The Importance of Naming Emotional Labor

Recently my boyfriend thanked me for doing emotional labor for him.

As in, he actually used that phrase: “I appreciate all the emotional labor you’ve been doing for me.” And then he apologized for not doing as much in return. (I disagree, actually: I think it’s been quite balanced.)

It was an interesting moment in that it illuminated the empty space around it–the space where all the emotional labor I’ve done for others, previous male partners especially, has gone unacknowledged.

I told him that nobody had ever thanked me for that before.

Sure, people have thanked me “for listening” or “being there for me,” and that was obviously meaningful. But few have ever done so in a way that acknowledged the work involved–the emotional labor. Nobody has ever used that term.

It’s not that I do it for the gratitude. I don’t support my friends and partners to get something in return, or so that they feel deeply indebted to me or any other power play-type shit like that. I do emotional labor for the simple reason that it feels good. Same reason most of us do anything, at the root of it.

But it stops feeling good when I feel like I’m expected to do it, especially if I sense that I’m expected to do it because of my gender. It stops feeling good when rather than directly asking me for what they need, they try to passive-aggressively coax it out of me. It stops feeling good when they demand tons of emotional labor and then half-heartedly return the favor by offering me types of emotional labor they know I don’t want. (For instance: I don’t like talking at length about my problems. Stop offering to listen and then considering your share of the work done.)

Issues like that surrounding emotional labor have plagued most of my relationships with men. In fact, they’re what ultimately ended most of my relationships with men.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the few partners I’ve had who understands the term emotional labor and is able to use it to acknowledge a pattern in our relationship is also one of the few partners I’ve had with whom I did not experience (at least not yet, and not in my perspective) a noticeable imbalance in it.

It’s hard to value things that we have no language for even thinking about, let alone speaking about to each other. As I mentioned, there are words and phrases that get at little pieces of what emotional labor is–“being a good listener,” “being considerate,” “good manners,” “sensitivity”–none of them really address the fact that it is work, and work takes effort. Considerate and sensitive is something you are. Emotional labor is something you do.

When you name emotional labor for what it is, you’re able to treat it as valuable. That doesn’t just mean literally thanking someone for it–I’d felt completely happy with the emotional labor I was doing for my boyfriend before he explicitly thanked me. The thank-you was nice, but what’s even nicer is the way he responds to my emotional labor with increased intimacy and vulnerability, the way he makes an effort to figure out what sorts of emotional labor I might appreciate from him and do those things, and the way he treats my emotional labor as mine to give rather than his to take. That requires an understanding of what it is that’s being given or taken.

I don’t doubt that there are people who do what he does without having ever heard the term “emotional labor,” but that’s doing it on the highest difficulty setting, in my opinion. Clearly he’d been thinking about this for a while before he said anything to me, and that meant that in his head he’d been organizing things under the heading “emotional labor that my girlfriend does for me” and “emotional labor that I do for my girlfriend.”

I would be curious to see what those lists look like for other people, with their partners and friends. What they think emotional labor is, what they don’t think it is. To me, it’s a combination of things most people would want to do, such as showing concern if your partner’s had a rough day or picking out a gift that’ll make your partner feel loved, and things most people probably wouldn’t want to do, such as pretending to be happy so that your partner isn’t upset by your negative emotions and reminding your partner for the millionth fucking time to do the thing they promised they’d do.

Those seem like totally different things that don’t belong in the same category, but they do, because it’s not about whether it’s positive or negative. It’s about whether it requires effort and energy. It’s just like any other work in that way–I have tasks at work that I love and tasks at work that I hate, but regardless, they’re all work and I want all of them to be seen and acknowledged.

Knowing what emotional labor means and feeling comfortable using the term in context is a great way to start seeing and acknowledging the less-tangible ways in which your partner supports you.

 

I Don’t Actually Get Monogamy

#polyamory #what some might classify as being judgmental of monogamous people

When polyamorous people talk about polyamory and monogamy, we often feel obligated to add little disclaimers like “but of course polyamory isn’t for everyone, some people just prefer monogamy and that’s fine!” or “of course, I understand that for some people monogamy is what’s best!”

