“Paradoxically, personal fulfillment means abandoning ourselves and putting others first. It means moving beyond wanting to be loved and moving into becoming lovers. It means growing past our need for things and discovering happiness in giving things away—even giving ourselves away, as Jesus did.”
– Rowan Williams
Polyamorous relationships. Lately, I’ve met several incredible people with multiple romantic partners, often married to one. Regardless of what you think about that lifestyle, I think there are two kernels of goodness for an amazing life ALL of us can learn from them:
True joy and wholeness is ONLY within you. And our obsession with nuclear families and a spouse has missed the boat, because truly fulfilling connection takes a village.
With that in mind, consider these two strong and widespread messages and points of emphasis in the U.S.:
1) The Nuclear family is EVERYTHING! Divorce is terrible and it’s happening too much, so we must strengthen and save and emphasize the nuclear family, or else everything will continue to go to hell in a hand basket! (note, I’m being a bit dramatic for affect … and that basically is the message 🙂
2) “You complete me.” – Jerry McGuire (in case you don’t get my reference, this is a key line in a movie staring Tom Cruise from the 90’s named “Jerry McGuire”. He uses it to win his love at the end.). The notion that in and of ourselves we’re incomplete and we each need A SPOUSE or A LIFE PARTNER (or bestie) to fulfill us is everywhere. Especially, it unfortunately seems, when it comes to single ladies.
In response to #1, I’d start by saying I find nuclear families (i.e. spouses and kids) to be VERY valuable, and divorce SUCKS! My parents divorced and I’ve been through two myself; mine were ESPECIALLY painful. That said, after experiencing the bliss on the other side of the second one, considering the pain and suffering of people abused (physically, mentally, or emotionally) by spouses, toxic relationships, and such I came up with this axiom: Divorce is NEVER good, but it’s sometimes BEST.
The crazy thing about divorce and our well-intended drive to lessen its frequency is I think our “solution”, i.e. OVER-emphasizing the sacredness and importance of the nuclear family, has actually led to MORE divorces. What do I mean by that? Great question! I’ll get to it shortly. 🙂
First, I’ll share a few words on #2 before we move on. Marriage is beautiful, amazing, and an incredible taste of heaven come to earth. AND it’s also hard work. What I’m saying is there’s a poetic truth to Jerry McGuire’s famous line, as a spouse/partner does bring something rich and joyous to our life. The problem comes when we think we’re incomplete, when we believe we aren’t whole on our own. What we get is two incomplete people coming together, each expecting the other to fill their joy, happiness, and bliss tanks. The results of this will be somewhere between suboptimal and disastrous. INSTEAD, when two effectively whole and complete people come together, THAT is when magical and amazing things happen!
I’d sum it up this way (note, I’m overstating a bit for affect): When you look to someone ELSE to complete you and make you whole, you’ll NEVER be truly fulfilled. Conversely, when two people full of joy and health come together, BAM! Life explodes in the most AMAZING way!!
Hopefully without beating a dead horse, I’ll put it one more way, this time using math. In the “you complete me” mentality, we’re all halves (i.e. 0.5). YET, here instead of 0.5 adding to 0.5 to equal 1, we get the two 0.5 subtracting from each other to become LESS WHOLE. On the other hand, when 1 adds to 1, the result is more like 10 or 100!
What I’m getting at is joy and wholeness is an INSIDE job. They are in YOU and ONLY YOU! There’s an infinite reservoir of bliss within you at all times that you can tap into … IF you choose. EVEN if your world is falling apart this true, just think of the stories, images, documentaries, etc. about joy-filled children in terrible circumstances or peaceful and blissed out people about to be tortured, executed, and such.
The happiest people in the world aren’t the ones with the most money, best possessions, greatest jobs, slightest troubles, fewest hardships, or least oppression; they’re the people who’ve tapped into the delight that’s already and always in them. And this sense of wholeness and bliss isn’t unique to them; it’s readily available to us all. I think it’s the Divine within each of us, but I could be wrong.
How do we tap into this pleasure and fullness? I don’t’ think there’s a one size fits all answer. Nor do I think there’s one way for each of us. Instead, I find it to be a multifaceted endeavor; we need to approach it from multiple angles. That said, I think for each of us it starts as a choice. CHOOSE joy, health, wholeness, positivity, and love.
