Choosing Insecurity

I think monogamous people are monogamous because they are insecure.

This is an upsetting thing to hear and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a monogamous person agree with me – but before you start typing out an angry comment, I promise I can salvage myself. Probably.

I have a fear of authority and rulebreaking. The fear is so strong that it sometimes interferes with my life – I have anxiety about being in the wrong cabin in a train, trying to jump turnstiles makes my body physically seize up, and I meekly accept unfair Comcast bills.

I know myself pretty well, so I know the amount of effort it would take to fix this particular fear would be pretty huge. It might take therapy, both the sit-down-in-a-chair and the exposure kind. It would take extraordinary mental effort and discomfort on my part. Would my life be better if I fixed this fear? Yeah, probably – but a better question is, would it be worth it?

My rulebreaking-anxiety doesn’t give me trouble that often. I’m pretty happy being a rule-follower, most of the time. So – should I fix it?

I think there’s a common idea that personal growth is always the correct option, and in a way this makes a bit of sense. If there’s a problem inside of you that limits your ability to enjoy life, then fixing that problem would be better, right? We frequently heighten this idea to a nearly moral imperative – if you’re dating a shitty person who you think you deserve, then you need to break up with them and upgrade your self worth. If you are doing drugs to feel better, you need to quit and get fulfillment out of exercise and good eating or whatever it is normal people do these days.

This imperative applies even if the problem isn’t actually much of a problem. If someone isn’t a drug addict, but rather gets horribly drunk a few times a year whenever they encounter a severe emotional problem, we see that they’re not dealing with things in a healthy way. And even if their alcohol-for-emotions habit is rare enough that it isn’t causing serious damage, we know that this might not last. Emotions can always get worse, and there’s a good chance that in the future, the mild habit now might lead to serious problems down the road.

In this situation, the fact that our occasional drunkard is okay right now seems just a matter of chance – that his life isn’t okay because of his internal strength, but rather because his life isn’t bad enough to turn him into a drunkard… yet.

We could say the same thing about my rulebreaking anxiety. The fact that my life is okay right now might be just a matter of chance – that it’s not because of any strength, but rather because I have the leisure of keeping away from authority figures most of the time.

But of course we can take this idea to extreme conclusions – everything good in our lives right now is just a matter of chance. The fact we are happy and functional might not be because we have the internal strength to tolerate being insulted, but rather because nobody is insulting us. We have a thousand weaknesses hidden by everyday convenience.
And so if we really wanted to become someone who would be okay with everything, we ought to go endure torture and loss in order to reveal and deal with those thousand weaknesses.

But we don’t, because it’s not worth it. Every day we make judgments about what is or is not worth it, and every day we forego personal growth because doing so would be too hard. When I make the choice not to “go to therapy so that I can hop on trains”, I’m deciding that the pain of expanding myself is not worth the benefit I would get from occasional rule breaking.

Most common is lack of empathy when we overlook the great cost of self improvement in others. Years ago, I thought my friend should break up with her boyfriend and improve herself so she could get a better boyfriend – but in recommending this to her, I wasn’t taking into account the pain of loneliness she would endure by being single. When I recommended my friend to quit drinking in response to pain, I didn’t understand that he was making a value judgement in much the same way I was when I meekly paid Comcast an extra 33$ instead of protesting the unfair charge. In drinking, he was making the judgement that working to fix himself without alcohol cost too much pain for the benefit of decreased alcoholism risk.

And obviously risk assessments go wrong all the time. Sometimes people do become alcoholics, or get into abusive relationships, – but that’s what is meant by risk. If they understand the risk they’re taking, then we must conclude that the benefit they gain is worth it, for them – much as people who drive cars understand very well that they might get into an accident, but decide that the benefit they get of transportation is worth it.

And so how can we blame anybody for avoiding “fixing themselves,” even if it goes wrong? The most we can do is make sure they understand the risk they’re taking, and if they do understand, then they are making an educated decision about their own values, and “you should quit drinking” is a recommendation that comes from a position of ignorance.

