Words by Tara Aquino. Photo illustration by Sam Liacos.
If your heart’s been exhausted, give yourself a moment with adrienne maree brown. Among being a writer, Octavia Butler scholar, and social justice facilitator, brown is also a life and love coach–a healer. Re-examining relationship trauma, turning stones on taboo, and revolutionizing the way we receive and redistribute love are all at the forefront at her work. In fact, her latest book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, explores just that.
Here, brown answers the questions that weigh heaviest. Maybe – in hearing her put words to feelings we couldn’t even begin to describe – we can finally begin to unburden, walk free, and transform our energy into true joy.
How do you start recognizing patterns of harm in relationships and break out of them?
For each relationship, it’s a little different. Some of the things that I often pay attention to are my feelings of safety, or if I feel like there’s a need to contort myself. If there’s some part of you that feels like it’s needing to contort your fundamental nature, then that’s a sign that some kind of harm is taking place, often unintentional. But you want to start bringing awareness to it so you can see if it’s movable.
The confusion or struggle is within figuring out what’s contorting and what’s compromise for a relationship.
Yeah, it really depends on what kind of relationship you want. Some people find their sense of love, togetherness, and compatibility from the compromises that are made. I find that those folks are often moving very towards more traditional ways of committing. That’s fine. It’s just a good thing to know about yourself if that’s how you want to operate. There’s the other side for folks where part of what feels good in a relationship is feeling really free in that relationship. It’s spacious. Figure out the nature of the relationship. Then figure out if you like it or if you’re compromising yourself to be there–they feel very different.
I can speak from an example. I had a relationship that was incredibly beautiful except when it came to conflict. When it came to conflict, it was suddenly a space that didn’t feel safe. It didn’t feel aligned. It didn’t feel clear. It felt like I didn’t know who this person is that I’m talking to. Suddenly, I would feel like I was with a stranger and not safe. I started to think, How do I pay attention to this without jumping to conclusions, but not ignore the signals either that there’s some aspect of my fundamental self that’s being compromised here that’s not in the nature of a compromise?
I know it’s a larger question in terms of conditioning and trauma, but how do you recognize what is put on and what you want?
You recognize it when you see the patterns. Relationship after relationship, I still kept finding myself getting into monogamous situations and then feeling like it wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t because of infidelity or whatever, it was because I wasn’t really satisfiable. Once I spent a lot of time facing that part of me and redefining some of the ways that I was looking at connections with others, one of the breakthroughs that I had was this idea that you’re only defined when you’re with someone. That when you’re not with someone, you’re between things. That was something that I wanted to break the rhythm of in my own life. That has changed almost everything about how I show up in relationships because it gives me space to say, “Here’s what I actually need in this moment” versus “here’s a way that I’m always gonna be.” I’ve had a lot of friends experience that, especially around the questions of non-monogamy and monogamy.
And as conditions change, feelings might change. I know a lot of people who are polyamorous. Then they have children–and children are additional major relationships. Each child is a whole distinct solar system of relationships. It’s not like, “I’m no longer polyamorous,” but they’re like, “my dance card is full between loving this child and my partner.” Now you may look like functional monogamy to other people even though you know your heart is actually open to multiple people. [Laughs] A lot of times we don’t think about that. Our hearts don’t necessarily make the distinction between romantic, familial, and friendship love. It’s just all love inside there. Love is a really abundant resource, but it needs some guidelines often.
Love is a really abundant resource, but it needs some guidelines often.adrienne maree brown
What do you think of the idea of hopeless romanticism?
To me, it’s just another way of being…I find that a lot of times, what happens is that we find ourselves falling into lover-ships with other people for who they are rather than how they are. For me, that’s one of the things that I try to tap into as early as possible with new lovers. How do you handle stress? How do you handle when I’m stressed? How do you handle next steps? How do you handle conflict? How do you handle strangers on the street? Are you fundamentally kind or not? Are you fundamentally annoyed with the world? I just tune into all those small ways of how people are because that’s where compatibility really lines up.
It’s a very old idea, that concept of opposites attract. A lot of older relationships that I witness – relationships of parents, grandparents – there’s a sort of fundamental bickering energy that is tied into ways that we understood patriarchy, the difference between men and women, and all this stuff that’s not really biological or true, but has gotten ingrained in us. All of it falls apart in practice. Most of the people that I met that are really romantic in my life have been men. In this period of my life, most of the people who are like “Can we just fuck and keep it moving?” are women. Life will consistently surprise you if you start to pay attention to the assumptions you’re living in and how you find the right love with the people who have shared assumptions. I think of that as a liberated relationship.
