When there is a Scary Horrible Awful Thing, I have found that there are about two things I can do with it: I can close my eyes and pretend that the Scary Horrible Awful Thing isn’t there, or I can look the Scary Horrible Awful Thing in the face and go “hi.” So far, it has usually turned out that the latter is the better strategy.
So let’s talk about a few examples.
A lot of people, when criticizing polyamory, tend to say something which boils down to “what if your partner finds someone they like better than you? what if they leave you?” I have pretty serious fear-of-abandonment and insecurity issues; naively, you’d think that polyamory wouldn’t work very well for me. And yet it does. Why?
(The next few paragraphs, of course, should not be taken as criticism of monogamy in general, which is a life choice that works great for many people.)
For me, the advantage of polyamory in dealing with my insecurity is the knowledge that my partner might find someone better than me. My fiance Topher may very well find a girlfriend he likes better than me. I certainly have no meaningful ability to stop him. I have no protection from him finding some cute girl, shacking up with her, and leaving me alone with my wedding cake designs…
…Except that he doesn’t want to.
And monogamists are basically in the same position. Monogamy doesn’t really protect you from your partner finding someone they like better: just look at the adultery rate and the divorce rate. The difference is that, as a poly person, you can’t ignore the possibility. It’s right there, staring you in the face.
And having secondary partners means that I get a lot of practice with the idea that it’s okay to be second-best (or occasionally tenth-best). I can be a valued, loved part of someone’s life… and not be the most important person to them. It is obvious that I am not as important to my boyfriends as their wives or, in one case, physics is.
Another example is dealing with people disagreeing with one on the Internet. I am absolutely horrible at dealing with disagreement– I become a defensive and self-hating mess– so of course I decided to become a blogger, because if there’s one thing you can say about blogging it’s that no one ever disagrees with you.
I have occasionally gotten the bright idea that I should not read the comments on my posts. However, as soon as I decide not to read the comments, my brain instantly concludes that everyone hates me and thinks I’m stupid and everyone who reads my blog has flown to Cincinnati for the Laughing At Ozy convention and next thing you know I’m halfway through designing the hideous caricatures of me sold in the dealer’s room.
On the other hand, when I read the comments, sometimes no one is disagreeing at all or sometimes their disagreement is, frankly, really dumb. And in the remaining times… well, frankly, I’m still usually a defensive and self-hatey mess. I don’t have a great solution here. But however bad it is, it isn’t as bad as trying to avoid it. (Yes, I am an extremely cheerful person.)
When you avoid– or, rather, when I avoid– I wind up worrying about it. Whatever I’m doing, the back of my mind is going “do you think they all secretly hate you? do you think your boyfriend is going to leave you? do you think you are the least important and that is the worst thing in the world?”
But… a lot of the time the Scary Horrible Awful Thing doesn’t come to fruition: my fiance wants to be with me; the commenter just wanted to say that they donated to AMF. Even if it does come to fruition, it often isn’t that bad: it turns out that being second-best is okay, and sometimes people disagree with me and I don’t respect their opinions. And sometimes really bad things do happen. But I tend, I think, to go “the Scary Horrible Awful Thing is incredibly painful, and worrying is not so bad”, without noticing that I can keep worrying for weeks, while the Scary Horrible Awful Thing is over in ten minutes. It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid: it hurts a lot and then it’s done.
Maybe this is what people mean by courage. I would have thought it would feel better.