5 Steps to Feeling Safe and Secure in Polyamory — and Beyond!

a seatbelt in a car, in its default not-in-use position
Image by Benny Lin / CC BY

Is there a way to feel safe in poly? Right now I feel like I can only get that “security” being in a monogamous relationship. But I’m drawn to poly.

*

Yes, there is. It’s not instant, and it takes a lot of self-work, but with sustained practice, you can foster a sense of personal security.

Here are 5 steps to feeling more safe and secure in polyamorous relationships (and in general).

1. Acknowledge Your Feelings

The first step in conquering feelings of insecurity is acknowledging them. This is because getting rid of those feelings isn’t the same as pretending you don’t feel them in the first place. In fact, when people start to feel insecure, they often become ashamed of the insecurity, which starts a secondary trauma loop, where they’re beating themselves up over and over again, punishing themselves for feeling (pretty normal) negative feelings. And beating yourself up and shaming yourself works against feeling secure.

Shame is the real killer. Not fear, anxiety, jealousy, insecurity. But shame. In basic survival terms, if the tribe rejects you, you die. Exile was death to our ancestors. Shame is a sense that you are unacceptable, that you don’t belong. And your brain feels like it’s life or death.

The worst part is that feeling bad about feeling bad? It’s especially true for really good people.

It’s not the feeling itself but our shame about the feeling – just like it’s never the mistake that gets you, it’s the cover-up.

And while you can cover up those unacceptable feelings, by not sharing them, there’s one person you’ll never hide them from: Yourself.

So no cover-up, okay? Make sure you acknowledge them.

2. But Don’t Jump to Conclusions!

However, acknowledging feelings of insecurity isn’t the same thing as trusting your emotions completely. Or saying that our fears are going to come true.

Our emotional systems have evolved to make snap judgments. To quickly identify threats. And suss out predator and prey. For that purpose, fear responses are perfectly well suited. But what protects us in the wild from getting eaten? Well, it doesn’t work so well for modern relationships, which are less life and death and much more full of nuance.

*

“You cannot make yourself feel something you do not feel, but you can make yourself do right in spite of your feelings.”

-Pearl Buck

*

So even though you might feel worried, don’t assume that your world is actually ending. And just because you feel bad, it also doesn’t mean that anybody did anything wrong (though it could).

Rather than lashing out or doing something you regret, take a second to breathe and dig a little deeper into those feelings.

3. When You Feel Bad About Something, Ask Yourself “Why?”

Let’s say you felt bad when you saw your partner flirting with another person. Why is that? What is that feeling telling you?

It can be uncomfortable to sit in this place, but do it as much as you can. Follow your fear to its logical conclusion.

Are you worried about getting replaced? Abandoned?

Part of what makes fear so powerful is that it’s irrational and thrives in secrecy. And it’s by dragging fear’s arguments into the light of day and forcing fear to defend itself that we start to rob it of its power.

Sometimes, our fears are justified. Every now and then, there is a logical, well-founded basis to our fear. But the vast majority of the time, fear overstates its case. And in cases where our fears are justified, it’s better to be in touch with that and act according to that reality. It’s as Carl Sagan once said: “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

4. Identify and Question the Underlying Assumptions

Once you know what your fear is telling you, look for any underlying assumptions that it’s making.

Here are some common ones that people who are monogamous enter polyamory with (as well as readings we suggest related to them):

  • Affection is zero sum. When you care for someone, that leaves less caring to give to others. (See this.)
  • One person must meet every possible emotional and social need that we have. (See this, especially the study by Conley.)
  • We must do whatever is needed to protect The Relationship — a simultaneously fragile and all-important entity. If this involves complete isolation, then so be it. (See this.)
  • If a love is true and valid, we will never, ever be attracted to anyone else. Ever. (See this.)
  • If the intensity of that love changes, there is something wrong. (Nope. This is part of the natural life cycle of relationships and pair bonding. See this.)
  • If we are attracted to someone else, this means that our love isn’t true. Or we’re a horrible person. Or both. Probably both. (Actually, being committed to multiple people can say great things about a person’s character. See this.)

In addition to these concerns, people also frequently worry about a new partner outperforming them sexually. The underlying assumption here is that people select partners solely based on their sexual prowess. In situations like these, I’ve found it helpful to ask myself: What are other reasons that a partner could find value from being with me? What are some signs that my relationship is actually going well?

