Practicing Polyamory While Healing from Relationship Trauma
This post is part three of a four-part series on polyamory, healing, and societal wounds. Start with part one.
In thinking about models for polyamory that don’t revolve around competition and scarcity, I couldn’t help thinking about healing and recovery. In the last post, I talked about healing from the societal wounds of capitalism and an alternative model for poly relationships. In this post, I’d like to talk about a different kind of healing, from interpersonal relationship trauma. This post does not describe details of my relationship history, but it does provide some thoughts on healing from emotional abuse and how abusers can manipulate a scarcity mentality. It also draws parallels with my experience of EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). For this reason, I’m putting most of the post below the cut tag. Please proceed with caution if this content may be triggering for you.
In discussions of poly, we can hardly avoid the topics of jealousy and possessiveness. While I have rarely experienced the former, I have noticed a kind of possessiveness when the least attractive parts of my brain come to the party and the capitalist, relationship-escalator-focused training I described in the last two posts kicks in. I believe that this possessiveness comes, at its heart, from a fear of someone taking something away. I almost never have a desire for my partners or metamours not to have an experience, but I do experience the fear that a relationship change for my partner might also mean a relationship change for us that in turn harms me. My experience of relationship trauma (minor in comparison to some experiences, but more present than I’d realized until recently) has exacerbated this.
Abusers, even those who are the most well-meaning, can use a scarcity mentality as a form of control. For example, in a relationship that ended several years ago, I realized that my partner was (whether intentionally or not) using my desire to hear the words “I love you” as a weapon. That we used the words with each other was something of a relationship milestone and a symbol of our commitment in my mind, so when she refused to repeat them back to me in a fight, when I wanted reassurance that our relationship was okay at its core, it profoundly affected me and became a means of control where I would quickly make concessions or change my tone to pull things back to center.
In that relationship, it didn’t help that I was already steeped in the scarcity mentality. Both because of the societal lessons I described in the last post, and because of her (justifiable, to be fair) inability to be available as much as I wished she could be, I spent a lot of our relationship fearing scarcity of time and emotion. This put me in a vulnerable position where I was easy to manipulate.
While I certainly don’t want to suggest that I or any one else is to blame in an abusive situation due to a scarcity mentality, or that such a situation could be avoided or repaired through a shift to a mentality of abundance, I do find such shift to be useful in the healing process. I realize certain parts of that trauma have stuck with me, unnoticed, through a lingering fear of scarcity. My inability to be emotionally vulnerable in relationships lasted several years and made it difficult to break out of a competitive, self-protective relationship model.
At the same time, I’ve noticed a relationship between this experience and other kinds of trauma I’ve experienced, particularly around food and eating. Food is another area where a scarcity model has been damaging to my ability to develop healthy practices. I’ve binged on and denied myself both food and relationship energy, engaging in destructive cycles where I feel a loss of control or willpower. After that unhealthy relationship, it was difficult to trust my own ability to participate in or deserve love, and so I tightly controlled my emotions for a period of time. My relationship with food has been similar, not characterized by trust. I’ve learned from reading about mindful eating that for many of us, bingeing happens when we fear scarcity—that we won’t be able to have the food again. It takes a lot of practice to get back to trusting feelings of hunger or fullness, and a lot of mental reminders that food will be available if we don’t eat all of it right now.
My plan (or hope, at least) for continuing the process of healing from relationship trauma that I’ve ignored in recent years is to focus on frequent affirmation and on cultivating abundance in my life and relationships. As with food, I expect that this will require a lot of mental reminders that love is available to me and will continue to be there even if I don’t do everything right at every moment in a relationship, and even if sometimes time and energy are inevitably limited. In a healthy relationship, love isn’t a reward for reducing conflict or a tool for manipulating behavior. I also expect that I will need to ask for the things I need over and over again before I can intuitively trust in the safety of emotional vulnerability again, but I’ll try to remind myself that “protecting” myself from possible loss through withdrawing or assuming the worst won’t actually help.
I think it’s important that the whole community benefits as we put more love “on the pile,” as it were. A scarcity mentality, which may be particularly engrained in those of us who have experienced emotional abuse and manipulation, tricks us into thinking that as a partner experiences relationship milestones and positive developments with others, their well runs out of resources for us. In reality, I really do think that such developments are much more likely to fill the well, so that there’s more there for everyone, particularly when it comes to infinite resources such as love and happiness. Emotional withdrawal mostly just means that I’m artificially keeping myself from drawing from those resources, even when the benefits could be really amazing and someone is standing there saying “hey, you! You’re awesome! Please drink from my well!”
But I’m going to cap this post off before it turns into a terrible sex pun. Stay tuned for the final post in the series, where I toss some disability theory into the equation just for fun. And if you have any sage wisdom around healing and recovery that you’d like to share in the comments, I’m sure I’m not the only one who would appreciate it.