And so when I say people who are monogamous are monogamous because they are insecure, I in no way mean this as a judgement. They have made the decision that going to the effort of getting rid of jealousy – of dealing with the pain of their partner spending the night somewhere else – is not worth the benefits they might gain from nonmonogamy. This is an absolutely valid decision.

(edit: i should clarify that my definition of monogamy is “when you place a restriction or expectation on your partner’s engagement in sexual activity.” In a situation where two people are totally okay with their partner fucking/loving other people, but just happen not to due to lack of desire or interest in other people, I consider this just passive polyamory.)

But I think it is also useful to be honest with ourselves when we are making these value judgments. Monogamy is due to insecurity, at its heart – that your partner will leave you, and cloaking it under the guise of romantic notions of commitment is disingenuous. My anxiety about rulebreaking is about fear, not about anything noble, or about respecting people in authority, or supporting society. It’s just me being scared. People in mediocre relationships just don’t want to be alone, people who drink during hard times aren’t doing it for fun.

We all are succumbing to weakness, and that’s okay. We should look our flaws in the face, and if we have full understanding of the value decisions we’re making, then there is no reason to be ashamed.

16 comments

  1. The Whaler says:

    After reading a few posts I’m getting the impression that Aellagirl is like a much less eloquent Lykke Li. Really smart and victimized by the paucity of honest intimacy. Only instead of writing things like the song “Unrequited Love” she writes loaded think-pieces with depressingly vivid undertones of moral atrophy.

  2. sassycoupleok says:

    Very interesting reading and comments. My current hubby and I both divorced for the reasons given above, “jealousy and insecurity” with our then spouses. This was an important issue for us both. One we discussed it for year before even meeting. When we made the decision to move forward with the relationship we did so being both open minded and with an open relationship. It has been very beneficial to our relationship. It has also been very beneficial to our love life. It all comes back down to trust and respect for one another.

  3. Sanik says:

    Short point if I may:
    The unspoken but very much present assumption here seems to be that polyamory is always an improvement over monogamy and therefor a commitment to monogamy is a refusal to self improve.
    While this may be true some of the time I am quite certain it is not true all of the time. Both polyamory and monogamy have different benefits and drawbacks that depending on circumstance and priorities can weigh very differently on your choice of lifestyle.
    It seems to me that you simply took your current circumstance and resulting priorities (polyamory > monogamy) as a baseline for all human relationship and tried from there to explain why not all humans conform to these preferences. Which while interesting as a glimpse into your mind seems somewhat flawed as an approach.

  4. psmith says:

    At this level of abstraction, “insecurity” is just an affect-loaded synonym for “desire”, and any motivated action at all can be characterized as an expression of insecurity.

  5. liskantope says:

    I reblogged on Tumblr, then thought of another minor point this morning and decided “Hey I use WordPress, why not just comment there?” So here is a slightly revised version of my main reaction (apart from that as usual you make a valid general point about human behavior and convey it compassionately and effectively).

    Speaking as a person who would like a steady relationship but has never seriously considered polyamory (it’s hard enough for me to find just one person!), I’m not sure I exactly agree that monogamous people choose monogamy because of fear that your partner will leave you or having to deal with jealousy or whatever and that pretending that you’re adhering to some romantic ideal is “disingenuous”. I feel like the logic leading to that conclusion proves too much, namely that every decision we make to adhere to something with any kind of restriction comes from insecurity. Which I guess could be one way to look at it, but right now it strikes me as watering down the notion of “insecurity” to the point that it becomes almost meaningless.

    Moreover, it seems possible to argue that some people are polyamorous because they’re insecure. More than once I’ve heard a polyamorous person on rationalist Tumblr state that one of the main reasons they choose polyamory is being afraid of not being sure how far one can go without stepping over the line into unfaithful. It just seemed easier for them not to have to worry about getting in trouble for cheating. This suggests to me that some of the people who choose polyamory do so out of some form of insecurity, and suggests more broadly that sometimes operating within a stricter framework with more rules can feel less safe rather than more safe.

