Personal devices are changing the way couples and families interact. In our clinical experience, almost every couple who seeks help is conflicted about the role technology plays in their lives. It’s especially true for families with young children and teens.
We were recently asked by ABC News to consult for their two-hour special report, ScreenTime: Diane Sawyer Reporting, about families struggling with this very situation. As part of the program, we observed a number of different families, but one stood out. They are a loving family with two working parents and four children, ranging from pre-teen to college age. The ironic thing was that the youngest child reached out, saying that his family needed help.
The news crew set up cameras in their home to help the family understand the actual amount of time that they spent on phones, tablets, or laptops. Looking at an average Saturday, the times varied from over four hours to almost eight hours per person. Every family member was shocked by the amount of time they were investing in their screens.
One poignant moment in the interview with the family was when they watched old home movies of their family life before everyone had a smartphone. They all talked about missing the fun they had playing together outside. The laughter in the videos was infectious.
In contrast, a video of a scene from their current life showed the entire family sitting in the living room practically silent. Every member of the family was engrossed in their own device. Few, if any, words were exchanged. The family dog wandered from person to person attempting to get some attention without much success. It was easy to see why the youngest child asked for help.
We had a chance to talk with the parents and two of the children. We offered them the suggestions for change below, which they seemed to take to heart.
Have a weekly family meeting
Schedule a weekly family meeting to set screen time limits that seem fair to everyone. And use the meetings to evaluate how those agreements are working out. In the Gottman Method, we encourage couples to have a weekly State of the Union meeting. You can do the same thing in your family.
Allow everyone to weigh in on the conversation
While it is the parents’ responsibility to ultimately set the limits, children often respond best when they have a voice in the conversation about what is important to them.
Agree on some simple things
Begin small and perhaps agree to have some time when everyone is to be without phones or screens, such as family dinner.
Make memories as a family
Plan weekend activities that are interactive and fun for everyone. Take a trip to the zoo, or a museum. Go for a hike in the woods. Learn how to kayak or go skiing. Try incorporating a game night as a family ritual.
Use social media to connect with each other
Technology doesn’t need to be the enemy of connection. Try sending each other daily text messages as a way of connecting. Or share links of interesting or funny videos or social media posts.
Be kind to each other
If there’s a conflict, or the screen time plan doesn’t seem to be working, take a deep breath, be kind to each other, and begin again—without criticism, defensiveness, or contempt. Sometimes it takes a few attempts to work out a compromise, so be patient with each other through this process.
Validate your child’s feelings
If a time limit is agreed upon and your child goes into meltdown or rage when the time limit has been reached, validate their feelings. “You seem (angry or disappointed) about the screen time limit. Tell me what’s upsetting you.” If they respond by saying that this is unfair, then suggest that they bring it up at the next family meeting. If they agreed to it during the first family meeting remind them of this. Then ask, “Since this is the way it is right now, what would you like to do instead?” Empathize but don’t back down or capitulate. Make sure that the consequences of that behavior have been discussed ahead of time.
Technology is here to stay, so find ways to incorporate and use it to enhance your family relationships. In addition, recognize the potential for isolation and distance technology presents so you can take steps to avoid those traps.
As a parent, take the lead in finding the balance between tuning in to screens and turning towards each other.
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I have always been curious about relationships. Growing up, without access to the Love Lab or even knowing it existed, I conducted my own “relationship research.” My data collection was limited by what I could get from four TV channels (six when the weather was better), the local library, and Blockbuster Video.
This means my understanding of my own sexual and romantic identity was largely informed by Saved by the Bell, Judy Garland movies, and some defaced back-issues of Cosmopolitan that smelled like old glue and dust. Oh, and Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie (still hot. I am for sure an Ann-Margretsexual).
It was bad data and the methodology left much to be desired (meaning there was no methodology). But even as I got more channels and explored other sections at Blockbuster, the ways relationships were represented changed very little. The Bachelor has new contestants every season, but 17 years after its debut, the show’s format remains untouched. From what I could tell, all great love stories ended with prom, a long kiss, or a wedding.
I would re-watch movies with the audio commentary on, feeling like there must be something else that I was just missing. The Wedding Singer is still one of my favorite movies, but I’ve yearned to know what Robbie and Julia fought about—what happened between the triumphant wedding and growing old together.
