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The Heart is a Muscle

The heart is a muscle.

That’s a statement of obvious anatomy, but I think of the metaphorical heart as a muscle as well. One that flexes and contracts with a smooth strength as it navigates the emotional boot camp that non-monogamy can be at times. When you’re keeping pace to it’s beat and the endorphins are flowing, it’s a blissfully easy piece of equipment to have. But many of us feel one premature ventricular contraction away from uncharted territory.

If we dare to consider our emotional strength similar to our physical strength, we can begin to look at ways to maintain it in much the same way.

In non-monogamy, sometimes we can fall into a pattern of complacency where it’s too easy to ask someone else to do the work for us while these important emotional muscles simply atrophy from non-use. Asking partners to manage our pain points seems so appealing in the moment, but it does nothing to alleviate the pain long term when what that spot really needs is to be touched, worked on, stretched, and developed. 

My body has been through a lot. I know where my pain points are, and how I’m supposed to take care of them. I know which side is weaker, and which is stronger. The recommended stretches, optimal duration of workouts, professional advice, and healthy habits – all of these are things I’m aware of. Sometimes, I even avail myself of them in such a way that I make actual progress!

The heart is no different, because the heart is a muscle.

My heart has been through a lot. I know where it’s pain points are, and how I’m supposed to take care of them. I know when I feel weak and fall short of my own standards for emotional maturity, and I know where I am strong enough to feel good and stable and safe. When I take the time to stretch a little further, I am rewarded with more comfort in that flexibility the next time. The efforts expended in areas of emotional growth are balanced best with self-care in appropriate doses. My therapist provides professional advice during these workouts. My healthy habits make all of these things more possible.

When I stop taking care of my body, it does things that make me unhappy. I lose strength and my muscles atrophy. I lose my resolve to progress. I compare the weaker version of myself to the one I could have been if I’d kept up with my program. It’s harder to feel good when I don’t do the things I know make me feel that way.

The heart is no different, because the heart is a muscle.

When I stop asking myself to work on the areas of me that need to be built up in order to support the whole of me, other areas overcompensate. If I neglect my mental health, my compulsions will step in and manage my thoughts for me. If I relax my boundaries to make others happy, the part of me that once only had to check for cracks in the foundation now has to pick up the pieces and rebuild with compromised materials. But when one part gets stronger, the areas that had to take up the slack before can go back to their original jobs.

Recently I’ve come out on the other side of some intense emotional work, and I’m beginning to see the payoff. It’s like flexing an impressive bicep after a year of focused training – there is a sense of pride, but also a genuine strength that informs how a body, or a heart, moves through the world. 

Finding time and expending energy to keep my body healthy and strong can sometimes be a chore. It doesn’t always feel great in the moment. I get sore. I get tired. I have days when I just don’t want to and the couch looks so tempting with perhaps a quart of ice cream. But I’m better for sticking to it – stronger, more stable, and far more confident in my abilities.

And the heart is no different, because the heart is a muscle.

Guest Blog: Coming Out as Non-Monogamous

In a perfect world, coming out wouldn’t be necessary; we would feel free to be our authentic selves and live our lives without negative consequences. But in most of the world, negative consequences are a valid fear for many.

Let’s not dismiss those. You may have heard horror stories: being ostracized by family, the vengeful ex-partner leveraging it to wrestle custody away, or employment in jeopardy. While these consequences are indeed possible, they are thankfully the exception and not the rule.

You get to evaluate what your risk profile is when deciding to come out!

When doing that, be honest. Don’t find reasons to not be out. Instead, find the reasons you want to be your authentic self. For the longest time, I thought I was “hiding in plain sight” to justify not being fully outright about who I was. In reality, I was still actively hiding this part of myself and not being honest about the nature of my relationships. That was unfair to my partner(s), those close to me, and even myself. Frankly? It’s caused irreversible harm . . . and I won’t do that again. As a result of coming out, my life and relationships have been that much better. It wasn’t the easiest decision I’ve ever made, but I have zero regrets. I found my fear was rooted in people not accepting me as my authentic self, rather than not accepting my partners. Rejection sucks. 

It helps to know where your support comes from and start there. Doing so helps foster a feeling of acceptance for who you are, aids in keeping you accountable, and generally allows you to show up as your best self. Having a proper support network will go a long way towards helping you feel safer in being your authentic self. For tips on finding/forming it, read Support Networks.

I’ve practiced some form of ethical non-monogamy my entire adult life, dating back to my senior year of high school when I dated multiple people at once. In my young adulthood I encountered people from the swinging community, but after very brief research I decided it wasn’t for me. Regrettably, I spent time as a much bemoaned Unicorn Hunter (for more on ways that route is often problematic, read Unicorns R Us). Ultimately, I craved autonomy. And for that, I needed to be honest about who I was.

