Consent

7 Simple Ways to Fuck Up Your Relationships

Good day, gentle readers! I’m moving through a bump in the road with a friend of many decades, and it’s given me cause to take a step back and look at my behaviors in our friendship, so I can see if/where I’m doing something to fuck it up.

I gave myself a limit of 7 behaviors.  7 ways to fuck up relationships, and I’m sharing them here with you, because I bet you do/have done them too. I also offer some antidotes to these behaviors. I’m writing from my own experience and am sharing based on that. Your experience may differ, as may your mileage.

Please note: I’m writing about these behaviors in a context of consent and safety, meaning… I’m explicitly not speaking to abusive dynamics.

 

 AND…..  Here they are - 7 mistakes I've made that you probably have made as well, which will fuck things up....

1. Be Controlling:

Control in this context has to do with (not)taking actions in an effort to steer the ship and the behaviors of those on it because it helps you feel more secure.

You might be more of a leader in your relationship, creating context for your person who is more of a follower. This may be the case, and it's one thing to create a context for someone - it's a whole other ball of bullshit to (try to) force anyone into anything.

How this might show up is when your person (friend, partner, lover, whatever) is doing something (housework, bookkeeping, going out on a date with a new person), and you impose yourself in his/her space in an attempt to divert their attention or change their behavior because you're feeling insecure or jealous or out of control.

You might also find yourself creating drama, sabotaging your person’s access to their own free time, etc. when you come from a controlling place. At the extreme, ‘being controlling’ is also synonymous with ‘being psychologically abusive’.

One expression of control with which I’ve been presented by clients myriad times in the last 10 years is this expression: pair-bonded couple is separating. Children are involved. In an effort to control the soon-to-be former partner A, partner B uses children, time, money, etc. as a way to control the perceived freedom of Partner A.

The shitty level of this is off the charts in so many directions, and nobody wins.

Just. Don’t. Do. It.

 

2. Take on Projects rather than People:

Have you ever heard someone say "s/he would be perfect if only s/he would do/change _____________"? Um yeah. You bring people into your life with the pre-supposition that there's something wrong with them and you can fix it? How's that working for you?

In a heteronormative (boy-girl) context, this is classic girl behavior. We meet a guy and want him to change how he dresses, or how he keeps his house, or the job he has, or the way he communicates, because when that happens, everything will be perfect. Can you see how this lens can create a space for controlling behavior to arise?

The converse of this fuck up happens to be my personal first rule of relating “If I can’t take a person as they are, then I don’t take them on.” I know that life and time and trauma and celebration and living, by nature, creates change in people. And that is not my job to do for you (whomever it is with which I’m relating). My ‘job’ in relationship, I believe, is to meet people where they are and accept them as they are.

 

3. Expect Telepathy :

Expecting telepathy means expecting someone to know what you need simply because you’re in a relationship with them. It can also mean making assumptions about someone's role in your relationship without talking about it.

You might be under the impression that 'just because s/he's with me, s/he will want to do X, or know that Y is important to me'. Rather than expect your partners to be mind-readers, perhaps you could try on using your words.

A verbal expression of this kind of expectation is ‘if (s)he loved me, (s)he would _______________.  And we have all been there – probably on both sides of the coin.

Intimately/sexually, this shows up when one partner does the ‘if I scream it in my mind loud enough, they will get the hint and do the thing’. This was my strategy well into my 20s.

Some of it was fear of being rejected or judged.  Some of it was shame, because my fantasies are…   fantastic.  And the rest of it was a lack of practice in stating clearly what I want – with the understanding that I might be met with a ‘no’ – and that’s OK.

How to correct this art the level of expectation? Notice when the thought arises, silently tell your inner voice, ‘thank you for sharing,’ and do some personal investigative work to uncover what need or want you have that isn’t being met – and then ask for that rather than make your person wrong for not being telepathic.

Which brings me to my next relationship fuckup:

 

4. Make Your Problems about Them:

It's their fault the relationship is having problems, right? They don't love you enough, or take you out on the right kind of dates. They are selfish and uncaring. They don’t understand your passion. They don’t listen. They are a jerk. Etc. etc. etc.

