How could this be happening? For years I had prided myself on maintaining friendships with both women and men, not playing “favorites” (or so I thought), or at least not getting pulled into strong uncomfortable emotions that I often saw accompanying romantic relationships. I could accept strong emotions of attraction and love (which almost inevitably settled on women); but what about aversion and antipathy (which men more typically brought forth in me, especially if those men were linked to women I liked). I had maintained my equanimity partly by avoiding all situations where an “other” male might awaken such feelings. I had often steered away from possible romance because of this potential conflict. I hated holding someone else as an “enemy”; I hated feeling their antipathy toward me, and hated my own wish that they would disappear.
And yet, there they were: those skin-crawling emotions, accompanying the equally skin-tingling emotions I was much more fond of. For the first time in many years, I was in love! What’s more, I was in love with a community-mate, who lived on the same beautiful piece of rural land as I did. So why was I also in such a yucky state of dislike? Why did I simultaneously consider a woman the most special person to me in the world, and an associated male as the one person who was most interfering with my unfettered happiness? If I were truly gender-blind, as I had attempted to be for decades, why was I now starting to want all males except me to vanish from the earth, or at least from my immediate vicinity?
While it would have been easy to blame intentional community for the situation that was causing me turmoil, the roots of my turmoil stretched significantly deeper than the topsoil of my current situation. Our polyamorous experiment in a small intentional community in rural Vermont seemed a long way from my mainstream upbringing on the opposite coast—but it brought up emotions I hadn’t felt so strongly since childhood.
Relationship and Community as Mirrors
“A relationship is like a mirror. It reflects everything we have been avoiding. It has the power to reveal our divine potential as well as the darkest recesses of our shadow side. Loving, intimate relationship has a tendency to stir up all our old hurts, traumas, insecurities, fears, and control issues. Sooner or later, we must recognize and embrace the parts of ourselves and our loved ones that we’ve been avoiding, suppressing, and denying. When we use a loving relationship as a mirror to see who we truly are and what we have been hiding from, we enter the process of Self-discovery that moves us toward internal integration.”
A friend recently sent me the wise words above, excerpted from Yogi Amrit Desai’s article “The Yoga of Relationship” (www.amrityoga.org/more-teachings/yogarelationship.html). Substitute the word “community” for “relationship,” and this statement may be just as true. When we combine the two—intimate relationship and community—the mirror can become impossible to deny, and the opportunities for awareness, acceptance, and healing doubly powerful as well.
Leaving It to Beaver
I grew up in a stereotypical ’50s-era middle-class US family, as “wholesome” as they’ve probably ever come in human history. Although we resided just outside Hollywood, our lives were anything but dramatic. My parents obviously loved each other, my brother, and me, and took good care of us. We ate together every night, went to church together, vacationed together, and were the most important people in one another’s lives. We were materially and emotionally secure—or should have been. Because of that “should,” a fairly wide range of emotions were never accepted or acknowledged—and usually not even expressed.
Part of me dwelt in that comfortable reality, in which my family and I lived in harmony and nothing was “wrong.” Anger, resentment, rivalry, jealousy, and similar feelings had no place in this world. Beneath the placid surface, however, another emotional reality lurked. Because it was suppressed, it gained power. And it instilled a lot of shame in me, because I knew I had “no good reason” to feel some of the feelings I was also feeling (in addition to love and appreciation for my caring family, which could become dulled beyond recognition at times, because emotional suppression is not entirely selective).
What was the problem? Sometimes I’ve thought I had a combination of an Oedipal complex and a Cain complex. I never did kill my father, even in my imagination; and the only time I killed my brother was in a dream, and I immediately regretted it; but nevertheless part of my subconscious often wanted them to disappear so that I could have my mother to myself. In this region of my inner reality, my mother became my unwavering ally, and my father and brother my enemies. Even in “real life,” I almost always felt more connected to my mother, and more distant from my father and brother, and noticed that my temperament more closely resembled hers than theirs. In my least happy years, that awareness of greater difference between us could easily morph into annoyance and even animosity. Within my family, I grew to see the Female as my ally, and the Male (of which I felt almost ashamed to be a representative, for reasons also extending far beyond my own family) as my enemy.
