Constant Comparisons

When you can't stop comparing yourself against your metamour and are worried about your partner's identity affecting your relationship.

I'm a 27 year old lesbian. I've known that about myself from around age 12. It's always been an albatross hanging about my neck. I've always had the sense that I can't participate in the world around me because I'm inferior to everyone, fundamentally inadequate, a burden and an eyesore.
This may have been informed by some untreated social anxiety that I have recently (~10 months) begun treating with medication and therapy. Generally, I've felt that this has gone pretty well and consider this year to be the best I've had since age 11.
Part of the reason for this is that I've made my first friend since I was 12. And it's been surprisingly effortless. I thought that meaningful human connection was impossible for me because I had so little in common with the people around me.
That hasn't been the case with this person. I feel so uninhibited when speaking to them, like I don't have to filter anything. We share a similar sense of humour and taste in media. They're incredibly non-judgemental and I think they're really beautiful.
They've been in a relationship with a man (I'll call him 'H') for 7 years. (Prior to that there was a highschool boyfriend that they didn't like and regret being with). He's really lovely and they clearly care a great deal about each other.
About 18 months into knowing them, they confided in me that their relationship with H was going great and they had nothing to complain about but they'd been having obsessive thoughts about not actually being into men. They'd told H this and the two of them agreed to a non-monogamous relationship. Apparently, H is the most secure person to have ever existed and doesn't experience jealousy.
This was the point where for the first time in my life I felt like I'd been given permission to let myself have a crush on someone. The following week they said that the raging wildfires had brought about an anxiety spiral and they were no longer worrying about their sexuality.
They like men, just in a gay way. I was a little bit crushed so I asked if they were still doing non-monogamy to which they replied that they were but found it difficult to connect with people. But that that hadn't been the case with me.
We started dating a bit after that. I wasn't really sure what to expect given that their relationship with H seemed very loving but kind of platonic from the outside looking in. The first month of dating was surreal. I had a deeply held conviction that I would trudge through life with no one around me until I had aged out of independence and would walk into a blizzard on a cold night to die alone.
At this point in my life it had been many years since I had been hugged by anyone other than my dad (and hugging was the most intimate thing I'd ever experienced). And here I was, finding out that not only was I actually capable of physical intimacy, but was maybe kind of good at it.
But once the novelty of finding out that I could be part of a romantic/sexual relationship wore off, things started to become very complicated in my mind. I started thinking about the future, something that I've never been able to picture before.
And in all cases it was the two of them together, the couple that people knew about, and me somewhere in the wings. Throughout my life, I've had about 4 major friendships. Each time I was the third wheel to a pair of slightly better friends. It seems predestined that the one romantic relationship I've managed to foster would take a similar form. And I feel a little bit bitter about it.
The person I'm dating (M) insists that their relationships with H and I are equal but different. But I don't see how that's possible when they've known me for so much less time. And it doesn't feel equal because everyone in their life knows that they're with H, whereas only three people know about us.
When they go out in public with H, people assume that they're a couple. I don't think straight people assume that M and I are a couple. If I'm with the two of them, I must look like the tag-along friend. M and I are coworkers, so for hours a day I have to be near them and pretend that we're just friends. I'm having a difficult time compartmentalizing all of this.
Then there's the fact that they've mentioned that they might primarily be romantically attracted to men (as opposed to sexually). Their ambiguous sexuality has been a bit of a sticking point with me. I think because some awful part of me that I hate, really wants to believe that they're not into men at all.
Surely there's nothing more despicable than assuming that you know someone's sexuality better than they do. Upon further prodding, it sounds like all they know about their sexuality is that they like me, and they like H. And they don't think that sexual attraction is a major part of a relationship. When they try to think about the difference between their attraction to men and women, it turns into a roundabout way of comparing H and I, which is something they don't want to do. But I find myself wishing they would.
I can't just focus on my relationship with M. I'm comparing myself with H all the time and it's exhausting and I can't stop. In my comparisons, ultimately, it's impossible for me to come out equal or on top. Maybe I think that if I just had a clear picture of both relationships, I could take pride in knowing what I provide that he doesn't. Maybe I'd hate myself for learning what he provides that I don't.
I find myself wanting to know exactly what their sexual relationship with H looks like so that I can stop torturing myself by oscillating between assuming that he's way better at it than me and that they very rarely actually have sex. When we're together, they reverently compliment my soft skin. They tell me I'm the most attentive lover they've had and I have nothing to worry about.
But, if I take any of that to heart, I start to feel (and I know they don't want me to) that sex is the only thing I can reliably provide and then I start to feel anxiety about the possibility of underperforming. Sometimes we're both kind of tired and it's just not quite happening and I feel so disappointed, like I've failed them even though they insist they had a great time and I made them feel really good regardless of the outcome. I did not have a great time, I felt useless.
Then there's the fact that they may go on testosterone someday. They also may not. But it's a possibility that they'd like to keep open. They don't know what H's sexuality is beyond queer, but I think that it's understood that he'd be with them no matter what.
I've never been romantically/sexually attracted to anyone with a decent amount of testosterone. They know that I suspect that they wouldn't be an exception and feel hurt by that. I asked how they'd feel about me if I transitioned and they asked what my gender would be. I didn't see how that was relevant. 
Sometimes I feel like they take their non-judgemental attitude so far to the point of not acknowledging that they may have preferences regarding physical attributes. Then I hate myself for thinking that. I feel like I can't get very comfortable in this relationship knowing that there's this huge looming uncertainty.
That I have to be emotionally prepared to accept that the person I fell for may become someone that I don't have the capacity to be anything more than friends with. And I don't understand why they'd want to be with me, knowing this, when they already have a great partner that would be completely unphased by transition. As always, I'm the one that comes up short.
Theoretically, this set-up works well for me. I like having time to myself, I like living alone. I don't know how to plan a life with another person. I'm really happy that they have each other and I want M to be loved and supported by the person they love.
I think I'd have a whole host of different insecurities if this were a monogamous relationship. But as it stands, I'm tearing myself apart comparing myself to H and falling back into patterns of despondent, fatalistic self-loathing that I've been reasonably free of otherwise this year.
I'm thinking of asking M if we could return to just being friends. But I'm really worried about losing that friendship in the process. I think they'll be quite hurt. I'm worried about having to work side-by-side everyday and have everyone notice that we seem suddenly distant from each other. But I think that at the very least, I have to get to a point in life where I feel more secure in my value, if I want to resume a romantic relationship with them.

