Sunday, July 13, 2014

What's "Love" Got to Do with It?

In Western Culture we have generalized the meaning of "love" like we have generalized the meaning of "beauty". We can "love" our cars and our cats as much as we "love" our intimate partners (sometimes even more). We associate "beauty" with physical attractiveness and also apply it to being "a beautiful person" - suggesting there is some quality of character that is "beautiful" that goes beyond physical appearances.

In a previous blog, I proposed the idea that "Love Feels Like Effort", however, my guess right now is that most people are experiencing "enjoyment" in many of the instances where they "call it love." In other words, we enjoy our cars and our cats; we enjoy the company of our friends and sexual pleasure with our intimate partners. We enjoy "beautiful" art and "beautiful" people, whether that beauty is "deep" or "superficial". However, such enjoyment generally comes quite spontaneously, and, therefore, does not involve any effort or conscious intention.

I'm currently reading a book by Robert Augustus Masters entitled Emotional Intimacy: A Comprehensive Guide to Connecting with Your Emotions. He points out that most people are "emotionally illiterate"; i.e. they have a very limited vocabulary when it comes to describing their feelings or being able to communicate about those feelings with others. Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication: The Language of Compassion and other related books offers a list of over 100 different emotions one might feel when one's needs are being met and over 100 more for when one's needs are not being met. I dare say many of us could accurately label five emotions or emotional states, let alone 200+. In addition, many of us are not sensitive to what our "needs" are and, therefore, are not always aware of when they are or are not being met.*

Since coming to my own conclusions about what "love" feels like, for real, I have become much more careful about using the word. At the simplest level, I will say "I love you" to friends and family members to whom I feel some commitment of life energy; i.e. I am willing to make the effort to keep in touch with them, to assist them however I can, to meet whatever emotional or physical needs that I can, to make the effort of understanding them as best I can as well as respecting their boundaries. Furthermore, when I am really committed to "loving" someone, I will work even harder to transcend any limitations in myself that might otherwise compromise my ability to relate with them or for them to feel comfortable relating with me.

As I have been thinking about this more recently, another blog post has come to mind and so I wanted to tie some ideas together here; i.e. this idea of real love being effortful and its expression in relationship involving at least as much respect as enjoyment of the other person. For the respect part, I'd like to once again offer a "Relationship Bill of Rights" as discussed in Terry Gorski's book, Getting Love Right: Learning the Choices of Healthy Intimacy":

1. I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
2. I have the right to be free from psychological or physical abuse.
3. I have the right to proper notice and negotiation prior to the relationship being terminated.
4. I have the right to experience my own thoughts and feelings.
5. I have the right to tell my partner honestly and responsibly what I am thinking and feeling - even if my partner does not agree - without being condemned for it.
6. I have the right to have my own life outside of the relationship.
7. I have the right to continue to learn and to grow.
8. I have the right to talk openly about and seek to resolve relationship problems.
9. I have the right to end the relationship if it is not meeting my needs.
10.I recognize that my partner has the same rights I do.(Pages 334 and 335.)

I find it interesting how many people have difficulty talking about these kinds of things in their relationships. My current perception is that the respect of these "rights" depends on what Masters refers to as "emotional literacy," again, the very thing so many people lack. Referring once more to Gorski's work - one of the first skills a person has to have in order to have a functional intimate relationship is a) to be able to recognize what they are feeling, b) put an accurate label on what they are feeling, and c) be able to communicate that to another person, and then reciprocally d) be able to listen to what another person has to say about what they are feeling, e) not respond with disbelief and/or "projection" (substituting other emotions or motives in place of the ones stated), nor to respond with blame, defensiveness, or condemnation of the other person, and otherwise, f) respond appropriately out of acceptance, understanding of and/or empathy with what the other person has communicated.

Furthermore, according to Gorski, these skills are learned first and foremost in the home, where emotionally literate parents help their children to: identify what they are feeling, put a label on that feeling, and communicate about it, and in response the parent respects the child's feelings, and does not get defensive themselves nor condemn the child nor shun them or shame them for feeling one way or another.

