Content warning: This post contains mentions of drug use and mental illness and abuse and heartbreak.

This is not the full story. I’d like to preface this post by saying this is not the full story. There is also triumph and joy in my life and I am much more than my trauma. But this is a true story. And I’m sharing it because I don’t know of any other way.

I have spent the past two and a half years in a near-constant state of being triggered. Re-evaluating how I love and relate has forced me to confront old aches I didn’t even know I had. Trauma I thought I’d processed a decade ago reared its head again. Trauma I didn’t know I had announced itself. There were times I felt surrounded only by naked loss – new losses mingling seamlessly with old ones, like a sinister forest crowding out my life. There are months from last year that I barely remember; when I try to recall how I got through last winter I just feel the reflexive urge to roll into a little ball and start weeping.

The arrival of another winter, all thin air and silent mornings, coupled with lockdown and the general angst of current life, has forced me back into myself once more. There is nobody I can turn to, so again I go inward. And there I ask myself: is it worth it? This long strange journey into unknown territory, where nothing is as I learned to assume it must be, why am I still on it?

Because.

Yes it’s worth it.

Ask me again tomorrow.

Sometimes.

Nothing is worth this searing desolation. Nothing.

Help me.

Yes.


Everything I do these days is tinged with pain. Over the past few years I have had moments of soaring joy and triumph such as I have rarely felt before, but they were never uncomplicated – for me joy comes with grief now; I struggle to distinguish between the two. Laughter is prone to tip into sobbing. I am very, very tired.

This is how these years have gone:

I had prepared myself for the first hard bit. I woke up one morning in early 2018 and in the night I had left my life behind. I had an entire journal explaining why, and a tiny empty flat, and many books about non-monogamy. But I had wounded someone I loved; my resolve did not keep me warm at night. In the mornings my heart dragged itself across the bathroom tiles for a numb silent shower. Life would get better soon, I knew. I just had to get through the hard bit.

I woke up on another morning and I was busy making death-defying choices. I was buying cocaine in a strange car from strange men with whom I had to speak French to be let out. I wasn’t sleeping much. In the silent hours of the night I daydreamed about my death while my fuck-buddy (lover? best friend? co-dependent hanger-on?) lay twitching next to me.

When that ended in a muddle of drug-addled open-relationship-miscommunication, resentment and searing jealousy, I went to spend three days alone by the ocean. This was almost exactly two years ago: wintertime, and pouring with rain. I walked. And walked. I sat on rocks with the wind whipping into my face, feeling Brontë-esque, enraged and abandoned.

So far, so familiar. Just because something feels intense doesn’t mean it’s unknown. I swam through the seas of heartbreak with my usual mixture of despair, self-pity and panache. But when time came to get up… I couldn’t. I didn’t want to eat. I had unlearned how to sleep. I felt forgotten and weak and terrified.

Below my feet the ice gave a resounding crack.

But it held.

I finally checked myself into a psychiatric clinic because my mind wouldn’t obey me anymore: I’d sit in front of a screen with time to kill and interesting research to write up, and my mind would spit up blanks. The energy to string together any words at all was missing. My memory was hazy, my ability to formulate thoughts almost non-existent. It scared me.

In the clinic the angst subsided. On my first night there another patient said to me “No offence but I don’t think you should actually be here”. I laughed and replied: “I just look functional”. But a part of me agreed with her. I might be crazy but at least I’m self-aware, I thought. At least my family is functional, supportive and loving. In comparison to most of the people there, I had a lot going for me. Within days I was the nurses’ favourite patient, the little eager one with all the answers in group therapy, the empathetic one who made friends with all the other patients. When I left, they made me a card and each wrote a personal message. “I have never met, such a gifted person like you,” said one. Another went: “You made me feel special without me having ever asked for it”.

I’m likeable. I’m kind. I’m gifted. I deserve to exist.

And I was fine now. I was fine. I’m fine.

After the clinic my psychologist said to me: “Well I hope you’ve learned not to try open relationships again”, so I promptly stopped seeing her. I still wanted to do non-monogamy. I wasn’t sure why, but it felt true, truer than my former ways of engaging. Looking back, perhaps it’s simply because our intuition guides us to the paths where we might find the most growth and healing. But healing demands discovering and acknowledging that we are wounded first, and I didn’t have the space or the courage to see the immensity of my own brokenness yet. I don’t know if I have it even now.

Things were different after the clinic. Colours were more intense. Everything moved me. I cried a lot. I felt closer to God, even while my definition of God remained as vague as ever. In my every spare moment I walked – through suburbs, down little paths next to streams, over hills, through private properties, in nature reserves. I had to keep moving; I was aflame. I felt very alive and it wasn’t always pleasant.

After some months I fell in love. Of course I did, I am addicted to falling. All the months of guarding my health closely, of reading spiritual books, of doing yoga, of listening to uplifting music, of walking, all said to me: “This time you’ve got it. This time you’re balanced and healthy and totally capable of having a relationship(s) without disappearing into it”. And so I fell.

All the other times my relationships ended, I could point my finger at the other person: He couldn’t communicate. We wanted different things. He was a drug addict. He was severely conflict-avoidant. We were too different. We grew apart.

So I had control over the endings, and when I didn’t, it was clearly because the other person was at fault. Perhaps somewhere inside there was the niggling fear that I, just as I am, might not be good enough. But matters never came to a head; I would end relationships, or the other person would turn out to be an asshole, long before the question of my worth came up. I left each relationship battered but unscathed. Within my heart doubts of my own worthiness could bloom unchecked and unacknowledged.

But this time. This time I fell in love with a worthy adversary. He was verbose and self-aware and emotionally astute. He was almost as kind as me. He was more gifted. He was raw and real and wise and fucked-up in a profoundly moving way. He took up a lot of space. His way of being demanded engagement and authenticity from me in larger amounts than I had ever had to bring before. I was hungry to show up. I wanted to rise to the challenge.

I was petrified but I unfurled. I powered through my insecurities. I gave of myself unquestioningly while tamping down on my need to be reassured. I impressed myself with how well I navigated the waters of non-monogamy, his other connections and then mine too. I communicated my heart as bravely as I could while editing carefully the jealousy, the fear, into digestible titbits, without even knowing that I was doing it.

