In a previous article, I talked about nine different ways that toxic parenting can impact the communication you have in non-monogamy. For Valentine’s Day, I wanted to spend this article talking about specific strategies to combat these problems both from my own personal experience and the experiences I’ve heard from others.
This is not to say all of these strategies may work for you. We’re all individuals. But I do think that some of these might give you a baseline to work with and apply to whichever situation is confronting you.
1. Establish boundaries with yourself
For many people growing up in toxic homes, they internalise the idea that their behaviour is what ‘causes’ their parents or family to behave in a certain way towards them. The end result is that a lot of people attempt to set boundaries to control others rather than themselves.
While some basic agreements about sexual health and boundaries that help individuals cope with situations are important, ultimately you can’t control what individuals do. And what one does is just as important to identify and work through as what other people do.
It’s very important to make sure you have boundaries for yourself first, before you have boundaries for other people. In the previous article, the first way toxic parenting can impact you is that it can make you spread yourself thin because you’re using the support you can provide to all of your partners as way to reaffirm your worth.
You can tell yourself that you are worthy, but this isn’t something that’s going to magically change how you feel about yourself overnight. This is going to take time. But in the meantime, you can make rules for yourself and enforce them. These are the types of boundaries you can enforce with yourself to limit spreading yourself too thin:
– I will only go to X person’s house X days a week.
– I will not answer messages during work hours.
– I will give support about a given issue 3 times.
– I will ask for help when I need it.
These might seem strange or harsh, but setting a few key goals with yourself, and letting your partners know you have these boundaries with yourself, can really help you work towards asserting boundaries with other people. And don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t come easy. It’ll take time!
2. Pay attention to discomfort
Acknowledging discomfort in toxic environments can often lead to more discomfort or a problem if you live in an environment where your feelings are not respected or acknowledged. Over a period of time, this can lead to you ignoring your feelings.
At times, people have a false dichotomy in their thinking of how to process their feelings of discomfort. Many people make the mistake of assuming that acknowledging negative feelings automatically means you do something about them or that something has to happen in order for those feelings to subside or change.
That often leads them to giving advice that encourages people to deal with their feelings on their own and not express them. And within non-monogamy, people may be afraid to express their feelings because they might be worried about what impact they may have, if they may be misinterpreted as ‘jealousy’ or if they will cause grief.
When we suppress the acknowledgement of our discomfort, we put up with situations that are toxic way longer than we need to. If you have a healthy relationship with someone, you should be able to come to them and talk to them about your discomfort without it having to mean a consequence.
But first, you have to pay attention to it yourself. Keep a diary if need be, but notice when you feel discomfort. Don’t assume that you immediately have to solve it. Just see it and recognise it. Think about it in context. Talk it over with a good friend you can trust or, if you have it, a therapist. You can also find an online supportive community to share your anxieties with.
Try not to shove anything down. Instead recognise it and take note of it. Don’t automatically assume there is a fault within yourself that is causing the discomfort. It could be, but it couldn’t be. Recognising your feelings won’t change that. Over time, as you notice what makes you uncomfortable, you can then feel more solid about expressing this to a partner. And it might lead you to recognising the signs of being a frog in a boiling kettle.
3. Embrace confrontation on smaller levels
People who can communicate well can still find confrontation uncomfortable. This is something I particularly struggle with because it feels like I have two modes: no confrontation or a complete upset. Within my romantic relationships, I’ve thankfully begun to be capable of confronting a partner about my feelings before it gets to a point where I’m completely upset.
But even with others I don’t feel safe with, it’s hard for me to confront them. I’ve spent a lot of my life not having my feelings taken seriously by others, so I’m less likely to trust that confronting someone is going to result in any resolution, so I’ll only do it when I’m at my wits end.
I believe that within romantic relationships, if you have a lot of mutual trust with each other and over time you learn that your partner isn’t going to abandon you if you have a problem, you will feel safer to talk about uncomfortable things, rather than keeping silent. But this is going to take some time.
In my own particular example, it took a few times of me keeping silent until I got very upset at my partner for me to see that my partner wasn’t just going to leave when I got upset, especially because in those instances where I was upset, my partner focused less on my emotions and how high they were running and instead zero-ed in on what I was upset about and tried to address it.
If you can set up this type of relationship with your partners, let them know how difficult you find confrontation and the situations you grew up with that taught you that confrontation would either be fruitless or explosive, you can help them help you to confront them in a way that will over time decrease the amount of anxiety you have connected with confrontation. Now, I couldn’t be silent about something that’s upsetting me if I tried because my brain is comfortable and knows it will be taken seriously, so it comes out sooner rather than later.