To be honest, I say these things because I have to, not because they feel genuine. Yes, I do understand that monogamy works just fine for many people and that they prefer it, but I don’t grok* it. I don’t actually understand why monogamy is preferable. I just know that it is, because people say so and I believe them when they talk about their own feelings and experiences.

Sure, I’ve heard all the reasons; this isn’t an invitation to leave them in the comments. It’s simpler, there’s less negotiation and coordination involved, less awkwardness with family and in-laws, don’t have to deal with jealousy (except when you do), don’t have to worry they’ll leave you for someone else (except when you do), you get more time with them, you get to feel like you’re The Only One For Them, even though they probably had other partners before you and may have others in the future.

In that sense, many of monogamy’s supposed advantages seem illusory or conditional at best, which is part of the reason I can’t grok it.

But the other reason is that like…it still involves telling your partner what they can and can’t do with their body and time and relationships. That makes as much sense to me as telling my best friend that I don’t want her to have any other best friends and if she wants a different one then we have to stop being best friends with each other. Many of us tried that in elementary school, probably without much success or mutual happiness.

Some monogamous people say that they’re not controlling each other at all because neither of them happens to want any other partners. That’s, obviously, legitimate, but then I don’t see why they’d need to have a rule that says they can’t be with other people. Rules are made to keep people from doing things they want to do but shouldn’t do for whatever reason, and are  completely superfluous if nobody actually wants to do the thing.

The real test would be this: what if tomorrow or next month or next year, one of them meets someone else they want to get involved with? Would that be an actual open discussion, or would it be shut down with “no you can’t do that,” or never even brought up at all because a “no” would be expected?

Personally, I like to construct relationships (and other life things) in ways that allow for the fact that I will inevitably grow and change in ways I can’t predict at all. I understand that this isn’t important for everyone, but I can’t grok why it wouldn’t be.

Maybe part of the confusion is that “monogamy” seems to mean both “we are not allowed to have other partners” and “we do not have other partners.” There isn’t a perfect correlation between those, though. Plenty of couples who’d be open to having other partners nevertheless don’t because they haven’t met anyone or they haven’t had time or the stars didn’t align or whatnot. (And, of course, plenty of couples who are not “allowed” to have other partners nevertheless don’t, and this often gets called monogamy even though it technically isn’t.)

The important distinction to me isn’t “do you have more than one partner right now,” but “do you insist that you partner commit to only be with you.”

I can actually see myself in a situation where I happen to have found a person who I fit so well with that I lose interest in dating others (though I think this is very unlikely), but I don’t see why that means I should tell them that they shouldn’t want to date others either. So what? They can do what they want. I can do what I want.

Many people talk about it being “unfair” if one person in a couple dates others and the other doesn’t, but I don’t see what’s unfair about that as long as the latter person isn’t being “banned” from dating others. Nothing will ever be fully “equal” in a relationship–even if the relationship itself is egalitarian, one person might have a better, more fulfilling job, or make more money, or have much more supportive family, or have more friends and social outlets, or be more skilled at certain important things, or more social privilege. Yes, these things can be difficult to navigate and can cause jealousy and resentment in a relationship, and all of that has to be brought out into the open and worked on. But it doesn’t make sense to solve these problems by forcing the partner who’s more fortunate in some way to give that fortune up.

What I do get is when someone’s mental illness makes aspects of polyamory triggering or otherwise unmanageable. I do disagree with the popular narrative that mental illness and polyamory are always a bad mix–for some of us, it’s monogamy that’s incompatible with mental illness–but clearly for some people they are. I can definitely grok not being able to do something because your mental illness won’t let you, and then to be unwilling or unable to change that. (Even if it can be changed with therapy or whatever, not everyone has the time, money, or energy to do that work.)

But I don’t know how I could ever ask my partner to just dump all their other partners (that’s what it means what you “become monogamous” or “close the relationship,” though it’s rarely spoken of in those terms) for the sake of my mental health, which is my responsibility. If my partner offered of their own accord to stop/not start seeing other people, that might feel different, but asking them to–with the implication that if they don’t agree, they’re to blame for any worsening of my mental health–seems manipulative.

