Mistrust, Hope, and Meaningful Connection, Part 3

In the past few weeks, I’ve written about the experience of mistrust and the work of identifying trustworthiness. Today I will talk about repairing broken trust and accessing the virtue of Hope. This is a topic much bigger than a simple blog post, however.

Repairing Trust 

As human beings, we will inevitably disappoint, fail, and hurt each other. We will have lapses in attention or ethics. We may cause harm without knowing we’ve done it until someone brings it to our attention. Rather than committing to the impossible goal of being or finding a perfect partner, we can explore the more workable and profound practice of repairing damaged trust in relationship.

Put simply, the process of restoring trust involves: addressing the upset or harm; re-validating trustworthiness; and then making amends or releasing the upset.

Address the upset or harm. Oops. Someone messed up, and now you feel hurt, angry, overwhelmed, abandoned, betrayed. Simply ignoring this doesn’t go very well. It may simmer in the background and erupt at the worst times. We may end up looking like the asshole because we’re expressing appropriate anger in an inappropriate context. Then we’re dealing with the other person’s justified anger with our own buried resentments.

You don’t have to address every single problem at the moment you have it. Indeed, it is okay and sometimes really helpful to take some time away to reflect and then bring up the issue to discuss later, when you’re all in a state to have a constructive conversation. What helps with all this is learning to be with your feelings, validate them, and then discuss them in non-blaming ways. For first offenses, I work on bringing up the issue while giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. “You did this, and this was my experience.” Not blaming the person for “causing” the feeling or accusing them of doing it on purpose, simply giving information so they know how they affected me.

A brown bear and her two cubs walk a rocky ridgeline. In the background is an expanse of forest and snow.
photo by Adam Willoughby-Knox

Re-validate trustworthiness. Now we observe how the person handles the confrontation. If they can take some measure of responsibility and apologize or make amends, that validates their trustworthiness. If they can explain where they’re coming from in a nondefensive way, that validates their trustworthiness.

If they ignore your confrontation; attack you for bringing it up; apologize but repeat the behavior; or offer a confusing rationalization that doesn’t take any responsibility, that erodes their trustworthiness. These aren’t necessarily deal-breakers but they’re not good indicators for a strong partnership long term unless you can address and improve them.

If they minimize your hurt, insult you, call you crazy, flagrantly repeat the behavior and taunt you while doing so, or reject your experience outright, those are RED FLAGS.

Release the upset. Based on how trustworthy the person has proven themselves, we need to check in with ourselves. Is there lingering resentment or hurt. You might ask this part of you: is this all related to the current situation? Is any of this from the past? If it’s related to the current situation, what needs to happen for this part of me to feel okay with re-committing to the relationship?

Is there mistrust? Ask this part of you what your next step needs to be. Perhaps the resolution is that you’re not okay with re-committing to the relationship, instead you need to distance yourself, change the terms of the relationship, or end it safely.

Either way, resentment is not a desirable long-term feeling. It is an indicator of unresolved issues.

Finding Hope

I have been using “relationship” in the most generous interpretation, because issues of trust and mistrust come up in all of our relationships.

Once we no longer depend on external caregivers to meet our needs, the most important relationship becomes the one with ourselves. We behave inconsistently, we doubt ourselves, we make promises we don’t keep, we engage in behaviors we know are harmful to other parts of ourselves.

Becoming trustworthy stewards of ourselves is a journey, and it supports everything. The work is to cultivate more qualities of trustworthiness in how we relate to our parts. How can I be more consistent in response to my needs? How can I be respectful of my feelings? What promises can I honor?

I believe this is the virtue of Hope: I trust myself to work through the upsets of living while creating the life I deeply desire. If it is your desire to cultivate this, I wish you strength.

Mistrust, Hope, and Meaningful Connection, Part 2

Last week, I wrote about how we experience mistrust, its value, and the barriers it creates to meaningful connection. This week, I want to write about trust.

An image of a woman crossing a wooden bridge. The bridge appears narrow, and ahead is a thick forest.
photo by Michael Hull, via Unsplash

Qualities of Trustworthiness

As a Boy Scout, we frequently stated the Scout Law, a series of twelve qualities to which we aspired. The first point is to be Trustworthy.

