Stop Saying “Poly” When You Mean “Polyamorous”

Quick clarification [Added 09/05/15]:  Please read the full article before commenting. This post is primarily meant to explore the confused, defensive, and sometimes outright racist/sexist/etc. reactions to a call-to-action around language use in the polyamorous community. The specific linguistic issue is concretely addressed in the final section.


Doesn’t it suck when someone tells you to stop using a word you’ve been using for years because they say it’s oppressive or harmful to their community?

Do you feel personally angry and/or persecuted when a term you use suddenly comes under attack? Do you think “this is political correctness run amok“?

That’s how a bunch of polyamorous folks felt when they were asked to stop using “poly” as an abbreviation. In case you haven’t stumbled upon this (I just heard about it two days ago myself),  here’s the scoop—a Polynesian person on Tumblr made the following call to action:

Hey, can any polyamory blogs with a follower count please inform the palagi portion of the community that “poly” is a Polynesian community identifier, and is important to our safe spaces.
Using “polyamory” is cool just like using “polygender” and “Polyromantic” and or Polysexual” is cool. But the abbreviation “poly” is already in use.

Then, when people pushed back saying “chill out, lots of words have multiple meanings” or “people have been using poly as an abbreviation for polyamorous for decades already,” they responded with this. Now, do I agree 100% with their statements? Nah. And regardless of my post’s title, I don’t actually want to obliterate “poly” from your vocabulary. But before you breathe that big ol’ sigh of relief, keep reading.

Poly: Polynesian, Polyamorous, PolyWrath?

People are now discussing this debate on various Facebook groups dedicated to sexuality education and polyamory (one of the biggest has over 18K members), on Reddit  (as well as the cesspools of Reddit) and on Tumblr. It’s apparently been brewing for a few months, if not longer, and some people are PISSED. Those under the delusion that polyamorous people are all kinder and more open-minded than the general population clearly hasn’t been in one of these circles and looked at it through a social equity lens.  But that’s a post for another day. Back to the anger.

See what I did there? You're welcome.

See what I did there? You’re welcome.

Being on the receiving end of “stop using a word” or “you’re being oppressive” isn’t an easy pill to swallow. Whenever I get called out for something—most likely ableism since it’s an axis of oppression I don’t personally experience and am still learning a lot about—there’s often a knee-jerk reaction in there. A “don’t tell me what to do” demon on my shoulder who loves getting self-righteous and hates being wrong, whose first line of defense is “it’s not even that big of a deal.” Heck, I’ve definitely felt it as a sexuality educator when I’ve merely read up on newer sexuality labels and no one is even talking to me. Though most of the time the reaction is “COOL, NEW WORDS,” I’d be lying if I said I never think “this is just going TOO FAR” or “WHY SO MANY LABELS” when hearing some new categories of identity, especially if people are getting defensive about them. That gut reaction is normal…

But then I take a breath and realize I’m being ridiculous even if it’s normal.

I’m not being my best self in those moments, and I need to hold compassion for my own feelings but also push past them if they’re not serving my values of kindness and justice.

Overall, individuals and communities are perpetually trying to find ways to describe themselves and their lives, and that can be really tough especially if the words are related to identities that are devalued and marginalized. While “labels are for soup-cans” and we’re so much more complex than words could ever describe, language is a powerful thing that helps both reflect and create our world. It helps build communities, express our emotions, and even pass down our histories. It helps us name our struggles, craft banners for solidarity, and connect for change. It makes sense people have a lot of feelings about it!

Language is ever-evolving and it’s a beautiful thing when more words can become available, when more ways of understanding our world are accessible. But that doesn’t happen without friction. Sometimes our knee-jerk reactions to new words or identities come from a place of holding onto what we’ve been taught and being uncomfortable with change. Sometimes the new labels contradict, criticize, or make obsolete other labels we’ve been using—or even identifying with—and that can feel like a punch in the gut.

WAYSA

Art by Amanda Watkins, my other boo. Click on the image to check out more of her art!

Often, and as I recognize is the case with me and my pride,  immediate rage comes from not wanting to think that we’ve been ignorant and/or messing something up THIS WHOLE TIME. If XYZ person is right that usage of a particular word is oppressive, then what does that say about me, who has been using it for years? Does that mean I’m an oppressive, irredeemable jerk? (The answer is often “no, it just means stop using it” but the visceral reality doesn’t allow us to understand that quickly.) For more on this phenomenon, check out this video by Ian Danskin [one of my partners] and his overall series “Why Are You So Angry?

Point is we need to evolve with language and work through our gut reactions to change.

Now, that’s not to say we should forget about the roots of certain words or suddenly say that terms like the n-word and the r-word are chill because “we’re past them being a slur” [hint: we’re not, and racism/ableism aren’t over either]. What I mean is that we need to hold space for growth and be willing to move in new directions with our terminology—that regardless of how defensive our initial “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” shoulder-demons might be, we MUST move in a direction of empathy and kindness, particularly to those in marginalized communities with long legacies of experiencing colonialism and other forms of structural oppression.