If you say things like,’ I’ve never had a fulfilling relationship,” you might be making your problems about other people.  If you tend to avoid taking responsibility for your shit and the work you need to do on you – you might be making your problems about other people. When it is always someone else’s fault – you are definitely making your problems about other people.

Everywhere you see a problem in your relationships - YOU ARE THERE. And I do mean everywhere

You can shift this by beginning the process of taking responsibility for the ways that you're creating your life and experience. When you do that, something magical happens.

Nothing changes, and yet everything is transformed, because you are in your power, and you aren't making others responsible for your feelings.

I am in no way suggesting that other people are never a problem, or that their behaviors will never be the reason, etc. What I’m suggesting here is that you will be far more secure, stable, and in your power if you not only own your issues, but also work to shift them. (Please remember – I am not addressing abuse in this article)

 

5. Settle For Crumbs When What You Desire Is Cake :

Lookit. Not every relationship is going to manifest in ways that you are fully satiated in the areas of what you want and need. That said, if you are spending a great deal of energy and time with/on someone, and you have the experience of settling for crumbs - why are you staying?

Here's how this might play out. You long for and need to have a certain kind of time spent with someone. Maybe that's sex. Perhaps it's going to the movies. Could also be them being present with you - so that when you're in a room together, they are paying attention to you rather than playing Xbox (as an example).

You use your words to express your need (because you know your person is not telepathic), and your person reflects back to you an understanding of that need, and they say that they will change behavior.

Then nothing changes. You ask again – they give you their word again, and nothing changes.  Again and again.

If you stay in that context, you are settling. If you are not fully committed to radical acceptance of this, there is a high likelihood that you will grow resentful and angry.

Problem-solving that arises out of resentment and anger is not generally effective or kind, in my experience. I used to do this – and my preferred coping mechanism was to give an ultimatum, which is a fabulous example of mistake #1 – being controlling.

I did and do a ton of work on me to notice when resentment and anger arise from a perception of lack, so that I can address it in a way that is calm, compassionate, and towards my desired outcome, which pretty much always is to keep the relationship.

More often than not, the resolution is to change the context of the relationship.  If you care to go down a fascinating rabbit hole, check out the 8 Noble Truths of Buddhism for some deeper insight.

You might choose to stay in the relationship. Maybe you reframe the relationship.  Maybe you walk away.  The choice is yours.

 

6. Act Out of Jealousy :

Jealousy is an emotional state that arises when you want something from someone and have a fear that they are giving it to someone else. When you are jealous you are not in an emotionally mature space, and you might start saying and doing things that are, well, unkind.

For example. You may gossip about a co-worker who got a promotion for which you were both being considered. Perhaps you sabotage things around the new person so they are forced out.

What Jealousy is, really, is a gift to you. It's a gift because it signals that you have an appetite/need which isn't being fulfilled, and/or you have expectations which haven't been stated and are not being met.

If you can get your head out of your ass long enough to take responsibility for how you're feeling, and do some work around what's creating the jealousy in you, you will likely find yourself with some good information.

Here's an example from my life. I had a partner (who remains Family to me) who is a bodywork god. He can do so much amazing stuff with his hands. Multiple modalities – super awesome stuff. He is not a professional bodyworker anymore, so he works on friends and family.

I’ll admit that the perk of amazing bodywork in the partnership was a big green flag for me. There came a time, however, that whenever a new person would come around to receive bodywork from my partner, I'd feel jealous.

When I became aware of a pattern, I took a step back, and what I ended up finding is that I was hungry for his touch in that way – as a bodyworker.

Rather than make him wrong, I said "I'm noticing that I feel jealous when you do bodywork on other people, and I think it's because I'm hungry for your touch in that way. Can we find some time for you to work on me and make it somewhat regular as long as it works for both of us?" He said yes, and we did. Problem solved.

  

7. Hold On To Grudges and Withhold Forgiveness :

In my perspective, holding a grudge has to do with cultivating negative and hostile feelings towards someone for something they did or something you think they did. Holding grudges is a very tempting thing to do, because you (and I) get to have righteous indignation about someone. You (and I) get to make them wrong, and, therefore, you get to be right. You get to say things about how horrible that person is for what they did, so that you can look and feel better about yourself, and the way many people operate, you will attract supporters for your grudge.

