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The Interdisciplinary Work of Lyss England

Posts tagged relationships

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“I texted my friend to say I wanted to talk with them about something and it made them really anxious and now they want an apology.”

It’s never fun to get those texts or to be the person who genuinely just wants to have a conversation and finds out someone was distressed by their message. We’ve all been there, probably on either side at some point or another. Whether in romantic relationships, friendships, or even professional relationships, our actions affect one another.

If you’re a person with anxiety, you can probably relate even more. Catastrophizing is a thing we do by definition, and “Hey dude, can we talk when you get off work?” can quickly turn into “Hey dude, I think you totally suck and I don’t want to be friends with you anymore ’cause you’re the worst”.

This  fear relies on the concept that things are being done to us, and that means that we have no control over our experience. By giving into this fear (which, yeah, is real and uncomfortable), we allow ourselves to give any power we do have over our reactions away. And then our fear is enforced. It’s also a way we tend to avoid accountability for our uncomfortable feelings. If we can blame someone else instead of taking ownership for ourselves, that’s a lot easier in the short term. This then allows us to justify our feelings, which are often unavoidable within ourselves, rather than just giving ourselves permission to feel them. I wrote about this before when I wrote about escaping and preventing toxic communities:

Escaping and preventing toxic communities comes down to changing our perspectives from “they did this to me and this feels awful” to “this happened and it feels awful because I’m perceiving it as something that was done TO me that I have no control over.”. The reality is that you do have control over what you do with your hurt. Sure, communicating to the person you felt hurt by may be helpful, but what will be really helpful is you changing your perception (and thus, your reality) of the hurtful thing. It’s not about ignoring the hurt or “choosing not to feel it”. I mean, that sounds nice, but we all know it’s not that simple. It’s about feeling it and acknowledging that it probably had nothing to do with you and everything to do with the other person/people. What is yours is your reaction. When we accept people for where they are at, it makes for far healthier and happier interpersonal relationships. And when we can’t reconcile where someone’s at with the reality we’re choosing to actively build for ourselves, we get to choose the context in which we relate to that person.

This works on a smaller level than just in the context of community-building. It also works in individual relationships. So here are three easy steps for what to do when someone makes you feel bad:

1. Readjust your paradigm.

Did someone make you feel some way? Or are you feeling someway about something what happened?

2. Take back your power.

Once you’ve shifted your paradigm to a place where you’re recognizing that you have control over your reaction rather than simply being a passive recipient of something someone else does to you, you’ll find you have a lot more choice over how you respond. No, this isn’t a magical anxiety cure- but it does help.  A lot. This is the time to make an in-the-moment decision about what’s going to happen for you. Sometimes, (okay, a lot of the time) that reaction is emotional and it’s totally okay to let yourself feel it. But don’t act on it immediately. Take a breath and give yourself a little time and gentleness to feel what you need to feel.

3. Make a decision about how you want to react.

Sometimes people do things that violate our boundaries, which is one of the most common reasons we end up getting in our feels. The good news is that we’re in control of our boundaries and we can shift them as we need to. Although emotions aren’t always negotiable, actions (and reactions) are. And it can feel really empowering to choose who you want in your life and the context that you choose to have them. Sometimes it’s worth the work to communicate about your boundaries and to negotiate your interactions with people, and sometimes it’s not. The cool thing is that it’s your choice.

I’ve mentioned that emotions aren’t always negotiable, especially for people living with anxiety disorders, but I also need to acknowledge that we live in a social world where so much is out of control. The way our disabled bodies operate in a late-capitalist system, the way race affects peoples’ experiences, the way our gender dictates literally how much we will be paid or how likely we are so be raped… We don’t have control over those things. And I want to be very clear that I am not talking about systemic violence in the rest of this post. It’s also well worth noting that people have the choice to use whatever privilege they may have to hold some space for oppressed people’s reactions for being oppressed. That shit is real.

What this post is about is about how we do our best to operate within this world and how we can tangibly go about standing in our power when we do have control over what happens. Because that’s real too. And all of these things can exist simultaneously.

