Slow Relating

There is so much to do, there is so little time, we must go slowlyTaoist saying

Note: this post was written before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, which obviously has further implications for slowing down. You can read more of my thoughts on that here. Hopefully this post will be helpful for those who’re being forced to slow down their relationships at the moment too.

Something I’ve been reflecting on a lot recently is the pace of relationships. In fact I’ve been reflecting on the pace of everything, but I’m going to focus on relationships here.

After all the big changes in my life last year it feels like I’ve received a huge message that I need to slow down on everything – in the form of what I’m now understanding as cPTSD symptoms.

At the same time – and very fortunately – I have the opportunity to slow down, because my work and living situations have changed in ways that allow me way more space around everything. It’s chicken and egg really of course. Have these symptoms intensified because I’ve slowed down enough to notice them finally, rather than distracting into busy-ness with work and people as I used to do? Or is it because of the intensity of the symptoms that I’ve finally slowed down? Probably both/and.

Whenever I write or talk about self-care practices with my co-authors Alex and Justin, we’re very careful around the question of time. I’m well aware of the huge privilege I currently have to slow everything down. Many people simply can’t afford to do this given the commitments in their lives. We always try to focus on practices and processes that are affordable and possible around a 9-5 job and family relationships, and/or around managing chronic health conditions, for example. 

However, perhaps slowing down relationships is something that is more possible for everybody given that in many ways it requires less time, rather than more. For this post I thought it would be fun to put the fastest side of myself (Tony) in conversation with the slowest side of myself (Ara). I figured he could best interrogate her about the value of slow relating, given it’s definitely not something that comes easily to him (think the George Michael song Fastlove for Tony). If you haven’t read one of my plural blog-posts before and aren’t sure who these people are, feel free to check out my Plural Selves zine, and my previous dialogue post about plurality. But hopefully you don’t need to get that part in order to find the content here useful.

Tony: Well this is going to be interesting: the fastest talking with the slowest. Shall I just leave a question here and come back next week to see whether there’s an answer yet?

Ara: I think I might manage it a little quicker than that Trouble, but I would appreciate some time to consider my answers.

Tony: We’re so different on that, you and I. I’ve learnt that if I allow myself to respond spontaneously in the moment often what comes out is pretty good, way better than the old pattern of monitoring every little thing we say and do. Certainly the times when I make people laugh – which I love – the funny line just comes out, without any thought about it.

Ara: I suspect it’s not about fast versus slow – which is good and which is bad – but more about recognising the capacity for both in all of us, and knowing which situations call for which. That kind of realness you’re speaking about: that can come both from allowing yourself the immediate response, and from slowing right down before you respond. Both approaches can be a useful way around the attempt to predict and control everything.

Tony: Woah this is getting deep already. But I expected no less from you Ara. Can we dial it back a bit? What exactly do you mean by slow relating?

What is slow relating?

Ara: *smiles*

Tony: What?

Ara: Well you just did it, didn’t you?

Tony: Oh… yeah I guess I did! So asking to slow it down in conversation would be an example of slow relating.

Ara: It would. A micro-moment of it I guess. I like that. We were planning to focus here on slowness in relation to the whole trajectory of a friendship or partnership, but perhaps it’s useful to consider the pace of relating at all levels: micro to macro. And, again, it’s not about saying that fast or slow is better, more about ensuring that nobody is being forced to go faster than they feel comfortable with, and that everybody feels able to say if that is happening.

Tony: We thought of a metaphor yesterday when we were watching This Is Us. Randall and Kevin were running together and felt like they had to keep pace because of the competitiveness between them. Pace in relationships could be seen like that. If person A runs regularly, and person B doesn’t, it would be really bad for person B to try to keep up with person A. They’d likely end up injuring themselves and being unable to run at all.

Ara: Right, and to extend the metaphor, it may be that those who have reason to struggle more in relationships need to go slow rather than fast, just as people with health problems may need to walk rather than run. But it’s also not intrinsically better to be a runner or a walker right? Runners may well be fitter in some ways, but they also run the risk of more injuries.

Tony: Hm I’m now mentally comparing the intoxicating feelings of fastlove to the runner’s high, and heartbreak to those injuries.

