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Some thoughts on game-changers

In the poly community, there are many folks who hold on very tightly to the notion of a prescriptive hierarchy, in which one relationship is designated as being The Primary One, to which all other relationships must be subordinate.

I think there are a lot of reasons that people might want to do this--insecurity, fear of losing a partner's time or attention, a sense of entitlement, even a good old-fashioned idea that a person can "really" only love one other person, so if someone falls in love with a new partner, that must mean the old relationship suffers.

And, I've made no bones about the fact that I am highly skeptical and deeply suspicious of such arrangements, I don't think they tend to work in the real world, and I think they're often unnecessarily and pointlessly cruel to third parties entering such an arrangement.

But today I'd like to take a slightly different tack, and talk about the game changer.

The game changer is the relationship that comes along and turns everything upside down. It's the relationship that changes the familiar landscape of life, rearranging the furniture in new and unexpected ways. Game changing relationships are rare, but when they happen, they happen like tornados, leaving a trail of upset applecarts in their wake. (Damn, did I really just type that? Ahem.)

Game changing relationships cause people to pull up stakes and move to the other side of the country. They make people do things they never thought they'd do: die-hard opponents of marriage might find themselves in wedlock, otherwise reasonable men could end up watching chick movies starring Sandra Bullock. They are unpredictable and chaotic, and when they happen things change.

Any relationship brings the possibility of a game changing event. Even small things can become game changers; my sweetie zaiah says, rightly, that if Shelly or joreth were to move to Portland, that would almost certainly become a game changer for me.

And game changers are scary.

A game-changing relationship is a very uncomfortable thing, if you are happy with the way things are now and you like your life the way it is. The prospect that your partner might meet someone and start a relationship that changes all that can seem upsetting at best, and downright destructive at worst...and just to make matters even more uncomfortable, it can change things for you in ways you can neither predict nor control and you might not even benefit from. Something that changes your partner's life in wonderful and amazing ways might change your life in ways that are rather less wonderful and amazing.

Every relationship your partner starts could create change that is wonderful for him but disruptive for you; you might end up dealing with all of the fallout but none of the reward. That's a very real possibility, and it's reasonable to be concerned about it.

So it might feel very compelling to seek reassurances that things won't change when your partner starts new relationships, or at least won't change in ways that you don't like. It can feel very reassuring to extract a pledge from your partner that you will always have some measure of control, by being able to tell him to end any new relationship that he starts or by being told that you will always come before anyone else.

The psychological security that these agreements give is powerful, no doubt about it. But is it real? I believe that it is not; it's an illusion, and not even a very good one.

Game changers change things. That's kind of the definition. They upset existing arrangements. People confronted with a game-changing relationship will not be likely to abide by old rules and agreements; the whole point of a game-changing relationship is that it reshuffles priorities and rearranges lives.

They can happen even in monogamous relationships. Few people get married with an idea "You know, I think it'd be really cool to cheat on my partner and be unfaithful in this relationship. As soon as we get back from our honeymoon, I think I'll start hitting up the bars."

They can happen in ways that have nothing to do with romantic relationships. A promotion at work, a pregnancy, a car accident, someone getting fired, a death in the family--all these things can be game-changers that permanently and irrevocably alter lives in ways that can't be predicted. (I've read that financial stress is the single most common reason for divorce, even more common than infidelity, and I can believe it. Nobody wants to say "Hey, I'll marry you as long as we don't have problems with money," but financial problems are far more potent game-changers than most folks realize.)

We don't usually hear about people saying "I want veto power over any job you take or promotion you get." People talk about things like career changes or job relocations with their partners, and if they're reasonable they listen to their partners' feedback, but it's a bit rare to hear someone say "I have the right to veto any job my partner has unilaterally and without discussion," and we might scratch our heads a bit if someone insisted on that kind of veto power.

We all implicitly understand, at least on some level, that life is full of change, and sometimes that change isn't what we asked for. We all understand that no promises of "forever" can really stand up to the #39 bus with bad brakes that careens through the front of the house and puts someone in a coma. These are the risks we take when we open our hearts to someone else; anyone who can't take the risk shouldn't play the game. Relationships aren't for cowards or sissies.

