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.
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?
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.
Excellent! Very well put! I think you nailed it on the head!
Oh, man. Talk about a lightbulb coming on. Lots to think about with this one. Holy wow.
You really have identified a serious conflict here. The difficulty I have with it is that it says we need to learn to let the other person go if their core beliefs are fundamentally different and that’s going to be very tough for me, who is in a 42 year relationship with someone I really love….
If those differences are conflicting and reflect core needs, then it is important to not treat the incompatibility as anything other than fundamental. I think my perspective, more than anything else, demands that you deal honestly with the reality of the disconnect. And, the struggle then is on deepening understanding and truly treating the core needs as equals. The latter is much harder than the former. Parting ways may not be the only answer. But, I don’t think there’s an answer that doesn’t have significant pain associated with it when core needs conflict. Approaching these challenges with all the compassion you can muster and humility enough to continue to seek out a deeper understanding of our partner and ourselves is the only path I know to take.
Couldn’t agree more. Man, I knew you were cool when I was just a kid. Pretty smart kid I was after all. 😉
This was really interesting for me to read.
About a year ago a mono guy who’d been a friend for a few years ended his engagement — and shortly after that he started courting me hard. He knew I was poly, we discussed it on several occasions. At the time I had a steady long-term relationship with a married poly man. My friend assured me he wasn’t looking for a serious relationship, and in fact he was dating other women. Since we had great chemistry, I dated him. It was long-distance, but we managed to get together a few times and talked online daily.
He progressed quickly into deep emotional attachment with me. He was still dating other women locally, and I thought I had reason to trust him when he said he still wasn’t expecting a long-term life partnership with me, he just wanted to enjoy how we felt together, let it develop.
We spent a week together over the holidays (something he pushed for, and arranged). He met my boyfriend, they got along well, we talked more about me being poly. He said he wasn’t sure about it, but he was willing to give it a try for awhile. My heart opened up to him. I let myself love him.
Almost immediately after that visit, he turned stone cold on me. Said he didn’t like that I had a boyfriend, wanted me to never mention my boyfriend, said that poly was “weird,” etc. Then he’d soften and say he was just having a hard time adjusting, give him time, which I did.
….In the course of a couple weeks he basically stopped talking to me. I learned through mutual friends that he’d suddenly leapt into a monogamous commitment woman he’d been courting for months but hadn’t ever mentioned to me. Nor, apparently, had he mentioned me to her. I confronted him about this and broke up with him.
He was contrite, said that he accepted that I’m poly, and that he just couldn’t be comfortable with it. If that had been all there was to it, I could have accepted that. (in the spirit of your post). I knew he’d always been mono before, that he was experimenting, that I was taking a risk by putting my heart out there for him.
But treating my heart so recklessly, revving me up then dumping me cold and moving on immediately, lying to me, ducking discussion and accountability? After we’d been friends for years? That I haven’t been able to forgive.
Whether or not he “accepted” that I’m poly, the real problem was that he apparently did not accept that I’m a full human being who deserves care, respect, and honesty.
Sometimes the incompatibility is an honest difference of relationship orientations. That’s hard, but understandable. But sometimes people are just irresponsible, unaccountable jerks.
Thank you for sharing your experience. it sucks that you were treated in such a shabby way.
I think there are four general types of people trying poly for first time:
(a) those who discovered it, found it interesting after research and then find a path to try it out. And, find it suits
(b) is just like the above, except they find it doesn’t suit.
(c) those who are pressured into it by a current, committed partner. “Surprise sweetheart, here’s my other love. I know this sucks balls. But, please love me enough to accept her. I don’t know what I’ll do if you can’t.”
(d) those who know they can’t do it, but lie about it. Thinking that you’re poly because you just haven’t found “the one” which they assume you have now found in them. They’re betting that when you fall in love with them, you’ll forget all about this silly poly business.
My essay doesn’t deal with types c or d. Type c is essentially victimized and will require time to recover from the betrayal and trauma before they can get to full acceptance. This, of course, is possible. But, so very hard. I’m betting that your problematic partner was Type d. Duplicitous behavior is not in the scope of my essay.
Instead, it tries to honestly deal with the reality that Types a and b appear to be exactly alike until… until they don’t. Usually, when things get serious, both types struggle. Only some find a path through that struggle.
I don’t know of any reliable way to distinguish between Types a and b at the beginning of a poly exploration. When things become clear, usually after deep emotions are involved, and you find yourself starring Type b in the face, things are really, really hard. Because of the emotional tumult, desire to stay together, and the implicit “love conquers all” ethos, I had to come to the perspective in the essay to navigate effectively.