When Life is Turned Upside Down

Libby Sinback

July 7, 2020 · 15 minute read

This article is adapted from an episode of Making Polyamory Work I released on April 14th, 2020.

We haven’t ordered takeout in several weeks. The restaurants are open, but with a stay-at-home order in place, it made sense to avoid spaces where we interact with other people. The other night, we finally decided to give it a go - donning masks to do a pickup and gloves to handle the containers, immediately transferring food to dishes once we got home, disposing of the containers and washing our hands to avoid any pathogens. 

This takeout routine is a small change compared to my kids losing school as a social lifeline and my partner losing their job. People around the world are faced with even greater obstacles that they never thought to prepare for. And these aren’t just changes, of course, they’re disruptions. The degrees and details vary depending on who you are and where you are in the world, but it’s safe to say that everyone’s life is radically disrupted right now due to the current pandemic.

Disruption can be exhausting, overwhelming, destabilizing, even traumatic…. And I’m not saying this as someone who has survived a pandemic before. I’m actually drawing on my experience as a relationship transformation coach, because I see a lot of parallels between how my clients respond to the disruption that a change in their relationship can bring, and how I see many of us reacting to the disruption that coronavirus has wrought. What I’ve learned from working with couples who are polyamorous or some flavor of non-monogamous is that disruption doesn’t have to be just a force for destruction. It can also be a force for creation. It can teach us a lot if we let it.

Polyamory is, itself, disruption. Moving away from the dominant cultural norm of monogamy puts you in unfamiliar territory. Disrupting one major thing can also often have a domino effect, leading to more shifts that are even more disruptive. Your partner might start dating someone who triggers a dormant insecurity or exposes some unseen vulnerability in your existing relationship. You may discover new things about your sexuality or gender: realizing you’re more queer than you thought, or that you’re megasexual or asexual or aromantic or that you’re actually not the gender you were assigned at birth. You could discover that once you tug at the thread of monogamy, you unravel a whole sweater of how you were taught relationships are supposed to work, which leads you to make fundamental shifts in all aspects of your life. You might just fall madly in love with someone so deeply and unexpectedly that it turns everything upside down and challenges everyone else who you love and anchor your life to. Or maybe you discover, after fully exploring non-monogamy, that you really do just want one intimate partner, and what then? 

Monogamous folks go through disruption too. No matter our relational orientation, our lives can be disrupted in so many ways, whether it’s infidelity, physical or mental illness or injury, economic hardship, a career change, a move, parenthood, or the loss of a loved one. As long as we continue to live in the world with others, many things can and will radically change us and those we love, whether we like it or not. Our relationships always have the potential to end up in places we didn’t expect, facing difficult choices that we aren’t prepared to make. 

While disruption is often unwelcome and potentially unpleasant, there’s a lot of opportunity in it. Disruption is often the needed catalyst to show a truth you can’t avoid. Disruption knocks things loose that needed to shift. In my experience of people stumbling through non-monogamy, if your relationship survives the disruption, it emerges stronger and better because of the difficult things that had to be confronted. I’ve seen the disruptions that arise out of polyamory push people to solve problems in their relationship that they had been ignoring or that had felt previously unsolvable. I’ve seen people heal old wounds, rewrite old patterns, and create a new relationship with their partner that was more loving and connected and secure than the one they had before.

If the relationship doesn’t survive, the disruption offers the gift of letting go of a relationship that wasn’t serving the people in it, clearing space for whatever needs to come after it. 

No matter what, disruption changes things forever. I often tell my clients that whatever relationship they had together is over. There is no going back to normal - just like you can’t unring a bell. The choice is to fight the disruption and increase your suffering, or welcome it, work through it, and see what’s possible on the other side.

Now that you’re armed with the knowledge that disruption is inevitable (or maybe you always knew), what do you do next? Here are six tools you can use to move through and embrace disruption, cultivate resilience in yourself and your relationships, and use it as an opportunity to step forward into something better than what was before.

