Book Review: The Game Changer by Franklin Veaux

Nov 6, 2015

Image: The cover of The Game Changer: A Memoir of Disruptive Love

So the blog for this week is the review of a book that I finished a while ago. I haven’t written about it before now because this book really made me think. The Game Changer by Franklin Veaux (@franklinveaux) is the kind of book that stays with you. It pops back up every so often, reminding you of things you’ve done and ways your life and love have changed as a result.

Let me back up a ways. I’m a bit of a fangirl for Franklin Veuax and Eve Rickert (@everickert). Ever since I started reading their blogs, I’ve really loved the way their brains work. When More Than Two came out, it immediately became my very favorite book about polyamory. I love that book so much that I even recommend it to non-poly people.  Why?  Because its chapters on communication, boundaries/agreements/rules, and STIs are some of the best resources available. I recently got to spend some time hanging out with them at Catalyst Con West and somehow managed not to fangirl all over them.  The whole time my brain was screaming “OMG I’M SUCH A HUGE FAN!!!!!!!” but shockingly I kept it on the inside.

When I got word that they were looking for people to read review copies of The Game Changer, I knew I had to have one. I don’t know what exactly I expected when reading this book. I knew it would be wonderful and I looked forward to learning more about how Franklin came to be the awesome poly role model he is. What I didn’t anticipate was how deeply moving and heart wrenching this book would be.

The Game Changer is the story of how all it takes is one person, one game changer, to shake up everything you took for granted. For Franklin, this involved being forced to challenge the tenets of strictly hierarchical polyamory that he had been practicing. I felt like so many parts of this book were beautiful nuggets of wisdom, so I’m going to share some of those with you.

Early in the book, Franklin talks about his early experiences with dating and sex and he shared this gem:

Call it Life Lesson #1: When sex makes things awkward between people, it’s not the sex that’s at fault so much as the not talking about the sex. (11)

If there’s any one thing you should take from my blogs and working with me, it’s that talking about sex is essential to good sexual relationships. Summing it up in this way makes that even clearer. I am such a fan of more talking!

He also talks about realizing that no one really knows what they’re doing:

Knowing that we were all winging it made it easier for me to take chances and forgive myself when I didn’t do things right. It also made it easier to forgive other people when they didn’t do things right. (30)

Everyone I talk to seems to express the same concern: they don’t know what they’re doing, unlike everyone else. How many times have we wished there was a more adulty-adult around? I love his way of explaining where some of these challenges may come from, writing:

It seems to me that we, as a culture, understand that if we leave kids to teach themselves math or history or literature, few people will end up being good at those things. So we have developed formal systems of education to teach people, to help them become productive members of society. But we don’t teach communication, compassion, forgiveness, empathy, or many of the other skills we need to become fully formed human beings. We leave kids to figure out that stuff on their own. The results are about what we might expect if we left them, say, to deduce the rules of algebra by themselves. The difference is that most of us need interpersonal skills a lot more than we need algebra. (32-33)

How much would I love if there was a school for social skills?  Some sort of instruction on how to be a kind, loving, successful human being?  Maybe it's a pipe dream, but I want that curriculum in schools.

Franklin also offers a gem to those of us who have always been wired for polyamory, writing:

I didn’t want to be someone’s one and only. Monogamy didn’t make sense to me. It never had, even when I was a young child. (16)

He later on shares a story about wondering why a princess has to choose between two princes instead of being with them both and I have to say, this is still my biggest confusion with most popular movies and stories. Why can’t we have both? Why are we limiting ourselves to one person without taking the time to determine if that’s actually what we need? For those of us who never really felt comfortable in monogamy, we can run into some odd situations, which he nails with:

I shrugged and took it as one of those strange things people sometimes did, like blaming me for their breakups or telling me they preferred dishonest affairs to honest relationships. “What odd customs these humans have,” I thought, and kept on doing what I was doing. (120)

How many times have poly people been told that their very relationship somehow threatens others?  That by our existence, we are in some way undermining the monogamous commitments others chose?

These nuggets were amazing, but some of the most difficult and thought-provoking sections of the memoir dealt with his struggle with vetoes and hierarchy. Franklin’s ex-wife was pre-disposed to monogamy and accepted polyamory with him as long as she was primary and set the rules. However, these rules were borne not of the love they had for each other, but instead of fear. And founding your relationship’s structure on avoiding or mitigating fear leads to unfortunate consequences. As he wrote:

The dominant theme in all our conversations about veto was fear. Fear of what someone else might do, fear of anything changing our relationship, fear of not being heard.

What we didn’t realize was that, just by insisting on veto, we were selecting in favor of partners who might be disruptive – in other words, who would lead to the very thing we were afraid of.

Healthy people, it turns out, kind of like having a say in how their relationships progress. (125)

Franklin eventually found that these rules were hurting him and his wife, but even more so they were hurting those he dated.

It took me a long time to see that, yes, agreements built on insecurity and fear punish the people who make them, but they punish the people around those who make them far more. (146; emphasis added)

As Franklin began questioning this part of his relationship, he started to realize that it had implications beyond just his marriage. The fear that had permeated their rules had colored his way of seeing love.

For all those years, I had taken for granted that love must always be coupled with fear. My loving anyone other than Celeste always meant that Celeste was afraid of losing me, and anyone else I loved had to live in the shadow of veto. Celeste and I had been together for most of my life, so the idea that love and fear were two sides of the same coin had always been part of my romantic relationships. Not only had I never questioned these assumptions, it had never occurred to me – to any of us really – that there was something to question. (152; emphasis added)

When Franklin began dating someone who would not accept the disempowerment of the rules and veto in his structure, he began to see things differently.

What does it mean to love someone if you follow it up with “certain limitations and exclusions apply, offer not valid if you displease my primary”? (163)

And when Franklin wrote publicly to challenge these sacred cows of polyamorous hierarchy, he was confronted with all the fears of those who had not thought outside of that box. He received loads of angry responses, and found that:

Hidden beneath all the angry rhetoric was the same suspicion, written a hundred different ways: Without strict rules, how can we trust that the people we love won’t abandon us? (173)

The parts of the book that were most personally impactful to me were those that reminded me of the journey I had when I was going through my own divorce. Franklin wrote about the realization he had when he reached his breaking point and knew he could not stay with Celeste any more:

Somewhere, a long time before, I had crossed an invisible line without even being aware I had done it. I had, bit by bit, bargained away things that were important to me . . . Each individual step was so small that I hadn’t looked up to see where all of the steps had taken me. (165; emphasis added)

He realizes that he had fallen into a pattern common to his ex-wife’s family wherein one person in the partnership abdicates their needs for their partner. As he put it:

Like her father, I had never developed the habit of advocating for my needs. The only way to keep my relationship with her was to squelch myself, holding my own interests and desires in check to avoid upsetting Celeste. (179)

This punched me right in the feels.  When I was married, I did the same thing. I subsumed myself to my partner’s wants and needs, each compromise inching such a small distance that I didn’t realize when I had started crossing my own boundaries. By the time I realized I had lost my way, it was already so far gone that correcting the course was no longer possible. My ex had grown accustomed to a one-sided relationship so when I started asserting my own needs it broke the basic, unspoken agreement we had: his needs always mattered, mine were only to be considered when they were convenient.

When my marriage ended, I lost a lot. I was no longer welcome with people I had called friends and I lost communities I had loved for 5 years. Yet, it was worthwhile because I was able to live a more genuine life. Franklin wrote about this feeling for him:

I was also choosing courage over fear, individuality over conformity. Amber awakened a long-slumbering part of me that wanted to live without compromise. I felt like I had pushed a part of me into a dark closet and locked the door – and now, when I had all but forgotten about it, it had slipped its bonds and reemerged, blinking, into the light. (192)

To live without compromise can feel like a revolutionary act, especially when it means leaving the “right” kind of relationship. When I first started thinking about ending my marriage, I worried that maybe this was the best things could be. What if I was leaving the best I could get? What if my dream of living without compromise was impossible and I was asking for too much? And yet, leaving was the best decision I ever made. My life since has been richer and more fulfilling than a life in that relationship ever could have been. Separating took my life from black and white to Technicolor. No, even more, it made it 3D and HD. I can now be fully myself all the time and those in my life love and support me for it.

In closing, The Game Changer was heartbreaking, inspiring, and joyful. It was more than I hoped for and exactly what I needed. I want to end this review with the quote I’ve been re-reading over and over since I finished the book:

In any relationship, there will be times when chaos slips in through some neglected back door or some little crack in the ceiling. It happens. We are all born of frailty and error . . . I have learned that when those moments occur, there is often an instant, right at the start, when we make a choice . . . the instant when we choose compassion, or not. (204)

Choosing compassion sounds so easy and yet living a life of this choice is a challenge. How do we balance our individuality with our need to be compassionate? When we want to just watch TV and our partner has needs that aren’t convenient? Even those of us who work with love and relationships struggle with these questions. I am working every day to choose compassion. To choose “the path of greatest courage” as Franklin encourages in More Than Two. And really, what is more courageous than to look outside ourselves and live from compassion for others?

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