Martin Under the Bridge: Polyamory, Check-Ins, and Concern Trolling

A weasel sitting on a stick with a wire wrapped around it, at the Bering Land Bridge.
Image by Bering Land Bridge National Preserve / CC BY

Check-Ins and the Threat of Concern Trolling

“So you check in with your partners about stuff before you do it?”

“Sure do,” I say. “My current agreement doesn’t require me to, but I think it’s not a bad practice to give people a heads up. Y’know, considerate.”

“Okay. So let’s say you want to date someone. But your partner tells you they have concerns about it. How do you know they’re on the level?’

“By on the level, you mean…?”

“Like… how do you know that they’re not just jealous? That they’re not just inventing a ‘concern?’ A reason for you not to date somebody that isn’t really the one that they’re giving you?”

Assessing the Validity of a Voiced Concern

When it comes to assessing the validity of a voiced concern, I tend to look at a few things:

  • How often this partner complains in general and about what sorts of things (scope, the values that seem to be related to those concerns, etc).
  • Whether the current concern seems consistent with their usual pattern. Are they pointing at something really small for them? Really big for them?
  • If there is evidence for what they’re saying. This can be tricky since we tend to be bad at challenging our own beliefs. Understanding the Ladder of Inference is your friend here.
  • Have they been someone who has easily admitted jealousy or insecurity in the past? Or do they tend to stay in a kind of jealous closet? The assessments of jealous closet dwellers warrant extra scrutiny. Whereas people who are more open about jealousy or insecurity when they feel it are less suspect but not completely off the hook. Because you can have jealousy “domains” that are more touchy than others (more on that in a later post).

Mapping the Internal Landscape of a Partner’s Concerns

I can take my anchor partner Skyspook as an example. In everyday life, Skyspook tends to complain about things that he finds annoying. But in a vent-y and fairly justified way.

And notably, he rarely ever expresses a serious concern about my other partners. And on the rare occasion that he does (I can only recall one time, and interestingly it was someone we were already dating and dating together), it’s been a concern about how they were treating me. And there was evidence for what he was saying. So I’m inclined to default to not suspecting Skyspook of inventing “concerns.”

But that hasn’t always been the case with everyone. There was someone in my former poly web who complained about everything. And was notably stoic in her emotional expression. Michelle felt like voicing emotions was something weak people did. And would talk about her insecurities but only obliquely. So I went into check-ins with Michelle expecting her to have concerns and spent a lot of time evaluating them against the real world evidence.

And it has been interesting to watch Skyspook try to figure out where my own internal landscape maps out on the concern trolling meter. That’s more of a story for him to tell, but my own sense of it is that he’s learned that these days I have (mostly) figured out the difference between feeling insecure and seeing something that’s actually concerning. And he’s noted that I don’t volunteer concerns or do so lightly. I hate to complain about people or things (it brings me down emotionally) so I try to save complaining for things that legitimately trouble me and that I suspect will cause real world logistical problems (legal, safety, etc).

Martin Under the Bridge, Brain Weasel Loves to Concern Troll

But I don’t kid myself that I couldn’t concern troll. No one is immune from a false alarm every now and then.

Martin the brain weasel is a concern troll lurking under the bridge.

As I wrote in an earlier post (I Disliked Them the Moment I Met Them: Transference and Jealousy), sometimes we meet someone, and for no clear reason, we dislike them instantly. Or we’re incredibly jealous of them. Sometimes it’s both.

We do not come into relationships unbiased. Instead, we enter them as a collection of all of our life experiences.

So if you catch yourself in one of these patterns, you’re not a monster. I’m pretty sure everyone has been confused or scared at one time or another. And if you haven’t? Well, my own brain weasel is mighty envious of that.

Because it’s a herculean task figuring out what we feel and why (especially since emotions can change from moment to moment). It’s folly to expect that we can always do this perfectly.

So yeah, this is a pretty “ouchy” topic. The finer details of emotional self-knowledge and honest communication and the way they play out in the real world often are.  But I think it’s one that bears considering.

Because the ones that we’re really concern trolling? Could be ourselves.

*

And this is not to say that jealousy or insecurity or general discomfort can’t itself be a valid concern. But it’s important to own that. Disguising it as something else can cause huge problems. For everyone involved.

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