How Not To Take a Polyamorous Vacation

With the Memorial Day holiday upon us in the U.S. — marking the unofficial, civil-calendar start of ‘summer’, regardless what the zodiac and the weather say — it seemed a good time to re-post this column by Maria that originally published May 18, 2013. — Amanda

By Maria Padhila

I set out in December to plan our vacations for the year ahead. I have relatives on other continents, and seeing them was for a while a possibility, and I was interested in making it happen. At the same time, I hadn’t planned any kind of involvement in art or other festivals that I had to be part of. It was all going to be enjoyment.

Poly Paradise at Burning Man. Photo by Eric.

It is difficult to plan time off when you have a child in your life, with school and all their activities. Then you add another love to the mix, and it blows up exponentially.

Does this sound like ‘white whine’? Sure it does, in a world where most people get no vacation at all, and that’s just craptastic, thank you very much, you Kochs and Waltons. But think about why everyone has picnics on Labor Day: It’s a way to say hey, motherfuckers, here we are enjoying ourselves, and for all your trying you can’t stop that.

Of course, for Issac and me, our work lives intruded. Our vacation time shrank to about a week together, with some chunks of time scattered around. With Chris, it was down to a few burns. And it is May, and we still haven’t made a vacation schedule.

With the bit of time left, I made a bold declaration to Issac:

“I have been working since I was 14 (I’m 51 now, so that’s a while). I have worked when I was bleeding from miscarriages, I have worked 30-hour shifts, I have worked when I was grieving, sick, broke, when I had to hitchhike to work because I had no car, when I had to take two-hour bus rides to work.

“From now on, when I have a vacation, it is going to be a vacation. It is not going to be an obligation. It is not going to involve seeing anyone I don’t want to see or staying with anyone I wouldn’t choose to or who I’m not comfortable with. I don’t care how nice their house is or what we’re ‘supposed’ to do. If I don’t want to go, I won’t go. I deserve to have a true vacation or no vacation at all.”

Like most of my bold declarations, it had little chance of becoming reality, but I have a crumb of belief that intention matters. And it meant a lot to me, because I have never asked for something that bold before. I have always regarded time off as time that must be used to fulfill obligations for family reunions, which means strained and stilted times where I feel like the poor and clumsy weird one that is either the impossible black sheep, or is the one no one can figure out why he married her because she can’t even cook or clean (actually, I can do both, but we’re too busy visiting relatives); and really would it kill her to put some makeup on?

And my part in the invisible contract is not to notice all the scary energy getting shot my way.

This punch-the-clock approach to vacation time has turned me into a monstrous, stressed-out, drama-torn wreck at some very beautiful homes in some very fine places around the globe, choking a bit on excellent food (I don’t deserve) and wine (that makes me dizzy and sick but takes the edge of I-don’t-belong-I-don’t-belong-here off) — and going for very, very, very long runs.

So my declaration was a formal breaking of a contract I’ve been chipping at and creaking open for a several years, and the world didn’t end.

What surfaced was a week at a beach — that really sounds like a vacation, yay! — yes, with family, but with family I can deal with and relax with as much as I ever can with family.

So I made another bold declaration: “I don’t care where we stay or what it looks like as long as we can see the ocean and we — and all the kids — can actually WALK easily and safely to the beach.”

Something so obvious — I grew up with vacations where we could walk to the beach. A lot of the time that meant camping and sharing a plot of sand with mosquitoes the size of the Wright Brothers’ plane, but it was on a damn beach, dammit. I’d hitchhike and stay in a place with rusty sink water if that was what it took — not like that was new. To my dismay, a lot of people think a beach vacation means getting a place where you can drive to the beach maybe one time if everyone can manage to get all the kids into the van, but hey, it’s a really nice house with a hot tub and granite counter tops.

And it’s close to the golf course.