Ara: Hurts a little more than shin-splints huh? Tony I’m aware that you started by asking me for a definition of slow relating. I guess it means taking any and all stages of any kind of relationship – including the one with ourselves – intentionally slowly.

That might mean deliberately choosing to see people at a certain frequency, or to spend certain amounts of time with them when you do – a couple of hours rather than a whole weekend perhaps. It could be about frequency or amount of contact between time spent together: phonecalls, messaging and the like. 

I like the word ‘spacious’: it can be about having enough space between contact to reflect on any conversations or dynamics between you. But it’s probably not just about time. Slowness can also be about intensity, trust, or closeness. It can be about consciously building those things gradually rather than leaping into a certain level of intensity, trust, or closeness without much sense of whether each of you – and the dynamic between you – can support that.

How does slow relating work?

Tony: Hm we’re getting into some of the reasons for slow relating already, but can you give some real life examples before we jump into that?… You’re smiling at me again.

Ara: And why d’you think that is?

Tony: Because I’m the one who keeps slowing down this conversation. I certainly wasn’t expecting that.

Ara: Perhaps we’re not at opposite ends of that spectrum after all Tony. Maybe we just need speed and slowness in different aspects of life.

Tony: Well I definitely need slowness in complex conversations.

Ara: I hear you. Please say if you need me to slow down at any time, and I’ll try to keep checking in with you whether you’re comfortable with the pace. I think it’s generally on the person who is in a position to go faster to do that kind of ongoing consent checking.

Tony: Like in sex, to be consensual it has to go at the slower pace of the people involved. If one person wants a BJ and another wants to kiss, you default to kissing.

Ara: A vivid example. Thank-you for that. But yes, precisely. And if a relationship was gradually moving in an erotic direction you’d need to go at the pace of the person who wanted to take that more slowly for it to be in consent. I’d say that should be the case for any kind of relationship, not just erotic ones. Go at the pace of the person who wants to do it slower, and it’s on the faster person to keep ensuring that the other person isn’t feeling rushed or trying to keep to a pace that doesn’t feel comfortable for them.

Tony: What are our examples of slow relating?

Ara: Well I think they highlight the benefits of slowness. I’ve been thinking recently that the enduring close relationships in our life – and in the lives of our friends – are often those are the ones which started slow. Also they’re the ones with the flexibility in them now to adjust pace as needed.

Justin is a great example of how we like to develop relationships. The two of us attended the same events a few times over maybe a couple of years, so we had the chance to connect in a completely no-pressure way. Then we had a one-to-one coffee and chat, but with no expectation that would be more than a one-off. We both felt a good connection so we had a further coffee a few months later I think, but whoever suggested it did so in such a way that it would’ve been easy for the other person to say ‘no’ if it hadn’t been for them. Gradually we found our way to a joint project together where we met up every week or so for a year. At the end of that project, again, there was a lot of room for us to slow it down if we’d wanted to, but we agreed that we’d like to work together more.

Tony: And a great podcast was born! 

Ara: Alex is a good example of both the pitfalls of fast and the potentials of slow. Alex and I have talked openly about how – when we met at a conference 15 years ago – we jumped straight into bed, and into a romantic partner-type relationship. That didn’t work out for us, but a year or so after breaking up we found our way – very slowly over many years – to the extremely close creative partnership we have now.

Tony: I’m looking at our close people in our photos app and pretty much all of those relationships started slow like that. The siblings are an exception of course, but even with them we distanced quite a bit for a period of years, and have recently more slowly developed a new kind of close relationship, very different to what we had before.

Ara: That’s right, and another point about slow relating: it allows for periods of greater distance and closeness. I think with fastlove – is that what we’re calling it?

Tony: Pray for us Saint George, yes please!

The risks of fastlove

Ara: With fastlove it can be hard not to default to the relationship script: the relationship escalator as Amy Gahran calls it. Once you’re moving fast towards more time together, more enmeshed lives, or greater intimacy, it can feel like a betrayal or failure if you want to slow that down. Also putting the brakes on can need to be quite extreme because you were going so fast. If you were developing more slowly, and if you’re familiar with having a slower pace at times, it can be easier to slow it down a bit and speed it up a bit depending on how connected you’re feeling, what else is going on in your lives, etc. One of our friends calls it the hokey cokey!

