Two weeks ago, I attended “Loud Love: Relationship Strategies to Change the World,” an ‘unconference’ on relationships in rural central Virginia. It was a really powerful and cool experience, and I want to share with you some of the tools I learned–including tools to increase knowledge of others and yourself, and to help sustain long-term relationships. I want to share these tools with you because I think they are really important and useful to everyone, in all manner of relationships–not just to the sort of people who go off to a weekend conference on polyamory organized by a bunch of hippies in the woods. I also want to share them with you because I really do think better interpersonal relationship skills can help change the world, and in the conclusion I’ll muse a little on how.
The first thing you need to realize is that we’re not only talking about romantic relationships. Yes, many-to-most of the attendees (including myself) are practicing or interested in polyamory (having more than one sexual & loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge, consent, and good will of all involved). However, one thing I’ve come to realize as I’ve dived deeper into polyamory over the past few years is that we make a mistake when we reserve the word “relationship” for a romantic partnership.
After all, a relationship is simply a relation between two things. You have relationships with your friends, your family members, your colleagues. You also have relationships with your job, your house, your environment. To go a little more meta, you even have a relationship with other people’s relationships with one another! (For example, if you have two friends who you think are both swell people but are terrible as a couple, then you have a good relationship with both of them but a bad relationship with their relationship.) All of these relationships need attention. I think Dean Spade put it really well:
One of my goals in thinking about redefining the way we view relationships is to try to treat the people I date more like I treat my friends—try to be respectful and thoughtful and have boundaries and reasonable expectations—and to try to treat my friends more like my dates—to give them special attention, honor my commitments to them, be consistent, and invest deeply in our futures together.
“Loud Love” was put together by an eclectic mix of organizers, primarily from Twin Oaks and Acorn intentional communities, and the Charlottesville poly group, “Central Virginia Polyamory”, and hosted at Sophia House in Louisa, Virginia. It was originally conceived with a standard conference structure, but ended up being briefly canceled and then re-formed as “Loud Love Phoenix.” (Hence the logo above.) The new format was an unconference, which means it was mostly participant-organized, using “Open Space” social technology. The inspiration for the unconference concept is simple: when we got to conferences, the most valuable conversations are often the ones we have in the hallways with other participants—so what if we organized a whole conference around that? We gathered on Friday night and all attendees who wanted to do a workshop proposed a topic. We then all voted on which workshops we wanted to go to, and from that the schedule for the weekend was formed.
Workshops were offered on a number of topics, including the following. I didn’t go to all of them, of course:
- Transparency Tools
- Making Love Last
- Polyamory 501
- Kink through a Feminist Lens
- BDSM Scene Negotiation
- Sexual and Gender Identity
- Chakra breathing activity
- Henna art activity
Today, I want to focus on the first two workshops in particular–Transparency Tools, and Making Love Last–because they were the most transformative for me, and also seem the most broadly applicable, regardless of what sort of relationship(s) you happen to be in.
This idea of focusing on improving all your relationships was particularly present in the workshop on “Transparency Tools.” led by Paxus and Roberto. Paxus calls these exercises “critical personal hygiene,” which seems apt. The basic concept starts with forming a transparency group—a group of people who want to all get to know each other and themselves better. Transparency groups usually meet regularly. Groups start open but often close after some period of time in order to honor the shared experience and history. Or they may be closed from the start–as in a transparency group composed of all the members of a group house. It’s not therapy, but can have a strong therapeutic effect. By sharing more transparently, we also get more in touch with ourselves. To demo this, everyone in the workshop did a series of exercises, which I’m going to describe in some detail. Some of these–particularly the last of the four–are useful in many contexts beyond any special group, including in one-on-one exchanges. (The discussion below draws from both the workshop and some of Paxus’ writings.)
1. “If You Really Knew Me…”
You go around in a circle, with each person completing the sentence “If you really knew me, you’d know that…” It can be personal, or significant, or just interesting—for example, “If you really knew me you’d know I struggle to express my feelings,” or “If you really knew me you’d know that I don’t trust my boss,” or “If you really knew me you’d know that I struggle with how out it is safe to be.”