    On the other hand, I should admit that when I read the first paragraph I assumed your argument was going to be that monogamous people stick to their practice out of fear of stepping outside the bounds of what we might call “normal society”… and this I do think is commonly a factor (though far from the whole story). For myself, I would definitely feel that becoming polyamorous would push me out of my comfort zone into a certain subculture which is likely to meet the disapproval of my parents and other older authority-type figures as well as even some of my more liberal friends. I would definitely have to wrestle against some fear in order to get into it.

  6. anon says:

    Fundamentally, I agree with you. Monogamy provides security in that it makes sexual competition a non-issue, and the mental gymnastics used to avoid thinking this are unpleasant at best. A perfect example is the serial monogamist, who takes all the benefits of polyamory while masquerading as a monogamist, until better opportunities present themselves.

    But I also think that this level of unconditional trust is necessary for some people in relationships. It may be fueled by insecurity, but the deep, emotional connection gained can outweigh the enforced limits. Of course, for other people this seems like a horrible disadvantage of unwanted emotional intimacy and surrendering control, so it really depends on what kind of person you are and what benefits apply.

  7. incstrat says:

    I think that people often underestimate the gains they would get from fixing a personal problem. They are weighing the emotional pain they would go through to solve the problem against that specific problem. Instead the gains include better emotional problem solving tools that can be used for many other problems, which turn them into non-problems very quickly. Also, I have usually found that when I fix one emotional problem, I get gains in many areas I previously did not expect, or new problems which previously did not seem solvable are suddenly within that scope.

    Also, with practice, if I am correctly modeling what the feeling of not having the problem is like and that is sufficiently interesting and valuable seeming, than the pain doesn’t seem aversive anymore, and is instead glorious.

    Also, I think that recommendations, and advice giving are often not helpful in these situations as a way to try to improve your friends. The model of “I think you should do X to solve your problem, and I will blame you or label you as worse if you don’t” is not useful for more than just the reason you said. It’s also an indicator that you don’t have a clear understanding of what is so scary about quitting drinking, or being able to jump turnstiles. Advice in general seems very selfish to me — it’s like saying “Hey friend, I would really prefer the version of you where you didn’t have your problem. I would be feel like I had cooler more self actualized friends it would be awesome to be surrounded by people like that. Would you mind fixing it? Thanks brb”

  8. I think you make a good case for your point when you use your definition for monogamy, but at the same time, monogamy under that specific definition is purely a factor of control over another person. It isn’t a style or choice of relationship anymore under mutual trust or expectations of multiple people interacting, it becomes something a little different. It’s now a “You can’t do this”. It’s a control over someone’s actions. What you’re saying under that condition holds water. The cost of self improvement, the chance of things going good, all factors that could be alleviated with that kind of control. So would someone perfectly healthy with fewer of those insecurities be drawn to polyamory?

    What about if monogamy factored around satisfaction? If one person says; I want A, B, and C from a partner. This one person here can give me A, B, and C. But these other two people could give me A, B, and C collectively. Then it becomes a factor of satisfaction, and a choice between both conditions. One person could give that hypothetical chooser everything they need to feel satisfied. There’s no drive to look outside of that. Would that interpretation be subject to the theory of insecurity? I think it might point in the other direction. If you have the option of two people (one can give you A, and B, the other can give you C), everyone together makes for a great situation, but there is more risk that a lack in one of those relationships could ruin both. One piece falls out of place and neither can satisfy the whole needs of the chooser (assuming that everyone is equally invested and has no problem with the relationship at the start). Could that be possible?

    Great post. Keep up the thoughts!

