Have you noticed that folks tend to talk about self relationships from two very different perspectives?
One group of people will identify it as a process that supports an individual to know and embody their boundaries, to get in touch with their needs and desires, and to feel empowered to listen to their inner knowing. Others talk about self relationship with a critical eye, rightfully wary of toxic individualism and the dangers of removing an individual from the context of community.
What I discovered in my own journey of non-monogamy is that a strong self relationship means it’s easier to be in relationships with communities — be they religious/spiritual, cultural, polyamorous or other — without getting lost in those communities. And because of this, I think a healthy self relationship is well worth putting energy into.
A Bit of History
I was in my 30s when I realised how much disconnecting from myself was one of my default strategies for dealing with stress and overwhelm. It was a strategy that had dire consequences: in my education, my work, and in my relationships — platonic and romantic alike. I was one of those people who would chronically put themselves aside for the comfort and needs of others, and then grow resentful. It had started as a kid with my mother, and as an adult it expanded into my friendships and community relationships, as well as my failing marriage. And, it wasn’t working for me. Realising that something needed to change led me to seek out a stronger relationship with my own Self. I desired to become more confident in voicing my needs, graceful in expressing my boundaries, and authentic in how I showed up in all my relationships.
These days you don’t have to look hard to find people in polyamory talking about being their own Primary Partner, but ten years ago, when I was making my own gentle first forays into the world of Polyamory after my marriage ended, no one talked about Solo Polyamory. No one talked about Relationship Anarchy much either. My early impressions as I navigated the polyamorous scene of Vancouver was that I, as a single bisexual woman, had the option to find a primary partner (and then form secondary relationships), or to be a unicorn who dated couples.
Coming out of an 8 year, mostly monogamous relationship, I was in no way ready to form a primary relationship again with someone, and one of my principle motivations for exploring Non Monogamy was because I wanted to explore my sexuality. So I started out dating couples (with mixed results) still encountering the assumption that I would, eventually, find my Primary person.
But finding a new Primary wasn’t what I wanted at all.
I realised I wanted to be my own Primary Partner, and have an orgy with the universe.
I declared it to myself, and then declared it to the world in my dating profiles, and again when I started writing my blog, Polysingleish.
A decade later, social media is abundant with shares from Solo Polyamorists who celebrate their Self-Primaryship. Influencers have built whole empires on this idea. And, even whilst some Solo Polyamorists frown at the idea of even needing to frame anything as Primary, more and more folks (including monogamous individuals) have had their curiosity piqued by the idea of being their own Primary Partner.
And, I’m proud to know that I’ve been part of this cultural shift.
Why Self Primaryship Matters
My own declaration of Self Primaryship was a response to the mono-normative hangovers I encountered — both externally, and within myself — as I ventured into Polyamory. I was influenced by my experiences as a youth and young adult studying Kashmir Shaivism (and related yoga philosophies and practices) that teach the importance of cultivating a self-honoring relationship as part of one’s relationship to the divinity in all things.
I did it because I sought a paradigm shift away from the codependent “we” thinking that had dominated my marriage, and into empowering myself back into “I” thinking. And, as I worked my way through unhealthy relationship habits that impeded my discernment with partners, I desperately needed a way of validating my self worth without becoming dependent on new relationships for that validation.
Being loving towards yourself is a powerful tool to counteract the stories in dominant culture that will try to tell you that you aren’t worthy of love and care, that you are incomplete without a partner, the stories that drive us to disconnect from our own sense of self esteem. It’s not the only tool, but it is an effective one.
Being loving towards yourself is something you can still do even if you’re struggling with the idea of being in love with yourself. It’s an invitation to treat yourself with greater kindness — perhaps more kindness than others show you. If you’ve grown up with negative messages about your Self in any form, endeavouring to be kind towards your Self is one of the ways in which you can heal from those narratives.
A Primary Self Relationship offers you liberation from the beliefs that you need another person to validate your existence.
Does being in a primary relationship with ourselves mean we separate from community, or we don’t have relationships with others? No.
But it does mean we listen more intently to our bodies and our boundaries, paying attention and taking action when something within a community or in a relationship is not in alignment for ourselves. A healthy relationship with our own boundaries, boundaries that are neither rigid nor porous, actually makes it easier for us to accept help and receive support from community.
