Friday, August 26, 2011

The "Sushi Factor".

This is something that has come up in many relationships I've been in, observed, or heard about, so perhaps there is some value to be gleaned by putting it out there. In our house, we call it the "sushi factor". Here is how we discovered the S.F.: I'm a fan of sushi, and had invited S to go on several occasions. He pleaded off with, "I just can't stand fish, and raw fish particularly, so that's a no.". Fast forward some number of months, insert a new love interest he was seeing, and suddenly, there is S eating sushi with new person. Color me less than thrilled.

Now, with a "normal" mono relationship, you can go with the, "People change, and maybe they just like it now." theory when you see your ex, who was virulently opposed to xyz now engaged happily in it. Within poly, when you've made a request of partner, gotten a no, and then see them doing that with another partner, it can be a bit tougher to run with that theory.

Oddly enough, there seems to be strong anecdotal evidence that men are at higher risk of stepping in this particular mess. In every case I've directly observed, it's been the guy that said he wasn't interested in (fill in the blank), then proceeds to do it with new partner. Things like a shopping venue, type of food, activity, a sex act, or relationship style.

S and I were talking that over at lunch the other day, and his supposition, which may not be particularly flattering to our male audience, is that the desire to bag a new partner often trumps existing boundaries/preferences with current partners. Hunting instinct.

Now, there are a great many poly folks out there that will say that everyone is entitled to enjoy, or not, whatever types of activities and cuisine they wish to with whomever they want. They'd be right too. However, in practical applied terms, this may not be the best policy to run with.

Real life example from personal history: Back in the swinging days, I was out on a full swap evening with my partner at the time. Things were ramping up sexually, and the man I was playing with went down on me, and began to stimulate me anally as well. After a short time, I noticed that his partner seemed a bit upset, and took a break, grabbing her on the way out of the room to chat. She was embarrassed to admit it, but she was upset because she really enjoyed oral sex with anal stimulation, and asked for that several times, getting a no from her partner. What's the first thing he does out with someone new? Go down on her and stick his finger up her ass! Seriously, does anyone out there reading this think that's a winning strategy for domestic tranquility?

Now, some of you may be inclined to just write this off as NRE insanity, and while there may be an element of truth to that, NRE isn't an excuse for a lack of consideration or sensitivity. In the event that you are out with someone new (or in with them), and they bring up/you have this great idea you've heard before...somewhere...pause for a moment and consider where it originated. If it's with an existing partner, I respectfully suggest that it might be worth holding off on doing with the new person, and giving your existing partner first shot at it.

Now, am I unhappy that I can now sometimes cadge S into going to have sushi? No, I'll leverage that NRE-induced experimental bent for all it's worth! However, it would have been much nicer and possibly built more trust and intimacy in our relationship to have that level of willingness to try something extended my way without the need for NRE intoxication.

Note: This whole concept applies only to those things that everyone is willing to do/try. There is no suggestion that anyone should "take one for the team", or feel pressured to do something they don't want to do.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Time on Your Own, or Shared Experience?

The title is a bit disingenuous, as it seems pretty apparent that these aren't the only options on the table. S and I were talking earlier this week, and it popped up that we're on somewhat different spaces on the continuum of "spending time on my own/with others is what makes me an interesting person/partner" as it relates to "spending time together in shared experience builds intimacy/closeness". He tends more into the "time on my own" camp, while I lean towards the "shared experience" model.

While we both find value in each other's stance on a personal level, it is a difference that is important in how we approach relationships, particularly in a poly setting. One of the things I realized, largely because S is off on a "first weekend away" trip with A, is that I tend to shut off connection with partners when they are spending exclusive time with others. In the context of a date night, this isn't a big deal, but when it's expanded out to several days, it feels uncomfortable and weird. He called in to talk last night, and it felt uncomfortable to me to be talking.

At least right now, I don't seem to be capable of expanding my compersion bubble to include longer dates/overnights/trips. Frankly, I beat myself up about this pretty often. It kind of wrecks what D calls my "look good". It's a different response emotionally than I want to be having intellectually, and I REALLY dislike that dissonance!

I don't have concerns with their relationship, or their taking time. This is clearly past tapes playing. Historically for me, trips have been a pivot point in relationships. Power plays have been made, breakups ensued, massive changes that seem to come out of left field, and I'm such a stability junkie that there is intense antipathy for going through that again, so I've gotten to a point that I really dislike trips and overnights. Not just for my partners, but often for me.

