Polyamory Is Going Mainstream (2nd update)

This 2nd update of “Polyamory Is Going Mainstream” is brought to you on a break from my project, letting you know I am alive (other than my Twitter feed.)

It looks like I am doing two year updates of my blog post of 7/1/13. With an update of 5/27/15, and now this. It’s quite coincidental to me, except that since my post almost four years ago, I have thought continuously about this subject. So, I’m motivated to follow this active relational/social shift, at least in the U.S.

Polyamory

“Married & Dating” (Showtime Networks)

A Paradigm Shift

Can a shift like this – from monogamous (in values; beliefs, including spirituality) to multi-relational – be connected to other social, historical, cultural developments? We don’t know whether multi-relational practices tend to drive social trends, or the opposite. The talk of monogamy’s “breakdown” is a bit of retailed panic; multi-relational life can include parenting a couple’s progeny.

Possible Privilege

We don’t know much about poly peoples’ diversity, though informal studies show a more affluent, white and younger demographic. It may reflect some degree of privilege to be able to relate, openly or not, outside of social norms.

Defining Self In Relationship

I work with clients who are trying to define themselves clearly in the fluid shifts between one paradigm and another, relationally speaking. Personal integrity is of course the one common foundation for both desire and commitment.

marriageFew Grew Up This Way

But in the new relationship paradigm, one that few people grew up with, a very personal integrity can come in a “qualified second” to indulging (or plunging) into the new world of wanting. Or mastering today’s new social skill, one with a considerable but often overlooked ethical canon. It’s been remodeled actively over the last two decades, and of course is subject to every possible variation. Many partners I see consider the shift after they have birthed and raised their preferred number of children.

Polyamory Mastery Is Hard

There is a significant number of people in multi-relational partnerships where the partners have had some experience with it, and have in fact developed ways of maintaining desire and clear enough commitments across them all. And yet even these folks would not lay claim to mastery of these skills. To open up desire in one’s life is indeed to open oneself to greater variability, and some pressures, including those related to spending so much time just relating closely.

Separating Commitment From Desire

The separation of commitment from desire, mainly for desire’s sake, is welcome. It can free desire up somewhat, if life’s other commitments can be carved away enough. It’s exhilarating, and then the larger number of moving parts start to bring change. More of life is devoted to relationship. That alone challenges most people’s levels of personal development.

Desire Least Understood

Desire is the least understood part of relationships, and the most frequent reason for breakups of all kinds. In monogamy, people usually stop wanting each other, and then stop choosing each other. In multiple relationship households desire can easily flicker too, though for different reasons, often about how difficult it is to maintain commitments that get built onto relationships made mainly from desire. Longer term, it’s more likely about how to maintain a robust individuality; clear but open boundaries, durable relationships, bringing and keeping people in your life.

An ethical framework for managing desire is becoming less and less controversial, and more frequently the basis for therapy and counseling.

The Sexual Relationship With Self

The Sexual Relationship With Self

The sexual relationship with self is a widely experienced part of adolescent and adult development. It’s a simple enough phrase, and people tend to make some instant sense of what it means. It differentiates eroticism/sex between its internal and external nature, simply and quickly. Saying it implies its ‘opposite’ – sexual relationship-with-other(s) (a subject near and dear to psychotherapy.)

An Erotic/ Sexual Battle Royal

Except they’re not true opposites. Yet that’s how some partners, in some relationships, view sex-with-self: as the opposing force to sex-with-others, and meager by comparison. I see sex-with-self as the platform on which sex-with-other(s) is built. It’s a precursor, not a curse. And it’s a lifetime companion and wellspring of imagination for partnered sex.

Eroticism Is Part Of Self

But it’s more than that, because it’s part of self. Often enough, people want to occupy personal/private sexuality, sometimes to re-energize their sex-with-other(s). But for many, a partner’s sex-with-self is a betrayal, cause for suspicion, even a sign that the sex connection has died.

It’s Ours And We’ll Protect It

The relationship-with-self can be altered by sexual coercion, deception, abuse or violence. Even if undisturbed these ways, it’s still a psychologically, emotionally and physically turbulent place. But it’s ours, and it grows –  like any part of us that is subjected to both indulgence and frustration. This is an early personal/private crucible of psycho-sexual development. And we will protect it, if we can, from shame.

Ongoing Experience of Sexuality

The basic concept is unremarkable. Many people maintain (usually from adolescence on) a conscious intermittent awareness of sex and desire, regardless of happiness or fulfillment. It’s also well established that people, through masturbation, can have a sexual experience and erotic identity, sans partner(s). But socially, it’s shamed.

