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Some thoughts on noticing differences

dragonpoly
"But what if he compares me to somebody else?"

That's a question I hear, often, in conversations about polyamory. Oh, I get the usual questions--how do you decide who's sleeping with whom, don't you get jealous, how do you find poly folk, that sort of thing. But surprisingly often, someone will ask "What if he compares me to somebody else? What if he has two lovers, and he compares me to her?"

Now, honestly, I think that's a good thing. I want my lovers to compare me to their other lovers, for reasons I'll get to in a minute. But first, let's unpack the question a bit.




The question assumes quite a bit of subtext. When someone asks me "What if he compares me to his other lover," the subtext I see inside the question is the assumption that such a comparison would go badly. Presumably, a person who believes himself or herself to be absolutely the bee's knees wouldn't approach being compared with other folks with fear and trepidation.

So I think the question "What if he compares me to his other lover?" has an implicit "...because she must be better than I am, and so if he does that, he'll realize what a pathetic loser nobody I am" attached to the end.

Which is, of course, nothing but good old-fashioned insecurity at work. Insecurity is a good news/bad news kind of thing; the good news is that insecurity is really not that hard to beat; with practice, I think that just about anyone can learn the habits of security. The bad news, naturally, is that the process of letting go of insecurity is scary and uncomfortable, and the discomfort can sometimes seem worse than the insecurity itself.

At least for a little while. Learning security doesn't actually take all that long, and insecurity lasts indefinitely if untreated, so the scales tip pretty decisively if you take the long view...at least, I think they do. But you gotta take the long view.

All that aside, though, it definitely seems to me that a person won't fear being compared to other people unless there's some kind of voice somewhere in the background of that person's head telling him that the comparison is apt to end badly, so I think the question itself is very revealing.

Most questions are, though, when you get right down to it, especially questions about relationships. I had a person ask me once...but no, that's a whole 'nother post itself.




There's an irony, in that the fear of being compared to someone else can actually mask a great source of security. And that security comes from knowing that you, and everyone around you, is unique and therefore irreplaceable.

When my partners compare me to their partners, they'll probably notice similarities (I tend to have a taste for women who like geeky gamer poly guys, so they'll probably have other partners who are--wait for it!--geeky poly gamer guys), and they'll notice differences. And the differences are what make us individuals, not interchangeable commodities.

I think the question "what if he compares me to others?" assumes, in addition to a presumption that the comparison will end badly, the notion that such a comparison would reveal which one is "best." 'Cause, you know, if Joe thinks that Cathy is best and Jane is second-best, then Joe would naturally prefer Cathy to Jane, right?

And who knows? Maybe there are some folks out there who would do something like that--evaluate their partners to find out which one is "best," then stay with that person 'til someone better came along. Now, personally, I think folks like that can be spotted pretty easily. I also think if I am with a person like that, I'd want to know about it as soon as possible, so that I could dump their sorry ass and find a partner who, y'know, actually wanted to be with me 'cause they value me.

But I also have seen people stay with partners who don't appear to like them very much because they believe that if they leave, they'll never find another partner again as long as they live, and will be doomed to a solitary life forever and ever, amen--so they gotta take, and try to keep, what they can get.

Which brings us, of course, right back around to insecurity again.




Now, my partners are about as different from one another as you could possibly imagine. They all have some things in common, of course--they're all women, for one. They're all unusually intelligent, for another. And they're all polyamorous; my days of dating monogamous partners are over.

But other than that, they're very different from one another--physically, psychologically, philosophically, practically. And when I spend time with my partners, yes, I notice the differences.

It would be impossible not to. Shelly's taller than I am; rain_herself is shorter. It'd be well-nigh impossible not to notice that I have to stand on tiptoes to kiss Shelly and look down to kiss rain_herself. When I sleep next to one of my sweeties, my arm wraps around dayo differently than it does around joreth. (Actually, rain_herself even commented on that the last time I saw her; physically, when we're lying next to each other, we fit together much differently than she and her other sweetie do.)

