Entry 75 #Conflict

Trains always arrive at your station. The question is which one to take?*

A few weeks ago, after three years almost to the day, it happened: Oligotropos has officially rejoined the world of multiple relationships in person!
That it took two Corona years and a Russian invasion to get there…– well, let’s put these facts under “irony of fate”. Likewise, that the first shared date promptly had to be postponed because of the unexpectedly approaching hurricanes “Ylenia” and “Zeynep”…
Stormy times, on the other hand, are a good keyword for today’s Entry, because we only needed two dates before we had our first minor relationship(formation) crisis – tempest in paradise.
What had happened?
Well, since my bLog is about Oligoamory, which I consider to be a subtype of Polyamory – and if you like, also about Polyfidelity¹, since by using the prefix “oligo-“ I am promoting the participation of rather few relationship participants – I could first of all invoke good old Scott Peck, who, as far as community-building processes were concerned, always stated that a first phase of harmony in relationships would inevitably be followed in the next step by a so-called “chaos phase” in which the egos of the participants would merrily clash with each other (first quote on this bLog Entry 8).

This realisation in advance I would like to encourage all multiple relationships that are perhaps in some kind of clinch right now: Don’t panic – maybe you have just entered (once again) a “chaos phase”.
Did I say “once again” ? Yes, I have, also in agreement with the brilliant Scott Peck, who stated that in every existing relationship or community structure, the chaos phase must be periodically revisited after a span of harmony – and therefore would also occur (whether one wants to or not). Scott Peck added, however, that subsequent “chaos phases” would usually (but by no means always…) turn out to be less violent than the first ego collisions, especially those of the early stages and the shaky founding period.
As a particular comfort, I would like to mention that Scott Peck also implied that, in comparison, a conflict-free relationship was probably the less favourable indicator concerning the degree of familiarity with each other, since regular chaos phases were unambiguous characteristics of a deepening community-building process; relationships which, on the other hand, appeared outwardly harmonious all the time were most likely structures in which the expression of individual diversity of the participants was suppressed in some way.

What actually had happened here with me, with us, in this specific case?
I, Oligotropos, had shared a private matter about the favourite person already by my side with the newly joining favourite person. Either way, this was not exactly a fine move at all and therefore certainly not the wisest manoeuvre, as I had not even asked the favourite person at my side about the current nature and extent of this matter.
Therefore, strictly speaking, I was already operating at this point in the realm of my own assumptions, which, as we know from “Nonviolent Communication (NVC, Entry 20)”, is highly unfavourable because by doing so we render the person concerned powerless – and usually this alone opens up a path into conflict.
“If you know that so well, Oligotropos, why did you do it anyway?”
Very good question. I think that when I look back at the turmoil in my unfolding relationship several days ago, the main motivation on all sides turned out to be “fear” in terms of “insecurity”.
I, for example, was unsure about my existing favourite person and his/her possible reactions. And so I tried, in a way manipulatively, two things: On the one hand to get the new favourite person on my side (a behaviour, by the way, that can be observed regularly in many families and established groups of friends – which is called “taking prisoners” by trying to secure supposed supporters for one’s own position among the existing bunch of people at an early stage, e.g. à la “Tony, you also said the other day that Mira is always a bit sloppy in the kitchen; surely you agree…”) – on the other hand, and more importantly for me, I hoped that the information would prevent my new favourite person from behaving in a way towards my existing favourite person so that I would be put in a stressful situation afterwards. To sum it up, pure narcissistic self-protection of the brand “I don’t want to feel pain / Don’t hurt me”.
At this point it is even more striking how deeply I was already caught in a world of my own resentimental assumptions: I attempted an interception for a possible – but also perhaps not possible – behaviour with regard to a circumstance that had not yet manifested itself and which might have never occurred at all. So my mind was already trying to play a card out of a triggered fear that maybe a circumstance would arise “exactly as I had experienced before”. Which is the core essence of a “resentment” concerning which I last explained in Entry 70 (but also significantly in Entry 36) that our mind is always unfortunately only able to provide us with a very inaccurate copy of a painful experience from our past as a blueprint for possible expected circumstances, especially when there is any room for ambivalence.
And on top of that, this works all the worse the less established evidence of trust we can muster as a counterbalance for comparison – which is why something like this will regularly hit us hardest at the beginning of new relationships.

