Tag Archives: polyamory

Marriage counselling part 1: clearing the decks, building skills


My husband and I have been going to couples counselling now for around three months, seeing the fabulous Frances Amaroux who specialises in working on relationships. She has chops as a poly counsellor and understands the intricacies and complexities of building relationships within a poly framework, whatever that may be for the couple concerned.

When we first began seeing her, our relationship was under a lot of stress. We’d just lost our baby in early pregnancy and were trying to unpack the fallout. My husband was struggling with the anxiety of going through the visa process to qualify for permanent residency. We’d sunk into a state of constant conflict and competitive arguments, with a big empathy gap on both sides (despite me thinking at the time that my husband was the only one lacking empathy – I’ve since realised I had some work to do as well). Neither of us was enjoying the day to day of relating to each other because of some serious relationship skills deficits on both sides. Our first appointment was pretty rough, and revealed starkly just how much we were struggling.

Frances was robustly caring, yet pretty frank that we had a lot of work to do. She was also frank about all that we had going for us. She sort of presented us with a choice: break up, or work on our relationship. Neither of us wanted to break up. We just wanted to not feel so miserable all the time.

She took us back to the basics – she talked about the three circles to be cared for: our individual circles or “I spaces” and then the third circle of our relationship or “we space”. I know, it sounds hippy dippy but hey, it’s good stuff to contemplate and getting ‘back to basics’ has been good for us, and in three years we’d just been feeling it out and hoping for the best. She quickly assessed some of our biggest hurdles, and gave us simple tools to start taking them apart.

Thankfully, both of us had a starting point of goodwill, and I’m grateful that’s the case. Knowing that about ourselves, and each other, is the best start. Cunning Minx, a poly commentator who has been podcasting with the amazing Poly Weekly for over 10 years, mentioned in a pod-cast I was listening to the other day that “the assumption of good faith” was a really important ingredient in communication and negotiations. That really struck me and I’ve taken it quite to heart. I now try every day to assume my husband is working on things in good faith, and try in as many ways as I can, to reassure him I am doing the same. That assumption makes a HUGE difference – because how can you possibly work out a problem if you’re convinced your partner is out to get you? Instead if you’re uplifted by the assumption that you’re both trying your level best to work things out with each other’s well-being in mind, you’re liberated from a certain cynicism that really shrinks trust.

We both love each other enormously, and thanks to Frances we’re no longer in constant “emergency” mode. We’re getting increasingly skilled at checking our ego at the door of our marriage and instead focusing on being well in ourselves, taking care of each other’s wellbeing, and taking care of the “third circle”. We’ve concentrated on being ambiently aware of each other’s mental health, how the other person’s day is going, and we’ve also started to assess our individual happiness – how much we are taking care of ourselves personally (because this has a huge impact on how we relate to each other, obviously.) I think my husband has been doing too many practical things for our relationship, and not taking enough time for exercise or hobbies, and he is starting to address that. I’m trying to take better care of my health, and I’ve taken up crochet, which really comforts and engages me. Having a hobby again is great – something just for me. Poly is still kind of on the backburner, but is on the “discuss again soon” list now that things are settling down. Getting our relationship right before engaging with others has been a priority.

Some of the key skills and ideas we’ve learned include:

  • The importance of developing ambient empathy – being aware of each other’s wellbeing and state of being as a basis for making decisions and communicating with each other. We do this by checking in through the day with texts, phone calls, emails or whatever works and using a numbers system – asking how each other are on a scale from “1-10”. That establishes a bit of a baseline from which we can ask questions. “How come you’re only feeling a 5? What’s happening today?” Or “I’m glad you’re an 8! I’m a 9 because I’m getting a lot done at work today.”
  • Not flooding. I’m a BIG flooder. When D asks me a question or we discuss something I TALK AND TALK AND TALK and he only really processes the first two things I’ve said. Using the numbers system above helps make emotional information a bit more concise, and then he can seek out more clarity, little by little, and get a picture of what’s going on that he actually understands. Nothing is gained by me talking if he is unable to process what’s being said. So slowing down and chunking out information is important.
  • Active listening. A lot of lip service is paid to this, and sure I’ve HEARD the term a million times but actually practising active listening well is pretty hard. What is active listening (other than something I need to practice a lot more?) It is when somebody talks and you reflect back to them, paraphrasing and without judging or commenting or adding to it, what they’ve said to make sure you’ve fully understood them. They can then clarify if you’ve not totally grasped it. When you have fully understood them, you can move on to the next point. “So what I hear you saying is that you felt pressured when I asked how long it would be before you can get your citizenship?” Reflect, seek clarity, reflect. Rinse and repeat. It seems like such a simple thing but it really reduces the chances of conflict based on misunderstandings.
  • Owning your shit and not talking for others. This is pretty important because we were both shocking for it. Rather than just talk about how we personally felt about something, we were talking about what each other thought/felt, which was causing a lot of aggrieved feelings. Pretty much nobody likes being spoken for, especially when the other person is making a bunch of negative assumptions. Increasingly, we just try to speak about our own perspective and then inquire as to what each other are actually thinking/feeling.
  • Topping up on affection. Frances encouraged us to keep, as much as possible and is consensual, a constant drip feed of affection and care flowing between us. It could be something small – a touch of a knee, a kiss on the head, a nice friendly text, a shared joke, a cup of tea made, or generally reminding the other person you think they’re pretty cool. Keeping the other person aware that you love them, and they are loved, means the “trust account” gets filled up all the time. When shit hits the fan, we are finding we are now so much more resilient and accommodating of each other because of that baseline of care and tenderness.