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aka. “Acknowledging autonomy as a means of building healthier communities”

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(image shows myself and my best friend, Luna the shepherd dog, in an open field surrounded by trees, representing simultaneous autonomy and interconnection).

Can you think of a time in your life where you wanted to be part of a community of people who you grew close with, even loved? Where you put a lot of time and energy into creating that community with some sort of shared goal or intention? Me too.

I’ve been a part of theatre communities where we worked on shows together, activist communities where the shared goal is dismantling rape culture or working towards environmental sustainability, and casual communities where the goal is simply to be friends. Sometimes this more casual community building looks like a group who gets together to share meals or to work together in a garden. Sometimes, like many people in my generation, this means online group chats.

Can you think of a time where you felt let down by your community? Maybe you were going through something really tough and craved the support of the community you’ve worked hard to build. Maybe you felt ignored or under appreciated. I can relate. It’s really easy when we feel this way in our communities to chalk it up to “toxic communities” and honestly, that’s the script that is growing to dominate a lot of modern thought around social justice. But I think that this is an oversimplification at best, and, more honestly, actively detrimental to the overall goal of community care and individual wellness that social justice aims to work towards.

Community building as a concept is complicated and I see a lot of discussion around some of the key pieces these days. Things like self-care, balancing emotional labour, and accountability. While it’s exciting that these discussions are happening at all, and it’s to be expected that thinkers will stumble their ways through these complex and imperfect topics, I, a white, queer, disabled woman who lives with CPTSD, am increasingly finding that the shallow way we discuss this stuff is more harmful than helpful.

Basically, what I’m asserting here is that the problem isn’t that we are building toxic communities, it’s that we are empowering individuals to engage in behaviours that are toxic to themselves, and thus, toxic when it comes to building healthier communities. We mistake enabling self-harming behaviours for care in attempt to acknowledge that the violence perpetrated against marginalized people is real and unfair. However, by encouraging a victim mindset, we effectively marginalize people who have been affected by systemic violence even further.

I don’t believe that it is my job (or my business) to dictate how anyone else chooses to cope with or react to their experiences in the world. I believe that is up to each individual, and that building healthier communities relies on each individual to do their own work. It’s easier, when we have experienced trauma and/or violence to follow scripts where we validate one another’s pain (effectively playing in to the same power dynamics we claim to be working to dismantle) rather than addressing and taking ownership for our own experiences and subsequent (re)actions.

What it comes down to for me, as an individual, is this: do I want to commit to my trauma and live in it, or do I want to live my best life where I acknowledge my trauma without allowing it to control my life?

In the context of a society where there are unequal distributions of power, I would agree that it’s true that one cannot fully control what happens to them or every event of their lives, but what one can control is how they choose to respond to what happens. When it comes to community building, when we are all so committed to living in our own emotional shit, we tend to project that on to other people in our community.

For me, my dissatisfaction in communities I’ve experienced as toxic has a lot less to do with anyone else’s actions but my own dissatisfaction with myself. This results in me being so wrapped up in how worthless I feel (because trauma stuff) and feeling so bad about how I’m not feeling cared for by my community that I’m not being a good community member either. I’m not actually taking care of myself in a deep way either. I’m just wallowing in my own shit. Living there. Committing to it. It’s a lot easier to chalk my feelings up to other peoples’ actions rather than taking ownership for my own and doing something to actively work with whatever it is I’m going through. It keeps me trapped in my own shit.

Escaping and preventing toxic communities comes down to changing our perspectives from “they did this to me and this feels awful” to “this happened and it feels awful because I’m perceiving it as something that was done TO me that I have no control over.”. The reality is that you do have control over what you do with your hurt. Sure, communicating to the person you felt hurt by may be helpful, but what will be really helpful is you changing your perception (and thus, your reality) of the hurtful thing. It’s not about ignoring the hurt or “choosing not to feel it”. I mean, that sounds nice, but we all know it’s not that simple. It’s about feeling it and acknowledging that it probably had nothing to do with you and everything to do with the other person/people. What is yours is your reaction. When we accept people for where they are at, it makes for far healthier and happier interpersonal relationships. And when we can’t reconcile where someone’s at with the reality we’re choosing to actively build for ourselves, we get to choose the context in which you relate to that person.

