The Emotional Dark Ages

I use Teal Swan’s ideas as a bouncing-off point, for many private reveries and observations.  TS refers to our current paradigm of human interaction as “the emotional dark ages”, and I’d like to unpack that a bit.

This is not to say that some prior point, in human history, represented an enlightened age, from which we’ve fallen.  Rather, it’s to say that emotional integration was nowhere near the closest alligator to the boat, in previous iterations of human civilization.  There were probably exceptions, just as there are exceptions now.

So, what does it mean to be in the emotional dark ages?  It means that, for instance, children can be raised in a well-to-do home with all their physical needs met, but few of their emotional needs met or even acknowledged, and we don’t see anything amiss.  We’ll even go so far as to be honestly surprised if those children grow up to be addicts, or school shooters, or simply new members to the old club of being chronically uncomfortable in their skin.  It means that we’re transactional in our relationships as a matter of course; that we accept a level of mutual manipulation as normal.  It means that we all experience emotions that are uncomfortable, within ourselves and from others, but few of us grew up with someone role modeling for us what to do about that.  Most of us saw the adults around us, as Teal would say, “surpress, deny, or disown” their own uncomfortable emotions, and so that’s what we do too, not understanding it could be any different.  

What would it mean to exit the emotional dark ages?  Ironically, it would look more like a corporate merger than a drum circle.  It would mean negotiating with one another in earnest, in regards to marriage, parenting, friendships, etc.   

What I’m describing may sound airy fairy but let me give you an example.  “Serial monogamy” was my default style of dating in my 20’s.  In other words, a committed exclusive relationship, functioning just short of marriage, eventually ending and giving way to another one.  Since I’m interested in a deep connection, and uninterested in anything transactional unless it involves money (money is the appropriate indicator that something literally transactional is occurring), this made sense for me.  

But the problem with serial monogamy is that there’s no, as we say in the military, ETS date — expiration of term of service.  When a soldier’s ETS date comes up, s/he’s got the choice to “re-up” in the same, or a different, outfit, or to just get out altogether.  It’s a negotiation, plain and simple, looking at the ROI (return on investment) of staying in versus going.  Several incentives are built right in to that second enlistment — a higher rank equals more pay and less newbie shit work.  An ETS date is the healthiest thing in the world!  

But serial monogamy mini-marriages simply go on…and on…until when, exactly?  

FYI this is a tangent, but it’s an important tangent.  First, incidentally, I’m going to try to sell you on the idea of built in ETS dates, in romantic and possibly even platonic relationships, and second, I’m going to explain to you how inaccessible this idea was to me, especially in my 20’s when I most needed it, and the unfortunately manipulative workarounds I accomplished in its absence, which were injurious to everyone. 

So, we’re all uncomfortable with the idea of a relationship ETS date — this seems self-evident, because otherwise we’d be doing it, or something like it.  We don’t leave jobs, or professions, or locations, or friends, or lifestyle habits, or anything else, with nearly the level of turmoil that characterizes our exit from romantic relationships.  We generally don’t entertain a similar threshold of suffering, in those other situations.  Why would we?  Except — why would we, in any case?  Because we confuse love with control, and loss of love with unworthiness.  

If an employer does our 90 day review and decides we’re just not a good fit — yeah, that stings.  But we probably suspected it anyway.  Or we might just as easily decide they’re not a good fit, at 90 days.  Somehow our self image survives this, mostly intact.  What would that mean, though, for a lover to opt out of a relationship fair and square, at 90 days, or six months, or two years?  It means we weren’t “good enough” for them.  Or conversely, they weren’t “good enough” for us, if we opt out.  It’s even heartbreaking to consider that our lover might want to give us another 90 days, but with x y z changes in place.  How could you not love me just the way I am?  This is alarming; the whole idea feels like an invitation to chaos and hurt, and so we avoid it.  

But do we?  Here’s how this felt for me, in my 20’s: I dated a string of wonderful men.  They were probably all marriage candidates, if I had been about that — and of course I didn’t know whether I was about that or not.  I wasn’t sure — hence, dating.  Marriage, on the other hand, means: I think I understand enough about what I do want, and enough about what I don’t want, to pursue satisfaction in a permanent and exclusive you-context; you understand your motivations equally well, and wish to pursue satisfaction in a permanent and exclusive me-context.  It’s really important for dating to remain a negotiation, because otherwise it’s the worst of both worlds: no real freedom plus no real security.  (Now, when I use the term “marriage”, I mean enduring mutual investment, with or without the government involved.)  BUT, without some kind of guard rails in place, for retaining the negotiation aspect of dating, it devolves into “forever or else catastrophe” terms.