But that is not the way most of us living today have been raised. In his 198_(?) lecture on What Is "Normal" in an Intimate Relationship?, Gorski estimated that only 20-30% of the adults living at that time had grown up in that type of functional relationship with their parents. That meant that 70-80% lacked these critical skills and, therefore, it was "normal to be dysfunctional in our intimate relationships." Luckily, he did not end his lecture there, but has since offered guidance for all those who would prefer to learn to relate more functionally. The book I have referred to above offers such guidance, and I highly recommend it. I have yet to complete the Masters book yet, but I can see signs that it is roughly on the same path as Gorski's.

All that being said, I guess the point of my writing is to challenge the "lip service" we pay to "love" when what we are really describing most of the time is "enjoyment." And that's perfectly fine. But "enjoyment" isn't really about commitment and certainly not a commitment to effortful ego/self-transcendance in relationship with others or conscious and intentional meeting of another person's needs*. Usually saying "I love you" in association with enjoyment means, "I'm committed to relating with you as long as it feels good" or "as long as you make me feel good, but once that 'good feeling' goes away, I'm out of here!" And even if partners stay together physically, after the "good feelings" go away, one or the other can certainly leave the relationship emotionally long before any physical separation.

So, in closing, I will offer these two lists - the one's from Rosenberg's course book in non-violent communication, so you can start to develop your own vocabulary, increase your own "emotional literacy" and maybe start to develop a more relationally respectful and functional dialogue with your intimate partners, friends, and family members.

List One: How we are likely to feel when our needs* are Not being met:


List Two: How we are likely to feel when our needs* Are being met:

joyous, joyful

*Consider that "needs" may be identified from "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs", "Relationship Rights" as outlined above, as well as "Love Needs" discussed in this previous post.

Monday, May 26, 2014

On "Fishing"... Do You Want What You Get or Get What You Want?

"Come follow me," Jesus said, "And I will make you fishers of men." Matthew 4:19

In my late teens, this was one of my favorite verses from the Bible. I liked men and I liked to fish, so it was an easy metaphor for me to grasp. At one point I began to think I would lure men in with my body and then talk to them about God, if they didn't already know about Him. I found out through my Senior High drama class that back massages and foot massages could go a long way towards breaking down barriers as well. So besides being "That Girl on the Bicycle" I became the Christian girl who would "give a massage with a message"... much to many a young man's confusion and I suspect frustration, as that was all I would that point in my life anyway.

I entered college a year younger than most everyone else, at 17 rather than 18 (because, thanks to my mother's insistence with the school board back in Radcliff, KY, I ended up skipping sixth grade). Granted, I'd spent most of those first 18+ years "hiding out" with Mom, rather than having much in the way of normal peer to peer interactions, so, really I'd say I was more like a 12-year-old emotionally.

It wasn't until much later in life that I realized how my naivete' was a big part of my appeal to men. I'm not sure if I were more or less needy than most women, having never had the validation of my father in my life, but I kept much of that well hidden with my verbosity and intellectual confidence. Inevitably though, via that combination of my still youthful naivete' and neediness, I cast a rather broad net into the world of men, and, sure enough, I caught a few "fish" here and there.

The reverse was also true. There were men around who were doing basically the same thing, unconsciously putting out their nets into which naive women like myself would be "drawn in". In the long run, there was probably a fairly equal amount of "tossing back" or "rejection" from me and from them as we were all trying to figure out what we wanted based on what we could get or "catch" in those unconscious nets.

As I have discussed on this blog before, one of the ways we "net" each other is with anima and animus "projections". I'd offer that another way is much more primal, mostly involving women making themselves more visually attractive and/or erotically stimulating for men. Some women are more adept at this than others, and/or are born with certain physical traits that lend themselves more naturally to that kind of appeal. Others can afford lots of plastic surgery to re-create themselves to fit current cultural "norms", or at least what they think others see as "sexy".

In his many books on relations between men and women, David Deida describes a woman's "feminine radiance" as a unique spiritual gift that she has to offer to men and the world. However, he also makes a distinction between developing that on a purely physical, superficial level and having it literally "radiate" from the core of her being.

