Relationships: Part two

relationship failure problem sad
Contracts: so last year?

So I am back in the women’s discussion group on ‘Are relationships changing?’ and the thread of conversation seems to have slipped from: “There are many more women choosing to be single …”  to: “… for obvious reasons.” I suddenly find myself both in and out of our club at the same time, by virtue of an imperceptible smile or nod. I am really well-trained to question my own pull towards being in a relationship with a man. Why? Partly because of the background anti-male sentiment that circulates around the actual collective oppressive and discriminatory practices of men – this makes it easy to imagine that being ‘independent’ of men is the wisest and safest standpoint a woman can take, personally. This doesn’t logically fit with being a girlfriend or wife – although casual dating seems superficially to be more compatible. The other, related reason, is the various pains that I’ve enjoyed first-hand – seen through the lens of break-ups and the retrospective analysis of what ‘extra work’ I was doing while the relationships were active (and afterwards). I am always alert for, and often anxious about, ways I may not have learned my lessons, ways my hidden needs and insecurities in relation to men may not be done with yet.

Nevertheless, here I am in ‘real life’ enjoying willfully being in a hetero relationship – shit we even talk about the future! And yet I almost fall into the camp where women tacitly agree that hetero relationships are so much hard work for a woman that being in one is an obviously crazy move. Remember those famous statistics about married men and married women? What gives?

If my belief is that the ‘benefits’ of my relationship somehow outweigh the ‘costs’, am I thereby deluding myself that somehow I or we are ‘not the norm’? Are we somehow better or cleverer or saner or more loving or enlightened or less sexist than the millions of other couples who constitute this statistical reality? Or, am I simply gambling with my life, telling myself, since the outcome of our relationship belongs in the future, that we are part of (unknown) future statistics and not past or current ones? You never know when divorce rates are going to suddenly slow down, right? Better still, let’s dodge all these pitfalls just by not getting married. Eureka!

Yet very time we hit a real pitfall, or a boulder or a pothole or even fall in a swamp, the horrible ’emotion work’ we drag ourselves through to work it all out does pay off. There’s work and there’s work. “Relationships are hard work” can mean different things, for example: “Only a woman with low self-esteem would willingly consent to being the lifelong unpaid caretaker for a manchild who may offer love but can never understand or empathise with her burdens.” Alternatively it can mean: “If you want a romantic partner who’s committed to a view of a shared future, then every so often you will have to confront unpredicted challenges, which is hard work. If you do not succeed in fully listening to and hearing each other and both making genuine compromises during those moments, what started as a healthy partnership will slide over time into a power imbalance.”

The shortcut to this is “Everything in life that’s really worth doing is hard work.” Show me someone who is really passionate about their job who didn’t have to struggle to study to qualify for it, or who finds it easy every day. Or find me a parent who will say that it’s easy raising a child, that they love them and they don’t encounter problems and experience excruciatingly hard work.

Our attempt to re-view hetero couple relationships as we reeled from the bleak realities of Thatcherism and absorbed the painful truths of the second wave has become increasingly individualistic. Relationships are ultimately part of the web of human commitments and community functioning that sustains not only family but all human social (and material) life. Make no mistake, individualism, as a stage in our development, has given us a lot of gifts. The idea that a woman is deserving of equal treatment by a male partner as well as in the workplace, in politics and so on, is an individualistic response to the idea that all women should just shut up and share womens’ work. Recognising individuals is a way to raise standards of care and dignity for all and the basis for understanding what equality means.

But we’re only vaguely, and only partially, individuals. In a relationship, we are never really half a person, but we are in certain ways half of a human unit, just as a kid is an integral part of its entire family, and that little family is often part of (one or two or more) bigger family networks. Our little personalities are composites of all our relatives, teachers and friends, with a strand of unique individuality hanging it all together and – crucially – enabling us to make decisions that don’t suit the community majority when we need to.