Even with eroticized cultures, and gender re-definition, most of us developed during adolescence an internal sexual world. The challenge is to take whatever level of ‘fullness’ and integration, and extend it out – to develop it well with other(s).

sexual-fantasies

Map Of A Journey Of Love

It reflects how we were loved, nurtured, and injured. We journey (if safely enough), and start to draw a ‘map’ and an ‘arousal template’. These are used to increase our chances for pleasure, by playing out ways to decrease (usually) our specific anxieties. For some, this can mean mastering anxiety by re-enacting it in a controlled way (BDSM).

Since the erotic map can also lead us in a spiritual direction, it grows with us as we age. This is adult eroticism.

Doesn’t Play Well With Others?

Yet the elementary construct, sex-with-self, does not have an ‘easy relationship’ with its counterpart – sexual relationship(s) with others. )

Other variations include: people struggling to actually do what they privately fantasize about (with any partner, though usually a primary); the idea of observing partner masturbation (to heighten & share pleasure); partners who can only orgasm when masturbating, either before, during or after partner sex, privately or not; and last but not least, taking a partner’s use of pornography personally.

The Self Is A Safe Place

I’ve met a good number of men who ejaculate faster than they want during partner sex. They have the problem much less often during sex-with-themselves (self-stimulation). There is something soothing about being in the safe place of one’s imagination, even with repetitive fantasies. It allows for kinky play, on the erotic map, using various templates. It’s true that a good number of porn users choose fantasy over the challenges of bringing them into reality.

Breach Of Agreement?

But does sex-with-self’s existence, beyond some bare minimum, also violate a prior and superior commitment – to the relationship-with-other? That relationship, in monogamous terms at least, usualy requires an exclusive contract for sexual engagement.

Threat Posed By The Inferior

In many committed relationships, the relationship-with-self is presumed (not openly, usually) to take an inferior or secondary status to the relationship-with-other. If the relationship-with-self occupies increasing amounts of time or interest, it becomes a threat to the prevailing sexual order. A relationship-with-self is by definition self-involved; and, that’s compounded when it’s hidden or shamed.

[Yes, I’ve also worked with folks who have passionate relationships with both self and other(s). And who see the two relationships in a constant alliance throughout adulthood. That helps define ‘sex-positive‘]

An Adolescent Regression

If anything, sex-with-self is seen as a regression, back to adolescent fantasies of compliant/kinky figurines that make no demands. It comes across as a failure to fully engage in committed relationship or “true monogamy.” And a vague sense of betrayal, that a partner has checked out from the once mutual journey.

Development Not Seen

The erotic/sexual relationship-with-self is rarely seen in a developmental way, as the result of a crucible – of self, personality, culture – seeking aliveness. And evidently, a source of safety which allows pleasure. And therefore containing the seeds of renewal into the relationship-with-other.

Individuality & Togetherness

So sex-with-self has a big picture, about the tension between individuality (sense of self) and connection to others (togetherness), expressed erotically & sexually. Both are core elements of individuality-seeking-aliveness. This view fits within a developmental (non-pathologic) view of human sexuality.

Safe To Explore

Ideally, our sexuality begins with imaginative self-exploration. It’s the default safe place (or at least should be) for the birth of the sexual self.

sexual relationship cradle

It’s mutually reinforced, or not, in the body.  It seeks fundamental aliveness, sustained with meaning and pleasure – with other(s). This is eros – attraction. And it begins with a maturity process: self-love & acceptance empowering love towards others. Eros “bridges” our complex internal, private world with those of others, in the matter of experiencing and generating pleasure, meaning and bonding. [Many view eros as the bridge to deep attachment. As in, wanting-before-choosing]

Unusual Even-Handedness

The relationship with self is not better or worse than the one(s) with other(s). They co-exist, typically in the back and forth/ebb and flow that marks all development processes. The ongoing experience of sex-with-self and with others mutually enriches and heals both. It may lead to greater courage in being truly intimate.

Unless it doesn’t. It can become stuck like any other development process.

Therapy Thoughts

Stuck Either Way

Anxiety can get fixated on partner sex, or on sex-with-self. I’ve worked with relationships that have gone in either direction. Repetitive/compulsive behaviors reflect self-involvement over growth. I try to see why.

You can say sex with-other is normal and with-self is not, but I don’t think that will help. Problems with integrity are often about people trading it away, for the (relative) safety of minimizing shame.