2. “Hot Seat”
We then asked one another questions inspired by what had been shared. When the person answers, you say “thank you,” and if you’re not satisfied with the answer you say “thank you. Can you say more about that?” Sometimes different people ask follow-up questions of the person who is in the hot seat. We did a “jumping bean” model where we jumped around the circle in terms of who was in the metaphorical hot seat, but the more usual way is for one person to be selected to be in the hot seat for 5 to 15 minutes.
3. “Sharing Circle / Crosstalk”
Sometimes we have strong reactions to what other people say but don’t feel we can share that. This exercise aims to bring those feelings into the open. The point is to say whatever is on your mind, when you think of it, interrupting people, even. It works with smaller groups–ideally 8 or less people–so we split into two groups. The goal is to not have it be a conversation! (At one point, when comments were responding to each other a lot, one of the facilitators said, “I hope we’re not having a conversation right now.”) Too often, we don’t share our own thoughts, and indeed, stop hearing them. We don’t share them because we don’t want to be rude! By taking a time to practice speaking what occurs to you, even if it is rude, you become better able to listen to yourself and your own emotional reactions, and even the reasons for those reactions–and then can choose the appropriate thing to do or say.
A key concept for all of these transparency tools is that everything people say is a reflection of their own issues and thoughts and baggage—and not a critique of others or even a response to them. Using “I” statements can really help with this! (For example, even if I say that “I don’t like when Steve does this,” it’s about me, not Steve. ) But it’s hard to remember this in the moment. As I was talking during crosstalk and wandering a little, as I sometimes do, and the facilitator interrupted, saying “Why are you talking right now?” I felt chastened and blocked and I shut up. I’m very sensitive to the idea that I’m too verbose and taking up airspace, so this comment played to all my insecurities. It took me a until well after the end of the weekend to realize that he was simply asking whether I was going somewhere, and since I was, I ought to have tried to continue to get there. Or at least talked to him afterwards about it.
4. Witholds / Unsaids
If there is someone who you are having trouble being fully present with because of unexpressed feeling, it’s important to try to get that out in the open. However, sometimes these are hard for people to hear, so you want to ask permission first. So you ask “I have a withhold for you, are you open to hearing it?” The other person should check in with themselves to see if they can really hear it, and then says yes or no.” If they say no, don’t push them! Try again, later. If they say yes, you share it, and then they say thank you. With a withhold, a conversation about the withhold must not occur for 24 hours, to give people both time to process. When someone shares a withheld feeling or issue with you, your job is to fully listen—and if you’re thinking of your response, you can’t be fully present to listen.
An “unsaid” is very similar, except that you are open to discussing it right away. Unsaids may be hidden feelings, or they may be appreciations or other statements. In the workshop at that point, a lot of people chose to express unsaid appreciations for one another.
I have found this tool of withholds and unsaid particularly useful in many contexts. Even prior to going to Loud Love, my group house has, once a quarter or so, had a meeting where we go around and share what are essentially withholds (this is unsurprising since several members of my house have spent time at Twin Oaks. And since Loud Love, I’ve been using it more–so much so that I ran into a communication problem recently! I was talking with my girlfriend a few days ago I told her that I had an “unsaid” and asked if she was open to hearing it. Problem was, she hadn’t gone to Loud Love, and I’d forgotten that I hadn’t filled her in on the above. She did say yes, but later told me she almost said no because she thought I was about to criticize her. In reality, I merely wanted to point out ways in which she was more capable than she seemed to think she was! Lesson: as with any specialized vocabulary for communication, it’s important to make sure both/all people understand what is meant.
Making Love Last
Why do love relationships not last? What kills inspiration? How do we keep the spark alive? In part, what kills love is that we stop seeing one another. And combating that was the central theme of the “Making Love Last” workshop, led by Marta and Roberto. My boyfriend says this was his favorite workshop of the whole weekend, and I can see why!
