[CW: fallout, manipulation, the usual, me basically not giving a shit anymore]
So I’ve been working more on choreography for a burlesque number to Melanie Martinez’ Dollhouse. (The song is great, please do give it a listen, it’s hot sh*t and right up my alley). The number is meant to express what it feels like waking up to the fact that you’re eyeballs deep in some f*cked up manipulative and exploitative relationship dynamics and realizing right then that you have to GTFO with a quickness. I’m finding that it is effecting me a lot more than I expected it to, emotionally. It’s funny how music and movement can dredge the floor of my heart in ways that dialogue and thought can’t.
Everyone thinks that we’re perfect / Please don’t let them look through the curtains…
There was, and is, such a culture of this weird mix of secrecy and transparency in my former polycule. The expectation was that all communication was either potentially or actually shared communication. An email to my partner nearly always ended up in the hands of everyone else in the family, as well as my metamours. It was often confusing, because I wondered at the time (being new to polyamory) if I wasn’t seeing some sort of primacy privilege in action. After all — My partner was never included, even though my metamours, sometimes even more remote metamours, were, and usually without asking first. Meanwhile, vital information was often kept from me. I was told provably false things were true. I was left to discover it after I exited those relationships. Meanwhile, I was expected to voice conflict and difficult feelings and boundaries often long before I was able to articulate them clearly. Waiting until I had the words to express myself was labeled as “dishonest” and an affront to “intimacy.” (I’ll revisit that last bit in a second)
This was hard for me, because that’s typically not how I begin my problem solving process. I often need to talk and feel through my first iteration of a conflict or set of responses with someone (usually not the person who has hurt or upset me) before I have a good handle on what’s bothering me, why, and what I would like to happen with it. It was made extra hard for me because the double standard was so glaring and I was trying so hard to believe it wasn’t there. I was an emotional resource to the entire household. Not a day went by where I wasn’t fielding W’s worries/concerns/anger with G re: S, G’s frustrations/resentment/criticisms about J/A, and constantly, constantly processing and absorbing Everyone’s Feelings about S, even after I finally said: “This is hurting me and isn’t healthy for me and I need it to please stop.” I filled this role for everyone, and that was okay, sorta — I’m often that person for people. But when I needed breaks or had limits, when I needed my first pass to take place in safe space, that was “wrong/secretive/dishonest,” because I hadn’t gone directly to the person with whom I was having conflict or problems. It was expected and desired that I would be safe space for everyone, but I was admonished constantly for wanting or expecting safe space of my own. I was instructed to go to them first about /everything/. This was destabilizing for pretty obvious reasons, and made me worry what other things I might need or want could be wrong or dishonest or unacceptable. I never used to have problems asking for safe space to field my feelings. I do, now.
My current support network knows this has become problematic for me in ways it didn’t used to be and is doing their best to reinforce that I deserve that space, and that how I process things is fine and good, and that conflict doesn’t have to occur on just one person’s set of terms. I’m allowed to slow down. I’m allowed to wait until I feel good about what I want to say. I’m allowed to talk it out with friends first. I’m allowed to set time limits on the amount of emotionally heavy content I can handle. I’ve come to recognize that my former polycule leveraged my lack of experience with polyamory as a tool to shape me into the emotional support they desired and needed without the cost of reciprocity, or respect for my individuality. The unacknowledged power differential here served to isolate me from people “outside” of the family — often including my own partner, and also to undermine my belief that the things that made me different (and me) were things to be celebrated and embraced, and instead required correction and training.
D-O-L-L-HOU-S-E / I see things that nobody else sees…
One time, I was looking at moving. I had dreamy eyes set on Northwest Philadelphia (which in retrospect I am so glad I didn’t pursue because HOLY COMMUTE PLUS FAR AWAY FROM EVERYTHING) and also Downtown Wilmington which was closer to all of my respective partners and loved ones at the time, but also within walking distance of my job. My resources were limited, and it was the very initial stages of looking. W suggested that I get an apartment with A (one of his partners) and that we should get an apartment around the corner from the house in Collingswood. This struck me as really odd at the time — I had met A maybe once or twice. We had never had a personal conversation. She worked part time at a drug store, and seemed to have a lot of limitations with financial resources. I thought she was pretty okay, but she seemed exhausted all the time, and was just leaving a living situation that involved a lot of financial dependence on one side and a lot of exploitative behavior on the other. I did the math and realized that even adjusting for the differences in rent, living in NJ would also cost me an additional $120 a month, just in tolls getting to work every day. Combine that with a suggested housemate who was dating a partner of a partner who likely wouldn’t be able to contribute equally to the household, and it was like: that doesn’t work for me. I told W pretty casually I didn’t want to live in NJ, between the traffic patterns (I had fairly recently been in a pretty serious car accident, wherein a transit bus t-boned my car, totaling it and landing me in the hospital) and driving with the different set up of divided highways in Jersey was pretty stressful. I also had been pretty clear that I wanted to try living alone, if I could. It didn’t strike me as a big deal at that moment because me moving was about me meeting my needs for living space.
What ensued was a twenty minute argument. I was accused of being unfair and inconsiderate. I was irrationally biased against New Jersey (which is odd, because like, my whole extended family lives there? also newsflash: the entire East Coast is Irrationally Biased Against New Jersey). I was not being reasonable.
I suggested pretty gently that maybe meeting W’s needs and desires and standards didn’t need to be my first priority in selecting a living situation. He continued to push the issue. He offered to pay my tolls, if that was the barrier. I needed to give good reasonable reasons. I needed to be ‘rational’ about this. I wasn’t upholding the values of skepticism. I was making an emotional choice.