All that does is create separation and make it so you are living in negativity and hostility, and you know what? Your negative and hostile thoughts and feelings towards someone isn't about them. It's about your own thoughts and feelings.

Forgiveness has to do with releasing those negative and hostile feelings towards someone regardless of what they did or what you think they did. Please understand that I'm talking about something very VERY powerful

You don't have to change your mind that what the person did was right in order to forgive, and we become that which we habitually do. If you practice holding grudges and being negative and hostile, that's what you're going to be - a grudge-holding angry and negative person.

Contrarily, if you practice forgiveness and releasing the hostility and negativity you hold towards people, know what you become? You become free. Here's some information from Harvard about the power of forgiveness.

 

There you have it folks - 7 things you can do to fuck up your relationships. 7 mistakes I, myself have made. 7 things on which I work to correct. 7 mistakes of an infinite number of opportunities to learn and grow and course correct and relax and be in power and response-able……

What mistakes have you made, and how have you moved to correct/shift them?

Do You Negotiate the Letter of the Law, or the Spirit of The Law: A Cautionary Tale of Power Exchange

Rules v Intent in Power Exchange Relationships; Some Cautionary Tales

Note:Details have been changed to protect the anonymity of my clients, and I have the consent of said clients to share parts of their stories.

 

Definitions and some Context

I’ve been a student of human sexuality/gender/identity since I learned about the Guevedoce Boys of the Dominican Republic in middle school. Suffice to say that my interest in human sexuality, gender and identity was piqued, and in the decades since, I’ve immersed myself in scholastic and self-study of as many things sexuality, identity, and relationship as possible.

Over the years, I’ve worked with people who are interested in exploring 'alternative' relationships and sexual expressions, including ethical non-monogamy,  BDSM, and more.  One such expression of alternative relationships is Power Exchange.

These are relationships in which consenting adults create their relationship in such a way that one person has power and authority over the other person. As I’m sure some of you are going to the ‘but that’s abuse’ place, here’s an article from The National Coalition of Sexual Freedom that delineates the distinctions between abuse and BDSM

Here, I'm specifying power exchange here as "A relationship context in which procedures, protocols, activities and decisions occur outside of equality. One partner has power/authority over the other partner in the areas to which both agree.”

These relationships are consensual and collaborative and intentional. As adults with agency and sovereignty, power exchange relationships are a form of role play, even though many people identify fully as submissive and/or dominant.

As an illustrative example of consensual BDSM/Power Exchange, I will introduce you to Sally and Karen.

Sally enjoys being sexually submissive, and Karen enjoys being sexually dominant.. Sally and Karen then have a conversation about Karen taking the lead during their love-making.

Sally enjoys feeling like she’s being taken, so they agree that Karen can hold Sally’s wrists down on the bed, pull her hair, spank her, etc.

The conversation that creates these agreements is called a negotiation; it is overt, specified, sometimes in writing, and agreed to by both parties prior to any activity taking place. This is one way that people who engage in BDSM cultivate consent.

If you are in a ‘regular’ relationship, you negotiate as well, though it might be more implicit than explicit, and I’ll explore that in a later article.

Some people explore power exchange outside of the bedroom.  For example, I have counseled couples and individuals who are interested in consensually taking control over what their partner wears, choose what their partner will eat at a restaurant, and even design elaborate scenes wherein the dominant partner is fully in charge of the submissive partner for a period of time.

A Taoist Model for Power Exchange and How It Relates to Rules and Intent

I use the model of Taoism to explore pretty much everything, and I’m sharing that here to be transparent about my bias. If Taoism is a new/ish concept for you, here is a short primer.

For the purpose of this article, I'm exploring the opposites of Rules (letter of the law) and Intent (spirit of the law).  These are in no way the only options for structuring a relationship, and neither is better than the other.  I simply find them useful.

