We put out a request for topics from the group and I was so excited to see a question about how to build lasting foundations in poly. I think it’s a synthesis topic that involves both some theory on relating and some practical tools, it is also a wide subject that we can’t cover all of in one single meeting but if we discuss it today we can go deeper next time. More than this, I’m just barely touching on some subjects that I feel could have a whole discussion on their own.
I’m Amie. I am not an expert in lasting foundations and feel like a sham for even talking about it because I’m pretty sure I am an expert in short lived connections. I have borderline personality disorder as a result of complex trauma from multiple situations and I have had to learn a number of things very intentionally.
Building lasting foundations for a polyamorous lifestyle: it’s just the same as for monogamy but with more steps; more complex but essentially the same. Skills that work to build lasting polyamorous foundations would help people build lasting monogamous foundations. In the end, building lasting foundations is something that all people can do with each other. You don’t need to be in a relationship with someone to do it. But we are going to talk about it with regard to polyamorous relationships … but really most poly information to me… is interpersonal information that you can use anywhere.
For this not to go down the rabbit hole of personal foundations, I had to cut a lot of what I’d say about personal foundations OUT. If there’s interest we can go down that rabbit hole later and gleefully so. Or if you want to have a discussion with me about it we can do that.
Suffice to say your personal foundation is everything you are, everything about how you move through the world: your privileges, capabilities, power, disadvantages, resources; both internal and external, and everything that happens to you is going to affect it. Your personal foundation is the place from which you perceive the world and build all connections… to people as friends or lovers, to places like school or work, to hobbies, to anything. And understanding what your personal foundation looks like is going to MONUMENTALLY help with building onto it in a lasting and sustainable way and the sad thing is that because finding out what your personal foundations are IS SO SUBJECTIVE …. all the advice that is so abundant in our world about ‘finding yourself’ might never help you because those other people figured something out for themselves and you aren’t necessarily them. And so we have a lot of advice like “You can’t love someone until you love yourself.” And that quoteable STILL offends me even after I did some work on it to understand it for myself… So I will show you my work on this quoteable to give you an idea of the process these little formulas can incite:
“You cannot love someone until you love yourself”
What is love to another person? When I don’t love myself, how am I using other people to distract, run away from, or obscure the fact that I don’t love myself? If I don’t love myself, how respectful does it feel to expect someone else to love me?
Do I expect that my partner also doesn’t love themselves? (Probably not) Do I expect that they will come to me for love and I shall give them love and when I need love I will get my love from them?
If I love myself does that mean I don’t need another person to love me and thus I will be less likely to find one because the need behind me looking for another person to love me is less? What’s stopping me from loving myself?
Is it good for me to address the reasons I have for not loving myself? What’s stopping me from addressing those reasons?
If I end up saving myself from those reasons… does this mean I should never have been having problems in the first place and it was all my fault? (NO. You are a new person with new information and new approaches if you are addressing your reasons for not loving yourself and so being able to solve your problems eventually doesn’t EVER mean you never had to go through them).
What pressure does it put on my partner to have me not loving myself? Is it fair to them to expect them to love me for me AND them?
These are the things I had to ask myself before this quoteable made any kind of sense. You might ask yourself different things. If you don’t feel like you love yourself I argue that you are listening to the voices in your head that have protected you by whispering your fears into your ears and it is HARD to address that voice. Lisa Roth does it beautifully here.
Now I’m going to talk way more than I want to about trauma and abuse in a discussion that’s not about trauma and abuse. But these things affect almost all of us and I believe that we need to be aware of trauma issues. I came to understanding my personal foundations through understanding my trauma and this is just an extension of what I want to say on personal foundations. But more than that… even if you don’t believe trauma has affected your life. You’re likely to run into people for whom trauma HAS affected their lives.
If you have trauma issues they will arise in various ways and be found in your personal foundations. If you have triggers because of various trauma issues they will be found in your personal foundation. Please come to the talk on abuse and trauma to learn more about how triggers can affect your life. The only thing I want to make clear here is that there’s a difference between things that trigger you to unreasonable behaviour and trauma based triggers. They often look the same, but they are not. Someone can trigger you to start applying your personal understandings of what you think a situation is without properly ascertaining that the situation you’re in warrants that. Now. Some people might take issue to the term ‘unreasonable behaviour’, but I’m attached to the description. Triggered reactions in my experience as a person who has triggered reactions still, to this day… I have rarely been reasonable when in the midst of being triggered… and never before I knew what triggers were, that I could have them and what a triggered reaction even was in me. I found the modern discourse on what triggers are to be extremely unhelpful. I am not triggered by most things people think are triggering, such that I’ve been very surprised each time I realized I was triggered. I only started being aware of what my triggers were two years ago and I’ve been having triggered responses and understood that I probably have some trauma issues for almost a decade.
