Dealing with difficult emotions in polyamory

Polyamory as a Tool for Self-Discovery and Growth

It seems that over the last few years, more and more people are coming out as ‘poly’.

Some are exploding with dramatic situations of various lovers and jealousy, while others are poly evangelists, trying to convert everyone to this way of life. It might be easy and tempting to just dismiss it all as the latest relationship fad, but after living polyamorously for the better part of a decade, I think it’s worth a closer look.

I have found this approach to dating to be incredibly challenging at times. I have spent a lot of time crying over metamours (your lover’s lover) and cursing the cruelty of emotions. I have also seen huge personal growth as a direct result of these experiences.

In this article, I’m going to explain to you how I’ve navigated these tricky tides and offer some tips for how you, too, might use the poly lifestyle as a tool for self-discovery and growth.

Exploration of many selves

One of the greatest gifts that polyamory brings is being able to explore different sides of yourself with different people. One lover may excite your adolescent, hormonally youthful self while another encourages you to explore sacred sexuality. Just as our different friends can activate and understand different sides of our personalities, so can our lovers.

Just as a varied, whole food plant-based diet carries with it a myriad of nutritional and gustatorily benefits, so can a varied social and sexual community. By combining sources of love, affection, and esteem, we can boost a variety of desires without overdosing on any one element.

This in and of itself can support personal growth, and certainly facilitates self-discovery, but polyamory also challenges us in another very helpful way, though it doesn’t always feel helpful at the moment.

Exposing vulnerabilities

If you’re used to monogamy, adjusting to polyamory is likely to be REALLY hard.

In monogamous relationships, we often wrap up our self-worth in our partner’s love. We seek validation from them and expect them to make us feel better when we aren’t feeling ourselves. This isn’t unique to monogamy, but it is super common and if you hold onto this reliance, polyamory is going to keep hurting.

Sharing your partner(s) with others means that the illusion of being enough to fully fulfill your partner doesn’t hold water.

Realizing that you cannot possibly fulfill your partner completely in every way can be a hard pill to swallow, but it can also be very liberating when you realize that it was a ridiculous standard to hold yourself to in the first place. Realizing this logically is one thing, and adjusting your emotional landscape to accommodate that logical conclusion is a whole other beast.

The good news is that emotions aren’t just irrational experiences we go through uncontrollably.

It absolutely feels that way a lot of the time, but when you begin to examine emotions as clues to larger problems, they cease to become so threatening, and eventually, you can learn to work with them to overcome your own deficiencies. We are not perfect beings, but we have an awe-inspiring ability to grow, and emotions can guide the way.

Dealing with jealousy

I often hear this as a response to polyamory:

“Oh no, I would get way too jealous!”

Unfortunately, the person usually stops there. I always want to ask, “why?” In my experience, jealousy comes about when we feel that someone else has something that we want but don’t have.

This indicates that we have unmet needs.

If you feel jealous when your partner has a date, is it because you have an unmet need for love and closeness that day? Or maybe you believe your partner’s date possesses some quality that you haven’t cultivated within yourself.

Observe yourself when you think of why you dislike your metamours. If they’re too ___, consider why this bothers you. Instead of blaming them for their qualities, consider if you might want to work on developing those or opposite qualities within yourself.

If you’re upset because you didn’t think your lover would be interested in someone like that, it shows that there is still a lot left that you can learn about your partner. And that’s exciting! Ask them about what attracts them to that person and you’re likely to see your partner in a whole new, expanded way.

Dealing with anger

We get angry when our boundaries have been crossed.

Some boundaries are hard boundaries, others are more flexible. If your boundary has been crossed, try to identify where that boundary lies. Is it useful to you to keep it there?

When our partner crosses a boundary, we are faced with a choice. We can defend the boundary or move it.

Only you can decide if you want to move a personal boundary, but it’s not sustainable to allow our boundaries to be crossed frequently. Once you figure out where the boundary is, communicate that to your partner and come up with a plan for maintaining the integrity of that boundary if you want to keep it there.

If you decide that the boundary isn’t helpful for you to maintain, try stretching it like you would your muscles — gently and gradually.

Maybe your boundary is bringing dates home, but you want to be the kind of person who can sit and have tea with your metamours. In this case, you might want to start by meeting dates at a neutral location first. Or allowing dates to hang out on the porch for a bit. Don’t give up!

Humans are magnificently adaptable and if given some persistent care and attention, you can expand your circle of comfort to wherever you want it to be.

Dealing with sadness

Maybe you’re not jealous or angry, but instead very sad.

Sadness tends to be the result of feeling a loss. It could also be related to self-esteem. Try to figure out what it is that triggered the feeling.

Is it the loss of company that is bothering you?

