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Miss Maven ([personal profile] missmaven) wrote2017-07-01 12:51 pm

Separation Anxiety in Poly Relationships

Separation anxiety happens when an individual experiences anxiety regarding separation from home or from people who they have a strong emotional attachment to (e.g. a parent, caregiver, significant other or siblings).
Separation anxiety is a natural part of the developmental process as infants and toddlers grow and are given more independence.

We often hear about separation anxiety in relation to animals and young children. (e.g. the first time a new mother leaves her baby with a babysitter, a new puppy that whines all night when left in another room, or child that’s shy and nervous on the first day of school)
So why are we talking about this in relation to poly? Just like children grow and becoming more independent from their parents, a person can also grow or branch out in various ways from their partner. This may happen, for instance, when a new couple is just getting into poly and they begin to date and spend time with more than each other, or when a new relationship in an existing poly dynamic takes off.
A small amount of separation anxiety in these situations are normal and to be expected. It’s important for all parties involved to find healthy ways to deal with this stressor.

Below are two examples of encountering separation anxiety in poly relationships.

Jane and Dave are in a long term committed open relationship. Recently Dave decide to ask Ashley, who he’d been casually dating, to be his girlfriend. Jane wasn’t comfortable with Dave’s choice as he’d spent much of the past few months complaining that Ashley was overly attached and at times came off as almost obsessed with him. He’d been worried that she’d negatively affect his other relationships by the amount of time and attention she demanded.
When Jane brought this up, Dave tried to assured her that he no longer felt that would be an issue. However, despite never having met Ashley Jane had developed a negative opinion of her and couldn’t feel comfortable about their new, more intimate status.
To help her cope Jane asked Dave not to tell her about the more intimate details of what he was doing with Ashley.
Normally Jane and Dave would spend their evenings together catching up with each other by sharing stories of what happened to them at work that week, how their friends were doing, as well as some of the more intimate details of their escapades with other lovers. Sharing these juicy details was a relationship pattern they’d developed and become very comfortable with. So Jane requesting that he keep this information to himself was a shift away from the level of intimacy they’d established.

One night, while Dave and Jane were talking over dinner Dave, flush with NRE, started to talk to her about a night he’d spent with Ashley. Jane listened while he told her about the movie they watched and what they had for dinner. But when he continued, telling her about them making their way back to the bedroom Jane gently interrupted his story to remind him that this wasn’t a level of disclosure she was comfortable hearing.

Ah, okay! It's fine for you to tell me in detail about your partner fucking you, but if I even mention Ashley, you get mad. Do you see where I don't find this particularly even ground? I wasn't about to give you a blow by blow!
Jane: You didn’t say you had an issue last week when I told the story. Do you have a problem with me telling you about my sex life?
Dave: No, but I assumed this street ran both ways. Apparently it doesn’t.
Jane: In certain ways, it does. However, I am not okay hearing about Ashley.
Dave: Fine. Whatever. Your view of it is more equal than mine.
Jane: I'm sorry you feel that this is uneven.
Dave: I FEEL it's uneven? No, it's uneven. You just said so.
Jane: If you aren’t comfortable with it we don't have to discuss the details of what we’re doing with any of our lovers.
Dave: Look, I get that sometimes - and that bears repeating - SOMETIMES you aren't in the mood for this kind of conversation. But I'd like a little warning before you get shitty with me. That's all I'm asking.
Jane: This is not about a mood! I do not want to hear you talk about your sex life with Ashley.
Dave: So noted. And I'll refrain from any such talk, regardless of partner, since you've decided that this kind of shit is off limits for me, but not for you. And frankly, I don't find that kind of shit fair at all.
Jane: We don't have to discuss each other's sex lives if you think that is more fair.
Dave: I rather do, if this is how you react. I didn't give you a romance novel description. I literally mentioned that I took Ashley to bed, and you flipped out on me.
So fine.
Jane: I have a boundary. I've let you know and you seemed okay with it. I'm sorry if it upsets you. I'm sorry if you feel it is unfair but I have it. It's mine.
Dave: Good for you.

The argument continued on for some time, with Jane defending her right to not hear about his sex life with Ashley while Dave enacted a “ban” on any sex talk and when Jane agreed to it, he countered by saying they no longer had anything to talk about.