Throughout this entire narrative and throughout everything there is a story that you’re constantly telling yourself that I think you’re doing to comfort yourself in the face of social rejection. This story that you’re telling yourself is one where you are patient zero, a social contagion, different to everyone around you and destined to die alone and you can see this defeatism prevail within you despite all of the hope you say you have.

In every situation, your brain is taking the perspective that you are the “worst” and everyone else is infinitely better than you. I don’t think you’re as free of the fatalistic self-loathing as you may think you are.

Despite the fact that it’s unlikely that H or M have any flaws, your construction of them is almost near perfection. H is “the most secure person to have ever existed” which I doubt is actually true and M is “non-judgemental” and despite the fact that you have to hide your relationship with M and you have reasonable feelings of insecurity with a partner who doesn’t seem to know their own sexuality very well, you’re still the “more despicable” one just because you have reasonable insecurities.

Is it that surprising that in your comparison of yourself and H you always come up short because you’re consistently defining yourself as “less than” and even when you allow yourself the space and the room to experience anxiety, you criticise yourself for it? A big part of your brain continues to tell yourself this story because it’s a predictable one, even if it is depressing.

Because if it is your fate to walk into a cold blizzard and die alone, then you never can be disappointed by someone abandoning you again. There is a finality and a surety in that that doesn’t exist in adult romantic love which is inherently unpredictable and requires you to have faith in other people’s word.

