Monthly Archives: February 2012

I’m sorry

So. In discussion with the Rake, we hit on something I thought was really really interesting (and yes, conversation ended with ‘you know I’m going to blog about this, right?’).

What do you mean when you say ‘I’m sorry’? ‘I recognise that I’ve done something wrong’, ‘I’m sad that I hurt you’, ‘that won’t happen again’? It’s a tiny phrase, but I suspect everyone hangs different unspoken additional meanings on it.

We’d had one of those niggling miscommunications, and because I felt that I’d made a mistake, I said ‘I’m sorry’. He got frustrated, and asked me not to say sorry. This confused me – so we talked about what I meant by it, and what he heard.

What I meant by it was ‘I think I did something wrong, even though it was minor, so I want to show you that I recognise that, and that I am sad if it hurt your feelings at all.’ But the other thing I mean by ‘I’m sorry’ – and I only really managed to put words to this when we started talking about it – is that I use it as a bridge; if I’ve had a disagreement with someone, and I feel like we both were at ‘fault’ (if any applies), but that I feel like it’s over and done, I use ‘I’m sorry’ as a way of also saying ‘I want us to be friends again, can we call this finished and reconnect?’

What had never occurred to me is the way that can actually come across as controlling. Instead of ‘can we be friends?’ it can also serve a conversational purpose of shutting down discussion – ‘I feel like we’ve talked about this enough, so I am unilaterally deciding to finish this discussion. I have shifted my role and am now being contrite and in the wrong, so now that I’ve said sorry you can’t keep criticising me.’ By reaching out and apologising, I can inadvertently actually be saying ‘I’m not listening to you any more, stop talking.’

I honestly think this is absolutely fascinating – and I’m also genuinely surprised that in all this time we’ve never spotted the way he and I mean completely different things by ‘I’m sorry’. Neither of us are wrong or right – I will continue to apologise if I think I’m in the wrong, because anything else is just weird, but I intend to try and time it much, much better.

What do you mean when you say ‘I’m sorry’?

—EDIT—

A wise friend pointed out that in this way, ‘I’m sorry’ is also a bit like ‘I love you’; both phrases serve as placeholders for a lot of other meanings, and not always the same ones on either side of the conversational crevasse.

This – plus a lot of other conversations in my life – are leading me unavoidably towards writing a proper philosophy post about Wittgenstein’s arguments on private language. Poor unloved Rousseau, I keep ditching him for other topics…

Epipsychidion (excerpts), by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Thy wisdom speaks in me, and bids me dare
Beacon the rocks on which high hearts are wreckt.
I never was attached to that great sect,
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, though it is in the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread,
Who travel to their home among the dead
By the broad highway of the world, and so
With one chained friend, — perhaps a jealous foe,
The dreariest and the longest journey go.

True Love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away.
Love is like understanding, that grows bright,
Gazing on many truths; ’tis like thy light,
Imagination! which from earth and sky,
And from the depths of human phantasy,
As from a thousand prisms and mirrors, fills
The Universe with glorious beams, and kills
Error, the worm, with many a sun-like arrow
Of its reverberated lightning.

Neologisms

Following my post about ancient Greek words for love, I came across this article from Sexualities journal (PDF download):

‘There Aren’t Words For What We Do Or Feel So We Have To Make Them Up’: Constructing Polyamorous Languages In A Culture Of Compulsory Monogamy

Personally I think words have extraordinary power to not only convey our thoughts but also to shape them, so the coining of neologisms within polyamory makes perfect sense to me. In a way, I’m almost surprised we haven’t come up with new words for different kinds of love!

Poly Means Many: Explaining it to monogamous people

Perhaps I’ve been lucky so far, but I haven’t found explaining polyamory to monogamous people (or rather, perhaps, people in monogamous relationships) to be much of a challenge at all. I’ve written a couple of posts abut coming out as polyamorous, and the two topics seem to me to be inescapably linked – the moment you ‘come out’ about this is often also the moment you explain what on earth it is you’re coming out as. Plus, given the way that everyone’s relationships are different, all I can do is explain my own version of polyamory, and how it works for me and my loved ones.

I have the advantage of being in a very visible committed, serious and stable relationship with The Rake, so anyone I tell about poly already knows I have one committed partnership. I say advantage, as perhaps that very stability is what makes it clear to people that this works and isn’t about either of us secretly wanting out (one of the more problematic assumptions – ‘open relationships are relationships on the rocks’).

The way the conversation goes is usually this: it comes up somehow, and is an appropriate moment to mention that actually, The Rake and I have been in a non-monogamous relationship for years. I have a wonderful boyfriend too (who has requested to go by the name of Fafhrd on here… Yeah, I’d like to make it clear this was his choice), and everyone knows about each other and is happy. I tend not to go into more detail about any other connections at this point; that can wait. The smile on my face talking about these two wonderful men seems to make it pretty clear that this is happy and fulfilling for me.

