Category Archives: Polyamory

Make Sure Your Rules Have a Safe Word

image from beforeplay.org

Image from beforeplay.org. Click for details.

My friend Rose, writing at her brand new blog Our Better Natures, makes an excellent point about the use of rules in relationships:

For these types of situations, I think that an idea from the kink and power exchange community is useful.  For any healthy power exchange, even while playing with consensual nonconsent, there is an overarching level at which someone can always opt out.  I suggest that we look at all rules and agreements as a form of role playing in this vein.  With healthy power exchange, ideally, the power dynamics are explicitly negotiated with necessary safe words in place.  Rules and agreements need to be negotiated in much the same way.  Rules and agreements are their own type of role playing because we can never fully and truly give up our ability to make decisions, set boundaries, or leave the relationship and also still maintain healthy consent.  If we take the view on consent outlined above, then there truly can be no inherent level at which anyone owes anyone else intimacy or control over their choices and emotional states.

This is a great point, and I think consensual power exchange is a great lens through which to view rulemaking in relationships. I’ve written before about how rules are a way that we psychologically manipulate our future selves into making the correct choices when we don’t trust our future selves to do so. When we involve another person in the rulemaking (that is, we make a promise or agreement to another person), we implicitly give them the authority to demand compliance with that promise. In essence, it’s a form of consensual power exchange whereby we voluntarily give up a bit of our freedom to another person or persons.

One of the most important concepts in any consensual power exchange relationship, be it a five-minute scene or a thirty-year relationship, is that consent must be ongoing and can be revoked at any time. This is an uncontroversial idea in BDSM communities, where the norm is to always have a safeword which will immediately end the scene as soon as any party want to opt out. In longer-term consensual power exchange relationships, all parties stress that the details of any power exchange agreement are entirely voluntary and open to revocation free from coercive pressure.

Relationship rules or agreements ought to be treated the same way. Ideally, all parties would be clear that anyone was free to unilaterally cancel any agreement at any time free from guilt, shame, or obligation. Sadly, people often view terminating an agreement as a hostile act or a betrayal. While the BDSM community is nearly united in support of the idea that power exchange can be revoked without penalty, the poly community lags far behind on this idea. It is remarkably commonplace to see people pressured, shamed, and coerced into abiding by agreements that no longer work for them.

As I’ve written before, sometimes terminating an agreement can result in the other party ending the relationship, and that is to be expected. The same principle that says any party can terminate an agreement at any time also mandates that any party is free to end the relationship at any time. The same principle applies in all consensual power exchange relationships.

So next time someone wishes to renegotiate or terminate an agreement, let’s take a lesson from the BDSM community and recognize that it is always their right to do so, and allow them a space free of shame, obligation, or guilt.

 

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Compatibility is All That Matters

Good dating advice usually has one unifying feature: it stresses that relationships should be entirely consent-based. That means that every part of a relationship is genuinely desired by all parties, and no party is coerced into engaging in any activity for the benefit of other(s). In theory, this is uncontroversial. Most people will recognize that they shouldn’t coerce dating partners into unwanted activities.

There’s a flipside, though, which is a little less intuitive. It’s the idea that any relationship practice is ethical if all parties give unqualified consent. Assuming that all parties are free from coercion and have the capacity to give meaningful consent, there is nothing that’s off-limits. A lot of bad dating advice overlooks this fact, offering prescriptive advice which assumes that people (or, more likely, all people of a single gender) want the same things. This sort of thinking tends to divide things up into “good” and “bad” behaviors, universalizing the preferences of the majority (or sometimes, just the preferences of the author).

But people are different, and they have different preferences. What’s a dealbreaker for you might be a positive for me. Something I can’t stand might be something you can’t live without. Too often, we assume that our preferences are universal, and we condemn those who don’t conform to them. The world is full of bitter exes who weren’t treated the way they liked and assume that indicates something wrong with the other party rather than just a mismatch in preference. It’s a way of disrespecting someone’s autonomy to insist that your preferences are the right way to have a relationship, and that any other preferences are wrong.

At the same time, it’s important that one’s relationships are freely chosen, which means that while nothing is off limits, one must be honest and open about what to expect, and space must be given for a graceful rejection. There are wrong ways to have a relationship, and rights that cannot be waived. However, those rights are all about making sure that consent to the relationship is freely given and undiluted. As long as we are completely honest and noncoercive about what we are looking for and what to expect, then we are free to pursue whatever relationship(s) we desire.

The important thing, then, is compatibility. Rather than conforming to a set of rules that define “good relationships,” our challenge is to write our own qualifications that define what’s good for us. Then we find people who share our preferences and draw strong boundaries with people who don’t. Upliftconnect.com offers some on-point advice about drawing boundaries:

If access to your heart, your email, your phone, and your physical being lives on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being complete inner circle access, those who are 10’s require what Brene Brown calls “a full jar of marbles.” In other words, they need to have earned your trust. If the jar of marbles gets half full because of betrayals of trust, access needs to go down — not necessarily all the way to 1, but maybe to 5 or 6. Maybe they don’t get to call you every day or sleep in your bed or spend Christmas morning with you.

That way, if someone isn’t treating you with impeccable respect, you simply limit access without making up a story about it. No point becoming the exploding doormat. That’s not enlightened either. Your heart stays wide open. The boundaries close up though. Unconditional love, absolute freedom, conditional access.

Then it’s not someone else’s job to treat you right. It’s your  job to treat you right with appropriate boundaries that limit access based on whether or not someone is deserving of complete inner circle access.

In this way, you can allow people to be themselves and have their own relationship preferences, but you limit access to yourself only to people who share your preferences and live up to your expectations. It stops being about whether someone is a “good” or “bad” partner, and becomes about whether they are a good fit. When we focus on compatibility, we respect everyone’s autonomy while still being able to protect ourselves and follow our own path.

An Open Letter to Atlanta Poly Weekend

The following is an email sent to the Relationship Equality Foundation, the organization that hosts and organizes Atlanta Poly Weekend. 

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Dear Relationship Equality Foundation,

I’ve always been a big supporter of Atlanta Poly Weekend. My first year attending, a presenter cancelled at the last minute and I volunteered to step in and do my Online Dating presentation. Last year, I gave two presentations as well as put on a burlesque show. I’ve also promoted your event on my blog and in many personal interactions. I’ve done everything I can think of to support your organization because at the time it seemed like a really good cause. Unfortunately, that support has not been mutual.

Last winter, several of my wife’s ex-partners, including Shaun McGonigal, engaged in a coordinated smear campaign against me. While most organizations and individuals were able to see that this was a case of resentful exes attempting to continue their abuse post-breakup, your organization accepted their accusations uncritically, gave me no meaningful opportunity to defend myself, and never told me what I was accused of doing. When I provided extensive evidence that all public allegations were false, exaggerated, or left out important context, I was ignored.

