I just finished reading a post by Miri on Brutereason that suggested “you are responsible for yourself, we are responsible for each other” as an axiom to do polyamory by, which is certainly appealing… except that in reality we are all fucked and those of us who are most fucked are those of us who are less able to care for ourselves, or who need more care than most. I think we need to be moving away from a neoliberal rhetoric of “burden” and “self-responsibility”, towards a rhetoric of mutual care. This necessitates establishing who can fulfil those needs… And whose responsibility it is to do so.
“Intimate” relationships (romantic, familial) are often coded under ableist capitalist heteropatriarchy as the only “valuable” relationships, and there are kinds of care that are considered the sole responsibility of family members, lovers or paid carers because of the intensity or intimacy involved in those kinds of care. There are, of course, exceptions: queerness, anarchic community solidarity and the queer family all destabilise conceptions of who you are “intimate” with and who therefore you are responsible for caring for (1). We desperately need to expand this further, though, moving away from the neoliberal libertarian idea that you are only responsible for yourself, and towards an understanding that everyone shares an equal share of responsibility for the wellbeing of everyone else, with consideration for limitations to their ability to provide care, without preferencing those who one has capitalist heteropatriarchally “valuable/intimate” relationships with, or placing disproportionate pressure on “intimate” partners to provide it. The intensity of a relationship might well compel someone to help you, but they are not obligated to do so any more than the collective obligation to care for everyone’s needs. When someone wants for support, the fault lies with the culture and community, not solely with the handful of people they are close to who have their own conflicting needs and limitations.
There is no true scarcity of care, support or love, only artificial scarcity created by an alienating and violent culture of obscene wealth, oppression, and hostility to disabled people. Accusing an individual of failing you when there is conflicting needs or limitation, because of relational obligation, is unfair when done to those who are not struggling, and violent when done to those who are themselves divorced from institutional or communal structures of support and care.
It could be said that there are two kinds of solopoly(2): libertarian solopoly, that is, “I have no obligation to anyone”, and egalitarian solopoly, that is “I have equal obligation to everyone”. Solopoly can either be an exercise in intellectually justifying the most egregious libertarian neoliberal hedonism where you are consistently (and deliberately) the weakest link in the support chain, or an undertaking of a “queering” and destabilising of the politics of care and obligation… But this line is razor thin and hard to see. It is easy to tell yourself you are not prioritising your partners over your friends or community while in fact you’re simply relegating everyone’s needs well below your own happiness, just as you can tell yourself your queer family is like a real family, without actually doing the work of fierce loyalty and sacrifice that that phrase entails(3). The distinction can, I think, be boiled down to whether you reject the idea that your obligation is exclusively to those you are “intimate” with (egalitarian), or an absolute rejection of obligation itself (libertarian).
[From here on there is description and discussion of abusive relationships, though none of the description is graphic. You may safely skip to the final paragraph and it should make sense on its own]
Perhaps the worst, most unforgivable conclusion of what Hannah Black terms “the privatisation of love” (couplehood being the only source of obligation to provide care) is the staggering number of people unable to leave toxic, violent or abusive relationships (and to to a lesser extent, relationships that are simply… no longer desired to be continued in their current form) because of care dependency (either perceived or imagined) being tied to the continuation/preservation of the relationship. I myself stayed in an abusive relationship for years because I was financially and logistically dependent on my partner due to disability and homophobic disenfranchisement/alienation. I endured years of parental abuse for the same reasons. I was also emotionally dependent; often what prompted me to leave unbearable relationships was entering new relationships that provided emotional support that didn’t come with an invoice I couldn’t pay (deliberate metaphor is deliberate). If I had had the broad platonic emotional support network I have now, I would probably never have stayed past absolute logistical dependency. Had I had state/communal support with regards to logistics and finance as well, I would probably have left the moment things turned bad.
But in the case of my abusive romantic relationship, once I dismantled my own logistical/financial/emotional dependency, I was left with the fact that she was also still dependent on me, both for emotional and mental health related support. She insisted this was support that she would die without, and that no one would/could provide it except me. For a long time I didn’t leave because I felt wholly responsible for her. She had so little support outside our relationship and I was terrified of cutting that lifeline. I felt responsible for community, state and social failure to provide a safety net for her besides the one I carried alone. I lost the ability to consent to anything in that relationship because every choice I made was made out of fear and shame and obligation. My thought process became entirely about what I (and she) thought I should do, because there are kinds of support someone who loves you apparently “should” provide. Failure to do so, she made it clear, would mean I was loving ~improperly~, or (supposedly even worse) lying/mistaken about being in love.
One example of this is when said I didn’t want a joint bank account, and she repeatedly started fights with me about how this meant I wasn’t really in love with her and wasn’t serious about our relationship. But more frighteningly than the material things she believed were proof I was “loving correctly”, was that she believed continuing the relationship in its present (unwanted, unbearable) form was a moral imperative in and of itself. To consider or suggest ending or changing the relationship was to spit in her face, to hurt her by making her feel unloved. Every time I did so, and when I eventually left, she told me I had ruined her life. That I never loved her (despite the fact that even after all of this I still do) and that I was an awful person for using and misleading her (even though we both depended on one another. I don’t know why my dependence was “using” and hers wasn’t).
