You Can't Just "Shut It Down"
Some books and theories seem to treat newer relationships, or secondary relationships, like they’re with ideas, rather than with people. “Protecting” primary or older relationships is such a priority for these theories of polyamory that people get caught up in treating previous partner or partners with kid gloves and don’t consider the very real, human feelings of new ones, except to note that they might leave.
I was reminded of this when talking with a friend about our recent reading of Jessica Fern’s book Polysecure, which addresses the attachment model and polyamory. We were both really hoping for something that didn’t involve suggestions like, (paraphrased) ‘maybe take six months or a year off of your newer relationship to strengthen your primary relationship and make sure that’s really strong before testing its security by adding more again. Of course, it’s within an outside partner’s rights to leave if you do this.’ This note is, of course, sufficient for the point she’s making, and her book lays out her points, which I haven’t done enough research on attachment to make an alternative to, very clearly - but I have to hope there’s an alternative. It can’t simply be that the only way in the world to be secure in a connection is to shut down other connections for months at a time. This isn’t true of non-romantic connections. We don’t stop seeing our mothers, our friends, our cousins and our siblings because we’re solidifying security in our romantic connection. There’s got to be an alternative to “Shut it all down” that’s less disrespectful of the other relationships we’ve built - and the people we’ve built them with.
Because, essentially, that’s my problem - and the problem my friend who started this conversation with me the other day was having - with this concept - it’s rude and dehumanizing to our other partners to say “My longest-standing partner Arthur is having this major problem, so Belinda, I’m just not going to see you for about 6 months, and only text you updates like once a month. I care about you though, so I’m going to expect that you’re still available for this same relationship unless you tell me otherwise, specifically.” That is unthinkably pompous, arrogant, and rude on the part of the person making the assumption. How can you put someone and a whole relationship on the shelf and expect them to be there like a can of beans? People live and breathe and change, and are likely to find other folks to be with and things to do. If we love them, we should even HOPE that they do these things instead of waiting for us with a sigh at the window. But the nature of these requests is to stifle growth in our partners and to ask them to sit there waiting for us, to expect them to pine instead of go about their business. It’s disrespectful. It’s self-centered.
Some self-centering, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, can be a positive side effect of polyamory - not having to focus on meeting all the needs of others because they have other partners who can help with soothing at a given moment, or mutually working over bumps in the road that are caused by moments like uncomfortable early dates without bailing out of relationships so you can demonstrate that you come back can be positive for any relationship you’re in and lowering the insecurities and raising the self-esteem of all involved (and I say this as someone with a naturally hefty plate of insecurities and low starter portion of self-esteem who has, through experience, therapy, and practice, shrunk some of the insecurities and raised the self-esteem. That sentence makes it sound easier than it was.). Bailing out at the first opportunity doesn’t help anyone grow, and having double standards that are dramatically different for one partner’s reaction than for another (an evening of talking vs 6 months of relationship shut down, for example) don’t help in most cases. Smaller differences to account for differences in temperament or boundaries (a day vs a week of conversations) are normal and no big deal - so long as everyone recognizes it’s just a difference in personality and no one is carrying that around as a massive resentment later.
The resentment that can be born of “I shut everything down and lost what I think was starting to be great” (Even if you had no idea because you had two dates and the barest hint of NRE and then everything was shut down) is really the most dangerous thing. A pattern forming of control and closure whereby one partner seems to be trying to steer or control another’s choices is the kind of thing that can poison a relationship. One person is invested in their own and a newer person’s emotions and the other in ‘protecting the relationship’ as if ‘the relationship’ was a person and not a made up concept that they’re actually damaging with their behavior, over time.
I’m going to be teaching at Tethered to Wifi 2.0, a virtual conference on rope, movement, & relationships, March 19-21! It looks like I’ll be teaching Saturday morning, but the final schedule is still TBD. Tickets for the weekend are $25 for the rest of February and are available at tetheredtogether.net; There are a lot of great presenters, check it out.
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