It’s not “fine.”

I know it’s not the time of year where counseling people to walk away from their relationships is going to go over well. People are afraid to be alone – so afraid, that they’re willing to sit through confidence-destroying behavior from their partners in exchange for a label that proves they’re not alone.

But I see these things described in the advice and support forums that I would never tolerate from someone who professed to love me. These are things I used to tolerate when I didn’t love myself enough to expect better treatment from partners. This is the pattern I fell into when I used to date people who would tell me I shouldn’t have any expectations, or that I was too “needy”, or that any request for external validation was “bad.”

I recently read about a situation where a partner had a negative reaction to their partner spending time with another paramour at a holiday party. She felt like she couldn’t speak up and talk about how much it hurt, because her partner would get upset with her for not being thrilled about it.

There’s a commercial making the rounds on Hulu right now. Every time I see this commercial I remember these people I talk to in the forums. In it, the woman keeps cancelling plans she’s made because her eczema is flaring up. Then she says “it’s fine” while shaking her head and acting all sad and looking completely downtrodden.

IT’S NOT FINE. I want to scream on her behalf. IT’S DISAPPOINTING. IT’S EMBARRASSING. IT’S CAUSING ME TO SPEND HALF MY LIFE HIDDEN AWAY BECAUSE I FEEL ASHAMED ABOUT AN ITCHY RASH ON MY ARM AND NECK.

And what would be the problem with calling attention to the disturbance? “Hey, we have this date tonight but I’m feeling embarrassed by my skin condition. Instead of me saying it’s fine to cancel something I’ve been looking forward to, how about you tell me that it’s fine for you to be seen with me with a rash on my arm?”

I don’t know why it bothers me so much that this commercial is portraying this shit like it’s shameful. WTF? It’s not SHAMEFUL to have a rash. Why does this woman look like she’s making excuses for an abuser when she’s bowing out of plans that she’s making with other people?

The eczema isn’t the problem. The narrative that she should be ashamed of it is the problem. The eczema might be a disturbance, and it can be addressed and treated. Someone who’d walk away from you for having it is fundamentally incompatible with you.

I don’t think acknowledging a rash to the people you spend time with should deter them from wanting to spend time with you.

I feel the same way about acknowledging your feelings.

If you can’t tell the person you love that you are feeling insecure, hurt, afraid, or conflicted about something without them shaming you for having a feeling, then you start to say “it’s fine” to their face, while crying in the forums about how NOT fine you are.

Here’s what’s fine: Having a negative emotion associated with something uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean you’re necessarily right – but it’s okay to have an emotion.

Here’s what’s fine: Acknowledging that there are some bad feelings happening that you want to address – maybe right now, maybe in a little while after you’ve processed them in your own mind.

Here’s what’s not fine: Feeling like the only people you can acknowledge it to are strangers on the internet because your partner is going to be upset with you for being human.

Here’s what’s not fine: When that shit crosses the line into abusive behavior because your partner has groomed you into thinking that your feelings are irrational when they are completely rational.

When you’re saying “it’s fine” and it’s clearly not.

That’s when I want to say “walk away from this.” It’s not your feelings that are the problem. It’s the narrative that your feelings are something you should be ashamed of. Your feelings might be a disturbance, and they can be addressed and treated. Someone who’d walk away from you for having them is fundamentally incompatible with you.

It’s hard to be vulnerable, but think about giving the people who love you a chance to prove that your feelings won’t scare them away. If they do, then for a moment consider whether or not you’re the one who should be scared away.

‘Cause it’s not “fine” to feel like you have no choice but to remain miserable in a relationship. Not even at year end.

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Putting relationships on “hold”

I have such a visceral reaction to the phrase “put my other relationship on hold” in the poly discussion groups. It’s usually a phrase uttered when the following scenario applies:

The hinge in a “vee” has developed a solid and happy relationship with one partner that going swell, but everything in their additional relationship is falling apart. Some versions of that sentence would include “….everything in the additional relationship is falling apart because of the other one’s existence.

I’m trying desperately to stay away from calling either relationship “other” or “first” or “second” because I’m trying like hell not to imbue any of this with implied hierarchy.

