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My compulsion to please: Polyamory, hunger and the neediness of denying what you want

When you give over your desires to others, those desires have a way of coming back and taking control


Sarah Terez Rosenblum
August 14, 2015 3:00AM (UTC)

At 3 a.m. Adam texted, and I’ve been dating long enough to know that’s a bad sign. 

“I’m aware it's late but this is important: Donuts or cupcakes?”

Say it’s because I was climbing that rickety ladder between unconscious and conscious. Say that’s why the text struck me as an actual test, not a casual riff on deal breakers. Blame it on my biorhythms. Ray Bradbury says 3 a.m is a difficult time.

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I’ve always been a bit of a pleaser, in friendships and relationships alike. I also can’t abide dishonesty, so it’s hard to reconcile the two. Donuts or cupcakes? Cupcakes or donuts? Right away, I started thumbing through possible answers. I needed a response equally honest and compelling. I wanted Adam to know I was both. In the bathroom, I forgot I was peeing, just sat there, dopey and blinking my eyes.

***

The last guy who texted me at 3 in the morning wrote:

“It was nothing babe, I was just helping her into a cab.”

I’d written him hours earlier, when the sun still touched the horizon, and night hadn’t sauntered in to fuck everything up.  

“Which one?” I’d replied. “The actuary or the social worker?” Spine pressed to the headboard, I shivered. I’d agreed to this arrangement, so now it had to be OK.

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“The actuary,” he texted. Then, smiley face. 

He called them his Lady Friends, but I tracked them by title. His, believe it or not, was “boyfriend,” mine. We’d agreed to an open relationship, but his version of polyamory had more to do with keeping a safe distance than with Ethical Sluttery.

The night he admitted he loved me, he had said, “You’re an incredible woman.”

We were just friends, and I felt afraid to ask for more. Instead I hid behind academic language: “Perhaps we should codify this,” I said and gestured to him and to me.

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“I’m in no shape to take on a relationship,” he explained. 

“If one is too much, why juggle several?” At the time I felt proud I’d dared to ask the question. In previous relationships, I’d accepted all offers. I’d kept my doubts to myself. 

“You deserve better,” he told me. 

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“Maybe I do,” I said. “But this is what you’ve got for me. So why don’t we give it a try?”

That’s how it became my idea. Him spinning plates full of other women, me set way back in my mind. If we were doing this, I insisted we do it openly. Lies undo me. Plus I felt curious: Would him fucking other women hurt as much as I thought? We created a GoogleDoc called “Codification: Missives From on Top of the Cabinets,” because the night he told me he loved me, I was perched on his kitchen counter. The rules we drew up included no sex with others on national holidays and total transparency, but on the latter, he kept screwing up. He was honest with his Lady Friends, telling them he had a girlfriend, less so with me, going quiet on evenings spent shepherding other women into and out of bars.

Still, I thought maybe I was a hypocrite. I was lightly dating a woman, and it wasn’t as if I shared every detail with him. Still, cultivating relationships with other people held little allure, but seemed necessary to keep Poly Boyfriend and me on even ground. Perhaps if I worked 9 to 5 rather than balancing 20 freelance gigs. If I didn’t coach writing, have a collection of earnest students emailing me at all hours. If I’d spent high school reading comic books, so now required all the pussy in Chicago to validate me, perhaps then I’d want for myself what Poly Boyfriend seemed so desperate to maintain. As it was, I felt like a cake sliced too thinly, forked fast from plate to mouth.

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***

 Now, I was tentatively dating someone new. Adam. I flushed the toilet, nearly losing my phone to its cold basin. Back in bed, I studied the text. Donuts or cupcakes. So many possible answers, all true from some particular slant. 

“You have a car?” Adam had asked on our first date.

“Well, it’s complicated,” I’d said. Would he think me less of an adult if he knew I couldn’t afford mine? “When my father died, my mother sold his and gave me money to buy one,” I told him. “She’s disabled and alone now, so I need a quick way to get to her. But I’m conflicted. Not just because I benefited from tragedy. Some days I walk into no fewer than three items of furniture. I’m not responsible enough for myself, let alone a car.”

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“Most people,” he said, “could answer that question with a simple yes or no.”

But neither yes nor no is simple, not when your answer works to create the version of yourself you want others to see. 