This is a good opportunity to go through something scary for me, and have it be okay at the end of the weekend. To have everyone be congruent in doing what they say they're going to do. Wash, rinse, repeat until old tapes stop playing.

Enough about me! Back to our topic! For S, spending time on his own is important, having diverse experiences that are different from his partner(s) helps him feel like he's bringing something to the table in terms of being an interesting person. Agreed. For me, spending time together doing new or familiar things builds intimacy and closeness. Agreed. I think he's good at the shared experience thing, and I think I'm less good with time on my own.

Partly, my lack of skill in solo time is because I seldom have time to myself. The roles I have in life right now are quite encompassing, and as a pretty intensive extrovert, I'd rather spend time with the people I care about when I have it available to spend than do something on my own. If I'm not working, hanging with my kiddo, S, D, the dogs, working on a community event, writing, cleaning, cooking, or reading, I'm sleeping. Hobbies? Honestly, I don't have any. That seems out of balance.

Part of the issue is that I don't really have things I'm interested in doing that are more compelling than what's right in front of me. That probably makes me a bit on the dull side though, and certainly doesn't contribute to growing new skills, or being an interesting partner who is bringing something intriguing to the table. So what to do? What does a busy poly mom do for fun on the side? Frankly, I'm open to suggestions.

Well, I'm off to brunch with my meta-metamour (A's other partner), and then we shall see! Perhaps an erotic photography session? Mud wrestling at the nude beach? Lots of self-care that I don't usually take time for? The day is my oyster.

Friday, August 19, 2011

What I Want, versus What I Need.