Sometimes my bigness would spill over. I’d react to something like a frightened child or a wounded animal and then apologise profusely for my emotions. I’d try to explain myself. I’d try to control his reaction by showing less of me, yet more of me demanded to be known. As time passed I found myself weeping more often after our encounters. Loss. Loss. Loss is coming, screamed my heart.

Loss came. It came in threes, as these things do. First, just more than a year ago, deep wounds at the heart of my family surfaced, long overdue. I sat back in horror as I witnessed the uncomplicated truths I had clung to as a child dissolve: “My dad might be an asshole but my mom is a superhero”, “The women in my family are strong” (I realise now I had confused strength with the ability to suffer), “My pain as a child was worth it somehow because my siblings came out okay”, and, resoundingly, this myth: “We’re fine. We’re all fine now.”

‘Crack’, went the ice. But I was still standing.

The second loss: The second person I was seeing did a runner. He disappeared with barely a sound. I coped because in the larger scale of things, there were more serious crises. I’d loved this person but I’d known for a while we weren’t compatible and perhaps his disappearance was a tiny bit of a relief. I could tell myself it was on him: he didn’t have the courage to communicate. He didn’t know how to show up. It was on him. And I still had my other relationship, the scary one, the authentic one, the one where I was bringing unknown amounts of myself to the table and was being met in equal vulnerability. I was weepy, and wounded, and my family didn’t make sense anymore, and I wanted to run into a mountain and scream my guts out. But I was fine. I was standing.

Then in a casual conversation my remaining lover admitted that things were changing for him. “It doesn’t feel like it has to be a big deal because I don’t think it’s necessarily permanent,” he said. “It’s just that I feel a moving-apart kind of energy for now.”

Even as I lashed out in terrified anger, my mind whispered to me: “What did you think would happen? Did you really think you were capable of having a mature relationship? Did you really think someone, anyone, could hold space for the entire mess of you? You’re too broken. You’re too intense. You’re too much.”

Without a sound this time the ice beneath me dropped away.

                                                                                          * * *

Just about a year ago now my heart broke itself irreversibly. The closest I can come to explaining it is by saying that it feels as if I have a different heart now. It is still recognisably mine, it still has the texture and intensity of my own heart. But it feels much older, and tired, and achingly vast. It feels like I have a war veteran for a heart now.

And perhaps like a war veteran my heart vacillates between expansive acceptance and abject terror. I lie awake at night and feel the blood rushing through my body as if in mortal danger. I feel my mind groping for a way out like a terrified child. My heart stutters one message, over and over: alone. Alone. Alone. Alone.

I hadn’t heard or read much about trauma before. So six months after the ice broke, in December 2019, I was still flailing about, trying to get back onto a patch of land, confused about how utterly devastated and ravaged I felt. I mean, I’m not a complete idiot. I knew how I’d grown up had left a mark. But I’d dealt with SO MUCH of it already. I’d wept and read and forgiven and loved and prayed and WORKED, worked really hard, for over a decade. How could I still be this broken? How could life be so unfair?

But this had to be acknowledged at some point and eventually, begrudgingly, I did: I was reacting to something more than what was visibly here. I was reacting as if my very life was in danger. The rejection was real, the loss was real, but it was nowhere near as big as my reaction to it. A year after the heartbreak, I still get stuck in loops of abandonment and unworthiness that are not being caused or confirmed by anything in my actual life. I am still extrapolating like a maths wizard. I am still descending into spirals of shame and terror caused by unseen bogeymen.

And I am having a really, really hard time existing right now.

I know it’s happening now because I never had the energy or the insight to face up to it before, but I don’t want this to be happening. I don’t want to be the sum of my parents’ errors. I don’t want to be just how I grew up. I have resisted the word ‘trauma’ for very long because I want to be NORMAL, dammit, I want to be at peace within myself, I want to love and laugh as easily as other people seem to do. I want to get to relax. I just want to get to relax.

But that’s not my path. What is on my path is blurting out my wounds wearily, knowing that my lovers and my friends will see me differently once I do. What’s on my journey is sifting through the mess left by generations of wounded ancestors as best I can, and right now my best doesn’t feel very good.

Because when do you tell someone? When do you say “so, about, ahem, ‘LOVE’: I think I might do it differently from other people. Like, more intensely or something. No sweat, it’s just trauma, I think. Or maybe it’s my personality. But I’m still having fun, I promise, it’s just that I can’t relax, never ever, and also, I know you’re going to leave me but my heart will shatter when you do so anyway. (But if you don’t leave I will.) But don’t worry, I’ve got this. I’m managing my shit. I know myself. If I break, WHEN I break, I won’t hold you responsible. And I’m really really healthy now actually anyway, I’m working on myself and I’m generous and brave so please never ever leave me. And I’m really sorry. I’m sorry I’m inconvenient. I’m sorry I’m an incoherent mess. I’m trying to make sense. In fact I’m actually quite considerate and I’ll rein in my terror until I can’t anymore and most of the time I am quite capable of communicating maturely and I have self-love practices in place and I even meditate sometimes and please please don’t run away”.

I have been feeling near-constantly triggered over the past two and a half years, and this has culminated for me in a weary acknowledgment that I am more traumatised than I care to admit. I think I should come with a warning: ‘This woman will use you to dig up old shit in her psyche and you won’t even see it coming (but she means well. And she loves hard, for what it’s worth).’ It has been years of digging through muck and the only thing I can say for sure is: I’m still here. I don’t like it very much, but I’m still here. And I’m fucking exhausted.

So is it worth it?

Yes.

No.

I don’t know of any other way.

I’m showing up. Most of the time. I’m here.

Go away.

Help me.


Love and chaos

For the longest time, I thought that the word ‘anarchy’ was synonymous with ‘chaos’. As in, “if I can’t get my hands on some cigarettes soon, there will be anarchy”. Vaguely I knew it was a political ideology, but surely one only hooligans and angry teenagers subscribed to.

So when I first heard about relationship anarchy (RA for short) I naturally thought much the same. I thought relationship anarchists must be entirely against all relationships, refusing to commit, to fall in love, or even to engage. To somehow find fault with all relationships they must be singularly difficult people, I concluded, and for a while I didn’t think about it much again.

Then somehow RA popped back onto my radar. I was questioning a lot of things: why did I feel a slight recoil inside whenever I’d describe myself as ‘polyamorous’? What did I really want from my romantic partners? What’s the difference between sex and romantic involvement? What even is ‘falling in love’?

