Committed to you… on fluidity in relationships

I  value people over relationships. “Wait, what? That actually makes no sense. Aren’t our relationships just another way to describe people in our lives?” you might reasonably ask. The short answer is yes, no and maybe. The answer is yes because at any point in time we understand the mesh of people in our lives by how they are in relation to us. Boyfriend and wife are just shorthand. The answer is also no because everyone is more than the sum of their status vis-a-vis others. It’s the “maybe” that really screws with our minds… and hearts. “Maybe” describes two challenges of our hearts in transition and how our expectations foul our capacity to deal with reality. The first is when there’s an unequal desire to increase intimacy. It’s unrequited love or the dreaded “friend zone.” The second situation is when there’s an unequal desire to decrease intimacy… the breakup. They are both felt as rejections. They can hurt like hell. We write our best songs, dramas, and comedies about them.

We aim to survive and recover from them but can we do better? Can we deal with these transitions in ways that actually bring us closer together? I believe we can. We can, that is, if we can value people over relationships. For me, doing so is based on three principles and three commitments.

Three principles:

  • Feelings don’t require getting. It’s okay to want.
  • Compatibility is complex. Don’t take it personally even though it is.
  • Relationships are a team sport. By definition, they can’t be more than any one person desires.

It is painfully obvious that feelings aren’t facts. Yet, when it comes to love we believe that our feelings require of us certain actions and necessitate certain outcomes. If I’m “in love” I must express that love romantically. And, the subject of my ardor must reciprocate my feelings with similar intensity to validate that they are real. Your feelings are real. They don’t require anyone else to feel, do, or be anything. Loving someone who does not return that love with similar intensity and focus is only a tragedy if you insist on making it so. Loving friendships are real relationships too. I choose to feel no less intensely for my friends than I do for my lovers. I can love them fully, intensely without needing them to fill a specific role. Nor do I need them to return my feelings in kind. My loving friendships frequently reflect romantic feelings, acts of care, and other expressions of deep affection.  

desire by CBW on
by CBW on

Compatibility is complex and the ways in which you mesh and don’t are hard to predict. De-personalizing attraction and compatibility helps us move past those moments when things don’t go as we wish. Yes, it is personal in that it is about you. But, it is also not about you because there’s a whole history of life shaping other’s wants, desires, and needs. Those are in no way specifically about you. How your unique combination of attributes does or does not mesh with their unique combination of attributes is as much a quirk of fate as whether it was a full moon when you first met. Unless you’re an asshole, of course. Indeed, you can get feedback that compatibility isn’t so much the problem as some habits that hurt others. Those are worthy of taking personally and seeking personal growth. If you’re an asshole, take it personally. Otherwise, it’s not just about you.

Relationships are a team sport. Any relationship of any kind is as much an ongoing agreement as it is a set of mutual feelings. By definition then, it can’t hold unless there’s mutual agreement on what it is. This goes well beyond feelings into a shared view of who you are when together. And, what is the best version of that “together” involves identity, goals, and practical realities like available time. It follows that relationships can only take the forms wherein mutual agreement exists. Pressuring someone to stay in a relationship with you is a particularly well-accepted form of consent violation. It is viewed as romantic, a true sign of deep commitment. It isn’t. In the vast majority of situations, it’s a desire to avoid pain. This is just as unjustifiable as pressuring someone to form a relationship because of the intensity of your feelings. Everyone has exclusive, non-transferable, and irrevocable rights to enter, exit, or seek to renegotiate any aspect of their relationships, at any time. None of your relationships can be more than any one person desires it to be. Don’t forget this when you’re in pain (or in NRE). Relationships are a team sport. Don’t be an asshole when someone exercises the right to quit the field with integrity and care.

Three commitments are the principles in action…

  • Truly respect other people’s choices and feelings
  • Seek deep connection. Re-invent the conduit for that connection as needed.
  • Accept the emotional complexity of maintaining deep connection. That means pain isn’t a problem to avoid but a path to what’s possible.

A few years ago, an ex-girlfriend once told me that I was cold. She was upset that I seemed to have just “moved on” after she ended our romantic relationship. She assumed that I didn’t grieve our breakup because I didn’t try to win her back. I cried when we broke up. I cried both in front of her and in the car driving home. I cried a few months later during and after lunch with her. I cried a lot and wrote poems. She couldn’t have missed my distress over the breakup. Yet, that visible and unrestrained distress was less meaningful without pleas for her to take me back. I firmly hold that I cannot convince anyone to be my romantic partner. Neither can I convince anyone to stay as my romantic partner. They must be convinced of it themselves. My commitment is that I’ll respect your choices and feelings. My feelings don’t require anything of you. My pain is not an excuse to ignore your feelings and decisions. I won’t use my emotional pain to hold you hostage. Beautiful possibilities exist when you love people so that letting go can mean staying connected.