If you die alone and cold, you never have to trust anybody. You never have to risk anything and so you avoid anxiety. Everything is destined and pre-planned and there is anything you can do to avoid it. It’s a thing our brain does to survive when we’re stuck in situations where we can’t get the approval of the people we need it from.

When faced with the reality of social rejection, which has historically meant death for our ancestors, it’s easiest for our brains to agree with everyone around us who tells us that we are bad because going with the crowd is easier than trying to fight against it.

This thought is the driving force behind you comparing yourself with H constantly and the fact that your partner is responding to this by over-reassuring you (i.e. telling you that you have “nothing to worry about”) while also creating inequity by keeping your relationship still closed and not being real about how they're still working out their sexuality only further exacerbates the problem.

In my opinion, the trick to coping with anxiety -- outside of learning how your nervous system works and how your brain is not your enemy but is trying to protect you is, to be honest -- is letting go of the anxiety. The truth is that your relationship with M is not and cannot be the same as M’s relationship with H.

This is one of the reasons why I dislike the sort of “there is no hierarchy” which becomes "all relationships are the same" approach to polyamory — because I feel in situations like this it encourages dishonesty. Let’s be real here. M may feel just as strongly for you as they do for H, if those are things one can even compare, but M and H have a longstanding life together that you don’t yet have with them and mathematically can't have unless they break up and get back together later.

Now this doesn’t always mean that H is “better” or that the relationship between H and M is more “secure”. Another reason why I argue against the over-simplistic concept of “couples privilege” is because the assumption that two people who live together and have been together “as a couple” for a long time is “secure” is definitely not always the case.

Obviously when two people share things like a mortgage or children, they are tied together in a way that people who do not have these things are not and in many cases, people will want to protect the things they have invested in for a long period of time, even to the point of a sunk cost fallacy.

What’s helpful for you in my opinion is accepting the fact that H has in fact been around longer and they have a longer established relationship together but… the same would be true about M’s relationship to any family member or childhood friend and you wouldn’t necessarily feel threatened by those things.

It is typical and pretty usual for people to have long standing relationships that have been around for a time and we only seem to culturally encourage people to be threatened by it when it’s romantic. And it’s very easy to blame a metamour or focus on a metamour because culturally it’s the thing that’s seen as the “threat”. In this case, especially when the relationship is actually inequitable in treatment, it's also easier to do that.

The relationship you have with M is unstable — but this is not because of M’s relationship with H at all. This is for two reasons: their over-reassurance in the face of the unknown and inequity and because inherently adult love is insecure and you may be looking for a security that no adult can necessarily provide to you. 

On a certain level as a lesbian it’s understandable to be afraid of a relationship of a partner with a heterosexual man. Culturally, you have been told that being gay is not stable love and you have had heterosexual monogamy endorsed to you at every stage.

It makes sense to be afraid in a real way that your partner could look at the real possibility of being in a socially acceptable relationship and being in a socially marginalised relationship and take the "easier" option. And the fact that you’re basically all working together and you’re essentially in the closet… that doesn’t help. There’s already a choice being made there that your brain is obviously panicking about.

In response to this, as you addressed with their “non-judgemental attitude” they are providing you with false reassurance and closeting. Instead of just being real with you and going, “Hey, I’m still working my sexuality out and I may change when I go on testosterone and I can’t promise what will happen” they instead try to calm you by over complimenting you and telling you things you don’t need to know about their relationship with H that encourage comparison (why is it any of your business how often they have sex?).

I’m not saying they’re doing this maliciously. A lot of people think that the best way to reassure a partner during monogamy is to respond to their comparisons by telling their partner how much they give to them to show they value them but this only encourages more comparison and defines a relationship by what you can provide to the other person. 

And on top of that, if your relationship with M is so equal to H, why is it closeted? I'm not sure if this is actually ever addressed between the two of you but it really borders on, dare I say it, gaslighting to overtly tell a partner that two relationships are "equal" when they very clearly are not. Perhaps M feels equally but M is not treating your relationships equally.

