do poly". This is owing to the huge variety of relationship configurations under the poly umbrella, and a niche community's sincere resentment of being told by the majority that they are deviant and evil.  But while there is no one right way to 'do' poly, there are definitely wrong ways.

This song is by Bone Poets Orchestra (formerly called Gaia Consort), a group that has at least two other very poly-friendly songs. The video, 'Perils of Poly', is done in a joking manner, but it's a perfect example of poly done wrong.  (The speed is a bit much for some. I won't clutter up the blog with the lyrics: they're here if you can't make them out or if you'd rather read than listen.) The last line is the one that really grates on me: what's got us terrified is that we'll really fall in love. Argh, that's what poly IS!

One of the common questions I get asked is some variant of "we're thinking of trying poly, should we?"

I have trouble with this question, partly because I feel like Yoda whenever I hear it ("do or do not, there is no try"), and partly because I am very hesitant to say anybody "should" do anything. But when people are exploring the concept and wondering if it's something that can work for them, well...I'll give it a go.

 I just had that question tonight, and the person who asked it stipulated several things that made me think "yes, possibly": a mutual desire not to restrict each other's happiness chief among them. He said that jealousy was a problem for them both, but something that he felt could be worked through: another check mark in their favour.  I gave him some pieces of advice, centering on a great deal of prior communication--poly is not something to jump into without looking VERY carefully--and then finished off with "Polyamory can strengthen a solid relationship, but it will shatter a weak one. Chris de Burgh wrote a masterful song called Much More Than This, the chorus of which perfectly encapsulates the idea here:

It would take much more than this
To break a love so long in the making
It would take much more than talk or dreams 
To shake so strong a foundation
More than this...


So he thanked me for the advice, which he said was very helpful, but then he said something that brought me up short: "I don't know how to measure the strength of my relationship now. Do you have any pointers?"

Pointers? Moi?

It took me a second, really. Strength in a relationship is one of those things that's hard to put into words, but like the judge said about hard-core pornography, "I know it when I see it". I see an awful lot of relationships that aren't strong, and I know them when I see them, too. But how to define it?

I've only been married fifteen years. Not a long time.Am I qualified to answer the question? Maybe not, but certain kinds of bears lack the koalafications to be called bears, and yet we call them bears anyway. So here I go.

The temptation is simply to describe my relationship with Eva, since I know that it is strong. But that would be self-serving, and besides, strong relationships come in different flavours. I need to think in generalities, for the most part, here. I got it: COSMO!

COSMOPOLITAN magazine is a source of endless amusement to me. They use italics even more often than I do (which is really scary); they have some unwritten (or written, for all I know) rule that the word "SEX" MUST appear on the cover in at least three places; and the sex tips are just plain insane. "Want to spice up his life? Rub some capsaicin into his frenulum." NONONONONONO DON'T DO THIS DON'T EVEN THINK IT OWOWOWOWOW.
And yet women read this by the millions, seemingly and somehow unaware that every issue is the same. Occasionally they foist on us men the quizzes therein....quizzes something like this:

Any 'nos/falses' may point to a problem in your relationship that needs addressing. 

You are comfortable talking about anything to each other.
Couples who do not communicate, who hold major secrets from each other that would hurt if disclosed, or who keep their feelings hidden from each other...I'd call those couples "doomed".

You can disagree with each other without becoming exasperated.

It is vitally important to maintain your individuality in a close relationship (except on certain issues, the public face of which should be agreed upon ahead of time: child discipline being a big one).

You respect each other.

It surprises and saddens me how many people badmouth their partners--and not in a joking way, either. If you find yourself thinking disrespectful thoughts about your partner, chances are excellent your life goals do not match up...and that's a giant waving red flag. A bull will see that flag and rampage into the china shop that is your relationship presently.

If I say "friend", your partner is the first person, or very close to the first person, that comes to mind.

It's not the only requirement for a strong relationship, but friendship is a big one.

If you do have a disagreement/argument/fight, is it a new one every time? 

Storing up grievances like nuts is never a sign of a healthy relationship. Care enough about each other to solve the problem, then care enough about each other to keep it solved.

True or false: Even in the height of anger, you don't think 'life would be better without this person in it'. 

Once that thought takes hold, the break-up is only a matter of time.

You communicate your love for each other in ways and at a frequency that satisfies you both.

This one runs the gamut. It includes sex or physical affection (there are asexuals who are repulsed by the thought of sex and demisexuals for whom sex isn't all that important, but they still want to love and be loved). It includes displays of affection like love notes and token gifts. It includes saying "I love you"--something we all long to hear. And it includes letting others know you are a couple, in subtle but profound ways.

Outside stresses have little or no impact on the closeness of your relationship with each other.

We all have them: the shitty day at work, the overbearing relative, a host of others. Your first person to turn to in the presence of stressors like that is your partner, and if they're affecting both of you, they foster an "us against the world" mentality instead of discord in your partnership.

You make each other laugh. 

Very important, this. Laughter really does heal, and it gives an endorphin rush that bonds at the level of about half a hug.

When you are with each other, neither of you is fantasizing about being with someone else.

That's another clue that you're on the rocks. (Yes, even for poly people). When you are with your partner, you are with him or her, wholeheartedly. If you're with someone else in your mind...uh-oh.

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