Once I made the decision to come out, I opted to come out fully. Family, friends, work, you name it. I told those closest to me in person while most everyone else found out via social media. I no longer hide it and speak freely of my partners. Fortunately I haven’t had anyone walk away because of it. Some folks struggled early on, and some made snide remarks. When I reinforce my stance that this is who I am and others are free to be a positive part of my life or not, all that passes.

The best part about being out for me is not worrying about people finding out and dealing with the imagined fallout. I took that control back and did it on my terms. By coming out, I was able to show the important people in my life that they mattered more than outside opinions, and I showed myself that I matter as well.

When you treat non-monogamy like it’s something weird, (or shameful, deviant, immoral. . . you get the point), others will perceive it as such. Treat it like it’s normal because it is. Treat your partners the same as you would any partner in a monoamorous relationship. Include those who matter in your life at the level you WANT them at. You get to decide how you show up, not society.

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Since mid 2016, Adam (he/him) has been an educator and presenter in the ENM community. He realized he was poly in high school and has practiced various forms of non-monogamy ever since. With a primary goal of normalizing a variety of relationship structures, he shows up as his authentic self: an egalitarian polyamorist who practices relationship anarchy.

Expect Autonomy

In my adulting adventures, I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in several communities that have high expectations of autonomy and accountability. To this end, one of the groups I had the pleasure of belonging to phrased this expectation as “be your own camp counselor” which, while self explanatory, has some layers.

I write a lot about autonomy without actually using the word, but I’m going to hammer it pretty hard this time around because autonomy is the foundational principle upon which I structure relationships. And autonomy is very much about being one’s own camp counselor. In relationships, we shouldn’t expect to be managed by our partners and we shouldn’t expect to manage our partners in return.

More to the point: when we expect our partners to modify their behavior to address our insecurities, we’re asking to be managed. Partners are not camp counselors, and we should not expect them to change anything about themselves that isn’t causing harm. We can ask, of course, and it’s our responsibility to advocate for ourselves by asking for what we need. But we always need to be okay with a “no” so long as what we’re asking for is not a reduction in harmful behavior.

For example: if every time my partner picks up a cookie I ask them how their diet is going, they’re going to be justified in asking me to knock that the fuck off. However, if every time I go on a date with another partner they text me and ask me to cut my date short, they are going to have to do a little self-wrangling to get to the bottom of why that request feels reasonable to them. It isn’t my job to modify my behavior in the meantime; they will need to be their own camp counselor.

Furthermore, if I were to modify my behavior to address their insecurities, that would be me infantilizing them and taking away an opportunity for them to grow. Autonomy is a great defense against future resentment. To deprive yourself of experiences that cause no harm simply because someone else is struggling to allow you to fully utilize your autonomy is a sure fire way to grow a great big resentment garden out of a well-meaning seed of consideration.

On the other side of things, there is a lot of dignity to be found in managing your own shit. When a partner attempts to tailor my experience with them to match some imagined version of what I might be feeling, it takes away my ability to show up authentically. Not everyone will find comfort in every aspect of non-monogamy, but if they’re never allowed the opportunity to develop those muscles, they’ll remain in a static state of discomfort.

Once upon a time, I had an agreement with a partner that we would give each other a “heads up” if another relationship progressed to the point where sexual activity was on the table. I think the reason we felt this was reasonable is because there was some discomfort around the idea of the other one getting to that point with someone else. Knowing about it ahead of time might allow us a chance to work through any feelings that came up for us before *it* happened. But . . . why? Why did we feel like we needed to wait until someone new came along before we did that work, and why did the work need to be done each time? I don’t recall how we justified that, but I can tell you the person giving the heads up ended up feeling like they were reporting to a supervisor, and the person receiving the information lived in a state of waiting to be hit with it. We decided pretty quickly that it felt icky to treat each other like children, and it felt a lot more dignified to deal with whatever came up for us naturally as the other person did what people do when they date new folks – have sex sometimes, or not. Whatever. Being our own camp counselors in this regard felt a lot better than being each other’s.

Autonomy is a gift we give not only to ourselves, but to each other. Each time I feel compelled to ask someone to do something differently, I try to take a moment to ask myself if what I need is really within my own abilities to provide; it usually is. I feel best building my own fires, leading my own hikes, and picking which obnoxious songs to sing. Being my own camp counselor may include handling the occasional garter snake, but when it’s all said and done, I can be proud of the path I’ve forged and the way I’ve shown up in my life and the lives of those I care about more often than not.

Oh, The Humanity . . .

I once had an English professor insist that no experience was truly universal. She was right to caution us against alienating readers with hyperbole, but if there were a universal human experience, it would be a perfectly imperfect existence.

The human condition requires that we make mistakes. Statistics ensure we make them most often with those we spend the majority of our time with. If we are lucky, we are loved through them and trusted to do better next time. But being worthy of that trust requires awareness and a desire to do better. Aye, there’s the rub . . . 

It’s easy to make mistakes when you don’t have a clear path. Walk your living space in broad daylight and your route is simple to discern: your spatial awareness, balance and all your future moves can be processed and mapped out before you take the first step. Walk that same path with no light and it’s another experience entirely: each move you make carries with it the possibility of ruin, or at least a stubbed toe. This is what it can be like to navigate non-traditional relationship structures. Without millennia of approved examples to refer to, we’re left to make it up as we go – or, you know, muck it up as we go.

Mistakes come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes you just don’t know any better. Sometimes you do . . . and you do it anyway, only to wish you hadn’t. Oh, and sometimes you don’t realize you’ve messed up until much, much later.

I’ve been on both sides of Mistake Lake. I’ve been the person rowing us out to the middle, and the person being dragged behind the boat. Neither position is particularly pleasurable; both have roles and responsibilities in relationships focused on continuous improvement.

If there were achievements to unlock in this regard, you could consider me an expert-level mistaker. It’s like I’m on a lifelong quest to locate all the ‘Oh, Shit’ easter eggs on this plane of existence. Sometimes I make the same damn mistakes over and over, even as I watch myself do it. 

OH MY GOD HOW DOES ANYONE LOVE ME?!?!?

My mistakes generally happen in the form of words that come out of my most prominent face-hole. It would stand to reason that a writer would gravitate towards that particular mechanism of dumbassery, yes? Words: they are my blessing and my curse. But words, contextualized with motivation, are behavior indeed. Speech is an act – never doubt it. Whether unkind, unnecessary, untrue, or unhelpful, there are all manner of reasons to need to reconsider one’s words. And I’m aware of all of them.

My weapon of choice? Passive-aggression.

Because of COURSE I choose the sword I hate the most from my own collection. After all, it’s forged in the fires of plausible deniability and is therefore nearly invincible. The only defense against it is a higher moral standard, but one cut alone is often enough to exsanguinate my victims of their moral lifeblood: emotional maturity.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself, but folks, there are days when I feel like such an imposter and Bad Poly Person that it’s hard to imagine ever fully coming back from my missteps when they happen.

But I do. We all do, if we want to.

Regardless of your weapon of choice, I carry a nifty tool in my relationship toolbox you might find helpful. It’s called an amends. The way it works is pretty simple: when you realize you’ve done something you wish you hadn’t, you acknowledge the error in an apology, ask if there’s anything you can do to right the wrong, do that thing if it’s in your power to do, and then resolve to do better next time. Also? Forgive yourself. You’re not in control of whether or not anyone else does, but believe in your own desire to be a good person and be gentle with your self-talk. Beating yourself up will accomplish nothing.

And if you’re on the other side of this ritual? Try as best you can to extend the grace you’d hope for if it were you. This is how we love each other through the bullshit when we have to build our support networks from the ground up. Holding onto resentment when someone is making an effort to repair their wrongs is usually an inefficient use of emotional energy and does little to incentivize folks to do better next time.

One caveat though: if these missteps become a pattern of behavior someone always apologizes for but never shows up differently in? You just might be dealing with someone it would be best to distance yourself from. Leveraging false grace to continue to be an asshole is some next-level shit. Recovering from mistakes requires effort, progress, and change – don’t accept less than that.

Once upon a time, I became an ordained minister of an internet church so I could perform services for my eldest child and my now daughter-in-law. In that, I was gifted the opportunity to write their vows. The only one I wrote was a promise that they continue to be sweet one another.

And really, that’s all this boils down to. The human condition guarantees we will grind some undeserved salt on our loved ones from time to time. I implore you to use your grown-up tools to find the sweetness you truly intend, and the vulnerability to give, and accept it, in kind.

Mismatched Desire

Most non-monogamous people hail from amatonormative upbringings reinforced by pop culture, media, families of origin, etc. We work to unlearn that while trying to navigate a course that isn’t supported by a lot of widely available maps. Along the way communication becomes our primary religion, because without it we’re condemning ourselves to actual hell.

Talk, talk, talk – listen, listen, listen – and then talk some more, while listening, and on and on forever until death brings its sweet release.