A rules-based power dynamic is inherently yang, could look military in style, and might manifest with these traits:

  • specificity as to where the submissive stands/walks in relationship to the dominant

  • specificity as to how the dishes are to be placed on the table

  • specificity as to how the dominant wants their clothing cleaned

  • the submissive having a list of things he/she is permitted when the dominant is absent 

  • rules for how the submissive is to speak to the dominant

  • the submissive having set times for things like email, reading for pleasure, and 'off the clock' activities

  • the dominant giving discrete directions

  • the dominant having little room for deviation from the directions

  • etc...

In essence, the dominant makes the rules and the submissive follows them. Think of this as command-and-control.

In complex power exchange contexts, such as non-monogamy, there might even be 'ranks' among the submissives. Laura Antoniou’s Marketplace series is a fictional portrayal of this kind of fantasy.  The operative word being fantasy. She is a far better writer than the 50 Shades of meh…   so if power exchange erotica is in your wheelhouse, I encourage you to check out Laura.


But I digress…

 

Rules-based power exchange relationships are negotiated towards order, specificity, and often have a handbook.  There are urban legends of dominants having encyclopedia-level detail of all the rules their partners are to follow.   How these people keep track of such things, I have no idea, and for some, it's pleasurable.

To my eyes and ears, when I speak with people who operate in these contexts, they are seeking the execution of a working system and that is a measure of success. Individual preferences on the part of the submissive are often surrendered to the dominant in order to make the system work.***

These power exchange relationships are orderly and highly structured. They have ‘lots of rules’.

In contrast, an intention-based power dynamic is going to look chaotic and disorganized.

An intent-based power exchange is inherently yin in nature and might manifest with these traits:

  • general guidelines for where the dominant wants the submissive (in eyesight)

  • the submissive having a high degree of choice whether the dominant is present or absent

  • the submissive actively participating in the creation of their personal experience in the relationship

  • the submissive having general guidelines for personal time/activities 

  • the submissive having a great degree of freedom of speech (in contrast to specifically codified language, such as ‘this girl’ and ‘this boy’)

  • fewer (or no) protocols (see the Rubel link above)

  • high expectations for creativity on the part of the submissive from the dominant

  • room for change – nothing ‘written in stone’

In my experience, people who operate in the realm of intent tend to see success as demonstrating growth and self-actualization. These people also, in my experience, are more at home with ambiguity in governance.

I also believe that there's an inherent assumption in rules v intent based power exchange relationships that has to do with ability on the part of the submissive. I believe that rules-based dynamics have the inherent belief that the submissive is not able, and therefore must be trained into whatever expression the dominant prefers.  Intent-based relationships, I believe, have an inherent assumption that the submissive is not only able but responsible enough to have some say in their experience.  This has parallels to teaching. If you're interested, here's a video I shot a while back.

And I digress again...

 

Please do not read that rules-based power exchange doesn’t create self-actualization, or that intent-based power exchange can’t be an operational system.  I’m talking in general themes here.

 

Rules and intent can create tension in negotiating a scene and are incompatible in some ways.

As an example of how things can  break down due to the occasional incompatability of intent and rules, I’ll introduce you to Pat and Joe. Pat is the submissive intent-based partner and Joe is the dominant rules-based partner. (submissives can be rules-biased, and dominants can be intent biased. I’m simply citing an example). 

While negotiating play, Pat says 'no restraint of hands’. Because Pat is intent-based, her request means 'the entire class of behaviors that will keep me from being able to use both of my hands will be excluded from interactions'.

Joe agrees to ‘no restraint of hands’ with an internal wink, because she agreed to hands, but not hand or feet for that matter.

During an erotic moment, Joe binds one of Pat’s hands. Pat gets upset because Joe broke their agreement. Joe says ‘I promised not to bind your hands… plural.  You can still use one of them’. Ok, very funny, haha.  Since Pat wasn’t harmed in the exchange, Pat lets it go.

But what about in a larger context of the relationship as a whole? 

What if Pat and Joe are also non-monogamous and have sexually intimate relationships with other people.  Let’s say that one of the negotiated agreements of the relationship is ‘new people shall not be at home alone with either of us for a period of 3 months’.   Pat hears ‘Joe won’t be alone with a new person for 3 months’.