“But Poly Is a Latin Prefix; You CAn’t Claim It…”

Yes, poly is a prefix for dozens of words and it actually comes from Greek. Even the “poly” in the naming of Polynesia came out of super uninventive naming schemas (Polynesia means “many islands”). So? No one is saying the prefix needs to be eradicated. When talking about polycarbonate lenses, polygraphs, polygons, or polydactyl kittens, they’re not being referred to as “poly[s]” on their own. There’s the qualifier afterwards, but that is not always the case when talking about people. If someone states “I’m poly” you can’t immediately tell if they’re saying they’re Polynesian, polyamorous, polysexual, polyromantic, polygendered, or a host of other identity labels [without further context]. Heck, they could be a FEW of those labels.

So what we’re talking about here is clarity as well as empathy and willingness to listen.

Whether these Tumblr folks represent a few dozen, a few hundred, or a few thousand, the questions remain the same: what are we, non-Polynesian “poly” people and our allies, going to do to provide clarity to our language and stand in solidarity with however many Polynesians want this change? More importantly, what does this situation, and the pushback from members of “the polyamorous community,” tell us about language adoption and resistance to change in our communities?

When people say this is “being politically correct,” they are trying to make basic decency into a politically contested issue and make it sound bad. Some people even think they’re brave if they’re politically incorrect, conflating deep-rooted anti-authoritarian work that seeks to dismantle structural power with, like, flipping the bird to someone on Tumblr talking about racism. Being a jerk and using oppressive terminology isn’t brave. Whining about trigger-warnings and “preferred pronouns” and “social justice warriors ruining fun” isn’t bold or radical. Saying we’re “coddling our new generations” and actually harming survivors of trauma by being more thoughtful is missing the point (and it’s not even medically accurate). Being unwilling to even consider a minor shift in language to give space for another community to flourish is not living in a space of goodwill.

So What Should We Be Doing?

As someone in the sexuality field AND a polyamorous person with a big tech geek streak, I value useful search terms and disambiguation. Heck, as a super Type A person that drools over nice spreadsheets, regardless of other sexual or racial identities, I think it’s crucial that we make the Internet an easier, more organized place to browse. I already avoided using “poly” online in any meaningful capacity  because it felt too ambiguous for searches and helpful tagging, and this debate is just another great reason to avoid it: because it’s a term that a racially marginalized community uses to self-identify and build community. If “poly” on its own works for them, more power to ’em. Even in sexuality-specific circles, using “poly” can be possibly misunderstood because there are other labels that start with poly- as well, so again, not the most useful.

Some have suggested “polya” or “polyam” as possible abbreviations that don’t conflict with usage by other groups. Personally, I think “polya” looks ugly as a word and makes me think of Dubya [never a good thing]. I feel “meh” about “polyam” but could see it as a better alternative, I guess. To each their own, and I won’t be adopting either of these abbreviations soon, but what I do advocate for is mindfulness around when and where we use “poly” to mean “polyamorous.”

Here are some questions to ask ourselves:

  1. Is the word being used in a space where the meaning is clear to everyone witnessing the content?
  2. Is using “poly” for “polyamorous” making it harder for another community to disambiguate and find “their own kind”?
  3. What impact does the term’s usage have on search results, tagging systems, and online spaces?
  4. Is the decision to keep using “poly” for “polyamorous” coming from a place of spite and thoughtlessness or from a place of informed compassion?

Personally, I will continue to use “poly” in private situations or verbal conversation where people know what I mean, BUT in tagging things online—a place where categorizing information is important, where people use those systems to search for others like themselves, and so on—I will use polyamory specifically and avoid “poly.” Again, this is work I was already doing, but something that is generally not a huge effort for folks to start doing if they hadn’t been. I encourage this level of specificity in others, for the sake of more than just random Polynesian folks on Tumblr.

But in regards to those “random Polynesian folks” on Tumblr, it doesn’t matter if most of us “don’t think about Polynesian people when we say poly” or that “our Polynesian friends don’t care.” While that may inform how radical our changes are and where we enact change, it shouldn’t mean that we ignore the issue entirely or dig our heels in the dirt because we don’t want to change. To questions of “couldn’t they just as easily pick a new tag/abbreviation?” my answer is just “maybe.” But when it’s a horde of predominantly White, Western polyamorists asking that question and refusing to consider where they may change, that says something.

At the end of the day, these are people asking for us to collaborate in making the Internet and its communities easier and better to navigate for all.

If you live in a place where you are guaranteed free speech, calls for space and respect like this aren’t censorship—they’re calls for consideration. You still have the power and right to make whatever decision feels best for you, but my hope is that you will prioritize the expansion of kindness and reduction of harm in the process.