  9. Scr1b3 says:

    No, I don’t agree with this. Just because I’m in a monogamous relationship, doesn’t mean that I deserve the insecurity label. I might actually love my partner so much, that I simply don’t want anyone else, and vise versa. Monogamy is an orientation, just like bisexuality or other personal choices.
    Just as you shouldn’t say I’m “broken” for being asexual, please don’t say I’m “broken” for choosing to be monogamous right now, or because I chose to live and love a certain way

    • Aella says:

      I defined monogamy in my post specifically as ‘placing restrictions on your partner.’
      So whether or not you and your partner want anyone else isn’t relevant to me – what matters is if you have rules or expectations in place that you can’t fuck around outside even if you did one day want to.

      For example: Bob and Alice love each other very much. They only ever want each other and aren’t attracted to anyone else. But one day, after ten years of bliss, Bob is out of the country, at a work event, and encounters a woman (STI free, she showed him documents) who wants to have a quick fling.

      If Bob and Alice have the agreement that this is NOT OK, then they are monogamous and the restriction is born out of insecurity, because it’s actually a restriction on behavior Bob wants to do.

      If Bob and Alice agree that Bob can have the fling, then I would consider Bob and Alice to be polyamorous as long as they’ve had that agreement – even if they spent ten years not acting on it.

      So if you and your partner are voluntarily choosing to be with each other and only each other, that’s great, that’s fine, and it has nothing to do with insecurity. But as soon as you tell your partner he CAN’T fuck anyone else, even if he wants to, then that is insecurity.

      • cosine says:

        I don’t think many people, mono or poly, would agree with your redefining of monogamy and, honestly, it’s not a useful or proper definition of it. It just seems to suit your agenda with this post. Anyone with sense would call that a controlling relationship, which can exist outside of monogamy.

        I also think you’re sanitizing this too much, focusing on only one aspect, and making it to be a very black and white, if-then issue when it really isn’t. People change and feelings change, regardless of prior conversations and agreements. But if/when you’re in a monogamous relationship and you encounter the opportunity to have sex or some kind of relationship outside the bounds of the relationship agreement with your partner and you choose not to, you’re not choosing not to out of insecurity of your partner but out of empathy for your partner. On the flipside, your partner isn’t limiting your behavior out of insecurity so much as valuing the established relationship over what is an unimportant fling. Likewise, if you’re in an agreed upon poly relationship but neither of you act on it for years there must be communication about what you are doing to your partner if it involves someone else. Your partner is also well within their rights to be a bit upset about it. There’s a lot of dynamics that go into both a monogamous and polyamorous relationship where insecurity does not play a factor in the decisions made and I think boiling it down to that is a bit jaded and naive in relationship dynamics.

        • Elkyl says:

          This is exactly the kind of rationalising that she tries to address with “cloaking it under the guise of romantic notions of commitment is disingenuous”.

          It’s a very simple matter at heart: the wish for control over you partner’s sex life is born out of insecurity.

          Yes, it is a “controlling relationship”, but that is the norm for relationships in our current culture – if you are in a relationship, you are assumed to not be allowed to have sex with anyone other than your partner, and only allowed to have a single partner. Any transgression to this is labeled as “cheating”.

          The point is: we’re all consenting adults, so the freedom is ours to decide who is going to restrict it and how, but we mustn’t pretend that we put such restrictions in place for some noble goal, it is purely out of selfishness that we do it – we are exchanging our partner’s freedom for the luxury of not having to deal with our own insecurity problems.

        • aMerryElk says:

          This is exactly the kind of rationalising that she tries to address with “cloaking it under the guise of romantic notions of commitment is disingenuous”.

          It’s a very simple matter at heart: the wish for control over you partner’s sex life is born out of insecurity.

          Yes, it is a “controlling relationship”, but that is the norm for relationships in our current culture – if you are in a relationship, you are assumed to not be allowed to have sex with anyone other than your partner, and only allowed to have a single partner. Any transgression to this is labeled as “cheating”.