Heterosexual monogamy was, of course, the default and seemed to be the key to power and happiness. My Barbies might experiment with sexual fluidity, in their dystopian two-Ken world. But this was quickly buried under a blanket of shame and I’d return to much more accessible storylines: five women fighting over the Ken who had better hair and outfits. I bloomed late and tentatively, within the narrow confines of how I understood it was acceptable for me to be in the world.
I often wonder what my life might have been like, how I might be now, if I’d seen more diverse examples of love and how it functions day-to-day. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m closer to knowing nothing than I am to knowing everything.
Because Blockbuster used to thrive (RIP), I know I’m not alone. I grew up believing that I was not qualified to save cities from evil/radioactive billionaires, bust ghosts, or even be funny. Also, according to my (scientifically unsound) research, I believed that one day I would meet the man I was supposed to marry, he would win my love in a grand gesture, and then we would never experience conflict ever again. Our instinct and intuition would guide us to success and we would never have to talk about anything uncomfortable, ‘til death did us part.
We need more data.
Enter Real Relationships, a new column from The Gottman Institute. By featuring a wider variety of human experiences, we hope to contribute to a more inclusive picture of love in the world today and expand our understanding of modern relationships.
We’re launching this column with stories from people who are on the journey of navigating identity and meaning for themselves. Even more courageously, they’re navigating identity within relationships, allowing their relationships to inform who they are and who they become.
In our first Real Relationships piece, the author reckons the type of relationship structure he was raised to believe in with what he and his husband are working to define together. It’s touching, fascinating, and inspiring—I hope you enjoy it!
Something abundantly clear to me in this exploration is that you are the expert of your own story. No one can tell it but you. If you are navigating identity within a relationship of any kind (even within the lack of a relationship), you have a story to share. I invite you to fill out our contributor submission form here.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to help share these stories and to be on the continued adventure of learning about relationships—real relationships, not just what I saw in the movies.
More in Real Relationships
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By Eric Henley*
Editor’s Note: We’ve been studying relationships for the last four decades, but we still have so much to learn. Through the stories and experiences shared in Real Relationships, we aim to paint a more realistic picture of love in the world today. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily based on research conducted by The Gottman Institute. Submit your real relationship story here.
Shortly after my 24th birthday, I met Ken*, the man who would become my husband, for the second time. (The first time was at a house party in our freshman year of college, but that’s a different story.) I found him instantly charming, intelligent, and breathtakingly dashing. Six weeks later, I had it set in the back of my mind that I would probably marry this man. We moved in together later that year and were engaged before we reached our second anniversary. We had a stunning wedding in an urban warehouse with all of our closest friends and family, where we declared that we would put our love for one another first for the rest of our lives.
As we have built our lives together over the past decade, however, certain realities have risen to the surface. Ken had a very limited number of sexual partners prior to our getting together, and felt a desire to explore sides of his sexuality that I’m unable to provide him. In our early conversations, he expressed agitation around his limited sexual experiences. Meanwhile, I have slowly, hesitantly realized that I’m predisposed to polyamory: I feel my most fulfilled when I have the ability to explore deep emotional connections, up to and including love, with others.
There’s still a huge amount of stigma around open relationships and polyamory in America, and to this day my non-monogamy is something that I choose only to divulge strategically to specific close friends. Ken and I are concerned about how others may judge our decisions without knowing their broader context. I have had to find ways to balance my often big-hearted emotional responses with safety and security, for the health of our reputation. Needless to say, these changes didn’t happen without serious consideration of the broader repercussions invited by opening our marriage.
Several years ago—even before our wedding—we began exploring the possibility of an open relationship. I was raised believing that everyone has “the One,” so I was initially incredibly skeptical and did much to sabotage our earliest attempts. I struggled, at least at first, to see any potential lover of Ken’s as anything other than competition. In my mind, Ken was one good date (or sexual experience) away from coming to his senses and leaving me for someone far more interesting—why else would he want to pursue other people? My insecurities led to rash behavior. As Ken was walking out the door to meet a potential new sex partner for the first time, I had an emotional meltdown that forced him to cancel. I would stall with arbitrary rules one step shy of, “It must be a Tuesday in May and you must be wearing green socks.”
