Solo, Polyamorous, and Seeking Healthy Community

One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.

Abraham Maslow

We all have a need for consistency and community. What Abraham Maslow classified as ‘belongingness’ is one of our biggest sources of security. And,  while many individuals find this most commonly through partnership on the Relationship Escalator, Solo Polyamorists- who eschew the escalator model- look to their greater community and chosen family in order to meet that need for security and safety.

A big part of my journey in Solo Polyamory has been in seeking out that community and looking for ways to meet that need outside of an escalator relationship. The plural nature of polyamory lends itself well to this- at first glance, at least- with all the interconnected relations and interweaving of people. I, like many, have found myself at times falling into that old trope of “You’re poly, I’m poly, we have so much in common!” We don’t always choose the best family.

Just as one uses discernment — or not — when seeking out romantic, intimate, and sexual relationships, it would seem to make sense to also use that same discernment to choose carefully the community one engages with, right? However, as the saying goes, common sense is hardly common. Survival instincts can sometimes override common sense, and it is possible to settle with a close fit where the places of misalignment seem they can be tolerable.

There is most definitely a risk of falling into old patterns of habits and behaviors when choosing community.

Five years into it, and I reflect on how so much of my journey in Solo Polyamory has been about reclaiming a sense of independent identity. I grew up with mixed levels of security, and- for all my independent spirit- I struggled to find security as a young adult without a partnership. The conscious choice to do polyamory without a primary relationship was, in part, me challenging myself to step out of codependency habits and into an experience of interdependence.

I discovered that the long ingrained patterns of codependency still occasionally showed up within the survival-driven community-building I’ve endeavored to engage in. More recently I have found an ever clearer line between the relationships that feel nourishing and energizing, and the relationships which feel draining and depleting.

IMG_20161205_143322045This year so far has seen me diving into deep introspection around this. The cocooning winter hibernation has provided the perfect space for grounding into a deeper understanding of my self and what I need. I am someone who hasn’t experienced much security in my adult life, and many relationships- both romantic and social- have been ones that I’ve engaged in in part as a survival strategy, to build networks wherein I might find a safety net. And when I’ve found a dynamic that feels good, I’ve leaned in heavily, perhaps too much at times, in search of that security I crave.

But I have yet to really achieve that reliable safety net. So far what I’ve done hasn’t been working for me. 

I found it’s easy to fall into a trap of spending all one’s time trying to please others, out of a fear of potentially losing them if you don’t please them. But that’s putting the community before the individual, and when that happens, your individual health suffers.

When you put your self aside in order to please others, you aren’t honoring your individual needs and desires; you’re surrendering autonomy to the whims of others- and replacing an old co-dependency on one with a new co-dependency on many. And, it’s possible to go from reforming self identity to fit one partner’s expectations, to trying to fit a community’s expectation.

That can be healthy and empowering if the community is one formed of individuals who are engaging in self awareness and growth and celebrate diversity of individuality. It can be potent and liberating if the community embraces consent, compassion, empathy and forgiveness. However, if a community is mired in draining, limiting, fear-based behaviors, if the community lacks cohesiveness in shared values or tolerates abusive behaviors, it may end up generating new self-identities that limit self expression and freedom. It’s easy to feel small in that. And when people allow themselves to be small in their own lives, that’s when they might experience depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

And yes, I speak from my own experience here.

When people appear to be something other than good and decent, it is only because they are reacting to stress, pain, or the deprivation of basic human needs such as security, love, and self-esteem.

Abraham Maslow

So what do we solo polyamorists do?

For us who are polyamorous and queer, our family may not be a source of security. For many of us who are solo, we don’t necessarily experience our romantic and sexual relationships as the most grounded source of connection in our lives; the communities we choose are often fluid and changeable themselves.

My recent experiences have led me to believe it is paramount to figure out the compatibility between one’s self, and a community of friendship- whether that is entangled with one’s polycule, or not. Do your core values align? How do you deal with conflict? And- to what degree are people able to be independent in their relationships?

I’m examining this in many areas of relating in my life. It’s important to note that I’m not deeming a person (or group) to be toxic, but rather, the dynamic that exists between people- which they both participate in- that can be draining. ‘Toxicity’, while being an evocative and charged description I sometimes lean on, is really a judgement and story about a feeling, one which often comes with finger pointing and blame. 

When we use the word toxic to describe how we feel about something, we judge that feeling. Instead, consider that any number of people (including yourself) can play into a relationship becoming toxic. What’s more, there’s the possibility that a dynamic can change when the people in the relationship change their behavior; very nourishing connections can become draining, and likewise draining connections can once again become nourishing.