This isn’t to say that we should stick around people who contribute to us feeling bad or who we don’t ultimately feel are conducive to our journey in wellness. It’s also not about anyone being “at fault”. It’s never so simple as a simple perpetrator/victim dynamic. We are all hurt beings in some way, we are all trying to stumble our way to happiness and fulfillment. But what I think we, as social justice oriented thinkers and carers, would benefit from is actually acknowledging the role of autonomy in community building.

(Big thanks to Sabrina Scott and Susan Kesper for taking the time to provide feedback on this piece and supporting me in making it better!)

 

 

 

 

 

It was the hoodie that
Got me
The one with that band logo
The one that I lost long ago
On the greyhound bus to Toronto
On the way to see you.

It started
With my face in your face
Back before we made a life together
Made memories
Made plans.

And all this time later,
You still make me feel
Like blunts and tequila
And broken railings
And peach iced tea
And backstage wings
And home.

By Lyss England

A few nights ago, there was a fatal shooting at my local hospital. A couple in their 70s who had been spending the summer, as usual, in Northumberland County were patients in the hospital for undisclosed reasons when the husband, Tom Ryan, shot his wife, Helen Ryan, before being shot and killed by police. Immediately, there were vague reports released on social media by local media, and immediately, people began speculating.

The overwhelming response I observed was that it was a mercy killing where Helen must have been terminally ill and her husband, graciously, had agreed to end her suffering. Within the next day, the story was uncovered that Tom had been a “violent, horrible man” who Helen’s cousin, Connie Woodcock, had expected would potentially kill her eventually.

“I did expect him to kill her sometime. We are all shocked it happened, but not terribly surprised,” Connie told Northumberland Today’s Pete Fisher.

I’d like to believe that the reason so many people immediately assumed this to be a mercy killing is due to people wanting to believe the best about one another. However, I think that this reaction is also, at least partially, due to our culture’s tendency towards sticking our heads into the sand when it comes to intimate partner violence and unhealthy dynamics in relationships. Maybe it even has something to do with the dynamics associated with ageism, where few people realize that domestic violence is an issue for seniors who have been married for a long time.

Even with the #MeToo campaign going viral, and the more local expression of solidarity with survivors of gender-based violence, Take Back the Night Port Hope in the very recent past, there were only a few women I knew who were whispering amongst each other, do you think this may have been intimate partner violence?

The standard gendered expectations are often our default: he was protecting her. As it turns out, Tom Ryan had been controlling for a long time in ways that many intimate partner violence survivors can relate to. Helen’s cousin Connie told Pete Fisher,

“He had threatened Helen many times. She had no money of her own,” she said. “I thought at times that she was right over the edge too, except when I spent time with her she started to be more normal and like the person I knew as a kid. He completely had her under his thumb.”

This kind of behaviour is common in many relationships. Sometimes it is obvious to friends and family members, but often, it’s far more subtle. In fact, there are similar toxic relationship habits that are relatable for far too many people. Some of these habits may include:

  • Feeling as though your partner is your “everything”
  • Constant communication (phoning your partner multiple times throughout the day, getting angry when they don’t respond instantly to texts)
  • Expecting your partner to solve your problems
  • Expecting your partner to change for you
  • Spending little to no time with your friends, only spending time with your partner
  • “Keeping score”
  • Being dishonest to “keep the peace”/Being afraid that if you don’t be dishonest to “keep the peace”, that your partner may be so upset that they may harm you or themself
  • Threatening suicide or self-harm if your partner does something you don’t want them to/tries to leave
  • You guilt your partner into doing what you want them to do/not doing what they want to do

Sometimes, it can be really dangerous for women to leave abusive or unhealthy relationships. Sometimes, it can also be really dangerous for men to leave abusive or unhealthy relationships too, but the reality of the situation is that women are disproportionately affected by intimate partner violence. And even more disproportionately affected by intimate partner violence is women of colour, indigenous women, immigrant women, queer women, women with disabilities, transgender women, and women living in poverty.