I’m really glad we’ve started this process in the aftermath of the loss in early pregnancy of our baby, Elliot, because I think it will make us stronger parents. Both of us (and some of our friends if I’m being honest) were feeling scared about the consequences for a child of our poor communication; my pregnancy with Elliot had really highlighted some of the major flaws in how we connected. And rather than split up and waste the last three (mostly really enjoyable) years, we decided to work on our stuff collectively so we could deal with the issues at hand before I got pregnant again. I am so glad we did! Things are looking so much better, and now that we’re feeling functional again and can go weeks without conflict (and when conflict arises, we are dealing with it SO much more carefully and thoughtfully) I feel we have a fighting chance of having a relationship that actively supports the well-being of another life.

We just got the great news that my husband has been made a permanent resident, which is a huge weight off his and our shoulders. Now that lots of pressures are off, we can breathe a little, and try to enjoy each other as we prepare for the next stage of our lives together.

Next up on this blog: negotiating “job roles” as we embark on our next pregnancy! TBC…


Remember your peaks: when relationships go right.

Sometimes I wonder how much happier relationships would be if we could bottle the scent of a companionable silence and, when disaster struck, release it to run amok with shaky hearts.

Human beings seem very adept at breaking down, with critical ease, the failings of their relationships. They can name, categorise and carefully label the pains and torments, the inadequacies and faltering steps. I’ve definitely been a labeller, at the ready with my sharpie to write away the past with a deft flick of the wrist.

Yet it is rare, rare indeed to see someone praising their relationship’s moments of happiness in a way that is effusive and unreserved. It’s true also that often when someone tries, they’re hampered by a lack of genuine language that leads to a slow tipping forward into a heap of cliche that threatens to smother the purity of their sentiment. And so they don’t try, or they sound like a hallmark card.

I’m drawn to folk to whom a sincere contemplation of the good moments of their relationship and a pursuit of honest praise of such, comes easily. I wish it did me. I find my mouth filled with too much chatter and not enough meaning. The carelessness with which I choose crucial expressions makes me cringe. I want to underscore what I mean with what I usually have: words. But they fall together painfully and land wrong.

And it hurts me more not to try. Right now I’m sitting here, my skin warm and flushed and my stomach fluttery with the joy of being partnered to a person so completely invested in my happiness and his own fierce right to it, that when we converse it is filled, brimming with light. Independence and faith in equal euphoric measure.

Sometimes it isn’t this way, and the contrast, the relief brings a spot on smack to the forehead that dizzies me. You need to know struggle in a relationship, I think. Not abuse – that’s not struggle, because it isn’t consensual to start with. But you need to have done the taxing work to know what it is to laugh with abandoned, graceless, hedonism in the balm of each others regard.

Sometimes I feel angry at my partner. I have, recently. Sometimes we feel trapped. And then we talk, and take space, and talk more, and go to therapy, and talk more and then, then something opens and…there. We find the clearing. Giddily we stand there together, shouting ‘oh there you are!’

The product of that work and thought is this feeling, right now, and I want to record it. Being able to negotiate boundaries that work for us, to do so with giggles and unabashed admiration, to want each other’s pleasure, to be ready to be the government of our connection and to reject the rules of the surrounding world – it feels so sweet.

I do, in this moment, regard him as a wonder. I don’t care that he’s on the other side of the world. I don’t feel far away. I don’t feel powerless, I feel lit up like a thousand street lamps.

In the good times, you feel like you can conquer the world together, or alone and with the grinning cheering on of them at your back. You feel like you’ve climbed a really high thing and you’re sweating and waving from the peak.

I wish I could bottle this, and give it out for free.

Respect Pumpkin Time: The madness of a busy poly life

I’m a big fan of scheduling. My google calendar makes my life run smoothly. Why?

I’m hyper-reliant on timetabling because I am currently dating three people. Well, maybe four. But it’s hard to tell.

One relationship has been kicking strong for over a year now. This partner lives with me, and we’re kind of like flatmates with separate bedrooms who are in L.O.V.E and make sexy faces at each other. Oh, and we both obsess over House and take care of each other while we’re sick.