I start relationships with the intent to value people over relationships. So, I tell people that I don’t date. Dating is a terrible way to make and keep deep connections. Dating tends to build relationships that are explicitly disposable when they don’t meet the criteria for the next step. The people I invite into my life aren’t disposable. I refuse to treat them as such. Instead, I seek deep connections with people, some of those deep connections become romantic, and some of those romantic connections become physically intimate. Some of those connections follow other paths across that spectrum. I seek those people committed to fluidity in relationships, who understand that a change in relationship form does not mean an end to a loving connection. I’m experiencing this change right now. After a hard but loving conversation, one of my relationships very recently transitioned from girlfriend to good friend. I would’ve preferred a different outcome but that wasn’t what was right for us, right now. My commitment to her has not changed. My commitment is that I value my connection with her more than the specific form that it takes. We both recommitted to growing our connection. Call it a friendship, a romantic friendship, or call it something else. It doesn’t really matter. I call it the true face of love.

The breakup was not without pain. We cried. We talked and acknowledged feelings, unmet needs, and possibilities. We held hands and cried some more. All that pain is unavoidable in a breakup. Yet, I’m not afraid of the heartache. Heartaches aren’t the problem. Attempting to avoid pain by clinging would be a bigger problem. It prolongs and deepens heartache. The biggest problem of all is needing to toss someone out of your life because of an unwillingness to sit with and feel that pain. So, I have tried to walk a different path. I have committed myself to accept the emotional complexity of maintaining deep connection. I have to be willing to experience the pain of loss simultaneously with the joy of a connection still in flight. That joy does not invalidate the pain. Neither is there a need to allow the pain to mask the joy. On the other end of the spectrum, I must also be willing to experience the pangs of unmet desire or “the romance that cannot be” while simultaneously experiencing the love of friendship. My commitment is to staying open to emotionally complex and intense moments as a path to growing deep connections irrespective of form. Isn’t that the real goal after all? Feelings of deep connection and love? It is for me.

All I Want by CBW on
by CBW on

So many wonderful people have taught me these lessons on friendship and love and commitment. I have tried to capture here a small slice of how my experiences loving them have shaped me. It is a reflection of my heart commitment to them over whatever label currently describes our relationship. Bone deep security flows from experiencing loving connections that stay strong and deepen despite those relationships changing in form in ways I cannot predict. I am committed to you. I am deeply grateful for your commitment to me.

Two Broken Hearts by Yun

Alone in the dark… struggling through fear of the better option

Whether posted in a poly online forum or raised in our monthly discussion group, the fear of your partner finding someone “better” is a frequent topic of discussion in polyamory circles. The self-doubt and anxiety from this uncertainty are not exclusive to open relationships. Your partner always had the ability to find someone better – poly, mono or otherwise. It is also true that this is fundamentally out of our control. You can not control how your partner changes over time or how well your partner will mesh with someone else. That doesn’t mean you have to just feel the feels and get over it. It does mean, however, that it is more difficult to ignore these facts about love and life. I found it easier to deal with this particular bitter pill of hard truth once I accepted the reality that nothing has changed. Monogamy is not protection against my partner running off with the neighbor. All polyamory does is make you aware of your partner’s interest and exploration with the neighbor as it happens. In my view, this is a feature, not a bug. And yet, the fear creeps in. There are times when the anxiety really bites in and won’t let you go. So, what to do? I can only say what works for me.

Acceptance. Let’s start with the need to accept my feelings, insecurities, and fear as natural and not indicative of anything wrong with me, my partner, our partnership or with their new hotness. Emotions are real. They do not always mean that what we fear is in fact happening. Accepting all my feelings helps to ensure that I stay in touch with them and they don’t build up to spill out in regrettable ways.

Intimate with Fear Redux
Poem by MindCrush from Picture of Lake Tekapo, New Zealand by MindCrush from Jan 2019

This was very hard for me to learn. I didn’t grow up in a house where emotions were expressed or accepted. My family was more of a “get over it and get to it” kind of home. It took a lot of time and effort to figure out how to disrupt the automatic suppression of emotions and sit with them. I had to figure that out before I could find a path to accept all those emotions… especially those that I think I shouldn’t be feeling. How can I be a good poly person if I’m wracked with fear that my partner will move in with this potential love on their very first date? I had to learn to get closer to my emotions. I had to learn to accept them, especially fear. I had to learn to get intimate with fear. I started writing poetry to find a tool for emotional exploration. It has become a way for me to catch and appreciate what I am feeling, especially those hard feelings I have learned to suppress.

There is only one you. Here is another hard truth. There is only one you. More importantly, there’s only one me. I’m a bundle of unique brilliance and faults which my partners deeply value – as I do their bundle of unique attributes. Minimally, my loves value me enough to date me and be a part of my life. I don’t have to be perfect. I’m not. I have habits that frustrate my partners. There are many things that I would like to change. There are a few things that I’m actually trying to improve. With all that said, I foster the notion that I am irreplaceable. You can’t find a better me. Only I can do that through personal growth.

