A response post to February 2014’s topic on Poly Means Many: What Being Poly Has Taught Me’
I’ve been actively polyamorous for a good few years now, and if I look back to the person I was before I started on this journey, and how I’ve changed throughout, I can see that I’ve learned a great many things from my polyamorous lifestyle. There are the obvious things such as managing time properly or safer sex with multiples, but I’ve also learned a lot about myself, and changed who I am as a result. Writing this has felt like I’m baring my soul by admitting my faults and talking about some of my previous fucked up ways of looking at the world, but I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit to them, so here goes:
1. Being Secure
One thing many monogamous folk say when discussing polyamory with me is that they are too jealous to be polyamorous. Fair enough, if that’s what you believe, and there’s an element of truth that if you are a very jealous person, you’d probably find polyamory quite difficult (but not impossible). What I often say is that when I started in the poly lifestyle, I was a very jealous, insecure, possessive person. Looking back now I’d say that was a combination of some bad relationships, an abusive set of parents and a healthy dose of the old society norm of monogamy (possession + jealousy = security). Putting all of your emotional wants, needs and issues onto one relationship and one person is seriously unhealthy.
In my first poly relationships I struggled a lot with feeling that they weren’t meaningful, committed or valued by the other people involved. Partly that was because we were all new to it and still learning, partly because the relationships were just awful, and partly because I had issues I’d not dealt with yet. I struggled to trust people’s motives were genuine, and that their feelings for me were what they said they were. I struggled with self esteem and every knock back or breakup hit me hard, and really damaged my confidence in myself and others for a long time.
I don’t know what changed specifically, other than experience, a lot of introspection, some great relationships and generally mellowing out with age. I took steps to being my own primary, such as making sure I had ‘me’ time, and that I wasn’t using people as props or simply to fill a need. I may not be as thin, or as wrinkle or stress free as I was when I started this journey, but I have much better instincts, and I’m much more secure about myself and my own worth. I won’t allow someone to treat me like rubbish, and if someone tells me they care about me, I don’t automatically assume it’s a lie to get something from me. Having relationships aren’t about making myself feel better or more attractive/wanted, and as a result I’m much more relaxed, happy and confident.
2. Stop Controlling
I’ll be the first to admit I’m a control freak. I have OCD and in times of high stress this can result in near meltdowns if I can’t follow a certain routine or if someone wants to do something a different way to how I do it. Combined with the emotional insecurity, I really struggled in the early days. I found it nigh on impossible to just let relationships evolve naturally, and constantly battled my need to have a label fixed to everything, for relationships to be ‘meaningful’ and ‘committed’ and have reassurance that the person loved me/cared for me/missed me.
As time has gone on, and I mellowed with being more secure, and having a better idea of what I want from my relationships, I learned to let go and stop micro-managing. I began to see that my relationships were best when they were allowed the freedom to develop naturally into what they should be, rather than my pre-conceived idea of what I wanted them to be. I learned to accept that I can’t make people love me by being possessive or jealous, in fact, it’s more likely to make them not love me if I act that way. I found that labels can sometimes be prescriptive and restrictive, and that I should disregard them as anything more meaningful than useful signposts for other people. I learned to trust my judgement and the actions people did, rather than the words they said. In short, I became a lot more relaxed and comfortable about my connections, valuing them for what they are, rather than trying to engineer or control anything.
3. Admitting You Are Wrong
Another huge thing I learned is that in relationships, as in life generally, you will fuck up a lot. I don’t just mean when you make a mistake when you really shouldn’t have, but those times when you’ve upset someone totally by accident, and totally without being able to anticipate that your actions could have caused upset. I used to think that you only said you were sorry if you actually were, and only when you thought you had something to be sorry about. I thought that was part of honesty; but I was so, so wrong.