I’m kidding of course – even if I never had another partner again besides the one I have now, I’d still insist on that much communication because I am a better partner for it. And what requires the most communication, is the stuff that isn’t all matchy-matchy in our hearts and minds.

For example: I have three kids. Well, actually I have four because one kiddo is married and his wife is for sure one of my darlings. So I have four kids, and there’s a good chance someone, someday, is gonna add a twig to the family tree. After holding a new niece last year, I began to wax pre-sentimental about the prospect of being a grandparent. My partner informed me in no uncertain terms that I should NOT become attached to the idea that we grandparent together . . . and, that’s fair. When I was much younger, I took for granted I’d be growing old with someone who would share my affinity for children, but rarely does reality look like a romanticized fantasy. I won’t give up the dream of being the coolest grandma in the whole wide world, but my current partner has clearly communicated that he does not see himself by my side in that endeavor and I am genuinely grateful to know that up front.

And that’s the thing about communicating freely and welcoming it from your partners: you never have to be blindsided by mismatched desires. He and I can move forward with the awareness that I have positive feelings about the prospect of someday being a grandmother (maybe – no pressure, kids) and I know he’s less-than-thrilled and even a little worried I might be disappointed in his non-involvement there. It doesn’t mean we have perfect feelings, but it means we are well informed, and therefore we can negotiate with reasonable expectations if the issue ever arises.

Wait – isn’t negotiation something you do with a hostile force?

I mean, yeah, sometimes. But I prefer negotiating with nice folks like my partners. And I like to keep the focus on self-advocacy vs. compromise as it’s a really big component of autonomy. Self-advocacy focuses on individual priorities, while compromise is more about meeting in the middle.

So, if my priority as a grandparent is maximizing my time with my grand-kids, and my partner’s priorities do not match mine, it is not a given that we should meet each other in the middle where he’ll be partially miserable and I’ll be getting less than I want. Self-advocacy and a willingness to honor individual desires instead of subscribing to the dominant narrative that states couples have to basically be a hive mind or they’re not truly connected allows each individual to come out on top.

I feel truly connected when I am free to do as I please and my partners love me exactly as I am without making themselves miserable on my behalf or expecting me to do the same for them.

Misery is not a metaphorical bouquet of long-stemmed roses.

If my partner chose to grandparent with me out of a false sense of obligation to my desire and not because he wanted to, it would ruin it for me. If he does opt to join? Cool beans – I’ll be able to trust he is doing exactly what he wants to be doing. Cuz you know what? I’m gonna be one stupidly happy old lady spending time with my grand-kids (that may or may not manifest, and honestly it’s super okay if they don’t – I mean it, no pressure kids) and he can go be stupidly happy doing something else, and then we can reconnect as stupidly happy people living our best lives instead of partially miserable ones, wishing we were elsewhere.

Which would you rather be?

Guest Blog: Support Networks

As with any group that doesn’t follow the dominant narrative, finding support as a non-monogamous person is not the easiest thing. Support networks are often taken for granted until you NEED one to help get through something. Generally speaking, coming from a place of need is not always the best starting point.

What happens when a relationship with one of your partners ends, or you have an exciting trip with one of them coming up? It would sure be great if you had people to confide in or talk with enthusiastically about it!

When you don’t follow the dominant narrative, you find out quickly just how limited your support network may be!

So how do we go about building support networks to carry us through the ups and downs? Ones that won’t take the route of assigning blame where it doesn’t belong or rain on our parade when we’re gushing with happiness?

Here are some options to consider:

  • Online discussion groups, such as those available on Facebook, provide quick and easy access to a wide variety of people. It may take some searching to find the right fit, but they’re out there.
  • In person discussion groups! I help moderate one in my hometown that regularly draws large crowds. We socialize and discuss in depth topics relevant to ethical non-monogamy.
  • Buckle up…this one is scary: being your authentic self. Yes, this means being open about being non-monogamous, but then people who won’t love and support YOU will self-select out of your life, creating a decidedly more effective support network. It’s hard to articulate just how much perceptions changed once people KNEW what was going on in my life instead of assuming and ascribing all sorts of toxic notions to it after I was open about being poly. A literal 180.
  • Communities of like-minded folks, and not necessarily non-monogamous ones. This is a broad topic, but that’s kind of the beauty of it. I participate in a few different local groups that are fully aware of how I relationship, and I’ve been very fortunate to have found solid support and acceptance in them.

Now that you’ve found your people, how do you know if it’s a healthy fit?!?

  • Do they accept you for you?
  • Do they call you out on problematic thinking and behavior?
  • Do they encourage you to show up as the best version of yourself?
  • Do they foster autonomy for you vs co-dependence?
  • Do you feel supported by their actions and words?

