Being poly allows you to have intimate relationships in very different stages at the same time: comfortable familiarity with one person, NRE with another, conflict or even a nasty breakup with a third. I’ve discovered that I interpret exactly the same behavior differently depending on how much I like the person involved.
An example of the basic dynamic:
“My partner wants sex with me a lot. It makes me feel so hot and desirable that they want me so much.”
“My partner wants sex with me a lot. I appreciate that they take ‘no’ for an answer.”
“My partner wants sex with me a lot. I worry I’m a bad partner who’s disappointing them.”
“My partner wants sex with me a lot. Entitled, objectifying asshole.”
But it’s not just sex. Think about holidays:
“She didn’t get me anything for Valentine’s because we really love each other, we don’t need a Hallmark holiday to show it.”
“Lol, my dumbass girlfriend totally forgot it was Valentine’s even though there are hearts literally everywhere. I love her.”
“I was pretty annoyed that my girlfriend forgot Valentine’s, but she apologized and I forgave her and we had a nice dinner anyway.”
“Jesus fucking Christ, I want her to do one fucking thing and she can’t manage it. How hard it is it to buy a card?”
Partners who won’t stop talking about their subject of interest:
“Wow, he’s so smart! Not only do we get to go on a romantic date, but I also get to learn a lot about transformer architecture.”
“Yeah, large language models aren’t my favorite thing in the world, but I know he loves them and they’re pretty interesting if you look at them the right way.”
“This is the Pillow of Shut Up and if he goes on about large language models for more than ten minutes I am allowed to gently whap him with it. I cross-stitched ‘No AI’ on the pillowcase.”
“The concept of ChatGPT sends me into a murderous rage.”
“I keep forgetting that other people don’t think that he is the most beautiful man in the world. Their taste is incomprehensibly bad.”
“He has a beautiful smile and such lovely soft skin.”
“Well, you know, I’m no Marvel Chris either.”
“I am disgusted by the weird mole in his back. There’s a hair growing from it.”
Your partner may very well have a beautiful smile, lovely soft skin, and a hairy mole, but whether the smile or the mole hair is the thing you think about most depends a surprising amount on your gestalt liking of him as a person.
Some parts of the relationship advice Internet talk about the “emotional bank account” and, as oddly mechanistic as it is, I do find it a useful metaphor. When you do things your partner likes, you put a deposit in the bank account; when you do things your partner dislikes, you withdraw from the bank account. The goal is to have a healthy, growing amount of relationship savings, so you can handle any unexpected enormous relationship expenditures. You do not want to be in the red.
Deposits go far beyond conventional romantic gestures. Watching a movie together? Deposit! Sleepy forehead kiss when you wake up in the morning? Deposit! Doing the dishes? Deposit! Making stupid jokes that make them crack up? Deposit! Reading about the history of philosophy, if they’re the sort of person who values intellectual curiosity in a partner? Deposit! Having long hair, if they like long hair? Deposit!
Crucially, your partner decides what is a deposit and what is a withdrawal. If your partner likes getting random cards, and you think cards are a stupid waste of money, the card is still a deposit. Conversely, if you like sleepy forehead kisses and your partner doesn’t want to be touched until after coffee, it’s a withdrawal.
This can put bad relationships in a vicious cycle, and good relationships in a virtuous cycle. If your partner likes you a lot, they’ll put a positive spin on your actions, so even forgetting their birthday can be a deposit (“aw, you’re too busy thinking about important things to keep track of little details like that”). If your partner is bitter and resentful about you, however, even nice things can become withdrawals (“yeah, we watched my favorite movie together, but your thoughts on it were stupid and you have a dumb laugh”). Somewhere out there, a person is getting a huge deposit by giving their partner a one-dollar pack of candy (“Skittles! My favorite!”); somewhere out there, a person is making a huge withdrawal by buying their partner a thousand-dollar bracelet (“you should have known I like sapphires, not rubies”).
An underappreciated way of improving a bad relationship is simply trying to like your partner more. There’s a reason you started dating this person. Deliberately make a point of noticing their kindness to animals, their love of art, their patience with your children, their intelligence, their loyalty to their friends. If you’re thinking about the mole, refocus on the smile; if you’re thinking about the boring parts of AI research, refocus your mind (and the conversation) on the parts you find interesting. Aim for sympathetic framings of your partner’s behavior whenever possible: try deliberately thinking “I love how hot my partner finds me” or “it’s cute that my partner, who handles million-dollar contracts on tight deadlines, has this specific block around Valentine’s Day.” If you have sympathetic friends, ask them to spend a few months listening to you brag about how great your partner is at the slightest opportunity. If done well, this kicks you out of the vicious cycle of disliking and into the virtuous cycle of liking.
Most of these are fictionalized but, for my sins, I have in fact been able to empirically observe the difference in how tolerant I am of people discussing large language models.
Excuse me while I purchase a Pillow of Shut Up for the use of any and all of my future romantic partners.
Supposedly, in Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, whenever Bond was in a social situation and wanted to direct discussion away from what he did for a living, he would tell people he was an engineer, which would end the discussion immediately.