Yet when it comes to other relationships, the emotional calculous changes. Whether it's insecurities that whisper about how everyone in the world is prettier, smarter, and more deserving than we are, or the social fable that says romantic love connects us to only one other person at a time, or the idea that every new connection our partner makes is something that takes away our specialness (as though specialness were a currency sitting in a bank account somewhere, available in limited quantities with substantial penalties for early withdrawal), relationships seem uniquely able to push our buttons and create a fear of loss.

So we try to insulate ourselves from that fear by creating the illusion that no matter what happens, we will be in control. This idea of control is powerfully seductive. It's one of the reasons that people are often more afraid of flying than of driving, even though driving is far more dangerous; we feel more in control in a car, even though if someone runs a red light and broadsides us, our real control over that situation is pretty much nonexistent.

"Yes, you will always be #1" is true until it isn't, and there is no rule that can change that. If someone comes along who your partner genuinely does love more than he loves you, whatever that means...well, his priorities are unlikely to remain with abiding by the agreements he's made with you.Game-changing relationships change things; that's what they do. They change priorities, and that means they change rules. Expecting an agreement to protect you from a game changer is about like expecting a river to obey a law against flooding.

I can understand the desire not to lose what you have because your partner meets someone new; that's rational and reasonable. What is neither rational nor reasonable, though, is attempting to build structures such that your partner can have other relationships but they will change nothing for you. In fact, it has been my experience that the more rigidly you try to box up relationships to prevent them from changing anything, the more likely things are to break.

There is a different approach, but it requires courage. At the very least, it requires the courage to tell yourself "My relationships can change, and that is OK; my partner and I can still build things that will make us both happy even if they don't look exactly the way they do now."

That's the starting point. From that point, the next step is to say "Even if things change, I have worth; my partner will seek wherever possible to make choices that honor and cherish our connection, whatever changes may come, because I add value to his life. My goal is to build a connection with my partner that is resilient enough to last through change, flexible enough to accommodate change, and supportive enough to create a foundation that welcomes change, without fear or doubt. Change is the one essential feature of life; what I have now I will cherish, and what we build tomorrow I will also cherish, and I will do so without fear."

Like I said, it takes courage. Letting go of the idea that the way things are now is the way they should always be is gutsy.

But then, life rewards courage. The game-changer that turns everything upside down might just leave you in a better place than you are now; you might find that rearranging the furniture makes the room even more appealing to you. The illusion of control that rules give you is false; the real control you have is the control you exercise as a partner, not a dictator. It comes from working together to express the things you need even while change is happening all around you, not by trying to prevent change at all.


( 54 comments — Leave a comment )
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Feb. 28th, 2010 01:03 am (UTC)
otherwise reasonable men could end up watching chick movies starring Sandra Bullock

I'd appreciate it if you would not reinforce stupid gender stereotypes. Last I checked a guy liking "chick" movies is no less reasonable than him having multiple girlfriends...

Good point otherwise, though.

Edited at 2010-02-28 01:04 am (UTC)
Feb. 28th, 2010 10:06 am (UTC)
Well, to be fair, I could just as easily say 'a reasonable person watch a Sandra Bullock chick flick." Issues of gender aside, I have so much loathing for the genre of romantic comedies that I could easily fill an LJ post just on that. I'd start with the fact that they present extremely destructive ideas about relationship; if even one character in any romantic comedy I've ever seen had any communication skills at all, the movie would be, like, ten minutes long.

And don't even et me started on the notion that if men in real life behaved like men in romantic comedies, they'd be arrested and/or hit with restraining orders immediately. :)
(no subject) - londubh - Feb. 28th, 2010 11:47 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - fallingupthesky - Feb. 28th, 2010 12:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ellindsey - Feb. 28th, 2010 11:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - fallingupthesky - Mar. 1st, 2010 06:55 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - margareta87 - Feb. 28th, 2010 07:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - catwoman980 - Feb. 28th, 2010 08:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pstscrpt - Mar. 1st, 2010 03:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 28th, 2010 01:09 am (UTC)
Feb. 28th, 2010 01:13 am (UTC)
I admittedly don't care for most Sandra Bullock movies. But I'd turn over a few applecarts for her, nevertheless. :P

Good post all around. I'd take it a step further, and argue that those individuals seeking control over their lives in this manner are dual masters of self-deception, and self-sabotage.
Feb. 28th, 2010 02:34 am (UTC)
I've had many game changers in my life- in the form of people, events, circumstances and revelations. Sometimes the game change is a wonderful event that creates new possibilities. Sometimes the game change is a scary event that creates upheaval and discord.

