Episode 134 - Polyamory and Trauma

Seeing yourself as “traumatised” may actually be causing yourself more stress and difficulty than if you allowed yourself the permission to feel.

Are you polyamorous and have come out to your family about it? Please consider completing my survey. I'm using it as research for an upcoming guide.

That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.

Episode 134 - Polyamory and Trauma

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Podcast transcript

My husband and I are reopening our poly[am] journey after mistakes from both sides. We have both come to realize that I need parallel and only weather reports. I am undergoing very heavy inner child/trauma healing work and we both agree it’s unhealthy to have wounds ripped open at every corner from having his journey rubbed in my face.

My concern is will resentment breed if there is a huge part of his life he is experiencing he will not be able to share and must compartmentalize?

On the flip side, many poly[am] people also wouldn’t be privy to their partner’s activities anyway, based on privacy alone. So how would they foster intimacy and not distance?

The audiobook of The Anxious Person's Guide to Non-Monogamy is available in the UK and is now available worldwide!


So I think that there is this assumption that comes from monogamous kind of centric culture. I think that people have this assumption that when you're in a romantic relationship with someone that you share everything right? And a lot of people really struggle with this when it comes to polyamory because quite often they end up in situations where they're disclosing things about other relationships that maybe the other person doesn't necessarily want them to disclose. Because they're afraid that they're hiding stuff from their partner, right?

They're afraid, usually they're afraid of like that it's secretly cheating somehow or things like that. And even within the case of monogamous relationships, you get people who, you know, think that even thinking about another person sexually who's not your partner is cheating or that there's something wrong with having your own kind of inner world. But I think that is kind of you know, like I was saying in the in the question before the podcast started, there are different aspects of different relationships that are different and you may have friends who you don't share intimate details of your sexuality with.

Does that mean that you're not close to them? Is intimacy only built through sharing every aspect of something? I have had relationships where I know the people generally that my partner dates, and it's not because I have any sort of trauma or issue. I'm just not interested. I just don't need to know. One of my best friends who I talked to all of the time. I don't know anything about her sexuality. I don't know anything about what her and her partner get up to. I know that she has a partner, and if we meet, that'd be great.

I have another friend who I don't even know what her partner looks like. Because we have other things to talk about. And I don't need to know any of that stuff. Like we have other ways of connecting and other ways of talking. We share. We talk about our lives and it just never gets into that point where we need to share this type of information. So I would encourage you to really think that there are plenty of parts of your partner's life that you are a part of, and plenty of parts that you won't be a part of. You probably don't know who your partner is at work.

You know, if you think about it that way, like the way that your partner interacts with their co-workers might be really different to how they interact with you. Your partner might be a completely different person at work than they are at home with you. And that's okay, like — do you not feel like, “oh, I need to know who you are like, what did you done at work? Like I need to know, like —”

Do you feel like you have to know that type of stuff in order to be intimate. But it for some reason, within the context of polyamory. It's like there's so much pressure to like, share everything and be comfortable with everything and we want to know all the details and blah, blah, blah, that people feel like there's something hidden if they're not sharing all that stuff, and it's really about how you look at it.

So I would really challenge the assumption that there's some aspect of this that is hidden. Maybe it's just not necessary for you to know. Just like it's, you know, your partner doesn't inform you probably every single time they go to the bathroom. Is that like… do you know what I mean, like— I know, that's silly example, but you don't need to know every single thing. And there are other ways to build intimacy. And it depends on how your partner looks at this.

Like if your partner is someone who— some people need to share, right? You do have that even within friendships, even within roommate situations, like any type of adult relationship that you have. There are some people who just need to be sharing this type of information with their friends in order for them to feel close to them.

There's some people who don't need that. There are some people who need to be in person to have a friendship in person with somebody in order for them to feel connected to somebody and there's some people who don't.

