The Other Woman? Was Who I Became: Autonomy Threat in Relationships

two long-haired silhouettes staggered and slightly offset over each other (one pink, one red). Both silhouettes have long hair. 2 butterflies fly next to them
Image by geishaboy500 / CC BY

They check your phone whenever you leave it lying around.

“Who’s this?” they want to know. “And why did they text you a smiley in the middle of the night?”

They bristle when the waitstaff smiles at you. “Don’t think I didn’t see that!”

“See what? They were just being friendly.”

“Oh, they were being friendly all right.”

The standard portrait of a jealous partner is one always on the alert, ready to defend from threats from the outside.

But the biggest, scariest threat of all isn’t out there. In the acts and intentions of others.

Instead, it’s in a partner’s autonomy.

One-Sided Accomplishment Can Drive a Wedge

Weight loss is a good example. When people set personal diet and exercise goals, they presume that only good things will result. The only hangup is the time and effort it takes to get there. But it’s been noted in several studies (e.g., Romo and Daley, 2013) that when one partner loses weight and the other doesn’t, relationship difficulties often result.

You would think that it would be a great thing to people who love us if we meet a personal goal. But in many relationships, if they have the same goal and don’t meet it themselves (even if they don’t take the steps required to get there), our accomplishment can undermine the relationship. Drive a wedge that can even lead to a breakup or divorce.

“Try Not to Look So Happy”

When I look at pictures from the Christmas before Seth and I split up, he’s obviously gloomy. Brooding in the background of a photo where my sister and I are smiling.

Seth’s bad mood had been so obvious that day that even my mother (never Seth’s biggest fan) pulled me aside to ask what was going on.

“He’s just been down,” I said. “But he won’t talk to me about what’s going on, so I’m not sure what I can do.”

My mom nodded. And after pausing added, “Maybe you could seem a little less happy?”

“Why?” I asked. It seemed like strange advice.

“Well, when I’m down in the dumps, the last thing I want to see if someone doing well,” my mother said.

“Really?”

“Like when your father loses weight and I don’t, I just want to choke him.”

I laughed nervously.

“I mean, look at you,” she said. “When you started working out — what has it been, a year ago?”

“Year and a half,” I said.

“You were the fat one. And now you’ve lost so much weight that he is.”

“The fat one?” I said. “It’s not a competition.”

“Just telling it like it is,” she said. “Anyway, try not to look so happy.”

The Other Woman? Was Who I Became

And one day it become readily apparent: I had become the biggest threat to our relationship. I had become the Other Woman. By simply becoming a different version of myself.

A happier, healthier version. One with friends and a life of my own. One who felt like there were worse things than being alone.

I had stopped waiting for him to get on board before making changes I desperately wanted to make in my own life. And just started doing it. I lost weight. Took a writing class. Made my own friends.

And yes, prior to all of these things, we opened our marriage. Dated a poly friend together as a triad until she figured out she just wasn’t that into me. Then with my encouragement, we were a vee, as she and Seth dated together without me.

I took that time alone and used it to improve myself. Make new friends, some of whom eventually turned into partners.

Autonomy Ended My First Marriage But Began Something Greater

Like a lot of people, I turn into a different version of myself depending on who I’m hanging out with.

And it turned out that I am a different person when I spend a lot of time alone.

Seth agreed. Being the sole breadwinner for years was wearing on me, and something had to change. I couldn’t keep on shouldering all of the chores and all of the bills. When I told him I needed him to either cut back his spending, do chores, or get a job, he let me know that I had changed.

Or, as he put it, “I used to love you before you became such a bitch.”

*

I can’t say that what came to pass was pleasant in the short term. But I don’t regret telling him what I needed. It was confusing and painful when he reacted so badly. Insisted that I was selfish and out to get him.

It was utterly out of character for him.

But then again, I’d never really said “no” to him before. And people tend to act alike so long as you are saying yes to everything they want from you.

*

These days Seth and I are divorced. We live in separate states. We’re both happy — happier than we ever were together. We write to each other on occasion. And laugh now that we were ever primaries.

Occasionally, someone will ask if I think that polyamory was responsible for the end of my first marriage.

And it’s a tough answer because in some ways, no, not at all — if anything it bought us another couple of years. We had been having problems for a while even before opening up (even if Seth and I had blinders on about the issues in our marriage).

When we started to see other people, Seth and I experienced a wave of NRE that revitalized our bond. And there was one thing Seth and I always did right: We were supportive of each other’s relationships with other people. Even if we could never quite figure out us.

But in another way, you can argue that yes, polyamory was the reason my first marriage ended. Not because of the other people we saw. But because of how independent grew as a polyamorous person. I became my own primary. And it was my sense of autonomy that ultimately ended that marriage because I realized I got a lot less out of that relationship than I put into it.

And frankly, so did Seth.

I think the autonomy that I developed from being polyamorous has helped me see in a way that’s impossible to “un-see.” Autonomy sheds light on relationships. I wouldn’t see them as clearly without it.

That’s why I’m still polyamorous. And consider the ending of my first marriage a success and the beginning of something greater.

 

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3 Comments

  1. wow. I want so badly to say something deep and revelatory but all I can come up with is wow. so many similarities with my own experience. gives me hope that something good can come out of the destruction…like transformation. thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you for posting this, I’m really enjoying your blog.

    I just recommended this post to the Solo Polyamory group on Facebook (Facebook.com/groups/solopoly), because you’ve portrayed one of the key benefits that I’ve found from embracing solohood as well as polyamory.

    Here’s what I wrote there:

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    One social norm for relationships that’s never suited me well is the merging of identity, and how one person moving in a new direction is often presumed to be a slight or a threat. I’ve found that embracing solohood as well as polyamory has helped me learn how to see differences with people I’m close to as a good thing.

    People are moving targets. Expecting someone to perpetually and automatically sync with your desires, emotions, needs and goals is not reasonable. That said, IME communication about needs and changes is essential. So is learning to ask questions about perceived changes in others rather than assuming you know what’s going on.

    The catch is, often we aren’t aware that we, or what we want from relationships, are changing. Sometimes the people closest to us notice this first. And some differences and changes can make some relationships untenable. Acknowledging this possibility can trigger fear, sadness, frustration and shame. It’s often not easy to roll with changes, especially when people’s hearts are in the line. These conversations require patience and compassion. Getting annoyed at someone for changing, or for not magically keeping pace with your changes, doesn’t help.

    Learning to have these conversations has been hard for me, and I still screw them up sometimes. But being well grounded in my own self and life, not subsuming myself in any relationship, helps a lot.

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