1 – Acknowledge and Tame the Stress

 Disruption is stressful. It can turn on your acute stress response - your “fight or flight” - which lives in your sympathetic nervous system. Your acute stress response is often more subtle than straight up throwing punches or running away though. It’s often a more nuanced series of behaviors you’ve developed from a young age to cope with difficulty, which can include things like going into productive overdrive, trying to control everything, getting overwhelmed and frozen, withdrawing emotionally, or getting in heated arguments at the drop of a hat.

Your acute stress response meant to be turned out for a short period of time when you’re actively threatened - hence the “acute” part. But when we’re in a lengthy period of stress, we can end up living in that heightened reactive state, unable to turn it off, getting caught in survival mode even when our survival is not actually at stake. This can destroy your sleep, fray your nerves, and wear down your relationships. The antidote is to call on that part of yourself that Terry Real calls “second consciousness.” That part of you that pauses to let your first reaction pass before choosing to act. Tara Brach calls it the “sacred pause” and pausing is needed, because the part of your brain that operates your second consciousness moves slower, neurobiologically. If you find yourself acting fast, you’re more likely acting out of your stress response than your second consciousness. Instead of reacting, take a deep breath. Take walks. Take breaks from heated conversations. Resist going cold and shutting people out. This will help you more than anything else you can do.

2 – Focus on what you can control

I’m not religious, but I have a plaque hanging on my wall of the Serenity Prayer that used to belong to my grandmother. Here’s the short version: the only thing you can control is yourself and how you respond. That’s what you can change. What you need to wisely accept that what you can’t change is almost everything else. Yes, all of us are handed situations and circumstances that we did not choose and that aren’t our fault. However, moving through them to a better place is our responsibility. In taking responsibility, you can find a tremendous amount of empowerment.

Right now or in any time of disruption, learning how to really be with your feelings, taking responsibility for your choices, working to control your reactions and continually making a practice of reaching for the best parts of yourself is one of the most worthwhile things you can be doing. I encourage you to get really quiet to listen to your inner compass, remain open and still. The more you can be listening and looking for the next right thing, giving it your best shot, and then letting go of the outcome, the better. If that’s all you manage to do, that alone can be pretty powerful. The outcome is out of your hands.

3 – Let Go of Victimhood

Victimhood is so tempting to give into. And when you’re stuck in a disruption that is unwelcome or find yourself saddled with challenges you did nothing to deserve, it can be easy to slip into resentment and rage and self-pity. I’ve been noticing this happening to me over the dumbest things right now - most notably when I get home from the grocery store, and I have to wipe everything down with disinfectant. I have to fight feelings of rage. But when you position yourself as a victim, you are saying to yourself that you are a person without agency upon whom forces greater than you are acting.

That may be true, but it’s also a very disempowered place from which to act and move through the world, and often takes you in the opposite direction of step 1. You tend to focus on forces outside yourself instead of looking inward. You tend to lose sight of being accountable for your own contributions to your situation. It can also lead to something called “offending from the victim position” which is basically that eye-for-an-eye attitude - being hurtful or acting out because you feel victimized and thus entitled to letting loose whatever reactions arise.* Self-righteous indignation is a helluva drug, but I’ve never seen it not do tremendous damage to a relationship. It’s not fun or fair to take ownership of whatever hand life has dealt you and accept responsibility for the choices in how you play your cards. It’s not always fair. But that’s all we have. We may be entitled to claim victimhood, but I’ve never seen it be anything but poisonous. It’s junk food for the soul. It feels good going down but ends up making you feel like shit.

4 – Acknowledge and allow the grief

When disruption happens, there is always something lost. Sometimes it’s precious, a real, tangible loss of something that once was. Sometimes the loss was something you never had in the first place, maybe it was just an illusion of something: stability, perfection, some story you were telling yourself that you realized wasn’t true. But that’s still a loss and it’s still worth grieving. I think it’s so important right now especially to allow the grief, because if you don’t allow yourself to feel it, it tends to just get stuck in your body, coming out sideways - or you end up engaging in some really harmful coping mechanisms to numb yourself  to it or run from it or fight it. It’s also helpful to seek out people in your life who can support you and hold your grief with you - and not everyone can do that. (For helpful guidelines around this, see this article on Ring Theory.)

