Compersion

There are a lot of words we use in the practice of ethical non-monogamy (and that I use here on my blog) that may not translate well in most circles. Language evolves to suit the society it’s used by, and that is as it should be, but I’m not a fan of how some folks weaponize ideas that could be useful tools in articulate conversation, but instead become laden with negative connotations.

Case in point!

  • Compersion: The positive feeling you get from your partner’s enjoyment of the relationships and associated activities they share with their other partner(s). Kinda like being happy for your BFF when they win the lottery. Except your BFF is your partner and the lottery is totally having sex* with them . . .

Often times, this concept is held up as the holy grail of polyamory. Pure Compersion is marketed to non-monogamists as the “opposite of jealousy” or some evolved emotion we should all aspire to – the alternative is, of course, some shameful state of being in which you . . . I don’t know . . . have a range of human emotions.

Fuck that nonsense.

Look: human beings are not on/off switches. We’re more like faucets with varying degrees of water pressure and unreliable temperature controls. Sometimes we run out of hot water and sometimes the water main breaks. I myself am generally feeling 17 emotions at any given time. Compersion is often one of them, and a lot of times it likes to drag envy and loneliness along for the ride.

I mean, OMG I would be so happy if my best friend won the lottery. SO HAPPY FOR HER. And also, jealous. Of course I’d be jealous. I wouldn’t act out of jealousy and attempt to manipulate or cause her harm. I wouldn’t insist that in order to remain my friend she should cut me a check so that I wouldn’t have to feel jealous anymore. No. That is not how we show up for each other.

Compersion is similar. Of COURSE I’m so happy for my partners when they get to do fun things, feel good feelings, fall in love, have healthy relationships with a variety of people, and generally enjoy their lives. And sometimes I wish I was the one they were doing those things with. It doesn’t erase the fact that I’m happy for them. Both things can be true at once.

Emotional maturity informs compersion, but a lack of compersion does not translate to emotional immaturity. I think the polyamorous community could do themselves a favor here and acknowledge that ALL feelings are valid. Perhaps then we could all feel ownership over a term that simply acknowledges our happiness for our partners’ happiness, regardless of the multifaceted, layered, and complex emotions that come with it.

*yes, I am aware polyamory is not about sex and also that not all relationships include sex – this was a hyperbolic statement intended to incite feelings of mirth in the reader and if you needed this footnote to get past it, well then you’re welcome!

Gratitude

I recently had an epiphany related to an insecurity I have.

I fear losing what I don’t actively attach to when access to that thing is under the control of someone else. For example, if I were to only ever eat cake when my friend Susan made it, I would fear losing access to cake if she thought it were no longer important to me. The solution is simple, yes? Let Susan know how much every moment without her cake pains me. Talk incessantly about how much I miss the cake. Send random texts that just say “OMG, remember that cake last week? That was probably the best cake yet.” Definitely make the entire relationship about the cake I am terrified of losing.

Because that won’t make her feel reduced to cake. No, of course not.   /sarcasm

And if in this metaphor cake is some other finite resource, like say time? Or attention? Well… the same is true.

When my kids were babies I was their whole world. Their dependence on me was a natural part of their development, but even then it felt overwhelming at times. Juggling time and attention and money and energy and feeling like I probably didn’t have enough of any of those to make everyone happy. But then they grew up a little. And they began to be self-sufficient in enough areas that I could focus my finite resources on where I could love them best – and even maybe carve out some time for myself.

As an adult I’ve seen how codependency in romantic relationships manifests much like the effects of infancy on a parent. Sometimes I am the parent; sometimes I am the baby. Sometimes I am the baby more often than I wish I was.

But did you know? Cake is 100 times better when someone makes it for you freely and out of a genuine desire to than when it is made under duress and to appease your seemingly insatiable need for it.

My active (sometimes desperate) attaching to certain aspects of relationships has caused harm in the past. The part of me that gets scared of losing what feels so wonderful in the moment sometimes forgets that what you smother will eventually die.

But at least I have that awareness.

And awareness informs actions, if we let it.

And believe me when I tell you that I will never stop loving cake, but . . . I am learning to chew more slowly, and be grateful.

The Big Ask

It is really hard to ask for what you want.

This isn’t just a relationship issue – it’s a fear issue. We don’t want to want more of someone than they want to give us.