And in terms of personality, my partners are even more varied than they are physically. Some of my sweeties are extroverted; others are introverted. Gina loves sushi; joreth doesn't eat seafood. Shelly is a math geek; dayo loves sports cars. Gina has the same deadpan sense of humor I have; joreth is prone to cynicism; rain_herself is an optimist in cynic's clothing, even on her worst days. And yes, I notice these differences. Be a bit bleedin' impossible not to. Hell, I cherish these differences, because every one of them is what makes each of the people who has blessed me by being part of my life unique.

And isn't that the point?

When you compare your lovers, when you notice the similarities and differences between your lovers--this is a necessary and inevitable consequence of seeing your lovers. Not as faceless, interchangeable units, but as human beings. You can not know a person, not in any meaningful way, without noticing those things that make that person unique.

It's not about comparing them on a stepladder to figure out which one is "best"--lessee, Gina gets four points for loving dogs, 'cause dogs are cool; joreth gets six bonus points because she hates the novel Stranger in a Strange Land, and I don't like it either1--and the one with the most points wins. 'Cause, y'know, the one with the most points is the best one.

Instead, it's about seeing each of my partners for exactly who she is. When you do that, you see that each person is someone who adds value to your life--value that any other person can't.

And that, my friends, is awesome.




1 rain_herself believes I don't appreciate Heinlein the way I should. I'm willing to give him another go--I last read a Heinlein novel more than ten years ago, and I still have one of his books she recommended which I haven't read on my "to be read" list--so we'll see.

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( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
joreth
May. 12th, 2008 11:22 pm (UTC)
I tried to give Heinlein another go. I lost my copy of Stranger before I finished it, so I borrowed it from the library but I couldn't even stomach it long enough to find the place where I left off. I ended up wiki-ing it to find out the ending so I could at least say I know what happened.

Ugh, what terrible writing. I can't even get past the sexism by keeping in mind the era in which it was written.

Cynical, who me?
rain_herself
May. 13th, 2008 11:43 am (UTC)
I think Stranger is a wretched example of Heinlein, despite everyone seeming to idolize it. There are many many other, better books of his. I don't mind Stranger that much because I am a Heinlein junkie, but it's not even close to one of his better novels.


(Anonymous)
May. 13th, 2008 04:13 pm (UTC)
Used love Heinlein...
Heinlein was almost certainly my introduction to polyamory, as well as being probably the strongest influence on my views on honor, duty, sex, and most of the rest of what makes life wonderful.

That said, I now find it impossible to go back and reread his works. When I was in college, I noticed that his writing was deteriorating -- but I now think half of that was from me being introduced to better writers.
joreth
May. 13th, 2008 04:36 pm (UTC)
I also read Time Enough For Love (have that floating around here somewhere), and that was just as bad, IMO. I have too many other good books to read to continue wasting my time on Heinlein.
(Anonymous)
May. 13th, 2008 04:41 pm (UTC)
Time Enough for Love, but not enough for bad writing
At least Time Enough for Love had an emotionally moving scene. Oh, and a dozen pages of cute quips to put in my "fortune.txt" file, back when I had such. :-)

-- Gina's Scott.
joreth
May. 13th, 2008 05:49 pm (UTC)
Re: Time Enough for Love, but not enough for bad writing
It did?!? I must have missed the emotionally moving scene, hidden underneath all the bad writing.
joreth
May. 12th, 2008 11:36 pm (UTC)
I am also reminded of a certain ex-metamour who couldn't handle being in my presence because she thought I compared too favorably to her and it depressed her that I was so much prettier/smarter/smaller/whatever the fuck she was afraid of. It really had nothing to do with me (had she even bothered to get to know me, she'd very quickly learn all of my "flaws" and character quirks), she was afraid of our other metamour too, who is very different from me in appearance and interests (although we have similar personalities - but still with some glaring differences). This ex-metamour had absolutely no problem befriending our partner's platonic friends who were just as pretty/smart/educated/better dancers/athletic/whatever. It was just the women her boyfriend were dating that intimidated her.