The other relationships or connections exist in various states of establishment and flow. One of them I’d consider myself properly dating, and the others are…yet to be decided. They’re fledgling things that are all distracting with how fascinating and shiny they are.

I’m not sure I knew that I’d opened Pandora’s box when I became polyamorous. Of course back then I was married, and it certainly didn’t work in that context because of too many contingent factors to speak of.

Now, though, my life is different. I’m part of a very strong and supportive poly community – with overlaps into the queer community – that provides a lot in the way of positive support, resources and education about how to make your life as a non-monogamous person both bountiful and functional.

Sometimes though, poly is exhausting. I’m glad that people are pretty honest about this. I mean, loving or fucking more than one person is one thing – but being able to budget for it all time and energy wise is another.

Sometimes I feel like a rabbit on crack. I’m bouncing all over the place, trying to keep up with dates and communication about dates and sexy tiems and poly events (ok, I barely ever go to these in all honesty) and the general ebb and flow of the people in my life. Whether it is one partner or six, I’m always on the go – whether in my bed or in my head or at a workshop. Even when I was only partnered to one person, I still had lots to do emotionally while I computed the presence of their other partner in their life and mine.

It was lovely, don’t get me wrong. It was fantastic having a partner’s partner around so much – it helped build a sense of family that I cherished.

But the nature of poly is flux. At least, in my experience it is. You have to be prepared for a certain amount of wear and tear on your resources – whether that’s your body, your emotions, your bank balance or your time. Those who think polyamory doesn’t involve any work – or ‘processing’ as it often called in the community – are either liars, extremely lucky or are doing it irresponsibly.

Poly is not the easy option. It is a fun, stimulating and rewarding one though. For those who think they can have open relationships or non-monogamous connections as a ‘default’ position to make their life easier – well…I’d hand them a bex and tell them to lay down before the truth hits.

I think, on reflection, something I’ve come to value is the ability to communicate to my partners when I need to holla for a time-out. That’s a skill I’ve had to work on and now I’m getting good at it. I have a lot of other considerations in my life beyond and before my partners and this is important for me to remember. Sweeties are, in the worst case scenario, expendable – but I’m the only me I’ve got.

I have chronic back pain from a car accident which left my spine a mess and that eats up a lot of my ‘spoons‘. I struggle with that daily. Some days I barely get through work, I’m all full up with held back tears because I’m in so much pain. It fucks with my ability to do physical things and it makes me feel weak and stupid. I hate asking shiny people I’m on a date with for more pillows or for them to not move my body that way, thanks, or in the case of this weekend having to move beds altogether because I just couldn’t deal with their bizarrely soft mattress without agony.

My back pain, and how I manage it, is my number one concern each day. After that, I manage a mental illness – bipolar disorder and co-morbid anxiety. After that I manage full time work. I try to keep in touch with my family, and see my friends, and take good care of my cats. I try to manage my finances well and eat right and go to bed on time. All that there is a full life in itself – full of stimulation and challenge.

Now add a sprinkling of lovers, people, squeezes – whatever you want to call them. Now we have discussions about boundaries, expectations and needs. We have booty calls and hanging out and snuggle time. There’s the complexities of partners meeting/them being friends/them dating your other partners to consider. There’s the sheer circus act of balancing your schedule so everyone gets a slice of pie. You also have to think about how you move in the world – how do you talk to family, friends, workmates and doctors about your relationships? That’s pretty full on, particularly in the early days.

To be honest, I’m no alchemist. I’m not a perfect poly person. I just try my best to adjust to often rapidly changing circumstance with dignity and glee. Sometimes I fuck this up and sometimes I balance everything well. I do what I think is fair and right and try to remember to have fun and be joyful.

But most important of all, in this, is to be mindful that one cannot give to others what one doesn’t already have. If you’ve depleted yourself of energy and spoons and happiness, you’re screwed. If you’ve pushed yourself too hard and lost your puff, lost your ability to navigate well, you’re no good to anyone.

Most of all, you can’t make yourself happy. If you can’t remember the last time you sat under a tree and read a book, or did your favourite sport, or slept in by yourself in your own bed – you’ve tapped out your poly meter. Glitter is good, yes. But it isn’t everything.

One of my partners and I have worked to respect each other’s sleep patterns, both needing it for work and in my case, to replenish my spoons. At midnight we turn into pumpkins, we say. So at 10:30pm he leaves my house, or I his (roughly) so we can get home and get to bed on time, knowing we’ll feel better for it the next day.

I’m glad we both felt we could ask for this and do so assertively. Respecting pumpkin time is symbolic for how we need to respect each other’s resources as polyamorous people. Respecting pumpkin time is also about respecting myself, and knowing I’m worth good sleep and a healthy daily existence.

Anyway – who wants to be a pumpkin when you can be a well-rested golden carriage with a spacious back-seat?

That’s what I’m talkin’ bout.

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