I’ve been receiving more feedback than usual about my last two articles, much of it pretty long and most of it sent privately. People have been encouraging me to share more along these lines. I think what they mean is that they’d like to see me share more about my own private thoughts and feelings, even if there’s no notable advice or how-to information.
This week I’ve seen a number of articles making the rounds on social media, in response to the Elliot Rodger shooting in Santa Barbara. Several of them suggest that the blame for this incident lies at least partly with our social conditioning, such as aspects of our culture that teach men that they’re entitled to sex from women they like… or the conditioning that tells men that if they work hard and succeed, they’ll become deserving of a good woman, the woman being the prize for the man.
Other people, however, put most of the responsibility squarely on Elliot’s shoulders, considering it a cop-out to blame the culture.
And of course there are many other interpretations and opinions circulating as well.
Reading the feedback and these articles got me thinking about how this type of cultural conditioning has been playing out in my own life, so I’ll share some reflections about that subject.
Entitlement to Another’s Body
First, I don’t see a meaningful difference between the entitlement notion that gives rise to rape culture and the entitlement notion that encourages meat culture. In the first case, you have men conditioned to believe that they’re entitled to a woman’s body. In the second, people are conditioned to believe that they’re entitled to an animal’s body. What’s the difference? In each case one group overpowers another group by defining it as “not us” and using justification and rationalization to commit repeated acts of violence.
I reject both forms of entitlement, which to me are the inescapably intertwined. If you interpret that to mean that I must be staunchly pro-choice as well as pro-animal rights, you’d be right on both counts.
That said, I do feel that those who decry rape culture while embracing meat culture are taking an ethically untenable position. From my perspective, the two mindsets are inseparable. If you’re okay with one, you’re also encouraging the other.
My first encounter with the idea of entitlement as it applied to relationships happened indirectly, through my relationship with my ex-wife Erin. We met in 1994, a few months after I graduated from college. Not long after we connected, she told me that she’d previously been date-raped and had fallen into a 3.5-year abusive relationship with the guy who raped her. She suffered from very low self-esteem during that time. Eventually with the help of her sorority sisters, she was able to break free, even though the guy had guns in his home and had threatened to kill Erin and her family if she ever tried to leave him. As for the guy, he went on to abuse other women after Erin, and a few years ago, he shot himself dead during a confrontation with police.
I didn’t know what to make of this story when Erin first told it to me. To tell the truth, my initial reaction was that if she got into a relationship with a guy who raped her, she must not be very bright. And to stay in an abusive relationship for so many years? Well… that didn’t seem like a very smart thing to do. I figured that if a guy rapes you, you call the cops and have nothing more to do with him.
Additionally, I thought that maybe someone should go beat the guy to a pulp and teach him a lesson he wouldn’t soon forget. I wondered why none of Erin’s friends stepped in to help her during those years. Did they really buy the “Oh, clumsy me… I fell down the stairs for the second time this month” excuses? Erin and the rapist shared a number of mutual friends. I figured that her friends must all be the creepiest losers on the planet. Who lets one of their friends get into an abusive relationship and just pretends everything’s okay while maintaining a friendship with the couple? I thought I must have stepped through a portal into the Bizarro universe. None of this made much sense to me.
I never met the rapist, but I did meet some of those mutual friends. Emotionally I kept my distance though. In my mind I labeled them as people who clearly weren’t honorable or trustworthy. I internally classified them as unworthy, low-class people for not sticking up for a friend who was obviously in trouble.
Despite the insanity of this story, I still liked Erin. She was incredibly self-aware and open-minded. I appreciated her amazing intuition, her sense of humor, and her willingness to share such depth about herself. Very gradually we developed a close friendship which evolved into a relationship and later a marriage. That relationship was quite a growth experience for me. I wasn’t actually looking to get into a long-term relationship at the time. It just sort of happened.
Was Erin’s prior abuse ever an issue in our relationship? Yes. I’m sure she’d be okay with what I’ve shared above, but out of respect for her privacy, I won’t go into further details about that. I wouldn’t say it was the defining issue of our marriage though.
As the years passed, and Erin and I eventually grew in separate directions, mainly for lifestyle reasons, I began to dislike the notion of monogamy. If you limit yourself to only one sex partner, I think that’s where serious scarcity issues can creep in. If anything happens that threatens your only outlet for physical intimacy, your options are pretty limited if you intend to stay monogamous. I really didn’t like being in that situation. I didn’t like the type of man that a monogamous marriage seemed intent on molding me into. Sticking with that relationship model felt increasingly limiting and powerless as the years passed.