On the other hand, sometimes you have to be manipulative to save your life.

Most polyamory-or-monogamy decisions aren’t a matter of life and death, though, or anywhere close to it. Some people can’t be poly because it would make them miserable and wouldn’t be worth it, but most people who choose monogamy seem to do it without seriously considering polyamory, and if they do consider it, they dismiss it immediately as being “too difficult.” That’s what I can’t grok. If I were seriously considering telling a partner what they can and can’t do with their own body and free time, I would want to make damn certain that it’s for a really, really, really good reason. (Although, honestly, if I wanted that badly to try to control someone, I would probably leave them.)

I don’t usually say any of this, not only because it makes people mad at me, but because it’s not nice and nobody asked my opinion. I don’t evangelize polyamory; honestly, the last thing we need is more poly people who don’t really want to be poly or who haven’t thought about it thoroughly. There is nobody I want to date who insists on monogamy, so I definitely don’t have a dog in the fight. I am happy for my happily monogamous friends. Et cetera et cetera.

What I think is notable isn’t that I don’t “get” monogamy, but how many people don’t “get” polyamory, and say so–frequently, loudly–without any pushback. How many times have I heard “Wow, I could never do that,” “But how would that even work?”, “But how could you truly love someone if you’re okay with them sleeping with someone else?“, “I had a friend who tried that once and they were miserable and quit it after a few months,” “That’s just wrong,” “Why can’t you just be satisfied with one?”, “That just sounds so awful!”? Many times. Except, unlike me, they won’t even say, “But I believe you when you say that it’s what works for you.” They usually deny, if implicitly, that my own feelings are valid at all.

And usually, nobody calls those people “judgmental” or “self-righteous,” and nobody accuses them of trying to “evangelize monogamy,” and nobody writes screeds about how “annoying” they are, the way they do about polyamorous people. Monogamy is invisible; polyamory is marked. That’s why anything that polyamorous people say about polyamory is given extra scrutiny in a way that the things monogamous people say about monogamy are not. Moreover, many of the things monogamous people say about monogamy aren’t even interpreted as Defenses Of Monogamy. They’re just “obvious.” They’re just “how things are.” Monogamy needs no defense.

I suppose my inability to grok monogamy is a failure of imagination or open-mindedness, but in any case, there’s not much I can do to change it now. Monogamy is ever-present in every book I read and every movie and TV show I watch, almost every conversation about dating and relationships that I hear outside of my own social circle, every magazine cover promising to help me find The One. If I don’t get it now, I probably never will. The least I can do is to not be an asshole to monogamous people (which means, as I said I do, believing them when they say monogamy is what they prefer), but also to continue showing people that polyamory isn’t really that weird, and it doesn’t feel awful at all, and here’s how to do it responsibly if you’re interested.


*Grok means to understand something intuitively, or through empathy. I use that word in this post to distinguish my failure to “get” monogamy from an actual belief that monogamy is wrong or ineffective or whatever. It’s not. I don’t think it is. I just can’t actually put myself in the shoes/brain of someone who prefers monogamy.  Another possibly-helpful way to say this is that I believe that monogamy can be preferable, but I don’t alieve that monogamy can be preferable.

Minding the Gaps

#depression

After finishing grad school in May, I had nothing to do until I found a job, so I came home to Ohio to live with my family until something happened. At first, I was dreading the shit out of this and even had an enormous breakdown on my first night back home, because you know, what’s the point of living if you’re not in New York and all that.

But then I discovered that it wasn’t so bad. I read a lot. I biked and swam and laid out by the pool. I went to Columbus and sort of even had a social life there. Getting everywhere wasn’t such a fucking trek, and people actually had time to hang out with me. The days grew long and the corn grew tall, and I was having a nice enough time to start thinking about why I’d moved to New York in the first place.

(This isn’t some Ohio version of Sweet Home Alabama, especially since there’s no childhood sweetheart involved. Yuck. [But did you know that there are in fact queer women in Ohio? I didn’t.] I may in fact end up staying here, but it’ll be for job reasons, not life reasons.)