But the point I always go on to make in this conversation, because it’s just as important for me, is that I get similar levels of joy and fulfilment from The Rake’s relationships elsewhere. The love I feel for him is only multiplied and deepened by seeing the connection he has with his girlfriend, for example; being able to see how happy that relationship makes him, what he can be for her, and delighting in the fact that I can give him the space to explore that (sometimes literally… We have a small flat, logistics can be tricky!). It makes me so happy to be able to add to my loved ones’ general stock of joy – whether that takes the form of my relationship with them, or being able to delight in their relationships elsewhere.

I don’t usually talk about anything other than the positive side of polyamory when explaining it. Partly as I don’t want to reinforce any misconceptions about all the potential bad things that could happen. But also partly because that glowing positivity is genuinely my experience; it’s been a long time since any notable problems came up for us, life is pretty uncomplicated, and my day to day happiness level is pretty gleeful.

Related to explaining poly and coming out, one of the things that means a hell of a lot to me is that some of The Rake’s and my oldest friends have started, in the same breath as ‘how’s work? How’s London?’, to ask ‘how’s Fafhrd?’. Whether intended or not, it comes across as a recognition and acceptance from them of our relationship choices, and that this is an important person in our lives. Makes me happy.

I’ve never yet had cause to use any of the standard ‘poly person explanations’ – like no-one doubts that a parent can love two children, etc. And I’ve certainly never yet faced outright criticism or hostility for my choices. Everyone I’ve told – friends, some family, even colleagues – has absolutely taken me at face value, and accepted that (though it might not work for them) it very obviously works for us – people who are absolutely happy in their own monogamous relationships have said things like ‘it makes perfect sense the way you explain it’. Often they’ve gone on to ask very interesting and well-thought-out questions, too. No doubt there are all sorts of unforeseen complications yet to come, especially as we move into different life stages, but my experience so far suggests that any complications of actually explaining this to people in monogamous relationships will remain pretty minimal.

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month six bloggers – Amanda Jones, An Open Book, One Sub’s Mission, Polyamorous Parenting, Post Modern Sleaze, and Rarely Wears Lipstick – will write about their views on one of them.

Ancient Greek conceptions of love

So while I plough on through Rousseau’s Social Contract (harder going than I remember… More evidence I need to kick my brain back into action) here are some quick thoughts on love.

In modern English, we have (roughly) one word for love. There are related-concept-words, like care, affection, desire, but still. In ancient Greek, there were four types of love recognised in language: eros, agape, philia and storge.

Eros is a familiar one; most people recognise the name of the god (aka Cupid). This is of course also the etymological root of ‘erotic’. So eros refers to romantic love and desire – often in the context of those first stages of falling in love. Current mainstream thinking often holds up falling in love as a wonderful thing, a thing to be greatly desired, and the phase of ‘can’t eat, can’t sleep, missing you’ is seen as deeply romantic and special. (And yes, I admit, the romantic in me agrees). But even the word ‘falling’ describes a dangerous thing to do, literally speaking, and the ancient Greeks recognised this danger – erotic love was seen not as a wonderful and essential state to be desired, but as a kind of madness. And this kind of passionate love was recognised as sometimes having terrible and destructive results – this is the love that drives the great stories of humanity, the love that inspires wars, suicides, murderous jealousy… Think of the stories of classical mythology, of Shakespearean tragedies.

It’s interesting, then, that poly communities recognise this amazing and beautiful but potentially destructive force as NRE – new relationship energy. Giving it a label makes it something that can be recognised and accounted for (like, don’t make any big decisions while you’re in the throes of NRE and decide that you want to move your shiny new lover into the family home because she is amazing and clearly there is nothing that can possibly go wrong). You do, I think, go temporarily mad when falling in love. But unlike when your friends fall in love (you lose them for a little while, and then they come back when they’ve returned to normal) in a poly relationship it’s essential not to neglect existing loves in favour of New Shiny. So it’s incredibly valuable to have a vocabulary with which to talk about this. Orwell recognised the power of words when he created Newspeak in 1984 – if you don’t have words for something, you can’t effectively acknowledge it, talk about it, criticise or debate it.

I haven’t talked about Plato’s specific take on eros – that is a whole topic in itself and can be saved for another post. But that is, of course, where we get the term ‘platonic love’. More soon. I ❤ Plato and want to give him lots of space.

Agape (pronounced a-gah-pay) usually refers to the deep, true, unconditional love felt by a parent for a child, or the love in a long-established marriage. It was also adopted by early Christians to refer to the unconditional love of God for humanity, and Christian love more generally. As an atheist, and someone who was a bookish child, I tend to associate CS Lewis with the Narnia books – but his extensive writings on Christianity after his conversion include The Four Loves, based in part on these four ancient Greek words, and holding up agape as the finest and truest form of love. Another one to add to the reading list, I think.

Agape seems to correspond well to the final stage of the five stages of love, as written about on BitchBuzz by Lori Smith. I suppose the particular relevance for polyamory is, looking at how eros and agape apply to specifically romantic/sexual relationships, how to balance those different forms of love without making unfair comparisons. You may not have the depth of understanding and trust with a new lover as you do with a long-established partner, but that’s ok; you may not be obsessively checking your phone for texts from your husband in the way you do with your girlfriend, but that’s ok too. Again, we’re back to this idea of the value of giving words to something; if we can happily recognise these as two different kinds of love, then perhaps it helps us celebrate and value them for what they are, not look for what they aren’t.

