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What I Got Wrong in More Than Two: The Dark Night of the Soul

November 29, 2019

There are a lot of things I fucked up in More Than Two. I recently wrote about how hard it is for me to even look at the book, and how it’s going to be awhile before I can really dig in to what I think the problems with it are.

I want to start with an apology to Inês Rôlo, and what I know I got wrong—and have known for at least a year.

Inês recently posted an essay on Medium: “I was in a polyamorous and abusive relationship for 7 years… here’s what I learned.” There was a lot in that essay that hit close to home. And while she never calls out More Than Two specifically by name, one passage in particular gets to the heart of what I see as one of its core problems—teaching you to ignore your pain:

Most of the poly literature I read kept telling me I could do it no matter how much pain I felt. It taught me to put bandages on it, to strategize around it, but never to listen to it.

Poly is very critical of feelings as commodities, of love as a scarce resource. It’s supposed to be something that values love and feeling, but instead it tackles feelings as things to be dealt with and over with. It doesn’t recognize that feelings might be there for a reason. Feelings are not meant to be simply overcome. Sometimes, they’re meant to be felt.

She’s right.

There’s a passage in More Than Two that I profoundly regret. I don’t know if it’s the most harmful thing in the book, but I know it underpins a lot of other harm. And unfortunately, I wrote it:

Eve has called this kind of time the “dark night of the soul” moment. Unless you are truly exceptional, you will experience it at some point, usually early on. Maybe your partners are struggling. Maybe you’re tired of fighting your inner demons. And this is when it really matters whether you’ve committed, with all your heart and soul, to being poly. If you don’t commit, if you aren’t ready for that dark night of the soul, and you back away in fear when it comes, then you and people you love are going to get very hurt.

So be ready. Because if you step into it and keep walking, you will get through it. It ends. Know that you’re not alone: thousands of people before you have walked this path—not exactly yours, of course, but just as dark and scary. It ends. And it’s better on the other side. Getting through that dark night removes its power over you, and that’s what it takes to get you (and your partners, and their partners) onto a solid footing that will lead you to happiness, a place where you can make clear-headed decisions focused on the good of everyone.

The longer people avoid confronting that dark night of the soul, the more power it has over them and their relationships. Some people elaborately construct their entire lives to avoid confronting fear. Many people use the hearts of their lovers or their metamours as sacrifices to the unknown beasts they think live within the darkness they’re not willing to explore.

We urge you, if you are going to explore polyamory, don’t just dip a toe in. One, that’s not going to give you the strength and tools to succeed. Two, you’ll be treating people as things.

Of the people who do decide to make that commitment, to live polyamorously and treat their partners ethically even when it means confronting those heart-shaking fears, no one makes quite the same trip. Everyone charts a different path through that dark night. But it begins with commitment: knowing you are going to do this, and that you can.

Oh god. Y’all, please don’t listen to me. Please.

I mean it sounds all inspirational and stuff, doesn’t it? You can do it! DO THE THING! It gets better! Just keep going!

Except it’s fucked up. Because Inês is right. Pain is a signal. Sometimes—very often, in fact—it’s a signal that you’re being hurt, and need to stop what you’re doing. My advice in More Than Two worked for me once, when I needed it…and then later, it led me to endure years of abuse without ever realizing what was happening to me, because I believed that if my relationship hurt, it was because I was unlearning conditioning, or needed to fix something in myself, or just get through it—until I was past the point of no return, and the damage to my psyche was irreparable.

Inês wrote:

I didn’t know that pain is always a warning. Our bodies and feelings know what the deal is before we do. Even if our brains convince us otherwise. Paying attention to what I feel was one of the biggest lessons I learned.

I said that I’ve known about this problem in More Than Two for over a year. It was in the summer of 2018 that I received an advance manuscript for the book Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond by Matthew Remski.* The title of the book is a reference to the way in which an abusive yoga guru, Pattabhi Jois, and his many enablers silenced questions and complaints about his behaviour through a relentless focus on the practice—using a method common in cults:

There’s always a bigger story going on, and you’re not enlightened enough to see it. But if you mind your own business, and focus on your own practice, all will become clear. Practice, and all is coming.

After many interviews with Jois’s dedicated students, I began to wonder whether the incredible focus for which they are known, their dedication, their ability to tolerate pain…were tangled up with what they had to do to manage this shame, consciously or not. I wondered whether their ardor held back the dark of a shared secret.

This was one of many points in the book where I felt a chill of recognition—and began to regret the focus in More Than Two on just pushing through your pain.

And then I listened to the Escaping NXIVM podcast, and learned about Keith Raniere and the “fright experiments.”