What makes someone trustworthy? Think about people you trust and why. Connect to the feeling of trust you have around them, but more importantly think about what it is about them that makes them trustworthy. What did they do or not do that helped you to feel trust?

In brief, I think a trustworthy person behaves with consistency, genuineness, respect, and integrity.

  • Consistency – This person responds in a way that feels reliable. There might be some fluctuation in mood, and certainly the person will grow and change, but in general you feel confident that you know how they will respond to you. You don’t have to guess and worry about how they’ll act.
  • Genuineness – This person’s words, personality, and behavior all align. They may have multiple facets of Self that vary depending on the situation, but you sense a coherent core that is there in every situation. You know where you stand with them. When they smile, it reaches their eyes. When they are angry, they tell you what they’re angry about.
  • Respect – This person treats you with dignity and consideration. They do not put you down, coerce you to do things you don’t want to do, or take advantage of your vulnerabilities. When you set a boundary, they show willingness to abide by it. They listen to you. Even if they disagree, they do not minimize your thoughts and feelings.
  • Integrity – This person follows through on promises. They do not promise what they are unwilling to do. If they cannot keep promises, they acknowledge this and do what they can to rectify the situation. They don’t engage in confusing negotiating tactics or put the blame on you when they make mistakes. They take responsibility and apologize for problems. You feel that they behave the same whether in or out of your presence.

These qualities are about character rather than personality. For example, a person who is cheerful and bubbly might be as trustworthy as a sardonic, dour person, or as untrustworthy.

In the past I avoided sharp-tongued, confrontational people until I met some that were as direct with me about problems as they were about compliments. I found I could trust their praise since I knew they wouldn’t hide their concerns.

In contrast, I used to love hanging out with gossipy, back-biting people until it occurred to me that we were talking about whomever wasn’t in the room at the time. This meant that I was behaving in an untrustworthy way, and I couldn’t trust my “friends” not to talk badly about me when I was out of the room. This has become a guiding principle for me: pay attention to how my acquaintances treat others, and think about how it would feel if I were treated in that way.

Trustworthiness is not a fixed, innate quality. We develop these qualities through intentional choice and personal effort. If you picked one of the above qualities to develop and made a commitment to it, you could improve your trustworthiness. Others may not recognize your growth at first, but with continued effort they will begin to notice and treat you differently.

Next week, I will write about repairing damaged trust in relationships.

Some Thoughts on Civil Discourse

In my communities, and it seems in my country, I have watched increasing polarization and the lines of demarcation run sometimes very close to home. When conversations become polarized, it becomes very easy to forget that you are talking to a human being like yourself and instead imagine yourself fighting a righteous battle against an insidious, cunning, super-human villainous horde. As the climate escalates, it becomes more tempting and “justifiable” to let go of emotional containment, reflection, and dialogue with the desire to understand. Parts of us get activated by the conflict, begin to feed it and feed upon it.

A reptilian creature poking its head up from the water. Both the reptile and the water are covered in tiny green leaves.
This guy’s laying low until the argument dies down. Photo by delfi de la Rua.

As an outside observer listening to a lot of arguments (like a therapist who works with couples, or someone who reads the comment sections on the Internet), and a person who has participated in several arguments (and later wondered “Why was I so mad about that?”), I’ve noticed a few things:

  • 20% of conflict is about the thing you are discussing, and 80% is about the emotional experience of the relationship.*
  • If you are accusing another (person/group) of bad behavior, the likelihood is that (you/your group) have participated in behavior that the other (person/group) perceives as similar.**
  • When you are the person accusing the other of behavior you’re engaging in, it is very hard to stop and admit this.
  • At times both parties will make parallel arguments and accusations of each other, but each will focus on a different facet. To offer an oversimplified example: Republicans and Democrats both share Liberty as a value, because America. Democrats point toward socially liberal attitudes as pro-liberty, and accuse Republicans of being anti-liberty for socially conservative policies. Republicans focus on economic and financial liberty and point toward reduced taxes and free markets as pro-liberty, and criticize Democrats as anti-liberty for taxation and regulation.***

We need the art and discipline of civil discourse. It is worth reading and rereading about logical fallacies, as they characterize the worst habits of rhetoric. What I want to focus on is what to do when things get heated. My observation is that escalating emotional reactivity occurs when we feel misunderstood, disrespected, or dismissed.

