Presentations, Science of Poly

RelateCon 2017: Solo Poly- The Nights You Spend Alone

I had such a wonderful time at RelateCon. Here are the notes for my presentation on solo poly. Please contact me if you have any comments or questions. Thanks!

My very first boyfriend and I had an open relationship, much to the disapproval of my religious friends, which was all of them. Even though I felt comfortable in a non-monogamous relationship, I gave into social pressure and ended up engaged and in a monogamous marriage. We dabbled in swinging toward the end but did everything wrong. After moving to a small town in Utah from Texas where all our friends and family lived, we made some friends who we partied with a lot. During the winter, it gets dark early and there was absolutely no night life. Parties started getting slowly sexier and then one night we were swingers. I had no idea there were resources to help you navigate that sort of thing. When he fell madly in love with her it was the catalyst I needed to realize I was bitter about moving away in the first place. Had we stayed in Texas, I would have had a much better job. My communication skills were nonexistent so I silently spent months brooding in my insecurity and jealousy then left.


Even though the process was messy, divorce was the best decision of my life. However, being single again makes you realize things you take for granted in a relationship. I like sleeping with a partner. There is a certain comfort knowing if I wake in the thralls of a nightmare in which Voldemort has me under the cruciatis curse, there is someone there to ground me back to reality and hold me while I recover. Also, falling asleep wrapped in a human blanket is the best.


When I was married, I took for granted that someone else would be in the bed. In fact, it wasn’t until the bitter end I no longer found sleeping next to him a comfort. The cuddling in bed far outlasted the sex. After my ex, I had a friend who I would frequently spend the night with just to cuddle.


Right after the divorce papers were finalized I met Ross, and my nights of sleeping alone were over, I thought indefinitely. I met Ross in a coffee shop. We were both working from home, recently divorced, so the coffee shop provided a space to not spend evenings alone. In a whirlwind romance to match that of any of the great love stories, we collided. He flew me to New Orleans for our first date. I started fondling him in our rental car, he pulled over and we had sex while fireflies danced around us and Glass Animals played in the background. But I’m getting off track. The point I wasn’t sleeping alone.


It was only a year ago I fully embraced that I am without a doubt more suited to non-monogamy. In a moment of clarity, I logged onto my OkCupid account and changed my status and search parameters. While it did not filter out any of the constant barrage of nonsense bombarding my inbox, it did greatly reduce my potential matches.


I soon found myself dating three different guys and realized while I am suited to having feelings for more than one person at time is within my emotional capacity, trying to start these new relationships at the same time while maintaining my friendships and work on my book was not. A family emergency about a month into all this brought to clarity that I should probably pick one so I could still maintain platonic relationships and write. Also, in the past when I’d started dating someone new, I’d end up consumed with them and blow off other friendships. I did not want to make that mistake again.


The guy I picked was dating multiple people and usually I was fine. I had a friend who I called my platonic girlfriend because we were so close and spent so much time together. I was also writing a book which needed the time priority of a person.


It’s easy to feel compersion when you’re snuggled up next to your partner. However, when they are out on a date and you’re home supposedly working on a project or enjoying a nice hot bath with a favorite book, the mind tends to wander. Maybe it’s just me, but anytime spent on any poly thread on Reddit or Facebook group will indicate this is not the case.


We all want our partners to go on dates and have fun enjoying other people, but when you get stuck at home for an evening while you know they’re showering all their attention on someone else, the compersion meter might start to waiver a bit.


This is how my thought process goes. What if this new person is more attractive than me? Or more interesting? Or better in bed? We are supposed to be more emotionally evolved than this, right? This is why we choose to open our romantic interests to more than person? What if they really hit it off with someone new? I can’t compete with NRE. No matter how much they like me NRE has its name for a reason. Nothing beats the thrill and rush of someone new.


This is when I really know I’ve crossed over to crazy land. What if they like each other so much they go monogamous for each other? Like it’s a sexually transmitted infection that can happen without proper protection.


I blame years of monogamy and the conditioning it entails. If your partner has remote interest in someone else, they can no longer have feelings for you. It’s as if all your romantic feelings are a heart pendant on a chain around your neck, and only one person can wear it at a time. Those of us who have braved the new waters of non-monogamy know this is not the case but it can be hard to remember sometimes.