Our capacity to connect with others begins with how we are able to connect with ourselves: when we are in pain, are stressed, or are overwhelmed, we don’t always do a great job of connecting to our Self. We might ‘dissociate’ and do the opposite: we check out, numb ourselves, engage in escapism, or fixate harder on connecting with others. In a state of dissociation, it is hard to advocate for our needs, our boundaries, and our limits. In addition, many of us have excellent auto-pilot functions and masking skills for when we dissociate, which can sometimes look like fawning (or people-pleasing), ignoring our selves and focusing instead on doing or being what someone else wants us to do or be.
Being in a primary relationship with yourself makes it easier to step out of the currents of fawning, people pleasing, and accepting the status quo. It helps you to not be overwhelmed by the desires of others, which in turn supports you in staying present to your relationships with greater authenticity.
Cultivating a healthy self relationship can be a powerful tool against anything (individuals or institutionalised systems of dominance) that seeks to subjugate others.
Isn’t Being Your Own Primary Just An Ego Trip? Do We Even Need Primaries?
While it’s true that we don’t necessarily need primary partners, what we absolutely do need as human beings are relationships that cultivate experiences of secure attachment: relationships that have reliability, consistency, connections we feel safe to come home to.
Patriarchal Monogamy has told us that an exclusive partnership is the only way to get that, and even when we’re exploring Non-Monogamy, the idea of needing a singular external person to find that is still deeply programmed into us. Being your own Primary Partner is one way in which you might shift your focus from a single external person.
Being in a Primary Relationship with yourself isn’t about taking yourself on the extravagant adventures you’d always wished a partner had taken you on, or treating yourself to a luxurious restaurant meal (though, it might include that).
More importantly, it’s about listening to your own self like you really, really matter. It’s taking time to actually connect with yourself, ask yourself the deep and meaningful questions about who you are, what makes you tick, and what you absolutely don’t want to do.
A healthy self relationship is one that models exquisite boundaries (something that, yes, takes time, and also yes, requires discipline when you have only yourself to keep you accountable to those boundaries), and a relationship where those boundaries aren’t bulldozed.
Does Being Self Primaried Mean You Don’t Have Intimate Relationships?
For some, it has meant this. But it doesn’t have to mean this, and for many it means the exact opposite.
If you don’t want to become an emotional island or transform your relationship landscape into a fortress of solitude, being Self-Primaried helps you to navigate intimate relationships with healthier boundaries, and more loving attention around not succumbing to unhealthy self-sacrificing behaviours, or codependency with multiple partners.
There is, indeed, tremendous strength in relationships between people who have strong self relationships. Communities of empowered individuals who come together for common purpose and values can create, sustain, and flourish. Intimate relationships between folks who are also self-partnered can be safer emotional spaces for diving into deeper relational healing work, in ways that don’t play into trauma-bonding or codependency.
When You’re Self Primaried, Does That Mean You Can Only Date Other People Who Are Self Primaried?
Well, no. But, anecdotally, you might find it to be more challenging to date folks who haven’t made steps towards a healthier relationship with themselves.
Once you go down the rabbit hole of unpacking your own Monogamy Hangover, you’ll find yourself more attuned to noticing how it shows up in others. When you’re dating someone who is more used to fawning, thinking ‘we’ rather than ‘me’ in their relationships, and who struggles with their boundaries, it might feel at times like you’re speaking different languages.
Relationship conflict absolutely arises when a partner who isn’t used to having a strong relationship with themselves has expectations that you’ll put them first, only to find that you need to put yourself first.
But, it’s definitely not impossible to date folks who aren’t self-primaried. Some people may just have a different language to describe how they honour their self-relationship. And others may be willing to step into a journey of self-primaryship, based on what they see you experiencing.
Cultivating a Primary Relationship with your Self
Everyone’s relationship with themselves is going to be unique, which means there’s no ultimate guide. But here’s some things that will help you along the way.
A self relationship has three key elements, and all the suggestions I offer you here support these elements:
- Honoring your Self
- Knowing your Self
- Celebrating the wondrousness of your Self in relationship to all things.