I just don't get that at all. I don't view anyone as overall better than myself, just different. I may not be as compatible with my partner than another girl is, but if that's the case, our relationship is doomed whether she's in the picture or not because of our incompatibilities. It has nothing to do with her at all. If I'm afraid someone won't like something about me, I can either decide to change that thing about me (if I think it's worth changing regardless of the partner) or I can decide to date people who *do* like that thing about me.

I learned the hard way that if I have any concerns my partner will leave me for someone "better", for whatever value of "better" he happens to prefer, he's gonna leave me whether we're poly or not and I'm better off without him. Not without pain, of course, but after the pain fades, my life is better without him in it. His next girlfriend is welcome to the guy who is willing to toss someone aside for the next "better" thing to come along. Let her sweat it out. I try not to date those people in the first place anymore.

I just don't understand the fear of being compared and coming up short. I never have, even when I was in mono relationships. I've been dumped for someone "better", quite a few times, actually. But it's not because she was better, it's because he was an asshole. Usually, he didn't want to leave me necessarily, but he had his own insecurities and chose to leave when a mono girl came along that he could feel "secure" with. And it hurts to be chosen over, but anyone who would do that is someone I don't want to be with, and being monogamous never made me more secure that he wouldn't do that. It increased the chances he would do that. Being poly means he doesn't have to choose a "better", and if he's really poly, he doesn't see one of us as "better" to be chosen in the first place. If he did, he wouldn't be poly.
red_haut
May. 13th, 2008 12:00 am (UTC)
heinlein and "better than"
Oh, Franklin, well said!

And you too Joreth. If I'm not "good enough" (whatever that means) then the relationship is going to end whether we're poly or mono or asexual or platonic. Same if he turns out to be "eh." I find that the more insecurities one has about being compared to someone else and found wanting, the more you create the situation you feared: the person will be turned away by your fears, jealousies, possessiveness or however else you express those fears, and will not want to be around you anymore. Whereas when you embrace the things about you that are great, and try to improve those things about you that aren't, and be excited that your lover is blessed with so much love, well, then, you're someone people want to be around!

However, I'm going to compare Heinlein, for a moment...

Spider Robinson took Heinlein's themes, wrapped them in great writing, and wrote several books about love. Only his worship of Heinlein enabled me to see what it is that had people so excited about Heinlein in the first place. (Caveat: I've read Heinlein's Time Enough for Love, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and I Will Fear No Evil, and several short stories. That's enough.) I highly recommend Robinson's Callahan series, especially the two Lady Sally books.
rain_herself
May. 13th, 2008 11:45 am (UTC)
Re: heinlein and "better than"
Yes, yes, yes! Have you read Variable Star? It's unbelievable. Everything that is good and wonderful about Heinlein and Robinson all mixed up together.

(Time Enough For Love is the one I recommended to tacit)
joreth
May. 13th, 2008 04:46 pm (UTC)
Re: heinlein and "better than"
Sorry, couldn't stand that book either. It wasn't quite as bad as Stranger, but it was bad enough that I had to force myself to get through it, just so I would know what everone else was talking about when they worship Heinlein.
joreth
May. 13th, 2008 04:45 pm (UTC)
Re: heinlein and "better than"
Definately. tacit wrote somewhere else about self-fullfilling prophecies and using rules to protect insecurities creating the very situation that drives away the person in the first place.

In an ironic twist, yesterday I ran into someone I had a HUGE thing for a couple of years ago (and he for me). We had a brief but intense testing of the ropes, then he completely disappeared because he said I "terrify him". After spending some time catching up with him at work yesterday, saying our goodbyes in the parkinglot, he asked me to call him. I reminded him that he had a phone and could call me too. He shook his head sadly and said again that I "terrify" him. I asked how, and he said it's because I'm so confidant and self-assured that it's intimidating. I pointed out that if he paid any attention at all, he would quickly find those things about me that are not so confidant and self-assured. I'm human, just like anyone else.