Tony: Also with all our close people we’ve slowly developed the kind of intimacy where we can talk pretty openly about such things, and trust that we can navigate change.

Ara: Right, and it’s very hard – if not impossible – to have that with people who you don’t have a relationship foundation with: an agreed set of values – and experience of consensual relating between the two – or more – of you – which lets you know that it’s possible with them.

Tony: I’m also struck by how many relationships that have ended started very fast.

Ara: True. I mean I would want to question the idea that longevity is any measure of ‘success’ of a relationship. Relationships which only last a decade, a year, even a day can be extremely valuable. But it seems like relationships begun quickly can really struggle to de-escalate if necessary, without it being read as an ending – with all the cultural baggage that entails. Cohabiting quickly or leaping into erotic contact or declarations of love seem to be particular red flags. Deciding to do a work project together, or spend a lot of time together, immediately would also be risky I think.

Also, we can question what a relationship begun quickly is built on, as we wrote about in that hot love post.

Tony: Hot love and fastlove huh? Slowing it down at the beginning can mean we take more care over creating the foundations of the relationship, so we don’t come to a point where we need to collapse the building and put in new foundations – because the old ones weren’t very stable.

Ara: Right. And it’s about informed consent too. When we move very quickly at the start of a friendship, romantic relationship, or work partnership, we probably don’t have enough information about that person to know whether they’ll be a good fit for us. If we’re strongly drawn to the relationship it simply can’t be because it’s a good fit, because how would we know that? So it must be other stuff that’s driving it: probably a combination of social pressures and projections we’re making onto the other person of the kind of friend, partner, or colleague we long for.

Tony: And we probably take note of every sign that this relationship meets those longings, while trying to ignore any sign that it doesn’t. So we’re objectifying the other person, and kind of ensuring that at some point we’ll have to dismantle the building and rebuild the foundations.

Ara: It’s fascinating to me that our closest people now are not generally ones who we felt instantly drawn to.

Tony: Sorry guys, you’re awesome but not overwhelmingly attractive!

Ara: Behave yourself. I’m saying that perhaps it’s a good sign when we can notice all sorts of things about a person in the first period of knowing them: it means we haven’t fallen into objectifying or pedastalling them. Again slowing down might enable us to do that: to not get caught up in the heady biopsychosocial experience of falling in love – of whatever kind.

Tony: Yeah because it can totally happen in friendships and work relationships too, especially if we’ve been yearning for a best mate or work partner. However perhaps erotic/romantic relationships in our society come with the biggest combo of cultural pressure plus full-on chemical chaos.

Ara: How’re you doing Tony? It’s a lot what we’re talking about right now.

Tony: Oh yes, I notice I just sped up. Started checking emails and thinking about a bunch of other stuff.

Ara: Noticing that speeding up can be a good sign you need to go even slower I think. How about a break and finish this another time?

Tony: Yeah. Thanks. I think I’d like to read over what we already said and think about what else to cover too.

Ara: Thank-you Tony. I’ve enjoyed having this chance to talk.

Tony: It’s not what I expected.

Ara: I’ve enjoyed that too, surprising you.

Tony: Okay then, we left it a couple of days and we’re back.

Ara: Another win for slowness. We wanted to wait till we were feeling it instead of trying to write when it wasn’t really there. But slow writing is a whole further blog post.

Slow relating and trauma

Tony: Talk to me about slow relating and trauma Ara.

Ara: It’s something we’ve been learning a lot about lately.

Tony: From our reading and from lived experience. It’s a lot.

Ara: It is, and again slowing down is a key element: both micro and macro. On the micro level, if we are going slower in general then we’re more likely to notice that something has been triggered, often because we’re aware that some fear and/or shame feelings are happening.

Interestingly our default response to that seems to be to speed up, as if we could race away from it. If we can manage to go in the opposite direction and slow right down – slow the breathing, notice what thoughts and feelings are coming up, talk to ourselves gently about what’s going on – then sometimes we can move through it without it spiralling into a bigger trauma response.