This list is by no means the be-all and end-all . . . just a good starting point.

Life is about the relationships we build along the way. Not just romantic or physical, but familial, platonic, and professional as well! No single style of relationship is more important than any other by default. It’s the quality of each that sets them apart. The more authentic you are, the stronger the relationships that come into, and stay in, your life will become.

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Since mid 2016, Adam (he/him) has been an educator and presenter in the ENM community. He realized he was poly in high school and has practiced various forms of non-monogamy ever since. With a primary goal of normalizing a variety of relationship structures, he shows up as his authentic self: an egalitarian polyamorist who practices relationship anarchy.

Self-Love Languages

Lately, I’ve become enamored with the idea that we have a language we prefer to care for ourselves in.

If you’re not familiar with The 5 Love Languages, take a moment to check them out and maybe even take their short quiz.

Caveat: it’s incredibly mononormative, but many non-monogamous folks have found it useful. Take what you like and leave the rest!

I watch so many folks stop making time for themselves when they add romantic partners – as though their own needs don’t need to be prioritized as well. We have a tendency to spread ourselves terribly thin in non-monogamy at times, (doing all the things! making time for all the people!) but when our needs are not being attended to in our relationship with ourselves, the results can be self-doubt, low self-esteem, apathy, irritability – all things that can bleed into those other relationships and wreak havoc. How are you supposed to pour from an empty cup? Gotta fill the cup. 

Advice from “expert” proponents of self-care range from posting up inspirational quotes around your home, to treating yourself to a nice meal out. Some of their suggestions may resonate with you while some won’t. For example: I can’t imagine having inspirational sayings around my home . . . I would get nothing out of it, yet I have a dear friend who probably can’t survive without a “live, laugh, love” reminder on the kitchen wall. 

But how does one go about loving themselves fluently? 

Well, first of all: carve out time for yourself to do so. Oh, I super mean it . . . you need to take that Google calendar that looks like a color block art experiment and section off some time for you, yourself, and uh, you I guess. And don’t give it away!! Resist the urge!!

Confession: I am super bad at this. As an extravert, my inclination is to see time spent with others as more valuable than time alone and I need to make sure I’m finding a balance for myself with that. Everyone’s ratio of solo time to social time will vary of course, but some type of balance is important.

Second of all: don’t post inspirational quotes around your home if you think they’re dumb. BUT TOTALLY DO IT IF YOU THINK THEY’RE GREAT! To each their own, and that’s my point. You can read about ways to practice self-care all day long, but if what you’re attempting to do for yourself isn’t communicated in the language you understand best, it will fall short of its goal.

Here are some examples of ways to love yourself in your most-fluent language:

Touch

  • Taking a hot bath, using a hot tub, or sauna
  • Snuggling your cat, dog, or a baby raccoon (if you are so lucky)
  • If weather allows, get outside and feel the sunshine
  • Wearing clothes that you feel your best in

Words of Affirmation

  • Inspirational quotes on every surface of your home (or whatever feels good)
  • Writing a letter to your future self and tucking it away for a rainy day
  • Making a gratitude jar, and taking time to review it later

Receiving Gifts

  • Totally buying those boots you saw at DSW that are now on sale and lucky you, they just sent you a birthday coupon with a card for a free tote bag – what are you waiting for?!?
  • Getting the fancy coffee drink
  • If you tend to make things for others, make something for yourself instead (I made myself a wallet and I get compliments on it all the time – it’s so interesting to see people’s faces when I explain I made it for myself! More people should do that.)

Quality Time

  • Working on a pet project
  • Taking yourself out on a date to a movie, favorite place, or planning a vacation
  • Meditating, journaling, or doing something else that brings you peace
  • Exercise (I hear some people like that)

Acts of Service

  • Hiring someone to take care of a chore you dislike or is time consuming, like detailing your car or cleaning your home
  • Treating yourself to a manicure, facial, or massage
  • Making yourself a food that makes you feel good feelings
  • Prepping for the following day at bedtime to make the morning go more smoothly

My primary self love language is quality time. I touched on it last week in my blog about loneliness, sharing how I maximize my free time: by being mindfully productive and intentionally active. For me, wasted alone time feels akin to being with someone who is less-than-enthusiastic to be spending time with me – except that person is me, and we are wasting my time. Rude!

Sometimes I forget to prioritize myself.

When I remember I am just as important as everyone else, and that I have a responsibility to myself to honor that fact, I feel far more balanced and sure of myself. I hope it also makes me a better friend, partner, and all around human!