Tag Archives: Poly Advice

Polya Relationship Expectations: Nothing for Granted

Updated version of a previously published article on Postmodern Woman.

Up front and honest. Heard and understood. Let’s both (all) be right. No either-or thinking. Surface vs. Substance. No expectations. Humanity (individuality) first. No defaults.
In all things, my values came (and still come) first. I didn’t grow up with stability or honesty or respect. More often than not I was the wall at which everyone decided to throw their shit. I grew up seeing humanity’s worst. Yet, instead of giving into it, instead of becoming a statistic, I chose another path. I’m addicted to discovering new things. If I don’t consider at least five different perspectives on something before settling on the most rational one then I haven’t done my job. As the world fell apart into nonsense around me I sought knowledge about anything and everything. I incorporated that knowledge into my writing, into my books. I’m especially partial to philosophy and the way that brains and minds work.
Being on the outside of the world’s typical human experiences allowed me to come to certain conclusions more quickly. I was (and am) living proof of an extreme intersection of categories that shouldn’t even seem possible to most. Much of the world can’t conceive of a person like me existing, rendering me effectively invisible by default. People tend to search for the familiar. This phenomenon does serve to leave me alone more often than not. I learned to love my own company very early on.
These experiences made it easier for me to put my values into practice; they made it easier to clearly define what was truly important to me. They allowed me to see through the layers of bullshit societies build up around things like family, romance, sex, education, and so much more. I literally cannot take anything for granted. There are no defaults in my life save change (and perhaps pain, if my physical ailments are any indication). My bedrock has always been a shifting, amorphous blob. So I learned to dance. Buddhists meditate for years to learn how to remain unattached from outcomes, people, and things. People try for years to be comfortable being alone (being single). People hurt one another so much before they realize that you must treat people as people.
Many polya people (or people in general) have disastrous relationships because they are embedded into common cultural narratives that separate human beings into categories. Most of us grow up learning to see people by their attributes first. Using those categorical lenses serves to help us miss one another on a most basic level. I couldn’t understand why labels were so important to others, why people built tribes along arbitrary lines, why they couldn’t conceive of a person being both or neither instead of always either-or, why they only extended logic bit by bit to each facet of their life instead of universally.
It’s because I’m such a weirdo. Most people don’t experience the world like I do. I have several forms of synesthesia, I’m left-handed, an atheist, Aspie, and noetisexual. I’m many other very queer things that are normally listed on the fringes of every scale. I cannot afford to take anything for granted. I can’t rely on heuristics to run my life. I don’t have defaults to fall back on to build the illusion of safety around me.
Going back to that list at the beginning, those are my only “rules” for dealing with reality. How much heartache would be avoided if people dealt with humans first and foremost instead of labels? Most people don’t have that sort of focus, that self-awareness, that desire for autonomy and that willingness to see reality as it is. We learn to view ourselves as empty halves needing to be filled. We expect others to fix us. We open ourselves up to abuse because we don’t even see ourselves as human first. There’s a reason people learn to dehumanize the enemy. You can do anything to a non-human. The more human someone becomes, the less likely you are to want to hurt them.
I find a lot of people tend to run aw`ay from me. I’m much too honest, and perhaps too serious, from the start. I value my time and others’. Because there are so many things about me that I know many might have issues with I’ve taken the up front and honest route. I’d rather have people in my life that truly want to be there than to take their time and have them feel I’d tricked them later. I have no expectations for how things need to shape up. Knowing what others expect allows us to discover what actually works, even if that means saying goodbye. I don’t dump everything on a person at the first meeting, obviously, unless it naturally comes up. But I do make certain to state my intentions and to inform them I’m not anything close to normal as soon as possible. Informed decision-making all around!
The purpose of heard and understood is to communicate diametrically-opposed ideas without devolving into an argument. My longest-term partner (and my deceased partner) and I have never yelled at one another. I can count on my fingers the number of times that I’ve yelled at him (and I can be a very, very, angry person). We keep in mind that the goal of communication is to understand one another. And even if we don’t agree, we search for a “let’s both be right” solution. That goes right along with the “no either-or thinking”. It’s not us against each other; it’s us both searching for the truth. Meaning, if we come to an impasse about something we go out and do our research before making our own decisions. Heard and understood also works well for sharing thoughts that may be difficult to hear, fears that could eat us alive, and experiences we’d rather forget. We’ve learned things about each other people don’t even write down in their diaries. It may be that most people are fine knowing much less about their significant others but my partner(s) and I do tend to be a bit nosy. And our trust was (and is) built gradually and actively.
Having no expectations requires you to be active and vigilant when dealing with other people (or ideas and other things). For instance, the ideas of romance and marriage were always suspect to me. I see people as individuals; couples (or other configurations) don’t matter to me. I’m a person first and foremost; my relationship configurations aren’t relevant to how I define myself or how I feel about myself. Knowing the history of marriage, I never saw a reason to tie the knot. I thought it was odd that two people being in love was such a big deal that it needed to be flaunted in public and then shared with friends and family with a ceremony.
I knew it was mathematically impossible for “the one” to exist. I knew that “safety and security” were illusions. I knew that love didn’t mean availability, longevity, stability, or compatibility. I knew that most people are hurt by their own expectations rather than by others’ actions. I knew that most people will naturally leave your life; that everyone is walking along their own unique paths and, though your lives might entwine for a while, inevitably you are the only one following your path to completion.
I know that every second, every breath, every step is a moment full of awe and worship of life. I know that substance (reality) trumps surface (illusion). I know that endless possibilities echo in every moment. I know that life is short. I know I’ll spend mine in appreciation, wonder, and awareness. I take nothing for granted. I never get comfortable (which he always playfully complains about). I never default. There’s so much to learn and see, after all.

Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: “You Control Your Emotions”

Standard Poly Advice: “You Control Your Emotions” (or sometimes “You can’t control your emotions, but you can always control your actions.)

Bullshit. You don’t have to be mentally ill to lost control of yourself–either your emotions or your actions. You can be high on pain meds, you can so stressed or exhausted you aren’t thinking clearly, you could be feverish and out of it. Lots of things make us lose control. That’s why so many drugs come with warning labels “Do not operate heavy machinery.” That’s why having sex with someone who is drunk is often considered rape.

In theory, it’s great to say “You control your emotions, they don’t control you.” In reality? Unless you are a Buddha, I’m not buying it. Sometimes we all lose control. Mental illness just makes it more likely.

Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: You Are Responsible for Your Emotions and Actions

There’ two parts to this one.

You Are Responsible for Your Emotions

No one else is required to help you with your emotions. If you get jealous of your partner, it is not their job to help you not be jealous or to stop doing whatever is making you jealous. It is your job to deal with the jealousy.

This extends to other areas. If someone–including a partner–does something that triggers a panic attack, you are responsible for dealing with your own panic attack.

That doesn’t mean other people have an excuse to be assholes. Someone who knows that talking about X triggers panic attacks, but keeps talking about X around you is an asshole and no someone you need in your life. Similarly, in a healthy relationship your poly partners are going to want to help you deal with your jealousy. They don’t need to break off a date so you don’t get jealous, but if they say “Your jealousy is your problem” and refuse you support and/or understanding, they are not good for you.

It does mean that sometimes you will need to deal with your emotions on your own.

Last night I had to leave Michael alone while he was having an anxiety attack. It was after midnight, my PTSD has been flaring up, and I knew the kids would be up before 7 this morning. For my own heath and for the wellbeing of our kids, I had to give him a hug and walk away. He didn’t beg me to stay, he didn’t tell me I needed to help him. He didn’t say it would be my fault if he was up all night. He gave me a hug and said he loved me.

You are responsible for your actions

Terrorist: You’re in control here.
Negotiator: No, I’m not. It’s the devil’s bargain between control and responsibility. You are in control of the situation, I am in charge. You can imagine how much this thrills me.
–Paraphrased from Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold

Sometimes, our mental illnesses are in control. These times suck for us and everyone around us. However, sooner or later we get control back. And that’s when the hard work begins. Whatever damage we did when our mental illness was in control, it’s our job to repair what can be repaired and make reparations as best we can. We may not be able to control ourselves all the time, but we are always responsible for what we do.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

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Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Set Clear Boundaries and Expectations”

I’ve written a fair bit about boundaries in the past. There is a fair bit of theoretical discussion in polyamory about the benefits of using boundaries or agreements in relationships. Theory aside, no matter which you use for relationships, we all have personal boundaries. For instance, many people have a boundary about respect in relationships. They will not be in a relationship with someone who does not respect them.

According to the Big Book of Poly, it’s important to have clear boundaries. Unclear boundaries lead to miscommunication and people accidentally infringing our boundaries. Which is why clearly stating our boundaries is important.

However, the idea that we need to set clear boundaries assumes that are needs and desires are generally stable. Or at least predictable. “I need to be left alone right after work so I can recharge, but after I come out f my room I love to have you cuddle with me.”

