Welcome to Love Files, our personal essay column exploring how our experiences have shaped our views on love – positively or negatively. From friendship to familial, we’re unpacking it all in this series.
You are your own primary partner: that’s one of the first things I learnt when I started practising polyamory a few years ago, which seems kind of counter-intuitive. After all, polyamory is about your relationships with other people, right? Forming them, managing them when conflicts (inevitably) arise, flitting from partner to partner as free as a bird. That’s what it seemed like when my life partner first introduced the concept to me. “It means you don’t belong to anyone, and nobody belongs to you,” they said. It’s kind of a mantra in the poly community: you are nobody’s property, and nobody is yours.
It seems like such a “duh” concept. Of course, you don’t belong to anybody, of course, nobody belongs to you. I figured if that’s all polyamory was about, then I’d thrive. I hated to be owned. I’d had a few longish term relationships before my life partner, and they always ended in similar ways: I’d start to feel crowded and smothered with affection.
Whoever I was dating would tell me that they loved me, and even though I’d spend all these relationships waiting for that very moment, as soon as they said it I would shut down. I’d pull away, or I’d give them a tight-lipped smile and say something like, “Oh, that’s nice,” and then I’d take the first chance I got to sabotage the relationship. Maybe I cheated emotionally one or two times…I’m not proud of it, obviously, but at the time I thought of it as asserting my independence. If they really loved me, I thought, they would want me to do whatever I wanted. They wouldn’t try to cage me.
So I’d never really been truly monogamous, and then I met the person that would become my Person, and they were just as wild and free as I was, except (unlike me) they communicated their intentions clearly and with a lot of care. They’d ask me about my boundaries, about my needs and how much I deserved to have those needs met — even if they couldn’t be the one to meet all of them.
At the time I was in a really transformative point in my life: I was trying to rebuild myself from scratch. The person that I’d been for the first 21 years of my life wasn’t the person I wanted to be anymore: I was spending a lot of time with myself, partly because I wanted to and partly because I didn’t trust myself to maintain any meaningful relationships. I’d spent so much of my life in a cycle of chasing after intimate connections, desperate to be loved — and then retreating from that same intimacy, burning every bridge and rejecting any attempts from others to actually care for me.
I won’t get into it, but I hit a breaking point: something had to change. And it had to start with me. Even before I met my partner, before I started practising polyamory for real, I was working on that vital first step in maintaining healthy polyamorous connections: I was partnering with myself.
Again, seems kind of obvious: I think most of us have said something along the lines of “I am my own best friend, I am the only one that’s truly got my back, no-one will ever love me like I love me,” but there’s a difference between saying “I am the only one I’ve got,” and saying “I am partnering with myself.” It’s a difference between active versus passive care. It’s a difference between choosing yourself over and over again, rather than putting up with yourself.
I don’t want to trigger anyone, but…if you spend a lot of time with yourself, if you don’t trust anyone else to be there for you, is it really because you’re just that secure in yourself? Or is it a way to shield yourself from forming genuine connections with other people out of the fear that they will only hurt you? Did you choose yourself? Or are you stuck with yourself…
These are difficult questions. These are deep, deep, painful questions, and most of us avoid asking these questions because we’re terrified of the answer, terrified of sitting with the reality that we might not even like ourselves that much — and the way most monogamous relationships are sold to us make it so that we don’t even have to like ourselves that much. We can just let someone else do it.
That’s why so many of us seek out romantic partner after romantic partner, desperate for somebody else to carry the (in our minds) heavy burden of loving us. And then when we get into those relationships, we panic. Maybe we pick fights because we want our partners to prove over and over again that they will choose us even when we are at our worst. Or we start to pull back from our partners because we didn’t actually want them in the first place — we just wanted to be wanted by somebody else.
