Tuesday, July 28, 2015

My Husband Has Decided He's Poly. How Can I Trust Him, When Our Whole Marriage Feels Like a Lie?

Dear Viny,

Wow, this is weird, but my whole life turned weird a year ago, so maybe this is normal. Quick stats: 48, stay-at-home mom, 21 year marriage, monogamous to the core, husband dropped the polybomb a year ago. I'm still sifting through the rubble trying to find anything worth saving. We've been in therapy for a little over 6 months, but I'm still struggling and I'm afraid I will never be comfortable with this. I went from a tight, loving secure partnership to having doubts and fears and insecurities out the wazoo. I know I'm absolutely not interested in sharing the kind of deeply intimate emotional and physical relationship I have with my husband with any other man. And I can't understand why he wants to. I'm battling the "why am I not enough/good enough to keep you interested in me" demons. I'm also deeply squicked out about the physical aspects of sharing my husband's body with someone else. The thought of touching, kissing, making love with him after he's been inside someone else is deeply uncomfortable.

So after that rambling mess, here's the issue. In therapy, I was asked "What can your husband do, in lieu of emotional and physical fidelity, to assure you of his love and commitment? What can he do/say/give you to help you feel safe/loved/comfortable?" I'm having a really hard time coming up with anything tangible when the voice in my head keeps screaming "NOOOOOOOO!!!! Don't do this!!!!!"
We're not one of those couples joined at the hip, we both have separate friends and hobbies as well as the multitude of things we share, so it's not like I expect him to be my everything. But I did expect him to be my only deep love and intimate partner. And I was really hoping he felt the same about me. Now I feel like I'm being demoted and that I'll eventually be dismissed. You know, First Wives' Club. "Yeah, honey, thanks for raising my kids and helping me build my business and restore our kickass Victorian home, but this is Vicki and I really want to bone her now, sooooo…."

Dammit, rambling again. I guess, two things, how do I trust him in this when it seems like our whole marriage was a lie, and two, how do you get over the ick factor of your beloved having sex with other people?

Thank you,
Faithfully His


Dear Faithful,

My heart goes out to you. Youre putting on a brave face, but you are clearly in a lot of pain and I can totally see why. Your situation is tragic, in the classic sense. Like a person whose spouse was diagnosed with cancer, or someone whose house was leveled by a tornado, you are in an emotional tailspin because your life has been permanently altered, in a way that you would never have chosen for yourself, by a force beyond your control. And to make matters worse, it was your loving husband who set that destructive force in motion. From your point of view, he might as well have said, Honey, Ive been praying for cancer,or, What I think this place really needs is a natural disaster,and BAM: a year later, youre still picking up the pieces, shellshocked, going, How do I put this back together?and What the hell were you thinking?

Obviously, I do not mean to imply that polyamory is a bad thing. I am simply recognizing that your husbands revelation — “I think I might be poly,or I would like us to open our marriage,or whatever he said to you was a life-changing event you wish had never happened.

For that reason, the first thing you are going to have to do is to work through your anger and grief and come to a place of acceptance. Your husband is not exactly the person you thought he was. The relationship you had, which felt right to you, did not feel right to him. Going forward, you and your husband do not have entirely matching visions of the goodlife. Those are the stark facts, maam, and regardless of what the two of you decide to do about dealing with your differences, you desperately need to come to terms with this new reality. Only after you have accepted your life, as it now is, will you be able to think constructively about how it might be.

Getting your old life back is not an option. As soon as youve made peace with that, you will be in a position to think about how you want to move forward. Moving forward always requires saying yesto something, and you cant say yesto anything as long as youre still screaming, NOOOOOOOO!!!!

Im not going to try to convince you to say yesto what your husband wants. But I do think you ought to start by saying yesto what you want not in some imaginary world, in which your husbands polybomb never exploded, smashing your sweet heart to smithereens, but in this world, the weird and wackadoodle place where you you, of all people! have been reduced to asking some Viny chick for alternativeadvice online. Whether you like it or not, this world is now your world.