Okay, I’m not phrasing it as a boundary, but it is a clearly set expectation, right?

So, for me, most of my triggery issues involve sex. I love to have my breasts played with–except when my anxiety or PTSD are acting up, in which case you can send me into a panic attack just brushing my nipple. Worse, sometimes I don’t know what’s going on in my head. I can think I’m fine for some sexy time, until you touch me and my brain blows a circuit.

How do I set a clear boundary or expectation about that?

“I love it when you play with my boobs, except when hate it. And I can’t always tell you ahead of time if it’s okay or not. So…we’ll play it by ear, okay?

Well, that’s clearly stated, at least. But not exactly a clear boundary.

When our partner’s ask us about our boundaries, or needs, or what works for us, there’s a pressure to find a way to smush all our illness-related unpredictably into a neat box that we can explain and understand. We owe it to our partners, right?

We don’t owe our partners clear boundaries. We owe are partners the truth.

Own Your Randomness

I don’t know anyone with mental illness who doesn’t wish that the random firings of our brains would go the fuck away. It would be nice to be able to predict for ourselves how we’re doing and what we need from one day to the next, never mind our partners.

Since we can’t, the best we do for our partners is the same thing we do for ourselves: own the randomness and try to plan for it.

“I can’t give you a clear idea of my needs and boundaries. I’m sorry about that but what I need changes a lot with how my mental illness it doing. I can promise to tell you in each moment what I need or want to the best of my ability. And I’ll try to explain how my illness affects me and my needs, so you have some idea of what to expect depending on how I’m doing.”

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s honest, it’s respectful, and it’s the best we’ve got.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

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Mental Illness and Polyamory Recap

This blog series is already one of the longest I’ve written, and I’m about to add a bunch more information. So before we dive back in I decided it would be good to do a quick recap of the key points of the series so far.

Educate Yourself

If one of your poly partners suffers from mental illness, take the time to learn about their illness and how it affects them. This includes both reading up on the general information about the illness and learning about how your partner experiences their illness.

There is No Quick Cure

Mental illness is not something people can just “get over” and there is no fast treatment or cure. Medication can help manage mental illness but is NOT a cure or fix. And just finding the right treatment approach can take months, if not years.

Mental Illness Can Mimic Relationship Problems

Mental illness can mimic jealousy, abuse, loss of interest, and a number of other relationship problems and red flags. Treating mental illness like relationship problems just compounds the problem. Treat mental illness like mental illness and relationship problems like relationship problems.

The Big Book of Poly Doesn’t Always Apply

There’s a lot of great advice for folks in poly relationships. However, some of that advice doesn’t work when combined with mental illness. Following the standard polyamory advice may not work or may even make things worse. If this happens it doesn’t mean you/your partner are bad at poly. It just means advice formulated by and for mentally healthy people doesn’t always apply when dealing with mental illness.

Sometimes Mental Illness Isn’t

Michon Neal shared a horrific experience of being misdiagnosed and having physical illness dismissed as “all in zir head” and mental illness. In Michon’s case the problem was compounded by the way doctors tend to overlook or dismiss all black women’s problems as mental illness.

For Michon this meant, ze was not only NOT getting the treatment ze needed, but was put on unnecessary medications with severe adverse effects. Nearly as harmful is when the wrong mental illness is diagnosed. Depression and bipolar may seem similar from the outside, but the respond very differently to treatment. Bipolar and schizophrenia are often mistaken for each other.

Irrational Feelings Are Still Feelings

Mental illness makes people feel things that have no basis in reality. Telling someone feeling abandoned because of depression “You are wrong to feel that way!” or “how dare you say I don’t do enough!” or anything like this doesn’t help anyone. That doesn’t mean you should try to fix problems that don’t exist. But understanding and empathy go a long way. “I’m sorry you feel that way. I hope you know that I love you and would never abandon you. Would cuddling for a bit help?”

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

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Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Communicate, Communicate, Communicate”

Standard Poly advice: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Nothing is more important to a healthy relationship than communication. If we aren’t keeping our SOs in the loop about how we feel and what is going on with us, then small problems will become big problems until someone comes home from work to find their stuff sitting on the front steps.

Right. A few years ago I wrote about when communication is a bad thing. Here’s one of the key takeaways:

good communication is when you are in control of, and expressing, your feelings. Bad communication is when your feelings are in control of you, and expressing themselves.

