For Poly Folks Who Desperately Need Autonomy

I recently discovered this amazing piece by Nora Samaran about relationships, gender, and autonomy that has really resonated with me and many of my friends. Go read it.

Here are some of the key points I took away from this article:

  • If you’re afraid of being relied on, you’ll probably treat your partner inconsistently and any “acts of care” that you will do for them will feel inauthentic.
  • If you treat your partner like their needs are unreasonable and unmeetable–like they’re “crazy”–they are much more likely to act “crazy” with you. That same person, with a partner who treats their needs as reasonable and meetable, might seem a lot more stable. (Sidenote: this is one of several reasons I absolutely refuse to listen to any “crazy ex-girlfriend” stories from guys.)
  • Sometimes, in order for your partner to feel comfortable with distance, you have to establish real closeness first.
  • A common way that people (especially men) deal with their own fear of attachment, closeness, and interdependence is to blame their partners for having “unreasonable” needs or wanting “too much.”  This is gaslighting.

I encourage you to read (and reread) the entire article. It seems to be making a huge (positive) impact on many people I know.

That said, I have some deep disagreements with the author–not necessarily about any of these main points, but about the basic philosophical place that she comes from. We do relationships very, very differently.

For instance, one of the main ideas in the article is that autonomy is not something you “take,” but something you “build.” The author seems to believe that the default for healthy relationships is interdependence and intertwinement (to an extent that I would personally consider codependent), and she states that the reason she is able to trust her partner is because he has repeatedly met her needs no matter how inconvenient or difficult that was for him. Only then has he “built” autonomy; only then does she “give” him that autonomy; and only then does he “get” to do something like go away for weeks for a job without her being upset about it.

I see things the other way around. The default is independence and autonomy. The default is that we are each a ship at sea, setting our own courses, and we get to choose when and how and for long long to dock in someone else’s harbor. True, we don’t “take” autonomy, but that’s because we already have it.

For me, it’s interdependence that gets “built.” It requires immense trust for me to become more interdependent with someone else. If you want that from me, you first have to create a safe space for it.

And for me, I don’t “give” autonomy to anyone. They already have autonomy, and they have it no matter what I say or do or what our relationship is. They get to choose to reduce certain aspects of their autonomy if they want to, but ultimately it–just like their time, their body, and their emotional reserves–belongs to them.

The difference in our philosophies was made very clear to me in this paragraph about her breakup with the partner she had written about:

What we are no longer giving each other is sex, romantic feeling, and partnership – we are no longer committing to live together or have children together or make our lives in the same geographical location. His new girlfriend and eventual life partner will have priority decision-making power over how close he and I can be. We cried and grieved those parts.

I had such a viscerally negative reaction to this I almost had to stop reading, despite how much I had loved the article up until then. No. No no no. I would never accept someone having this kind of power over me, whether they are my partner or my ex’s partner. I would never accept a friendship or relationship with someone who agrees to let someone else control our closeness.

Moreover, I would never, ever want to exercise such a power over someone else. When I imagine one of my partners having as close and meaningful a friendship with an ex as this author has with hers, and I imagine telling that partner to destroy that closeness, I honestly feel that it would be monstrous of me. I can’t even imagine wanting to do that. Such connections are so rare, so precious, so difficult to build–who the fuck are we to tell others to destroy them for the sake of our own comfort?

But I get that given the way most people do relationships, that’s perfectly reasonable. It’s a common monogamous dictum that you get to control (though most people wouldn’t use that word) your partner’s relationships with their exes.

More to the point–Samaran’s conception of emotional safety is that it develops when (and only when) partners are able to meet each others’ needs every time they’re asked to. But what if they can’t? What if they cannot be available on demand like that? What if they have other partners–hell, what if they have friends, family members, jobs, passions, responsibilities–that matter just as much? What if the author’s partner, during his camp when he was mostly unavailable, wasn’t able to take even that half an hour to be with her? What if he had his own mental health issues that impacted his availability? What if romantic relationships are not your primary focus, but one of many domains of your life that you balance? What if you do not agree that your romantic partner (just one) will be your first (and, really, only) priority?

Do people like me just have to give up on feeling emotionally safe, and on building emotional safety for our partners?

I don’t think so.

I think Samaran creates a false choice between fully meeting your partner’s needs every time and saying (in her words), “My needs matter and I will meet them regardless of the impact on you.” She is correct that we must treat our partners’ needs as “normal, healthy, [and] eminently meetable”; I don’t think she’s correct, at least not for people like me and my friends and partners, that we must be able to commit to this:

“So, if I actually need you, you’re always there, right?” I ask.

