Every Piece Of Advice Given Unleashes A Demon

So I’m reading Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux’s More Than Two, which thus far is a damn fine book on effective practices for good polyamory.

Yet ten chapters in, I can already see how the solid advice in More Than Two is going to get abused by some people, because the book is covertly tilted towards a certain kind of person.  And I’m wincing.

I’m wincing because the wrong kinds of people often grab my advice and use it as a club, and there’s no way any of us can stop that from happening.

That’s the problem with writing essays designed to help people pick apart their problems: every piece of advice is meant to fix a very specific problem.  If I told you, “When you’re deep in subspace, here’s six ways to communicate with your top!” then the bias would be extremely clear.  People who don’t bottom would go, “Oh, that’s not for me” and move on.  People who do bottom but don’t go that deep into subspace would would go, “I don’t need that.”

(Non-kinky people probably wouldn’t even parse the headline.)

But when you say subtler stuff like “The key to a good relationship involves knowing when to stop getting and start giving,” this is actually covertly aimed at “People who ask for a lot in their relationships.”  But that’s not apparent until you’re experienced enough to break it down.

“Stop getting and start giving” is perfectly true advice… for an aggressive dude like me who has zero problems stating what he wants.  For me, 90% of my bad relationships were because I was so used to asking for what I wanted (and getting it!) that I often didn’t realize when I was asking for too damn much.

But for a passive person who barely ever says a peep no matter how badly they’re mistreated?  This is terrible fucking advice.  This person will hear this advice and go, “Oh, I asked for my partner to stop having unprotected sex with strangers, look how mad she gets when I ask her that, clearly I’m an awful person.  I need to stop getting and start giving!” And they curl up into a ball and use this good advice to allow some terrible fucking things to happen in their relationship.

Now it’s true that technically the advice is buried in there still – I mean after all, the problem with the too-passive person is that they *do* need to know when it’s right to ask for things and when it’s wrong.  But because their personal balance is skewed to “never ask,” as a result they’re unlikely to find the actual message I meant to give them.

They’ll take this advice intended to prune aggressive people’s grabbiness, and use it to justify their own terror of confrontation.

Likewise, More Than Two has a lot of spectacularly solid advice on how to communicate and to be fair with your partners.  But it’s very subtly – yet quite consistently – tilted towards people who are overly solicitous of their partner’s needs, the sort of people who are terrified to say “no,” the kind of person who tends to quietly shuck all the good parts of their life away to make their partner happy.

For these people, More Than Two is full of advice that will transform their goddamned lives.  It’ll give these people the tools to take their natural tendencies to overfocus on their partner’s needs, and transform it into a healthy series of “no”s – so they don’t treat every jealous snit by their partner as a reason to cut ties, so they don’t abandon their own self-esteem in search of some sort of distorted mockery of pair-bond love,  so they don’t take this deep well of love they feel for their lovers and give away too much.

It’s not that More Than Two doesn’t encourage you to be compassionate – one of the two axioms they give is “Don’t treat people like objects,” and they repeatedly stress that your partner has to be respected.  But at least in the first part of the book, for every one time they say “Remember to respect your partner’s feelings,” they have at least three other emphases on “Don’t give in to your partner’s needs unnecessarily” and “Your partner’s being upset is not a sign that you should change your behavior.”

In other words, it subtly assumes that the person reading this book already cares deeply for their partners.

Sadly, what’s going to happen here is that someone who isn’t caring will read all of this very healthy advice and go, “Aww, man!  My problem is that I’ve wasted all this time letting my partners weep on my shoulder!  If they’re jealous because I didn’t tell them where I went for the weekend to spend time with a girlfriend I never mentioned to them?  That’s not anything I’m doing wrong!  That’s them being idiots!  They’ve gotta learn to deal with this shit, baby!”

And they will become monsters.

It is important to clarify here: That is not a problem with More Than Two.  (I think they could have had a different mix of emphases here, but that’s a minor critique of a book that has a lot of moving parts and jines up with much of what I’ve been telling y’all for many years.  I fully anticipate when I finish it, I’ll be happily exhorting you to purchase this sucker.)

The problem I’m actually attempting to highlight here is that when you start speaking to large audience, it becomes nigh-impossible to give advice to people that someone will not internalize in drastically harmful ways.

You can frame any given piece of wisdom as clearly as you like, but humans are bias machines, designed to take in the bits they agree with and silently discard the parts they don’t.  I only notice this subtle issue with More Than Two because, well, I hand out lots of advice.

I try to provide a lot of context for my thoughts on relationships, to make it clear that This advice isn’t universal, it actually only applies if X, Y, and Z are all true.  Yet even still, I’ve seen people doing poly in ways I consider to be loathsome citing my articles as reasons to be shitty to their partners, or to themselves.

I groan.  I contact them to tell them that no, that’s not what I meant.  And they always look betrayed, because I gave them this advice, they acted upon it, and what kind of a jerk am I for telling them no, they’re wrong?

But that advice wasn’t for them.  It was for someone actually exactly the opposite of them.  And they used it to amplify their worst habits, and nothing I can actually tell them would convince them otherwise.

So it goes.

(Cross-posted from a not-particularly-loved entry on FetLife, but I thought it was interesting.)

2 Comments

  1. Scott Campbell
    Nov 21, 2014

    Yeah, advice is a dangerous thing. But not just giving it. Also asking for it. Anyone who asks for advice needs to keep in mind that the person giving it is just another person, not a fount of all knowledge. Anybody who takes somebody else’s advice, especially if they asked for it, and then gets angry at the advice-giver if it goes wrong, needs to take a look at their own decision to take the advice, and also examine how they implemented it. No matter who suggested what, in the end you are responsible for your own actions. Period.

  2. Yet Another Laura H
    Nov 24, 2014

    You know, I’ve thought similar things about the New Testament of the Bible, that the message seems to be for a majority of God’s children, but kind of screws those born gentle and loving, with a natural tendency toward forgiveness.

    And I think the priesties are missing a great opportunity here. The Bible is so self-contradictory sometimes. Why not embrace this? “Matty, the Bible says you need to be more generous to people outside of your monkeysphere. Luke 10:25, parable of the Good Samaritan. Sarah, you need to think more about decapitating the people who threaten you your loved ones. Book of Judith. Aren’t you glad you’re Catholic?”

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