Many critics of polyamory say I am inviting pain into my life. Maybe they’re right. But it’s not the first time.
Because I used to be a long distance runner. I’d pack away 15km every lunchtime and spend the rest of my day at my desk feeling my muscles twitch and tingle, while snorkeling on bottled water and munching on a brown rice salad. The next day my muscles would be ever so slightly painful. Stiff and set, until I stretched them out. I became acutely aware of my body: its sensations and its responses. I came to know what was ‘good’ pain and what was ‘bad’ pain. The good pain signaled growth and building of my muscles. The bad pain signaled that I had over trained and needed to do things differently. In all cases, the pain and the lessons it brought me, was important.
That’s the thing about life, it brings growth. We call them growing pains (the clue is baked right in the definition).
During training I didn’t seek out pain. But I learned that the absence of the ‘good’ pain, meant that the growth had stopped. So I would push myself a little harder for growth, knowing that it would and should bring me pain. I knew in advance that some of that pain might be ‘bad.’ After practicing extensively I came to love the ‘good’ pain. I learned to minimize the ‘bad’ pain. But the prospect of pain never stopped me from running.
I don’t deny that polyamory can cause pain. But I question the attitude and capacity for growth of those people who despise pain, for they are destined to remain trapped within their prisons of diminishing pleasure never seeking to grow, or change, or learn from the lessons pain brings.
The pain that polyamory caused me initially was a mix of good and bad. Not only had I not learned to distinguish between good and bad pain, I could not see any joy or lessons that either might teach me. It was my instinct to run and hide back to my safer bedfellow of monogamy. The world and my mother thought we were mad. It was partly true. But only because I was slowly being driven insane by my own self-doubt and insecurity.
Even so the prospect of going back to a state in which I had been desperately unhappy was also painful. Maybe I would have, after all I am no super human. But I did not have that option because my husband had fallen in love with another. A woman who I thought turned him against me, poisoned our marriage and in my very own self-fulfilling prophecy, asked him to leave me. He didn’t leave me… or her. I played my very own dramatic, very pitiful farce. But then, not being able to stand his choice of partner and unwilling by my own code of conduct to ask him to choose, I chose to leave.
At that time I had very few choices open to me. I could suffer from the pain (which I did quite a lot). Or I could re-frame it and look behind it, a process which in itself was painful.
The bad pain signaled that my self-esteem was in tatters. Monogamy had once protected it. But with polyamory every loving glance my partner gave another, every comparison I made tapped into my insecurities. Was it the best thing to do to put myself back in a situation that protected my bad self-esteem? Or was it to improve my self-esteem by exposing me to the very situations which would show me how to grow (painfully)? For me the former presented a far greater risk and running away from the pain was not the answer.
The pain of polyamory showed me that I had become a victim of my life in a codependent relationship. I had pushed my husband away to protect myself from potential hurt and in doing so undermined our already weak relationship. In the monogamous paradigm we thought we were happy, but actually we had only been comfortable. Polyamory provided mirrors in different relationships and brought me my lessons time and time again until I woke up and realized that the problem was not in the relationship or even the relationship structure, but in myself. Where it always is.
The pain of polyamory taught me like no other lesson I have ever experienced, that I needed to strengthen my self-esteem so that it was better equipped to deal with the challenges of life. It taught me how to better communicate. And in strengthening my skills, I have been a better example to my children, better equipped to help others, more joyous and more successful in every challenge I encounter. Now I seek out challenges to test out this muscle, in the same way that I used to try the uphill training program on the treadmill. When I twist my ankle, I learn that I should do something differently. Take it slower. But when I get to the top, with increasing regularity nowadays, I am proud. I am joyous. I love the world. And it loves me back.
People who do not feel physical pain have a reduced life expectancy. They cannot avoid harmful situations and they cannot distinguish good pain from bad. They have no way of knowing how best to survive and where they best might thrive. People who avoid emotional pain are similarly stunted. Their lives dulled because in suppressing the stimuli which cause pain, they also suppress those which cause growth. It’s also been proven that you cannot suppress one emotion…without suppressing them all. If you cannot feel anger, you cannot feel passion. If you cannot experience sadness, there is no joy either. Luckily for us, life is cleverer than we are. In suppressing emotional pain, we experience the ‘rebound effect’; it means that the more we suppress, the more emotional pain we experience. We are forced out of our comfort zone that we might better survive and thrive. For me polyamory means, more love, more growth and yes, more pain. But I do not suffer. Quite the contrary.
While much of my writing colors polyamory in a rose-tinted light, I am not ignorant of the enormous pain that it might and does bring to many. Those who say my credibility is damaged and that I am stupid because I ignore the obvious pain signals which should prevent me practising polyamory, are only proving their own ignorance about the necessity and role of pain in our lives.
There are times when I’ve thought I would not and did not want to live through the pain. The time of my divorce. The time when I was ostracized by my entire family. The first time I knew that my boyfriend had fallen in love with a woman far younger…and more conventionally beautiful than I. But nowadays I think that the extent of the pain and discomfort I feel teaches me how much growth there might be hiding in plain sight. Pain signals a joyful opportunity.
No one says that everyone must choose polyamory in order to grow, just as no one has to choose parenthood, love, or for that matter monogamy which has different growth/pain lessons of its own. But in the words of Trainspotting’s Renton ‘choose life’. Don’t choose to hide yourself away from pain with heroin, alcohol or ‘something else’ to avoid life and the pain it brings. Your strategy will only cause you more pain and a lessening of your life experience.
That I choose to operate within a paradigm of polyamory today despite the pain it brought me in the past, does not prove that I seek pain. It proves that I seek growth and that I’m not afraid of pain because I have learnt to enjoy it. It characterizes my approach to life in general. It may not be your approach. But there is nothing shameful about experiencing pain, enjoying the good pain and trying to do things differently when you experience the bad pain. Avoid it at your peril.
A shorter version of this article was originally published at the blog The Postmodern Woman.
Louisa Leontiades is freelance journalist writing about sex, pop culture, relationships & psychology. You can catch her blog at www.postmodernwoman.com or chat to her on twitter @freeleontiades.