“The longer you are in an echo chamber the shittier your coping skills become.”
~ Paul Verge

So what do we do? In the echo-chambers of sub-culture communities, how can you tell the difference between the draining, ‘toxic’ dynamics, and the ones that are nourishing? Here’s my checklist for evaluating a relationship dynamic, be it with a person, or a community:

snake-mamba-green-mamba-toxic-38268Signs this relationship dynamic might currently be Draining for me:

  • I make a lot of excuses for this person’s behaviour.
  • I experience feeling exhausted/drained/tired/lethargic in their company or after spending time with them.
  • I perceive that I seem to be doing a lot of the emotional heavy lifting in this relationship.
  • I don’t feel that this person appreciates what I do.
  • This person seems to have a lot of ‘drama’ in them and around them.
  • I’m afraid to confront this person because of their possible reaction (but I’m not afraid of confrontation in general).
    I feel really lost and abandoned if this person isn’t communicating with me.
  • Communication with this person seems to be very one way.
  • Communication with this person seems to be limited in topic range.
  • I don’t feel I can be totally myself with this person, I need to pretend some things about me are different, or hide some aspect of myself.
  • I feel like the ideas this person holds onto are stuck in an echo chamber, and they resist considering alternative perspectives.
  • I feel like I need to make myself ‘small’ in order to please this person, or at least, not anger them.

 

Signs this relationship dynamic is currently Energising for me:

  • I have no fear in talking to or approaching this person.
  • We make our way through difficult conversations without escalating conflict between us.
  • I feel heard and appreciated by this person.
  • I experience two way communication with this person.
  • I am excited for this person to meet other friends, and for friends to meet them.
  • I feel energised, refreshed, possibly inspired, after my interactions with this person.
  • We are able to mutually hold emotional space for one another.
  • We talk about and explore many different topics together.
  • I don’t feel a need to hide any part of myself, I can be totally authentic.
  • I feel like I can present alternative ideas and perspectives to this person without being shut down or shut out.
  • I feel very empowered by this dynamic, and I notice the other person also feels this way.

I read something recently about being in an abusive relationship. One of the questions posed was, “Do you find yourself making excuses for, or justifying, your partner’s harmful behaviour?” I look at this question in the framing of my relationships, and I can see how, in about half of the most compelling relationships I have been in, I’ve taken steps to defend or justify a partner’s hurtful behaviour towards others. This pulls me into some serious self-examination around why I feel the need to defend hurtful behaviour- and what boundaries do I need to consider in future relationships whereby I won’t find myself doing so again?

So, what do you do when you realise a dynamic is no longer fulfilling? There’s many things. Here’s a few that have been working for me:

Strategies for Shifting from Draining To Energising:

  • Check in with your core needs and desires– are they being met, and if not, what could you do to refocus on them?
  • Create boundaries that are loving and compassionate, that nourish your needs and create spaces where you feel energised.
  • Take a time out from the dynamic to allow for recalibration.
  • Examine what your core values are, and consider how you could bring them to life in your day-to-day world more.
  • Diversify your social circle.
  • Spend time doing things you love and invite people in your life to join you doing them.

No matter how great the sex is (or has been), no relationship is worth tolerating a draining, unfullfilling dynamic in the emotional, social, and spiritual aspects of the relationship- and my inner good girl has defended one too many people who ended up doing me more harm than good.

I’ve learned that the longer we tolerate relationships that don’t feed and inspire our spirits and hearts, the more weighed down we feel. Solo polyamorists need their communities as a core element of security, stability and anchoring in their lives- not just as an emergency survival strategy, but as a long term relationship- and we each deserve to find communities of friends and lovers who will respect our independent spirits, and hold us steady through the rough times.

For me, I’m on my way. I’m excited for 2017 becoming the year where I redefine how I relate to the communities I’ve participated in, and choose to engage with. I’m stoked for the new boundaries I’m creating that make space for me to show up fully. The biggest piece: I realised I can’t keep playing small in order to make others feel better: I’m here to love in big ways, and invite everyone to join me in being big and bold in the ways they love. And perhaps, if we can all love in big and bold ways, we’ll grow a community with much deeper roots, stronger foundations, and dynamics that enrich and enliven us all.

11845242_10207134717862192_4151783558320511841_o

 

Advertisements

Navigating Non Escalator Relationships

aka “So, you’re in a non-escalator relationship- what now?”
(dedicated to ‘Alexander’)

no-escalatorThe most common script that we follow in relationships is that of the Relationship Escalator. And that’s a model that works for a lot of people. But, increasingly, people- especially in the non-monogamous community- are challenging that default script and exploring what it means to have relationships that are not on the Escalator.

