Relationship Hierarchy Styles and Monsters

Imagine that your relationship with someone is a monster. Not a mean, ROARGH monster. A cuddly one, like an alot, or something out of Where the Wild Things Are. As your level of emotional intimacy with someone grows, the monster grows.

There are different styles of setting up relationship hierarchies, and I want to use this idea to talk about them.

First, prescriptive hierarchies (the kind I’m wary of):

“This person is my primary; any new relationships are required to remain secondary to this one no matter what.”

In this style of hierarchy, the monster gets put in a cave. At the beginning, your relationship with this person is a small monster. It fits easily in a nice, spacious cave. Over time, you keep feeding the monster with time spent together. Every story you tell, hug you exchange, call you make, it grows a little. For some friendships, the monster may never have the potential to grow as big as the cave. For others, though, eventually, the cave becomes constraining. The monster is so big that it becomes hard to move around, and eventually impossible to move at all. You’ve reached the level of intimacy that is perceived to be threatening to the primary relationship.

At this point, you have a few choices. (1) You can stop feeding the monster. Stop spending as much time together, and let the intimacy fade back to acceptable levels. (2) You can ask if moving to a bigger cave is okay. This may mean asking if becoming a second primary partner is okay, or it may just mean asking if the level of intimacy you’ve gotten is okay and can be allowed to continue to grow. (3) You can sneak into a bigger cave at night. I.e. keep the level of emotional intimacy in your relationship a secret, and let it keep growing without informing other people involved. I don’t recommend this one.

I strongly dislike prescriptive hierarchies. I feel intensely uncomfortable getting close to someone knowing that the level of intimacy we’re permitted to achieve has a cap on it. It feels like an axe hanging over the relationship. If I like someone too much, the axe falls. Who wants to have to think about that while getting to know awesome people?

Second, pragmatic hierarchies (the kind I’m not wary of):

“I need this much time and energy available to spend on Relationship A, and what’s left after that can be apportioned to other things or relationships.”

In order for a relationship to flourish, you need to feed it. You feed it time and energy. Hanging out, phone calls, emotional support, etc, etc. All relationships need some time and energy input (food) to survive. Unfortunately, time and energy are zero sum. You can learn to be efficient with them, but at the end of the day you only have so much to give. There is only so much food to go around.

If a prospective partner of yours is in a relationship, that relationship is going to need a certain amount of food. Your relationship with them, if it’s going to grow, will also need a certain amount of food. If they have 10 food, and their first relationship needs 6 food to be healthy, and their relationship with you also needs 6 food to be healthy, then there’s a problem. An aware person in a good relationship will generally deal with this by saying, “Look, my relationship with X is important to me, I only have this much food left for other things. If that’s not enough for you to be happy, we shouldn’t do this.”

It’s not always that simple, of course. Sometimes the amount of food a relationship needs changes over time, for example. It may go up or down, but it’s rarely perfectly static.

I prefer this style. In this style, I don’t feel that anything is happening that’s out of my control. If I’m incredibly lucky, my relationship will be a monster that requires very little food to grow lots, and I get to enjoy something very special with someone without impinging on their other relationships. In the cave example, a relationship that became intimate and special easily would be scary. A fast-growing creature in a space soon to be too small for it.

However, if my relationship takes too much food to be feasible, I can understand and make intelligent decisions based on that.

Similarly, a while back a relationship of mine ended due to my issues with depression. It was the only one I was in at the time, but it was too much. I needed all of the food I had for my relationship with myself.

Originally, this was going to be about how the latter style is simpler to implement, but I’m not sure that it is. At the end of the day, I think I prefer the latter because it’s practical. If there’s only so much food, you need to use it carefully. In life, there is only so much time and energy, so you do need to spend it carefully. As for living in caves, well, as long as my relationship is healthy and leaves enough time for yours to flourish as well, why do you want me in a cave? Caves are dark and constricting and have bats and shit. I don’t like living in them, and I don’t think there’s a truly pragmatic reason for being made to live in them. A bigger monster is only a threat to your relationship if that monster either (1) requires too much food, or (2) has no regard for your relationship. If I had no regard for my partners’ other partners, I hope they’d ditch me long before I got close enough to them to be a threat. I’d deserve it.

Sidenote: I also think this analogy illustrates why I sometimes experience discomfort in being good friends with women who are in monogamous relationships. I would never try to do anything to harm a friend’s relationship with their significant other, but I sometimes feel like good intentions aren’t enough–like just being close to someone’s significant other, if you’re of a compatible gender, is perceived as threatening. So, in effect, the put-in-a-cave thing happens. Where that’s the case, I find friendships with people who are monogamous to be difficult. Because intimacy is the thing I most want in all of my friendships, not just the ones that involve romance or sex.