But every time, it has opened my life up to something new and amazing.
Feb. 28th, 2010 02:54 am (UTC)
I'd assumed for a long time that a certain person's need to control a situation was pretty much this.

Then I talked to her, and saw it more from her perspective:
His approach had been "It's okay, nothing has changed, you're still my wife, she's just a friend, who I happen to have sex with, and she's just going to be living with us for awhile, and I'm going to keep spending massive amounts of time with her, but it's not like we're having a Relationship, although I sometimes worry that she wants to be my girlfriend."

She had some concerns.

If it had been planned as a long-term arrangement, especially if it was on more equal footing, like all 3 of us moving into a new house together, that would have been different. But he was telling himself that it was still the exact same game, that nothing had changed at all, and she saw that that could lead to problems.
Mar. 1st, 2010 05:50 am (UTC)
If that's the case, then this person is the the type of person tacit is talking about. That's a whole other situation.
(no subject) - joreth - Jan. 11th, 2011 04:11 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 28th, 2010 04:30 am (UTC)
I think you're over-simplifying
I like the idea of "primary relationships," as long as they are flexible and realistic. Sometimes identifying a relationship as "primary" IS a form of realism. If one owns a house, is raising kids, and have multiple material and emotional investments in one's relationship, I think it's reasonable to make an agreement that radical changes will not be made to that relationship without deep and serious consideration.

That doesn't mean other relationships can't have intense value or even change the previous and "primary" relationship, but it does mean (for me) that this previous and "primary" relationship be given respect and treated with care.

For me, the end results -- while important -- are not as important as the steps taken to achieve those end results.

I didn't much appreciate having someone enter my previous relationship and then throw this "what makes you so special" attitude in my direction, so I admit I have a reaction to it and I don't like feeling as though my personal relationship style preference is some pathetic example of my needing unrealistic forms of control and "security." I don't think deeming a relationship "primary" necessarily means it's rigid and unyielding. To me, it says that I use caution and respect when I expose my pre-existing relationships to potential change.

I will say that one learns a lot about the character of oneself and one's partner(s) when game changers show up, though. The devil is *so* in the details.

BTW -- Yes, people DO have those kinds of conversations about jobs, especially if they involve relocation or huge shifts in income/benefits, etc., and some even exercise veto power over what kinds of jobs one's partner(s) pursue. That can be for good or poor reason, depending on the situation in question. As I said: devil + details.
Feb. 28th, 2010 06:03 am (UTC)
Re: I think you're over-simplifying
My thoughts regarding this post ran along similar lines.

I think you're over-simplifying the issue, and making generalizations about anyone who would define a relationship as primary without taking into account that people are varied and complex.

I don't really think designating a relationship as primary necessarily entails rigidity and a need for control. Of course, it sometimes does. But sometimes it's just an issue of daily life entanglement, as darklady mentioned. It really depends on the people involved, the way they handle their relationships, and the complexities of the lives involved.

Edited at 2010-02-28 06:04 am (UTC)
Re: I think you're over-simplifying - tacit - Feb. 28th, 2010 10:13 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: I think you're over-simplifying - stitchwitch_d - Feb. 28th, 2010 08:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: I think you're over-simplifying - much_ado - Feb. 28th, 2010 07:21 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: I think you're over-simplifying - klicrai - Feb. 28th, 2010 09:43 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - zaiah - Feb. 28th, 2010 11:05 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: I think you're over-simplifying - tacit - Feb. 28th, 2010 10:09 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: I think you're over-simplifying - the_xtina - Feb. 28th, 2010 10:37 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: I think you're over-simplifying - zzita - Mar. 13th, 2010 10:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 28th, 2010 04:49 am (UTC)
Thank you, thank you, thank you. Next time you're in Seattle I owe you and your travel mates coffee. I have a feeling what you've imparted here is going to become poignant in my life soon. Relationships are finding me and one may be a game changer. I can insist on living alone for a year and do so, but that doesn't keep loves from entering my life.

