I’ve identified as polyamorous for longer than I’ve actively engaged in poly. And I’ve been watching poly rhetoric evolve for at least five years. The following covers some vague issues I’ve had as I’ve watched poly thinkers think. The ideal that I feel underpins a lot of poly rhetoric right now is the idea that we are responsible only for our own emotions. And I agree. Completely and wholeheartedly. But only if I get to add my own caveats.
I feel like a part of the social contract we engage in when we take others into our lives dictates that our actions are going to affect them and I dislike that the current mood in poly seems to only give people agency in advocating for their preferences in how they want the world around them organized by rather ruthlessly accepting that other people are not going to change their actions for you. On a personal note I feel like this is disrespectful to a person who might think change is an exciting new avenue given the option.
As in, your partners that are uncomfortable; for whatever reasons…. Their feelings are their feelings and you can only influence them in so many ways before entering into emotionally unhealthy territory.
What I feel we are responsible to do about the emotional responses of others though… it is delicate. I’m of the opinion that there are two essential ways, two essential methods and two essential reasons for doing so.
Non-engagement vs Engagement-Solving: This is your actions. Non-engagement involves responding to the actions of others more than engaging on your own. Engagement describes direct actions taken to ‘solve a problem’.
Positively vs Negatively: How one solves the problem. Do they do so positively or negatively. I’ll give some examples but this is largely a judgement based term that I’ll revise later.
And For yourself vs For them: Who benefits here? Someone asking you to solve their problems is you to do for them. Someone telling someone to buzz off and deal with their own problems is doing so for themselves in most cases despite the fact that people can only contextualize and actually deal with problems on their own.
When your partner is needing more from you, this can be overwhelmingly upsetting and distracting from the things that we want to enjoy. You didn’t sign up for this… but sadly, no one signs up for negative feelings… but once they are there if we don’t deal with them they become toxic. And that’s not some ‘toxic friend’ you can cut out of your life…. its you. I don’t think toxicity is something that we are subjected to from others. I believe that toxicity in social relations comes from neglect. How is neglect different than non-engagement? I will explain further down.
Feeling tired and emotionally drained is not what your insecure partners want for you. They just have some feelings they can’t quite deal with. And asking for direct support in terms of increased communication/consideration is only one way of dealing with it.
The sad thing is, that supporting your partner through their insecurities in a way that is inconvenient or unsustainable to you is not helpful to them in the long run. There are things about you that won’t change and indeed… their ultimate power over their own situation is to ask you to leave it to save themselves from the pain of the feelings you bring up in them.
If you are feeling put upon by your partner’s increasing need for engagement on your part… I would suggest some positive non-engagement for your own sake. What I mean when I say this is an appeal towards holding the space for your partners to suss out how they are feeling and come to you… AND THEN being receptive to them when they do.** caveats below.
This takes a lot of the initiative off of you to attempt to engage them. You aren’t psychic. You can’t tell what is going to help them best. To me, the only thing you can do is be open to them when they engage you.
The person who needs more support is the person who should be initiating more contact and engaging with you as to what their needs are. **I don’t mean continually coming to you with problems with you. Because that’s not cool or ok or something you should be repeatedly ‘open’ to.
But I mean telling them that if they are feeling insecure to ask for reassurance. To engage conversation if they miss you.
And then the only responsibility you have during your NRE time is being available at times (**NOT! All the time!) to respond, hold space, talk with and reassure your partner that they are loved and secure no matter what they are feeling.
Lets go into some examples of the three intersections of engagement, method and reasons all with the same situation.
Bob needs some reassurance that Mary still loves him while she engages her new partner Sandra.
Engagement: Negative: For partner: Mary can engage Bob’s needs and attempt to change her actions so that he feels more loved. This is solving for Bob. Hopefully Mary has the resources to be more engaging with Bob while she is engaging with Sandra. But chances are she will feel spread thin because what was sustainable for Mary about her and Bob’s relationship was the way it was. I call this a negative situation because Mary is not in Bob’s head. She doesn’t know what he needs and how he needs it and instead of him asking for those needs directly, he has brought up his problems symptom first.
There’s every reason for that. In our metaphor, Bob might not know what his needs are. This is super common. How is he going to figure them out? This situation dictates that Bob is going to accept or reject Mary’s attempts to solve his problems and this could lead to a lot of heart ache on both parts. How horrible for Mary to try her best and have it not be good enough?