From here I think we tap into and uncover our inner bliss and wholeness via counseling to make sense of our lives and stories, meditation to find our quiet center, contemplation to experience God or Something Bigger than ourselves, yoga to put our prayers and meditation and exercise together, prayer walks, singing, dancing, spending time in nature, running, biking, swimming, reading/listening to/watching positivity (i.e. books, podcasts, shows, lectures, interviews, sermons, etc. that help connect you to the joy and fullness in you), taking long showers, enjoying a good soak in the tub, and so on. In many ways, self-care practices help you get in touch with the bliss that’s within you. Different practices will resonate with each of us, and they will change over the years. Thus, the key is to find the ones that connect you to that Divine pleasure and fullness that’s in you, and do those.
Here’s the thing though. While I think it’s ESSENTIAL for us to realize you and I can only find true happiness, joy, wholeness, and health within us (again, I’d call this the Divine in us, but you don’t need to), it’s also true that we NEED and BELONG to each other. We’re fulfilled in our relationships, emphasis on the “S” making it PLURAL. As Rowan Williams says above, paradoxically, personal fulfillment only comes when we listen to, attend to, care for, hug, hold, and support others.
It’s a magical mystery, but over and over and over my experiences have backed this up: We only gain our lives by giving them away for the benefit of others.
This leads me back to the conclusion above I said I’d get to later. Our culture (especially the Christian sub-culture, at least in my experience) has over emphasized the importance of the nuclear family. It has effectively declared that ALL our fulfillment should be found in our spouse and kids. As well intended as this message has been, it’s NOT true or helpful, and I think has led to MORE divorces, rather than the less it intended.
I was listening to the podcast of “On Being” by Krista Tippett on a run the other day. In it she interviewed anthropologist Helen Fisher, who noted that for nearly ALL of human history our fulfilling connections have NOT come from spouse and children alone, but in a BIGGER community! It was only very recently and in the West that nuclear families began living separate and alone. For eons, EVERYONE lived in close proximity to parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, and so on.
My point on this and how I see it relate to Polyamorous relationships is this: No single person can fulfill all our needs when it comes to connection and relationships. It truly takes a village to live an enjoyable life. To think a spouse, partner, sibling, or best friend is going to enjoy all the things you do, fill my love tanks in all the manners I desire, likes talking about all the things you find pleasure in, wants to watch all the TV shows I appreciate, and so on is SILLY! It’s NOT going to happen, and I believe culture telling us to expect this has sadly led to MORE divorces. And it won’t with our kids either.
(Me, my sister, and my mom. Part of my beautiful village of relationships) 🙂 ❤
Regardless of what your take on Polyamorous relationships is, I hope you can see the blessing they’re showing us ALL. The greater and more diverse our connections become, the bigger our fulfillment grows.
For example, Lisa, my incredible wife, isn’t very into baseball or basketball, while I am. So, I get my “fix” there elsewhere. Likewise, I don’t care about beauty products and such, so she connects with other friends on that topic. What’s more, she doesn’t really like IPA beers, fantasy books, or computer games, so I connect with others there. I could go on, but hopefully you get my point. ::)
To paint a broader picture: Lisa and I connect with various people for various needs. We have a wide and diverse community, which allows us to share our hurts, hopes, desires, plans, celebrations, pleasures, and so on with the applicable people. I’m relationally intimate with Lisa, my sister, my mom, my best friends, my brother-in-law, my close friends, other yoga teachers, my barista friends, and so on. I need intimacy with them ALL to stay fulfilled. Your and my need for human connection and intimacy was NEVER meant to be met by one person … or two … or three. Instead, it takes a village.
There’s a famous study about drug addiction that illustrates this truth. Researchers placed rats ALONE in a cage with two water bottles, one of which was laced with cocaine. Quickly the rats universally chose the drugs and came back to it over and over until they ALL overdosed. YET, when they did the SAME experiment in a COMMUNAL cage full of other rats, the opposite occurred. Not ONE rat died, because they simply were NOT interested in the drugs. Likewise, studies showed that 95% of U.S. soldiers addicted to heroin when they were in the Vietnam War just stopped using when they returned home. “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection” is what the researchers concluded.
We are made to love and be loved.
I think there are two valuable lessons for EACH of us to learn from Polyamorous relationships: Wholeness is in YOU … AND Fulfillment Takes a VILLAGE. What do you think?
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Grace and peace,