There was a bunch of things I wanted to talk about in this post that wound up being peripheral to the main direction the writing took me in, but that are still really important to my conceptualization of love. Before I get into those concepts, though, I also want to expand a bit on some of the points I already made.
In my initial post on love, I mentioned in passing how my understanding of love as being as being, at heart, something over which we have a certain amount of control (we can’t force ourselves to fall in love with someone, I don’t think, but when faced with a person we are capable of falling for hard, we do get to decide whether to give in to that feeling or not.) I also said that this understanding is an important part of what makes it possible for me to trust my partner in the ways you have to trust your partner in order to be happily and functionally poly.
I realize that this statement seems to imply that I trust my partner not to fall in love with someone else. But, I do specifically identify as polyamorous, and not some other form of non-monogamous, and I have chosen that label deliberately, because I am open to the possibility of us having multiple love relationships in our lives. The key for me is not that a person can choose not to fall in love with someone else, the important factor for me is simply taking a thoughtful and conscientious approach to the ways in which we choose love and the ways in which we lean into it.
As I said before, when we’re talking about the chemically-based, dopey addiction form of love (Big Love, the kind that you hear about in songs and poetry so often) isn’t perpetually sustainable. And in any long term relationship, there will be times when one or both (or some subset, or all, depending on how many people we’re talking about) partners aren’t really feeling it. And it’s at these moments that relationships based in Big Love are at their most vulnerable. It’s easy to say “well, I don’t feel that way any more. I guess it’s time to end it.” But I truly believe that when you find a person who can inspire Big Love in you (and I have no idea what makes some people have that affect on us, when others don’t), you can find it with them again. And again. And again and again and again, barring really drastic changes in your relationships (which I’ll get to later in this post).
For poly people, relationships are really vulnerable when one partner is simultaneously out of Big Love with their existing romantic partner, and facing the opportunity to lean into a new Big Love relationship. It would be easy, in this situation, to wind up giving over an inappropriate amount of your emotional commitment and energy to this new partner, and to abandon your existing lover (even if not literally, but by denying them the level of intimacy and concern and attention they’ve come to rely on from you). It’s possible, in this situation, to forget that you need to be really deliberately leaning into your previously existing relationship if you want it to survive.
And really, (as I am so fond of pointing out,) there’s no difference between the kind of risk that’s involved here and the risk involved in the same situation in a monogamous relationship. There’s nothing about being monogamous that prevents you from meeting people that give you the spark of Big Love, and only truly understanding that you get to choose where your priorities lie will save a Big Love relationship in its moments of ebb. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no room for excuses about how a person couldn’t help it, they just fell out of love, or they just fell in love. In the first case, they chose not to lean back into love (and don’t get me wrong, it’s possible for this to be a legitimate and healthy choice, if the relationship in question isn’t actually worth leaning back into, I just think that we need to learn to take responsibility for it as an actual choice). In the second, they chose to give in to new love (and again, this is obviously not a bad thing to do. Just acknowledge that it is at least partially under your control).
So, that’s all Big Love. Big Love is, within the subset of people for whom we are capable of feeling it, a choice we make. But I hope it’s been clear in my discussion of it that Big Love is neither necessary nor sufficient for a solid and healthy romantic relationship. The truly important things in a relationship are the things I keep hinting at as the motivations for leaning back into Big Love and letting it re-surge. A really good relationship is the kind where the people in it actually like each other as people, are capable of having good conversations, and can support each goals in life, even (and especially) those that extent beyond the boundaries of the relationship itself. To me, a really good and inspiring relationship is distinguishable from the best kind of friendship only in the level of explicit commitment between the people involved.
You’ll notice that the distinction I made had nothing to do with Big Love, right? As far as I’m concerned, Big Love is mostly a bonus to the real kind of caring an commitment that is required for a long-term romantic relationship. As much as Big Love is the most earth-shattering-seeming thing I have ever experienced, as much as it really feels like it has the power to change world, it really, really doesn’t. Big Love is relevant only to those who share it, and it actually changes absolutely nothing. It doesn’t make bad relationships and better, or even any more bearable, it just makes them harder to leave. It doesn’t even materially improve good relationships, it’s just an additional fun experience you get to have together, if it’s a thing that you can access.
Real love, to me, the meaningful kind, is just the kind of affection we feel for all the people with whom we make deep personal connections and build friendships. And finding someone you can actually build a contented life with is way more important than that chemical rush. So, again, I guess for me it’s not about trusting my partner not to fall in Big Love with another person. And it’s not even about trusting him not to fall in Big Love with someone else to the exclusion of our Big Love. It’s that, when it comes right down to it, I truly believe that he values this thing that we’ve built together, the underlying structure that has allowed us to fall into Big Love together again and again, more than any chemical rush he may have with another person. The work we’ve done together means so much more than any new love, no matter how Big, ever could, and I know he won’t ever forget about me or neglect me, no matter how deeply involved he gets with others.
So yeah, I think that’s why I don’t have jealousy issues, really. The times when I have felt jealousy have never been about other people, and have always, at bottom, been about some structural weakness that had turned up in our relationship that needed a bit of work. And once those get addressed, the “jealousy” vanishes.