On the more macro level if we have enough spaciousness in our lives then it seems more possible to notice whatever themes are present in those triggered moments, and to reach greater self-understanding through that. It also means that we can pause and wait until we’re past a trauma time before we respond to whatever triggered us. And it opens up the possibility of doing something different to our usual habit: to create a new habit. 

Tony: But that’s more about our relationship with ourselves. How does slow relating with others come into it?

Ara: Well in relationships – for me at least – the aim is to be as beneficial as possible for ourselves, for the other person, and for everyone else in our lives and the wider world. If ‘beneficial’ isn’t possible then at least not causing harm. 

Slowing down on the micro level means we’re less likely to act out or shut down on whoever triggered us – or whoever else is around – which are common responses to being triggered. On the macro level we’re more likely to see patterns and dynamics that are arising in relationships and address them before they get too sticky.

Tony: It reminds me of that Matrix moment we had.

Ara: Ah that was a good example. Do you want to describe it?

Tony: We were with a couple of close friends having a conversation about something hard that had happened between them. They’re people we’re used to being open with, and we were all slowing down and trying to be extremely present and careful. Suddenly it felt like I could see all these paths I could go down in the conversation really clearly. Like I could see the one where I tried to make it okay for everyone. I could see the one where I tried to come off as a person who was great at this stuff. I could see the one where I tried to make this conversation go the same way as a previous one I’d had which went well. It was like in The Matrix where the bullets all slow down and you can duck out of the way of them. It felt like having a superpower!

Ara: Slowness as a superpower, I like it. And I’m glad you had that moment. It’s good when we can see the potentials of doing things differently, given that a lot of the time this path we’re on feels messy and hard, with no guarantees that it’s actually leading anywhere good.

Tony: On the macro level slowing down seems to show us our patterns more clearly, and when we’re falling into them.

Ara: Right, Pete Walker’s book on cPTSD suggests that we all default more to some of the ‘four Fs’ than others as our default way of relating: Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn. When we notice the themes going through the things that have triggered us into that fear/shame response lately, a lot of them have been about going into the fawn response: feeling that we have to override our own consent in order to be pleasing to others, or something terrible will happen. Slow relating has meant we’ve had the capacity to see that, to explain what’s going on to others, and to do something different in expressing what we need. When we’ve gone faster we’ve just fallen into those responses without realising it – often for quite a long time.

Tony: We should be clear that this is not an easy process, at least not for us at the moment. It’s not like ‘hm interesting response I wonder what’s going on, ah yes it must be this old thing, let’s try doing something differently.’

Ara: What is it like Tony?

Tony: It’s more like: ‘regular day … oh fuck excruciating pain, panic panic flail flail, I must be a terrible person, shame shame shame … minutes or hours or days or weeks stuck in that … eventual lifting out of it … oh that’s what that was all about, shall we try doing things differently?’

Ara: Good description.

Tony: Why thank-you, I try. Anything to add about slow relating and trauma?

Ara: Well perhaps just a note that there probably aren’t sharp dividing lines between those of us who are traumatised and those who aren’t: more of a spectrum. We’ve written before about how trauma is relevant to everyone if we consider all forms of intergenerational trauma. Our favourite teacher Pema Chödrön writes about triggers and default responses as things which everyone does. 

However we have certainly found this cPTSD literature extremely helpful. Another thing we read was that fastlove can give people a break from trauma feelings. Early stages of an intense relationship can have biopsychosocial effects which mean that we just don’t feel the fear and shame so vividly at that time. This can explain both why that period can be so enticing, and why it’s important to slow it down given that it might prevent us from noticing important things. Those fear/shame feelings can be horrendous, but if we can be with them rather than acting out of them or trying to repress them we may well find there’s an important message in there.

Tony: Ironically the message lately has been that we were moving too fast: or felt drawn to keep pace with somebody else who was going too fast for us.

Slow relating and access intimacy

Ara: Mm and I like the idea of access intimacy here. When we go walking with friends we try to be mindful of each other’s capacities. It might be that someone needs to walk slow, or to stop regularly, or to only do a short distance, or to avoid sections of walk which feel too high or precarious, or to stay on smooth rather than rough paths. This could be due to disability, to chronic or acute health conditions, to fitness, to anxiety or phobias, all kinds of things. 