In each one, you ask the other person a question, and then once they answer, you thank them and then ask them it again. And again. And again. After a few minutes, you then switch. Two questions are central:
- Who are you?
- What do you want?
The goal is to get to know the person all over again—for who they are, not who you think they are. And you realize surprising things. I noticed that my answers to the “who are you” question revolved almost entirely around my roles and commitments, while my boyfriend’s revolved around his personal beliefs and desires. Both ways of thinking are important. I found myself drawn to him once again, and his sense of awareness about who he was independent of others. Which is kind of the point right?
The questions “who are you” and “what do you want” may ring a bell for fellow fans of the 1990s sci-fi show Babylon 5, since those are the critical questions asked repeatedly by two ancient species—the former valuing order than the latter valuing chaos. Now, there is some truth to the idea that who you are is more constant than what you want. However, who are you are also changes over time. And polyamory is a particularly strong catalyst for personal growth and change. So it’s critical that we continue to meet our partners anew, so we can renew our bonds with who they are, not who we imagine them to be.
Often, as we stay in relationships, emotional crud accumulates, blocking us from truly loving and supporting our partners. It’s important to clear that channel. So after re-meeting one another, we focused on clearing the channel, asking the other person: “what is blocking you from loving me more fully?” This is a particularly scary conversation for some people! For others, on first thought, they think there’s little to say. But if you’ve been with anyone for a while, you soon realize that there is a lot to say, and it just all comes tumbling out. And its a cathartic and powerful and useful experience.
Making a World We Want to Live In
What was particularly nice about Loud Love was being surrounded by such an amazing group of kind, compassionate, loving, and open people, in such a laid-back, body-positive environment. But that’s all well and good for the 41 people who were there. What good does it do for everyone else?
During the transparency tools workshop, Roberto said that, “if you really knew me, you’d know I wonder how much we’re actually changing the world here.” And this is a good question and valid concern! Is this all this personal work just so much navel-gazing? Maybe. But if, so, so what? If it improves your life, its relation to the larger world doesn’t really matter.
However, I don’t think the subtitle of Loud Love, “relationship strategies to change the world” is wrong. Sure, radically open and transparent relationships are not going to change the world tomorrow. But cultural change is a long game. More important than any poly arrangements are the skills we are building on how to relate to one another, some of which I discussed in this post. We’ll need those skills for a more sustainable future. To quote from Alan’s speech to last year’s poly living conference:
I see today’s polyamory community gardening up sprouts of these next-level interpersonal and group-interaction skills — the practices and ideology and interpersonal value system of a new culture. I really want these ideas and practices to take root well enough to survive through ugly times, if that’s what’s coming, and be there to seed the ground on the other side…
A sustainable world is going to require attractive ways to pursue and acquire richness and purpose and meaning in life that do not depend on Getting More Stuff. The ways that people find richness and value and meaning will need to have low resource costs. Which means, finding these things in each other. As the bumper sticker says: “The best things in life aren’t things.” A culture offering wide possibilities for romance and sexual intimacy, or just deeply intimate socialization throughout life, can offer abundant richness and purpose. A materially simple life need not be simple in any other way.
Don’t get me wrong; I have no use for fairyland woo-woo about these things. But I do think that the polyamory paradigm might help to humanize the world. I think that it might even someday generalize the magic of romantic love into something larger and more powerful in the world than the isolated couple-love where society has safely walled it away. Thus helping to provide ways to lead rich, rewarding, meaning-filled lives without the Earth-killing pursuit of Ever More Stuff.
Polyamorous relationships are not for everyone. I think even in a poly-normative future(or present, for some subcultural communities), most people will still not choose to have multiple concurrent romantic relationships.It’s just too darn much work!
However, I do think everyone can benefit from relating more transparently to one another, clearing the obstacles to more fully loving our partner(s), and filling our lives with a richness of affection and caring. I think that doing that is critical our ability to live more sustainably and compassionately on this small, fragile world.
And that is truly a vision worth loving. Loudly.