So, how exactly do you start — and then sustain — a relationship with your Self? Like any relationship, a healthy relationship is a journey of paying loving attention. Here’s 12 things that I recommend. You definitely don’t have to do them all, and you absolutely don’t have to do any of them well. The point is to move towards a better relationship with your Self. Try these out, see what works for you. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it! But if you like it, keep doing it more, and see how your Self relationship shifts!
1. Create a regular schedule for yourself.
This doesn’t have to look like planning every minute every day. It could look like something as simple as making the bed each morning, starting your day with a warm beverage in silence and watching the birds in your garden, washing all the dishes before you go to bed at night, or, committing to going for a walk in nature by yourself every Sunday afternoon.
Routine is a remarkably effective hack for developing secure attachment. Caregivers can do this with infants, in intimate relationships we might seek to do this with one another, but it also does an incredible job at creating a nervous system experience of safety and security to have a simple routine that we are agents of, and that no one else can interfere with.
2. Start a conversation with yourself. Get a notebook, journal, or other means to record your thoughts and start journaling every day. I like using oracle or contemplation cards to kick start my thoughts. This is about both self-accountability, and developing your knowledge of your Self. Just like you might start a new relationship with many questions about who the other person is — what they like, how they think, what values they hold, and what brings them joy — beginning to cultivate a kind and loving relationship to your Self means getting to know these things about yourself more intimately too.
3. Move your body for a sustained period of time regularly.
Whether it’s a long walk, bike ride, working out at the gym, or dancing at ecstatic dance (an event where dance is free form and dancers refrain from chit chat), movement over a sustained period of time can take the mind into a trance like state, and in that state our subconscious is able to work through things that we may struggle to have processed during our conscious every day state. Moving the body can also help release tension from overwhelming experiences we’ve held on to. I have found deep release, solace, and joy on the dance floor, but others find it through climbing, running, yoga, or simply swaying to a good tune.
4. Find a meaningful avenue of self expression.
Just like when you’re deeply in love with someone you might have the urge to share about that relationship with the world (be it social media photos together, or talking to your friends about your excitement), having a way to share about the journey you are taking in getting to know yourself is important. You may want to be selective about the audience, to make sure they are supportive. But whether it’s a candid selfie of you doing something you love, or starting a blog to record your thoughts and experiences, expressing about your self relationship brings the most beautiful gift: your Self relationship being witnessed and seen by others, which can bring much needed validation and encouragement.
5.Tune in to your boundaries, capacity, and limits.
It’s impossible to gauge your capacity and limits if you stay isolated, so for this it is important to interact with others. Give yourself opportunities to experience new things and new people, and notice what energizes you, versus what depletes you. Taking workshops and classes on boundary skills (such as The Wheel of Consent, or Better Boundaries with Marcia B) can help you find new ways to think about your boundaries.
6. Get to know your core needs
What we often think of as needs are actually strategies for addressing our needs. For example, you might want a cup of coffee in the morning. That’s not a need (much as it might feel like it is!). The need might be to feel more alert. Or to warm up. Or to engage in a shared social activity with a loved one in the kitchen. The cup of coffee is a strategy for meeting this need. Sometimes a single strategy can meet multiple needs. We also can fixate on strategies because we’re used to them, and be reluctant to explore alternative strategies — even when the strategy we’re used to using isn’t working, or is somehow uncomfortable for us.
Whether we have been taught to disconnect from our core needs, or we dissociate from our discomfort because it has been a long term experience with no respite, many of us have been given the message that our pleasure does not matter — and choosing pleasure is a vital part of cultivating a healthy relationship with ourselves. When you figure out a core need, exploring all the ways to meet those needs can often help you find more possibilities of pleasure — not just in your relationship with your Self, but in all your relations with others too.
7. Learn about trauma and how it impacts people.
Anyone who has grown up surrounded by dominance culture will be familiar with the mechanics of judging others in order to elevate one’s self. Even in so-called ‘enlightened’ circles, many people still participate in this, judging and ‘cancelling’ people whose actions they disagree with. Instead, learning about trauma and getting in touch with your own trauma can help you cultivate compassion for others, and your self. When we are able to stay in touch with compassion in our hearts, it becomes so much easier to be loving, whilst maintaining healthy boundaries.