          The point is: we’re all consenting adults, so the freedom is ours to decide who is going to restrict it and how, but we mustn’t pretend that we put such restrictions in place for some noble goal, it is purely out of selfishness that we do it – we are exchanging our partner’s freedom for the luxury of not having to deal with our own insecurity problems.

  10. cosine says:

    Can’t say I wholly agree while I do see where you’re coming from.

    I know and have known many poly couples throughout my life and let me tell you that insecurity, jealousy, and partner dynamics still cause issues in those relationships. Simply by agreeing to a polyamorous relationship or even practicing it for years doesn’t make you or those relationships invulnerable to those things. In fact, from my outside observation, it makes those things potentially even more potent. They’re even more important to talk about and work through in the relationship than in a monogamous relationship simply due to other people being involved, whether they’re flings or a third or fourth person in the relationship. Either way, overcoming insecurities, jealousy, and who your partner(s) spend their time with is extremely beneficial to your relationship(s) whether you’re in a monogamous relationship or a polyamorous relationship or even your everyday friendships. Establishing trust, basically. If you can’t trust the person or people you’re with to communicate and not hide their actions with others, then you have no business being with them and they have no business being with you. Relationships of all kinds have to be an open forum of communication.

    To the other stuff you talked about, you basically described half being an enabler and half being empathetic in a hands off way. While it’s great to consider what may come to another person by saying they should stop maladaptive behavior and choosing not to tell them, it also doesn’t help them or even push them toward stopping that maladaptive behavior. Educating them on the risks they are taking is generally ignored by people in abusive relationships, in the throes of addiction, and many other maladaptive behaviors so you can’t assume they’re educated on the risks involved simply by mentioning them. Obviously, there are limits to how and what you should do to help your friends’ maladaptive behavior disappear but by washing your hands of it and walking away doesn’t help them. Too much helping and you’re also an enabler and they’ll continue on anyways. Too little and they will resent you and continue on anyways. It’s a delicate balance.

    While they do need to arrive to the conclusion that they need to stop on their own, by being “empathetic” and not nudging them in that direction or talking to them about it allows them to continue down the spiral. By, effectively, covering for them by blaming it on insecurity or anxiety or a multitude of other things and being hands off on the subject of their behavior, you’re enabling the behavior to continue. If they don’t understand and see the repercussions of their behavior, they’ll never correct. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance going on with addicts and enablers when it comes to both understanding the behavior, risk assessment, and repercussions of those risks.

    Very often you have to go through a lot of tough shit to get better whether it’s being single for years and working on self-improvement, despite the emotional pain of loneliness, or going through the horrendous withdrawal symptoms of alcoholism or drug addiction while seeking therapy and (group) counseling. It takes a lot of strength of will to both be there and supportive for the person’s journey to improving themselves as well as the person sticking to the path. It’s why you see common patterns of recidivism and abandonment with people who have maladaptive behaviors, some people don’t have the strength of will or the support network to keep it up and those are proven to be essential.

