The Most Skipped Step When Opening a Relationship

You’ve had hundreds of hours of discussions on what your open relationship will look like? Check!

You’ve written down a list of limits, boundaries, rules, and expectations? Check!

You’ve created dating profiles that honestly detail what you are looking for and the honesty with your existing relationship? Check!

You’ve read at least 3 books together on the topic of nonmonogamy? Check?

You and your partner subscribe and listen to at least 3 nonmonogamous friendly podcasts? Check!

You’re all set! You open up the relationship and go off on your first dates… WHAM, arguing, suspicion, jealousy, withholding information, yelling, crying, breaking down… and a month later, you believe you don’t know each other anymore and you’re ready to call a marriage counsellor, divorce, forget you ever opened up your relationship, or all of the above.

What the hell happened?…

The Long Tail of an Abusive Relationship

I am a survivor of an abusive relationship, and parts of that experience affect the way that I engage in romantic relationships… but I have difficulty quantifying exactly how much. Insert obvious (minor) trigger warning here, and scroll past the kitten if you want to read more.

An adorable long-haired calico kitten. Instant eyebleach.
Mew.

I’m fine, by the way. It took… a long, long time, like in the region of a decade, to be completely fine about it, and I appreciate that compared to many people, I got lucky. Like many victims (and especially among men), my recovery was hampered by the fact that I found it difficult to see the relationship as having been abusive in the first place: that first step took many years all by itself. I’m not kidding when I say I’m fine, by the way: no, I don’t need to talk about it (with many of my circles of friends made up of current and former helpline volunteers of various types, I feel the need to make that doubly-clear: sometimes, one just can’t escape from people who care about you so much that they’ll offer you a cup of tea even if they’ve only got saltwater to make it with, if you catch the drift of my needless in-joke).

But I wanted to share with you something that I’ve gradually realised about how I was changed as a result of that relationship. Something that still affects me today and, for all I know, probably always will: a facet of my personality whose origins I eventually traced back to that dreadful relationship.

A man investigating the inside of his own (mechanical) brain.
Earlier this year, I finally got around to reading the (brilliant) Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. As somebody who loves to take apart his own brain to see how it works, I loved the story of an automaton who more-literally does exactly that.

A major factor in my attraction to people, for the last decade and a half, has been whether or not they demonstrate being attracted to me. I’m sure that’s the case for everybody, at least to some extent – there’s a necessary reciprocity for a relationship to work, of course – but in my case there’ve been times in my past when the entirety of my attraction to somebody could be described in terms of their attraction to me… and that’s a level that definitely isn’t healthy! It stems from a lack of belief in my own worth as relationship material, which had grown to such an extent that feeling as if I were even-remotely attractive in somebody else’s eyes has, regardless of whether or not I’d be interested in them under other circumstances, made me feel as though I ought to “give them a shot”. Again: not healthy.

This, in turn, comes from a desperation of considering myself fundamentally unattractive, undateable, and generally unworthy of the attention of anybody else in any relationship capacity… which is highly tied-up in the fact that I had a relationship in which my partner repeatedly and methodically taught me exactly that: that I was lucky to be in a relationship with them or indeed with anybody, etc.

Given enough time, persuasion, and coercive tactics, this is the kind of shit that sinks in and, apparently, sticks.

Dalmatian wrapped in barbed wire.
If this picture makes you sad… then you shouldn’t have scrolled past the kitten, should you?

I don’t mind that I’m a product of my environment. But it bugs me a little that I’m still, to a small (and easily managable, nowadays) extent the product of somebody else’s deliberate and manipulative efforts to control me, a decade and a half after the fact.

Now I’ll stress once again that I’m fine now: I’ve recovered by as much as I need (or at least expect) to. Some years ago, I finally got to the point that if you let me know that you’re attracted to me then that isn’t by itself something that makes me completely infatuated with you. Nowadays, I’m capable of actually engaging my brain and thinking “Hmm: would I be interested in this person if it weren’t for the fact that they’d just validated my worth in some way?” But I’m still aware of the sensation – that nagging feeling that I’m acting according to a manipulative bit of programming – even though I’m pretty confident that it doesn’t influence how I behave any more.

It’s funny how our brains work. At the end of the relationship, I made a reasonably-rapid bounceback/recovery in terms of my general self-worth, but it took far, far longer to get control over this one specific thing. I guess we all react to particular stresses in different ways. For me, somebody who’d spent his childhood and teen years with perhaps, if anything, a little much self-worth, it might have been inevitable that I’d be unable to rebuild the part of that self-image that was most-effectively demolished by somebody else: the bit that is dependent upon somebody else’s validation.

But who knows… as I said, I have difficulty quantifying how much that abusive relationship impacted me. Because it is, of course, true to say that every single thing I’ve ever experienced will have affected me in some way or another – made me the person I subsequently became. How can I justify blaming a single relationship? I know that I wasn’t “like this” back when I first started my dating life, but I can’t conclusively prove that it was the result of any one particular relationship: for all I can claim, perhaps it was something else? Maybe this was always who I’d become? Or maybe, of course, this entire paragraph is simply the result of the fact that my brain still has difficulty with the term “abusive relationship” and is more-than-happy to keep trying to reach for whatever alternative explanations it can find.

Once again though, I’ll stress that I’m okay now and I have been for many years. I just wanted to share with you an observation I’d made about my own psychology… and the long tail that even the “tamest” of abusive relationships can leave.

Means-Assessed Household Finances (Socialism Begins At Home!)

For the last four years or so, Ruth, JTA and I (and during their times living with us, Paul and Matt) have organised our finances according to a system of means-assessment. I’ve mentioned it to people on a number of ocassions, and every time it seems to attract interest, so I thought I’d explain how we got to it and how it works, so that others might benefit from it. We think it’s particularly good for families consisting of multiple adults sharing a single household (for example, polyamorous networks like ours, or families with grown children) but there are probably others who’d benefit from it, too – it’s perfectly reasonable for just two adults with different salaries to use it, for example. And I’ve made a sample spreadsheet that you’re welcome to copy and adapt, if you’d like to.

How we got here

JTA and Ruth at the supermarket after shoping before Murder... At The Magic College
That’s a long receipt!

