Thursday, 17 September 2009

you are not what you build

my wise friend said this to me last night as i was facing the potential end of one of the most important relationships of my life. i was talking about the pride i've felt in this long long friendship, how it's a fundamental part of my identity to be able to say i've loved this person this long, we've known each other since we were children, we know everything about each other, we are sisters. and that we've maintained this friendship, up until a year ago, effortlessly. i was so proud, too, of our year of working so hard on our friendship, of the fact we've never given up. i was saying how if i lose this friendship i'm also losing a huge chunk of pride and a huge chunk of my identity, i lose all the things i used to get from claiming that.

and my friend said, "you are not what you build". you continue to change within whatever structures you create and sometimes it doesn't fit any more, sometimes you have to escape it. within friendships and partnerships and groups and communities and institutions, they are bigger than us and sometimes we have to crawl out from under them, no matter how much we love them and how proud we are, how hard we've tried, how much we want them to flourish.

and yet i have never even questioned that i am what i build. i can't even figure out right now if it's from society or family or both, but i have a clear sense of "you better have something to show for yourself" and a huge part of that is lasting relationships as a marker of success. i have believed that i am my lasting relationships, and if they fail then i've failed. and yet some time ago, mainly through work, i became aware of how much more important people are than relationships. and i don't mean this in a hideous individualist way! i have seen so very many people subsume or destroy themselves for the sake of their relationships, often for a lack of wider community that meant their only source of love and support was that one-to-one relationship. so i don't see the solution, at all, as people prioritising our own personal needs above all else, but in people feeling that we can have different needs met by different people and different parts of our communities. and if one particular relationship or structure within those communities becomes unhealthy for us, or we otherwise somehow find it needs to end, we can move on without feeling like our whole world is crashing down and we have nothing to love or be proud of anymore.

so that we are building lots of things at once, maybe. and no one of those things is us.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

bottom line

isn't it about knowing your bottom line? i mean staying safe, as an adult, from controlling people. easier said than done, but isn't that what it comes down to?

like my colleague and her new partner, like me and relationship and friendship situations which i haven't figured out how to write about in this public forum..

i don't think any of us are safe from being controlled until we know ourselves and like ourselves enough to defend ourselves. til we know how far we will compromise in a relationship (and i include friendships here), and where the immovable line is where we'll stand and defend ourselves, bottom line. and by that i simply mean telling someone i don't want to see them for a while, recognising my need for mental space. being able to stand on my own two feet and state my boundaries, even at the risk of that person fucking off as a result.

even if we achieve this it's difficult to maintain in the face of all the things that can get us down. and it's so difficult to find a balance where connection, communication, love, negotiation, is happening but where control and domination is avoided. after bad experiences it feels best just not to get too close to anyone - and of course a healing, defensive period is always necessary but i want to find ways to describe how to connect again, in safer ways.

it's about resources too, of course. having the material and psychological resources to be able to cope on one's own if you find you need to extricate yourself from a partnership situation. having the resources to have the strength to fight to defend ourselves. far, far easier said than done. but this involves communities too, right. communities that are able to support someone materially and emotionally while they sort out a situation of crossed boundaries. communities that make it possible for someone to leave a controlling or abusive situation by sharing resources.

i have thought i was strong enough to avoid the bad end of compromise (or is all compromise bad anyway, while negotiation is the good version? i don't chuffing know!) but it turned out again that i didn't know or like who i was enough and let it slide. i feel pretty strong again these days but who knows. that's part of why i'm writing about it, "learning to leave a paper trail": being accountable to my own words can make me safer and perhaps what i write is useful to other people too.

and also i mean to say that control is normal. i just hope for other things, hope for other ways of relating. i need to find other ways of relating.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

trying out control

I had an amazing conversation yesterday with my colleague about control in relationships. I think about this stuff all day every day, keep thinking i’ve got a handle on it, then something else will come and disrupt what i think i know. Hence this blog, to try and order my ramblings...

My colleague has been through extreme domestic violence in the past, years ago. She’s been in relationships since. She started telling me about her new relationship and the little signs of control he’s started trying out, tiny intimidations, tiny put-downs, things that would seem like nothing, or even complimentary, to many people, but to her (and me) are huge flashing danger lights. He questions her about where she’s been out to with her friends. He’s ever-so-slightly sarcastic when he asks if men were there. He gently suggests that a pair of jeans are inappropriate. He leans in to whisper things to her when they are in public places. No violence, no abuse, no way, but he’s testing. How many people think this is unacceptable? How many people can see, clear as day, how if he succeeds in eroding her confidence at this stage, succeeds in having her change her jeans, he will chip away at her further, the control will increase as far as it can. Do you think i’m being dramatic? How do we talk about this?

My colleague and I agreed that either of us, at less confident times in our lives, would not have identified these behaviours as signs of a controlling person, even in the years we’ve been doing this job. Although we both felt that this behaviour was unacceptable, neither of us thought that it was grounds to instantly end the relationship, only to be vigilant – to measure his behaviours and her self-confidence, and to put her self-confidence at the centre of it all. If she notices she is changing her behaviour then the control has started.. but of course this is so difficult to measure and by the time you admit something like that to yourself it can be too late.

She did say ‘all men are like that’, and unwilling yet to come out as not-as-gay-in-fact-as-i-might-have-somehow-implied-sorry-to-be-so-confusing i kind of let that one slide. I didn’t know how, in the five minutes we had before people arrived for the group, to start talking about how women and genderqueers and whoever else try out control and often succeed, and how some men don’t, how to relate it back to my own relationships with people of different genders and the different kinds of control we’d tried to enact on one another.

My colleague said how unsettled she was by the fact this man was good and kind, respected, friendly; ‘you can’t spot them’. I said to my her ‘they don’t all start out evil, do they?’ and we looked at each other, acknowledging the pain of this. The pain of letting in the idea that we all use control, that abusers are human too, that there’s no such thing as evil. All of us, at some point in our lives, will try out controlling the people around us. When we are toddlers, for a start. And whether we find there are benefits, rewards, for this or whether we swiftly have to find other, healthier ways of relating, depends on the response of the people around us. If we kick off and get what we (think we) want, or if we kick off and the people around us recoil and condemn us. At any age, from the terrible twos to our first teenage relationships to lifelong friendships to... And we generally find that there is a lot more scope for control and/or kicking off to get results in the context of an intimate relationship. Kicking off in the queue at the post office will get us shunned or the police called: there are sanctions against this. Kicking off to someone we’ve been seeing a few months, who is invested in the relationship, might get them to change their behaviour in the interest of preserving the relationship. Result, reward, we get our own way. And there are so many ways to 'kick off', other than being violent or aggressive...

Oh god, again, so much more to say! Another time..