How do you get engaged when there’s more than one of you?
There’s a million different ways. I’ve written before about multiplicity and relationships, and also about how switching affects relationships. Some people don’t know they have multiplicity when they enter into long term relationships. Some have a single part bond – one part is engaged, the others may have reactions ranging from excitement to indifference to horror, or be entirely unaware this is happening until they come back out maybe months or years later. Some may have group bonds where many parts have relationships of various kinds with the other person.
I’ve done romantic relationships before I knew about parts. They were tremendously challenging. Things would be going brilliantly and suddenly completely derail without warning – what I now know was being caused by different parts switching and needing completely different things. Child parts would be distraught at being kissed on the mouth, wild parts would need to run in the night, the poets needed ink and solitude and contemplation and freedom to be melancholy, the researcher craves new information and sharp minds to discuss with. The experience for the partner is one of ‘consistent inconsistency’. Some days I drink my tea this way and some that. Some days I love licorice and some days hate it. Some days I sink into a hug and some days flinch. Part based roles make it challenging to engage relationship boundaries – this part remembers all the good things, that part the bad. When the former part is out they are happy, easy to get along with, generous, and malleable. When the latter is out, they are frustrated, suspicious, and desperate to repair whatever trust has been broken or boundaries violated. Hence the bounce between ‘everything is awesome’ and ‘everything is broken’.
The real challenge was in discovering that they are both right but also both a little unbalanced because of the skewed information they have to work with. For years we thought my part who recalls the painful and frightening things was simply us being ‘depressed’, and that we should ignore everything we think and feel during those times as merely being the product of mental illness and low mood. Turns out she actually had some really important points, and that without her perspective we’re really vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. On the other hand, most of her proposed solutions were drastic and destructive. We had to take her input and work on something more useful to do with it.
I’ve also tried my hand at romance once I knew about my multiplicity but wasn’t ready to share it. That was challenging in a whole different way. Concealing switching was easy because that’s how my system usually works anyway, but trying to get a partner not to take it personally or think they’d done something wrong when I needed things to be platonic for child parts, for example, was really hard for me. I found that I started to feel like a sleeper agent with a cover story. There were real feelings and people and lives around me, but a central secret about who I was disconnected me, and the constant need to conceal and the terror of being outed caused me tremendous distress.
I’ve been in romances with multiples as well as singles, guys as well as girls. They are wildly different in some ways, but I wouldn’t describe any of them as fundamentally ‘easier’, just different. I’ve found that we gravitate towards people who have access to a wide range of ‘sides of themselves’ if they’re not actually multiple. That is, what we usually mean when we talk about parts of ourselves; ‘part of me wants to study tonight, part of me wants to go hang out with my friends’. People who have found one way of being in the world and stick with it through all circumstances tend to confuse and sadden me. I can often ‘feel’ their buried parts or cut off emotions, and struggle not to interact with those sides of them. I can find myself impatiently waiting for them to reveal more of themselves – particularly when their approach to life is clearly not working for them – why don’t you switch already? Sometimes I feel like the lucky one and people with so little access to other perspectives and ways of being in the world feel like the ones who need help.
That’s not to say that these other ways can’t work! At one point I was in a relationship, as an undiagnosed multiple, with another undiagnosed multiple. When it worked it was beautiful, a synchronicity, us against the world, at last someone who functioned the way I did, needed the things I needed, saw the world the way I saw it. When it didn’t work it was agony. People find themselves in very different situations and navigate their relationships in different ways. There’s no right or wrong answer here, just different ones, and the challenge to love without harming or being harmed.
Rose is the first person I’ve been involved with as an ‘out’ multiple. I vastly prefer it! It means that the night one of my deep, very wounded parts came out and had a panic attack when Rose touched her made sense. I could explain what happened. Rose could adapt. Rose now recognises almost all of my system by sight – how we talk, walk, hold our body, the colour of our eyes. She knows our individual personal names. Even when she can’t tell who it is, she can tell the basics that she needs to know – adult/teen/child, male/female/other, romantic/platonic, reassured by touch/traumatised by touch. With that information we can both navigate the switching and build and maintain relationships between everyone. She’s met most of us who switch out, and with most has formed a strong relationship of some kind. In our case, there’s several who are romantically involved with her, then there are friends, ones who relate more as sisters, ones who only get involved occasionally, and so on. We’ve proposed as a group, and so we didn’t ask her to marry us, but to be our family, because what we’re asking for and offering is different for each of us.