I somehow managed to do both with my partner, like I did with every relationship before them — but the gag is, my partner had been working on their non-monogamous practice for a long time. They’d been doing the work. And it showed because when I would try and prod them and push them away and sabotage our relationship, they would firmly and lovingly let me know that they weren’t doing that shit with me. I’d start fights, and they would patiently talk me through them, refusing to match my energy — and there is nothing more embarrassing than starting a conflict for no reason, only for your partner to say some shit like “I hear what you’re saying, and I hear that you’re hurt, and I’d like to have an open and respectful conversation with you about it.” And then…we would have an open and honest conversation about it. And if we couldn’t have an honest conversation about it, they would leave.
That was the real breaking point for me: to have somebody take space from me, and make it clear in both actions and words that they weren’t doing it because they didn’t love me. They were doing it because they just loved themselves that much. I’d had so many heated arguments with former partners because we’d both bought into this myth that being with someone meant that you had to put up with all manner of bullshit because that’s what “real love” was supposed to look like. I’d grown up with parents that would have so many conflicts that even at a young age I would think, “Damn, can you guys just get divorced already?”, but they never did, because doing so would mean that they’d failed at monogamy.
I think I internalised that idea, without even knowing it. I thought that if someone really loved me, they would stick with me through everything. And that to love someone meant I wouldn’t leave either, that we would have the same arguments over and over again because we were terrified of leaving, of being left.
The first time my partner said, “I need some space,” I sat with myself for a long time feeling like a failure. I’d ruined this relationship like I ruined every relationship, and I was back to being alone, and I would be alone forever. I tried to own it: “Fuck them,” I thought. “Fuck love,” I thought. “We’re alone when we’re born, we’ll be alone when we die,” I thought. And then after a few days of moping around, and re-reading the last texts my partner had sent to me, I really started to think about their words. “I think we both need some space,” they said. “I don’t know how to show you that I care for you, but whenever you feel ready, I’d love to keep being in your life.”
That didn’t sound like a rejection…because it wasn’t. They were right — we did both need space. Or at least I did. I needed to sit with my feelings, and figure out what I actually wanted so that I could communicate with them as clearly as they did with me. They’d made their needs clear: they wanted to see other people, and it had nothing to do with me. It was just what they needed. They would always say, “One person cannot meet all your needs,” and though I agreed with them, I’d never really sat with the idea.
I thought back to our last argument, about the things I said that I needed to feel loved: could they give me that? Maybe not…but maybe one of my close friends could, or my older sister. Or maybe I could give it to myself. I took a few more days to sit with that, and when I eventually reached out to them it wasn’t out of some desperate need to not be by myself, It was an active choice: I WANTED to keep seeing them. And every time we took space like that, I would do some more digging into myself to figure out what I actually wanted, so that I could let them know.
I got better at communicating my needs, and not just with them. I started to think about all of my relationships through the lens of polyamory — no hierarchies, no need for some all-encompassing love that only one other person can provide. I didn’t need to have one best friend that could carry every emotional load for me — they were their own person, and it was impossible to think that one person could meet all my needs. And I knew that I couldn’t meet all of theirs — but we could still choose each other, still love each other deeply. I could forgive other people for not always being there for me: after all, I couldn’t always be there for them.
I sometimes tell people that I’m dating myself — and it’s kind of a joke, but I’m dead serious about it. Dating myself means that I am my most important relationship — and it means that I treat myself as such. You won’t always like your partner(s). Sometimes they will be cringe, or they’ll piss you off — but to partner with someone means making the choice to be with them despite all that. I don’t always fuck with myself, but I am empathetic with myself.
I choose to show up for myself — to be better for myself, to support my own personal growth, to pamper myself. I treat sex with myself as just as valid as any sex I might have with anyone else. I give myself space to change, the same way I give my partner(s) space to change. And just like I might choose my partner(s) even when they are a different version of themselves, I choose myself the same way. Now when I say I love myself, I mean it in ways that I’ve never meant it before: I mean it like a verb, something active, something intentional. I love myself on purpose. And though I may have many different partner(s) at many different points in my life, I am always my primary.