Thursday, November 6, 2014

The crowded mirror (or, comparison as a poly-unfriendly act)

I spent my childhood being compared to my older sister and never feeling like I measured up. When we were young I was smart, but she was pretty, and the family was fond of telling her this at every opportunity. As a teenager, the straight-A student that I was gave way to a pot-smoking, sex-having, school-ditching party girl so the comparisons intensified. My sister was the one who did what she was supposed to do and found herself a man and married at 18, while I was the one who at 16 hitchhiked from Colorado to California with some friends and partied until they threw us in jail and sent us home. A year later I became the teen mother that everyone expected me to be, so, in their eyes, the giant L was pretty much tattooed on my forehead.

Fast-forward 25 years…

She and I have taken very different, but equally successful, paths--but those childhood demons aren’t easily banished, and I have realized that they have been fucking with my relationships. Okay, the idea that our past affects our future isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but, well, sometimes it takes awhile for these things to sink in.

My personal poly issue is comparing myself to the other women in my partner’s life and fearing that I will always come up short. I know that I am beautiful, intelligent, strong, capable, and, yes, I’ll say it—cool as hell. So why am I sometimes incapable of remembering that in my relationship?

Wait—it isn’t that I forget it—it is that I worry that my partner forgets it. Totally different. Or, more accurately, I worry that my partner is making the same comparisons I am—which is probably not true at all.

I think it is wonderful that I have realized that this is an issue, that I have found a reason for some of my behaviors—knowing is half the battle, after all—but this knowledge has really just made me start to understand how pervasive the human need to compare ourselves to others really is, and how destructive this need can be in a relationship. 

We are primed for comparisons by a society that is all about competition, and that teaches women that we must be better than others in order to land a job, man, whatever. It would be lovely to think that we leave all of that behind when we enter into non-monogamy, but it just isn’t that easy. I have seen many women take every opportunity to point out the ways in which the other woman in the relationship is somehow lacking. It is seldom a blatant act—just little comments made in an offhanded manner. The new partner does it in order to establish her place, and the current partner does it to solidify hers. Chances are that each woman is completely unaware that she is doing it, but of course she can easily recognize the behavior in the other woman and be hurt by it.  I have been the recipient of those psychologically devastating comparisons and, if I am honest, I have probably been guilty of them myself.

But, there are comparisons that come from people outside of the relationship that can be just as damaging. I have lost count of the number of times that friends have compared me to my partner’s other partner. This is usually done in a way that is flattering to me, but it is not helpful at all for the poly group because it encourages the culture of competition.

For example, I have been told in different relationships that I am prettier than the other woman (and I am certain that these women have been told the opposite from their friends). It has little to do with actual looks, but with people thinking that this kind of reassurance is needed.

I do like to be told that I am pretty, or smart, or funny—I am just realizing that I do not need to be told that I am prettier/smarter/funnier than anyone else.

Now what I need to do is take this new knowledge and figure out how to use this information to my advantage and stop all associated negativity. The only way to make this happen is for me to stop comparing myself, in any way, to anyone else. I can't control what other people say. I can't stop friends from making well-intended comments any more than I can keep those who aren't so friendly from making snarky ones. The only thing I have control over is my own thoughts and behaviors and how I let others affect me.

This doesn't mean that I have magically gotten over my tendency to negatively compare myself to others, but I am getting better--well, at least compared to some others I know.