The Curse of Poly Competence

a meme, Jean Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation rubbing his face, with the words "So my work has this cool thing. If you do your job well, you get to do other people's jobs, too!"
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It’s a familiar story – you start a new job. You’re nervous at first because you don’t know how you’re going to master everything they throw your way, but you put in effort, work hard, and persevere. It’s a struggle, but eventually you’ve got the hang of it. It may have felt like forever to you – but everyone’s so impressed by how quickly you picked it up and how well you’re doing.

“Great job!” they say. “Now here’s more work.”

Rinse. Repeat. The harder you work, the more things they throw at you. They keep you so busy that it’s tough to notice that you’re inching bit by bit out of your actual job duties. It’s a classic case of creeping concessions. The inch has turned into a mile.

Before long, you’re sitting there chained to your desk, while half the office wanders around free range, visibly slacking, leaning against the water cooler, complaining about how busy they are in a blasé, bored tone. And you realize that you’re the poor sap who ended up stuck doing everyone else’s work.

Sadly, this isn’t simply the province of an evil workplace — this is a standard way that humans operate. Social psychologists call it “social loafing,” and it’s just like what it sounds. When people work in groups, most of them slack off.  Buffoons and incompetents hide in the shadows of skilled people. The most skilled people cast the longest shadows,  which means that the better their skills, the more underachievers can get away with doing little to nothing and/or making huge mistakes.

I’ve definitely seen this phenomenon in polyamorous networks. Those most skilled in providing emotional labor and exercising self-control end up picking up the slack and making sacrifices for less reasonable partners. Sadly, this means some of the people who are best at managing poly relationships end up care-taking the folks with the short fuses rather than getting to actually enjoy the fruits of their labor.

When they work hard at their relationships, their reward is often more work. They’re the ones who go painfully slow with new partners while their established partners go out and screw half the town with ‘nary a thought.

When they’re finally permitted to hold hands with their new love on the eighth date, they report back to an established partner on what happened (per their one-sided agreement of “permission for everything, report everything,” designed to assuage their fears of being replaced), and the hot hand-on-hand action results in a 7-hour up-all-night crying and processing session.

It’s rare that you see an example that pronounced (although I’ve seen a few), but these patterns are definitely reliable in poly systems, albeit to a lesser, more subtle degree. I alluded to my own struggles with this in “Don’t Forget to Oil Your Hinges.”  A “hinge” in the strictest sense among polyamorous folk is a term used to denote someone who is involved with 2 people who are not involved with each other. I started to notice patterns as I dated and became friends with more poly people.

Certain people were much more likely to be hinges than others. And I was one of those people. I used to wonder a lot at to the cause of this. While there are many reasons that a person could be a born hinge (something I plan to explore in a later post), it’s occurred to me that the fact that I put so much work into relationships is probably a big factor.

And one day, I woke up and had my lightbulb moment where I saw a bunch of slackers at the water cooler who had been taking advantage of me for far too long. Once that happened, the web was not long for the world, although I’m still with the one partner who actually put work in.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this, and I suspect some catastrophic poly web collapses come about just this way, as the employee of the month storms out of the building, quitting with no notice, pausing only briefly to fantasize about keying the boss’s car.

 

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