A previous abusive experience of a polyam relationship is causing floods of emotions on your second try. Should you stop?

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

Discussion Topic: If I knew I couldn’t fail in my professional life, I would like to try to…

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Episode 61 – PTSD and Polyamory

A previous abusive experience of a polyam relationship is causing floods of emotions on your second try. Should you stop? That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help. Find the full audio transcription of this episode on our website. Discussion Topic – If I knew I couldn’t fail in my professional life, I would like to try to…

 

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Thank you to Chris Albery-Jones at albery-jones.com for the theme music and a big thanks for the podcast art to Dom Duong at domduong.com.

Podcast transcript

Letter:

My first relationship with poly[amory], I was 19 years old and very inexperienced, during that first relationship I was emotionally and sexually abused. I was in that relationship for 4 years and it has been over for quite a while.

I am in a very healthy relationship now and we have slowly been working up to poly[amory]. At first I was excited about starting it and trying it out in a healthy setting but I started to notice that I get triggered when my primary goes out with someone.

I want to be clear I do not have an issue with him and someone else, but when I have to face the fact we are in a poly[amorous] relationship head on, I start having a lot of flashbacks and feelings of fear. I become very afraid of losing my autonomy again and I get stuck in the depressive mindset I was in when I was in that abusive relationship.

My primary is very patient and does whatever he can to help. We maintain complete transparency in our communication and try to work through any issues that come up, but he is not a mental health professional and I understand his ability to help with this is limited.

I have a therapist I go to and what’s always gotten me through things most is exposure therapy which is very difficult especially with this. When he’s out with someone I don’t want to interrupt them, I think it would be unfair for his partner if he was focusing a lot of attention on me while they were together.

I also don’t want to burden a fun night with all the emotional pain I am going through, when there isn’t much he could do short of coming home to physically be with me. I would actually feel worse if he did that since I would be to blame for ruining a nice night. I try to distract myself with friends or really anything, but nothing seems to help.

I also don’t like the idea of going back to monogamy for a lot of reasons. I like how open the communication is now because we both know if we slack in that area things fall apart, so it really forces us to be conscious of our feelings and how we communicate them. While I tried to act on poly[am] for myself at first, I soon realized I personally am not in a mental state where I can pursue something between my PTSD and a very busy schedule.

I would like to have good experiences with poly[amory] I see a lot of value in it, but my past haunts me. I also hate the idea that I cannot enjoy something because of my ex, it feels like he still holds power over me and that idea makes me feel sick to my stomach. I have been slowly getting through these feelings and understanding them which helps me move past it, but it is a slow and incredibly painful process.

Additional Details: Previous relationship was polyamorous relationship involving a “one penis policy” and kink. You also had a previous upset period with your current partner that caused him to back out of a relationship.

Response:

So the first thing that I want to say to you here is that even if you hadn’t been through that previous abusive relationship, you might still feel this way. Your fears are very rational. And I feel like I know for myself being a person that has had problems like this — I haven’t been through that kind of abusive relationship that you described. But I have felt those fears. And I have felt that intensity of emotional pain. And I know kind of what it’s like when nothing can distract you, when you just feel so much fear and it feels like a lot.

And it feels like there’s nothing that you can do. And when you have anxiety and when you have mental health struggles, it can often feel like you’re being irrational. And that’s kind of like the thing that I want to fight back when everyone says that about themselves and also about other people. “Oh, it’s irrational, I’m being irrational, I’m being irrational”. Anxiety typically is a rational response to a previous environment that you’ve been in.

And that makes a lot of sense. It’s your brain trying to survive. A lot of my anxieties are health related. And when I’ve talked to my therapist about it, and I said, “You know, I will feel like literally like  I can’t breathe, something’s closing down my throat, things like that”. I’ll just fear the worst. And my GP will probably tell you how many times I’ve called him and been like, “What is this weird physical thing that’s happening to me?” And my therapist said, “You’re rationally looking for the reason why you are so anxious”.

You’re feeling a huge amount of anxiety. And so your brain is going “Well, if I feel this anxious, there must be something really, really wrong”. So that makes a lot of sense. And I think that the first step for dealing with the intensity of these feelings is a little bit of self compassion — a lot of compassion, actually. But give yourself a little bit of compassion here in that you’re not being irrational. Nothing about what you’re afraid of is silly. Nothing about what you’re being afraid of is out of touch.

