(*Gasp!* Alone??! No way?!) Today I'm happy and peaceful. A few weeks ago, I found myself unexpectedly alone when various sweeties' plans changed mid-day, and I was briefly distressed, slightly angry, slightly lonely. Then I laughed at myself. I spent years alone in the past and was perfectly content; what's one evening? Have I really forgotten how to entertain myself in a matter of weeks? I turned to the net, came upon the final episodes of the Family web series, watched a few, and then had to laugh as one of the characters also played out my surprise at finding myself alone for a night.
One of the things I rely on to help poly work is my strength in myself. Having ways to enjoy myself, value myself, and engage my creativity and uniqueness, helps me remember that I am valuable, worthy, and strong - especially when I don't have constant feedback from others. Being complete within myself means that I can relate to others as equals, each bringing our own richness; and it means I am less fearful when we disagree, because it doesn't mean my position (or self!) is invalid. It just means we're different, in that moment.
I started to think about all the tools I use to support relationships. I started poly living when I was 17; I'm 32 now. That's 15 years of figuring it out. I've had a bit of drama occasionally, but not all that much, and I have had a whole lot of really happy times. I must be doing something right? And along the way, I've made a point of seeking out and practicing various tools for improved communication - better listening, better understanding, and more informative speech. Many of the articles on poly say to communicate well, but they don't often go into what that means. HOW. What's really behind the issue. Perhaps the tools I've used have something unique to add to the mix.
I take a fairly intellectual approach to disagreements and struggles. I take apart the issue, try to understand and describe the various pieces, and then seek a resolution that serves the situation as best it can. Sometimes that resolution isn't agreement. Recognizing and respecting serious incompatibility is just as important. Not every pairing is ideal to work out. So, my goal is mutual understanding, and failing that, at least one-sided understanding. It's great when struggles can be solved, but it's not the only kind of resolution.
Other people are less conceptual or verbal in their understanding of relating, feeling, and conflict. My approach may not work as well for them. So be it - ymmv.
There are a lot of tools I've picked up over the years. Any one of these could have a whole article devoted to it, easily, and still only begin to touch on the depths of what it can do. So instead of an essay about each, I'm giving an overview and how I blend them together in practice.
Nonviolent communication gave me words to name my feelings, value my needs, and understand that others' strong reactions were generally due to defending their own feelings and needs. This helped make it "not about me" and let me listen more deeply to their experience. I found the verbal side of it difficult to put into practice though (without formal training), and stumbled a lot with how to use it.
Then I picked up the "I-referencing" speaking style from a retreat center I go to. This style encourages me to speak for myself, from my experience, rather than speaking on behalf of someone else (or everyone in the room), which encourages me to claim my feelings and my reactions. This can make it easier for other people to hear me. What's true for me doesn't necessarily reflect on them, and so my words are less likely to provoke defensiveness. I-referencing can be used in any kind of positive context (story telling, sharing learning and experiences) as well as in tense situations (conflicts, disagreements, misunderstandings).
There are subtleties here that improve with practice. "I feel sad" is completely okay. "I feel punished" is not -- punished is not a feeling, and it implies that someone else did something to me (which may or may not be fact, but certainly it's not a feeling). "You punished me" may be an accusation, a story, or a theory; but it's not intimate, vulnerable, revealing, inner experience. "I-referencing" is about speaking my own inner experience... and using that as a way to generate the understanding, connection, and compassion, that allows for deep listening. I can tell you what is true inside of me; I'm not so good at guessing what's true inside of you. "I have a hard time listening to you when you use blaming words. I feel scared and hurt and react defensively. But I still want to hear what's important to you. Could you say what you just said, again, using 'I feel' statements?" The point isn't to get the wording perfect... The point is that by speaking about oneself, blame and anger soften, and it becomes easier to hear what someone is trying to say. I referenced speech can be used by one person even while the other person doesn't know much about it - and sometimes they will reflexively follow the pattern because it seems useful.
Tying into I-referencing, I really appreciate having words for feelings and words for basic human needs. Many people find it hard to talk about what they feel, want, or need, because they literally lack the words. I heard once that there are only four basic emotions: happy, sad, angry, afraid. All others are a blend of those. Just four isn't so hard to remember, and sometimes I need simplicity in the heat of the moment. When I can remember more nuanced words, great; otherwise, those four really do seem to handle most situations I find myself in. (I also have a variant of shocked/numb, but I think it's a response to sadness that I haven't let myself feel fully yet.) I've seen some people print out the words from the feelings list and put them in a bowl in the middle of the gathering table, where they could be a talking piece for casual discussions. It's a way to raise awareness of the vocabulary and the feelings behind them.
Understanding the feelings in a situation is a great starting point, but why do they arise? Why am I fine one minute and panicky the next, just because of something my sweetie said? These responses come from my "story" reality. Let me back up.
A model that the (above mentioned) retreat center uses to examine situations is called "4 Levels of Reality" - physical [what happened], emotional [how I felt in response], mythic/story [how I explain to myself why it happened], and essence [what I fundamentally think is true about my world, that creates my stories]. Physical is "just the facts, please" - what a camera would see. Emotional is what happens in my body; facial expressions, open or clenching hands, tight stomach, a lump in my throat, and the feelings that go with (happy, sad, angry, afraid).
