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.
Changing the Emotional Landscape
I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about this journey that RM and I are on, and how hard we are working to make sure our relationship is in the best possible shape it can be before we try to add another person or persons into the mix. A part of the conversation revolved around why we are doing this. My friend is very aware of the painful late night conversations, about the issues we have been bringing up and trying to deal with, and of the results we are trying for. After all, if all we wanted was to “hook up” with people, either together or separately, that would be simple enough. But we don’t just want that. We want to find love, family, connections with people that go beyond merely physical. And that requires that we get our own “house” in order.
We have taken to calling this process “Relationship Housecleaning”, partly because it seems like we are cleaning up emotional messes that have been hanging around in our relationship for a while—in some cases they are messes we brought with us to the relationship. Like communication, this kind of relationship assessment should not be unique to polyamory, and in fact is something almost any therapist will have a couple do. RM and I are just doing it in an intense and crash-course kind of way, with a goal in mind.
The “Housecleaning Chores” I want to talk about revolve around the kind of communication, perception and viewpoint differences that RM and I have been uncovering and trying to talk about and deal with. We have been shocked in a way by how much emotional clutter has been built up under the surface of our relationship over the years. Like the junk in the hall closet, this clutter needs to be cleared away.
We have been trying to sort through the emotional clutter we are uncovering. The clutter seems to consist of several kinds of emotions and preconceptions. An example that we have been talking about are the common cultural myths or stereotypes about relationships and love. The “one true love” myth. The “soul mate” myth. The “happily ever after myth”. I am beginning to think about these myths as the “Cinderella-Princess-Barbie” set, and so let’s clean out that “toy box”, shall we?
From the minute we are old enough to be aware of the world, the idea that you are supposed to find one person, whom you will love forever and for always is just part of the background noise of life. It’s in the fairytales we read as kids, it’s in the TV shows and movies we see, it’s in the romance novels and Ladies Home Journal articles we consume as adults. For RM, this myth or mindset is something that is deeply ingrained in his psyche. It has led him to construct this idea that the two of us could be—should be—a self-contained little world, independent of the rest of the planet, completely sufficient unto ourselves. He brought to the relationship this need for romantic love in its purest form. I suppose I had a dose of it too, though it manifested and played out differently for me.
RM has been struggling with letting go of this romantic ideal. There is a kind of grieving process that he is going through as he comes to realize and accept that the myth was a lie to begin with, that he can’t be everything in the world to me, that it is in fact toxic to be so closed off from other people. He has to accept that just because I have needs that other people could possibly fill that doesn’t mean that he is insufficient. He is also trying to open up to the idea that he needs other people too, that I can’t be everything for him, and that this is OK. This is difficult and often painful work. It has involved a lot of reassurance on my part, as I try to make sure he understands that although he can’t fulfill all my needs, the fact is that the things he does for me I could not get from anyone else.
For me it’s actually been a bit of a relief to realize and accept that I don’t have to try to live up to that romantic ideal. The “one true love” thing always felt kind of constricting to me, and I spent many years feeling inadequate, wrong and broken because I couldn’t live up to that ideal. But I also find myself wishing, especially when we are going through a particularly emotional conversation that I could have just accepted the one true love thing—it seems like it might have been easier….but I have never been the Cinderella-Princess-Barbie kinda girl, so that’s that.
We have also been observing and trying to deal with our own negative behaviors around conflict and emotional discussions. I tend to be a withdrawer. When the going gets tough, I pull away. Sometimes it seems easier for me to be inside my own head than to be out there with RM and the conflict. This is bad. I know this is bad, but it is a habit that will take some breaking. RM tends to focus around making himself feel neglected and unloved. I will fail to do something or direct some attention at someone else and RM makes this into an issue of how unworthy he is.
A thing we have both been trying to work on with varying degrees of success is changing these old patterns of emotional behavior. RM in particular has been working very hard at developing an awareness of when and how he reacts to situations, actions or people. I have been trying to increase my tolerance level for his emotions, and to try to truly see things form his angle—which is a failing that I have had. An example of how this has been working is our discussions around the concept of flirting.
RM has always had a problem with my flirting with other people, which I knew about but didn’t really understand. I am a big flirt, I always have been. For me it is a form of friendly social interaction. I’ll flirt with almost anybody, gender is not a consideration, neither is age, ethnicity, etc. I don’t have to have romantic or sexual intentions towards someone to flirt with them, although I might. For RM, on the other hand, flirting has always been a kind of announcement of sexual or romantic interest. It is never casual, and is not, in his mind, something you do without intent. For me to be flirting with other people did not fit in with his concept of the romantic ideal.
I did not realize, in all the years I was flirting with people, exactly why RM was bothered. Let me make it clear—I did know that he was bothered, but I would ignore his reaction or dismiss it on the grounds that he was being unreasonably possessive or jealous. I did not understand that it wasn’t the behavior I was engaged in so much that bothered him, but what he perceived instead as what my intent must be to engage in the behavior in the first place. RM has finally been able to articulate why my flirting with other people has bothered—hurt—him over the years. This has led me to understand—truly “get” why he was bothered. I have been able to explain how I think about flirting with people; as a kind of continuum of interaction/interest, from the very simple friendly contact to full-blown sexual come-on. We are coming to terms with some common vocabulary of intent and flirtation that can suit us both.
We have begun to realize that it is extremely important to be aware of our reactions to situations. We are trying to develop skill sets for recognizing reactions, interrupting them, analyzing what’s going on and being able to choose a more appropriate reaction. We have begun to try to talk about the reactions, try to contextualize them for each other, and to channel our emotions into new paths.
And while this all sounds really enlightened of us, it’s been damned hard work, and not always successful. There have been several times in the last month (the other evening springs to mind) when one or the other (or both) of us has been overwhelmed by the emotions we are dealing with and clear level-headed discussion goes out the window. It is sometimes difficult to stay the course. The fact that we have twenty years of dealing with each other and our issues is a big part of what gets us through these tough times. There is a bond that on some level transcends the crisis of the moment.
Just like “real” housecleaning, we are finding some nasty messes that we thought we could ignore, or that were hidden under piles of other stuff. But (to stretch my metaphor) we are also hoping that the spring cleaning we are engaged in will make the whole of our relationship “house” sturdier and just nicer to live in, as well as being the kind of house that company (perhaps a potential partner?) is welcome in!
Pegasus & Renaissance Man; February 10, 2006
Pegasus & Renaissance Man are contributing writers as well as members of this online Community. They can be contacted here or through our message board Forums.
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