Why did every new relationship style I researched feel like an increasingly complex system prescribing how I should and shouldn’t love?

Enter RA. This time I came across writings by Andie Nordgren, who is credited with coining the term and writing a short manifesto to accompany it. One of Nordgren’s 7 principles for relationship anarchy reads “Build for the lovely unexpected”. Another says “Customise your commitments”. This I like, I thought. This I can get behind.

So I devoured every thing about RA I could find. I joined the facebook group. There, every now and then, I’d see suggestions to newcomers that they familiarise themselves with the principles of anarchism itself, in order to better understand relationship anarchy. That sounded tedious. Ploughing through opaque texts written by old Russian men more than a century ago just to understand a current way of relating in this world felt mind-numbingly ineffectual.

Eventually, though, I felt the need to get a bit more savvy about anarchism. So I watched some Youtube videos. Skimmed through a few books. Got a bit lost, actually, in the maze of texts: interviews and thinkpieces and fantastical anarchist utopian sci-fis.

My knowledge about anarchism is still scattered and, at best, full of plot holes. But I get it now. I get why it’s so important to understand at least roughly what anarchism is before attempting to understand RA: you can’t have, nor DO, relationship anarchy if you don’t understand where it comes from, what its aims are, where it fits into the bigger picture.

I don’t think you have to be an anarchist to be a relationship anarchist. But I do think that we need a thorough understanding of whatever relationship approach or theory we adopt to do so properly. We get bombarded with information about marriage and the nuclear family from birth. Whether we want to or not, monogamous romantic relationships are the one style we know lots about – and still we mostly don’t get them right. It would be foolish to enter a new way of connecting with little to no information to guide our way.

Speak truth to power

Anarchism is mainly concerned with power. At its heart it believes that power “is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate” (Noam Chomsky); it is therefore concerned with all the ways that people’s freedom is curtailed. Specifically, it is concerned with identifying where power is located, and how it is wielded. Are people free? Even if they think they are, are they really free, or are they just choosing from very limited options every day because they’re not aware of any others? Chomsky (whom I love and want to quote for ever and ever) says about this that:

“people should be able to live in a society […] where they can develop their capacities freely – instead of being forced into the narrow range of options that are available to people in the world now”.

Chomsky, ‘On Anarchism’

In other words: we might be obviously un-free, or it might be more subtle. For instance, in South Africa the government put a ban on alcohol and cigarette sales during the COVID-19 lockdown, which is a ludicrous overstepping of the duties of the state. To me, that is some super obvious paternalistic state interference; an example of unsubtle un-freeness. Then there are also ways we might be less noticeably un-free, as when we can’t even imagine not being monogamous, because that never even came up as a possible way to be.

Power is everywhere, and of course it is not necessarily bad. It would be amazing, in fact, if every person felt personally powerful. Having power over someone, though, that’s dodgy. The question is thus: “Who/what calls the shots? And if it’s not the individuals involved themselves, why not? And how are we going to fix this?”

I came across the following definition of anarchism in a 1970s Dutch collection of essays titled simply “Anarchisme”. Loosely translated from the Dutch (words in bold emphasised by me):

Anarchism is in general defined as a theory or principle for life, characterised by the absence of power and authority, specifically of the organised political power we usually call ‘the state’. It has as point of departure a network of free agreement between groups and organisations […] to the satisfaction of the infinite variations of needs and aspirations found in humanity. To make such new forms of societal living possible, we will have to adopt entirely new premises instead of those on which current development is based.” (Arthur Lehning, Anarchisme). Isn’t that beautiful? I love the picture of freedom yet interconnectedness this awakens. This is what I want in life. This resonates.

Lehning’s definition places specific focus on the state as locus of power and therefore as the thing that must be opposed. That corresponds with thinking during the 1970s-80s, but in the meantime we have begun to think of power as much more widespread than just the state.

Power is systemic. It can be subtle. It is wielded in a variety of ways, and the first step in resisting it is to identify it, which can often be a lengthy process as we dismantle our beliefs and institutions.

The word ‘institutions’ here is important, since it is through institutions that power is legitimised. We see this in formal institutions (parliaments, universities, hospitals, courts, etc.) where it’s very clear who does what; we see this in societal institutions (religions, marriage, families, etc.) where we know exactly what to do and expect, and we even find this in those firmly entrenched habits that we share as a society (9-5 workdays, how to write an email to your boss, how to address the shop cashier, etc. – power comes into play in a million unacknowledged ways every day). And because there are so many holders of power, there are many branches of anarchism, of which many focus on more societal or even interpersonal contexts.

Is anarchism basically libertarianism, then?

NO. Nope. God I hope not.

Well, actually…

A little bit, maybe, yes.

The wide definition of libertarianism is simply “a political philosophy that upholds liberty as a core principle”. So far, so good, since anarchism is concerned with liberty too. But the thing is that nowadays when we think of libertarianism, we specifically think of right-wing libertarianism – what comes up in my mind is rich white men who own ridiculous amounts of land and complain about having to pay taxes. Basically, to me, libertarianism conjures up extreme capitalism, and the type of people who actually believe that the invisible hand of the economy will play a fair game and fuck over only those who deserve to be fucked over.

That’s not anarchism at all. Tom Wetzel sums it up well in a short online piece on anarchism vs. libertarianism (my emphases):

To the right-wing libertarians, being forced to work for employers, being commanded by bosses, is consistent with liberty because no one puts a gun to your head to take a job. And therefore it isn’t coercion. From the anarchist or socialist libertarian point of view, this is a drastically poverty-stricken definition of “liberty”.

Tom Wetzel, ‘What is the difference between libertarianism and anarchism?’

The point here is not that anarchy maintains that working for someone is bad (it doesn’t necessarily) but rather that anarchism seeks liberty beyond the lowest common denominator. It is not enough that some of us are free on surface level. We must all be free, and we must be truly so. So anarchy demands that we continue to notice all the subtle ways that hierarchies of power determine our actions, even in a ‘meritocracy’, even in a free market.