After I left Aberystwyth and Ruth, JTA, Paul and I started living at “Earth”, our house in Headington, we realised that for the first time, the four of us were financially-connected to one another. We started by dividing the rent and council tax four ways (with an exemption for Paul while he was still looking for work), splitting the major annual expenses (insurance, TV license) between the largest earners, and taking turns to pay smaller, more-regular expenses (shopping, bills, etc.). This didn’t work out very well, because it only takes two cycles of you being the “unlucky” one who gets lumbered with the more-expensive-than-usual shopping trip – right before a party, for example – before it starts to feel like a bit of a lottery.

Our solution, then, was to replace the system with a fairer one. We started adding up our total expenditures over the course of each month and settling the difference between one another at the end of each month. Because we’re clearly raging socialists, we decided that the fairest (and most “family-like”) way to distribute responsibility was by a system of partial means-assessment: de chacun selon ses facultés.

JTA and Paul pack bags at the checkout, before Christmas 2010.
Another enormous shopping trip.

We started out with what we called “75% means-assessment”: in other words, a quarter of our shared expenditures were split evenly, four ways, and three-quarters were split proportionally in accordance with our gross income. We arrived at that figure after a little dissussion (and a computerised model that we could all play with on a big screen). Working from gross income invariably introduces inequalities into the system (some of which are mirrored in our income tax system) but a bigger unfairness came – as it does in wider society – from the fact that the difference between a very-low income and a low income is significantly more (from a disposable money perspective) than the difference between a low and a high income. This was relevant, because ‘personal’ expenses, such as mobile phone bills, were not included in the scheme and so we may have penalised lower-earners more than we had intended. On the other hand, 75% means-assessment was still significantly more-“communist” than 0%!

When I mentioned this system to people, sometimes they’d express surprise that I (as one of the higher earners) would agree to such an arrangement: the question was usually asked with a tone that implied that they expected the lower earners to mooch off of the higher earners, which (coupled with the clearly false idea that there’s a linear relationship between the amount of work involved in a job and the amount that it pays) would result in a “race to the bottom”, with each participant trying to do the smallest amount of work possible in order to maximise the degree to which they were subsidised by the others. From a game theory perspective, the argument makes sense, I would concede. But on the other hand – what the hell would I be doing agreeing to live with and share finances with (and then continuing to live with and share finances with) people whose ideology was so opposed to my own in the first place? Naturally, I trusted my fellow Earthlings in this arrangement: I already trusted them – that’s why I was living with them!

Louis Blanc
Louis Blanc had the right idea, but his idealism was hampered by the selfishness inherent in any sufficiently-large group. Had he brought socialism to his house, rather than his country, he might have felt more successful.

How it works

We’ve had a few iterations, but we eventually settled on a system at a higher rate of means-assessment: 100%! It’s not perfect, but it’s the fairest way I’ve ever been involved with of sharing the costs of running a house. I’ve put together a spreadsheet based on the one that we use that you can adapt to your own household, if you’d like to try a fairer way of splitting your bills – whether there are just two of you or lots of you in your home, this provides a genuinely equitable way to share your costs.

Means-assessed household finances sample sheet. Click to see the actual sheet.
Click on the sheet to see a Google Drive document that you can save a copy of and adapt to your own household.

The sheet I’ve provided – linked above – is not quite like ours: ours has extra features to handle Ruth and I’s fluctuating income (mine because of freelance work, Ruth’s because she’s gradually returning to work following a period of maternity leave), an archive of each month’s finances, tools to help handle repayments to one another of money borrowed, and convenience macros to highlight who owes what to whom. This is, then, a simplified version from which you can build a model for your own household, or that you can use as a starting point for discussions with your own tribe.

Start on the “People” sheet and tell it how many participants your household has, their names, and their relative incomes. Also add your proposed level of means-assessment: anything from 0% to 100%… or beyond, but that does have some interesting philosophical consequences.

Then, on the “Expenses” sheet, record each thing that your household pays for over the course of each month. At the bottom, it’ll total up how much each person has paid, and how much they would have been expected to pay, based on the level of your means-assessment: at 0%, for example, each person would be expected to pay 1/N of the total; at the other extreme (100%), a person with no income would be expected to make no contribution, and a person with twice the income of another would be expected to pay twice as much as them. It’ll also show the difference between the two values: so those who’ve paid less than their ‘share’ will have negative numbers and will owe money to those who’ve paid more than their share, indicated by positive numbers. Settle the difference… and you’re ready to roll on to the next month.

Now you’re equipped to employ a (wholly or partially) means-assessed model to your household finances. If you adapt this model or have ideas for its future development, I’d love to hear them.

Horoscopes

A little over a third of my life ago, when things were very different, I was dating a girl who had an unusual approach to horoscopes. During the period that we lived together, each morning, I’d see her perform a peculiar dance (at the time, I thought that it was things like this that defined her particular insanity: later, I learned better).

Reb and Dan with Snowflake, Sarah, and Becky.
Trying to date this photo? Those kids in the background are my sisters.
Trying to date anybody IN this photo? Tread carefully…

She’d get up and check her horoscope on Teletext (again: if you needed any clue as to how long ago we’re talking, there it is): that was usually her first port of call for her astrological guidance. She’d sit there, waiting for Scorpio to load (at the end of the second page of Teletext horoscopes)… and then decide whether she liked it or not. And if she didn’t like it: if that particular horoscope didn’t suit her – she’d reject it. She’d go and check her horoscope in the newspaper, and see if that one was better. And failing that, she’d go onto the Internet and find a horoscope online; and so on, until she found one that she wanted. (I wonder what she’d have done if she’d have found a fortune cookie that she didn’t approve of? Eat another?)

Reb swinging around a lamp post.
Given my description of her in this blog post, this crazy-face-picture might be a more-fitting photo of my ex-.