One of my favorite poly-related words. This image by Robert Ashworth used under Creative Commons license. Click through for original.


Header image of Moorea in Polynesia shot by Loïs Lagarde and used under Creative Commons license. The only change to the image is that it’s cropped a bit differently.

Update 09/04/15: Poly as a prefix actually comes from Greek, not Latin as I originally wrote. Made the correction. I always get those mixed up because they’re both present in the full word [polyamory]. Thanks for the person that caught that!

Update 09/05/15: Unsurprisingly, I’ve heard from Polynesian folks on both sides of the issue. Some use “poly” while others don’t. Some think it’s useful while others don’t. Some use the ‘net regularly while others don’t. Interestingly, the “poly-as-Polynesian” definition got added to Urban Dictionary back in ’06. Anyway. I clarified a bit of language in the post, most notably in a sentence that could be interpreted in two ways and most people were reading it differently than I intended it [the one about calling something “‘poly,’ period”].

Latino Blog Challenge Day 6: Crossing Borders

Prompt: “Immigration: For or Against?”

I’m for people moving when they want and/or need to, and I’m pro immigrant/migrant rights. I’m pro youth getting an easier path to citizenship when they didn’t make the decision to migrate without papers, but were under the care of a guardian who made that decision for them.

Not a fan of conditions that make it so people HAVE to migrate against their will, so that families are separated, so that people work in subhuman conditions to send money home or feed their families. Not a fan of heavily controlled borders and the dehumanizing language around undocumented people (e.g. “illegals” and “aliens”). Not a fan of super difficult processes to become a citizen of a country where someone is working and/or fleeing and/or trying to provide for themselves/their family and/or be part of the community.

Latino Blog Challenge Day 3: Feed Me, Seymour!

Prompt: “Favorite Latin Cuisine”

HARD QUESTIONS! I’m a total foodie and just spent a weekend in Puerto Rico having amazing Latin-American food. At Tierra de Fuego, we ate Argentinian food; at Perurrican, we ate Peruvian and Peru/PR fusion food; and at home we ate comida criolla.

I think the defining feature of my favorite Latin-American cuisine, though, is the lack of heat and the blast of flavors. Having grown up in Puerto Rico to a boricua mom and a Cuban dad, those cuisines are definitely my favorite, though I do have soft spots for Argentine and Dominican food.

But let’s just get our mouths watering now, and I can share some food memories:

  • Milanesa (a breaded cutlet dish) a la napolitana (with ham, cheese, and marinara sauce) or a caballo (with a fried egg on top) from El Deli in Puerto Rico, an Argentine place where I drank the mushroom & wine sauce like a soup, where we could draw/sign on the walls with big markers.
  • Abuela making short-grained white rice with tocino as I sat on a small, white wicker chair and watched cartoons.
  • Picking out the black rice grains from the big measuring cup full of white rice as I stood on a chair helping a neighbor when we visited Mayaguez.
  • Picking parcha (passionfruit) and sugar cane and guineos (bananas) and carambolas (starfruit) and little medicinal herbs and recao from our backyard.
  • Christmases with arroz con gandules, home-made pasteles wrapped in twine and banana leaves, arroz con dulce with that little cinnamon stick. A roast pig on the spit and Christmas songs about going to see Jesus, about the jibaritos on the mountains.
  • Limbers made in plastic cups and eaten after school, bright yellow corn ice-cream with cinnamon on top (or guava sherbet with creamed cheese balls), and shaved ice piraguas in Old San Juan.

Latino Blog Challenge Day 2: Visitando la patria

Prompt: “What Latin American Country/Island have I been to”

Well, I’ve lived in a Latin-American country most of my life–18 years to be exact–though some debate if Puerto Rico is even a country at all. It’s actually an archipelago, for starters–a collection of islands in the Caribbean, part of the Greater Antilles–that’s still not sovereign. PR is a commonwealth of the U.S., a strange love-child of the Caribbean waters and the U.S. empire.

Aside from that and perhaps touching the shores of some other islands when I was too young to remember more than a few snippets, I’ve never been anywhere else in Latin-America.

Hopefully one day I’ll visit other places, but here are some at the top of the list:

  • Cuba–my father’s homeland. He and his family fled Fidel Castro’s regime and thus hopped over to Mexico, Florida, and eventually Puerto Rico while my dad was just a small child. They all said they’d never step foot back there until communism fell and/or Fidel and his line died out. 
  • Argentina–we had online friends there in the late 90’s due to my dad’s love of Argentine Dogos and my mom’s tech savvy, friendly nature.
  • Costa Rica–pretty pretty!

Latino Blog Challenge Day 1: Latin@ in America

Starting late, I know. This was supposed to start on the 15th, but I’m starting today because I was traveling (to Puerto Rico, coincidentally).

Prompt: “What I love most about being Latino in America”

First of all, I’m assuming “America” here means the United States of America? Which is a pet peeve of mine because the USA is NOT the entirety of America and I think it’s strange how US folks call themselves just “Americans.”