Freedom, but with heart

The kind of freedom that right-wing libertarians envision – unchecked freedom to seek more personal acquisition, basically – is a pretty unkind type of freedom. It’s every man for himself. It disregards the subtle and systemic ways in which power and inequality have been baked into the system, benefiting some to the detriment of others. That is not anarchism, nor is it relationship anarchy (although I have encountered some people who do seem to think that RA means placing personal desires above the well-being of anyone else).

Anarchism has a lot of heart. One of its legs might be the dismantling of power structures, but its other is a deep-seated belief in people’s ability to self-govern. According to anarchism, people can coordinate themselves. This might happen in a friendly communal way or a more tense way where people compromise despite anxieties and conflicts, but it will happen whenever the need for cooperation arises.

And according to Ruth Kinna cooperation will breed its own rules; it’s not for anybody outside this framework to judge what the rules should be: The rules will change over time, and people will adopt new practices, but they will always be cooperative.” In other words, Andie Nordgren’s principle “Customize your commitments”, see?

I find this very beautiful, the belief that people will cooperate and create something workable and creative together if given the chance. I have, however, often wondered whether it isn’t very naïve, given all the greed and opportunism in the world. But in Political Science class I learned that more and more, it is not the state but rather civil society which is causing change. In South Africa this is very apparent in our past liberation struggle, but also in our present: people lose patience with the government and simply start their own NGOs, charities, businesses and movements, lobbying for change or educating people or placing increasing focus on important issues such as sustainability or mental health. We’re doing it ourselves.

Look at all the groups and initiatives arising in the wake of COVID isolation – I form part of several Whatsapp groups and collectives that immediately popped up, arranging for food donations and collections, the distribution of educational activities for kids stuck at home, wider and better aid for people in need, etcetera. It’s imperfect and disorganised, but it’s normal people mobilising themselves to help. On the farm where I live, myself and all the neighbours (we’re about nine households) have quickly arranged ourselves into taking turns shopping, swapping ingredients, gardening tips and cigarettes when needed, and providing emotional support. The same is true of my colleagues, with whom I feel more allied than ever. The amount of initiative being taken by normal people right now is heartening.

Change comes from the ground up, it always has. Anarchism says that this change would be faster and more effective if we gave up on the idea that the state is supposed to do things for and with us, and stopped waiting for it to join the picnic. Instead we should dismantle it and directly manage our own lives, in collaboration with each other.

Relationship anarchy as praxis

Anarchism places a lot of emphasis on ‘praxis’ which is, as far as I understand it, just a fancy version of the word ‘practice’. In other words, praxis means bringing ideas and vision to fruition through doing. And that’s where I think relationship anarchy fits in.

If we take the principles of anarchism to their logical expression in relationships, and if we look at some of the texts on RA specifically, then altogether we can basically say that RA: aims to dismantle the (often unconscious) hierarchies and assumptions we have made around relationships, to identify where we or others are un-free in how we relate, to determine which patterns are detrimental or beneficial to our lives, and to decide what to retain or rebuild.

Relationship anarchy is one of the most accessible ways for us to DO anarchy.

While overthrowing the state or building small societal utopias isn’t quite as readily done, we can always, anywhere, start re-examining our relationships and rewire them to reflect our deepest truths. We can always start relating more authentically. We can always take a step back from all the relational and gender roles forced upon us and begin to live from the inside out.

Therefore I think that all self-professed anarchists must necessarily be relationship anarchists too. There’s an interesting reddit thread about that, actually, where someone asks whether they are morally obligated to be RA since they consider themselves an anarchist. “Do I have to be polyamorous now?” they ask. See how the writer mixes up polyamory and RA, using the terms interchangeably? Well, they aren’t the same thing at all. Here’s a lovely insightful snippet from one commenter:

heterosexual monogamy is a constructed vision of the “proper” relationship, but that doesn’t mean you’re immoral or anti-anarchist for being attracted to it. The point, whether with gender or race or relationships, is to be self-aware of what parts you’re inheriting from the society, and how those parts could be hierarchical.”

– insightful reddit commenter

In other words: if you’re an anarchist, you’ll do the work of examining and questioning your relational heritage, and of working towards greater freedom and consent. Yet practicing RA does not mean you’ll be non-monogamous.

But.

Practicing RA, according to me, is more than a relationship preference. It’s more than just a vague label allowing you to question some ideas and norms that bug you. It’s an unflagging task you declare yourself willing to see through.

More than just making up your own relationship norms, it demands that you look at your own life with searing honesty. “This thing I want”, you must ask yourself, “why do I want it? Why do I flinch at the thought of ‘sharing’ my partner? When I say I want to be monogamous, is it just because I’m afraid of the pain an alternative might trigger? Do I really want the things I want, or have I been conditioned to want them?”

Tailor-making our relationships into living things that reflect our innermost desires is not the hardest part of RA. The work begins before that, in the deconstruction of our unconscious norms and desires. Because we can have no real idea of what we truly want if we have been exposed to only one idea for the majority of our lives. If all the relationships we know follow the same trajectory, power is being exerted over us in that area, whether we know it or not.

And so I am wary of people who say that they are anarchists or RA but add “but I practice monogamy, personally. I’ve always just been a really monogamous person.” How do you KNOW that? Have you done the work? Have you faced the things that scare you about non-monogamy? Because it might well be that you end up choosing monogamy, after examining your life and the other options. But if you choose it by default, then that’s not really choosing.

To be clear: I am not saying that everybody should practice RA, nor am I saying that those who do (or anyone else) should be non-monogamous. I don’t think non-monogamy is inherently better than monogamy. But to misquote Socrates, I do think an examined life is more worth living.

Also, I may have painted a picture of RA being really hard, since it entails all this self-questioning and deconstruction and inner work. And I do think that it is often hard. But in my (still limited) experience, it’s about as hard as anything worth doing. And as one expands and develops confidence in one’s own voice, it becomes less hard. The things that I thought were simply a part of being human – jealousy, envy, fear – those get less over time than they ever were before.

Congratulations, you have made it to the end of this post

It’s ridiculous how much I still want to say. It’s ridiculous how long this post already is. Let me end by summarising the main points:

  • You don’t have to be an anarchist to be RA, but, as I see it, you DO have to be RA if you’re an anarchist.
  • To practice RA, it helps to know what anarchism is all about.
  • Anarchism is about two things: resisting power, and voluntary collaboration between people – change from the ground up instead of from the top down.
  • Therefore RA is about the same things: Dismantling power structures in our relationships, and collaborating with our beloveds to craft meaningful connections.
  • You don’t have to be non-monogamous to be RA, but to do RA well you do need to do the emotional work and engage with your own deep-seated assumptions and fears.