Try inviting a friend over at times when you’re most likely to feel sad. Does that solve it?

Perhaps you feel unloved and need to be reminded that you are special.

Remember: your partner is not the only source of love and support. You can fulfill your unmet needs through other people, personal activities, or other sources of fulfillment.

Sometimes you just have emotions you’ve been holding onto for a while that just need to be released.

Maybe you’re not comfortable sharing sadness with others and so it only comes up when your partner leaves, not because they’re gone but because you’re finally alone and able to cry. Holding onto negative emotions won’t do you any good. Let it go!

Navigating difficult emotions

If you’ve been emotionally triggered, it can be very difficult to override those emotions and think rationally about what you can learn from them. At the moment, you need tools to get you out of a crisis before you do something you’ll regret.

Usually, the best thing to do is remove yourself from the situation physically.

If you can, let whoever is around know that you’re overwhelmed and need to leave. Leave the room and go to wherever you feel safe. Maybe it’s your room, the basement, the balcony, or a nearby park, it doesn’t matter where so long as you’re away.

Counting and breathing are also very effective.

If you can stop yourself from reacting and focus on counting to 10, 50 or 100, you can usually interrupt the reactivity spiral. Couple that with deep breathing where you count a few seconds in, hold for a few seconds, then out for a few seconds. Repeat that cycle a few times and as you master your breathing, try to extend the time in each phase a little.

Your heart rate will begin to slow down and you will likely be able to move yourself out of crisis mode so you can access your logical mind.

Additionally, cold water or sticking your head in the freezer can also have similar calming effects by accessing your sympathetic nervous system. Learn how to do it properly here.

Strategies for self-reflection

Once you’ve taken yourself out of crisis mode, then you can start figuring out why you reacted the way you did.

  • Think back to the last time you felt this way. What about the first time you felt this way?
  • Is there an experience you can recall that may be impacting how you’re interpreting this situation?
  • Understand that no one can make you feel anything. They can only trigger things already in you. Even if they’ve clearly wronged you, the emotions you feel as a result are worth exploring because they can still tell you a lot about yourself and how to move forward.

Self-reflection is often imagined as someone who is deep in contemplation about their actions, and this is absolutely one form. You can definitely sit quietly and examine your emotions and the situation at hand meditatively. It’s not very easy though and most people find it helpful to get their thoughts out into some sort of physical space so they can look at them.

Journaling, talking with a friend, family member, or yourself, making art, dancing or singing can all serve the same purpose: externalizing the internal.

Especially if you’re too worked up to think meditatively, writing things out or expressing yourself in some way can help you move the thoughts and emotions through your body and into a form you can analyze.

Oftentimes, writing it out or saying things out loud will immediately tell us we’ve been a little ridiculous, or perhaps we’ve been minimizing ourselves and not respecting ourselves enough.

Cooperation VS competition

“You’re my one and only” is a common phrase for monogamy.

It means that out of ALL the people in the world who I could have been with, I chose you. You won. You’re at the top of the list. Winning is great and we all want to feel special and important. Unfortunately, the dominant belief in a scarcity-based culture is that we can’t all be winners. If there are winners, then there are losers and you definitely don’t want to be a loser.

The problem is: It’s inherently competitive.

At some point, if you’re going to stick with polyamory, you have to learn to be more cooperative.

Otherwise, you’ll oscillate between winning and losing so much that you might give yourself an aneurysm.

Instead of always competing with existing or potential metamours, try seeing them as part of your love team. They can help relieve some of the weight of supporting your shared partner(s). They might turn out to be a fantastic ally to you in many ways. Heck, you might even fall in love with them, after all, your partner did and you two probably have a lot in common.

Shifting your paradigm from competition to cooperation can not only unlock extra joys in your intimate relationships, but it might spill into other areas of your life, helping you to work together rather than always fighting one another.

Once you develop cooperative skills, these skills can transfer to work, family, friends, and your broader communities, helping all of your relationships to blossom and grow.

Time to Grow

You don’t have to be poly to take advantage of the insights shared in this article, but if you are poly, it is imperative that you learn these skills.

Many of us have romanticized views of polyamory that prevent us from doing the hard work on ourselves necessary to succeed. When we fail to use our emotions as tools for growth in poly relationships, the exploration into poly land tends to end, rather quickly, in tears.

Even if you’re monogamous, or asexual, sitting in your discomfort and using it to guide you can be fantastically rewarding. Intimate relationships tend to reach us at our most vulnerable moments, and if we are paying attention to the signs, and using our emotional intelligence skills, we can grow into the adaptable and mature people we imagine ourselves becoming.

As we inch towards spring and welcome more and more sunlight into our days, this is the perfect time to commit yourself to self-growth.

I, for one, can’t wait to see all the beautiful blossoms!