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Instability Multiplied May 18, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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This will be, without a doubt, one of the hardest posts I will ever write.

The reasons for this are complicated, and I will not dwell on those complications.  I will simply say that to write about this puts on full display all of my deepest fears, my largest failures, and my greatest hope for improvement. And while I value intimacy and appreciate human vulnerability, I recognize how hard those things can be to show to the world.  This is me at my most vulnerable.

Why would a person who has a disorder which makes relationships turbulent, often unstable, and who can bounce between fears of intimacy and personal envelopment willingly enter into an arrangement where they will have multiple relationships? If relationships can be so difficult, then why would a borderline be polyamorous?

Why might borderlines become polyamorous?

Well, there are the actual reasons, and there may be a plethora of reasons people might give which would act as criticisms.  I cannot predict what those accusations and guesses might be, but here are a couple which come to mind when I think about this.

Some might postulate that borderlines might be attracted to polyamory because the fear of intimacy would push a person towards a relationship structure where the “true intimacy” of monogamy is absent.  One can achieve validation, from multiple sources, while not being subject to too much intimacy, due to having to divide up your time.

This, of course, implies that true intimacy is not possible within polyamory, or is at least disadvantaged by it by spreading around the intimacy in a way that is detrimental to any specific relationship.  This assumption is unwarranted, and thus the previous argument would be a red herring, if used.  The truth is that in many ways polyamory can be a gateway to increased intimacy, honesty, and vulnerability for partners.

Some might argue that it is because of the impulsiveness of borderlines that polyamory looks inviting.  Since, some may say, we borderlines often yearn for validation, intimacy, and often try to fill in the holes of emptiness with things like drugs, gambling, or promiscuity, polyamory might be seen as a more acceptable alternative to those extremes; as a way of compromising with our impulsiveness and finding a more acceptable outlet for our desire to get our rocks off. I say more acceptable, because to some people, cheating is considered more acceptable than non-monogamy.

And I cannot deny that this might be a factor for some people who are both borderlines and polyamorous.  This is a question I have wrestled with for a long time, and I am confident that my motivations for being polyamorous are (at least mostly) about what makes polyamory great, rather than what makes me impulsive.  But if I said that I never pursued any relationship out of at least some impulsiveness, I’d be lying.

 

Degrees, intimacy, and timing

barbed-heartPersonality disorders do not merely bring in sets of foreign behaviors which no neuro-typical people could display and which cause havoc on the normal world blind-sided.  Things like feelings of emptiness, fear of abandonment, and complications with intimacy in relationships are fairly common among most people.  What makes someone a borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, or anti-social (staying within the realm of dramatic/emotional personality disorders) is the degree to which normal human behaviors begin to have more influence over someone’s behavior.  It’s about proportions, degrees, and manageability. Many of the struggles I talk about here will sound familiar to most people, although the degree may be different.

Many people have issues with intimacy.  These issues play themselves out as (in some cases) different needs and wants which effect different people in a variety of ways.  For example, a person may need attention while another does not want to give it just now, or at least in that way. This may either cause an argument, cold distance, or a conversation which brings understanding and increased intimacy.

As we navigate the world, we meet people we want differing levels of intimacy from, and sometimes we might meet 2, 3 or more people who fit us in ways which make us want to develop intimacy (of varying kinds) with all of them.  Our cultural expectations (as they are now) generally lean towards choosing one of these people to be our sexual, romantic, and potentially marital partner.  The reasons for this are complicated, and well beyond the scope of this post.

The point is that we all have complicated needs and wants around intimacy, and we all have differing levels of ability to manage those needs.  A borderline has an issue with management of feelings, fears, etc in a way that those who are neuro-typical do not.  But borderlines also can genuinely love, and love many times over! It may mean we have to work harder at communicating our difficulties, we may have more exposed complications with triggers, and we may be more likely to have turbulence within relationships, but the underlying impulses, needs, and potential for multiplied love is the same as anyone else.

From my own experience, I can say that communicating fears, needs, and desires is hard.  I mean hard.  No, I mean really fucking HARD. It’s easier when intimacy has been established, sure, but it feels nearly impossible when any dislike or emotional coldness is present in the person we have needs from.  This inability has landed me in situations where I have seriously fucked up a relationship by getting myself in a situation where I’m so frustrated, so stressed out, and so anxious that nearly anything becomes a trigger and my partner feels the behavioral effects of that stress.  This has happened many times over my life, and while it happens in slightly different ways each time, it’s the same fundamental problem; fear of intimacy and the complications which derive from that fear.

This fear of intimacy can come in all shapes and sizes and is especially rife in a poly context because it’s not always just about my partners where intimacy becomes a problem. That’s because the issues around intimacy are not limited to people we want romantic and/or sexual connections with.