So, now that youre here, how do you figure out what you want? Thats a tough question. I cant answer it for you, but I can give you a good starting point to begin soul-searching: imagine yourself, twenty years from now, telling a good friend, That polybomb my husband dropped on our marriage back in 2014 turned out to be a blessing in disguise.If you can imagine anything good good, according to you coming out of the wreckage of the marriage you once thought you had, then theres a yesyou can feel good about working toward.

Now, to answer the two questions you actually asked.

Question #1: How can you trust your husband, given that your whole marriage now feels like a lie?

In my opinion, your inability to trust your husband isnt the real problem here. The real problem is your inability to trust yourself: you thought your husband wanted the same kind of marriage that has always appealed to you, and you turned out to be wrong. It doesnt matter why you believed what you did, only that your belief turned out to be false, and now youre afraid: if you were wrong about him once, whats to prevent you from being wrong about him again? The answer is: nothing. You will probably be wrong about him, yourself, and everything else in the world in lots of ways before all is said and done. And that is okay. You see, trusting a partner is just a choice you can make not because that person has proven, beyond all doubt, that he or she deservesto be trusted, or because youre sure you cant possibly be wrong, but because you have decided its the best choice for you. And in order to make a deliberate choice to trust someone else, you have to trust your own ability to make good choices.

I am sure there is evidence both for and against the story youre currently telling yourself, the one in which your husband was lying for twenty years, while you played the part of his dupe. So, its time to decide: do you or do you not want to believe that awful story? May I suggest that the tight, loving secure partnershipwhose loss you are presently mourning was not a complete fabrication? That it was in fact based on mutual attraction, respect, and positive regard and that all of these things are still possible, if you choose to believe in them?

Question #2: How does one get over the ickfactor of sharing ones lover with another person?

This question surprised me, because I have never felt grossed out by being with a partner who has recently been sexually involved with someone else. (Emotionally threatened, yes; physically revolted, no.) Sex is inherently sexy to me so, although I seem to be more paranoid about STI risk than many non-monogamous people I know, I really dont mind the idea of this or that beloved appendage having been in some orifice that doesnt belong to me, so long as reasonable safe-sex precautions have been taken. I have never been the type to insist on showers and clean sheets after my partner has been physically intimate with someone else. Honestly, its never occurred to me, before now, to wonder why not but I guess I simply assume that a person cherished by my partner is worthy of my love as well, at least by extension. It doesnt bother me to think there might be some symbolic or energetic traceof a foreign body on my lovers body, because I do not perceive my lovers lover as foreign, like a pathogen or a noxious weed. Its more like, Your invited guest is my invited guest.

Then too, I have never thought of anyone elses body as mine, to share or not share, as I see fit. I firmly believe that each persons body is his/her/their own. Another persons body may be shared with me, for a period of time, as a gift; my sacred task is to appreciate that gift without expecting to keep it for myself.

Although you and I are coming from very different paradigms, I suspect that you will feel much less squicky about sharing your husbands body if you do in fact choose to share him, for reasons that feel right to you. Its amazing what a little agency can do. I also think that if you can shift your perspective just a bit, Vicki(the hypothetical home-wrecker in your First WivesClub scenario) will turn out to be, on closer examination, a person just a person, much like yourself, with needs and hopes and fears (and maybe even a few stretch marks). Are other people so gross, really?

There is one final part of your letter that I would like to unpack. You say you are absolutely not interestedin sharing the kind of relationship you have with your husband with anyone else, and that you cant understandwhy he would want to share that kind of relationship with anyone other than you. I have a couple of reactions to these claims of yours. First of all, I am suspicious of how emphatically you state your disinterest. Are you so sure? Is there no circumstance under which you might feel differently than you do now? But even putting that objection aside, and assuming that you are 100% correct (not only about your present self, but also your future self), I smell a two-faced rat. On one face, the sneer of smug superiority (I would never consider the horrible thing you are considering; I am so much more loyal and loving than you are!). On the other face, eyes squinched shut (I refuse to look at your reasons for wanting to share love and sex with anyone else, because Im terrified of what Ill see. What if you dont love me anymore? What if it's because theres something wrong with me?!)