At the time, I mocked her for it. But over time, I’ve come to see that “choosing your own horoscope” is no less-insane, and perhaps a little saner, than believing in the power of horoscopes to begin with. To argue against her behaviour on the grounds that she’s choosing a horoscope rather than using the ‘correct’ one, one must first accept the legitimacy of the process of assigning people personality characteristics based on the relative positions of the Earth, Sun and distant stars at the time of their birth. You can argue against her on the grounds that she’s crazy, of course, but I think we can agree that somebody who reads several horoscopes and chooses one isn’t any more crazy than somebody who reads just one horoscope and then accepts that as legitimate.

@SelinaWilken: Sometimes I'll read horoscopes, and just go down the list until I find the one I like best. This month I'm Aquarius.
Your horoscope for this week: you will choose a different zodiac sign and use that, instead.

The craziest thing about my ex-, in this particular quirk, though, was that she tried to justify her logic when I challenged it. My friend Selina once tweeted that she would select her favourite horoscope from the list of 12 zodiac signs available to her from a single source. I think that’s marginally more-sane again, than my ex-: while my ex- used to read the same star sign from several different media (demonstrating that she harbours a belief in astrology to begin with, but that she finds things made by humans to be flawed), Selina’s actions show that she’s able to take the whole thing with sufficient sarcasm that it almost doesn’t matter.

A yet still saner option might be to write one’s own horoscope, rather than funneling yourself into “one of twelve”. It’s still a little bit silly, but at least you’re taking responsibility for your own destiny. Furthermore, writing your own horoscope might be considered akin to an affirmation, which can act as an effective method of self-help. For example, if my ex- were to write her own horoscope, every day, which read Scorpio: you will no longer read horoscopes nor believe in the power of astrology”, then eventually she might come to fulfil her own prophecy.

Japanese blood type personality chart
A not-uncommon Japanese superstition is that your blood type is an indicator of your personality. Which is, I suppose, marginally more-likely to be true than star signs, because at least it could hypothetically have a basis in science. Still wrong, but at least you can see what they were thinking.

Many, many years ago, I found a service online that allowed you to change your star sign, for free. You basically filled in a form with your name and your chosen new-star-sign, and it’d give you a certificate that you could print out (or some HTML code to put on your GeoCities page or whatever… did I mention this this was a long time ago). I used the service, and for years afterwards joked that I had never been comfortable in the body of a Capricorn (I mean: financially prudent, pragmatic and mature‽) and was far better suited to my adopted sign of Aquarius (humanitarian, inventive, head-in-the-clouds – sound more like somebody you know). My ex- countered, saying that it wasn’t possible to change one’s star sign, and couldn’t see the hypocrisy of the statement.

Recently, somebody using my Free Deed Poll website asked me if they can use a deed poll to change their date of birth (hint: no, and don’t be stupid), and I was reminded of the change-your-star-sign website from so long ago. It’s gone down, now, but I have a half-hearted urge to recreate it. Perhaps for April Fools’ next year, or something.

Or maybe I’ll have forgotten about it and moved on to some other crazy idea. Aquarians, eh?

Surprises, e.g. a Brother-in-Law

Last weekend was an exciting and unusual experience, full of exciting (expected) things interspersed with a handful of exciting (unexpected) things. Let’s go chronologically:

Thursday/Friday – Mario, Magic, Marriage

I left work, picked up a rental car (having unfortunately forgotten to take my counterpart driving license to the rental place, I had the choice of either cycling for an hour to collect it or else paying a fiver for them to run a DVLA check, and I opted for the latter on the grounds that an hour of my time (especially if I have to spend it cycling back and forth along the same stretch of road) is worth more to me than a picture of Elizabeth Fry. I drove home, packed a bag, said goodbye to Ruth, JTA, and Annabel, and drove up to Preston.

"I just found this card."
“I just found this card; is it yours? Maybe it will be, later.”

There, I spent most of Friday playing the new Mario game with my sister Becky, gave a few small performances of magic (did I mention I’m doing magic nowadays? – guess that’ll have to wait for another blog post) at various places around Preston, and went out for a curry with my mother, my sisters Becky and Sarah, and Sarah’s boyfriend Richard. So far, so ordinary, right? Well that’s where things took a turn. Because as Becky, our mother, and I looked at the drinks menu as we waited for Sarah and her boyfriend to turn up… something different happened instead.

Sarah and Richard announce to the rest of the family that they're now married.
Never before in our family has a marriage been conducted with so little pomp nor pre-planning. Except for our mother’s, of course.

Sarah turned up with her husband.

It turns out that they’d gotten married earlier that afternoon. They’d not told anybody in advance – nobody at all – but had simply gone to the registry office (via a jewellers, to rustle up some rings, and a Starbucks, to rustle up some witnesses) and tied the knot. Okay; that’s not strictly true: clearly they had at least three weeks planning on account of the way that marriage banns work in the UK. Any case case, I’ve suddenly got the temptation to write some software that monitors marriage announcements (assuming there are XML feeds, or something) and compares them to your address book to let you know if anybody you know is planning to elope, just to save me from the moment of surprise that caught me out in a curry house on Friday evening.

Richard pushes Sarah around Sainsburys.
Tie some cans behind that trolley and spray “just married” on it in shaving foam, would you?

So it turns out I’ve acquired a brother-in-law. He’s a lovely chap and everything, but man, that was surprising. There’ll doubtless be more about it in Episode 32 of Becky’s “Family Vlog”, so if there was ever an episode that you ought to watch, then it’s this one – with its marriage surprise and (probably) moments of magic – that you ought to keep an eye out for.

Saturday/Sunday – Distillery, Drinking, Debauchery

Next, I made my way up to Edinburgh to meet up with Matt R and his man-buddies for a stag night to remember. Or, failing that, a stag night to forget in a drunken haze: it’s been a long, long time since I’ve drunk like I did on that particular outing. After warming up with a beer or two in our hotel room, the five of us made our way to the Glenkinchie Distillery, for a wonderful exploration into the world of whiskies.

Still #1 at the Glenkinchie Distillery.
It’s hard to appreciate how large the pair of stills at Glenkinchie are, if you’ve only seen the stills at other Scottish distilleries before. See the people in the background, for scale.