Note: This is a guest blog by D. Hopefully the first of many! Enjoy!
I've always been a rather literal person. I was when I was young and I still am today. I am often able to recognize when others are not speaking literally (from context) and adapt my understanding and responses accordingly, but to this day it is an uncomfortable experience. I especially deplore hyperbole, unless I'm the offender.
Now I don't mean to say that this is the case in every situation. Rather, I find myself preferring to interpret and formulate verbal communication as literal more and more as the importance of the topic elevates. If we are talking about a movie that just came out, by all means say that it's absolutely horrible (I will still take you seriously, but the repercussions are negligible). But when we are talking about feelings, relationships, or cheese, please do not stray far from saying what you actually mean.
I remember talking with friends about how people used the term “need” far too freely, in my opinion. There are few actual needs that come up in day to day experience. Oxygen is a big one. A person needs water somewhat regularly. Food is a good thing to have from time to time. Some form of temperature regulation, whether that be from clothing, shelter, or climate doesn't really matter, is also something that seems to qualify as a “need” for pesky health reasons.
That was a perfectly reasonable position to hold, in my opinion, and I did so for a long, long time. I even remember feeling a bit superior to people who held a less stringent standard for their definition of the word. Silly that. When a disparity in definitions became apparent I corrected others, informing them that they were confusing a “want” for a “need”. In each case the person would pause, put on a troubled look, then concede my point, all the while cursing my inflexibly pedantic usage, no doubt.
This continued until one day I was speaking with a partner about this topic, how others confuse “wants” and “needs”, and how we really didn't need to discuss “needs” at all within the context of relationships unless there was some sort of survival-level dependency involved. They did the same pause, and wore the same troubled look, but then they said something quite different. With some heat they countered that while that was certainly a valid observation if we were talking about surviving in the wilderness, that we were actually talking about the survival of a relationship.
Wow, was I dumb.
Using a context based definition of necessity is not an earth shatteringly original concept, but it was one that had evaded me. I was diminishing others' statements of what they needed by arguing that it wasn't really a “need”, but simply what they “wanted”. While there may be some traction to that argument, especially for those with less self-knowledge or those who are particularly selfish, it certainly isn't the case all of the time. Besides, if someone is particularly selfish, wouldn't it be better to address that issue directly rather than debating a semantic point about their use of language?
I found, after careful reflection, that this was actually an adaptation that had allowed me to deal with some things that happened (or rather, didn't happen) to me as a child. My father provided for me. He protected me. My needs were seen to. The thing that I realized, however, was that those statements were only true with my particularly inane definition of the term “need” (or “provided”, or “protected”). None of those statements were true if you used a broader definition.
It felt very important to me to defend the way that my father raised me. The deck was stacked against him quite badly, and he worked hard to make sure that I always had food, shelter, clothing, and that I always felt loved. This was no mean feat, truly. While considering other possible definitions of “need”, I ran across one that caused me a great deal of pain. It's the one that I still use to this day.
“Need: Required for healthy vibrant growth and/or existence.”
When I first thought of this I cried. I still feel teary, writing this, as it really strips away the defenses I had built up over the years. I wasn't given many of the things that children need in order to have healthy vibrant growth. Not on a regular basis, certainly. I used to think about people who had it worse than me, and I would backslide and argue against this position. In the end I'm forced to conclude that just because there were people who were worse off than me doesn't mean that I had it all that good, in some ways.
When I compared my childhood against this measure, one of being provided with what I would have required for healthy, vibrant growth, it's clear that my experience fell well short of the mark. I say this with little to no blame directed at my father. He really had it tough. I do have some feelings about the way things worked out, but if I'm going to be honest, he really was a hero. The things that he did, the things he endured, I can't blame him for the way things happened, at least not without a great deal of compassion and understanding.
That being said, how does this epiphany play out now? What changed when I plug this new definition into the same old conversations I'd been having with partners for years?
Well, first off, I raised my standards by several orders of magnitude. I could see how weak self-esteem had reinforced my previous position with regard to relationships. How could I ask for more in this relationship when I was lucky to even have a partner in the first place? It seemed that two separate “tapes” were playing and were mutually reinforcing each other.
Another change was that I began to notice some of the unrealistic standards I had set up for myself. After some quiet reflection I realized that I needed to take it a bit easier on myself and be more intentional with my requests of others. Let me be careful to emphasize that these were requests, not demands.
To this day I can still struggle with asking for what I want in relationships. I'm getting better, but it's still enough of a success that when I do it, I notice, then I immediately pat myself on the back for it. If things are uncomfortable or problematic I speak up quickly, but it things are neutral and I'm trying to proactively seek joy, there is still something holding my back.
I get to expect what I need. I get to ask for what I want. I get to seek my own happiness with those around me, as I contribute to theirs in kind. It's my job to pay attention to my inner world, gleaning self-knowledge, and to share that with those who are closest to me. If a particular partner doesn't want to be a part of a given desire, that's fine, but it they aren't willing to meet one of my needs, then perhaps we ought not to be partners.
In my current season of dating, it's making me feel much more comfortable, competent, and confident knowing that I can discuss and describe my needs, thus giving people of interest the opportunity to let me know what they can or can't do or be for me.
So, what do you need from your partners?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ask For What You Want!

"Ask For What You Want." It's right up there with "Communication! Communication! Communication!" as advice you'll get when looking into polyamory as a relationship style. It's also pretty vague, and unlikely to get the job done without a significant amount of self-awareness and some practice.

There are several potential hitches in the system that can hang up efforts to AFWYW. One is the person who is pretty deferential in asking, to the point where their message is nearly completely eclipsed by the lack of clarity. Often, this is based in the reluctance that many of us have to request help with something that might be emotionally challenging.

I ran into this personally in recently when I later realized that the conversation I thought I had, wasn't the same as the one my partner had experienced with me. Looking more closely at the interaction, it seemed likely that I hadn't been as clear as I would have wanted in AFWYW because I thought my own emotional concerns were a little silly/irrational/made me look bad, and I like to be reasonable, rational and good with the poly!

Another root of deferential requests can be the underlying feeling that you don't deserve whatever it is that you're asking for. Maybe it's something kind of big, or perhaps it's just that you don't feel worthy of asking others to put work in on your behalf, or that you aren't sure if the relationship you share with someone supports that level effort. These are questions that need to be assessed internally (Is this a self-worth issues?), and often with the partner as well (So, how do you feel about holding down the fort with the kiddo while I'm off on a date with Other Partner?).

Many of us pride ourselves on being independent and capable to the point of not wanting to want or need help at all! For me, this can be a tough one. I'm actively working on making small requests of partners to desensitize myself to that idea. It isn't that I can't do something "all by myself", it's that extreme independence all the time can be a way of cheating my partners of being able to put into the pot and give to the relationship, setting up a power dynamic that isn't particularly helpful. If I'm Little Miss Independence, doing it all on my own, there isn't a lot of space for them to "give" into. In fact, I will go further and suggest that it is a mark of greater strength to be able to ask for and accept help, even when it isn't a situation of dire need, than it is to refuse help based on the "I'm independent and capable." platform.

