How to Love

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been slowly making my way through a book of passages by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh called How to Love; slowly, because that’s the only way to take it in.  Instead of reading it like I would a book, I read two or three passages a week – one at a time – and think about how that passage applies to my past and present and how I can incorporate its teachings into my future.
There are a few passages I keep coming back to – passages that have profoundly changed the way I perceive myself and my loved ones, the ways in which I interact with others, and the way I see the world around me.  I wanted to share one of these because it’s had a personal impact on my current relationship:
Rediscovering Appreciation (p. 55)
When a loved one is suffering a lot, she or he doesn’t have enough energy to embrace you and help you suffer less.  So it’s natural that you become disappointed… If you’re patient and you practice taking care of yourself and the other person, you may have a chance to discover that the elements of goodness and beauty in the person you love are still there.  Taking care of yourself, you can support your loved one and re-establish the joy in your relationship.
I love this passage because it emphasizes the importance of compassion – putting yourself in your loved one’s place and feeling their suffering – and patience (which I’d argue people have less and less of in an age of overstimulation and rapid access to everything).
How to Love talks a lot about finding joy in your life outside of your relationships in order to share that joy with your partners (to nourish their hearts and minds); this passage reinforces that idea.  When we’re hurting, we often react out of anger or fear; we blame our partners rather than considering their suffering and looking at the bigger picture; however, as Franklin Veaux says, just because we feel bad doesn’t mean that someone did something wrong.  Through self-care, compassion, mindfulness, having an active, joyful, and full life outside of our romantic partners, and having a supportive community of friends, we can take better care of ourselves and help our partners when they need it.

My sweetheart is going through a stressful and extremely busy time right now; he feels overwhelmed, working three jobs and doing an online master’s degree.  This means that he has less time to spend with me; when that hurts me (and it does), I go to this passage and focus on how I can support him emotionally.  I ask him what he needs, and that’s been a really big deal to him.  I tell him that when he’s done with all the things he needs to get done, I’ll be here, loving him, full of funny stories to share with him, and waiting with a healing touch.  Practicing loving kindness and compassion can be transformative; if not for the other person you are being kind to, then for yourself.   
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More Than Two: A Book Review

More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory
Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert

This book has changed the entire way that I look at and talk about relationships, and I honestly believe that the philosophy behind it has the power to radically transform societal relationship narratives.  It is a long, thorough, and complex book to be considered carefully, while simultaneously being engaging and fun to read — quite an amazing feat!

Although ostensibly about polyamory, the ideas and lived experiences that went into this book are applicable to anyone who’s in a relationship.  Any kind of relationship.  In fact, it applies to everyone who cares about another human being.  The focus of the second section of More Than Two is self-care, nurturing relationships, communication strategies and pitfalls, and jealousy.  Chapter nine, regarding boundaries, is also beneficial for anyone in a relationship.  Even though the rest of the book focuses on polyamorous frameworks, structures, transitions, and community, the threads of section two are woven throughout the book, and the authors continuously come back to them, which makes the entire book a beneficial read for all people, regardless of their chosen relationship model.

As this book is largely about building and maintaining ethical relationships within a polyamorous framework, Veaux and Rickert present two axiomatic ethical principles that underlie the content of More Than Two:  First, don’t treat people as things.  Second, the people in the relationship are more important than the relationship.  Within these axioms are the ideas that all relationships should be consensual (which requires a lot of honesty; you can’t give consent without being informed), that we shouldn’t sacrifice the self for the relationship or expect others to do so, that seeing partners as need-meeting machines dehumanizes them, that one partner’s needs are not more important than the other’s (the needs and desires of everyone involved should be recognized), and that we are not entitled to anyone’s time or love — that being in a relationship and giving our love and time is a choice.  The Relationship Bill of Rights included in chapter three is invaluable as a conversational springboard. 

Some things that I absolutely love about this book:

  • It doesn’t present polyamory in a Utopian or ideal way; in fact, the introduction lays out that polyamory is hard fucking work, that it’s not inherently safe, that growth often includes pain, that it means being vulnerable and giving things up, and that we can’t control and shouldn’t try to prescribe how relationships will grow and change.
  • It presents monogamy as a legitimate relationship model and specifically claims that polyamory is not more advanced, enlightened, or progressive than monogamy.  There are people on polyamory discussion boards who disagree with this interpretation because Veaux and Rickert criticize the relationship escalator and the socialization of Oneitis that stems from fairy tales and romantic comedies; however, I don’t see a critique of the way we’re socialized to believe that we have one true soul mate and that if we don’t find that person we’ve failed as synonymous with a critique of choosing to be in a mindful and ethical monogamous relationship. 
  • At the end of each chapter are self-reflection questions to guide the reader through applications of the theories and themes of that chapter to his or her (or hir) life.  I’m bringing a bunch of these questions with me on vacation and am planning to actually write out answers.  It’s like therapy, but for the cost of a book.
  • More Than Two espouses compassion and non-judgment in all of our interactions with people we care about; it advocates the use of active listening; and it encourages readers to own their choices (and feelings) and acknowledge that our choices have real-life consequences.  It tells us to assume good intention on the part of our partners, which is an incredibly valuable relationship skill.   
  • It presents the idea that self-worth cannot come from another person; it has to be built from within.  That it’s very difficult to have agency within a relationship unless you feel secure, and security is something that has to be practiced.  That you must have compassion for yourself in addition to being aware of your needs, value, limitations, and boundaries.
  • The authors write about their own experiences and how they’ve learned from them.  They don’t present themselves as perfect experts; they present themselves as people who have fucked up, have learned from their mistakes and the mistakes of others, and are in the process of continuing to learn from their relationships and the relationships of others in their communities and networks. 
After finishing More Than Two yesterday, I skimmed through The Ethical Slut again; there are many differences between the two (you can read all about them on poly forums).  One important idea that is agreed upon by both, however, is that our capacity to love is limitless and that love is abundant.  There are many kinds of love in the world – platonic, romantic, erotic, and all the shades between and combining those types – and choosing to give your love to someone in any capacity is a gift. 

I consider myself ethically non-monogamous; before reading More Than Two, I never would have considered myself a polyamorous person, even though I’ve had the experience of being in love with more than one person at the same time.  In fact, I often joke that I’m barely amorous, so how can I be polyamorous?  As an intensely introverted person, the idea of committing the kind of time it takes to make a romantic relationship work with more than one person while still maintaining close ties with friends and family and working and having hobbies scares me a bit.  Or at least it did.  I didn’t realize until reading More Than Two that a lot of poly people have long-distance relationships in which they only see their LDR partner(s) once or twice a year.  Or that relationships can be what you choose to make them, which although it seems fairly obvious, is kind of a radical idea.  So maybe I am poly.  Still figuring that out… and very glad to have Franklin and Eve supporting me along the way.