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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Attention, Love and Affection

The issue of dating has come up for me in conversation a lot this year. I'm polyamorous and have only one boyfriend. I haven't really done any serious dating this year. When reflecting on my year, you probably couldn't blame me.

I started the year with two new partners and then someone I had been on again/off again with suddenly decided on again and with the most passionate pursuit he had ever undertaken. I spent January and February in a haze of positive attention as I was hotly pursued and gladly offered myself up for the catching. I radiated happiness to all who met me and felt lucky that my time was never requested on the same day by any of these guys, because how could I possibly choose?

Like the flame of a candle on a blustery day, this fire would not last for long. The first week of March saw a date with each partner in turn which would turn into the last for two of them. The second week of March saw a wonderful date with one partner, the one that for me, cemented that relationship and then a break-up the following night from another. The third partner took a little more time to drift off, but reflection tells me the first week of March really was the end.

So I went from wonderfully happy and much loved to what felt as a void in comparison. I was left dizzy and wondering what I had done to contribute to my situation. How did I create it? How can I avoid it in the future? I mean, I felt as a total and utter poly-relationship-failure at that point.

In the ensuing months, I pretty well spun emotionally out of control. I was feeling lost and confused, clinging hard to the one partner I had left and alternately hating and missing the other two. Every little setback felt monumental, every bump in the road felt like I was being cast from the highest peak of the tallest mountain. And the worst part of it all was not understanding myself. I know myself to be capable of handling greater stressors than a break-up or two, so why was this affecting me so much?

In digging into my own psyche, I kept coming back to one thing: I got married when I was 19 years old, entered into a "committed, monogamous relationship," with him when I was still 18. And despite the fact that I often referred to him as, "the tyrant who runs our house," leaving him was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life. It was harder than being homeless and harder than going hungry.


When I was 17 and still in high school, after a particularly awful blow-out with my father, I told him I was moving out. I had already made plans of where I was going to live, renting a room from the mother of one of my friends. My father asked, "Are you sure this is what you want to do? What if it doesn't work out, what if you end up homeless?" I replied, "It doesn't matter if I'm homeless, Dad, it really doesn't. I've come to realize what I can't handle is the emotional roller coaster I'm on living with you. Whatever happens to me physically, homelessness, etc is nothing. So long as I'm emotionally safe and steady, I can handle anything."

And true to my word, I was fine. I ended up homeless within a few months after moving out. My mother suggested I go back and live with her, but I was in my last semester of high school, I didn't want to change states and schools again. And while it took more mental and physical effort to complete high school than probably any other task I had yet undertaken in my life, I did it: I slept 3 hours a night, spent a minimum of five hours a day on public transportation between my school and the shelter where I was staying, and spent all my spare time doing homework to catch up in the classes I had fallen behind in while living with my father.


So when I know myself to be capable of handling anything, why can't I handle divorces and break-ups?

When I was in the process of trying to leave my ex-husband (emotionally, he already didn't live with me), I took myself to see a counselor. One day she said the thing that made my world shatter: "Okay, correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds to me like all this guy wants is you 24/7." "Yes, oh my god, yes," I replied, exasperated. "And we've already talked about what happened in your past that led you to be susceptible to someone like that."

What, ME, susceptible to someone?!

That absolutely blew my mind.

And with that new thought churning in my head, I was able to break ties. But much like what happened to me this year, I fell apart. Constantly crying, unable to handle even the slightest pressures, I began to slip. My performance at work dropped to the point where my boss threatened my job. I became so attention hungry from my only friends that I almost lost them. It wasn't until I met someone new (who was also hungry for my attention) that I was able to recover.

In reflection, uh-oh. I didn't really recover, I just found someone new to seek attention from.

So you would think, when I had the break-ups earlier this year, that I might've been fine--after all, I still had one partner to seek attention from. Well, yes and no. It turns out my need for attention was pretty significant. More than one reasonable and healthy person is capable of handling. No matter how hard they try. Because much to my partner's credit, he made a herculean effort, but it was still not enough for me.

By now, you may be wondering why I'm using past tense when talking about my need for attention.

In September, over some pretty intense conversations with those closest to me, I had that "breakthrough." I was talking and out of my mouth came the words, "For me, attention equals love and affection. Any time you withdraw your attention, it occurs to me as if you're withdrawing your love and/or affection. And it doesn't matter how many times I tell myself that's not the case, in my heart, that's how it feels. That is what my truth is." Then, I had one of those moments where I was struck by what I said. "Oh my god, did you hear what I just said? That's it! That's why I 'suffer' so much! That's why I make constant demands for attention."

And that's why, when I go through a break-up, I absolutely fall apart. Whether I initiate it or they do, that withdrawal of attention feels to me as if I'm unloved. Or at least, it did. It's been well over a month since I had this realization. In reflecting on the time since, in all my relationships, even new friendships, I have not been reacting this way.

I still have little moments of wondering if I've done or said something wrong, panicking and thinking my relationships are falling apart, but it is much easier to assuage myself now. I can convince myself that seven hours or seven days of silence do not mean that I am unloved or unwanted, but that people who love me have lives of their own to conduct and for whatever reason, I am simply not a priority in that moment and that's okay.

Not everyone that I love is a priority for me in every moment. Some moments, I need them all to go the hell away and take care of their own damn selves because I need to take care of me. And there's nothing wrong with that. Attention does not equal love and affection. Naturally, we give more attention to those we love and have affection for, but these are correlation, not causation.

Armed with this new information about myself and this new perspective on the world and relationships, I feel as though I'm finally ready to take on a second relationship--I mean, I am poly after all.

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