If we’re the one with greater capacity then we try to match pace and keep checking in with the person with lesser capacity. And we’ve had some great experiences of being the one with lesser capacity and having the other person treat us carefully around that.

Tony: Like that time with Hannah where the quickest route home involved some potentially scary heights. She helped us name that we’d rather go back the way we came, where we would usually have pushed on in the past because we’d have assumed she’d prefer that.

Ara: Access intimacy is ensuring you know the other person’s needs well and making it your business to proceed with those in mind. I love this as a metaphor for slow relating. Can the person with greater capacity keep checking that they haven’t metaphorically set off on an epic journey when the other person’s only up for a short hike, or look out that they’re not striding ahead while the other person puffs and pants to keep up, or make sure they haven’t begun a climb up a mountain which involves a precarious descent that’s going to give the other person vertigo?

Tony: It all comes back to consent really. Our relationship mantra for a while has been: slow, kind, consensual.

Ara: So the consent piece is about going at the pace of the person who needs it to be slower, whether due to trauma or for any other reason. And, as with the walk, it might be that each of you needs it slower in different ways. Like one person could be up for a relationship being quite quick in terms of amount of contact, but slower in terms of being openly vulnerable with another person, and vice versa. 

Tony: Right. Actually we like to go pretty quick into being vulnerable and open because we prefer big talk to small talk with anybody. But it’s more the amount of time spent together and any move towards any ongoing commitment or enmeshment/entwinedness that need to be real slow. What about slowness and kindness?

Slow relating and kindness

Ara: Well it’s very hard to be kind to others when the trauma stuff is playing out in a relationship much of the time. When you’re stuck in that fear/shame place it can be extremely difficult to be aware of another person or to have anything to offer them. I notice that the relationships where we – and/or other people – have got most hurt are ones which have gone fast in various ways. Mostly that’s because someone has ended up in a trauma place much of the time and has had to pull back for that reason.

I think it’s useful to remember that question of whether this relationship is generally being good for you, for the other person, and for the other people in your life or the wider world. If the answer is ‘no’ to any of those, then slowing down is an important response. ‘If it’s not good for everyone then it’s not good for anyone’ is a helpful phrase to keep hold of. 

It can be hard though in our culture where escalating is seen as a good thing to be encouraged, and de-escalating is often read as break-up or failure. Also those of us with trauma experiences may have been punished for asking to put on the brakes in the past, so might not find it so easy to allow ourselves to ‘hokey cokey’ in relationships.

I’m in a place at the moment where I’d rather go slowly from the outset than speed up and pull back, because it’s hard to feel that’s an okay thing to do, even though it is. I guess the more we can give each other explicit permission to slow down and speed up, the better. We can create micro-cultures of consensual speed in our communities and friendship groups.

Tony: When might it be particularly important to slow down

Ara: I think when tough stuff hits. Again it is so tempting for people to speed up at such times from a sense of urgency, but that often involves overriding a strong sense that one or more people has of not being ready yet. If we can really honour those ‘not ready’ feelings, then we can have a much better encounter once we are ready. We’ve seen that happen with friends who allowed time after a conflict before trying to have a conversation. When they finally did it was powerful because they were both in a position to hear and be heard. And, again, it’s not once and for all. There may be many phases of ‘not ready yet’ and ‘ready now’ in an ongoing relationship over time.

As we’ve said before, living in such a non-consensual culture means that we’re all bound to hurt others, and to be hurt by others. We’ll find ourselves on both sides of those dynamics of having overridden another person’s consent, and having had our own overridden. At such times it’s vital to go at the pace of the person who has been hurt/overridden, to listen to their ‘not ready’ and to respect that. And it’s also important not to go too fast for the other person, because they may struggle to be able to hear if they’re in a defensive place. They may need to do some work before they’re able to sit with somebody who they’ve hurt without collapsing into shame – which doesn’t help anyone.

Tony: It seems like trying to push anyone to go faster than they’re capable of going is never a good plan, and trying to push ourselves to go faster than we can go is also likely to backfire, even if we have really good motivations for doing so.