In polyamory, sometimes the stakes feel even higher because my partners have other partners and do not risk being alone by letting me go. As though my partner might decide it was easier to not be with me than attempt to address my desires. This is not a mindset conducive to healthy relationships. While I do not rely on a sense of obligation to tether my partners to me and I prize autonomy above limitation, the message society gives me counters this. At times, the seemingly tenuous nature of my connections is so evident it takes my breath away and in that mindset, the perceived risk of asking for something I want can feel more weighted – riskier.

To confront the unknown with peace, I have let go of the outcome. In order to get myself to this place, I remind myself that even if my worst fears were realized, (that I am too much for my partner and they end our relationship because of my stated desire), then the relationship was destined to end anyway. Expediting endings as opposed to dragging them out is ultimately preferable; it will hurt regardless. When I find the courage to ask for what I want, I find pleasure in the knowledge that I’m contributing to an information exchange and speaking my truth.

So . . . I feel as though I have a duty to ask for what I want.

To do that, I have to know what I want and be prepared to accept that the other person may not want it, too. Or may want it, and just not have it to give. In a relationship structure that involves more than two individuals, there is simply more to keep track of and less finite resources to go around. Direct communication is the only way anyone can be expected to manage it. It is the way I give my loved ones the opportunity to be what I want; I assure you, they cannot read my mind.

I have asked for more time and been told it wasn’t available to give, but also that my partner wanted more time too. I have stated my desire to be more visible in a relationship that is not entirely “out,” and am satisfied to have been heard even if nothing changes. I have asked for emotional support, a more consistent schedule, specific connections during time apart – and received all and more. Even when the answer has been no, I’ve received reassurance. I have never regretted communicating a want even though I was scared to ask. Every time.

If you have ever found yourself longing for something, convinced you’re destined to go without, but you’ve never actually said the words “I want XYZ,” you might be guilty of relying on passive communication. I cannot expect someone to divine my wants from my pointed complaints about others. There is no mind-reading technique I’m aware of that allows my partners to know what’s missing for me from the tone of my voice. A text without punctuation, or a varied level of affection in a given moment will not convey what’s in my head. If I am not using my words, I am falling short in my partnership.

And if I’m relying on passive communication with others, I am also failing in my relationship with myself.

If there is something I desire and do not have, I am already in a position of want – of not having it. I risk nothing tangible by asking for it, even if I receive a “no.” My perceived risk is the aforementioned fear about being a burden – or wanting too much. In reality, I’m just confirming the position I’m already in, or gaining something. By asking for what I want, I’m at the very least getting more information about my relationship. That is never a loss. I’m also giving my partner a chance to say yes, or to make some other adjustment in our relationship that might result in a compromise.

I also remind myself that the inherent impermanence of my relationships is no more so because they exist in a polyamorous framework – it is simply the nature of relationships between individual humans. We are all just out here negotiating our paths with others – no one can promise forever. When I remember that, and show up as myself without holding back, I contribute positively to the growth of my relationships, (both in depth and in breadth), and I show my partners they can do the same with me.

 

 

 

 

 

Desperately Seeking Normal

One of the reasons I write this blog is to contribute in whatever small way I can to the normalization of polyamory. I want the way I love to not be weird to people. It feels normal to me, but at times I’m struck by how my treatment of it as normal is seen as aggressive by others.

If I talk about my girlfriend and my boyfriend, I’m “talking about poly” when really, I’m just talking about relationships . . . as you do. My ups and downs just look a little different sometimes.

If I use words that are specific to polyamory, I’m “talking about poly” when really I’m using words that make the most sense in my life. People “talk about mono” all day all night, but it’s not notable because that’s all anyone sees unless someone like me makes a point of being visible.

Being visible is how shit gets normalized.

I get that when something outside the scope of normal gets brought up over and over again it can feel like saturation or promotion. But what are my options? Do I pretend that I have only one partner? Do I pretend we’re monoamorous? Of course not.

No one needs me to pretend to be anyone other than myself because nothing I’m doing in my relationships affects anyone who isn’t in them, regardless of whether or not they think it does.

So why is normalizing polyamory important?

Because anytime people are allowed to be themselves, they flourish.

You cannot tell I’m polyamorous to look at me. The assumption is that I’m not. That is how our society views relationships and anything outside of that is taboo or unethical. I mean, there are plenty of unethical relationships happening in and outside of monoamory, but poly is not inherently so. It’s not even mostly so.

