Polyamory: To Try Or Not To Try?

Reader poglodyte left a comment with some questions on a post about polyamory I wrote a few weeks back. I decided to answer it in a separate post, because I’ve been meaning to write about some of these things for a while and I figured others would find it useful too. So, while this is sort of addressed at that particular person/question, these are all things I would like to say to people in general.

Here’s the whole comment:

Hey Miri, I dig your blog and have always enjoyed the discussions of polyamory, but now the issue has taken on a more personal turn for me.

I’ve been married for five years, and my wife has recently shared her interest in polyamory with me. We both grew up in Christian patriarchy, so neither of us has much sexual experience outside of the other, even though we were atheists by the time we got married.

Logically, I don’t have a problem with going poly–we’re atheists with no real reason to commit to monogamy, and we’ve talked about the possibility of other partners in the past–but emotionally it’s another story. I’m worried that she’s going to find a better partner, and I’ll gradually be replaced as the boring, stick-in-the-mud husband. Part of the issue is that she’s way more social and outgoing than I am, and I have far less opportunity to meet people (I work full time from home and am also working on my thesis), so I think I’ll be left behind once she sees how much fun she can have with other, less hermitty people.

I understand that a lot of these feelings come from a place of insecurity (and, if I’m being honest, probably a little Christian purity culture baggage thrown in for good measure), but that doesn’t make them go away.

At the same time, the last thing I want to do is stand in the way of my partner’s happiness and try to dictate what she can and can’t do with her body. I just don’t know if being poly will make me happy; I can’t wrap my head around sitting at home while she has a great time with her other partners, let alone feeling compersion. Yet she seems to be excited about the prospect of me dating other people, which makes absolutely no sense to me; it tells me that she doesn’t particularly care what I do, that my actions aren’t important. Am I just being selfish and clingy to feel this way? Is there an easy way to just “get over” it?

There are a few separate issues/questions wrapped up in this post, such as:

  • Does being poly make it more likely that your partner will leave you for someone else?
  • Should you try polyamory (mostly) for the sake of a partner who wants to?
  • Do you have to experience compersion in order to be able to be poly?
  • Is there a way to get over insecurity?

I don’t like to give advice to people because I don’t consider myself qualified to give advice on anything except fun things to do in New York. However, as someone who used to be in this boat in a few ways, I think I can offer a perspective that might be useful.

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The Allure of the Beautiful Woman Who Doesn’t Know She’s Beautiful

You’ve probably heard this song:

You’re insecure,
Don’t know what for
You’re turning heads when you walk through the door
Don’t need make-up
To cover up
Being the way that you are is enough

Everyone else in the room can see it,
Everyone else but you

Baby you light up my world like nobody else
The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed
But when you smile at the ground it ain’t hard to tell
You don’t know
You don’t know you’re beautiful
If only you saw what I can see,
You’d understand why I want you so desperately
Right now I’m looking at you and I can’t believe
You don’t know
You don’t know you’re beautiful
That’s what makes you beautiful

This is “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction and it exemplifies some common attitudes about women and beauty. While this song makes it a lot more explicit than you’ll see it elsewhere (that’s why I bolded that part), this trope comes up all the time in film, television, literature, and music (is there a TVTropes page for this? There should be). Something about beautiful women who don’t realize how beautiful they are seems to appeal to many men. But why?

I think there are a few things potentially going on here:

First, being unaware of one’s beauty could be a marker for “innocence,” “purity,” or “virginity.”

A woman who doesn’t realize she’s beautiful is a woman who’s not experienced enough in love and sex to have been told otherwise. She doesn’t understand her own sex appeal. She doesn’t yet realize that her beauty can be used to control, manipulate, and ensnare men (remember, this is one of the dominant cultural narratives we have about what women’s beauty is “for”).

Of course, some inexperienced women are aware of their beauty and some experienced women are not. However, I think that insecurity is often read as innocence by many people when it comes to women and beauty (unless of course, the woman is not considered beautiful by conventional standards).

Second, for a woman, being unaware of your beauty means that you are not confident, cocky, or narcissistic.

Men and women face different pressures when it comes to communicating and performing confidence. Women must be humble and self-effacing (“Oh, me? I’m nothing special.”) while men must be confident and sure of themselves. Neither gets that good of a deal, really: while women have to perform a sort of humility that will inevitably feel fake to many, men have to perform a sort of confidence that they don’t always feel, either.

None of this means that there’s no such thing as “too humble” for a woman or “too cocky” for a man. There are. But the social costs of them differ from the social costs of being too cocky as a woman or too humble as a man. Women who are “too” confident (which often means women with a reasonable, healthy level of confidence) are disliked much more than men who are “too” confident (which is more likely to mean men who are truly unpleasantly full of themselves). Men who are “too” humble or insecure (which often means men with a reasonable, healthy level of humility or insecurity) are disliked much more than women who are “too” humble or insecure (which is more likely to mean women who are truly extremely insecure).

With beauty specifically, women end up in a weird double bind. Women must be beautiful, but they must not be confident. So they must play up their beauty while denying having done so and while claiming outwardly that they’re not actually beautiful. The subject of One Direction’s infamous song may very well know how beautiful she is, but she gives off a good enough impression of not knowing that she’s managed to attract the singer anyway.

Third, being painfully insecure makes you a damsel for the guy to ride in and save.

A woman who doesn’t realize how beautiful she is isn’t just an innocent and non-threatening partner; she’s also a project. She’s “broken” and needs to be “fixed” by making her “finally see” how beautiful she truly is.

