Rocky Road: polyamorous relationships and an aversion to nice people

by DGO Web Administrator

I have always been a bit of a free spirit, and I want to talk to my partner about the idea of exploring a non-monogamous relationship. To be blunt, I want to open our relationship up to other partners – but I’m afraid if I suggest this, my partner will get upset. How do I approach the subject without ruining what we have together? Only wants to be monogamish

Lately I’ve been under the thrall of the teachings of Buddhism and evolutionary psychology because together they seem to contain the explanation and solution to just about every challenge we humans face.

Let’s see if they elucidate your situation: First, from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes perfect sense that you would want to explore polyamory because more partners means more chances to spread your genes around. I assume, in your situation, procreation isn’t the point, but it is for your monkey mind, which is the seat of your sex drive.

But you are not a monkey, you are a human, and the reason we out-developed the apes is because we figured out how to form complex social units. These units were necessary to rear human young, which remain helpless and dependent for longer than any other mammal. Being human means being wired to form strong and lasting bonds with a small clan. Problem for you is you’ve now got two foundational drives at war. You want sexual novelty, but pursuing it could disrupt an important bond. Your cerebral cortex, the youngest part of the brain evolutionarily speaking, steps in to try to mediate. In your case, it proposes giving both monkey and clan minds what they want.

Before I continue, I want to drill down on the interaction between these brain parts. First, there are the forceful but competing drives: Spread genes! vs. Stay with clan to avoid being eaten by lions! The mechanism these drives use to get you to do their bidding is emotions. What happens next is something that evolutionary psychology is just beginning to grasp, but Buddhism has understood for a long time: your higher mind doesn’t actually adjudicate between the two and select the more meritorious (or tell them both to hush up). Rather, it provides a framework for giving the loudest of the two what it wants. Or, even better, a rationalization for giving both of them what they want.

So, knowing as we now do, that our drives steer our emotions which in turn drive our reasoning, we can use this insight to interrogate our motives and hopefully make good decisions. In your case, it seems worth examining what you expect adding partners will do for you. As you are considering that, keep in mind that it is never the nature of drives to remain satisfied. In fact, our brains are designed to make the reward just pleasurable enough to keep us wanting more. Kind of perverse, no?

In my life I’ve only known two committed couples who acted on their polyamorous intentions. In both cases, the original relationship did not survive the adventure. Which wasn’t actually a bad thing, but it did lead to some hurt feelings. Relationships are messy with just two humans — add a third, fourth, or fifth, and the odds for drama rises exponentially. That could be exciting or exhausting depending on your perspective. The perspective of the Buddha would be that a spirit that is hostage to the whims of its drives isn’t really free.

I can’t seem to find a nice guy. Well, I can’t seem to find a nice guy who doesn’t ANNOY me, really. Every time I try dating someone who texts me to ask how my day was or calls me a pet name, I check out of the relationship. Something about a man’s vulnerability seems so weak to me. How do I get past this and stop dating people who are emotionally unavailable?Relationship dynamite

I think there are two dark forces at work in your dating life:

1) You don’t feel entitled to not be into someone. Guys don’t feel any remorse about shrugging off an interest once it’s gone tepid, but women tend to feel an obligation. If you are going cold early on, perhaps it’s just because he’s not your cup of tea, but societal socialization prevents you from just saying that. Instead you feel annoyed and wish he would just go away. Next time, give yourself permission to shut it down whenever you feel like it — even if he’s a nice guy. A truly nice guy will appreciate the honesty.

2) You feel attracted to people who are unavailable. I’ve done field research on this phenomena and have definitively concluded that it sucks. What I believe fuels it is those drives I addressed earlier. When someone gives us the cold shoulder, it stokes primal fears about our suitability as a mate. Back in our cave dwelling days, that kind of rejection was a survival-level problem so our systems are programmed to set off alarm bells. Because this distress is unpleasant, we want relief, and the best person to deliver that is the person who instigated the feeling. When you approach again and are greeted with more indifference, your distress increases, as does your desperation. It’s a vicious cycle. The best thing you can do is not confuse your desire for relief from suffering with real affection. More often than not, this realization breaks the spell, and you find yourself wondering what you ever saw in the person.

Then, having cast off dark forces #1 and #2, you are perfectly positioned to see with clear eyes a good relationship when it comes along. And you’ll be a lot happier in the meantime.

Katie Burford has worked as a social worker, journalist, university instructor, nanny and barista. These days, she’s a mom, professional ice cream maker and writer. Reach her at [email protected], @rockyroadadvice (Twitter) or Rocky Road, 1021 Main Ave, Durango, CO 81301.


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