I took piano lessons as a kid. My parents started me fairly young, and kept me at it on and off for about eight years. I had learned to read the music (albeit slowly), and often struggled to translate what was on the page to what happened with my fingers. Looking back, I’ve realized that all my “practice” really went into memorizing each week’s piece so that I wouldn’t actually have to read the music anymore.
After years of this, my closest elementary school friend started taking lessons as well. Within months she was already sight-reading with far greater skill than I was. This disheartened me. I gave up my piano lessons shortly after that, because – obviously – I wasn’t any good at it compared to my friend who’d surpassed my skill level in a matter of weeks.
Now, I wouldn’t say that the decision to quit piano lessons is one that I regret. I really didn’t have a passion for it – I much preferred singing anyway, and I didn’t have to memorize anything to carry a tune. But, there is a lesson to be learned from this experience, and that is that in polyamory, each relationship exists on its own timeline, has its own needs, and won’t necessarily follow the same path as other relationships involving the same hinge partner.
See, with the piano lessons – I fell into the comparison trap. I was enjoying my lessons until I felt threatened that someone else was better than me at something, so I gave it up. I know now that not every great musician can sight-read. I’ll never know where those lessons might have taken me if I’d kept at them and let go of the need to be able to sight-read as well as my friend in order to enjoy playing music.
Now, imagine if every time I started dating a polyamorous person, I gave up on the relationship because I compared our relationship to one they enjoyed with someone else – whether it’s someone they had been with for years or someone they’d just started dating.
Imagine if every time my partner started dating someone after me, I felt threatened when their relationship reached certain milestones on a faster timeline than he had with me.
And, in fact, that did happen. Of course it did – we’re conditioned from day one to compare and compete in every aspect of our existence. Why wouldn’t we measure our value in this way in our own relationship(s)?
The sibling condundrum is another metaphor that works well here. I was the older sibling in my household. I was the starter-child that they learned on. I was also the girl child in a conservative Latin-American family who needed much more sheltering and protection compared to my brother. Even though he was four years younger than I was, my little brother’s curfew somehow was always in lock step with mine.
This bothered me. I had put the work in to get my curfew raised from 10pm to midnight when I was 17 years old. At that point, he was only 13 and also had a midnight curfew, even though my curfew was more like 9pm when I was 13.
But in reality – what I wanted at 17 was a midnight curfew, and what I got at 17 was a midnight curfew. Did it matter that my younger brother had it, too? Did him having that privilege affect my plans?
Not really. And I’ll admit that it took a long, long time for me to fully accept that while it felt unfair and sexist (and it was probably a bit of both) – it didn’t really affect me as long as I wasn’t being asked to spend my time driving him around when I wanted to be out with my boyfriend.
Years ago, I came to the realization that I needed to adjust the way I approached the idea of relationship needs. In other words, I stopped thinking about it in terms of my individual metamours’ needs, and started thinking about it in terms of the relationship needs between my partner and each of his partners.
For example, what the relationship between myself and my partner needed when we first started dating was to take things slowly because I’d been burned by polyamory and was skittish about having my heart broken again. It manifested in a form of demisexuality that required an emotional connection before I was ready to move into a more traditional type of intimacy. It took over a month before our first kiss, and longer than that before we became sexually intimate and had sleepovers.
His other relationships may not have taken as long to reach those milestones, or maybe they took even longer (depending on how you look at them). Instead of comparing the timeline for our relationship to the timeline he had with the person he started dating after we’d been together a year or two, I had to learn to focus on OUR relationship’s needs without the context any other relationships he was in.
Was I getting my needs met? As long as I was, then the timeline for his other relationship milestones had nothing to do with me. What was important to me was that our relationship goals were still on the same page, and that I receive a heads up when certain milestones were achieved in this new relationship so that I could emotionally process the change.
But I was never in charge of when that change would take place.
And, by the way – my other metamours had very different needs than I did on that front. Each relationship is different, with some overlapping and some unique goals and needs. Our partner addresses the needs of each relationship he’s in separately and directly, rather than creating a one-size-fits-all approach to his polyamory.
So, if you find yourself in a position where you are starting to date somebody brand new who has 10 years of relationship under their belt with someone else, do the best you can to stay out of the comparison trap. Of course that relationship is going to have different needs and wants than the one this person is starting with you. For a little while, your relationship might actually require a little more “getting to know each other time” …which is where that New Relationship Energy (NRE) comes into play.
And if that NRE is starting to pull your partner’s attention and affection away from their agreements and responsibilities with their established partner(s), they might at some point need to adjust how much time or energy they spend with you in order to ensure that the needs of their other relationship continue to be met.
It’s a balancing act that, frankly, is one of the primary reasons I’ve hesitated to get involved with a second partner after 5+ years in an open relationship. It takes skill, integrity, and a whole lot of personal responsibility.
The comparison trap can be magnetic, and once you’re in it it can be very challenging to pull yourself out. When you notice yourself feeling threatened by one of your partner’s other relationships, it’s important to refocus your energy on what it is you want to feel in your relationship. If you can only feel secure in a relationship when someone else’s needs are being ignored or pushed aside, then what you’re working with is a type of hierarchy that very quickly becomes toxic and harmful to others.
If your metamour is someone that can only feel secure in their relationship if your needs are being ignored or pushed aside, then you may want to reconsider if the hinge in this relationship is strong enough to advocate for the needs of their relationship with you.
If not, this this where the concept of boundaries comes into play. Understanding the nuance between patience and sacrifice is one of those skills that comes with practice. We need the patience to not get ahead of ourselves and want more from a relationship than our partner is ready or able to give – while also ensuring that we are not sacrificing a fundamental relationship need in order to to stay in a relationship with someone who doesn’t have the capacity to manage multiple and sometimes competing priorities.
Sometimes that capacity is hindered by skill, and other times it’s completely dependent on what or who else they have going on in their lives at the time. Yes, sometimes it’s about a toxic partner or metamour, but sometimes it’s just bad timing.
That’s how you know whether you should give up altogether, like I did with piano lessons – or realize that your relationship’s wants and needs are being met regardless of how another one in your polycule is being managed.
2 thoughts on “Sabotage by Comparison”
This is very well written and resonated with me. I’m on a very long term relationship, having been married for 23 years. My husband came out as polyamorous just a few years ago, having been monogamous with me for over 20 years. It was hard, finding out that I “was not enough” (said by the voice in my head; vehemently denied by my husband).
Both my meta and I had experienced jealousy through this process., and have grown to become friends. Both of us having to learn that each relationship has its special nuances and quirks that are independent of the other relationship.
I’ve often thought that folks who go into a poly relationship with both eyes open are so lucky to never have that tough “reveal” that I had. On the other hand, my friends whose kids are the same ages and often have relationships as long as mine are almost universally less close than my hubby and I. I honestly believe that the open communication poly demands and the soul searching one must do with a poly partner has brought us so much closer and strengthened our marriage in a way I never saw coming.
I wish I could go back in time and tell my self all of this to eat the transition and help the pain. Hoping this helps someone else out there?
I really liked the bit about “Understanding the nuance between patience and sacrifice.”
I’ve been supporting my nesting partner through a mental health crisis, and this line helped me understand my boundaries around it better.
I’m still being patient, and not sacrificing anything (like dating) to support my dearheart through his challenges.