Earning Love

July 4, 2012 at 8:53 pm (Polyamory, Real Life, Relationship, Uncategorized) (, , , )


I started seeing a new therapist in June to work through some issues that were coming to the surface during bouts of PMDD depression. I’ve meshed with her much better than I did with the therapist I saw last year, and I feel a lot more comfortable with her and the work we’re doing. It doesn’t feel like work yet, four sessions in, but we’re getting to it, and in our last session I had two revelations that created a shift in my thinking. I’m still not quite sure what to do with them, but they definitely gave me pause.

The first came from discussion of a pattern I already knew existed. Since the decision to end my marriage, I’ve said several times that I will never marry or even cohabitate again. I’m very aware of what I do when living with a partner – I very easily shut off parts of myself that I think may displease that person; I become the caretaker, the responsible one; I strive to be as adaptable for and accommodating of that person as possible. Of the four men I’ve lived with in romantic partnerships, I’ve done this every time. I mentioned this to my therapist, and we dug into a bit, and suddenly the pattern came to the surface.

From childhood onward, I’ve been driven by an enormous desire to please others, to earn praise, respect, and love. I’ve always seen love and caring as things that must be earned, that I must prove myself worthy of. In my romantic partnerships, that same inner drive pushes me to give, give, give – particularly in the form of actions, taking responsibility for things, getting things done, being the stable, consistent, reliable partner, being helpful. I’m very conscious of the inner hope that by doing the things I do, I can earn the love I crave. But at the same time, this leads to a heavy doubt… am I only loved for the things I do, the help I provide? Am I only valued for what I give – my time, my money, my willingness to carry the burden of responsibility – and not actually who I am? So I become fearful through this doubt, and even more hungry for signs of love and affection, which drives me to do more, to give more, which leads me to more doubt. It’s the dog chasing her own tail in a sad and frustrating emotional circle.

So the first revelation was how this pattern was of my own creation. The next step is to try and break it. Stop giving unless I really want to give out of simple love and happiness. Stop taking responsibility for things that are not my responsibility. And learn that love probably won’t be taken away because I stop doing those things.

That one is pretty clear, and on the surface at least, pretty easy to do something with. The second one I’m not so sure about, but it took my breath away and leaves me with a lot more questions to explore. It was regarding a brief relationship I was in late last year, and how I felt in that relationship, in comparison to my current & ongoing relationship and how I feel in it. There have always been distinct differences to me, and as I started to dig into those with my therapist, I realized with that person, I had never felt the need to give, to do, to try and earn his love. In the brief span of that relationship, I knew exactly how he felt about me. I never doubted, wondered, longed for affirmation. I didn’t feel like I had to work for it. I didn’t feel unworthy, either. I had no doubt that I was loved for who I was, not what I might give.

I realized in one big flash that I had never felt that certainty with anyone before. Every man I have ever loved, I felt like I had to work to be loved in return. But he saw me as I was – he knew more about me leading into our relationship than probably anyone else ever has – yet he chose to open up his life to me, and himself to me, knowing exactly what my flaws were. He saw me clearly and he loved me and never asked for anything except for me to be me and to let him love me.

I don’t know why I felt no drive to earn his love. I can’t say that others haven’t freely given their love to me, and I just felt for my own reasons that I had to work to deserve their love. I don’t know why it was different with him, other than maybe it was just who he is, and who I am, and the circumstances that led to our relationship, and the points in life where we both were at the time. I don’t know. I’ll be thinking about this more, asking more questions with my therapist, digging in to why it is so hard for me to just open up and be loved without trying to earn it. I want to. I want that experience again, that confidence and comfort of being held, emotionally held, with love that doesn’t ask to be earned.

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Thoughts about that word.

November 28, 2011 at 10:40 am (Polyamory, Relationship) (, , )


There’s one word in the English language that we treat with a strange mix of fear and excitement. One word that we prize above others, that we wait with baited breath to hear. One word we use casually and carelessly about objects and interests, but when applied to other people it’s handled with care, loaded with meaning and profound, dramatic emotion.

