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Some thoughts on being special

I've known many people in polyamorous relationships who have a need to feel special, and try to meet this need by reserving certain activities to specific partners, or by placing limits on activities which their partners are permitted to engage in with others. The feeling is that by reserving certain special activities to one relationship, that relationship has something about it which is special.

I think that's a dangerous idea, and I think that if you're not careful, that idea can bite you in the ass.

The fact is, every relationship is special simply by virtue of the fact that every relationship is unique. It is not possible for a relationship not to be unique; every person is unique, and the interactions between any set of two people is also unique. Even if I were to date a pair of identical twins, and do exactly the same thing with both of them, and take them both to the same restaurants, and have sex the same number of times in the same position with each, those relationships would be unique. There's no way for them not to be! Even identical twins aren't the same person, and the quality of my relationships arises from who my partners are, not from what we do.

Preserving some kind of unique action as a symbol of that specialness is not necessary; the relationships are special, and no two relationships are interchangeable or replaceable. The value I get from my partners has nothing to do with those things we do together; person B can not rob person A of value by doing the same things that person A does.

The danger of relying on some kind of special activity in order to make a relationship feel special comes from the fact that any sense of specialness that arises from an activity or from a symbol must always be a specialness that is fragile and unstable. If my partner feels special only because I do thus-and-such with her and her alone, then she must always know, somewhere deep down inside, that that specialness can be taken away from her; if I do that same thing with another person, then her sense of specialness is gone.

On the other hand, specialness that comes from who she is rather than from what she does can never be taken away. It's a sense of specialness that is cast in iron; it can never be destroyed and can never be dispelled; it's rock-solid, because it does not depend on anything outside of her. Nothng I do with her or with anyone else can shake that sense of specialness, because it does not rest on anything which depends on me.

Symbols are tricky things. People often confuse the symbol with the thing the symbol represents; look at all the people who want to pass an anti-flag-desecration amendment to the Constitution, for example. These people do not realize that a flag is only a symbol; destroying a flag does not damage or in any way harm the thing that the flag represents.

It's the same thing with relying on unique activities and other symbols of a relationship's specialness in order to feel that the relationship is special. If that feeling of specialness relies on some tokenor symbol of that specialness, then that feeling of specialness is vulnerable, and easily damaged; it's not a feeling of specialness that you can ever really be secure in. On the other hand, a sense of specialness that relies on no external factor is a sense of specialness far more secure.

Now, I think this is not obvious to many people, particularly to people already struggling with security to begin with. If you have invested some specific activity with your sense of specialness, and your security relies on feeling special, then giving up that specific action seems terrifying, because you may feel that if you lose this special action, you may also lose your specialness, and with it your sense of security. It's not intuitively obvious at all that you'll actually be more secure, both in your sense of specialness and your relationship, if you do not rely on some external factor to make you feel special.

But there it is. Relationships aren't always intuitively obvious.



( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 27th, 2005 07:27 pm (UTC)
i think that what you say above is true. but...

if you take causality out of the equation, symbols can have great power to comfort; and at least some of the problems that arise in poly relationships are purely problems of anxiety, for which any source of comfort is mighty.

i dated a woman who was converting to judaism, at one point, and she was rather taken with the pure formality of keeping kosher: not because she thought the rules made any sense, or because she or god would be less special to one another if she broke them. but because thinking about the rules made her think about god, and made every meal a spiritual act.

keeping rules doesn't make my relationships special or unique; but it may remind me that they are.
Jun. 30th, 2005 04:56 pm (UTC)
In my experience in relationships, symbols don't actually comfort a person who believes that those symbols are the reason the relationship is special--just the reverse, in fact. A person who does not feel that the relationship stands on its own, and who believes that without the symbol, the relationship will cease to be special, isn't really comforted by the symbol so much as clings to the symbol with the desperation of a drowning man clinging to a life preserver.

There's another danger in symbols, as well. Many people feel that the specialness in their relationship depends on keepiong some activity only between them; this, by necessity, involves excluding anyone else from that particular activity. If it should arise that another partner wants to engage in that activity, that other partner's needs are disregarded...for what? For the sake of a reassurance of specialness when none is, really, necessary? Any specialness derived in this way is not only insecure, but also comes at the expense of someone else.
Jun. 27th, 2005 07:51 pm (UTC)
Dude... I cannot even begin to fathom the amount of love, trust, and dedication that would have to go into something like this.

From the bottom of my heart: Best of luck, buddy.
Jun. 27th, 2005 10:33 pm (UTC)
It's the same kind of shallow utility-based assessment that gets applied to people in terms of careers and jobs. What's the first shallow question we are asked as children? "What do you want to be when you grow up?" When we get to a certain age, our answer must be one that indicates our intention to make money, or else our budding selves are not yet too young to be subjected to adult scorn and scrutiny. And then later after we appear too old to be asked about our "major", the question becomes "What do you do?"
Jun. 27th, 2005 10:48 pm (UTC)
I think this idea can be applied to monogamous relationships as well. I've known many people who won't do acivity X anymore, because they used to do activity X with a previous S/O. The come up with strange and fanciful ideas that activity X was only good with said previous S/O, or that they would be tarnishing old memories by doing X with someone else. It doesn't even have to be romantic or sexual.
Jun. 28th, 2005 11:09 am (UTC)

I just added this to my memories. I've disagreed with you in the past (on usenet rather than LJ I think) but this really nailed something that's been percolating in my head for a while.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 30th, 2005 04:49 pm (UTC)
Re: I agree with dilletante
I think what you're talking about is a bit differernt from what I'm talking about, though.

I'm not saying that symbols and ritual have no value, or no purpose. What I am sayiong, though, is that there is a danger in confusing the symbol with the thing it signifies.

There is a difference, I believe, between saying "This relationship is special, and because it is special, I use X as a symbol of that specialness," and saying "I reserve X for this relationship, and that's what makes the relationship special." Do you see what I mean?

The symbol is not necessary; that is, the relationship is special on its own, not because of the symbol. If a person comes to believe that the symbol is what makes the relationship special, then that person will be--must be--insecure in that relationship, because if he believes the symbol is what makes the relationship special, then he will believe that losing the symbol will mean losing the specialness.

There's nothing wrong with having a special relationship and using some symbol to represent that specialness; the danger is in believing that without the symbol, the relationship is no longer special.
Jun. 29th, 2005 12:27 pm (UTC)
I think specialness is a self-evident fact.

But maybe there's a market for "special" stickers which can be stuck on people's foreheads.

Dec. 15th, 2007 12:33 pm (UTC)
very interesting, but I don't agree with you
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )