This column will be a documentation of our journey--as a couple--into the
realm of polyamory. Since we are in the process of navigating this path
right now, this column will detail issues, problems, and roadblocks that we
encounter--as we hit them.
Previous editions of this column can be found in the Monthly Columns Archives.
Laying the Groundwork: Communication
One of the first pieces of advice that people have given us when we tell them that we are pursuing a polyamorous lifestyle is that communication is the most important skill we will need. It’s been interesting to find out what exactly this means for us, and I wanted to share some examples of how just taking the step of communicating has changed and strengthened our relationship.
RM and I have spent many, many hours since October just talking. I think that we have talked more in the last four months than we had in the last four (or more) years. One of the truths of a long-term relationship is that after a while you kind of stop talking, especially about important things like feelings. You know the stereotype of the older couple at a restaurant, sitting across from each other and eating in silence. It’s very difficult to avoid becoming that couple…especially when you add in the distraction factors of children and work and life, etc. RM and I were well on our way to becoming that couple…until I had my poly epiphany.
We have been talking about our feelings—our innermost thoughts and desires, our fears and dreams for the future. It is some of the frankest and most intimate talk we have ever had, I think, in our relationship. It has also been some of the most painful, emotion-producing conversation we have ever had.
One of the most disturbing aspects of these conversations we have had is the realization that we have been mis-communicating for many years. This includes the fairly common mistake of assuming we know what the other person is thinking—you know, when you have the conversation in your head without bothering to include the actual other person. We also have fallen into the common trap of assuming “it’s what I think, so it should be obvious to you”. We have also been disturbed by the degree to which we have both been using the same words but meaning very different things—for years.
An example of this is the word “infatuation”. RM and I have come to the conclusion that we mean different things when we use this word to describe feelings for someone. I have the idea that to be infatuated with someone means a certain set of feelings and maybe behaviors towards that person. RM’s opinion is that these feelings and behaviors are better described by the term “in love”. I have a hard time talking about feelings, anyway—it always feels like I’m not really getting at the core of it with words. It has been difficult for us to talk about what “infatuation” means, or what it looks like. One of the difficulties is the issue of trying to measure and describe intensity of feelings. What it feels like to be “in love” seems to have a different intensity for RM than it does for me, but it is extremely difficult to put it into meaningful words. There is no objective scale—one that would mean the same thing to both of us—to measure depth of feeling. We continue to struggle with this. It is important because once we start to add feelings for a third person into the mix we both feel it is crucial to clearly communicate how we are feeling about that person with each other. This is partly a condition set by how we have decided to become poly—as a couple, looking for a third, but it is also relevant to other situations.
I think that this kind of mis-communication is a symptom of the myth of romantic bonding that we all grew up hearing. It’s what RM refers to as the “two bodies, one heart and soul” myth. You are supposed to find the one true love that will complete you. This idea is everywhere—in books, movies, songs, fairy tales. An example we like to use is the Shrek movies, where being with your “one true love” is important enough to give up your humanity for.
This myth leads to all kinds of insidious communication problems. If romantically bonding with someone means that they automatically are inside your head, then you don’t need to actually talk about anything, right? You and your partner will automatically be in sync. The problem is that in the process of talking we inevitably run across issues or behaviors or topics in which we are not in sync. This only needs to come up in a very few topics to cause pain and confusion.
I mentioned before that these conversations have at times been painful. I don’t want to exaggerate; there have been moments when I have felt overwhelmed by the painfulness of the conversation—enough almost to feel like giving up, like this journey we are on is not only futile but is involving unnecessary torture. There have been times in our conversation when I felt like not only were we speaking different languages but that we weren’t ever going to be able to come up with a universal translator to bridge the gap. The process of trying to find a common vocabulary—or at least the process of trying to make our peace with the fact that we won’t ever truly “grok” what the other person is thinking or feeling—that we can only approximate it—is painful and hard. It is hard to remember in these moments that the purpose of all this is the goal of opening ourselves up to more—to more love, more family, more connections with people. RM seems to have at times a clearer sense of why we are doing this and how far we have come. He won’t let me give up, no matter how bad it seems in any given moment.
Here’s another example of a topic we are now actually talking about—rather than talking around—which is actually feeling positive and healthy. We have started to have conversations about our sexual orientations—RM’s as well as my own bisexual leanings. For years this was a topic of conversation that just led to frustration for both of us—for RM because he felt he couldn’t really express his desires without hurting me, and for me because I didn’t perceive that there was anywhere we could go with these feelings—the idea of pursuing relationships based on these desires seemed out of the question. This was frustrating enough that we both just stopped talking about it. In the spirit of the free-for-all communication we have begun, however, we have had many frank and open discussions in the last couple of months about these feelings we both have, about how they affect our relationship, and about what we would like to do about it. I have been able to talk about why discussing RM’s bisexual feelings made me uncomfortable in the past—which were not the reasons he thought I was uncomfortable. He has been sharing the depth and nature of his feelings in a way that he never felt comfortable doing before. We have been having a bit of fun “people watching”, together, and discussing what we like or don’t like about what we see—yes, it’s a bit shallow, but it is establishing some common ground for future choices.
This brings me back to the question of what all this communication is “for”. The reason everybody’s advice to us was to communicate is because in order to make poly work for us, we have to be coming from a strong base. Our relationship with each other has to be as healthy as we can make it before we invite someone else into the dynamic. It feels a little bit like becoming a parent, in a way—if anybody ever really understood what was involved in raising children before they had them, the species would die out in one generation. Doing the work to learn to communicate, to correct the mis-communication of the past is hard. It’s something you can’t really know on a gut level until you are doing it. It’s a daily commitment to do this work, even though it’s hard, because ultimately we know it will be worth it. Even if we never find that poly relationship that we dream about, our marriage and our relationship is much stronger and healthier than it was…and that alone makes this work worth it.
Pegasus & Renaissance Man; January 08, 2006
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