When it’s well out of balance, it usually means basic or standard difficulties in personal and relational differentiation. This helps the couple develop greater immunity to anxiety, and promotes collaborating in a non-pathologic frame.

The Impact On Relationship

We are not just talking about the impact of a self-involved sexuality on a relationship. How many times have you heard that a partner seeks refuge from the constant advances of the other partner? How they want “alone time”? The problem can distance partners that way, or through a sexual self that is too private/protected.

Integrity, Empathy, Anxiety

Issues of integrity often assert themselves, making new positions or stances harder to establish. Empathy, and the hope needed to heal the relationship, can seem in short supply. Sexuality is a very effective delivery mechanism for anxiety, and its powerful subsidiary, shame.

Self-Involvement

The truth is that self-involvement can directly impact relational life. It’s hard to bear that a partner withheld connection, preferring to self-pleasure, and is/was willing to hide it away indefinitely. This strikes at the heart of desire, and at the vulnerability of monogamy. I could say ‘fragility’ too, as in, how the more ‘normal’ sex-with-others referred to above is hyper-sensitive to how lowly/immoral sex-with-self seems subversive.

Grieving & Self-Soothing

Sexuality is for many people a drive wheel of the relationship, even if they’ve not paid much attention to it. But a first step in healing this must be to recognize the hurt and pain in the relationship.

What We Might Talk About, Part II (of a series)

A Brief Talk …

Here’s Part II of “What We Might Talk About”, an ongoing review of therapy-related terms that occasionally come up in the office. None of this content is linked to any expert, or research or tradition; it’s meant to be a more informal glimpse. Points are covered briefly, deliberately acknowledging that your questions are needed to see what’s really there. Relationships, emotional process and erotic/sexual issues are on tap.

relationship

Monogamy

What does it mean to you (or what did it mean?) It’s a question that most would struggle to answer. Many never thought they had to ask – almost like a ‘monogamy privilege’. The tension between being sexually or emotionally “gregarious”, and valuing the sexually exclusive “pair bond”, was usually ignored at the outset of the relationship.

narrative

The ‘parallel narrative’

Without discussing the true nature of monogamy, they have a difficult time developing an accurate perspective on it. Yet it’s an absolutely critical issue for the longevity of their union. What does monogamy mean to them and how will they address its dilemmas?

I have found that if eroticism isn’t treated as an essential “parallel narrative” (on a par with all the commitments and attachments that relationships set up) then desire problems will be a critical issue for many if not most relationships. Sometimes, partners settle for sex they report as mediocre yet mostly available, as reliable and safe as other commitments.

This “parallel narrative” is not some dreamy abstract notion. It shows up very concretely when partners experience eros/sexuality as a completely different way of relating. And necessary, if the notion of having only one sexual partner is a core value.

carving out time

Carving Out

Partners have to literally carve out time for erotic lives which want more than occasional, fatigued or unimaginative sex. With the demands of work, parenting and more, this fragile part of life seems to require a very sharp “pickaxe”, to clear away all of life’s serious commitments to make time for things such as sex dates, replete with discrete (utterly-separate-from-rest-of-life) narratives.

compassion talk therapy

Compassion

Perhaps the noblest of mutual human connections. To identify and support another’s experience and their vulnerability. To understand loss without consideration of individual fault. Error or tragedy are respected as unavoidable, often enough. And a deeper test: when the origin of the loss is mysterious, likely to repeat or rationalized as the result of past abuse.

Compassion is part of the “parallel narrative”, mentioned above in its erotic/sexual aspect. Compassion is the connection that puts all or most other commitments aside, the real world of right & wrong, and accountability. Can partners carve out a compassionate space of their own, one that operates by very different rules than those that govern the rest of their lives?

redemption

Redemption

…widely known as forgiveness, which is certainly synonymous. Redemption is more specific, and complex. It’s grace, expressed in light of everything that preceded it in the relationship. Redemption may be in acts which repair or re-establish commitment, or integrity. Accepting the other, usually with compassion and without any notion of the redeemer’s moral superiority. We all break promises, we all lie and we all want a road back to being OK.

mutuality

Mutuality

When one of your preferences blocks your partner from getting something they want, the gridlock can be painful. Partners could fear/hate the deprivation. Yet if each partner can show real knowledge of what the other(s) want, and how much they want it, they’ve made the basic steps of a mutuality process. When you choose in favor of what your partner wants, this simple mutuality process makes that decision sweeter and better understood. When you turn your partner down, going through the mutuality process will help put a hard decision in context.

 

To be continued….