I read Kathy Labriola’s book over my winter break, and I think it is just as practical and helpful as Taormino’s Opening Up. The title of it is: Love in Abundance: A Counselor’s Advice on Open Relationships.
At first I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this book. She begins with a discussion of how she personally views “polyamory” and “open relationships” as synonymous, and uses the terms interchangeably throughout the book. For some reason, I still have a slight aversion identifying as poly (for reasons I have a difficult time articulating), and so I prefer describing what J and I do as an open relationship.
Anyway, getting past the intro showed me that this book is quite fantastic. One of the first exercises she asks readers and their partners to do is explore one’s dislikes, likes, past experiences, and expectations with regards to monogamous and open relationships. It was illuminating for me to write down what was basically a pros and cons list for each style of relationship, and notice how invested I truly am in our open relationship.
One of the first things she also explains is how most people generally want one of two things when considering an open relationship: More or Different. Generally, she believes that people either have needs that cannot be completely met through their primary relationship and so they need More of something, or people have needs for something Different that their primary relationship cannot meet. For example, I think I basically just want More from our open relationship- more cuddling, more physical touch, etc. And I think J basically wants Different- sexual variety through different partners. I really enjoy Different as well, but these concepts were helpful for us to think about in how our open relationship has shifted since we opened up.
Part of her section on communication was on meta communication: communicating about what you are going to communicate. She explains that in her experience as a counselor, she has noticed that in general, men tend to want to communicate to fix a problem or make a decision, whereas women tend to want to communicate to create intimacy, tell a story, or ask for support of comfort. (She is clear that she knows these are broad generalizations but that they are trends she has noticed). She says that communicating to one’s partner about what you are about to communicate delineates to your partner the goals of the communication. For example, if I tell J I need support and then proceed to tell him about a crummy day at school, he knows his role is to listen and comfort me. If I didn’t tell him I needed support before launching into my story about my crummy day, he might respond with how I could have handled my day better (which would be a more appropriate response if I wanted to fix a problem). This would leave us both feeling dissatisfied, me feeling like I didn’t get the support I wanted, and him feeling like his offered help unappreciated. Reading about meta communication in this way was helpful for J and I in thinking about how we handle instances when one of us is feeling uncomfortable or jealous about something: I often just want support and comfort, not to “fix a problem” or renegotiate our relationship. However, without telling J that I just need support or comfort, he thinks that I am telling him that I am feeling jealous so that we can renegotiate. This leads to a communication breakdown and not a satisfying communication process for either of us.
Her chapters on jealousy are also excellent, and gave me yet another way to focus my energy toward working through jealousy. Labriola maintains that jealousy is like a smoke alarm for a relationship, and I would guess that she might say that we are encouraged to develop hyperactive and “false” smoke alarms within our culture. However, she does think that some situations warrant our jealousy smoke alarms to go off because it is a key sign that we have to do something about our relationship in order to fix a crucial issue.
She also offers a distinct checklist of questions for figuring out if jealous feelings are worth investing further feelings into. This checklist has been helpful for me in figuring out if my smoke alarm is just going off for no reason (which, I think, has been the case since I can remember). She says there are four prerequisite conditions for jealousy, and going through those conditions will reveal whether or not if feelings of jealousy are “valid” or if you need to relax and calm down.
She identifies two key ways that partners often mitigate jealousy. The engineering model means that you create boundaries around the situations that cause jealousy. If I, for example, got jealous when J went on a date with someone, I might pinpoint my jealousy to a specific activity, say, seeing a movie. So we would create a boundary that stipulates J can go on dates with other people, but reserve going out to movies to be something only the two of us do together. (This is all hypothetical.) The other model is called the phobia model, which means building up slowly to the situations that cause anxiety and jealousy, pushing yourself a little at a time, until the situations that initially cause anxiety and jealousy no longer do. This is the model that we decided to practice long before I read this book. I don’t want to create boundaries around a practice, like dating, because I want that to be an option that we both have. Rather, it makes more sense for us to slowly adjust to new situations and people. For example, the first time J went on a date and was gone for a couple of hours, it was difficult for me. Then the next time was less difficult. However, when he went on a date that lasted five or six hours, it was really challenging again. I expect if and when he is gone that long on a date again, it will be less challenging because I will know what to expect.
Another section of her book that led to some serious and necessary communication between J and I is her chapter on autonomy and intimacy. She asks the reader to think about a 0-10 scale, 0 being someone who wants complete independence and autonomy in their relationships and a 10 being someone who wants to be joined at the hip 24/7 with their partners. She thinks that people who identify as a 0 or 1 probably don’t have a primary relationship because they don’t have the time, energy, or desire to invest in one, and people who identify as a 9 or 10 probably don’t have a primary relationship because they smother their partner. Thus, most people fall between a 2 and 8. This was an extremely helpful exercise for J and I to discuss. I identify as about a 7 or 7.5 and he identifies somewhere between a 5 and 6. This frame of reference made it a lot easier to discuss our differences in intimacy and autonomy needs, and made it a bit easier to discuss what we both want from our open relationship. I want More physical touch, and J want Different partner and the ability to seek them out.
This book might top Taormino’s book for me, just because it was such a fast read, clearly written, and offered some new ways of looking at communication and jealousy. Two thumbs up from me!! :-)