There’s challenges! Everyone doesn’t always get along. Parts have different needs. It can be easy to fall into a carer/caree dynamic as that is how we are seen in the mental health world. There’s the added pressure of being treated as ‘trailblazers’ who are proving that relationships with multiple are (or are not) possible. Rather similar to the way that our relationship is seen as representative of all lesbian relationships in friendship or family circles who haven’t been directly exposed to any others. There’s the challenge of embracing Rose without writing her into my system – letting my child parts love her but not treat her as a parent (that’s our role), not catching her up in the inevitable rescue fantasies that most of us who have at some point been deeply hurt find written into our approach to the world, not seeing her as others who have hurt us when things aren’t going well.
There’s also upsides. Like the time she asks for the part who handles physical aggression when we’re walking at night and group of guys is watching us in a scary manner… and I can say to her – already here love, don’t worry, I’ve got your back. It’s late night video games with my kids, it’s climbing trees with the wild ones, it’s sharing stories of homelessness with the survivors, and having huge conversations about peer work and youth work and social work and community and mental health and power and families. It’s Rose having someone who gets her experiences with flashbacks, nightmares, body shame, and self loathing… and can make her laugh about them. It’s about us having the stamina to switch out the tired ones and make it through a week of Rose in hospital, also keeping the pets alive, easing her trauma reactions so she doesn’t wind up sectioned as well, being there through severe pain, and putting all our needs on hold until it’s over. It’s about the contradictions that make up all people, writ large; the edible glitter on cupcakes and the goth nightclubs, the gardener and the naked body painter in a psychotic whirl, the person who takes lizards off the road and nurses orphaned kittens and the one who burns with rage when Rose is being hurt.
As I keep saying, multiplicity is normal human function, writ large. It’s a dance, between adult and child, light and dark, male and female, the apparently functional and the apparently wounded, the ones who fit in and the ones who don’t fit anywhere. We dance together, sometimes she needs me to make her laugh and my cheeky imp turns up and turns the house upside down. Sometimes I need her to hold me and tell me “don’t worry love, everyone gets to see your charismatic ones. I’m privileged to know the ones who don’t stand up in front of crowds”.
There’s days she cares for me but she’s not my carer. There’s times she feels deep empathy for me, but she’s not with me because she feels sorry for me. There’s needs she has that I’m good at meeting, but we’re not together to exploit my capacity. There’s ways in which we’re similar and also big differences. Navigating multiplicity is a key aspect of every day and every part of our relationship, and in another sense, it’s irrelevant. Once you get used to kids turning up in the lolly aisle at the supermarket and know not to be scared and wander around hand in hand talking about the virtues of kinder surprises vs gummi bears, knowing that I’ll switch back to an adult in time to drive home, it’s just not that big a deal. Once you’ve learned what helps in a bad night, then swinging into action to rub my back and listen empathetically as some wounded soul howls or flashbacks or recounts a nightmare is just part of our life. Trauma is part of our world, some times a big part to manage, sometimes so small it’s barely there, but it’s just something to live with. It’s not a source of shame or fighting or horror, we make plans around it just like we would if I was still in a wheelchair. We don’t compete about who is in the most pain, we don’t treat my experiences or my multiplicity as worse or more important or more amazing than Rose’s experiences of trauma and loss and triumph. She is neither healthier, nor sicker, nor luckier, nor less creative, than we are.
We’re both just people, frail humans, with capacity for light and dark, with frustrating and enduring weaknesses, with amazing strengths. We work to keep our power in balance, to love each other, to own our own stuff, and to make a great life together. Just like anyone else. Love is love.