Copyright 2009, 2011 KGrierson
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about choice, especially in how it relates to validation in relationships, which in turn relates to how people self-soothe (or don’t) their anxieties through either self-validation or other-validation. This in turn has lead to examining motivations for selecting relationships, both monogamous and polyamorous. (If you’ve read or are reading David Schnarch, you’ll have a better understanding of terms I’ve only got space and time to define fairly superficially; consider this further incentive to buy or library-loan yourself a copy of Passionate Marriage to learn in more depth what I’m about to go on about.)
David Schnarch’s phrase “emotional terrorism” is a loaded phrase, especially when the lights come on and one realizes it’s a loaded phrase pointing most annoyingly at oneself. Inasmuch as we all generally make some astounding leaps in personal growth as we grow older, we all carry numerous human anxieties that connect at a molecular level to the equally-human need for validation.
Validation, in this sense, means an acknowledgment that one is a “good and worthy person” (as measured by a vague and often indeterminate set of personal values, the impact of which we may or may not be consciously aware). In the clichéd sense that “no individual is an island”, we all seek validation as a means of measuring ourselves in and against the world we inhabit, amidst the people with whom we share common space, be it a family, a workplace, a church, a community theatre company, a marriage or other intimate relationship. Schnarch conveniently illustrates the difference between self-validation and other-validation as the difference between being grounded and centred in a strong sense of Self, or being dependent on others to be mirrors reflecting back at us the things we think we want them to see.
When others don’t show us that we’re as good as we want to believe ourselves to be, other-validated individuals are easily crushed, and the more importance and value placed on the Other in the equation, the greater the despair when the mirror fails us. Self-validated people, however, can stand more easily in the absence of mirrors; they’re less concerned with other people’s reactions to them, ride the waves of social contact more easily, maintain a sense of balance that better weathers the unpredictable, surprising slings and arrows of life’s outrageous fortunes. They don’t need other people’s company or noise to drown out the anxieties in their heads – that doesn’t mean they don’t have anxieties, just that they are far better at self-soothing than people who depend on constant reassurance from others to soothe anxieties.
How does this relate to choice, specifically relationship choice?
Firstly, consider what I mean by “relationship CHOICE”.
Do you pursue specific individuals with a specific intent to create and maintain a particular type of relationships from the outset? Or do you “just fall into” relationships because you get comfortable with a person, and one thing leads to another, and next thing you know there’s a UHaul truck and a moving party and someone else’s toothbrush now lives permanently in your bathroom?
Do you *choose* to have relationships as a conscious decision, or do you decide not to think about them and just let them happen? Do you wonder if your partner(s) chose you to be *with you*, or got into the relationship more to avoid being alone, or to get away from some other form of untenable situation (for example, the White Knight rescues the Damsel in Distress from a Dastardly Family Situation, and she says, “Oh, thank you, Mr Knight, but I have no money, how can I ever repay you??” Cue the “bow-chicka -wow-wow” music, and three weeks’ worth of Gratuitous Gratitude Sex later, you’re both in a relationship because, really, what else is there to do in the country?)
Choice and validation are immutably connected by the simple fact that if you did not consciously *choose* to be with your partner, or one day you start to fear that s/he did not *choose* to be with you, that realization is going to cue a huge sky-rocketing anxiety for most people, especially if it comes after a long-term relationship (marriage or otherwise) has been established. That kind of fearful anxiety can tear relationships apart, because it cuts to the core of our need for validation:
If someone didn’t choose me, is it because I’m not good enough to be chosen?
If I’m not good enough to have been chosen, how can i now trust what my partner has been showing or telling me all this time, if I’m not the person my partner actively chose or chooses?
For almost all of my early significant relationships (2 in high school, 3 university/post, including my first marriage), I did not choose my partners because they themselves were people I wanted to be with. First and foremost, I fell into relationships without thinking about it. If I choose them it was because they could, in one way or another, take care of me. They soothed my anxieties and supported me long before I had a clue how to do so personally, professionally, spiritually, financially… any way you can think of. In one case, the relationship started less because he was someone I wanted to date, and more because we engaged a fantasy first, and he reflected back at me an image of myself I was trying on for size. Turns out, I wasn’t enamoured of that image, but by the time I came to that conclusion, we’d already moved in together and were hitting the rough seas that would eventually send us to our own relationship counseling.
