For Lovers And Fighters (Or, Wherein I Fangirl Dean Spade)

Capitalism is fundamentally invested in notions of scarcity, encouraging people to feel that we never have enough so that we will act out of greed and hording and focus on accumulation. Indeed, the romance myth is focused on scarcity: There is only one person out there for you!!! You need to find someone to marry before you get too old!!!! The sexual exclusivity rule is focused on scarcity, too: Each person only has a certain amount of attention or attraction or love or interest, and if any of it goes to someone besides their partner their partner must lose out. We don’t generally apply this rule to other relationships—we don’t assume that having two kids means loving the first one less or not at all, or having more than one friend means being a bad or fake or less interested friend to our other friends. We apply this particular understanding of scarcity to romance and love, and most of us internalize that feeling of scarcity pretty deeply.

So Dean Spade is brilliant. This is a fact. But reading this (in an essay that I swear I’ve read before but maybe glossed over this part?) this morning really brought me up short.

Cause I mean, I’ve been thinking about capitalism a lot lately, as it seems to be malfunctioning pretty badly these days (understatement of…my life?). And when I’m not thinking about that (work), I’m a human and a single one in my early 30s with friends, so I am talking about love and relationships with friends. My own, theirs, other people’s, the ideal relationship…

But I never really thought about the idea of scarcity as applied to love. Or maybe I did, but not in quite the sort of click moment I had this morning.

I’ve been talking friends through the kinds of breakups I’ve had too many of, this month. The kind where you think everything is going great and then suddenly poof, freakout!

The kind that leave you going “What did I do? Am I just unloveable? What’s wrong with me?” because they didn’t stick around long enough for you to hate them, or even see their bad sides really. The kind that really throw you for a loop.

And after those breakups especially I see people in a tailspin, terrified that they’ll be alone.

I sent this quote to a friend this morning and she replied “YES!” and then “THEFT. I felt robbed,” by the breakup, by the time spent with that person that turned out not to be “worth it,” a “good investment” (my words, not hers). Financial terms applied to our love lives. What?

Think about how many times you’ve described a potential lover with words like that.

I think this in some way overlaps with my distaste for Internet dating. It’s applying capitalist models to love and romance, “shopping” for a partner. And then I watch relationships (including my own) devolve into inner competition, each person wanting a particular end and negotiating to make that end come about.

I’ve been single more or less for four years, since 2007 when my ex-fiance and I split up. In that relationship we were both waiting for the other to change, and when I finally extracted myself from it I felt robbed of my time, my “investments.” Yet I also still deeply cared for that person and put myself through emotional hell trying, for a while, to still be his friend.

Since then I’ve had flings and one-night stands and lovers. But nothing that really counted as a “relationship.” I’ve slept with close friends and gone on being friends. I’ve fallen in love.

And later in this piece, Spade goes on to say:

One of my goals in thinking about redefining the way we view relationships is to try to treat the people I date more like I treat my friends—try to be respectful and thoughtful and have boundaries and reasonable expectations—and to try to treat my friends more like my dates—to give them special attention, honor my commitments to them, be consistent, and invest deeply in our futures together. In the queer communities I’m in valuing friendship is a really big deal, often coming out of the fact that lots of us don’t have family support, and build deep supportive structures with other queers.

I think this is deeply important to me (and this part of the essay I DO remember having read before) since my breakup. bell hooks wrote of something similar as well, of deciding to forego one solitary “partner” in favor of many different types of love around her.

I’m almost exclusively heterosexual, but my community nevertheless supports me in my social justice work in a way that my family doesn’t. My friends are my family, and I love each of them slightly differently, and they fill in almost all the holes in my life. I can allow those friendships to change and grow, and not hold potential lovers to specific rules (most of the time. I was weirded out at first when a short-term fling kept contacting me–and then realized that it was silly to be put off by someone saying, in essence “Hey, you’re a cool person and just cause we’re not gonna be a couple doesn’t mean we can’t talk on occasion or even flirt on occasion.”)

Yet I still want what Spade calls “the romance myth.”

I don’t know if I could successfully be polyamorous. When I fall for someone, I tend to fall hard, obsessively, and in most of my past relationships, when I felt a powerful attraction to someone else, it was because my relationship was falling apart.

I don’t have the answers, except to say that maybe there aren’t any, just ways to think about how we can treat other people better, with more love.

That’s the goal of my politics, and it’s the goal of my relationships too, I suppose. I fail at both sometimes, but this essay was a nice reminder to keep trying, keep thinking, keep working.