At the same time, by performing this foolhardy piece of clumsy two-way diplomacy, I hoped that I had taken sufficient precautions for potential incidents between my two favourite people, which is unfortunately a common dilemma of “people in the middle ” (therefore sometimes called “hinge partners” ) on in-between positions in multiple relationships – because they can quickly fall prey to the belief that they have the most decisive obligation regarding harmony in the overall relationship (only to, as we have seen above, cause disempowerment once again, which usually does a disservice to all sides).
Hence, Scott Peck’s first sentence in his chapter “Chaos” is indeed appropriate: “Chaos always arises from well-intentioned but misplaced attempts to remedy or change the others.” I had tried both – and even aimed at a future that would possibly not happen at all….

Through my blurry move, I now passed my original fears (“I don’t want to feel pain / Don’t hurt me.” ) on to my new favourite person. Accordingly, the latter intuitively and correctly did not appreciate the already somewhat patronising protective aspect in my actions, but immediately perceived in them the intrusive as well as disempowering limitation of one’s own freedom of action. And since I had also included a detail about my other favourite person in my clumsy communication, my new arrival’s distress and drama alarm about the state of agreement in my existing relationship was also triggered. Which, again, was not such a big surprise, since the new joining person, couldn’t yet fall back on a sufficiently established basis of trust from shared experiences, either, as far as I or I or my other favourite person was concerned.
What happened, however, was that the “anxiety train” I had set in motion was now in turn re-dressed inside my new favourite person with his/her own resentments ( in other words: roughly matching previous experiences): Since this person saw herself as someone who would have less relational experience than me, she took my initiative as an attempt to assign her – as a “junior partner” so to speak – an already predefined, narrowly delimited place with only minimal agency within the unfolding relationship structure. As our relationship was just beginning, this fear intensified that there was potentially no room at all for individual relationship development in dyadic terms (= as a relationship of two only between her and me) and that she felt exposed to the decisions of my already existing relationship – including an unilateral termination of the relationship (= effects of hierarchical polyamory, unicorn status and couple privilege² in their worst manifestations, so to speak).

In times of fast messenger services, something like this can take on a remarkable dynamic, e.g. when, as happened in our case, both my existing partner and of course I were then confronted with this concern by text message and a request for resolution (among us as a couple!).
This message came out of the blue and struck my long-term companion (not a very good starting position for a potential conflict…) and even I had to sort out between sad surprise (How could my good intentions have been SO misunderstood?) and surging anger (And how could anyone perceive me, Oligotropos, in SUCH a way in the first place?) while everything was actually blowing up in my face.
Of course, the favourite person at my side was also upset at how s/he was so unexpectedly branded as part of a hegemonic privileged couple – and it didn’t exactly help that the person concerned could thereby conclude razor-sharp that there had to exist somewhere in the gradually unravelling chain of events an element of information of which he had hitherto been the only one probably not to know…
And with that, the “anxiety train” reached the next station, where another resentment refurbishing took place: For my existing partner, the information gap – according to a failed previous relationship – was exactly a sign of being locked out and not taken seriously, which in turn caused her warning light to signal that probably an information bubble had already formed between “the new lady and me”, from which she herself in turn was cut off, and even more: that my new potential companion was probably not really interested in her as a person anyway…

Which meant that through my hasty panic diplomacy I had conjured up exactly that scenario that I had originally wanted to prevent; classic drama including bad feelings and negative vibes on all sides.

Quite a fitting image concerning that regard seems to me the song “Sieben” ³ by the pagan folk group “Faun”, which describes a kind of conjuration between two people who – apparently close – consider to enter into a relationship with each other. At first, things are offered, promises are made. In the course of the song, however, the quality of the incantation gradually changes from a pledge rather to a kind of banishment. At the end it even says: “In your world I would be wrong – and you would lay my ring around my neck […]; Seven steps are seven too much – paths lead on without a goal”.
This almost archetypal song seems exceedingly wise to me.
Sometimes there are only seven steps between us – but even these “seven steps” are already too far for our resentments and our fears – which want to claim that the present situation cannot be trusted.

So what can we do – especially when we are in the early stages of a relationship – and we are tempted for a (sometimes lengthy) moment to believe the voices that want to suggest to us that there is no basis of trust towards the other at all?
What helped me – and what helped us in the end?