To illustrate the polarity between men and women, Deida points to the typical football game with its very focused, goal oriented, and freedom oriented men (as in "breaking free" into the end zone) playing the game, while the (mostly) female cheerleaders play a more supportive role on the sidelines, being Especially Radiant while doing so! While underway with the USS George Washington during football season, we were visited by the Washington Redskins Cheerleaders. Informed by Deida's ideas, it became very obvious to me, seeing the cheerleaders on and off stage, just how good they were at turning their radiance "On" and "Off" as well.

And then I had the opportunity to watch a season of "America's Next Top Model" when it first came out. Given that all of these women were physically attractive, some of them in unique ways, it came as somewhat of a surprise to me that what the judges and producers really wanted to see was their range of emotional expression and how well they could communicate that through their faces and bodies.

Another time when I was underway with the USS George Washington, I saw the movie, Dangerous Beauty which has since become one of my all-time favorites. It's based on the true story of Veronica Franco a courtesan in Venice in the 1500's. As part of her "training" her mother challenges her to consciously embody a range of emotions - from anger and disdain to submission, rapture, and finally - to make her lover believe that "he is the only man in the universe".

For all of the implication that women have been "subordinated" by men throughout history, I am going to propose, that we have also held great power as well. I think many women are just as guilty of abusing their power(s) as men have ever been. In general, men may hold sway over much of our physical world, but women have always had the greater power over the emotional side of life, and I dare say we deny that at our own peril. (And before anyone gets too upset about these generalizations - let me acknowledge that I realize that is what they are and that there are always going to be exceptions within and across genders.)

I would like to offer that "net casting" is probably very deep programming for all concerned. Every species looks for a way to attract a mate, and each individual in that species will employ those devices with greater or lessor success, with that "success" measured in terms of the number of offspring they are ultimately able to procreate.

However, as I suggested in my previous post, there is much more going on for human beings than just "reproduction" of the species. Consequently, if we keep using tools evolved primarily for finding mates for reproduction, when reproducing is not, or is no longer what is most important to us, then it is no wonder we keep finding ourselves in trouble, struggling to find more overall satisfaction in our relationships. Maybe its time we come up with some better methods of finding people we want to be relating with for those other reasons? In other words, the "casting a net" approach isn't really the most effective for most of us human beings in this more complex, modern world.

From my own point of view, it's no longer about what I can catch in my "net" by "chance"; it's also not about letting myself be "drawn into" someone else's "net" when they are not really clear about what they want. It's about knowing very clearly what I actually want, and keeping my mind and heart open to meeting someone who a) also knows very clearly what they want, b) doesn't need a lot of "woo/woo emotional/biochemical stimulation" to get them to pay attention, and c) actually wants the same most important things in a relationship that I want. (In other words, it does not have to be a "perfect match", but we should be able to share many of the things that are most meaningful to both of us.)

Keep in mind, for any individual to figure out what is most meaningful for them requires what I call "homework." If you're too busy just letting your more lowly evolved (limbic brain) biology (unconsciously) cast nets everywhere "looking for love", you're probably not going to have the time, nor the mental energy to do that "What's really most meaningful to me?" homework. It's also highly unlikely that you're ever going to have the presence of mind to engage a potential partner in dialogue to find out what is most meaningful to them. Therefore, there's basically no way to get to that place of sharing what is mutually meaningful without self-knowledge and without knowledge of the other person as well, far more knowledge than anyone might gain from a "first impression", or "love a first sight"!

As one of my favorite authors on the subject of relationships,Terry Gorski puts it: "Most relationships fail due to selection errors." As I have suggested repeatedly in posts throughout this Blue Moon Turtle Blog: I'm convinced there are better ways to "select" our friends and our intimate partners, to satisfy the total complex of our human nature, rather than just the biological aspect of it.

For instance:

1) Figure out what is most meaningful to you and to your potential partner, and see if these things intersect.

2) Beware of emotional/biochemical addictions to experiences like falling in love.

3) Understand the limits of intuition, and back it up with what Gorski calls a "rational basis of trust" born of actual experiential knowledge of the other person over a fairly long period of time and in multiple circumstances.