What’s a liberated relationship?
It’s one in which you’re truly free to be your actual self and want what you actually want and say what you want even when it’s really scary, which is the part of romance that doesn’t get the proper attention. When it’s the real thing, a real connection, it’s actually quite nerve-racking, especially as you get older and you understand loss. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost loved ones. I’ve lost family. People die. Transition happens. Falling in love is such a tender act of also signing up for future grief of some sort. [Laughs]
Love moves in waves, in ebbs and flows. What you’re learning to trust is the wave pattern of your beloved. “adrienne maree brown
We’re signing on for big things and it’s very rare that those feelings are in total alignment all the time. I’ve never actually heard that. Most of what I witness and experience is that love moves in waves, in ebbs and flows. What you’re learning to trust is the wave pattern of your beloved.
You write about radical honesty in your work, and I think that concept is so scary. The fear of just saying it out loud is so scary.
Why does it scare you?
It scares me because of these feelings of being either too much or not enough.
It’s so scary. You go out on a limb like, is the other person also gonna practice this with me? That’s what you never know. You could say that you’re going to. You can say that you’ll try to. The training not to is really significant. Are you gonna stay here with me? Are you gonna do this with me? It’s really powerful.
You don’t want to hurt another person, but the kindness you can do is make the rejection quick. Say it fast. Say it honest.”adrienne maree brown
When I was going through a breakup, I told a friend of mine, “I can’t believe I just wasted all my love on that person.” She was like, “Your love is always your own love. Whatever you practice and learn inside of that love is yours.” It was so good for me to hear that. I’m never wasting my love. Ever. I’m always learning more about how I love. That idea that I’m gonna be learning how I love for the rest of my life is really exciting. The sooner that I’m honest in a situation, the sooner my honest self and the other person’s honest self are actually going to be in a conversation.
It’s been amazing to me how quickly I’m letting go. I used to stay in a relationship for years because I didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. [Laughs] It’s just amazing to look back and see that relationships were close but not intimate. A lot of us live this way and social media makes it easier to live this way. I’m around you, but I’m not actually with you. There’s an intimacy in rejection. You don’t want to hurt another person, but the kindness you can do is make the rejection quick. Say it fast. Say it honest.
It seems like people struggle to discern between intuition or fear and self-sabotage.
Wow, I love that. I mean, I don’t love that. That idea that, Am I feeling a real feeling or is this what I was trained to feel in this moment? It takes years of healing work to begin to discern between what you were trained to feel and what you’re actually feeling. That’s especially hard for those of us who are survivors of any kind of sexual assault, child sexual abuse, or any kind of harm to the relationship we have with our sacred sexual bodies. For years, I would think that I was feeling lust, and really what I was experiencing was this mental obsession with another human being who I decided on paper makes sense to be with me. [Laughs] But I wasn’t feeling anything in my actual body around that person. It wasn’t like when I want someone now, it’s like my whole system comes alive. I could feel pulsing in my heart, in my wrists, my hands. I feel so alive. Now, I’m not just in my head fomenting a romance.
What I was doing during those years when I thought I was falling in love was I was thinking in love. I was dreaming of love and wanting love, then filtering it through the trauma. The trauma said I wasn’t enough. I could never deserve love. That filter sets up the shape for how the love went, which is usually not very well because things don’t go well when you try to fit someone into a concept. So it’s taken a long time. It’s taken intentional celibacy periods. It’s taken periods of just close examination of my desires.
I like to think of that activity as decolonizing my desires. So really looking at who I desire. Are they aesthetically pleasing to the outside world? Is that why I desire them? Is there some part of this that is about me needing something? Am I using anybody ever? Just starting to really examine those things until I could guarantee to myself that I was really good not being with anyone else, which was a huge thing for me. I’m actually OK and very satisfied in my own life.
It’s such a simple concept, to feel good while doing good. I live with borderline. We do behavioral techniques to objectively look at how we feel. The more I go to group, the more I realize how much anger I hold in my body that doesn’t allow me to receive. This is a lifelong question, but how do you release that trauma or release the pain that has crystallized in your body?
The answer for me has been somatics…I’ve had to go into spaces where my full anger, my full feelings, were invited by people who actually had the capacity to hold them. I’m very rigorous about who I will feel my feelings with and around. Not everyone actually has earned the blessing of my righteous rage. Not everyone has earned that emotional connection to me.