Regardless of identity, one way to work towards less intimate partner violence is to talk about healthy relationships. Some qualities of healthy relationships include:

  • Regular check-ins/Setting aside time to communicate (being honest about what’s going on for you and asking how things are going regarding the relationship for your partner goes a REALLY long way)
  • Respecting each other’s privacy
  • Knowing and being able to list positive qualities of your partner’s close friends
  • Thinking your partner has good ideas
  • You trust your partner
  • You appreciate and value your partners growth
  • You support your partner in their goals and accomplishments that they’re proud of
  • You can name things your partner enjoys
  • Even when you argue, you are able to acknowledge that your partner’s feelings are valid and that they have some good points that you may just disagree with
  • You compliment your partner
  • You enjoy spending time with your partner
  • You say positive things about your partner to other people
  • You and your partner each have your own friends, hobbies, and interests, as well as shared friends, hobbies, and interests

It’s important to talk about these things. It’s also important to talk about the role toxic masculinity played in this murder, as well as in intimate partner violence in general. While women are expected in our culture to be polite, caring, and submissive (an expectation that is changing, but still systemically ingrained in Canadian society), men are expected to be the opposite. Strong, emotionless but for anger, controlling, in charge. Basically, constructs of masculinity encourage a kind of spiritual death that isolates and dehumanizes men, and feeds violent behaviour, especially in relation to women, who are constructed as opposite these highly-prized masculine traits.

While constructs of femininity have been and are continuously going through a radical reconstruction, constructs of masculinity, by their nature, have not evolved in the same way. Further, the radical reconstruction of feminine gender appears, in 2017 Small Town Ontario, to be causing a reaction in the form of hypermasculinity. It makes sense- an action results in an equal or greater reaction.

So let this be a call of anyone who bothers reading this to work harder on doing that work that healthy relationships require and to magnify is voices of survivors of intimate partner and gender-based violence.

And let this be a call to the men reading this to do that work required to redefine masculinity- because the current construct isn’t working for anyone, when you really think about it.

Resources (to be added to):

Healthy Relationships- LoveisRespect.org

50 Characteristic of Healthy Relationships- Psychology Today

Healthy Relationships vs. Unhealthy Relationships- Kids Help Phone

10 Habits of Couples in Strong and Healthy Relationships- Bustle

Worried Your Partner is Emotionally Abusive?- Everyday Feminism

10 Toxic Relationship Habits- Everyday Feminism

How to Recognize and Respond to Intimate Partner Violence- Everyday Feminism

 

 

I’m considering applying for a fellowship with a magazine I’ve been reading since I was fifteen, trying to figure out which category to apply under. I generally write about feelings and relationships and mental health and other emo stuff like that. The closest category I can apply under is “Pop-culture Criticism”. I say to the group of people sitting in my living room, “I need a topic to write about. Think ‘Pop-culture Criticism’”.  
“Why don’t you write about us?” she says.
I say she, because I don’t know what to refer to her as. We’ve jokingly referred to each other as our “girlfriend”, but is she my girlfriend? I’ve had sex with her twice, we talk every day and hang out almost every day. She comes over and makes me dinner while I’m at a fundraising committee meeting, and then sits close to me. She told her mom about “us”. She refers to “us”.
“That’s actually a really good idea,” my partner says, after a three second moment of silence.
My partner and I have been together for almost eight years- literally my entire adult life. We have a punk rock love story for the ages, and there’s not a doubt in my mind that this dude is the love of my life. We’ve grown together, and we want the same things for our future. I don’t feel held back, instead, I feel safe and grounded in our relationship. 
I think about it: I could write something about romantic/platonic/intimate relationships that differ from typical monogamous (and polyamorous, for that matter) relationships. I could write something about consent and communication in relationships in the context of this…thing we have going on. I could write about navigating jealousy. I could write about the body feels or gender feels this has brought up for me. I could write about feeling like I’m living the bisexual dream- and about feeling conflicted about the fact that I even feel that way. I could write about exploring my sexuality for the first time in my adult life. I could write about how vulnerable I’m making myself by writing about this whole Thing.
And then I realized that I don’t even know what to refer to her as. Maybe I better stick to writing about the whole process and touching on each of those things for now. This whole Thing is still so fresh, and, worst case, what if I screw it all up because of something I write and it puts an end to it all!?

