PQ 16.1 — When my partners have competing desires, how well do I express what I need? Do I make sure my own desires aren’t lost in the shuffle?

two black lab dogs playing tug of war with a yellow disk on a sandy beach
Image by m01229 / CC BY

PQ 16.1 — When my partners have competing desires, how well do I express what I need? Do I make sure my own desires aren’t lost in the shuffle?

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There’s a certain kind of story I grew up believing: No sacrifice was too great for love. In fact, my own personal picture of love required a large sacrifice. Because if you weren’t giving up something major, how could you know it was love? The sacrifice itself became a proxy for love in my mind.

Somewhat predictably, my early relationships were disasters. Not only did this elevation of self-sacrifice as a romantic ideal open me up to abuse, but looking back I can see that I actively encouraged others to abuse me.  It wasn’t enough to bend to their will in times of heated conflict — that was an easy reflex. Instead, I went even further. I was proactive in my soul-crushing concessions: I’d analyze what they seemed to want before they’d even told me and shape myself into whatever that was.

The cost to me was irrelevant. I was doing it for love, after all. And to my mind, there was no more noble purpose.

After myriad crashes and burns, I finally settled down with a man I met on a blind date. We had been set up by our close friends, the last two single people left in our social circle.

We dated for four years monogamously and then married. After another four years of marriage, we found out close friends of ours were polyamorous. This was quite a jolt to the system. Before I knew it, all of our friends were weighing in on polyamory — whether it was something we wanted to try. My husband predictably expressed great interest. He’d long regretted marrying before he had a “chance to taste other flavors.”

I, on the other hand, was more reluctant. There were a variety of reasons for this, but one was certainly that I felt that if I had multiple romantic partners that I was certain to shortchange them. After all, my picture of romantic love took 100% of my effort. Sometimes even the usually impossible 110% by virtue of unhealthy sacrifices that threatened to whittle me down to nothing.

I was prepared to die for the person I loved. How could I do that for multiple people?

But my partner wanted to explore it, and in some ways, this was just another large sacrifice. And sure, I worried about losing the most stable relationship I’d ever had.

But in thinking things through, it occurred to me that if we were really meant to be together, if our relationship was as good as I thought it was, nothing would be able to break us up.

And, if it did, it would mean I was wrong about us.

At the very least, I decided, it would be better to realize this now than 10 or 20 years down the road.

So I leapt into polyamory.

Two Votes For, Two Against

After about a year of dating, I ended up in a truly complex polyamorous relationship system. I myself had four partners, and all my partners had at least one other person they were seeing.

And I’ll never forget the day that I told them all that I was switching jobs. Because two of them thought it was a great idea and two of them thought it was a really bad one. Two of my partners were actively encouraging the switch and two actively urging me to reconsider.

I froze in my tracks. This was a major life decision and, at the end of the day, mine to make. However, my lifelong instinct had been to defer to my romantic partner’s needs when they were in conflict with my own.

But now here we were. At a standstill. Two votes for, two votes against.

What to do? What to do?

And then it occurred to me: I could break the gridlock rather easily, actually. Mine was the tie-breaking vote.

It seemed surreal. But I stopped and thought about what I really wanted.

I Couldn’t Say Yes to Everyone

As I wrote in “I’m Married to Him, But I’m Not His Primary”:

It wasn’t until I experienced multi-commitment as a busy poly hinge and discovered my previous level of self-sacrifice was untenable that I started to figure autonomy out. What it meant to me. To tease apart complete dependence from complete independence and foster a sort of healthy interdependence in relationships.

Because while my normal instinct when monogamous had been to just go along with what my partner wanted, as a busy poly hinge, I couldn’t do that anymore. I ran into situations where I couldn’t say “yes” to everyone.

And rather than self-destruct on the spot like a robot stuck in a logical paradox, I was forced to appeal to a higher court to help break deadlocks: What found reasonable.

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I ignored the two dissenters and took that job.

And after circumstances forced me to make these judgement calls enough times, I gradually came to honor my own voice instinctively. And not just when it came to their dissenting opinions about my own life but also in instances when there was a conflict between partners over my time or attention.

I learned to listen to my own voice, my own intuition, to comfortably break ties in matters that involved me.

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This post is part of a series in which I answer each of the chapter-end questions in More than Two with an essay. For the entire list of questions and answers, please see this indexed list.

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