And it can be so hard because I know that when you have these feelings, you think, “Why do I not believe that my partner loves me will stay with me? Do I not trust them?” And I all the things that you said about… I don’t want to ruin that night. I would feel worse if he came home because then I would have ruined it. I can’t tell you how much I relate to that. And I haven’t even gone through what you’ve gone through.

And what you’ve gone through, especially the details that you told me, you have literally every reason to be afraid of losing your autonomy. This is directly— especially if that was your first polyamorous experience. You’re going to be directly triggered by this because the first experience that you had was so bad. And that makes total sense.

And by the way, this isn’t your ex having power over you at all. This is you actually having power in that your brain is trying to help you survive. Your brain is saying, “Wait a minute, we’ve been through this before. No, no, no, no, don’t think so. This is bad get out”. And that is frustrating and that is difficult. But that is… that is your brain trying to help you. And that is one thing that helps in trying to address the situation.

I wrote a lot about this and I don’t know if you’ve checked it out yet. I wrote an article called “13 mistakes people make when they are trying polyamory” that goes through about how to identify your anchor, about how to hold on to that when you do have these experiences. There are options. You can be fully honest with your metamour about the situation. And I think that it depends on  how they feel about the situation.

But I know that if I was dating someone and they were like,  “Look, I have this other partner…” and it doesn’t have to be full honestly. You don’t have to even give them the details you gave me. If I were your primary — and if that’s how you want to do things, and make sure that you explain that to someone — But if I were your partner, and I was going on a date, I would probably say to them, “I have a partner right now who this is their second experience of polyamory. Their first experience was extremely abusive. They are going to really struggle while I’m out. Could I take about five minutes, just to call and check on them?”

I don’t think that that’s too much to ask. And I don’t think that that is going to suck the fun out of the night. I don’t want to compare it— this is a little bit of a bad comparison. But for the sake of of helping to understand it. If you were their kid, like and I know that that’s not great. But like, if they were a parent, if they were somebody, or even if they had someone they were caring for like an older relative, it wouldn’t be out of touch, or it wouldn’t be bad, or it wouldn’t be it wouldn’t be unreasonable for them in a date or the night out to say, “I just need five minutes to call and check on somebody”.

That is okay. That’s not a bad thing. If that sucks the fun out of their night completely, I’d be a little bit worried about your partner and their boundaries. But it doesn’t sound like that’s the case with your primary. It sounds like they fully—  you already had an issue where, and that— you had a lot of emotional pain. And they backed away, I can understand why they did that. I think that that kind of in a way it kind of works against the situation.

I’m not trying to say anything bad about your primary. I’m not trying to say anything bad about you. But sometimes the only way to get through this emotional pain and get through this anxiety — you know it if you’ve had exposure therapy. You have to sit through it. You have to sit through those nights and you have to see your partner come back to you and know that you can trust them and know that it’s safe. And it is like exposure therapy, because you are going to have to — the first couple of nights that the partner that I have and that lives with me, the first couple of nights, they didn’t even go on a date.

They didn’t even— they literally just went to a party, not even a date with anybody else. But the first couple of nights they spent out of the house and they weren’t even staying out all night. I couldn’t sleep. I was an emotional wreck. I have that same reaction in other relationships that I’ve been in. And over time, as we’ve established trust and established  a connection, I’m less worried. Now I can sleep fine. I’m happy to have the whole bed to myself now. It’s no problem.

But those first couple of nights were really, really hard because I had a very understandable fear that they were going to leave and I didn’t even go through what you went through. So not only do you have that understandable fear from the society that’s around you that says, “Hey, the best… the truest love is exclusive romantic love yada, yada”. You have all of that on top of you as well. So it’s going to be hard for you to just snap out of it.

You’re not going to snap out of it. And then on top of that you have this previous relationship that you had, which was really horrible. And sounded incredibly abusive and put you in a lot of really uncomfortable situations. And I think that it makes total and complete sense for you to be afraid. So don’t beat yourself up too much about that. I do think you have to sit through the pain and a little bit.

You can try to distract yourself. That has honestly helped me sometimes. One weekend, I think that my partner was at like a weekend long convention or something. I went to Sweden to visit my friend. That was helpful. I still felt a little bit shit. But like that was much more helpful than sitting at home all by myself. So it does help to do stuff like that. And don’t expect yourself to feel 100% happy. But it will distract you a little bit. But you do just have to over time, learn that you can trust again, learn that you’re safe again.