The way this shook out for me is that I would feel, at some point, ready to move on.  Like I’d expanded as much as I could expand with this person, we were at the point of diminishing dating returns, I didn’t want to marry him, but — and this is significant! — nothing was “wrong”.  I just wanted to exit the construct, that’s all.  

Now, here’s where the emotional dark ages get real.  I was raised in a quite emotionally integrated family of origin, relative to the norm, but it still wasn’t enough.  Accurately, I had no sense that it was okay, or justifiable, to leave someone if they hadn’t done anything “wrong”.  My being ready to leave, in love, wasn’t “real” enough.  And the men I dated were so great that framing them with any kind of crime was honestly pretty tough.  But guess what?  I did it anyway.  I internally decided I was ready to move on, but felt disempowered to speak that, and so waited for them to slip up in some way that honestly didn’t bother me at all, and then I’d pretend to be upset and break up with them.  

How horrible is that?  And how much kinder would it have been to simply ETS out?  I don’t regard this as a personal failing, exactly — I don’t think I, or they, or anyone around me, had access to a better paradigm, relative to dating.  

Here’s the thing about our emotional lives, which we pretend is irrelevant, as I’ve explained.  If we haven’t figured out how to get our needs met directly (via overt negotiation), then we’ll use manipulation instead.  All of us.  100% of us.  Getting our emotional needs met simply must occur.  So there aren’t really “manipulative” people out there versus good, honest people — there are only people more or less skilled at meeting their own needs.  The people who haven’t figured out how to advocate directly for their needs are some of the shiftiest motherfuckers you’ll ever deal with.  And they’re everywhere.  They’re, literally, all of us, in at least some way.  

Because emotional dark ages.      

If we love someone, we must remain committed to their needs being met, whether or not we’re the one who can meet them.  This sounds a lot like surrendering control, which is scary — and the fact that that’s scary is even more scary — but here’s the deal: no one NEEDS anything more than being in relationship with someone who recognizes their needs.  That they exist, that they matter.  Or to put it another way, no one needs anything LESS then being in relationship with someone who does not recognize their needs.  This is not, actually, a relationship — this is, at best, a transaction, and at worst a vehicle of control.

Unwittingly, I hacked this game fairly early on, in my dating life.  Because, and probably only because, I was raised by parents who considered us, their children, to be increasingly autonomous beings who had both the right and the responsibility to pursue our own needs as they EVOLVED (key word, there), I was easily able to grant my boyfriends that same privilege.  I saw myself as someone who could meet some of their needs and who, because I loved them, was in a position to advocate for their pursuit of whatever else.  Because, why wouldn’t I?  

Turns out, this stance is like catnip to men, and one which will quickly slingshot you above and beyond any other female candidates who may be floating around, regardless of how pretty they may be.  Fact: I haven’t dated a single male who hasn’t been brutalized, at some point in his past, by a girlfriend or wife that attempted to control his needs and his access to meeting them.  (I’m sure the vice versa is true, but fortunately I’ve never dated women, which sounds pretty exhausting, being one myself.)  I think the real negotiation in dating is one of expansion versus stagnation.  Each of us have the right and the responsibility to continue expanding, as human beings in the world.  Each of us have defects of character that stand to be knocked off and sanded smooth, within the context of our relational pressure cookers.  Expansion doesn’t mean always being comfortable.  And unfortunately, stagnation doesn’t feel very uncomfortable — until it does.  Exiting the emotional dark ages means taking this spectrum of expansion versus stagnation seriously, for ourselves and each other.  I was able to mostly pinpoint my expansional apex, in each relationship, in my 20’s, but I wasn’t able to ethically handle that, without resorting to a false narrative.  

I think it’s possible, and actually ideal, to operate relationally without the sort of guardrails that an ETS date represents.  Ideally, we’d remain mutually aware of those factors in real time and speak to them, in real time.  My partner and I don’t currently have an ETS date set, although we have at times in the past.  We’ve proven to one another that we both have the balls to conduct this negotiation, for reals, and in love.  That trust is hard-won, and represents a more tangible success to both of us than a rose-strewn red carpet possibly could.  And it’s possible that we might need to set an ETS date again, at some point in the future.  Neither of us is interested in devolving into a crisis of stagnation, in any area of our lives, and that’s what makes us so compatible, despite our differences in age, upbringing, and temperament.  And we both acknowledge the mutual defects of character that our relationship has served to expose, catastrophize, and (so far) heal.  I’m proud of this.  To me, this is what loving someone is all about.  

