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.
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,