I also find it helpful to compare my assumptions about others to how I actually feel, think, and act. I struggled for a long time with the idea that sex was some sort of competition with runners-up facing the risk of being replaced — until I realized that’s not how view or treat people. And because it’s not a view that I support or respect very much, I realized that if someone does view or treat people this way, they’re fundamentally incompatible with me. Therefore, someone who would replace me in this way is someone I don’t actually want to be with.

Depending on your specific concerns, the exact process and how you work through it will be different. What’s important is thinking through your reactions and testing them against reality.

5. Remember: When It Comes to Feeling Secure, the Secret Ingredient Is Time

I think we’ve all been there. Sitting there, struggling over a particularly difficult problem. Pulling out our hair. Asking ourselves What the HELL are we going to do about this?

It feels like we’re making absolutely no progress.

And then we take a break. Do something else. Y’know. Goof off.

And after a bit of time away, we revisit the problem. And immediately feel stupid.

Of COURSE. It was so OBVIOUS. How did we not see this the first time?

This phenomenon, getting past a mental block when we revisit a problem after taking a break from it? It’s well documented in psychology.

It’s called incubation effect.

For me, building up my sense of personal security followed this kind of timeline. I agonized. Practiced and practiced. And felt like I was making no progress. And then one day? I made a ton.

So don’t despair if you don’t feel secure overnight. Keep digging. Keep analyzing. And keep on braving uncertainty. The only way past the discomfort is through it.

As Pamela Madsen writes:

I don’t think that staying with discomfort comes naturally. And finding ways to be with your discomfort is an essential skill for staying in the race. Any personal growth usually involves some kind of ability to stay with feelings of discomfort.

Let’s face it. If you are a seeker of any kind you will push boundaries. When we reach for personal transformation and start pushing edges and boundaries in our lives — we meet “the big work” and feelings of discomfort and wanting to flee from change surface.

 

My book is out!

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory

Liked it? Take a second to support Poly.Land on Patreon!

7 Comments

  1. Thank you for this! My partner and I are considering a new journey with a special woman. Even when no one additional is involved, I fight insecurity. It’s almost always related to me… I’m not thin, pretty, smart, sexually compatible enough, etc for my partner. Add in another, and I just suck as a human being. My parents should have drowned me at birth! Right now, however, I am the most secure in this relationship that I have ever been. I am so ecstatically happy, yet these steps remain relevant.

    While reading this, I had an epiphany. My relationship with my dominant is like a tree. The more it grows, and even adds branches, the stronger it becomes. With growth, our trust deepens and roots our relationship firmer into the ground, giving it more strength and support.

  2. That is so wonderful!

    I love this:

    “My relationship with my dominant is like a tree. The more it grows, and even adds branches, the stronger it becomes. With growth, our trust deepens and roots our relationship firmer into the ground, giving it more strength and support.”

    Very happy for you 🙂

  3. I’d like to suggest abandoning the ambiguous term: jealousy. It is just a euphemism for more basic emotions such as fear and envy. Not very useful for point #1 in the article. Acknowledging your feelings means you probably need to first identify them. Labeling your feeling as “jealousy” is not very helpful – better to parse it into the core emotions you can actually address: most likely fear of loss.

  4. Probably the most relevant quote from that piece:

    “However, jealousy isn’t an emotion. It’s a system of emotions.

    When jealousy manifests, it tends to be some mix of fear, sadness, and/or anger. Typically, fear is at its core. This can be the fear of missing out, the fear of losing something that you value, the fear of rejection, etc. Sadness and/or anger are laid over this matrix of fear. Since the anger and sadness are closer to the surface, it can be more difficult to get to the underlying cause. But we need to ask the important question: What am I really afraid of?”

  5. I do think it’s difficult when teaching to entirely abandon ambiguous terms that hook well into a beginner’s understanding.

    I had a mentor who talked about the prime responsibility of the educator as the willingness to meet people where they are and recruit the learner to build a bridge with them to the new country. I’ve always liked this analogy.

    Since new folks show up every day, this often means that a person who teaches spends a lot of time with rough cuts, imprecision, and other imperfect approximations.

    It’s a bit like Groundhog’s Day, come to think of it 🙂

Leave a Reply

You may also like