So there's all sorts of different ways that people operate. If your partner— is your partner, someone who needs to share this with you? And if they don't need that, then you are kind of creating your own problem by looking at it as “Oh, my partner's compartmentalising something”. I don't feel like I'm hiding anything from any of my friends who I don't know anything about their sex life.

They don't tell me anything like. I don't — I've had really intimate really close deep relationships with people where we do not discuss that at all. And it's… I don't feel like they're hiding any part of themselves. It's just not part of our relationship. You have deep relationships with your parents. I'm sure you don't know about all those details either. So you know, I would definitely look at it that way.

The other thing here is I'm not again — not denying that you're going through some stuff. I'm not denying that you have some stuff to work through. But I always really, really encourage people to examine the story that they're telling themselves about themselves. And the reason is, because I think that if you look at scientific studies, and you look at the power of the placebo effect, for example, or the no Nocebo effect, if you look at one of the studies that I kind of constantly talk about and I genuinely hope it's not a shitty study.

I will fully admit I'm not a scientist and I'm not like fully capable of knowing when I look at a study if it's like a decent study or not, but one of my favourite studies that I always talk about is the milkshake study, which is where they gave someone — if you heard me talk about this, I apologise but I feel it's helpful to explore here — They gave two groups of people a milkshake.

And they told one group of people that the milkshake was a healthy shake and the other people they told— they told them that it was an indulgent shake. It was the exact same shake and then they monitored the levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin in their body and their and their glucose spikes. And what they found is that in the people that they told that this was a healthy shake, they experienced a lower glucose spike, but then they also became hungrier sooner.

And the people that they told that the shake was an indulgent shake they experienced a bigger glucose spike, and then— but they felt fuller, so they had less ghrelin. And I think that that's quite interesting. It's the exact same shake, and yet they experienced a physical difference in their bodies. And I genuinely genuinely feel based off of my experience with anxiety, based off of everything that I've seen, that if you characterise yourself, if you approach your life with the concept that you are a “traumatised person”, that you are defective in some way and if you inhabit that as a core essential part of your personality, or your functioning, I genuinely feel like that causes more problems.

And this isn't about being like, “Oh, I don't have any problems”. This isn't about denial. This isn't about the idea that you can just pull yourself up from your bootstraps and get over any problem if you just think really hard. That's not what I'm saying. But I think that it's always worth thinking about the story that you're telling yourself, because I for such a long time in polyamory, assumed that my non interest in knowing about the details, in seeing my partner with other people, in any of that I assumed that this was a problem.

I assumed that I was jealous. I created this narrative internally that there was something wrong with me. I did that about my being on the asexual spectrum as well. I assumed that I had all these hang ups that I just needed to get over it. I did this is also about me being introverted and just not interested in parties. Like I created this whole narrative where I could just be this like, cool, fun hip, socially outgoing, interested in parties. I'm the you know, the cat's pyjamas if I just got over all of these things, you know. I just needed to get over all of my hang ups and I had all these hang ups.

And obviously like I've been through childhood trauma. I know that it's a different thing. But that story that I told myself, kept me in such a hook for such a long time that when I just realised I'm just not interested, it made things so much easier to deal with. So one thing to kind of explore like I'm again, I'm not saying that like you don't have emotional reactions to things, but also consider the story you're telling yourself about yourself, and also consider your expectations.

I do think that quite a lot of people when they try polyamory for the first time, especially if they're interested in it. It's almost sometimes the people who are most interested in it do this to themselves the most. They think that “Oh, I'm interested in it. Therefore this should feel freeing. This should feel great. I should feel happy all the time.”

And I think even people in monogamous relationships, I think there are lots of people, especially with social media, and how you kind of always see people's highlight reels of their lives, have an expectation that they should feel happy all of the time. That they should feel this constant status of elation all the time.