And then, of course, began the real drinking. Four or five whiskies at the distillery bar, followed by another beer back in the hotel room, followed by a couple more beers at bars, followed by another four whiskies at the Whiski Rooms (which I’d first visited while in Edinburgh for the fringe, last year), followed by a beer with dinner… and I was already pretty wiped-out. Another of the ‘stags’ and I – he equally knackered and anticipating a full day of work, in the morning – retired to the hotel room while the remainder took Matt out “in search of a titty bar” (a mission in which, I gather, they were unsuccessful).

The Glenkinchie Distillery bar.
The Glenkinchie Distillery bar carries a full range of Diageo Scotch whiskies, plus a handful of other brands, and expert staff are on hand to help with tasting.

Do you remember being in your early twenties and being able to throw back that kind of level of booze without so much as a shudder? Gosh, it gets harder a decade later. On the other hand, I was sufficiently pickled that I wasn’t for a moment disturbed by the gents I was sharing a room with, who I should re-name “snore-monster”, “fart-monster”, and “gets-up-a-half-dozen-times-during-the-night-to-hug-the-toilet-bowl-monster”. I just passed out and stayed that way until the morning came, when I went in search of a sobering double-helping of fried food to set me right before the long journey back to Oxford.

All in all: hell of a stag night, and a great pre-party in anticipation of next weekend’s pair of weddings… y’know, the ones which I’d stupidly thought would be the only two couples I knew who’d be getting married this fortnight!

How does a polyamorous relationship between four people work? | BBC News

Imagine one house, with four people, but five couples. How does it work, asks Jo Fidgen.

Charlie is talking excitedly about a first date she went on the night before.

Next to her on the sofa is her husband of six years, Tom. And on the other side of him is Sarah, who’s been in a relationship with Tom for the last five years. Sarah’s fiance, Chris, is in the kitchen making a cup of tea.

BBC News Magazine

Just One Q

When Claire and I changed our surnames to the letter Q, six and a quarter years ago, I was pretty sure that we were the only “Q”s in the world. Ah Q‘s name is a transliteration into the Latin alphabet; Stacey Q is a stage name that she doesn’t use outside of her work (she uses Swain in general); Suzi Q‘s “Q” is short for Quatro (perhaps popularised because of the similarly-named song, which came out when she was aged 7; Maggie Q‘s “Q” is short for Quigley (she finds that her full name is almost impossible for her fans in East Asia to pronounce); and both Q and Q are fictional. We were reasonably sure that we were the only two people in the world with our surname, and that was fine by us.

Q from James Bond.
Fictional, as much as we love them.

After Claire and I split up, in 2009, we both kept our new names. In my case, the name felt like it was “mine”, and represented me better than my birth name anyway. Plus, I’d really gotten to enjoy having a full name that’s only four letters long: when my poly-tribe-mates Ruth and JTA (each of whom have almost 30 letters in their full names!) were filling out mortgage application forms recently, I was able to get through the pages I had to fill significantly faster than either of them. There are perks to a short name.

Q from Star Trek.
Also fictional. But we’re less-upset about that.

I can’t say why Claire kept her new name, but I’m guessing that some of our reasons overlap. I’m also guessing that laziness played a part in her decision: it took her many months to finally get around to telling everybody she’d changed her name the first time around! And while I’ve tried to make it possible to change your name easily when I launched freedeedpoll.org.uk, there’s still at least a little letter-writing involved.

Now, though, it looks like I may soon become the only Q in the world:

@Poobar: She said yes! We are going to be the Drs Carter :-) @Eskoala: @poobar proposed (and I said yes!) so we are engaged! :D

Personally, I thought that after she passed her PhD she’d have even more reason to be called “Q”. I mean: “Dr. Q”: how cool is that? It sounds like a Bond villain or something. But on the other hand: if she wants to downgrade to an everyday name like “Carter” then, well, I guess that’s up to her. I shan’t blame them for not opting to hyphenate, though: “Carter-Q” sounds like a brand of ear bud.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter
It’s not like there was ever anybody famous called “Carter”. Except for this guy, I suppose. But he was more of a “brave politician in the face of international crises” character than a “Bond villain” character. Not fictional.

Seriously, though: good for them. If those crazy kids feel that marriage is for them, then I wish them the best of luck. And let’s face it, we’re approaching a bit of a lull in this run of all-of-our-friends-getting-married, so it’ll be nice to have an excuse for yet another wedding and a fabulous party (I’m jumping to conclusions and assuming that they’re going to invite me, especially after this blog post!).

Jimmy and Claire.
Aww. It’s a sweet photo, but somebody should probably buy them a tripod as a wedding present: it’s hard to keep the horizon level in an arms-length selfie.

In other name-related news, look out for me in the Money section of tomorrow’s Guardian, where I’ll be talking about deeds poll, as part of their series of articles on scammy websites. I always knew that it was only a matter of time before my photo appeared in a national newspaper: I guess I should just be thankful that it’s for something I’ve done right, rather than for something I’ve done wrong!

Update: Here’s the online version of the Guardian Money article.

On This Day In 1999

Looking Back

On this day in 1999 I sent out the twenty-eighth of my Cool Thing Of The Day To Do In Aberystwyth emails. I wasn’t blogging at the time (although I did have a blog previously), but these messages-back-home served a similar purpose, if only for a select audience. You can read more about them in my last On This Day to discuss them or the one before.

For technical reasons, this particular Cool Things Of The Day appears to have been sent on 27th October, but in actual fact I know that the events it describes took place on 5th November 1999. The obvious clue? The fireworks! I knew that Cool Thing Of The Day as shown here on my blog was out-of-sync with reality, but this particular entry gives a great indication of exactly how much it’s out by. And no, I can’t be bothered to correct it.

Back in 1999 I started as a student at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth (now Aberystwyth University), moved away from home, and had a fantastic time. One bonfire night, I called up two new friends of mine – Rory and Sandra – and persuaded them that we should wander over to nearby Trefechan and climb the hill (Pen Dinas) there to watch the fireworks. It was a wild and windy night, and certainly not the conditions to climb an unknown and occasionally-treacherous hill, but we weren’t dissuaded: we set out!