(Incidentally – I’d be really interested in reading some theological thoughts on non-monogamy. There was a recent piece on Polytical looking at the author’s personal take on Christianity and polyamory; does anyone know of anything more general? I’m insufficiently informed about theology to tackle it myself! Also there’s a great piece by Amanda Jones on the intersection of Buddhism and polyamory)

Philia is the root of all those words ending in -phile, and is of course also part of philosophy – literally, the love of wisdom (sophia). Philia is the most general kind of love; it’s often translated as friendship. Aristotle talks about philia a lot in the Nicomachean Ethics, his best known work on ethics which explores how men should live (it was originally based on notes from his lectures to young men destined for Big Things in Athens). I’ll give this a whole post (or more) in its own right, as the Nicomachean Ethics is one of the most influential ethical works in the history of European thought. Yeah baby, this is the big guns. (I am an Aristotle fangirl. I want that on a tshirt.)

Anyway. The Nicomachean Ethics has lots of examples of philia – like lifelong friends, political contacts, fellow travellers, members of the same religious society or tribe, even ‘a cobbler and the person who buys from him’. Interestingly he also lists parents and children, which might suggest that more than one kind of love can exist in the same relationship – the love of a parent for a child seems to crop up regularly in all the forms of love except (obviously) eros. Philia is characterised by, again, wanting the best for someone for their own sake, and wanting to do things for them as much as is possible/reasonable. Though in that qualifier is a big distinction from agape, which is a self-sacrificing love. Another distinction is that – not always, but often – philia is characterised by a sense of equality, of meeting as equals, in the very nature of the Iove itself, not merely in the persons of those sharing the love.

As this refers to a much wider sense of friendship-love, there’s nothing – to me – that seems any more relevant to non-monogamous people than everyone else. We all need friends, and that comfortable companionable love of an old friendship is wonderful. I suppose the only thought here would be, even if you are conducting twenty romantic relationships at once, don’t neglect your friendships. Make the time for them too; don’t just fill up your Google Calendar with lovers.

I am so keen to wander off into an exploration of how Aristotle defined friendship-love and why it’s so important to living a good life, but we’d be here all week. Another time. On to the last form of love.

Storge is much less commonly used in classical writings than the others. It’s the kind of affection that comes through familiarity; it can explain the love-bonds of wider family members and is generally only used to describe family love. It is often described as a natural or instinctive affection; similar to agape, it is unconditional in that it doesn’t depend on any characteristics in the loved one to make them ‘worthy’ of love, it’s simply because they are there. But storge does not have the self-sacrificing and altruistic aspects of agape.

Interestingly, a less widely-used meaning of storge can be found in political thought, especially Renaissance-era. I don’t want to say too much about this as I’m not that well-read in it (yet… *adds to reading list*) but: some thinkers claimed that the State can in fact be made to wither away by the subjects believing themselves to be ruled over by a benevolent father-like figure, and loving the state (ie storge), and the king or tyrant in return believing himself to be like a loving parent. If I find more resources on this I’ll post them here; I’ve come across snatches of references to this form of storge but am very under-informed.

But storge is primarily used to describe familiar familial love. As ethical non-monogamy becomes more visible, it’s likely that more and more people will incorporate – somehow – multiple partners into their family life, which no doubt brings all sorts of challenges of its own. But as this isn’t something I’ve yet had to deal with, I’ll leave it to those with more experience to comment on that balancing act.

Storge might also be used to describe the love for a metamour – your partner’s partner. If you’re lucky and they are awesome, it may become philia, a deeper friendship in its own right and truly wanting the best for each other, but at the very least you’ll need storge, giving them love and affection not because of who they are or any of their characteristics, but because of the place they hold in your partner’s heart and in your personal constellation of people.

If you don’t have words for something, you can’t talk about it. Why else do subcultures come up with new words like polyamory, metamour, compersion? Perhaps identifying different forms of love as genuinely different feelings, different things, not just different stages of love, would help us talk about them better. And perhaps it would help us all tell our friends more often that we love them. More love in the world – whatever name you give it – can only be a good thing, right?

Would you separate out any other kinds of love from these four? Is there something from your experience that you think is missing?

Poly Means Many

Inspired by the marvellous Lori Smith (aka lipsticklori), and some very interesting conversations with friends, here’s a little project coming up: Poly Means Many. Given that non-monogamy and polyamory – like any non-mainstream relationship styles – require people to think hard about and analyse their own decisions and choices, it’s no surprise that there are lots of different perspectives on this relationship structure. So look out for the first posts in this series next week…

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month six bloggers – Amanda Jones, An Open Book, One Sub’s Mission, Polyamorous Parenting, Post Modern Sleaze, and Rarely Wears Lipstick – will write about their views on one of them.