This was honestly, pretty normal.
I was very accustomed to being told that my priorities, desires, and needs were not worthy of respect or space unless I had defended them to the hilt using only arguments W deemed as reasonable. The valid, well-considered, sound reasons I did have were viewed as “excuses.” I wasn’t being “honest.” I believed these things. I did not see the strangeness of why the husband of my girlfriend would be so attached to the outcome that I live within walking distance of his home, in the company of his new girlfriend, conveniently without my boyfriend/primary partner. This seemed like (and frankly, was) the Worst Idea in Human History. Between “paying taxes in two states when I don’t have to,” “what about breakups?” and “uh, your own choices about appropriate living situations haven’t really worked out for you, bro,” and “OMG what if A lost her job or her hours got cut,” and “I don’t even know this person,” and “A might also date G at some point” and “Maybe I need space and time away from my polycule?” and “Are you trying to control me now?”… it was you guys. THE WORST IDEA IN HISTORY. WHAT IF I HAD DONE THAT OMG. I would have just been caught in a lease I couldn’t afford on my own, living with a former partner’s partner, and living a block or two away from, oh my g*ds I can’t even finish. It was the worst idea.
I couldn’t understand why he acted as though I had rejected not his suggestion, but him and everything he stood for and valued. I assumed, as I often did, that he was right, and I was wrong, and I had said something deeply offensive to him. I apologized a lot about “insulting New Jersey” (what, even?) and hurting him. I then quietly and without ceremony found a decent, affordable apartment 4 blocks from my job in Wilmington and was careful to almost always make sure that I visited W in his own territory or half way, unless he was already in Wilmington for work so that he wouldn’t use my choice of cities against me when he brought up what I’ve loosely labeled “barriers to
control intimacy.” Remember how I said I’d get back to that? I’m getting there.
The fallout of this, and most arguments like it (there were, friends, SO MANY ALL THE TIME) is that I anticipate conflict over the things I need and want in all corners, even when my dataset shows that I’m unlikely to be placed in that position, and that my people desire to see me feeling empowered, and that the belief is that I know how to run my own sh*t. For someone that has struggled with appropriate conflict behavior her entire life, seeing it lurking any time I have a preference or make a choice is… not the best outcome for me. I have some work to do, dismantling that pretty little present my polycule gave me. I mostly want to smash it with a hammer. Instead, the people I love are armed with archaeologists’ tools. They pick and pick and pick, and brush, and carefully excavate me out of this collapsed building. No cave-ins. No rock slides. I’m digging from my side, too. It’s slow going. I’m impatient to see the sun.
Hey girl, look at my mom / She’s got it going on — HA! / You’re blinded by her jewelry…
I have lost any meaningful sense of what the word “closeness” means. I now hear that word as a weapon. I don’t use it. I also avoid the word “intimacy”. Both of them squick me right the f*ck out, and I’m probably irrationally suspicious of people who use them, with /very few and well established exceptions/.
Phrases like, “I don’t foresee an ongoing close relationship if you _____,” and “I can see you don’t desire closeness with me,” and “I feel this is a barrier to intimacy” were like the electric outlets in the walls of my emotional house. They were so ubiquitous, powered so many things, and used so frequently that I essentially stopped even noticing that they were present or had actual content or form. Both W and G employed this phrase and ones related to it (“I desire closeness with you,” etc) pretty regularly with me, and often with others in my hearing. I had never encountered this prior to embarking into polyamory. I assumed this was part of the new vocabulary I was supposed to be learning. To this day, I still don’t really know what it meant the way they used it. I heard it a lot when I tried to place boundaries, or expressed preferences. It also seemed like a placeholder for the work of problem-solving and trust-building? I don’t even know. I haven’t heard those phrases since I left my polycule in June, and I hope to never hear them again. One of the reasons I find that whole business completely nauseating is that the background assumption is that closeness (oh god blech) with another person (W or G, in my case) was assumed at the gate as more desirable to me than whatever it was I was expressing or asking. Sure, it’s phrased as simply an outcome of a boundary or preference; but the implication is that it’s an option for me to deprioritize something I’ve stated as necessary in order to continue “closeness” (whatever that meant with my interlocutor).
The two occasions I basically said, “well then that’s fine, I guess, because these things are non-negotiable at this point” I was told that my words were, I’m not kidding, devastating, and that I was a disappointment and owed apologies. This from people who didn’t believe in obligation or effort, who professed that all relationships were at will, and that we should never do things we don’t want to in service of the people we love. With all the dialogue about empowering relationships, and empowering the people you love to stand up for the things they want and need as core values — the expectation was that I would continue to suppress my needs and limitations in order to have “closeness” — a concept that had zero content for me. I would also always communicate perfectly the first time, even when hurt and angry, and never make mistakes.
Places, Places / Get in your Places….
So now, I perfect clockwork and marionette gestures to the beat of my heart in front of a narrow mirror in the Grand Library of Sarnath. I practice the shibari wraps that show how confining, how limiting, and how controlling this version of polyamory was for me. As the rope coils around and cuts into my skin and muscle, I remember. This is how it felt. Every wrap marks you with tiny spirals from nowhere, long after the rope is gone. Throw on your dress. Put on your doll faces.
Hey girl. Hey Girl. Girl. Hey Girl. Open the walls. Play with your dolls. We’ll be a perfect family.
I will undo this. We can undo this. I am finding myself again. It’s been a long time, but I have a lot of help.