You know those films or sitcoms where the protagonist (usually through their own stupidity) ends up on a date with two people at the same time, trying to keep each unaware of the other? That’s what I felt like at the time: because (though neither of them knew this at the time) I had an incredible crush on both of them. Of course: back then I was far shyer and far less-good at expressing myself, so this remained the case for a little while longer. Still: my inexperienced younger self still manged to make it feel to me like a precarious situation that I could easily balls-up. Perhaps I should have better thought-out the folks I invited out that night…

A storm blew in furiously, and the fireworks launched from the town scattered around, buffeted and shaken and only occasionally still flying upwards when they exploded. The rain lashed down and soaked us through our coats. We later found ourselves huddled around a radiator in The Fountain (under its old, old ownership), where the barman and the regulars couldn’t believe that we’d been up Pen Denis in the

Looking Forward

A little later, I got to have a ludicrously brief fling with one of the pair, but I was fickle and confused and ballsed it up pretty quickly. Instead, I fell into a relationship with my old friend-with-benefits Reb, which in the long run turned out to be a very bad chapter of my life.

Trefechan – exotically across the river from the rest of Aberystwyth – didn’t seem so far away after a few more years in Aberystwyth… only a stone’s throw from Rummers! But for three new students, just a couple of months into their new home, lost and drunk and fumbling their way using an outdated map and seeing by firework-light, it was an exciting adventure. In 2004, SmartData (my employer at that time) moved into their new premises, right over the road from The Fountain and in the shadow of Pen Denis. The Technium turned out to be a pretty good place for SmartData, and it suited me, too. Some days in the summer, when it was warm and sunny, I’d leave work and take a walk up Pen Dinas. It wasn’t the same without the fireworks, the company, or the mystery of being somewhere for the very first time, but it’s still a great walk.

Sometimes I’d go up there in the rain, too.

This blog post is part of the On This Day series, in which Dan periodically looks back on years gone by.

Five

Earlier this month, Ruth and I spent a long weekend in the North to celebrate five years together as a couple. Technically, I suppose that we should have celebrated it the previous month, but we were up in Edinburgh at the time: we had, after all, first gotten together during our 2007 trip to Edinburgh, in lieu of actually watching any comedy.

Because of our change of date, we ended up celebrating the fifth anniversary of our relationship… on the same weekend as the fifth anniversary of QParty, the celebration of Claire and I’s relationship. QParty in turn took place five months after Claire and I changed our names, which itself happened on approximately the fifth anniversary of Claire and I meeting for the first time.

In Ruth and I’s case, this five year mark isn’t just a excuse to celebrate our success as a couple, but also to celebrate the success of she, JTA and I as a “vee“. Our unusual arrangement hasn’t been without its share of challenges: many of them challenges that more-conventional couples don’t face. But here we are, looking back on a busy five years and… well… still kicking ass.

She and I have been talking, on and off, about the idea of a party that the pair of us would like to throw, a little way down the line: something to celebrate us as a couple. Nothing quite so grand and enormous as Ruth & JTA’s wedding (what could top that!), but some variety of event. Needless to say, you’ll hear about it when it’s time to!

Edinburgh 2012 – Day Six

[spb_message color=”alert-info” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]This post turned out longer than I expected. The first part is about comedy, whisky tasting, and a museum full of money. The second part is about how we were “outed” as being in a nonmonogamous relationship, and how it went really well. Click either link to jump to that section, or just start reading to get the whole thing.[/spb_message]

Another Day Of Edinburgh

Our sixth day at Edinburgh was perhaps the booziest. Realising that we still had a significant amount of wine that we bought earlier in the week that we hadn’t yet consumed, we started early: Ruth and I poured our first glasses at a hair before 11am, to go with our breakfast.

The set of Eight Worldly Winds.
The set of Eight Worldly Winds.

Our first show of the day was Sam Brady and the Eight Worldly Winds, a beautiful and subtle piece of observational comedy based on the life of the comedian, a “failed Buddhist monk”, thrice married, interspersed with “mildly adapted” readings of 11th century Chinese poetry. It was sedate and relaxing, as comedy shows go, but still funny and enjoyable, and I could have happily have listened to him for longer.

JTA and Ruth head along the path to the Mus£um On The Mound.
JTA and Ruth head along the path to the Mus£um On The Mound. Don’t be fooled by the glorious sunshine: it was drizzling again only a few hours later.

We had a little while before the next item on our schedule, and we opted to divert from our original plan to waste half an hour in a bar to instead explore the Mus£um On The Mound. This museum chronicles the history of money and banking, with a special focus on Scotland, and it’s remarkably interesting. We learned about early banking computers, quality assurance processes in banknote printing, and the evolution of the Building Society. If you think that all sounds terribly dull, then screw you.

JTA mints coinage.
JTA mints coinage. The lady in front of him jumped when he struck the trussell (that’s the bit you hit), as if she somehow expected that when she told him to “hit it as hard as he could” that he’d perhaps be more gentle than that.

JTA tried his hand at striking faces onto metal disks to make his own coins in the way that coinsmiths used to before about the 16th century, and I used a remarkably modern-looking computer to issue myself a remarkably old-style life insurance certificate (covering me for everything except death by duelling, suicide, or execution by the state).

My new life insurance policy form.
My new life insurance policy form. I put my occupation down as “landowner”, because apparently “web application developer” wasn’t a valid choice 150 years ago, and put down that I’d lost an arm as a preexisting medical condition, because I felt like that field ought to be used (I hadn’t made much use of the name field, after all).

Next, we made our way back to the Whiski Rooms for our second whisky tasting session of the week (our first was on day two). This time around we were drinking Jura (10 year old and 16 year old, and Superstition – one of my favourites) and Dalmore (12, 15, and 18 year old). We learned a lot about the different production processes for each, caskings and recaskings and still shapes and all kinds of things. We also tried the Dalmore 15 with some orange chocolate that complemented one another very well, and tried our hand at identifying different refined flavours by smell, from a set of numbered vials.

JTA and I drinking one of the selection of whiskies we've been offered the chance to taste.
JTA and I drinking one of the selection of whiskies we’ve been offered the chance to taste. Fun fact for those of you reading all of the captions: American brewing laws disallow the reuse of wooden casks; this is part of the reason that second-hand bourbon casks are so popular in the Scotch whisky industry – the Scottish, always looking for a bargain – can get them cheaply.