I have encountered more people claiming to be mono and lying about it than I have encountered those who are poly. Mono relationships don’t have a monopoly on ethics, by any stretch. In fact, I believe that if poly were more acceptable in mainstream society, we would see far more ethical behavior with stigma eroded in favor of honesty.

But there is no path to that without normalization.

And there is no path to normalization without visibility.

And there is no visibility without talking about it . . . so you will have to forgive me for insisting on being visible. If you don’t see me for who I am and give me an opportunity to show you I’m perfectly normal, ethical, happy, and healthy, then I won’t be able to hope that someday I won’t have to be a secret in certain situations.

Rules vs. Boundaries

A long time ago in a galaxy right next door to the one I’m in, I learned an important lesson about setting and enforcing boundaries. As a poly person, I’ve had ample opportunities to practice all I’ve learned in that regard. So today I’m writing about boundaries and how they differ from rules in relationships.

To me, the concept is fairly simple to grasp but complicated to implement because while the concept is pretty rational, implementation involves FEELINGS.

Here is what I know:

Boundaries are created when you advocate for yourself. Rules are borne of wanting to control others.

Now, I’m a mom. I have a fair amount of rules because the job of parenting necessitates it. Rules keep the people I’m responsible for safe. But I am not responsible for my partners. I am responsible for myself, and responsible to them.

Huh?

I see it like this – I have expectations of my behavior when it comes to interacting with my partners. I’m honest, I mind my motivations, I own my personality flaws, and I honor their importance in my life to the best of my ability. These are the ways I feel responsible to them. I’m holding up my end of the bargain! But, in no way am I responsible for them. Not their behavior or their feelings or their Other Relationships.

So that means it’s not my job to make rules for them.

Boundaries? I have plenty!

And the really cool thing about taking the rule I want to make to appease my own insecurities and turning it into a boundary? Well… I usually realize just how silly it is. To illustrate I’ll address an issue I ran into with a partner about 20 years ago: the “I don’t want you to take your other partners to the places we go” conundrum. One of my boyfriends was upset I took another partner to his favorite restaurant. Here were the options available to him to address his concern:

Rule: “you’re not allowed to take other partners to the places we go together”

Boundary: “I don’t want to go to places you take your other partners”

I was unwilling to consider the rule, and he decided he didn’t want to limit himself.

So, instead of limiting the behavior of another person, boundaries limit what you’re willing to do. And in that process, you might discover you have no desire to limit yourself in that way. That’s usually how it shakes down for me. I dislike restrictions that stem from insecurity. I think rules that attempt to address insecurities tend to only be band aids for issues that need to be addressed, and in the end breed resentment.

Sometimes boundaries are necessary to keep us safe.

Safer sex is an oft-addressed topic in poly circles. Many couples choose to go barrier free, and as such, each of them is accepting some additional risk as their non-monogamous partners may engage in activities that could transmit STIs with others. The use of barriers between couples can look like rules or boundaries, also. In my own relationship, I’ve asked to be made aware of any mishaps with barriers or if a decision is made to go barrier free with another partner. That information will allow me to decide how I want to proceed with my body – if I want to continue to be barrier free, or if I want to choose to use barriers moving forward.

Rule: “you’re not allowed to go barrier free with other partners”

Boundary: “I want the ability to assess and address my own risks if you have other partners you go barrier free with”

Again, the boundary dictates my behavior while the rule is attempting to dictate the behavior of another.

So I’ll leave you with a parting exercise if this is something you’re interested in working on. Try taking a look at some of the rules you have in your partnerships and rephrasing them as boundaries for yourself instead to see if they still make sense. Caveat: beware the ultimatum – the “boundary” that includes a punishment for not getting your way. Those can be avoided by asking yourself what your motivations are – a thing that’s good to do all the time anyway.

Have a happy poly!

 

Perspectives on Special

A challenge I face as a polyamorous person in a primarily monogamous society is working to unlearn what my culture has taught me about certain concepts. One of the things that keeps coming up for me is the idea that a place or event or experience is special and that if it is shared with more than one person, it becomes less so.

I call out the dominant narrative a lot for informing how we think about things. In this case, we are led to believe that to be special means singular and reserved.

But what really makes a thing special?

When I am in the moment and connected to the person I’m having an experience with, that is where the “unique” feeling I end up being possessive of is created. I don’t know why the idea of that same person having that same experience with someone else makes me feel like it will take anything away from mine, but sometimes it does. I attribute that to how the idea of special has been constructed for me, and I’ve done some brain-thinking on how to manage my perspective in that area.

