When the abyss looks back: Polyamory and emptiness

Sartre_Nausea_1964I first read Jean-Paul Sartre when I was about 15 or 16.  And, being an angst-ridden teenager, much of his writing resonated with me.  For many years after first reading it, Nausea was a specific novel which stuck with me.  Here, for example, is a scene about half way through the book.  Here, the narrator (it takes the form of a diary) is recording his thoughts about writing a biography of a deceased “M. de Rollebon.”

M. de Rollebon was my partner; he needed me in order to exist and I needed him so as not to feel my existence.  I furnished the raw material, the material I had to re-sell, which I didn’t know what to do with: existence, my existence. His part was to have an imposing appearance. He stood in front of me, took up my life to lay bare his own to me. I did not notice that I existed any more, I no longer existed in myself, but in him. I ate for him, breathed for him, each of my movements had its sense outside, there, just in front of me, in him….

From here, our narrator moves on to realize that he exists.  Profound, I know. Through the rest of the novel, this existence presents itself as a sort-of ubiquitous, nauseating, inescapable heaviness of things.  Much later, in the climax of his “nausea,” our narrator sits in a park where he looks at the root of a tree beneath where he sits. The tree, and its existence, becomes a metaphor for all of existence, and therefore also for ourselves.

…I was floating. I was not surprised, I knew it was the World, the naked World suddenly revealing itself, and I choked with rage at this gross, absurd being. You couldn’t even wonder where all that sprang from, or how it was that a world came into existence, rather than nothingness.  It didn’t make sense, the World was everywhere, in front, behind.

It was unthinkable: to imagine nothingness you had to be there already, in the midst of the World, eyes wide open and alive; nothingness was only an idea in my head, and existing idea floating in this immensity.  This nothingness had not come before existence, it was an existence.

This tension between feelings of nothingness and the ubiquity of existence has always resonated with me.  The feeling of emptiness, of meaninglessness, and of nothing has an inescapable insistence about it.  I exist, certainly, but this existence often carries with is a heavy, unyielding, absurd sense of emptiness.

In other words, I was a fun teenager to hang out with at parties.


Lack of identity

identitycrisis copy_860One of the aspects of a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder is the lack of clear identity.Without a clear sense of self, one can easily define themselves via their relationships, and hold onto that relationship as a defining part of themselves long after the relationship is healthy. This makes letting go of a relationship difficult, because a sense of self, of identity, is still wrapped up in another person either gone or going.

We can dress our inescapable existence, our identity, in any way we like.  We can take on the persona of M. de Rollebon.  We can feel the absurdity of ceaseless existence in the dark bark of a tree in a park.  We can peel away at the layers of ourselves to realize that there is no sense of self which is not constructed and narrated.  For me, the sense of self is largely an illusion, if not an out-right delusion.

We are stories that we tell ourselves.  And sometimes, when we really like a certain kind of story, we insist upon it at the sake of the truth.  The truth is that we are often contradictory, inconsistent, and variable.  We are a legion of selves, many parts of the brain processing many things which (in a metaphorical sense) fight to achieve consciousness and control.  I believe that those people who maintain a static sense of self are just much better at weaving one narrative than I am, but ultimately that narrative is still woven and illusory.*

If we were to take a person with a strong sense of self, and take away the things that they define ourselves by–whether it be a place, a group of people, or an activity–such a person might be left with a kind of boredom and restlessness.  In order to relieve that boredom, a person might yearn for meaning, fulfillment of empty desires, and other people.  In some cases, thoughts about suicide, impulsive (often destructive) behavior, and ultimately the fear of abandonment (or pain from having been abandoned) might feed depression and loneliness.

Being a borderline is like having the definition of who we are never quite forming in the first place. This lack of identity, at least in my case, is generally not felt as a lack at all.  A borderline (in many cases)  never had their identity taken away, they never  had a solid sense of self to begin with, or at least had one grown weakly or stunted. And so long as we aren’t borrowing our identity from other people, leading to a dependent relationship, we might occasionally become aware of this emptiness.