Next up, we watched The German Comedian (exactly what it says on the tin!), followed by You Are Being Lied To, by David Mulholland. The former provided a hilariously funny (and somewhat racist, although only in a very tongue-in-cheek and mostly in a self-deprecating way) commentary on European relations, world travel, and cultural differences in a brilliant and compelling way. The latter – by a comic who was formerly a journalist for the Wall Street Journal – ran a show with a far more serious message, about how media like The Daily Mail, The Sun, and The Telegraph (in particular) spin stories in a way that the kernel of truth in them is just about impossible to find. It was amusing enough, especially to hear him read, in a serious voice, genuine headlines and snippets of stories from those publications, and let us spot the bullshit.

Polyamory Comes To The Fringe

Me with a chap called Daniel, who grabbed me outside the show and asked me a string of questions about my relationship structure.
Me with a chap called Daniel, who grabbed me outside the show and asked me a string of questions about my relationship structure.

The other thing that was remarkable about these two comedians is that they both  independently asked about Ruth, JTA and I’s relationship structure. And what’s most remarkable about this is that it took so long before it happened. We’ve been here six days, at dozens of different comedy shows, and virtually always sat at the front. But today was the first day that the topic came up, and it came up twice in a row. What are the odds?

Polyamory is both your girlfriends ganging up on you.
Polyamory is both your girlfriends ganging up on you. Just when you thought it was safe to look at the Internet again, LOLCats are back.

The first comedian had asked if Ruth and JTA were a couple, and, upon getting an affirmative (which would usually be as far as the conversation would go: we’re not in the business of hijacking comedy shows with our relationships, I’d hasten to add), he asked “What’s the relationship between you two?”, gesturing to Ruth and I. So we answered. He asked for clarification a number of times, looking quite stumped and lost for words the whole period, but he was fluffy about it in general, which was nice.

The second really did just walk into it when he asked Ruth “So which of these two men are you with? Or is it both?” “Yes, both,” she replied, and, in the period of silence while the comedian was still trying to comprehend what she’d said, added, “We’re polyamorous.”

I was so very proud of her in that moment.

For me, adopting the out and proud approach of the gay community is an important part of “poly activism”: it almost feels like it’s my duty to make sure that people can see that we’re just another group of people in just another relationship, completely normal except for the fact that there are three of us instead of two. Talking openly and frankly about this stuff is the only way to normalise it and break the taboo, so I feel like my mini-activism helps all people in nonmonogamous relationships, even if just a little bit.

Ruth. I'm proud of her.
There’s the woman I love. And I’m ever-so proud of her.

Ruth, however, is more-reserved, and less-inclined to put herself in the public spotlight by putting the fact that she’s got a “bonus” partner “out there”. So to see her take the lead in saying, effectively, “Yes; I have two partners. Here they are. Yes, really. Is that okay?” – especially when she was sat sandwiched between a room full of strangers and a comedian (a very precarious place, as anybody who’s been picked on by a comic knows) – made my heart swell.

Later, a man called Daniel asked me some reasonably well-thought-out questions about “how it works”, and Ruth and JTA were approached by a woman who mentioned a similar arrangement in her own life. People in the same position are often delighted to “come out”, but only if somebody else does so first.

Had it been me that each comedian had spoken to first, instead of Ruth, I’d have certainly been as bold. But I might not have simultaneously been so frank and straightforward, so clearly-honest and approachable as Ruth managed in this, one of the most brave acts of poly-advocacy I’ve ever seen.

Nice work, Ruth.

Edinburgh 2012 – Day Five

After our attempt at a relaxing day off, which resulted in us getting pretty-much soaked and exhausted, we returned on day five of our holiday to the comedy scene for more fun and laughter.

Ruth, JTA, Matt and Hannah-Mae outside the Canons' Gait.
Ruth, JTA, Matt and Hannah-Mae outside the Canons’ Gait. Do I win a prize for being the first Abnibber to publish a photo of Matt’s new girlfriend?

After failing to get into Richard Wiseman‘s Psychobabble, which attracted a huge queue long before we got to the venue, Ruth, JTA and I instead went to RomComCon: a two-woman show telling the story of how they road-tested all of the top romantic comedy “boy meets girl” cliché situations, to see if they actually worked in real life. It was sweet, even where it wasn’t funny, and it was confidently-performed, even where it wasn’t perfectly-scripted. The mixture of media (slides, video, audience participation, and good old-fashioned storytelling) was refreshing enough to help me overlook the sometimes-stilted jumps in dialogue. I’ll admit: I cried a little, but then I sometimes do that during actual RomComs, too. Although I did have to say “Well d’uh!” when the conclusion of the presentation was that to get into a great relationship, you have to be open and honest and willing to experiment and not to give up hope that you’ll find one. You know: the kinds of things I’ve been saying for years.

Ruth & JTA in the Voodoo Rooms, waiting for Owen Niblock's "Codemaker" to start.
Ruth & JTA in the Voodoo Rooms, waiting for Owen Niblock’s “Codemaker” to start.

We met up with Matt and his new girlfriend, Hannah-Mae, who turns out to be a lovely, friendly, and dryly-sarcastic young woman who makes a wonderful match for our Matt. Then, after a drink together, parted ways to see different shows; promising to meet up again later in the day.

"Codemaker" Owen Niblock presents Google Image Search pictures that come up when the search engine is presented with a picture of his wife.
“Codemaker” Owen Niblock presents Google Image Search pictures that come up when the search engine is presented with a picture of his wife. The audience member who’s half-standing didn’t laugh throughout the entire performance: this might not have been the right show for him.

We watched Owen Niblock‘s Codemaker, and were pleased to discover that it was everything that Computer Programmer Extraordinaire (which we saw on day two) failed to be. Codemaker was genuinely geeky (Owen would put up code segments and then explain why they were interesting), funny (everything from the five-months-a-year beard story to his relationship Service Level Agreement with his wife was fabulously-crafted), and moving. In some ways I’m sad that he isn’t attracting a larger audience – we three represented about a quarter to a fifth of those in attendance, at the end – but on the other hand, his computer-centric humour (full of graphs and pictures of old computers) is rather niche and perhaps wouldn’t appeal to the mainstream. Highly recommended to the geeks among you, though!