Your organization designated Billy Holder (and old friend of Shaun McGonigal’s from his time living in Atlanta) as an investigator. Billy’s “investigation” was anything but. Billy never got my side of any of the stories that he was told. He never spoke to any of the witnesses that I identified, in person or online, despite numerous opportunities to do so. His conversation with me largely consisted of Billy expressing his anger and disappointment regarding how the Polyamory Leadership Network handled the situation. He never disclosed to me that he was investigating anything. He expressed multiple times that he was in the dark. He outright lied to me by telling me that he didn’t know the content of any of the accusations. Instead, he pretended to be my friend and reassured me that he was on my side.

During the weekend that he was in town, Billy gained and then took advantage of my trust. I consented to be in a sexual situation with him having no idea he was acting in an official capacity as an investigator . It felt (and continues to feel) disgusting because I consented under false pretenses. I feel violated. Had he been honest with me, I never would have engaged in any kind of sexual contact with him. I consider his failure to disclose his role to be a major consent breach (in addition to the appalling ethics of an investigator having sex with the target of his investigation).

Billy then turned around and used his position as a member of your board and principal organizer of Atlanta Poly Weekend to get me banned from the event, ostensibly due to the fact that I’m some kind of danger to the community.

Billy also used his influence and position of power to make sure that his friend Shaun McGonigal was able to attend, despite the fact that over the past year he and the Relationship Equality Foundation received reports that Shaun:

  • once beat his girlfriend so hard that her injuries caused her to miss three days of work
  • emotionally and verbally abused my wife Gina for over a year
  • without provocation, threatened to break my nose
  • manipulated, abused, and gaslit other former partners

Since then, Shaun also beat his wife in a fit of rage, which led to their divorce. Your organization has ignored all of these reports and allowed Billy Holder to protect his friend and scapegoat me.

It is obvious that none of this is about protecting the community or effectively dealing with abuse, and it is about Billy Holder playing favorites and the Relationship Equality Foundation allowing him to do so.

For obvious reasons, I do not wish to attend or support APW, nor will I unless significant changes are made. However, I hope you and your attendees will take the event this weekend as an opportunity to rethink how you handle this sort of thing and make some attempts to establish some actual accountability in your community. Your current system serves only to enable abuse by proxy, empower abusers, and make your community more dangerous.

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For anyone attending APW this year, the only thing I’d ask is that you let the organizers know about your unhappiness with how they handle abuse complaints and request that they establish a system which provides genuine accountability while respecting the humanity of everyone involved.

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UPDATE [6/6/15]: APW issued a statement on its Facebook page:

APW earnestly aims to create a safe place for our attendees, guests, presenters, staff and volunteers. We treat all reports of abuse seriously and are concerned for the people in any situation of abuse. Our first responsibility is to create a convention space that is safe for everyone. We act in good faith within our role as an event to honor the sense of safety in the community at large.
In order to support the survivors, we try to give the accusers the benefit of the doubt and the accused a reasonable opportunity to participate in the discussion. Because we support the survivors and are not against the accused, the accused can be welcomed back into the community and APW.
While we are part of the community we serve, we are not the arbitrators of personal situations and must focus on the small confines of our event. The Board of Directors reached a consensus regarding a particularly volatile situation outside of our event that was nevertheless disrupting our event, in our opinion. As our community changes, we evolve along with it and use this experience to learn and continue discussions about what creates safe environments.
Currently we are in the stage of supporting the survivors:http://emmfett.blogspot.com/…/the-community-response-to-abu… We are learning what it means to support accountability for the accused. It is our hope to learn this alongside the community

In addition to being vague PR-speak, this statement does not reflect any of my or my family’s interactions with APW. They have not taken our reports of Shaun McGonigle’s abuse seriously, and they have conducted zero followup with any of the multiple people who have contacted them to report his abuse. For example, when Shaun engaged in behavior at a different conference that bordered on stalking me, I reported it to several organization including APW. Their response was to mock me:

But yet, the conference leadership was not informed about the situation nor were any complaints, to our knowledge, brought against that person to the conference leadership as he remained at the conference all weekend.  We found this to be odd if you are truly scared to be at an event where he is present.

Never mind that I didn’t realize he’d been following and watching me until he blogged about it after the conference. Never mind that the conference leadership was informed immediately, and had been informed prior to the conference about Shaun. Never mind that my wife Gina fled the conference in tears on Friday night because Shaun was there, and didn’t return all weekend despite paying over a hundred dollars for a ticket. This has been typical of APW’s treatment of us, minimizing and discrediting our fears and working overtime to protect Gina’s abusive ex. APW absolutely does not take abuse complaints seriously or support victims. For them to claim otherwise is insulting and degrading to all of Shaun’s victims that have repeatedly contacted them to no avail.

Expectation Damages and Reliance Damages

What do we do when our relationship expectations aren’t met? What happens when someone breaks a rule, violates an agreement, or otherwise doesn’t do what we legitimately expected them to do, and it harms us?

Expectation Damages vs. Reliance Damages

In the law, there are different kinds of damages that can be awarded based on the type of injury. When one party breaks a contract, typically the other party is awarded expectation damages. Expectation damages are meant to put the other party in the position they would have been in had the contract been fulfilled.

Imagine that I agreed to sell you my couch for $200. You rent a truck for $50 to transport it, but when you show up, I say I changed my mind and don’t want to sell. The cheapest comparable couch you can find costs $300 and will require another $50 truck rental to pick it up. Your expectation damages are $100. You expected to pay $200 and a $50 rental fee, and receive a couch. Instead, you paid $300 and a $50 rental fee to receive a couch, so you are $100 worse off than you would have been had I stuck to the deal.

Another type of damages that are typically awarded when expectation damages are difficult to estimate or when circumstances are more appropriate are reliance damages. Reliance damages are intended to put the injured party in the position they would have been in had the contract never been made in the first place.

In the couch example, your reliance damages are $50. If we had never made the contract, you never would have spent the $50 on the truck rental. You paid that $50 in reasonable reliance on my promise to sell you my couch. Because I broke my promise, you’re out $50. If I break the deal before you rent the truck, you don’t have any damages, since you’re in the same position you would otherwise be in.

In a business context, there are good reasons why we typically award expectation damages for breach of contract. Unless there is an opportunity for an efficient breach, we want to encourage people to stick to their deals. Business runs on deals, and rules that encourage people to break deals would increase uncertainty. Uncertainty is bad for business, so we favor rules that increase stability and predictability.

Relationship Damages

In a relationship context, most of the time, we won’t be talking about money, but I think it’s useful to consider the general magnitude of a person’s responsibility when trying to make amends. There’s a big difference between trying to make up for wasting an hour of your life vs. ruining your career, and the amends required are different.

