sex, love, and relationships for those of us who don't quite follow the rules

Archive for August, 2010


9 days. The count-up has been running since I sent my mother the email: the one where I said that while I’m sorry it upset her to see me snuggling with my boyfriend instead of sleeping on the separate bed she’d prepared for me, I’m not willing to apologize for failing to respect her values. That in fact I don’t respect her values, although I acknowledge her right to enforce them under her own roof, and will not transgress on that right in the future. That in fact I’m carrying around a fair amount of anger for the damage I have suffered as a result of my blindly accepting those values in my younger days. And oh yes, by the way, that my boyfriend and I are not monogamous and probably never will be.

I said it much more sweetly than the above might imply. My mother is a wonderful, beautiful, inspiring person, and I feel my family ranked in the 90th percentile for Good Families To Grow Up In. My parents’ excellent marriage is something of a modern miracle, and I recognize that it’s founded on those very values I resent and decry, and I said all this too. I would hate to make either of them feel that I don’t appreciate the family they’ve created.

I am privileged with a capital P. Besides all that white wealthy educated American stuff, I have warm and happy relationships with both my parents and three siblings. I need more than two hands to count the friends who are also like family to me, who I know will always care about me and who I wouldn’t hesitate to call on in a crisis. These are rare blessings, even for white wealthy educated Americans, and I’m deeply grateful for them. But no blessing is unmixed, and mine have this qualifier: they make it very hard to rock the boat. With so much love, so much warmth, so much harmony, and — let’s be completely fair — so much acceptance for a great range of differences, it’s very, very hard to be the one who holds up a hand and says, “Actually, this isn’t quite working for me. Here, this is my boyfriend and our girlfriend. Can we all come home for Christmas this year?”

That last is a hypothetical — Shaun’s and my outside relationships are all still quite casual. I could pass for monogamous without too much strain, and in a lot of places I do. My plan, in fact, was to continue to do so with my parents as long as that was the case. I wasn’t going to lie, I just wanted to keep them on a need-to-know basis. I figured it would be easier for everybody that way.

This worked great as long as I wasn’t actually around them much. When we visited my hometown, though, I found a host of tensions and discomfort arising. Probably the worst part was feeling like I was closeting my beloved Shaun, who has worked hard and sacrificed much in order to live honestly and openly.

I don’t think I’m a naturally honest person. If I’d grown up in a more hostile environment, I can easily imagine being one of those people who creates elaborate personas, different ones for different situations, who finds honesty and consistency across relationships almost impossible. I’m keenly aware of the way I “spin” myself depending who I’m talking to. I don’t particularly like this about myself, though it’s a useful skill. I’m trying to do it less. It’s a scary thing. In that interest, I’m starting to write under my real name, and give my boyfriend his (all other people I write about will still get their pseudonyms, unless they request otherwise.) I want to take steps to unify the slightly-fragmented identities I present to the world. It feels a little bit like an adventure, or a roller coaster. All this identity-management business, for me, is mostly about control: I like to think that I have some control over what people will think of me, how they will receive me, by managing what I tell them about myself. It’s bullshit, of course. Being closeted, in any way about anything, buys control at the cost of freedom, and of the two I prefer freedom. But letting go of control comes with some thrills and chills. It’s been nine days since I wrote my mother; I got a brief acknowledgement, and reassurance that she loves me, but I’m still waiting for a real response. I feel like I’m hanging on to the bar, waiting to see where this ride will take me. I’ll let you know.


jealousy and insecurity: a beginner’s guide, written by a beginner

Today’s “things even monogamous people can learn from polyamory” is brought to you courtesy of Shaun’s mother, whom we’re visiting this week. He’s been open about being polyamorous for years, and while she doesn’t seem to have any moralistic objections, it makes her anxious. Particularly, she’s convinced that jealousy and insecurity are inevitable, and will cause the downfall of any non-monogamous relationship. Hearing that I went on a couple of dates before our trip, with gentlemen I hope to see again, she asked him, “Aren’t you afraid, if she keeps seeing these guys, she might start to like one of them better than you?” (And now I know where he gets his bluntness.)

So we’re going to talk about jealousy and insecurity.

