Okay, so as-you-know-bob, I have this pet theory – based on not a whole lot, I admit – that many of the people who are Wired for polyamory in the sense that they Just Don’t Get Jealous are possibly coming to it from a place of Insecure-Avoidant attachment styles and the need to always have an escape route available. That said, not everybody who goes “Poly! It’s what’s for breakfast!” is going to attach in an insecure-avoidant way. A lot of us – self very, very much included – are insecure-anxious attachment types who are terrified of Being Abandoned, and carry around a secret (or not-so-secret) fear that the only reason anyone is hanging out with us is because someone better hasn’t come along yet.
And today, I kind of want to talk about making the switch from Monogamy to Polyamoury (where “Polyamoury” means the whole spectrum of consensual non-monogamy), as an insecure-anxious person, when the only road map I’ve ever had has been the one for Monogamy.
Because that’s the thing, right?
Y’know that cartoon from Kimchi Cuddles? The one about how “a healthy relationship balances on a razor’s edge” between merging and callousness? The cartoon is, of course, being a little hyperbolic about the whole thing, but it’s still true. Avoidant-attachment types – like, say, my first GF – can inadvertently land on the callous side of that “razor’s edge” as they barrel, joyful and relieved, away from the cultural dictates of Monogamy that have been telling them they’re required to be attached at the hip to anyone they happen to care about. Us anxious-attachment types? We can wind up doing the opposite, hoarding sweethearts and searching for that Perfect Poly-Fi Triad/Quad who will never, ever leave us… or else tugging the sleeves of our sweeties, as they head out the door to meet their Other People, constantly needing reassurance that they’ll really come back. (Guess which one I am…)
For us, even when we know we’re not suited to monogamy, even when we know that it’s not what we want, the uncertainty of “So… is this a date? What about this? Are we still just friends or are we… complicated…?” can send us into spirals of doubt, fear, and all sorts of other crap that we don’t particularly love dealing with but that tend to come with our personal attachment-style territory.
And that, right there, can make the switch from monogamy to polyamoury hard, not in an idealistic way – we’ve got that bit down – but behaviourally.
My first girlfriend was… a lot of firsts for me. First girl, first kinky, first poly, and first long-distance… just to name a few. But I was a couple of firsts for her, too, including the first romantic partner she’d had who also wanted non-monogamy rather than just coping with it in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of a way. Given that she attached avoidant-insecure and I attached anxious/clingy (still do!), you can imagine just how well that worked for us.
When she – living in a different city already – fell in love with someone else who both lived closer to where she lived and had a similar attachment style to her own, I flipped out. Partially for legit reasons like “she was being kind of a Poly Douchbag to me in the process” and partially for flaily-brain-weasel reasons which… don’t help matters, to put it mildly. In the midst of this, I said the following:
“I wish I could fall in love with her, too, so that I could just hold both of you together in my heart.”
To-which she responded (perhaps accurately): “That’s creepy.”
Aaaaaaaaaand we broke up 4 months later, which was a good thing for both of us, even if I was heartbroken at the time.
Why did I want to fall in love with my partner’s partner?
Why did I want to email my girlfriend every 20 minutes to ask how her date was going (I didn’t, I don’t think, ever actually do this – thank all the gods – but I could be blocking it out, if I did), even though it was incredibly painful for me to hear about it? For the same reason that the puppies came back: I wanted comfort from my attachee even though she was also the source of my distress.
So what the hell does this have to do with the behavioural differences between monogamous relationshipping and polyamourous relationshipping?
The roadmap for How To Monogamy – with is both super-deeply-etched in our culture AND kinda vague on the actual details and specifics of what’s needed – is really convenient for insecure-anxious types. It basically gives us the go-ahead to be attached at the hip to our Person, gives us some really cut-and-dried “you are here” positions (yeah, we’re still working with the roadmap metaphor here), and also does a pretty good job of enabling a certain kind of “mate-guarding behaviour” that is… not particularly healthy, in retrospect.
