Healthy Poly Relationship Series Part 2: Taking Responsibility for Our Own Emotions and Actions

This concept comes up frequently in discussions about healthy personal boundaries.

It is referenced in Mark Manson’s article called “The Guide to Strong Boundaries.”

He says that good boundaries mean “taking responsibility for your actions and emotions while NOT taking responsibility for the actions and emotions of others.

The book More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory also addresses this topic, in the chapter titled Boundaries. The authors state that “If we make others responsible for our own emotions, we introduce coercion into the relationship, and coercion erodes consent.”

What does this mean?

It means that what we feel is ultimately our responsibility. We are not victims to our emotions and we are not powerless in the face of them. They are a creation of our thoughts, beliefs, and life experiences. (As well as our brain chemistry and brain functionality.)

Earlier in my career, when I was working with (presumably monogamous) teenagers, I would explain it this way:

Me: Let’s say you are walking to school and you see your boyfriend or girlfriend on the steps of the school. What do you feel?

And they would usually respond, “Happy. Excited to see them.”

Me: And, how would you act?

Teen: “I might smile, or wave or walk faster.”

Me: So, you are walking faster and they haven’t seen you yet. Then another person comes up behind your boyfriend or girlfriend, they smile at each other and the other person puts their arms around your boyfriend/girlfriend and kisses them on the cheek. Now how do you feel?

The teen would usually respond by saying they would feel jealous, angry or hurt.

Me: And what are you thinking?

Teen: “They are cheating on me.”

Me: So, what do you do now?

This answer varied a lot. Some said they would run up there and yell, or try to fight the other person, some said they would run away and hide. But for the sake of the exercise, I would ask them to imagine that they continue walking up to the boyfriend or girlfriend with the intention of demanding an explanation.

So, then I say, “But as you walk up, your boyfriend/girlfriend smiles at you.” Then they say, “It’s great to see you! I want to introduce you to my cousin,” and gestures toward the person who kissed them.

Me: Now how do you feel?

The teen would typically say “relieved,” or “stupid, because I was wrong.” Some would say they felt guilty for thinking they were being cheated on when it wasn’t true.

So here, I would point out that what they felt at different times in the story was determined by their thoughts and beliefs. And then they chose their actions based on what they thought and how they felt. And they have the power to change how they feel, by challenging or changing their thoughts and beliefs.

What I didn’t point out is that one of their beliefs in this scenario is monogamy, that people should be monogamous and that being cheated on is humiliating. But, for those of us in the polyamorous community, we are challenging that belief. And if we are successful, look at how it changes how we feel about our partners having other relationships!

We have the power to change how we feel by challenging the thoughts and beliefs that help create our feelings in the first place. So, let’s get clear on what we mean by “making other people responsible for our feelings.”

Imagine that Julie and Rob have agreed to open up their marriage. All seems to be going well until Julie meets another man, Bill, and there is a shared attraction. Julie comes home and tells Rob that she intends to move forward with Bill. Suddenly Rob is feeling anxious, and angry.

He expresses his feelings, respectfully, to Julie and expects her to break things off with Bill. But she doesn’t want to. Rob feels even more anxious and angry, and now feels betrayed, too. Then, he expresses his feeling more loudly and aggressively, and he threatens to end their marriage if she continues.

What is happening here? If we look at the list of personal rights, Julie is completely within her rights. She is only looking to make decisions and exercise freedom regarding her own body, emotions, and expenditure of time. She has also acted ethically, because she and Rob had agreed they both wanted to open up the marriage.

Rob, on the other hand is not within his rights. He is trying to make decisions about what Julie can do with her body, or he’s trying to push Julie to make a decision to break things off with Bill when she doesn’t really want to.

Is he acting ethically? He began ethically by expressing himself in a respectful way, but when he didn’t get the result he wanted, he left ethical behavior behind and expressed himself in an intimidating and aggressive manner and made a threat.

He does have the right to withdraw from the marriage, but in this case he is using it to try and force Julie to give up something she wants, and has a right to. That is coercion.

Looking at each person’s rights is a good place to start when we want to determine which of the people involved needs to examine their thoughts and feelings, and needs to try to change how they feel or act.

In this case, it’s Rob. So, let’s say Rob and Julie have reviewed the list of personal rights and Rob admits that he is in the wrong and he is willing to examine his feelings and see what he can do to change them. So, he goes back to the beginning and asks himself, “Why did I feel anxious when I learned that Julie and Bill have a mutual attraction and want to advance their relationship?”

He realizes that his next thought was, “What if she has great sex with him, falls in love with him and leaves me?” He has a belief that the power of sexual passion and the quality of sexual experiences (or sexual performance) can cause someone to fall in or out of love and influence major, life altering actions, like Julie leaving him.

This belief didn’t spring from Rob’s head -- it is a common cultural myth here in the US, and in many other cultures as well. But is it true? And is it true of Julie? Rather than assuming it is true, he might want to ask Julie about this and ask for the reassurance he needs. For most people, choosing to leave a marriage has to do with a lot more factors than just sex.

Second, when Rob expressed his feelings, he expected her to accommodate him and break things off with Bill. When she didn’t, he felt betrayed. If he asks himself why, he might realize that he has a particular belief about how a loving relationship is supposed to work. Like many other people, Rob believes that if you have strong feelings of pain, especially if triggered by your partner’s actions, your partner should change what they are doing in order to relieve your pain for you.” This is exactly what people mean when they say, “making someone else responsible for your feelings.”

In other words, when we experience painful or uncomfortable emotions, we often think of them as a “problem” that needs to be “solved” because we don’t like feeling them. If we are feeling them because someone has violated our rights or boundaries, it is appropriate and ethical to look outward and require that person to change their behavior and return to respecting our boundaries. [For a full discussion of rights and boundaries, see Part 1 of this series: Boundaries.]

However, if we are feeling painful emotions when no one has violated our rights or boundaries, then it is appropriate and ethical to look inward, at our thoughts and beliefs, and question them as the first step in “solving the problem” of our painful emotions.

A pattern of coercion comes in when people are strongly attached to the belief that others should take responsibility for solving the problem of their painful emotions. When others don’t do this for them, they may escalate their displays of pain, hurt and/or anger, or make threats, in order to get the response they want.

But what if Rob does not admit to himself that he is in the wrong? How does Julie defend her boundaries? And what if that is really hard for her? There are two sides to poor personal boundaries. One side is “making other people responsible for your feelings.” The other side is, “taking too much responsibility for the feelings of others.”

In my next post, I’ll address what that looks like and how to develop stronger boundaries and defend them.

(c) 2018, Alexandra Tyler, All Rights Reserved

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