Faithful, its obvious to me from your letter that you are smart, sassy, and supportive which is a truly kickass combo of womanly virtues, in my opinion. Your husband is one lucky guy. And guess what? He probably knows it. I cant tell you his reasons for dropping the polybomb, as you put it, but I have a hunch theyre mostly about him. Have you ever tried asking him why he wants to be intimate with other people? I mean, really asking him, and really listening curiously, compassionately, without judgement or self-defensiveness to what he has to say in response? Perhaps if the two of you could approach each other in a spirit of open communication, you would be able to explain yourself, and he would be able to explain himself, without either of you having to make the other person wrong. Youre monogamous; hes polyamorous. You love the shade; he loves the sun. To-may-to; to-mah-to.You get the idea. Can you love each other the way you are?

Thanks for writing. I admire your courage, and I wish you the best of luck.

Panache and Penuche,

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Minor Tremors and Major Upheavals: Why Polyamorous Relationships Are Like Landscapes

Dear Viny,

An unexpected thing happened to me a few weeks ago, and I would appreciate your take on it. My three year old Rock of Gibraltar poly romance experienced a tiny earthquake, and ever since then I find myself mentally wearing a hard hat and carrying emergency supplies. I usually feel delighted about my partner's experiences with other men she finds interesting. So after a recent occasion I was most surprised to discover other feelings gradually welling up in me, namely anxiety, insecurity, and a certain obsessiveness about their interaction. This was totally unexpected. What the hell?

-Seismic Quandary


Dear Quandary,

Did you know that the Rock of Gibraltar is home to a few hundred Barbary macaques, the only population of wild monkeys in Europe? These Old World primates are quite unusual: they don't have a tail; their social structure is matriarchal; females mate with most of the males in their social group, apparently giving preferential treatment to those who are most parental; and males take an active role in caring for infants, even though their paternity is highly uncertain.

Unbeknownst to these macaques, the rock upon which they have built their poly paradise is actually a highly faulted limb of an overturned fold – its sedimentary strata are upside down, with the oldest layer on top. Basically, what this means is that different layers of rock gradually built up, over the course of eons, as oceans advanced and retreated – and then, one earthquake at a time, over the course of more eons, the whole structure gradually flipped over. From a geological perspective, then, the Rock of Gibraltar is a perfect example of how the earth is constantly changing, shaped by dynamic processes that we usually don't even notice, given our puny human timescale – except on those rare occasions when we are shaken, quite literally, out of our illusion of safety and security by some cataclysmic event.

As you have no doubt figured out, the point I am trying to make is that the only certainty in this world is impermanence. Nothing is truly solid, not even the earth beneath our feet. There is no rock on which to rest. We know this instinctively, and it's terrifying. The Holy Grail we seek in life is freedom from this fear. And that is why we adore the people who bring us temporary respite – and also why we often come to resent those same people when it becomes apparent that the key word was temporary, rather than respite.

There are a number of possible reasons why your reaction to your partner's interest in someone else felt different (and considerably less delightful than usual) this time. Perhaps there was something qualitatively different about this particular interaction: your partner's level of interest seemed unusually high, the other person's level of interest seemed unusually high, your partner and/or the other person behaved unusually toward you afterward, etc. Or perhaps you were merely predisposed to interpret the situation differently because you happened to be feeling more insecure than usual for reasons that could have been entirely unrelated to the event, your partner, and the other person. Whatever the cause, something shifted, just the tiniest bit. You felt the earth move under your feet, and that reminded you of your fear – the very same fear you depend on your partner to help you forget.