Strangely enough, these emotions, though strong, were not fixed or unchanging. When all four of us were together, I frequently found myself feeling close to my mother and estranged from or judgmental of my father and brother. (In hindsight, I came to believe that we three males were all acting as rivals for my mother’s attention, in competition with one another—although somehow my father and brother had formed an apparent alliance in this.) But on those rare occasions when my mother would travel, leaving us three males alone for a week or so at a time, things changed markedly. As if miraculously, I and my father/brother would stop reacting negatively to one another, or being habitually silent with one another—we’d start to reach out and appreciate one another. We’d find a genuine comfort in each other’s company that never was present in the same way when my mother was part of the equation. And as soon as my mother returned, my feeling of estrangement from them would return as well.
No Words for the Shadow
We never discussed this dynamic. We didn’t have words for it, nor did it fit into the image that others had of us, and that we had of ourselves, as a wholesome, trouble-free family. Wherever these very inconvenient emotions may have come from—and perhaps that didn’t matter—there seemed no way out of them. In addition to the ongoing distress they caused me, they also instilled in me a sense of shame and a pattern of emotional suppression that extended to all areas of my life.
I think of this as the Shadow Reality of my childhood. The Sunny Reality of my childhood is one of many happy memories and genuine love among all of us. Especially when I talk with others about their often traumatic upbringings, I recognize that my relatively happy childhood was particularly blessed—making it is easy to push aside the Shadow Side as if it never existed. Yet that emotional underbelly did exist, gained power from my denial of it, and sometimes seemed like a terrible rut from which I’d never escape. I grew accustomed to living in those two emotional worlds, but only feeling good about one of them.
Independence and New Approaches
Eventually, the years brought independence and adulthood. With distance from my family, and more of my own life to live, I was able to loosen the ties of sometimes unhealthy emotional dependence and unspoken conflict. My relationships with the individuals in my family of birth matured. My feelings of competition, rivalry, and jealousy in relation to my brother and my father subsided and finally fell away. While I could still experience judgment or annoyance, they had lost much of their power. In fact, after awakening to some of the ways that I had distanced myself from them, and deeply regretting it, I made conscious efforts to rebuild bridges—efforts that eventually succeeded. I felt a great amount of relief as I found apparent freedom from the bondage of those uncomfortable and apparently-impossible-to-deal-with-or-even-talk-about family gender dynamics of my childhood.
To achieve that independence, I had moved to the other side of the country. I found myself in rural New England, hotbed of conscious, back-to-the-land countercultural awakening—far from what I came to see as the artificiality and superficiality of Los Angeles County. I became involved with the intentional communities movement, lived in several communal settings, and finally found a long-term home in a community in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
As a young adult and even into my 30s and 40s, I never tried to replicate a nuclear family—I focused on building my larger extended community family. I had few intimate relationships, believing that either they weren’t important to me or that I wasn’t cut out for them.
By constructing my life the way I did, I perhaps unconsciously steered away from situations that would have brought up the uncomfortable feelings of gender-related rivalry and conflict that had plagued the Shadow Side of my childhood. I’d sometimes have flashes of those feelings again: several times, I developed crushes and relatively close friendships with female community-mates who were already partnered with males from whom I felt much more distance. But those dynamics always resolved themselves without it becoming imperative to work through those deeper, lifelong issues they had started to bring up: dislike of a perceived rival for a favored female’s attention, and by extension dislike on some level for men in general.
I backed away from most potential intimate partners, largely because I had developed a story that I was unfit emotionally for a typical romantic relationship. I felt resigned to that story, without necessarily seeing its connection to unresolved gender-related issues from my childhood. I succeeded for many years, even decades, in avoiding the core issues that had shaped many of my choices and relationships throughout life.
Jolted into the Present
I might have sailed along fine this way, in avoidance, without the events of September 11, 2001. As it did for many, that day shook up my reality in multiple ways. It impacted me personally because some of my close friends’ friends lost their lives. It also gave me more understanding than I’d ever had of the fleeting nature of my own physical existence—and my good fortune at being alive at all. (I myself was almost in lower Manhattan when the planes struck, on a very rare visit to New York City; only a delayed train kept me from being there.)
I didn’t know immediately that everything had changed for me, but it had. Over the next year, newly aware of mortality and emboldened to live and stretch my boundaries while I still could, I opened up to others in ways I hadn’t before. In particular, I found myself considering the first intimate relationship I’d had in years.
This relationship would not have happened, could not have happened, outside the context of intentional community. And it brought me face to face with my family-of-origin “gender issues” as nothing in the previous 30 years had done. Ultimately, it offered healing. It was extraordinarily complex—kind of like life in community. At the same time, it was one of the most simple, essential, basic experiences I’d ever had—also like life in community.