I learned that it’s so easy to be hurt by someone who didn’t even mean to hurt you. Someone who stepped on a nerve they didn’t even know was there. Decent people are the ones who can say ‘hey, when you said x, I felt hurt’, and that person, even if they didn’t know, will apologise for the other person’s hurt: because they care about them. I learned that apologising, even when I didn’t feel I had done anything wrong, or even anything that I was sorry for, was so important to the people who were hurt, and because I cared about them, I was sorry I had unintentionally hurt them, even if I had no way of foreseeing or knowing they would be hurt by my actions. Two little words can go a hell of a long way in terms of goodwill with lovers and metamours, and it’s been an amazing life lesson to be able to be a little more humble, and a little more considerate.
4. Be Honest, Always
Being honest takes trust, and bravery. All parties involved need to trust that the others are indeed being honest, and the people telling the truth have to be brave enough to bare their feelings, thoughts and souls to the other people involved. That wasn’t something I was used to doing a few years ago, I very much kept my own counsel, and I resisted letting people into an extent that they knew things they could use to hurt me.
It took me a long time to drop those barriers, and to take the leap of faith to trust people when my gut instincts said they were the type of people who weren’t going to use my vulnerability against me when it suited them. I realised that I had to trust people in order for them to trust me in return, and that like many things in relationships of all types between people, it’s a two-way street. Not only did I learn to speak honestly about even difficult subjects with my lovers, but also with my metamours and friends too.
Whilst I’ve never gone as far as radical honesty, I have for some time now adopted a policy of ‘say it straight’. No bullshit, no games, no drama. You can be tactful to someone’s feelings whilst being completely honest, and you can communicate clearly without being a cunt about it. I find lying utterly abhorrent and unnecessary, and will not tolerate it in my relationships. To me, honesty is the most basic principle of respect for another person: tell them the truth. Without truth, we cannot be informed, and without open, clear, honest communication, we aren’t really intimate, and what’s a relationship without intimacy?
5. Being Flexible
As a control freak, this one seems a hilarious oxymoron, but actually, polyamory has taught me a hell of a lot about being flexible and accommodating other people’s needs and pre-existing obligations. We all have moments of thinking the entire world revolves around us, and when we’re in the heady stages of NRE, boy do we think the rest of the world has ceased to exist! Being in one relationship means I need to consider not just my wants and needs but also my partners and our joint wants and needs. Start multiplying that by many relationships and clashes soon start to happen. It can be as simple as just trying to organise dates with your honey on a night you’re both free, to last minute change of venue.
Flexibility can be about the smallest or the largest of issues, from who is looking after the kids this Friday, to having to negotiate on a major issue within your poly circle. Flexibility is a combination of being fair and accommodating whilst balancing your own needs and limits so as not to feel taken advantage of. It’s a hard mixture, and no one incident will ever feel entirely equal, but there should be some form of balance over time, or someone is simply taking the piss.
Being flexible is about not having rigid concepts of what is going to happen and when. When there are so many people involved, things need an element of fluidity to them, and that sometimes means your sexytimes won’t happen because the kids get sick, or that your romantic dinner for three turns into a Star Wars fest with take-away pizza just because one of you wasn’t feeling in the right kind of mood. It takes patience and practice to accept change with grace, but it helps to remind yourself that sooner or later, you will be the cause of an unexpected change of plans, and that you can only expect your partners to be understanding and accommodating if you yourself are too.
5. Know Your Limits
This seems in direct contradiction to the above point, but bear with me here. Up to now I’ve mainly talked about things which seem to be about giving and accommodating, but you can only really do this properly and responsibly if you know where your own limits and boundaries lie. I don’t mean just things like your hard limit over having sex wearing clown masks, or a limit on how many times you can see someone each week. It covers all aspects of your life and interaction with others, and without knowing how far you can (or are willing) to go, you aren’t able to be flexible, to negotiate, or to even be honest with people about where the line is drawn.