Keep fighting.

23 comments for “For Lovers And Fighters (Or, Wherein I Fangirl Dean Spade)

  1. August 18, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    The reason we talk/think about relationships (romantic or otherwise) in what appear to be capitalist terms is because one of the most common metaphors we live by is ‘time is money’ – we spend time, we save time, we waste time, etc – which functions as a metaphor because, while love may not be finite, time is, like money, a limited resource.

    Our relationships are essentially defined by the time shared between the people involved, either being with them or thinking of them – it feels like an investment because it is, you are opting to use a percentage of your limited lifespan in the company of/thinking about/working on one person, which in turn means you aren’t dedicating that time to anyone or anything else. If a relationship dies, however much one might be able to philosophically appreciate the experience and how much one has learned and grown etc, there is still an underlying sense that the time devoted to person A might have been more rewarding had it been spent on person B or activity C.

    The metaphor isn’t really Time is Money, but Time and Money are Limited Resources. This doesn’t mean that we should perhaps rethink our perspective on romance, but there isn’t anything inherently incorrect in the metaphor.

  2. LC
    August 18, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Sadly, I don’t have time to read this right now, but the critique of “scarcity” is a common one in Poly culture.

    I don’t really think I buy into this “we use financial language for love” thing as a sign of anything significant however. I get that, but we invest time in friends, in art, etc. We invest power in things, and that language has nothing to do with capitalism. I just don’t see that as particularly relevant.

    The “scarcity” aspect, however, that I do think is important to fight against (despite my problems with Poly). Or rather, too interrogate. (I think you can make all kinds of arguments about the scarcity of love and appropriate partners without linking “scarcity” to “exclusivity”.

    I have to finish work to sneak out early to go to a Diner en Blanc with my lover tonight since I won’t see her until she gets back from visiting her lover in Toronto next week, so I can’t read it now. ^__^

  3. BHuesca
    August 18, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Biological clock, anyone?

  4. Jennifer
    August 18, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    I also love Dean Spade. I’ve been thinking about these issues too, but not (of course) as well as Dean does. I think the time invested thing becomes such a big issue because we imbue romantic relationships with such baggage that when they break up we’re less likely to keep any part of the relationship, and then it can feel like we’ve put a lot of ourselves building a relationship that’s gone. If we were more realistic, maybe we wouldn’t put so much into romantic relationships because our expectations would be lower, and then we could hold on to them for longer. I think this might be true in my own case.

    I appreciated what Dean said about there maybe being too much pressure for polyamory. Personally, I have a hard time being physically intimate with people that I don’t have a really deep trusting relationship with–I don’t even like getting my hair cut because it feels very awkward to me to have transactional physical intimacy. Ditto massage. Granted, this may come out of rape culture and being brainwashed about a woman’s virtue being the only this she has or something, but it’s there.

    My first reactionary response to polyamory is “think about the children…” but certainly the monogamous couple model doesn’t work well, statistically speaking, to care for kids and we should have something else anyway.

    My second reactionary though is “STDs!” I wonder how much of this goes back to the woman’s virtue thing and the stigma of STDs–I mean, there are risks of getting diseases when traveling, interacting with people, etc.

    What I really like about Dean’s essay is his exercise of trying to look at people as someone who loved them would, rather than with a critical eye. If we could get people to do this on a large scale–man, the world would be a much better place.

  5. DP
    August 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    “I sent this quote to a friend this morning and she replied “YES!” and then “THEFT. I felt robbed,” by the breakup, by the time spent with that person that turned out not to be “worth it,” a “good investment” (my words, not hers). Financial terms applied to our love lives. What?”

    The Marxist in me would like to point out that money is just congealed labor-time.

    It makes perfect sense, really, when you view time as the ultimate limited resource – in fact, each moment you spend with one person or one group can necessarily not be spent with another.

    I suppose that would be the monogamist’s rebuttal to polyamory – while people who engage in it say they are capable of loving each partner as much as the monogamist loves their own, they can’t possibly devote *as much time* to a given person as a monogamist theoretically could, by simple mathematics.

    I don’t much care how people choose to structure their lives, but it is interesting the way these things are constructed.