Think about a time when you felt misunderstood, disrespected, or dismissed. How did you respond? Did you stay in the conversation? Did you stay civil and rational? Did you say something you later regretted?

Think about a conversation where you felt understood, heard, and treated with respect. What was different about the experience?

We’re social beings and we are constantly seeking to be understood. Unfortunately, at least in the United States, the dominant cultural norm is to treat other people’s emotional responses as manipulative, irritating, or a sign of weakness. (Whereas our own emotional responses are always completely correct and justified.) It is when we dismiss, ignore, or patronize other’s feelings that they tend to become more intense and reactive. We do it to ourselves, too. But when it happens in relationship, we can give ourselves the plausible deniability that the other person “lost it for no reason.”

Defensiveness is a great example. We understandably become defensive when we feel attacked, but from the outside it usually looks like we’re attacking, which makes the other participants become defensive. Defensiveness shuts down effective communication and leaves everyone feeling guarded and hurt.

This makes for bad communication. By which I mean, we actually make it harder on ourselves to be understood when we dismiss and belittle others’ feelings. Instead of listening, that person’s mental and emotional energy goes toward managing their reaction. I find this to be true even for those who seem calm and collected. They might have developed some effective skill and flexibility in coping with their reactions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have them.

But you have power to improve communication when things get heated! Even the smallest effort to show consideration and understanding goes a long way to lower the reactivity in a conversation. I’m not making this up. The Gottmans have spent years researching relationships in conflict and they have identified some simple, effective, and difficult practices to improve communications.

I want to offer some phrases to help you think of ways to try this out. When you read these, you might find these too simple, but I think we need simple, easy go-tos when we begin to get emotionally reactive:

  • “I see your point.” Or, better, try to accurately summarize their points. If they correct you, accept their correction.
  • “I can appreciate why you’d feel that way.” Here, you are not agreeing that the other person’s version of reality is completely accurate and yours is wrong. You are acknowledging that their response makes sense based on where they are coming from—their background, their beliefs, their position in the discussion.
  • “What do you mean by this?” In this moment, you have just caught yourself about to launch into a defensive counterattack and asked yourself, “Am I hearing them correctly?”
  • “I am feeling [a feeling] when you say that.” This is about sharing your subjective experience and helping them to understand the impact of their words and actions on you. It’s not about accusing the other person of making you feel that way.
  • “…” This phrase is the long pause you make when you are about to accuse someone of behaving poorly and stop to reflect on whether there has been a time in which they might have felt that you’ve acted this way toward them.

You may be so polarized that you feel reluctant to step back from the hard, accusing stance. There is vulnerability in seeking understanding, particularly if the other parties do not offer it in return. It is also true that making this effort will not always result in increased safety and respect, but I believe that a great way of finding out if someone is willing to act in good faith is to give them the opportunity to do so. If you earnestly try this and find that it is met with disrespect and hostility, then of course figure out what you need to do for self-protection.

I have seen tremendous changes occur when all parties in a dialogue commit to this kind of conversation, particularly when a neutral party supports the process by holding both sides accountable to it. I aspire to the wisdom of Sun Tzu, to whom is attributed the statement: “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” This quote speaks to me of conflicts avoided, relationships not destroyed, friendships sustained, all because of a willingness to address and resolve conflict before it escalates into war.


*Source: I made this percentage up.

**I have mixed feelings about the way I’ve phrased this bullet point as it lacks nuance with regard to conversations between people in different states of privilege and oppression. For example, some people argue that the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers are equivalent because they are nationalist groups based in racial identity. I fully disagree, as the Ku Klux Klan emerged to preserve white supremacy and the Black Panthers emerged to address the harms white supremacy does to Black people. The problem I am trying to speak to is that we get locked into defending ourselves and our groups at all costs, and unwillingness to acknowledge that the other party has ever been hurt or we have ever acted poorly interferes with finding resolution. For lack of certainty about how best to rewrite these statements, I want to emphasize that this is a perceived subjective equivalence.