And then when they don't feel it they feel like a failure. And I do feel like within the context of polyamory, a lot of people especially if they see polyamory as like the free choice, as the more ethical choice, as the more you know, bohemian choice — I'm not saying that's how you think. But I do think that people have this expectation that they shouldn't feel this way. And a lot of times it's that expectation that causes them more problems.

Because I do think that if you haven't thought about this before, you really need to remember that monogamy has been the current thread that has run through — like it unless you grew up in a completely different society, in which case I apologise but monogamy has run through a course through your entire life. Since you have been a child you have grown up being told that there are two person adult relationships.

This is the way that relationships happen usually the heterosexual blah blah blah, but like we accept that a lot of queer people have to go through a process of like, “Okay, I've been almost, you know, kind of indoctrinated into this concept that I shouldn't be gay and that I have this kind of hang up”. And I'm not saying it's the same because there are a lot of differences when your orientation is outright castigated and demonised.

But if you think about it, you've had your entire life been told that you should be in a relationship with one person, romantic songs… you — Barbie has one partner. Everything in your life has been structured in this way. You have practised monogamy, since you were a child, most likely. This has been the script that has run through your entire life. And now you were doing something different. You are a human being with instincts that rely on social cohesion in order to survive. The only reason we survived in such a really awful environment. Like it was not easy for our ancestors.

And the only reason we survived is because we stuck together. We survived through social relationships. We're social creatures, and it has been proven many times and maybe again, I'm not a scientist, someone can come along and say that's actually bullshit. But if you look at the brain pathways that are activated through social rejection, they're the same brain pathways that are activated through physical pain. Our ancestors — if they were socially rejected by their group, and we tended to be in smaller groups, so we're also not used to being connected to so many people.

We were in smaller, tight knit groups where if we were kicked out of that group, we would die. That's it. So you have a strong inclination to go with the group. And your group has been telling you your entire life that monogamy is the way to go and that this is the way relationships are had. You've been given a lot of messages about the foundational beliefs of how love works within monogamy. And you're going against that.

You're stepping outside of the comfort zone and that is going to — even in the most secure, zen put together, totally un-traumatised human being that is going to cause them fear. It is. Just like stepping in an aeroplane causes a lot of people fear even though they know that it's the safe way. They know that plane crashes don't happen very often. They like — it's a understandable response. You are going to be afraid because you're stepping outside of your cultural comfort zone.

So do you have this expectation of yourself that you should just be totally cool with things? And is that giving you even more stress than you already have in dealing with that? And I do find that a lot of people end up in that situation and then what you also have on top of that is not only are you challenging this, but you're also characterising yourself as a “traumatised person”. So you already see yourself as somewhat like broken. You set this expectation for yourself that you are going to have this negative reaction.

And sometimes it's a self fulfilling prophecy. I feel like. You know people like Olympic athletes — like Michael Phelps doesn't start .. I mean, I don't know maybe he’ll come on here and tell me I'm bullshitting. But I'm pretty sure Michael Phelps doesn't start every single swim with, “Oh, I don't know if I can do this. I'm a bad swimmer”. That mindset is really, really important. And I don't think that people understand that well enough.

And I think that there is a way to understand that you have — you aren't traumatised in the same way and I think you should definitely check out Gabor Mate. If you and I hope I'm saying his name right, because I really liked the way he characterises addiction and talks about addiction and I feel like it's very much the same in terms of characterising yourself as a traumatised person. You have learned things from your childhood, ways to survive that aren't serving you now.

That are making things a little bit more difficult. This isn't an inherent broken quality of you. This isn't an inherent issue within you. Your brain is super flexible, like we have neuroplasticity. That's part of the wondrous things that our ancestors have given us in our terms of our development. We have learned these things that in childhood that helped us survive, and now they don't serve us and now we need to change. And it takes a while because your brain pathways are really stuck because it wants you to survive. It knows that you've been in that environment.

