Four things I’ve learnt about relationships ...

Four things I’ve learnt about relationships for Poly Dallas Millenium

This year I was invited to speak at the Poly Dallas conference. The organiser, Ruby Boie Johnson, generously decided to subtitle the conference after my relationship self-help book Rewriting the Rules – also out in it’s second edition this year. Here is a written version of the talk I gave – about what I’ve learnt about relationships since I first wrote that book.

Why this means the world to me

Hi. Thank-you so much for having me here today. When Ruby approached me last year saying she would like to subtitle the conference this time after my book Rewriting the Rules I was blown away.

Partly this was because that book has been such a labour of love for me. It was the first self-help style book I wrote and I spent a decade longing to write it but unable to believe in myself enough to do so. When I finally did manage to battle through my inner critic I had to distill years of painfully finding my own way with relationships onto the page. The second edition – which just came out – was no less difficult. It felt like I was co-authoring it with an older version of myself and that was not an easy collaboration by any means.

Also it is a huge deal – as a European writer – to be welcomed to a US conference. A bunch of us have been studying and writing about polyamory in Europe for some decades now, but it often feels like the – often more recent – work coming out of US academia and activism eclipses what we’ve done, and are still doing. Of course this is even more the case for Europeans who sometimes or always write in languages other than English.

This is particularly challenging for me now that I’m working towards making my living as a writer. It’s extraordinarily hard to make any money from that line of work, and it can feel tough knowing that I am – I think – saying something new and important, but that few folk on this side of the pond will know about it. This recognition – and potential to speak to an American audience – means the world to me.

So it was already a huge deal to be invited to speak at this conference. And then I checked out the event online. It quickly became clear that here, finally, was an intersectional non-monogamy conference. For years I’ve been frustrated by the lack of coverage of power dynamics and social structures, privilege and oppression, in polyamory communities, and now I was being invited to an event where these were foregrounded.

It also felt intensely vulnerable. The main reason by far that I wanted to write a second edition of Rewriting the Rules was because when I wrote the first edition back in 2010 I had barely engaged with intersectional feminism. This has been something I’ve done my absolute best to address since then to the point that the vast majority of the thinkers I now engage with come from this approach, but I realise I still have a hell of a lot to catch up on. As a white British author to be invited to speak at a conference alongside the likes of Kevin Patterson, Dalychia Saah, J Mase and Feminista Jones is a huge honour and one I really hope I can do justice to.

This is why I haven’t taken the easy road with this presentation. I could’ve given you my standard hot take on non-monogamy talk that I’ve been giving the last couple of years, but you deserve more than that. So I’m going to heed the words of one of my heroes – Mollena Williams-Haas – from the incredible talk she gave at the Non-Monogamies and Contemporary Intimacies conference in Vienna last year (available here if you haven’t seen it – please do check it out). She said that the gift we need to give to the world is to go into the places we are most vulnerable and to work – whatever our work is – from that place.

I’ve been holding those words close ever since then. It is why I’m finally dropping my academic and therapy work to focus on writing. It is why my writing now includes memoir and erotic fiction as well as self-help: so that I can be transparent about where these ideas come from and why they mean so much to me. I guess it’s about showing my workings instead of just the polished advice that comes out of all that painful experience.

Because if I hide that part of it away I can be just another shitty self-help author holding themselves as a point of comparison to the rest of the world as somebody who has it all together and is going to lecture you on how to get it right just like them. This is one of the things I hate most about self-help and I’m committed to doing something different. A major theme through all my work is that relationships are extremely fucking hard and we all struggle in our relationships with ourselves, with our loved ones, and with the world. I’ve heard it said that your mess is your message. Perhaps the message is stronger if you also share the mess.

So I’m going to give you a short introduction to the key ideas of Rewriting the Rules, and then spend the rest of the talk telling you about what I’ve learnt about relationships since the first edition: by going into the mess.

