How do I work through feelings of ownership within polyamory?
This is a really good question because I think it identifies something that a lot of people have trouble naming and that it makes it harder for them to work through, which is that a lot of the way that the mainstream dating script teaches us to be in relationship is coming from this very like control-ownership position model.
There is this way that the mainstream mononormative, cishet normative, particularly white supremacist model is about ownership.
There is a joke that’s not really a joke which is that things like marriage used to be a property transaction.
It was when the property formerly known as daughter became the property known as wife.
Up until even like the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, people who are women or who were viewed as women weren’t allowed to have their own bank accounts, even here in the United States, couldn’t get a mortgage on their own, all kinds of stuff.
And so, when a model is based on this very ownership-centered model, this disempowerment-based model, this model based on control, particularly of those of marginalized genders, it is hard when we move into nonmonogamy to unpack those beliefs about ownership and control that we’ve been operating under for so long particularly if we haven’t identified that the model we are operating from is one that is based on ownership and control.
I think that there are plenty of ways to do monogamy that are not about ownership and control and there are plenty of ways to do nonmonogamy that are about ownership and control.
But if we are talking about kind of the core of a model, the core of the mainstream dating model is one of possession, “This is my partner. I am your happiness. I get to decide what you do. I get to decide how you spend your time. I get to decide who you see. I get to dictate what behavior is OK for you.”
It is a very control-centered model, a very possession-centered model.
So if in polyamory what you are attempting to do is unpack this mononormative script, it’s very important to unpack the ownership component of that.
And that part of that is this kind of set of grieving experiments and also acceptance experiments around understanding that you never own another person really and that ownership in this mononormative model really stands in as a way to assuage fears and anxieties by providing a kind of false sense of – a false guarantee that things will continue.
In a mononormative model, ownership tells you that your partner can’t leave you because they belong to you, that if you just control them enough, they would not even be tempted.
They would not have anything around them that could pull them away and you can just keep them forever.
And in polyamory, by allowing or encouraging our partner to love other people and have sex with other people, we have to at least at the base level, let go of some of that ownership because we don’t own their sex any longer.
We don’t get to decide what they do with their bodies.
We don’t get to decide how they spend all of their time because some of that time is going to be allocated to other people.
In an ideal world, even in monogamy, you wouldn’t own your partner’s time.
They should be spending it with hobbies and friends and doing other things with it.
It should be a thing that they agree to give to you rather than a thing that you are entitled to.
And so I think that one of the elements here is recognizing where we feel entitled to things from partners and unpacking for ourselves like, "Is this sense of entitlement something that I actually feel good about that it feels like it’s in alignment with my values? Is this sense of entitlement a way that I am trying to get a need met? Is it a way that I am trying to comfort myself when I experience fear or worry or anxiety or uncertainty? Is this a way that I’m trying to soothe attachment wounds, trying to create security through external means rather than developing security internally and relationally?”
And so I think this idea like working through feelings of ownership in polyamory is really complicated because it gets at the core of a lot of how we understand what it is to be in partnership, what it is to be in love, what it is to be in relationship with someone, what it is to romantic.
And again, it’s going to involve some grieving.
You are going to have to grieve that you are actually never going to know for sure that your partner would not leave you.
The only way to guarantee that your partner will never leave you, will never cheat on you is to handcuff yourself to them and never sleep.
That’s the only way.
And so, if you are not willing to do that, there is always going to be a chance that they can leave.
There is always going to be a chance that they will change, that their heart will change, their desires will change.
There is always going to be a chance that what they want changes.
And so, I think that when we think an ownership model, what we are looking at doing is trying to get other people to give us what we want so that we don’t have to decide what to do if or when they say no.
The book, The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner is a really great resource for looking at some of this way that we often look to others to take responsibility for being a change agent when perhaps we need to look at what’s actually within our control and what we can make choices about.
When we are trying to assert ownership over someone else, usually what we are trying to do is convince them to give us what we want and need and like force them to do it when it might be better for us to like take a look at like, what is it that I want and need?
What is negotiable and what’s not?
And if this person can’t give me the things that are nonnegotiable for me, does it make more sense for me to try to wring it out of them no matter the cost or does it make more sense for me to say, “OK, so the things that I want aren’t necessarily wrong that they don’t want to give them to me is a valid choice that they get to make but that may mean that we are not really suited to each other.”
So part of ownership is avoidance of a breakup.
It’s about avoiding the end of a thing.
It’s about taking away your need to say, “If you can’t give me what I need then I need to reevaluate and make some choices.”
And what that feels like internally a lot of times is like, “Well, you would not do what I want so now I have to lose something.”
And that’s not fair because you’re the one who should lose something not me.
But that’s not how reality works, right?
When I’m in relationship with someone, all I can do is be honest about what I want and need.
And they get to choose whether they want to do that.
They get to choose whether they want to follow through on providing what I want and need.
They get to choose whether they follow through on agreements.
I can’t choose that for them.
And if they continue to make choices that don’t make me feel like they are giving me respect, that don’t make me feel like they are going to be able to meet the needs that I have then at least from my perspective, it is far more ethical for me to restructure or leave that relationship than to try to find some way to force them to give it to me.
I have to accept that people get to choose to not give me what I need even if they care about me, even if I feel like they should give it to me.
They still get to choose not to, and there is nothing that I can do that will make myself perfect or lovable enough that they will always give it to me or that will make them change their mind about what they want to do.
All I can do is present my wants and needs.
Let them know what those are.
Give them an opportunity to follow through on agreements to figure out ways to help both of us feel loved and seen.
But there’s no amount of ownership that can actually exist in relationship in any kind of healthy way that will actually lead to you getting what you want and need, because even if you somehow browbeat your partner into giving you what you want and need, they’re doing it from a place of resentment.
That’s not going to be good for you all.
They are not going to be happy about it.
It’s still not going to fit.
So I think that part of this getting past this ownership model is acknowledging that the world is unpredictable, acknowledging that most of the security that we find for ourselves that’s based in this mono normative model is illusory at best.
We can pretend that we have security.
We can pretend that we have control.
But at the end of the day, we don’t.
Our partners are still independent beings who are going to do what they want to do.
And if someone wants to leave you, they are going to leave.
If someone wants to cheat, they are going to cheat.
Our job is not to convince our partners to be good to us.
Our job is to love ourselves enough to recognize when something isn’t a fit and let that go, because if you have to convince someone to be good to you, it’s not going to work.
Ownership is about forcing someone to be a good partner to you.
Ownership is about limiting someone else to make yourself feel safe.
And at least for me, that’s not in alignment with my values.
And so when I feel that urge, that desire to like clamped down on somebody else so that I would not as scared, I just remind myself that that’s not how I want to live.
That’s not how I want them to treat me.
That’s not how I want to be treating them even.
And I just figure out like for myself, is this something that I can comfort myself about?
Is this something I talk to my therapist about?
Is this something that’s just not a fit?
And if it’s not a fit, is that something where we have to do a restructure?
Do we have to do a very significant restructure?
Do we have to break up?
But like this person gets to make their choice, even if their choice is hurtful to me, even if their choice is not what I want, they get to choose it.
So letting go of ownership within polyamory, mostly it’s about accepting that the world has a lot of chaos that we don’t get to control and all we do get to control is how we communicate what we ask for and what we do based on how people treat us.