I have spoken with countless polyamorous folks over the years, giving advice, relationship coaching, and researching my books.
I’ve seen amazing relationship systems, where people were happy, things were harmonious — and everyone in them suffered mostly from a kind of “pinch me” syndrome. They were folks who said things like, “This is better than I even dreamed. I’d say I’m living the dream, but my imagination wasn’t this good.”
They raved of the depth of emotional connection and just plain social support (in addition to some helpful sexual fulfillment) that polyamory afforded them.
But I’ve of course talked to others who weren’t so happy. Folks who had some pretty stressful relationship dynamics in their lives. And a sense of extreme disappointment that even when they did manage to have multiple relationships at once that it didn’t work. Things didn’t gel. There were major interpersonal problems.
And every time I’d sit down and walk through all of the factors with them, we’d reach a predictable point where someone was behaving in a way that wasn’t at all gracious. Usually multiple people. Sometimes this person (or people) was particularly selfish. But other times, it was simpler than that — they just refused to compromise.
It was often a self-protective instinct. But the trouble was that life is messy and people do need to take turns, and there are times when maybe someone else needs a bit more support or a bit of grace. Goodwill. Generosity.
In other systems, folks would extend grace but other parties would never return in kind.
This was the sticky part — everyone involved needed to be gracious. If just one person wouldn’t do it, there were problems.
And when feelings were involved, oftentimes selfish actors would be kept in a system, even if they were being shockingly insensitive or disrespectful of the time and energy of others involved.
Modeling Graciousness Yourself and Rewarding the Graciousness of Others
So if a lack of graciousness is the problem, then what do you do about it? It’s a tricky thing: You can of course work on being as gracious as you can be yourself. It’s a good start. But unfortunately you can’t force other people to be gracious. At the end of the day, you can influence people to a certain extent, but you’re really the one thing you can truly control (well, hopefully you can; people do differ in level of self-control, although it’s a skill that can be worked on). You can only try to be as gracious as you can.
You can’t wave a magic wand and make other people in your relationship system be more gracious.
However, I found a funny thing happened when I started focusing on consciously being more gracious when it came to my partners’ other relationships and obligations (e.g., work, childcare, etc.). New people came into my life who were more gracious, over time crowding out and supplanting some of the less gracious actors (since I grew tired of lopsidedness and stress). And others who were already in my life followed the example: When I began to model graciousness, they began to do it as well. To follow suit. I had to extend that patience and understanding first, but once I did it, they were so appreciative that they reciprocated. And if and when someone did reciprocate, I rewarded the hell out of that graciousness.
People who lacked natural graciousness were incensed by others being rewarded for theirs (because they tended to view benefits as zero sum, and someone else was getting something they wanted). But I held my ground. I continued to be gracious and to reward it in others. And I began to never reward ungracious or selfish behavior that I’d rather not see again. It was okay to have wants and needs — but there were mature and productive ways to go about stating those. And there were also mature and productive ways to cope when things didn’t quite go the way you’d hoped.
Interaction by interaction, I rewarded gracious behavior and didn’t reward ungracious behavior. And it changed everything.
At the end of the day, a large section of the cast of characters in my love life had changed, and the remaining cast had changed their behaviors.
Was all of this easy? No, there were plenty of stressful times on the way to figuring this out. Acting in a more gracious way when I didn’t get what I wanted meant I had work on myself a lot. I had to become more emotionally secure and learn to deal with any jealousy I felt in a productive way.
And it wasn’t always easy to keep from caving to people who were behaving ungraciously. I had to learn the emotional equivalent of closing my mouth and sitting on my hands. And just letting them do their thing, thrashing, kicking up a fuss.
It’s Not Easy But It’s Sooooo Worth It
So I can’t tell you that the path toward graciousness is easy.
But I can tell you — it was worth it. Sooooo worth it. In my own case, my life is night and day compared to what I dealt with before. It’s improved the quality of every relationship I have, romantic or not.
It could have been ten times harder, and it still would have been worth it.
And I hear the same from everyone else living the dream that’s better than what they dreamt.
Gracious polyamorous relationship systems are the ones that thrive.