Rewriting the Rules

Most relationship self-help books make a lot of assumptions about what a ‘successful’ relationship looks like, and how you go about having one. They sell the reader the dream of happy-ever-after, and put the blame on them if they can’t achieve it. That’s why I called Rewriting the Rules an anti-self-help book. Instead of locating blame in the individual it starts with the shitty cultural messages we all receive about relationships, suggesting that they are primarily responsible for the difficulties we come across. Messages like the idea that you have to find The One perfect person who will complete you, that you must hide any relationship conflicts from the rest of the world and pretend like everything is awesome all of the time, that you should have hot sex with this person for the rest of time, and that that must be in a monogamous relationship.

For each theme in the book – love, sex, gender, conflict, etc. – I asked four questions:

  • What are the rules that we learn about this aspect of relationships?
  • Why might we question them?
  • If they don’t work for us, what might we put in their place? and
  • What if we went beyond rules to embrace the uncertainty of this thing?

So, for example, in the monogamy chapter I look at the rules that suggest monogamy is the one true way of doing relationships, and how we can question that by looking at the statistics on non-monogamy globally, and on secret non-monogamy in countries like the UK and US. I explore the pressures that the monogamy ideal puts on relationships, and the diversity of monogamish and non-monogamous relationship styles that now offer alternatives to this. However, I also explore the tendency we have – when stepping away from mainstream cultural rules – to put new rules in their place and hold onto them just as rigidly. I suspect we’re all very familiar with varieties of poly-normativity and polier-than-thou tendencies to put forward the one true way of polyamory – or the poly grail, as I call it. Unicorn hunting, treating ‘secondaries’ as lesser human beings, and becoming so poly-saturated that you have no time for friends or self-care are three examples that spring to mind (not that me or anyone else in this room would ever do anything like that I’m sure!)

In Rewriting the Rules I try to steer clear of suggesting that any way of doing relationships is inherently better, more normal, or morally superior. It’s more about appreciating that different things work for different people, and in different relationships. We need to start by unpacking all the cultural rules that impact us all – whether we’re inside them or outside of them.

What I’ve learn about relationships since Rewriting the Rules

So that’s where I got to in the first edition of Rewriting the Rules, and I am still proud of that book because that cultural piece is missing from so much self-help around relationships – even polyamorous relationships.

However it could be argued that I went too far the other way. Focusing on wider cultural messages is also a good way of avoiding looking too carefully at closer-to-home reasons for your own relationship struggles.

Also, while I wrote a lot about the need to look at wider culture to inform our close relationships, I didn’t make enough connections in the other direction. How can going into the mess and vulnerability of our relationships help us make a better contribution to wider society? In the last five years this seems to me the most urgent question as we all try to make sense of a world of Trump and Brexit, to deal with the vital questions raised by – for example – #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and the current moral panic around trans.

Here are four key ideas that I’ve woven into the new edition of Rewriting the Rules which I want to share. Obviously there’s only time to touch on them here – what they are and the implications they have for our relationships with our close people and the wider world. Hopefully they might be a jumping off point for more conversations and reflections though. There are free zines on my website covering most of these themes in a lot more detail if you find them useful.

  1. Relationship patterns and intergenerational trauma

The first thing I wanted to include way more of in the second edition was relationship patterns: how they get formed, how they impact us and the people around us, and how we might be able to shift them. That involved taking a long, hard look at my own relationship patterns which have been something like this…

Did you see this show? It was one of my favs growing up. Every week this dog finds a new person and home, he helps them with whatever they’re struggling with, but once things are sorted he can’t stay and he has to head off down the road again. He’s basically a manic-pixie dream dog.

This was what I was doing in relationships of all kinds my whole life. I tried to figure out what people wanted me to be, and then I gave it to them. Initially that resulted in huge validation – I was good, and I was good for people. Once I was polyamorous I could be good for many people. What a good Littlest Hobo! But it’s unsustainable. And it hurt people and it hurt me, a lot. I’ve lost so many homes, people, companion animals. Too much loss. While I definitely don’t think the only relationships of value are the ones that last, I wouldn’t mind the chance at a relationship, home, family, or community that lasted longer than five years.

The cultural piece was part of this of course. The promise of being – and getting – The One definitely had a role to play in my struggles, as did the Hollywood promise that true love is the path to lasting happiness – whether in its monogamous or polyamorous form.