But anyway.

I love that we’re a presence that complicates notions of race and belonging–that in a black/white country we come in too many colors to easily pinpoint and identify as Latin@, and that while all our Latin-American countries have their own histories, we as people have histories with living in the U.S. too.

I like that our mere presence can turn racialized notions on their head. Here in the U.S. we organize more based around country of origin and/or language rather than the color of our skin because skin does not dictate our full cultural landscape (though it does affect it). Our origins, overall, are mixed and complicated so that questions of race can throw many of us for a loop. How much of our blood is black or native or various flavors of colonizer? Is it even a question of blood anymore for those folks who have immigrated into Latin-America from other countries and been there for years, decades, or even centuries?

I love that even in the face of antipathy and harsh immigration laws and racism and xenophobia and stereotypes, we are still overall a proud set of people, that we congregate joyously and there’s always food and conversation and community.

Racist + Sexist “Adult Novelties”

Trigger-warning for gross sexist, racist language and glorification of non-consent.

Those of you who know me know I *love* talking about sex toys. Not only do I find them personally stimulating (har har har), I’m also just fascinated by how they have evolved, how technological developments have impacted their growth/design, and the ways in which people and the media conceptualize them. I’m fortunate enough to have attended some “novelty expos” in the past for work and I’ve seen a wide array of products. Some have blown my mind with their stylish marketing and innovative designs, but I’ve also had the misfortune of encountering some REALLY horrible toys (read: unsafe materials, terrible packaging, offensive marketing, and more). I wanted to highlight 2 particular companies producing some pretty egregious toys.

Why?

  • Because I want to hold toys and companies to higher standards and share what I know with the people who read this blog
  • Because consumers deserve to find good resources for their sex toys and know which companies are fucked up
  • Because there are some damaging and oppressive stereotypes and ideas being bandied about, and the sex toy industry usually gets a “free pass” because people think sexuality is some magical arena where politics and kindness don’t apply
  • Because we need to acknowledge the pervasive sexism and racism in our fields and see how these things connect to our daily lives

BUT FIRST: some background. Pipedreams and Nasstoys (the ones I discuss here) are part of what’s known in the industry as “The Big Five” (Doc Johnson, Cal Exotics, and Topco being the other three in the club). These are the companies that churn out toys like nobody’s business–the “giants” in the industry. There’s no real sense of “coherent” brand identity to the average consumer because these huge companies have a lot of toys under their belt and a wide array of different lines. Unlike smaller independent stores and companies, these organizations are faceless and commercial (not inherently a bad thing, but it’s not a positive thing for me personally). They also put their profits before their consumers, as evidenced by their practices and the stuff I mention in this post.

Disclaimer: I own a glass Pipedreams toy because I was asked to review it years ago. While the line has a TON of products, and some of them are actually nice, I don’t support them as a brand.

 

Pipedreams

When I went to the ANME Founders Show, I was introduced to the Pipedreams Extreme Toyz line. My immediate thought was a big WTF. They have toys like Flip a Sista Over and Junk in Tha Trunk. If the names and the “cum in her ghetto booty” slogan slapped across the package of the latter aren’t enough to get you riled up, here’s the copy that goes along with these ridiculously offensive toys:

Fuck her first in her tight mocha twat, then Flip A Sista Over and bust a nut in her booty! This handheld honey is the answer to every man’s chocolate fantasies…a sweet black pussy on one end and a big ol’ bubble butt on the other, with nothing getting in the way of you filling her with cum! 

If you love thick black asses, this sista’s got enough Junk in tha Trunk to satisfy your cravings! Fuck her first in her phat booty, then stick it in her snatch and bust a nut in her tight mocha twat! This bubble butt beauty is the answer to every man’s chocolate fantasies…two big round ass cheeks to slap and pound on top, with a sweet black pussy spread eagle underneath! 

Flip her over, insert the vibrating bullet underneath, and enjoy thrilling vibrations in her coochie and ass. When you’re finished, cum inside either hole and never worry about knocking her up!

Where…would I even begin criticizing this? Jesus.
This one also creeps me out due to the way it fetishizes virginity, and while I’m down with most fetishes and fantasies, the problematic thing about this toy and its accompanying text/ideology is that for many people this “virgin ideal” leads to a lot of slut-shaming  (among other things). Similarly, there’s the misogyny and idealization of youth in this other toy, which bears the lovely slogan “I’m young, dumb, and want your CUM!” And while I’m actually a fan of consensual face-fucking, the images for this toy are just downright creepy. They hit super close to home re: the dehumanization of women in day-to-day experiences, and the copy is also atrocious and reeking of rape culture:

She’s all yours to enjoy and there are no rules! Best of all, she never says no to a good time because she always has her mouth full! 

