PQ 22.5 — Have I ever spread bitterness in the community or set people against each other by taking sides or by not keeping confidences?

a photograph of a statue of Lot's wife turned to salt. The statue is in front of a reddish building with green trim
Image by Peter Linehan / CC BY

PQ 22.5 — Have I ever spread bitterness in the community or set people against each other by taking sides or by not keeping confidences?

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In order to better understand the context of this question, I reviewed Chapter 22 of More than Two and found the following:

As elsewhere in poly relationships, taking sides is tempting but dangerous during a breakup. It’s natural to feel anger toward someone you perceive as causing your partner pain. It also tends to do more harm than good. The poly community is small enough that at some point you’re likely to be friends with, or even in a relationship with, someone who is in a relationship with the ex, or knows someone who is.

In the era of social media, it’s incredibly tempting to seek validation online. We recommend keeping breakups off social media — even if your former partner doesn’t follow this advice. Taking a breakup onto the world stage, especially when you’re dealing with the anger part of grief, has a way of backfiring. Remember, the poly community is small, and the people who you make witness to your breakups will probably be your pool of potential partners later.

Bitter Writing Versus Reflective Writing

This is a very difficult question for me to tackle, as someone who is well known in the polyamorous community AND has written in great detail about my personal dating life, at all stages of my relationships — which of course includes breakups.

It feels, as they say in meme land, like I’m being attacked by this relatable content.

I think there’s a delicate balance here. Or at least an important distinction to be made between the following:

  1. Bitter writing. Where the motivation is to exact revenge, vent, or wage an information war in the community against someone else.
  2. Reflective writing. Where the motivation is to understand what has happened, learn the most productive lesson possible from the experience, and perhaps even pass that learning on to others.

It’s likely up to any one person to assess how well I do at it, but my motivation as a person who does write very publicly about my love life is to do more of the second and less of the first.  To write about things motivated less by bitterness and more by the desire to reflect and teach.

This goes for all aspects of my writing (including stages like crush, NRE, ORE, etc.) but especially so when it comes to breakups.

As I’ve said in the past, I don’t get over things by forgetting them. I do it by remembering and making sense of them.

And I find the most vigorous proponents of “just get over it” and/or “just drop it” are avoidant types who often keep running into the same problems over and over without having any new insight.

Learning takes a bit of reflection.

That Said, You Don’t Get a Choice in How Others View Your Motives

That said, no one is forcing me to do that reflection in public.

These days I always abide by an important principle:  I only write about something publicly if I have personal closure on something. I don’t write publicly about something until I’m over it. If I don’t need a response from the people the piece is about or from the people reading about it.

The trouble of course is that while I know my internal state and my own motives for writing the things I do, I certainly can’t control how that comes off to others.

It’s been interesting seeing how readers interpret my motives. I’ve had many who don’t understand that my public writing is a series of post mortem evaluations and instead view it as vivisection (dissection on a living organism).

For example, some of the events of my first book, Poly Land, took place a decade ago. And it’s not all pretty. To be honest, some of it is gut-wrenching stuff. But I’m not angry at any of the characters in it anymore. There are a few that I don’t speak to (and I don’t want to give any spoilers, but that severing of ties was more initiated by third parties who feared for my safety). But the rest I’m on fairly good terms with. Including my ex-husband, who I talk with every now and then, and who has been really cool about my writing career in general.

But every now and then, I’ll get someone who assumes that because I was mistreated some years ago that I must still be fuming about it — and that was the impetus for publishing the book. To show everyone and punish them.

Nope. I couldn’t have put that book out if I wasn’t over what happened in it (seriously, in order to publish and promote a book, you have to interface with its contents in a way that would have made me mentally unhealthy by the end of it if I was still all raw about the experience). And that’s part of why I waited such a long time.

But while you are well aware of your own motives as a writer, readers are going to attribute motives for you. You don’t get a choice in the matter. And that’s something you need to make peace with.

One of the Biggest Surprises I Faced as a Writer: Your Exes Become Astonishingly Faithful Readers

“I’m a writer who writes about my personal life, how do you feel about that?” is part of my normal discussion now when I start a new relationship with someone. It happens near the beginning, often fairly close to the discussions about STI testing and current sexual habits.

It’s part of my standard disclaimers. And I let people express any concerns they have then. It’s a talk I’ve also had with certain metamours, especially when I know they’re someone I’m going to write about a fair bit (I’ve gotten to the point where I can just tell).

