I suck at this (but that’s okay).

August 2, 2011 at 6:16 pm (Polyamory, Real Life, Relationship) (, , , )

When I’m not making clever quips on Twitter or running around trying to be all poly and shit, I’m a corporate wage-slave. Yes, I have a capital-c Career and I read stuff like the Harvard Business Review. Today I read this article on cross-cultural communication and collaboration, which is Relevant to My Professional Interests; but it also got me thinking about relationships.

The article quotes an expert in organizational behavior who says, “There is a gulf between reading something and imagining something hypothetically and actually experiencing it.”  I am facing this head-on right now in my personal life. I’ve read a lot about poly; I’ve been contemplating it as a personal choice for the past decade, to be honest. Only now am I attempting to put it into practice, and in spite of all my years of reading and thinking, I feel woefully out of my depth already.

The author introduces the concept of this “cultural lens” we each have, based on our life experiences in our own culture, and how it’s a challenge to change that lens when working with people from other cultures. It feels awkward; it makes you unsure of yourself; and you have to ask questions you may never have thought to, or needed to, ask before. “What is the right thing to say? What is the right way to say it? What is my body language saying?” This is still true if you substitute the concept of a cultural lens for an emotional lens, and think about it in terms of your past relationship experience, or within the context of your current/primary/anchor relationship, if you have one. When you start to develop an ancillary relationship, it’s all new territory; you can’t communicate the same way, and the emotional terrain is completely different. You feel uncertain; you don’t know what’s too much, what’s not enough, where you fit in, how to fit in. There’s an awkward period of adjustment that’s necessary to go through.

This is why it doesn’t surprise me that I feel like I suck at being poly right now. I’m in completely new territory. I’m experiencing emotions in a radically different context and it confuses the heck out of me. I’m not even sure I know what I want anymore. The advice of our cultural experts rings true: I shouldn’t beat myself up for this. It’s part of the process.

There’s more good advice I can adapt from this:

  • Acknowledge the differences: admit there may be disparities. Put your differences out there. Don’t trot them out as a convenient excuse for bad behavior, but share your background, your reasons for why you see or do things a certain way. This gives both of you the opportunity to compare experiences and expectations, and reach a better understanding of each other.
  • Build trust and be curious: this is really important when you’re being open and honest about what you may be struggling with emotionally as you build a new relationship. Exposing your vulnerability can be scary. Do whatever you can to show your partner you can be trusted knowing his or her fears or weaknesses. One way to do that is to ask questions – not in a challenging, interrogative way, but by gently probing to demonstrate that you’re listening, and that you want to understand.
  • Decide what practices to adopt: in other words, find your emotional common ground, and use it to define the scope of your relationship. If you’ve put some time and effort into the first two points, you should be equipped to figure out what works for both of you. This may require a little compromise, but it should be done in a way that’s comfortable for everyone involved (and that includes other anchor or ancillary partners, as well).

It sounds like I know what I’m doing after all, huh? Well, I’m still trying to put this into practice. It will continue to feel weird and I’m sure I’ll feel like I don’t know what I’m doing for a good while longer. But I’m going to trust myself and my partner that we’ll figure it out and learn as we go.

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