A word of caution, however. If you are in a toxic relationship, this might not just be your feelings. Any relationship where there is no ability for one individual to tell the other that they have been hurt without that person then reacting with anger or indignation isn’t a healthy one.
4. Plan for discomfort
I’ve written a bit about what anxiety has taught me about non-monogamy and the crucial takeaway for me is that my anxiety became far more manageable when I started embracing the truth that I may have anxiety instead of trying to prevent it from happening or force it to stop when it was happening.
When I accepted that I had anxiety and tried to instead focus on ways to cope with the anxiety, it made it so much easier. I spent less time beating myself up for having anxiety and seeing myself as a failure and more time working on the feeling anxiety caused and, predictably, I have far less anxiety now than I did when I was actively trying to stop it.
We’ve already talked about enforcing boundaries with yourself and you may find when you’re enforcing those boundaries for yourself, it definitely has an impact on your relationship with others. And it may allow you to easily transition into trying to enforce some boundaries with others.
The article I wrote on ways toxic parenting impacts non-monogamy mentions how guilt can prevent you from setting boundaries. When you’re used to your boundaries being violated, you learn not to have them anymore. When you’re putting these boundaries back up, you’re going to be uncomfortable.
In fact, if you’re new to non-monogamy or new to having romantic relationships, you’re going to be uncomfortable. I think taking the approach of accepting that there will be discomfort and deciding what to do with it, especially having that discussion with a partner, makes things a lot easier to cope with.
Otherwise, I personally find I spend so much time worrying about whether or not I will be uncomfortable, I end up uncomfortable anyway. Embracing the fact that you might be uncomfortable with something and planning for it will help. And if you can work with a good partner that prioritises your comfort, over time it will make it easier to lay down boundaries. You need to rebuild that trust with yourself and other people and see scenarios where your boundaries are respected and acknowledged.
5. Have a solid support network
To insert a cliche, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And you’re not just going to ‘get over’ lessons that you’ve learned growing up in toxic places overnight. As much as you may logically believe everything you read here, putting it into practice is a completely different thing.
And putting all of this into practice may be virtually impossible for you if you don’t have a solid support network. This isn’t just about having romantic partners who understand that you struggle with communication, it is about every single person who’s close to you and how you deal with them. And it’s also about identifying where you get support from and why.
Even the most supportive, respectful and open partner cannot be expected to be a therapist for another partner. Our support networks have to extend outside of individuals we’re dating. One of the things that all abusive individuals do when they’re trying to draw someone in is isolate them. Isolation is a tactic of control. Because most people with solid support networks are able to use those networks to realise when something is amiss.
Solid support networks can be hard to come by, especially coming from a toxic home. Social anxiety and the inability to afford therapy can further compound this. It’s hard for me to say for each individual what you can do to build a stronger support network because it will likely heavily depend on your own personal struggles, your environment, and what obstacles you face. But what I can say is that even as a fairly un-social introverted and anxious individual without much contact from family, I do have several people I can turn to for help and rely on.
If you’re not sure what you’ve got, look in your local area for free services that might be able to be part of a crucial support network for you.
6. Work on vocalising your feelings to yourself
In embracing your discomfort, you should also embrace the idea that your feelings may shift and change. One of the most common struggles I see with people in non-monogamy is that they’re okay with something in theory but their feelings don’t always pan out in practice.
For someone who has grown up in a toxic environment, this discord can seem particularly fraught. If you’re used to your boundaries shifting to accommodate someone who is unpredictable, this discord can make you feel like you are now the unpredictable one. And that turns into guilt, which then leads to people not vocalising their discomforts. Because, what if they’re ‘crazy’?
But feeling okay with something in theory but not in practice is relatively normal. And in fact, I think anyone doing non-monogamy for the first time should expect that because it’s almost guaranteed to happen to anyone in their lives regardless of how they do relationships. In fact, it’s pretty normal within any aspect of life to have feelings that change when the idea becomes the reality. Stage fright, for example, is a perfect example.
Within a lot of polyamory advice, there’s a lot of negative talk about mental illnesses or people struggling with anxiety. More than once, I’ve heard the phrase ‘Don’t stick your dick in crazy’. It’s assumed that you should be ‘self-confident’ enough to cope with any anxieties. And on top of that, there’s a pressure not to burden partners with it, lest you be seen as ‘manipulative’.