And, let’s be honest- most relationships you will experience in your life (including platonic ones) are not on an Escalator.

Non-escalator relationships can be short term and casual, and they can also be long term, emotionally invested relationships. They are build-your-own-lunch-box relationships, relationships a la carte. But, how do people in non escalator relationships measure the investment? How do they read emotional commitment, security, and the ongoing life of the relationship, when they aren’t defaulting to the regular milestones of dating, moving in, getting married, and so forth?

58ddb1c5ae37f0734abdebfdc58a08b0Something I’ve both experienced and witnessed in my explorations of this non-escalator paradigm, is that when we don’t talk about this stuff, and instead fill in the blanks based on a default set of assumptions we carry about the other person, then we end up either trying to control the relationships we are in, or being controlled by it. And neither of those options is much fun. Personally, I would rather see Relationships be spaces of freedom.

I think it is important to remember that we aren’t following a script, we are co-creating a relationship. All relationships have the possibility of being an ongoing conversation- and Non-Escalator relationships more so, because there’s no script to default to when there’s uncertainty (though, we might try to). Radical relationships, in general, are about making conscious choices about relating.

Awesome-quote-Running-awayWhen you’re Solo, and looking for non escalator relationships only, there can be a fear that the “RE” established people you meet are only dating you to get a temporary fix. You wonder if they are using you- consciously perhaps but unconsciously more likely- to spice up their sex life or let out their frustrations, or exercise some otherwise unrealised disfunction or fantasy. I’ve personally had a recurring fear of becoming part of the ‘Disneyland Relationship’ where the married family person goes to a fun-loving singleton to escape the reality of their responsibilities. It’s depleting to your self-relationship to feel used. So, us non-escalator folks look for certain things as marks of commitment and emotional investment- things that say “Yup, this person’s going to come back for another date!” and “This person recognizes and respects who I am.”

The Relationship Escalator has implicit marks of commitment and investment- each floor reached symbolises deeper intertwining, like moving in together, sharing finances, getting married, having children. And, when people are on an escalator in their relationship, when they are invested in the concept that their relationship has a set destination, they will go to great lengths to troubleshoot and address the conflicts and areas where intimacy has been lost. They’ll go to therapists and counsellors and do the work to figure out what went wrong and how to course correct.

I hear of so many couples- married, common law, primary, nesting, however you want to define it- going to relationship Counselling. But how often do people think of going to Counselling with their partner when it’s a non escalator relationships that’s on the rocks?

“You don’t measure love in time. You measure love in transformation. Sometimes the longest connections yield very little growth, while the briefest of encounters change everything. The heart doesn’t wear a watch- it’s timeless. It doesn’t care how long you know someone. It doesn’t care if you had a 40 year anniversary if there is no juice in the connection. What the heart cares about is resonance. Resonance that opens it, resonance that enlivens it, resonance that calls it home. And when it finds it, the transformation begins…”

~ Jeff Brown

Relationships that are decidedly not on the escalator, don’t have to lack direction or purpose. Being off the escalator and without a predetermined trajectory doesn’t mean it’s not going to require conflict resolution or course correction. For those of us traversing the terrain of the non-escalator paradigm, we need to know that we aren’t going to be disposable in relationships. We need to know that we aren’t going to be dropped at the first upset, the first sign of conflict, or the third or fourth. And, while we don’t want to see a ring on our fingers as a symbol of contractual obligation, we do value assurances. We value knowing the landscape, and knowing that the relationships we share can still have direction, intention, and milestone moments, like any other relationship. The likelyhood is, we aren’t in it for the promise of a 40-year anniversary; we’re in it for the juice, the connection- and, the potential for personal growth and transformation.

non escalator landmarks

Things small, things that might seem inconsequential in escalator relationships, can take on greater significance in Non-Escalator relationships. It’s not that these wouldn’t or couldn’t be significant in escalators, it’s just that, in a non escalator relationship, you begin to appreciate them more. Removing the options to live together or get married or share finances as things that might grant a feeling of security down the line, you have to seek the present moment affirmations that the relationship has presence and continuity and value. So an extra toothbrush appearing in your bathroom is a milestone moment because it implies they plan to come back. Defining and redefining your relationship labels marks a turning point and affirmation of the level of commitment and engagement you have with one another.

We may avoid conversation because we’re afraid it might challenge us; there is always the possibility that we may not get what we want out of the relationship if we end up having to define it. But, if we don’t communicate, if we don’t get clear on our own boundaries and relationship sandboxes, things will get messy, and we’ll get hurt. Knowing the terrain you’re crossing together is key. And it’s okay to stop and ask for directions, and make course corrections when you need to. This is not an escalator, it’s a treasure map, with multiple types of treasure chests to find.