After all of that, however, it took just one statement to change my viewpoint, like the flip of a light switch. Ken said to me, “We have a house. We have a dog. I told everyone we know that I love you and commit myself to you first and foremost. I have five, 10, and 20-year plans with you. You’re in every version of my future, and anything else is a perk of living in an era where we are free to define our own relationships.” Ultimately, it was time to consider what I could stand to gain from an open relationship, and focus on recognizing my own value as a partner. I quickly went from being hesitant to enthusiastic.
As Ken and I have delved into the intricacies of ethical non-monogamy together, we’ve found what works for us, at least for now. Through our exploration, we have improved our communication, jump-started our sex life (with one another!), and opened channels that we believe will ultimately help our relationship endure. Here are five guiding principles that have steered our own ongoing conversations.
We Are Honest With Each Other, and Ourselves, About What We Want
When Ken and I first began discussing what an open relationship might look like for us, we decided to share what we each hoped to gain, then find a middle ground in the interest of “evenness.” Ken was more sexually motivated. As he expressed his desires, it became clear that he wanted to expand his boundaries, which included exploring different kinks in a space where he didn’t have to project an identity onto me. (He’s into older men, and as someone only six months his senior I don’t quite cut it.) I knew immediately that what I wanted was more complex than sex, and relied more heavily on an emotional connection. Rather than interrogate that thought process to determine what I wanted or needed from ethical non-monogamy, I rounded down to present a compromise. “How about we both have friends with benefits? Nothing random; we have to have met someone enough times to trust them and their respect for our marriage?”
The problem with this solution, of course, was that it didn’t scratch either of our itches. It resulted in both of us feeling frustrated and dissatisfied with the arrangement. Because we came to an agreement that left both of us unfulfilled, we found ourselves painted into a corner wherein, multiple times over the first couple of years, we had to revisit the conversation all over again. Ultimately, because we tried to find a middle ground and I wasn’t fully, radically honest about what I hoped to achieve, we weren’t able to set our rules accordingly. One of my mentors once told me, “A good team has no surprises,” and by failing to advocate for my needs and desires, Ken was faced with multiple surprises that led to undue tension.
I have discovered that there are nearly endless ways to build ethically non-monogamous relationships: one-time sexual flings, friends with “benefits,” friends with whom sex is just one of many shared activities, polyamorous romantic relationships, as well as queerplatonic/quasiplatonic relationships and asexual relationships. For us, our watershed moment was when we admitted to ourselves—and each other—what it is we each actually wanted from our open marriage. That allowed us to more clearly decide whether or not we wanted to proceed and, when we decided to do so, set the rules for how to go about it.
We Set the Rules, and Revisit Them Often
After Ken and I were able to identify what we hoped to gain from ethical non-monogamy, we went about the process of negotiating the rules that would dictate our outside interactions. This was an iterative process and continues to be to this day. The human experience is fluid, as are our feelings, emotions, and the states of our relationships. Accordingly, we decided that these rules must be revisited anytime we feel that one is no longer working for us. With time and comfort, many of our rules have been lessened or lifted. However, something that has been important to us is that any change in the rules is a deliberate, proactive decision (rather than a reactive bandage).
When it comes to the rules themselves, we have followed the lessons we learned in elementary school about good questions—always ask who, what, when, where, why and how. Below are a few of the questions we continue to ask ourselves in each category.
- Why: For us, the “why” was the radical honesty that we shared with each other previously. Because we’ve identified our desires, we’ve also identified our “why.”
- Who: Is anyone off limits? Are there disqualifiers for a potential partner? Are there criteria a potential partner needs to meet?
- What: Is safer sex required, and if so, what is our definition of safer sex? Are we allowed to explore kinks that we haven’t previously explored with each other? Is anything off limits and/or reserved only for one another? Since we were looking at polyamory, we also explored feelings on how we refer to additional partners, and limits around how far romantic expressions are allowed to go (gifts, etc).
- When: Can we forego time with one another to spend time with other partners? If so, how often and for how long?
- Where: Can we have other partners who live in the same city as us? Do the rules change when we’re on vacation together? Do the rules change when one partner is out of town, and if so how? Can we spend time with other partners in our home, or do we need to go elsewhere?
- How: Do we need to clear interactions with another partner first? Do we discuss interactions with other partners before or after-the-fact. Is there an abort/veto switch that can be pulled at any time, for any reason, without discussion in advance? If we have a veto, is that universal or just for specific types of relationships? How will we raise any future questions or concerns to one another in a safe and respectful way?