One of the most common misconceptions in people who are just learning about polyamory is that successful poly folk claim to never jealous. I thought that myself, and I was a little nervous. My jealousy quotient is fairly low, but I have felt it pretty intensely two or three times in my life, so I didn’t know that I’d be able to keep up a “never getting jealous ever” kind of lifestyle. When I did a little deeper reading, though, I found that this wasn’t the expectation. In most of the blogs and forum posts I read, mature people in secure poly relationships acknowledged feeling jealous and insecure from time to time. The difference is in how they treat these emotions.

For some reason, we tend to view jealousy as a fire that needs to be put out. Stop the presses, hold the phones — if someone is feeling jealous, then something is WRONG and everything else in the relationship needs to be on hold until it gets fixed. But jealousy is a feeling, and like any feeling you can choose how you deal with it. You can suppress it and pretend it’s not there, you can attack and blame yourself for feeling it, you can attack and blame the other person for making you feel it, you can succumb to it entirely and let the feeling make all your decisions for you.

Any of those approaches will do damage to you and your relationship. But you can also take a meditative, accepting approach, which goes something like this: Acknowledge what you’re feeling. Acknowledge that it hurts and it sucks. Remind yourself that this feeling does not define your emotional landscape, and that like all feelings it will fade. Promise yourself that when it has faded, and your rational brain is freer, you will assess the reasons behind it and see if there’s something you need to address or adjust.

I recommend this approach for dealing with just about any negative emotion. These feelings, like physical pain, are signs that something is wrong, misaligned, damaged. The difference is, while for many of us our bodies are in good working order most of the time, our emotional and relational centers are pretty well battered before most of us hit puberty. From our parents onward, the people we loved and depended on have failed to give us all the support, the care, the attention we needed from them. We have to think of feelings like jealousy and insecurity the way a veteran thinks of an old injury that still hurts from time to time. There are circumstances that trigger the feeling, but the damage that it springs from was caused long ago, and no amount of frantic questioning, pleas for reassurance, or desperate ultimatums will cure it. It’s a chronic ailment that we simply have to live with, and deal with as best we can.

When not in the grips of the pain, we can take various steps to become healthier and stronger, to quiet that old war wound and make it less sensitive to flare-ups. I’m not an expert in this area, since as I said I suffer from jealousy and insecurity only rarely. But generally I find that things I tell myself rationally, and dwell on contemplatively, eventually make their way into the deeper levels of my psyche. So here are a few rational thoughts around jealousy and insecurity.

1 – Love is not a zero-sum commodity. I think of two people I love very deeply and intensely, and consider how little my love for each of them has to do with my feelings for the other (unless they are close themselves, in which case my feelings for both of them usually enhance each other). They are entirely separate, and they co-exist in my heart without difficulty. Why should it not be the same for my lover and anyone else they love?

2 – I am lovable. Few of us escape childhood and adolescence without the delusion that we are unlovable, that the warmth and care that we feel for other people is never truly extended back toward us. We need to recognize that this is a delusion, and that most of the people around us feel the same way. And when our lovers say “I love you,” we should try to believe them.

3 – I am irreplaceable; I offer things to my lover that no one else can give. This, like the previous one, is a negation of a delusion most of us seem to have. When my lover starts spending time with someone new, I look at all the wonderful qualities she has, and think, “I could never compete with that! Of course he’s going to love her more than me.” When I catch myself doing this I find the best strategy is to remind myself of some wonderful qualities I have that she doesn’t. If need be, I ask my lover to name a few. I don’t ever try to get an exhaustive list, because that tempts me to start comparing lists to see which of us stacks up best overall; the idea is just to give myself a concrete reminder that I bring some things to the table which nobody else does.

4 – If my lover ever does end the relationship, it will be because of inadequacies in this relationship, not the allure of another. This one requires more partner participation than the others. Novelty has its own unique appeal, and I and my lover both need to know how strong this appeal is for us and how far we’re going to indulge it. But if a person desires a long-term, stable relationship, novelty itself is not likely to pull them out of a good one. I need to trust that my lover and I understand our needs and desires, and are continually communicating them. I am responsible for making sure my lover knows how to make me happy, and I need to trust that he is accepting the same responsibility. If all this is happening, there is little need to fear that I will be left for someone else, and if I am, there should be plenty of warning.

None of these considerations are going to help when you’re in the grips of roiling jealousy or insecurity. At those times, you just have to ride it out. But when you’re calm again, meditating on them and doing your best to internalize them (it takes time) can help a lot.