There are lots of threads here which still need untangling. How many men are still benefitting from being an individual while a woman does the team bit for them both as an unacknowledged domestic project-manager? Will they live happier lives than their wives? Are men learning to do emotion work? How are men learning how to do emotion work? And is the answer that women are doing even more emotion work to teach them? Is this always true? Is there anything wrong with the idea (or reality) of women ‘teaching’ a male partner how to communicate his needs and how to listen so he really hears? Is there anything wrong with a woman (or man) leaving a partner who is unable or unwilling to learn? Even if she/he has promised a lifelong commitment? Are there women who refuse to do emotion work despite pleas from a hetero male partner?

There are billions of us and we encounter such a tiny percentage (even if we have humungous social media networks), so we can never know in any detail what is behind divorce statistics, life expectancy figures, or what is occurring in the hearts and minds of women and men in hetero relationships, arguing about whether he is doing enough emotion work, washing up or childcare. We don’t even know how our own lives will work out.

To step outside the frame – someone once told me they were on a strict diet to reduce their cholesterol level, so that they wouldn’t be put on statins, which they don’t want. Their danger level was based on their lifestyle plus family history. They can’t do anything to change the effect of their family history on the software determining their danger level – presumably even if their relatives’ illnesses were rooted in ‘lifestyle’ factors – e.g. poor diet. This person was dieting to convince a computer of their health, but they were living an incredibly healthy lifestyle already.

How does this relate? Well to put it simply, we can’t live by statistics, and there is a danger that we may rely on them to stand in for truths about ‘men’ or ‘women’ which fit with personal experiences and make us feel better about them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware how easy it becomes as you get older to amalgamate concrete stories, first hand experiences and countless anecdotes into a truth. This kind of truth is not only helpful for our conversations with others, and to assist us in making sense of our lives, it’s also normally true! Nevertheless, we need to be sure we don’t let an amalgam of statistics and similar stories solidify into the idea that people aren’t changing, when in fact they might be. When it comes to men and emotion work, the chances are they’re changing faster now than ever before.

Whether the pace satisfies onlookers or not is another question, and to answer it we’d have to ask yet another: how can we possibly gain that kind of amalgamated overview for the here and now? Probably the answer is, we can’t, we have to move on with our lives in the same state of not-knowing that we were in when we were young and embarked on all the patriarchally-doomed relationships that those of us in the discussion group have in common. The difference is, when we were young we assumed we did know everything, and now we’re a bit wiser, we know we don’t.



Relationships: a blogpost getting way out of hand

less sex
Exhibit A: some yoof having less sex than we did

We picked the theme of relationships for a recent discussion group – more specifically: How have relationships changed? The first question I thought we would have to ask would be “Since when?” When the group actually took place, it provoked so many more questions that instead of simply writing this one post, I have inadvertently started an unending stream of words … which is what probably what a blog should be! Consider this part one. And here we go!

In our discussion group, we soon established our time zone, because most of us are similar in age: we zoomed in on how the war affected our grandparents and parents and then on how that has played out in the generations since. Being all women it was hard not to focus on how relationships have changed for women, but that was plenty to talk about (and don’t fight who you are…). We soon acknowledged substantial shared experiences and it became apparent that romance would probably fall off the agenda, if it was there at all.

Talking about the social developments of the twentieth century is a surprisingly effective way to view one’s own experiences (as a woman over 40) in a more objective light than usual. I was reminded of my grandmother’s joy at being in the Land Army as a youngster, and how last year I had powerfully symbolic dreams leading me to recognise that her life, in some crucial sense, went downhill ever after. She had managed to convey to me her excitement and pride at being in the LA, but never her regret at her transformation into wife, and mother of my mother (and four others). This solved the riddle for me of why this competent, jovial, affectionate person barely connected with me as her granddaughter: because she could not know or show what she ‘wanted for me’ as a woman. And because her real joy in life was at odds with the roles she embodied and modelled. She made great cookies, but she rarely looked me straight in the eyes.

Her last words to me were “I hope you find what you’re looking for.” I thought she meant “You’re a fool to jeapordise your marriage for your studies – chasing after something unwomanly, I can’t imagine what.” But perhaps she meant “Keep going and you will find your way back to the land and to yourself, for both of us.” Perhaps she was not being sarcastic.

