Holding Space: A Vital Skill In Polyamory
Our goddaughter died after a long, drawn-out battle with cancer. Then, a few months later, my wife’s mother died after a long, drawn-out illness.
Gini kinda checked out for a while after that.
She was overwhelmed by crowds, which felt too big and fast and inquisitive, so she didn’t want to go out much. She retreated to the bathtub, spent hours soaking in water reading comfort books – she read over ninety Star Wars books, losing herself in the happiness of spending more time with Luke and Han and Leia.
I couldn’t ask much of her.
Her grief went on for months. She wasn’t completely absent – she still held me if I asked her to, she still laughed if I told her jokes. But her normal desires had been shattered. She fought hard to find her way back to some semblance of normality, but two mortal body blows had robbed my wife of her usual resiliency.
And I, also grieving for our goddaughter, responded in a different way – I needed to get out, to feel the vibrant love at parties and conventions, to go a little mad in the opposite direction with crushes and new friends and oh my God please talk to me.
But you know what I did?
I held a space for her.
Yes, I went out to conventions and spent weekends lost in furious makeout sessions. Yes, I went out with friends and cuddled buddies and found other things to do.
But I was very careful to keep some necessary emptiness in my relationships. There was a Gini-sized hole in my life, and I made damn sure nobody else crept into that sacred space – which meant some nights, I cradled myself in loneliness while Gini was in the tub, reading a book I didn’t want to read because I wanted to be out somewhere. I watched reruns with her in the living room, which felt like a straightjacket because we could be out in the glorious darkness of a theater, that movie filling our eyes and leaving us nowhere else to go but into the depth of someone else’s story….
But Gini couldn’t go out.
I held that space for her.
And on the days when I was emotional and I knew Gini couldn’t handle the strain of playing therapist, I talked to other friends. And there was that temptation to turn this revelation into OH MY GOD YOU AND I ARE SOULMATES, LOOK AT YOU, YOU UNDERSTAND ME, to react to all this sadness by kindling new and intense relationships, to find someone to fall in love with in a way fierce enough to drive back all this ennui.
But if I did that, the relationship would grow into an odd shape – it would be a real love, yes, but it would be a love nourished by the absence of an old love. I would love this new person partially because they were there for me in a time that someone else wasn’t. And experience has taught me that those relationships don’t necessarily flourish once they’re hauled out of that strange ecosystem of loss and asked to thrive on their own merits.
So I held that space for her.
And over the course of a year, Gini finally came back to me. Not all at once; an “I think I can do this party” here, a genuine interest in seeing that movie there. She started to tell her own jokes, that warm smile creeping back to replace the stunned expression on her face.
And when she returned, she found the space I’d held in my heart ready and warmed for her. It hadn’t been easy keeping it free of entanglements. I’d had to stand alone in the center of that space sometimes, wishing for company, longing for the wife I wanted her to be – the wife that she herself wanted to be again, but could not.
And I thought of what a younger, dumber me would have done. I would have short-circuited at the idea of purposely enduring some discomfort while my partner handled some necessary issues, and I would have run out and found something to fill that emptiness, and I would have been absolutely, furiously puzzled when my partner eventually returned to find that the space that had once been devoted entirely to our relationship was now entangled with other commitments that I clung to with a new and frenetic love, and now that she was back it was not with relief but with a regret that I had to set down these freshly-found joys to have to make space for this old one.
And when she returned, still tentative and uncertain from her journey, would she have really wanted to argue with me about hey, I’m doing this now, you have to make room for this new thing I did while you were away. Would she be happy to come back from a long and difficult struggle, only to find a newer struggle of trying to figure out where she fit into a life that closed over like a scab when she left for a while?
Which isn’t to justify neglectful abuse, of course. Some partners are so dismissive of your needs that honestly, refusing to let them take up space they don’t even value is simple common sense.
But sometimes, your lovers will go through difficult times that are no fault of their own; they want to be in that space, but depression or grief or poverty mean they can’t be with you in the way they so deeply long to. They’ll get back, eventually, but for now they can’t be there for you in the way they want to.
And this is a problem in monogamy, too – but especially in polyamory, all too often the answer to “I feel distant and lonely” is to go chase a new shiny. To find someone, anyone, to fill up the temporarily-vacated spaces in your heart.
Which sounds good – but when your lovers have fought to come back to you, they find not a set of welcoming arms but the ugly paperwork for an eviction process.
Gini came back to me. You never recover from the death of someone you love; you just find ways to reroute around the damage. And Gini did her damndest to reroute and rework and renew until she could step into the space we’d carved for each other in our lives in the way we wanted to.
There was nothing there but me.
Thank God there was nothing there but me.