Friends of mine use ‘trigger’ in their discussions to allude to anything that evokes an unpleasant emotional reaction. And I think it is important to mention that just because you are triggered doesn’t mean that you are traumatized, but people with trauma issues have triggers and they don’t always know what they are. So the process of knowing what to do when you are triggered is REALLY IMPORTANT. It is essentially the same for traumatized people as for neurotypicals: take a step back, see what about the situation is bothering you…. and address it… this could be a ten year process…. each. TIME. So for people with trauma issues, they may have to spend longer to uncover far more unpleasant feelings and their causes, then address them and then that doesn’t guarantee that you will be done. Because you’re going to be triggered again. Possibly with the same root cause… just in a different way. Only after you have addressed the issue should you even consider whether it’s right for you to reengage the issue.
Question for readers: Do you feel you have triggers and would you feel comfortable sharing them and whether they come from trauma? As an example I’ll give you some of mine: Kids. KIDS ARE SUPER TRIGGERING FOR ME. Being around them, looking at them to see if they have trauma issues, hearing their little voices (but only in groups). Lots of things I don’t find triggering in the general environment will be triggering for me in a school.
Yelling. Most people don’t like being yelled at, but I am triggered to unreasonable behaviour when yelled at. I almost never manage to ask someone why they are yelling at me, ask them to stop and reengage the issue. I almost always either freak out so hard at someone that they truly understand how BAD a form of communication yelling really is. Or they never ever see me again and neither of those things are reasonable.
What are your triggers?
When it comes to abuse in a relationship, my mother had trauma issues on her own that were made much worse by my abusive father, whose abuse was primarily driven by his own inability to deal with his own trauma issues. He NEVER thought he had a choice in how he was treating his family, or he really thought that his available options were screaming highly personalized epithets at his family in hours long meltdowns… or beating his family with two by fours and he was choosing the very best option available to him. And that made him a GREAT guy and a great dad. She was told in the end by a professional that for them to be a couple, she needed therapy to address the hurts and trauma of the relationship… AND to address her personal trauma issues. He needed therapy in order to assess why he was behaving abusively and stop. Then they both needed therapy together to even see if they should be a couple. They divorced promptly and he was very surprised. What my father subjected my family to was a long list of behaviours that I had to learn consciously as an adult that not only were they not ok… but that his abuse wasn’t what LOVE was.
Abuse cuts your ability to know what your personal foundations are on their own because an abusive environment warps reality. Healthy coping skills will not work in an abusive environment because the abuser will not let them and so the coping skills a victim learns are either flawed, damaging to themselves or both. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible as a victim of abuse to heal and victims of abuse are not broken. Humans seldom break in a way that is not mendable. We just need to relearn ourselves and how to move in the world in a healthy way intentionally because we were TRAINED not to be healthy for the benefit of someone else.
If you have spent time in an abusive environment; be that work, school, growing up or in a relationship: you MIGHT have some problems addressing what your personal foundations are. If you don’t understand now, it’s hard for me to describe what your brain needs to do because the worst part about healing from abuse is that nothing makes sense until it starts working… and once the things you’re doing start working it is hard to look back and wonder how you didn’t come to the conclusion your newly rewired brain is making now… all along. But you REWIRED YOUR BRAIN. You could not come to these new conclusions before and holding your past self to your new self’s standard is a recipe for feeling bad.
For the purposes of this discussion, I am assuming that if you’re looking to build lasting foundations with other people that you have might have some work to understand what some of your trauma issues are and perhaps a process for what to do with unaddressed trauma issues. Once you deal with one trauma issue, dealing with the rest become both easier and harder. You can’t always deal with every trauma issue in the same way, but the processes come to be familiar.
This process can look like: being present with your emotions and feeling them rather than being either driven by them or driven to avoid them, or being aware of what your own motivations are… What do you GET out of an interaction? And why do you want to get that feeling/thing/experience. Do you know why the things that make you feel good make you feel good? Do you have judgements about how you are feeling? Can you separate yourself from them? If you can do this about things you like… you can do it about things you don’t like. Why didn’t you like something. What were you feeling? Some people need a chart for how they are feeling in their body and have to really sit with themselves. There are people who can’t tell you how they are feeling at any moment in time because they are so consciously living outside their body at any given moment because their feelings are so bad they cannot deal with them. If you don’t know how you’re feeling reading this… try this.