I find reliance damages to be the more appropriate way to think about relationship injuries. When a person breaks a promise I think it’s extraordinarily helpful to consider the conceptual difference between (a) putting someone in the position they would be had the promise never been made (reliance damages) vs. (b) putting someone in the position they would be had the promise been fulfilled (expectation damages). I favor thinking in terms of reliance damages because it’s more autonomy-promoting. It encourages people to make amends for any damage they’ve caused, but it also encourages people to renegotiate their agreements if they’re no longer benefiting from them. The thinking behind expectation damages is that people should stick to their agreements and that people have a responsibility to make sure the other party gets the benefit of the bargain no matter what. The thinking behind reliance damages is that sometimes shit happens, and people’s responsibility is to make up for any damage they’ve caused.

Examples

Let’s consider a few examples of common broken promises in relationships:

(1) you flake on a date.
(2) you fail to do the dishes as promised.
(3) you cheat sexually.
(4) you divorce your partner (after vowing “till death do us part”).

In example (1), expectation damages would seek to put the person in the position they would have been had you showed up. So from that thinking, your moral responsibility would be to take your partner out on a date, whether you want to or not, because that’s what you promised. I’m not a fan of this solution, because I don’t think people should ever feel required to give social attention when they don’t want to. It’s a pillar of consent culture that nobody ever owes another person their social energy or attention, and our ethics ought to reflect that.

Reliance damages would seek to put the other person in the position they would have been in had you never promised to go on the date. If you back out soon enough, there really aren’t any damages, since the other person has time to make alternative plans. If not, you’ve ruined their evening, so it’s on you to make amends for that. It could mean taking them out on a different evening if that’s what you want to do, but it could also mean letting them borrow your Playstation so they’re not bored all evening. Or it could mean buying them a book or (if you live together) giving them control of the living room TV for the night. Thinking in terms of reliance damages give you options that don’t infringe on your autonomy.

Example (2) is interesting because expectation damages aren’t actually very problematic. You would just need to do the dishes that have been sitting in the sink all night. Most of the time, that’s a fine solution. It’s also interesting because there likely aren’t any reliance damages. If you didn’t promise to do the dishes, would the other person not have eaten? Would they have used paper plates? Probably not. It’s likely that the dishes would have been made no matter what, so really, the person is in the same position as if no promise was made.

So does that mean it’s ok to promise to do the dishes, then back out at the last minute? Of course not. What this indicates to me is that the issue with you not doing dishes isn’t that you said you would do them. The issue is that if you never do the dishes, you’re a jerk! If you did the dishes for the past three evenings, then I don’t think there’s a big problem with you saying that you’re not going to do them tonight. You shouldn’t have said you’d do them, but I don’t think you owe the other person anything if they’re just taking advantage of your helpful nature to get you to do the dishes every night. However, if you don’t do a fair share of the housework, that’s problem whether you’ve agreed to or not. So in this situation, I still think it’s appropriate to think in terms of reliance damages. This is just a good reminder that there are other considerations aside from just broken promises.

In example (3), expectation damages would seek to put the person in the position they would have been had you not cheated. This is what most people do in this situation. It involves things like getting tested for STI’s, breaking off the other relationship, assuring your partner that it won’t happen again, and completing some kind of probationary period where your actions get some extra scrutiny. While this can be a good solution if maintaining your current relationship is your only consideration, I don’t favor it as an ethical requirement. What if you’re in love with the other person? What if you don’t want to be monogamous anymore? What if your partner is controlling and this is the excuse they need to micromanage your life?

Reliance damages put the person in the position as if you never promised monogamy in the first place. This might mean breaking up, if your partner desires only monogamous relationships. It might mean that you decide to open your relationship (although this is a notoriously bad way to start an open relationship). It might mean doing all of the same things as expectation damages and making a new promise of monogamy, if that’s what you want and your partner trusts you to keep to your word (which they probably shouldn’t).

Example (4) truly shows the absurdity of expectation damages. Expectation damages, in this situation, would mean getting remarried. Unless you’re a fanatical believer in the sanctity of marriage, I think we can agree that there is no ethical requirement to get remarried once you get divorced.

Reliance damages mean putting the other person in the position they would have been had you never promised to stay with them forever. In a divorce, a lot of this can be financial. Did the rely on your financial support and stop pursuing a career? Pay spousal support. Did they rely on your financial assistance when deciding to have a child? Pay child support. Did they take out a mortgage with you? Either figure out a compromise or sell the house and pay off the mortgage. Non-financially, there was probably a lot of emotional damage done, so make up for that as best you can.

Conclusion

When you’ve broken a promise, you’ve probably done something wrong. But what is it? Most analysis tends to view the act of breaking the promise as the bad thing, but I tend to disagree. I think it promotes freedom and autonomy much more to see the bad thing as making the promise in the first place. If you find yourself so motivated to break a promise that you overcome the psychological difficulty in doing so, I think most of the time it’s fair to say that you inaccurately predicted your feelings. Had you known that you would not want to stick to the agreements, you probably wouldn’t have made it. So I think it’s best to see the promise as the mistake.

Adopting the thinking behind reliance damages helps all parties focus on the promise as the mistake, and seeks to rectify the situation by putting the injured party in the position they would have been had the promise never been made. I want people to do whatever they want, as much of the time as possible. That can’t happen if our ethical thinking encourages people to stick to agreements even when they are no longer benefiting from them. I’d much rather adopt ethical rules which encourage the breaking of agreements that shouldn’t have been made in the first place and merely obligate people to make amends for the harm they caused.

Breaking promises is bad. Traditional morality says to keep your promises no matter what. My advice is different. I say, don’t make promises that you won’t want to keep. If you do, then making the promise was your mistake, and you are responsible for any injuries cause by another person’s reasonable reliance on your promise.

What Rolling Stone Can Teach Us About Creating Ethical Poly Communities

[CN: Rape]

In November 2014, Rolling Stone published an article by Sabrina Erdely entitled “A Rape on Campus.” Wikipedia has a summary of the article and the subsequent fallout. For those who haven’t been following, the Rolling Stone article centered around the story of “Jackie,” a pseudonym for a University of Virginia student who told a harrowing story of being gang-raped by a group of fraternity brothers, one of whom had been her date for the evening, and who had led her upstairs to where she was attacked.