There are a lot of relationships of both open and illicit natures that come about because an individual simply responds unconsciously to another person’s attraction. Sometimes it’s not even an explicitly sexual attraction being offered, yet it provokes a conditioned response, one that people often learn in their teens or early years, to respond to sexually as a means of trying to engage or anchor more of that positive-seeming reflection (“If I sleep with him/her, maybe s/he’ll like me more”). This conditioned response is as equally true for men as for women, in my experience.
In those moments, we don’t choose the person, we choose the image, the validation; it’s a subtle but profoundly-influencing objectification at work in that kind of choice. If the person offering the validation to us changes, we often cannot accept the change, and fight the loss of that validation it avidly. Change means a shift or distortion in the reflection; Other-based validation wavers, becomes inconsistent or absent, and our Other-based sense of self-definition is jeopardized, or evaporates completely. We struggle to change to Other person back to the person who gave us the sense of validation in the first place, often encountering resistance to the change-back message. When we are the ones who are changing, potentially throwing someone else’s Other-dependent source of validation into uncertainty, we hear or experience the “Change Back!” message ourselves. When we hear the cry, “Change Back!” during the process of personal growth or differentiation, what we’re really doing is trying to force the changing Other back into the mirror frame so that the distortion goes away and we can restore normalcy by seeing the reflections of our selves as we expect to see them.
This dependency is emotional fusion at work, the kind of fusion that stifles growth and thwarts healthy development. It engenders and relies on emotional dependency on others to soothe anxieties, and we become emotional terrorists when our mirrors fail to show us what we want to see. This has been the pattern of normal relationships for as long as there have been relationships. Relationships can destabilize frighteningly quickly when specific things in a person’s world feel threatened, and most of us will react with varying degrees of emotional violence to force the quickest course-correction to put things back where we need them to be. That’s what Schnarch means by “emotional terrorist”. It’s not a pretty thing, even when it gets the short-term job done. Often the best we can do is to at least recognize when it’s happening, sometimes even in the moment, sometimes in time to at least make conscious choices about our responses to that attending anxiety. Learning to self-soothe the anxieties before they spike so enormously is a job reminiscent of pushing rope up a steep incline; it can be done, but it’s a lot of painfully-useless-seeming-at-the-time work.
So how does this all relate to developing poly relationships?
In complex systems, two is an inherently unstable configuration; three is more stable because more options provide more options for interaction, and in architectural geometry, the leaning angles of a three- or more-sided figure balance the structure. In short: a two-legged stool is unstable; a two-legged ladder cannot stand on its own. Add a third leg, however…
In Bowenian family systems, adding a third party to a dyadic (two-membered) relationship almost immediately reduces the stress between the two members of the dyad, by providing a third party to focus on (a child, for example, or a sibling, parent, coworker, job, pet, etc.) or to confide in (in the case of an adult family member, friend, or lover). Adultery, in its own way, reduces the stress within a marriage by enabling one partner to meet immediate needs elsewhere, reducing the pressure — in this case, for sex — on the spouse to provide sexual contact. While the adultery example is rife with other problems, it does provide a very clear illustration of how a third party can help bleed away some stressors and pressures within a relationship.
In polyamory, there are multiple intimate relationships present in the relational network, and any one of them can serve as a stabilizer or destabilizer, depending on the relationship skills of those involved, for any other relationship in the intimate network (the “system”). Imagine how this, then, becomes an extremely important factor for Other-validated individuals: now there is not just *one* relational partner from whom one receives back mirrored validation, but potentially *many* partners. The crucially-important stabilizing factor is that if one relational angle then fails to mirror as expected, there will always be an assumed other lover(s) to turn to fill in the gap, thus ensuring that anxieties in such an Other-validated person never spikes so highly as to disrupt the functioning of the system as a whole.