So it's like “Hey, we can't like we got to do this the same way. So we survive!” And then you got to be like “No, no brain, no, no brain”. So you will go through that process, but I would encourage you to really rethink characterising yourself in such a way because I do think that that often leads to reinforcing those brain pathways rather than changing them. I think that you should see the way that you've dealt with relationships and mistakes, like everybody makes mistakes. You're not going to not make mistakes.

I do think another thing that people tend to do when they kind of get into therapy and they tend to think and I did this the same like I thought when — I thought that when I finished therapy I would be like this totally like unemotional Vulcan, I thought that nothing would ever bother me and I would just be totally able to deal with everything. And now I find like movies that I could watch before therapy without like skipping a beat I struggle to watch because I empathise with people more.

I'm actually more in touch with my feelings now than it was before. I cry more during movies, I'm affected more, but I can cope with it. So I think that like having this thought process of like you're going to reach this pinnacle of perfection. And that's what people who open and close relationships sometimes end up doing. They think that they're going to reach this pinnacle of perfectionism, or this perfect place where they feel secure, but the thing is, life happens.

You may get to a point— you may go to therapy, and you may graduate from therapy may think, “Boom, I got everything. I've handled everything. I got it I'm ready”. You may have your first non monogamous experiences or a little bit more have no problems. Boom, and then someone that you love dies, and then all of a sudden your entire life is shifted or you get a diagnosis and your entire life shifted. You get hit by a truck and you're in— like anything could happen in life that we are unprepared for.

There is no perfect Zen state of mental health that you're going to be able to find yourself at that will allow you to go through polyamory and try polyamory without ever having any negative emotions. I think that's super unrealistic to expect of yourself. So you know, I'm not saying that you're expecting perfectionism from yourself. I can't necessarily glean that just from the short letter that you've sent me. But I would very much encourage you to reframe your thought process around this. Reframe your thought process of yourself as a traumatised person.

Or re-think about like how, you know, yes, you're dealing with this stuff, and it's causing issues but this is based— this is you trying to survive and for me personally, I feel like when I re-characterised some of my mental health issues instead of thinking like “Oh, my brains attacking me, I'm damaged. I'm traumatised”. And instead I said, “Hey, you know what, my brain has kept me alive”. This inner Gollum voice that I've hated for so long, you know, has kept me alive. This is what's — this is my survival instinct. This is what's taken care of me.

And that has helped lead me into self compassion. And that has helped make things so much better for me mentally. And and now I'm, I'm, you know, I can't— I may have the same issues in life, like I may end up hit by a truck tomorrow and something happens but now that I have a compassion for myself, I at least know that I'll be there for myself and that helps immensely.

So, again, I'm not trying to deny any of the feelings that you have, or any of the emotions that you're facing or any that would say that you're not traumatised, “just pull yourself up” because like I spent my entire life being told that I spent my entire life being told you have nothing to complain about. You have nothing to cry about. And that was incredibly damaging for me and made me not get therapy for a long time. So that is not what I'm trying to tell you.

I'm just trying to say, think about how you frame this in your mind because sometimes how you frame things, causes more problems in trying to solve that thing. Approaching a problem thinking “I'm not going to be able to do this, I suck”. I'm like talking to yourself in such a way even if it's not like saying you suck it doesn't even have to be that saying that there's something about you like characterising it in such a way as sometimes I think sometimes it gets in the way of solving that problem.

So yeah, I think to recap, I would I think part of the problem here is partially your expectations of yourself in the situation. I think that you should think about different friendships you have, different intimate close relationships you have where you don't share intimate sexual details about what's going on, where you don't talk about relationships that much. And think about how those build intimacy. There's all kinds of ways to build intimacy. There's all kinds of ways to be close to somebody and it doesn't always have to be about disclosing every single thing that's going on or about disclosing anything.

And maybe if you can kind of remember that you do have these close relationships with people where you don't ever talk about any relationships, then that may be helpful. If your partner is someone who needs to disclose stuff in order to feel close, then I think that's something that you guys should work out in couples therapy because I still do think there are other ways of of being intimate but if that is something that your partner feels like is something that they have to hide, then maybe you can work that out together.