It’s difficult, however. I’ve started to distrust the people who say upfront, “I’m an open book. I have no concerns. I’m sure anything you write will be fine,” without further explanation. I’ve only had one partner who has said something like this where it was actually true. More often, people will agree upfront but then get irritable down the line, especially after we’ve broken up and then claim differently. (Although it helps that I usually do this talk in writing via text, email, or chat so at least I can review it.) Legally, you don’t really need permission so long as what you’re writing is not demonstrably false and causing obvious monetary damages (otherwise, most hardhitting journalists would be out of a job, people like Trump don’t want them to write about him). Checking in at the beginning is more of a courtesy but one I make sure to do.

I think it’s hardest for certain exes who choose to continue to read my work. People who were close to me but aren’t any longer. Some of them have experienced a kind of a push-pull because I’m gone (whether they pushed me away or I left or it was mutual) and yet they can still hear my thoughts. Whether those thoughts are about them or someone else, it can still be difficult knowing what I’m up to.

On the other hand, like I mentioned above, some of my exes have been really freaking wonderful and supportive about my decision to write. In general and even when that writing is about them…and there doesn’t seem to be much correlation between how supportive they are and how harshly I’ve written about our experiences. Indeed, the ones who have received the most negative examinations are often the most gracious about it. And others that I’ve only written positively about are steamed that they’ve been mentioned at all (even anonymously). As though they’re offended to even be remembered. Valued in the past tense. And eventually learned from.

But I think that’s reality. We learn things from other people. And we don’t always get to choose which lessons the people who knew us carry away from their time knowing us. That’s life.

I’ve dated enough at this point that there are even a few exes floating out there who continually (wrongly) think any given piece is about them and start writing about it and talking about it elsewhere (usually I’m tipped off about this by well-meaning mutual friends). Which is fine.  They get their own truth. And I don’t worry so much about my reputation — people understand how these things go. I figure the best way to argue with someone’s alternative truth is to let your life be your testimony.

That said, it probably is a lot tougher when your ex is a writer (although I do have a few writer exes, some more accomplished than I am, who write books and/or blog, and I’ve found it to be fine). Since normally you don’t have such easy access to what a person says behind your back. Normally it’s happening but you’ll never see it.

If what I write hurts them, I wish they wouldn’t read me (which is what I opt to do if something I can’t control is bothering me). But you know, Lot’s wife did turn around in the Bible.

Upsetting an Occasional Person and Causing Widespread Bitterness Are Different Things

But setting aside the question of motives (bitter versus reflective, actual versus perceived, etc), I think that while my writing has very occasionally given a subject an upset stomach or two, I don’t think it’s really affected much in our local community, no.

Particularly sensitive writing subjects often fear that their reputations will be damaged much more than what comes to fruition. Especially in the anonymous pieces, readers can’t even tell whom I’m writing about (people are given fake names, I change details and even genders, especially in pieces that are heated).

And if a mutual friend does recognize someone they know (which happens less often than one would think unless they’re one of my partners or closest friends) nothing really results from it in an interpersonal sense. People seem to like who they like and dislike who they dislike independently of whatever I write.

I’ve observed a similar lack of impact in most situations where the person is trying to change the general reputation of their ex. I’ve seen it play out a few times now in my local community with people I know — that person who runs around telling everyone that their ex is bad news, stay away from them, they’re dangerous, dating them would be a colossal mistake. I have yet to see a situation where the subject of such rumors is completely exiled, shunned, a persona non grata. Much more frequently, what results is that people are polite enough to the person warning them and then they turn and treat the ex in pretty much the same way they would previously. Close friends of the person warning will make sure not to invite them both to the same parties. But everyone else will otherwise reserve their original judgement of the subject of the rumor.

Now, that isn’t to say that I haven’t seen anyone exiled or become unwelcome in the community. It’s certainly happened. But usually it’s after a pattern of behavior with multiple exes speaking bitterly after the fact. Especially if those complainants are people who usually don’t raise much of a fuss. Then it’s extra impactful. But one person? Usually not much comes from it, especially if it’s your standard issue breakup woes. People are rarely surprised by a single bitter ex, especially if the relationship just ended.

And when it comes to my blog, people who know me in real life are not reading it as a local scene news report. They’re looking for the lesson.

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See also: Whose Story Is It? On Writing Without Permission

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This post is part of a series in which I answer each of the chapter-end questions in More than Two with an essay. For the entire list of questions and answers, please see this indexed list.

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