ANNIE FRAZIER HALLADAY
Polyamory is certainly a road less traveled. It can be exhausting, fraught with confusion and definitely more than a few moments of ‘what the fuck am I doing?!’ It’s hard to ask for advice or help when you’re afraid of being judged, and it sucks when you finally work up the nerve to ask for advice and the (monogamous) people you trust and care for just don’t get it.
Most polyamorous people I know are hesitant to acknowledge their problems and struggles for fear of getting ‘haven’t you thought about being monogamous? It’d solve a lot for you.’ And the answer is, yes. Of course we’ve thought about being monogamous. But that’s probably not who we are. ‘Life’s hard for you? Why don’t you just be someone else?’ isn’t exactly the most helpful when you’re mid struggle.
Most conventional milestones and metrics for being a good or successful person are intricately linked to monogamy (and relationship hierarchy). When every love triangle ends in one person losing out, what map do you have to read? When phrases like ‘home-wrecker’ and ‘other woman’ are deeply embedded in the way we think about non-monogamy, what positive paths do we have to follow?
So you're on a road less traveled (in my case polyamory, in your case maybe something else).
When you’re not even on the same map how can you keep yourself honest and good? How do you find your way when you have no role models?
You have to become a role model for yourself.
There’s little choice but to forge ahead on your path and measure yourself against your own metrics. When we can’t look outwardly for assurance that we’re on the right path, we have to look inside instead.
Am I the kind of person I want to be? Am I a good person? Would the people who know me agree? Am I proud of myself, the life I lead and my decisions?
These are all big questions to grapple with. When I think about my role models, polyamorous or otherwise, and the reasons I admire them, these are the things I see:
They know themselves (the good and the bad). They move through the fear that comes with challenge and growth. They are skilled at communication. They listen to and hold deep respect for others. They seek perspective on their impact on others and strive to reduce harm and suffering in the world around them. They have their own role models, teachers and inspirations.
These are some strategies I’ve found essential to self-calibration. The compass readings I use to navigate my way through the jungle. The ways I practice looking to the best possible version of myself for guidance.
Practice Self-Examination, Not Self-Justification.
Acknowledge when you do things you’re proud of. It helps to repattern your thoughts and shape future behavior. Did you and a partner have a big fight, and although it normally would have turned into an unproductive screaming match you managed to keep yourself in check? Point it out to yourself.
“That was a tense situation. Even though I wanted to devolve into yelling, I’m proud I kept my temper in check this time.” By acknowledging, or marking, when you step closer to being the person you’d like to be, it becomes easier to repeat those behaviors you’re proud of in the future because you know you’re capable of it.
Acknowledge when you do things you’re NOT proud of, and how you wish you had acted instead. No role model is perfect. No role model is ever done growing. This step is a way to keep yourself honest and help you choose to behave differently in the future.
“I am not proud that I broke that agreement with my partner. If I could go back and do it again, I would have acknowledged I didn’t think it was going to work before agreeing and then breaking their trust.” Taking an honest look at your behaviors and the effects they have on others is so important. We’re all works in progress and we all have ways we can improve.
Be compassionate with yourself. Self-compassion is the shortest path to honesty. I can’t overstate the importance of this. Just like a kid isn’t likely to fess up to breaking something if they’re afraid of getting yelled at, you’re not likely to fess up to the ways you could improve yourself if you mentally beat yourself up any time you see your imperfections.
It becomes easier to see your flaws (which is the first step to working on them) if you treat yourself in a compassionate way instead. Being able to acknowledge your flaws, and having any chance at growing from them, depends almost entirely on not shutting down when presented with them. I find self-compassion to be essential to growth.
I highly recommend the book Self-Compassion by Kristen Neff for learning why self-compassion can be so difficult, along with learning concrete strategies to implement it in your own self-talk. It’s written by a research psychologist and though there are references to similar eastern philosophies of acceptance, most of the book is squarely rooted in her modern, academic psychology research into the subject (being a science-minded person, really appreciate that). Seriously, I cannot recommend this book enough.
Own your own shit. It’s easier to blame someone else for your triggered states than it is to examine why you are the way you are. It’s easier (but not very fair) to ask someone else to change their behavior so you can remain comfortable. It’s much harder (and more effective) to search within yourself and find your discomforts and triggers, express them, and come to a supportive solution together.
Finding the ways we are broken and owning those things as being a part of ourselves is the least traumatic path to healthy relationships. It’s much more difficult to find a solution to ‘you’re abandoning me!’ than it is to find one for ‘you seeing other people makes me realize I’m afraid of being abandoned- I have this wound from when it happened to me before!’ Owning our perceptions and putting that ownership where it belongs (instead of on the people around us) is a great way to reduce the dramatics in life, and to model healthy relationship building.
Invest the time and energy in learning to be a better communicator.
Once you’re good and comfortable with acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses, showing yourself compassion and owning your own shit, you’re about halfway to being able to communicate with others. When attempting to communicate with others, the most important questions are:
Have I listened carefully and really heard what the other person is saying? Do I understand where they are at right now and where they are coming from (even/especially if I don’t agree with it)? Have I clearly communicated and been honest with them about where I’m at right now and where I’m coming from, and do I feel like they heard me (even if they didn’t agree with me)?