If you don’t know your own limits, other people can’t, and so it’s very easy to either be taken advantage of, or in some cases intentionally used because you’re unwilling or unable to say ‘this is a limit for me’. This really feeds in to a lot of the other issues I’ve written about here, about honesty, and about flexibility, and about being secure in yourself. The key here is to ‘know thyself’, although not to regard that as something written in stone which cannot ever fluctuate or even change entirely. I find it immensely hard to say ‘no’ to people, for a variety of reasons such as fomo, or worrying people will think I’m being a bitch, or that people won’t like me anymore if I refuse them this invite/favour/request.
Part of the answer to this is to know yourself. Know what you want, and what you don’t want, generally but also allow yourself to think properly when a question is asked of you. Do you actually feel ok about that? Another part is to value your own self worth, and to not feel obliged to do x. Obligation is rarely a good motivation for doing anything. A huge part of it is feeling able to say no, and not feeling bad about it. That’s a really hard thing to do, and is something I still struggle with a lot. I always worry about how I am perceived when I say no to something, and I fret a lot about whether I should have been more flexible or whether my reasons are valid enough. What I will say is that if you engage honesty mode in these situations, saying no can be hard, but you will stop a lot of knock on issues that allowing your limits to be breached can cause (such as feeling taken advantage of) and when you say yes, it will feel great because you genuinely are fine with it.
6. Being A Grown Up, Even When It Hurts
It’s a simple truth that the more relationships you are involved in, the more breakups (or as I call them, evolutions) you will have. Practice can make perfect in theory, but it doesn’t make them hurt any less. Whilst it might be perfectly accepted in the monogamous world to block your ex on all forms of social media, badmouth them to anyone who will listen and avoid them like they have the new strain of ebola for the rest of time, that’s simply not the done thing in polyamory.
If I meet someone who isn’t on good or civil terms with most of their exes, an instant red flag is raised for me. It’s not to say that all your exes need to be best buddies who would weep tears of compersion at your wedding, but if you are on bad terms with all of them, that generally says something about you, not them. You’re the common denominator, after all. If I hear you slagging your ex off or telling me intimate secrets they trusted you with, I assume you’ll only do the same to me when we break up.
My first breakups in polyamory were among my first five in my life, ever, having been married to the man I met at the tender age of 16. As you can imagine, that was something of an eye-opener. Those first breakups were heart-wrenching, the full on teenage not eating, not sleeping, withdrawn and looking generally miserable for months. They felt dreadful and I thought the world was ending and I’d never find love again. Within a month of splitting with my first poly girlfriend B, I saw her playing with someone at a kink event and that hit me like a physical punch in the stomach. It took a long time to get on civil and genuinely compersion-y terms with these exes, but on the whole it happened and I feel great about that.
How did I do it? Well, I read a lot of blogs, and talked to some awesome experienced poly friends. I gained experience of dealing with romantic or sexual relationships ending with dignity, respect and tact, and started to adopt those approaches. I stopped dating people who were against my own dating rules to try and avoid blatant disaster-waiting-to-happen relationships from even getting past the first few dates. I also came to realise that I struggled most with the breakups that resulted in not still having the ex lover in my life as a friend, and so came the whole evolution of relationships theory, which on the whole has served me very well. I knew that it would hurt to see my ex partners once we’d broken up, but that I had to suck it up and deal with that painful phase so we’d be able to move forward as friends. On the whole I have learned that you can end or change a relationship whilst still being an adult, even when it hurts, and that it stands you in good stead if you do.
I’ve learned a whole bunch of other things being poly, like safer sex for multiples or how Google Calendar is so wonderful for planning dates that it has now become a part of my extended mind . Being polyamorous has, I believe, changed me for the better, and taught me many valuable life skills. I’m stronger and more secure, as well as being more flexible and accommodating. I’m more honest and I’m more tactful, more empathetic and quicker to apologise for hurt. I’m calmer, happier, and more confidant than I was a few years ago. I’ve also had some of the most wonderful, enriching, heart-warming experiences I would never have had if I’d remained monogamous, and for them I am truly thankful.