Did I say that out loud? Oh sorry. I wanted vacation, and I wanted beach. If I want a hot bath, I can stay home. Staycation! Sounds good! If it’s not the way I want it, I won’t go.

This sounded like an immature, demanding tantrum even to my own ears, as this process went on. But I kept testing it and turning it over. Was it selfish? And it’s not selfish for other people to take me to places where they can play golf? Was it silly? And it’s not silly for grownups to do a week of some kind of Passive Aggressive Iron Chef Meets Real Housewives reality show, while I, the appointed audience, keep getting smaller and tenser and quieter and more miserable?

I had not spoken up this way before, not as emphatically. It was really scary and it felt horrible. But there it is, I said it. It may not look like a big deal to everyone else, but it was huge to me.

Issac was very cool. He has engaged in a quest to find something affordable that meets everyone’s needs, including mine. I’ve been so blown away with work there’s no way I could finesse it — and besides that, I’m afraid I’d lose all my bravado and cave in, abandon my stated needs.

But not so fast. I’ve learned that when you push in a direction of change, something inexplicable inevitably comes up as an obstacle. This time it was during a casual conversation with Issac, when he said: “Should we invite my parents along?”

Of course we should. And of course I can’t.

It is a perpetual source of guilt and pain to me that I don’t find family interaction as natural and enjoyable as he does. Someone who hasn’t been set up to be the scapegoat from the beginning will never get it, I don’t think. They don’t know what it’s like to have the invisible hooks installed, the ones that catch at bullies and projections and negativity. The way people cast all they don’t like at you, not even knowing they’re doing it half the time, and then get angry and cold to you when they see all those awful things they’ve hung on you. It’s exhausting to try to clear it all off; and yes, I try all the time to change it in myself, and that’s exhausting too.

I feel I’m at my best when I can use it to some creative purpose, and that I’m doing something of use to others as well when I can do that. I feel I’m at my best when I can see it clearly and accept it with a sort of humor and compassion and even love it in a way. But that’s exhausting, too.

Sometimes I just need a vacation.

So what’s the point, dear, of having these wonderful lovers if you can’t talk to them about all this? But I felt bad about that, too. To Chris, who is poor, it would sound terribly First World Problems, wouldn’t it? The funny part is he has gone lots of interesting places with his several well-heeled girlfriends and their families (and never seems to feel as if he doesn’t belong; maybe it’s a guy thing). And Issac just feels hurt, not least because his question hurt me; I felt like I hadn’t been heard at all. It’s not about you, he says, they like you, you just don’t want to see that. And in a way, that’s true as well.

But any of you who have been given a similar role — the uncomfortable-truth-tellers out there — I think you get it.

It’s exhausting to keep trying to state your needs, to believe you’re allowed to do so in the first place. And I think everyone gets that.

But I kept trying, because I love them. And I had a rough week or two.

So a rattled old bourgeois lady takes a stand in the sand, and it’s some kind of major breakthrough? Well, yes; one has to start somewhere.

“I want to relax, and we spend a lot of time with your parents. It wouldn’t be relaxing for me if they’re there. I know how that sounds. I’m sorry it’s not different.”

“I want a week to relax with Issac. I know you and I don’t get enough time together, but I need this.”

What do you need? Will you say it, no matter how trivial and selfish others might deem it?

Meanwhile, there’s some help out there for working out these knots I get into.

In the Journals of a Polyamorous Triad blog, Simon Broussard gives a two-part blog entry on a recent vacation, including a number of tips and shared experiences for vacationing that could be useful for people in any kind of relationship. Here’s one piece:

…for me, I operate as a fulcrum while traveling, and it’s important for me to be aware of how long that I spend showing attention to one partner or another.