Ara: That’s my sense, yes. How’re you doing?

Tony: Well it’s not necessarily the easiest thing for me to hear, as one of the faster sides of our plural system. I do fear that my speediness causes problems for the rest of you.

Balancing slower and faster desires in relationships

Ara: I think with internal relationships – as with external ones – it’s got to be about dialogue. We need to go at the speed that suits the slowest sides of ourselves, otherwise they’ll be left behind. Also, in relationships, there’s a risk that fastlove means that other people will only meet the fastest sides of our characters, instead of the whole of us.

Tony: That feels important to me, as it’s the slower parts of us who bring some important kinds of wisdom to the party.

Ara: I’ll take that compliment.

Tony: I guess I’m still left with a question mark though around whether going slow in relationships of all kinds could somehow stifle something that’s positive about faster people, or faster sides of a person.

Ara: I think that’s an important question mark. I wonder if it’s about creating safe-enough relationships and situations so that people can enjoy speed as well as slowness. Going back to our walking/running metaphor, slow-walking with one person doesn’t mean that a fast person can never go for a run: they just need to do that alone or with a different friend. 

Also going slow for a time can mean that speed can happen later on, in a way that feels great because those safe-enough foundations are in place. Like we felt great when we took on book projects with Alex and Justin, even though that meant a big escalation in the intensity of time spent together, and our commitment to each other. That was because we had those foundations in place. It could be like ‘look before you leap, and then enjoy the leaping’.

Tony: Right, and we are finding it feels safe-enough to bring the faster sides of ourselves out in relationships where we’ve built up slowly. Okay I’ll buy it. Slow love is the one true way, and maybe it enables a bit of fastlove too. 

Ara: I’m never sure about the one true way in anything, but I know that I like slow.

Tony: It’ll be a new movement. Slow love, like slow food or slow academia. 

*Googles*

Oh looks like someone already thought of that.

Ara: I guess we’ll have to stay on the slow path then Tony, instead of starting a brand new movement overnight.

Tony: Oh alright then. I’m still going to end with a slow love™ manifesto though!

The Slow Love Manifesto

  • It’s okay to go at the pace we need to in relationships. In fact it’s probably better for everyone concerned that we do so, because it means that we can be kinder and more available to ourselves and to others.
  • Pace includes how fast we go with the intensity of contact as well as the amount of various types of contact.
  • It’s okay to go at a different pace in different relationships: Just because you go at a certain pace with person A doesn’t mean you have to go at that pace with person B.
  • It’s helpful to tune into your body and to how it feels when you’re drawn to go too fast. Then you can become more able to notice that feeling, and to communicate to others that you need to slow down when you feel it.
  • It’s okay to do the amount and type of relating each day, each week, each month, etc. that feels right to you. For example, it’s fine to only want to do one social thing per week, or to want some human contact every other day, or to prefer one-to-ones and never do big groups.
  • It’s important – for consent – to go at the pace of the slowest person in the relationship, and to have contact with them that enables them to communicate what that is, rather than suggesting things they have to say ‘no’ to, given how difficult this often is
  • It’s okay to change pace over time in a relationship – to speed up or slow down – as long as any speeding up feels consensual for all involved.
  • It’s okay for all of us to struggle with changes of pace in relationships, but never to pressure another person to go faster than they want to, or to try to prevent them from slowing down when they need to.
  • It’s okay to say ‘no’ to any relationship if there’s a mismatch in pace and you’d rather find someone who matches your pace, and/or to find additional relationships which match that pace.
  • It’s okay to not be ready for contact of a certain kind, or of any kind. We – and others – need to trust that ‘not ready’ feeling.
  • It can particularly be a good idea to slow down at the following times: at the start of relationships, when there’s powerful New Relationship Energy, when a conflict or consent violation happens between you, and when a relationship is changing, transitioning, taking a different direction, ending, being rekindled, or starting anew.

Patreon link: If you liked this, feel free to support my Patreon, it will certainly help this self-employed person to maintain some income during these uncertain times.

Plural tag: This post was written by Tony and Ara (obvs).


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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