Do I really think the special moments in my life can be undone by someone else being happy in the same place? No . . . I do not. But I can be a tough person to sell paradigm shifts to at times.

So, it starts with the idea of same. Or more accurately: it starts with letting go of the idea of same.

There is no same.

If you take your friend Chris to a baseball game, and then you take your friend Eryka to a baseball game, is it the same experience for you each time? You could sit in the same seats, eat the same processed meat tube in a bun with extra relish, wear the same fan gear, and sing the same baseball songs – but you would still be having two completely different experiences.

By taking Eryka to the baseball game, you’re not undoing the experience you had with Chris. And it’s not even an issue of who was first. You are going to the game with Chris for the first time! AND THEN YOU’RE GOING WITH ERYKA FOR THE FIRST TIME! It’s all of the winning, and you get to do it over and over.

Because it’s the connection you have and what the other person brings to the experience that makes it unique. And if Chris and Eryka are your romantic partners and not just friends? It doesn’t change a thing.

Have you ever had the exact same sex with two different people? (Spare me your threesome jokes…) I have not. I’ve never eaten the same meal twice, seen a movie the same way, walked around a lake with the same sky, or written the same love letter to two different people. Most of us are not wired to seek absolute repetition, but we do find comfort in what makes us happy, and happiness in sharing that with those we love.

So love abundantly, and share your happiness in kind. You cannot make what is special, unspecial by enjoying it exponentially.

You find the special in the people – that is where it lives.

Scarcity Language

Words matter.

Words matter so, so much.

In general, our most oft used ones are created by and evolve to suit the needs of the dominant group. Those who practice polyamory are at times limited by connotations, hidden meanings, and the implied expectations that exist in the common language we use to talk about our love and relationships in a primarily monogamous society.

We are conditioned by this society to compete for affection. It doesn’t matter what your gender or your relationship status – you have been shown your whole life that the way you know you’re important to someone is that they chose you. And in our society, that they choose only you. This breeds jealousy, resentment, divisive competitions, passive aggressive behaviors, insecurity, and a host of undesirable feelings across the board.

And we reinforce this shit with the language we use every damn day.

So many of the phrases we use to express how we love each other work against the idea of abundance in love while perpetuating scarcity narratives. Words like “most,” “best,” and “favorite” set up a hierarchy of preference. You cannot have a most/best/favorite without something (or someone) else being “less.” And yet, this is how we let our sweeties know they’re important to us. By telling them they are these things. Number one in specific ways. This is ranking.

But is it necessary? I mean, it’s certainly not a thing we do to people in our lives who inhabit similar spaces in our hearts.

You don’t tell one of your children they’re the “best” at math – you tell them they are “so good” at math. Never would you say “you are my favorite child” – you tell them how they are important to you as an individual. We treat our platonic friends with the same grace, but why not our love interests?

For reasons that are probably way above my cursory education in sociolinguistics, we’ve developed hierarchical language for our romantic partners. But even monogamously, you can have more than one love of your life.

When Gene Wilder passed recently, he left behind Karen Boyer, his spouse of a quarter century, but was preceded in death by Gilda Radner. He married twice previously, of course, but most sentimental statements were about how he was finally with Gilda. It took me a while to wrap my brain around why I was so bothered by that. I am certain he never stopped loving Gilda, and I am equally certain he loved Karen with all his heart. That is polyamory, people.

So if you practice polyamory or identify as a polyamorous person, I invite you to examine the language you use to communicate affection to see if you’re incorporating these words into your exchanges. And here’s why . . .

When we use hierarchical language to reinforce the security of our partners, we create a situation in which they feel compelled to compete to maintain their status.  Rather than creating a more secure space for them, we’re perpetuating something tenuous and subject to change.

It took me quite some time to get used to the idea that I was safe and secure as an important person, as opposed to the most important person, in someone’s life. In fact, I don’t want to be the most important anymore. That’s a position prone to fluctuation with time and circumstance; it implies I have something to lose. Likewise, I don’t want to have my partners jockeying for position in my life. That is not how I experience joy. My happiness comes from all my people feeling loved and important and secure.

Like I said in the beginning – we’re at the mercy of the language we hear every day to express affection. That is the effect of a dominant narrative, but with all things, awareness is key. When we alter the subtle messages we put into the world, we change the whole pattern of our life’s fabric, and I do see some room for change here.

Besides . . . I love the whole world, so you’re all my mostest best favorite!