Speaking for myself, I often desire some level of intimacy with all sorts of people, even people I have no sexual or romantic interest in. I want to be considered, loved, and validated by people in my life. Of course, this does not always happen, which is painful for me day-to-day, especially if the person not giving those things is around all the time. How well a person treats me can have a major effect on my mood, feelings of self-worth, and potential for sustained happiness.

Often, it’s an issue with a metamour (partner of a partner) or close friend of a partner.  I’ve had wonderful metamours who I felt distant from despite their awesomeness, often because my issues arose at bad times and in bad ways which created embarrassment, distance, etc. I’ve had terrible metamours who I’ve been OK with, because our interactions happened when I was managing well.  I’ve had what could have been good metamours who ended up as bad metamours because of terrible communication and incompatible issues.  I’ve seen all sorts of complications with partners of partners, and how we relate is a mixture of how well we are both managing our respective issues.

And, of course, sometimes the issue is with the partner themselves. I’ve had partners who were no good for me, but I didn’t see it because the blinders were on (whether because the sex was amazing, issues hadn’t been exposed, etc).  I’ve had wonderful partners who were good for me, but it didn’t work out simply because I simply fucked up.  I’ve had partners who could have been great only if we had both been at better places, including mental health wise, when we were together.  Ginny and I were talking about how badly matched we would have been if we had met a few years earlier.

How silly it is that this fact is true. If only I had met some partners later (or earlier, depending), perhaps things could have worked out. Timing can be crucial, in such cases. A few years, a few months, etc might make all the difference between a relationship that works or becomes nothing.

 

So, then why?

Polyamory-picSo, why would a borderline want to be polyamorous? I cannot speak for anyone else who deals with symptoms of BPD, and I would actually want to hear from people in a similar boat as me.  The symptoms can vary in proportion and play out in very different ways, so there may be many reasons for and against being polyamorous if one struggles with such symptoms.  Therefore, I can only talk about why I am, and want to remain polyamorous. For the philosophical reasons (which may, in the end, be rationalizations) you can check out the pages about polyamory and skepticism, properly applied. And while I still agree with those essays and find them valuable as resources for understanding intellectual motivations for being polyamorous, they are only part of the story.

Because intimacy is difficult for me, when I meet a person who I am able to be close with I want to allow myself to be unrestrained in how I can relate to them. I already have enough internal fears to maintain distance from people as it is, so I don’t like living in a world where external restrictions add anxiety and unnecessary rules to this set of issues. Our standard social expectations about relationships can be a little confining, promote jealousy (emotional affairs, for example), and cause any potential intimacy to become surreptitious.

Living in a such a way where I don’t need to be anxious about whether I’m crossing some invisible intimacy line with another person with whom I can talk, share physical contact, etc according to what we want to do (because, of course, consent matters) is hugely freeing and comfortable. Worrying about whether sharing emotional vulnerability with another person might be cheating is not comfortable.

And polyamory gives me the freedom to have relationships of all kinds with any number of people.  Of course, I rarely meet someone who I am really interested in getting to know deeply, right? I rarely like people, or something. I could be described as a misanthrope, perhaps. Except none of that is true. Well, maybe the last one, sometimes.  The truth is that I often want to get to know people. I often like people.

But I’m also often terrified of being rejected, dismissed, or attacked. I often run into people who are struggling with their own mental health issues which cause a conflict in behaviors and treatment (usually on both our parts) which cause tension and anxiety (at least for me).  In some cases, my shyness and fear look like disinterest, when inside I desire emotional contact with people.

But when I meet someone with whom I click and share common desires and interests, it feels amazing. It is so hard to get past those fears of intimacy and open up, that when it does happen it’s really rewarding. When I do so, I’m able to pour them into me, and to give all the vulnerability, consideration, and care that I have into them. I’m so happy that I’m able to open up, let them see who I really am, and hope that they like who they see.

Which is all great, until the other side of that coin gets exposed, in time. And that’s where this gets really hard for me.

*deep breath*

Here it goes…

 

Sometimes Dr. Jekyll, this Mister Hydes.

breakupIn an ideal world, reaching a place of trusting someone, loving them, and sharing all of your deepest fears and hopes would create a stable, loving, healthy relationship. And even among neuro-typical people, problems emerge. But there is something that happens inside this borderline’s head which goes beyond normal relationship problems.  Sometimes I feel and act crazy.  The result, with some people, is a loss of trust in me, them being hurt by me, and my feeling powerless against my own fear, loss of self-worth, and desperate levels of guilt and shame.

Which, of course, can lead to the other symptoms of BPD being significantly increased.  My impulsiveness spikes (leading to poor decisions about communication).  My radical mood swings (an issue we’ll get to in a later post) will become unstable and unpredictable, leading to long bouts of severe depression, self-harm, and to acute splitting (of a partner, a metamour, and of myself). My anger may spike and I may throw things, yell, and generally scream (metaphorically) for validation and affection (pretty much any time I lose it, that’s what I’m craving and needing).

