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 Sloetry.org. 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.

A Response to Fear and Loving in an Uncertain World

From Fear and Loving in an Uncertain World:

“My fears may be realized. It is something I cannot predict.  I know, however, that my best chance at joy lies in giving love without letting the fear that it won’t be returned close me off.  My major task in an uncertain world is feeling and giving the fullest measure of love I can manage.  I actively cultivate this style of loving and aim to get better at it every day.”

Response: I’m undecided on this… I understand what you’re saying… but without expecting that return, you can allow others to take you for granted…

Mind Crush:  Yes, we’ve had this discussion before.  We can’t confuse loving with pleasing or consistently elevating someone else’s needs over our own.  Seeing our needs as equal and managing the ways in which they may conflict in an active way is an important relationship skill (for all our relationships not just romantic ones).  We have to know how to hold our needs as equal to others’ yet respond out of love and not out of fear that our needs may not be met or resentment that they have gone unmet.

What does “loving without the fear that it won’t be returned” really mean?  Well, let’s start with what it doesn’t mean.  It does not mean that I will do whatever you want; it does not mean that my job is to satisfy you at the expense of self-care.  I don’t think it has anything to do with being a doormat.  And so, you can only continue to take advantage of me if I allow it (fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice…).  I would argue that the most loving thing you can do for someone is never ever to let them take advantage of you or any one else.  To know this, you must understand that taking advantage of people hurts them too (even if they don’t care about the ways in which it hurts them).   (more…)