“Of course,” he says. “Look, I really need to be able to focus on being here. But if you really need me, of course you can just come by the desk and ask where I am and I’ll come help with whatever you need.”

(I do appreciate how honest her partner is here about how it will impact him if she does need to access him during the camp. But what if he were unable or unwilling to be available during that time? Would that make him an emotionally unsafe partner? I think she might say it would. I say it wouldn’t.)

(Also, I may be misrepresenting the article unfairly; at times the author seems to imply that she doesn’t need her needs to be completely met in order for trust to develop, but at other times she implies that she does, and that she needs her partner to always put her first. In any case, though, the article is clearly based on a style of Primary Relationships that I don’t do myself.)

[Edit: I’m having a great chat with Nora on Twitter and she clarified that she does not mean that you have to fully meet your partner’s needs every time; we both agree that that’s too high a bar. But Wired for Love, the book she cites, does claim that. Seems that we both disagree with that aspect of it!]

So. I’m not trying to criticize how Samaran personally does things because that’s her own business, but this piece left me (and a bunch of people I know) totally unsure of how to incorporate these insights into a poly framework, and specifically a poly framework in which individual autonomy, not any particular relationship, is what’s “primary.”

Here are some thoughts I had:

1. Just because you can’t meet a need doesn’t mean it’s an unreasonable need.

One of the ways we cope with our own feelings of helplessness in the face of loved ones’ unmeetable needs is to try to delegitimize those needs. If you have real needs that I can’t or won’t meet, that makes me a bad partner(/friend/family member). I don’t want to feel that way, so maybe your needs aren’t legitimate after all, so there’s nothing wrong with me not meeting them.

Of course, this mental process usually isn’t so conscious. I think most people who do it don’t realize they’re doing it.

As Samaran writes in another piece, gaslighting doesn’t have to be intentional to be deeply harmful. If your defense mechanism against feeling powerless to help someone is to make that person feel like they shouldn’t have even asked or needed that in the first place, you’re gaslighting them and that’s abusive. You need to own your own limitations and take responsibility for them rather than blaming the other person.

Which brings me to…

2. You must own your boundaries and limitations.

There’s a huge difference between saying, “[I’m sorry], I’m not in a good place to listen to you right now” and saying, “I can’t listen to you because you’re too emotional.” Both might feel true to you–your own current state of mind may limit the amount of strong emotion you can hold space for from others. But the root cause here isn’t your partner’s emotions; it’s your limitations.

Yes, it’s true that if your partner were less emotional in that moment, you might be able to listen to them. But when you set a boundary and implicitly blame the other person this way, you’re telling them that their feelings and needs are wrong. The message your partner hears is, “My partner won’t support me because I’m too emotional,” rather than what they should hear, which is, “My partner can’t support me right now because they need to take care of themselves.”

3. Not meeting needs doesn’t mean disregarding needs.

There’s a dangerous false dichotomy that a lot of relationship advice reinforces, and Samaran’s article does this as well. That’s the dichotomy between “meeting your partner’s needs” and “not giving a fuck about your partner’s needs.”

I’ve noted before that every time I talk about my autonomy-based form of polyamory, the first question I get is “So what you don’t even care if your partner is sitting at home alone crying while you’re on a date?” Of course I care. And if that’s really how it would be, I probably wouldn’t go on the date. But it wouldn’t be my duty to not go on a date, and it can’t happen every time I have a date, and I would not choose to continue a relationship with someone who regularly gets that upset about me going on dates because it doesn’t sound like we’re compatible.

If you’re unable or unwilling to meet a partner’s need at a particular point in time, that doesn’t mean that you’re saying, as Samaran writes, “My needs matter and I will meet them regardless of the impact on you.” It might mean saying, “My needs matter but yours do too–what solutions can we come up with?” It might mean saying, “I hear that this is hurting you, but this is something I need to do. Is there any way I can help you through it?” It might mean saying, “Let’s do what you need this time, but later let’s talk about what we can do to make sure that next time I can do what I need.”

4. You might be able to find comfort in your partner’s care and concern for you, even if they can’t meet your need.

Say I have a very intense job that doesn’t really allow for many (or any) breaks to chat on the phone with someone. Say I have a partner who really needs to be able to call me during the work day if they’re having a hard time. Say that, due to the limitations of my job, that’s an unmeetable need at this point.

How would my partner feel if I said, “Sorry, can’t do that. I already told you that I’m very busy at work. We can talk about it when I get home”?

