Managing your polyamorous relationships obviously becomes exponentially more complex with the more partners you have. Whether you believe in hierarchical relationships (primary, secondary, etc.) or not, there are still times when having to prioritize is inevitable. Everyone has times when they are a squeaky wheel, and as long as it is not part of a pattern of emotional manipulation, I think that’s completely reasonable. After all, if you add kids to the picture, or other situational stressors like death of a family member, or loss of a job, a little extra attention or comfort may be needed that can, in turn, impact the time you spend with other partners. Certainly this is where having metamours that are friendly or understanding with one another’s needs is important, and hopefully there is some give and take and flexibility with scheduling, so that everyone feels their needs are being met fairly.
But what if your wheel never stops squeaking? When you suffer from chronic illness (in my case, both physical and mental illness), and you spend much of your time trying to deal with the day to day issues associated with that illness, it can feel virtually impossible to dedicate any kind of emotional energy to multiple partners, never mind one. It is much easier to speak in philosophical tones about polyamory and your theories on ethical non-monogamy than to actually follow through with seeking out and maintaining multiple relationships. The entire process seems impossibly daunting. When your main focus each day is the struggle of getting out of bed, showering (maybe), finding ways to deal with intractable pain, etc., the acts of communication and caring for the emotional and physical needs of another person seem insurmountable. And quite frankly, like work.
It cannot be discounted either, the stress that this puts on the partner of the disabled person. If you are their squeaky wheel, how can they possibly meet the needs of other partners? I have sometimes thought that the solution to this is to seek out partners during periods of stability, but of course as anyone can tell you, finding partners isn’t quite so convenient that they appear out of the woodwork on request (in spite of what some people seem to think on OkCupid). Even if that were possible, who is to say that the new partner would be willing to put up with an over-demanding metamour? It certainly has never been my intention to sabotage my partner’s other relationships, but I cannot deny that it may have occurred in spite of that. When you are dependant upon another human being for many of your daily needs because of disability, it’s a pretty normal reaction to be a) fearful that those needs will no longer be met, and b) filled with guilt over that fear.
A good deal of the stress I have personally felt because of my situation dissipated when I accepted the fact that, at least for now, the only other partner I can manage is my illness. Right now, it requires my time and devotion. Accepting that, and setting some goals as to how I can satisfy some of the needs that it represents (like learning how to manage pain and gaining further independence) have allowed me to slowly get back to being a better partner in my primary relationship. I had spent so much time obsessed with ‘poly failure’ guilt, that I hadn’t been tending to either my partner or my disability. I also spent such an enormous amount of time worrying about whether he was unhappy because he wasn’t seeing anyone else that it clouded my ability to deal with anything else that needed to be tackled in our relationship. It’s hard to build emotional stability when you’re in self-protection mode.
Whether it is due to disability or some other life change, it’s tremendously important to take the emotional time to process and if necessary, withdraw. It’s a natural byproduct of polyamory that we check in with others around us in order to determine their needs and how we can best accommodate them. The problem for some (i.e. those of us who are naturally co-dependent and ‘fixers’) is that we don’t always look inward (or rather, if we do, we do not allocate the time to mend our broken bits the way we try to with others). I know a few people in the community who have declared themselves ‘their own primary.’ There are certainly some who, upon hearing such a pronouncement, might consider that a selfish act, but really, it’s pretty hard to attend to other people’s needs when yours are constantly nagging in the back of your mind. Being your own primary, to me, seems like an excellent way to communicate to others that you declare yourself valuable and hold yourself accountable to your own needs.
Obviously some of this can be mitigated by being honest (and forthcoming) about your own needs so that others can help — but I think it is even more important that we try to figure out ways (even small ones) to help ourselves. There is absolutely no shame in asking for help, but there is also a lot to be gained in terms of feelings of self-worth and independence, by taking control and allotting time for yourself.
The first step is acknowledging that those needs exist. And sometimes, the second is acknowledging that your illness is your life partner — you need to take care of that relationship so you can take care of the others.