A relationship is not a skill

A few days ago, I happened upon a person asking a question that gets asked very often in non-monogamous or polyamorous groups:

What is the one thing you need to make a poly relationship work?

Of course, everyone had varying answers. You need good communication. Trust. Love. Oh, and my favourite: self-worth.

The top comment was someone saying that basically, if you didn’t believe in your own self-worth, your relationship wouldn’t work. Oh, and that polyamory forces people to come to terms with their lack of self-worth in a way that monogamy doesn’t.

You are not your relationships

Now, there are so many things wrong with this answer, it’s hard to even know where to begin. And, truthfully, it’s probably because the question itself is flawed. But, let me first address the idea that self-worth is necessary for good relationships.

A lot of us doubt our own self-worth. Particularly, if you do not fit the criteria of what this society considers beautiful and worthy, you’re likely to doubt yourself and feel shitty. In fact, millions of amounts of any currency are pumped into billboards, ads, and everything else around you for the sole purpose of convincing you that you are not enough and spending more money will make you enough.

If you are not white, if you are not skinny, if you are not rich, if you are not able-bodied, if you are not everything this society deems desirable, at some point, you will doubt yourself. Even those of us with the most societal power in the world, the cis heterosexual white men who dominate all of the institutions of power — even they doubt themselves. Hence, Rogaine. Hairplugs. Viagra.

On top of that, if you were raised in an abusive home, if you were gaslit into thinking that your emotions were always invalid, if you were forced to believe that in some way you are always lacking — you doubt yourself by default.

And it is true that some of us, despite not fitting into society’s jigsaw, do have self-worth. But some of us don’t. Some of us do on some days and don’t on others. Some of us have confidence at some points in our lives and not at others. Some of us fear. Some of us cry. And some of us are just all over the shop.

Point blank, I refuse to believe that those who struggle to value themselves, those who struggle to communicate, those who struggle to believe in themselves cannot ‘do’ relationships ‘well’.

You are not your compersion

To annihilate the second point, I refuse to believe that dating more than one person is somehow going to make you better at dating. If that were true, serial monogamists wouldn’t be serial monogamists. Poly people are sometimes under the delusion that they were a wad of cookie dough turned into carved wood by their multiple relationships and they, unlike the sad IKEA-obsessed monogamous souls, hold the key to romantic enlightenment.

While at the same time, those exact same people believe “There is no one right way to do poly” hypocritically. There are many wrong and unhealthy ways to do poly just as there are many wrong and unhealthy ways to do monogamy. Dating more than one person does not mean you have a higher chance of doing it right. And why is that?

Because relationships are not skills you can build. They are partnerships between people, not games you can win. Which leads me to the crux of the problem. The question:

What do you need to make a relationship ‘work’?

What does it even mean to have a relationship ‘work’? Do you mean not break up? Ask legions of children of Catholic parents who should have long since divorced if staying together meant a successful relationship. Ask me if my lesbian mother staying with my shitty father in order to form a more “normal” upbringing for the first 12 years of my life was ‘work’ing for me or them?

You are not your breakups

So then what does it mean? If we’re not defining a ‘work’ing relationship by a lack of breakup, what does it mean for a relationship to ‘work’? Does it mean no stress? You’re happy as clams living in Stepford.

What the unwritten message to me hidden in both this question and in the top response is the idea that a relationship that ‘works’ is the one that you perfect by somehow managing to contain your own emotions within yourself so they don’t bother others. Relationships only ‘work’ when everyone is happy. If people are not happy, then your relationship doesn’t ‘work’.

If self-confidence is the key to a working relationship, folks like me with mental health issues, with self-esteem they are still piecing together from the shards that their upbringing destroyed, with volcanos of self doubt that sometimes bubble over and spill into other parts of our lives… we are fucked.

Except we’re not.

You are not your emotions

Because relationships don’t ‘work’ because you have stellar self-confidence. Relationships aren’t built on one person’s solid self-esteem. Relationships are people coming together and finding something within each other that they value.

Relationships are people deciding to commit to each other in whatever way commitment means to them. It’s people deciding that, despite the emotional upheavals and flaws, there is something in that union that brings them something that’s worth saving.

We must stop assuming that a bumpy road means that someone doesn’t know how to drive. Another thing common in non-monogamy and polyamory communities are posts and leagues of people defining their success at doing poly by their lack of emotions. They aren’t upset that their partner is with someone else! They’re happy, in fact! Result! Jackpot! Bingo! Ding!

You’ve won the game! (And lost it. Sorry Richard).

It makes me want to scream at the sky. Because then it means that everyone who struggles with emotions or just doesn’t feel overjoyed necessarily that their partner is with someone else — it means they’ve somehow failed. But they haven’t. Just because you have emotions doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Poly people need to stop treating relationships like a Kolinahr. We’re not Vulcans. We’re humans. And having emotions, even shitty ones you don’t like, is not a failure.

If I had to decide whether my relationship with myself ‘work’ed… it probably doesn’t. Sometimes I have terrible self-doubt. Sometimes I’m upset. Sometimes I cry. My autism makes communication and recognising my own emotions difficult. I get jealous. That feeling of fear and bile sometimes rises within me when I think about my partner being with someone else. Flashes of thoughts rush through my head.

Am I not good enough? Is being a non-binary person the problem? Does my partner want a ‘real’ person with a ‘real’ gender? Does my demisexuality make me boring? Or shit, does my partner want one of those awesome self-assured Stepford poly wives who are never upset at anything and who can even join in with no effects of sexual abuse to work through? Does my at times poor mental health make our relationship ‘not work’?

You are not your partners

But fuck that. My relationship ‘works’ because it’s not just about me and me bottling up my emotions. It’s not just about my partner ‘dealing’ with my emotions. It’s about the fact that me and anyone else who I will date in the future, has made decision to accept me and want me in their lives — ALL of me. Every curve and every edge.

And if my relationship right now should ‘fail’, if it doesn’t work out… it doesn’t mean that I’ve lost experience or a level. If someone doesn’t want to ‘deal’ with my emotions, they don’t want to ‘deal’ with me. And that is a decision they make. Not a consequence of me being unwilling to pretend I’m fine when I’m not.

I’ll say it again: Relationships are not skills you can build. They are sometimes ‘successful’. Sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they last. Sometimes they don’t. Each relationship is different. And you can have two perfectly self-confident people who a relationship doesn’t ‘work’ between them for any plethora of reasons.

So instead of asking how a non-monogamous relationship ‘work’s or what you need to be in one, ask what it means for a relationship to ‘work’ for you in the first place. Because once you find out what you want from one, it’ll be a lot more useful to you than being an arrogant, ‘self-confident’ ass who thinks their lifestyle is the key to enlightenment.

Related articles

What anxiety taught me about non-monogamy

Why non-monogamy isn’t queer

Non-monogamy and fear

Why I don’t identify as ‘poly’

The pressure to be ‘into it’

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