Today’s letter is quite poly-heavy. So if you’re looking for politics, go literally anywhere else online right now. Sigh.
I want to share a (slightly edited at the author’s request) comment a man named William Ballow left on a thread in a secret poly support group on Facebook.
It almost perfectly sums up my default view of love and autonomy. William uses “woman” more than “man” or “person” because he wrote this in response to a question by a woman. The question was, essentially, “How do I deal with the fear that I am not special, and therefore it would be easy for my lover to replace me?”
So here it is:
These ideas have been extremely illuminating and transformative for me, and I can only hope that they are intelligible and useful to you as well.
Feeling loved largely involves pleasant physiological reactions to our own thoughts, as we cannot literally feel the love of another directly. We can be loved and not feel it, and not loved yet feel it, because the feeling of being loved is quite literally “psycho-genic” and “intra-psychic” in nature. Suppose we are dating, suppose we are monogamous, suppose that we are poly and I am out on a date, or suppose that we are swingers out swapping, how loved you feel or don’t feel is largely of function of complex internal and imaginative operations.
The only kind of love that you can really process is the kind of love that you are most familiar with giving and receiving, and your “love style” is a function of many things, your attachment style, your baseline self-esteem, your self-image, your cultural beliefs, your beliefs about love, etc.
For the sake of simplicity, I will put it this way, you encounter three kinds of lovers or love styles, each a function of psychological maturation and/or one’s relationship to romantic/gender socialization and capacity for “secure attachment.”
Level 1 (the ego-conventional style): This is perhaps the kind of “love” we are most familiar with. We are very conscientiously looking for somebody to “make us happy” and/or to egoically “complete” us. We have a very deep identity investment in how the other perceives us or behaves towards us. They can make or break us, and we can make or break them. We know we are worthy and special and lovable because they love us. And they feel similarly towards us. Perhaps we feel important because they describe how deprived and empty they feel in our absence. Perhaps we feel special because of how passionately they describe their need for us in their life. I need you, you need me, and this mutual dependence makes us feel loved and alive.
Level 2: (the semi-autonomous style) You and I, we love each other very much, but in a somewhat different way. I want you, I enjoy your presence in my life, you enjoy mine, but we do not egoically depend on each other as much. I don’t need you to feel worthy, you do not need me to feel worthy. I make me happy, you make you happy, fundamentally, and what keeps us together is more moment to moment compatibility than the craving and identity level dependence you find in the “ego-conventional style.” Our primary sources of happiness and joy are internal, we are not quite as worried about what the other’s behavior “means” about us, to such an extant that a “level 1” lover may not feel as loved by us. The “ego-conventional” lover “needs to feel needed, even desperately needed” to feel loved. The “semi-autonomous” lover does not, or at least not so much.
Let’s discuss the fear of abandonment/replacement here. Imagine you are my girlfriend. OK, we are dating now. We are poly. I have a new lover, she is hot, we have a great date, hot sex, NRE, etc. Let’s go into this.
The ego-conventional and the autonomous lover approach these issues with different questions and core values. Let’s go into this again.
Who am I to you and who you are to me?
This is an important question. How much of your identity or happiness depended on me getting my identity and value from you, and vice versa? How much of your moment-to-moment happiness/joy or sense of self is external vs internal? In 99.9% of relationships this is not an issue consciously explored, but we are exploring it here.
The ego-conventional woman can only comprehend love ego-conventionally, whereas the autonomous lover (in some cases) can comprehend both love styles. The ego-conventional woman only really understands love as a search for someone to “make you happy” and to egoically complete you. So the fear is that I am comparing you and her, wondering who to choose to complete me or make me happy on that mundane egoic level, but if I am a “autonomous” lover, who is essentially already fundamentally happy, then I am not approaching love or relationship from that sense of fundamental deprivation or identity dependence. I am not looking for someone to “”make me happy” or “complete me” in the same way you are. I enjoy you as you are, and she as she is, but the person who “makes me happy” or who gives me my sense of self fundamentally is me, not you or her. So I do not depend on you or “need” you as the typical guy might, but I can fundamentally appreciate your unique attributes and idiosyncrasies BECAUSE of that. My lack of emotional or ego-dependence on either of you makes me more free to love both of you for you are.
Again, whether I am dating you or her, or both I am me, I feel worthy, lovable, complete, etc. either way. I get pleasure and intimacy interacting with you, and I get pleasure and intimacy interacting with the other woman, but I am not egoically dependent on either of you. I have my own joy and peace of mind regardless, there is desire without clinging or a fundamental sense of lack.
The third love style I am calling the “enlightened style.” We are talking about someone who has a lot of internal quiet and peace, someone whose happiness is more unconditional and resilient than is typical, who really doesn’t “need” anyone for validation or to feel whole but desires and enjoys the company of others from that sense of wholeness. They are always already feeling pretty good, and they just ARE love or presence in a sense, continuously. We are enjoyed and appreciated for who we are, but we are not needed or depended on upon as the ego-conventional lover would need or depend on us for validation. They might like and love us quite a bit, but they are not miserable or deprived in our absence. This person can empathize with those who love or need love in the other two ways (especially the first way), but they love in their own way, needlessly and peacefully. If you stay with them, they enjoy it, if you leave, they assume it’s for the best. Their appreciation of you sexually or romantically is moment to moment, not as dependent on fantasies of past and future. They love from fullness, not lack.
To conclude, intense fears of abandonment/replacement are a function of your love style, which is a function of complex internal needs and habits that you cannot voluntarily change all at once. As you become more unconditionally happy and joyful, your love style will slowly change automatically. There is not actually an “answer answer” to this question of replacement, you will just become someone who doesn’t bother to ask the question. You will be you, you will make you happy, and whoever is there will be there, and whoever is not, will not be.