Watch her eyes roll back into her head, then gag her with a taste of your man meat!  If your girl never deep throated you before, now is your chance to enjoy the thrill! (…) She won’t gag or choke, and there’s no annoying teeth to get in the way or bite.  When you’re about to cum, don’t worry about pulling out–blow a fat load right in her mouth and let her swallow!

At the expo I attended, they also had a “shemale” torso (Note: this was their offensive language, not mine–or it was something else but along these lines, like tranny or hermaphrodite)–headless with a huge penis and huge breasts, though I haven’t seen that one being sold…

 

Nasstoys

They have an entire “Latin” section. Don’t even get me started on the packaging. The fact that they have “se habla español” on their company page makes me think that perhaps these folks are in part, men of color? I’m not sure, though! Either way, it’s fucked up.

Their “Isabella Pussy” is described as “super realista pussy” that’s “siempre lista / always ready,” so we once again see gendered language and the idea of constant sexual availability, but this time with racialized connotations to boot. The other model is “Maria,” and I could see that stupid name coming from ten miles away.

The one that is most unnerving to me, though, is the one called “My First Pregnant Latina ‘Knocked Up’ Pussy.” With the history of seeing women, especially women of color, as baby-making machines; with the history of  colonial rape; with the widely-held racist notions/images that Latin@s are “welfare queens” and “promiscuous” and all have a billion babies and get pregnant at 12…this kind of shit does not sit well with me.

BUT WAIT, they also have a racially unmarket one (read: a white one). The difference is that the “Latina” toy is slightly darker and the model on the front has dark hair and a more “Latina-looking” face (which…is another post entirely) vs. the white model who is pale and blonde. *facepalm*

I’m focusing on the things that strike me the hardest as a Latin@ female, but never fear, they also have some delightfully racist dolls that target other groups, like the Mai Li Asian Love Doll, the Geisha masturbating sleeve, and the Asian Geisha Love Doll.
Men aren’t left behind entirely in this racist circus, though, since when it comes to the “lifelike dongs,” there’s a section just for those, and there are Latin, Black, and ones without an adjective which are, you guessed it, the white ones. Because white is normal, once more. Anyway. The “super realistic dongs” are all faux-clever (read: actually just racist and lazy) plays on words that insidiously dehumanize actual Latin men (little pistol, top stud, big bull, wild bull, little bull, and more). And this banner below I think can just speak for itself (especially the “ALL American” part):

 

Again, I know these toys are selling a fantasy and a product, but we need to see how our daily lives connect to this, and how the daily lives of women and people of color are affected and mirrored by these toys and the attitudes toward them. It’s not “just a toy” or “just a fantasy.” These are all created and reflected by the society in which we live, and we can’t afford to just ignore sex (and art, too, for that matter) because it’s some special snowflake (which it’s not).We need to think about what messages these toys send and why people buy them. We need to be critical consumers and media-viewers/makers.
If you want to buy fabulous toys from reputable sources, though, check out the stores in the Progressive Pleasure Club.

 

I asked a friend “Do you think I’m just slowly turning into a pissed off lesbian separatist stereotype?”

Our conclusion was that no, I wasn’t, but I think I’ve more recently come to fully understand those “angry, humorless feminist/woman of color/queer” stereotypes ‘cause I feel that ish right down to my bones. Things that maybe I didn’t care about before, or just let slide by, are no longer okay. Once you start seeing inequality and start realizing how pervasive racism and sexism and homo/trans/biphobia and all these things are, it’s hard to ignore.

Of course I’m angry, after cis-men feel entitled to my body/time and don’t ask for consent, after my queer community is denied rights, after people feel like they have the right to tell me how I can or can’t have sex.

Of course I’m angry when women, especially women of color, make less than men in the same positions; when people of color are vilified in the media and whiteness is insidiously and subtly upheld as the standard; when companies produce skin-lightening creams that reap the benefits of colonialism and ideas about how precious pale skin is.

Of course you’ll think I’m “humorless” when I don’t laugh at the jokes that come at the expense of women/queers/POC, that trivialize inequalities and the fucked up shit some of us have to deal with on a daily basis.

Sorry, but my definition of “funny” no longer encompasses things that rely on oppressive stereotypes and judgments, and yours shouldn’t either. It’s not just being lazy with comedy; it’s outright being a privileged piece of shit who cares more about making a joke than about the harm that joke can cause to people.

My 7th Grade Class Helped Me Define My Relationships

I remember learning about elements and electron-shell diagrams in my 7th grade science class. Who would’ve thought that that same model I saw on the whiteboard would be the key to explaining what the heck I was doing with my relationships years later?


Please scroll to the bottom for a 2016 update/note!


Fluorine has 2 electrons on
the first shell and 7 on the
second shell.

Unless you count a torrid online romance with a guy from Canada when I was 14, at the age of 19 I’d never been in a relationship. All my knowledge of the mechanics of sex and intimacy were purely theoretical, and then I suddenly launched into something with a married polyamorous man with a Ph.D who was almost 10 years my senior. Oh, and did I mention he also had another girlfriend in addition to his wife? Though precocious and definitely interested in alternative sexuality since before high-school, nothing had prepared me for this relationship model.

So I did what any self-respecting nerd would do: I researched! I devoured everything I could find online about non-monogamy (and polyamory especially), spending hours upon hours reading personal accounts, advice columns, informational websites, and research papers. I had to unlearn a lot of things and reprogram my brain to understand this new model of relationship. In that process, I had to interrogate the metaphors I used to describe my love-life, what visual representations I used to talk about significant others, and what kind of language in general I used to describe my intimacy and the people involved.

Enter: SCIENCE!

If “Lithium” actually just meant
“Aida,” this diagram would say that
I have 2 primaries and 1 secondary!

With increased hands-on experience (wink wink, nudge nudge) in non-monogamous living came more “opportunities” to describe my situation, both to potential partners and the general public.

One of the hurdles in explaining my relationship configuration was discussing how I could have two super important partners at the same time. I’m a pretty visual person, and non-monogamy sometimes necessitates a lot of diagramming, so I needed something I could draw for people. At some point along the way, my brain cycled back to my 7th grade science class and the electron-shell diagrams seemed to resonate.

So how does this work for me (and how might it work for you)? Read on, look at the Lithium diagram to the right, and keep the following in mind:

  • The big, red circle is the nucleus (made up of protons and neutrons), and that is the self (me!)
  • The little gray circles are electrons, and those are other people
  • The shells/rings are levels of commitment/closeness

1: There can be more than one electron/person on each shell (which goes against the ideas of “only one soulmate” in the monogamy model and against the “only one primary” notion in some polyamorous communities). The electrons don’t occupy the same exact space on the shell (read: the electrons are not on top of each other, ), but they ARE on the same shell, so it embodies how multiple primary partners are on the same general level of importance but are still fulfilling in different aspects.

2: Up to a certain point, the further a shell is from the nucleus, the higher the maximum number of electrons allowed on it. (For example: the first shell can hold a max. of 2 electrons, the second shell can hold a max. of 8, and the third shell can hold a max. of 18.) In relationship-talk, that means that I have a maximum number of people that I can pay attention to at a given time on a given rung, and I could have bigger numbers of lower-investment relationships than higher-investment relationships*. The maximum of two on the innermost shell is also probably accurate; I don’t think I could ever handle more than 2 primaries!

3 (not tied to the shell diagram, but just general atomic knowledge I wanted to include)While the electrons affect the charge of an atom, an element is identified by the number of protons in the nucleus. This jives well with the idea that while relationships might change me (and, heh, make me more positive or negative), I’m my own person and I have a recognizable identity outside of whomever I am partners with at a particular time.

4: Finally, just because a shell has a maximum number of electron spots available, it doesn’t mean  I HAVE to try to get that shell full of electrons or that bed full of people just because I can.

*Still, the model isn’t perfect. Number of partners on each “commitment rung” don’t have to follow the “filling” patterns of atoms. For example, in Real Science, each shell can only hold a particular maximum number of electrons (2, 8, 18, 32 for the first four shells) and shells get filled from the inside out, so I wouldn’t have an element/relationship with 2 electrons/people on the first shell, 4 in the second, and then 9 in the third. In my love life, however, I could totally have 5 casual partners and no primary, or perhaps I could have 2 primaries, 1 secondary, and 12 tertiaries. And actually, according to the Madelung Energy Ordering Rule, there are certain atoms who have “partially-filled” outer rings, so straying from the 2, 8, 18, 32 pattern is possible, but not the rule by any means.


07/30/16 — Edited to add: How I personally arrange my relationships and what words I use for them has changed considerably throughout the years! It’s important to clarify that the way I describe relationship arrangements here follows (or can follow) a fairly hierarchical model (though different from the “only one primary” idea, and without the problematic “only primaries matter” mentality). This electron shell model is useful for some but certainly not exhaustive, and there are tons of layers of nuance we can/should layer on top of it. This shell model can help with broad explanations and debunking some common misconceptions, but it doesn’t say anything about kinds of commitment, what names and partnerships in these “relationship rungs” look like, or anything like that. Intimacy and commitment are rarely so easily categorizable, so please keep that in mind when perusing. For some food for thought on polyamory, hierarchy, and more, check this and this out.

Showing You Care in The Right Language: Part II

If you’ve read Part I, you’re already familiar with the idea that humans receive and express love and care through 5 main avenues: physical touch, gifts, words of affirmation, acts of service, and quality time. Once you’ve learned what those 5 “languages” are, you can figure out which languages YOU use to express and/or receive love. Then, when you know what your needs are, as well as your partner’s, you can begin to express your love in a fruitful way, and that’s what this article will cover. Remember: to show love, you must do it in a way to which your partner will be receptive! Showing love is not about doing what’s most comfortable for you, but what is most effective and loving for your partner!