Misery is Not About Truth

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about how to be positive in the face of terrible things happening. We touched on an issue that is so incredibly common in people who struggle with depression, myself included, that I wanted to do some writing on it.

There are terrible things happening in the world all the time. Starvation, genocide, corruption, all manner of suffering. It’s easy, if you care about humanity, to feel like the problems we face are insurmountable. In a more local way, me and this friend have been watching the controversy over sexual harassment at atheism conferences play out and getting increasingly depressed over how many people just don’t seem to understand the issue at all.

Dealing with issues like this is difficult. It’s exhausting, and doing it for a long time can make you feel like the world is full of idiots, and there’s no point to even trying. It can make you sink into depression.

It’s easy, when you reach this state, to feel like your depression is justified. “Well this does suck”, you say to yourself, “The state of the world IS terrible, that’s something to be depressed about.”

It’s completely understandable and okay to be depressed about depressing things. It’s understandable, but it isn’t “correct”. Just like it isn’t “incorrect” to feel okay in spite of depressing things, or to feel depressed when nothing depressing is going on.

Being depressed about depressing things isn’t like getting the right answer on a test. If World Misery averages to 57 misery points per person, and you yourself are exactly 57 points miserable, there is no prize for you. Because misery is not about truth. Misery isn’t about being correct. The point of misery isn’t to emulate the aggregate state of miserableness in the universe.

There’s a lot of talk in chronic pain research about the evolutionary origins of pain. One of the ideas that pops up now and then is that the point of pain is to change behavior. Touch a hot stove, and you do damage to yourself. Because it hurts, you will avoid touching the stove again. Because you avoid touching it again, you prevent that damage from occurring again.

If extreme heat wasn’t bad for us, it wouldn’t hurt. If there was absolutely nothing we could do to avoid heat, it wouldn’t hurt, because the pain wouldn’t cause us to behave any differently. The point of pain is to change your behavior. Where pain doesn’t affect your behavior, it isn’t useful.

The point of all this pain talk is this: misery is a type of pain. The point of emotional pain is the same as the point of physical pain: to get you to change your behavior.

Why does watching all this sexism and disregard for harassment issues in the atheist community make me so miserable? Because it’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed, and if it didn’t make me miserable I wouldn’t care. If it didn’t make me miserable, I wouldn’t want to work to change it. The point of misery is to get me to work to change the thing the misery is about. The point of misery is not to be as miserable as the situation, the point is to be motivated to change the situation. Where it does that, misery is a powerful force for good.

Sometimes, however, it goes overboard. Sometimes misery spirals into paralyzing doubt, despair, and helplessness. In those moments, it is tempting to feel like all of that despair is justified. It’s accurate. It’s correct. Thinking that way, though, is missing the point. Misery is not about truth. It’s about being motivated to change the misery-causing things. When your misery no longer does that, it is no longer serving its purpose. When that spiral happens, even if there are miserable things happening all around you, don’t get trapped in the idea that your misery is correct. Your misery is certainly okay, but correctness has nothing to do with it.

For me, the best thing I can do at those times is to get myself to a place where misery can serve its intended purpose: changing things. I’m not going to help the atheist movement one whit by being depressed about what’s going on. I’m going to help by making a difference in what’s going on. If I’m feeling too disheartened by it all, then I need to watch kitten videos until I feel like making a difference again. Until I’ve put misery back in its rightful place.

Oh Right

For people not looking at the sidebar, I made a Twitter account for the blog. Because ResearchToBeDone is apparently one character too long to be a Twitter handle (if there is a god (which there isn’t (yay nested parens!)), he hates me), it is @Research2BeDone

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other


Alright, getting down to it. I’m officially moved now, and it’s hot as hell here and no AC.

The car trip over was not as bad as expected. I drove across the country over four days, averaging about 8 hours a day. I anticipated this would be a perfect recipe for horrible pain, and it turned out not to be. I had some periods that sucked, but overall, my pain seemed to correlate more with the stress level of the driving than the duration. I felt worse after a half-hour of annoying city driving than four on the highway.

The more experience I get with what does and doesn’t cause pain, the more it seems like the key is as much in the stress of the activity and the level of neurological stimulation it provides as the amount of movement. I once asked Paul Ingraham in an e-mail about whether strengthening exercises were better with or without movement (e.g. crunches vs. plank), and he said movement was better because it was more neurologically stimulating. I wonder if this was some of the trick with driving: perhaps being engaged in the driving itself played a role. Additionally, though, it was very easy to change positions frequently while driving, especially on cruise control on the highways. A slightly adjusted seating position can do a lot to alleviate pain or to postpone its onset.

Having arrived here, I’ve been trying to meet people and keep occupied. This has been exhausting, but not entirely unsuccessful. I’m still incredibly intimidated by actually starting work, as I’m still not sure how I’ll fare physically working for 8 hours a day. Why sitting in an office seems to be so much worse than sitting while driving I’m not sure, but it seems to be. I think it will help being engaged with people, though, rather than sitting at home.

