It is a fact often unacknowledged that we are all born, and in many ways predisposed to remain, egocentric little monsters.
That’s not a criticism, mind; just a statement. If you want to see unadulterated egocentrism in its purest form, before the crucible of life alloys it with empathy and concern for others, just look at a two-year-old. We ship with egocentrism as our core framework; most things beyond that are installed separately.
The reflections of this basic tenet of human nature are everywhere. For tens of thousands of years, we believed ourselves to be at the center of creation; this dogma became so integrated in the political traditions of Western Europe that challenging it would lead one to a rather gruesome end at the hands of one’s more ideologically pure fellows. And it messes us up in so very many ways.
Especially in polyamory, where seeing our partner’s choice through the lens of egocentrism leads to heartache of all sorts. When we make “but what about me? the go-to question for evaluating our partners’ decisions, we tend toward the impulse of taking away their agency and treating us as need fulfillment machines. (One trivial example: “I’m a guy, and I’ll let my girlfriend sleep with other women, but she can’t sleep with other men because I know that other women can do things for her I can’t do but I’m afraid if she has another man she won’t need me any more.”)
It’s a tough thing to get past, this tendency to think the world’s orbit centers on us. I came nose-to-nose with this habit in myself back in 1992, when I was involved with the woman I’ve identified in the book More Than Two as “Ruby.”
Ruby was amazing–beautiful, smart, outgoing, kind–and I fell hard for her. My relationship with Ruby was my first brush with jealousy, and it was also the first time I’d ever really come nose to claw with the monster of egocentrism.
She started dating a friend of mine. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t have been a big deal, except that the relationship between Ruby and I was chafing under the weight of restrictions placed on it by the terms of my relationship with my ex-wife, who feared losing me to Ruby. I knew that her new partner could give her more than what I could offer, because their relationship was not encumbered by these restraints, and that made me feel threatened by him. Naturally, as you might expect, I felt very jealous.
Egocentrism became the flashpoint of that jealousy. Ruby would tell me things she had done with her new partner, and my first, reflexive reaction would be “but what about me?” When she told me about going somewhere with him, I would instantly flash to “why didn’t you go there with me?” As their relationship grew, the only thing I could see is “but what does that mean for me?”
When I saw the relationship between the two of them only in how it affected me, I lost the ability to be happy for them, or even to think about Ruby’s needs at all. But it took the destruction of that relationship to see just how deeply that habitual egocentrism ran.
In the ashes of that relationship, I spent a lot of time looking at myself, searching my intellectual closets and emotional beds for the monsters that lurked there. And one of the things I saw was that, by looking at my partners through the lens of “but what about me?” I was denying them an essential part of who they were. I was reducing them to accessories for my own ego, considering only what they brought me instead of what they needed.
It was a humbling experience. It’s not easy or obvious to realize that other people are actually human beings, just as fully as we are, with the same crazy human patchwork of needs and desires, weaknesses and fears, longings and hopes as we have. Ruby got things from her other partner she didn’t get from me, and that was okay. It didn’t have to be a competition, a winner-take-all gladiatorial cage match with her as the prize. The relationship she had with him wasn’t about me–something I might have seen had I been able to step away from myself long enough to see that she did value and love me, and her other relationship didn’t change that.
I worked hard over the next few years to understand where I’d gone wrong, and to learn new habits–habits of looking at my relationships in terms of the idea that every person who has ever walked the earth is unique, and brings something to the table nobody else could bring. (It is common, I think, to do what I did before–to understand that I could have multiple partners without it meaning I loved them any less, without applying the same thing to them and understanding they could love multiple partners without valuing me any less.)
The process took a lot of introspection, and a deliberate, scary stepping away from old reactions. When I felt threatened by someone new in a partner’s life, I would take a deep breath, look in the mirror, and say “this isn’t about me. Even if I don’t understand what she sees in him, it isn’t about me.”
It took courage. It also took being willing to confront my own egocentrism openly, by talking to my partners when I felt threatened. It’s remarkable how difficult it can be to ask someone “so, I see you’re investing in this new relationship; you still love and value me, right?” Acknowledging the things we’re afraid of makes us vulnerable, and when we’re already feeling triggered, the last thing we want is vulnerability.
But it’s necessary. If we are to be involved in healthy plural relationships, we need to understand when things aren’t about us. When we make them about us, we invite ugliness into our relationships. We become like those early political and religious leaders, burning folks at the stake for challenging our position as the center of all the universe.
It took me years to really internalize that my partners’ other loves are Not About Me. For a long time, it was a struggle, and it required daily, deliberate reminders to myself that not everything my partners say or do is a reflection of me.
But I got there, and it’s been a powerful boon to my life ever since.