It is difficult to see our partners in emotional distress, especially if we feel our actions have caused or contributed to it. The knee-jerk reaction to fix the problem by removing the stressor is not necessarily always the healthiest answer. Surprising? Read on…
You can pretty much assume that non-monogamous couples have top-notch communication skills. Well, if they are doing well and are happy in non-monogamy. Through the years, however, my husband and I have stumbled upon a couple of issues that I am not sure anyone talks about because they don’t know how to talk about them. One of them is this: how willing are you to see your partner under stress?
Our knee-jerk reaction can be to make the pain stop.
To varying degrees, your relationship will experience stress due to non-monogamous activities — it is just part of it. Monogamous relationships also experience a lot of stress, by the way; it’s just easier (maybe) to get by without talking about it. In ENM, it will often be one or the other of you experiencing more distress over an issue than the other. When we see our partners struggling, that can also be stressful for us. Mostly, our knee-jerk reaction can be to make the pain stop. Our reactions to all of this, however, have paramount implications for our relationships.
Fairly early in the lifestyle, my husband became upset when I showed too much interest in one particular guy. “Not worth the stress it causes you,” I said and backed off. I know many of you may have done or said something similar. Then, later on, he showed more interest in someone than I was comfortable with. He did not, however, stop seeing her. I was hurt and angry because that is what I had done for him, even though I was more stressed about the situation, even, than he had been. Before you judge (there are likely two distinct camps around this out there), read on. I learned an important lesson.
I fired my secretary, while my husband did not fire his.
Around that time, we were seeing a therapist who shared a great analogy for our situation. (We are his only non-monogamous couple, by the way, so this applies to all relationships.) The analogy was simply that if one spouse is feeling jealous about the other spouse’s secretary at work, generally, the answer is not to fire the secretary but to understand what the dynamic is in the relationship that is causing the jealousy.
So, in terms of the analogy, I fired my secretary, while my husband did not fire his because my tolerance for seeing him stressed was very low. My learning was that his action was actually the “healthier” of the two. I put this in quotes because every relationship functions differently, and so I hate to say there is only one healthy way. My reaction to do anything to simply stop his stress, however, was unhealthy for this reason: I am not responsible for his emotional state. I am going to write this again because this is a very hard one for many (including me): I am not responsible for his emotional state. He is responsible for his emotional state, and I am responsible for mine. We support one another, we talk about how things affect us, and we share our emotional states with one another — but it’s not actually up to the other to fix it.
We can certainly make requests to our partner. I could have asked him to stop seeing her because it was just too stressful for me. I never felt like that was the answer, though — it felt like firing the secretary. So I didn’t. He never actually asked me to stop seeing my guy either — I did that on my own accord. You see here how this builds resentment? I worked long and hard on my own insecurities (see Running Towards a Cliff), and we both ended up much happier after all of it. Our relationship functions in a healthier state with this newfound emotional sovereignty.
What is emotional sovereignty, and how do we do obtain it?
What is emotional sovereignty, and how do we obtain it? I’m not sure all the places the term shows up, but I’ve heard it in the self-help or personal transformation world. The idea is this: if you allow others to control your emotions, you are a victim to how they “make you” feel (some of us love being the victim, btw). However, if you are responsible for your own emotions, you become empowered.
May I share a tale with you about this? If not, skip to the next paragraph (this is like a design-your-own-adventure article). In the seminar where I really learned it, it was one principle of seven being espoused. One was Radical Responsibility (I am the creator of my life). Another was Unconditional Love (acceptance of myself and others). I could get behind those two quite easily. The Emotional Sovereignty principle, though, was annoying to me right away. Emotional what?! I was screaming, but only inside my head.
I could not get the word sovereignty out of my mouth; its convoluted spelling gave my brain a logical reason to not get it. As we learned more about the concept, it was presented that the other side of this is victimhood. If our emotional states are dictated by others, then that leaves us as victims. Almost constantly. “Ohhhhhh, I do that,” I then said, this time out loud. In that one powerful moment, I really understood emotional sovereignty.
No one likes seeing their partner upset. Well, psychopaths excluded.
It doesn’t mean what others do won’t affect you. Just writing that made me laugh. It does mean, however, that when something makes you feel an emotion, it is then your responsibility to feel that emotion, try to understand it (maybe — emotions can be tricky little buggers), and then decide what you are going to do with it. Is it a passing emotion not worth having a discussion about? Is it important to you that your partner knows how you feel about something? Then, share it. Not in a “you made me feel” kind of way but in a “I felt this way when I saw you do that” way. “I” statements are helpful when talking about emotions, especially when they feel high-stakes.
The other side of this is actively listening to your partner and how they felt when you did a particular thing. Now, it’s up to you to discuss and decide if you stop doing the thing OR if it’s important to you to continue doing it. In this case, the next step is finding a way to work with your partner to find a solution where you do the thing, and they feel safe. The thing now feels like a euphemism for sex. That kind of works, coming from a swinger, but it wasn’t intended.
I write this in a matter-of-fact way, but let me also tell you that this continues to be one of my biggest struggles — seeing my partner in stress and allowing them to work through it, or working through it with them, but not jumping in to stop it. No one likes seeing their partner upset. No one. Well, psychopaths excluded. I’m just saying, don’t rush in and put their needs before your own just to make them feel better. That’s all. Hahahaha — easier said than done, I KNOW. Like all things in life and love, it takes practice. Good luck, and have fun.