I do want to share some thoughts about the poly community, which incidentally overlap with alt-relational paradigms demo’d to the general public by way of the LGBT folks.  I’ve talked about dominant vs non-dominant ideologies a lot, in prior blogs, and the takeaway there is that being plugged into a dominant ideology, about anything, generally excuses us from the work of having to construct ourselves “from scratch” in relation to that thing.  This is not bad, per se — most of us are plugged into mostly dominant ideologies about most things, as a matter of course.  I inherited a lot of my ideas about what being female means, for instance, and I’m honestly fine with the bulk of it.  I only investigate those parts that feel uncomfortable.  Dominant ideologies are like a shoe — useful and protective, but ill-fitting in ways specific to each of us.  Having also comfortably inherited the dominant relational ideology, it’s amazing the degree to which this shoe hasn’t fit me personally, which is the only reason I’ve been able to become objective about it.  

So, the dominant ideology about dating is hetero-normative, with presumed sexual exclusivity.  To the extent that you’re not doing that, you’re departing from the dominant narrative.  The degree to which you’re departing from it represents the degree to which you’ll have to construct yourself “from scratch” about it.  

The non-dominant poly community, just as an example, is to heteronormative exclusivity what a sudden tourist is to someone born and raised in their hometown.  The tourist asks all kinds of questions that we never thought to ask.  

Poly folks wouldn’t be poly if they weren’t interested in exiting the emotional dark ages.  What they’re doing, that makes us normies so uncomfortable, is they’re constructing relationships in which the negotiation aspect is front and center, necessarily.  When you remove presumed sexual exclusivity from the equation, everything is up for debate.  Everything.  Each relationship is a from-scratch narrative, open to construction and de-construction, and by all parties involved, in a way that would make any dominant ideologue shudder.  The hetero-normative, sexually exclusive mindset abhors, and yet constantly resorts to, cheating and strategic philandering.  This, again, is the emotional dark ages rearing its ugly head, much like my manipulative exit strategies in my 20’s.  We wouldn’t act out in these ways unless we felt hamstrung by our inherited social constructs — pulled in different directions.  The emotional violence we perpetrate upon one another is real.  The poly’s have decided to exit the vicious cycle, which I applaud.  

However, here’s my hypothesis: polyamory, also, mostly doesn’t work.  And if it does work, it’s less likely to look like polyamory, and more likely to look like long-term voluntary celibacy or even sexual exclusivity.  If an individual is truly aware of his or her needs and preferences, in real time, and truly able to advocate for the needs and interests of potential lovers, in real time, and truly able to recognize a mismatch of desired exclusivity, when it occurs, and even when all the other factors line up, and truly able to avoid or exit a relationship that isn’t entirely in both party’s interests, in real time — well, sorry, but that’s gonna look like celibacy, for the most part.  In fact, regardless of what dominant or non-dominant relational ideology we’re plugged into, real awareness and emotional integration is most often going to look like celibacy. 

Being celibate as a default is something that we mostly regard as a failure, not the triumph it actually is.  And that’s sad.  But I’m an advocate for default celibacy and, in other contexts, let’s call it “sobriety” maybe — essentially, a refusal to participate in transactional relations, unless it’s literally constructed as a vehicle of transaction — like work, or a contract.  Celibacy and/or sobriety means that you won’t settle for breadcrumbs and you don’t want anyone else settling for your breadcrumbs.  Celibacy/sobriety means that you’re a whole ass person who doesn’t want half-assed things.  Silence is the only place from which sound can arise, and celibacy/sobriety is the only place from which relationships can arise.  If you’re just lurching from one noise to the next, you haven’t become friends with the silence, yet. 

The highest expression of a successful poly lifestyle represents an acknowledgment of several important things.  We live long lives!  We benefit from mutual investment, certainly financially, but sometimes our cycles and gestures of involvement can’t keep pace with our cycles and gestures of self-interest, and that’s okay.  Rather than erecting, and then demolishing, relational structure after relational structure, there is another way.  