  6. August 18, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    Not wanting to be poly doesn’t mean you’re buying into a “myth.” Of course it’s a myth that romance is always driven by scarcity or that no poly relationship can be successful, but the notion that poly relationships are inherently superior is just as silly as the notion that they’re inherently inferior. If you, personally, desire serial monogamy, that doesn’t mean you have to endorse the idea that it’s best for everyone – but it also doesn’t mean you have to feel like your approach to romance is somehow flawed.

  7. August 18, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    I think for me, in my own choices in a partner, I’ve felt as though I’ve needed to hide or conceal certain parts of myself. Seeming ideal and part of the myth rather than me is often where I begin. Because of childhood abuse, I tend to revert back to a wounded eight-year-old boy when things become too stressful.

    Some partners have been able to handle it, and some want to run far far away. I’ve felt that in order to sustain love and not push people away, I’ve had to keep that from happening. But the irony is that I can’t stop it from happening until that part of myself is fully healed.

    Should I feel resentful for those who can’t deal with it? Should I give them a large amount of space to process it in their own time. I’ve tried both strategies and had success as well as failure.

  8. Kristen J
    August 18, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    @Sara, I’m not sure from what I read that he’s describing the “Romance Myth” that way…but I could be wrong.

    If so I’m a mythological creature, which could be kind of cool. I wonder if I’d be able to see unicorns and those Nice Guys (TM) who aren’t misogynists.

  9. August 18, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    It is such a breath of fresh air to be part of a queer community currently circulating, contemplating, and living ideas like those in Dean’s essay. To take an analytical, critical eye to something that has been culturally off limits: the proper forms and definitions of intimate relationships.

    My experience of queer communities has been that we are exploring different kinds of relationships that work for different people, and refraining from judgment so long as people are intentional and respectful.

    I do not feel that online dating is like “shopping for a partner”. It is a way of communicating with people who have similar goals and interests as you, but whom you may never have crossed paths with otherwise. Especially for people in microcommunities like the social justice-oriented, anti-racist, sex-positive queer scenes, it can be hard to just happen across suitable partners. I think sometimes cisgendered hetero people tend to forget this.

    And just to dispel some potential misinformation- there doesn’t appear to be anything to indicate that polyamory is bad for children or significantly increases one’s likelihood to get STDs. Good childcare is good childcare regardless of a parent’s sexual partners. And safe(r) sex is safe(r) sex. Practice it every time to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancy, whether you have multiple partners or just one.

    Recommended reading: The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton & Catherine Liszt

  10. RD
    August 18, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    From now on, let’s “just” be friends is an honorific.

  11. August 18, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Biological clock, anyone?

    Only relevant if a relationship with an adult is a critical factor in having a baby, which is an awfully big assumption on so many levels.

  12. August 18, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Biological clock, anyone?

    …yeah. What is that even supposed to mean?

  13. Rare Vos
    August 18, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Biological clock, anyone?


    good one.

  14. EG
    August 18, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    Each person only has a certain amount of attention…

    To be fair, this is indeed true, at least for me. Throw time in there, too. I do have only a certain amount of attention and time. To that extent, indeed, having more than one partner would be a damn nightmare for me.

    We don’t generally apply this rule to other relationships—we don’t assume that having two kids means loving the first one less or not at all

    This is clearly written by somebody who has no memories of being an older sibling dealing with a new baby in the house. Because that is indeed the go-to assumption for most kids in that situation.

  15. EG
    August 18, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Oh, and energy. I’m limited in that as well.

    I don’t think we should dismiss the “biological clock” thing quite so cavalierly. Obviously, it’s irrelevant if you’re not interested in having children, but if you are, and you’re female, is indeed a concern.

    I wish we lived in the kind of society where we had state-sponsored day care and income supplements to help people raise children, and I wish we lived in the kind of society in which close friends and/or family members could form and have respected and enforceable the kind of bonds that would make it no more of a gamble to raise kids together than in a marriage/romantic relationship. And I wish we lived in the kind of society in which artificial insemination was cheap, and covered by everyone’s health insurance. But we don’t. So for me, a woman in her mid-thirties who really wants children and who makes just enough to support herself, it’s a concern. I doubt I’m the only one.

    That’s not to say that polyamorous people can’t successfully raise children (obviously), though polyamory is not for me. But the idea of being annoyed at the thought of “wasted” time? I do get that, and I don’t think it’s about applying a capitalist mindset to love as much as it’s about the result of a capitalist society that does not provide material support for those who have children.

  16. latinist
    August 18, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    “The sexual exclusivity rule is focused on scarcity, too: Each person only has a certain amount of attention or attraction or love or interest, and if any of it goes to someone besides their partner their partner must lose out.”

