So a couple of days back, I got to thinking about relationships as juggling acts. Because Metaphors are my jam, apparently. I nattered away on twitter about it, and the nice person over at Poly On Purpose turned it into a Storify (which you can read here). I decided to tidy up the original and expand on it a little bit, because I like the metaphor. I like the way it can be applied to all sorts of different relationships. Parenting. Friendship. Romance. Work. Hobbies. All sorts of stuff.
So, here we go.
For a few years now, I’ve thought of relationships as exchanges of time, energy, and attention. Time and Energy are finite. You only have so much time to go ‘round, and you only have so much energy available. You can’t be in two places at once. All that stuff. And, yes, you’ve only got so much attention available, as well, but Attention comes in a billion nuanced varieties. If you imagine them as juggling balls, they are every possible colour you can come up with.
So start with yourself. Here you are, with your colourful collection of Attention Balls, and you can be a solo act, juggling emotional, sexual, physical, cognitive, types of attention on your own when you go to the gym or to a show by yourself, when you write in your journal or use your vibrator, when you take a hot bath or a pottery class or a walk. When you take time for yourself, to catch up with yourself, to look after yourself. That’s a juggling act all on its own, and you need to make time and reserve energy for that act. It’s important.
But every relationship you have with a person outside of yourself is also a juggling act wherein you both offer time and energy to juggle your various attention balls back and forth with each other.
Different types of relationships take up more or less of your time and energy, and have different ratios of Attention Balls that you juggle.
So the relationship that you have with an Activity Friend might involve tossing one ball back and forth for one hour every week. Maybe that Activity Friend sees you more frequently, face to face, than a long-distance romantic partner or a beloved-friend in town, but the juggling acts you share with the partner and the friend would involve a lot of emotional Attention Balls, along with whatever else you juggled together, than would be involved when juggling with the Activity Friend.
Likewise, a sexual playmate or a friend-with-benefits might juggle mostly sexual Attention Balls with you, with a few other types of attention thrown in there some of the time, while a work colleague might mostly juggle logistical balls with you – yes, even if you are an escort who does duos and your work involves juggling a lot of Sexual Attention Balls with each other as well.
A relationship that involves a limited number of Attention Balls, but whom you see very frequently (maybe a room-mate who keeps to themselves, or a work colleague or classmate who isn’t sharing a project with you) will still eat up a lot of Time and Energy when it comes to juggling the few attention balls that are in play. That stuff adds up, and can leave you feeling worn out if you find yourself needing to be On when it comes to folks with-whom you juggle a lot more balls on a less frequent schedule.
In a related vein, a polyamourous ‘comet’ relationship might only take up one weekend per year, but all your respective other juggling acts get put on the back-burner while the two of you clear your calendars and focus on juggling every ball you’ve got with just each other. A romance that is geographically closer, meanwhile, would take up more of your day-to-day time, but would also require everyone involved to be aware of each other’s respective other juggling acts. Partners with-whom you share finances, housing, parenting, elder-care, etc… would juggle a heap of logistical Attention Balls with you that less-entwined partners never have to worry about, but those less-entwined partners might get a smaller amount of your time & energy to share a juggling act because you need to spend more of your (always finite) time and energy keeping all those extra logistical Balls in the air with other folks.
Sometimes, someone with-whom you share a juggling act will need to skim time and energy from your shared act because there are suddenly more balls in play in another act they share. Someone has a crisis or a baby, it’s crunch time at work or school, maybe a relationship becomes more intimate on some level and everything gets a bit of a re-org. In those situations, some of the balls you and that person were juggling together may get dropped. Maybe it takes you a minute to find your own balance when you’re (suddenly?) juggling more balls on your own than you had been a minute ago.
…Which is it’s own thing, actually.