My reaction is to the idea that you can put someone you say you love on “hold” because someone else you love is struggling. I don’t care where on your relationship flow chart they live.

The phone company puts me on hold. My partner does not. If you can put your relationship with me ‘on hold’ then we have no relationship. That’s how I roll.

But, I realize that this visceral reaction to this phrase stems from a past experience I had, in one of my early attempts at poly with someone who made a LOT of newbie mistakes that I see playing out again and again in the advice forums.

His relationship with me was solid. The more solid we were, the less stable she was. So when she struggled, he would “dial it back” with me in order for her to get stable again.

Guess what?

She used that. She used it regularly. Every time her jealousy would flare up, she’d have a panic attack or get herself into trouble or blatantly break one of his rules (these were both D/s relationships) and he’d dial it back with me to help her recover.

I’d complain to him and try to reason with him. “It’s like if there’s one kid who always follows the rules and another kid who’s constantly breaking them, so what you do is take away the toy from the good kid and give it to the one throwing the tantrum in order to shut them up.”

“It’s that saying that the squeaky wheel always gets the grease, but if you don’t pay attention to your other wheel you’re going to end up with a flat tire.”

He’d say he understood and things would change, but then he’d keep doing it. He’d keep rewarding her tantrums by denying me. When she felt like she’d “won” then she was fine again.

Guess what I did?

I started having panic attacks. I mean, it worked for her. Why wouldn’t it work for me? But, it backfired. I hadn’t set a precedent for having panic attacks, so when I had them I was told I was “faking” it, and to pull it together.

I wasn’t faking it. I was trying to control something I couldn’t control that I SHOULD have had some control over. The protocols and boundaries of my relationship should have been something he and I discussed and agreed upon together. Our boundaries and protocols should have been the foundation of stability upon which our unique relationship could be built independently of any other relationships he was building with anybody else.

But he kept allowing someone else to pound cracks into our foundation.

And, here’s the fun part… Usually, it’s the “primary” or the “first, and more established” partner that thinks they have a say in how their partner conducts their other affairs. In my case? I was the first one there. She came in three months after me, and it only took three months for her to completely destroy us by shedding the light how little control and integrity he really had.

So now, when I hear people wanting to put one relationship “on hold” I want to tell their seemingly dispensable partner, “RUN. RUN FAR AWAY.”

As the late Patrick Swayze declared, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.”

Family Holidays for the Non-Anchor Partners

I run a group for “monocorns” – a word I coined to describe monoamorous people who are comfortable and happy in relationships with polyamorous people.

This morning one of my fellow monocorns posted something – and, though I don’t feel quite as strongly about it as she does, she is spot on about the struggle that certain “family holidays” like Thanksgiving and Christmas pose to those of us who aren’t the “visible” partners to our partners’ families.

It’s not a monocorn specific thing, either. Anybody out there who doesn’t hold “primary”, “anchor” or “nesting” status with their partner(s) might feel the struggle of a day like Thanksgiving.

I adapted. Thanksgiving isn’t a Thursday holiday anymore. Now it’s a Friday. Christmas happens several days later. Sometimes New Years eve is a day earlier or a day or two later, as well.

But, I won’t pretend that it’s not difficult on the day of.

If you are the nonmonogamous partner to someone you are not seeing today – it’s probably a good day to let them know that you wish you could. At the very least, it’s a good day to acknowledge that it might sting a little for them when they’re not sitting next to you at the table. Even if you wish YOU weren’t at the table because, hell yeah – families can be annoying. It’s having our partners there that makes some families more tolerable.

And for those of us who are spending these next few family holidays without our partners by our sides…

I guess all I can say is “I understand those feels.” I hope that for you, like for me, it’s not so much pain that it overshadows everything amazing you have with your person.

Wishing you all a pleasant evening, whether you spend it with your family, your friends, your pets, or with Netflix.

Roller Coasters and Trampolines

“How does one deal with the ups and downs of a poly relationship?”

My immediate thought upon reading this question is to wonder how one deals with the ups and downs of ANY relationship?