Jackie’s story has largely been discredited. There is broad consensus that, for whatever reason, the story that appeared in the Rolling Stone article is not true. Rolling Stone’s publisher points the finger at Jackie, calling her a “a really expert fabulist storyteller.” However, other sources, including my friend Miri Mogilevsky, have pointed out that journalistic standards exist to deal with precisely this kind of situation, and that this was a failure of Rolling Stone to practice good journalism:

it’s crucial that journalists and editors understand that it is their responsibility, not that of their sources, to ensure accuracy and fairness in reporting. Although Jackie probably did not lie, and the inconsistencies in her story can better be explained by fairly simple neurobiology, the fact is that people do lie sometimes. Some people lie pretty often. Politicians, whom journalists frequently write about and interview, lie quite a bit. People who have committed a crime also tend to lie when asked if they did it.

Moreover, people often misremember or forget things, even when their brains aren’t operating in trauma mode. As someone who often winds up in discussions about science and research with friends, I have often watched a trusted and knowledgeable person confidently tell me something that is absolutely false, and when I presented them with evidence that it was false, they were genuinely confused as to how they could’ve believed such a false thing. The reason is that our brains just aren’t made to retain lots facts and details accurately. Our modern systems of criminal justice, journalism, and other practices that require precise recitation of facts were not designed with this in mind.

A good journalist knows this, which is why the saying “Trust, but verify” exists. The Rolling Stone staff have been misdirecting blame onto Jackie by claiming that it was the sensitivity of her situation that caused them to abandon their journalistic training, but it is when situations are sensitive that these principles are especially important.

I agree with Miri that it’s entirely possible that Jackie was not lying, and that she merely misremembered the details of what happened to her. When the story first broke, Miri explained how trauma survivors’ memories are especially imperfect, and that recalling things like names, dates, or specific details are often very difficult for trauma survivors, regardless of their level of veracity. Maybe Jackie was lying. Maybe she is a trauma survivor suffering from PTSD, and that her memory was imperfect, causing her to report erroneous information about what happened to her and mistakenly point the finger at the wrong parties. From Rolling Stone’s standpoint, I don’t think it matters. Reporters don’t have the luxury of assuming that their sources are telling the truth, even if they are. It is a bedrock foundation of journalism that one cannot merely assume the accuracy of one’s sources.

The effect of Rolling Stone’s journalist failure is disastrous. There was obvious damage done to the falsely accused parties, but and nobody is angrier than sexual assault survivors:

This makes me angry. I’m angry because what should have been a rigorous journalistic investigation has succeeded in drawing more attention to false allegations of rape and diverting focus from the problem of sexual assault and harassment on university campuses. I’m angry because veteran reporters, editors and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone should have known better than to rely on a single source to carry and verify a complex story that alleged criminal wrongdoing on the part of UVA students and neglect on the part of the university administration. I’m angry as a survivor of sexual assault, who knows the crushing hopelessness and despair that accompanies not being believed, and who also knows that every line of print devoted to false allegations makes it that little bit more difficult for people to come forward and report rape.

[…]

The frightening thing is that the hostile responses in light of the Colombia report are so predictable. Many will use Jackie’s false allegations as an example of how women lie about rape and how victims cannot be believed. The debacle is prime ammunition for Men’s Rights Activists and others who seek to deny that rape culture exists and paint victims as manipulative and untrustworthy. I will not speculate on why ‘Jackie’ fabricated her story or write angrily to blame her, but Rolling Stone’s failure to confirm the accuracy of their story is indefensible.

Rolling Stone’s journalistic failures not only make them look foolish, but serve to make it more difficult for rape and sexual assault victims to be heard. When reporting on such topics, journalists have a duty to all survivors to take their practices and ethics seriously.

I think this has lessons for our poly communities, both local and national. Much like a failure of journalism can harm all survivors, similar failures in our communities to address abuse can harm all abuse victims. Communities leaders have similar duties to journalists when investigating and taking action on abuse allegations. The consequences of getting things wrong are huge, so it’s important that we take steps to get things right.

LESSON 1: LEAD WITH COMPASSION

First, some things that Rolling Stone did right: by all accounts, Erdely treated Jackie with compassion, respect, and dignity, which is something that victims sadly are often denied. Trauma survivors are often treated as suspects or liars by investigators who lack training in how trauma can affect a person. A lot of the ways trauma manifests can be confusing to someone who has no experience or education in dealing with survivors. The result is that survivors are often treated poorly, disbelieved, or dismissed based on normal responses to trauma. Leaders have a duty to educate themselves regarding how abuse tends to manifest, and what to expect from a reporting victim. In particular, experts suggest asking open-ended and allowing victims to recall details at their own pace rather than asking for specific information first.

Emma Fett of Navel Gazing has a tremendous post on dealing with abuse. Her top recommendation is that we believe abuse victims, but adds:

This is actually not as simple as it seems. Because people who are abusive almost always hide as victims. If we believe them, unequivocally, we give safe harbor for abuse. But if we are always suspicious of people who report abuse, we do not give a safe space to survivors who already doubt their own experience.

My compromise is this: we believe that abuse victims are telling the absolute truth about their pain, and we respond with compassion. Even abusers hiding as victims are in pain. Even malicious liars are in pain. In our communities, when we receive reports of abuse, our responses should recognize that, no matter how dubious a claim may sound, we are dealing with a person who is hurting. Any response should start with compassion first.

At the same time, it’s not inconsistent to recognize that memories, especially memories of traumatic events, are flawed, and to require additional corroboration before we treat a single source’s account of an event as the truth of what happened. Doing so protects not only those accused, but also victims.

LESSON 2: TRUST, BUT VERIFY

Most sources agree that Rolling Stone’s biggest mistake was its failure to verify Jackie’s story. The Columbia Journalism Review investigation identified a host of mistakes, all centering around the idea that Rolling Stone trusted a single source and failed to get a meaningful response from those accused of wrongdoing. Particularly, the report found that Rolling Stone failed to provide the accused fraternity with enough information to conduct a meaningful investigation, telling them only that “I’ve become aware of allegations of gang rape that have been made against the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi.” Needless to say, this was not nearly enough information for Phi Kappa Psi to investigate.

The Presumption of Innocence

Our criminal law system assumes that people are innocent until proven guilty. It makes this assumption because it recognizes that accusations are not the same thing as evidence, and that it is unjust to punish someone without giving them a meaningful opportunity to present a defense. The presumption of innocence is generally considered an indispensable part of any just system.

Likewise, in any poly group, it’s important to recognize that just because someone has been accused of wrongdoing, that person hasn’t actually committed wrongdoing. This, of course, doesn’t mean that people can’t be suspended pending investigation, but it does mean that alleged victims aren’t the only people who need to be treated with respect and dignity. It also means that, to take any adverse action against a member, more than just an accusation should be required.

Multiple Sides to Every Story

One thing that Rolling Stone teaches us, without a doubt, is that it’s unforgivable not to get all sides of a story before making any judgments about what happened. Rolling Stone put all of their faith in the victim’s account of what happened, and did not give anyone else a chance to explain their side.

