Last March, my partner Declan and I opened up our relationship. It was my first experience with ethical non-monogamy and I was both excited and scared. Would either of us get jealous? Would it work? Would we be able to handle it once it went from theoretical non-monogamy to one (or both) of us actually having additional partners?
I assured myself that after having read The Ethical Slut and Opening Up that I would be able to tackle whatever feelings arose. If you're thinking, "Oh Ash, you're so cute and naïve," you clearly know me better than I do. (This is called foreshadowing).
Here's a quick history lesson: I've been cheated on by every partner I've ever had, except one. My current one. Declan is the only person I've ever dated who hasn't cheated on me. Think about that. I've been dating for fifteen years. Yep. Every single one of them. Now, I'm a trauma survivor in the traditional sense, (sexual assault and child sexual abuse), but I would argue that having a dating history filled with that much cheating is also a trauma of sorts. I have a bit of post-traumatic stress about it and certain things tend to trigger insecurities in me. The combination of a trauma history and an alcoholic parent left me with an attachment style that is definitely anxious-insecure. (Not familiar with attachment styles? Check out Emily Nagoski's explanation of them. It's super helpful!)
Naturally, the story I told myself after all of that happening was that it must be something wrong with me or something that I'm doing wrong because if I was enough, all of those partners would not have cheated. When I was 19, I wrote a "manifesto on love and addiction" and posted it in my LiveJournal. Here's a few notable excerpts:
I'm deathly afraid of being alone. I don't have enough self-esteem to love myself for who I am, because I have never been enough for any guy I have ever been with. I wasn’t enough to keep Jim faithful, or Ricky, or Adam, or any of them. Paul? Well there’s another issue altogether…
I was not attracted to Paul until he started to pull away from me. From the beginning he was devoted, sweet, caring, sensitive, and everything I thought I wanted after Jim had hurt me so badly. But I didn't let myself fall for him because I was afraid of being hurt again. I wanted to be the one to hold the cards for once. Despite that, when he would call me over Christmas break and tell me that I was a slut for the things I did in high school, I just took it, blamed myself, and accepted it because I didn't want to be alone. I wanted to break up with him before Spring Break, but when he brought up that we should break up, I immediately clung to him and begged him not to break up with me. Why? Why would I do that, knowing that I wanted him to break up with him anyway, knowing that he would often make me feel guilty about myself and my past.
Here’s your answer…I have abandonment issues. As I told Matt last night—good things in my life don't usually stick around. I don't like to hurt people, so I am usually not the one to break up with boys. However, when they break up with me, or pull back emotionally, regardless of my feelings for them at the time, I always cling to them. The best way for a guy to make me fall for him is to be emotionally distant. I convinced myself to fall in love with Paul. I didn't want him to take me back after Spring Break. I wanted to be with Noah. But when faced with a choice between going back with Paul versus losing him completely, I chose to stay with him. When he became distant, all I could think of were all of the times that he'd been amazing to me, and I convinced myself that I would never find anyone who cared about me like that again.
Are we seeing a pattern here? I’m afraid to be alone, I’m afraid of rejection, and I'm addicted to the attention that I receive in a relationship. As long as a guy will give me the emotional things I need, I can forgive cheating, lying, manipulating…just about anything. Even after I found out that Paul had been dating Katie while dating me, there was a part of me that still wanted him back, because I was addicted to the way I felt when I was with him and things were good. I have a terrible habit of only being able to remember the good times when faced with the prospect of losing my boyfriends.
When Jim broke up with me in January, I was sure that he was doing me a favor. He’s not going anywhere in his life, and our trust issues are almost insurmountable. I wanted to be with Matt, he was so sweet, friendly, caring, sensitive…and without the judgmental aspects of Paul. His brain turns me on…he can use the phrase stare decisis in a normal conversation and not blink an eye. He gave me the most amazing Valentine’s Day ever. And yet, when Jim started dating a girl at St. Joe’s…all I could think of was how much that hurt me. Why? Because I was replaced, which means I am replaceable.
I slept with boys in high school because I wanted their attention. I was convinced (and still am to an extent) that my only marketable feature is my body. I told Matt last night, I feel like I'm not worthy enough on my own merits…I have to sleep with a guy, buy him things, make him dinner, do all of those girlfriend-type things because I fear that if I don't, I will be left for someone prettier, smarter, and/or more willing to do such things. I feel as though I'm in constant competition for the males in my life, and I won't ever be able to just relax and enjoy a relationship.
It's amazing how much of those sentiments, eight years later, still apply. I'm afraid of being replaced or replaceable. But things were/are different with Declan. He's never cheated on me, we are good about communicating our concerns and being respectful of one another's feelings. This was the perfect non-monogamy sandbox in which to heal. I could work through my issues with a kind and supportive partner.
I quickly realized that despite years of therapy between the time I wrote that piece in 2006 and now, I'm still a little raw in certain areas. Mainly, because I viewed sex as recreational (and even transactional) in my life for so long, my partner having sex with someone else doesn't really bother me. The painful part, I'm discovering, is when my partner has feelings for another person. It's actually the combination of both of those things, if I'm really honest. Declan could have a best friend for whom he feels love, and that wouldn't feel uncomfortable to me in the least. He could have 20 fuck buddies, and that wouldn't bother me. But when he met a partner with whom he experienced a deep emotional connection AND with whom he plans to become sexual? Oh goodness. Every single one of my fears, insecurities, instances of self doubt, and abandonment issues come springing into the forefront.
I realize that this attitude is problematic. It's unfair, and it's not healthy. That's why I'm not demanding that Declan stop seeing this new partner. But it is difficult, and I am struggling. I'm working through my insecurities, which will bring me to my next post. This was mainly to serve as a primer so that the next post isn't 5000 words long.
Have you experienced fears of abandonment or insecurities over "being enough" for your partner? How did you handle it?