And then Joe meets someone super interesting and awfully exciting,  and this new person asks to have a conversation with Joe in private, so Joe takes the new person to a mall parking lot and they talk in the car. 

‘But the rule is that we won’t be alone at home,’ Joe explains. Pat, however, feels like Joe broke their agreement. Pat isn’t so sure they can trust Joe now.

Can you imagine how hurt Pat would be if Joe took their new partner to a hotel?

I have had pretty much this exact conversation with a couple.  The Joe in the relationship genuinely couldn't understand why Pat was so upset.  Empathy, Joe...   empathy.

Seekers of loop-holes sometimes do so at the expense of the emotional well-being of their partners.  When those seekers of loopholes are in the dominant role of the power exchange relationship, this can lead to an abuse of power.  

 

Another example:  Sally and Karen spent a little over a year exploring power exchange in and out of the bedroom.  The nature of the exchange outside of bedroom was rooted in service.  This means that Sally performed services for Karen, such as doing the grocery shopping, balancing Karen’s bank book, packing for overnights, cleaning the sex toys, etc.  

Sally had a major stress moment in her life the week before she and Karen were going on vacation: her cousin died.  Sally was deeply grieving and much of her inner focus was on her felt experience of the loss.

Karen is highly rules-based and didn’t have any leeway for Sally with regards to Sally’s tasks. This forced Sally to prioritize Karen’s lists of tasks over her own emotional well-being.

You can see where this created a problem, yes? When they went on a vacation together, the whole relationship exploded.  It went KaBlooey - Thermonuclear Meltdown - Total Fail - 100% Fuct Dup.

 

When Sally and Karen came to me so we could talk about the breakdown, I listened and asked some questions. I identified one of the core problems with the power exchange, as a conflict between operating from Rules v Intent

The dominant, Karen, operates from the idea that agreements should be followed to the letter of the law, so when Sally’s cousin died, it didn’t matter to Karen.  Sally had work to do. ‘Soldier Up!’ as it were. This created so much pressure for Sally, that she opted out of the power exchange.  She simply couldn’t take it.   Karen’s lack of empathy played a major factor as well. Karen was so stuck on ‘these are the rules’ that she was blind to the changing needs of her partner.

 

‘Hold on, Kayteezee.  Weren’t you just describing how rules-based people look for loopholes in the rules?’  Yes.  Yes I was.  It can also be the case that rules-based people are rigid in their following of the rules, sometimes to the detriment of the relationship.

 

 

Can Rules and Intent Live Happily Together?

The $10,000 question. If you are guided by intent and your partner is guided by rules, how do you negotiate?  How do you relate?  How do you ensure that you understand the consequence of your agreements?

Here are some of my thoughts:

Be as transparent as possible about your setpoint.. If you are rules-based and look for loopholes, I believe you have an ethical responsibility to disclose that to your partner. If you are more intent-based, you also have an ethical responsibility, particularly if your partner is a ‘follow the rules’ type.

It is challenging at best to relate to a person who uses rules as a way to create loopholes for themselves.  At a minimum, you are likely to find yourself surprised while playing with them. Other relationship shrapnel could be catastrophic to the pairing. I’ve seen entire polycules dissolve because one of the partners found a loophole and took advantage of it.

The more rigid the rules of the relationship, the more likely it is to fail. Tao says to be like a young tree, bending in the wind.

One way a person can abuse ‘intent’ would be to do something half-assed, or not at all, and then say ‘I intended to get it done, so that’s good enough’. Or maybe there’s an agreement in the relationship about using condoms for any penetrative acts, and ‘ooops. I forgot to use a condom. It’s ok, though, because I intended to us one’.

Intent is a weapon for absolving oneself of responsibility if misused. ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you, so you can’t hold me accountable’, meanwhile the inner dialogue is something like ‘fuck you Sandy.’

 

 

In conclusion, I want you to know that rules and intent are not inherently right or wrong, good or bad, as biases.  They exist.  It’s what you do with them that matters.  

* (all identifying markers have been changed to honor the anonymity of the people in this article and any clients invoked have given me express consent to write about this)

*** Clearly this is one of myriad ways a relationship might express and people can measure success.  I’m trying to keep this article reasonable in length