July 12, 2014 by aggiesez
I don’t know about you, but I flunked telepathy. Which is a big reason why the culture of polyamory is, in many ways, so refreshing to me: the generally heightened expectation of self awareness and direct, ongoing communication. Not just between partners, but (often) throughout a network of overlapping relationships. Usually, when people can see and discuss their needs and boundaries clearly, there’s at least a good chance that they can cooperate to address them constructively.
This takes time, energy, and practice, of course. But in the long run, it’s easier and safer than avoiding seeing clearly (or discussing with your partners and metamours) what you really need, what you can really offer, and what really scares you.
…At least, that’s the goal. Like anyone, poly people are quite capable of falling short of their goals from time to time. Which is why it also helps to be patient and flexible (to a point) as people develop the emotional and communication skills to handle adult relationships, especially poly/open ones.
The catch is, some people don’t necessarily value self awareness or direct communication, even if they have poly/open relationships. This is a skill, and sometimes a goal, that must be learned. Rather than look inside themselves, speak up clearly, and listen closely, and practice courage, some people prefer to rely on their partners and or metamours to guess what they really need (despite whatever they may have said) and to automatically shield them from their unarticulated fears.
This amounts to outsourcing your emotional responsibility. And it leads to two of the most common (and often fatal) problems in relationships, especially poly/open ones: invisible fences and fuzzy landmines.
UPDATE Sept. 9, 2014: The ever-incisive Cunning Minx shared her thoughts on this post in the Polyamory Weekly podcast, episode 401. And she included some great tips on how can you tell the difference between partners/metamours who are making a genuine effort to be open and own their own shit, vs. those who are not devoted to working on their own issues and relationship mechanics. Listen now.
Invisible fences are unstated boundaries or rules in relationships. Partners and metamours only discover them when they trip over them — often repeatedly. This generates considerable pain, insecurity and frustration for everyone involved.
Sometimes people in one relationship (couple, triad, etc) know about and have privately discussed the invisible fence — but other partners or metamours in their network do not know. Sometimes the invisible fence is unconscious, a secret even from the person who built it.
EXAMPLE: Joe requires his wife Sarah to spend every weekend with him (and no other partner) as a symbol of his primary rank in her life. Joe and Sarah realize that admitting this to anyone, including potential partners, would highlight Joe’s insecurity, which would embarrass both Sarah and Joe.
So Sarah claims to be flexible about her time, but then avoids makings weekend dates with her boyfriend Sam. Rather than explain the true reason, Sarah always has an excuse ready when Sam asks or complains about this pattern. Or she tries to dismiss each instance as isolated and “not a big deal.” Such diversion cuts off opportunities for the three of them to explore options to collaboratively resolve the underlying issue of Joe’s insecurity and possessiveness.
Since Sam has a demanding weekday job, this time restriction significantly limits how his relationship with Sarah can develop. Eventually he breaks up with Sarah in angry, bitter frustration.
Fuzzy landmines are rules and boundaries which are stated — but only in deliberately vague terms. This leaves it up to partners and metamours to guess where the landmines really lie — which means at some point they’ll guess wrong, and blow up the landmine.
Effectively, this means that people who plant fuzzy landmines are reserving the right to freak out (or withdraw) when their partners or metamours inevitably fail to meet their nebulous (and therefore impossible) requests or demands. They’re outsourcing responsibility not just for avoiding their own triggers, but for mapping those triggers so they can be addressed. They’re also attempting to maintain control through passive aggression.
After each inevitable explosion, it’s common that whoever sowed the fuzzy minefield requires considerable attention and care to be soothed, since they typically have avoided developing skills to soothe themselves — another way to outsource emotional responsibility. This further sabotages relationships and hurts/drains everyone involved.
Example: Dave, a single guy, starts dating Anna, a solo poly woman.* Anna also has a longstanding relationship with George, a married poly man. Dave has never been in a poly relationship, but since he’s strongly attracted to Anna he says he wants to try.
Although Dave has met George and likes him, he feels jealous and doesn’t know how to manage that. He tells Anna, “Don’t tell me anything about your dates with George.” When Anna asked Dave to clarify what exactly he did not wish to hear, Dave refused strenuously, even protesting that it was “crazy to discuss such stuff.”
From the start, Anna had told Dave that she avoids compartmentalized “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationships for ethical and practical reasons. But since she felt invested in her relationship with Dave, she was willing to make temporary concessions on disclosure to support Dave in gradually expanding his comfort zone with polyamory.