In my opinion, monogamy can easily lead to a relationship based on compromise, where neither person really gets what they want. In a one-on-one connection, the practical reality is that one person almost always wants more or less of something than their partner does. Moving to the middle and compromising isn’t a win-win solution though; that’s a form of lose-lose. One person gives too much, while the other receives too little, at least from their individual perspectives. This yields resentment and hurts the relationship over time.
As I found myself stuck in such a predicament while still doing my best to honor my marriage commitment, I began reading and talking to other people for possible solutions. As I learned about open relationships, it made a lot of sense to me. There’s no need to cling to any single person to meet your needs or explore your desires. If one person doesn’t share your feelings, it doesn’t mean you’re stuck or trapped. You can simply ask or invite someone else to explore what you’d like to explore. This gets clinginess out of the picture.
I realized that it would take a bit of reframing and practice to shift gears from monogamy to openness, but I was optimistic because I could at least see how and why that solution could work in the real world. I didn’t expect it to be easy to transition, but I did expect it to work out well in the end. I was right on both counts.
Although my marriage didn’t survive the transition, my friendship with Erin did, and in all other ways the transition to openness was indeed my path with a heart. I felt so much better about myself as I let go of the old scarcity-based model. And looking back, I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not accepting the solution earlier. Even when it stared me in the face as a more sensible approach to relationships, I still resisted it for some additional years. I really didn’t want to be the bad guy. Of course thinking that completing a relationship makes you a bad person is just more socially conditioned nonsense. I was running a sickly form of reverse-entitlement on myself, assuming that my wife was entitled to me no matter what become of our relationship. Getting past all of that was far from easy.
I think monogamy in general — and not marriage in particular — contributes greatly to the notion of entitlement in relationships. If you’re looking to one person to be your primary provider of physical and emotional intimacy, then even before a relationship begins, that will bias you towards scarcity mindedness, clinginess, and fear of rejection. Under the constraints of monogamous thinking, every potential partner becomes an all-or-nothing package deal. With a more open relationship posture, it’s so much easier to embrace genuine curiosity and get to know each person as an individual. Even if they don’t satisfy your all-in-one package requirements, they could still play a role in your relationship landscape. I love the richness of enjoying a much greater variety of connections in my life these days. A woman and I don’t have to satisfy each other’s mono-partner criteria for us to enjoy some lovely cuddle time together… or a sensual make-out session… or whatever else inspires us to explore together.
I think that if I went back to a monogamous model today, I’d soon find myself succumbing to clinginess and entitlement issues once again. I’d be more worried about rejection too.
With a more open relationship posture, I feel more comfortable with — and less attached to — whatever arises in each individual connection. I’m not giving someone the power to deny me the freedom to explore my own relationship desires and interests. If I feel like exploring some particular aspect of intimacy, I can share that with people openly and then explore it with one or more people who share compatible desires. Mutual consent is a beautiful thing. If no one seems interested, I can keep looking for a suitable match, investing whatever amount of time and energy I feel is appropriate, relative to the importance of the desire. Or I can just relax and see what organically shows up.
The result is that I’ve had the chance to explore many desires and interests in new and refreshing ways — cuddle sessions, threesomes, D/s play, tantra, and so on. These explorations don’t all have to be done with the same person.
On top of that, I feel very lucky to have attracted a like-minded girlfriend with whom I share an extremely high degree of compatibility when it comes to exploring intimacy. Before we got together in early 2010, she and I had both independently come to similar thoughts and feelings about wanting to explore open relationships, so this was one of those “you had me at hello” situations, with neither of us needing to convince the other of anything. Like a good improv show, it was “Yes, and…” all the way.
I can be pretty enthusiastic in my appreciation of women. I especially love that now I get to connect with more of them and in a variety of different ways. It’s fun to explore pleasure and sensuality… or very loving cuddle sessions… or deep emotional conversations… or travel and adventure… or all of the above.
When I think back to how I was when I was married, I feel a little embarrassed by my stupidity, ignorance, and stubbornness. Just as I eventually realized that it made no sense to be nice to dogs and cruel to chickens, I came to see that it made equally little sense to have multiple friends but only one intimate relationship. I feel much more congruent with my current values system; I also like that my current values are simpler, cleaner, more compassionate, and less complicated than the self-contradictory models I learned earlier in life.
There were times during my marriage when I would diagnose Erin as being the primary cause of our relationship issues and try to persuade her to change in some fashion. Other times I took responsibility and went to work on myself. But the repeated failure of those efforts caused me to have more doubts about the structure of the relationship rather than the people in it. I would say that despite the difficulties, Erin and I did a pretty good job of maintaining open communication and trying to resolve our relationship issues as a team.