I made the decision to move to New York at a very particular time in my life. I was very depressed, I had no sense of belonging or community and few (if any) stable friendships, I was pretty convinced that I would never find a partner who wanted anything other than occasional casual sex, and I firmly believed that no matter which field I chose, work would be a miserable lifelong slog that I would hate. I had pretty much given up on fixing any of the above problems. It just seemed like a given.

Maybe on some level I thought that moving to a place like New York would allow me to finally find the friends I’d been longing for all my life–people like me certainly didn’t fit in in the Midwest. But more than that, I thought that moving to a place like New York would make my loneliness more or less irrelevant.

Where else would I be so utterly unremarkable as a queer progressive Jewish atheist? Where else could I blend into the crowds, even late at night? Where else would there always be things to do, even if I had to do them by myself? Where else could I walk for miles and still not reach the edge of the city? Where else is it socially acceptable to cry on the subway? Where else can I safely go wherever I want without the protection of some dude? Where else could I stay out all night if that’s what I wanted to do? Where else can you go when you have no friends and don’t belong to anything or anyone?

What I honestly couldn’t consider at the time was that one day I might have friends, and communities, and even partners. I thought I had to pick a place to live based solely on how happy I could be there entirely alone. Being alone in New York is better, in my opinion, than being alone anywhere else.

That is one of the clearest examples I’ve ever had of the way depression warps your thinking. Depression made me assume that I would never have these things that I wanted, so I would have to create my life while keeping in mind that there would be these obvious holes in it. Mind the gaps. Move to a city where nobody will notice that you have no stable attachments to human beings outside of your immediate family. Who needs community when there are museums and parks and bookstores?

(Of course, that doesn’t mean that moving to New York was the wrong choice, or that staying there would be the wrong choice now. I may have chosen it for some pretty fucked-up reasons like I will never ever have actual people in my life who give a fuck about me, but the fact remains that New York is an amazing place, especially for a queer atheist. I love it more than any other place I have ever been.)

By the time I actually moved to New York, my actual life circumstances had been much better for about a year. I had friends and partners and communities, and there was no reason to assume I would lose all of them anytime soon. But I’ve stayed stuck in that way of thinking. When I initially contemplated moving to Columbus (since finding work there is much easier) my whole brain recoiled at the thought. It made me nauseous. I imagined driving to work and working and driving home and maybe stopping by Kroger for some groceries and then sitting in my apartment (admittedly much nicer than any I could afford in New York), alone, all night, with nowhere to go because there is nothing to do.

Of course, that’s not how anyone I know actually spends their time in Columbus. They go to meetup groups (or run meetup groups), play in bands and orchestras, go to bar trivia, watch sports, play tabletop games, ride bikes, take classes. Yeah, you probably won’t have that great a time if you try to walk 14 miles through Columbus in one day, like I’ve done several times in New York (alone, of course). There is no Central Park. There are much fewer museums and I’ll see them all pretty quickly. There aren’t a dozen or more indie bookstores, and certainly no Strand. There’s no Starbucks on every corner where you can go read or write alone. It’s not beautiful.

To live in Columbus, I would have to do something very scary, which is actually allow myself to rely on other human beings for connection and fun and a sense of belonging.

Three years ago, depression would’ve said that that’s completely impossible for someone as awful and despised as me.

Now I know better.

Escape Routes

#sexualassault #suicide

Sitting in a cab, I wonder how hard it would be to jump out if I needed to, if I noticed that the cab isn’t going the right way. (And do I know the city well enough to tell?) Traffic rarely moves fast here and there are a lot of stoplights, but I’d have to get out of the street fast so he wouldn’t run me over.

I like parties, but even then, I always think about leaving them. I think about when I will leave, who I will say goodbye to, how I will manage their reaction if they feel I am leaving too soon, and what I’ll do when finally, finally I’m alone again.

Whenever I’m in a relationship serious enough that ending it would necessitate a “breakup” rather than a fade-out, I imagine how and why I would initiate a breakup. What would they have to do for me to fall out of love with them, or to leave them despite still being in love? How would I say it? Who, or what, would fill the gaps they would leave in the landscape of my day-to-day life?