I leave you with this thought:

Any system that limits or stigmatises our imaginings of the possible, much less our ability to act upon them, is oppressive to all of us.”

Jamie Heckert, ‘Changing anarchism’

The first time I heard about non-monogamy my instinctive reaction was to jerk back. “Oh no, I could never do that,” I said to myself. I felt a kind of fascinated revulsion. The idea sounded so foreign to me, so…sad. How could anyone resign themselves to not being their significant other’s One True Love? How could anyone so resoundingly give up on the romantic dream? Could people really be happy living non-monogamously, or were they kidding themselves, being brave and modern and secretly very, very alone? That’s how I thought it must be: a very liberal, forward-thinking yet deeply painful lifestyle.

Yet I couldn’t leave the idea entirely alone. Something in me was triggered and I reacted the way I see my friends reacting now when I talk about non-monogamy: defensively, as if they suspect they’re in the wrong somehow for not embracing this. To be clear: they’re not in the wrong. We are where we are and there is no need for us to push ourselves into uncomfortable territory if that doesn’t speak to us.

But.

Monogamy and the romantic dream goes so deep for us, touches us at the very core of who we are and of what we secretly hope and long for; and therefore when this idea is challenged even slightly we react with the flinching instinct of a threatened child.

People say all sorts of things when they hear I’m non-monogamous, and all of those things are comments I’ve made myself at one time or another: “Oh, I’m too jealous, I couldn’t ever do it” and “That’s completely impractical, having one romantic relationship is a full-time job already,” and “I’m a born romantic, I can’t be in love with more than one person at a time” and “it’s just a phase, you’ll be monogamous when you find the right guy” and “but what about feeling special?”

The weird thing about people’s reactions is that they often react as if I’m trying to convert them, when really, that’s not it at all. I’m not preaching non-monogamy, not trying to get them to change their lifestyles, not hinting that their way of living is worse than mine. (Or am I? It’s hard to tell, sometimes, when you stumble upon something that revolutionises your way of thinking, whether you’re being overly zealous. But after all, isn’t that what growth and community is all about? We lovingly share what we’ve been learning, and perhaps it benefits others, and perhaps it doesn’t.)

So I share where I’m at, and people react in a way that betrays how very, very threatened they feel in the area of romantic love. And it makes sense, because this is scary stuff. Even just briefly facing our bottomless need for love and acceptance and belonging, and our fear of this need not being met, is terrifying. Encountering the idea of non-monogamy for the first time takes us right to the edge of the terrifying unknown.

Non-monogamy stayed at the fringes of my consciousness for a long while before I finally started delving into it. Amanda Palmer and her husband Neil Gaiman are non-monogamous, which is where I’d first heard about it. They’re some of my favourite artists, the both of them making wise and brave and moving art; they also seem human and relatable. Yet they’re non-monogamous. This fascinated me. I scrolled through Amanda Palmer’s Wikipedia page (this was almost a decade ago when she was just as confessional on the internet but social media wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous) looking for clues to how she did it, looking for scandals maybe, for hints that it doesn’t really work. She must be even cooler that I think she is, I thought, she must be confident and collected with no hint of insecurity. Then she posted on facebook about her marriage, mentioning that being in an open relationship is tremendously hard work, requiring a lot of communication and facing of your own insecurities. Somehow she made it look more real, like something normal humans do.

For a long time I kept the idea of non-monogamy tucked into my mind, something scary and fascinating that I was saving for a rainy day. My romantic relationships, each offbeat and unique and often very difficult, without my knowledge were moving me towards revisiting this idea. I was becoming more disillusioned with romance and my seeming inability to find the ‘right’ person or to settle down. Finally, one day in late 2017, I officially started exploring non-monogamy. I read books. I imagined myself as polyamorous. I read blogs, arguments for and against. I encountered more people who were in open relationships of one kind or another. Then I took the plunge.

It’s been a hell of a ride. I could write a hundred posts about it, and I hope I will. For now, what bears repeating is that it is incredibly scary to dismantle one’s ideas of romance and monogamy, because they touch you right at the core of who you are. When I started entertaining the idea of being non-monogamous in 2017, I had no idea that I was about to launch a full-size investigation into who I am, into what I really want, into what I have always assumed about life and how to transcend these assumptions.

I’m not even close to finished with this journey, but so far it has by far been the most revolutionary event in my life, greater even than that time, ten years ago, when I started questioning my faith.

My advice to anyone considering any form of non-monogamy is this: Do not think you can compartmentalise this experience. We have so successfully internalised monogamy, made it such a deep part of who we are, that we cannot leave it behind without putting other aspects of our identity in jeopardy too. That’s okay, because there are many corners in our psyches that could do with some deep cleaning. Letting go of parts of ourselves that we thought were intrinsic to who we are is not a bad thing. It is, however, a tremendously challenging thing.

Listening to my romantic woes, a friend recently said to me: “But you know it doesn’t have to be that difficult, right? Love can just be easy sometimes.” And it can. It has been for me, and it will be again. It’s not love that’s hard – love is really very, very easy – it’s fear. And the way I lived my life before, the way that I often still do, I now see is filled with fear. I’m not saying that monogamy is bad, but I AM saying that unquestioned monogamy is a hotbed of insecurity, it’s an institution that we have created to hold fear at bay, and it is not working. It is making us smaller. The answer is not to dive with abandon into polyamory or swinging or threesomes. The answer is to approach the topic of romantic love with curiosity and the courage to be sceptical about our assumptions, the courage to grow more than we thought we ever would. All we need is willingness, and growth will happen.

What is it that we want from love?

(This post is best read to the tune of this fantastic song.)

This morning I woke up at 2 a.m. There was a text on my phone from somebody I love, somebody whose very existence shakes me to my core. We’re at an impasse. We’re going around in circles, triggering each other, trying to be gentle, lashing out when we’re in pain, withdrawing, moving closer, moving away again.