Of course, another main impediment to AFWYW is lack of self-awareness. Sometimes, we don't know what we want, and so asking for it is kind of hard to execute. This one is mostly internal work, although friends and partners can be (if you ask nicely! ;)) great sounding boards to help you figure out what is desired or needed. Once you can identify your want/need, coming up with a strategy together to satisfy it is a wonderful thing to practice!

AFWYW can turn into a negotiation pretty easily, so another key is to know where your bottom line lies. How much of what you're asking for is a need? How much is a want? If you end up giving away the farm in a negotiation, resentment (with yourself, your partner, your metamour, the situation in general) with the results is pretty likely, and no one wants that. We heard from several people earlier this week at group that this was something they'd needed to work on. "I want x, and my partner wants z, so I'll give them z, and see if I can get a little x worked in too, but this really isn't what I want/need/asked for, and now I think I negotiated away my position because I thought if I gave them z, they'd give me more x, but it doesn't seem to be working out..." This way lies madness!!!

Be prepared to get a "no" sometimes. There are points where it's just not going to fly, and that doesn't mean your partner(s) don't love and value you, it doesn't mean they don't respect your needs, or want to give you something, it just may not be possible, or they might need to give away too much of themselves to accomplish your request. It's okay to feel disappointed, it's okay to review the request and find another option that might be workable, it's okay to seek reassurance. It's likely a problem if you feel angry, or that your partner "owes" you whatever you ask for, whenever you ask for it.

Asking for what you want is a skill that we all would do well to put near the top of the priority list. In the words of the immortal Stuart Smalley: "I deserve good things. I am entitled to my share of happiness. I refuse to beat myself up. I am attractive person. I am fun to be with. I can ask for what I want because I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and, doggonit, people like me!"

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

When are you ready?

With the wedding and family trip over, and D moved in, things are settling into a new trajectory for the household. It's a very positive feel around here for the most part, and will feel even more settled once the kids (our other roommate's daughter is around more in the summer) are back in school.

It seems that this is a time of blossoming opportunities, deepening of existing relationships, and looking towards further personal growth. Since D's moved in, a couple of connections are becoming burgeoning relationships. S and his other partner, A, are spending a bit more time and energy together, and taking steps forward in other ways. I'm being advised, by both S and D, as well as my daughter, that it's time for me to get back in the dating pool and find myself a girlfriend.

Since PG and I split a couple of years ago, I've been having a bit more of a challenge putting myself out there. It got more intense when S and I parted ways with JA last fall, even when considering casual connections. I haven't gone on a date with anyone new in quite some time. Part of that has been a lack of time and energy to do so, but a good chunk is just flat out fear. I've taken more of a battering on an emotional level than I care to admit, and opening myself up again is scary. I've certainly got "enough" going on to feel well-fed and fulfilled, so the motivation to push through that discomfort is a bit sketchy.

In my head, this seems simple enough: Find someone that I'm interested in connecting with, and ask them out. In execution it's looking a lot like me filtering everyone out on some minor basis so that I don't have to risk anything.

Perhaps I'm just not ready yet? I don't have a history of being dumped, so no real experience to draw off of to know when I'm not "broken" anymore by that pain. I think that's why it's called a break up now. Not because you're breaking off a relationship, but because something inside breaks when you lose an important connection. I'm not sure if that's healed, or how much, or even if it needs to be to connect again.

Happiness and optimism are my usual state of being, and that's where I live right now. The present and future hold much joy and promise, and yet I know that there is space for something/one more. How do I get over the hump and stop letting fear hold me back when so much pleasure already exists in my life? Is it just a "fake it 'til you make it" sort of challenge?

Nothing says I have to get it right immediately, or pick another life partner this month, or this year. Even if I go out with someone and it doesn't click, that doesn't need to mean pain or failure. What irks me most about this is feeling limited by my fear, so I am going to choose to move forward with a date or two, and let the cards fall where they may. One great thing about having some epic pain-based experience is that my partner selection skills feel much stronger, so I'm going to trust that to move me forward. At the end of the day, I still have the loving arms of my family to rely on. :)