So, for someone like me (I’m going to bring out another First Girlfriend story to demonstrate this, hold onto your hats), when I shifted my relationship-style Identification from “monogamous” to “polyamourous”… I was still (a) anxious-insecure in my attachment style, and (b) working from the only relationship Instruction Manual that I’d ever had, which was the one for monogamy.
So, while I was very gung-ho to be “just seeing someone” and “seeing where things go” when I got together with my First Girlfriend… that gung-ho-ness lasted all of about two weeks. After-which-point I started getting increasingly uncomfortable (anxious) about “where I stood” with this woman for-whom I was already developing a strong attachment, but with-whom I occupied a nebulous and undefined position. I’m an anxious person when it comes to relationships. I need a solid place to stand or I’m a bit of wreck, grasping and grabbing at every straw I can find and, as they say, clinging even harder to the Person who I’m With in this frighteningly nebulous way.
Here’s the thing: In Monogamy-Land? There’s a whole script (an “escalator pitch”, perhaps?) around how long you’re “just seeing each other” before “going steady” becomes a likely and expectable thing. That link goes to an article that lists the “steps” of the “relationship escalator” and, once you’re in Poly-Land, that list of steps starts shifting around a lot. You can, for example, go from Step 2 to Step 4 without ever touching Step 3 “Claiming and Defining”… which can by scary as all get out for those of us who hang our Security Blankets on those definitions[1].
When we make the switch from monogamy to polyamoury, a lot of us are still going to push for the defined markers (as laid out by the relationship escalator) as evidence that we matter to our significant others even as we know that they will also be passing through (some or all of) those “steps” with their other partners… It’s the only roadmap most of us have ever had, after all and, as such, it’s the way we’ve generally been trained to confirm that we’re not delusional in thinking that we matter as much to our partner(s) as they do to us.
…Which is where some Poly Problems can arise.
Poly Problems like… “fear of being Treated Like a Secondary” to “But I thought that was something that only WE did together” to “How come you’re spending three nights a week with X but only one night a week with me?” to “Wait, they have an Our Song? We need to have an Our Song, too!”… you get the idea… All of which boil down to what is effectively score-keeping using a “score card” that was not only designed to encourage and support monogamous relationships, but was also designed – consciously or otherwise – to actively discourage (though devaluation and dismissal) the maintaining of multiple consensually-simultaneous romances.
What I’m saying – and, believe me, I am speaking from experience here (hoy…) – is that this score card does not work in non-monogamous situations. It can actually screw things up pretty badly. Been there. Done that. Screwed things up.
So… this all brings me to the question of: How to we unlearn that stuff?
I’m actually asking.
I mean, life is pretty good from where this insecure-anxious attachment type is standing: I married my (only) partner. She has a lot of other romances in her life, but she’s my only one, and we’re pretty much at the top of the escalator and strolling off into the sunset with the rest of her Poly Partners and our extended leather family/phamily in tow. Everyone else I interact with in a not-entirely-just-friends way is firmly at “step one” and happy to stay there. I flirt with my tribe because it’s what my tribe does together, and it’s awesome.
But for everyone else… or, for that matter, for Future Me who has gone and fallen in love with a second person…
(a) How do we define our own relationship markers in such a way that we do get those confirmations that we matter to our People as much as they matter to us, without comparing our diads to the the other diads our partners are involved in?
(b) How do we let go of the “escalator model” of relationship development so that we can recognize that we’re loved and valued, and demonstrate that we love and value our partners, without feeling like we should be taking some sort of “next step” somewhere along the way?
Thoughts? Suggestions?
Let me know. 🙂
Ms Syren.
[1] As a side note, I’m painfully aware that “claiming and defining” is pretty meaningless and awful if you don’t have behavioural patterns (the stuff in Step 4, among other things) to back it up. My wife and I decided to get formally and legally married for a number of reasons – romantic, practical, social, you name it – but we were life-time committed to each other (and knew it) long before that happened.