In an earlier post, I spent some time sharing some of the biggest mistakes I’ve made as a poly person. I’ve realized now that I neglected to mention the biggest one of all:
I assumed all polyamorous people who had been at it longer than I had were progressive, enlightened, and had actually worked through the shit I was currently facing.
Little did I know about how good some could be at avoidance, couples who would chew up secondaries and spit up their bones, and all the other insane weird shit out there. I just kind of assumed that people “graduated” to a better state of poly just by keeping on keeping on.
Rather than addressing their underlying issues, some folks instead find dysfunctional coping patterns that keep them going and don’t grow.
This isn’t unique to poly. Poly people are not any more or less enlightened than anyone else, because they are basically just a group of people, a mixed bag. Sure, there are some enlightened poly people; there are also some crazy ones, boring ones, and everything in between.
But I didn’t realize this when I was new to poly. And when I got involved with a couple who had been poly for 8 years, I assumed they must know what they were doing. I figured they’d be secure and excellent with communication.
Instead of taking my usual great pains to make sure I was understood and meticulously negotiate, I communicated my needs and presumed they would reciprocate in turn. When I spoke with one half of the couple, who assured me that X, Y, and Z things would be alright by them, I believed him, without checking in with the wife to confirm the veracity of what he told me.
It’s amazing now, looking back, but at the time, I was sloppy because I trusted them and considered them “expert” by virtue of the fact that they had so many more years on me as poly folks.
It should have been a red flag that they had been at it 8 years and complained bitterly at their lack of success. Sure, shit happens. Some things fall apart, and other relationships are meant to be fleeting. That’s fine. But this was a pattern of “people keep letting us down” over and over again. “It’s so hard to meet partners!”
As the poly person I am today, these are both eyebrow raising. “People keep letting us down” turned out to be blame shifting, the result of unreasonable expectations, poor compatibility, and bad behavior escalation as a result of their unmanaged insecurities.
In hindsight, “It’s so hard to meet partners!” was an odd complaint, more common to poly newbies or those in rural areas (at the time, I was both, so instead of being alarmed, it felt familiar, and I related). For 8-year poly folks in a major metropolitan area, it signaled many potential things: poor social skills, a lack of courage, and/or a reputation of treating former partners badly. In reality, they demonstrated all three.
They weren’t the only long-timers that were like this. I knew others who were shitty to people, especially secondaries, folks who were incredibly jealous and insecure — while at the same time thoughtless and lacking in impulse control. And in a perfect shitstorm, some of these glass cannons were coupled with (and often married to) unfailingly loyal partners who would stand by them and cover things up.
The good news is that there are some kick ass poly folks out there. And experience is an amazing teacher — but only if you learn from it and really let the lessons in: good, bad, and ugly.
Knowing that couple and making that mistake… it turned out to be a huge gift. I learned to never assume that people know what they’re doing or that I’m being understood. I look now for the places where things don’t seem to quite match up when I’m discussing expectations with another person and can more quickly address them (pointing them out, asking followups, clarifying, etc), rather than presuming that more experienced partners will tune into it themselves and point it out.
And for my part, I try to learn the right lessons from my experiences, rather than just the most comfortable ones.
So remember. Years clocked in doesn’t necessarily signal mastery. Don’t make the same dumb mistake I did. And if you do, learn the most productive lessons you can from it.