Two years ago, I met a girl through community theatre who I thought was a total babe. We became close friends and periodically flirted, even sexted. I shared the sexts with my partner, and we flirted in front of him. He was into it. I also made sure that she realized that I was sharing our flirtation with my partner. She was into that. I tried to hint that I’d like to sleep with her, but when she found out that the deal my partner and I had established was that I could have sex with other women when he was involved, she never acted on anything.

Then, one night, she and I went for a walk to catch Pokemon (don’t judge us), and we found ourselves down by the beach. We walked along the beach, and just as we were about to head back into town, she said, “I want to talk to you about something. I’ve been having feelings for you…” and then she kissed me. Right there, under the stars, on the beach. I followed that with something like, “hold on, I need a smoke”.

I lit a cigarette, and she told me that she had discussed her feelings with my partner, who had told her that he thought I would likely be receptive to her initiating something between us. He was right. He also told her that she and I could discuss what capacity we were comfortable with having him involved in. We discussed some specific boundaries and what we were both looking for, as we walked back towards my apartment. I texted my partner: “hey, are you down to have sex with _____ with me?”. He texted back: “hell yeah”. We got back to my place, and the three of us discussed our specific boundaries and committed to open communication, regardless of what happened from there. Then, I said, “sooo are we gonna go to the bedroom or not?”, and we all got up and practically ran to the bedroom.

It felt like being 14 in that I was nervous but SO excited. I’ll spare you the details, but it was awesome. After, we checked in,  smoked a couple joints, and she went home. Since then, we’ve spent almost every day together, and had sex a second time. It was even better the second time, and it’s looking like this is going to be an ongoing thing. She and my partner are friends, but, believe it not, they’re both really into ME. How freakin’ neat is that!?

The things that have come up because of this Thing are interesting, and even a little bit surprising for me. First of all, I never thought I would feel comfortable having a third person share the intimacy that my partner and I share. I guess I’m lightening up… learning to enjoy myself for the sake of enjoying myself. Feel good for the sake of feeling good. She makes me feel good, and so does my partner.

It feels really good to take things slow and redefine a friend relationship into something that doesn’t even really have a name. It feels really good to share this experience with my partner, and bring a whole new level of communication, trust, and intimacy to our relationship. It feels really good to explore my gender and my sexuality. It feels really good to feel queer (not that I haven’t always been queer, but it feels different to be in an intimate relationship with another woman after being exclusively with a cis man for so long). It feels really good to confront body image issues I have. It feels really good to confront the way that my gender is tied in with those body image issues, and that those body image issues are just the tip of the gender-shit iceberg. It feels really good to heal alongside another woman- one who I think is beautiful, and caring, and fun. It feels really good to let my partner witness and engage with this entire process. This Thing feels really good in general.

I can’t wait to continue exploring this process, and to find the language to describe this Thing. I’m also looking forward to navigating the bridges we will, inevitably have to cross, such as: to what extent are each of us/will each of us become emotionally involved? How sustainable is this Thing? What happens when she meets someone and wants to be in a relationship with them? How will this change our friendship in the long run? How will this change the way each of us are in relationships moving forward?

I think that, as long as we all remain committed to communicating honestly and openly, the possibilities are endless. And, if nothing else, this is a Thing that feels good.

This is a survivor’s love letter to my (current) sex life and how i got there and it contains discussion around consent, sexual assault, death of a parent, compulsive sexuality, self-objectification, sex work, and my healing process around sex. 
When I was growing up, my mom was, like, the pioneer of sex positivity. She was always straight up with me about sex. She told me that she had always enjoyed it, and that, one day, I probably would too. She was right. Two weeks before my sixteenth birthday, I had slow, clumsy, missionary sex with my boyfriend and I thought it was the most incredible thing in the entire world. It satisfied all of the things I craved: passion/intensity/being in the moment/being the centre of attention.

I kept waiting for mom to be well enough so that I could tell her about it and have her actually comprehend. She died 4 days before I turned sixteen: January 1, 2007. I spent the next couple of years feeling pretty fucked up and using sex as a distraction. If you were in a band, I was going to fuck you. It was compulsive. It wasn’t a healthy coping mechanism.