Why do we take this so personally?” he asks. “Because it IS personal”, I reply. I type and retype my message many times before sending it, yet this morning I realise how the emotion of the night might have made me sound harsher than I intended, might have overridden the love and gentleness I feel. I’m afraid. I’m afraid that he’ll suggest we stop this wrestling match once and for all. I’m afraid that I’ve finally pushed him away. I’m afraid that we can never come back from how hurt we’ve each been. I’m afraid that we’ll miss out on something powerful, on the profound healing and connection that we could have had, if we don’t climb out of this cycle.

What do I want from this love? Why am I still here?

Beyond that, what does it mean to love? What is the purpose of love in our lives?

In a way this post is a follow-up on my previous one. I grew up wanting love, romantic love in particular. I might be romantically inclined due to personality and all the books I read when I was much too young for them. But looking back it’s quite obvious that most of all my romantic inclinations were because I wanted to find someone, to find a somewhere, where I’d feel safe, seen and special. I wanted to matter. I wanted to be wanted. And I wanted this because I wasn’t getting it.

I am no outlier when I say that my childhood was, for the most part, unpleasant – many people have uncertainty, neglect or abuse as their origin story. And nobody emerges from childhood unscathed. Sometimes I think about how we are all walking about, as adults: making a living and making families all while trying to protect ourselves, still terrified of being weighed and found wanting. It’s so strange that the mistakes our parents made become so inextricably part of the fabric of our lives. It’s so weird that we get angry or burst into tears because someone says something that inadvertently reminds us of being that child again. It’s so weird that it can take a lifetime, if we live life well, to properly deal with and heal our wounds.

Anyway – because of my childhood, and because of books and movies and because everything, I thought for a long time that finding a romantic partner was all about feeling safe and fulfilled.

I wasn’t entirely unrealistic – I knew that a relationship would mean compromise and talking through stuff, that we’d still argue sometimes and all that jazz. But I thought that there would be this specific feeling to a relationship: I’d feel totally beautiful and awesome, loved for who I am, while also feeling challenged and inspired. We’d sit up at night and talk about poetry. We’d motivate each other to reach higher heights. We’d also be each other’s homecoming. There’d be this balance between cosiness and inspiration and it would be amazing.

I still kind-of think that. All of our loves do this, after all: my friends hold me when I’m terrified; they also poke me towards further growth. But with each friend there’s a different balance; I make my peace with the limitations of every friendship. I do not expect my friends to know or understand me fully. I take the support where I can get it and I am deeply grateful for it, but I know that no one friend will somehow validate my entire existence. In fact, the beauty of friendships is that we receive both love and opposition in ways that we never even thought we wanted. It’s uncomfortable. I walk away from barbeques or brunches feeling discomfited sometimes, annoyed even. The art lies in being open to a friend’s being, to the odd and lovely ways in which they enrich our life. Instead of trying to make our friends fit our needs, we open to who they are and how they see the world, and we are the richer for it.

But there’s so much more riding on romantic relationships.

When we fall in love we tell ourselves it’s about the other person. It’s about how cute they look in the mornings and about their lovely eyes and about how much random knowledge they have about superhero movies. It’s about how they sing in the shower. It’s about how competitive they get when we’re playing board games.

And these things might be true, but they’re not the whole truth. Not in my case, anyway. Falling in love is also – mainly – about myself.

A while ago I sat down and tried to analyse what happens for me when I fall in love – what makes it feel so intrinsically different from a close friendship?

Well, there’s a moment, usually quite soon in our friendship, when something shifts. I talk to this person and suddenly realise they’re really, really amazing. They’re wise, and smart, and mysterious. (Ah, that mystery.) Suddenly I feel a jolt of desire – not physical desire, but rather desire for this person to love me. This person, I have decided, has something that I don’t. Their combination of traits and unknown-ness has become a thing that I want, that I need, to feel better; because I do need to feel better, I always need to feel better, incomplete and wounded human that I am. I am a relational being, and so I look to others to fill the gaps in my psyche. Who better than this wonderful mysterious human, this wise person who seems so capable of holding my frightened heart in their hands and restoring me to fullness?

Of course as I get to know the person better I realise they couldn’t possibly validate me as I’d hoped. They’re scared and scarred too. But I keep on hoping, because there’s so much riding on this. I have put power in their hands and at times it feels as if my continued existence depends on their love. This is when reality starts intervening uncomfortably. Their tiny habits, those things I loved so much at first, now seem an obstacle, an annoying reminder of their flaws and of the ways in which they’ll never be able to make me feel whole. How could a broken person ever make me un-broken?

And so we settle into the long twilight of our relationship. By now tenderness has grown up between us and for a while it’s the glue holding us together. Fondness has replaced the initial in love feeling. But I’m itchy. I tell myself relationships are all about compromise and good communication, but somewhere inside I miss feeling alive, feeling gloriously awakened. The inspiration has made way for cosiness, and not even enough of that in between the miscommunications and the grind of daily life.

And then I fall in love with someone else. I think “ah! There is someone, after all, who can make me feel alive and valid and powerful. I was just with the wrong person!” Then comes decision-making. Do I break up with my current person, someone who’s dear to me and with whom I’ve crafted a life? Do I stay, instead, suspecting that all relationships, after all, entail disappointments? Or perhaps I try to have the best of both worlds: I decide to try polyamory. I enter this perilous world of endless negotiations, of time management and pangs of jealousy, straddling my cosy love and my new exciting flame as best I can. Eventually the exciting love becomes familiar and flawed as well and I fall in love with someone else. Then at some stage I reach saturation, my calendar overflowing, my heart exhausted. And I still, STILL, haven’t found someone who might finally make the broken pieces of my soul stop aching.

I think back to that initial moment of falling in love. There’s a transfer of power that takes place there: I place the responsibility for how I feel in someone else’s hands. I hope that they will make me feel valuable and valid. And I do this because I perceive them as being in some way less lacking than myself. Their allure lies in how little I still know them: because I do not know this person’s flaws and fears, I can imagine that they hold the key to finally feeling whole.

Yeah, I don’t actually want that scenario. If I investigate this thing it becomes clear that this type of falling in love, this heady blend of hormones and infatuation, is largely dependent on misinformation. It demands that I do not see a person for the fullness of who they are, that I surrender curiosity and engagement in favour of wish-fulfilment. This person becomes the holder of my hopes and fears, instead of an vast person, unique unto themselves. I miss out. I miss out on a flawed and glorious human.