• When driving, I’ll move my hand every so often between the two of them;
• When sitting together, I’ll try to sit in a spot where I can reach them both;
• When hiking or touring, I’ll spend time to walk with each of them separately, and alternate between them;
• If sleeping together, I’ll try to alternate attention between both of them, and get out of the way when they want to snuggle;
• When shopping, we often shop as a group but will splinter in attention and conversation into separate dyads;
• In movies, I try to sit between them and hold them both;
• When finding downtime, trying to find some exclusive time with each of my partners is a good idea; I also try to extend time to both of them to spend time without me if it’s desired.

My attention towards my partners shouldn’t be interpreted as over-sexualized or aggressive attention but rather loving, affectionate, accepting attention. I’m holding their hands or knees; hugging them; kissing them; wrapping my arm around them. I would think that overtly sexual attention could be emotionally charged so I don’t attempt to push those feelings unless we’re in a shared sexual space. I want to enjoy their company — both as individual partners, and, as a group.

On the (too infrequent) times I spend time with both men at the same time, this is similar to how I operate. I can almost hear people saying: But that’s so contrived! So calculated! How do you keep track of a hug, a look, a laugh?

You try really hard to stay attuned to the feelings and expressions of the people you love, that’s how. You make an effort, and you express it to them in the best way you can, and you rely on them to let you know. You listen, you look, you learn. Why is this kind of care seen as so antithetical to love, when it’s really what any of us, in loving, are inclined to do?

I’m still wrestling with Issac over the reality that more spontaneity doesn’t necessarily mean more love. A mercurial triple Virgo, he is someone who thrives on novelty (hence our situation, in some ways). It makes him happy if I can bring home a new variety of coffee or microbrew or the occasional new idea, where Chris, a Virgo ascendant with Sun and Moon in Capricorn, grumbles that they don’t make the tools his grandfather used anymore, so he is forced to comb country junk stores on his quest to follow the old ways.

But underneath the enjoyment of ‘spontaneity’ is something I think everyone feels from time to time, and it’s difficult to tell if it’s a natural inclination or something we’ve been taught: making dates is not romantic — making dates for sex in particular. With all that “get out your calendars” vivacity practiced by many in poly world, people ask, where’s the impulsiveness, the surprise?

The idea, of course, is to create space for the wild and unexpected to happen. Once I’m on your calendar, who knows what may happen?

Unfortunately, all too often, what’s been happening is an email from work saying I absolutely must attend a phone conference in the next five minutes. I could certainly do with a less spontaneous work environment. Perhaps that’s the next place I’ll make my selfish demands.

2 thoughts on “How Not To Take a Polyamorous Vacation”

  1. Yes – as Carrie said, you go for it gal! It sounds as if you’re really starting to stand up for yourself in work too. I so recognize what you’re talking about, Maria. I was crapped on by family and bosses for years – and it was a gradual, tiring process of digging in my heels and attempting to say no and to live with the flak that caused – and it was always Worth it. I’m in a very different place today – but I still have a way to go. I left my country to live and work abroad when I was 23 – but there was an unwritten contract that said, Yeah thou shalt live in another land, but thou shalt return twice a year, during holiday time to take up thy rightful place as daughter again. Luckily my summer holidays (unpaid) are long enough to allow me to take a week’s holiday each year. Things are different now, because my parents are elderly and frail , and I suffer the distance from them – and I really feel the need to go and stay with them and take care of them, though to be honest, a part of me would still like to just take off and have a real break.
    Thanks as ever, for your cracklng, hilarious, honest take on things, Maria. Have a wonderful vacation and tell your boss to go stuff it!

  2. {{{{{Maria}}}}} I am not poly or in a poly relationship but my life (feeling guilty if I demand anything) is exactly like some of what you describe. I have five other people in my life (my husband, three adult daughters and an 11 year old son) as well as my dad and grandmother and in-laws and a few friends. My narcissist personality disorder mother raised me to be blamed for everyone else’s unhappiness and to never feel deserving of any myself.

    You GO woman! Carve some space for what you want, too. You are just as valuable as anyone in your life. Thank you so much for writing this. This week in particular, I needed to read it.

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