Needless to say, changes in womanhood underlay much of our discussion and eventually I realised that I was joining in a discourse where the undesirability of heterosexual coupling, for women, was almost being taken for granted. It’s not that we had that outlook which surprised me. We each had faced significant past obstacles in hetero relationships. We had each freed ourselves from those, with varying degrees of difficulty and varying levels of damage sustained. We shared the statistics: the happiest subgroup in society (in these terms) are married men, the unhappiest are married women, and the highest level of divorce by age is by couples in their 50s. Single-person-households are still fast growing and may be (if I remember correctly) the biggest group.

What did surprise me though, is that this angle within the conversation flowed so easily for me, even while I am in a relationship that I love being in. This triggered a plethora of new questions, including:

  • It is comfortable or comforting for women across cultures and ages to hold a collective view of men as ‘trouble’ or ‘hard work’ in order to build solidarity and gain a solace which they cannot get from men?
  • If not, what does a community have to look like, in order that women-in-company can share their reflections in a balanced way, on men’s strengths and weaknesses, gifts and flaws? Can we start that conversation? Do we have the motivation?
  • Do women find themselves increasingly saying No to hetero partnerships because ‘men have got worse’, because women have become ‘more assertive’, or what?

On the whole, the most interesting spin-off question for me wouldn’t be “Since when?” or “What kind of relationships are we talking about?” or “From whose point of view?”, but “What are the major imminent changes that every generation is facing, right now?”

Young adults and adolescents are famously creating all sorts of new-fangled alternatives to apparently washed-up models like hetero marriage, not to mention ‘young people are having less sex’ in general (here’s my quick search which brought up no less than ten different articles reporting on this … take your pick of newspaper!). Many young people are reportedly scared of getting into relationships in the way that, perhaps, a majority of young women were ready and eager to do when we were their age. Is this because of the general precarity of adult economic life now? Quite possibly this is mixed, for both sexes, with confusion, or simple repellence, at the complexity and politics of hetero relationships in our time. I can’t imagine how much the appearance of likely happiness, long-term success, and equal treatment within hetero partnerships has changed in the past 30 years.

Hopefully this uncertainty is creating a fertile spawning ground for new configurations of family, romance, sexuality, companionship, solidarity, community building and shared living. It’s completely disorientating to begin regretting the demise of the nuclear family model after decades of criticising it with a vengeance.

This moment reminds me of a story I was told about the Great Storm that hit the South-East of England in 1987. An older friend told me he noticed many weeks of penetrating torrential rain, before the winds came and lifted all the trees out of the soggy earth. We saw the tragedy of millions of trees lost. Nature cares not for the 30 odd years it takes a tree to grow up.

Hearing the various statistics which each show how the nuclear family model is becoming less and less common – with 55% of children in school now NOT living with two biological parents – I do feel anxiety for young people now, in a temporary forgetting of how much I have voiced my criticisms of that model, and more importantly, lived through the hellishness of it. I pine for how my children will manage to cultivate love and perhaps even parenthood without these structures? What a fucking crock. Not only is the critique of the nuclear family a sound one, but when I was young I didn’t give a shit about how my parents did things (except to the extent that it gave me something I could be better than them at). It’s precisely because they never ‘succeeded’ in creating a nuclear family environment that I was determined to be one – and what a nice mess that made of my kids’ childhoods …

What comes to us as genuinely new is by definition not knowable in advance. Will it be better, or worse, or both? And is there anything new in the human world that isn’t, if you think about it really carefully, kids learning from their parents’ fuck ups?

Book Launch! May! Quick!

All welcome to celebrate the FIRST AND DOUBLE ‘That Woman’s Press’ BOOK LAUNCH featuring Why do only men die? by EBM Humphreys and poetry compilation An Open and Shut Case … on Saturday and Sunday 26th & 27th May 2018 in Kemptown, Brighton.Event image FB WDOMD

Running as an integral part of the Open House Art Installation based on Why do only men die?, the launch is a drop-in opportunity to view the books, and experience a unique collaboration between the author and local composer Philip Milburn who worked together to create an immersive, intensive and stimulating one-of-a-kind emotional and philosophical experience. Then enjoy a stimulating conversation over tea and cake – in the back garden if it’s not raining! We will also have on sale the latest Shine So Hard Brighton poetry compilation.

See the exhibition event page on Facebook to find out what visitors have been saying about the experience so far!