Ruth discovers a police box and is inordinately excited.
Ruth discovers a police box on the way back to the flat and is inordinately excited. Apparently she’d somehow managed to never see one before.

Back at the flat, we drank gin and played Ca$h ‘n’ Gun$ with Matt and Hannah-Mae. JTA won three consecutive games, the jammy sod, despite the efforts of the rest of us (Matt or I with a hand grenade, Ruth or I as The Kid, or even Hannah-Mae once she had a gun in each hand), and all the way along every single time insisted that he was losing. Sneaky bugger.

Hannah-Mae, Matt, JTA and I with Richard Wiseman.
Hannah-Mae, Matt, JTA and I with Richard Wiseman. JTA was aware that a photo was going to be taken at some point, but was distracted by talking to another comedian, off-camera.

We all reconvened at the afternoon repeat of Richard Wiseman’s show, where he demonstrated (in a very fun and engaging way) a series of psychological, mathematical, and slight-of-hand tricks behind the “mind-reading” and illusion effects used by various professional entertainers. I’ve clearly studied this stuff far too much, because I didn’t end up learning anything new, but I did enjoy his patter and the way he makes his material interesting, and it’s well-worth a look. Later, Ruth and I would try to develop a mathematical formula for the smallest possible sum totals possible for integer magic squares of a given order (Wiseman’s final trick involved the high-speed construction of a perfect magic square to a sum total provided by a member of the audience: a simple problem: if anybody wants me to demonstrate how it’s done, it’s quite fun).

Thom Tuck wants to be where the people are. He wants to see... wants to see them, dancing.
Thom Tuck wants to be where the people are. He wants to see… wants to see them, dancing. Walking around on those… what’s what word again? Seriously: what’s that word again?

Finally, we all went to see Thom Tuck again. Matt, JTA and I had seen him earlier in the week, but we’d insisted that Hannah-Mae and Ruth get the chance to see his fantastic show, too (as well as giving ourselves an excuse to see it again ourselves, of course). He wasn’t quite so impressive the second time around, but it was great to see that his knowledge of straight-to-DVD Disney movies really is just-about as encyclopaedic as he claims, when we gave us new material we hadn’t heard on his previous show (and omitted some that we had), as well as adapting to suggestions of films shouted out by the audience. Straight-To-DVD remains for me a chilling and hilarious show and perhaps the most-enjoyable thing I’ve ever seen on the Fringe.

Poly In The Media

As I mentioned in my reflections on this year’s Valentine’s Day, I was recently interviewed by a media student putting together a radio documentary as part of her Masters thesis. She’d chosen polyamory as the subject of her documentary, and I met her in a discussion on social news website Reddit. I’d originally expected that the only help I’d be able to provide would be some tips on handling the subject – and the community – sensitively and without excessive sensationalism, but it later turned out that I’d be able to be of more aid than I initially expected.

I rarely get the chance to talk to the media about polyamory. I’m happy to do so – I’m registered with the Polyamory Media Association and I’ll sometimes reply to the requests of the (sensible-sounding) journalists who reach out to the uk-poly mailing list. However, I’m often not a suitable candidate because my partner (Ruth) and her husband (JTA) aren’t so poly-activist-ey as me, and don’t really want to be interviewed or photographed or to generally put into the public eye.

Logo of the Polyamory Media Association.

I respect that. It’s actually pretty damn sensible to not want your private life paraded about in front of the world. I’ve known people who, despite taking part in a perfectly good documentary about their love lives, have faced discrimination from – for example – their neighbours, subsequently. I appreciate that, often, reporters are challenged by how hard it is to find people who are willing to talk about their non-monogamous relationships, but it turns out that there’s a pretty-good reason for that.

From my perspective, I feel like it’s my duty to stand up and say, “I’m in an ethical, consensual, non-monogamous relationship… and I’m just another normal guy!” Jokes aside about how I’m perhaps not the best spokesperson to represent a “normal guy”, this is important stuff: people practicing ethical non-monogamy face discrimination and misunderstanding primarily because society often doesn’t have a reference point from which to understand that these people are (otherwise) perfectly normal. And the sooner that we can fix that, the sooner that the world will shrug and get on with it. Gay people have been fighting a similar fight for far longer, and we’re only just getting to the point where we’re starting to see gay role models as film and television characters for whom their sexuality isn’t the defining or most-remarkable part of their identity. There’s a long way to go for all of us.

Emily: the media student who interviewed us.

Emily – the media student who came over to interview me – was friendly, approachable, and had clearly done her homework. Having spoken online or by telephone to journalists and authors who’ve not had a clue about what they were talking about, this was pretty refreshing. She also took care to outline the basis for her project, and the fact that it was primarily for her degree, and wouldn’t be adapted for broadcast without coming back and getting the permission of everybody involved.

I’m not sure which of these points “made the difference”, but Ruth (and later, JTA) surprised me be being keen to join in, sitting down with Emily and I over a bottle of wine and a big fluffy microphone and chatting quite frankly about what does and doesn’t work for us, what it all means, how to “make it work”, and so on. I was delighted to see how much our answers – even those to questions that we hadn’t anticipated or hadn’t really talked about between ourselves, before – aligned with one another, and how much compatibility clearly exists in our respective ideas and ideals.

I was particularly proud of Ruth. Despite having been dropped into this at virtually no notice, and having not previously read up on “how to talk to the media about polyamory” nor engaged in similar interviews before, she gave some wonderfully considered and concise soundbites that I’m sure will add a lot of weight and value to the final cut. Me? I keep an eye on things (thanks, Polyamory In The News) and go out of my way to look for opportunities to practice talking to people about my lifestyle choice. But even without that background, Ruth was a shining example of “how to do it”: the kind of poly spokesperson that I wish that we had more of.

I hope that Emily manages to find more people to interview and gets everything that she needs to make her project a success: she’s got a quiet tact that’s refreshing in polyamory journalism. Plus, she’s a genuinely nice person: after she took an interest in the board games collection on New Earth, we made sure to offer an open invite for her to come back for a games night sometime. Hell: maybe there’s another documentary in there, somewhere.