Love.

We think we know what it is, what it feels like. Sometimes it’s a physical ache from your chest, your core, a tangible yearning. Sometimes it’s a radiant warmth from the eyes, a blush of the cheeks, an involuntary smile at the thought of someone’s face, or a from moment’s lingering eye contact.

It’s a desire to see someone happy. It’s a hope to be a part of that happiness, or to influence it. It’s a longing for connection, for intimacy, physical and emotional. It’s the pleasure of seeing another’s genuine self, vulnerable, imperfect, but no less wonderful. It’s that delight in another person’s existence, in their companionship, their strength, their openness to you.

But we lock this word up tightly and use it so sparingly. We debate long and hard before we speak it to another about them. We worry that it’s too soon to use the word. We wonder if it might come back to haunt us; if it might build up expectations we can’t meet, set standards too high, and become a crushing weight, a word to regret. We take it very, very seriously and use it at the end of a practiced speech, trying to make what was carefully rehearsed sound natural and sincere. Or else we blurt it out in a moment of passion, or in a state of intoxication, and regret it later.

When I start thinking about love as a word, I’m reminded of a passage from Anne of the Island, one of the Anne of Green Gables books. (I’m a sap underneath all this misanthropy, really.)

“You love it, “Said Miss Patty with emphasis. “Does that mean that you really love it? Or that you merely like the looks of it? The girls nowadays indulge in such exaggerated statements that one never can tell what they do mean. It wasn’t so in my young days. Then a girl did not say she loved turnips, in just the same tone as she might have said she loved her mother or her Savior.”

What good is a word that is used to express love of turnips, mothers, Saviors, and romantic partners all? If there were better distinctions, different words for different kinds of love, it might make it easier for us to express our feelings without the fear that surrounds the use of the dreaded L-word.

It can be kind of fun, in some ways, to challenge myself to express emotion using any possible combination of words except that one. But more often than not, I dislike the fear that surrounds it’s use. I hate playing it cool, doing the dance of detatchment, wondering who’s going to slip up and say it first. What if he doesn’t say it back or what if I change my mind or what if it’s really just that I want to get laid… Ugh. Enough with the nonsense.

I’ve tried using the word limerance, and to a degree, it works. It covers that initial rush which is mainly about the longing for both sexual fulfillment and emotional connection. But at what point do you acknowledge that you’re past the stage of limerance and into real love?

And what is “real love” anyway? Do you love a person the same way forever? As an emotion, love changes; it deepens, broadens, forgives, glosses over, sees more clearly, adds reinforcement; changes texture, weight and color. I don’t love my husband today the same way I loved him five years ago, yet I still love him. And it’s still the same word.

Where I’m going with this, is this – I don’t want to be afraid of a word anymore. I’m going to use it with greater freedom. There is love in so many moments that get left behind because of this fear, and I don’t want to keep doing that. I can’t prevent others from reading different meanings into the word when I use it; but I can do my best to put the word in context when I use it. Using a few more phrases seems better than not using one word at all. It’s about communication, really. Something I don’t think love can exist without.

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Primary, Secondary, Tertiary & Worthless.*

July 15, 2011 at 10:19 am (Polyamory, Relationship) (, , , , , , , , )


*Title stolen from a Tweet by @BadPolyAdvice.

I know there is no right or wrong way to “do poly”. There’s no rulebook everyone must adhere to. I’m not going to say that poly people should all think the way I do about how they refer to their relationships. I’m admittedly new to poly and doing a lot of thinking, exploring, and wondering, so I’m no expert at the practical application of the poly philosophy to real life. That said, I do have a point I want to make, and I think it’s valid. Regarding relationships and labels, we need to think carefully about why we use the labels we do, and what that says to others, and how it affects our thinking.

Many of us are resistant to certain labels, or labels of any kind. But there are some benefits: labels serve to identify people and things in ways that can be commonly understood, and I don’t think that, as a society, we’ll ever stop using them. I do think that we need to use all labels with care, because the words we choose can sometimes say much more than we mean. And by using words that carry so much weight, we may be limiting our thinking about the things we are labeling, and this applies particularly to polyamorous relationships.