This may seem like a large number of questions, but this isn’t even an all-inclusive list. We have decided on answers for each of these questions in our own relationship, and that list has gone through several iterations. For example, we discuss any new partners before meeting up with them for the first time. What’s more, we have an automatic veto that we can use at any time (although it has yet to come up). When we have questions or concerns about the state of our relationship, we aim to bring them up immediately.
We are committed to safer sex (including Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP, a drug that greatly reduces the transmission of HIV). We have elected to always prioritize our relationship, meaning that instances in which we are forfeiting time with one another to talk to or meet other partners should always be the exception. We can spend time together in our home with other partners, but only after having had a conversation about it in advance.
And, because a good team has no surprises, I’ve had similar conversations with my current boyfriend, Harvey* and he, in turn, has had them with his husband.
We Never Say “No” (or “Yes”) Right Away
Something that we’ve learned as we live in our open marriage is that rules have exceptions, or sometimes we have failed to account for a potential situation. In these instances, we always strive to address the issue head-on as soon as we become aware of it. This protects our relationship and the hard work we’ve put into crafting the non-monogamous portions of it.
We have learned the hard way that questions, especially those pertaining to changing or bending the rules, are almost never as straightforward as they seem. First off, there is always a degree of nuance and timing, and our first reactions are very rarely how we truly feel. Just recently, I made the mistake of asking Ken if Harvey could stay with us during an upcoming five-day period just minutes after he had told me he was really hungry. This was a conversation I had been slightly nervous about, as it didn’t fall neatly into any of our previous discussions, but my timing left much to be desired. The answer was a curt bark: “I don’t know! Why are we talking about this right now?!” After lunch, he was much more open to our conversation.
There are other factors that we’ve found can influence how we feel in a given moment. Over time, we have identified additional things to pay attention to like how things are going in our relationship, how things are going with our outside partners, the time of day, how work went that day, and whether or not we’ve been actively discussing other parts of our relationship.
The other consideration we must weigh is whether or not the change will lead to a slippery slope. Perhaps a rule change makes sense for a specific person, or interaction, but wouldn’t make sense as a long-term change for the health of our relationship. There can also be unintended consequences. In the case of Harvey staying with us, questions such as “How will Ken feel? What will Ken do if we want to be alone? Are there rules we need to set for that visit?” had to be considered before we could fully come to an agreement.
As a good rule of thumb, we have decided to come back to major conversations after at least a couple of hours (if not a day or two) to ensure our thoughts and reactions are balanced and clear.
We’ve Decided What is “Need to Know”
One of our biggest ongoing conversations has pertained to how involved we each want to be with our other relationships. Because our “whys” are different, we’re engaged in different types of relationships, and therefore the questions we’ve had to ask ourselves differ.
The first major question we had to ask ourselves is how involved we’ve wanted to be with each others’ partners. For Ken, that has meant asking himself questions around his relationship with my boyfriend(s) or partner(s).
- Does he want to be friends with them?
- Does he want to be friends with my metamour (my other partner’s partner(s))?
- Is he okay if I become friends with my metamour?
- How will he feel and what will it look like when Harvey visits? Will he steer clear or spend time with us together?
The other major pre-emptive communicative item we’ve both had to ask ourselves is whether or not we want to have details on the relationship(s) we have with others, sexual or romantic. Examples might include:
- Do we want to be informed when a sexual interaction happens, and if so, in how great of detail?
- Do we want to be in-the-know on big events in our partner(s) lives that may trickle into Ken and me’s relationship?
- Do we want to be made aware of milestones, such as anniversaries, saying “I love you,” and other events that would be celebrated or acknowledged if the same event were between Ken and me?
We’ve elected to be hyper-communicative in our relationships, but many couples elect to act on a “need to know” basis, which is a valid choice that we have discussed at length. Ultimately, we struggled to identify what kind of information would fall under the “need to know” category, and foresaw that it could lead to having far more reactive conversations, so decided against it.
We Are Having Fun
After reading all of the above, you might be thinking to yourself, “Eric, that seems like an awful lot of work.” Well, you’re correct. It is ongoing, sometimes uncomfortable work that at times we engage in daily, and other times weeks will pass without conversation. But, more importantly than that, we are having a lot of fun.