I could offer you some tips on how to alleviate your feelings of anxiety, work through your jealousy, and regain a sense of trust in your partner's love for you. However, you don't seem to be asking for practical advice. You seem to be posing a bigger, more existential question which is why I want to leave you with this quote from Pema Chödrön's book Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion:

As long as we believe that there is something that will permanently satisfy our hunger for security, suffering is inevitable. The truth is that things are always in transition. “Nothing to hold on to” is the root of happiness. If we allow ourselves to rest here, we find that it is a tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs. This is where the path of fearlessness lies.

Rocks & Macaques,

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Half-Baked Half-Dozen

I returned from the Oregon Country Fair yesterday afternoon, after five days with no email access, and was partly relieved and partly disappointed to find that my ninety-seven unread emails did not include any burning questions for Viny. Relieved, because I leave tomorrow for California, and I knew I didn't have the time to answer any complicated questions today; disappointed, because having to respond to someone motivates me (and produces better writing, too, I think).

But since blog maintenance is the last un-checked item on my to-do checklist for today, I am damn well gonna post before midnight strikes and I turn into some lesser-known cultivar of cucurbita pepo.

So, here are a half-baked half-dozen topics/ideas I have been thinking about, some of which I might expand upon at some point. (Feel free to weigh in -- using the Blogger Contact Form to the right, or by commenting on this post -- if you have a favorite topic in this list, or you have another topic to suggest!)

1. Who counts as "family" and "extended family" (vs., say, "friend of the family") among people who are open about being in open relationships? 

2. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of marriage equality, I find myself thinking that the whole concept of government-sanctioned domestic relationships has got to go.

3. I don't consider myself an exhibitionist, and in fact I'd always assumed that having an audience during sex would be very inhibiting for me, but when Cam and I went to a sex club recently, I discovered that I enjoyed having sex in public. Who knew? Yay for finding out new things about one's sexuality!

4. My last two posts (and also this post from 2013) have addressed the topic of how difficult it can be to find people to date when you're already in a relationship -- particularly an open one. (The "secret affair" makes sense to the monogamous mainstream; they'd sooner date a cheater than a person who identifies as ethically non-monogamous, it seems.) Moreover, heterosexual dating is more difficult for poly men than poly women, on average: but is that just a reflection of the larger hetero dating culture, or are poly men at a greater disadvantage than single men? Does the gender imbalance equalize as people age?

5. Transition ceremonies -- are they useful? (Relationships go through transitions; people go through transitions; the only constant is change, right?) What is the function of ceremony, anyway?

6. This one is kind of "meta" (and maybe not interesting except to people like me, who draw from private experience in order to cultivate a public persona), but when is it appropriate to share someone else's private story in a public forum? One answer is "only when you have the person's express permission." Another might be, "only when there are no identifying details." But I'm not sure I'm totally satisfied with those answers. Is information a kind of personal property? If you share it with someone, doesn't it become theirs, also? (I'm not talking about a story shared in confidence -- that's kind of like a nude picture sent via personal text/email, shared under the condition that it remain private: in that case, making the "information" public would be violating an agreement.) What about an experience that involves several people, including oneself, and some people are fine with the story being shared and some people are not -- is silence always the best default setting?

Signing off now & heading bedward. Check, check, check!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

My Boyfriend Can't Get a Date, and I'm Tired of Talking about It

Dear Viny,

I've been with my boyfriend for a few years, but we've only been in a poly relationship for about a year. I've had a vast range of outside relationships, but unfortunately he doesn't have as much luck with the ladies as he would like. Constantly feeling pent up and frustrated, he turns to me to vent and ask advice. I really want to be there for him, since he's been there for me, but it's become difficult for me to participate in these pessimistic conversations. I'm not sure what to say to him, half feeling like we may need space and also hoping things will improve on their own.



Dear A.,

I hear you on this one, sister. One of the most challenging periods of my marriage occurred after I got together with my first serious boyfriend but before my husband got together with his first serious girlfriend. Our relationship dynamic during that time was very much like what you've described in your letter: my husband, feeling frustrated and discouraged, turned to me for sympathy, advice, and reassurance; and I, feeling concerned but also annoyed and resentful, did my best to meet his needs – and utterly failed to fix his problem.

