My poly practice

I debated where to put this post, because it is quite personal but it also intersects with my activism and my academic interests. I decided on this blog, and maybe I’ll cross-post it over at Fibro Files. I’m going to skate back and forth between the personal and the academictivist, so bear with me.

I have been thinking a lot about polyamory in the last while, since one of my enduring partnerships has just introduced a new partner, and I am interested in introducing new partners myself. I have also been grappling with what my polyamorous practice looks like as a disabled person, because it is a fact that it looks different than it would if I did not have such restrictions on my energy, clarity, and physical abilities (sex, especially kinky sex, and fibromyalgia is an area I am still trying to map for myself).

A few years ago, I would have said that polyamory was primarily, for me, about sex. The ability to be sexually expressive with a variety of people, to have romantic and sexual friendships while maintaining my enduring relationship (singular at the time), to explore physically with whoever shared a mutual interest with me. Then I fell in a different kind of love with a new partner, and it got complicated. And then fibromyalgia and depression robbed me of my sex drive, and suddenly polyamory became even more complicated because that sexual element was not present but the love still was.

Although I was not asexual at any point, Kristin Scherrer’s work on asexuality and polyamory was helpful for me. She points out that asexual non-monogamies are largely absent from the academic literature, and her essay in Understanding Non-Monogamies is one of the only places I’ve seen a nuanced discussion of asexual non-monogamy (for me it was non-sexual non-monogamy, and I do not mean to appropriate the experience of asexual poly folks by highlighting how helpful it was for me to find information on asexual non-monogamies). Sherrer writes that “the distinction between types of relationships can be challenging to categorize, particularly for asexual individuals whose relationships may be less likely to include sexual behaviours” (156), and I found this to be the case once my relationships all became non-sexual.

I felt a huge amount of anxiety about my sudden “deficiency” as a partner. Because I am not asexual, and because I have internalized many of the cultural messages regarding the normativity of sexual behaviour as a legitimizer of intimate relationships, the lack of access to my sexuality felt like a dysfunction – I am still picking apart how much of this is cultural conditioning that needs to be rooted out of my subconscious (the privileging of sexual relationships over non-sexual relationships, definitely) and how much is an acceptable and authentic expression of my own identity as a sexual person. Despite this anxiety, I found my ability to feel close connections with friends without needing to categorize them (in part because I felt anything “more” than friendship was out of reach) was a lovely side-effect of a difficult transition from temporarily able bodied to invisibly disabled.

I am a person with a lot of fear. I am afraid of change, of loss, of water and of crowds and of my own inadequacy. I am afraid of rejection and spiders and death and horror movies, and some of those fears are a lot harder to manage than others. I am a person in nearly-constant existential angst. This is partly my anxiety disorder, disordering my life. It is partly my personality, separate from the anxiety. I am an over-thinker, and an over-feeler, and I collect biased evidence to support my fears. It is partly a response to past experiences and circumstances, hurts and traumas from long ago. These fears are as much a part of my identity and personality as my nerdiness or other defining characteristics. I spend a lot of time in my anxiety bubble.

Polyamory triggers many of my fears. Inadequacy, loss, change… poly brings all of those fears immediately to my mind.

The thought of my partners finding other partners is hypocritically painful for me. Although I know that I can love multiple people without it impacting the depth of my affection for any of my partners, I worry that they will suddenly realize that they don’t actually love me, because they were somehow fooled by my facade. I worry that I am a grocery store tomato – fine if that’s all you know, but woefully lacking once you’ve tasted one from the farmer’s market.

This belief is, as my counsellor has told me many times, a maladaptive and ultimately disrespectful belief. Although my fears are rooted in a sense of my own insecurity, it is incredibly disrespectful of me to think that I know my partners’ minds better than they do. On the surface, this fear seems to be about my own sense of myself, but scratch the surface and it turns out to be at least partially about thinking I know better than anyone else. (This is where we would normally insert an ugly shame spiral, but honestly we all have these wonky thought processes and shaming ourselves for them is normal, but not necessary. I’m embracing my wonkiness and learning how to work around it rather than hating myself for it.) No matter what my self-centred inner critic likes to tell me in the middle of the night, the fact is that if my partner says that they love me, I should trust that. (Trust. Like it’s so easy! But, well, we’re all just working on it, right?)