I plan my escape from cities, just like my parents did before me. I planned my escape from my American “hometown,” and then from the city in which I went to college, and now from the city I love most. Not because I want to leave, not this time, but because I’m afraid I’ll be forced to.

There was a period of time when I was constantly trying to figure out how to escape from life itself. Things I considered, if not seriously: tall buildings trains pills car crashes illnesses. Although I thought about it a lot, I didn’t actually intend or plan to do it. What I needed was the comfort of knowing that I had a way out.

It is ironic that despite finding change so difficult to cope with, I can sometimes only comfort myself by thinking about leaving or escaping or disappearing. Otherwise it feels like people and places are growing on me like vines, crawling on me like insects, and I need to keep shaking them off.

But in another way, escape is often a matter of survival. In that cab, in that relationship.

Being read female means always having to plan for escape.

But besides, no matter how much I enjoy something, I’m always devoting some little space in the back of my head to plotting escape routes out of it. Whether it’s a car or a room or an event or a relationship, I need to know I am free to leave.

Liar, Liar

#depression #mentalillness #gaslighting

When I was a child I was a terrible liar.

I didn’t try it often, but when I did, my parents told me so. For a while, this discouraged me from lying.

But as I got older, lying became less of a trivial indulgence and more of a survival skill. I lied so people wouldn’t know how mentally broken I’d become. I liked to maintain family relationships. I lied to my first serious boyfriend when I was 17, told him I wasn’t an atheist so he wouldn’t leave me.

I don’t like to lie, but sometimes I feel like people leave me with no choice.

I lied to men so they’d leave me the fuck alone. I lied to professors about late papers, said I was sick because they’d never guess the sickness was actually depression.

I lied to friends. Yes, I’m okay. No, I don’t want to talk about it.

I lied to interviewers and employers. No, never about my credentials or skills. But about my feelings and identities, yes.

I lied to lovers, said I didn’t like them “that way” at all, figuring they’d exploit my feelings if they knew about them.

People–primarily men–insist that I should endeavor to always tell the truth because something-something Immanuel Kant. They say that if someone can’t Handle The Truth then I should Just Ignore Them and Move On. Even if it’s my boss. Even if it’s my mom.

When you have a mental illness, lying is often necessary because your thoughts and feelings just aren’t acceptable. Because you get tired of having to explain them to people, only to have them say, “That isn’t really justified though” or “That’s not exactly fair.” I never fucking said it was.

The most frequent lie I make is turning a negative thing into a positive. “Well, the internship wasn’t exactly what I expected, but I learned a lot and gained lots of useful experience for the future.” “Yeah, the party was lots of fun.” These embellishments and selective answers come tumbling out of my mouth so easily now that I’m not always sure that they’re inaccurate anymore.

But I say them because I was never given the space to say anything else.

“Honestly, I really hate my internship.” “Oh, but there must be good things about it too, right?”

“I miss college a lot.” “But it must be so much better to finally be done with it, right?”

People turn my truths into lies. “Come on, it’s not that big of a deal.” “You’re not really bisexual.” “You don’t really think that.”

(How dare you tell me what I do and do not think.)

If you are a white man, I can almost guarantee that you don’t know what it’s like to have everything you try to say about your own experience considered suspect by default, always in need of proof or correction or clear argumentation presented in a bulleted list. It is tiresome, and above all it is boring.

Maybe telling the truth is intrinsically “better” than lying by some measure. Maybe you think I owe it to you. Maybe I “ought” to be strong enough to either argue my opponent into silence or Just Forget About Them And Leave.

Or how about this, instead: I don’t see any reason I should have a moral obligation to tell the truth if other people don’t seem to have any moral obligation to respect it–and to respect me.

I Don’t Want To Talk About It

#depression #mentalillness

I feel like an ungrateful jerk when I say this, but I dread the moment when a friend says, “Do you want to talk about it?”

I dread it because I have to lie and say no. I do want to talk about it, at least sometimes. But I can’t.