What this leads to is people being afraid to tell their partners when they are afraid. I find that sometimes this approach can work, if your feelings do eventually subside, but sometimes being silent about it and coping with it on your own just compounds the problem, especially when some reassurance from your partner can go a long way.
It’s not to say you should vocalise your feelings constantly. Definitely don’t rely on one partner or even all partners for all of your emotional reassurance. That’s what your support network is for. But becoming comfortable with talking about your feelings is a good start. Try to vocalise when you’re feeling scared, thinking about what the reasons why might be. Start with things that aren’t consequential and work up to thing that are.
7. Stop beating yourself up
Ninety percent of the questions asking for advice in polyamory or non-monogamy involves someone beating themselves up for having feelings. They describe themselves as clingy, say they’re needy, say they are being ‘jealous’ and assume the entire problem is how they are behaving, not anyone else.
While it might be that they’re contributing to their problem, 9 times out of 10, the lashing they’re giving themselves is unwarranted and incorrect. Women and non-men are usually the ones giving themselves this lashing, which is unsurprising given how often women are told that they can be too ‘clingy’ or ‘emotional’, but to be honest, I see men doing this as well.
Needs and wants are different things, and they’re both valid. Although everyone can have different wants, most people have similar needs. Most people want to feel loved and valued by someone in their life as well as companionship and not to feel alone. But we can all have varying needs on what we want in life. It has a lot to do with where we see ourselves in the future and what we as individuals personally get out of something.
Sometimes two people can be really nice and care for each other, but their needs do not match up, and so they have to break up. This is one of the reasons why I encourage people not to see a break up as an automatic failure and not see a relationship as a skill.
That’s not to say that everyone’s wants are acceptable within the contexts of equality and fairness. Someone who wants a partner who can stay home and take care of children because it’s how they want to live but accepts that not everyone wants that is far cry from someone who wants the same but projects that into believing it is the only way to have relationships, and anyone who is different is wrong. If you believe your needs and wants are law, then you have a problem. But I’d reckon most people who grew up in toxic environments are necessarily these kinds of people.
Instead, I see more of those people who grew up in these homes having different wants and needs. You can become afraid to ask for what you want because you have a history of never getting it. You can need very little because you’ve got very little in your life. Or, you can need a lot more reassurance. Sometimes, if you haven’t had a therapist or any appropriate help for your past, you can want things from partners that you should get from a professional.
But unless you’re demanding the world acknowledge your wants and needs as some sort inherent law, you’re not a monster for wanting or needing more than the next person. And, more importantly, beating yourself up about them will not change anything.
If you find relationships ending because you need more than people can give, it’s incredibly difficult and I’m not meaning to minimise that pain. What I am saying is that nothing about any of these situations changes by beating yourself up. You don’t become less jealous if you beat yourself up about it. You don’t become more self sufficient by beating yourself up.
And it may be possible that you’ve lived a life where you’re so used to other people beating you up, you step in to take over when they’re long gone. So, if you find yourself thinking that there must be something inherently wrong with you, rethink it. Avoid beating yourself up about what your wants and needs are. Even if your needs don’t match up with someone romantically, it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you.
8. Know you have survived worse
One of the things that can help me when I have a lot of anxiety, is trying my best to remember that I’ve been through much worse and that I’ve survived 100% of my worse days.
Obviously, this approach works for my situation, but I can see how it might be difficult for other people, especially if they’ve survived despite their best efforts to do otherwise. But I do feel like remembering that anxiety does subside is really helpful when you’re in the thick of it. The only thing constant is change and while that does freak me out when things are going well, it’s definitely helpful when things aren’t going great.
There are times when my brain is trying really hard to protect me by making me embrace the worst possible outcome, which sometimes just leads me to have more anxiety than I had in the first place. I still have that knee jerk reaction to expect the worst and prepare for it. Once, after having an argument with my partner about something I can’t even remember, I went home, got some boxes from a grocery store, and packed most of my things in 45 minutes before he even got home from work.
Luckily, over time I’ve been able to sit with the anxiety, to understand that I don’t have to jump in a lifeboat as soon as the boat rocks, to trust that I can protect myself if something terrible truly does happen, and to see myself as adaptable has really helped. But more than that, I’ve stopped trying to control every last little thing in an effort to control the uncontrollable.
One of my favourite moments in the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is when Newt Scamander says that in worrying you suffer twice. And since then, I’ve tried to repeat that to myself in times when the worry seems to creep up. Not only do I try to remember that I have survived all of my worst days but that if something terrible is to happen, worrying is not something that will change that. And I’d much rather spend my time being happy now and then miserable later than being miserable now and miserable later.