The way we label our relationships is troublesome for me.  In poly relationships, it’s very common to refer to your partners as primary or secondary.

Primary: first or highest in rank or importance; first in order in any series, sequence, etc.; first in time; earliest.

Secondary: Next after the first in order, place, time, etc. belonging or pertaining to a second in order, rank, etc; derived or derivative; not primary or original.

There are a lot of reasons to use the primary and secondary labels for your relationships. It sets a clear rank and hierarchy; it establishes who is most important to you, and therefore who will get the most of your time, which is a finite quantity; it helps manage expectations among everyone involved; it establishes boundaries. Frankly, it’s just handy to put your lovers in order. Right?

For a lot of reasons, I have a general resistance to hierarchical definitions. I find them belittling. To see them used in terms of intimate relationships irks me. To me, it says, “I have compared Partner B to partner A, and Partner B comes up wanting. Partner A is better.”  This seems like a value judgment; and because A is primary, he/she gets the most, and B gets a little less. Do value judgments and comparisons have a place in polyamorous, open relationships? I don’t think that they do.

Ranking implies a decrease in value the farther down the rank you go. It also implies there is less to give for the lower ranks. With time, yes, we are all limited, and we have to make choices between work, self care, chores, friends, lovers. But is love a finite quantity? Do we have less love to give each successive partner?

Isn’t that what we’re arguing against by being poly in the first place – that starvation mentality, that there’s only so much love to give and then it’s used up?

I also wonder if using the primary label closes one off to possibilities. If I say to each new potential partner, “I have a primary and he’s most important”, that does help towards setting expectations about the amount of time and attention another potential partner could receive. But to me, it could also say, “I’ve already compared you to someone, even though I don’t know you as well as I know him, but I already know that you can’t measure up to him, even though I don’t know you as well yet.” That immediately erects a wall: you can come in, but only this far. It could restrict how that relationship might grow.

But the fact is, I don’t know what might develop with a new partner.  I may have met my primary first, chronologically, but it’s certainly not inconceivable that there might be another person out there who is also compatible with me. And I could potentially have – gasp – my primary become my secondary. Ouch for him! (1) So do I use the primary label to protect my chronologically first lover from outside threats?

Is it inconceivable to have peer relationships, with equivalent amounts of love being exchanged?

Polyamorous: pertaining to participation in multiple and simultaneous loving or sexual relationships.

That’s a really fundamental definition, but I think sometimes it’s good to go back to the fundamentals. Multiple and simultaneous. Not greater/lesser. Not superior/inferior. Not primary/secondary. Multiple, simultaneous. No ranking of one against the other. No comparison. Just concurrent.

Human beings have value. It can take a while to discover exactly how much value any given person brings to your life. My argument against using hierarchical labels is that it creates a barrier that could prevent you, and your new/potential lovers, from experiencing organic growth in a relationship. When you tell them from the outset that the possibilities are limited, regardless of what qualities this new person might bring or what potential they might have, you’re closing yourself off. That’s not loving behavior, to me.

Being open means being without limitations. When I use words that erect a hierarchy, I’m setting limits. I’m not open.

I’m sure there are many arguments to the contrary of what I’ve expressed here. This is all my own opinion, based of course on my own limited experience. For me, personally, I know labels of some kind are needed, and I’ve taken up the terminology suggested in this article from Loving More: anchor and ancillary. They feel less loaded to me; they’re not as commonly associated with hierarchy, but still carry weight. I like them, and you’ll see these terms used in this blog in the future.

(1) To be honest, however, I admit this is unlikely. Since I’m married and have the legal, financial and other entanglements that come with marriage, I’m not sure how logistically my husband could become a secondary partner. I suppose we could remain married but live apart; or we could have additional partners live with us in a group marriage. But knowing myself as well as I do, I feel like these configurations would be unlikely, at least anytime in the near future.

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