It used to be that I measured the strength of a friendship or relationship purely by how willing the person was to listen to my bullshit and how well they responded when I vented it. I truly believed in the idea that True Friends will be able to listen to me at my most raw and vulnerable, because that’s how True Friendship is often described when it comes down to it. You can Be Yourself around a True Friend. Well, Myself was often very, very sad.

“If you can’t handle me at my worst then you don’t deserve me at my best,” and all that.

And then I lost a ton of friends and partners who couldn’t handle me at my worst.

They were good people, maybe not as good at communication and boundary-setting as they could’ve been, but then who is at that age? This wasn’t a case of shitty shallow people just not being willing to deal with any negativity; this was a case of normal people not being able to deal with someone’s mental illness.

Eventually something in me snapped, and my entire outlook on it changed. I no longer judge the strength of a friendship by how much the person can listen to me vent and cry. I almost never do anything I’d describe as “venting.” I do not consider it important to have someone I can “vent” to. I do not consider it important for friends and partners to see that side of me.

Am I bitter? Yes, a little bit. Many people who suffer from mental illness tell me that they don’t know where they’d be without their loving friends and partners who listen supportively to all of their completely unfiltered crap. It seems that my crap is of such an especially strong variety that nobody is able to handle it for long.

As if to test my resolve, plenty of people in my life try to convince me that they really can listen. “Yes,” they all say, “I know other people have let you down, but trust me, I want to be there for you.”

For a few years I fell for a few of these lines. Inevitably, “listening” and “being there” went along with “being determined to fix,” and you can’t fix a mental illness. So they’d try to fix me and they’d fail and they’d get frustrated and sooner or later I was such a source of negative feelings and it wasn’t worth it anymore.

It became a boy-cried-wolf situation. Every once in a while someone still tells me that, really, they’re a very good listener and they won’t get frustrated and they won’t expect to fix me and I really can talk to them.

I don’t fall for it anymore.

What is it about me? What is it that makes people so desperate to fix me that they lose the ability to set appropriate emotional boundaries and take a step back when they need to? What is it about my particular problems that make people think that they must fix them immediately or else it’s the end of the world?

I mean, certainly depression makes me feel that way, but as I said, plenty of people with depression nevertheless manage to vent to their friends without destroying everything.

There is a lovely Captain Awkward post that my friends and I often pass around at relevant times, called “The Sandwich Means I Love You.” It’s about a person with depression who worries that they are becoming too much of a burden on their friends, who are always helping them and generally being really great and supportive.

I love your friends. They are wicked practical about emotional matters, and when they say “Keep the pills at my house,” or “I will make you a grilled cheese now” they are really saying “I love you.

I’m sorry your Jerkbrain is translating that differently for you. I think it is hearing “I love you…for now…as long as you don’t actually like start to depend on that love and count on it too much and maybe become a burden? Enjoy this grilled cheese of temporary toleration and eventual judgement and abandonment.

But your friends? They’re just saying “I love you.” Really.

This post consistently makes me cry happily, but the truth is that I don’t really believe in it. I mean, I believe that the people who post it on my Facebook wall are being as honest as they can be, but I also believe that when they support me it’s more of the “temporary toleration and eventual judgement and abandonment” thing. Because that’s how it has historically been.

And it makes me sad when I share this and people accuse those ex-friends/-partners of being horrible or selfish or ableist or any number of other bad things. The truth is that dealing with depression is fucking horrible, and if a person with depression is telling you all of their thoughts and feelings, that’s not very far off from the experience of actually having it. The hopelessness. The going around in circles. The fact that nothing seems to ever help at all.

You are not a bad person if you can’t deal with this.

But this is why I feel like I can never fully open up to anyone again. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s adulthood.

Except, I guess, for all the other adults who seem to manage it just fine.

No True Lover

I was trying to explain polyamory to my mother a few nights ago (not for the first time) and we kept getting stuck on the same things.

She kept saying, “But wouldn’t he feel disgusted knowing that his girlfriend had just slept with someone else and now she’s sleeping with him?”