And in response to this obvious discrepancy your brain is freaking out reasonably and you are assuming you are at fault. There is a huge elephant in the room of your relationship that is going unaddressed it seems so focusing on how better you are at H than any given thing is the only thing it seems like you can do, if you're not going to actually address the inequity. You're just trying to make up for it in other ways.

To complicate matters, to my second point above, the idea that you have nothing to worry about is just flatly false — and it would be technically false in any relationship. The thing is that there is no guarantee even within a monogamous relationship that your partner will stay with you and always love you.

Non-monogamy feels more threatening because you’re going outside of the cultural script of relationships and because you’re seeing your partner with someone else (not to mention going outside the cultural script of sexuality AND gender here). Of course, the fact that there is an obvious preference here in how M is doing their relationships while you insist they are fair and “non-judgemental” doesn’t help but monogamy and heterosexuality feels safer to people because of the cultural script, not because it actually promises anything.

All relationships come with a looming uncertainty -- even when there is no glaring inequity. There are stories of people’s partners leaving them after 30 years of marriage. We only believe that relationships are certain because we think we have control about certain things but the truth is that we don’t really have control over those things. When you have anxiety, a big part of the driving force of that is wanting to have control.

There are definitely things you do have control over, but it’s not everything. And, as I’ve said in my book, anxiety is usually not actually about the thing you think you’re anxious about. You’re not scared that M might leave you or break up with you, you’re scared that you won’t be able to handle it. The fact that there is inequity only further encourages you to try and control things that you can't -- because you're not taking the step to control what you actually can control.

There’s a lot going on in this problem that requires some multifaceted solutions. First, I think that it’s important to see yourself as an unreliable narrator and to really think about the story you tell yourself and how it benefits you in terms of providing you with a predictable ending.

Maybe you haven’t gotten to this in therapy but this isn’t just about telling yourself that you’re a unique, special human and of course someone wants to be with you — which is the bog standard polyamory advice people give and what is not useful to people struggling with insecurity who have constant self-critical thoughts. 

Instead of trying to argue with your brain about how good of a person you are, ask yourself how the narrative of your brain is trying to help you survive by encouraging this catastrophic thinking. It’s more predictable and controllable and that is what your brain is seeking. Perhaps this is a big reason why you haven’t had crushes on anyone or haven’t let yourself have that — you’re afraid of the uncertainty.

If you realise that your brain is seeking control in this way, you can give it another form of control. You can't change the way other people feel about you but you can control how you feel about and talk to yourself. Instead of trying to argue that you can do X, Y, Z for M, maybe argue, "Maybe I'm not as good as H at these things but if the worst thing happens and M decides to leave me, I'll always be there for myself even when nobody is."

Anxiety at its core is a lack of faith in yourself. You rebuild that by giving yourself the reassurance and self-compassion you should have got from others in the past. You can give yourself that now, even if you hadn't got it before, and that's what matters.

Second, it might help to read through my 101 and 102 articles, in helping you figure out the things that you can actually change. Again, you can’t change whether or not M stays attracted to you or you to them. You can’t always change whether or not you are “better” than anyone else at any given thing.

But you can ask why it is that you have to hide your relationship at work. You can ask M to define how it is that you might fit into their life with H in the future. You can ask that they stop giving you information about the relationship between them and H because it encourages you to draw comparisons that are unhelpful.

You can ask them to stop telling you that you have nothing to worry about and to be real about their uncertainty over their sexuality and how it may change on testosterone and to always be honest with you if their attraction changes.

Third, at the end of the day, M may love you equally, but your treatment is not equal and it seems like you want that to change. So you have to address it if you haven't directly. Ask yourself beforehand what it is that you want. Maybe you’ve never actually done that because your brain is so committed to this dying alone story that you’ve never given yourself the chance to really think about what you want out of a relationship.

