PQ 9.8 — Does my partner make me feel worse about myself?
Before I begin, a quick caveat: I get what this question is driving at, but saying someone “makes” us feel a certain way can have a downside.
A lot of people are scared of polyamory and other forms of ethical non-monogamy because they worry their partner will compare them to others. And they worry in this comparison that they might come up short.
It’s an understandable fear. It’s human nature to compare experiences, things, and yes, even people. Like when you meet a new person, and they bear a striking resemblance to your childhood best friend. And their voice, it’s just like your coworker’s.
But comparison doesn’t have to lead to competition. Comparison can add a fullness and a richness to both elements. As I wrote in PQ 8.10, having multiple lovers in your life can seem a lot like you’re a musician playing chords for the first time. As opposed to plucking out a simple melody one tone at a time on a toy piano. You don’t even think to yourself, “Do I like C, E, or G better?” You just hear C major.
That said, I can think of one instance where I couldn’t help but compare and find one partner fell quite short of the others.
And that was the way that I felt around my ex-husband Seth. It’s funny. I found him quite attractive. I craved his attention, his love. But what I did inevitably seemed to annoy him. And I never felt like I could get as close to him as I wanted to. He was rather self-contained, enjoyed his space, and me? Well, I could be a little clingy.
I left nearly every interaction we had together feeling like I was “too much.” That I talked too much, wanted too much sex, that I was an exhausting person who was a burden to know.
But it wasn’t until we both started dating other people that I had any awareness of this. When I started to see myself through other people’s eyes. To them, I was attractive, funny, sexy, charming, intelligent.
The disconnect was startling. Unsettling.
I kept this feeling held more or less at arm’s length for nearly 2 years. Because I did love Seth. I knew how much NRE can distort a person’s perceptions. And I never wanted to confirm the suspicion of monogamous outsiders: That an open marriage could lead only to divorce.
But Seth was certainly aware, too. His new girlfriend was impressed with him, his depth of knowledge of existential film, his intelligence. Whereas I had always discussed those things with him but more matter of factly. Not in a way that made him feel intelligent or admired. And I certainly never fawned. He wanted to feel big and important — and whether I intended to or not, I always made him feel small. Just by being me.
Being happy with a partner is often more about how we feel about ourselves when we’re with them than what we’re raised to believe: their physical appearance, their sexual prowess, or their ability to provide for us financially.