I said, well, anyone who feels that disgusted about it probably won’t be trying polyamory anytime soon. The people I know who practice it do not find that disgusting.

“But they should.”

Why?

“Because it’s just disgusting.”

To you. But not to them.

“Then there’s something wrong with them.”

Why is there something wrong with them?

“Because if there wasn’t, they would think it’s disgusting.”

And on and on it went.

This is something I notice otherwise rational people a lot, this circuitous post-facto justification of opinions that are actually based on one’s personal feelings about something. A lot of people think polyamory is Wrong because they personally find the thought of it unpleasant. I used to, too.

When I presented her with a few stories of people who had been happily living in polyamorous relationships/marriages for years, seemingly without feeling disgusted every time one of their partners came back from spending time with a metamour, she changed her argument.

“They don’t truly love anyone, then.”

Why not?

“Because if they loved someone, they wouldn’t even think of sleeping with someone else.”

What about people who cheat?

“Well, their partners aren’t okay with that.”

So if they are okay with it, then they’re not in love?

“Right.”

I asked her what it would mean if someone who feels themselves to be in love with their partner nevertheless wants to sleep with other people, too, and is completely okay with their partner doing the same. Not just a grudging acceptance, but an eager agreement, even a joyful encouragement.

“Then they must not really love them. Then you have never truly loved anyone.”

But what if I feel that I love them?

“Then you’re feeling something else and you’re calling it love.”

People who oppose polyamory with these sorts of justifications–not that it’s morally wrong in any sense (my mother is not religious), but that it’s a sign of something wrong with you–define their own feelings and their own sense of what is mentally normal in opposition to the behavior of others. A “normal” person feels disgusted at the thought of their partner having sex with someone else. Therefore, a person who does not feel disgusted at this thought is abnormal. A person who is in love does not want to have sex with anyone else. Therefore, a person who wants to have sex with someone besides their partner is not in love with that partner.

What I perceive love to be doesn’t matter.

In fact, I am quite certain that I have loved several people, and even though some of those relationships were monogamous (some never even reached the relationship stage at all), I don’t think I was ever able or willing to commit to a lifetime without so much as a kiss with someone else.

Some (including, most likely, my mother) would say that that’s mainly a consequence of my age, even though plenty of people have gotten married at my age or younger, and that at my age it is impossible to “truly” love someone.

(Again, defining things as is most convenient for you.)

I love, and I have loved. Maybe by my mother’s definition, it isn’t really love. Maybe I am incapable of feeling love like that. Maybe there is something horribly wrong with me. Maybe I am a broken person. Maybe my brain is wrong. Maybe I am missing out on a wondrous, unimaginable (to me) experience that humans have longed for throughout the millennia, written songs and novels and plays about, painted paintings of, suffered over, killed for, died for.

I have entertained all of these possibilities.

And to them, I say:

So what?

I like the way I feel when I love someone. What I call love, I experience in several varieties that all feel irreplaceably different. I don’t love all of my partners in the same ways. I don’t love all of my friends in the same ways. I don’t love all of the people I’m not sure whether to call “partner” or “friend” in the same ways.

I don’t really care if what I call love is what other people call love. If my partners love me back, I don’t care if their subjective experience of that love is the same as mine. Things like that used to concern me an awful lot–who loves the other “more,” who cares “more,” who loves the other “how,” all that other rubbish my depression filled my brain with–but nowadays I rarely think about it.

I hope that when my partners think about me they think about comfort, joy, lust, respect, admiration, gratitude, appreciation, beauty, fun. That’s what love basically is to me, with varying amounts of each of these depending on the person. With my boyfriend, the ones that jump out the most are comfort, lust, respect, and fun. With my best friend, it’s comfort, admiration, and gratitude. But they’re all there.

If this isn’t The Real Love Referenced In Famous Films And Novels, well, whatever. I’ll take what I’ve got, without the monogamy, the jealousy, the fights about what does and doesn’t count as cheating, the worries about trying to be everything the other has ever wanted sexually, the suspicion of ex-partners and relevantly gendered friends.

So I’ve never Really Loved anyone and never will. Fine by me.