Not unlike traveling, we’ve had the opportunity to see and experience so many new and foreign things by building a foundation of trust and then crafting our open marriage on top of it. We have gotten to experience the rush of new relationship energy, new things that turn us on (that we can then bring back to each other), and together, we’ve pushed our boundaries further than I ever would have alone.
As someone who always believed in the One, there were years where I struggled to reconcile my burgeoning feelings and Ken’s desires. Part of our exploration, as a couple, has been (and continues to be) how we show up as loving and committed partners every day when some of our actions may be seen as the opposite. We have had to specifically define what it means for us to have a rich, fulfilling and communicative marriage. We’ve thrown out rules and norms that we grew up with—and see our friends, family, and society living with every day—to mold what our relationship will look like.
It has often been difficult and as we navigate the complexities of day to day life, we continue to have disagreements that force us to evaluate the rules and further define our path forward. But as we have built this life together, one thing is certain: Ken is my One, first and foremost, and it just so happens we’re in an open marriage.
*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
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I Found the One, and We’re in an Open Marriage
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Over four decades ago, John Gottman set out to understand love through the lens of science.
He measured the behavior, perception, and physiology of couples over time in his research lab (dubbed the “Love Lab”) at the University of Washington. Using the data collected, he was able to create equations for love and discern the mathematical dynamics of a relationship.
Surprisingly, even to him, he was able to predict with over 90% accuracy whether couples would stay together or break up.
In his TEDx Talk, The Science of Love, Gottman explains how his scientific research has created a new understanding of love relationships.
He describes his love equations, and the magic trio of calm, trust, and commitment.
This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.
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Emotional abuse is real. In my line of work, I’ve watched women of all different backgrounds live through the pain it can cause, and I’ve seen it haunt them. I’ve seen them suffer the trauma of someone dominating, berating, criticizing, and chastising them.
It brings unanswered questions. Questions like whether the very act of breathing is allowed. I’ve witnessed their agony of hoping that someone, anyone, will finally notice their torment.
Although emotional abuse has many forms, it’s still wildly taboo and often considered something people should just get over or simply live through. It can leave victims completely unaware that they’re even being oppressed.
They feel that it’s not as nearly as “bad” as physical violence or that they aren’t in the same situation. And in some cases, they feel they simply aren’t worthy enough to call themselves violated.
Whether pain from abuse stems psychologically, verbally, physically, emotionally, or sexually—abuse is abuse. And it needs to be stopped before another person has to suffer in silence.
I’m reminded of the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But in all truth, words do hurt.
How emotional abuse feels
I stop short of the door and hold my hand against the frame. I just want to leave so bad. I know somewhere inside that I don’t have to take this. I am free to simply walk out of the door. But I am frozen. Transfixed by the threshold, unsure of how to cross while keenly aware of how many steps there are toward freedom. Gripped by courage, I take a step forward.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I freeze again, feeling the hairs stand up on my neck.
Hearing his voice so close, I want to scream. Subliminally I bolt, not physically but emotionally, running freely. I watch my imaginary self run away, stationary. I stare ahead, watching, oh how I envy her.
Psychologically, I can feel my overwhelming desire to just get away—to run and find a way to completely disappear. He speaks again and the echo of his hate hangs in the air, unsettled, like a rancid stench. I feel smothered by the scent and I grapple with the meaning of words that he speaks at me. The ruthless force of his weapon of words, aimed at my jugular, he wields indifferently. It is dehumanizing.
I wonder how many times I would let the effects of such an attack be a part of my life. How long would I stay put and continue to just endure? How long would I allow the steady stream of vulgarities and disparities to fill space in the vulnerable recesses of my self-esteem, or what was left of it? I can’t explain away why this hurts so badly, why the memories stay etched in the fibers of my muscles as if I were being physically struck every single time he opens his mouth.
I bruise in the form of a blush as my cheeks fill with heat from the harassment and embarrassment of the steady barrage of animosity that spews from his mouth when he directs his anger at me. I flinch and attempt to speak up. Raising my voice, I pretend to find courage.
Every time he is triggered, I fleetingly try to defend myself. I imagine standing my ground while weakly defending my principles as I am annihilated by the sheer brute force of his words. He speaks and his power shuts off my reasoning and takes seize of my oration. In stunned silence, his assault leaves me inundated with fear and has literally forced my words to recoil back into my throat, extinguishing the very air from my chest.