The lesson here is that no single person ever gives the complete story. When we are faced with an accusation of wrongdoing, it’s important to get all sides before making any decisions.

LESSON 3: PUT IN THE LEGWORK

One of the biggest lessons to take is that dealing with allegations of abuse takes work. It’s not something that can be done quickly and easily. By all accounts, Erdely put a tremendous amount of work into her story, and it still wasn’t enough. Investigating wrongdoing takes a lot of resources and willpower. Making sure the resources and willpower are there should be the first priority of anyone attempting to deal with abuse allegations.

Investigating abuse allegations means interviewing all witnesses, reviewing all physical evidence, reading all documents or digital communications, and figuring out what actually happened. It’s trivially easy to throw one’s hands up and say “well, it’s he said/she said, so I can’t do anything!” It’s also trivially easy to say “always believe victims! Punish anyone accused of anything!” Actually figuring out what happened is difficult, and it requires time, energy, and sometimes other resources. It is not something that should be attempted by people or organizations who are unwilling to put in the work.

LESSON 4: ADMIT WHEN THE EVIDENCE ISN’T THERE

This is probably the most difficult lesson of all, and this is the one that Erdely failed most spectacularly. She had her chosen narrative. Jackie’s story fit perfectly. More than that, Erdely’s narrative wasn’t really about any individual person. It was drawing attention to an endemic problem with college life and society in general. The individual stories weren’t the important part, it was about the problems with our own culture. Abandoning Jackie’s story would have meant either killing the piece entirely or writing a watered-down, less effective version which would draw less attention to a critical issue. Even if she had the noblest of intentions, Erdely unreasonably failed to admit that her story did not have the evidentiary support needed to publish.

Likewise, it can be extremely difficult for leaders to admit when there isn’t enough evidence to take action. Failing to take action could mean that there is a predator in the midst, and that, as a leader, you are abdicating your responsibility to protect your community. It could mean that the alleged victim feels ignored and abandoned. It could mean that you are exposing your community to further abuse.

All of that is true, but the alternative is just as bad. By taking action against a person who may be innocent, you may be committing abuse by proxy. You may be enabling and assisting a dangerous abuser from continuing to torment their victim(s). You may be vindicating and encouraging the behavior you’re seeking to prevent, thereby causing more of it in your community. You may also be setting the standard that your community has no sense of justice and turning a potential asset into an enemy.

The sad truth is that there is no way to completely stop abuse in our communities or to prevent abusers from being a part of them. Effectively minimizing the amount of abuse in our communities involves recognizing this fact and planning around it. A certain amount of risk tolerance is required in any community, and policies must reflect that all risk cannot be eliminated.

Where there is insufficient evidence to show that it is more likely than not that a person engaged in prohibited conduct, no punitive action can reasonably be taken against that person. It’s a hard decision to make, but sometimes staying one’s hand is the best choice.

Of course, actions can and should be taken to mitigate such a decision, starting with lesson 1: lead with compassion. Even if you don’t believe someone’s story, it is unnecessary to treat that person as a liar or a faker. Remember that memories are unreliable, and that a person may be acting in complete good faith, but still get the story wrong. Second, remember that just because official action won’t be taken doesn’t mean that care can’t be provided. Third, always recognize the right of anyone to tell their story. Victims always have the right to speak up about what happened to them apart from any official process. The fact that you may feel their story is inaccurate is no reason to silence them.

Creating ethical communities is difficult and full of tough questions. What to do about abuse allegations is one of the toughest and one of the most important questions. Hopefully, we can all learn from Rolling Stone’s journalistic failure and not fall into the same mistakes as Erdely, which ends up hurting victims more than anyone.

Capitalization and Polyamory

Jana Lembke of NYmag.com has an article up about capitalization in relationships:

When something great happens in our personal lives, it’s exciting to share the event with people close to us. But at one time or another, you’ve probably disclosed some good news that wasn’t met with the degree of excitement or encouragement you had hoped for. It can be disappointing — even irritating — to expect someone’s ardent interest and get a lukewarm response instead. The process of telling others about our successes and getting a positive reaction is called “capitalization,” and research suggests it has major benefits for romantic relationships.

This concept reminded me of one of the reasons Gina and I decided to open up our relationship in the first place. There came a point, about five years into our relationship, where we realized that when the other had good news, instead of feeling positively, we got jealous instead. The typical example was a time when I got an unexpected day off from work. When I told Gina, instead of the active-constructive response I hope for, she got annoyed that she didn’t get a day off. I often reacted similarly when she got some unexpected benefit, thinking only of myself and failing to take joy in her good fortune.

When we talked about it, we realized that it was a toxic dynamic and we resolved to change it. From there, it was a direct line to polyamory. Once we realized that each other’s gain wasn’t our loss, monogamy no longer made sense. If we were able to take joy in a partner’s day off work, why couldn’t we take joy in a partner’s fun sexual experience? Or in a partner’s new relationship energy? Or in a particularly well-thought-out gift from another partner?

It wasn’t instantaneous of course. It took a lot of work and processing before we were able to stop thinking in terms of “fairness” or poly guilt and get to the point where we could feel real compersion. But it all started by realizing that capitalization was an important relationship skill, and that things that made each other happy should not be harmful to us.

Lembke also endorses the idea of making an effort:

Once you realize the importance of capitalization, there’s no reason not to make a conscious effort to do a better job of it. So the next time your beloved shares a personal success, remember that a heartfelt “congratulations!” goes a long way toward fanning those warm feelings that sustain relationship happiness.

It’s a lot easier to eliminate or mitigate sexual and romantic jealousy when we’re working to eliminate jealousy from all parts of our relationship. While jealousy tends to be stronger when it comes to sex and relationships, there are plenty of places where it can creep into our relationships. Making an effort to capitalize the small things can make it easier to be happy about the bigger things.

My Poly Nightmare

“A lot of unethical behavior comes from people trying to protect themselves by controlling partners”

— Franklin Veaux, Poly Living 2015

This is a story about how the polyamorous community failed me my family. It details our abuse and mistreatment, first at the hands of several of our partners and friends, and then at the hands of community leaders.

I was happy to have this conversation in private, and much of it has been. However, my antagonists have since moved the conversation into the public sphere, and therefore I think a public response is necessary. I am writing this for several reasons. First, I wish to address the public accusations against me, as they are, by and large, false and misleading. Second is purely self-expression. There are a lot of people attempting to shame me into silence, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to give in to those kinds of tactics. But more than anything, I am writing this in the hope that it will help the poly community improve.