Last bit on trauma I want to impart is disassociation; which is a huge un-weildy confusing thing for people with trauma issues. I learned about it in a sociology class about what kinds of problems people can have when they have been traumatized. Disassociation will make someone not pay attention to you. You can actually have conversations with people who are disassociating and they won’t remember it, or they won’t remember the details because they weren’t with you. Coming to understand whether or not YOU are disassociating is hard because you aren’t in your body.
Disassociation is the most dangerous response to a trigger. It is the “freeze” response.
There’s fight; which is my ‘make you understand how bad a tactic yelling is by yelling at you myself’ there’s flight; which is my ‘you never gonna see me again.” There’s freeze, which often looks like no response because the disassociating person has left their body because that’s how they’ve learned ends the yelling fastest… and there is the fawn response: where you attempt to keep everyone happy as a method of safety. Read Pete Walker’s article linked. A traumatized person might do every single one of these things at different times, or they might do all those things at once in different parts of their brain which is AS confusing to witness as it is to live.
I had no notion that my trauma issues were nearly as bad as I thought they were until that age. And slowly I realized that instead of just having had an experience of school so holistically horrible that I was not only scarred for life but would never be able to talk about my bullying with anyone else because when I use the word bullying, 95% of the population brings to mind their experience of bullying and addresses it as such. This doesn’t mean to say I was bullied worse than 95% of the population because I do meet people who were bullied in a way I consider worse than myself. The 5% that is excepted asks me what this experience was like before forming their own preconceived notion of what I went through. They are RARE. TREASURES. Who understand that people’s experiences vary and don’t hold other people to their own standard.
And I knew this one issue was a serious problem for me… But wait. There’s more. Slowly, as I had to address why I thought it was ok to treat my husband the way my father treated his family. And that I maybe just maybe had a rotten childhood. And so in the past eight years or so since I learned that nightmares about your dad aren’t normal parts of the human experience…. I’ve come to realize that there are a LOT more traumatized people running around out there than you’d ever believe… and if you aren’t one of us… you’re still going to have to deal with us. People with trauma issues can be wonderful to have around. We have SUPER POWERS. I can find things like nobody’s business because I grew up with a father that both misplaced things frequently and lost his shit so prolifically when he did so that (for example) he woke me up screaming in the middle of the night to find his shoes he’d thought I misplaced. I was TWELVE. I found his shoes.
So please don’t read this or hear me as saying that if you have trauma issues you cannot have long lasting connections… Don’t let yourself walk away with the idea that people with trauma issues are risky or to be avoided. Let me be clear. You cannot avoid the people who don’t know who they are. You don’t HAVE to be alone to work on your trauma issues and other people can be very helpful… but they have to know what they’re getting into and you have to know what you’re asking of other people.
If you don’t know what you’re asking of other people… the answers you get won’t make sense. “Love me” is nebulous and confusing because what love looks like for different people can be very different.
I’m going to post a request for people to share what their trauma based super powers are on the poly 101 group so I want you to think about what super powers you might have as a result of any traumatic experiences you have and consider sharing them. But I don’t want you to answer now because we’re so close to the second half I can taste it.
So if you think that was long and boring, now we come to definitions, tools and tricks. First: Definitions.
- Wants versus needs: This is subjective. Only you; not even Maslow, get to determine what it is you want versus what you need. Asking yourself if what you desire is a want or a need allows you to be flexible on how you get your wants fulfilled and helps you be firm on your needs. ALSO. An understanding that other people have wants and needs helps you respect other people’s needs.
- The help you want to get versus the help someone wants to give you: This is a nebulous concept and all I really want to get across is that the help you’re willing or able to give might be different than the help someone wants. The help someone ASKS for might be different than the help they want. Either because they don’t understand what they want or how to get it or because they just don’t know how to ask. This really is an overarching principal thing and not really as relevant to the rest of this conversation. But it is important to note.
- Privilege/disadvantage: is a spot in a spectrum that defines external constraints on your access to; or efficacy of, resources… which we will discuss at length.
- Resources: The things you have access to in your life to make it better. The place from which you stand (your personal foundation) is composed of these building blocks, and they compose a part of our experience that can shared; however, the shape of them can be different for all of us and that affects how we use them. How we use our resources is resource mobilization and that is a skill of it’s own.