Non-Engagement: Negative: For own sake (masquerades as for the partner’s sake): Mary’s problem is that Bob is being a problem for her. To solve this she is going to tell Bob his problems are his own things to deal with and her actions can’t affect his mental health unless his mental health is already compromised. She’s going to tell him to go solve his own problems or leave her because asking her to change is not only a big deal to her but it is DAMAGING to her and how dare he put his emotions on her. Extra points if she tells Bob she’ll ‘hold the space for him’ while he deals with his own issues. (Holding the space, for Mary, in this situation is that she’s open to him coming back with a different attitude). Bob then goes away and perhaps deals with his issues and is no longer a problem for Mary.
My opinions on this rose out of a less extreme (I’m paraphrasing to make a point) sentiment that I rarely see spouted now because people realize it makes them look like sociopaths to consider themselves educated enough in poly to talk about holding the space while ignoring the disgusting ethics of their problem solving skills, especially whilst exalting themselves as thuper thmart. I think this is highly abusive.
Engagement: Negative: For own sake: Mary knows that Bob is having a problem with her new relationship with Sandra. Her problem is that he is a problem. She belittles him until he feels terrible enough to stop complaining. This is abuse. Abuse is negative engagement for the sake of one’s self. ***** See bottom for more discussion *****
Non-Engagement: Positive: For own sake: This looks very similar to negative non-engagement. Mary realizes that Bob’s problems are something only he can deal with. Mary reassures Bob that she loves him and tells him that she will be holding the space for his needs, but that he needs to communicate those with her as they come up in a reasonable way. Mary is then open to Bob’s needs as he requests them reasonably. Asking for all Mary’s time so that she has none for Sandra is not reasonable. Interrupting Mary’s time with Sandra is not reasonable, but Mary has agreed that she will get back to him when she can after he communicates a need.
This gives Mary the time to enjoy her life as Bob susses out what his needs are. When I say this is for one’s own sake, I mean that Metaphorical Mary does this because she knows it is going to make her relationship with Bob in the end, stronger.
Engagement: Positive: For self: Mary knows that Bob might be feeling insecure about her growing relationship with Sandra. She tells Bob to come to her with any needs or reassurances he might need and sets a reminder on her phone to text him every day. Mary is attempting to avoid problems in the future by being proactive now for herself. Hopefully her idea of what will help Bob is similar to Bob’s idea of what will help Bob.
Engagement: Negative: For self: What makes the above situation positive is that Mary has set out a plan for herself that seems sustainable and easy to engage for her. Lets consider if Mary is so worried that Bob is going to feel badly about her new relationship that she engages in some very unsustainable behaviour? Attempting to be everything to everyone at all times can only leave you feeling tread upon because it cannot be done. What makes this for Mary’s self rather than for Bob’s self is that Bob might not have asked Mary to engage with him more. Indeed he might not want more banal communication he might want less more meaningful contact.
Engagement: Positive: For partner’s sake: Mary knows that Bob has some problems with Jealousy that he is working on. That was part of the reason that she was so drawn to Sandra initially, before realizing Sandra’s inherent awesome qualities that would make her a wonderful partner. Mary is going to communicate with Bob to try and help him be in touch with his emotions as they go through this. Its a lot of work. But she knows that Bob appreciates the help and will be better off for dealing with his jealousy.
Non-engagement: Positive: For partner’s sake: See Non-engagement: positive: for own sake. Its really more or less the same.
***** When I say abuse, I might be using Strong Language that obscures my point. I believe that there are many emotional practices in our society that are damaging to people around us and what makes them abusive in my mind is both the pattern of behaviour and the realization that there were other solutions to problems… but the routes taken were the easiest for the abuser. This over time consistently creates a pattern of abuse that creates lasting damage in others.
Most people don’t intend to be abusive. Abuse is simply the easiest way of solving the problem in the moment.
In poly relationships and rhetoric, I expect WAY too much from people doing the thinking because all this is new ground. And knowledge is created from the perspective of the person doing the knowledge creation. If that person does not have experience of abuse and how to overcome it… then they aren’t going to think of how an abusive person’s eyes will light up at the idea that ‘we aren’t responsible for the emotional responses of others’.
But as people standing up and talking about these highly specific emotional concepts that help us be successful at poly… I believe it is our ethical responsibility to be cognizant of how our ideas can be used in practice… possibly against a victim who would NEED a higher level of education in our rhetoric than the person victimizing them…
And then it is important for us to weave in how to recognize when our ideals are being perverted and what to do about that into our literature and work when we espouse ideals so easily perverted.