But this is not the first time I've heard this, and it's frustrating. On the positive side, though, people who *are* intimidated by me are extremely insecure and therefore not good romantic candidates, so it's probably just as well that they steer clear of me :-D
(Anonymous)
May. 13th, 2008 05:11 pm (UTC)
Re: heinlein and "better than"
The Lady Sally books are wonderful, but I think Time Pressure and Mind Killer are better, both in content and in writing. (And, incidentally, form the basis for a much saner religion than certain others that spawned from a certain other Science Fiction author. hubbard)

-- Gina's Scott
dramabsb
May. 13th, 2008 12:37 am (UTC)
I agree when you say the fear of comparison comes from insecurity. But there is also a bit of intent behind the comparison that needs to be looked into.

A casual "you're different from so-and-so is one thing." I had one partner, though, that constantly compared me to his ex. Every conversation became how I was different from her. Really quickly I started to wonder if it was happy with me or if he was expecting me to be more like her.

On the other hand there's the comparisons you make with your partners, which is the casual "you're different" kind of remark. Another previous partner compared me to his primary and another secondary at the same time. He'd mentioned how his other secondary and I are both really energetic, passionate people, but his primary tends to be much more mellow and calm. The intent just casual because there is a time and a place for each trait.
red__thread
May. 13th, 2008 12:38 am (UTC)
I love these posts of yours. They give me so much to think about...being brought up in a very conservative, "any relationship that isn't monogamous is bad" environment kept me very nervous about learning more about polyamory for years. I feel really happy to learn more about it, and broaden my opinions! Thank you~
(Anonymous)
May. 13th, 2008 04:08 am (UTC)
"It's not about comparing them on a stepladder to figure out which one is 'best'"

I think that cuts right to the heart of the matter. There is a pervasive notion in many, not all, monogamy circles that I have been privy to in the past that there is only one person who can fulfill your needs and that person is the best of all the lovers you have had (or at least should be the best); furthermore, if they aren't the best, you need to trade them in for someone better (whatever "better" means). I don't agree with the idea and that is one of (but not the only) reasons why, if I were to date, I would prefer polyamory. I also like the article about becoming a secure person.
rain_herself
May. 13th, 2008 11:45 am (UTC)
This is a very good post, sweetie. :)
wolfpeach
May. 13th, 2008 05:55 pm (UTC)
Excellent rant! :)
kilbia
May. 19th, 2008 05:46 pm (UTC)
I was pointed to this 'cause it's a lot of what I'm going through right now.

My problem is that the OSO and I are a *lot* alike, so it is much more difficult to find the ways in which I add value to my husband's life that I can't immediately discount with "but she does too, so she's everything that I am *plus* all this other stuff". If you know anyone who licked that problem, I'd be up for a message of advice.
joreth
Jul. 7th, 2008 04:01 am (UTC)
It's not that the two of you both do X, it's the whole collection of everything you do and everything you are that makes you YOU. And that's it.

He's with you because he likes YOU. It doesn't matter how many things you have in common with someone else, she is not YOU.

You are also everything she is *plus* all this other stuff.

If you were to date identical twins, go to the same places, have sex in exactly the same positions, you would still have two completely unique relationships that just happen to have some things in common.

Chances are your husband's partners will always have things in common. He likes ya'll for a reason. But no matter how many things you have in common, you are still you and she is still her and he likes you because you are you and she is her.

You don't add value because he has a checklist of things each partner can do that the other can't. You add value because you are you.
ladyravn
Feb. 6th, 2009 08:23 pm (UTC)
Glory Road is a pretty cool Heinlein novel... I recommend it :)
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