What’s important is asking yourself what you want to explore, and asking your partners what they want to explore, and figuring out what are you each willing to explore. In all of this, you’re looking for the things you both want. And, because I know how scary it can be to have these conversations, here’s some things that you might find useful to talk about with your partners in non-escalator relationships. Some might be things worth bringing up on a date zero, others might be better saved for that toothbrush moment, when you realise that yeah, this person’s going to be sleeping over more regularly. So, go forth, and converse with your partners!

Non escalator guide


Like this article? Please consider making a one-off donation to support my work.
Buy me coffee
Buy me dinner
Make my day!


Endings and Evolutions

Almost all the the literature on healthy relationships is about how to stay together. Which, if you’re looking at it from a Relationship Escalator perspective, makes sense, right? We want to stay on that escalator. We want to ascend it with someone. That, after all, makes us successful at being grown up, or so we are led to believe. But, what if you aren’t interested in escalator type relationships? What about for those of us who are Singleish? The Solo adventurers among us? The Relationship Anarchists who aren’t attatched to any particular mold or outcome? Are solo style relationships ‘disposable’? Where is the literature,the self-help books, and the support forums about how to conclude relationships?

The reality is this: all relationships end.

And, when you choose a love-style that does not bind you to vows of “till death do us part”, how then do you recognise when it is time to part- and is it possible to do so without personal emotional rollercoasters?

People who are singleish will probably experience more breakups than their monogamous, escalator seeking friends. In the last two and a half years, since I separated from my ex husband, I’ve been through at least twelve “breakups”. Some of them smooth, some of them horrendous and turbulent.

kpi9I9J

There is almost nothing written about how to end relationships with integrity and positive intentions. With all the advice about how to have beautiful relationships, very little exists about how to have graceful breakups.

A while ago, I learned that integrity was one of my core values, and how to have, and conclude, my relationships with integrity is something that has become important to me. It is something I work consciously to create, as I dislike the messy, ugly, emotional breakups.

I stayed in my marriage way beyond the point when I was emotionally invested in it. It took me two years to realize that I was trying to beat a dead horse with a stick in attempting to continue a blind pursuit of a picket-fence-perfect family with him, when my heart, my dreams, my desires were already beckoning me elsewhere. When I reached the point in my marriage where I knew with certainty that I couldn’t stay married anymore, I felt awful for not having acted on the impulse sooner. I had strung him along because I didn’t want to disappoint him, I didn’t want to break his heart- even though I had been cheating on him and having an affair. I gave a lot of thought to how I could leave the relationship in a healthy way, regain some respect for myself, and honor the man I had called my partner for eight years.

There is tremendous power in walking away from a relationship that no longer feeds or nourishes you, in not binding one’s life path to another. Yet, leaving people to their journey and stepping back into your own- alone- can hurt. It can be hard- even though it is, ultimately, empowering.

There’s a beautiful point in relationships where we know one another so well we can see parts of the other person better that they can see themselves, and we grow to value the way that our partners can reflect those parts to us- but sometimes that’s uncomfortable. We aren’t always ready to go there to witness those hidden parts, and we can trigger one another because we try to see the Self that isn’t wanting to yet be seen.

Ultimately, my ex husband and I had been growing in different directions. We had both been compromising for the sake of our marriage, and neither of us was happy with that. It wasn’t easy to say those words to him, “I want to divorce.” But, once I said it, a huge weight began to lift from both our shoulders. It has taken time, and there have been many challenging conversations along the way, but we are, at last, legally unshackled from one another. And our lives have each flourished in amazing and previously un-imagined ways.

That’s not to say that everything is ‘done’. There are still some unresolved wounds from my marriage: the deep sorrow of a decade of never really being seen by my partner; the shame of sexual rejection; the pain of hiding under a proverbial rock- creatively, sexually, professionally- and only now realizing just how much of me had been missing from the picture. I wish I could have been seen, I wish I could have been all of me without the fear of being me. These wounds have bled in to some of the more recent relationships in my life, including one that I have held incredibly dear, and written about a lot in this blog.

My emotions have weathered far deeper, far harder storms than this. Processing the end of my marriage- I was already over it by the time I chose to end it. With Orion, however, getting over has been hard. Complicated. Unfamiliar.