How do you deal with the problems in your monogamous relationship?  I spent more than 10 years in one.  We certainly had problems.  I believe the way we dealt with them was to identify them, communicate them, and attempt to adapt.

Now, I’m in a poly relationship.  We have a few ups and downs.  Not a huge number of them, but they exist all the same.

Does the poly part make a difference?

Seems to me that if it weren’t that, it’d be something else.  Relationships have ups and downs.  It is known.

But, are you on a roller coaster or a trampoline?

Do your ups and downs have forward motion — or do you keep revisiting the same spot over and over again?  Are there new twists and turns and challenges to overcome together, or are you trying to achieve some sort of flight stasis by pushing yourself into taking higher jumps?

Gravity is always going to bring you back down again. Trampolines are a fairly binary activity – your feet are either in the air, or on the mat – and there is a very short amount of time that you spend in either state as you travel back and forth between the two.

Roller coasters are different.  Roller coasters can be frightening, and disorienting, and for some people – completely off limits; BUT…

Roller coasters  have nuance.  And the amount of time spent soaring to new heights, or hurdling through a loop-de-loop varies.

My first roller coaster ride was Space Mountain at Disneyland. I had just gotten tall enough to ride, and everyone was always talking excitedly about it.  Already pretty geeky by then, I loved the futuristic feel and “story” that they’d created around the line to get onto the ride itself.  It looked and felt right up my alley.

I didn’t know it was a roller coaster, though.

I really didn’t know it was a roller coaster in the dark – where you couldn’t see the tracks.

I hated it.  I didn’t see one of the twists coming and by the time I walked out of the attraction, my neck had stiffened and I was in tears.

I was completely unprepared for the roller coaster and developed a fear of all roller coasters based on that experience.

My first poly relationships were a little bit like that.  I wasn’t well prepared – we hadn’t communicated effectively, and I was a little bit in the dark with what their expectations were.  I just knew that they didn’t give two flying craps about my expectations.  They were gonna do what they were gonna do, and if I got hurt – it was my own fault for wanting…what….light? a road map? A sense of where we were headed?

For years I swore up and down I would never date another polyamorous person again.

Years after my first Space Mountain experience, a friend convinced me to go on one of the kiddie rides at another theme park.  This was a short roller coaster that just rolled along with a couple of ups and downs, but no loops or quick turns.

I enjoyed it.  So she said, “If you like that, then you should try Colossus.  It’s basically just like that, but bigger.”

So, I agreed.  Colossus was a staple at this theme park. It was one of the oldest and largest wooden roller coasters, and it didn’t have any loops either.

I loved it!

“Well, if you like that….then you’ll LOVE Revolution! It’s the same thing, but with only one loop.  You won’t even feel it!”

By the end of that day at the theme park, I’d tried every roller coaster there was, including the newest one – Viper – which had multiple loops, corkscrews, and even one that went backwards.

 

Roller coasters still had ups and downs and even took me for a loop;  but, out in the light of day, I could see the tracks ahead of me, brace myself for the scary bits, and enjoy the rush of coming out the other side unscathed.

And the slow progression into the larger rides helped, too.  I was able to take small steps at a time.  Try it out and see if I liked it.  There was no pressure to get on any ride – just a suggestion that if I liked the last one, the next one would be just like that, but *more.*

Roller coasters have ups and downs, but (with the exception of Space Mountain) – you can kind of see them coming.  And you deal with them the way you deal with them.  Put your hands in the air, and scream…..

Okay, maybe not – but you anticipate, communicate, and adapt.

There was another attraction at the theme park a summer or two later.  By now, I was emboldened.  I fucking *love* roller coasters, I’m going to try them all!

This one was called “Free Fall.”  The car took you up like 30 stories high….and then just dropped you.  There was no warning.  No forward motion. No feeling of the track guiding the way.  You were just falling, trapped in a carriage, unable to even see the person beside you.

I never went on that thing again, nor any other attraction that featured anything like that.

If the ups and downs of your relationship are more like the free-fall than the roller coaster, then …yeah, I don’t know how I’d cope with that, other than to get off that ride and never get on it again.

