I’ve heard through the grapevine of polyamorous lore a story that Nina Hartley allegedly once told. If you don’t know who Nina Hartley is, she is a porn actress, sex educator and life long non-monogamist, and has great things to say about navigating long term polyamorous and open relationships.
She was describing a time in her relationship when her husband/primary partner starting dating a new person. This person was not like other secondary or peripheral partners of her husband’s- there was something special about this person, and she could see how enthralled her husband was with this new relationship. She noticed a new feeling she hadn’t processed before welling up inside of her. She spent a long time processing and self-reflecting. She was having a hard time deciphering what this feeling was. She knew it wasn’t jealousy, because she was familiar with the experience of that feeling and this was different. Finally, she realized that the feeling she was having was grief. She was feeling grief at the part of her husband that she realized she could not- and would never be able- to touch.
It doesn’t matter how bonded you are with a partner. There will always be part of them that you cannot touch- that you do not relate to- that you don’t understand. There will always be a little part where your needs for connection and intimacy are mismatched. I’ve heard this part estimated as 20% in pair bonded primary relationships. There will always be 20% of your partner that will never be able to really understand.
This is not a failure of a relationship by any means- it is simply part of the reality of being a complex individual engaged with another complex individual. There will always be parts of other people that you cannot connect to. This is reality- and part of why I appreciate the gifts that polyamory gives. You can be happy knowing that between you and your partner’s other partners- all of the parts of themselves will be touched and fufilled. And simultaneously with relief and happiness, it is also valid to feel grief.
There is a different but parallel emotional experience to this. I first experienced it after I was after beginning to date a new partner that I felt really excited about and quickly conneted to. There was a new feeling welling up inside myself. I spent some time processing and reflecting. I knew it wasn’t jealousy. I remembered the story about Nina Hartley and I wondered if it was grief. Eventually I realized that it was- but it was going the other way. I wasn’t grieving the parts of my primary partner that I couldn’t touch. I was grieving the parts of myself that my partner couldn’t touch.
I feel such deep love and connection towards my primary partner. It is an incredibly fulfilling relationship. I feel intimate with him in ways that are deeply unique and special. But there is always going to be that 20% of me that he cannot touch. There will always be those few points of connection that other partners will be able to fulfill in ways that he cannot. And there is inherent grief to be experienced in that- because I want him to be able to touch every part of me- and the reality is that there is no one in the world who can truly do that. There is fundamental sadness in this, that is mixed with the joy of having an array of partners that will leave me totally fulfilled. And it is a grief that is worth sitting with. It is a grief that is worth acknowledging, along with the joy of having such fulfillment. Because there is also beauty in that mixture of fulfillment and grief- beauty in the intense complexities of emotions that closely bonded, intimate relationships can create inside of us.
Lust moves circularly
It slithers with the movements of eels
It shines with the slick sheen of honey
It blossoms, dies, and returns us crushed, scented like petals, into the world
My lust is wet as a mouth, glowing like eyes,
it is the blankets piled high, my fingers tensed
I will swallow it, like I am made of only throat
Lust it loud, it reopens wounds
Lust is agitation, lust is raw-
but later, in the dark, the bed sinks low with the weight of it’s divinity
I can’t relax
though you reassure me
I rage against it
I won’t believe it
The tragedy of your life pushes me away
I will never believe you
I will never trust the tears, the squeezes
The past comes between us
It turns me over, it pushes me down
I want to say the things that will bind you to me
But if I keep you distant than you won’t disappear
And if you slip through my fingers I will turn and look away
I will keep myself from finding where you went
There is a particular emotional experience of loving more than one person at the same time. It is an experience felt in your body. It is an physical sensation. And polyamorous relationships can easily fail when people don’t understand what it is like to love more than one person at once. You can intellectually understand the concept of polyamory, but bump up against the actual lived experience. Without an understanding of what loving multiple people feels like, you can create negative situations with partners simply because you don’t fully understand the impact of your actions. I’ve dated partners who, although they knew what polyamory was, and felt some kind of attachment to me, they assumed that because I also had a primary partner that I wasn’t really attached to them. They assumed I couldn’t actually be hurt by their actions, or take our relationship seriously, because they thought that my heart was already oriented towards someone else.
Even though many people know that polyamorous means “many loves”, not everyone understands the actual experience of having romantic attachment towards multiple people simultaneously. The sensation has been so suppressed in their body through a life time of conditioning that it is not actually a possible phenomenon, so they don’t have a concept of what it actually might look like or feel like in practice.
To love or feel romantically attached to more than one person at a time is an experience felt on the level of the body. When you have only known the feeling of loving one person at a time, there is a shift in both intellectual knowledge and in the knowledge that your body holds that needs to happen. It is a deep unlearning, a massive deconstruction of the values and beliefs in possibilities that you hold in your heart. And it takes work. If you can’t visualize this simultaneous experience of affection and desire, then you can only hold one person in your heart at a time. So when you are with one partner, your other partners fade from your mind and are released from your heart. Partnerships become deeply compartmentalized. This is where unintentional hurt can happen- because you are only “seeing” and “feeling” one partner at a time, and therefore make decisions without considering what another partner’s experience might be.
What is it like to hold multiple romances in your heart at the same time? Some people may be afraid they cannot give 100% of themselves to any one partner- that they have to divide their heart and give a different piece to each partner. This seems logical in a scarcity oriented and consumerist focused world. But the logic falls apart when the issue is put into the framework of feelings and attachment. Attachment and intimacy do not have the properties of material resources. They can grow infinitely and fluidly. 100% of your heart can be stimulated by multiple people simultaneously. You can feel multiple strands of romantic feelings in the same brain, in the same heart, in the same gut, all existing in a cumulative and over lapping manner- not in a limited and divided way. It does not mean that any one person has any less of your attention, focus, appreciation or desire at any given time. Being on a date with one partner doesn’t mean you aren’t still holding your other partners in your heart. You can appreciate different partners for different reasons, while not appreciating any one person less. You can be totally absorbed in the moment with one person in particular and still at the same time be holding space for your others. One partner can be mainly at the forefront of your heart without dominating or suffocating any other partners that also inhabit your heart. You can care for each of your partners all at once, lapping over each other like waves on a beach.
The bird’s song breaking out is like an icicle shattering at dawn
In the spring I find a single arrowhead in the woods, revealed from melting snow
In this same place in the summer foxes will pant under these pines at noon
Beyond the patch of thistles there is a pool of blue clay, and by the fall the beach will be overrun with blackberries
Today we lie in the meadow, holding onto nothing but the sky
Tomorrow dragonflies will hover over these wildflowers, it will all still exist even when not I am here