I think it is impossible, though, to say just how much of the danger of ending the relationship is true and how much is engineered or misestimated, at least for those that are in the relationship. When I left, she did not die. I do not, whatever she may say, think her life was ruined by my leaving. I try to hold onto this in my gaslit brain as proof that I was being manipulated but I still honestly do not know if that is the case. Is it manipulation if she genuinely (but incorrectly) believed she would die without me? How about whether that false belief stemmed from mental illness or misinformation? Would it be less coercive if she was right about needing my support to live? There was a time when I genuinely believed I would die if I broke up with her, too. I’m not 100% sure I would have done, in retrospect, but there was a very good chance that I would have. She probably at one time felt this pressure about me, too. Maybe there were times that was the reason she stayed, too. Eve Rickert recently wrote about a lot of control in relationships happening because society often fails to equip people with, or discourages them from developing, the skills needed to ask for what they need, or to exercise influence without it becoming control. Regardless of motivation, the end result was me feeling responsible for whatever happened to my partner if I broke up with her, and terrified that if I did the result would be catastrophic.
After asking them to support my partner, I started avoiding our mutual friends so there would be no conflict of interest in them doing so, even though this left me almost friendless in our homophobic little town. If I had been able to pass more of the support and care I was providing onto others in our community/social circles I would have, but we were both so systemically and socially disempowered that that wasn’t an option. But I think what CAN be said, is that if I had felt able to stop being physically/romantically intimate with her as soon as I didn’t want to be, I would have been able to carry on providing a lot of the support and care I was apparently ruining her life by withdrawing. For her, though, that care was a package deal that included being able to touch and be touched however she felt lovers should touch and be touched at any time she saw fit. After 3 years of being physically violated and having my perception of reality fucked with, I couldn’t safely or healthily be around her. Ghosting her became a disability issue: the only way I could mitigate my trauma and mental illness. And when conflicts of accessibility occur, I think you have no obligation to provide inaccessible support, no matter how desperately the other person might need it. Often when there is a conflict of accessibility what needs to happen is parallel accommodations, that is, separate provisions that don’t conflict, or a compromise(4). In the case of relationships, I think this means either a breakup, transition, or (consensual) compromise as to the ways the relationship proceeds. But no-one should ever feel obligated to compromise.
The Polyamorous Misanthrope regularly talks about important reasons for ongoing commitments to contact or cooperation (childcare, kinds of support, citizenship marriages) but emphasises that those things can exist without a romantic relationship. I posit that they actually NEED to exist independently of romantic relationships in order for the relationship to not be coercive, for leaving the relationship to not entail the threat of removal of support or safety. And yes, in a society and economy built on nuclear 2 parent families and cohabitation this is often an ideal that is only pursued by the privileged and the extremely traumatised. But a lot of the deficit is, I believe, largely addressable at a community and cultural level in lieu of the full communist revolution. And if you do want that sweet communist revolution you’d best be ensuring disabled/vulnerable people in your community/social circle can get support that isn’t conditional on them dating the right person, wealth (which you want to abolish), or support from the state (which you want to dismantle). If we are to build communities and a culture that both support disabled people and abuse survivors, it is imperative that we deprivatise intimate and emotional support from the couple. Cohabit with friends and community members in the same way you would a lover, for your whole life instead of as a stepping stone to romantic couple homeownership; support your friends financially; tell your friends you love them; attend their graduations, recitals and tournaments; marry for citizenship and benefits reasons; help them apply for jobs; listen to them complain and vent as much as you would a partner; look after their kids; co-parent platonically; hold and kiss them; sit with them while they’re naked and sobbing in agony; change their dressings; tidy their rooms; share chores; clean their piss off the sofa; help them into bed. And if that sounds like more than you’re able to do, and that you shouldn’t be obligated to provide support you’re not able to give, you’re right. But that person’s partner has no more obligation than you and shouldn’t be made to keep dating them, fucking them or providing inaccessible support because of it.
From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.
I’m not an academic and I don’t really have a clear idea how to reference anymore. I’ve tried to use footnotes or links when I’m aware ideas I’m talking about are not my own, or came about in conversation with someone else.
- As a result of a twitter exchange with my honorary permanent metamour, Imola Marta about withdrawal of emotional support during a breakup
- Decided in a conversation with Conor Byworth about solopoly and politics
- Various conversations with my queer fam, but principally with Bennett, my Boston spouse, who is an actual werewolf
- This is the conclusion I have come to as a result of listening to and reading the writing of B. Binaohan, especially their writing about universal design and conflicting access needs. I’m not sure if they have the same conclusions as me because I can’t find the posts in their archive, but my thinking about this is entirely to their credit