417849_179968288824675_180673540_n

In the past, with breakups, I’ve been able to retreat away from the person, and they’ve been able to retreat away from me. In this instance, it’s different. There is no avoidance. I dance with my emotions and the discom-poly-ation of things and must learn to embrace and flow forward, despite the parts of me that yell and scream and tug. There’s no other way- the longevity of our friendship and the all-encompassing nature of the spiritual kinship and emotional connection we’ve shared more of in the past year plus means that our lives have multiple overlapping friendships, social connections, activities, and work opportunities. In this case, the only way out is through.

Breakups feel like waking up from the intoxication of a dream. There’s a hangover as the presence of the relationship in our lives begins to wear off. Now, writing a few weeks after the fact, rather than a ‘break up’ I see it more like a break through. I feel like it’s a leveling up, a giant gear shift to the next chapter of exploring what Singleish means for me. I’m learning completely new things about how I relate to my relationships, renewing the relationship with my Primary- my Self- and diving in to new, exciting, connections with others.

The transformations that I’ve experienced in the last few weeks seem to reflect that the relationship with Orion was over long before it was over. I feel disappointed that we both were stringing things along, trying to dance between friendship and friendtimacy when the healthier thing (as has now become evident) was to walk away entirely if we ever hoped to hit reset on the friendship. Rather than get caught up in the petty game of resentments- a path of bitterness that I do not choose to buy in to- I ask myself, what could I do differently, in the future? How can I build healthy relationships that have empowering conclusions, and do not emotionally drain any participant in the process of the relationship ending?

I have some theories.

First of all, acknowledge that all relationships have endings. Come to terms with it for yourself, and, acknowledge that with the person you are in a relationship with. Talk about it- remove the veil of fear that exists in talking about endings! One sweetie, Gerard, who I have been dating since last fall, has been great at conversations like this. Without going in to details, we both know that our intimate relationship has a very limited time frame. We don’t know when it will end, we just know that it will. That fact has been on the table right from Date Zero. And so we’ve talked about how we want to talk about that when the time comes. Very meta, right? I know.

photo (1)So that’s the second point- talk about how you like to experience endings. We have been ingrained with this terror of ending relationships, a fear that it means we will be a ‘failure’- and so when time comes to end it we either ignore the signals, or we act from that place of fear, that place of fight-or-flight. We might try to keep things going ‘as friends’. We may lash out. We can say irrational things. We start talking at one another rather than talking with one another. The best way to get over any fear is to deal with it before it comes up. Ask yourself- and your partners- how long do you want to explore this relationship? What are your indicators for when a relationship has run out of steam? How do you want to communicate these things to each other when they come up? How do you like to relate to former lovers when the relationship has ended? These are important conversations to have with ourselves, as well as with anyone we form a relationship with. It’s like having an informal relationship pre-nup chat.

Third- recognise that there are no problems, only opportunities. The end of one relationship births the way for new ones. The conclusion of a chapter opens the path for exploration of novelty. Learn how to embrace the changes it brings. For me, I’ve been reconnecting with activities that I love, and spending more time with people I haven’t see in a long time. I’ve shared beautiful walks in the forest with wise and intelligent friends. I reorganized my bedroom. I’ve been taking myself out on Me dates. I’ve discovered that someone I was mesmerized by on the dance floor at a music festival last summer lives ten minutes walk away from my home, and he happens to have a passion for rope and bondage that’s very compatible with mine. In summary- I’ve been actively rediscovering the world around me, and finding that I love it so much more than I thought I would, and so much more than I have been in the last several months.

Last of all: when things are ended, find a way, if you can, to communicate what you have loved and cherished about the relationship, and what the relationship has meant to you. Allow yourself to feel gratitude for whatever was in it to be grateful for. It could be big things, or it could be the little things. This is possibly the hardest part, as it can take years to figure out. Last time I saw my ex husband, we talked a bit about this. I shared with him that I was grateful to him for introducing me to the world of psychedelics, and for being the reason I came to Canada. I can’t imagine where my life would have gone otherwise. He, on the other hand, wasn’t sure what difference I had made in his life, but said he would think about it. It was one of the most nourishing and positive conversations we have had in years. Being able to say to a partner, “The external presence of you in my life has nourished the internal experience of my Self,” when we have broken up- that’s something I now aim for.

Endings signal evolution. Breakups breed growth, and growth isn’t in the easy flow. The easy flow is what you get to once you’ve grown. The growth is in embracing the challenge, in diving in to intimacy with your fears and judgements. It’s in being able to look someone in the eye who you have loved, who has triggered you, turned your heart inside out with thrashing anguish, brought about emotional reactions that have completely and utterly terrified you, and the absence of whom has made you feel you are nothing and insignificant- and being able to feel like you can still love their soul, fall in love with their cosmic essence, and dance with them in the uncertainties between you.

photo (3)