For as long as I can remember, I have been anxious. The reasons for this are complex, but the long and short of is that my anxiety emerged as a means of me coping with my surrounding environment. When I was growing up, my anxiety made sense given the cards I was dealt, but now it doesn’t help me. It hinders me. But, in learning how to cope with my anxiety, it’s not only improved, but it’s helped me learn better strategies for being non-monogamous.
Shifting your paradigm to cope with anxiety
One of the best things I learned about coping with anxiety was how to let go of the expectation that not having anxiety meant success and that whenever I had a panic attack or a period of insomnia or paranoia, I was Sisyphus, starting at the bottom and shoving the boulder right back up again. Incorrectly, I assumed having another panic attack meant I was back where I started. It’s disheartening to say the least and the tedium of continuing to cope with an illness is what drives so many people to lose hope, grow frustrated, and become suicidal.
But one day I listened to an episode of the Anxiety Guru podcast which reminded me that I had survived 100% of the panic attacks that I had and that surviving all of those had given me the experience of knowing that the next panic attack would be something I had a lot of experience in. Rather than seeing myself as starting from the very beginning, my paradigm shifted and I realised that, since I had been through so many panic attacks, I had experience and wasn’t starting from the beginning. And I used that awareness to help me cope through further panic attacks.
Another important lesson was understanding that mental illnesses are treated by this society differently than some physical illnesses. We understand the inevitability of getting the cold or the flu and we don’t consider ourselves “weak” for getting a cold. Some of us heave weakened immune systems which result in us getting those types of viruses frequently. But when we get a cold or the flu, we take care of ourselves and take it easy until the virus passes.
Now I imagine coping with anxiety in the same way. I don’t berate myself for having a panic attack, for being paranoid or being anxious because it’s just something I have to cope with. It’s part of my life. And in that, I give myself permission to be anxious, to be upset, and to be worried without beating myself up for it. Telling myself that I’m weak and pathetic when I’m going through a panic attack is tantamount to telling myself I’m horribly disgusting for having a runny nose.
Anxiety and non-monogamy
What does this have to do with non-monogamy or “polyamory”? A lot.
One of the most common questions when someone in this society is introduced to the concept of ethical non-monogamy (Read: not cheating) is about jealousy and all of the emotions that might inevitably come up when considering your partner is attracted to and in this case pursuing a relationship with someone else. People ask how you “deal” with jealousy. And mostly people, even non-monogamous people, want to know how to get “rid” of it.
Advice within polyamory communities offered by sites like More than Two and others can be really unhelpful. The common advice given is “talk to your partner” which, while is helpful, is given with the assumption that this will “solve” jealousy. What anxiety has taught me about non-monogamy is that feelings are not meant to be solved. Thus, I want to propose the radical idea that “jealousy” just isn’t solvable.
Most non-monogamous people will not be happy to hear this because it doesn’t create very good PR for non-monogamy or polyamory. And I don’t necessarily blame “the community” for being interested in good PR. Non-monogamy isn’t invisible. It isn’t a foreign concept. And many people have heard of “open relationships” and usually have heard of how big of a disaster they are.
Poly and non-monogamous people who want to establish families or be recognised in some state sanctioned way (such as marriage) don’t want to appear as unstable — so when the question of jealousy and turbulent emotions comes up, it’s not really great to say “there is no solution to that”. Even if that’s really also the case for any relationship — monogamous or non-monogamous. Your emotions aren’t “problems” you can “solve”.
In a way, it might seem scary to realise this, but I think, just as with my anxiety, realising that we can’t “solve” jealousy is more freeing than not. Within my own relationship, a lot of my anxiety comes from STI risk. As someone on the asexual spectrum (demisexual), I don’t have to worry about this for myself very much. But my primary partner is different. I cannot rid myself of feelings of apprehension or anxiety when he tells me he’s had a new sexual partner. If I could, I would.
Instead of trying to force me to feel differently, we both accept that when STI risk levels are elevated — my anxiety also will be. Obviously we’ve negotiated rules about STI protection and do our best to negate risk, but my anxiety will be there regardless. And unless I’m willing to be monogamous or never have sex with anyone again, it’s something I have to face and cope with. But if we were both coming at this from the standpoint of seeing my anxiety about STI risk as a failing or a “problem” to “solve”, we’d have a relationship with constant problems — instead of a relationship where we cope with things together.
Jealousy is something that I don’t usually feel, but on bad mental health days I can. My anxiety functions as a distraction for a problem I cannot solve. If I am facing something imminent like a move or an appointment or a major life shift I cannot change, my anxiety will make me worry about something completely different in order to shift these feelings into something I can “change”. A lot of times, my anxiety will be re-routed to my relationship. Instead of worrying about starting a new job, I’ll worry about whether or not my partner really likes me. And I will obsess about things I can do to test or change this hypothesis.
Likewise, when I’m in a mentally fragile state, I can begin to feel jealous. Sometimes I can even get really upset over a small thing — even if I don’t actually care about a small thing. Being on the autistic spectrum compounds this. Changes in routine can cause a “meltdown” and in many cases, these meltdowns can be re-routed to my relationship.
But likewise, I don’t consider having a meltdown to be a personal failing on my part. The advice of talking to your partner isn’t incorrect — it helps! You need a partner who will fight against your fears with their own words. But you also need to not expect that will solve it. You also need to not expect that you will be “cured” of jealous feelings. And you also need to not consider yourself a failure for feeling it. Considering how many non-monogamous people talk about how they never feel jealous — and in fact feel compersion or happiness and/or interest in their partner’s experiences with others — it can be hard not to feel like a failure if you’re jealous.
But, many people can face certain social situations without anxiety. And that’s not the case for me. Many people have depth perception and I, blind in one eye, don’t consider myself less than them just because I don’t have depth perception. My anxiety has helped me realise and accept that jealousy and worry does happen — and it’s not something to beat myself up about.
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