I had this friend who was very emotionally manipulative. He was also a pretty good distraction. I was making out with him one day and he took off my clothes. We were naked, and he was on top of me. I said, “wait, I’m not ready for this” and he didn’t stop. I didn’t say “no”. I remember thinking: holy shit, he’s inside of me and I don’t want him inside of me. Time froze. I was watching myself from outside of my body. I couldn’t move. All I could think of was: I need this to be over now. I finished him off. It was over. I smoked a cigarette. Frozen. 

It wasn’t the first time I wished that I (and the boys I was surrounded by) had a better understanding of consent. There was the time when I was fourteen and the cutest boy whose brother was on my brother’s hockey team told me he wanted to tell me something to took me outside and pushed me up against the wall and stuck his tongue in my mouth. He thought it was passionate and romantic. I felt violated because I had thought that he had actually wanted to talk to me. There was the time I was fifteen and my boyfriend told me that all of his friends girlfriends suck their boyfriends dicks and that I should do that too because its just what peoples’ girlfriends did. And I wanted him to like me, so I did. There was the time that I was three and my grandfather took me to the fire station where he worked and one of the men there…well, you get the point.

I told you this part because I want you to understand how I got to where I am, and why it is something that feels so significant to me. 

When I met my partner, I was legitimately shocked when he waited until I said, “you know, you can kiss me if you want to” to make a move. It felt like… I didn’t know what sex was until I fucked him. I felt safe, and in that safety, I felt capable of genuinely exploring my sexuality. Lucky for me, he was very excited at that prospect. When he made a bunch of money off a movie he was in, he took me to a feminist sex shop and spoiled me with toys I didn’t even know how to use. We did shit that made his “pervy” promiscuous bandmates squirm when they heard about it. And I felt safe.

Almost eight years later, our sex life is still going strong.

One thing I should probably tell you, if we’re gonna talk about me and sex, is that nothing gets me off more than objectifying myself. This is different than being objectified, because it’s something that I consent to. I want to the be the desired object in the context of my lover and anyone else who I choose to let observe. On my terms.

For a while, I moderated a blog of nudes selfie-style photos. I always took them myself, I chose what was posted, and I moderated the response from behind my computer. I was able to be intentional in the way I chose to display my body as a sexual object. It turns me on to feel desired, but it turned me on even more knowing that I was the one who had the power to display it the way I wanted to. And I felt safe.

In the last couple of years, I’ve also delved into camming. Again, I liked being able to objectify myself on my own terms. However, the men (yes, specifically the men) who choose to interact with people in that context have a tendency to be pushy about what they want to see, and seem to feel as though they’re entitled to act this way because they’re paying to watch. I don’t like that part, so my involvement with camming is limited for that reason.

Most recently, my partner and I have expanded our sex life to include a beautiful woman who I both love to play with, and love to spend time with. Our relationship is very different than me and my partner’s relationship, but it’s significant to me. And significant to my sex life. With her, it’s a whole different kind of pleasure. And I feel safe.

I feel blessed to have multiple relationships in my life now where I have power over how I experience my sexuality in a way that allows me to fulfill my deepest desires. I am grateful to work through these kinds of relationships with people who are committed to being honest and open and communicating every step of the way.

But the reality of the situation is that too many people, especially young people, do not communicate consent verbally. Too often consent is implicit. Just because I got naked with that boy when I was seventeen, doesn’t mean I wanted to have sex with him, but he thought that’s what it meant. And I should acknowledge that there are complex gendered components to all of his that I could talk about for days, but that’s a whole other essay.

I’ve found, in all of my various sexploits, that, aside from being straight-up fucking mandatory, communicating wants and needs and desires and boundaries is incredibly sexy. What better way to get what you want out of your sex life than telling someone exactly what you want them to do to you or what you want to do them and receiving explicit confirmation that that’s pleasurable and satisfying for them too?

I’m grateful for the perspective I have, the way I’ve experienced different power dynamics in relation to my sex life- even the ones that have fucked me up. Because it got me here, to this incredible place where I feel so good in relation to my sex life. And feeling good in the moment is enough on it’s own.