4) Know your own anima or animus, and be as conscious as you possibly can be so as to minimize if not altogether eliminate your tendency to "project" onto others.

5) Be careful misinterpreting basic biological/emotional-biochemical experiences masquerading as something "higher" or "more spiritual."

And, lastly (for now),

6) Be aware of your tendency to a) not be completely clear about what you actually want in a relationship, and b) unconsciously "casting your net" merely to see who you can catch, and how you might control them, rather than being more sensitive to the humanity of the other person and their need to be treated with empathy and respect.

Granted, if we never learn to approach these most challenging of human relationships more consciously, and we simply continue to allow our lower biology, our limbic brains, to keep running the show, we will, nevertheless, continue to produce more human beings. My contention is that we will not be producing happy, peaceful, well-adjusted human beings, nor will we ultimately produce a happy, peaceful, well-adjusted and sustainable society. We're only going to "get what we get" - but not necessarily get what we really want.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

On the Road of Celibacy - January 22, 2012 - Present

I ended my last intimate relationship when I came to the conclusion that the person I was with was not really capable of seeing me for who I was, let alone loving me or valuing me for who I was or for what I was able to offer to him in our relationship. We had been friends for over 10 years, lovers off-and-on over those 10 years, and housemates and lovers just prior to my starting to ride my bicycle across the U.S. in 2012.

There had been "perceptual problems" all along. Probably the most persistent was that he was convinced that either I had "fallen in love with him" or I would at some point in the future, regardless of the number of times I tried to explain to him that I just didn't do that anymore...because I understand the psychology of romantic love, as well as the mechanisms of anima and animus "projection". Nevertheless, it was an ongoing pattern in his communication with me, a warning of sorts, to "not fall in love with him" because he was definitely not "in love with me" even though we continued to be intimate with one another.

There were other misperceptions as well. When he admitted one particularly serious misinterpretation of some things I had said, that also involved a third party, it was then that I realized: if my friend could be so completely wrong about that, then there was probably Nothing I Could Say or do that he would not misinterpret, even grossly misinterpret in some way.

When you reach that conclusion with someone, no matter what the relationship, there's just really no place to go from there, no matter how much you might care about them.

I am somewhat perturbed to say this pattern has presented itself to me multiple times in my life. I think it may have something to do with my attraction to men with above average intelligence. I enjoy intellectual conversation. I enjoy a man who can express himself well, who has a certain "Dynamic Quality" to his character. More and more though, I fear some of that outward expressiveness is a distraction from certain deeper deficits and/or emotional/psychological shortcomings. Not surprisingly, given my own difficult childhood I am also drawn to be empathetic with other people, especially men, who have suffered various forms of child abuse, whether it was subtle or overt. Upon further consideration, though, that's actually a big demographic given the history of abusive child rearing in this culture. So rather than "drawing" these types of men towards me it may be more a matter of having difficulty avoiding them altogether, because there are just too many of them out there!

For my own part, I know that I have entered into many of these relationships with an intuition that the person I was with was having difficulty genuinely (and that's the key word) empathizing with me and with other people. I thought that if I exercised my capacity to empathize with them deeply and consistently enough, they would learn from that experience, they would learn from my example, my modeling in relationship with them. It wasn't until I was listening to one of Stefan Molyneux's Live Call-in Shows that I began to think differently about that...

Stefan used the analogy of speaking Japanese to someone who did not know the language. You could speak Japanese to them indefinitely and they were not going to learn Japanese simply by listening to you. He said that empathy is like that. It's something that people have to learn and they have to learn it as a part of their early childhood development. I have enough background in early childhood development to agree in general. However, there's a part of me that wants to hope that, under the right circumstances and given sufficient determination, anyone at any age can learn to genuinely empathize with others, in the same way that they could learn a new language - especially if they can appreciate the value of it. Nevertheless, I realize that this is another area of human life where the odds are stacked against such an outcome, which I find deeply, deeply, frustrating and disheartening.