When I look back on that relationship now, I’m still a little struck by how stubborn I was in trying to make it work. I should have given up much sooner, but I fell into the trap of wrapping too much of my own self-esteem into the situation. Consequently, I have a lot of compassion for people who find themselves feeling trapped in similar situations. I know how difficult it can be to wrap up a long-term relationship.
One of the most popular articles on my website is How to Decide When to End a Long-Term Relationship. I wrote that article four years before I was able to apply its advice to my own life. It’s a good example of how I use blogging to work through some of my own life issues. Everything I share is an evolving work in progress, never a final answer set in stone.
Empathy and Compassion
Because of the particular relationship path that unfolded for me, I can’t say I ever fell into the misogyny trap. Sometimes I felt apathetic towards relationships and intimacy, and other times I was ambivalent, but I don’t recall hating women or wanting to manipulate them. That said, I do feel that I could have potentially fallen into that trap during my 20s under different circumstances.
I think one thing that prevented me from being at risk of misogyny was going vegan. What many animal eaters don’t realize is that when you lighten up your diet, it can powerfully shift your emotional landscape. Generating emotions in your body takes resources and energy, but animal products are so digestively burdensome that they don’t leave as much extra energy available for creating emotions, especially positive emotions that aren’t as crucial to survive as fear or anger.
For starters, your body can’t directly use animal protein, so it has to break it down into amino acids first and rebuild it into human protein. Then it has to clean up more metabolic waste from this process. Plant protein comes in amino acid form already, so it doesn’t require as much energy (nor produce as much waste) to assemble into human protein. Your immune system also gets engaged when you consume animal products, especially dairy. That’s still more energy being wasted — an unnecessary drain.
Under those circumstances, your body intelligently diverts resources away from less critical tasks, such as the generation of emotional feedback via your nervous system. This makes you more emotionally numb — and less emotionally aware. Your body isn’t giving you all the information it’s capable of producing, and the signals you are getting may be incomplete. Additionally, the hormonal imbalances that result from eating animal products can also amplify negative emotions like fear and anger while robbing you of the more positive ones like bliss. The emotional state I would have labeled as normal when I was an animal eater is a state I’d probably label as mildly depressed and stressed today.
I think this is one reason I typically enjoy the best connections with non-American women. The American diet has become so corrupted that it really messes people up emotionally. When I travel to Canada or Europe where the food standards are stricter, I also find it easier to emotionally connect with people outside the USA. When I’m in Europe for a while, the food seems to leave my body feeling more energized and lighter than the best food I can find in the USA, even if I favor organic produce and farmers markets here. This is yet another aspect of the interconnectedness between the various forms of entitlement culture. We can’t abuse the land or our food supply without abusing ourselves.
It surprised me — and it surprises many people on a similar path — to be able to discern a wider, richer, and more subtle range of emotions after being vegan for several years. I was especially surprised to feel so much more empathy and compassion than I ever did before. It was like someone implanted a more powerful emotion chip in my brain. For some people this increased sensitivity can give rise to more negative emotions initially. If they’re stuck in an unfulfilling life and then stop numbing themselves with animal products, they may really start to feel those buried feelings, which can be tough to handle until and unless they begin to act in better alignment with those feelings. Becoming more emotionally sensitive has its plusses and minuses.
I didn’t initially go vegan for ethical reasons. I actually started off with a 30-day trial mainly for curiosity’s sake. Then I kept going due to the health benefits, especially the clearer and less foggy brain I enjoyed after transitioning. But staying vegan for so many years seemed to gradually activate a powerful ethical and moral subroutine the likes of which I’d never experienced as an animal eater. This was strongly linked to feelings of empathy and compassion. That really changed who I was as a person. Before going vegan, I was content to develop computer games. I didn’t care much about helping people grow or serving the greater good. Now I can’t imagine being a man who doesn’t care about those things. Game development seems so dark and lifeless by comparison.
You could potentially make the case if that if you eat animals, then having a strong ethical subroutine would be detrimental. What if you found yourself in a situation where you had to kill and eat animals to survive, and otherwise you’d die of starvation? Then caring about the animals too much could threaten your survival. It would be easier if you could turn off those emotions or at least tone them down. And in such a situation where plant based foods are scarce, other humans could become potential threats as well. You’d be competing for animals (who might resist your efforts to kill them) with your fellow hunters. Darwinian competition takes over. And we get a collective culture pretty much like we have in the USA right now. Let’s all compete for scarce resources. Forget about love; just go cause some pregnancies by hook or crook. Those babies will be born into a harsh world anyway.