I think many people, not just men, conceptualize relationships as a sort of mutual repair job. They think that their love will “make” their partner recover from a mental illness, stop drinking and partying so much, stop chasing others, realize they want marriage and kids after all, get a job, become more sexually open-minded, convert to the proper religion, recover from past trauma, or any number of other improvements. Although the repair job isn’t always mutual, it often is: people also want to depend on their partner to fix their faults for them in turn.

It would take another post to explain everything that I think is wrong with this approach to relationships, but I’ll just leave it at this: it’s codependent. It presumes that your partner needs you to fix them, and it abdicates responsibility for fixing yourself.

I have known many, many sweet and generous guys who have fallen into this trap with women, particularly women who were insecure, from difficult family situations, and/or suffering from mental illnesses. Although the concept of saving “damsels in distress” is certainly a patriarchal concept, that doesn’t mean that all (or even most) of the men who do it are somehow bad people. That’s just how they’ve learned to “do” relationships.

I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with helping a partner improve themselves somehow, but this has to be 1) mutually acknowledged and agreed upon by both people, 2) free of any emotional manipulation or pressure, and 3) the icing on the cake of a relationship that’s premised on something other than that–shared interests, mutual respect, great sex, similar visions for life and the future, or whatever else matters to you and sustains a relationship. If your entire relationship is based on trying to fix someone, one of two things will probably happen: 1) you’ll succeed in fixing them and realize that the only thing keeping you together was the repair job; or 2) you’ll fail at fixing them and become extremely frustrated because you premised your entire sense of self-worth as a partner on your ability to fix someone else’s problems–problems that are deep-seeded, complex, tenacious, and probably in need of attention from a mental health professional.

The type of attraction that’s going on in this One Direction song is, therefore, unlikely to lead to any healthy and mutually satisfying relationship. Most likely, the girl in the song will finally see what everyone else sees and will lose her appeal to the singer because she’ll no longer be innocent, humble, and in need of help. Relationships like this also have a huge potential for abuse, because the person doing the fixing can say, “You’re never going to find anyone who loves you like I do” or “Nobody but me could ever be attracted to you.” In fact, these are things that abusers often say. A slightly less abusive but still extremely manipulative possibility is that the person doing the fixing implies, directly or indirectly, that the person being fixed can’t do it on their own.

The qualities we admire and find attractive in people do not, in fact, appeal to us simply because of our own immutable “natural” tendencies with which we are endowed by genes or early childhood experiences, although these probably play a role. If you spend your life hearing from every possible source that confident women are unattractive while confident men are attractive, that’s probably what you’re going to think unless you challenge your own beliefs. But there’s nothing inherently attractive about women who don’t know they’re beautiful (however you define “beautiful”), and there’s nothing inherently attractive about women who do know they’re beautiful.

What you find attractive says more about you than it does about the person you find attractive, because it’s an indicator of your own values and beliefs about people and how they ought to be. Should people be confident and unapologetic about who they are and what they like about themselves?

I think so.

Insecurity

[TMI Warning]

About five years ago, we read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in my 10th grade English class. In order to facilitate our understanding of what it must’ve been like for Hester Prynne to walk around with a letter “A” pinned to her clothing, our teacher had us come up with our own biggest flaws and spend a day wearing a decorated letter to represent them. When people inevitably asked what the letters were for, we could explain in as much or as little detail as we wanted.

Of course, most of the kids in my class chose fairly innocuous “flaws”–perfectionism, laziness, stuff like that.

But I chose insecurity.

I wouldn’t be diagnosed with depression for nearly three more years, but all the bits and pieces of my forthcoming diagnosis were already starting to fall into place. Just a week before our letter-wearing assignment, I’d been somewhat unceremoniously dumped by my first real boyfriend, whom I’d told several weeks before that, in tears, that I can’t be happy if I don’t like myself. (The poor guy had no idea how to respond to that–it wouldn’t be until my sophomore year of college that I found a group of friends who did–and I suppose I can’t blame him for running away from my teenage self like a man on fire.)

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I’d accidentally stumbled upon a huge predictor of poor mental health–an unstable sense of self. I had no idea who “I” was apart from what people told me. My friends thought I was overdramatic and overemotional, so I was. My parents thought I was immature, so I was. A guy at school made fun of my big ass, so I was fat. I was pretty and intelligent only because (and only as long as) my friends and family told me so.

Lacking my own independent and stable ideas of who I was, I ran to people for affirmation. They would provide it, and I’d feel satisfied for a short time. I thought that that’s how life was meant to be.

When someone comes to you expressing thoughts of insecurity, it’s natural to want to “fix” everything for them by assuring them that their fears are baseless. What are you talking about, you’re so thin! Of course you’re smart! Guys would be lucky to date you!

But here’s the problem–even if your assertions are absolutely correct, you’re not really doing the person any favors by making them. Rather than making their self-concept subject to the people who bring them down, you’re only making it subject to you and your affirmation.

My advice? Challenge your insecure friends or loved ones to define themselves through their actions, not through arbitrary labels like “pretty,” “smart,” and “mature.” If they’re insecure about a societally-imposed value like skinniness or coolness, help them see that they’re no less of a person even if they don’t fulfill these expectations.

That’s how I ultimately conquered my own insecurity. To this day, I really have no idea if I’m “smart enough” or “friendly enough” or whatever. I’m constantly trying to learn new things and make new friends, and that’s pretty much all I need. If I’m asked to describe myself, I try to use actions rather than adjectives. After all, one can argue whether or not I’m really “kind,” but one can’t argue with the fact that I started a campus organization dedicated to helping people.

My blue letter “I” is still lying somewhere in my closet along with all the other high school crap I’ve been too lazy to throw away. It’s hard to believe now that I was once the sort of person who would’ve worn it.