8. Practice generosity.
Generosity doesn’t have to look like giving to charity (though, it might include that). Generosity can be how we show up for our loves ones. Or could be a gift of flowers from your garden to a friend. Or the way we listen to a stranger. It could look like making gifts or sending cards to your loved ones. Cultivating generosity helps us to shift away from the feelings of scarcity in our selves, and simultaneously helps us to create more positive connections in our network of relations.
9. Practice Discernment.
Back when I was married and my then husband and I entertained the idea of including someone else in our relationship, we would have conversations about the possibilities, and what (and who) might be a good match for us (and what and who wouldn’t be). In my early days of exploring polyamory as a Solo person I found I missed having that dialogue in my life, and it was challenging to engage in similar dialogue with new partners who I was still getting to know. Without an external person to help me ‘vet’ my dating choices, I found myself cultivating a stronger dialogue with my self, one that was introspective and self questioning in a positive way, that supported me in practicing discernment.
Practicing discernment by yourself could look like making a list of your ‘red flags’ and ‘green flags’ in relationships and potential relationships: the things that indicate a mismatch, and the things that indicate something good worth paying attention to. You might also include ‘yellow flags’, things to be cautious around, but that you might need more information about, or could be okay with depending on specific circumstances.
10. Stop following cult personalities.
There are big “C” cult leaders, and many small ‘c’ cult personalities. Whether you found them through social media, or because a friend sent you a youtube link, it’s important to broaden your perspectives and sources of information, and getting sucked into personality brands with cult followings can be a huge obstacle to that. These aren’t wizened elders or qualified teachers. These are often wounded and unguided/misguided people who try to offer others a place of belonging, albeit one built on a house of cards. They will drown out your individual voice with their charisma and passion, and you may find yourself struggling to pull apart what thoughts come from you, and what you’ve absorbed from others.
Not all cult-like personalities are necessarily bad, but they often need to maintain a razor focus and narrow range of ideas in order to maintain their brand. The more dangerous ones will market a story to you that other people won’t understand you and that you’re isolated and alone, but somehow special in a way only they can see, and the only salvation or path to belonging is through them. They prey on our human survival instincts and weave half truths with paranoia conspiracies, often selling paths of spiritual bypassing that reek of eugenicism and gaslight people about their struggles. And then, ask you for your money. They want you to sell them your soul, mostly metaphorically but occasionally literally. Don’t. Instead, seek out the quieter, modest, qualified teachers, the ones who encourage you to cultivate your own community, who support you in experiencing belonging to your own Self.
11. Take yourself on Retreat.
Whether it’s a solo vacation somewhere exotic, or a weekend camping trip to yourself once a year, make a plan to spend intentional time just by yourself. The longer the trip, the more you’ll get out of it. In my first summer of being singleish I worked at a remote resort and lived out of my car, camping and occasionally couch surfing when I wanted to do laundry. The camp site had poor wifi signal and I spent my evenings journaling, singing to myself, and breathing deep in the beauty of the nature around me. That summer taught me that I could deeply enjoy my own company, and that anyone who wanted to interject into this relationship I was curating with my Self would need to be quite a spectacular person, and I highly recommend this experience for everyone.
When you become adept at enjoying your own company, spending quality time with others becomes an empowering choice, rather than being an escape from loneliness, and that can help you in making healthier choices about who to spend that quality time with.
12. Cultivate your Relational Landscape.
A self relationship that isolates you from connection with others isn’t a healthy one. The gift of a healthy self relationship is that it makes building connections with others more enriching and rewarding, but these connections don’t just happen by themselves, just as spectacular gardens don’t happen without careful encouragement, pruning, and care year round. Applying everything you’ve learned from developing your own Self Primaryship into connections with others helps make all relationships so much more satisfying and enjoyable to be in.
For all those “this person is PERFECT!” stories that come up in new relationships, the real ‘perfect’ relationship to cultivate is the one with your own self.
There are many skills that will support you in your experiences with non-monogamy, and there are many people out there ready to teach them to you. But, for me, the most important skill remains this: actively cultivating a kinder and more loving relationship with your Self, which supports healthier and more loving relationships with the whole beautiful world around you, relationships that can be a reflection of the beauty and kindness you hold within.
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