Finally, maintaining a healthy & helpful cycle of check-ins to make sure all is running smoothly will guarantee that the love-train keeps chugging along during your relationship. At the end of the article, I’ll also address this.

Note: Though this article will center on romantic pairings, much of this advice can be tailored to ALL sorts of relationships (yes, even the platonic one you may have with your TA!).

Some Tips for Showing Love in All the Languages

Physical Touch

While I could talk about big bedroom moves, touch is oftentimes a much more subtle art; there can be lots of variety depending on what you want to express and to whom. For romantic partner, or even close friends: is there a specific body part that they’re self-conscious about? Sometimes expressing your appreciation for it through touch can work wonders (but be careful: sometimes self-consciousness runs too deep and a lot of attention can actually be harmful). Does your partner walk a lot? Offer them a foot-rub! If you’re in public and don’t want to get too affectionate, try placing a hand on the small of their back, locking pinkies, or brushing their shoulders as you pass them by. Holding hands can also be very powerful, especially as a means to show a variety of emotions, including concern and deep care. Experiment with a slew of affectionate gestures to keep your partner feeling loved in a lot of different situations! For non-romantic partners, pats on the back, firm handshakes, hugs, and other forms of contact can keep them feeling appreciated.

Quality Time

First of all, turn off your phone (or at LEAST set it on vibrate), step away from your computer/TV/electronic device, and focus on your partner. Give them your undivided attention. This is crucial for folks who need quality time. To ensure that this happens, planning weekly “date-nights” that you commit to can be helpful. These can range from all-day Saturday outings to Thursday-night home-cooked dinners, or even 1-hour lunch-breaks a few times a week; it’s up to you & your partner to decide how often and how long these blocks of quality time have to be. Lock these into your calendar and honor them; don’t just reschedule on a whim. Do activities that you both enjoy and allow you to spend time truly being present with each other (read: watching a movie probably rates lower on the scale than walking in the park and talking).

Gifts

Pay close attention to this person, and give them something based on your observations. Do they collect anything? Are they missing a vital rubber-ducky from their huge rubber-ducky collection? Are you on a trip and can you get them something cute from that location (bonus points if you can send it while you’re still on that trip!) that shows more thought than a mere t-shirt or shot-glass? Is there something from their childhood that you could base a gift on? (For example, I had a torrid love affair with a character from an obscure Disney movie and my partner got me a figurine of the character for my birthday, as well as the DVD of the flick for the holidays). Sometimes practical gifts can also be helpful, and they can conveniently straddle the line between gifts & acts of service!

Acts of Service

The magic words are usually “Let me do that for you.” Sneak a peek at your partner’s to-do list for house-chores and surprise them by completing one or more of them. Vacuuming the carpet? Check! Doing the dishes? Check! Watering the plants? Check! The best things are those that will ease their burden, so don’t waste time in helping them out with something that’s completely irrelevant (e.g. perhaps color-coordinating their closet, while cute, is not a huge priority). For college students, it can be something like going to get their mail, printing out their big final paper and delivering it to their professor’s campus box, getting them rolls of quarters for their laundry, taking out their trash, or printing their class readings for the week. With all of these things, though, make sure that your partner is okay with you doing them; while some folks appreciate service, there are certain tasks they want no one else to complete but them! If you don’t want to ask right before doing something, have a conversation about what TYPES of things they’re okay with you doing, so you have a general idea and can make calls based on that.

Words of Affirmation

Words don’t always have to be spoken! Doing the clichéd, but still adorable, post-it note message system can work wonders. You can put a spin on it by leaving them in unexpected places (inside sock drawers, on ceilings, in the fridge, in closets, in shoes) or by giving unexpected compliments (mentioning that you noticed how the freckles on their arm align perfectly to mimic the Big Dipper can show your attention to detail!). This also works well with folks with whom you don’t have a romantic relationship; sending a thank-you card in the mail in this digital age can give some folks the warm n’ fuzzies. Another cool (and potentially anonymous) way of showing you care could be by creating an “event” in this person’s calendar (be it paper-based or digital) to the effect of “National Celebrate How Awesome [Insert their name here] Is Day.” There’s also the tried & true method of simply verbalizing “I like/love/appreciate you!”

Keeping It All In Check

Dr. Chapman recommends doing regular “tank checks” throughout the week. By conceptualizing one’s feelings of being loved as liquid filling an imaginary tank, one can develop a vocabulary to describe feelings in a very concrete way. If one’s “love-tank” level is low, there’s a need to fill it up! Through this metaphor and through the practice of checking the “tanks” regularly, partners can develop a habit of communicating about how they’re feeling and what they need without resorting to passive-aggressive complaints or awkwardly worded pleas for attention.