Adam noticed an apparent quirk of mine on our second date. I say “I don’t know” in triplicate.

"Why?” Adam asked. “Always three times, never fewer.”

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I loved that he’d asked. Not just because he’d chosen “fewer” rather than “less,” but because he’d noticed.

On our third date, I arrived with an answer. I’d taken days to sculpt my truth into a shape that might please Adam.

“If you thought you found a Matisse in your attic, you'd want it authenticated before you showed it to anyone. Saying 'I don't know' is my authentication process; I need to allow time to make sure what I'm saying is true.”

What I meant by "true," of course was likable. Well, ideally both.

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“I'd just put it up, say ‘it might be a Matisse’ and never verify.” Adam watched me. “You got something against carbs?” He indicated my untouched rice. I’d have to get used to being noticed, it appeared.

***

The guy I dated before Poly Boyfriend hadn’t noticed much. Or if he did, he never let on. I was the relationship’s Designated Noticer. I took in everything. How when he disagreed with my opinion on Amy Schumer or where to go to dinner, he wouldn’t come out and say it. Instead he’d ask, “But don’t you think...” as if to make his objection mine. I’d used that trick myself, like when I angled for exclusivity. 

“I’m not seeing anyone else right now,” I told The Guy Who Didn’t Notice. “What about you?”

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“I barely have time to breathe,” he answered. 

“What do you think about only dating each other?” No way could I say I wanted that. Turned out he couldn’t say he didn’t; he was a passive pleaser just like me. Instead, he stopped holding my hand when we walked, and the day after sex, his texts would decrease.

“Intimacy must scare him,” I told a guy friend.

“Sure,” he said. “Or maybe you satisfied his immediate need.”

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“Have you asked him to text you more?” A female friend asked.

“It just seems trivial,” I told her. 

“Not if you want it.”

But that guy was busy, overwhelmed, had a million jobs, never got enough sleep. These were the excuses I made for him, when he forgot my birthday or neglected to invite me out with his friends. Ultimately leaving felt simplest. When you hang around asking for things, people can just tell you no.

***

At 5 a.m., I stared at my ceiling fan. The sheets snaked around my ankles, Adam’s Donut or Cupcake text remained unanswered on my phone. I thought of the donut shop in Santa Monica. Years ago, I’d moved for a girlfriend, though I’d always hated L.A. Each day, I’d awaken and feel crushed by the sky’s brilliance. It was too much. I could never measure up.

“Isn’t it perfect here?” In bed beside me one morning, she ran a finger from my throat to my lips, her signature move before sex.

“I miss the rain.” 

“This is my home.” Her finger pressed harder, a warning. “It’s like you’re criticizing me.”

My teeth bit into my lower lip. I could smell the lavender oil she’d dabbed on her wrists the night before. 

“You like it?” She’d cradled the vial.

“I’m allergic,” I’d told her and watched her eyes fill. Without breaking my gaze, she’d thrown the oil across the room. 

By the time she took me to Santa Monica, I’d gotten awfully quiet, mostly because I couldn’t differentiate her desires from my own. Still, I’m pretty sure I loved the donut shop. Who wouldn’t? The dough steamed on wide metal trays, releasing the scent of cinnamon and chocolate. We ate ours meandering through the farmers market before the sun climbed high. I thought maybe I’d offer Adam that memory, but angle the lens toward pastries rather than codependence. A half-view but an honest one. I knew he harbored his own memories of wandering the market with his estranged wife. Why did I think our mutual experience would charm him? What did I hope was alike about our recollections? Perhaps just California and tacit withdrawal.

***

I slept for maybe an hour, but lightly, because what donuts really remind me of is my parent’s front porch, darkness all around. As I mounted the steps one night, I’d watched the automatic lamp switch on. I felt my pockets for my keys, though I already knew I’d misplaced them. Instead, my search unearthed a fragment of frosted donut snatched from the teacher’s lounge that morning. I never intended to eat it, still I wanted it close. This was before cellphones sprung up to fill that fucking chest-wound we’re all born with, when the only path through loneliness was to wait, and who knew when my parents would come home? On the porch, I held the donut lightly in my palm, then, shedding my leather jacket, a birthday present from my father, I wrapped it around my right fist. I never made the conscious decision to punch through the window, but once I’d shattered the outer layer, there seemed no other option but to clear away the inner. The lamp with its automatic timer was closer now, I was nearly inside. 