It is at these moments where the fear of abandonment, the emptiness, and the desire for intimacy turn into a storm of terrifying rage, sadness, and paralyzing fear. And it is these moments which end relationships. It is these moments when I hurt the people I love, which are memories which will keep me awake at night long after the relationship is gone.  It leads to self-hatred, lack of any self-worth, and to thoughts of (and sometimes actual) self harm.

When I feel the most depressed, I start to internalize many horrible things about myself which are not necessarily  true. When i start to believe these things, I know I’m at my lowest.

How does this happen? How does the person who I want to be–the trusting, caring, gentle man who wants nothing more than to love and be loved–become this raging source of hurt, distrust, and distance? It’s because I hide.

It’s very difficult to communicate my needs, especially when they are emotional in nature and especially from people who respond badly to emotional vulnerability.  And so I hide my vulnerability most of the time.  I appear calm, quiet, and normal rather than the intensely emotional and vulnerable person I feel like inside.  I cannot be the gentle, trusting, and caring person I want to be because I’m afraid. And because I’m afraid, I create distance.  And because I create distance I feel unloved.  And because I feel unloved the stress and anxiety lead to my inability to manage every-day emotions, needs, and wants.  And because of that, I make poor, impulsive, decisions.  I hurt people, lose the trust I wanted to earn, and relationships end.

And where I wanted friends, partners, and family, I create enemies. People I wanted to love then hate me, and this hatred reminds me of all the things I’m afraid of and I carry more and more pain to be vulnerable about with people in the future. It’s a kind of vicious cycle which I’m always aware of. And I don’t want any of it.

 

I can do better, but I need help along the way

optimismAs a person struggling with symptoms consistent with BPD, I need an emotionally open environment which allows for honesty, vulnerability, and support.  Polyamory provides an ideal environment to achieve all of these things because it allows me to develop intimacy with many people.  From a variety of loving partners, metamours, friends, and an extended network of people who are more likely to be emotionally open, I have the ability to choose my family or tribe in a way that will be healthy to me which the monogamous world does not as readily supply.

I love all of my partners (three, currently), and they all offer me different, wonderful, beautiful things.  Also, my partners have great partners of their own, which adds to my environment in different ways.  So long as I keep challenging myself to get better through reading, talking, and other therapies then the person I want to be will dominate among these people around me.  And no matter what the depressed, self-hating, and terrified person I can be from time to time might believe, that part of me will not win.

So, back to the initial question: Why would I want to be polyamorous? Simple; I want to love and be loved, without deference to social expectations and norms.  I am not defined by being a borderline. It is a diagnosis of current struggles which I will get past, and all of the voices of demonization about who I am. whether internal or external, will either have to remain silent or look foolish in time, because I have the capability to maintain healthy relationships with people I love.

My mistakes are lessons, and not definitions.

Just like everyone else

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Opening Up About OpenSF June 14, 2012

Posted by Alex Bove in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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Annalisa and I spent the last week in San Francisco. In part, we wanted to have a nice vacation: I had never been west of Chicago and we had not traveled together for any real length of time for a while. But one of the major reasons for going was also to attend OpenSF, a conference on nonmonogamy, open relationships, and polyamory organized by Pepper Mint. The conference (and related events) lasted from Friday until Sunday, and I’d like to take a bit of time to talk about some of the interesting panels I attended and some of the people I met in and around the conference itself.

Friday

Friday was essentially a welcome/orientation day. Pepper gave an opening address and initiated an interesting icebreaker activity, for which I am thankful because it forced me to meet some new people right off the bat. One of my goals for the conference was to socialize, but walking into a room of strangers, almost all of whom live in the San Francisco Bay area, was daunting for me. I learned an important lesson this weekend: I am extremely bad at approaching people I don’t know, even for casual, “low stakes” chat/interactions. Once I’ve been introduced to people, or compelled to interact with them, I think I’m actually a fairly gregarious person. But the initial awkwardness of “how do I approach that person, and what do I say?” is a huge anxiety trigger for me.

Luckily, the icebreaker required us to move from table to table, each time beginning with a new group of people and a “prompt” question that we were all asked to answer in front of the group (if we chose to answer: enthusiastic consent was a theme of the con, so anyone could opt out of any activity without judgment). Pepper provided excellent questions (“What do you hope to get out of the con,” “What is one of your wildest or most unusual poly moments,” etc.), and I felt mostly at ease meeting 20-30 new people in 15 minutes or so. It was a fun activity, and I might adapt it for use in the classroom.

After the welcome address, many con guests left to attend an off-site lecture/dance/play party. Sadly, I was unable to register in time for the sold-out event, but a group of other event castaways organized a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity, to which I was graciously invited. There I met Dylan of the Life on the Swingset podcast–who had brought a large contingent to the con–and several other people I would see throughout the weekend.