When people talk about “selecting for type” their mates and lovers, often what they have is a certain type of personality they will seek out that best reflects their expected mirrored sense of Self. That’s why people tend to gravitate towards a particular predilection for personality types like “the good girl/the bad boy”, to stereotype a popular few. Those “types” are likely to offer particular views back at us that we expect to see that mesh with our own internalized senses of self. Abused spouses return time and again to abusive partners because the abuser reflects back at the victim the victim’s own sense of self, validating what the victim “knows” about him/herself.
We seek out, consciously or otherwise, lovers and partners who reflect back at us what we think we know about ourselves, as a way of validating ourselves. It’s a form of “confirmational bias” in which we only see what we already believe; seeing anything new about ourselves, and being open to the possibilities of being something other than what we expect, is tremendously, impossibly scary to a lot of people, and the lengths to which people go to avoid seeing themselves in new ways is truly awe-full.
Some people date for breadth, not depth, if you can say so without taking the obvious innuendo-laden tangents. Putting more people in one’s “intimate sphere” means more mirrors, increasing the odds that one can establish a stabilizing-if-superficial exposure when feeling anxious, rather than improving the internal ability to self-soothe. People who do this often won’t let anyone get close enough to become mirrors of things we do not want to see in ourselves, especially if those uncomfortable reflections and perceptions already occur at home in the primary relationship(s).
Lovers became objectified, serving as distractions and diversions from current or ongoing relationship work. Lovers who are too much work, because they threaten stability at home or detract from Self- or relational work we need to be doing elsewhere, are cut loose or held off to cool their heels in long intervals between dates. They are welcome as Other-validation until they became too challenging to an existing, ineffective, impression of the individual’s sense of Self.
Even for lovers who aren’t a lot of work, long intervals also meant a degree of perceived security for some. Lack of frequency is one way we controlled our own emotional investment levels, playing it cool and casual in order to avoid the temptation to “fall in love” or get uncontrolled NRE goo all over my nice clean life. Of course it works… to a point. For myself, the breaking point was realizing that even though I am ostensibly involved with a lot of people, I’m really not “involved” at all. It’s hard to have good, authentic relationships with people you genuinely like through the cocoon of armour and misdirected desires. It’s also impossible to have authentic relationships with people when you let them — nay, when you *rely* on them to — do all the work of managing your anxieties for you.
Honestly… I don’t think this is an uncommon pattern, in or out of the poly community. Seeking validation from others is such an insidious need that permeates so much of our unconscious motivations in relationships that it’s really difficult to peel back the layers of intentional self-misdirection to look at what we’re really doing: in effect, making ineffectual choices that meet a short-term, anxiety-based need, while encouraging our other-dependencies and undifferentiated perceptions of self-in-relation-to-other. For me, the uphill slog to learn the difference between raw emotional content, and the active response to that content has been a necessary part of sorting out my own tools for self-soothing. We all have anxieties; they are huge and well-defined by the number of hidden land mines connected to them. Learning to trust *ourselves* when they go off is, for most of us, a work in progress. But the key lesson to note here is: we CAN learn to trust ourselves instead of relying on partners, say, to change their behaviours in order to soothe our anxieties. Learning to stay present in the moment of those fearful surges is crucial, because when we can’t stay with them and soothe them, the only thing left is to shut them in a box and go distract ourselves with someone or something else. Distraction soothes to an extent, but the raging beast is still awake, and still raging behind a door we now can’t open or even look at, for fear of setting the anxiety surge loose all over again.
People who live like that eventually become nothing but a hallway of doors they cannot open, I think. I don’t want that to be me.
So it all comes back to looking at the choices we make in relationships:
How do I choose partners in the first place? Can I clearly identify whether I am, or am not, responding to a need to see myself validated by them as attractive and desirable? (Trust me, as I ease into my mid-40s and the Realm of the Cougar, this actually becomes the kind of stuff I find I have to think about). Am I expecting a potential lover to validate something that isn’t being validated in my primary relationship? Am I looking for the relationship equivalent of a pacifier or soother? Do I just want someone to be with when my partner is elsewhere so I don’t have to deal with soothing myself alone (often more of a driving motivation for more non-primary relationships than many of us will admit)? How am I behaving when the selected-for-unavailability-lovers actually prove to be as unavailable to me as I fear? What happens when I really *am* alone?