Try to apply these same approaches to non-monogamy. If you’ve got this hair trigger preparedness type of response like I have, it can lead you to think and visualise the worst when you’re worried about your partners. I’m willing to bet that if you’ve grown up in a home where you had to be hyper-vigilant to protect yourself, you grow to be hypervigilant in relationships, always on the lookout for something to go wrong to the point where you can’t enjoy something going right.
When a worry crops up, as aforementioned, don’t squash it down. Acknowledge it and look at it realistically. Will worrying about it right here and right now change anything? Don’t suffer twice. And if the worst should happen, you have been through a lot. Have faith in your own strength instead of trying to test it by being prepared.
9. Don’t worry about what is ‘normal’
People new to non-monogamy will describe their situation, regardless of what it is, and instead of asking for help, worry that what they’re doing isn’t ‘normal’. Although people say ‘there is no one right way to do polyamory’, I personally feel like there is an endemic message that the best way to do polyamory is one where everyone is happy constantly and there are no ‘problems’.
They use other people as a barometer for how their reactions should be, which is totally understandable. Obviously other people can tell us when a dynamic is unhealthy. And, in fact, sometimes that outside barometer is really needed because, like a frog sitting in a boiling pan, we don’t realise the situation around us is unhealthy when we’re in the middle of it.
But, there’s a difference between being worried about whether your dynamic is unhealthy and then being worried about whether it’s ‘normal’. In many ways, the conversations I have with my partners may not be ‘normal’ or like the conversations that everyone else has, but that’s okay. My own personal needs may be different from the vast majority of people.
I think people who grow up in toxic homes have a complicated relationship with ‘normality’, especially if they’re queer or belong to any other marginalised group. ‘Normal’ is the yardstick that you’re being compared to that you don’t measure up to and yet, finally realising that the way that you grew up was not ‘normal’ was oddly freeing and helpful. Although everyone and their mother will tell me that reality shows aren’t reality (and I’d agree), those moments in reality shows when they are in tears reuniting with their families are genuine — and they were the parts for me that were the most poignant because I couldn’t imagine feeling that way about family.
For this reason, people from toxic backgrounds may especially feel the need to reconnect with the concept of ‘normality’ because their internal barometers have been out of sync with what is healthy their entire lives. So they want to know that what they’re doing is ‘normal’ because they assume what is ‘normal’ must also be what is healthy.
But need I remind folks that to many people within this culture, men sharing their feelings is not considered ‘normal’ but there are countless campaigns now to encourage men to talk about their feelings, particularly mental health struggles, as men are suffering under the weight of the culturally prescribed toxic masculinity that prohibits them from expressing themselves in so many ways. What is ‘normal’ is not necessarily ‘healthy’.
Instead of trying to figure out if what you’re doing is ‘normal’, ask yourself if what you’re doing is helping you. Is there a resolution? Is there a sense that you have been heard and that you are respected? Do you feel like you’re back at home or far away from it? This is where your support network or therapist can help ground you. But try to focus less on what other people are doing and more on whether or not what you’re doing is helping you.
Because if you base everything you’re doing off of other people who did not grow up like you, you’re not going to be ‘normal’. But if you force yourself into behaving in a way that works for others, it’s likely just going to blow up in your face. Find what works for you. And if it’s not what everyone else is doing… so what?
And lastly, remember…
One of the most helpful things I learned about my anxiety was that I wasn’t a failure for having it. Rather than picturing myself as Sisyphus at the bottom of the hill every time I got a panic attack, I embraced the idea that I had anxiety and it was what it was. But there are still days where I feel like a failure for having anxiety.
Progress is not linear. Re-learning what normal is and what it means is going to take you awhile. It’s not going to be simple or easy. And it’s also not your fault that you are where you are. What’s important is that you’re always willing to be accountable for your actions and willing to move on and do better. We’ve all gotta start somewhere. As long as you’re willing to keep living and learning, you can only do what you can do.
Note: I wrote this article in 2017, so it’s possible my perspectives on a few things have changed but the point of this article remains the same.
If you liked this article…
I have written The Anxious Person’s Guide to Non-Monogamy designed as a starter book for someone who is new to non-monogamy and/or people struggling with anxiety in polyamory. You don’t have to be anxious for the book to help, especially as it comes with not just a bit of advice but activities for you to try on your own or with partners to help ground you.
The book is now available for pre-order from Jessica Kingsley Publishers and will be released late June 2022.