A successful poly lifestyle requires one key ingredient, and it’s a rare one: a highly evolved self.  A highly evolved self won’t do the wrong thing for the self or anyone else, and so the relational paradigm is nearly irrelevant.  Which is ironic.  And since having a highly evolved self is uncommon, I’m going to hazard a guess that most poly lifestyles are, to some extent, unsuccessful.  

But by what metric?  That’s a good question.  Here’s my metric: since there’s no monogamy pressure cooker in which to knock off and sand down our mutual defects of character — which is quite frankly the purpose of relationships, in my opinion, because otherwise why bother — there’s no reason to withstand true discomfort.  The discomfort of someone else’s shortcomings are nothing to our own.  

Again, for someone willing to do the work of evolving their own shortcomings, this work will be undertaken regardless of relational paradigm.  For the rest of us — and certainly if we’re dabbling in poly — we can move from situation to situation, and it’s always someone else’s fault.  The most confusing part is, it often is someone else’s fault.  In the emotional dark ages, there’s no shortage of fault.  

What does this remind me of?  Oh yeah — hetero-normative presumed exclusivity.  Again, it can work great for a highly evolved self; otherwise it’s a dumpster fire.  Here’s how this is playing out in the post-internet era of dating: females experience increased decision fatigue while males experience heightened prey drive.  The two are mutually reinforcing.  

Women can move from petitioner to petitioner with a mindset, increasingly, of “what have you done for me lately?”.  If we don’t get our asses powdered just right, there’s a hundred more where you came from.  And as for our defects of character?  You should be so lucky.  I’m a bad bitch, and if you can’t handle me, then you don’t deserve me.  

Cue the hordes of young women who can be neither handled nor deserved.

Cue, synchronously, the hordes of young men resorting to increasingly affected antics.  You gotta bump those numbers, those are rookie numbers!  At some point, several steps back, men encountered a fork in the road.  One sign said “humanity” and the other said “masculinity”.  And they almost all chose the wrong road.  Young men in the era of internet dating (and this includes the digital manner in which we interact with even those we have met organically) are remarkably disempowered.  

I know that I’m representing a minority perspective here, because 100% of the times I’ve said this out loud, whoever was listening was shocked and appalled.  Young women are disempowered!  Everyone knows that!  Well, luckily, everyone’s disempowered because: emotional dark ages.  So we all get to be right.  

But what I’m saying is that men, in dating, are disempowered as human beings, not as masculine constructs.  Which is worse!  This has always been an issue, throughout patriarchy, but never more so than now.  Men commodify women, and this is a blessing and a curse, for women.  The world is full of useless men.  There’s no such thing as a useless woman.  It’s not a great scenario for anyone.  

But the behaviors and perspectives men resort to, in this climate of female objects who can be neither handled nor deserved, is pathetic.  For me, there’s nothing more essentially yucky than watching a man sell himself short, as a human being, in an attempt to get in my pants.  It’s just gross, and sad.  

Men trying to get into women’s panties isn’t gross and sad — it’s pretty epic, actually, considering the circumstances.  The entirety of western civilization and organized religion have been erected, buttressed, and armored against the invasion of men into women’s panties, and it’s been largely unsuccessful.  That’s impressive.  

What’s not impressive is the sly, slippery, jellyfish that men have overwhelmingly chosen to become, in their large scale adaptation to the current dating scene.  Getting into a relationship with a woman who keeps his balls in a jar is nothing for a man who already pickled his own balls years ago.

Frankly, it’s amazing than anyone can meet anyone, let alone conduct any sort of relationship, for any amount of time.  And the magical rule of thumb, eternally assisting and yet attacking us, at all turns, is this: we don’t know what we do want until we know what we don’t want.

The emotional dark ages inform our suffering in many areas besides dating — notably, in parenting, and the manner in which we were parented.  But there’s such a strong connection between the manner in which we were parented and the dating strategies we incorporate, that it’s almost like two different points on the same trajectory.  

I could, probably literally, rap on this general subject for hours, but the rest of my day is calling. I’ll just close by saying this: how do we exit the emotional dark ages, in our own lives, bit by bit?  

By recognizing that an entire dimension of our existence has been suppressed, denied, or disowned, and that we’re no safer for it.  In fact, we’re much less safe.  The fastest, safest, funnest, and best way forward, for each of us, is to cultivate a highly evolved self.  An authentic self.  A self that takes its own emotions and responses seriously, before their momentum snowballs into suffering, and negotiates lovingly and accordingly.                                                                                                  

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