**What’s interesting to think about with regard to the difference in where each group prizes Liberty is that they are also arguing about the shadow virtue of Restraint. Unfettered Liberty is not conducive to a group identity and somewhat implicitly at odds with any kind of centralized government, so Liberty must be balanced with Restraint (or, more negatively, Control). You could look at the argument as a difference in belief about where Liberty and Restraint should occur. Social conservatives say people should be free to spend their resources as they wish, but should also participate in monogamous sexual marriages and be financially responsible for their families. Social liberals say people should be free to live their lives as they wish, but should also be involved in an equitable distribution of resources so that all may be financially supported. Since Restraint is not a well-loved virtue, however, it is politically more effective to focus on where one is pro-Liberty. I think this is worth thinking about in any polarized argument. What virtues do the arguing parties share overtly and covertly, and where do they disagree about the implementation of these virtues?

Mistrust, Hope, and Meaningful Connection, Part 1

“I have trust issues.”

Have you ever said that? What does that mean to you? Where do those “issues” come from?

When I explore trust issues with people, we often discuss all the ways they’ve been failed and betrayed by people they trusted, or wanted to trust. They might also talk about the ways they leap into trust with every new relationship, hoping this one won’t disappoint, only to be bitterly crushed again. Others feel terrified of trusting their relationships at all, afraid of that seemingly inevitable disappointment.

More deeply, they may feel unable to trust themselves. They’ve disappointed themselves, feel they’ve set themselves up to be hurt, believe they deserve the pain, engaged in self-defeating behaviors.

In every relationship, we must reckon with the issue of trust. How much do I trust? Does mistrust keep me safe? Are the benefits of trust or mistrust worth the costs?

Trust vs. Mistrust

Erik Erikson described one of the first Western psychological models of development that encompass an entire life. The first stage he called Trust vs. Mistrust. This begins from birth through infancy, in which the child learns that their environment may or may not respond to its needs appropriately. If the infant expresses need and the need is met, then trust in the world grows. If the infant’s needs are met sporadically, neglected, or punished, then mistrust in the world grows. When both ends of the spectrum are felt and integrated, the virtue of Hope becomes possible.

Problems reconciling the developmental crisis of Trust vs Mistrust leads to imbalances that affect later stages of development. We can very easily name undesirable consequences of too much mistrust—anxiety in relationships, irritability, paranoia, constantly feeling on guard and reluctant to let someone in due to believing eventually they will screw you up. But those who have lived through mistrust-engendering relationships could tell you the dangers of too much trust—opening themselves up to being taken advantage of, the deep pain of betrayal, and excessive credulity leading to the premature forgiveness of abusive and disrespectful behavior.

People with extensive relational trauma or deep-seated mistrust cannot simply set these aside to trust in a loving, benevolent universe. They know the universe is vast and includes pain, abuse, and evil. People who have experienced relational trauma often need to learn how to find trustworthy people and repair damaged trust while also maintaining healthy protective boundaries against people who would hurt and abuse them (clinically known as “assholes”).

An image of a person with long brown hair and a white shirt. Around this person's head is a blue scarf. The arrangement of scarf and hair obscure the person's face, and it is unclear which direction they are facing. Behind is an open sky and expanse of water.
photo by Oscar Keys, via Unsplash

The Experience of Mistrust

It took me a long time to recognize “Mistrust” as more than simply “the absence of trust.” Mistrust is its own attitude with collections of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Mistrust will look differently based on your personality and the experiences that sparked it, but here are some qualities that often appear in some form:

  • Guardedness – Stand-offishness, unwillingness to share your experience and thoughts openly without getting a temperature of the room or other person. Giving brief, curt answers to open questions.
  • Suspicion – Constantly feeling “on edge.” Irritability. Regular concerns that the other person is acting deceptively, setting you up for some harm, or talking about you behind your back. Needing to constantly check out the other person’s claims for truth value. May include some deceptive behavior like snooping or testing the person.
  • Anxiety – Tension in the body. Constantly going through the same cycles of thoughts over and over, regardless of any evidence for the thoughts. Difficulty relaxing, especially around people. Going “blank”, fearful, or hostile when asked direct questions.
  • Holding Grudges/Building a Case – Keeping a mental list of all the failures, abuses, and oversights committed by others. Sometimes you might dwell on these and bring them up to the other person when angry or afraid, even if the other person has apologized and tried to make amends. Other times you may keep this list to yourself, “building a case” not to trust the person, until you finally explode and throw all these accusations against the person who didn’t see them coming.
  • Cynicism – More broadly, mistrust generates a worldview that no one is trustworthy, there is nothing worth aspiring toward, and there is no reason to exert any effort to improve one’s life or community.