The Architecture of Intimacy
In our rural, land-based community on shared land in the Northeast Kingdom, we don’t have the fences or property lines that separate most “normal” modern households. In fact, we don’t even have “normal” houses. Most of us live in small cabins or converted barns with minimal or no kitchen facilities; we share a communal kitchen/dining room and several other common buildings. We are in one another’s lives all the time, partly as a result of architecture and physical layout, partly because of our desire to be a close-knit neighborhood and the ways we’ve designed our community’s functioning and culture.
Age, class, educational background, sexual orientation, and other characteristics that often influence the formation of social circles and associations in the mainstream don’t appear to matter much here in determining friendships. We are surprisingly diverse in these areas (though politically, we are all significantly left of center and/or green), yet our friendships seem to evolve from our connections on a heart/soul level, unimpeded by superficial differences. We are all dedicated to cultural experimentation, to shaking up assumptions, to supporting one another in finding individual and collective freedom from blind adherence to dominant paradigms.
In this open-hearted, convention-defying setting, the ground has always been fertile for polyamory and unconventional relationships. And after many years of steering clear of such entanglements, that’s exactly where I found myself.
In the Stars, or Star-Crossed?
Cynthia and I had had a long courtship, though neither of us had been thinking of it that way at first (she was in an apparently committed monogamous relationship). Over the course of several years, we had grown closer, and I’d noticed significant attraction, which, I started to suspect, went both ways. More than a year into our friendship, she’d told me that she aspired to be polyamorous, and that she believed her partner would eventually be open to it—though we didn’t discuss who might be involved in any new relationship she had. A number of months later, after he’d agreed “in principle” to polyamory, we found ourselves starting that experiment. Its allure had become irresistible, despite a significant age gap and many other differences that became increasingly obvious over time. And while physical attraction certainly played a role, I do believe it was also a genuine love that brought us together.
Unfortunately, her other partner, Rob, did not celebrate this new love. In fact, once polyamory moved from principle to practice, he reacted strongly against it. He and I had been friends, at least until he sensed where Cynthia’s and my friendship was headed. Now, he was upset with both of us.
Without describing all the events of the next several months, I can say this: at times I was amazed that our experiment in unconventional relationships was going as well as it was—that Rob and I were inhabiting the same intentional community and being civil to each other, even sharing some meals together, rather than challenging each other to fights (as rivals for a woman’s attention might have done in more conventional settings). And at times—especially when his reaction against our attempt at polyamory ended up solidifying rather than softening as Cynthia and I had hoped it would, and thus cast doubt on the long-term viability of our new relationship—the situation seemed miserable.
Rob and I had tried to “talk it out,” and even seemed to be making progress, but eventually we reached a standstill. After a while he no longer even looked my direction, and there was apparently nothing I could do to change that. Theoretically (per our understanding of polyamory), love was limitless and each expression or experience of love was only going to create more love and happiness for everyone—but in real life, Rob felt extremely threatened by Cynthia’s and my love for one another, even though it wasn’t meant to exclude him, and he was in great distress, rather than being happy for us.
A Turn for the Worse
Cynthia realized that he wasn’t going to “come around” any time soon. To try to achieve some peace in the household, and because of the general strain that the situation had brought about, she pulled back to a significant extent from our new relationship. Now, my discomfort with Rob morphed into a wish that he would just disappear from the scene. After all, he stood between me and happiness. I had liked him once—but now, he was the archetypal male kill-joy. Why did men always ruin my happiness? My world narrowed down, closed in on itself. Here I was, living in a place that was intended to be a model of healthy relationships, “living the dream”—and I felt like a fraud, with an inner emotional reality entirely out of sync with what my life was supposed to be about.
The feelings were so familiar—and they seemed to come from so long ago.
I realized that Rob had become indistinguishable, in my emotional world, from my father and my brother as I remembered them back in my childhood home. I found this profoundly disturbing. So much for having grown up and achieved freedom…
No longer could I deny that my family-of-origin gender issues still lurked in my psyche—and that they could still dominate it given the “right” conditions. Was there any way out this time, other than running away? I had invested a lot in my relationships within this community, especially with Cynthia and Rob. The prospect of fleeing seemed heartbreaking. While I didn’t see a clear way out of the extremely distressing emotions I was experiencing, I knew by now to expect the unexpected, and that patience and trust can yield surprising outcomes. I didn’t jump ship.