Thank you. Your insight on just how not primary relationships can be helps me better frame what I want in life.
Feb. 28th, 2010 05:53 am (UTC)
Currently in the midst of the biggest game-changing relationship of my life, and I still don't feel like I've found my footing in it. I'm the third party, and some days I really feel that, and some days I don't. I'm going to be thinking a lot about what you've written over the next several days, as I felt some real resonance in my heart, just not sure to what...:-)
I'm continuously glad I am able to read your writings. Thank you.
Feb. 28th, 2010 05:59 am (UTC)
Thank you. This is an excellent essay.
Feb. 28th, 2010 08:59 am (UTC)
In fact, it has been my experience that the more rigidly you try to box up relationships to prevent them from changing anything, the more likely things are to break.

An extremely important point! That's one of the many reasons I don't like monogamy -- with monogamy, every stupid little thing on the side is a game changer if discovered -- and this is just so sad...

I think a reminder is in order for some people who seem to misunderstand this post: you're not arguing against primary/secondary as descriptive terms, but only as prescriptive terms!
Feb. 28th, 2010 09:51 am (UTC)
Nice post, Tacit. It's very well written and I agree with some of your points, but disagree that the psychological security these agreements give is not real. Especially if there are children involved, the psychological security is very real. I would hate to enter into a child rearing situation with someone who refused to explicitly agree that a stable, relatively "game change" free environment is to be maintained.

Il y'a plus de leçons que appendre de la vie, mais la peur n'est pas un d'elle. (There are many lessons to be learned from life, but fear should not be one of them).
Feb. 28th, 2010 10:15 am (UTC)
Nice post, Tacit. It's very well written and I agree with some of your points, but disagree that the psychological security these agreements give is not real. Especially if there are children involved, the psychological security is very real. I would hate to enter into a child rearing situation with someone who refused to explicitly agree that a stable, relatively "game change" free environment is to be maintained.

I think it's reasonable to say "I will strive to make choices that provide a stable relationship for raising kids." I don't think it's reasonable to say "I decree that it will be so." Do you see the difference?
(no subject) - catwoman980 - Feb. 28th, 2010 08:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Mar. 1st, 2010 12:57 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 28th, 2010 11:34 am (UTC)
While I can't speak from direct experience in the romance department, my mother and one of my brothers are both very controlling people. They are fairly obsessed with creating stability in their lives; but ultimately, their actions seem to largely give the illusion of short-term control while destabilizing their own lives in the long run. When it comes to dealing with other people, once a relationship has been fully established they start defining the terms of that relationship with little or no input with the other person. And then they expect them to follow it to the letter, considering any deviation to be a betrayal. If that doesn't drive them off immediately, they then start expecting the other person to conform to their own ideals and preferences. My mother's big on preaching that everybody should do this or that and tries to guilt people into following her "teachings". My brother doesn't have any consistent patterns that I've noticed but sometimes gets worked up over the strangest things - for example, for a time he was obsessed with changing other people's hairstyles. (At the time his hairstyle looked like a women's "boy cut" and insisted that I should get a buzz cut because my long hair would "look better on a dead cat". WTF?)

Not surprisingly, neither has any long-term friendships aside from a few people which they don't actually see that often. My mother has not had any lasting romantic relationship in her life aside from my father, and that was a disaster. My brother has had no romantic relationships at all that I'm aware of. So I have fairly observations that trying to define or control a relationship (or worse, the other person in the relationship) doesn't work.

As a side note, I've pointed out their behavior to them when they've complained that nobody likes them. My brother insists in response that he knows what's good for other people and they should listen to him... despite the fact that he doesn't appear to understand other people very much at all. My mother claims she has no choice - even if it's sometimes an illusion, she has to maintain the feeling of being in control because otherwise "there is no future".
Feb. 28th, 2010 12:00 pm (UTC)
for me, the concept of trying to limit emotions (my own, or anyone else's) is not appealing, nor does it seem to be something that anyone can be held to, even if they agreed to feel "more" or "most" with a particular partner.

yet i do have a husband and kids that i intend to live with. i dislike calling our relationship "primary" because i am concerned that the word may imply that i feel "more" or "most" with my husband, and that depth isn't available elsewhere. for me, the main point of choosing polyamory is that it's about "and", not "or". so i'm not going to decide or say that no other connection can be as much as what i feel with my husband. yet strictly in the sense of intent and plans for sharing residence, parenting, and intertwining our finances throughout our lives, i suppose that i could use the word "primary" about our marriage ~ using the word descriptively instead of prescriptively.