In poly communities, you’re likely to hear frequently about ‘Non-Violent Communication’: NVC is a stylized communication method/ideology that emphasizes speaking and listening from a place of universal feelings and needs. NVC can be an excellent communication tool, especially in tense situations, when two people have conflicting needs or vast differences, or for people who feel like effective and calm interpersonal communication is very challenging.
Some criticisms of NVC are that it places too much of an emphasis on changing or ‘shifting’ your feelings rather than recognize them and allowing them to be, and that it can be a manipulative way to artfully skate around owning up to bad behavior. Personally, I find that the experience of having an emotional shift can be a beautiful part of being a human, and I think NVC is only manipulative when the person using it is a manipulator.
I find NVC is a clever and simply laid out formula of what effective and compassionate communication can look like. Thinking in terms of NVC has provided me excellent opportunities to work on empathizing with others and to build language to identify and understand my emotions in deeper and more specific ways.
I think anyone would benefit from having more communication tools in their toolkit, and NVC is a great path to that.
Hold Yourself Accountable For Your Impact On Others
I find the following questions are helpful in examining my place and impact in the world, and keeping myself accountable to being the kind of role model I want to be for myself:
Am I behaving in a way I am comfortable being honest about?
If I were to talk about this situation with someone who’s opinion I care about, would I feel squirmy or uncomfortable being honest about my behavior, or my role in particular events? (If asked before/as a particular situation is occurring, this is a great opportunity to choose a different course of action if I don’t like my answer. If this question is an afterthought, it’s a great opportunity to practice acknowledging the things I’m not proud of, what I could have done differently, and what I may choose to do differently in the future).
Am I being honest with everyone involved, including myself?
Am I remaining true to the agreements I have made with others, and the agreements I have with myself? Will I seek to change these agreements if they are no longer reasonable, or no longer suiting me?
Is my behavior harming myself or others? Am I sure? Would others agree?
Am I behaving in a way that reproduces or contributes to oppression (either my own or the oppression of others)? Am I sure? Would others agree?
Drink up the resources that do exist
The internet can be a wellspring of connection, if you know where to look! It’s easy to feel alienated on your own journey, but try to remember that there are many, many people on the same or similar paths you don’t know yet, many of whom are just a few mouse clicks away.
Most areas near medium or large cities have polyamory MeetUp or facebook groups. There are also non-regional facebook groups to join (if you’re concerned about privacy, facebook is not always a great choice as many groups have settings that will display to people that know you that you’re a member). Countless blogs (like this fancy one right here!) exist on the internet with people sharing their thoughts, ideas about and experiences with ethical non-monogamy.
Books and Podcasts!
There are so many great resources accessible that can inspire you and help remind you that you not alone on your journey. Reading is a great way to get ideas about what is possible- both looking forward to the good and anticipating the challenges. It’s also a great way to start thinking about the plethora of options in front of you- which ones may interest you and which ones may not.
These are a few of the classics, all of which I recommend! (feel free to click through to check them out!):
Designer Relationships by Mark Michaels and Patricia Johnson
The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Harding
More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert
Poly Weekly (a podcast!)
Poly Role Models (an interview series blog)
Finding a community of people on similar journeys is, to me, the greatest resource. I am always learning and being inspired by the people in my community. I consider most of them to be my biggest role model in some way or another.
When I see behaviors that I deeply respect in my friends, community members and partners, I try to learn from them. How did that person get so comfortable with honesty? Why is that person so good at discussing emotions? How did those people navigate cohabitating with one partner and not cohabitating with another? How did that person work through the hard stuff and what can I learn from them?
I highly recommend approaching community from the perspective of ‘what can I learn’ not ‘what can I gain’. There’s a tendency when it's all new and shiny to approach poly communities (both online and in-person) as a dating pool. And while future lovers of yours may be in those communities, of course, your experience in those communities will be much more rewarding if you go in looking for supportive friendships and with an interest in learning more about this thing that we all seem to have in common.
You’ll have a better sense of this new map if you stop and ask for directions (or at least see who else is out there in the wilds with you).
Choose To Be The Role Model You Need
When it comes to being the person you want to be, here’s the thing: at some point, you have to choose to be it. You have to choose to lean into your growth edges, step a little outside your comfort zone- believe that you can do it and give it a shot.
I knew pretty early on that polyamory is what’s right for me. And because I’ve been committed to the outcome, when I’m working through the challenges there are occasionally moments where I choose a gentle ‘fake it til you make it’ approach: a thought-feelings-experiment approach, if you will.
Occasionally I have thoughts like ‘I am feeling really jealous right now. But I want to be a person that would be feeling excited for my partner instead.’
So I take the opportunity to be both. Being careful not to squash or misrepresent my feelings of jealousy or who I am in the present, but also holding space in my heart for that version of myself I want to become. I actively try to feel the things I want to be feeling. I see how it goes for a few minutes in order to find out if it’s possible.
Sometimes simply acknowledging those two versions of myself is enough. Sometimes I realize I don’t want to be the version of myself I thought I liked more. And sometimes I realize that I just can’t be that version of myself, and I redirect my energy towards self-acceptance instead.
The bottom line is, the biggest, scariest and single-most important step in becoming our own role models is to have the courage to do it.
If you do the hard work of finding them, there’s a wonderful person inside that you can model yourself after. You can learn to trust them, and they probably have lot more guidance to offer you than you ever imagined.