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Radically deprivatizing relationships

As groups of friends and members of wider communities, we want to support one another through hard times. We want to create things together — events, art, fundraising, safe spaces — we want to share our creativity, skills, resources, and care as we organize around our values and shared affection.

It’s to be expected that in close-knit communities, perhaps especially in queer communities, individuals form romantic attachments, fall in love, and break up. Both forming and ending these kinds of relationships can put a strain on the rest of the community. When people get entangled and limerence takes hold, they can forget the rest of the world and their commitments. When people break up and hurt each other in the process, they can feel like interacting with the community is too painful because of the presence of their former loves.

The limerent stage doesn’t last forever, so unless the community relies 100% on a person showing up for everything or the lovers intentionally leave, things usually recover. Breakups pose much greater challenges for communities, whether co-living or distributed. The end of a romantic relationship can cause all kinds of challenges for the people involved, their friends, and all their connections. Often, one person leaving the relationship is left feeling unable to be a part of friendship groups or wider circles, and unsure if there’s anything they can do to reintegrate. So how can a community show up for people who are hurting because of a breakup? And why do we keep failing to do it?

One reason is there’s an aura of “not my problem” around other peoples’ intimate relationship issues. There’s a taboo about asking for information, and about giving it. These things are personal, private, liable to cause an emotional reaction, and should be kept out of the community’s field of view as much as possible.

This is nothing more than the replication of straight society’s monogamous norms, and I think it’s hurting us. I want to argue for a radical deprivatization of intimate relationships, and for a new norm of discussion and exposure.  If people are fighting, going through issues, hurting each other, trying to pretend the others don’t exist, the community should be able to learn that it is happening, and something about why it’s happening. There doesn’t need to be a bubble of shame or defensiveness, and creating one only causes confusion and further fragmentation.

Being open about what is happening and how it feels leads to more ways we can help keep our friendship groups and communities together, like mediated conversations between people who are in conflict but not at a point of inconsolable pain or anger. Rather than leaving the hurt people to determine how to interact with the wider community (which usually means at least one person being cut off and their friends choosing who to care for), our community should help them figure out how to access support and take care of themselves (including intentionally taking space if they need to) in a way that aligns with all our shared values.

Too often, communities find it easier to draw a veil over conflicts between members until it’s too late to help them. It is possible for former romantic partners to transition into friendship or a kind of intentional neutrality or some other state, but it’s easier to do that when people are mindful and understanding of their situation. The community should feel a sense of duty of care to its members who are suffering from a breakup, and its members should feel empowered to speak up, share their feelings and experiences, and expect a compassionate and respectful response.

Queers need each other, even in the Bay Area where there are enough of us to have the privilege of replicating these monogamous cishet norms of choosing a side. Being cast out of queer-accepting spaces and made to feel invisible are particularly cruel things to do to a queer person — too many of us have been made to feel that way our whole lives, so queer communities should take special care to make sure that one part of a breakup doesn’t feel like they are being blacklisted or isolated simply because their romantic relationship didn’t work out. How people treat each other after they’ve been in a relationship is not a special ethical case. “They were dating” should never be used as a justification for turning a blind eye to unfair or destructive behavior.

In short, a resilient community needs information and a commitment to caring for others who are hurting in the aftermath of romance. This means asking embarrassing questions, sharing emotional vulnerabilities and personal failings, and creating something like an emotional commons. Such radical deprivatization is only possible if there’s a level of trust and belief in each other and the values we claim to hold. Perhaps our ongoing failure to help people who are hurting in this way speaks to a deeper issue of lack of trust and aversion to doing hard things that we need to address.

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