  11. I’m going to play devil’s apprentice with you here, and present some things that I’m observing with the ‘argument’ you present above. I’m not trying to be hostile, nor ignorant, or an asshole, as I have tremendous respect for you, your intelligence, and how you present it. I’m just trying to work through some thoughts based on what you’ve written above and see if I can pull this a bit more open and in relation to a number of different areas. So here goes….
    I’m not sure that monogamy and insecurity are linked in any way shape or form. It would go the same with saying that polygamy and security are linked. But are they?
    For as many people that I know that are monogamous, I know about 1/3 that many that are polygamous or polyamoury. And many of those, if not most of those relationships have broken up for two reasons that I’ve observed. One is jealousy and the other is due to insecurity.
    And with the monogamous relationships I know of, jealousy and insecurity also played a big part.
    With that said, I’m going to make a leap and say that jealousy grows out of insecurity and is the result of and catalyst of, like you say, fear. Fear that rises out of insecurity. Typically, fear of an unknown, or worse, in neurosis a fear of the imagined.
    So, insecurity doesn’t stem from the type of relationship someone is in. Insecurity stems from within for various reasons. What is insecurity? Well, to ‘define’ it here I’m first going to negate it and define what ‘security’ is. What does ‘secure’ feel like within one’s self? (1) Confident, (2) knowing one’s strengths, (3) able to cope to changeable situations, (4) knowing one’s limitations and how to work with them, (5) having learned from observation, assimulation, or experiences to ‘know,’ with everything listed, what to do, when to do, and how to do best for one’s self. (Forgive me if the list isn’t full or complete, I’m doing this on the fly by the seat of my pajamas.)
    To negate security, we arrive at insecurity. So, how do I define that? Well, to me it’s as easy as someone lacking only one of the above. Just one. And often that leads to a person doubting their ability in knowing any of the rest, so things quickly compound. Why do they compound? Fear. Fear that someone, anyone will find out that they’re not fully aware or confident of his or her self. Fear that they will be victimized for not feeling confident. Fear that they’re not good at coping with stressful situations. Plain and simple fear.
    Now, given THAT, let’s look how it relates to one other person looking in on another’s insecurity. Sometime’s other people look at insecurity with patience, empathy and compassion. They support the insecure person and allow that person to share and develop themselves through their fear and allow them to ask for help. Then a bond of trust is established and fear begins to fade and diminish. Then a bond grows, followed by friendship, and a relationship over time.
    On the other hand, sometimes other people look at insecurity with impatience, weakness, sympathy, and disdain. They have no time for insecure people. And, although strong, and often a person that an insecure person wishes to emulate or to be inspired by, that individual wants nothing to do with insecure people, or worse, admonishes, and punishes the insecure ‘weak’ (fearful, really) person.
    I’ve seen far too often where this contrast/clash of personalities leads to a relationship where the insecure person ‘worships’ the other for their strengths and abilities; where the person with those strengths and abilities ‘takes in’ the insecure person because of some narcissistic need to feed their ego and ‘build’ themselves up further behind walls of inflated nothing, really, as it’s all perspective and relative to their relations to others. In many cases, those people, too, are insecure in some way, they just keep it hidden better. However, once found out, they become very angered with the individual or persons that ‘found them out.’ But I digress….
    My point being that an insecure individual, any individual really, only deals with one relationship at a time, at a given moment. Essentially being monogamous, regardless of how many people they are involved with. And in those individual relationships, their level of insecurity is different in each case. With one individual they may ‘feel’ entirely secure, comfortable, and confident. Yet, with another, they may feel utterly useless, and it taxes them even to utter a syllable to that person. Again, it’s an individual’s fear perspective and in relation to another individual.
    Therefore, given that, insecurity isn’t really limited to nor linked to just monogamous relationships. Neither is security. It’s all about one’s fear perspective in relation to others. I know people who feel utterly secure with one person and have done so for decades without question. I also know others that feel secure within a poly relationship where the others feel as equally secure with that individual. So, from my views on life, especially the lives of others from many walks of life, gender, and sexual preference, I have a hard time connecting insecurity specifically to a monogamous relationships. It’s too much of a stretch, and too much of a generalization from what I’ve observed in life.
    I know this counters your position, but I feel it may actually strengthen one part of your position having specifically to do with insecurity and it’s link to an individual’s fears. Now there’s some stuff to dig into: Rational and/or irrational fears and their links to insecurity. That would make a master’s degree argument.
    I thank you for letting me express this here. And again with due respect to your intellect and position stated here. I’m not sure if you’ll bitch slap me for arguing against you, but that may be fun, too. ** winks ** Just kidding.
    Thank you for taking the time to read this, regardless.
    I look forward, as I always do, to reading more from that wonderful mind of yours.
    Cheers!

  12. penguinmane says:

    I always wish you do VLOGs, mostly cuz i read everything in morgan freemans voice, granted it made your blog a very informative read.

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