Thursday, February 28, 2013

Why I Loathe Reductionist Science

An article recently made the rounds in social media circles, called "There's No Such Thing as Everlasting Love (According to Science)," which can be found here:

I'm no fan of this article. My main complaint with it, and with other publications of its ilk, is its reduction of the human experience to chemical release or electrical patterns in the brain and body.

As both a scientist and a human being, this offends me. I can know that I undergo a flood of dopamine, seratonin, and oxytocin while cuddling with someone after sex, but that absolutely doesn't describe my experience of post-coital snuggles. These bodily functions are definitely a portion of the experience, and it can be good to know what occurs in the brain and body during intimacy, but to reduce the entirety of our experience of abstract concepts like love, happiness, or contentment to a purely physiological description is incomplete and ridiculous.

I have, in moments of bliss while snuggling in my loved ones' arms, enjoyed deep feelings of connection, contentment, relaxation, and hope. With some partners, these feelings have been buoyed by the knowledge that these people were objectively good to and for me: they were kind, generous, loyal, and respectful. My biologically-based emotions were exponentially reinforced by the thought that this was a good experience, building something lasting and important with someone very worthwhile.

I have also had enjoyable feelings while sharing moments with people I knew would not stay in my life: a feeling of connection as a group who will never meet again all share a joke, a palpable feeling of simultaneous experience of a great live show with an enthusiastic audience. They were wonderful experiences, but I would never call that love, or claim to be in love with those relative strangers. The very idea that you can have "moments of falling in love" with people you hardly know cheapens the experience of what we think of as love.

For me, love is a complex, subjective, exceptional experience that cannot happen quickly or fleetingly. I am certain that no one else has my experience of love, just as much as I know my love with one person isn't the same as my love with another. Each love I feel--for my mother, my boyfriends, my friends, my pets--is unique.

There are things science can't explain, and I don't mean gods or supernatural phenomena. I mean our human experience of life, the abstract concepts we all understand but have difficulty defining: love, joy, heartache, hope, peace, determination. I am not even interested in a physical or physiological explanation of these things. When my idea of hope differs from yours, how can an fMRI possibly explain what happens when we feel it? How does it help anyone to know when their amygdala is involved in sensory processing? What relevance does my knowledge of neurotransmitter release have on my experience of it?

I do realize that understanding for the sake of understanding is a worthwhile endeavor, and that identifying outlying individuals who may be deficient in a certain neurotransmitter or brain function can be important for treating mental illness. But to observe a brain in an MRI and call its readout "love" is to cast aside what truly makes us human: our narrative of our own lives.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Polyamory's Least Discussed Misconception

There are probably more misconceptions about polyamory than any other lifestyle choice. The poly community likes to discuss them at length, and bemoan their prevalence in society at large. (If you're unfamiliar with polyamory, Franklin Veaux's More Than Two is a good resource for explanations and insights.)

Some of the most common misconceptions include the idea that jealousy is rampant in poly relationships, that poly people are unable to commit, and that polyfamily homes are bad for children. These are all important issues and, yes, very common ideas we have to combat.

However, I've noticed a fundamental misconception about polyamory that nobody seems to be talking about, one that is often even touted as a reason to consider polyamory in the first place: that polyamory implies a constant "new lover" sort of phenomenon. This idea even touted as one of the benefits of polyamory. The fact that you have new lovers keeps things exciting and interesting.

The simple truth is that most of us don't have a constant stream of new partners. A common poly mantra is "infinite love, limited time." There are only twenty-four hours in a day and seven days in a week. Even if I knew a dozen wonderful, brilliant, amazing people, I couldn't date all of them. I don't have that much room in my life.

At its most basic level, the thing that separates polyamory from swinging or the casual dating many monogamous people engage in is commitment. Poly people are not just having sex with more than one person, they're loving more than one person, and that sort of relationship takes time to build and maintain.

I currently have two partners. I spend three days a week with each of them, and the seventh day is mine to do with as I please (I often spend it with friends I am not dating). Even with all the time we get together, my partners and I all feel like we need more. More time. More opportunities. More events. More relaxing. Just more in general. We all wish we could add hours to every day and days to every week, and we all know we'd fill them with each other and still want more.

I wish I had time for other partners, because there are people I'd love to spend more time with. I know many awesome people I'd like to date. Some of them might even like to date me. But right now I can't possibly make time to cultivate those relationships.

Poly people often call this being "polysaturated." Yes, we do love our puns. But polysaturation is a common trend in the poly community.

So I have no more ability to take on new partners than someone in a monogamous relationship, yet I am far more satisfied in my multiple relationships than I ever was when I was monogamous. How can that be, since all the hype is about having new lovers?

For me, the major benefits of being poly have nothing to do with taking on new partners. My boyfriends are wonderful complements to each other. Ryder is loud, energetic, outdoorsy, and intense. Rusty is quiet, calm, nerdy, and easygoing. I get very different things from each of them, most of which couldn't be supplied by the other.

