Poly Pitfall: Experience Shock

There are many, many pitfalls to relationships in general and to polyamorous ones in particular. One of the dynamics LustyGuy and I often see (and experience) in new poly relationships is what he has termed “experience shock.”

What is experience shock

“Experience shock” is the disparity between your expected response to a new situation and your actual response. It’s what happens when you think about how you believe you will feel when [X] happens, but when [X] does happen, you feel completely differently. The shocked person can then feel a significant amount of cognitive dissonance and even guilt or shame for the sin of not having been able to accurately predict how they would have felt in a completely new situation.

Here’s an example: My partner is going to Burning Man without me, and we talk about how I will feel if he meets someone special there. I say I’d be happy for him; go have fun. But when he comes back home in full love-goggle mode about a new girlfriend who lives in Utah, I feel jealous and insecure.

And now I’m ashamed about feeling petty and jealous when I said I would be happy for him. Which I should be, right? Because I’m a good poly person, and I want to be happy for him.

New class: Navigating your first poly relationship, Friday, June 24, 2016

Why experience shock happens

experience shockExperience shock happens for a very obvious reason: we’re bad at predicting how we might react in new situations. Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Many factors contribute to experience shock, including:

  • Lack of information If you’ve never been in the situation before, it’s unlikely you will have enough information to accurately predict your behavior.
  • Contributing factors If I had a bad day at work or a fight with my mom while my partner is at the burn, it will affect how I feel about the new situation.
  • My worst fears It’s very common for one’s own worst fears to come to the forefront during times of stress, and those fears likely have nothing to do with the reality of the situation. In the absence of information, our worst fears are happy to provide a substitute for reality.

How to deal with experience shock

  1. Relax First, breathe. Relax. Everyone experiences this at some point. It doesn’t make you a bad person; it makes you human. Everyone experiences negative emotions at some point, and it’s perfectly OK to experience them. It doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t make you bad at poly. It just means that you are a human being.
  2. Ignore the “should” Next, ignore the voice that tells you what you should be feeling. Everything you are feeling is OK.
  3. Ask for a hug If possible, ask your partner for a hug or a touch. Physical connections can make negative emotions much easier to deal with.
  4. Describe what you’re feeling Take the time to describe the emotion you are feeling. Sometimes, it’s helpful to describe where you feel it?—?I tend to feel jealousy in my chest. Others feel it in their stomach or their necks. Others look at me like I’m crazy when I ask about where they feel it.
  5. State the fear If you are experiencing a negative emotion, chances are it’s based on a fear you have. Instead of avoiding the fear, face it. Say out loud what you are afraid of. “I’m afraid that she will replace me.”
  6. Drill down Next, drill down into the fear. What will it mean if that fear comes to pass? “I’ll have to watch as I slowly lose him to her.”
  7. And then what? Ask “and then what” until you get to the point of ridiculousness: “And then… I’ll lose him and everything we have. And I’ll have to move out. And I’ll be alone. And I’ll never love anyone ever again. And I’ll die homeless and alone.”

You’ll find that, while this won’t completely dissolve your discomfort or negative emotions, bringing them into the light in this manner does make them much more manageable.

And above all, forgive yourself for having experience shock. Even the best of us go through it.


Commenting area

  1. Anonymous June 23, 2016 at 10:32 pm · ·

    I am transgender, married/separated/divorcing. I went to a favorite local bar with another trans aquaintance/friend that I am highly attracted who is married/polyamorous, we each had a ‘few’ too many drinks and at some point I indicated I was curiously interested in finding out more about polyamory (which is true). We went back to her house. Being in a state of mind of mourning the inevitable end of my marriage and both of us quite drunk, we cuddled for a short while and then I initiated the sexual encounter that followed. The next morning I woke up alone in a spare bed and was overcome with intense feelings of guilt and shame because I felt like I had cheated on my wife, and also violated the boundaries of said ‘friend’s’ marriage/polyamorous status.

    For a few months following that the entire series of events leading up to and after really messed me up mentally and emotionally. It still haunts me somewhat having a fair recollection of the events of that night. I have no regrets about having sex with her except that everything about the circumstances was wrong, including certain drunken comments related to thinking out loud about what that meant about me regarding her biologic sexual anatomy. I enjoyed it and I was struggling mentally with the nuances of anatomy vs gender and how that defined my sexual orientation. Terrible timing to be doing any soul searching.

    How do I cope with all of this? I am still curious and interested in exploring polyamory and still very attracted to her.

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