It’s difficult. I struggle with it. Fear can be an overwhelming force, and when I am afraid, I want to make the source of that fear go away. I don’t want to befriend the fear, manage the emotions, move through the insecurity and jealousy. I just want it to stop. I want it to go away.

In the last few years, I have made it a personal goal to acknowledge and engage compassionately with my anxieties and fears, but to act on my principles. It’s okay for me to feel what I feel, but my actions should, as much as possible, be informed by my principles and not my fears.

I didn’t come to this easily, and I don’t practice it perfectly.

A few years ago, shortly after I moved out on my own, I asked my anchor partner to be monogamous with me. They refused. It was a turning point for me.

Pepper Mint has pointed out, in his fantastic essay “The Power Mechanisms in Jealousy” (in Understanding Non-Monogamies), “the cultural responsibility for fixing jealousy falls on the partner. We typically expect the partner of a jealous person to adjust their behaviour to assuage the jealousy” (203). This is a cultural script that is very easy to fall back on, and one that is entirely out of line with my principles.

I was feeling a lot of anxiety about a major shift in my life, and dealing with the then-undiagnosed pain of fibromyalgia, and experiencing almost daily panic attacks. There were lots of reasons for me to want to retreat into the “safer” model of monogamy. Monogamy theoretically means that my partner won’t find anyone better than me. They won’t leave me for their exciting new partner. They won’t ever realize how much tastier the farmer’s market tomato is. (This is a false sense of security, as my own marriage demonstrates.) All of the anxiety about the rest of my life was focused onto a fixed point – the threat of loss presented by polyamory. My request that my partner be monogamous with me was an attempt to make them “fix” my anxieties, shifting the responsibility onto them. It wasn’t wrong for me to want monogamy at that time, and it wouldn’t have been wrong for me to need it, but I was asking for it in ways and for reasons that weren’t well-articulated or reasonable.

My partner was afraid of losing me. But they are polyamorous, and monogamy (even temporary monogamy) would be out of line with their principles. They acted on their principles despite their fears, and it was the best possible response. Rather than compromising themself in order to assuage my fear and stabilize the relationship, they told me that they couldn’t be monogamous and that it would be a dealbreaker for them if I demanded it.

I was… upset.

Later, I was inspired.

I think that recognizing and owning our emotions is incredibly important, and that it is never the responsibility of other people to manage my emotions. When my fears demand action, that action has to be internally generated.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t make requests, or set boundaries. I do. Lots. All the time.

But it does mean that the responsibility for identifying my needs is mine, and as much as possible I set boundaries and make requests based on what I need and not what I want my partner not to do. (It’s a fine line. I dance on both sides of it, and my goal of basing my boundaries on my own needs rather than my fears is just a goal. I doubt I’ll ever get it right every time, but I do hope to get it right more and more of the time.)

I don’t like the way my fears are so bossy, so controlling. If I acted on my fears, my partners would never go on dates unless I’m also on a date, and they would never flirt with anyone I felt threatened by, and they would always give me first priority, all of the time, in all of the cases, because how else will I know that I still have value? That’s abusive behaviour. Controlling, manipulative, coercive. That’s not me. And although I recognize that my fears are normal, and my feelings are valid, my behaviours can be better.

I can choose to behave in ways that are trusting, consensual, ethical. I can practice radical self-care by acknowledging my needs and speaking openly about them. I can practice radical compassion by putting my fear to the side and recognizing what my partners and metamours might need in a situation, by recognizing that I am not the only one who feels fear and insecurity. I can practice radical vulnerability by being willing to open up awkward conversations, and acknowledge my fears out loud so that I can be reassured and comforted. I can practice radical openness by talking about my failures and my successes, and accepting the imperfection of my poly practice.

Poly is hard for me. Poly is hard, period. So is monogamy. Relationships are hard.

Having a partner who was willing to model acting on principles while feeling fear has made it a lot easier, though.

They’re the coolest genderqueer person I know.