It’s going to take a long time for your nervous system basically to get back to a calm state. Just because you’ve been through a lot of really horrible things. Give yourself a little bit of credit. I think when it comes to meeting your metamour, and meeting the person that he’s interested in, I completely understand your hesitance to do so. I think that one thing is important to remember here when it comes to both meeting your metamour and when it comes to feeling all this fear — what’s helped me — and I wrote a little bit about it in the article that I mentioned, which I do think you should check out. But what really helps me is to absolutely face my fear in terms of how much control I have of the situation. And this is something that has helped me generally with my anxiety.

It doesn’t mean that my anxiety goes completely away. But sometimes it has been something that has really, really helped me. And the fact of the matter is, is that there is only so much that I can control in these situations. If my partner decides that they don’t like me anymore, falls out of love with me, I can’t control that situation. I think in the past, because of the things that I have been through, I have felt like— I’ve been in a lot of really bad situations, and part of my brain that helps me survive has taught me, “Oh, if we do X, Y, and Z, then we can control the situation”.

A lot of people who’ve been through trauma have that feeling. And that is because it’s a lot better in the moment for you than total helplessness, total helplessness and feeling “well, there’s nothing I can do”, especially if you’ve been through — if you have CPTSD. And he’s been in a situation where you literally can’t stop, you know, what’s happening on a continuous basis. And it sounds like that might have been situation that you’re in.

But you you think, “Oh, if I just do things better”. And it’s the same kind of philosophy behind victim blaming. It’s the same kind of philosophy behind, “If I just don’t wear this skirt, if I don’t wear this thing that I won’t be attacked”. It’s a philosophy that helps us deal with being an under constant duress, because it’s way more empowering than just going “Well, there’s absolutely nothing I can do”. That is disempowering in the moment. That doesn’t feel good.

And in the moment that can be really, really hard to mentally cope with. The problem with that is that in that time it served us. In that in the time when I was under a lot more duress and a lot more threat and danger and harm, it served me to believe that I could control the situation if I did x, y, and z. It distracted me from the harm, it distracted me from a lot of things. But now that I’m not in that situation, what this actually tells me is that all of the things that I have experienced are my fault, because I didn’t do x y z.

And that’s the problem with this mindset is that when you believe that you can control whether or not your metamour likes you, whether or not your partner loves you, all those sorts of things, later on down the line, you are going to be in this constant vigilance state where you are looking out for anything that you can do wrong, looking out for any mistakes that you can make, and you’re unable to enjoy actual facets of life. And that’s what anxiety is.

It’s like the constant worry that somehow I’m going to make the wrong decision. And that will ultimately cost me the situation. Now, obviously, you can be a total jerk. You can insult your metamour. You can insult your partner, and they’re less likely to want to be around you if you’re a jerk. But there is only so much that you can do to control whether or not they are in love with you. If your partner is the type of person to meet someone else and chuck you out the window, you can’t control that by being a good partner.

You can’t. And the problem with this whole philosophy that’s going on in your brain is that — I see it illustrated in when you say you’re frustrated because it feels like your ex still has control of you. So it’s like you feel that you can stop this if you do X, Y and Z. And that’s not to say that you should go into total helplessness because I think that’s also sometimes a response. But it’s to accept what you can’t control. Because once you do that, the burden that you face, like a lot of this distress that you’re going through is “This is a dangerous situation, I need to get out”.

It’s a fight or flight, nervous system response. And it can be hard to transition to a calmer state because you think you have control over the situation. If he comes home, then you will have solved that situation. And in the process, the emotional pain I think also comes from — it blames you. It puts so much weight on your shoulders to prevent something from happening to you. And that causes a huge amount of pain. In the past and now when I’m trying to face my fears — And I’m not saying I don’t get anxiety because it’s still I still get it.

I still worry. But it helps me to go “How much of this can I actually control? What can I do right now in the moment that is going to change even the worst outcome that I think will happen? So if I’m sitting up at night and I think, “Oh my god, I have a pain somewhere. This must be something terrible wrong with my health”. Yeah, I’ll still be anxious about it but the constant kind of push to have an obsessive reaction —  obsessive compulsive reaction which I have had in the past. To stop the compulsion reaction, I could go up, I could sit up all night looking on Web MD. I don’t do that because I go, “Okay, if there is something truly terribly wrong with my health, how much can I actually control about it in this situation?”

You’re just still going to feel like shit.  I would just prepare for that. Batten down the hatches, you’re going to feel like shit. But recognising how much you can control of the situation can remove the burden from your shoulders of being so constantly vigilant to find some sign that your partner is leaving, something you’re doing wrong, some little mistake that. Because we all fuck up.