See, it’s all well and good for me to tell Michael I feel like shit, depression has taken over my brain, and I’m feeling neglected and needy. But everyone dealing with mental illness has times when we are just being irrational. Sometimes, especially when our illness is well managed, we can recognize that irrationality and discuss our feelings. Other times that irrationality can drive us into “communicating” things that we would never say when we were in control of ourselves. What we “communicate” when our mental illnesses are in control can be hurtful, damaging, false, or just plain misleading. Sometimes communicate is not the fucking answer.

Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: Assess, Plan, Then Communicate

Mental illness loves impulse. Acting on your first thought is great for your mental illness, because it is much easier for the monster to control you when you don’t stop and check yourself.

Before you communicate, stop and assess yourself. Are you in control? Is your mental illness? Engage your logic circuits if possible. Maybe just take fifteen minutes to let yourself get past your immediate thought/reaction/idea.

For most part, DON’T try to be your you emotions. That’s an invitation for your mental illness to take over. Instead either A) think about what you want to say and why or B) do something to distract yourself for a few minutes and come back to what you wanted to communicate a bit later and see if you changed your mind.

If you find that what you wanted to say seems to be coming more from your mental illness than from anything else, you may still want to tell your poly partners, but make sure you tell them as an “this is how my mental illness is affecting me.”

Plan what you are going to say and how. Write out talking points, go over it in your head, whatever works for you. When you have a plan it is harder for mental illnesses to impulse-drive you into saying you’ll regret later.

When you’ve accessed and planned, then it’s time to communicate.

 

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness Blog Series.

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Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Be With Your Emotions”

Sorry for the late post today. I thought I had a draft saved for the next poly fiction list, but apparently not. Depression messing with my head, I guess.

So, today I’m finally going to take a look at some of the standard poly advice and how it applies (or more often doesn’t) to those of us struggling with mental illness. Starting with some of the most common “coping with jealousy advice” — take time to be with your emotions.

Take everything here with a large grain of salt. Everyone’s mental illness is different, everyone heals, grows, and learns to manage at a different rate, and what works for one person will be a disaster for another. Nothing that follows is “One size fits all”.

Standard Poly Advice: Be with/Sit with your emotions

We hear this one a lot when it comes to dealing with jealousy or other negative emotions in poly relationships. I think the general point is meant to be “spend some time watching your emotions so you can understand exactly how you feel and what is making you feel this way.” Which isn’t exactly bad advice, in fact it is damn good advice…usually. If I’m not in a major depressive episode or anxiety attack, yeah, I’ll sit with my emotions, spend the time to understand what is going on, then figure out how to deal with them.

When my mental illnesses are out of control?

You want me to sit down with the metastasized monster that is tearing my mind apart and spend time with it while it uses my out of control emotions to pummel me? Are you out of your freaking mind? Uh uh. No way. Go directly to jail, do NOT collect $100 when you pass Go. Unless you want to see me go from depressive funk to unending downward spiral, ain’t fucking happening.

This is the mental health equivalent of seeking out your stalker, handing them a club and saying “Hey, I’m just gonna stand here while you attack me, okay?”

NO.

Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: Use Your Logic

It is damn hard to engage the logic circuits when your mind is messing with you. Combine mental illness with jealousy or other relationship problems and it gets even harder. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying it will help. Sit down and make a “Pro/Con” list, draw a Venn diagram, make a MindMap, assign numbers to things that are happening and try to come up with a mathematical proof to explain what is happening vs how you are feeling. Or do something else entirely. But if you can engage your logic circuits, they can act as a reality check on your out of control emotions. “I feel like Dan is neglecting me, but if I actually write down everything, he does a lot for me. Reality check. I am not being neglected.” Will this make you feel any better? Maybe, maybe not. Logic has limited control over your emotions. But it will give you some truth to hold onto when your mind tries to lie to you and sabotage you. It will help you avoid damaging your relationships by throwing around emotion- and mental illness-driven accusations. It will help you go to your partners and say “So, this is how I feel. Based on x, y and z, I get that my feelings aren’t matching up with reality, but can you work with me to help me not feel this way?”

And you know what? If you manage to engage your logic circuits, and you look through it all, and see Sheila really has been canceling most of your dates to spend time with Paul, you aren’t just imagining things because of jealousy? Having that stuff written out will make it easier to talk about and focus on what matters, without getting side-tracked (or worse, having your concerns dismissed because of your mental illness).

 

That’s it for today folks. Sorry again for the late post. Sunday, my mental health willing, I’ll follow up on the last post with a more clinical look at depression, its symptoms, effects, and most common treatments.

I’ll get back to the poly fiction series when I’m a little saner. In the meantime, Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill will continue next Wednesday.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness Blog Series.

 

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