Defenseless and silent, I again attempt to summon my deserted courage, finding none. So many times, tears spill from once dry places, saturating my hot cheeks. And I take it. All of it. The full force of his revulsion, saying nothing in return.
How often I just take every verbal blow, every strike against the temple of my ego. I find myself listening hungrily, gobbling up every detail of what is wrong with my person. My sullied thoughts can no longer comprehend my ability to try and defend myself. I recognize that I don’t have any of the ammunition needed for this battle.
I wait, pitiful and exhausted, as his abusive tirade doesn’t show signs of ending. My attacker screams poison and I’m paralyzed as his vitriol intensifies, relentlessly pointing out fallacy after fallacy. I find that I cannot stand, so I finally sit down.
This only seems to reinforce my vulnerability and inferiority. Now he is standing over me, conquering me. His spittle flies from the hate-filled spaces in his mouth as he covers me in his blatant and unforgiving verbal attack. His speech never falters. He’s dramatic and animated, as if giving an audition to an unseen crowd. Forced to listen to his words, as he calls me a “slut and a whore,” I try to drive the unyielding impressions from my mind. Nevertheless, I can feel myself recording him, pervasively, into the deep and unprotected crevices of my hearing, defining me.
He waits only for silent applause from his own spirit. Enjoying his speech, he smiles at my deprivation as he goes for the kill. “Your stupidity knows no bounds,” he yells, “your incompetence is at an all-time high.” He screams more hate, “You’re fat, ugly, and useless. No one wants you, you’re unlovable, undeserving, undesirable,” and he ends with the booming, “You’re nothing.”
Again, I take it all in, memorizing every detail from the jarring baritone of his voice to the sadistic way he crafts his words. Every time I survive this experience, I still die, just a little, on the inside. I can’t help but seek the sweet and silent solace of death, feeling like this has to be the only way out.
Emotional abuse is just as damaging
This is just one example of how emotional abuse is experienced. It makes the recipient think there’s no way out, and no way to overcome all that they have gone through. The unhealthy tethers to their abuser are simply a coping mechanism and make it so much easier to believe the lies—like verbal abuse isn’t “real” abuse.
Most people don’t recognize that emotional abuse is just as damaging and traumatizing as physical abuse, sometimes even more so. While physical bruises will fade over time, emotional bruising leaves an invisible disfigurement that materializes as soon as the wound is reopened.
So many people suffer in an unacceptable silence, dealing with the emotional scars as if they were never there. No amount of makeup can cover the unseen evidence and as a result, many women try to pretend it never happened.
The heartless onslaught of pain that is created by verbal manipulation and abuse takes the battered to a place of hopelessness and introduces them to a type of emotional suicide. They never know how to accept what they are surviving. People around them tend to admonish them or minimalize their trauma.
“All he does is yell at you. You got it easy.”
These statements make abused women feel like they shouldn’t even try to escape. That they should be accepting and even appreciative that their abuser doesn’t physically assault them. No one sees the patterns of self-defeat and destruction that come from these types of assault.
I want women, and men, to recognize their worthiness. Everyone is worthy of being treated with respect. Your opinions and your desire to have autonomy over your life does not give someone the right to hurt you or your feelings. You deserve to find someone who truly loves you for who you are. Someone who understands what you need and doesn’t feel threatened by you offering your opinion.
Real freedom means “free at heart and free in mind.” You have to begin to realize that you are worthy and to remind yourself of this every day. You have to rebuild the positive levels of self-preservation that your self-esteem needs to heal.
You can do this. You deserve this and you have to see it first for yourself. You have to un-believe the lies and trust that there is hope for you.
It’s this way of thinking that will lead you towards the path of healing, and in the process, you’ll recognize that you don’t have to pretend not to hurt, you can recognize that your pain is real and that your voice deserves to be heard.
So speak up and acknowledge that words hurt, too.
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“PC culture” is just the words we use now to talk about other people. It’s literally just updated terminology.
– Cameron Esposito
The world of love and its accompanying vocabulary is expanding. The days of “one-size fits all” or even “one-size fits most” orientation labels are a thing of the past. To help us look to the future, however, it is often helpful to draw from what we know.