I’m hoping that my story can help the rest of the community see how even well-meaning policies can end up furthering and reinforcing abuse if they aren’t well thought-out in advance, and how lazy, irresponsible, or corrupt leadership can mean disaster. Above all, this story is meant to show that we are not building communities that reflect our values, and to hopefully inspire some changes in the way that we do things.

One of my favorite quotes from More Than Two is the following (pp. 51-52):

We keep hearing that polyamory is hard work. We don’t agree-at least not for the reasons that people say. But developing the skills to be successful in poly relationships? That’s a different story. Learning to understand and express your needs, learning to take responsibility for your emotions… that’s hard work. Once you’ve developed those skills, poly relationships aren’t hard.

In the above quote, authors Veaux and Rickert identify two key skills that make poly relationships easy: (1) understanding and expressing your needs; and (2) taking responsibility for your emotions. This is a story about people who do these two things and people who don’t, and the conflicts that arise between them. At different points in this story, I fall into both categories. But if you don’t agree that it’s best to be in the former category, then you can save yourself a lot of reading and just conclude that I’m a jerk and our communities are fine, because that’s all this story is going to show you.

This story is completely true, as best I can remember it. However, memory is seriously unreliable, easily distorted, and even falsely manipulated.  Many of these events took place years before this account was written, making all memories of events especially unreliable. Wherever possible, I’ve relied on written records. Unless otherwise indicated, anything that appears in quotation marks is a direct quote from a written source. Any description of emails, texts, or IM’s has been made after a thorough review of all such communications, and I’ve attempted to give a reasonable amount of context for any such communications where appropriate. I’ve also attempted to verify accounts with witnesses whenever written accounts aren’t available.

Still, several of the events contained in this account are not recorded anywhere, and so rely purely on memory for their descriptions. The necessity of this is unfortunate, but unavoidable. I’ve tried to make it easy to tell which portions are from memory and which are from records, and the portions relying on memory should be viewed with greater skepticism.

This story is told in ten parts. It carries a trigger warning for abuse, sexual assault, gaslighting, victim blaming, and just generally people being awful to each other:

  • Part 1: About Me. Background about my views on relationships, Ask vs. Guess Culture, certain boundaries I have, and how I respond to criticism.
  • Part 2: Opening Up. A short summary of Gina and my early experiences with open relationships, my game-changing relationship with Jessie, and some poor partner- selection decisions that Gina and I made.
  • Part 3: Failure to Communicate. This part discusses my relationship with Ginny Brown and her massive dishonesty, which I consider the worst romantic relationship of my life.
  • Part 4: Gina’s Abusive Relationship with Shaun. The story of Shaun McGonigal’s abuse of my wife Gina for over a year, Ginny’s enabling and excuse-making, and its effects on my household.
  • Part 5: The Community Abandons Gina. A short interlude about the lack of support that Gina received from the poly community after reporting that she was an abuse victim.
  • Part 6: Terry. My greatest regret: my first date with a friend of Ginny’s, my own negligence, and our mutual inability to see each other’s lack of enthusiasm about sexual activity.
  • Part 7: Idealization, Devaluation, Discard. Our ex-friend Hilary Nunes, her unwavering support for us, and her complete 180 after we stopped giving her what she wanted.
  • Part 8: Ginny and Shaun Attack. Ginny and Shaun’s first attempt to blame us for Shaun’s abuse of Gina and Ginny’s dishonesty and enabling.
  • Part 9: The Second Attack and the Community’s Disappointing Response. Shaun, Ginny, and Hilary’s February 2015 offensive and the shameful and counterproductive way it was handled by the Polyamory Leadership Network and Billy Holder of Atlanta Poly Weekend.
  • Part 10: Waking Up From the Nightmare. A discussion of how to establish real accountability in the poly community.

Amber has also told her story, which people may find relevant.

On Culpability

Culpability is a general theme of this story. Culpability is a term from the criminal law, and generally depends on one’s mental state. I feel that’s a reasonable way to judge what degree of blame someone bears when someone else gets hurt in our personal lives as well as the legal system. Our system generally recognizes four categories of culpability for harm done (in descending order):

  • Purpose: a person is considered to have acted purposefully when the harm done was the conscious goal of the actor. When a person takes an action with the explicit goal of causing harm, their mental state is considered purposeful.
  • Knowledge: a person is considered to have acted knowingly when they were aware that their actions would almost certainly cause harm, but such harm was not their conscious goal. When a person takes an action that they know will cause harm, their mental state is considered knowledgeable.
  • Recklessness: a person is considered to have acted recklessly when they acted in conscious and unreasonable disregard of a known risk. A person is reckless where they are aware that their actions have a substantial risk of causing harm, and such risk is unreasonable under the circumstances.
  • Negligence: a person is considered to have acted negligently when they took an unreasonable risk that they should have known about, but were not consciously aware of. Where a person is unaware that their actions pose an unreasonable risk of causing harm, but they should have known the risk, their mental state is negligent.

Except for the unusual situation where a person announces their intentions, a person’s mental state is inferred from circumstances, which usually requires a rather comprehensive understanding of the facts of the situation. People are presumed to intend the natural and probable results of their actions. Factfinders will properly consider the “totality of the circumstances” in order to determine a person’s mental state. If there is evidence to suggest that someone acted with a certain level of intent, then any such evidence is worth considering.

Outside of certain exceptional circumstances, our legal system does not punish people for actions unless their mental state falls under one of the categories above. The theory is that, unless we are at least willing to say that someone should have known that their actions would cause harm, they are not responsible for the harm done. In terms of degree, a negligent mental state generally carries far less punishment than a reckless mental state, which carries less punishment than a knowing mental state. I consider this a reasonable way to judge how blameworthy a person is, so it is the standard I apply in my personal life as well, and the standard I feel we should use in our shared spaces.

Louisa Leontiades expresses the importance of intentions for reasons other than culpability:

For me there is a striking difference between continuing to be an abuser when it is intentional and conscious and being an abuser when it is unintentional and unconscious. The difference has less to do with levels of culpability, and more with understanding which source to tackle in order to prevent further abuse even whilst acknowledging that all abuse has severe ramifications whether it is unintentional and unconscious or intentional and conscious. The goal must be to become conscious of it, in others and especially in ourselves.

It’s often said that “intentions are not magic,” which is true. Nothing about a person’s intentions erases the harm done by their actions, so a person’s intentions are not relevant to the question of whether harm was done. Such harm should be acknowledged and appreciated regardless of fault or intent. A person’s mental state is only relevant to the question of how much responsibility that person bears for the harm done. If we are unable to conclude that a person knew or should have known that their actions were unreasonably harmful, then it makes no sense to place any blame or fault on that person for harm done. If, on the other hand, we can conclude that a person was aware of the harm they were causing and did not have a good reason for doing so, then it makes sense to hold that person accountable for that harm.

