Have you ever fallen for two people at the same time?
No, scratch that, have you ever fallen for someone?
Falling in love feels very much like an addiction. All the physiological signs are there – obsessive, intrusive thoughts, insomnia, extreme highs and lows of mood in relation to the object of your affections. You might have boundless energy to direct not just at the object of your affection, but at anyone.
Picture a wave, a force moving just under the surface of the ocean. It gathers momentum as this cluster of water molecules rolls through other, less excited water molecules. And then another wave, at a right angle, on a collision course with the first.
I am both of those waves at once.
It can be wonderfully engaging to watch your mind be alive like this – like watching a monkey engage with other monkeys at the zoo, or a seal play with some specialised aquatic mammal toy. There’s something brilliant and beautiful about watching something in the process of living, however chaotic. It’s hard to see chaos as suffering when it’s in the context of a broader canvas of life.
Once I watched for an hour as a blind otter and his partner waited ecstatically for their daily fish. Once it arrived, the seeing otter took both fish and hid one beneath her paws while eating the other. Meanwhile the blind otter was going insane trying to work out where his fish went. Eventually the gig was up and she gave him his rightful prize. I wonder whether she does this every day, the bitch. But watching this whole saga unfold it was hard to overlay some trite human sense of morality on it; they were just engaging in the play of life.
Observing the inside of my brain in chaos is a little like that. The little different sub-agents play and crash into each other; jumping, overtaking, steamrolling. I had wondered how the ‘feelings for person 1’ and ‘feelings for person 2’ trains would interact. It appears they can dance with each other without one attempting to submit the other.
There’s a lot of muck-raking to be done when you’re first starting out being a person in close relationship with other persons. I think 90% of it is tending to your own neuroses, at least until the point where the answer to ‘and in what ways are you mad?’ doesn’t make you hate yourself. For me it took years of reading, journaling, doing personal growth exercises and pinning down willing friends to talk out traumatic experiences and pain points with, but I’m now at the point where I feel like I’ve tipped from ‘mostly dysfunctional’ to ‘mostly healthy’. Some growth probably just came from having more data points, but plenty of people rack up the data points and don’t accumulate the associated wisdom, so I feel proud of the work that has been done thus far.
A big part of ‘making yourself healthy’ is unlearning patterns that led you to have skewed beliefs about what kinds of partners you would like, and healing trauma and attachment issues that lead you to consistently fall for people whose crazy doesn’t mix well with your crazy in some fundamental way. Here’s when you learn that you’re dismissive avoidant, and dig into where it might have come from, and slowly and safely practice the kind of vulnerability that might eventually turn into deep intimacy so that when you try that again on humans in high-stakes situations you have the tools to remain open rather than shut down and run away.
Incidentally, many dismissive or anxious attached people ‘know’ their attachment style is whacked, in the same way that your uncle ‘knows’ he drinks too much but won’t deeply acknowledge it or do anything about it. That trait of yours that you joke about, that you make fun of, that you ironically warn people away from? No really, look at it, deeply, preferably in the safe embrace of someone who cares about you as unconditionally as possible. That reason, the same reason all your previous relationships have failed, the reason that’s almost a punchline now? That’s it. That’s where the real work, the real juice lies.
Building trust and intimacy with people who have fixed their shit, in the exact places where they fixed it is one of the sexiest things ever. That guy who used to be afraid of intimacy, who can talk about it, and how he overcame it, and tell a mournful but meaningful story about the girl he lost that drove the need for change home to him? And moreover, who demonstrates with every action that he has overcome the barrier he used to have? Sexy as fuck.
Another one of the main structural beams is confidence. Confidence isn’t linear – it’s your brain’s best guess at a prediction about how an interaction between you and your environment is likely to go. Sometimes the prediction mechanism is faulty (commonly broken by parents or early lovers); sometimes it is accurate but keeps screaming that you don’t have enough *whatever* to engage with your environment right now. Fixing the things the confidence are about is straightforward but hard fucking work, but often our brains build little specialised blinders to protect said insecurities and keep moving them around so we have no idea what is wrong with us even as our friends are yelling about it in our faces. Any way you can slip under or trick those blinders is useful. Some useful tools: fiction, anything intensely relaxing like hypnosis, certain drugs and certain types of meditation. This one I’m still stuck on, because when helping friends poke at their own blindspots I feel like I’m often just poking them in a way that hurts and they still have no idea where the blindspot is. Use caution.
Your pattern recognition abilities are your friends here, particularly over long periods of time. Every girlfriend you’ve ever had has betrayed you? Great, you have a clear problem to work on. Never feel like you’re good enough for your partner? Another clear formulation for you. Each of these problems is best approached individually, and I find a toolbox approach works best – just be a packrat and accumulate tools from basically any psychological theory or framework that seems useful. Grab when needed.
The upside of this work can be felt, not only within a long-term romantic relationship, but within every relationship with everyone you encounter. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve used a framework I’ve learned on some problem with a colleague or community group and had to be bashful about the fact that the framework came from BDSM. Still worked though, even if no-one knew its provenance. But the advantage is huge – once you are able to relate openly, with well-backed confidence, with appropriate levels of vulnerability, connected to well-calibrated intuition and a sense of your values and meaningfulness – once all those pieces are in place, the quality of every single relationship, platonic, professional and romantic, skyrockets.
I’m currently on some sort of ship on a rocky and chaotic sea. Falling for someone is intense and unpredictable at the best of times; falling for two people is like playing two improvisational symphonies at once and hoping they line up somehow. But experiencing that, with the trust that the self that is experiencing it has healthy boundaries, intuition, competence and connection to values is exquisite and to me is the pinnacle of lived experience. Being healthy in relation to others and your self is extraordinary and well-worth fighting for. Some of the work is even fun to do.
But you know, I’m in love, so take what I say with a grain or two of salt.