And if your ups and downs are like being on a trampoline?  Well, some relationships are like that in the beginning.  The same fights, and an exhausting workout..  If there’s never any forward movement, my choice would be to slow down and climb off.  Eventually it’s time to rest.

But, if your ups and downs are more like a roller coaster…well, again.  Roller coasters have nuance.  Is it the peanuts coaster in the kiddie park – where your biggest fight is over the baseline status of the toilet seat?  Is it like Revolution, where you have a couple hangups that take you for a loop, but you get through them fairly quickly?

Or are you on Space Mountain, and coming out of the experience with a stiff neck and face full of tears?

Depending on your answer is how you deal with the ups and the downs.  Regardless, it’s important to remember that all relationships have ups and downs, and polyamory in and of itself isn’t the “villain” at the center of it.

Sometimes you’re just not compatible with the passenger in your carriage.

 

 

 

Some thoughts on Hierarchy vs Couples Privilege

The subject of hierarchy comes up often in poly discussion groups. People generally fall into the camps of “hierarchy is fine” or “hierarchy is evil” and usually those who fall into the former are at the top of the pyramid, and those in the latter have been burned by being at the bottom.

I think where the confusion and/or disagreement about hierarchy sometimes happens is where hierarchy intersects with privilege. When I separate the two concepts from each other, then it’s much easier to point to reasons why hierarchy is bad all around, but privilege is sometimes unavoidable.

But, in that intersection, it’s easy to paint them both as harbingers of relationship toxicity.

There are certain things one might take for granted in a situation where partners have shared homes, resources, offspring, and relationship longevity.  For example, the expectation to for the couple to attend family holiday dinners, or visit family living out of state, or attend family weddings or funerals.

Those are inherent privileges that can be pretty circumstantial depending on how “out” one of the people in the couple is to their family. The social expectations of the mononormative culture, especially at gatherings where the older generations are in attendance, make for some these uncomfortable situations where someone’s partner(s) might have to remain “hidden” without it necessarily be the preference for anybody within the relationship. It just can’t be helped without causing major disruptions in the extended family dynamic (or with employers).

I understand having circumstantial, or unearned privileges that I can’t help having. Like the color of my skin or my parents’ socioeconomic status. The thing is, I’m aware that my experience isn’t the experience of everyone else who does not share these traits with me. I’m aware of my privilege and can therefore take action to feel MORE empathy and show more compassion for those who do not have them. I can take into account that their experiences are different than mine and not make assumptions about how they feel or react to things based on how I would feel or react to them.

The lack of this awareness is where couples’ privilege becomes toxic. When the couple isn’t even aware of how their privilege manifests or how it affects those who DON’T have the automatic +1 to your cousin’s wedding, or who don’t have you around to make us a cup of hot tea when we’re at home with a sore throat.

At the same time, as the non-nested partner, I also don’t have to do the boring and stressful stuff, like spend my limited time with him cleaning the cat box or renewing my DMV registration or paying taxes or vacuuming. Every time we’re together it’s a vacation from responsibilities for him, so I get to be the partner he never gets snippy with nor tunes out with headphones and a podcast.

There are certain privileges I have in my role in his life as well, and being aware of them helps me have empathy for the times when his nested partner might feel like she’s not getting quality time with him, for example.

But all of that is separate from hierarchy, because to me, hierarchy implies rank. She does not outrank any of his other partners, nor we her. She cannot (nor would she attempt to) pull rank and affect either of our plans with him. None of us can (or would). He runs his own relationships, his own calendar, and his own emotions. We’re each responsible for our own.

In our polycule, we’re all child-free, so when it comes to the managing of hierarchy and privilege around children, I draw from a different experience. When my late husband and I got together, he was recently divorced and had an 8 year old daughter, an ex-wife and co-parent who would sometimes pull “rank” when it came to my husband’s time for their daughter’s recitals and open houses.  He also had an aging mother who lived with us. If that wasn’t boot camp for polyamory, I don’t know what is.