“Abuse” is itself a loaded and vague term. Some people describe any relationship where a person is significantly harmed as abusive. Others reserve use of the term to describe a situation where a person’s behavior was intentional. Some people use it to describe mild irritation. No single use of the term is correct or incorrect, but inconsistent use leads to confusion. For purposes of this document, “abuse” will be used only to describe situations where the abuser has been at least negligent, and a person will not be described as an abuser unless I’m willing to say that, at the very least, they should have known that their actions would be unreasonably harmful.

Culpability, Guilt, and Emotional Blackmail

My girlfriend Amber and I are reading Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward. A general theme of the book is that guilt is a favorite weapon of blackmailers. A blackmailer’s favorite statement is “you hurt me,” because it’s an easy way to create guilt which can then be leveraged to control people. From the book (p. 69):

Love and respect are equated with total obedience, and when that’s not forthcoming, it’s as though a betrayal has taken place. The party line of the blackmailer, repeated with infinite variations, is You are only doing this to hurt me. You care nothing for my feelings.

Keeping the focus on culpability short-circuits the blackmailer’s attempt to create guilt by requiring a discussion of facts and competing needs, not just one person’s feelings. Blackmailers are used to a situation where the mere acknowledgment that someone was hurt means that the other person feels guilty and usually gives in to whatever they’re asking.

One of the first points made by the book is that “blackmail takes two.” Because it’s difficult to make me feel guilty unless I also feel culpable, emotional blackmail is mostly ineffective against me. A person can’t just say “you hurt me” to create guilt unless my culpability is apparent. To create guilt, they must say “you hurt me by doing this specific thing, which you should not have done because….” which is difficult to do without a legitimate case. Would-be emotional blackmailers usually give up when it becomes clear that just saying “you hurt me” isn’t enough to create a fog of guilt. I consider this one of my most important defenses against emotional blackmail, and probably the biggest reason that would-be emotional blackmailers have such a problem with me.

Rejecting the idea that one should automatically feel guilty over another person’s pain also helps with good communication. It’s much easier to inform someone that their actions hurt you when you’re not worried about them collapsing into a pile of guilt or getting overly defensive. When both people in the conversation require culpability to assign guilt or blame, it’s easy for “you hurt me” to be the start of a conversation, not the end of one.

The Right Way to Have Relationships

I feel very strongly that people should be allowed, free of negative judgments, to conduct their relationships however they please so long as everyone involved gives coercion-free, informed consent. What is a healthy relationship for one person may be severely damaging to a different person (and vice versa). I know that the relationships that are healthy and enjoyable for me can be miserable for the wrong kind of person, and can even result in feeling abused. The converse also applies: relationships that are healthy for others can be seriously damaging to me, leaving me feeling abused and mistreated. I believe that everyone should be given the choice for themselves about what kind of relationship(s) to have, and how to express them. So long as people give informed consent that is free of coercion, I don’t think anyone ought to tell them how to behave with each other. I also have no tolerance for the attitude that that one’s preferred way to practice relationships is obvious, and that everyone should conform to that preference without even being told what it is.

Because legitimate consent must be informed, I consider it unethical to be dishonest about anything that you know (or should know) will impact someone’s decision to be in a relationship or how to practice that relationship. A person cannot consent to something they don’t know about, so misleading people into forming relationships is a serious consent violation.

On a practical level, it is impossible to give someone all of the information that may impact their decisions about your relationship. Different people care about different things, and nobody can guess everything that’s going to be important to someone else. So just like in any other situation, people should not be blamed for failing to make disclosures unless they knew or should have known that such disclosures were necessary to establish informed consent.

Part 1: About Me

The Community Does Not Need You to Stay Quiet While Your Partner Is Abused

[UPDATE: Ginny has posted a partial walkback, which articulates a substantially more reasonable position]

Have you ever read an article online, and thought “this is great information! I’m going to share this with everyone!” until you got about 3/4 of the way down, when your jaw just drops because you can’t believe the absolute bullshit place the article went? That’s what it was like when I read Ginny’s post on what to do if your partner is accused of abuse. It starts out with a lot of great advice about supporting abuse victims. I particularly like the parts where she notes the difference between actual believing victims and engaging in victim-supportive behavior. As someone who believes very strongly in the value of honesty, I appreciate that there is no pressure to be dishonest, and the pointing out that there are ways to support victims without giving up our skepticism about how we form beliefs.

Then she gets to this:

Sometimes, accusations of abuse are themselves a form of abuse or manipulation. Your accused partner might themselves be a victim, in this case. If you believe that to be true, then it is absolutely appropriate to direct a lot of compassion and support to them — privately.

I’m sorry, what? I’d like you all to read that again so you understand what she is suggesting. What she is saying is that if your partner is being abused, then you need to shut up and take it. She’s saying that if you try to speak up against the abuse that your partner – an abuse victim – is taking, then you’re not supporting abuse victims.

grumpy cat no

No. Absolutely not. Ginny’s solution creates a race to the internet, where the first person to report abuse gets to be heard, and everyone else needs to shut up or be accused of being victim-blaming assholes. It’s well-known that abusers will often play the victim to divert attention, solicit sympathy, and enable further abuse. Ginny’s system gives abuser an extra incentive to play the victim publicly. If you’re the first person to go public, then you’re untouchable! Anyone sticking up for you is an asshole abuse apologist!

Secrecy enables abusers. Abusers know that there is a bias toward victims, and will take advantage of that bias whenever possible. And they will deflect and resist any attempt at honest investigation of the facts. The key to exposing abusers is sunlight, not darkness. Establishing accountability takes effort, it takes investigation, and it takes judgment. It does not require the silencing of abuse victims and their supporters. And to suggest it does is shameful.

If you are serious about stopping abuse in our communities, there is only one solution: actual investigation. Facts must be determined, evidence gathered, statements taken, and defenses presented. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass, but nobody said it would be easy. Yes, it might take a while, which is why suspensions pending investigation are a thing. Yes, you might get it wrong, and that would be regrettable, but if you don’t investigate, your chances of getting it wrong are way higher.

Investigation can be done in a victim-supportive way. There is no need to interrogate victims, demand evidence, or even reveal their identities (in most circumstances). As shown in the linked post above, often, once you get both sides of the story, the undisputed facts will be enough to make a decision. If not, work with what you have. Respect the alleged victim’s decision to provide or not provide evidence. Allow the victim to be as active or passive in the process as possible. But if both sides are pointing toward each other, recognize that either could be the true victim, and don’t automatically weigh one side heavier than the other just because they came forward first.

But don’t you dare pretend to be supportive of abuse victims and then claim that abuse victims, or their partners, should shut up and take the abuse. If your partner is being attacked by a malicious abuser, you go right ahead and say so, as loud as you want, to whoever you want. Ginny’s system empowers abusers to keep abusing, and drafts the entire community into doing so. Do not fall into that trap.