- Inner resources, we carry these with us all the time. Though they can be depleted or made less effective by mental illness and inequity, once you have them they are often with you for life: creativity, intelligence, discipline, courage, knowledge, perspective (which was called attitude but I like perspective more), skills, passion and awareness.
- External resources, are things we build to or build from. These resources tend to compound. Any one on it’s own isn’t perhaps enough to get by, but the more you gain, the more likely you are to keep gaining them. Sadly this works on the way down too. Once you lose one, you’re more likely to lose others and if you lose them all and end up with only your inner resources you’re going to have a BAD TIME… but you might not have as bad a time as someone who lacks the inner resources that you have. Some examples include: Money and opportunities to make money, with which you can attain Assets; like housing, technology to work with, a vehicle, or a bike. People, through which you can gain opportunities to make money or to help you through hard times.
Resource mobilization: How are you mobilizing your resources? Having all the resources in the world won’t help you if you don’t know how to mobilize them sustainably. And this is important. Sustainable versus unsustainable resource mobilization features in my actual description of what abuse is: short term rewarding, unsustainable behaviour towards another person.
- Last points on resources. The article I link to about inner and outer resources in my critique of said article is really a love letter to inner resources. As if inner resources are the be all and end all of resources and one SHOULD desire to remove external resources. This is because the external resources are the most linked to privilege and inequity. Inner resources are EASIER to harness and mobilize in a positive way that is celebrated by our society. And I don’t think that judgement of unsustainable resource mobilization is helpful to anyone.
QUESTIONS FOR THE READERS: What are some of your internal or external resources? Have you ever struggled to use a resource sustainably?
- Final thoughts: Boundaries are how you can prevent someone from using you unsustainably so that you may remain a resource in their life forever and also keep them in yours. The sad part here is that we are pretty aggressively trained to believe that we don’t need boundaries with the people who really love us and that having boundaries is unloving. But knowing what your boundaries are, knowing how to have them with others and knowing how to communicate about them underpins everything I have said and will say.
- Question for the readers: Do you have any boundaries you feel comfortable sharing with the group?
So how do we communicate these things? Before I give you some techniques, I really want to drive home how hard it can be to communicate with other humans.
When we as humans want to communicate something we start with a concept in our brain that we can only communicate about as well as we understand it ourselves. How well we understand it depends on EVERYTHING that has ever happened to us (our personal foundation) and beyond that, includes our awareness and perceptual abilities AND HOW WE ARE FEELING AT THE TIME (I will be gesturing wildly here). And all this happens before we speak. When we speak we use ALL of our communication abilities. Presence, physicality, tone of voice, words chosen, and empathy. All these things are skills of their own right and require knowledge… either intuitive or actively sought. Our emotions, if we are trying to control or hide them can bleed out if we aren’t good at controlling or hiding them and sometimes when you are good at this… to control or hide an emotion will cut the meaning from what you are trying to say. And you risk failing to communicate what you mean.
So you’ve said a thing. Now it’s up to the person you’re trying to communicate with to understand what you’ve said as you have said it. They use all of their experiences, knowledge, and skills (the same ones you used to say the thing) from their personal foundation to understand what you’ve said and formulate their response. Then through their own communication ability they speak their formulated thoughts back to you.
And this is how we get to be humans that can have COMPLETELY different ideas; feelings about, and understandings of, the SAME THINGS differently.
This is symbolic interaction, humans are GREAT at it and it fosters our sense of belonging. Shared meanings are just another way we bond as humans. How great is it when people just seem to GET what you mean? It’s so great. How great is it when you find out that they fundamentally did NOT get what you meant? It’s so not great. This is how you get to be at the end of a six year relationship wondering how you explained to your partner. Your partner was present as you explained to every roommate you guys ever had. Your partner watched you bitch people out for using soap on your cast iron pan… AND STILL. They believed that it was leaving the pan in water that was the problem (which I did all the time and he was very confused by but still never asked, because I didn’t cultivate a relationship where stupid questions were safe to ask. Which is crappy. And I have learned.) and he had been washing my cast iron pan with soap for six years.
So knowing these things and having these thoughts, I have struggled with how do I EVEN communicate with other people. Should I try?! Should I just be a hermit in the woods? I
would die of exposure so it’s not an option.
So I have these tools for communication and they’re all individual topics of their own.
