In Control or Just Controlling?

Category: Advice

Author: Cleopatra Tatabele

“You’re not allowed to sleep over anymore.” “I’m jealous, so you’re not allowed to talk to X person anymore.” “I’m hurt, and you should have known better.”

These are all things that have been said to me. Have you heard similar things too?

I’ve had to ask myself before, “Am I being controlling?” and “Are my partner(s) being controlling?” Sometimes it’s hard to find the line between what is ‘controlling’ and what is reasonable to ask of my partner(s).

After several years of polyamorous relationships, some that were amazing and fulfilling, and others that were abusive or unhealthy, I recognized that more rules and more control didn’t make me – or my partners – happier. The more my partners told me the rules and what I was and wasn’t allowed to do, the more trapped I felt. These long lists of rules didn’t make me feel more secure and didn’t make me feel more in control of anything. Instead, they had the opposite effect. I eventually recognized that when I made boundaries instead of rules, my relationships became healthier. When I started to make boundaries instead of rules, my relationships felt more free, more secure, and ultimately created spaces for me to manifest the connections I really wanted. At last, no one was controlling me, and I didn’t feel like I ‘had’ to control anyone else.

When I started to make boundaries instead of rules, my relationships felt more free, more secure, and ultimately created spaces for me to manifest the connections I really wanted.

I am not an expert by any means but I do hope that sharing my experiences and the ways in which I reflect will inspire you to manifest the relationship(s) you want as well.

1. Have you taken care of yourself? Are your partners taking care of themselves?

The first step is self-care. Before any difficult conversations, make sure you are fed and hydrated. Attempt to do things that help you relax prior to any Big Relationship Talks. Take a nap, have a hot shower, take care of you. Be sure to recommend that your partner(s) do the same before you speak about difficult issues.

2. What do you feel?

This is the time to reflect on yourself and how you frame your feelings. Instead of explaining away your feelings as something that your partner(s) did to you, try not to assume their intent. So, for example, “I felt abandoned when you canceled our plans.” This first example states the feeling, and then describes what happened. On the other hand, if you say “I feel abandoned because you felt like canceling our plans”, this insinuates that you know their intention. But at the end of the day, we can’t know someone’s intention unless they tell us. When we use ‘I statements’ adequately, then we open up a safer space for a healthy conversation to take place.

3. Why do you feel that way?

Instead of “I feel sad” or “I feel jealous”, try to get more descriptive and more specific. Where does the feeling come from? Reflect on the root causes of your feelings and try to dig beyond the surface.

For example, “I feel abandoned when you cancel our plans last minute because I feel like my time isn’t being honored. And my time is really important to me. I have a lot of past trauma around last minute cancellations.” This illustrates your values (in this case, the value of time) and maybe even past trauma that makes this pain of yours especially difficult. But still, at no point in this statement was the other person’s intention mentioned or assumed.

4. What was your partner’s intention?

Hopefully, your partner did not intend to hurt you. (If they did, that could be considered abuse – please seek help if your partner is intentionally hurting you!) So the question is, what did they intend? Opening the space for your partner(s) to apologize for the hurt they caused and explain their intentions can be an important part of this healing process.

“Why did you cancel plans last minute?” is an okay question to ask. Perhaps your partner(s) thought it would be better to cancel than to come late. This shows that they still value your time, but maybe went about it the wrong way.

5. Be consensual.

Be aware of controlling tendencies. Do not tell your partner what they can or cannot do “or else”. Of course, most people will agree to almost any rules if you’re threatening to leave them as punishment if they break your rule. This is not consent, this is coercion. Your partners are not children, you do not need to give them rules and punishments if you trust them to make decisions that honor your boundaries.

6. Create boundaries, not rules.

Okay, wait, what’s the difference between boundaries and rules then?

Rules tell your partners what they are or aren’t allowed to do. Your partners must follow these rules or else they are given punishments or ultimatums. Rules tend to not only affect you and your partner, but also whoever your partners see. Often, it’s unfair to create rules that affect people outside of the relationship without their input. If you feel like a rule is necessary, consider involving the input and consent of anyone who is impacted by the rule before agreeing to anything.

Boundaries, however, are about your body, your time and your space. Boundaries are about bringing consent to the forefront for your mental and physical health. Often boundaries help open up conversations for needs that are open-ended and can be collaborated on with your partner(s).

For example, “You’re not allowed to cancel plans 24 hours before because it makes me uncomfortable” is a rule. Try, instead, “I really don’t like it when plans are canceled last minute – I know that cancelations can happen to anyone, but I need reassurance that you respect my time when you cancel on me.” The need for reassurance around respecting time is a boundary, and opens up the conversation for collaboration between you and your partner(s).

7. Make a request to collaborate!

Most polyamorous advice will say that your feelings are our own and we are responsible for our feelings alone. I don’t think that’s fair when our QTPOC ancestors worked in community to heal. Therefore, it’s important to heal individually, but we heal better together, as a community. It is up to the individual to heal their own emotional traumas but who says we have to be alone in that?

Ask your partner(s) for support! They cannot fix the hurt you experienced but they can support you in your healing process. “I really don’t like it when plans are cancelled last minute. I know that cancellations can happen to anyone, but I need reassurance that you respect my time when you cancel on me. How can we work together to figure out ways that can reassure me that works for both of us?” The clear ask is for further support, collaboration and conversation.

Some questions to help you reflect:

● What is my partner(s) doing that already makes me feel secure?

● Are there ways to amplify that feeling of security?

● What are ways I can reassure and recenter myself when my partner(s) cannot?

● Who can I lean on outside of my relationship to support my healing process?

● What healing modalities am I committed to to help me with my trauma? (Think therapy, spiritual work, plant medicine, meditation, etc.)

Always keep in mind in polyamorous relationships (and, indeed, all relationships) that the individuals in the relationship are more important than the relationship and there’s never any excuse to treat people as things.

Helpful Resources That Deeply Inspire My Work:

- More Than Two: By Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux

- Love Without Emergency: By Clementine Morrigan

- Battling The 8 Arms Of Jealousy: By Reid Mihalko

- Attached: By Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller