The Terms of Our Relationships

The other day, I did a no-no. I watched an episode of “Love & Hip Hop.” And it was just as disturbing as I expected it to be.

In the scene that rattled me the most violently, Tara and Amina were arguing yet again over Peter Gunz–the poster child for masked misogyny and acute irresponsibility.

I could make an encyclopedic list of all the things about the scene that bothered me, but the main thing was that Amina kept saying she “loved” Peter as an explanation for why she was subjecting herself to his mistreatment.

It made me think of how horribly misunderstood and misused that word is.

As so many people have said, in so many different ways, love is not a source or cause of pain.

It’s the ultimate balm.

I’m a teacher. So misunderstanding presents to me like a puzzle. When I see that someone doesn’t “get” it, I try to figure out why so I can help her to “get” it. That’s what I consider my job.

So when I saw Amina on the screen, screaming about her “love” for Peter, I started thinking about how she could’ve gotten there. How she could’ve arrived at such an incorrect and harmful definition of that word.

What I concluded is that we–people generally and black women particularly–need to study up on the lexicon that exists for so-called romantic feelings.

There is the thing called love, yes. It exists. It’s real. But it often isn’t what we feel for the people with whom we become romantically (by that I mean sexually) involved.

There are other, more accurate words for what we feel–that are uglier, yes, but more illuminating–more useful–more truthful.

We need to know and use those words so that we’re not fooled and subsequently fucked over by our feelings.

One such word is attachment. Attachment is a “deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space.” Attachment is not necessarily affectionate; it’s not necessarily reciprocal; and it’s not necessarily healthy.

When you’re attached to someone, you respond sensitively to them. You feel something when a person enters your space; you feel something when a person leaves your space; and you feel something when that person draws closer or more distant from you emotionally and psychologically.

Attachment isn’t love, though. Because love is a strong and constant affection for a person. It involves sexual attraction, but it isn’t solely that. That’s attraction or desire–another word. Another feeling.

Love contains desire, but it isn’t just the desire to have sex with someone. The desires of love are to protect, support, connect with and provide for someone.

Love is reciprocal and built on respect, understanding, acceptance, care, and health (freedom from sickness).

Attachment can be built on fear, insecurity, loneliness, or any other negative emotion.

Attachment is not love. Love is not just attachment.

Attraction is not love. Love is not just attraction.

Another feeling that gets mistaken for love is codependency. Codependency is “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner.”

Codependency is a dysfunctional need to help or be helped by another person, that is linked to a person’s inability to function on his or her own.

So when you need a partner to feel attractive or loved or whole or alive or even just seen, that’s codependency, not love.

When the only way you derive a sense of your worth is by “being there” for someone else, even when that person is disrespectful, abusive, cold, or ambivalent toward you, that’s codependency, not love.

We romanticize codependency in our culture. We praise and admire people for their willingness and ability to “be there” for others without examining whether that is a healthy thing for them to do.

If you’re getting swallowed up in your efforts to “be there” for someone, then it’s not healthy, and it’s not romantic, and it’s not admirable. You’re not “loving” the person for whom you’re “there.” You’re enabling that person.

Fixation is another dysfunctional emotion that we romanticize in our culture, that isn’t love.

Fixation is an obsessive attachment to another person. It’s being continually preoccupied with thoughts of another person and responses to another person–to another person’s words, actions, needs, and desires.

Fixation isn’t love because it usually doesn’t come out of affection for the other person. It wears a loving disguise, but it’s actually addiction. Addiction is disordered, compensatory behavior, not love.

So when a person has problems, but diverts attention away from those problems by clamping down emotionally on another person or a relationship, that’s fixation, not love.

A person that allows someone to fixate on them is not “in love,” either. That person is likely a masochist, if not a victim.

Masochism is receiving pleasure from the experience of humiliation or pain. Psychologists debate why some people are wired this way, but they don’t dispute the fact that many people are. They don’t say whether it’s “right” or “wrong” either; they only acknowledge that masochism can be dangerous because it opens people up to physical and emotional abuse.

Experiencing a person’s display of anger or dominance toward you as “he loves me” or “she loves me” is masochistic. It’s not necessarily wrong, but even if it’s tied to sex, it’s still not love.

Love doesn’t hurt. Love doesn’t seek to hurt. Love doesn’t seek ownership or control. Love doesn’t own or control you.

When Amina says that she “loves” Peter Gunz–a man that pursued a relationship with her while cohabitating with the mother of his two sons, married Amina in secret, hid the marriage while he continued to have sex and emotional dealings with the mother of his sons and Amina, then continued to bounce between the two women even after the marriage was exposed–she’s speaking incorrectly.

The message that she’s sending herself–that her feelings are good for her–is a dangerous one that keeps her locked into a cycle of self-abnegation and abuse.

Amina may be attracted to Peter; she may be attached to him; she may be fixated on him; she may even have masochistic feelings about the way he treats her; but none of that is love.

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have the right, or she isn’t “right,” to be with him, but I think it’s important to be clear.