See My FTBCon 3 Panels!

This weekend, I had the privilege to appear on three separate panels at FTBCon 3, the third annual FreeThoughtBlogs online conference. My first panel was entitled “FtBCon3: Kumbay-Ahh-Ahh-Ahhh!!!: Building a Community Around Shared Sexual Interests.” We discussed how communities built around things like poly and kink function, how to have strong communities, and how to keep them safe. It was moderated by Neil Wehnemen, and the other panelists were Karen Hill and Trina Gardinier.

Notice the festive Christmas decorations that are still up!

The next panel was the one I moderated, entitled “Reasonable Relationships: How Does Our Skepticism Influence our Romantic or Non-Romantic Relationship.” This was an idea that grew out of my Skeptical Monogamy presentation. When I gave the presentation at Atlanta Poly Weekend, a lot of the discussion became about how logical fallacies influence and distort our relationship thinking. It was such a great conversation that I thought it would make a good panel discussion all by itself. I was joined by More Than Two author Franklin Veaux, and bloggers Miri Mogilevsky and Chana Messinger. It ended up being a great discussion, and touched on a few topics in my Rational Relationships series.

My final panel, also moderated by Neil Wehneman, was entitled “Did You Remember Your (Love) Life Vest? Polyamory in the Deep End.” At FTBCon 2, there was a panel on polyamory that focused on 101-level questions, and this one was intended as a sequel, to get into some higher-level questions. During this panel, we got into some of the more advanced topics such as when/if to come out, long-distance, and poly misconceptions that grind our gears. Also on the panel were Miri and Karen from the community panel, as well as Heina Dadhaboy and Danny Samuelson.

FTBCon was a great experience, and they have lots of other great discussions up on the homepage. I encourage you to check them all out.

If you’d like to see more of my presentations, I’ll be presenting on relationship anarchy at Poly Living in Philadelphia the weekend of February 20-22, and Atlanta Poly Weekend, June 5-7.

What Do We Want?

What does it mean when we say we want something? My goal in relationships is generally to empower everyone involved to do whatever they want as much of the time as possible. But what do they “want?” What counts as a genuine desire vs. something we do to avoid the consequences? If a person buys me a gift to make me happy, does that count? If a person agrees to monogamy in order to keep a relationship, can that person be said to have “wanted” that? What if different parts of ourselves have incompatible desires? Where is the line drawn?

I don’t really have a clear answer to that. As I’ve noted a couple of times before, human motivation is complicated and context-dependent. It’s often not as simple as saying “I want X” or “I don’t want Y.” It’s usually something like “I want X, Y, and Z, but not if it means I can’t get A or B, though I’d give up B if I could get Z and X, but I need A unless I can get C, and…” you get the idea.

In relationships, when I say that people should do what they want, what it really comes down to is that our relationships should be free of coercion. Shelly, a guest poster on More Than Two, has a good explanation for what coercion looks like:

Coercion is when you make the consequences to saying “no” to intimacy so great that it removes any reasonable choice. There is more obvious coercion, such as threats, either externally or internally directed. But I find that coercion just sort of organically arises when you believe that your partner, in that moment, owes you intimacy. If you think your partner owes you intimacy, and you are just “expressing your feelings,” there’s a good chance you’re being coercive. If your partner says “no,” and you start preparing for a fight instead of accepting their choice, you’re probably going to be coercive.

I would simply expand this definition to include the consequences of saying “no” to anything aside from recognizing boundaries. Intimacy isn’t the only thing that partners should be able to refuse. People should always be free to make the decisions that will make themselves happiest. But conversely, healthy relationships have healthy boundaries, and partners should be expected to respect each other’s boundaries and to suffer extreme consequences if they do not. Enforcing boundaries, though, is the only area where it is ethical to attempt to control a partner’s behavior without their consent, and the need to create consequences to enforce boundaries is often a sign of an unhealthy relationship.

In a sense, capitulating to coercion is “doing what we want.” Avoiding the negative consequences of a decision is often a legitimate motivating factor. But when coercion is at play, the consequences of the decision have been unnecessarily increased such that the subject no longer has a meaningful choice. It is the unnecessarily element that separates coercion from mere knowledge of consequences. All actions have consequences, and some will have dire consequences for a relationship. This is unavoidable. Avoiding coercion simply means that a partner is not imposing unnecessary or artificial consequences.

Often, a consequence of certain behaviors will be that the relationship ends. This is not coercion. In fact, it is the opposite. A relationship ending, while it may be very painful, is not an example of the consequences being so great that meaningful choice is removed. It is often reasonable and necessary for a relationship to end. I cannot stress this enough. However, certain similar actions are coercive. A partner threatening to leave when they don’t mean it is coercive. When leaving the relationship means destitution, social isolation, estrangement from family, or other avoidable and destructive consequences, it is coercive. When a partner attempts to make a breakup unnecessarily difficult or painful, it is coercive.

There are also plenty of things short of ending the relationship that can be coercive. Punishing a partner (or threatening to punish a partner) for the purpose of changing their behavior is coercive. Causing a scene when you don’t get what you want is coercive. Passive-aggressive remarks are coercive. Asking for things multiple times after you’ve received a “no” can be coercive. Continually bringing up the fact that you didn’t get what you want can be coercive. Any action that doesn’t respect and support a partner’s right and ability to make their own choices can be coercive.

When we are free from coercion, we are able to make our own choices according to our own priorities. When our will is not overridden by outside pressure, we are free to engage in our own internal debate to decide what it is we want. This is no simple task. As I pointed out above, our minds are not unified. Our hedonistic desires, instrumental goals, ethics, empathy, and identity will often be competing within our own heads. Some people find it useful to think of themselves as having multiple selves which are in constant competition to get what they want. Sometimes it makes sense to use coercive tactics on ourselves, when we don’t trust our future selves to make smart decisions in the moment. What we want is not often clear, and even when it is, it can change at any time.

The important thing in relationships is that we allow our partners room to have that internal struggle, and to decide what to do free of coercion. Sometimes, we can help, and we shouldn’t be afraid to do so, but we should be careful that we’re not substituting our own will for that of our partners’ or engaging in coercive tactics without realizing it. When I say “everyone should do what they want,” what I mean is that everyone should do whatever their internal processes tell them is best, free from coercive pressure from outside sources.

So going back to my original questions – any of those examples could be the result of an internal process of deliberation OR the result of coercion. It would depend on the context and the individuals involved. The important thing, in our relationships, is that we recognize the inviolable right of people to decide for themselves what will make them happy, and to do what they think as best so long as it isn’t crossing any of our boundaries.