We all make mistakes. And it’s not to say that you can’t make a mistake that really messes up your partner. But you need to have a reckoning that this constant vigilance over that isn’t necessarily going to prevent you from making a mistake. So that’s been something that’s really really helped me. Other things that have helped me during these times… I honestly used to write love letters to my partner when they were out with other people or at parties or things where I was just feeling so I would try and focus on that.

That was one of my anchors, in addition to wanting to be in a polyamorous relationship myself and wanting that freedom. Another one of my anchors was thinking about all the positive stuff that we had together. And, and just gratitude — being grateful for some of the things that we shared, being grateful for some of the ways that they were able to understand my anxiety. That also really, really helped me. You should still expect to feel a little bit shit.

But being a little bit more grounded in the situation by focusing on what can I control about this? Over time will really, really help you. It’s explained a little bit better in “13 mistakes people make when people—“ look, I can’t even say it right. It’s on Non-Monogamy Help dot com if you scroll all the way down. But check it out. That will help you learn how to find an anchor, learn how to hold on to it, and also be a little bit more compassionate with yourself.

It’s really hard when — the biggest problem I have with a lot of intro to polyamory stuff, and just all of the things is that it just makes it seem like you should just become a Vulcan. And just have no emotion and that if you have any emotion then there’s something wrong with you and having any feeling but love and happiness and compersion for what your partner’s doing means that you’re a terrible jealous controlling wench.

It’s very dichotomous. It’s not really helpful. I definitely think you should check out the work of Clementine Morrigan. Clementine writes a lot about trauma and polyamory. In fact, I think Clementine has a workshop about it. And I’ve really appreciated reading what they write, and a lot of things they talk about. The nervous system response. They have an Instagram, which you can check out. They also have a Patreon. I definitely think you should check out — go to their Instagram. Just read through a lot of things that they have.

I don’t have their Patreon, so but there must be more things there on trauma and polyamory that’s super helpful. And I think that would also really, really help you. I think you might want to also think about working out some agreements with your therapist about boundaries, about texting out of hours and things like that. Because I’ve never had a therapist that allowed me to text them out of hours. I have had partners who have had therapists that allowed that.

You know when your partner is going to be having a date and you can plan to have your therapist — just say, “Can I text you during these times just in case I’m going through a lot and I need someone?” And reach out to your friends — hopefully your friends who are polyamory friendly, and have the you know — they should be there for you too. They should be there to help you. So reach out to them.

That is basically my advice in this situation. To kind of sum up, please be kind to yourself. Your feelings are very rational. You’ve gone through a lot. And understandably you wish you didn’t have to feel all these feelings. You said it yourself in your letter about, you know, how you’re kind of— didn’t feel it for a while and now you’re kind of being forced to reckon with some of that. It’s triggering a lot. This kind of trying another polyamorous relationship is triggering a lot for you. And that makes total sense. Be a little bit kinder to yourself. You’re allowed to fuck up. You’re allowed to make mistakes. You’re not a terrible person and you’re not a horrible person for feeling all this.

You’re not irrational. Try to remember all that. I think that there are things that you can do with your partner to help you feel a little bit grounded. Writing love letters or gratitude letters to them, seeing if they can take five minutes out of their date night to give you a call. One thing that I still like my partner to do is even we’re away I’d like for them to say goodnight

to me. That’s a nice thing that I just like. If they’re really busy

and they are out partying or whatever and can’t and that’s fine, but it’s something that I like.

And I think actually Clementine Morrigan literally has a post on Instagram just a few days ago about needs and requests like that, which is really great to check out. But think about things that your partner can do. One call to you for five minutes isn’t going to ruin their night. And it really shouldn’t. I think that you should also remember that your ex does not hold power over you. This is not your ex still controlling you. This is a trauma response to what you’ve been through. And this is your brain trying to help you.

And then also, again, to remind you, one good thing is just to face those fears. Recognise what you can and can’t control, check out that article that I mentioned that is on Non-Monogamy Help dot com. Check those things out to figure out like what your anchors are and how you can deal with that and cope with that.

Last but not least, you’re going to have to sit through some of the pain. And you’re gonna have to go through some of the difficulties and see that your partner is still there for you, in order to basically learn slowly that you can still trust in the situation. And give yourself a little bit of kindness and compassion around that. See if your therapist is available for you to text. Reach out to your friends. Yeah, all of that. I hope that helps and good luck.