Given the circumstances, it was really painful to come to this conclusion about my long-time "friend" as well. It was hard to accept the possibility that no matter how much I genuinely cared about him, he would never be able to receive that caring for exactly what it was. For whatever reasons, without a capacity for genuine empathy, he would not be able to feel my caring for him. And it was not enough for me to simply feel myself as a "caring person". I have shared this idea in another way: if I am going to offer "understanding" to someone, I want them to actually feel understood and I am willing to communicate until that level of understanding or mutual understanding is reached between us (of course that depends on the other person also having that same level of commitment).

Coming out of that relationship, I was presented with a new one, and in the context of that latter relationship I was offered a challenge "to be celibate for at least a year". Since I have been very transient for most of the last three years, that has actually helped me to meet that challenge and exceed it. Furthermore, it has given me an opportunity and time to think differently about physical intimacy.

First of all, reading another book available through Stefan Molyneux's website, The Origins of War in Child Abuse by Lloyd deMause, I learned that males are brain-wired to be even more emotionally sensitive than women, and yet many if not most human cultures have denied this reality and, in fact, seem bent on conditioning men to be just the opposite. If little boys do not receive the empathy they need and the respect they need for their emotional vulnerability as children, it is no wonder they have difficulty exercising those capacities for themselves and for others as adults.

Knowing this, and knowing how vulnerable people are and are made to feel in the midst of and aftermath of physical intimacy, I have decided to not take any of that for granted anymore. I'm not going to invite a man to be that vulnerable with me unless there is a much greater foundation of relationship and trust between us to Protect Him. And as far as I'm concerned, any man who comes to me denying his need for that kind of emotional respect, is not respecting his own emotional vulnerability enough, and will probably not respect my emotional vulnerability either.

Second, I have come to a much deeper knowledge of all of the biochemistry involved with different types of feelings associated with "love" and "desire". From this article I learned that feelings of "lust" are mediated primarily by testosterone and estrogen, feelings of "romantic love" are mediated by dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin (and note, adrenaline is there because you are having a stress response; it's the same chemical that enters your system when you are feeling fear), and finally, feelings of long-term attachment are mediated by oxytocin and vasopressin. (Interesting side note for vasopressin - as noted in this article - it's repressed by alcohol consumption!)

From my current point of view, I appreciate that the emotional/chemical cocktails associated with physical intimacy are going to be expressed no matter what we might be thinking about our partner at the time. And, on a biological level, our bodies are saying to one another variations of "I want to mate with you and make babies" and "I want to bond with you," again, whether that is actually true on a conscious mental level or not.

I have decided that the next time I choose to be intimate with someone it will be because (at least in my case), I am consciously choosing to communicate with them, "I want to bond with you." Furthermore, I would prefer a much more established expression of oxytocin and vasopressin in our relating, through friendly association/companionship and "getting to know one another" over a long period of time, before adding in dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin.

From my current point of view, people who are addicted to the "rush" of "falling in love" (as I once was) are really no different from people who are addicted to the "rush" of jumping out of an airplane or off of a cliff. (It's all about adrenaline in each case.) Thing is...people who do that jumping/falling thing in their intimate relationships often don't even pack a parachute! Is it any wonder then that so many of those relationships eventually end up dashed on the rocks?! Again, from my current point of view, the bonds of trust and friendship, that have been sewn together over time and reinforced biochemically with oxytocin and vasopressin form the "parachute" a couple can use for a much more safe and successful experience of "falling in love", where you can completely enjoy the fall and still land on your feet!

Third, I have begun to suspect that there are so many other things that make us think we are "in love" with another person, other things that drive us to want to be with them, to want to be intimate with them. As referred to earlier, "anima and animus projections" almost invariably result in our wanting to reclaim/remain associated with the part of ourselves we have projected onto the other person. So that can be one unconscious force driving us towards "wanting to be with the other person".

Another factor I have had to take into consideration is the role that simple curiosity plays in our seeking to be physically intimate with another person. There have been times when I have indulged myself in fantasies of being intimate with someone, thinking I was doing that because I really cared about them. But when I took a closer look at my motives, I realized part of what was underlying those "caring" feelings was simply curiosity about how it might feel like, physically, to be with that person. In that moment, I also had to acknowledge that sexual curiosity is certainly not unique to human beings, as pretty much every other animal on the planet is sexually curious once they've reached puberty, if not sooner.