But the point is – there was hierarchy. The kid came first. I felt his ex-wife liked to use the kid as a way to position herself above me, but the reality was that it was the KID who had priority, not her.

Even in a monogamous marriage, the kid came first, so I don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t hold true in a poly relationship. When my husband’s mom became ill, her needs were elevated as well. We learn to balance all these multiple priorities all the time – at work, with family, and in relationships.

I believe hierarchy in extenuating circumstances, like children or illness or major accident is part of life. I just don’t feel comfortable with it being part of the standard operating procedure when you’re in multiple, committed, romantic relationships.



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A Walk in the Desert: On taking things at the pace of the slowest person

There’s a saying I’ve been hearing from people in poly circles over the past couple of months, in regards to opening up a relationship: “It’s best to take it at the pace of the slowest person.”

Last night I heard it in a sightly different way, “to take it at the pace of the slowest camel.”

This sort of makes sense, when everyone’s got a similar end-game in mind, right? Like, if there are two people who want to open up their relationship, but one person is struggling with the nuts and bolts of opening up a bit more than the other, then you take it at the pace of the person who’s taking a little longer to figure it all out. They still have the end-goal of opening up, so you know they’ll get there eventually.

But what do you do when one of the people in the relationship doesn’t really want to open up?

That’s when I’ve heard of situations where taking it at the pace of the slowest person can backfire, ’cause they are in control of the pace, and without the motivation to ever reach that goal, they can slow it down to a full stop.

Metaphor Time!

Imagine you’re in a group of people heading out of the desert toward a source of cold water. There’s plenty of warm canteen water, but the promise of pools of cool water sounds so good.

Now, you don’t want to leave anybody behind, so you all agree to keep pace with the slowest walker. Some of you can run, and some of you can walk briskly and you could get to that ice cold water source within the day if left to your own devices….

…but this one person in your group has a broken ankle and every step they take is excruciatingly painful. They keep wanting to stop and take breaks. You try to carry them, but not for long before it wears you out, and they feel guilty and like a burden to you.

At one point, they sit down on the ground and ask….”can’t we just stay here and wait until nightfall when it’s cooler?”

And maybe you agree. But then that night they say, “Now that it’s cooler – do we really need to get out of the desert? It’s nice here. Look at all the stars…., and the water in the canteen has cooled down so it’s totally drinkable. Why isn’t this water good enough?”

But by mid afternoon, that heat is bearing down on you and you’re beginning to resent the “slowest person” in the group.

Now you’re in a really shitty position. You gotta drink. Like, this canteen water is great to have, and it’s absolutely meeting your basic needs, but it’s unsatisfying and no longer sufficient for you. You’re still not much closer to that cold water source than you were a day ago; and you had estimated that the pace of the slowest person wasn’t going to hold you back for THAT long.

Extrapolate this into a relationship that’s now lasted over a year.

This is why partners who are being “held back” start getting frustrated and passive aggressive and saying things that are unkind.

If you are the slowest person in the group you do, in some ways, have control over the pace: but you also have a responsibility to keep trying to make progress, so that everyone in the caravan feels like their goals are achievable.

And if you dig down and find that your goal is to sabotage the expedition; then perhaps it’s only fair to let your partner go on their own. This is not because you are a bad person, or because you aren’t deserving of them. This is simply a case where your goal and your partner’s goals are in opposition.

And a relationship formed by someone who “won” and someone who “lost” is never as strong as a relationship between two people who both got what they wanted together.

That doesn’t mean they have to want the same thing. You don’t have to want to be poly just like your partner does. All your goal needs to be focused on is achieving acceptance.

That’s why you have to WANT to be okay with your partner being polyamorous. When that is your goal, then the caravan keeps making progress.

Holding out for them to want to be monogamous is probably not going to work.

The thing about not feeling “enough”

The most frequent statement I read from people trying to transition into polyamorous relationships for their partner is the sense that they feel like they are “not enough.”

Whenever I see that line, my heart sort of aches for them. I understand that feeling and where it comes from, but somehow it doesn’t affect me and I had a difficult time articulating why.

And I finally figured out the answer:

The trick is in realizing that not being “everything” is still enough.