Most of us are seeking love–that thing which will bring goodness to our lives–help make us happier and better.

So we need to be clear on what that is. We have to understand what it does and doesn’t do.

Otherwise, we create and perpetuate connections to people that do the opposite of love–that bring sadness, anger, bitterness, grief, depression, deprivation, loneliness, and sometimes even injury into our lives. All in the name of “love.”

The terms of our relationships are ours to define. We do not have to be trapped in relationships that don’t suit or serve us.

But we have to be clear on what those terms are.

Let me say that again because of how deeply I mean it:

We have to be clear on what those terms are.

We can’t slap the label of “love” on any old feeling just so we can continue having it.

We can’t slap the label of “love” on a feeling or relationship that we’re too weak or afraid to give up in order to make that feeling or relationship seem “right.”

We shouldn’t falsify love. We shouldn’t lie on love. It confuses us, the people that seek to love us, and the children that are watching us and learning about love from us.

That’s why we have to be honest about what we are feeling, even if it exposes us in ways that make us uncomfortable or ashamed.

We can’t fix what we can’t see as broken, and we don’t typically keep looking for what we think we’ve already found.

We have to be real with ourselves in order to find love that is real.

In my English classes, I say it all the time: “Terminology is everything.”

Love is not an all-encompassing term.




My First Post Since . . .

Originally, I named this blog “The Bluest i” because I thought I’d write at length about my decade-long battle with depression.

I thought I’d explore the ways that American life breeds depression in black women; all the ways that black women hurt as a result of living in the kyriarchy; and how they may heal.

And I might still talk about these things–because they encompass the reality of my life–because the best writers draw from what they know and learn from the process of writing.

But today it feels like the title applies more to how painful it is to look out over the social-political landscape of America and see so much evidence of how corrupt, callous, and–for lack of a better word–crazy this country–and many of its people–have become.

Obviously, I am blue because what I see saddens me so deeply.

I also feel like the title is an expression of my black feminist orientation.

It’s a play on Morrison’s famous debut novel, obviously. That masterpiece of American fiction.

And though Morrison doesn’t identify her work as feminist, the way in which she critiques the patriarchy–black and white–in her novels aligns with feminist politics.

She even says the project of The Bluest Eye is to show how internalized racism affects the most vulnerable member of the black community–a young girl.

In  that, she acknowledges that black women and girls are lowest on the cultural totem; she reverses the notion that because they are the lowest on the totem, they are the least important members of the community; and she suggests that instead they are extremely important because they vividly illustrate the power, pervasiveness, and poisonous nature of patriarchal thinking as it relates to race and gender.

So I also chose “The Bluest i” as the title of my blog because of the work that Morrison does in the novel, illustrating what happens to a black girl’s insides when she looks out on a world that doesn’t seem to want, love, or have need of her.

I chose the title because I can relate to Pecola’s struggle to like herself when no one else seems to like her.

That is also the main reason I am a black feminist, in case that isn’t already apparent.

(I try to always make sure to keep the adjective attached because black feminism is one thing, and “feminism”–that exclusionary descendant of women’s suffrage–is another.)

I am a black feminist because it is important to fight not just white patriarchy’s efforts to obliterate black women but also black patriarchy’s efforts to obliterate black women. It’s important to fight mainstream feminism’s efforts to ignore and undermine black women.

I am not a feminist because I hate men but rather because I love women. I love being a woman. So I will not allow the powers-that-be to ruin that experience for me by making it an existential prison.

I know that some people believe that black feminism is ruinous to the black community, but I say no.

Unchecked patriarchy, internalized sexism, misogyny, misandry, homophobia, and transphobia are.

Feminism is fighting–every time it’s necessary–against anyone’s efforts to silence you because you’re a woman, cheat you because you’re a woman, hurt you because you’re a woman, discredit you because you’re a woman, mistreat you because you’re a woman, or overrule you because you’re a woman.

It’s nothing more, and it’s nothing less.

If the black community needs women to be doormats, dolls, or dupes in order to embrace women, then it’s the hateful ethic at its heart that’s the problem–not black feminism.

As James Baldwin–the famous male writer says, “Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”

So when you love someone, you grapple with how difficult it is to watch her grow and evolve–how challenging it is to tolerate her differences and respect her individuality.

You don’t suppress, oppress, or depress someone that you love.

Yes. Circularity. I started out talking about depression, and I’m back to it again. Again and again.

This blog is about my illness, yes. It’s about my purview. It’s about my politics. It’s about my opinions.

It’s also about my deepest and longest-held desire: To say something true and meaningful about being black, being a female, being an artist, and being an American all at the same time.

I hope that people will read this blog and feel something.

I hope that people will read this blog and understand something.

I hope that people will read this blog and perhaps learn something.

Or even just let it open them up a little bit. Make them a bit more loving or gentler toward the black women in their lives.

Then, maybe “i”–maybe we–won’t feel so blue, navigating this landscape that can be so needlessly, so endlessly hostile.

Maybe this blog will allow people to recognize what Morrison says: “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”