I also feel extremely loved, in ways I never felt when dating one person at a time. Both of my relationships are still relatively new, and both are still in the giddy NRE stage. This means that I am overwhelmed by feelings of love. Not only do I feel incredibly loved by my partners, but also by my metamours (my partners' other partners), and by the rest of my pod in general. Because so many people are so intimately linked, we create a family.

I also wonder if variety is as good as novelty when it comes to excitement and arousal. Monogamous relationships often get "comfortable," meaning you stop being excited by your lover. Frequently, the introduction of new lovers into comfortable monogamous relationships reinvigorates the old pair, giving new excitement to their time together. It's hard for me to judge the degree this comfort happens in poly relationships, since, as I said, both of mine are still new, but I think it's possible that simply having more than one partner is enough to keep things exciting and interesting long after the NRE wears off.

Finally, limiting yourself to your current partners while in poly relationships is your choice. In monogamous relationships, you may desperately want to be with someone else and only hold yourself back out of a sense of obligation to your partner, or from the fear of losing them (or, commonly, you don't hold yourself back and just hide this fact from your partner). In poly relationships, limiting your number of partners is a choice you make for yourself, so you don't end up resenting your partners for it.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Loving Your Enemies

Chances are, there's someone in your life who drives you completely crazy. You are required to have repeated interaction with this person. Maybe it's a coworker, a relative, a friend's significant other. Whatever the case, interactions with them are unavoidable.

It's easy for this sort of situation to blow up repeatedly. This can be very damaging, causing problems at work or in your personal relationships. So what can you do to mitigate things?

I've found something that helps me change my perspective when interacting with people I dislike. As much as they may irritate me, I remember that someone loves that person deeply. That person has a spouse, a mother, a sister, a son, a good friend, or someone else who thinks they are absolutely wonderful. To their loved ones, my enemies are fantastic people.

I think about the habits my closest loved ones have that I find endearing, and understand how they might bother other people. While I might find it awesome that my boyfriend is always the center of a lively party, someone else may see that as obnoxious. I appreciate my friend's honest admission of declining an invitation because she just doesn't feel like going out, but someone else may think that's rude.

In the same way, the things that really get under my skin about the people I dislike are possibly the ones their loved ones like most. The guy who is never on time for meetings may show up a bit late for dinner as well, giving his wife extra time to prepare. The girl who never expresses a negative opinion about ideas she knows can't work may often listen patiently to her mother's schemes, ensuring Mom knows she has a sounding board.

So next time you find yourself gritting your teeth and biting your tongue when that one person you can't stand says that same thing that's been irritating you over and over, try to consider how their close loves would view the situation. It doesn't mean that they're right, or what they are doing is a good thing (it may be very bad for you indeed), but it will help you shift your perspective out of a place of anger.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why NRE is Awesome!

Even if you've never heard of the term NRE (New Relationship Energy), you've probably experienced it. NRE is that stage that frequently occurs early in relationships in which you think this relationship is the best thing that's ever happened to you. You adore being around your lover. You get butterflies in your stomach when you think about them. You get short of breath when they kiss you. You want to spend all your time together.

NRE is what many people think of as "falling in love," and it rarely lasts more than eighteen months. While it lasts, you want to commit everything to your lover. You move in together. You relocate to be nearer each other. You quit your jobs and go into business together. You have children together. People often do all of these and more in the name of "being in love," only to find out a few years later that they weren't really that well matched and now they have a lot of work to do untangling their lives.

This gives NRE a bad name. It's heady, irrational, impulsive, and stubborn. It encourages risk-taking and emboldens its targets with floods of happy neurotransmitters.

And yet it's vital to building a strong, healthy relationship.

There is a purpose to this overwhelming stage of love, when everything seems possible and your partner seems perfect. This is the time to build the foundation of what can become a long-term, committed, satisfying relationship, which will last long after the domapine and oxytocin levels have returned to baseline.

In addition to making people commit lifetimes to each other, NRE makes people honest. It encourages you to confide in your lover, to share with them all you're afraid to let the world know. When you both do this, keeping back nothing, fearing no embarrassment or rejection, you pave the way for open and honest communication throughout your relationship. Knowing that they still loved you after you told them about that awful thing you did can remind you that they will still love you even if something new comes up for which you have to ask forgiveness.

It also creates a bubble of happy memories you can return to when things get rough. When you've had a big fight and can only think about how much they've hurt you, think back to your first kiss and how giddy it made you, or the first time you said, "I love you." Figure out what your best memory with your lover is and return to it in your head often, so that it buoys you up when you are having tension in your relationship.

Best of all, enjoy the feelings NRE gives you. The chemical release in your brain when you're with someone you love passionately is the same as the chemical release in the brains of drug addicts when they get high. Being with your lover means getting high, in the most literal sense. And that's simply wonderful. Ride that high as long as it lasts.

NRE can be a breathtaking experience, and you must be careful to make smart decisions when your brain is flooded with love drugs. But it's a wonderful experience as well, and enjoyment of it can set you and your lover up for a dedicated, solid future together.