If I were giving advice to your boyfriend, I would probably say things like, “Approach dating from the perspective of what you have to give to others, not what you hope to get from them,” or, “Try putting yourself into situations where you will meet other people in a setting that brings you joy, and just be open to interacting, without specific expectations,” or, “Stop fucking wallowing already – don't you know it's super unattractive?!” 

Those are all things I told my husband during his woe-is-me phase, but none of them made one sniffly sniglet of a difference. It was almost like he was determined to feel bad about himself. And then a miraculous thing happened: somehow, he ended up crushing on someone who returned his affections. He was thrilled, as you might imagine, flooded with feel-good juice – which made him much more fun to be around. And suddenly, all sorts of women began suggestively sashaying out of the woodwork. I remember going to a party with him around this time: no fewer than three women remarked, in breathy tones, on how good-looking my husband was, and one of them (after imbibing too much holiday punch) literally backed him into a corner and attempted to make out with him. It was pretty ironic: the second he stopped needing more attention from women, he began getting it. Desirability is strange in that way. It's the people who are most deep-down convinced of their own attractiveness who are most attractive to others.

So, what to do when you're stuck in the negative version of that loop? What recourse do you have when you fear you're not sexy enough, you don't have what it takes, and – worst of all – you know that other people can sense your insecurity, because it stinks like skunk stew?

You step out of the loop, that's what. You stop evaluating yourself based on what you think others think of you, and you get to work on doing what you need to do in order to think more highly of yourself. You focus on self-improvement for your own sake. Sure, you can always pray for a prince or princess who is looking for a diamond in the rough, a lover who is willing to mine the whine, as it were, but such reprieves are rare. What's more, the magical boost in self-esteem caused by another's positive regard is only temporary. After my husband and his first girlfriend broke up, he was right back where he started – except that he had learned a very important lesson: self-acceptance can only come from within.

I could say a lot more about this, but your boyfriend isn't the one asking for my advice, and your issue isn't really that you don't know what to say to him. Your issue is that you have allowed his problem to become your problem. This wouldn't be so bad if the solution were in your hands, but it isn't. He has to solve this one on his own. On some level, you know this, and it's making you crazy: you're waiting for him to get his shit together, so you can both enjoy your lives, but you're beginning to despair. You feel powerless and put-upon. It's like he's holding you hostage. You think to yourself, “This is totally unfair! Why do I have to feel bad, just because he's feeling bad?” – and then a wave of guilt crashes over you, and you think, “This is totally unfair! Surely I, who have so much, can muster up a bit of compassion for someone with less?”

Does this resonate? If so, I have some bad news: there is no such thing as perfect parity – in any relationship, poly or otherwise. A “fair” is for the pigs. Life's a bitch, and then you die. Et cetera. But I have some good news, too: you do not need to fix your boyfriend's problem in order to feel better. You only need to fix your problem. And your problem is a simple boundary issue.

I say “simple,” but I know very well how difficult it is to deal with boundary issues. I'm still learning how to walk the tightrope of interdependence without falling into codependence. Nevertheless, I would like to share with you one fail-safe way to tell whether you are maintaining healthy emotional boundaries: when you get drawn into a conversation about someone else's problems, ask yourself, “Am I experiencing feelings of anger or fear or anxiety right now?” If the answer is yes, then you are interpreting the situation as a threat to your autonomy, and any empathy you may feel will be swamped by your desire to protect yourself against the unwelcome intrusion of the other.

True compassion cannot be forced. You cannot be shamed or guilted or manipulated into empathizing with another person's plight. When you give of yourself, you must give freely, or it isn't a gift: empathy born out of a sense of duty arrives freighted with resentment, obligating the receiver to seem grateful – and, interestingly, true gratitude cannot be forced, either.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but your ability to be there for your boyfriend actually hinges on your ability to separate yourself from him and his problems. Yes, A., you are absolutely correct: you need space. My hope is that you can create that space without having to distance yourself from someone you love.

Knickknacks & Piggybacks,