I accept you for who you are, but I just can’t be in a relationship with you… Are these contradictory sentiments? If you really accept me, why can’t you love me and be with me?
I’ve wrestled mightily with this apparent contradiction. You see, a few years ago, I realized that a polyamorous relationship style was most compatible with my long-term happiness. Not just that I can love more than one – I had already known that without internal controversy. But, that loving more than one sustained me in a way that monogamy did not and could not. I was then faced with the reality that not everyone wanted to love me as I wanted them to. In those much darker early days, I frequently felt unaccepted and rejected. I took more detours down shame alley than I care to remember.
Ultimately, I gathered my own footing, put shame in its rightful place, and accepted myself fully. I began to insist that others accept me fully as well. I was confronted with the difficult choice of either walking away from a wonderful woman or ditching polyamory. As difficult as it was, I chose to walk away. Rinse, wash and repeat. Despite communicating clearly about polyamory to potential romantic partners, after these relationships became serious, I was still confronted with this same dilemma. In short, these wonderful women suggested that if I loved them, I would forsake my polyamory for them. My instinctive response was that if they really loved and accepted me, they would accept all of me including my polyamory.
That sounds reasonable, right?
Nope, not so fast Mr. “Love is Infinite.” Slowly (too slowly), I came to realize that the situation asked something very important of me as well: ”Do you accept your girlfriend enough to embrace her need for mutual exclusivity?” And, if I did, does it require me to abandon my polyamory. Therein lies the true struggle to resolve the contradiction. I fully felt the love and acceptance of my girlfriend. But, I also “knew” that giving up my own needs was an answer fraught with danger. I got lost in the red-herring side issue that they knew of my polyamory before dating me. That they were therefore changing the rules and refusing to accept what they knew to be true prior to the first date. Once I abandoned that self-absorbed point of view, I came to the view that follows after meditating, perseverating and ruminating on the contradiction over what seemed like an eternity.
Acceptance requires understanding. You can’t have one without the other. There is no practical way to accept something that you do not understand. ”Faith” or “Trust” are perhaps more applicable to describe situations where understanding is not present. Healthy doses of both are also required in intimate relationships but I would argue that neither is useful in resolving this contradiction. If acceptance is required, so must we seek to understand what we desire to accept. If you understand that your partner needs mutual exclusivity for her own long-term happiness (e.g., she’s monogamous to her core in the same way that I am polyamorous), then you are faced with the exact same dilemma as she. So, from that perspective, both of our stated contradictions were valid. OK, rock star. But, how does that resolve anything? It doesn’t. Instead, my new perspective focused below the surface of the apparent contradiction.
If you take both conflicting needs as equals, then you have a fundamental incompatibility. There’s nobody to blame. It is nobody’s fault. And… it is ok.
It struck me like a lightning bolt that the presumed contradiction (between acceptance and leaving anyway) presupposes that my need for polyamory and her need for mutual exclusivity were not equal. When I really came to accept her needs through greater understanding, they were naturally equal to my own. I could now see that it was a false contradiction. I didn’t have to reject the truth of the validity of my own needs in order to fully accept her needs. Holding both of our needs as equal forced me to understand that full acceptance in relationships must allow for fundamental incompatibilities.
If you don’t allow for fundamental incompatibilities, then someone will be required to elevate their partner’s needs and sublimate their own. I don’t believe that is a healthy or relationship reinforcing choice. Even though love sometimes does require us to temporarily suspend our needs, it should never require us to reject them. Low self-worth and resentment (powerful destroyers of happiness and intimacy) will inexorably result over time if a partner is pushed to sublimate their needs for our own. And from personal experience, unhappiness, depression, and discord soon follow.
As I’ve become fond of saying, you can’t save a thing by killing what sustains it. If our insistence on acceptance includes an implicit (or explicit) invalidation of others’ core needs, then we build or continue our relationship on a rotting foundation. The relationship cannot thrive. By viewing these core needs as equally valid, we’ll inevitably recognize that a fundamental and unbridgeable incompatibility exists. Instead of trying to save the relationship by rejecting my partner’s needs (or her rejecting mine), it is better to part ways and revel in the love that we have shared. We can draw solace in the knowledge that it is nobody’s “fault” and that our love, understanding and acceptance was deep enough to let each other go. I can think of no greater expression of acceptance and love than the willingness to experience the pain of loss to allow each other to find the happiness we both deserve.
I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts: Do you agree? Am I missing something? What’s your experience?
Note: this post was inspired by a response that I started to a Facebook post that got seriously out of hand. Apologies to the original questioner for her unwitting participation in my continued philosophical ramblings.