My Love is Unconditional. My Love is Consensual.
I am moving away from my hometown in a few weeks, which naturally comes with this overwhelming feeling of needing to tie up loose ends. Questions like, “Should I text my ex and apologize to him about how badly I treated him?” or “Should I text my ex-best friend who ghosted me that I’m STILL mad at the way our friendship ended?” flood my mind.
The answer is no. And yes. I should work on closure, but no, I shouldn’t open up old wounds to get that closure - especially through text message (nothing actually productive ever gets done over text message).
Moving also means taking stock of toxic and problematic behaviors so I can be sure they won’t end up in the packed boxes I am taking with me. Taking a look at yourself is hard. Mostly because it makes you realize that most of the failed relationships you have experienced are half your fault.
The even harder part is deciding if you were the one being toxic or if you were just being complacent in their toxic behavior. I’d argue that one is not worse than the other. They are equally bad and equally hard to navigate and it’s often a mixture of the two.
Sometimes I think I am really bad at friendships. I want to believe it’s because, as women, we are not taught how to have healthy female friendships. More often than not, they are rooted in comparison, competition, or jealousy.
But where I really think the problem lies is, there are no boundaries. Or rather, we do not verbalize our boundaries. The friendships I have been in, multiple text conversations a day are not only encouraged, but absolutely expected. They are your ride or die. If your friend is having a bad day, you are expected to be there for them, wine in hand, no questions asked.
I have a lot of questions. The first of which being, “Is there a scenario in which I do not ride OR die?” or “Does it have to be wine?”
But I also want YOU to have a lot of questions, such as, “Can you hold this with me today?”
I think my friendships have often failed because this is never a question we ask each other. We don’t ask if we have the spoons (Google Spoon Theory) to be there and I think our friendships fail because we don’t ask for emotional consent often enough.
Here’s a personal example: About this time last year, I was having a particularly hard day. I had gone to a beer festival, got drunk in the afternoon and was hungover by 6pm (not one of my best decisions). I was emotional and no good decisions are made when I’m emotional. Around 7pm, my friend called me, s o b b i n g. She was having complications with her boyfriend and asked to come over. I told her I really couldn’t help right now, but she said she couldn’t be alone. I said “Come on over.”
My empathetic self took over my hungover self, and I told her I’d keep her company. I didn’t know, though, that keeping her company meant also doing a lot of emotional labor for her that I couldn’t handle. But I didn’t say this. I didn’t put up the boundary. I wasn’t explicit that she could come over, be in my company, but I could not emotionally handle much more than that since I had also had a hard day AND was hungover (bad mixture).
Ask yourself this. Have you ever been a therapist for your friend when you also needed a therapy* session that day?
Another question to ask yourself: Have you ever used a friend as a therapist for an issue that was possibly too big for just a friend to hold?
We’ve all stepped into these roles before. Sometimes we don’t have a choice. Sometimes we don’t have any other resources. But that also means taking care of the resources we do have when they are scarce. We can do this by asking for consent when we need a place to dump our shit out and when that place is a person.
When I look back at that friendship, that day was the beginning of the end. I didn’t properly verbalize that I did not have the spoons to be there the way she needed me to be, but she also didn’t ask for emotional consent and this was not the first time a situation like that had happened between us. When I look back even further at the root of other friendships, I realize a lot of my friendships that have ended were because we were just expected to be there, no questions asked, no boundaries stated. This is an impossible standard to have, for any relationship.
I, too, have stepped into the role of using a person for emotional support without asking consent to do so. I have used people as a rag to wipe up all the mess around me and then tossed them out when I was done. We’ve all done it. The first step is realizing that we’ve all done it, while also knowing we have all been that rag for someone. If we can verbalize it and admit it, we can change our behavior around it.
It’s hard not to feel like the bad guy when you can’t step in that role for a person. It’s hard not to feel like an asshole, but if you don’t take care of yourself, it can lead to feeling like you failed as a friend, feeling burnt out, taken advantage of, and just plain t i r e d. We all deserve friendships where our boundaries feel respected because we are way more likely to be there when it’s needed if we are respected! The other side of this coin is we cannot be respected if we don’t verbalize how we need to be respected!