The definition for jealous has three parts


  • feeling or showing envy of someone or their achievements and advantages

We can break this down. I don’t generally feel envious that my partner gets more dates. All I have to do is spend five minutes on Tinder and I can find a date. There is no guarantee as to the quality of said date but ultimately that is not what this is about. However, feeling jealous of the advantages a partner SOs is another story. When I first started dating in the poly realm, two of the guys I was dating were in serious relationships, I think actually married. It was clear from the beginning that I was number two. One of the guys would constantly get texts from his SO while we were out and he could not spend the night with me. I understand that everyone has their set of rules but at the time having someone to spend the night with was important to me so I was jealous there were these aspects of a relationships she could have but I could not.


  • feeling or showing suspicion of someone’s unfaithfulness in a relationship.

While it’s be easy to think that since we’re all so open and honest we don’t need to worry about suspicions and unfaithfulness, that would be unrealistic. What’s beautiful but also complicated about poly is everyone has their own guidelines that get broken.


  • fiercely protective or vigilant of one’s rights or possessions


Now this last part is where it gets a bit tricky. You might think, well, I’m poly so I’m not possessive of my partner. I have evolved past this trivial monogamous thinking. However, I don’t think it’s as easy as that. Due to the constraints of space/time technology, you can only be one place at one time. Each of us has finite hours in a day. Many of those hours are filled with obligations such as sleep, work, laundry. The hours that are left must be preciously divided between people, hobbies, and self-care.


This is where polyamory can become complicated. Dividing feelings between people is easy. Time? That’s another story. It’s more than just time. Each of us has a limited amount of what I call emotional energy. I do social work. At times, my job can be very emotionally demanding. After spending my work day dealing with people who have very real problems, my patience for a friend’s boy drama is not very high.


Rationing out your time and emotional energy between partners is one of the challenges of poly and it can be hard sometimes not to feel twinges of jealousy when that time is going to someone else. I’m supposed to be one of my partners. I need to practice being a little jealous of myself. I need to be possessive of my time and take advantage of it when I have it instead of wasting it away pining after someone who already likes me.


Now we segue to another to another phenomenon… insecurity. The definition is quite straightforward.


  • uncertainty or anxiety about oneself


It can be really hard to not compare yourself to someone else a partner is dating. If I don’t think I’m good enough for someone, it’s really easy to slip into thinking someone else must be


  • lack of confidence


Confidence is a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities. Why is it that it’s so much easier to think of all of someone else’s great qualities versus your own? With solo poly this gets even harder, especially if you’re dating someone who is part of a hierarchical couple and you’re not on top.


When a solo poly person starts dating say a married couple who is hierarchical, sometimes an expectation is set from the very beginning the married couple’s relationship is the priority and anyone else is second.


It all comes down to a fear that when they are out with someone else, maybe they’ll never come back for whatever reason. It’s why, I think, people like the relationship escalator. Each new achievement unlocked is more assurance their partner is invested in the relationship.


Fear of being alone drives people to make terrible decisions. The problem is when the fear is irrational yet still ends up having a negative impact on your life. Cognitive behavioral therapy explains how negative thought processes can have direct impact on your physiology. The premise is you have to recognize negative thinking patterns as soon as they start to creep up before they drag you down into a spiral of insanity.


There is a lot of research that demonstrates you can start to feel they symptoms of something imagined. If you imagine your partner running off to Bermuda to start a new life with a new partner or simply enjoying them more in bed over and over again, it may as well be happening as far as your body is concerned.


The next time you see your partner you’re furious because you’ve been living through all these imagined scenarios involving Bermuda and the best sex they’ve ever had and they have no clue what they’ve done, because they’ve done  nothing. However, due to the negative thought processes you’ve been engaging it feels like they did.


I have to remind myself one of my favorite part of solo poly is I am one of my priorities. In past monogamous relationships, I’ve made the mistake of devoting entirely too much of myself to my partner and then been bitter about it. I’ve given up dream jobs, neglected important friendships, put aside projects important to me.


Instead of spending an evening jealous my partner is showering their attention on someone else or convincing myself I’m not good enough for them, I shower my attention on myself. I get to have all the benefits of emotional security, consistent mind blowing sex, cuddles, and still explore who I am outside of someone else.


Nights I felt particularly antsy and accepted I was beyond productivity, I went to the bar by myself. I never once regretted it. I met so many great people and even had a hot one night stand with a traveling business man.


When I talk to vanilla friends about my solo poly I feel like I’m bragging because I tell them about this great partner I have and then also these random dating adventures out on the town. Can I really have it all? The answer seems to be yes. It’s simply a matter of remembering how good I have it on the nights I’m by myself.