NXIVM was a self-help multilevel marketing cult. Basically they sold the idea that all the barriers in your life were self-imposed, and all your problems could be overcome through self-improvement—which happened, of course, through the expensive seminars offered by NXIVM. Keith Raniere was its founder and central figure, but his recruiters were primarily intelligent, successful women who were drawn in by his charm and his messianic promises that they would save the world.

Another chill of recognition. That’s what my ex said to me, too—that we were saving the world. It’s a seductive narrative, isn’t it?

The Fright Experiments were conducted with some of those close to the inner circle. They were hooked up to an EEG and made to watch increasingly violent film clips graphically depicting rape and murder. After each clip, a “researcher” would calmly ask them how they felt. If they reported distress, they’d be asked if they thought there was something there they needed to work on.

Kobelt said she was in shock, with tears and snot dripping down her face, when Porter asked her once again: “What’s going on for you?”

He then suggested Kobelt should have an exploration of meaning, or EM, to find out why she had such extreme reactions to some of the clips, she said.

In the world of NXIVM, an EM is a process where a disciple digs deep into their psyche, with the help of a coach, to get at the root of an emotional reaction in an attempt to resolve the underlying issue.

At that moment, it sounded like a ridiculous idea to Kobelt.

She said she remembered thinking: “I don’t know if this is something I want to resolve. I don’t know if I ever want to be OK with gang rape. Or, you know, murder by machete.”

But another voice came into her head, she said, once again reminding her of the NXIVM lessons she’d spent years learning.

Like that she has faulty programming and limiting thoughts that have been building up since childhood and hold her back.

And that she should accept feedback.

“Jenn, you’re fighting. Stop fighting. Just take the feedback,” Kobelt said she told herself. “If you’re fighting it, it’s probably true.”

She went back to the house where she was staying, had a shower and then texted her NXIVM coach: “Hey, I really need an exploration of meaning.”

They were being trained to accept the unacceptable. To respond to real, legitimate distress at things that no one should ever be okay with with a desire to further “improve” themselves.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Now obviously we’re not talking about such extremes. But the processes, I believe, are the same: Someone experiences something distressing. They have a reaction. Someone calmly watches, perhaps even displays some empathy, and then says, “Now…what do you need to work on there?” The words and the context may vary, but the dynamic is the same.

Now here’s where this gets tricky. In polyamory, there is some stuff that we may genuinely want that is, purely because of conditioning that we do want to shed, going to be uncomfortable and that we want to get okay with—and that won’t harm us if we do. I was eventually able to learn not just to accept, but to enjoy seeing my husband holding hands with his partner, or the look of bliss on his face when they kissed. And then there’s other stuff that’s really just not okay—that’s harmful or abusive. Stuff like lying. Keeping secrets. Triangulating your partners. Repeatedly springing decisions on someone that affect them, without their input, and gaslighting them when they complain. These are all things that happened to me—and for a long time, I thought it was my fault that it hurt. That I just needed to try harder.

The problem is that the social and psychological milieu that is reinforced by the popular poly literature, including More Than Two, deadens our ability to tell the difference between these kinds of pain—between the psychic equivalent of a nice, deep stretch, and the pop of a tendon tearing or shoulder dislocating. All pain is the same, all pain must be embraced and worked through. It’s not all that different, really, from the Ashtanga yogis who followed Jois.

Inês again:

When you feel different and experience discomfort, you end up thinking that’s normal. After all, you’re doing something other people don’t. Society does not get you. People discriminate against you and your way of living. So you turn to “your” people. When you’re poly, your social circle becomes the people you’re dating and the people they’re dating. Everyone I met, I met through my partners and my partners’ partners. When I left, I had almost no “outside” friends.

I accepted the unease and emotional distress because I thought they were normal. I talked publicly about those feelings and got an immense validation from my community. I thought being in pain was the deal. Suffering was part of it. Like all the books said.

And then when someone is abusive? When someone genuinely wants to undermine your ability to trust yourself, to believe in yourself, to say “ouch!” and “stop!”? When someone is genuinely more invested in getting what they want from you and others than they are in mutual co-creation of well-being? Then we’ve handed them just the weapons they need.

I’m sorry. I was wrong. It shouldn’t hurt—not like that. You know what’s best for you. Listen to yourself. Trust yourself.

Let’s do better.

*Update: In April 2021 Karen Rain, whose experiences form the central narrative of Practice and All Is Coming, published a blog post about her experience working with Remski. If you engage with or share his work, please also read her perspective.

Total solar eclipse

Total Solar Eclipse, Arco, ID. 2017. U.S. National Park Service/Jacob W. Frank Public domain.

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