However, Dave would become highly insecure and upset whenever Anna mentioned George in any context, not just about their dates. If anything, he became steadily less comfortable, not more. Worse, Dave would blame Anna and sulk for days whenever his landmines blew up. Eventually Anna realized that Dave wasn’t even trying to overcome his jealousy and insecurity, despite his claimed intention.
The truth was, all along Dave had had a conscious but secret agenda to manipulate Anna into monogamy with him. This caused months of stress, especially for Anna, yielding bad ripple effects on her relationship with George. In the end, Dave secretly initiated a new relationship with a monogamous woman, and then suddenly dumped Anna, claiming polyamory had been their problem.
*Note: True story, this happened to me.
Why invisible fences and fuzzy landmines fail everyone
When boundaries/rules are left vague (or perhaps even denied) because the people who create them are ashamed of them — or because they wish to retain power by keeping others off balance, or because they wish to manipulate others, or because they simply lack self awareness and communication/negotiation skills — that’s never good for relationships or people. No one is left unscathed: the damage zone almost always includes the very people who erected the invisible fences or planted the fuzzy minefield.
Importantly, people don’t always create invisible fences or fuzzy landmines intentionally. These strategies aren’t necessarily malicious. They’re often done automatically, because so much of the mainstream culture in which we’re all marinating discourages emotional and relational responsibility.
Although they’re intended to increase security (at least, for some people in a relationship network) these strategies almost never end up “protecting” anyone or anything. In fact, they virtually guarantee distrust, drama, perpetual insecurity, strife, and ugly breakups.
Everyone experiences insecurity and other uncomfortable feelings in relationships. That normal. However, part of being an adult is learning how to manage and express your emotions in healthy, safe ways.
It may be tempting to offload to your partner(s) or metamour(s) your personal responsibility for emotional management — or to skip the work of communicating clearly and negotiating fairly. Because being responsible is hard work (until it becomes second nature).
Indeed, some strictures of the standard social relationship escalator model (such as not acknowledging or acting on attraction to other people) often are at least partly intended to make partners responsible for anticipating and managing each other’s emotional triggers and reactions. Similarly, people who prefer to just “wing it” with poly/open relationships often do so not because they’re flexible and carefree, but because they’re lazy and reckless.
Unfortunately, most people are lousy telepaths. They simply cannot anticipate and manage your emotions for you — not perfectly, anyway. Especially in situations like poly/open relationships where you’ll regularly encounter new emotionally charged situations involving more people. The circle of damage can spread quickly.
While invisible fences and fuzzy landmines aren’t strictly a polyamory problem, they may affect poly people more since poly/open relationships tend to offer unfamiliar or emotionally challenging circumstances more often. When you lack a default script for navigating relationships issues, you must think harder and more clearly in order to act responsibly.
It seems to me that being good at being solo poly (being poly as a free agent, without any primary-style relationships) may have the side benefit of teaching you how to spot and handle invisible fences and fuzzy landmines. That’s because solo poly folk must rely more on internal resources and awareness, since our relationships usually leave far less room to assume that others will manage our feelings and needs for us.
…But of course, this skill also gets honed through experience. And nonprimary partners (which includes most solo poly people) tend to disproportionately bear the brunt of other people’s attempts to outsource emotional responsibility.
True security: Fostering resilience and cooperation
The key to resolving this quagmire is to learn to be vulnerable, and to honor the vulnerability of others. Own and admit your insecurities, and commit to overcoming them.
Also, assume goodwill Your partner(s) and metamour(s) probably want to support you in safely achieving personal growth — because the entire relationship network would benefit.
If you’re on the receiving end of an invisible fence or fuzzy landmine, don’t assume ill will. Remember that people don’t always intend to build invisible fences or fuzzy landmines. Often they do it without considering options — or without even knowing they have options. It’s possible to give people a chance to learn better and do better, just don’t sacrifice your integrity in the process.
And ultimately, though it sucks, having the courage and resilience to leave unhealthy relationship dynamics that won’t change is an option — not to resolve this quagmire, but to avoid becoming collateral damage, or at least cut your losses. Fortunately, in relationship networks involving mostly emotionally responsible adults, it’s usually not necessary to hit that kill switch.
Yes, this process feels difficult, risky and scary. It will challenge and change you. But in the long run, it’s still a much, much safer bet for you and your relationships than building an insecurity system comprised of invisible fences and fuzzy landmines.
You will become more resilient and secure by developing emotional management and communication skills. And your relationships will become more stable and happier. As hard as this may seem, it is far easier and more achievable than expecting anyone to get better at telepathy.