Monday, May 6, 2013

Poly 101: Dealing With Emotions

Lately, I've been writing some 101 articles for the blog; you can find them using the poly101 label on the site. In this article, I'm addressing a key idea behind polyamorous relationships.

When I first confronted Polyamory, I remember describing the sensation as "fairies, castles, and unicorns."

There I was having just wrapped up having sex with my friend's wife and he's in bed with his girlfriend. And everybody was okay with it. Wow! It was amazing! I had no idea that this kind of openness existed.

Hell, I'd never dreamed that I could be a part of anything like that.

Shortly thereafter - as the euphoria settled down and reality crept in - I had to start contending with the emotional baggage that accompanies the Polyamorous traveller. The jealousy, fear, joy, and excitement; the resentment from partners of my partners; the outright contempt from others; breakups; anger for not "being allowed" to do whatever the heck I wanted; the compassion and caring that I felt for newbies to the lifestyle; the sympathy and empathy I feel for my partners when I return home to my wife.

Poly really looks cool and fun on the outside. But the truth is Poly is a big-ass poo-bag of complex emotions that forces us to confront stuff that Monogamy attempts to either avoid or suppress, and for which many of us aren't prepared to manage.

In my experience with Polyamorous communities, I'd probably say that a strong majority of polyfolk support expressing, discussing, and resolving emotions. I'd even go so far as to say that discussing and processing emotions is part hobby and part therapy. The Poly tribes that I'm familiar with will go through a process that looks a bit like this:

1. Feeling. Somebody will have an emotional response and that could be deeply internalized or visibly, emotionally, publicly expressed.

2. Processing. The Polyamorous person will turn a critical eye to their feelings and attempt to isolate what triggered the response, and then consider how they're reacting, why they're reacting, and what benefit the reaction is bringing them. They might openly discuss their feelings with a community or partners as a processing activity.

3. Labeling. Eventually, it would seem to me that most of the Polyamorous have a categorical mind. They attempt to affix labels to what they're feeling so they can transform it into something manageable. Giving it a name certainly helps. It also helps in describing their emotional state to others.

4. Managing. Meanwhile, labeling helps identify tactics that could be employed to help contend with the emotion; tricks and tips that could be used right away or over time. Further, there may be an act of negotiation here where partners are asked to give consideration to the emotion and to modify their behaviours as to avoid another trigger.

5. Resolving. Finally, there is a resolution. Now, that resolution may not mean the absence of the emotion - not at all. It may just become the background noise of an ongoing state. It may never be erased. Hopefully though, the Polyamorous person feels heard, that they're doing their best to manage it, and they've developed a new skill in the process.

I've always thought of Polyamory as a lifestyle that interjects critical thinking into relationships and I must tell you that many of my peers laugh at me when I say this so take it as you will. Still, when I watch how the Polyamorous contend with difficult emotions, I'm always amazed by how - instead of just raw, emotional, uncontrolled reaction - they slow down, wait, process their feelings, and walk through a resolution pattern.

When I was in Monogamous relationships, I reacted to emotional stress. Maybe I just had piss-poor relationship skills in general but I really didn't slow down to process and resolve. I got angry. Real angry. I blamed the other person, shouted, cried, threw things, ran away. That's how I was taught to deal with deep emotional stress. That's how I was taught how emotions in romantic relationships resolved themselves:

a. Initial Feelings.
b. Rising Anxiety.
c. Confrontation.
d. Blow-up.
e. Run.
f. Attention.
g. Mutual Reconciliation.
h. Promises ... to never do that again.

I dunno about you guys, but this was the pattern of my first twenty years of romantic engagements. I really can't tell you how I arrived at that or why I did these things, but I can tell you when it ended: when I became Polyamorous.

It's my opinion that those who practice Polyamory do so not just for the sex appeal but to expand their emotional horizons. They're interested in pushing what's accepted, normal, and taboo, in order to explore their own reactions. Dealing with emotions is a big part of polyamorous culture. 

There's a lot of fear and anxiety in seeing somebody you love fall in love with somebody else, and then turning around and accepting that as okay for them, okay for you, and okay for the party they love. It's not easy. It's not anything you'll get right the first, second, or seventh time around - it's an ongoing evolution of honing your emotional muscle and for re-patterning what programming you may have started out with. Polyamory is the journey pushing you on through these emotions, and hopefully inspiring growth and better self-awareness over time.



Airen Wolf said...

I look at it this way: As a polyamorous person you MUST care for and nurture your emotions like you SHOULD if you were monogamous. The skills we learn when dealing with our unruly and primal emotions are part of what we need to form good and lasting relationships of all kinds. Hiding our heads in the sand and allowing ourselves to act like emotional children cripples the full joy of open choice and real love. It really makes no difference what lovestyle you choose.

Lunasmiles said...

It's good to know that we're NOT REALLY POLY because we find it emotionally challenging!

It takes time to unlearn past behaviors and replace them with more productive ones.

It sometimes requires mentors/coaches/therapists who can model how it's done, and it certainly requires full participation by all parties.

When there's a lack of "buy-in" from someone, that's where the troubles really become thorny.

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