by Bonnie Calderwood Aspinwall

Image credit: Bonnie Calderwood Aspinwall

It’s usually a good idea to spend some time single after the end of a relationship. It gives us the time and space to refocus. It can take a while to unstitch ourselves from the unit we had become and re-familiarise ourselves with the person we are when untethered and independent; to unlearn habits that maybe weren’t in our best interests, and to rediscover passions we had set aside to please others; to remember how to make decisions for ourselves; to learn to trust our own judgement again.

My toxic relationship left me with little to no confidence in my own opinions or in the validity of my feelings. I was convinced that my emotions were at best an inconvenience to others, and I had internalised shame about so many aspects of myself, from my personality to my mental health to my sexuality. My self-esteem hit rock bottom, compounding my ongoing struggle with depression and anxiety, and I couldn’t stand to be alone with my own thoughts. I was having regular breakdowns and anxiety attacks and my only reliable escapes were sleep, tv and alcohol.

Two years of support from friends, family, therapists and medical professionals brought me back to a recognisable semblance of health, resilience and self-esteem. I spent those two years rekindling friendships that had waned, rebalancing my suddenly lopsided support system, unlearning unhealthy behaviour and befriending myself. During that time I went on some dates and had a few casual flings, keeping my toe in the water and having fun. Nothing serious, and mostly my feelings didn’t get more than singed (and even then it was only my pride that suffered). But it’s easy to avoid a bad habit when there are no triggers around you, without actually breaking the habit; you can’t smoke when you’ve run out of cigarettes, but that’s not the same as quitting smoking. In the same way, we can’t be sure we’ve changed our unhealthy relationship behaviour without being in a relationship.

I stumbled into polyamory almost by chance. A few people in my friendship group are polyamorous, and I’ve since discovered that there are groups, both online and in most cities, to meet like-minded people and chat about your shared experiences. If you’re unfamiliar, polyamory is the term for consensual non-monogamy. It’s a broad spectrum, and like anything else everyone does it differently, but fundamentally it is about respect and honesty in one or more open relationships.

What polyamory has meant for me is that I can reacquaint myself with my own sexuality, unlearn shame and discover the things I actually enjoy and that bring me confidence. I can grow relationships slowly and relearn the behaviour around a partnership, or partnerships as it may be. Polyamory allows me the space and independence to prioritise myself and my emotions without feeling responsible for someone else’s self-esteem. I have learned to stop automatically deferring to others, especially with regard to my own emotions. It gives me the framework of a relationship with which to re-familiarise myself, but the freedom to take my time in figuring out how I fit myself into that framework without taking myself apart this time. It feels like exploring a relationship with myself primarily, with the help and support of caring and considerate partners.

Familiar tripwires crop up, like jealousy and insecurity, or neediness and a wish for validation, just as they will for every human in any relationship. But I have the confidence and self-respect now to identify and ask for what I need from others. The people I have chosen to surround myself with are open to all emotions, with or without logical cause, and care about working together to reduce discomfort in everyone involved. But once again, it is my relationship with myself that has changed the most: if I find myself craving attention, I look at that need, the feelings behind it, any roots or triggers for it, and I focus on finding validation from a variety of sources, like friends and family, and not least from within.

In polyamory people sometimes talk about having a “primary partner”, or the person they consider their number one (perhaps the person they live with, the person they spend the most time with – once again this is personal and varies). My journey has brought me to a place where I am comfortable being my own primary partner, and I prioritise my mental health above the whims and larks of a relationship. And through nurturing myself and my own emotional wellbeing and resilience I am able to offer more to the people I care about, whether they are work colleagues, friends, family or partners.

For some this path to self-reliance and emotional wellbeing will look entirely different, and that’s fine. Polyamory is not for everyone, just as monogamy is not for everyone, and it’s possible to learn the lessons I have learned in other ways. But for me being in a situation that demands constant, honest communication has taught me as much about self-love and self-respect as it has about love and respect for others.

Author Image: Bonnie Calderwood Aspinwall

Bonnie Calderwood Aspinwall

Assistant Editor

Bonnie is a genderfluid writer-adventurer from Scotland (and England and America). She studied at the University of Edinburgh and l’Université Paul-Valéry-Montpellier. She is passionate about mental health, intersectional feminism, gender and sexuality, and much more. When not at her desk in Fearless Femme HQ, she is probably swing dancing, binge-watching Media Content (no spoilers), or trying to read 50 books in a year.