In this case, we’re looking to etymology and a linguistic element called the “combining form.” Here is our guide on combining forms used to express different types of love and relationships, and how you may see them used.
Click here to download the PDF
Terms you may be familiar with
Monogamous = one + marriage
Colloquially we understand “monogamy” to mean being in one committed relationship at a time, not necessarily marriage. But, as we’ll dig into later, our terminology could use some expanding, as not everyone is choosing to engage with the institution of marriage.
Homosexual = same + sexuality/sex partner
This is typically used to describe those who prefer same-sex partners. As we expand our definitions, we may come to find that this refers mainly to who a person is sexually attracted to, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate who that person is romantically attracted to.
Heterosexual = other + sexuality/sex partner
This is used to refer to people who are mostly (or strictly) attracted to people of the opposite sex.
Bisexual = two + sexuality/sex partner
If we hold our definition strictly to its Latin roots, bisexuality refers to one who is attracted to two, and only two, genders. With our ever-evolving understanding of gender expression, this term is potentially limiting and its definition adheres to a now-outmoded, binary construct of gender. Colloquially, bisexual refers to someone who is sexually attracted to both men and women, and the term pansexual or omnisexual offers a more broad perspective (men, women, and gender non-conforming/non-binary individuals).
A note about pansexuality and/or omnisexuality
It’s important to note here that when someone identifies as pansexual, it means they can be attracted to someone anywhere along the gender identity spectrum. It does not mean, however, that they are attracted to everyone and everything. Every person is unique and has their own proclivities, turn-ons, and traits that attract them to another person. Just as a heterosexual woman is not sexually attracted to ALL men, an omnisexual person is not sexually attracted to ALL people.
Let’s explore other combinations!
Polyamory vs polygamy
Polyamory and polygamy are not the same thing. Polyamory means many or more than one love/emotional connection, usually simultaneously. Polygamy refers to plural marriage and is colloquially tied to certain factions of the Mormon faith. Just as many Mormons are not polygamous, to equate polyamory with polygamy would be a miscategorization.
Often, polygamists we see represented on television (Big Love, Sister Wives, My Five Wives) are practicing polygyny (-gyny from the Greek gynos or Ancient Greek gunḗ, meaning woman), the state or practice of having multiple wedded wives at the same time. A woman with multiple husbands at the same time would be practicing polyandry (-andry from the Greek andros, meaning man). To continue playing with combining forms, a person with just two wedded partners simultaneously is practicing bigamy.
Equating the two is, however, understandable, as polyamory is usually referred to as “ethical non-monogamy” (unethical non-monogamy is cheating). We know from our combining forms that -gamy means marriage, so it would be logical to see the opposite of monogamy (one marriage) as polygamy (more than one marriage). But as the ways we look at marriage (and the reasons we get married) change, it makes sense to expand our definitions and terminology for love relationships, and move outside binary thinking. Polyamory is not actually in opposition to monogamy, just different.
This misconception may be due to the fact that culturally, our understanding of the terms monogamy and even polygamy precede our awareness/understanding/acknowledgment at large of polyamory.
A- is a fun combining form because it’s basically just saying “no thank you” to whatever follows it. For example, someone who identifies as Agamous is choosing not to have marriage, as a concept, in their lives. An individual can identify as heteroromantic (romantically attracted to or gets “crushes” on people of the opposite sex), but asexual (not interested in sexual activity with anyone, thank you).
Everything on a spectrum
A note of caution: labels are most helpful in self-exploration, or to further your understanding of someone who already uses them. Labels are less helpful when they’re being used to define or confine someone without their permission. If the introductory combining forms featured here feel too limiting, specific, or two-dimensional for you, you may want to check out the “More Complicated Attraction Layer Cake.”
The best part about exploring an expanded world of love and relationship definitions (aside from being able to hold your own at a cocktail party) is the empowering feeling that can come from finding something that more accurately describes how you feel.
In Anne of Green Gables, Anne hates when people point out her “red” hair, calling it her “lifelong sorrow.” But later, when a neighbor tells Anne her hair has become “a real handsome auburn,” her outlook changes. A more specific word makes all the difference.
Editor’s Note: We have decided to limit this introductory exploration to the areas that best speak to the work we do: love and relationships. For additional reading on gender, sexuality, and pronouns, we recommend starting with these resources.
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