But don't assume that that your partner feels that they have to hide things. Ask about that, because I've never felt like I was hiding anything in relationships where we don't talk about our partners or anything like that, and or in relationships where I've never even physically seen what someone else's partners look like. Like I've never felt like we were hiding anything.

So that's something that you need to talk about with your partner instead of just telling yourself that story and then assuming what the story is.

I think that you should reframe how you look at yourself in the situation, how you look at yourself in polyamory in general and how you approach dealing with some of the issues from your past. Yes, you have some maladaptive coping techniques, but you can learn better coping techniques and you will. You will learn better coping techniques, it just takes time and it also takes practice. One of the reasons why I discourage people from closing and opening and closing opening is because sometimes, as I said, one there's no perfect Zen mental state for you to be in because life happens and you can never predict it.

But also because sometimes relationship problems have to be solved within the context of those actual problems. Like if you were being told how to ride a bike, and I give you a five hour lecture on how to ride a bike, sometimes, yeah, that can help but sometimes you also need to sit on the bike and actually pedal. So I think sometimes relationship problems need to be sold whilst you're in a relation with somebody because you need that active example. You can't you can think through it all you want in terms of thought process, but sometimes it needs to happen and it's okay. It's okay to make mistakes.

It's okay to like nobody's perfect. Pobody's nerfect. Like if every porkchop were perfect, we wouldn't have hot dogs. So like, readjust your expectations of yourself and think about, you know, acknowledge the fact that you are going against a massive cultural script that you've had for your entire life and that is scary and that's okay. You're allowed to be scared. Let yourself be scared. I definitely — if you haven't read through my one on one on 102 articles (nonmonogamyhelp.com/101 and nonmonogamyhelp.com/102).

I definitely would recommend that you do that because there's a lot in there about releasing yourself from the responsibility to control things because part of that like in my experience, especially with anxiety, especially with childhood trauma, trying to control things was definitely something that my trauma was attempting, like it was one of my maladaptive coping techniques.

And last but not least, I think, you know, give yourself a little bit of a break. It's okay, you're not broken. There's nothing wrong with you. You've just you know, had these experiences. Things will get better. You will always be there for yourself. And that is one of the things that has also really helped me with anxiety because I've never been able to argue with the anxious thoughts in my head.

You know, when I've had things like, “Oh, your throat is going to close your throat is going to close”. I had really intense OCD about the idea that I was going to have anaphylaxis for some reason. It just became a thing that I was constantly obsessed with. And I would argue with this thing all the time, “Like oh, it's very unlikely that you're going to have anaphylaxis very unlikely. It's very unlikely”. That never helped and then eventually just this idea of like, “Hey, you're scared. And that's okay. But I'm going to be there. I'll be there for you. We'll we'll be all right. Like I'm going to be there for you”.

Especially if you've had issues with like parents will figures not being there for you. Having— I definitely would recommend — Complete side note. I've gone off track.

I definitely would recommend looking up and watch even if you don't have any interest in raising children. I would definitely recommend like following people. There's a guy called the Indomitable Black Man, and he does gentle parenting resources and honestly consuming content about gentle parenting has been so helpful for me in learning how to reparent myself and understanding how my brain works and how you know all of that, like all of that contributes to how your responses are, how your like nervous system responses are so I'm definitely recommend, you know, because it's a process in my experience dealing with childhood trauma.

It's a process of re-parenting yourself, of becoming that parent that you didn't have, and learning how to go like, “Hey, I know you're scared. It's cool. We got this”. because even if you've never had that, then you're just sitting there on the spinning wheel going like “Ah, everything's gonna end and I gotta fix it. I gotta control everything”.

So yeah. Anyway, I feel like I'm blathering on but I very, very much hope that this has helped and good luck.

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