One thing I find interesting is that inwardly the person is experiencing a desire to know if they can trust the other person, but outwardly they behave in ways that undermine their own trustworthiness. Guardedness often elicits guardedness; if I wonder why you’re being self-protective, I may become self-protective. Being suspicious and holding grudges may well inspire the other person to respond in turn.

This becomes a internally coherent cycle of creating relationships that validate the mistrustful attitude. These behaviors are not conducive to the process of making amends and restoring trust.

That said, these behaviors and feelings aren’t “bad” and you’re not “crazy” to experience them. If we were to look through your history, we might fully understand why you’d be protective of yourself and why it’s hard to trust. Feelings of mistrust might be completely valid intuitive warnings from the part of your brain that isn’t wholly logical but nevertheless is picking up on subtle signals of danger.

I do not think eradicating or suppressing feelings of mistrust is useful to grow as a person and forming meaningful attachments. We might need to take some time to befriend and get to know mistrust while also exploring when and how to build trust. Next week, I will write more on the qualities of trustworthiness.


To Know My True Name: On Identity and Belonging

do you think
just like that
you can divide
this you as yours
me as mine to
before we were us?
if the rain has to separate
from itself
does it say “pick out your cloud?”
– Tori Amos, “Your Cloud

Identity is not who we are, though our English language around identity suggests it points to something essential. There are many identities to claim, as many as there are ways to complete the statement: “I am a/an …” Today I am a son, brother, husband, therapist, and mentor. I might be deeply invested in these identities, deriving significant meaning from them. Is identity who I am, though? There is a Vedic practice known as “Neti Neti” (or “Not this, Not that”) in which one asks one’s self, “Who am I?”, waits for the answer, and then rejects the answer. For example, “Who am I? I am a man… No, I am not a man, that is a gender role assigned to me. Who is the I that is gendered male?” This practice continues until arriving at the answer that feels correct, which for me corresponds with a sense of knowing, a sense of Yes, this is it. (And the answer that was right ten years ago is not the answer that is right today.)This and similar practices lead us toward the Self, greater and deeper than we can fathom, a creative center of each person’s existence that expresses itself in the world. Identities, in this way, are names for various expressions of this Self. Some identities are names for things the Self has experienced—like “survivor.” Others are names for systems of belief that resonate with the self—like “Stoic,” “socialist,” or “Christian.” Identity is how we put our understandings of Self into language, making it possible to analyze, explore, and understand ourselves and communicate with others. 

Identity is also relational. Those words “son,” “mentor,” infer relationships that “I” have with others—one is not a son without claiming someone or something as a parent. To identify as a “Stoic” is to put one’s self in community with others who ascribe to Stoicism, or have a stoic personality. Here we reach the more complex and political dimensions of identity. To claim an identity is to claim membership in a community of those who share the identity. A lone person who has thoughts and feelings unlike anyone else around them must struggle with feelings of alienation, confusion, shame, or fear that something is deeply wrong with them. The choice seems to be either accepting this alienation or cutting off the parts of them that don’t fit the majority. If those thoughts and feelings have a name an identity, suddenly that person has an opportunity to experience dignity and pride as they are. Thus, the “alphabet soup” of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, asexual, questioning, intersex, and increasingly more identities that are sexually, romantically, or gender non-majority is so vital and continues to expand. Each letter of the LGBTQIA acronym is a declaration of existence and validity for each of those communities, and hope for those who realize their feelings match one of those identities.