I don’t think we ever stop projecting our hopes onto other people. We all see but through a glass, darkly. It’s an interesting ride, anyway, realising again and again what it is we want as we project these desires onto someone else. But I don’t actually want to be stuck thrill-seeking in this way endlessly. I’d rather eye this whole falling in love thing a bit more warily, cognisant of my own insecurities making themselves known yet again. I’d rather connect with a real person.

But if love is not about wish-fulfilment, what is it about then?

Well I suppose it could be about anything.

Recently a friend said to me that love should help people attain their life goals. I liked that. It makes sense: if you want security and cosiness, then seek out someone(s) who’ll chase the same goal, people to whom building a coherent life is important. Perhaps someone who’ll be fun to come home to. Someone with roughly the same level of ambition or with corresponding dreams. You know, all the compatibility stuff we hear about. Wanting to build a life, wanting to have kids, wanting a partner in crime – all those things are worthy dreams. We get to have them.

But life goals also change. After thinking about what my goals might currently be, I wrote to my friend in response: “My life goals are to connect with other people in sincerity. To see them. To be seen. To be whole enough that I can love expansively, without feeling as if my life is being threatened by this expansiveness. To grow. To do everything as if worshipping. To know myself well enough that I am able to make my own boundaries and refrain from losing myself within others, but from this place be able to give, and receive, with joy.”

Good luck”, my friend replied, “That will give you much pain and much reward.” I know. It’s a different pain than one might imagine: it’s the pain of dying off bits of myself that no longer serve me. It’s also a different reward than I always thought love would give: the reward lies in feeling bigger, more myself, more at home with the texture of my own heart; it’s about becoming more accepting of the aches and fears within me that might never go away. And the reward lies also in being able to absorb so much more of someone else, now that I am no longer swept away by my idea of them. It’s worth it, it’s so fucking worth it, this letting go of old daydreams, for the honour of witnessing others more fully as themselves.

I guess we all decide what level of intensity, of pain and reward, we’re willing to live with. There is no better or worse choice, one path is not more noble than another. My friend to whom I spoke about love compared his current model of relationships to a dance: “To me, nowadays, loving is a dance. And we spend more time practicing the steps and learning how not to step on each other’s toes than anything else. There are moments of passion and excitement, but mainly it’s about repetition, over and over again the same thing. And your feet start hurting in specific places, and you wish the practice sessions could be over already because they’re boring and it feels as if nobody’s progressing. But then there are moments where you show off your skills, where you realise how well you know each other, and it makes you feel awesome. That’s opening night. But the rest of the time you’re mainly performing for schools, churches, and old age homes. And you decide whether this gives you enough joy and excitement to continue on this path.

Whether it be about the intricacy of a dance while avoiding each others’ toes, or about coming to accept ourselves more fully, or a bit of both – I think that love is better when we can ask ourselves questions about it. What is it that I want? Why do I want this? What would happen if I didn’t get it? What am I willing to surrender? Thrill-seeking quickly becomes a lonely, hungry chase. Digging deep sustains us far more powerfully.

Serial monogamy as a young romantic

For my tenth birthday I received my very first diary. It was a small flipbook with blank black pages; I wrote in it with my precious set of milky pens. The first page says “Warning! Danger! Property of Sage. If lost, return to Sage. Do not read.” I repeated this warning on every page, although it didn’t deter my siblings in the least.

One of my first entries reads as follows: “Samuel is very large he has brown eyes and brown hair. He is very quiet and very friendly. I love him very much. Signed, Sage.” (With a drawing of a heart and an arrow through).

About one month later, a new entry reads: “In love! I fell in love very suddenly with Raymond when he joined our school. I would describe him like this: black hair, medium size, long nose and that’s all. Goodbye!”

My subsequent diaries, all of which I kept, are increasingly full of lovesick entries.

There was Jean, who’d accompany his mom on visits to our family but sit outside by himself, fair hair hanging into his eyes, looking mysterious and a little sad. (I ran into him two years ago and he told me out of the blue that he’d had a crush on me too, but he’d been too shy to ever talk to me. With such satisfaction did I report back to my eleven-year-old self!) There were all of my friends’ brothers, especially Freddy who was older and had a steady girlfriend (so much more the allure) and was prone to whipping out his guitar and singing to any willing audience. There was Lewis, and Wynand, and Pieter, and many more.

When I was thirteen I made a list of all the boys I’d fallen in love with, going back all the way to my very first crush, Vincent, when I was four. We were in kindergarten together and the longing and awkwardness was about as real as it gets – I remember sitting on the swings in the playground wondering which magical power I’d developed that enabled me to always know, always feel, where he was standing. I had no words for the ache I felt when I looked at him.

Anyway – by the time I was thirteen, the list of all my crushes was longer than the years in my life. All of them had felt intense. I had daydreamed about marrying every single one, being carried off on a horse (there were always horses in my daydreams) while playing the violin, swept up in our deep and abiding love with which we would subsequently travel the world, feeding hungry orphans and becoming famous. I was getting a little worried, too: how would I know when I’d found the right one, if every time felt this intense? And so I asked my mom: “How do you know when you have found your True Love?”

My mom’s response left much to be desired. She thought for a moment, looking puzzled, and then said something along the lines of “well, you kind of decide this is it. You make up your mind to love this person for the rest of your life.”

My mom was not a good authority on love, I decided. She and my dad were forever splitting up and getting back together. Obviously she hadn’t found her True Love, but I would. I’d know it when it happened.

My first serious relationship started in high school and lasted through our undergraduate studies, five years altogether. His name was Krisjan and he was my best friend. We spent almost all our time together, riding our bicycles through the small university town, arguing about politics, eating mulberries from the tree behind his residence, watching rugby games with his friends, making out. He was intelligent, odd, kind, and loved Rambo movies. When we argued he’d go quiet and grim, I’d burst into tears, eventually we’d make up without reaching a resolution. Sometimes I’d picture our life together, the farm we’d live on, me perhaps teaching (I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else with a degree in language), him making his own craft beers and driving around in his pickup truck with our toddler sitting next to him. Imagining our future made my throat constrict, and I wasn’t sure why. I knew I loved him – even though I’d had other crushes since we’d started dating, the thought of us ever being apart felt ludicrous.

And then I fell in love with someone else.