A lot of boundaries are assumed, whether it's because that's how your function in a different friendship or because you really think you know that person. Every person and every relationship is different and they each require their own set of verbalized boundaries. How can we know the boundaries exist without stating them? Not verbalizing them is a recipe for failure.
So yes, my love is unconditional. Yes, I will bring you wine. I will also bring myself beer. Yes, I am your ride or die, but I have the choice to get off that ride whenever I want to.
I will love you with compassion. I will empower you. I will hold space for you.
But I will also love you with my boundaries up and stated because my love is consensual. It is the best formula I have to make sure I can take care of you, but that I am also taking care of me.
We should all love each other like this. We should all be in friendship like this, be in relationships like this.
With our boundaries stated and respected.
Think of it like physical consent. You have to ask before you touch a person. You have to ask before you have sex with a person. You have to ask before you can even hug a person. Why shouldn’t we ask before we talk to a person about something that is heavy or hard?
Important note: Just like physical consent, emotional consent can be taken away. If I said I can hold something for you and I change my mind that it is actually too heavy for me, I can verbalize that and respectfully step away. That is my boundary stated. If you don’t respect it, I can put that friendship on hold, on pause, or end it completely. This does not mean that I don’t love you, but it does mean that I also have to love myself enough to know that no person is worth outputting more energy than I have available.
I think we need to change the way we talk about consent. About boundaries. That consent is not assumed. Boundaries are not assumed. There is no maybe. There is only a HELL YES or NO.
HELL YES, you can talk to me about this. HELL YES, you can give me that hug. Or NO, I will not have sex with you. NO, I can’t be there for you today because my day has been heavy too.
So when I say I am taking stock of all my toxic and problematic behavior so I don’t pack them up with me when I move, I guess what I mean is that I am taking them all with me to unpack because I myself still in situations where I am not asking for consent or that consent isn’t asked for. I’m still working on this. This is indeed a hard pill to swallow. There is no one way to have a friendship. There is no one formula to be the best friend, partner, sister, or father. We’re all different (Google Love Languages)!
But there are ways to make sure we are taking care of the people around us by asking each other what we can and cannot hold and by asking each other what we can and cannot do without judgement, shame, or coercion to change the answer.
If we enter relationships like this, asking for emotional consent and verbalizing our boundaries, we will have richer times together because won’t be trying to output more energy than we have. We will know exactly where each other is at. We will know what we can do for each other and when. That is where the real success happens; when we can ask each other how to love and be loved, without hesitation, in the exact way we need to be happy and healthy.
*I talk a lot about therapy in this essay. I am lucky enough to have a therapist where I can download a lot of the heavy things I’ve been carrying. I know that not everyone has access to therapy. It is a privilege to go to therapy, but should absolutely be a right. As a mental health advocate, I would like to offer a list of resources for people who may need therapy and don’t know how to access it.
BetterHelp is an online therapy option that offers financial aid for clients who need it. It is available anywhere online, text message, virtual face-to-face sessions, and phone calls. https://www.betterhelp.com/
Some colleges offer reduced-rate or sliding-scale mental health services. Check the colleges in your area. In some cases, you don’t even need to be a student at the college to receive services.
GoodTherapy, PsychologyToday, and Open Path Psychotherapy Collective have a search engine for therapists in your area. These website allows you to filter your search for your insurance, therapists that offer a sliding scale rate if you do not have insurance, and if they are accepting new clients. https://www.goodtherapy.org, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists, https://openpathcollective.org
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a search engine that allows you to find treatment facilities in your area (includes a filter for sliding scale). https://www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov/
The National Alliance on Mental Health’s hotline list: https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/NAMI-HelpLine/Top-25-HelpLine-Resources
You can find a full list of resources on Samantha’s website: www.samanthaslupskipoetry.com
Samantha Slupski is Midwestern poet, writer, and performer who is soon relocating to Austin, Texas. Her passions include destigmatizing mental health, creating and facilitating brave poetic spaces, traveling and performing poems, and figuring out what home means to her. When she is not writing, she is social media managing for The Adroit Journal and likely hiking or kayaking. You can find out more about her at www.samanthaslupskipoetry.com or on Instagram at @samfromkc.