“Fuckin’ A,” said my father, when my parents returned from dinner. He slapped one knee. He whistled. He always thought nothing got in my way. “Guess we should thank you,” he said. “At least now we know how easy it is to break in.”

“Why did you do it?” My mother reached to pluck a shard of glass from my hair.

She didn’t know then how little I was eating. How much restraint it took to damp down my desire. 

“I needed to get in,” I said. I hadn’t moved much since climbing through the broken front window, the donut gone to crumbs in my hand. 

***

When I finally awoke at 7, I typed out a text. 

Are the donuts still warm and from a tiny bakery in Santa Monica? Are they followed by a slow walk through the farmers market? If not, then cupcakes. But probably just the frosting. But only if they're chocolate. And can they be pink?

Beneath my comforter, I studied my message. Imperfect word choice, but at some point even Proust stopped contemplating his madeleine and goddamn-hit-send.

Did I pass? I followed up, awake enough now to know we were joking. Still, Adam’s approval seemed crucial in a way I couldn’t explain.

The thing is, I definitely prefer cupcakes, but sometime before Poly Boyfriend, before my L.A. girlfriend even, I’d decided I had to mitigate. I had to match. That everything might turn on a moment, a misunderstanding, a text message, and inevitably it would turn out wrong.

In the kitchen,  I reached for a coffee mug, my favorite, curved and celadon green. 

“You passed ... barely.” Adam wrote. Winky face. 

“You’re donuts, I presume?”

“I’m cupcakes.”

Maybe I’d assumed Adam would choose donuts because this one time I compared him to a butterfly? And he said he’d prefer something less feminine? And donuts are clearly the more masculine dessert? But I’m a 36-year-old woman who collects feather boas and unicorn statuettes; Adam wasn’t drawn to my masculinity. So why had I tweaked my truth to match--not even his actual preference but something I’d made up? I’d spent five hours debating a response without once realizing I was once again balancing my quest for truth against my compulsion to please.

***

There was also this stupid thing that happened with Adam. Between dates number three and four. Happened, like I watched it, though of course I was responsible. I couldn’t isolate the moment, but at some point a choice got made. It had to do with phones and loneliness, with choked-off desire and need sharpened by years of disuse. What happened was I called him. Three times, when he didn’t respond to a text. The text was the fifth I’d sent in under three minutes. No clear trigger. He hadn’t been tracked tucking another woman into a taxi; I wasn’t locked out of my childhood home. 

“I need you to call me,” I texted. Had I run that message past my Truth Appraiser, I’d have understood it as false. I didn’t need that. I could take care of myself. I could wait. But when you exhaust years shutting down your feelings, they punch through window screens to assert themselves. They swallow every scrap in sight. 

His response was mild, considering I felt dazed and voracious. 

“Sorry, Crazy Girl, I don’t always keep track of my phone.”

The fucked-up paradox of subsuming your desires to those of others? Ultimately those desires disguise themselves as needs, ultimately they take control.

***

I poured coffee. I sipped. I broke up with Poly Boyfriend once I felt certain our experiment had worked. Not the part where we both dated other women. The part I never mentioned, where I agreed to terms I couldn’t stomach for just long enough to force myself to be direct. 

The day after his 3 a.m. text I wrote back: 

“I don’t want to do this anymore. If we’re not honest then this is just cheating, and what’s intriguing about that?”

Simple, right? 

Not for someone who’d rather put aside what she wants to make sure she’s wanted. Sure, it took one extra month of discomfort to realize I’d compromised too much again. But that was better than my silent escape from The Guy Who Didn’t Notice, far better than staying and self-censoring for the girl in LA. The space between close-mouthed retreat and needy compulsion is liminal, uncertain, but at least this time, with Adam, it only took me five hours to catch myself tempering. And let’s just agree to blame that rickety ladder. Let’s agree to blame 3 a.m.


Sarah Terez Rosenblum

Sarah Terez Rosenblum teaches at The University of Chicago Graham School and freelances for publications and sites including The Chicago Sun Times, XOJane, afterellen.com, Curve Magazine and Pop Matters. Her 2012 debut novel, "Herself When She's Missing,” was called “poetic and heartrending" by Booklist.

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Life Stories Los Angeles Love And Sex People Pleasers Relationships

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