How would my partner feel if I said, “I’m sorry, I really wish I could be there for you during the day, but my job just doesn’t allow for that. I’ll be there for you after work if you want to talk then”?

If they’re anything like most people, they’d probably feel pretty different in those two scenarios, even though I’m still declining to meet their stated need and offering the same alternative. What I’m doing is the same, but how I’m doing it is totally different.

If you’re someone who, like Samaran’s examples of men who aren’t ready to be relied on, treats every request for your care as overwhelmingly too much, you are liable to respond in that snappy, detached way from my first example. And that’s going to really hurt your partner, and they may come to the conclusion that they feel hurt because you aren’t meeting their needs, not because of the way you aren’t meeting their needs. This will lead to arguments about how you aren’t meeting their needs enough, and you will respond that you can’t and why can’t they understand that, and it’ll be a mess. (I may or may not have been on both sides of this at various times.)

Whereas if you respond to unmeetable needs not only by treating them as valid (as I discussed above) but also with real compassion and concern, that may go a long way in healing your partner’s pain at having their needs unmet.

5. Compromise is key.

If you can’t meet your partner’s need, what’s the next best thing?

In my work phone call situation, it might be that they can text me while I’m at work and I’ll respond as I’m able. It might be that they can call and leave me a long voicemail that I’ll listen to as soon as I’m done–that way, they can at least talk their feelings out and know that I’ll hear it even if I’m not responding right away. It might be that we set aside time that evening to cuddle and talk. It might be that they find a friend or another partner who can talk during the work day, even though they’d rather have talked to me. It might be that they work on finding a therapist who can help them develop other coping skills that they can use independently. It might be that once a week, I set aside my brief lunch break to talk to them on the phone during the work day.

It doesn’t have to be a choice between “fully meet your partner’s needs” and “ignore your partner to suffer alone.”

6. Patterns tell the truth that individual cases don’t.

Everyone has bad days, bad weeks, bad years. There will be times when your partner comes to you for support and you snap “Leave me alone, I can’t deal with this right now.” As Samaran writes in her article, these things happen and they can be repaired–as long as they don’t become patterns.

When I talk about the importance of taking care of yourself and your needs before others–putting your oxygen mask on first, as I sometimes refer to it–someone often says, “Well, my partner is always putting themselves first and they never seem to have any time or energy left over for my needs.”

That’s a pattern. If your partner consistently can’t or won’t meet your needs, maybe you’re not compatible. (Or, in a polyamorous/non-elevator framework, you might be compatible in a different way than you’re trying to be–for instance, as good friends who have sex, or as occasional lovers.)

And because it’s painful to acknowledge that you might just be the wrong partner for someone, it’s tempting to say that they’re “selfish” or “detached” or “not ready for relationships,” when in fact they might make a great partner for someone who isn’t you and has a different set of needs and expectations.

7. We’re not bad people for not being able to meet each others’ needs.

In the first point, I wrote about how people try to delegitimize others’ needs as a way to protect themselves from feeling bad for not needing those needs. Rather than resorting to gaslighting, we should remind ourselves that our goodness is not tied to what or how much we give others. My own philosophy is that goodness is about respecting and valuing others (and, more broadly, valuing your community, humankind, and our planet). I am good as long as I treat people with respect and remain mindful of my impact on them and on the broader systems and ecosystems in which I exist. None of this requires me to do what others need or want all (or even most) of the time. You are free to develop your own philosophy (especially if you, like me, are an atheist who is not provided with any preformed religious answers to these types of questions).

If you detach your sense of your own goodness from meeting others’ needs all of the time, you might find that you have an easier time meeting those needs, because you’ll have less anxiety about it. When we hang a whole bunch of baggage onto an otherwise-simple task, it becomes much impossibly difficult. What have you attached to the acts of care you do for others? Do you feel like doing (or not doing) those acts makes or breaks you as a Good Person?

That might seem like it’s going in the opposite direction of Samaran’s article that inspired this post–and maybe it is–but I think that one of the great paradoxes of life is that sometimes you have to let go of something in order to get it. If you’re struggling with feeling like you can’t meet anyone’s needs, try to let go of feeling like you have to meet those needs and it might become actually doable.

Moreover, we have to stop telling ourselves that we either have to be there for our partners all of the time or we’re not supporting them at all. Open yourself up to other ways of supporting and of being supported, and try to let go of the myth–perpetuated by a culture that glorifies and centers romantic relationships–that partners are the only ones who have any meaningful support to give.

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For Poly Folks Who Desperately Need Autonomy

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