For me, what is really driving my crazy when I spend a night alone, is fear. Remember Ross? We spent a summer madly in love having the best sex I’d had in years. He let me explore my kinks in a way I never had. I still had an apartment but it was more or less an overpriced storage unit. We’d get off work and make dinner. Then, he’d pour me a cocktail and we’d watch documentaries or sit on his patio talking about everything from astrophysics to business ideas he had. He was the only man to ever write me a song, which was significant because for some reason to me that meant something. I always wanted a love song written about me. He promised me he’d take me to Spain that Christmas to meet his family. I imagined us getting a house together the next year.


There’s thing about collisions. A collision in a romantic sense is considered something beautiful, intense, passionate. Have you ever seen a collision?


In September, I went to visit my family. He was supposed to come, but bailed at the last minute. When I got back late on a Tuesday night, we went out to eat, came home to his house, fucked, fell asleep in each other’s arms like usual. The next morning, as I was preparing to go into work, he told me it was over. That was the real collision because blindsided does not even begin to describe the fucking tsunami of emotions coursing through my veins. For the next three days I didn’t eat, barely slept. Starting smoking cigarettes again. Everything reminded me of him and for weeks I’d spontaneously start crying. The pain I felt was so tangible


I left my ex-husband after months of deliberation. My first boyfriend was my only other serious relationship and he had been distancing himself for awhile so that breakup was not a surprise. With Ross, I had no warning which it made it so much worse.


This is why relationships are hard. They involve people who are free agents and could change their mind about feelings at any moment without warning. I’d never experienced anything like it before.


And there is no getting around this. Most relationships end, sometimes painfully. It’s an inherent risk those who take the relationship escalator fool themselves into thinking they are mitigating but they’re not.


So when I’m scared, it’s because I know the worst that can happen. We all do. And nights you spend alone seem to bring that fear to the forefront even if your relationship is solid.


Is it even worth it?


On a sad note, my grandpa passed away last weekend. He has been battling Parkinson’s for years and when he caught pneumonia for the fifth time, he couldn’t or wouldn’t fight it anymore. I traveled back to a small town in West Texas to attend his funeral, the very small town I spent the first seven years of my life.

Not much happened those first few years of my existence. School, church, cartoons, playgrounds. My family spent every weekend with two other couples from our church. Both had sons around my age and when we were six it somehow came to be that both were my boyfriends. It was the topic of much gossip in our Sunday school. They knew about each other. One spent a lengthy time with me once on a bridge at the park outside of town explaining to me why he was the better choice. The other tried to bribe me with candy. We moved a year later. It’s taken me 25 years to figure out what six-year-old me already understood!!

The funeral was harder than I expected. The morning before the service there was one last viewing at the funeral home. When my grandma walked in she slowly made her way to the coffin and started talking to my grandpa. It was mostly in low German, a dialect closer to Dutch than actual German. It was my first language but my understanding is limited and I can only say a few phrases because I am around it so infrequently these days. The language of grief is universal, though I was able to understand what she said. Because of his illness and her declining health, about six months ago my family had to move him to nursing home. She took care of him as long as she possibly could. Feeding him, lifting him out of bed into a wheel chair, bathing him. My family hired an aid to come help around the house. My grandma would get up early and get everything done around the house before the aid arrived because she didn’t want the help. My grandma is one of the strongest women I know.

By the end, he barely recognized her. As she stood over his coffin, the pain in her voice was harsh as she apologized over and over again for not being able to care for him adequately. In a moment of pure anguish, she put his hand over his and asked why he didn’t want to hold her hand anymore. After a long moment, she whispered to him, “No more hospitals. No more nursing homes.” She repeated this at the cemetery later as we laid my grandpa to rest as the sun shone down from a crystal blue West Texas sky.

I cannot fathom the pain of slowly losing someone you love. Each day he remembered less of the more than 50 years they shared together. She didn’t care. Until the very end, even after two knee replacement surgeries, she was right by his side. She made sure someone he knew was there to visit him every single day and feed him dinner, even though the staff were more than capable.

These connections we make with other humans mean something. I could go on and on about the neurological processes behind grief and loss or how far back humans have been performing burial rituals, but that would not going make tonight any easier for my grandma.

The risk of loss is the price we pay for love and understanding the physiology doesn’t really make it any easier. Perhaps we should focus more on celebrating with people when they find that love, whether it’s with one person or three, instead of putting boundaries and expectations on what is clearly something variable, flexible, and unpredictable.




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