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,

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