Some things have changed for the better. Schnarch also distinguishes between “genital prime” and “sexual prime”, taking our standard common societal impression of “sexual prime” and transferring that to “genital prime” (when men’s refractory period is fastest, and women’s genital response is also faster and/or more pronounced). Schnarch’s concept of “sexual prime”, however, is all about availability for emotional intimacy that only comes with experience and willing effort to be vulnerable; he uses a lot of language reminiscent of Goleman’s emotional intelligence; the crossover concepts are hard to miss, actually. In Schnarch’s opinion and experience, individuals and couples don’t reach his version of “sexual prime” until they’re old enough to have some profound relationship and self-definition experience under their belts: in their 40s and 50s and beyond.
This gives me some hope for an easier future, at least. the fact that my partner and I have made such a career out of doing the hard work of building a more conscious and authentic relationship (which is not to say we don’t still have Good Days and Bad Days, even recently) makes it easier to take the things that work out into the field of other relationships and make more conscious, functional decisions about how and why I engage those relationships. Mind you, the fact that I have no consistent label that I can apply across the board to the rapidly-decreasing number of people I’m arguably “dating” means I’m pretty much doing the work of treating each relationship as an individual thing from the get-go. That’s perhaps a more effective, consciously-mindful way of approaching the relationships… it’s a bucketload of work though.
Since my corollary relationships aren’t currently ones that cause me any anxiety, the work of self-soothing occurs mostly at home, and mostly at my partner’s expense. The work of the next indeterminate-while involves looking more closely at what anxieties get spiked by what kinds of triggers (some of that work we’ve already done in other situational contexts), and figure out for myself what I can learn to do as effective self-soothing when those fears get out of hand and explode messily, because they’re going to keep happening. These kinds of fears and anxieties are rooted so deeply that they don’t come up with the usual kind of weed-pulling tools. It’s also important to note that self-soothing fear and anxiety isn’t the same as “letting someone off the hook” for his or her part in the anxiety-spiking situation in the first place, but it does help clear space for a more effective manner of communicating that needs to happen in the resolution process. There is a time and place for channeling rage and fury into a situation, and a time and place for… something else. I’d like to be able to keep both as tools selected by choice than to depend solely on one manner of response as the only available, pre-programmed option. I prefer the effects I get when I know I’ve chosen the response consciously.
Also in progress for some time now is a decreasing dependency on others for my validation. This is not to say I don’t enjoy the ego boosts when they happen (who *doesn’t* enjoy positive responses to a flirtation or soul-searching tome of a blog post?), but I don’t *need* them like I used to. I don’t get crushed when my crushes don’t reciprocate interest. I don’t get crushed when lovers don’t make contact for months at a time (though I suspect there’s something complicated going on there that *is* wired to a residual mirrored validation issue, but that’s a tangent for another time). I don’t rely so much any more on other people’s responses to me to shape the space that I can fill; I define my own space more effectively by myself these days. This doesn’t mean I’m not interested in intimate relationships, rather the opposite; but now I pursue relationships because I want to and because I choose to, not because I *need* to in order to feel desired or desirable. Being secure enough in my Self to choose things, rather than being restricted to the limited options of pre-programmed responses, gives me far more… well, choices.
Being (relatively) free of anxiety-driven dependencies doesn’t diminish my interest in those intimate and engaged relationships; quite the contrary. It does increase my opportunities to be something other than an emotional terrorist struggling to keep the mirrors from distorting the limited external-based view of my Self. It also invites me to be “all that *I* can be”, without having to struggle into combat fatigues at the drop of a wrongly-worded comment and write more blog posts before 8am than most people write in a. Not having to be always in my armour and on the defensive against those shifting perspectives and availability of the Other is liberating, a revolution from the inside out.
And those relationships I choose to have for more effective reasons than dependency will, I think, be the stronger for it.