So…some good stuff, some bad stuff. Lots of fear as the moment of truth approaches and I actually start working. I also need to figure out if I’m going to get an air conditioner. It’s hot as balls here, and the place I’m staying doesn’t have any. Suck. Also, this means I’m not sleeping as well as I could be, due to heat. I’ve gotten a fan, but with the weather as hot as it is, it really isn’t enough, and casement windows are making the prospect of getting an AC that will work in my room look bleak. I’m open to any advice on that front.

Collected Analogies

Continuing the analogy fun, here are some analogies that I’ve found particularly enjoyable, insightful, or useful. Like I said, I enjoy collecting them:


On Sexism: Sexuality is Like Money

On Privilege: Difficulty Settings

On Privilege: Dogs and Lizards


On Dealing with Jealousy: Fixing the Refrigerator

On Jealousy and Negative Metaemotions: Not Feeding the Trolls

On the Idea of Ownership in Relationships: My House

On Brain Problems:

Working on Mental Issues: Your Brain as a Garden

Invisible Illnesses: Spoon Theory

Suicidality: The Hot Stove (from here in my blog)


On the Religious Burden of Proof: The Sausage Machine

On Why Your God Isn’t Moral: The Ogre Story

On Not Needing God to Be Moral: Hamburgers and Morality

On Why Nice Religion is Still Problematic: Listening to the Hair Dryer

On How Religion Looks to Nonbelievers: Kissing Hank’s Ass

On How Radiometric Dating Works: The Popcorn Analogy

On Why Atheists Don’t Care About Threats of Hell (video)

And finally, not a link, just a from a comment on a blog I read somewhere a long time ago:

“Trying to understand someone else in terms of your own thoughts and feelings is like trying to get from Boston to Los Angeles using a map of Albania.”

Anyone have other ones they think I might like to add to my collection?

Aftercare for Polyamory

I was talking to a partner of mine a while ago about dating/fucking other people, and made a connection I hadn’t made before.

A couple of weeks prior, I’d had date with a girl. It was the first time I’d had a date with someone else since my partner and I had gotten together. We talked it over beforehand—how we were both feeling about it, anything either of us was nervous about, etc—and she asked if we could talk about it afterward as well. We did. A part of that conversation was my reassuring her that my feelings toward her had not changed on account of interacting with this new person.

Fast forward a few weeks. We’re talking about any boundaries that might need setting for the convention she’s about to go to, since there’ll likely be lots of kink. After the basic STD rules were laid out, we got to talking about the emotional aspect of it. She asked me if I was okay with her playing with this guy who had asked her to play. I said she could, but that I would want to talk to her about it sometime afterward, to process, and to be reassured that she still felt the same way about me.

It was about this time that I realized that what she had asked for after my date, and I was asking for now was, in a way, similar to aftercare in BDSM. A partner doing things with another person can be an emotional experience for someone. It can be uncomfortable, trigger insecurities, etc, just like BDSM scenes can. Just like scenes, reassurance and support after the fact is sometimes the best way of ameliorating those feelings.

The same way we often need support from people after doing anything emotional, or after anything emotional happens to us. Presentations, fights, break-ups, skydiving, performances, that big exam, whatever. Sometimes the simple, “You were awesome” or “I love you” or “It’ll be okay” or “I still want to fuck you every hour on the hour” is all you need.

So if you’re just trying poly out, or just get those pesky insecurities that pretty much all of us do now and then, ask for aftercare when your partner is doing something that makes you feel icky. One of those useful tools to add to your Relationships Toolbox, along with Communication and Honesty and Being All Thoughtful About Your Feelings And Shit.

Poly Misconception

One of the big problems problem with explaining poly to people who are unfamiliar with the idea is that they often automatically picture their partner’s partners as adversaries.

This is a mistake.

If I’m dating two people, May and June, and I’m having issues in the relationship with May, I would expect to be able to talk to June about it. I would expect her to be supportive, and I would expect her to, generally, try to help me figure out the best way to deal with the issues with May. My partners don’t have to be friends, necessarily, but they do have to be well-intentioned. My partners have to want me to be happy. Part of that means wanting my other relationships to be happy. In general, I expect my partners to help rather than hinder the other relationships in my life, be they romantic or sexual or platonic or whatever.

If one of my friends is having issues with another one of their friends, and they ask me for advice, I try to help. I don’t try to obliterate their other friendships for personal gain. I see no reason to assume that relationships should play out any differently. I do think it’s important to tell my friends if I think one of their friends is a shit friend. But only in the case of shit friends. If I had a partner whose other partner was a shit partner, I’d tell them. The thing is, I’d be doing it because of the SHIT part, not the PARTNER part.

