When I was a little kid, I spent a lot of time alone. The most talkative person in a family of otherwise introverted people, I lived in a house in the woods that was 15 minutes by car from my elementary school in good weather. An hour or more in the snow and unmaintained roads of Maine winters.
So I was nearly always lonely. And talking to myself.
My mother was an extremely light sleeper who would get upset if you closed the bathroom door downstairs since the noise would awaken her. I can’t remember how many nights I looked up as I sat on the toilet to find my mother opening the door, glaring at me from the doorway because I’d closed it.
“Leave the door open when you go. What is wrong with you?” she’d half-growl, before stomping to the living room. She’d put on an old movie or taped episodes of Oprah (whom we both adored) and try (but mostly fail) to fall asleep on the couch.
It was never a pretty sight. And I always felt terrible about it.
So I learned to leave the door open when I’d pee at night. And I learned to write instead of talk to myself. And when that wasn’t enough, I would play board games by myself, positioning two stuffed animals on either side of the board as “players.”
Playing Monopoly Against Myself Versus Against Another Person
I played both sides of an epic Monopoly game that spanned weeks, as one “side” ran up a bottomless tab. It was fun to see how much debt the losing side could rack up without ever going bust. How much they could mortgage. How far they could fall into despair. Well, not really. Not exactly despair, because both players were actually me (represented by stuffed animals) and I was winning at the same time I was losing. But it was still fun to see how big the numbers could get.
I will say that it was a huge shock when I started to play games with other people. My mother made friends with a woman who lived right down the road from us who had a daughter my age named Angela. I’d met Angela on the first day of kindergarten, and we rode on the same school bus. And on days that I was being good and my mom wanted to see her friend, she’d drive me down to their house to play.
Angela had a Monopoly board at her house, too, and seemed excited that I was also a fan of the game. But the first time I played Monopoly with Angela was a rude awakening. When I drove her into deep debt like I had in my pretend game against myself, Angela didn’t cry out gleefully or find it fascinating, as my make-believe losing player (i.e., me) had. Instead, she was extremely upset and quit the game in a rage, well before we reached the kind of huge negative numbers my practice match had seen.
Angela initially refused to play with me again. But after a bit of time running outside together in her backyard and a healthy dose of cajoling from both me and her mother, Angela did return to the Monopoly board with me. Except this time I threw the match on purpose. I became the player who was plunged into negatives. And this time my friend found it quite enjoyable. And so did I.
Instead of calling the game at a reasonable losing point, we began to track my debt on a piece of paper taped to her bedroom wall. A tiny accounting ledger of what I owed Angela. Every time I would visit her, we would play a bit of Monopoly while chatting about our school friends, and my debt would swell a little more.
This game went on for a few years, until her parents divorced and her mother moved into a small apartment in the middle of town, making it much more difficult for us to hang out.
Boundaries Go Both Ways
When a relationship ends, I find it easy to blame myself for it. I’m that kind of person. I have an internal locus of control, which means I feel like I’m responsible for myself, my life, my actions, and my outcomes. Because of this, my big lesson in life was learning that while it’s good to be responsible for myself, that I need to refrain from being too responsible for other people.
That’s the tricky thing about boundaries, you see. It’s not one way or the other. It’s a balance. You don’t just need to respect other people’s boundaries, to not put your stuff onto them when it isn’t appropriate. You also have to not pick up other people’s stuff when it isn’t yours.
That’s always been trickier for me. Not accepting blame for things that aren’t my fault. Because I’m the kid who doesn’t mind losing so long as the other person is happy and interesting things are happening — and while that might work in a lively game of Monopoly, it’s a different thing altogether when it comes to love, relationships, and life. Especially in a polyamorous relationship system where those relationships all affect one another.
You’re 100% Responsible…for Your 50%
There’s an idea that I’ve kept with me that helps: You’re 100% responsible…for your 50%.
Relationships aren’t an individual effort. They’re group work. This is especially true with polyamory. The metamours and telemours (a.k.a, meta-metamours) can fill out a cast of hundreds. Everyone’s responsible for their however-much percent. It’s no longer 50:50 when you get past the mono paradigm.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how you hoof it and bust your ass trying to get that A grade. You’ll end up doing C work as a group. Sometimes no matter how hard you personally work, the relationship (or relationships) will fail completely.
Just like those nightmarish groupwork assignments in school.
Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t try. You try like hell. To communicate well, to be patient with others, to be as safe as you possibly can in your risk assessment (without setting up situations where no one can have any fun at all because then what’s the point?).
But you can’t do the work for other people. You can’t communicate well enough for two (or more) people.
Better Communication Skills Lead to Better Resilience
Well, you might be wondering, why bother then, if there are no-win situations? If there are times when you can’t make it work, why try to work things out? Why bother learning to communicate better?
It’s simple, really.
I’ve found now that even when things fall apart, even if I break up with someone or I’m dumped myself, that I’ve grown confident that I’ve taken reasonable measures on my side of things to keep the relationship going. And that if a relationship can’t make it given that reasonable amount of effort, then maybe it shouldn’t.
Getting better at communication has helped me understand the difference between throwing something perfectly good away versus beating a dead horse. It’s made it much easier to find closure quickly after breakups and not regret dating people in the first place.
It’s helped me to not blame myself (and myself alone) if things end. To be able to reflect on what’s happened and learn the best lesson I can from the experience.
Real life isn’t like those first Monopoly games I played. I’m not working both sides of the board.
And it’s important not to forget that fact.
Yes, even if things go badly.
Especially if things go badly.