Those balls that get dropped? Sometimes they’re just gone, and that particular juggling partner is never going to pick them up again. Sometimes you’ll find that you can start juggling them with some of your other co-jugglers. The social balls that were dropped can be shifted into juggling acts where your fellow juggler is interested in taking on more stuff. That’s a tricky thing to do, because you won’t know if the other person can juggle with a few extra balls in place until you try. And maybe they won’t know that either. There can be some trial and error involved in this, and sometimes that’s going to hurt or be awkward or similar. (Uh… Ask me how I know… ). Alternatively, you can juggle them yourself – fill those suddenly-empty evenings by taking on a new project or doing something nice with Just You (I started a poetry show, back in 2009, for a lot of reasons, but one of them was that I needed to direct my Attention at something other than missing my long-distance girlfriend. Similarly, I spent some time volunteering at a local Food Centre in 2016, because I had a heap of social and care-giving Attention Balls to do… something… with now that my (also long-distance) partner had upped and ended our romance). Either way, you are going to have to figure out what to do with those “suddenly extra” balls because lobbing them back at the person who can’t keep up with them anymore? That’s usually not going to work. Sometimes? Sometimes it does. The crisis is temporary. The juggling partner gets their balance back and you can re-add that particular Attention Ball to the mix, albeit probably at a slower, or less frequent, rate than it was there before. But a lot of the time, that isn’t how things go (sit tight, I’m getting to it).
What I mean is that there’s more to this juggling metaphor than just the variety of Attention Balls a given relationship diad can opt to keep in the air at one time. Like literal juggling acts, relationships require everybody to be equally invested. A juggling act is a type of balancing act, as much as it’s anything else. You and a given fellow juggler might opt to keep thirty different balls in the air, but to make that work, you both have to be moving at the same speed, at the same time. You’ve both only got two hands, so if one of you can’t keep up (or if one of you is shifting things too fast), some of those balls are going to drop and somebody is going to get hurt (in the non-metaphorical sense) because of it. Likewise, because we all – polyamourous or not – have a lot of different juggling acts going on at any given time, we need to be aware of the time and energy (and number of Attention Balls) involved in maintaining both our own juggling acts and those in-which we are not directly involved. The co-worker who has a sick relative or a kid in day-care, who can’t do overtime work on Project X. The metamour who’s having a bad bout of depression right now. The teacher who’s expecting a term-paper from the friend/child/sweetheart with-whom we, too, are juggling some kind of a relationship.
What I said, above, about dropped balls and how lobbing them back at the person in question generally doesn’t work? I’m talking about unbalanced relationships. The kind of situation where either you feel like you’re being pelted with balls that you didn’t ask for and can’t keep up with (and which are making it harder for you to keep juggling the balls you did sign up for). But also the kind of situation where you feel like none of the balls you’ve tossed, so hopefully, to this new (or not-so-new) other person are being juggled back, which can mess with your head, especially if the person in question is saying things like “Woah, nelly! Look at us juggling! So many balls in the air!” …The metaphor falls apart a little bit here, since actual attention isn’t a finite, physical object, but work with me for a minute: In this kind of situation, it’s sort of like you’re stuck with fewer balls in your own kit, going “Hey, uh… Person? That Attention Ball I just tossed you? I need you to toss it back. I’m due at my buddy’s house for Fannish Night in half an hour, and if you don’t toss that ball back, I’m going to be hella preoccupied and checking my phone every five minutes”. (Like I said, the metaphor doesn’t work perfectly here. In reality, I can choose to put my damn phone away during a get-together with someone, whether or not someone else has answered my most recent text. Still, I probably will be preoccupied, and I think you can see where I’m going with this particular scenario). If you are a parent of a child who is Exerting Their Independence, you may be familiar with this kind of feeling. If you were ever a teenager with a parent who seemed over-protective or nosy (note, I am not talking about abuse situations here)? That’s part of the re-balancing of relationships (adult-child parent/offspring re-balanced to adult-adult parent/offspring), too.
In the case of friendships and romances – voluntary, chosen relationships – I can offer a warning here. One that I am, personally, utter CRAP at heeding, but am trying to get better about. If the Attention Balls you toss to a given juggling partner are Not Coming Back? What you’re doing, if you keep throwing balls at them, is basically up-ending an entire box of your attention balls onto someone who is either (a) hoarding attention balls with no plans to ever start juggling with you, OR who is (b) not really interested in juggling with you, at least not to that degree, and the message has just not sunk in yet.
I have TONNES of Attention Balls that I can share with people, and not very many people with-which to juggle them. Most of them are near-and-dear friends. Not a lot of work colleagues in my web of jugglers, and only one sweetheart. My income-quilt of semi-solitary, flexibly-scheduled jobs means that I have tonnes of Attention Balls available to be an attentive, care-giving Buddy and a friend-group social co-ordinator, while someone else – someone who works a 9-5, or whose job involves a lot of emotional labour – might be using those logistical and social Attention Balls to deal with work-related social interactions, meeting-coordination, and similar.