Here, in the facet of relationship, is also an opportunity for deep wounding. If I say I am this thing and everyone around me denies it, undermines it, rejects it, or simply ignores it, then that part of me suffers and collapses. Perhaps I can maintain its health through personal work and sheer willpower, but that drains the energy I might spend on other things. I may become defensive, hostile, fearful, anxious, or overwhelmed when my identity is under attack. Though I am cisgender—I was assigned male at birth and continue to identify as male—there have been times when others have explicitly or implicitly questioned whether I am “a man” because I did not behave or look like what they thought “a man” should. This fostered injuries to my identity—a defensiveness and anxiety that arises when I hear a particular phrase, a particular tone, or someone insults me in a way that resembles earlier insults. Intellectually I may understand “being a man” as a complex, shifting cultural and historical set of norms—but I may find myself manipulated into doing something I don’t want to do, simply because someone implied I’m “not a man” if I don’t do it. (At the same time, there are ways my maleness is not questioned in the ways a transgender man’s might be—most people refer to me by male pronouns without my asking; I can use the men’s bathroom without fear; and peers and authorities accept my maleness without any effort on my part.)

Photo by Thomas Lefebvre

As social creatures there is, I believe, an instinctive part of us that needs belonging. We know that babies thrive when they experience touch and warmth from their caregivers. We know that solitary confinement fosters mental illness in prisoners. Threats of exile and abandonment are experienced by parts of us as threats to well-being and survival. I believe this belonging-needing part of us suffers a kind of trauma when it experiences bullying, exile, abandonment, or any experience of being made to feel it is unwelcome. This is one reason why real harm is done to trans and gender nonconforming folk when others refuse to use their names and pronouns.

As with many psychic wounds, when we get our first taste of exile or abandonment, we develop strategies to avoid ever having to experience this pain again. In some ways those strategies succeed at reducing the pain of exile or abandonment, but they may well become toxic to our selves and relationships. The strategies become problematic to our selves and communities when we:

  • Become deeply invested in identity, trying to be “the best [x] I can” so no one can judge or exclude us. This may get us some mileage, but the trauma is magnified when we lose that identity. Someone who has spent years being “a good son” suddenly becomes utterly lost when their parents die. This is also incredibly challenging in a society in which we may hold multiple identities with widely varying norms and expectations.
  • Minimize the need for community and connection altogether, disavowing any identity that requires others’ validation. A less intense version of this might look like cultivating a kind of critical distance, so one is a member of the community but thinks of themself as on the edges, or outside, or more of an observer.
  • Develop rigid expectations of what someone in “[x]” community should look like or act like; what values they should hold; what politics they should espouse; all of which centralizes one’s own values, attitudes, and behaviors. Doing so, we begin to limit our own growth and development.
  • Express defensive outrage or excessive victimization at signs of criticism or accountability from others within the community.
  • Police community boundaries—enacting rigid identity norms by marginalizing anyone who doesn’t fit through social control strategies such as gossiping, bullying, excluding from social events or positions of influence, or straight up denouncing the person as “not a true [x]”. Thus we become hostile to the natural and productive diversity within our communities.

Being a member of communities that are composed of socially marginalized people, I observe the above dynamics periodically. I think these come from the trauma many of us experienced growing up in communities where we felt alien or rejected. Once we find a place where we feel accepted, welcome, and seen, that taste of joy intensifies the resolve to never lose it again. (Of course, others feel unwelcome and rejected even in the communities that “should” accept them.) Unhealed, these underlying identity injuries fester, directing our actions more than we might acknowledge without reflection. Much is made of “body fascism” in gay male communities, and I suspect much of that is fed by the shame of childhood alienation, causing some men to grow up and push themselves to prove their worthiness through superlative physiques, careers, fashion, and then projecting their own insecurities onto the less-developed bodies of their peers, who experience that as reinforcing pressure to hold themselves to those standards as well. Then it begins to look like a cultural norm.

It’s important to note that it is normal and necessary for communities to maintain boundaries and shape definitions for identities. Think of boundaries being as natural and necessary as the shell of an egg, or the edges of a living cell. To foster life, there needs to be some limit that holds in the living organism and keeps out harmful toxins in the environment. That boundary needs to be firm, but porous enough to bring in nourishment and push out what is harmful. All communities develop mechanisms by which this occurs. When these structures are not developed consciously and purposely in a way that allows for flexibility and diversity, then they tend to be enacted in the rigid ways noted above by people who feel most urgently the need to do it, without an accountability structure in place. The loudest voices tend to be the ones of rigidity and exclusion, and the people who recognize and value inclusion and pluralism have to push hard to be heard. Communities with structure have the opportunity to make this polarity a conscious part of their community agreements, recognizing the need for pluralism and boundaries.

