Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Magic Words Part 1: Focus on Relationships

Last week I talked about how the relationship problems facing asexual people aren't all that bad, because we can use language to solve them. By finding new ways to talk about relationships we can greatly increase our options for forming them. I'm going to spend the next three posts talking about some of the language that I use, I hope that you all will respond by posting some of yours!

Drop the words "friend" and "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" from your vocabulary, use "relationship" instead.

The first and most important task in rephrasing relationships is getting rid of the binary. Describe a relationship as a "friendship" and people will make a set of assumptions about how important that relationship is in your life, how you feel about the person and what sort of commitments you've made to one another, describe it as "romantic" and you'll get another set of assumptions. Personally, I've found that most of the time neither set of assumptions is very accurate. I'll form a new relationship that's exciting like a romantic crush, nonphysical like a friendship and structured like neither. When talking about the relationship, either to the person it's with or to other people, I want to jump out of these boxes. I want people to get a puzzled look on their face and ask me what I mean so that I can have a chance to tell them.

Just using the word "relationship" does this beautifully. I use relationship in the broadest possible way, the dictionary definition of "a connection, association, or involvement." I have a relationship with my computer, the hydrogen and oxygen molecules in my glass of water have a relationship, so does a nine year old and her multiplication tables."Relationship" describes the full spectrum from friendship to romance and then some, it gives people almost no room to project false assumptions about what kind of relationship you're talking about, which is what you want.

You can think about this sort of language like a coloring book. When you say "friend" you get one page with a bunch of lines that you can shade and color in. If you don't have all the right colors or you want to draw a different picture then you're out of luck. When you say "romance" you get another page. When you just say "relationship" you get a blank page. You have to go to the trouble drawing your own lines, but you can draw them however you want, with whatever colors you and the other person have around and like the best. 

That blank page can be a little intimidating. Stop right now and think about some of the most important friendships and romantic relationships in your life. Now, imagine describing those relationships without using the words "friend" or "romantic". What would be the most important information to convey about each relationship? How would you distinguish the relationships from one another? Are there common themes in how you would describe them? Getting rid of the binary forces you to generate a new language to replace it. (I'll talk about the words I use next post.) This is good because the new language will much more accurately reflect how things work for you than the binary does. It's also challenging, because you wind up thinking about relationships in a language that no one else speaks. Sometimes people will be happy to sit around while you go into long discussions of what makes your relationships unique, but most of the time you'll only have room for a few words of information. For your most important relationships it's important to figure out what these words are. 

Relationships are not people.

The other reason I love the word "relationship" has to do with grammar. Friends, boyfriends and girlfriends are all types of people, relationships aren't. If I have a girlfriend then conceptually all that's going on is me and her. If I have a relationship with Bernice then there are conceptually two things going on: Bernice and the relationship. For me, separating these two makes things a lot clearer. I can feel respect and love for Bernice while at the same time feeling fear and excitement about our relationship. Bernice can stay more or less the same while our relationship changes radically, or vice versa. 

Because I think about Bernice as "Bernice" and not "my girlfriend" it's easier to separate who she is and what she wants from the expectations I've placed on her. It's easy for me to see that there are important parts of her that have nothing to do with her relationship with me, I can see that she is a complicated entity that I only understand one facet of, and I can appreciate that she's deserving of unconditional love and respect (though not unconditional time and energy.) 

Because I think about my relationship as a distinct entity I can appreciate all of the ways that it behaves like a relationship and not like a person. It exists to the extent that both people are actively invested in it. It can be hurtful without either of the people involved in it being hurtful, it can go from extremely energetic to fairly mellow without the people involved changing in any fundamental way. Usually it's easier to try to change a relationship than to try to change a person. It's one thing to say that I want Bernice to call me every day, it's another to say that I want to build the sort of relationship where we call each other every day.  It's one thing to say that a person is hurting me and needs to stop, it's another to say that I am being hurt by my relationship with them and try to envision ways that I can change that relationship. 

I find it useful to separate people from relationships because it helps me draw general guidelines. People aren't fundamentally more important than one another, but relationships can and should be prioritized. I can't control people (and generally shouldn't try), but I always have some control of my relationship with them. All people are deserving of fundamental respect, even if relationships with those people have serious problems. 

Next post I'll get into some of the language that I use to describe these relationships, ways to quickly and accurately give them meaning without relying on the binary. 


Adams said...

I love this post. It's exactly why I identify as queer -- to prompt people to ask questions. "What does that mean to you?" Things like that.

I actually use the term "relationship" as well, but more so with people who know me. I find that I tend to go back to using "friend," "girlfriend," "boyfriend," etc. with people I don't know well though because I want things to be clearer.

Ily said...

The idea of separating people from your relationship with them is really brilliant. I'd imagine that could save everyone a lot of hurt over time.
I've always found the terms "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" strange, especially if you're talking about either one. I've been known to say "boy/girl/otherfriend", but that's a little long...

Anonymous said...

I love the high I get from reading your blog posts (does this qualify as my relationship with your blog? ;)) ... I haven't thought nearly enough about the language I use, in part because I've never had someone in my life who qualified for the gf/ bf category, and yet, I think that's part of what makes this so relevant for me. Because my feelings are constantly stepping into, out of, and all over the boundaries of the binary, (I'm always experiencing something a "crush-like" rush over a conversation with a "friend," etc), I'm even more compelled to look into what I can do with my words. I am putting further consideration of the language I use on my mental to-do list, and looking forward to getting jazzed by your idea in-person later this week. Whoo!