Valentine’s Day

Ruth, JTA and I had a fabulous Valentine’s Day evening, last night. Over the last few years we seem to have drifted into treating Valentine’s Day as being a general celebration of love, and those we love, rather than specifically about any particular relationship, as Ruth explained quite eloquently to the student journalist that interviewed us the previous day – more on that in a future blog post.

You can tell that it's Valentine's Day, because there are even more flowers than usual on New Earth.

It’s true. Anniversaries and our “date nights” are already an opportunity to celebrate the individual relationships between Ruth and I, and between Ruth and JTA. Meanwhile, JTA and I’s “Greek nights” are our chance to reinforce our platonic bond (over copious quantities of beer and whisky, and generally, diversion into gossip, public transport, and philosophy – often in that order). Valentine’s Day is one of our slightly-rarer “vee nights”: when the three of us make a deliberate effort to do something special as a threesome.

Paul‘s away this week, so we had New Earth to ourselves, and so mushrooms were on the menu (Paul really doesn’t like mushrooms, and the rest of us do, so it’s become a special treat that we eat lots of mushrooms on nights that we’re eating without him). We set a candlelit table, and I had a go at making a mushroom wellington, which turned out remarkably well despite the fact that I’ve cooked virtually nothing involving pastry for over a decade. Keeping with our “food that’s rolled up” theme, Ruth had produced a fantastic black forest roulade.

And so the evening wore on, and we ate copious quantities of doughnuts, and drank a lot of pink fizzy stuff, and re-watched Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Celebrating love (for as many people as you have) without buying into Valentine’s Day consumerism. Yeah, that sounds pretty good to me.

Monogamy and Mathematics

“We have to split up… in case somebody better comes along!”

Either from our own real life or from popular culture and the media, we’ve all come across a statement like that. It’s rarely quite so brazen: instead, it’s sometimes concealed behind another reason, whether tactful or simply false. But it still reeks of a lack of commitment and an unwillingness to “give it a try.”

With thanks for Flickr user "i.am.rebecca".

However, it turns out that there’s actually a solid mathematical basis for it. Let’s assume for a moment that you:

  1. Engage exclusively in monogamous relationships. To each their own, I suppose.
  2. Are seeking for a relationship that will last indefinitely (e.g. traditional monogamous marriage, “’til death do us part,” and all that jazz).
  3. Can’t or won’t date your exes.
  4. Can rate all of your relationships relative to one another (i.e. rank them all, from best to worst)?
  5. Can reasonably estimate the number of partners that you will have the opportunity to assess over the course of your life. You can work this out by speculating on how long you’ll live (and be dating!) for, and multiplying, though of course there are several factors that will introduce error. When making this assumption, you should assume that you break up from any monogamous relationship that you’re currently in, and that no future monogamous relationship is allowed to last long enough that it may prevent you from exploring the next one, until you find “the one” – the lucky winner you’re hoping to spend the rest of your life with.

Assuming that all of the above is true, what strategy should you employ in order to maximise your chance of getting yourself the best possible lover (for you)?

The derivation of the optimal policy for the secretary problem.

It turns out that clever (and probably single) mathematicians have already solved this puzzle for you. They call it the Secretary Problem, because they’d rather think about it as being a human resources exercise, rather than a reminder of their own tragic loneliness.

A Mathematical Strategy for Monogamy

Here’s what you do:

  1. Take the number of people you expect to be able to date over the course of your lifetime, assuming that you  never “settle down” and stop dating others. For example’s sake, let’s pick 20.
  2. Divide that number by e – about 2.71828. You won’t get a round number, so round down. In our example, we get 7.
  3. Date that many people – maybe you already have. Leave them all. This is important: these first few (7, in our example) aren’t “keepers”: the only reason you date them is to give you a basis for comparison against which you rate all of your future lovers.
  4. Keep dating: only stop when you find somebody who is better than everybody you’ve dated so far.

And there you have it! Mathematically-speaking, this strategy gives you a 37% chance of ending up with the person who – of all the people you’d have had the chance to date – is the best. 37% doesn’t sound like much, but from a mathematical standpoint, it’s the best you can do with monogamy unless you permit yourself to date exes, or to cheat.

Or to conveniently see your current partner as being better than you would have objectively rated them otherwise. That’s what love will do for you, but that’s harder to model mathematically.

Of course, if everybody used this technique (or even if enough people used it that you might be reasonably expected to date somebody who did, at some point in your life), then the problem drifts into the domain of game theory. And by that point, you’d do better to set up a dating agency, collect everybody’s details, and use a Stable Marriage problem solution to pair everybody up.

This has been a lesson in why mathematicians shouldn’t date.

Poly and the Census – Success! (almost)

You may remember the long-running story of my letters to the Office of National Statistics, and the more-concentrated effort by another blogger, in regard to the automatic “correction” of supposedly-“erroneous” data in the 2011 census, like somebody having multiple partners or identifying as neither gender. You don’t? Well here’s a reminder: part one, part two, part three, part four.

Well: we’ve finally had some success. A response has been received from the ONS, including – at last – segments of business logic from their “correction” code.

It’s hard to tell for certain what the result of the correction will be, but one thing’s for sure – Ruth, JTA and I’s census data won’t have passed their validation! Their relationship validations BP2, BP2a, and BP2b state that it is logically-impossible for a person to have a spouse and a partner living with them in the same household.

I should invite them around for dinner sometime, and they can see for themselves that this isn’t true.

I also note that they consider it invalid for anybody to tick both or neither of the (two) gender option boxes, although again, it’s not clear from the data they’ve provided how the automatic correction occurs. Increasingly, I’m coming to suspect that this might actually be a manual process, in which case I’m wondering what guidelines there are for their operators?

One good piece of news from this FoI request, though: the ONS has confirmed that the original census data – the filled-in paper forms, which unlike the online version doesn’t enforce its validation upon you – is not adjusted. So in a hundred years time, people will be able to look back at the actual forms filled in by poly, trans, and other non-standard households around the UK, and generate actual statistics on the frequency with which these occur. It’s not much, but it’s something.