On a personal level, I think it is beneficial to continue developing ourselves as whole people. If one identity is taking up much of our time and attention, then it’s worthwhile to engage in other interests, connect with trusted family, or engage with friends outside of that community. This helps me to get perspective on what’s going on in my community, take it less personally, and re-engage with more of an open heart—partially because I remember that I am more than just this identity. The practice of “Neti Neti” or similar meditations of shedding layers of identity also helps to reconnect with the core Self. When I can validate my identity and also remember it isn’t “me,” I feel less vulnerable when someone attacks it. Becoming aware of what the identity means to me—what I think defines the identity based on my lived experience—I have a stronger base of authority to support me in dialogue or confrontation.

What about on a community level? I am curious for more conversation about this, and I think it’s needed. One thought I have is to become sensitive to signs of trauma so that I can respond with compassion when I or someone else acts in the ways listed above. These days I am more interested in communities organized around shared values or a shared mission rather than a shared identity. I think that helps us to depersonalize community problems and focus more on developing just and inclusive community systems with effective boundaries.

What do you think? What practices or policies could heal or manage some of these dynamics?

There is No Right Type of Relationship

One topic that I see batted back and forth often, particularly in gay male communities, is around the value of monogamy in long-term relationships. I’ve recently come across a few articles acknowledging that a sizable proportion of long-term gay male couples do not practice sexual monogamy in their relationships but arguing that secretly all gay men really want monogamy and are unable to sustain it, or alternately arguing that somehow because many gay men now have access to legal same-sex marriage they are obligated to practice sexual monogamy.

Gay men are not the only population in which people practice non-monogamous models of relationship. Non-monogamy includes a range of relationship models, including people who are emotionally in a closed relationship but able to have sexual experiences outside the relationship; people who have two or more committed sexual and romantic partners; and far more than I care to spell out here. (Inevitably I will leave models out or unfairly lump a few models together.) Dan Savage coined the term “monogamish” for couples that largely practice monogamy with very occasional sexual experiences outside the primary pair.

Some folks who highly value monogamy tend to insult or pathologize non-monogamous relationships. Arguments include that non-monogamy exposes the people involved to higher risks of sexually transmitted infections and romantic infidelities, or are inherently unstable. Some folks who highly value non-monogamy tend to insult or pathologize monogamous relationships, saying that those within the relationships are somehow stuck in a rigid moral code that is unhealthy and retrograde, or only do so out of fear and blind adherence to religious and social codes.

I do not think there is a “correct” model of relationship, and I do not think anyone should be pressured into a kind of relationship that goes against their values and needs. I think every long-term human relationship requires commitment, respect, friendship, intimacy, communication, and the ability to manage conflict. If a person feels isolated and neglected because their partner is out every night and does not come home to spend time with them, that is a problem in the relationship, not an indictment of whatever relationship model they’re working.

Entering into a nominally monogamous relationship does not guarantee that both parties involved will never have any risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection; never have any risk of one partner leaving them for another person; never have any risk of feeling jealous, left out, resentful, or hurt. All of these things can and do happen to people who thought they were in monogamous relationships. Monogamy is a practice, and for many people this practice is deeply fulfilling and in line with their values and desires.

Entering into an open relationship or polyamorous relationship does not mean that those involved are somehow more evolved or freer, that they will have relationships free of jealousy, boredom, loneliness, or possessiveness. Every person comes into a relationship with a unique map of attachment and wounding, and every person has a limitation or vulnerability that needs respect when establishing healthy boundaries. “Open” does not mean “without rules,” it means that the rules are determined by all parties involved and require as much accountability and mutual respect as monogamy does.

Infidelity and betrayal happen in every type of relationship. Every rule can be broken in a way that is deeply hurtful. People could be belittled or ignored in any style of relationship, but so too can they share intimacy, respect, friendship, and mutual support. Relationships take the form of the people involved. We are complex human beings with complicated and contradictory needs, and relationships seem almost designed to stir up our vulnerabilities and fears even as we look to them to fulfill our needs. Every partner’s needs, desires, and frailties should have space for expression and respect within the relationship. These things also change with time, and so too must relationships.