But in a situation of plant food abundance like we have today, a more positive and robust ethical subroutine makes sense. We’re better off cooperating to pick food and share it. If we seek to plant crops instead of eating wild food, that requires further cooperation and good social skills. Empathy and compassion can greatly assist our survival by fostering good communication pathways and encouraging sharing and fair distribution of resources.
This line of thinking suggests to some degree that we might find it much easier to enjoy healthy, happy, and positive relationships as vegans than we would as animal eaters. This is consistent with my experience too. I feel like it would be such a struggle to try to have good relationships with people if I went back to being more emotionally numb. I feel for people who are addicted to heavier foods and find intimacy a real struggle. A common issue I see in them is that they really don’t seem to feel their emotions all that strongly — so they feel less attraction, less enthusiasm, less bliss, less happiness, and less fulfillment. Then they worry about things like approach anxiety. Approach anxiety isn’t so much of an issue if your body is doing a better job of generating approach enthusiasm.
If you haven’t experimented much along these lines yet, don’t be so surprised if the solution to your relationship issues is to lighten up your diet. Around the time I finally got clarity about my marriage, I was also doing a lot of experimenting with raw foods, including eating 100% raw for 6 months straight around that time. My diet is my emotional thermostat. When I need more emotional clarity, I know that I need to give my body lighter foods that won’t take so much energy to digest, so my body can invest that extra energy elsewhere.
While an open relationship posture solves a lot of problems and makes my life a whole lot easier, there is one issue that still comes up frequently enough to challenge me. This involves connecting with women who’ve been through the ringer with other men, usually long before they connect with me. This includes women who’ve been raped, abused, lied to, betrayed, manipulated, etc.
Because most of the women that I connect with are into personal growth, these women have usually already done a lot of recovery work. For some it was the recovery process that led them into personal development in the first place.
To this day I have mixed feelings about connecting with such women.
Part of me feels that since I’ve already spent 15 years in a monogamous relationship with a woman like that, wouldn’t doing it again be something of a re-run? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to explore different types of connections instead of connecting with such a familiar pattern?
Another part of me notes that I already do so much self development work with people professionally that perhaps it would be nice to counter-balance that with some personal relationships where I can explore with the other person in a more relaxed and flowing way — no trauma, no drama.
On the other hand, the compassionate side of me has a hard time saying no. He still cares. Also, women who’ve had to do some healing work tend to be very self-aware. They’re usually pretty good at communicating their thoughts and feelings. And because of their interest in self development, we typically have a lot in common. So we tend to attract each other fairly easily.
There is one aspect of these connections that really tests me though. And that is when the woman projects her distrust and suspicion towards men onto me. In some cases it causes her to freeze up or become very nervous. If she wants to keep connecting beyond that point, I’ll usually let her know that she can set the pace, and I won’t try to advance anything unless she initiates. I may also tell her where she can expect a positive reception. So I might say something like, “If you kiss me, I will definitely kiss you back.” I like to remove any fear she may have about potential rejection by letting her know she has a green light to proceed to the degree she feels comfortable.
That approach works for some women who need to feel in control. It doesn’t work as well when the woman would rather have me gently lead but doesn’t feel comfortable saying so in the moment. She may want to explore physical intimacy because it’s important to her, and she wants to have a good experience with me, but her fears and worries and past associations make it difficult for her relax and enjoy herself. Slowing down does seem to help, but if it’s someone visiting from out of town, then she may not get to experience as much if she goes slower.
On the other end of the spectrum, the woman might blow up at me with some drama. During this time I haven’t so much as raised my voice to her. We may be having a nice conversation, but somehow I inadvertently step on a hidden landmine. I say or do something which was nothing out of the ordinary for me, but it triggered her to project past trauma onto our present situation, and suddenly I’m the devil incarnate and have no idea what the heck just happened.
This doesn’t happen that often, but when it does come up, I find it difficult to deal with it. Rationally I’ve studied enough psychology to understand how and why this sort of thing happens. But when the woman isn’t feeling very rational herself, I do my best to weather the storm until calmness returns.
Sometimes I feel like I’m being set up, as if the woman is trying a little too hard to wedge me into the pattern of a previous abusive connection. If I take the bait, then she can feel validated in breaking things off with an “I knew it… he’s just like all those other guys.” I’m too experienced to take that kind of bait though. If we try to talk through it, then the woman may end up confused, embarrassed, or even guilty afterwards. In her mind those feelings get associated with our connection, which basically kills it.