But – as with all of us I suspect – my history was also a big part of the picture. Perhaps the major piece of work I’ve been doing the last couple of years has been on this. Interestingly #MeToo was a huge part of it. My sisters and I started by sharing our experiences of sexual assault – growing up and in more recent years, including in polyamory communities. This opening up led us to sharing stories of our upbringing and identifying the impact of intergenerational trauma and how it had left all of us feeling that we were unacceptable unless we covered over our emotions and pretended to be something we were not. We now talk on Google hangouts between San Francisco, LA, and London every few weeks, committed to building a different way of relating, at least between the three of us.

  1. Self and other consent

How can I challenge this pattern – which I suspect many others share – of trying to be what others want me to be? Self-consent is the key here. One of the main books that I drew on in the second edition of Rewriting the Rules was bell hooks’s All About Love.

My main takeaway from this was that love can’t happen – isn’t even love – unless we value ourselves and each other equally. That’s where you get to if you apply the same thought processes to social justice and to interpersonal relationships.

Learning self-consent is every bit as hard as learning how to – really – treat others consensually in a world of massive power imbalances and insidious social scripts, as Zach Budd highlighted at the Poly Dallas conference. It’s still a work in progress for me: a lifelong process I suspect. But it includes noticing when I let desire for approval, fear of failure, or a deep-down belief of my unacceptability override what I really feel. It requires cultivating kindness and practicing self-care: not the neoliberal capitalist bubble-bath kind of self-care but the Audre Lorde long-hard-look-at-yourself self-care that we all need to make a daily practice if we want to stop harming ourselves and others on an interpersonal – and a global – level.

  1. The drama triangle

The other idea I brought into the new edition was Stephen Karpman’s drama triangle. If you’re not familiar with it it looks like this.

The idea is that, in relationships, we often get drawn into stuck dynamics where we go round and round this triangle. For example my Littlest Hobo dynamic easily puts me in the role of rescuer – coming in and making somebody’s life all better so that maybe – in the immortal words of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman – they will ‘rescue me right back’. The problem is if you get invested in the role of rescuer you easily put the other person in a double-bind. They must get better so that you can feel you’ve been a good rescuer. Also they mustn’t get better because then you’ll be out of a job. It’s easy then to shift from rescuer to persecutor because you’re actually treating somebody pretty badly. And easy to shift again into victim because rescuers really don’t like people pointing out that they’re actually being persecutors.

Sound familiar? I think that this triangle has so much to offer what we’re grappling with in our wider communities. When #MeToo 2.0 hit some of the polyamory communities in the UK it took a familiar form. One individual abuser was highlighted, survivors shared their stories of his behaviour, and others aligned themselves with two different forms of rescuing: either becoming saviours for the ‘victims’, or bystander-apologists for the persecutor.

If we’re going to get to grips with the abusive dynamics that inevitably show up in our relationships and communities – in a culture founded on oppression and unequal valuing of different bodies and lives – then I think we have to stay with our capacity to occupy all three positions on this triangle. We need to get to know our inner victim, our inner persecutor, and our inner rescuer. That involves a whole heap of self-kindness, as well as the intensely vulnerable self-care work of staying with feelings.

  1. Staying with all the feels in all the relationships

Learning our part in drama triangles – interpersonal and social – involves staying with how it feels to be in all of those places. For example, the work that my sisters and I are doing involves going back into our intensely vulnerable victim/survivor places: recognising that the various kinds of experiences we went through at young ages was not okay, and that the strategies that we developed to survive them made all kind of sense. It also involves recognising how much of that intergenerational trauma came out of us being on the receiving end of other people’s survival strategies, and how our own survival strategies have also now hurt other people.

Staying with our persecutor potential is hard as hell of course. It involves being with the guilt and shame and fear of our potential to harm others and to harm again. It involves going beyond the temptation to focus on obvious forms of abuse and non-consent – that we may not have engaged in – to the micro level emotional gaslighting, manipulation, and non-consensual pressure that we all take part in our day-to-day relationships, and the macro level dynamics of oppression that we all benefit from and are implicated in whether we like it or not.

Staying with our rescuer involves recognising our tendency to focus on obvious abusers and villains to avoid looking at the damage we do – for example by setting ourselves up as saviours, by not addressing our privilege and power, or by failing to acknowledge our limits and taking on too much only to let people down.