A good friend helps you out when you have issues with other friends. A good friend helps you when you have issues with a romantic partner. A good romantic partner helps you when you’re having issues with a friend. And there is no reason why a good romantic partner would not also help you when you’re having issues with another romantic partner.

I think if people could stop seeing partners as necessarily adversarial, and start seeing them as allies, a lot of other problems would fall away.

Good Memories

A few days ago, a friend told me she appreciated when I came to her when this all started to utterly break down.

Yesterday, a friend I knew from happy hours told me I was part of the reason he kept going to them when he first started, and that he thoughts I was an incredibly strong, and awesome person.

Today I spent time with an ex, who told me I’d raised her standards for relationships.

Next time I’m feeling really shitty, someone remind me to look at this entry.

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

It’s Official

I am freaking out about the internship and leaving everyone.

On the bright side, I’ve had some truly awesome moments with people. I seem to be able to be magically blind to the connections I make with people sometimes. It’s good to have people remind me that there are more people who appreciate and care about me than I realize.

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

Analogy Geek

I love analogies. I started getting into them as a result of my atheism–I realized over a long period of time arguing with believers that analogies tend to work better than anything else does for communicating a point. Analogies are easy for the brain to digest. You need analogies to ground ideas that are otherwise too abstract. It’s all well and good to say “You can’t prove a negative”, when someone asks you to prove their god doesn’t exist, but it’s better to say, “Prove Zeus doesn’t exist”, and let the analogy speak for itself. If airplanes are aerodynamic, then analogies are brain-o-dynamic.

The flywheel analogy that I wrote about yesterday was something I wanted to remember because it’s a helpful way of thinking about a problem that is concise and effective. Thinking about the flywheel analogy will get the idea that “I need to work for a few days before seeing results” into my brain better than saying that will.

This is a long-winded way of explaining why I tend to collect analogies enthusiastically. Here’s a few I’ve enjoyed thinking about recently:

How Forming New Concepts is Like Playing Dig Dug

The last relationship I was in was a new type of relationship for me. It felt more casual than most of the relationships I’d been in previously. At times, this made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t have a concept for what I was doing. The more I spent time with her, the more I got this sense, in my brain, of burrowing. Every time I hung out with her, some animal part of my brain spent that time carving out a new conceptual space, which we might call “casual relationship”.

Imagine you’re playing a game of Dig Dug (or SimAnt), but hidden in the undug areas are concepts. You don’t know where or what they are, but you know they’re there. That’s what it felt like. I didn’t know exactly what I was digging toward in the relationship I was in, but I knew I was making a new space in my brain. Space for a new idea, a new concept, that I didn’t have before. The next time I have a casual relationship, it’ll be easier, because I have a nice little casual relationship braincave carved out to put it in.

The same idea helps when dealing with cognitive problems. I have a fair supply of insecurities about not being valued by other people as a friend. Sometimes dealing with those issues is as simple as repeatedly telling myself I’m wrong. Other times, I get a sense that I need to do some digging. I need a completely new conceptual framework from which to look at the problem. Somewhere, in the vast, unexplored concept-space in my head, is an idea or set of ideas that will give me a more effective, more useful perspective on a problem. I just need to dig around a bit until I find something.

I used to feel really uncomfortable with casual sex, for example, because I was uncomfortable when it didn’t feel like the sex I had in serious relationships. I spent a lot of time agonizing over that fact that it didn’t and trying to figure out how to make it feel the same. Then at some point, I realized that the point isn’t for it to feel the same, the point is that it feels different and that’s fine, because it is different. Just like playing a game of monopoly is going to be a completely different experience with completely different people. That perspective–the step back from “Why isn’t this like that”, to, “This doesn’t have to be like that”–is something I dug up one day.

How Your Subconscious is Like an Elephant

I can’t take credit for this one. It comes from this excerpt of Happiness Hypothesis (thanks to Emily Nagoski at The Dirty Normal for bringing it to my attention):

Buddha, for example, compared the mind to a wild elephant:

“In days gone by this mind of mine used to stray wherever selfish desire or lust or pleasure would lead it. Today this mind does not stray and is under the harmony of control, even as a wild elephant is controlled by the trainer.”

The Roman poet Ovid captured my situation perfectly. In
Metamorphoses, Medea is torn between her love for Jason and her duty to
her father. She laments:

“I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.”

Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors about controlling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

I love it. I constantly get into situations with people where I want to say something like, “I’m angry but not angry”. I want to say, “I’m angry at you, but I don’t think that anger is rationally justified, but in spite of the fact that it isn’t, it’s still important for us to find ways to work through it so that it goes away.”

That’s a hard thing to communicate concisely and effectively. I like the elephant for it. “The elephant is angry.”