Of course, they can find someone different that is more compatible. This is out of my control. Compatibility is complex and it isn’t static. It is possible to grow and change in ways that maintain, enhance or lessen compatibility. There are too many variables in play to see this as something we can actively manage while staying healthy and sane. Instead of playing compatibility multidimensional chess, I engage in and share my passions. I seek to engage in my partner’s passions that speak to me too. There’s a natural interweaving of connection, interest, and intimacy that flows from participating in each other’s passions. In other words, cultivate “you” and share the fullness of who you are with the people in your life.

This is what self-reassurance looks like in action. It is not about holding the false belief that my partner can not find a more compatible love. That is certainly possible. I am reassured nonetheless by trusting in the idea that when my uniqueness shines through, my tribe will find me and I will find them. Nurturing these beliefs as an active part of my self-concept, I take it less personally when someone breaks up with me. It also gives me more confidence that my partners won’t find the connection we have in another. Our pairing is as unique as we are individually. We are not replicable.

Share the feels. I focus on sharing my emotional landscape with my partner without putting the burden on them and without asking them to take the bad, uncomfortable emotions away. Sharing my emotions is as unnatural to me as feeling them. My use of poetry is again one of those tangible tools to learn the language of emotions. I get to explore how to efficiently express deep emotional experiences. It is easier for me to share how I feel because I practice articulating my feelings. Sharing with my partners is an opportunity for attunement – to reinforce our connection by feeling each other’s feelings. It is an opportunity to reinforce our bond.

Hiding our emotional experience creates distance. Distance leads to further difficulty connecting and attuning to each other. The challenge with emotions like “fear of abandonment or being replaced” and the anxiety caused by the uncertain impact of a new relationship is that it is too easy to blame your partner for the bad feelings. The purpose of sharing is not to manipulate my partner into doing something different. I frequently ask my partners to not do anything about the emotions I have shared with them. I may, however, ask them for reassurance. The more important desire is to connect. If emotions are shared without blame or making your partner responsible, it helps to maintain intimacy and connection. Share the feels and reciprocate the caring response when your partner does so with you.

Act with love. When I’m anxious and uncertain, I can’t just sit around with acceptance and be Zen. My system doesn’t work that way. Well… Zen first and then take action is usually my aim. Taking action when I am wracked with fear and anxiety further eases the emotional challenge of it all. It is easy to act out of anxiety and, at best, create unnecessary drama or, at worst, have a regrettable moment that requires relationship repair. Taking positive action has the benefit of increasing the odds of good things happening. Acting in loving ways also feels damn good (bonus score!). The first two steps takes the edge off of my emotional state. With just this little bit of perspective, I am better able to act in loving ways. I am able to support my partner and their happiness including investing in the success of their other relationships. Occasionally, I have to remind myself that I really have one job. My job as a partner is to “love ’em up!” That’s it. Whatever happens after that is nothing I could have stopped anyway.

There you go. Four simple ideas that can be hard to put in practice. I no longer expect to become that “perfect poly partner” who will never feel these particular vulnerabilities. Poly makes it harder to maintain comforting fictions about our loved one’s lack of alternatives. I am no longer surprised when I experience anxiety and fear. They are familiar if not welcome visitors. Taking these steps helps me to get out of comparison hell, focus less on the time when my partners are with others, and make the most of the time that I am spending with them. It works for me.

Grab a Shovel

I have come to realize that I’m an inveterate optimist. I also accept my contradictions as a pragmatic idealist. These orientations keep me from going insane. They are the wellspring of any equanimity I possess. They create the space for me to take action and risk being known.

Those are the pretty words I use in polite company. The reality is that it feels like shoveling shit. You remember the old joke don’t you? It goes like this:

Worried that their son was too optimistic, the parents of a little boy took him to a psychiatrist. In an attempt to dampen the boy’s spirits, the psychiatrist showed him into a room piled high with nothing but horse manure. Instead of displaying distaste, the little boy clambered to the top of the pile and began digging.

“What are you doing?” the psychiatrist asked.

“With all this manure” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere.”

You see… instead of a room filled with horse manure, my shit is everywhere, piled high and deep. And, if that weren’t enough, other people throw shit at me too. Lots of it. Sometimes they’re shoveling their shit on top of my shit. <sigh> So, I pick up my shovel and get to work. I have never found a pony. I probably never will. I’m not sure that I would know what to do with a pony if I found one. But, there I am shoveling away. I shovel because of what I have found.

I’ve found all manner of things that I never expected. I have found creative ideas. I’ve found that clearing a path through is not a means to escape but a route to connection. I’ve discovered that other people will shovel shit with you and thereby become dear friends. I have found love in the middle of a shit show. Most importantly, I found myself by way of my own excrement. I figured out how to own my shit. I learned that I could produce less and shovel more. I found peace knowing my back is strong, my shovel is wide and my friends are willing.

And so, I shovel shit. No, it’s not easy. It stinks. It hurts my back. It’s exhausting. What makes me an optimist is that I believe my efforts are effective even when I can’t see over my pile. I’m a pragmatic idealist because I smell the excrement fully, I understand that it’s not a pile of roses, and yet I know from balls to bones that wading in with shovel in hand is necessary to joyful living. I will even carry my shovel to your shit pile. We can uncover the joy that comes with struggling through life together.