And, what’s worse is that this feeling of emptiness can exist even while surrounded by people.  It is a perception of emptiness, not an actually being alone and without loved ones, necessarily.  It is a feeling that can happen while at a party, at home with people who love you, or even if you have a wife and two girlfriends.  It is a sort of delusion which insists itself upon you, and colors everything you feel, think, or are surrounded by.  For me, this emptiness is a depression and it feeds off of fear (of abandonment, for example) and does not believe that people can actually love you.


Filling the void with others.  Lots and lots of others.

There are good reasons to seek companionship, and there are less good reasons to do so.  There are also ways to evaluate the means by which we do so. Many borderlines will seek out solutions of this boredom and emptiness through destructive behavior, including seeking out sex and relationships merely in order to distract themselves from the loneliness within them.  The tension of the desire for intimacy and the fear of being engulfed leads to them sometimes seek out temporary solutions.

This has not been a major factor in my own life, but I have sometimes felt the pull of this emptiness pushing me in that direction.  That is, even if I had not often sought companionship in this way,  I am familiar with the impulse.  If I’m feeling lonely, I do sometimes feel the impulse to go out to a bar, hoping to meet someone.  Many years ago, when I would occasionally do this, I realized that not only do I not meet people this way (at least, not often), but that even if I did it would not fill the emptiness.

For me, this feeling takes a different path.  Sometimes, the people you love are not there when the feeling of loneliness and emptiness strikes.  I have had moments of severe anxiety and emptiness while (for example) Ginny was on a date that was running much longer than I expected, especially if I receive no communication about it.  While I can be fine alone for much of the time (whether through writing, reading, etc) there comes a time when the feeling of emptiness and loneliness becomes overwhelming, and then each minute of the lack of presence becomes painful.  And this feeling can come on suddenly, without obvious cause, and become quite compelling.

Just because it's bizarre and strange, I include this
Just because it’s bizarre and strange, I include this

In those moments, the desire to seek out more people can arise.  And here is where I think some people might use polyamory (or, in the case of monogamous people, affairs or serial and shallow relationships) as a means to fill in the emptiness, rather than for the sake of pursuing a healthy relationship.  It must happen sometimes to us poly people, us being human and all.  The question is the extent to which this impulse is universal, and thus part of all of our behavior to some extent.

The question is how much of our healthy seeking of others contains some of this emptiness and loneliness at its heart, and whether this heart is always an abyss or whether this perception of darkness and pain are the illusions. I am not sure these questions have good universal answers.

I say this because I am not convinced that any of our motivations are purely good or bad.  I believe that when I feel a genuine desire to be closer to someone, part of this is because they are a person worth being close to but also because there is a need to fill up the emptiness inside of me.  In the end, all there is in this absurd and ultimately meaningless world is each other.  And so to fill up the emptiness with people we love is a wonderful thing, so long as this desire to fill holes in ourselves is more than just a dependency or a temporary fix.

Relationships can be co-dependent, and this is is equally true within polyamory.  The ability, and practice, of loving other people does not prevent co-dependency.  The trick, I believe, is to navigate the waters of filling the emptiness inside us without either creating a narrative of ourselves, others, or the relationship which cannot be shattered or dirtied.  We cannot allow ourselves to create a visage of ourselves, our partners, or our relationships which are not subject to criticism or change.  In creating identities for ourselves, we cannot allow ourselves to create ideals which cannot change, heroes which cannot be questioned, or spaces which cannot be profaned.

We may need identities, but those identities don’t have to be static, idealized, sacred facades.

(see the next post in the series: Instability Multiplied)


*This, by the way, is one of the major differences between Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality disorder; where the narcissist is quite good at creating a narrative sense of self–an identity which cannot be questioned!–a borderline lacks this singular definition of self.