5 – Find or create joy and pleasure where you can

You may be afraid that if you allow grief, you will never feel anything else. But in every situation, there are ways to find joy. You just have to look for it. And if you can’t find it, because the situation is too dire or traumatic, you can make it or cultivate it. Yes, this is a cliche - it’s looking for the silver lining, or making the lemonade out of lemons. Psychologists call it cognitive reframing. Looking on the bright side. There’s a reason why this is a broadly offered piece of advice - it works. This isn’t the same thing as saying that you have to be relentlessly positive; false positivity is inauthentic and unnecessary, and an unhealthy form of avoidance. Rather, I encourage you to seek to live at the juxtaposition of grief and joy. As the Pixar movie Inside Out demonstrates, we need to feel our sad feelings. But also we need to look for and find joy, cultivate gratitude and embrace pleasure. It’s there. Our hearts and bodies need it and the memory of it to move us through hard times.

8 – Look for or create meaning

I don’t believe in some intelligent universe that sends everyone exactly the sorts of challenges that they need to grow. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. I think plenty of disruption just sucks. There are people who are going through some awful shit storms during this pandemic and none of it’s fair. They don’t deserve it, it’s nothing that the universe sent them to learn some essential lesson, it’s not karma or God’s will, it’s just heart-wrenching tragedy. But just because there isn’t some inherent meaning in suffering doesn’t mean we can’t create some meaning in it, and a lot of research has shown that finding meaning in hard things helps us be more likely to experience post-traumatic growth instead of post-traumatic stress disorder. So maybe you have to make up some kind of meaning for what happened, but creating meaning is what helps us move through it, it’s what gives us resilience, it helps us move on and survive in a better place than where we started .

One way that I create meaning is in telling stories. Research has shown that families that have a sort of family story about where we came from, what we went through, how we got to the other end and what that meant, tend to be more resilient and connected. In my relationships and in my family I like to tell and retell our story to each other. This is who we are. This is why we’re here. This is what we’re doing. This is where we’ve been and where we’re going. This is why and what it means to us. And as new things come up, sometimes we have to rewrite our story. But the cool thing about stories is that they are alive and with every retelling, they have such a tremendous power to shape our experiences and how we connect to each other.

The challenge and the opportunity

If you’re stuck in grief, anger, victimhood, frustration, if you’re overwhelmed or frozen or kicked into overdrive, I am there with you. I get hit with that too. Everyone in my life is having up days and down days. We’ve had tensions. We’ve had fights. We drop the ball. There have been many ways that we all have had to rearrange our expectations, schedules, our furniture, our plans, everything. And there have been moments of grief and loss regularly over small and big things.

I’ve also been blown away by the way everyone I know has been working to be their best self right now. Taking ownership of what they can, making space for compassion toward anyone who is struggling. I’ve also been finding a lot of small joys. My kids have started sitting outside on our front porch to eat lunch followed by a dance party. We’ve been going on hikes almost every day. I have more long talks with my mom. My partner is now sharing our home, something we’ve talked about for over a year. They have their art hanging on the walls, and it feels like it should have always been there. I’m embracing the slowness and the way days blend together instead of letting it get disorienting or numbing. I try to remember to laugh and sing and cherish what’s right in front of me.

I get the chance to remind my kids all the time what it means to be a family, and that when times are hard we take care of each other - but we also remember to have fun. Disruption is always going to be a time of destruction, of loss, of change. But disruption is also an opportunity for creation.

So I want to ask you, in the face of whatever disruption you’re facing right now, what will you create?

If you find that what I’m saying resonates for you, but you want to really dive deeper, schedule a free introductory session here.

About the Author

Libby Sinback is a queer, polyamorous mom, a relationship transformation coach, and host of the podcast, Making Polyamory Work. Libby helps individuals, couples, and polycules who want to break out of harmful relationship patterns and rewrite their broken scripts from childhood and culture to embrace nourishing, authentic, boundless love in their life.