Recalibrations and New Beginnings
Fortunately, nothing in life is truly stagnant. Our experiment in polyamory was doomed to dissolve, and it did. (We came to realize that this had been inevitable—as we heard from multiple polyamorists, functional polyamory needs to be based on a strong foundation of consent and commitment to making it work among all involved.) Yet this dissolution led to further opportunities for growth. Cynthia, Rob, and I remained community-mates—in fact, we lived within sight of each other, and participated on some of the same work-teams. We couldn’t have avoided each other if we’d tried.
Cynthia and I had gone through some ups and downs during our romantic relationship, even independent of Rob’s influence on it. Post-relationship, in the absence of the affirmation of affection through sexual connection, we experienced some even stronger “downs” than we’d had as lovers, with fewer “ups” to balance them out. Simultaneously, the strain in Cynthia’s relationship with Rob—a disharmony which had already been present and substantial before the polyamory experiment—continued to grow even with a return to monogamy. The iciness between Rob and me began to melt.
And soon it was Rob I felt much closer to, as we both were experiencing strain and hurt in our connections with Cynthia. Eventually, Rob and Cynthia separated romantically, and Rob and I discovered we probably had more in common with each other than we had with anyone else in the community, in terms of recent relationship experiences and even some core inner qualities (those same qualities that had bonded each of us with Cynthia, while also creating the dances of polarity we each had with her).
We talked with each other in moments of distress, when we needed someone to listen who would understand the pain we felt and the situation that had precipitated it. We offered each other perspectives that the two of us were in unique positions to have gathered. We found a level of trust with one another that I could never have anticipated during those times of intense rivalry for Cynthia’s attention, when on some level we had each wanted—despite the desire to be a better, more enlightened person than that—for the other to disappear.
We even felt safe discussing the love and attraction we both still felt for Cynthia—though Rob, more than I, had concluded that he was “done for good” with any kind of romantic connection with her. We talked in a way that didn’t seem to escalate our personal hurts, but helped release them; it never felt like “ganging up,” but rather trying to achieve understanding. It opened the door to renewed appreciation in each of us of the person we had both loved, while also affirming the importance of our own self-care, respecting our own needs and boundaries in relating with her or with anyone else.
In fact, once this new landscape of trust and openness was firmly established between Rob and me, Cynthia and I also started spending more time together again. And, as I hadn’t imagined in those dark days of apparently total separation from her, at times she and I even explored our connection physically again—developments I did not hide from Rob, but shared as I would with any good friend. My connections with Cynthia and Rob were obviously far from mutually exclusive, all-or-nothing propositions, as they’d once appeared—I came to understand they were complementary, and that I could value and cultivate both of them without imperiling either.
For perhaps the first time in my life, the Female and Male were not forces I needed to choose between. I could embrace them both, fully. I started to sense what “internal integration,” as described by Yogi Amrit Desai, might mean—and to get an inkling that it might be happening to me.
What had seemed like a lifelong, subconscious schism in my world—both within and without—suddenly, miraculously, appeared to knit itself together. It seemed to not only bridge itself, but to join together as if one land mass—one with diverse terrain, rather like the Northeast Kingdom: some steep and challenging to traverse, other parts easy to enjoy and relax in, but all of it beautiful and worthy of wonder, and none of it cut off from the rest of it, or from me.
Appreciating a Perfect Storm
Though I’d eventually made peace with the males in my family of origin, I had obviously never successfully worked through the inner issues predisposing me toward estrangement from my own gender—the “Shadow Side” I had worked so hard to deny. It took the perfect storm of a relationship with an already-partnered woman in a close-knit intentional community, where there was no way to escape from or avoid the other people involved, to not only bring those issues to the forefront, but to present an opportunity to heal them.
And although difficult experiences in love often seem to lead to a callousing or shutting down, this experience seemed more to crack me open. It brought me to new experiences of honesty with a lover, with friends, and with community-mates alike—irrespective of gender. It revolutionized my inner emotional world. It expanded my capacity to love, and allowed me to fall permanently in love with those who contributed to this journey. It didn’t make me permanently happy—I still experienced wants, desires, neediness, loneliness, a wishing-for-things-that-aren’t—but it helped me see that my allies in life are everywhere (including within myself), regardless of anatomy, sexual orientation, or anything else. I’m thankful.