If you can’t make the event in person, never fear, you can read more about the books using the links above and look out for a video version of the collaborative audiovisual installation coming soon to a Youtube near you … or maybe even Vimeo … and don’t forget to enjoy the music here on Soundcloud in the meantime.

Once again thanks go to our authors and to Philip Milburn of Life Music for creating his wonderful composition, and of course to all our visitors over the three weekends of the May Arts festival so far.


That Woman’s Press

Sleep Project is delighted to announce the launch of That Woman’s Press, a brand new cottage publisher based in Brighton, UK. Our first two titles are released in May 2018, one of philosophy and one poetry compilation.

Distribution will be direct initially, via email:

To buy individual copies you can use the page for each title:
Why Do Only Men Die? by EBM Humphreys
An Open and Shut Case by Frances Holmes

Covers image for blog

Postage on both titles is free within the UK.
For overseas postage, contact with your location for a quote stating title/s and quantity.

Any other queries can also be sent via email:, or by commenting on this page.

Information on the TWP launch art exhibition taking place in
May 2018 can be found here.




Cuddle regeneration

cubsIt feels like a long time since I wrote about the explicit reason for starting this blog: to talk about non-sexual adult bodily contact. I was inspired by a dream, some other writing work, and Moulin Rouge (don’t ask me why) to come back to it, and make a massive fuss.

I have said before that I feel like the way society is currently structured means a great many people, far too many, are hugely unlikely to get as much tactile physical affection as they ideally need. Yes I know that kind of sounds like I’m just saying: some people need more cuddles. At which point you might smile kindly and say: some people should eat more vegetables, or some more people should learn a second language, et cetera. So it’s time to make my argument a bit hotter than that. (Hey, I do feel very strongly about vegetables.)

Cuddling is not a forgotten art, or a nice practice which correlates to coupledom and intimate family life. Cuddling is a birthright.

We don’t live in a society where everyone grows up getting plenty of cuddles, and then as we mature and turn into adults, we are divided into subcategories such as:

  • naturally affectionate people who are happy to hug trusted friends and family
  • people whose cuddling input was significantly compromised during/by adolescence and either re-learn over time as they mix with cuddlier adults, or drift towards a fairly low average cuddle rate
  • people who do not get cuddled because they are not that friendly or likeable, are mean or cold, or are not often trusted
  • people who do not get cuddled because they are anxious about physical contact
  • people who do not get cuddled because they prefer to avoid the social complexities that might follow on from establishing cuddle-positive friendships
  • people who hug and get hugged because they have learned that it is valuable for positive mental health and are pro-active in giving and in spreading the practice
  • people who get cuddled all the time because they are in a long-term relationship and/or family household where it is taken for granted

We are, I repeat, not living in a society where these categories I just had fun making up  explain anything at all. We are living in a society where cuddling has become much harder than it should be. Yes, I am using the S word. Should, should should should should get cuddled – more. Not could, should.

The more I come to terms with the various developed insecurities which my current relationship (and friendships) both reveal and heal, the more this primal, fundamental need shows itself for what it really is: a primal fundamental need. We have not simply evolved socially to be more independent, to be go-getters who can run for days, weeks, months and years without cuddle input, to no ill effect. We are tactile animals whose natural requirements for social belonging and emotional security include a lot of sleep-time contact with other warm individuals of the same species. This makes it sound rather psychological but it is a lot more than that. Emotionality is deeply physical.

We have evolved socially, to be expected to develop compensatory mechanisms for any lack of night-time sleeping cuddle contact to which we have become accustomed. I have no peer-reviewed scientific proof of this as yet, so sue me lol.

I am not sure to what extent hot climates and cold climates inform differences in the degree of cuddling which would be ideal for humans to participate in. Surely there are many alternative forms of physical affection, as well as of emotional reassurance and affirmations of belonging.

We are living in a society where several forces collude to deprive many individuals of night cuddle-time, regardless of how affectionate and demonstrable they are as they potter about their day.