One of the things that I recognized were the signs of repression. A lot of people don’t even notice that they’re that repressed, that they’re walking around tense and tight all the time and living in their shoulders, living with their headaches, their tight brains. Find a place to release. It might be somatics. It might be bodywork. I also hear really beautiful things about jujitsu, or other things where you’re actually getting to explicitly face aggression and move it in a healthy contained way.
I grew up an appeaser. But now, just being able to notice, lean into, and give myself permission to feel what other humans feel, it feels good.
You want to find people whose healing lines up with yours.”adrienne maree brown
Do you believe that people who are still healing and in a romantic relationship can heal together? I don’t want to compartmentalize it, but do you think that love can only happen after you’ve healed yourself first?
Oh, no. God, no. [Laughs] I feel like if that was the case then no one would ever be able to love. It would take way too long. I used to say you need to find someone whose problems line up with yours. [Laughs] Now I feel differently. You want to find people whose healing lines up with yours.
For me, I tend to be able to be more open with folks who’ve got some kind of experience of survivorship. It makes sense for me to be in relationships with people who have some of that. It makes sense for me to be in relationships with people who have had to really claim their beauty, claim their aesthetic as their own. It makes sense for me to be with people who are healing their relationship to weight and fat shaming and fat phobia- romantic or otherwise. It doesn’t make sense for me to get in really intimate close spaces with people who don’t have those kinds of things to heal on. It doesn’t mean we can never figure out ways to be closer to each other, but it’s just so much harder.
I think there’s a fear of slipping into codependency. How do you recognize when you’re codependent?
It’s hard. I’m still trying to figure this one out. When you can’t feel joy on your own, when you can’t tap into feeling spaciousness and freedom on your own, when your whole day, your whole time is defined by the contact with that other person, when aspects of your identity and your confidence are tied into their approval–those are some ways.
Do you believe in twin flames and karmic love?
Yes, I do. Yes, I do. To me, it’s never made sense to me in my life that all this spirit can be in motion and that there’s never any kind of karmic attachments that happen. Feeling like there’s these massive connections that’ll happen like – this is something that is here to grow me up. For me, I’ve experienced that it can be something that’s supposed to let you go. I don’t wanna put this on anyone else, but in my experience of karmic relationships, I’ve found that people are not willing to let themselves fall into love. Twin flames are the real deal. The karmic ones are often not. I don’t know if that’s the truth or if that’s just how it’s lodged in my own brain.
I can think of my friends who fell in love and one of them passed away from cancer. That love of theirs feels like it’s much larger than what they’ve got to experience in this lifetime, so it makes a lot of sense to me that in some way they would find each other again. Their love is a deeper soulmate-ship that would last many lifetimes.
Now, the issue with it, that often shows up for me in those kinds of beliefs, is that there’s still the responsibility you have to whatever’s happening in this lifetime. To me, the questions I’m always asking people who say that its soulmate-ship [are]: How are your boundaries doing? Are the boundaries you had the day before you met them still in tact? Can you still feel your life path?
Is karmic love meant to bring you together just to rip you apart to teach you something essentially?
I think of karmic love in the same vein as a Saturn return, where if you’re on your own path and you’ve been doing your work, all you’ll experience in that moment of karmic love might be just a beautiful togetherness. If it’s not your path, it will really rock you. But I can’t deny that I have met many people who are just head over heels in love from nearly the first time they meet each other.
So much of this stuff, the idea of toxic dependency or codependency, is up to the people involved in it. There’s some people for whom it feels really right. My parents, they worked together on purpose. They could retire but they just work together and they go home and love each other and adore the shit out of each other. They really love each other. For me, I can’t imagine being in something that was that all encompassing as a relationship. But they can, and it works for them. It has worked for them for 40-something years. To me, finding your own definitions inside your relationship is the most important part. Listen to your friends. Friends will tell you. “We’re missing you. You’ve disappeared.” Pay attention to that.
Oh my gosh! Thank you for writing this! I’ve been mulling a lot of these ideas around in my head after reading Pleasure Activism. I’m in a place in my life in which I am learning to recognize the toxic patterns in relationships and the role of my trauma and yet considering whether I want to be in a relationship and how to do it in such a way that is healthy. I consider these things and still I myself am a therapist and know in theory what it means to have a healthy relationship. I am starting to redefine what I want out of a relationship beyond the traditional. I think it is so important yet, to not lose hope, as to me. love is the stuff of living, even when I know it will end with grief.