The only thing I quibble with is whether the “enlightened style” of attachment really exists for most of us. Books like Hold Me Tight reference studies which indicate that emotional attachment is a deep, intrinsic need. The theory is that while you can change your style of attachment, you cannot change the fact that deep down you do need to feel attached and if you do not you will suffer for the lack of it.
A more optimistic way to put this, and this is how I believe I think, is that humans are happiest when we are most connected to other humans. I do believe that most people (not everyone) both need a certain amount of quiet, peace, and happiness to be able to connect with others in a healthy way, and cannot achieve their highest potential for quiet, peace, and happiness until they are connected with others in a healthy way.
As I have written before, accepting my need to be loved in particular ways, especially romantically, has been extremely difficult for me. I so want love from my friends and family to suffice for me. I keep trying to make what I have be enough. But sometimes it is a better use of mental energy to accept that I want things and go out and try to get them.
Speaking of wants.
I want two very different things, at least two, contradictory things at the same time. Which is to say I’m alive.
I want to be my boyfriend’s first and only interest, for all other people to seem dull and boring comparatively, for him to always want to talk to me at the party, for him to always choose to be with me when given the chance. And I want him to go out and get his needs met elsewhere. I want him to come back to me more whole than he left. I want to outsource the things I’m not good at to someone who is looking for someone like him to shower with those gifts. I want to take joy in the joy he gets from connecting other people. I want when he chooses me for that to be a choice in the moment, made every time, not a follow-through on a commitment he made earlier.
From someone, I want a man to treat me like wife or future wife and a man to treat me like a mistress. I want a man to appreciate and respect my intellect and a man to use my body as a masturbation tool and mock my stupidity. I want to be taken out on dates and I want to be taken without much warning and with no careful checks for consent at every turn. I want these things at once, and concurrently, and mostly from the same man, because getting there takes so much work and time.
I was going through what I like about a man I’ve begun to pay attention to recently, what makes me come thinking about him without even touching myself. And it occurred to me, in my mental list of his attributes, that he is kind of a bad person. Like, he’s not my version of good. We don’t share the same value system. Which is kind of hot.
I’m not sure why that is. Is it similar to why I want someone who I think just wants to fuck the shit out of me to take me out on dates? Are the two mutually exclusive? How can the same person at the same time want to open doors and not want to leave the house for a weekend? But I think that’s the appeal. I think the desire for the “bad boy” is that I have someone who wants in the short-term sense to fuck me silly right then and there but because he’s so taken by me, he holds out and shows me that he’s invested.
I think my desire for that in a previous relationships was so strong that I overlooked how different our values were. And I didn’t really dive deep into who he was or what he needed. He just seemed… horny, as I am. And together we had an awesome time. I refused to really love him because I knew he wasn’t for me as he was. But I sure wanted to keep fucking him in the here and now. And then again later. So I’m worried about doing that shit again. But why is it so damn appealing? Maddening.
Not believing in my value system isn’t being a bad boy like riding a motorcycle or shoplifting is. But it is dangerous to invest in someone who doesn’t share your values. I worry that danger plus horny may be the metaphorical motorcycle that I find nearly impossible to resist.
Which just goes to show that none of us ever leaves middle school. Oh wellie.
I have a little saying, “The foolish question nothing. The intelligent question their thoughts. The wise question their wants.”
You want what you want (profound, yes?), but you also want to be free from the feeling of dependence on getting what you want. This feeling may be so familiar it feels like part of being human, but you also probably sense that on some level you can transcend it. You want to be happy under extremely specific conditions, but you also want to be of conditional happiness entirely. You want to just BE happy. You wish you could want things without feeling like you need them or feeling like that you will necessarily suffer intensely when you don’t get them. Similarly with thought. Thought is good, thinking is nice, but if you could just turn off the chatter when you wanted and redirection your attention more conscientiously (at will), that would be great.
I am not anti-desire but anti-unskillful desire. There is a way of wanting and desiring that minimizes emotional suffering, that doesn’t set extremely narrow conditions on what we “need” to be happy and that doesn’t depend on making an identity or dogma out of feeling lacking if we do not get x, y, and z. There is a world a difference between “I would thoroughly enjoy a Coke if one were offered to me” and “I am a person who needs or cannot function without Coke” or “Yes, I am happy and it is because I have Coke in my hand and I know there is some in the refrigerator once this runs out.”
Suppose you have a boyfriend who thinks “Life without Cathy is no good, I cannot be happy unless I know Cathy is thinking about me. OMG, without her, I am a nobody.” Culture or Hollywood might say the this boyfriend really loves you or loves you the most, but he is arguably suffering in a somewhat subtle way in THAT very moment, and in more obvious ways down the road. His needy, totalizing thoughts plant the seeds of future emotional pain and dependence. Ideally, you do not want “happiness OR Cathy,” you want “happiness AND Cathy,” and then ultimately “happiness AND whatever Life is manifesting as in this moment,” always.
Fundamentally, we make ourselves happy or unhappy, but unconscious assumptions and unexamined habits make it feel otherwise.
Ironically. it may not be possible to *completely* enjoy a partner’s attention or body with complete abandon so long as we believe we need them to be happy, fundamentally and/or all of the time. The fear of lost self-esteem or identity and the need to monitor our hold on what we “have” would seemingly contaminate nearly every interaction.
Value systems have to match. That was the first thing I learned. There was nothing more painful to me than the realization that the look she was giving me all those years meant that she didn’t love me. It wasn’t her fault, but our values didn’t match.
My advice is: seek to avoid that look. You can go years without knowing that you’re seeing it, but when you finally figure it out, wow, does it hurt.
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