Blog December 2019
Adventures in polyamory - closeness and distance
OK - It’s gonna get personal soon - but first a little (admittedly oversimplified) theory. In couple dynamics, one often speaks of the dance between closeness and distance in a relationship - between the two fundamental human needs: that of intimacy/security (the “we”) - and autonomy/freedom (the I). Often in a relationship the couple becomes polarized - with one partner seeking closeness and fearful the other will leave, and the other partner seeking distance and fearful of being caged in and losing their autonomy. The emotions that fuel this dynamic comes from childhood wounds, typically originating in the relationship with one’s parents. The roles can swap back and forth over time, but typically at any given phase of the relationship you are in one and your partner in the other.
A couple of years back I started a relationship with another woman and had the great fortune of experiencing playing both roles at the same time with two different women. This is my attempt to put this experience into words - the kind of thing that can only really happen in a polyamorous relationship.
As the relationship with my new partner developed (“poly” people call this phase NLE - New Love Energy), I found myself sliding into a distance-seeking role vis-a-vis my wife— On the surface, I wanted my space to explore this new relationship. You can imagine that her reaction was not exactly one of benevolent understanding. She was angry, and often rightfully so - in my fear-driven insistence on my personal freedom, I was sometimes disrespectful and inconsiderate and could not empathize with her own process in this new and emotionally difficult situation. My fear of being constrained distorted my view of the situation and my sense of empathy.
With my other partner, the exact opposite was true - somehow I was convinced that she could not possibly love me and was constantly terrified that she would end it when she found out who I really was. I often needed reassurance from her that this was not the case - but since I was too ashamed to express this directly to her (why is neediness so hard to own up to?), I tried to get the security I wanted in roundabout, indirect ways. Being a quite intuitive and attuned woman, she smelt this from a mile away and responded by creating distance - which made me feel even less secure and more scared - a kind of vicious, exhausting circle which repeated itself many, many times. I was even paid a visit by my old friend jealousy, whom I arrogantly thought I had left behind some years back…
The end effect was that I often found myself in a state of inner confusion, being pulled by each arm in opposite directions and not finding my center. I felt like a ping pong ball being whacked back and forth, constantly reacting rather than responding. I could literally feel my integrity bending out of shape, and that was painful.
As it turns out, this was what poly people (somewhat annoyingly) call a perfect OFG - opportunity for growth.After a few month of what Clinton Callahan would call "low drama”, I took the first step - taking responsibility for my out of balance state and not blaming it on the women. The second step was feeling my own needs and communicating them transparently, especially in moments where every cell in my body wanted to do the opposite. Saying things like “I feel very needy right now, and I am ashamed of this - can you hug me and say something nice to me please?” - or, “I want to come late to our date so that I can spend some time with my other partner” - and then stay centered and in connection when the shit hit the fan.
I wish I could say that through this difficult situation I made a big leap in my personal development, that I am a different and more mature person now and everybody involved is living happily ever after. The reality is unfortunately (or fortunately, who knows) much messier than this. I did have moments when I worked up the courage to say difficult things, to stick to my own truth and at the same time stay open and vulnerable. Afterwards I was proud of myself - it felt good.
There were many times where I didn’t even come close. And just as I seemed to be making some headway, the relationship with my (second) partner ended and everything cooled down on its own. In the end, I have no regrets - the relationship was beautiful and taught me many things - and lives on, albeit in a different format. It also brought me closer to my wife - to a new level of honesty and appreciation for the fine balance between freedom and compassion, standing for my needs and at the same time opening my heart to and respecting the other and where they stand.