Over the years I’ve flopped around on how I deal with these sorts of connections. Sometimes I’ve automatically pre-disqualified women that seem to have the kind of past emotional baggage that could give rise to such issues. Sometimes I’ve modified my contact form to make it clear that I’m not interested in connecting with such people. Such a connection is the seven-deuce unsuited of the relationship world. Best to fold early on. Otherwise you’re just going to get burned if you let it play out.
Another option is to accept the risk, and when the blow-up happens, I let the woman run her script without getting too attached to outcomes. Oh well. If she comes around later and wants to reconnect, I may politely decline or just keep her at friendzone distance. I gave her a chance to connect. She ran her drama script on me, which I can understand but still find distasteful. No need to go any deeper with her. I’d rather invest my time and energy with someone more mature and growth-oriented in a positive way. I can do without the drama.
Yet another option is to give her some space and then try to dialog about it once she’s past the triggering effect, with a mixture of compassion and rationality. This approach at least has the potential to encourage some healing and understanding, but there’s a risk that it will leave her feeling worse about herself, at least temporarily, if she succumbs to self-blame, embarrassment, or guilt. A woman who doesn’t want to subject herself to those feelings may just as easily get re-triggered into even stronger patterns of suspicion and distrust. It’s the kind of situation where I feel I have to choose my words very carefully. I still do my best not to be overly attached to outcomes. I can only do my best to communicate from a place of caring; it may or may not be received as such.
I feel that when I use any of these approaches, the potential to transform the connection into one that I find uplifting and fulfilling is very unlikely. At best we may end up with a casual but politely distanced friendship. I don’t have a lot of hope that it will go much deeper than that. Maybe I’m just a stepping stone on her healing journey. I can play that role for someone now and then if I know that’s what I’ll be doing. What I don’t like is thinking that we’re going to explore and enjoy a nice connection together and being blindsided by drama that seems very misplaced.
I’m still on the fence as to whether or not I should consider certain types of drama to be a boundary violation and to opt out immediately when a woman goes there. I may genuinely care about her, but I can’t predict what’s best for her or for myself in those moments. Every connection is unique.
There are a lot of women out there who’ve been hurt in some way and who find it difficult to trust again. For whatever reason, some of them seek me out, not for therapy but because they figure that I’d be a good person to explore some aspect of intimacy with them. My compassion likes to stay open to such connections. But my sense of growth finds them to be something of a dead end. Between you and me, I feel much more drawn to connect with women who find it easy to trust and don’t need a lot of coddling there, so we can enjoy our time together in more proactive ways by exploring our compatible interests and desires… as opposed to bandaging old wounds that have started bleeding again.
I’ve seen my share of manipulative women, but I still find it pretty easy to trust new connections once I have the chance to get to know someone a little. I do my best to give people the benefit of the doubt. I can understand when a woman finds herself unable to do the same with me, but it still leaves me feeling a little disappointed afterwards.
Sometimes I still feel it’s wise to pre-disqualify women who seem like they just aren’t on the same page as me when it comes to trust and flow in an intimate connection. I’d rather connect with women who are of a similar mindset. Let’s enjoy our time together. Let’s explore whatever we’re both curious about. Let’s talk openly about our life paths, our desires, and our interests. Let’s really get to know each other. Let’s make each other feel good. Let’s share laughs and cuddles and adventures. Let’s learn, grow, and play together as the great spirits we truly are.
Finding women who can readily say yes to this type of connection can be challenging though. Many more would rather stay loyal to their pain. They’re more worried about safety and security than they are enthusiastic about growth, love, and exploration. I think that’s a shame.
I notice some definite overlap between the various issues I’ve shared in this post and the last two. My behavior pattern is to keep turning towards what disturbs me. Factory farming disgusts me, but I still connect with people who eat animals. Relationship drama annoys me, but I still invite and accept connections from predictable sources of it. Why?
I think the main reason is that I find a lot of growth in facing what disturbs and confuses me. I have a penchant for exploring, and sticking to my comfort zone doesn’t make for good exploration.
Animal eaters disturb me — okay, they’re downright creepy! They’re the villains of my reality. But despite their cruelty and vileness, I can’t look away. Villains fascinate me. It’s like being mesmerized by a vampire.
Women with trust issues disturb me too. Why do I bother with them? Sometimes I feel they distract me from better connections. But again, I can’t look away. It’s the lure of the paradox. On Day 2 I’m saying “never again,” but by Day 3 it morphs into “Sure… come on over!”
Ahhh the path with a heart… it always keeps me on my toes.
Now if I could just make sense of where this path is leading… Are you able to see it?
I think one reason is that when I see things like denial, disconnection, and disempowerment, I want to dive into that and inject some truth, love, and power into the situation. At other times I’d rather relax on the lighter and brighter side and leave the darkness to its own devices.