And that led to another consideration: Can I kiss someone with compassion? Where, for me, compassion means having empathy for what a person has suffered in their lives and respect for how they have handled it. In order for that feeling of compassion to be genuine, I have to have in-depth knowledge of the other person. Consequently, after taking the time to gain that in-depth knowledge, can I feel so compassionate towards another person that making love becomes an expression of that compassion? In that case, is making love the right thing to do when the depth of empathy and respect for that other person can no longer be expressed in words or other actions? And furthermore, where the seeking of curiosity can eventually be satisfied, can being genuinely compassionate ever have such limitations?

Finally, over the past several months I have become increasingly knowledgeable and sensitive to the interesting dynamic between the limbic brain and the frontal cortex. From my current point of view and understanding, the limbic brain as a seat of emotion and intuition and some very old evolutionary wiring, can be quite "self-serving" and by that I mean, serving the almost exclusively biological motives of our human nature; i.e. individual survival and reproduction. If we were creatures who simply reproduced and died, there would be no problem with that. However, that is not the way human beings operate. We build communities and cultures and not unlike the Volvox algae, we have learned that there are benefits to mediating some of our individual biological drives and motives in order to be part of a community.

And that is where the frontal cortex comes in as an evolutionary advance over the limbic brain. It is in the frontal cortex that we develop networks of neurons that encode what we learn from society about the contexts in which we may express our biological drives, the drives programmed into the limbic brain. Furthermore, we engage that learning process from infancy to age 25 or so, meaning, there is a long, long, time for our living and relational circumstances to influence how our frontal cortex develops.

Yes, all human beings are wired for aggression, but it is society that teaches us in which contexts aggression is appropriate. For example, it is okay to tackle someone on the football field and steal a football from them, it is not okay to tackle a woman on the street and steal her purse from her. For decades, sexual intimacy was only considered appropriate within the context of marriage, now, for many, any context is appropriate if two people are even remotely attracted to one another. Whatever the expectations, for greater or lessor control, it is the frontal cortex that is going to "record" those messages, for better or worse.

As I look at the journey of my own life, from the very isolating and controlling environment in which I grew up, to the freedom of being completely on my own starting in my early 20's (and in a relatively sexually liberated time of the 1980's prior to the horror and threat of AIDS), I have decided that having all that sexual freedom did not necessarily result in my being more emotionally or sexually satisfied in my relationships. Furthermore, my early isolation certainly did not prepare me to deal with the intricacies of social relations, and the emotional self-regulation that is so often important to maintaining those relations. However, especially since the mid to late 90's, I have been doing a lot more "homework" in this area, and if anything, my current choices are a culmination of that life experience and "practice".

Furthermore, I want to be clear that my celibacy is not based on a "fear of being hurt" (again). I've been disappointed, hurt, frustrated, etc., many times in my relationships and I have learned to heal from those experiences over and over again. Reading the book, Women Who Run with the Wolves taught me how to live as a "wise innocent".

Instead, my choosing celibacy at this point in my life is an acknowledgement that there are ways to avoid unnecessary pain and suffering and to avoid causing unnecessary pain and suffering in others if we do more emotional/biochemical self-regulation with our frontal cortex rather than leaving the limbic brain to run the show! And to be perfectly honest, I am much more satisfied with the person I have become and with the level of genuine empathy and respect I can now bring to my relationships, than I have ever been before.

I'm also appreciating the opportunity I have now to patiently "sew together" friendships with the men and women I have in my life, so that we all have better "parachutes" for the times we do choose to "take the plunge". Thanks to one of those friendships, I now know about the work of Esther Perel, and I have really come to appreciate what she has to say about the "villages" that have gone absent from modern human civilization and the important role they have played in helping each of us meet our love and belonging needs through multiple relationships, rather than being so overly focused and dependent on that one, all-consuming, "romantic relationship".

The bottom line: I'm looking to experience myself and others in a very different way, and, for now, celibacy has opened a door to that possibility for myself and for the men who choose to become friends with me...