Saturday

Saturday was a day of panels, beginning with Charlie Glickman’s talk, “Sex, Shame, and Love.” For me, this was a highlight of the convention. Glickman discusses shame as a “tent” or “cloud” of emotions, any of which can disconnect us from people with whom we have relationships. One of his most important points, though, and one on which he disagrees with many writers on the subject (and some of his own psychologist colleagues), is that shame is not always detrimental. For Glickman, feeling shame is an important indicator that we’ve broken a communication/relationship “bridge”–yes, he used a lot of analogies–and need to mend it. Awareness of our feelings of shame is the first step in repairing the relationship (I should probably note here that one of the key relationships we can damage with shame is our relationship with ourself). Glickman elaborates on these concepts herehere, and here (among other places).

Most people in romantic/sexual minorities face shame at some point in their lives, often daily. I found it refreshing to hear someone talk about shame’s adaptive value and about avoiding a shame “spiral” (i.e. being ashamed of feeling shame, which only leads to more shame). As an anxiety disorder sufferer, I found in Glickman’s philosophy some useful coping mechanisms.

One other session of note on Saturday (they weren’t all gems, though I can’t say I thought any one was particularly terrible) was on “Poly Theory.” Joy Brooke Fairfield, a Stanford graduate student, gave a staggeringly expansive and eloquent talk about establishing a branch of cultural studies called poly theory (in the vein of feminist theory, queer theory, etc.). She also expanded on Deleuze and Guattari’s metaphor of a rhizome to describe polyamorous relationships. Contrasting her conception with the traditional linear (or arboreal) relationship model–we can see the arboreal model in family trees, corporate organizational flow charts, etc.–Joy argued that our relationships more resembled the root system of rhizomes. Rhizomes lack a central or ultimate root but rather expand from node to node in many directions. If we imagine ourselves each as nodes, we can see how we connect to other nodes, and those nodes to still others, in a complex but interconnected system. It is an elegant, non-hierarchical way to look at groups of linked relationships, polyamorous or otherwise.

After Saturday’s sessions, I got to try Poly Speed Dating. It was a lot of fun, if chaotic. I wonder if something like this would work in our area?

After speed dating was a dance party at Love Triangle dance club, a poly-friendly club in San Francisco’s Mission District. I was heartened to learn that the Mission has not one but several clubs that cater to nonmonogamous folks. Again, I wish our city/region did a better job of providing safe spaces for nonmogamous people to gather to socialize. My overriding feeling all weekend long was that this was one of the first times in my life that I’d found a group of people with whom I fit in totally. Even though I met theists, omnivores, and even (gasp!) political moderates, I felt a deep, almost instant common bond. We’d all wrested loose the shackles of monogamy, and that’s a remarkable thing.

Sunday

The fatigue of late Friday and Saturday parties began to show for most con guests (and even some of the presenters) Sunday, but the day did bring a few highlights.

Tristan Taormino‘s keynote speech was an enthusiastic call to arms. She made several important points, one or two of which I will write about in more depth another time. Briefly, though, she called on the LBGT community not to throw polys under the proverbial bus in their fight for marriage equality. Conceding our opponents’ post hoc and slippery slope arguments hurts both our causes.

In addition, Taormino called on those of us who have the privilege to be “out” as nonmonogamous to live our lives as openly as possible. One of the things that prompted me to start writing for this blog was that I realized that I am fortunate enough to have a job for which I will not be fired for being polyamorous, a supportive and loving family, economic and emotional security, etc. I really must live my life openly, if only to show other people that people like us not only exist but are happy, healthy, and thriving.

I liked a few of the early Sunday panels, but I was really impressed with Cunning Minx‘s afternoon session on creating a non-threatening, attractive online dating profile (i.e. how not to be creepy guy). While her advice was useful, even for those of us who already consider ourselves non-threatening/non-creepy, I was particularly struck by her polished, stimulating, and well-organized presentation. You would be amazed at how many presenters were not particularly well-organized. We’re lucky to have Minx as an advocate/representative/colleague/peer, and I was glad to have met her.

I was also able to meet Dossie Easton, whose inscription in my copy of “The Ethical Slut” left me smiling with fanboy glee.

Monday and Beyond

I’m still processing the experience of OpenSF–and I expect I’ll share some of the fruits of that processing with you in the weeks and months to come–but right now I feel overjoyed to have spent three days among fabulous, non-judgmental, like-minded people. I increased my polyamory vocabulary, something I wasn’t sure was possible nearly four years into my own poly life. And I left San Francisco, and return home, eager to be more of an activist and particularly to advocate for more sex-positive events and safe spaces in our own city. I think we can do it, but I’ll probably need a bit of help. Who’s with me?