Another example: I am a romantic, sexual person. Amatonormative, basically. My lovely wife is romantic, and Grey A. We are both polyamourous. What all this means is that
1) While I have a dozen (or more? Who knows?) Sexual Attention Balls in my juggling kit, she only has one, maybe two at the most. I will always have spare Sexual Attention Balls to juggle with other people.
2) While I have only one romantic partner (for now), my lovely wife has… noticeably more than that. This means that, while I’m juggling my Romantic Attention Balls with her, and her alone, maybe occasionally (if I’m feeling brave, and not too burnt, and there’s someone who looks like they might be a good fit) tossing out one of my many, many spares to see if somebody else is up for juggling with me – my lovely wife needs to juggle her Romantic Attention Balls with multiple people. Note: there are a variety of ways to do this. You can juggle most of the Romantic Balls in your kit with one particular person, but occasionally juggle the few that remain with other people else (think: hierarchical poly). You can juggle 100% of your Romantic Balls with each respective romantic partner at different times (which is closer to what my wife does). You can find whatever balancing act work for you between (or outside of) those two particular options, too.
Something that relates to the above: It helps if you and a given juggling partner are working with a matched set of balls. They juggle a passion for Foucault and pizza dinners your way, you juggle your own passion for Foucault and pizza dinners towards them, and everyone is offering and receiving Attention Balls that they actually like and know what to do with. Within the context of kink, this is pretty-much built into the culture – you can be as good, giving, and game as you want, but if you’re just not that into knife play, your S/M partner will have to find somebody else to cut them up – but it applies just as much to non-kinky hobbies like knitting or motorcycle maintenance or snow-shoeing or whatever. I may have a dozen different hobby-type Attention Balls available, but I probably won’t be able to juggle all twelve of them with each specific (or even one specific) co-juggler I’m involved with. This theme is one that shows up in all the poly101 books, I know, but I’m only just starting to be able to wrap my head around how it works without spinning it like I’m expected to treat all my partners as Interchangeable Needs-Meeting Machines or something.
Likewise… remember what I said about how, sometimes, if you and a given juggling partner drop a ball, you have to either find someone else who wants to juggle it or you have to learn how to juggle it yourself? There’s a Kimchi Cuddles comic that I tend not to handle so well. I read that last panel “What if he doesn’t WANT to give me more attention?” // “Then you give it to yourself” as just the most trite piece of bullshit EVAR.
But I’m trying to sort through it.
I’m going to use an easy-ish example here. If I want more sexual attention, and I can’t get it from a partner because my partner is Ace / I’m sexually insatiable / I only have one sexual partner / insert-other-reasons-here… there are things I can do about that. Jerking off is a thing. I can have sex with myself. But I’m learning to parse the different Attention Balls that are juggled into the mix when I have sex with another person. Affection. Admiration. Romance. Emotional and Physical Connections. Stuff I can’t get when the loop involves only me and (maybe) something battery-operated.
It means that, right now, I have a few balls that are just… parked between my feet, while I look for people I can trust and care about and connect with enough, and in the right ways, to bring them into play again; while I try to figure out how to trust and care about myself enough, and in the right ways, too.
I’m trying to teach myself to build intimacy slowly, rather than trying to bury someone in a ball-pit all in one go. I’ve definitely had a few (a lot of…) relationships where I moved too fast, flung too many Attention Balls (some of-which I wasn’t aware that I was trying to juggle) at somebody who might not have been up for them (at all, or just yet), a rash move fueled mostly by scarcity thinking. I’m hoping that the metaphor of relationships as juggling acts – both the balance and equal-investment required to make them work AND the vast variety of different kinds of attention that can be juggled between various people in various ways & to various degrees – will help me pace myself, but also help me gauge who is actually up for starting to juggle with me, or for adding new balls to an already-shared act.
Fingers crossed that this will work (and I’m not just Overthinking Things).
 I’m saying “easy-ish” because I’ve got a whole lot of not-so-easy stuff going on in my brain telling me that I’m just not supposed to “need” sexual connection with other human beings. That I should be able to Make Do with what I get with the partners I’ve got, or else be able to cobble together some mixture of vibrator + affectionate friendship + ‘non-serious’ flirting with semi-strangers at queer events + hot baths, body lotion, perfume, chocolate & other sensual stuff… or something to approximate “giving myself” the sexual attention-cocktail that I actually want. “Want less, and you’ll always be satisfied” is a damn hard indoctrination to shake.