And maybe you’re as unsure about what you want as M is about their sexuality. And that's okay. You don't have to know everything. You may not know all of what you want now but you can tell that being in the closet while another partner gets to be public is not what you want and sometimes knowing what you don't want is a good place to start from.

I don’t think you have to go back to friendship with no romance with M, but I do think that you need to start drawing some boundaries both with yourself and with M. The story we tell ourselves has an incredible power and I feel like even in some of the subtleties of what you wrote, there is this constant story of you being less than and everyone else being on a pedestal.

You’re not just going to wake up the next morning with self esteem but it has to start somewhere and that usually starts with changing the narrative that you tell yourself. If you can’t speak about yourself positively to yourself then try for just neutrality. I have a hard rule with myself that I never call myself names, I never demean myself, and I never define myself as less than to myself. But that started with just neutrality and I worked my way up from there. If you can't say something nice to yourself, don't say anything at all.

In terms of the boundaries you draw around M, accept that your relationship with M is going to be different to any other relationship they have in ways you can’t control. You can’t control how deeply M feels or how “good” H is at anything else. But what you can control is whether or not you ask or accept being in a closeted relationship.

You’re focusing a lot on things you can’t control probably because you’re not stepping up to address what you can control. So ask! Why is your relationship closeted if everything is so equal? You clearly want it to change. So ask for it to change. And if M doesn’t want to be public about their relationship with you then ask yourself if this is the kind of relationship you really want. 

This is going to be scary and the reason you've likely not done it is because you know it's important to you and you know that if M has to tell you to your face that they want to hide your relationship, you may not want to stay. But think of it this way: by not stepping in and taking control of what you can control, you're not taking care of yourself. You're sabotaging yourself.

You're wasting time with M being closeted and unhappy that you could be spending with someone else. In that way, you're kind of choosing to be unhappy. You're worth it to yourself to ask for what you want. The more steps you take towards reaffirming your own worth, the less you will buy into this predictive narrative of dying alone. Because the fact of the matter is that no matter what ups and downs life brings, you will always be there for yourself.

You may have had all of this stuff happen in the past, but that is done and dusted. You can’t control that now. You can only control what relationships you have in the future. And part of that control isn’t about whether or not you’re better at sex than someone else. The control you actually have is being vocal about what you want, knowing that you’re worth having what you want and walking away from relationships that do not serve you.

Maybe in the past you could not walk away from communities that did not embrace you, but that is not the case now. You’re an adult and you can walk away from things that do not serve you and people who do not respect you. Focus less on what’s happened in the past and how you plan on reclaiming your agency and stepping into a new future.

I think overall if you can challenge your inner narrative, let go of the things you truly cannot control and accept you’ll feel uncomfortable about them but the anxiety about them will eventually ebb away, and step into your actual power and ask for what you want, things will change. I can’t guarantee that you will stay with M, because it may be that they are not as perfect for you as you think?

Maybe you can find someone else as a friend, lover or whatever regardless of what has happened in the past because you are not the same person you were then and you choose a different life for yourself now? Maybe you deserve a little bit more than being someone's closeted tag along friend? Maybe you're no longer going to accept crumbs from anyone because you deserve more?

I can promise you that if you can take control of the things you actually control and focus on changing this narrative, accepting the discomfort of the unknown, and making choices for a different future, your trust in yourself will grow and your anxiety -- well, it will still be there. But it won't be nearly as loud.

And instead of listening to it telling you you're going to die alone, or trying to argue for why that's not true, you'll go, "I see that you're scared. You're trying to protect me and you're trying to create this narrative that means I know what will happen in the future so I won't be so nervous. But I actually don't need that anymore because I know that regardless of what happens, I'm always gonna be here for me. Thank you for trying to protect me though. I appreciate you, but I got this." 

There is no guarantee that any of us will die the way we want to die, surrounded by loved ones, and to a certain extent we can’t always control that. We’re all going to go one way or another. We can’t control the circumstances of how we end up in the grave but we can control whether or not we spend our time on the way there being mostly miserable or mostly happy. I hope this helps and good luck!

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