Obviously there was more to their relationship than discussing the sex he was having with one person. Why did Dave react with such an excessive amount of emotion? Why did he view Jane’s calm request to end his story as her ‘flipping out’ and ‘getting shitty’ with him?

It’s completely acceptable for Jane to request that Dave not tell her about the sex that he and Ashley were having and she did so in a polite way. In many relationships, even open and polyamorous relationships, people don’t feel comfortable sharing or hearing about these intimate details. Surely Dave was aware of this. It wasn’t something he expected from his other lovers. So why did he react so badly to her request?

Dave perceived Jane’s request as a loss of intimacy with her that he valued very much. His tactics are an attempt to get her to change back to what they previously had. First by getting upset - If you really cared you’d change back and make me happy. Then by trying to take from her what she had taken from him - If I can’t have it! Then you can’t have it!’ The assumption is that obviously she wants to retain her side of this intimacy so she’ll change. However, maintaining that distance from Ashley was more important to Jane than sharing her sex life with Dave. She didn’t acquiesce. Finally, Dave resorted to the accusation that their relationship was dead if he couldn’t share this aspect of his life with her. Obviously Jane wanted to continue her relationship with him, right?
Unfortunately none of these hostile tactics worked to reestablish the status quo he’d become accustomed to. His ill managed separation anxiety caused him to be overly emotional and accusatory toward Jane. The argument did not make either feel more connected and instead left a lingering ill will between them. It also deepened Jane’s already negative opinion of Dave’s relationship with Ashley. 


Kate and John are in a committed polyamorous relationship and share a home together. John routinely travels out of town several times a year to spend extended weekends with another woman he has a long distance relationship with. As Kate and John often have a very busy and demanding social calendar, Kate has come to look forward to and enjoy these weekends alone and the solitude it provides her.

Kate is also dating Carlos, who lives locally. They decided to celebrate their anniversary by planning a special weekend out-of-town. This was a significant change for Kate and John. Even though Kate and John were used to being away from each other John had never spent the time alone in their house. The idea made John feel terribly lonely and he immediately began to miss her before she’d even begun to pack her bags.
He rationalized that Kate spending one weekend away with Carlos was something he was comfortable with and, in fact, he wanted them to have this special weekend away. But no amount of logical rationalization abated the feeling of desolation he had of spending the weekend alone.
Committed to giving Kate and Carlos their weekend together John decided to fill the time with distractions. He planned to repaint their deck and fix the gutters on the side of the house which had been needing attention. He also messaged several friends to see what they’d be up to that weekend. He scheduled drinks with a friend one night, and a game night at his place with a group of friends another. He also called up his best friend and explained how he was feeling and set up a support line so he had someone to turn to in case he got to feeling down.
For the most part John was able to stay busy and distracted during Kate’s time way, but the weekend wasn’t without it’s low points. When he got to feeling particularly lonesome he called his friend to talk about his feelings and concerns.

When Kate returned from her trip John was happy to see her. He'd missed her, but it wasn’t nearly as debilitating as he’d feared. He was glad that he'd gotten the house work he’d done accomplished and enjoyed the time he’d spent with friends he didn’t see often enough.
Kate had had a wonderful time with Carlos and suggested that they might do it again for their next anniversary. John felt like he would be okay with that but he suggested that next time they plan to have a special date night with each other before she left on her trip. He also contemplated seeing if his girlfriend would be available to spend that time intown with him.

We can look at the above example and see that John handled his separation anxiety much better than in the previous example with Dave. John identified how he was feeling and set up things to distract him from the loneliness while Kate was gone. He talked to a friend about how he was feeling when ‘troll brain’ got the better of him.
Another thing he did was to avoid setting his emotions aside by rationalizing that Kate going out of town was fair, as he’d gone out of town numerous times before. While this might be true it doesn’t take into account that people don’t have the same needs. Some enjoy their time of solitude, like Kate, and others prefer to be surrounded by people, such as John. To try to insist that they each be treated in the same way ignores that they are fundamentally different people with different needs. John may grow to love his alone time just as much as Kate does, but for the time being that isn’t so.
The important thing is that John identified his emotional needs and worked to meet them and set up coping mechanisms to help him adjust.