A personal user’s manual: a concept attributed to Cunning Minx at polyamory weekly everywhere I find it attributed. This is a fun way to figure out what you would communicate to a partner. What sort of things would you only like to explain once to someone? What things would you want to just hand a prospective new partner a booklet to explain about you? Many people just like the idea of a personal user’s manual as a tool for self discovery. Writing one can be personally therapeutic. But here’s some people who put theirs online as shining examples: This one’s super creative. Here’s cunning minx’s example. And here’s one not geared to poly, but to the military and it’s great.
You can include your approach to polyamory, your thoughts on hierarchy and what that means to you, you can explain triggers and any trauma issues you know of in a personal user’s manual. Anything you feel would be helpful for a stranger to interact with you. The best part? You NEVER have to share it with anyone.
Question for Readers: Who here has a user’s manual and what does it contain?
Scheduled check-ins: You can do this weekly, you can do this monthly, you could do this daily. But I argue that setting aside a time to intentionally check in about anything you might want to bring up with your partner will help create a safe space to do so. This is the time to state any expectations that you have had and been let down on, this is the place to state any worries about unsaid expectations you worry you’re subject to.
If there’s nothing to bring up, using the time to create space for gratitude can be super nice but dedicating the time to what can become obligatory congratulatory adoration instead of potential check in time isn’t great. Scheduled check in times are the place to bring up what you worry will become a pattern. If someone, like say young Amie who didn’t understand how abusive her family life was, responds to questions in general or especially at check in time like the question is stupid or as if they are offended the question needed to be asked. This is not a safe space. And it won’t be very useful as a communication method.
Question for readers: what are some other tools you use to help you communicate?
Non-Violent Communication: This the art of really listening to other people and hearing the needs behind their words or their behaviours. People get down on NVC because the book reads like a religious text… It’s a practice and as an example: I’m not good at it. But I try. We have a PDF download available on the group and I can only summarize it by explaining that the way that we communicate as a society tends to be violent and it doesn’t need to be that way. NVC is a GREAT tool and it actually dissuades people from diagnosing others in their lives. I run afoul of this ALL the time when I am engaging people and asking if they have trauma issues. I am diagnosing them and that’s not really listening. This is why I’m REALLY bad at NVC.
- The four agreements: more not poly theory. Very helpful for poly people. I used to think they were trite and I still think they’re espoused to people who might not have the fundamental skills in order to uphold the four agreements.
- Be impeccable with your word. Only say what you mean. Seriously. Do not say what you think someone wants to hear; a) you may not be correct in thinking what they want. b) you risk getting responses you don’t want. Now. What if you thought you wanted one thing and now it is clear that you do not? You can only be as impeccable with your word as you can be in any moment. Part of being present is looking at your own actions and maybe finding evidence that you don’t know how you feel… and saying that instead.
- Don’t take anything personally: While some people MIGHT do things because of you… the WAY they are doing it is all on them. They have a choice and they are making it. That has less to do with you than them. But if you have to deal with it it might not be pleasant take solace in the fact it’s about them more than you even if you have to deal with it. Or take steps so that you don’t have to deal with it. If you’re feeling like you might be taking something personally. Admit it. Don’t make assumptions. Ask. “Is this about me?”
- Don’t make assumptions. ASK. CHECK-IN. “I’m worried that you don’t like me as a roommate and I should try to find another place to live because of the tone of this conversation?” is something I do all the time. “I don’t want you to feel pressured to do something, but I’d really appreciate if you did this thing, am I pressuring you?” “I’m worried you’re taking my personal story of an issue with someone else to mean that I feel that way about you.”
- Always do your best: Your best changes from moment to moment and this isn’t some kind of justification… ‘whatever you did was your best so you should never be held accountable for anything because you were doing your best’. This is about acknowledging that if you don’t feel you did your best there may have been external constraints on your ‘best’ at that time that you can have power over.
Questions for readers: Is there one of the four agreements that speaks to you? How do you relate this to polyamory?
And in conclusion: Transition. I’m starting to believe that transition is either a trap, or the one true way. I can’t decide.
Transition requires trust, communication, awareness, the ability to be present with whatever you are going through at any given time and a host of other things. Many people are able to navigate it. Many people don’t. The only transition I’ve ever gracefully navigated was transitioning out of people’s lives. But I often look back and wonder if there was an alternate reality where alternate universe Amie and the person she needed to not be in that relationship that way with someone did manage to transition to friends or a different style of lovers.
I may never fully understand this and I’m hoping the group has some lived experience for me to draw on.
Question for readers: Have you ever transitioned a relationship? How did you do it?