perhaps there's a subtle distinction about game-changing relationships though...?
i can't and won't agree that another relationship will not change my relationship with or for my (monogamous) husband and kids. that's not a promise i can deliver. yet i *want* to enable consistency for and with my family, regardless of who else might come along and how i might feel about the new person. so i've chosen to state and restate my intentions to continue to "seek wherever possible to make choices that honor and cherish our connection, whatever changes may come..."

and i've chosen to share and re-share what that looks like to me ~ for me, even with a game-changing relationship and possibly unpredictable emotions, i can and do identify and agree to behaviors and logistics that reflect my desire and intent to continue to live with my husband and kids, and to share parenting and intertwine financial resources with him.

regardless of what i might feel romantically and/or sexually for my husband and/or someone else, my first commitment is to be a good parent. to me, that involves some parenting, financial, and residential consistency. i cannot promise my husband a lifetime of more, most, or number-one-ness in my feelings or "ranking". but lacking a sudden shift for the worst in who he is, i *can* say that the person and friend he is and has been to me is so precious to me that no matter who else comes along, i want and intend to continue living together, parenting together, and planning aspects of our finances, life, and future together.

we might or might not need to discuss adding someone else in the future, but with polyamory being about "and", not "or" for me, i don't see a reason i'd want or need to dispose of my husband no matter how deeply i fell for someone else.

a game-changing relationship might turn my emotions upside down. i may not be able to, or want to change my emotions (and shouldn't have to?). but i always have the right (and often the responsibility?) to choose my behavior. i don't choose a life/future parenting/living together relationship lightly. but once i do, i can choose behavior to continue to reflect that intent and i can work to make it happen, in spite of life-changing emotions. my emotions are real, yet i can still choose behavior that reflects honoring my existing connections.

my husband can opt for the path of courage about potential change. yet i can help with that by sharing and re-sharing behavioral and logistical aspects that i intend to retain with and for him, the kids, me, all of us. i can help co-navigate, remove boulders, and reassure him as he travels on the courageous path. (and i can thank him a lot.)

hopefully, that reflects awareness of the potential for change, courage and flexibility about possible changes, mixed with some specifics that i hope are reassuring to my husband as tangible logistical/behavioral things i intend to retain to honor and cherish our connection and our parenting and life-future plans. a balance...?

Feb. 28th, 2010 09:24 pm (UTC)
Geez! I couldn't get through all of that!...But it got me to thinking- have you ever noticed that some people want you to let them into your life, but not let you into theirs?
Feb. 28th, 2010 11:57 pm (UTC)
Bravo, once again.

Granted, I arrived at this point slowly, over a period of time, mostly after banging my head against the reality vs. what I wanted to be the dictate of my reality. I've sobbed and raged against what felt like betrayal to my emotions, even though my intellect knew better. And each time something like that happened, I came out the other side with a better understanding not just of the different facets of polyamory/open relationships (my husband tends towards the former, I tend towards the latter), but of my personal views on each of them... forged by fire, so to speak.

As I "lost" control each time, and allowed myself to process it without running away (or making it a deal-breaker), I gained more SELF-control... by which I don't mean that I hid my emotions and trudged on, but that I came to accept what things weren't really under my control to begin with, and learned-by-doing that none of these things created irreparable damage to my world. In a sense, all these things were game-changers, although certainly not in the sense that you mean. I've reached a point, though, where pretty much all the arbitrary rules we started out with (all designed to protect the prescribed primary relationship) are gone... the one I won't compromise on is safety, of course, and I certainly don't think that's unreasonable. Even with that, mistakes have been made, and dealt with, and neither one of us are the worse for the wear (luckily).

I see a lot of poly relationships evolving in similar fashion, and I wonder how long it takes people to reach the point you're talking about, or if they ever do. And if not, how that affects the relationship.

I'm curious if you're one of the (I'm assuming rare) people who came to this from the get-go, or if the process evolved over time for you, as well.

P.S. Can I steal the poly dragon icon? We have the shirt! :)
Mar. 1st, 2010 12:06 am (UTC)
Oh, almost forgot... I do impose one more rule... no one gets to live with us anymore. That's more of a control of my physical environment than it is a control of my relationship, though. If a game-changer came along, we'd discuss it.
(no subject) - terryo - Mar. 1st, 2010 01:08 am (UTC) - Expand
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