    I don’t think the historical aspect of this is central to either the quoted article or the main post, but still worth discussing: this idea of scarcity in relationships predates modern capitalism, doesn’t it? I mean, obviously, exclusive relationships do; but even this way of talking about them. I can certainly think of a bunch of medieval texts that joke about female adultery as the wife giving away her “surplus.” I’m drawing a blank on quotes from ancient texts, but don’t the women in Lysistrata talk about sex as a resource? Anyone know more about non-Western cultures?

  17. August 18, 2011 at 9:51 pm

    As a disabled woman who has always wanted biological children, I’ve been more or less forced to take this financial mindset when it comes to dating and marriage. Every year I wait to have children makes pregnancy riskier for me, despite the fact that I’m relatively young. This makes my time in relationships precious to me in a way it might not otherwise be.

    When I started dating the man I’m going to marry (wedding’s in October), I told him this flat out: “You know about my condition; I don’t want to waste any time. I’m not going to wait around for years to get engaged. You need to know that up front.” He understood. I wouldn’t have dated someone who didn’t.

    If you don’t want biological kids, then this doesn’t apply, I admit. But I think a lot of women do, so I think you (the general you, not Sarah you) ignore that facet at your peril.

  18. addy
    August 19, 2011 at 11:20 am

    Scarcity of time certainly is a concern in many poly relationships, but for me, spreading my time out among a number of people makes me happier, in general, than spending all that time with one person. Let’s say I like to spend 3-4 evenings each week engaging in romantic/sexual pursuits, and the rest of my time with friends, family, or alone. While I have dated certain individuals with whom I loved to spend 5 or 6 evenings a week (living together, for example), there are other people who are great lovers, or really fun to see a show with, or to cuddle on the couch with, but who frankly would get on my nerves if I saw them 4 times a week. Instead of distancing myself from them altogether, I can see them maybe once a week, and spend the other nights with other people. I don’t get too emotionally attached to anyone (something I’m trying to avoid for now) and no one gets on my nerves, but my needs are met, and I do what I can to make sure others’ needs are met too.

  19. Computer Soldier Porygon
    August 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Let’s say I like to spend 3-4 evenings each week engaging in romantic/sexual pursuits, and the rest of my time with friends, family, or alone.

    This is why I’m not poly – although I am in an open relationship. I like to spend maybe two evenings a week engaging in romantic/sexual pursuits and the rest of my time with friends, family or alone. Two evenings a week with one person is ideal for me.

  20. silentbeep
    August 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    I don’t know how introversion works for other people, but for me, that means being careful with my time and energy because I really do have limits when it comes to relationship interactions. Spending a lot of time with different people even on a purely social level makes me really tired, and really cranky fast, and the stress is not worth it for me. This has worked out for me romantically too. I have found that I really only have so much to give, and I feel frazzled by lots of different relationships that demand a lot of my time (this includes family, friends, acquaintances as well as lovers and romantic partners).

    I think my propensity for monogamy is based on my own experience of introversion, and why I have a small circle of friends and why I need a lot of alone time. I experience my own time and energy as scarce because I get pretty miserable fast if I have to interact a lot. This is a part of my introversion and I struggle with needing to take care of my own well-being, while taking care of other people too.

  21. addy
    August 19, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    silentbeep: I don’t know how introversion works for other people, but for me, that means being careful with my time and energy because I really do have limits when it comes to relationship interactions.

    I’m the same way (quite an introvert), but for me, keeping a number of casual things going is less draining than being emotionally close to one person. I have a much easier time setting boundaries with casual partners than I do with serious monogamous ones– more comfortable asking for alone time, less guilty about canceling or changing plans if I am feeling overwhelmed, not obligated to spend a night together when all I really want is an hour or two.

    Of course, this has more to do with the way I have (mis)managed my monogamous relationships in the past than it does with monogamy in general, but I know that a lot of people have similar experiences with monogamy. One thing I really enjoy about being poly now is learning these skills so that I can apply them to monogamous relationships later, since I tend to alternate between the two.

    And for me, even though my time and energy are scarce, I have found that my capacity for love is not.

    • Kristen J
      August 19, 2011 at 3:00 pm

      Good grief yes. I’d attribute it to the romance myth myself. You don’t see the bits in the movie where the heroine say, “Dear, sweet, adorable, love of my life…go the fuck away…I want to sit and drink this glass of wine without your incessent prattling.”

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