  1. Many people live (and sleep) in households which do not contain other warm adults (or children) of the same species to cuddle up to at night
  2. Many people live (and sleep) in households which contain adults and/or children with whom cuddling at night would constitute a breach of social norms, such that cuddling at night would never arise, or if it did would be limited or be considered taboo – if it happened it might lead to anxiety, secrecy or shame
  3. The rise of individualism means it has become a cultural norm to perceive people who appear to be more or less independent of others in meeting their emotional needs as admirable and more likely to succeed in certain areas of life
  4. Showing the simple emotional need for affection, reassurance and affirmation has been discouraged in boys, sometimes brutally, over many generations in many countries – directly asking for these things has been particularly taboo
  5. Many women and men have experienced abuse by people who have close physical contact with them during their childhoods (conservative estimate about 12% globally)

Cuddling is a birthright, but to give and receive it requires relationships of trust and mutual respect and affection. Everyone knows a fake hug when they get one, though awkward hugs are not inherently bad. Ideally, they are necessary and valuable steps towards less awkward ones. Mutual trust and respect take time to develop. If we remain surrounded by an extended family and community network we grew up in we may be surrounded by people with whom we can take mutual respect and trust for granted, though see point 5 above. Even if we do not, we can, in principle, develop bonds with other humans at any time in our lives, and these can deepen over time. We can also make strong connections that are mediated by other people we have known for longer.

Cuddling is a human birthright, just as pecking is the birthright of chickens, and suckling calves is the birthright of cows. No wonder we can so easily take these rights away when we are so deeply adjusted to managing without our own.





Sex and Taboo – a discussion review

ShhhI recently attended a Café Psychologique meet-up-style discussion in Brighton: a good turnout of probably 30-odd people and a talk by local author / academic / researcher Katherine Johnson set a good scene. Ultimately though, my friend and I were unsatisfied all the way home with the depth of discussion and I find myself still wondering why.

Sadly I didn’t take notes on Johnson’s talk, so I can’t give a summary, much less any accurate reflections on how well or directly she actually spoke to the stated theme of the evening: Sex, sexuality and taboo. She was very engaging though and the ground she covered was naturally what is close to her own heart, issues relating to LGBT*+ research/experience and latterly work with trans kids. This leaves me with the uneasy feeling looking back, that as a group we were positioned to discuss sex and taboo/s, or sexual taboos, as if LGBT*+ issues are or have been the entire field of what is considered taboo in our lifetimes.

It wasn’t at all long before someone referred to paedophilia as an example of a taboo though. Before the evening I felt strongly that it might be a good context to begin a safe discussion on this topic – still scary, but not threatening. I was relieved and heartened when others did this, and I suppose, not surprised that the room didn’t all rally to begin a movement there and then to transform the way society discusses paedophilia. A few interesting points were made and I got my chance to bang on a bit when people got stuck at cross purposes and needed to be unhooked. A young guy at the back, very articulate and with interesting experience informing his views on a number of topics, put forward the view that paedophilia is not a type of sexuality, that it should not be considered listable alongside homosexuality, heterosexuality et cetera. Exploring this question properly would be fascinating and I may well do that in another post. What truth does any sexuality label express about a human being? Does listing by sexual object (same sex adults, opposite sex adults, children), confer legitimacy on that form of sexual desire? If so how, why and who decides?

However, while it is only one issue, not some kind of de facto pinnacle of sexual taboos (I’m pretty sure nobody mentioned bestiality, more’s the pity – suggesting it is more taboo), this fundamentally important topic was eventually made light of, which I could not understand. Yes, it might seem like a cliché to name paedophilia as a taboo, but that is because it’s taboo. (Almost) no-one wants to talk about it.

For me, attending was motivated by intrigue as to what/which taboos might be discussed in ways which could educate and enlighten me, and by a nebulous anticipation that I might somehow be unburdened from the struggle of holding in or suppressing some previously forbidden thoughts, opinions or feelings – in short, catharsis – nebulous because I was unable to tell myself what these might be. Yes, I saw a political opportunity to raise an issue which I still believe most people are just too squeamish to address head on, but it’s not one which fully belongs to me. Which taboos do? I didn’t find out. And are our intimate taboos only sexual?

