Polyamory is fucking hard.

Polyamory is fucking hard. It’s hard for me, it’s hard for people that I love, it’s hard for friends that are poly. While it’s not hard all the time, and sometimes it’s not really difficult so much as uncomfortable, nonmonogamy – just like anything else in life including monogamy – is hard. For some of us anyway. For some people it’s not difficult at all. I’ve talked with my boyfriend a few times about this, and he’s not like me; though he deals with the occasional uncomfortable emotion or small twang of jealousy, he’s never had any real issues with being open. He simply doesn’t struggle at all with polyamory.

He also doesn’t live with C-PTSD or the rejection/abandonment issues or deep relationship wounding that I do. I think those factors are why I and many others find it difficult to be in open relationships. And when I say difficult, I mean excruciating and sometimes debilitating. The traumatized brain reacts very differently than normal brains, in that most responses to stimuli (for the traumatized brain) are reactions to previous traumas. So, when in the middle of a very intense conversation my lover says something or reacts in such a way that I take as pushing me away or getting defensive and walling off, the 43-year-old rational me isn’t the one responding. Instead, the 8-year-old in me who never felt loved by and was terrified of his father, and the 18-year-old in me who was kicked out by his parents instantly start reliving those traumas and then BAM! I’m no longer in the moment and my trauma responses take over. I shut down and dissociate because I can’t escape my fear of rejection so my mind does what minds do when there’s no way out: it creates an exist within itself, and it leaves.

These are all things that I’ve only recently learned. I didn’t know that me shutting down and being void of all feelings when my world and everything I’ve wanted for years is falling in on itself like a house of brick-cards was dissociation. I didn’t know that the reason I don’t remember very difficult conversations and will have no memories of traumatic or even just really uncomfortable events is because I was dissociating. I didn’t know that all those times I checked out mentally and was trying to talk, was trying to find words, but was literally dumbstruck that I was dissociating. I didn’t know that dissociating is a way that my psyche tries to protect me and it’s my conditioned response to scary, difficult or just uncomfortable situations.

We experience emotions in our body. That’s why we call them feelings. We don’t experience them in our head. Those are thoughts. It’s a little embarrassing to say that I’ve spent my late 30s and early 40s learning that. Fortunately, it’s finally sunk in. Relationships are full of feels: good, bad and neutral. Polyamory offers a whole other set of variables than monogamy and they come with their own feels: good, bad and neutral. And those feelings, like any feeling, can be incredibly overwhelming. And for someone like me, who is neurologically incapable of sitting with difficult anything, that overwhelm can and will hijack the fuck out of your (my) central nervous system. In those moments my central nervous system regresses from the ventral vagal (social) to the sympathetic (fight or flight) or dorsal vagal (freeze, or shut down). Usually the dorsal vagal as I spend most of my time locked in my sympathetic nervous system. These, too are things I’ve only recently learned.

Before I deal with any difficulty brought about by nonmonogamy I have to first deal with the responses that my CNS, my psyche, my mind etc. have. Before I can deal with the jealousy that pops up, I have to regulate and bring myself back from the depths of my two-billion-years-old neurological system. The one has me shut down entirely and removed from my body so that I don’t feel the T-Rex bite me in half – which is exactly what it evolved to do. Once I’ve convinced my body and my psyche that I am not, in fact, actually dying, I can deal with the pain and discomfort of said jealousy. Sometimes it takes days for me to reassure myself that I am not, in fact, actually dying.

Dr. Marsha Linehan tells us in dialectic behavioral therapy that everything exists on a spectrum. So I put my emotional response on a spectrum of easy to difficult (read: seemingly impossible) or comfortable to discomfort (read: agony) and realize that my polyamorous journey oscillates between the two ends. It’s influenced by my past trauma and it’s informed by current and recent experiences. My therapist, my psychiatrist, the books I read, the podcasts I listen to and my loved ones all tell me I (we) need to be compassionate with myself (ourselves). If I’m being compassionate with myself then I have to admit that my traumatized brain reacts the way it does because it’s trying to protect me. And I have to stop and remind myself that I’m working diligently to reprogram my neuropathways so that I respond to stimuli with rational brain instead of reacting to it with my traumatized one. And I have to give myself credit for that.

For a lot of us, nonmonogamy is hard. It’s not a walk in the park that takes no thought, effort or intention like it often gets portrayed as. Polyamory can trigger the fuck out of some trauma responses. There’s a lot of deprograming for some of us to do. There’s a lot of shackles, norms, scripts etc. that we’ve got to willingly and actively dismantle. It’s not linear and doesn’t always go well. If/when things are difficult it’s not a sign that we’re doing it wrong, or that we’re no good at it, or that we’re failing. It’s not a sign that we should be monogamous. I heard someone say that the hard parts (in life) are when we’re doing the work. So, if being poly is hard, that’s ok. Maybe it just means that we’re working on it.

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