It happened on an varsity tour in Europe, and it was perhaps the most terrifying experience I have had to date. This guy was everything Krisjan was not: flamboyant, liberal, emotional. He was a philosophy student and it showed. He bought sunflowers from a street vendor and gave one to each of his tour mates, pulled me into a waltz in the subway where a man was playing the accordion, burst into tears during the train ride to Antwerp. He spoke about Nietzsche and existentialism A LOT.

I wanted this life forever: to stand on the prow of a boat entering Amsterdam harbour, sick with longing, the rain whipping harsh tears into my face. To meet eyes across a crowded restaurant and smile with a secret knowing – I see you. To wander the streets of Amsterdam and come to sit next to a canal where all of a sudden, at three in the morning, bridges lift and tiny boats start chugging past while we talk about the meaning of the universe. To karaoke together, him with a rose in his teeth, me suddenly gloriously aware of my body and radiant youth.

I barely ate, barely slept. At night I turned this question over and over in my mind: How to break up with Krisjan? It was unthinkable. It would be like cutting off my arm.

I had to do it.

And so I did. It broke both our hearts, but I did it. I came back from Europe, arms laden with the Belgian beers I had bought him, and broke up with him at once. He cried. I cried. He begged me for two weeks of normalcy in which to say goodbye, I begrudgingly said yes. We spent the entire two weeks arguing, him beseeching me to come to my senses, me torn between this gaping loss and the romantic dream pulsing within my heart.

I journaled intensively during this time, and wrote long letters littered with poems to my philosopher, Alexander, who was studying on the other side of the country. I wanted…something else. Not to fall into another long-term relationship, but rather to have an undefined enduring romance, one in which our knowing of each other would be stronger, braver, more real, than any man-made institution. I would never get married, I decided. I wrote to Alexander that defining our relationship would make it lesser somehow, would remove the spaciousness from our union, might squeeze the air from it. Much taken by my unconventionality, he wrote back that he’d like to take my brain out on a date.

But our romance almost immediately floundered. Alexander’s roving soul was matched only by his roving eye and within two months he let me know that he’d met somebody else. My heart shattered, but my commitment to a new kind of life did not. I decided to make up for lost time by making out with every somewhat attractive guy I met. I swapped spit with a first-year in a noisy club near campus, disgusted by his kissing technique but undeterred in my quest for fun. I learned to provide a pseudonym in clubs, so that guys wouldn’t find me afterwards on facebook. I embarrassed my friends with my unsubtle flirtiness. I broke my toe on the dance floor. In between I grieved, for my beautiful earthy Krisjan, and for my flamboyant philosopher, my True Love gone, Alexander.

Krisjan had not quite disappeared – our friendship had been too real for that. He still was, somehow, my person. I missed him too much to let him go entirely, sometimes we even hooked up again. I was incredibly confused – how could I love someone this much (maybe even be IN love with them…?) yet also feel profoundly in love with someone else? (the dream of Alexander was still very much alive). Perhaps it was a question of timing. I wrote in my journal:

I realise more and more that Krisjan is not the one for me – in any case, not for the foreseeable future. I don’t even know why, but I just feel it – I want more. It’s not that he’s not enough, it’s just that I need other things too. And, though he might not know it, he needs that too. He is meant for more things in life than simply being my anchor and my rock.

I quoted a lot of Kahlil Gibran in my journal too – ‘let there be spaces in your togetherness…’

Alexander came back on the scene; he did a lot of that over the next two and a half years. We had a complicated romance: I knew he was falling in and out of love with the varied women crossing his part and it hurt, but in a bittersweet way. Since we’d made no promises and were always long-distance, I too was meeting, even sometime briefly dating, other men. Krisjan and I never got back together, although the friendship endured even as the romance faded (he is now married to a teacher, lives on a farm and has a baby I have no doubt will soon accompany him on tours of the orchards in his pickup truck).

But I continued to believe in the dream of the One True Love. I’d fallen in love again – and again, and again – but I’d never again had that magic we’d had in Amsterdam, Alexander and I, wandering the streets with unspoken universes hanging between us. I thought I only had to wait; we’d find each other, he’d come back to me when the time was right. In the meantime I tried hard not to get too entangled in other relationships. I wrote a lot of poems. I moved to a new town, started working.

Then he met someone else, on the other side of the world, and this time fell in love so hard that I could feel the intensity of it from across the ocean. We were over, I knew it then. He’d found his One True Love and she wasn’t me.

The relief was tremendous.

I was angry, I was embarrassed that I’d wasted so much time waiting for him, but I was heartily glad to be rid of all that melancholy holding-off. To make matters worse, he got married, betraying my dream of a True Union Which Needed No Formalising. It was clear: he’d never been The One.

But then, how do you know which one’s The One? That same question, more than ten years later. I was coming to realise that I had in fact dearly loved every man I’d dated thus far. The love between Krisjan and I was real. As was the love I’d felt for the men who’d been there since, and the heartbreak when we’d split each time (all of this while ‘waiting’ for Alexander), and the love for Alexander too. Each connection had been beautiful. There had been moments of tenderness and laughter in each relationship; evenings of board games and walks next to the beach, drunkenness and hangovers and movie nights.

With each of them I’d had moments where I’d look at them and think “I see you. I really see you. This is enough.”

Maybe every one of them was The One, for a while? I wasn’t quite ready for that thought yet, but I decided that each had been the right one for then, propelling me into further maturity, punctuating my life with horniness and laughter on this strange journey towards self-knowledge. I would be ready, I thought, when the right one comes.

It’s seven years later now. Lots to tell, no space in this post. But this strikes me when I think of that time: returning to my diary, seeing that I wrote “I want more. It’s not that he’s not enough, it’s that I want other things too.” Remembering my brave suggestion to Alexander, that we fling convention to the wind and meet as lovers undefined. Observing how much space I was able to hold in my heart, in spite of my confusion, for simultaneous connections of all kinds. Cherishing the strong friendships I still have with many of these connections (including with Alexander, who is now one of my closest friends).

Increasingly, I was moving away from the model of serial monogamy I had been taught, even from the prioritisation of romance above all else. But it took me another five years to realise that. What I was coming to know, in the meantime, was that there are many, many more ways to love than we allow ourselves to imagine. And all of our loves are beautiful, and there is growing to be found in all of them.