Towards the end of the evening a little attention was given to the fact that what constitutes a taboo for a particular individual may not be at all these big flagged-up paraphilias but apparently tiny personal details, like the size of our bum or a desperate need to have our head touched. Things which we cannot say for fear, these are taboos. On reflection I feel the conversation could have got to this point much sooner, leaving time to explore the mechanisms by which taboos in real lives get created and maintained – and even more interestingly and importantly, how they get unpicked, challenged and de-tabooed, drawing on first-hand accounts. I suspect that could be emotionally transformative for many.

I’m not critical of the organisers, who did a grand job to get 30 odd people out on a cold, wet, January, Tuesday night and an interesting professional speaker. However, if I am complaining that it was a missed opportunity, without wanting to be critical, I ought to call it instead an opportunity: for an evening of discussion on sex and taboo/s which is curated to dodge the pitfalls. Taboo is both noun and adjective, both personal and cultural; all combinations are a tantalising pull for audiences; the organisers need to find a firmer but still flexible format which can deliver. It needn’t be a problem to have a broad discussion (only) about what is or is not a taboo in wider society, because the why is always going to be juicy. It’s just not quite what it says on the tin, especially if the general public still want to avoid the difficult ones.

Letter to my boss

It wasn’t me

You are not my boss. I stopped working for you and your organisation a while ago. Now I am an independent freelance self-employed person having extended annual leave. Your structural position doesn’t legitimise my economic personhood and neither does your lifetime professional achievement.

When you were my boss, you were not my boss. I was an independent, freelance, self-employed person working for you and your organisation on an unwritten contract with a crudely described remit which was both essential and dysfunctional precisely because of the entrenched nature of unsayable faults within your working practice. While these features of a job are not entirely new to me within the patriarchal structures that pervade the contemporary British workplace, nevertheless I was shocked and confounded by the practices and relationships I was led to discover. You were many people’s boss.

Those people were far kinder to you than I ended up being. Although my apparently confrontational choices were difficult for you to understand, they were made based on my realisation that it would be worse for you if I did not make them. I made a sacrifice because it was the best way there was to go forward. The people who you were the boss of, needed me to make those choices even more than you did. They had suffered long enough.

Although there was and still is a lot of affection for you in the organisation, it became radically harder to see exactly who felt it and to what degree, and how they could feel it fully and genuinely while feeling all the other feelings that they must have been feeling based on the things that you did and did not do that made their jobs immeasurably harder. The real mystery was and remains, not how they managed to still feel or feign affection for you despite your blind spots about yourself and your practices, but how you manage to continue to be so hopelessly blind.

This question may or may not be answerable, but it does answer the question as to how they managed. It seems that when one person is hopelessly blind to their own major flaws, this creates an insurmountable wall of deafness around them, and even a false reality. It is like a reverse Babel fish is at work, where any criticism or suggestion of change that is spoken aloud will be translated into the boss’s ear as a hostile or deluded expression of the speakers’ problems. Learning this quickly, workers devise alternative strategies to get by.

If a team can develop and share the awareness that the reality is false, and band together to work-around, then their mental wellbeing is more or less preserved. But if there is doubt about this, for example because some team members don’t or can’t see it, or because the opportunity for self-advancement by being more on the boss’s side than others gets in the way of the team’s solidarity, then deep internal conflict can occur. Yes, this is a lot like an abusive marriage or childhood, because the boss ultimately controls the pay of the workers, having the power to directly or indirectly jeopardise the workers’ income, which determines their basic security, and for some even the stability of their family life.

When a boss has a lot of blind spots and a huge ego which thebossy parade around like the Queen of Sheba, it is fairly easy for external stakeholders to observe this, and to hone in on the competencies of the organisation and make the best of it, and even bring in a little novel sympathy and advice for workers. Of course they might also be the same type, running overtime on ego which they fused together from childhood specialness and illusions of their own success.

What about a boss who brings in experts to help the team all look together at their blind spots, explore ways of being emotionally open with each other, and learn how to use Johari’s window to further individual personal development? When your boss replies to every criticism with ‘We’re all human, we make mistakes’, without making one step forward in witnessing their own blind spots, that’s when you should maybe worry that this boss is beyond recovery. But it’s okay, because you’re not my boss.

  • Top image credit ‘HBR staff’. If that’s you and you don’t want me to use it I’ll take it down.