The most important thing for me – apart from a quick reflection on how this “railway” could come about at all – was to consciously get off my own anxiety train. But at the same time to recognise that the train of fear is nevertheless there: “Hey, yeah, Oligotropos, you are afraid, you are insecure, you are currently quickly scared that you could still lose this new tender relationship.”
This admission has helped me enormously – also because it has supported me in finding out how and where I had deviated from my straight path of feeling, thinking and acting, preferring to chase after the crazy tricks of a frenzied “what-if” scenario. That anxiety train in me is still there, the relationship simply hasn’t been in my life long enough for anything else.
But as the Buddhist sifu Shi Heng Yi once said “Real freedom means not having to give in to every thought within me.” And that is an important message for my anxiety train: He’s allowed to be there – but I no longer have to let him race out of my station with a belly full of blazing coals. This enables me to show my other favourite people much better what is inside me – and that there is also this fear. But when I do this in such a comprehensible way – and stay with myself – I am perceived and received with compassion and empathy.

What also helped me enormously was to follow the famous Indian proverb and “put myself in the others’ moccasin for once”. This enabled me to enter their “stations” as far as I was able and to recognise how, with my own insecurity, I had above all passed on precisely this insecurity (and not my rather haphazardly interwoven communication), which could then only too easily manifest itself further in the respective fears of the others. And I could realise that in the capacity of the basic trust that had not yet been established, we were literally “all in the same boat” – in a way that none of us had any supposed advantage or disadvantage because of this. And above all, it made me realise that, regardless of this, there was no reason at all to distrust any of the others.

All the more, through the confrontation that inevitably followed, I once again learned even more to assume responsibility for myself and accountability for my actions. In Entry 11, I blog about the good reasons that underlie our respective personal and situational actions. And it’s all understandable for ourselves; we should know ourselves – and our motives (yes, also and especially the not so linear ones…) – best of all.
But if we have caused confusion and even pain among the other parties involved, then we do not have to go through all these with the other participants in detail, and if only because we would like to be understood therein quite properly. After all, perhaps we are only trying to establish for ourselves in some kind of argument that we could not really have acted any other way. But it is much more important that we ourselves realise that, despite all our own well-known good reasons, we were not at all forced to act in exactly the outlined way. And sometimes it was simply a not so wise decision to let our own train leave the station, out into the wide world, loaded with old fear, situational insecurity and premature distrust. That such a cargo out there would produce anything beneficial was rather unlikely after all.
But such a train, which will soon grow into a veritable convoy with many carriages, has only one track – and in the end it only leads collectively down into the abyss.
So if “freedom means not having to give in to every thought within me”, then it is better to leave the station building in good spirits and – instead of the one unforgiving track – to see the many other paths that exist outside of it, and to be attentive afresh at every crossroads to discover whether something is really going to happen as we would expect.

* Quote by Mehmet Murat İldan, Turkish author and P.E.N. Member

¹ Polyfidelity is a form of polyamorous non-monogamy in which all members are considered equal partners and agree to extend sexual or romantic activity only to other members of the group. Polyfidelic relationships are ‘closed’ in the sense that those involved can agree not to have sexual or romantic intimacy with anyone who is not part of the relationship. For example, new members may be accepted into the group with the unanimous consent of the existing members, or the group may not be interested in further expansion at all.

² Couple privilege: When an existing couple first explores the idea of polyamory, it can be very tempting to try to retain as many elements of monogamy as possible. The solution, which seems obvious and immediately comes to mind for many, is to find a bisexual woman who has sex with both members of the couple in a faithful threesome relationship. If both have sex with the same person, no one will be jealous, right? If you are faithful and no one is having sex with anyone else, you don’t have to worry about your partner having sex with the whole world, do you? And of course it’s a woman – bisexuality in women is hot, but bisexuality in men is kind of gross, right?
Such legendary bi-women are called “unicorns” and the 1,872,453014 couples looking for them are called “unicorn hunters”. The idea of looking for a unicorn seems perfectly reasonable – but it’s based on a lot of expectations that privilege the existing relationship, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Why? Because almost no thought was ever given to the needs of the ‘unicorn’. She was not part of the conversation – and how could she be? After all, most of the time you haven’t even met her. Deciding in advance what the rules of a relationship are is disempowering. Most importantly, there was usually no thought given to the fact that by demanding this, the original couple relationship becomes hierarchic superior to the relationship with the “unicorn”. The couple determines how much space the “unicorn” is allowed to occupy in the overall relationship.
Privilege is an insidious thing; it is very difficult to think about giving your own existing relationships a bunch of unearned advantages when you are not even aware of what those advantages are. (Text after Franklin Veaux “So What Is Couple Privilege, Anyway?“)

³ Faun: Sieben” from their album “Totem”, 2007; link to lyrics

Thanks again to Scott Peck and his great book “A Different Drum: Community Making and Peace” (Simon & Schuster, 1987) ISBN 978-0-684-84858-7
and thanks to Thanh Công Tử on Unsplash for the photo!