The mythic or story reality is where I paint someone as the hero and someone as the villain - or any other roles that make sense in context (angry parent and helpless child .... victim in distress and rescuer....). Many roles are beneficial. If I'm having a dispute with a four year old about not hitting when angry, my role as responsible-adult and their role as child-who-is-learning-boundaries are pretty reasonable. The mythic layer holds those patterns; some that I learned when I was young, and others that I picked up as an adult. Some stories help, and others hurt; some have simply outgrown their usefulness, and it's time I let them change. The essence layer holds something more basic than my stories; it holds the thread that ties all my stories together. It's what I believe is fundamentally true about the world. "Trust vs fear" is an example; do I generally trust new people I meet, or do I generally fear them until proven trustworthy? If I am living from a place of fear, I will write different stories to explain physical events; I will understand things from a different basic expectation. It colors everything. If I'm willing to notice and then change my essential beliefs about reality, I can pave the way for new stories, and thus new feelings about events that happen. Sometimes that means I can quit projecting my wounds from the past onto people now who have nothing to do with whoever hurt me before. Sometimes it means I can quit being afraid that joy will be taken away from me, and open up with trust, welcome, and appreciation for the very real happiness right in front of me.
So, the four-levels model helps me take apart an event that happened... figure out what happened at each layer (physical, emotional, story, and essence), and then choose to re-evaluate whether I got the story right... and whether my emotional response was reasonable.
It also gives me a launch point for bringing up more effective discussion with partner(s) involved, so I can explain why I am reacting the way I am. "I noticed that you've spent the last six days with your new sweetie every night. I'm feeling sad and a bit afraid. I worry that you might leave me or that you just don't care as much about me anymore, or that it will be months before we get time again. I want reassurance and time with you. Help?" Sure, there's little information on how to help, what action to take... but I've revealed 1) what I think I'm seeing (with or without distortions), 2) how I feel, 3) why I think I feel that way. This starts to open a place to talk about the fears I'm actually responding to, not just this current physical event. The real issue is usually bigger than just the current event. With some practice, I can also start to see where my stories have a repeating theme (such as lack of self worth) that informs a lot of my reactions. Those repeating themes are then something I might choose to work with from a personal growth perspective, or simply noticing when I'm reacting that way again and try to choose a different response.
When I'm ready to work with those overarching themes in my life, there's another tool the retreat center provided, that I find useful. They look at the astrological wheel (the signs, in particular) as a blueprint of the major human needs and their interactions in group dynamics. Aries (self) has its counterpart in Libra (relationship). Taurus (comfort and material security) has its counterpart in Scorpio (death, sex, money, and power). Gemini (verbal communication, sharing) pairs with Sagittarius (story telling, philosophies). Cancer (protection, retreat, safety) pairs with Capricorn (professions, status and excellence, leadership). Leo (self worth, shining, attention, generosity) pairs with Aquarius (community process, decision making, exceptions, and special needs). Virgo (service and details) pairs with Pisces (intentional sacrifice for the greater dream).
Each of those areas holds a slice of self. As I walk through the list, I can notice which areas I am very comfortable with in my own life. I have a strong sense of self, a clear idea of who I am and what are my edges, my limits, and what I do to nurture me. I am also pretty comfortable and confident in relationship; my choices of when to yield to another, versus when to hold my ground; when to share, and when to say no. As I walk through the rest, I notice that I have some strong reactions to Leo. Attention and shining make me feel uncomfortable; I am not very confident of my value to others, and I remember being told as a child to "stop hogging the spotlight" and "stop bragging" and "be quiet". This shows up when I'm trying to participate in community decision making; I tend to stay quiet and discount my own voice. I somehow think I don't deserve to be making the rules like the others are. It's been a habitual but unconscious pattern until working with this list of human needs happened to shine a light on it. I begin a process of consciously trying to notice my negative self-talk and replace it with more loving words to myself, when this dynamic gets triggered by circumstances. Writing out the 12 areas, each as a box, and then filling in words about my sense of self in each area, helps me to discover my strengths and the areas that might be more tender and vulnerable, where I might be defensive. I can choose to keep or shift areas as I wish, working with my essence and mythic realities on each one.
My goal in any situation is to recognize when I am reacting from exaggerated emotions... old wounds and habits... stories or essence reality that no longer fits my current needs, no longer serves me.... and all while keeping in mind that the other person is dealing with the same kinds of stuff from their own life. These tools give us words, structures, ways to notice what's going on and change it if we choose.
The final tool I use is just as important: Check in on physical health. The majority of the time when I am having negative feelings, it's because I'm tired / sleep deprived, stressed out and haven't slowed down, having problems with food allergies/intolerances, am sick with a virus, or am terribly hungry. Emotions happen in the body, in the wetware - they're hormones, little chemicals that run around in the body telling the physical parts what to do. Food and sleep are the fuel that runs that. Too busy having sex to get any sleep? Count on a grumpy day tomorrow or the next day, or whenever it finally catches up. Caffeine doesn't reduce the need for sleep, just the opportunity. Taking care of my own physical health is often the best investment I can make in my partners' happiness.