A possible way to do this is to ask your partner “How is your love tank tonight?” If, on a scale from zero to ten (or whatever you devise), it is less than the maximum, ask them “What can I do to help fill it?” Then, follow through as best you can!

If yours is the tank that is feeling low and your partner hasn’t asked you about it, take initiative and bring it up. Let them know how you feel, and have some concrete ideas that they can grab onto so they can help make you feel better. You could say something like “Hey, my love tank is feeling a little empty right now. I think some cuddling would make it feel fuller. Could we snuggle and watch a movie after dinner or something?” Remember to be realistic, and always try to come up with a few options just in case one or more of them aren’t viable at the moment. Partners aren’t mind-readers, and holding them up to unrealistic and unexplained expectations will only be a disappointment for everyone involved.

Showing You Care in The Right Language: Part I

Have you ever been in a relationship where you feel you’re giving someone gallons of affection…and they don’t seem to realize or appreciate it? Or worse: they complain that you’re not showing them enough love? Before cursing your communication stars or complaining that your partner just doesn’t “get it” and you couldn’t be MORE loving, consider the following: maybe you’re just not speaking the same language (love-language, that is).

According to Dr. Gary Chapman, in his book “The 5 Love Languages,” there are five main “languages” in which people can receive and express care. When people’s languages for showing love are not compatible with the languages in which their partners receive love, all parties involved can feel at a loss. So how can you avoid having this happen? The first step is to learn what the love languages are! Then, you’ll be ready to analyze and figure out which ones are yours and which ones are your partner’s. (Stay tuned for part II where I’ll talk about how to show your love in fruitful ways and how to keep a relationship love-steady.)

The Five Love Languages

Physical Touch

This is perhaps one of the most well-known languages, one of the “oh, that’s obvious!” ones. It’s that attitude of “it’s obvious,” though, that can lead to miscommunication with partners; not everyone enjoys touch to the same degree! Touch can encompass a wide range of expressions, too, from sexual contact to a totally platonic holding of hands while walking down the street to grab dinner; it’s not just about the hot n’ heavy. Touch can also embody a wide range of emotions: concern, care, love, comfort, excitement, happiness, the list goes on. For people whose primary love language is touch, feeling physically/spatially distant from their partner can be torturous, as their connections thrive with proximity.

Quality Time

For folks who are into quality time, that usually means turning off all electronic devices and having their partner’s undivided attention. Chores, the day’s stresses, kids, friends, ringing telephones, dirty dishes–all of these should take a backseat for a while. Showing someone love in this fashion means making them feel special and taken care of, so make sure you eliminate all distractions and keep your attention focused on them. For that same reason, try your best to minimize the number of postponed dates or cancelled engagements with them, since those can be extra hurtful. Also, when having a conversation, no matter how trivial, it can feel distancing to have a partner constantly checking their email or texting, so please pocket your phone!

Gifts

This is not about being materialistic, money-hungry, or obsessed with accumulating things! For folks who are into receiving gifts as a love language, the important thing is the thought behind the gift–the effort and attention to detail, rather than the fact that they’re getting an object. Perfect gifts show their receiver that the giver knows them, is listening, and cares for them. For these folks, hastily-thought-up gifts, missed anniversary presents, and things of that nature can feel pretty terrible.

Acts of Service

Easing the burden on someone can be a truly meaningful act of love, and for those whose primary love language is “acts of service,” it’s one of the most meaningful of all. For those folks, something as seemingly “trivial” as having their laundry taken care of, or their dishes cleaned, can mean the world. Like with the language of receiving gifts, it’s less about the actual object or thing being done/given, but the emotion behind it. While the burden being eased is a big draw, the fact that someone is taking the time to do them a favor is what really sets this person’s heart aflutter. For that same reason, being flaky, lazy, unpredictable, and irresponsible when it comes to fulfilling obligations or doing tasks can really hurt and irritate your partner.

Words of Affirmation

For folks who are into words of affirmation, compliments can be everything. Kind words that show you appreciate them, that you’re listening, that you validate their feelings…all of these can work wonders. For that same reason, be very mindful when critiquing your partner; watch your language carefully so you don’t unintentionally hurt their feelings. This should be a general rule, of course, but for people who know their partners are particularly sensitive to words, this should be an even higher priority.

Figuring Out Your Love Languages

For how you express love, start off by asking yourself a few questions:

How do I usually express my love to others? When I want to show someone how much I value them, what do I immediately try to do? Does it vary depending on the person? What factors go into how I express my love? Does it vary when I’m in public versus when I’m in private?

For how you receive love, ask yourself the following:

When I feel unloved, what do I feel is missing? When I’ve been feeling unappreciated in the past, what have people done to cheer me up? In bad relationships, what do I usually complain about? What things have people done for me that have made me feel really good and appreciated?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll have a better idea of how you usually express love and prefer to have love shown to you. Remember: they don’t have to be the same language (and they usually aren’t!).