It’s hard fucking work, but we have to do it. And it involves developing our capacity to stay with all of the feelings in all of our relationships. So many of our survival strategies, relationship patterns, and non-consensual tendencies comes from endeavouring to avoid feeling the feelings that scare us: shame, anger, fear, sadness, loss. And of course, like a hamster on a wheel, most of these tendencies will fetch us right back where we most wanted to avoid. As Anita Cassidy puts it: ‘Feeling shit doesn’t kill you, but the shit you do to stop feeling shit might.’

An important caveat to this is, of course, with all these things (being present, staying with feelings, being vulnerable) they have to be done in a container of huge self-kindness, self-compassion, and self-care. Those things always have to come first and foremost. It’s easy to do these things because you think you  should, and for them to end up being far too much. So taking it slowly, prioritising kindness over all else, and getting support with it, are all vital.

I think we all have to do this work, and I think that doing this work will look different for all of us. For me it has included a combination of journaling about the hard stuff, sitting with my feelings by the Thames, reading people who challenge me on social media, deliberately practising showing close people my vulnerability bit-by-painful-bit, and – perhaps unexpectedly – tuning into my erotic fantasies and writing erotic fiction.

Right now it involves the painful messy work of acknowledging my relationship patterns with existing – and new – partners, and how far I may – or may not – be able to shift them given how strongly entrenched and sneaky they are. I’m convinced though that this can be a joyful process as much as it is an excruciating one – often both of those things simultaneously. And if it’s going to make any difference it’s one we have to do together in our relationships, in our families, and in our communities.

Further Resources

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).


  1. […] Four things I’ve learnt about relationships for Poly Dallas Millenium […]

  2. Tara Lind

    17 July

    I like your presentation. I learned about the drama triangle when I participated in a group of college student women learning how to cope with being young adult children of alcoholic parents. Both my parents were lifelong alcoholics. We were of course dealing with our first alcoholic boyfriends in many cases. What I learned about the triangle that you alluded to but did not come right out and say is that once you step onto the drama triangle way of relating, you are not done until you have played all three roles. I have had this happen so many times. For example, I help my alcoholic boyfriend get a job. I am the rescuer. He does a terrible job so I criticize him and I am the persecutor. Then he gets mad at me for interfering in his life so I am the victim. This is a shallow example but shows what happens. Long story short, what I learned over the years is to stay off the triangle. It has been the hardest work of my persoal recovery. Learn to see it coming and opt out. Let people make their own mistakes. Recognize when you are being treated as a victim and deal with it. Persecution can actually be the easiest to overcome. Start thinkly better of yourself because the faults we see in others are usually the faults we see in ourselves.

    • Meg-John Barker

      17 July

      Thank you so much for this – it’s really helpful to have another example to illustrate the triangle, and to give people an example of how you can stay off it (not that that is ever easy).

  3. Anonymous

    18 July

    Thank you for your amazing work!

    I would like to add one thing: I was almost completely dissociated from my emotions and for me trying to feel my emotions too fast almost killed me… So be careful with point 4 if you suffer from CPTSD…

    • Meg-John Barker

      18 July

      Thank you so much for this comment, I completely agree. I think with all these things (being present, staying with feelings, being vulnerable) they have to be done in a container of huge self-kindness, self-compassion, and self-care. Those things always have to come first and foremost. Like you I tried to do something (meditation retreat in my case) because I thought I should, and it was far too much too fast being exposed to all the shame and self-critical thoughts it revealed. So taking it slowly, prioritising kindness over all else, and getting support with it, are all vital I would say.

      • Anonymous

        18 July

        Thanks for your reply 🙂
        I would appreciate if you would also add this to the article for those who don’t read the comments.

        • Anonymous

          18 July

          In particular the sentence ‘Feeling shit doesn’t kill you, but the shit you do to stop feeling shit might.’ triggered me a bit.
          It’s still huge for me to believe myself and stand up for myself.

  4. […] when we struggle to believe it ourselves. Reading about relationships and exploring our own relationship patterns can be helpful […]