polymoons, set theory, and boundaries June 12, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
Tags: boundaries, polymoon, relationships, trust
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Ginny and I returned from Austin, Texas yesterday. Gina, who had been with us for s few days, had returned a few days before that. Ginny and I had decided to go to Austin for a few reasons. One, she attended a conference which would be helpful for her academically and (potentially) professionally. Two, Austin is pretty awesome, and three, there is a very active atheist community there.
Oh, right…we also just got married. So, it was partially a honeymoon.
So, for those of you not paying full attention, what happened here is that my girlfriend came with us for part of our honeymoon. In a sense, it became a polymoon. That’s right folks, a polyamorous honeymoon.
There was some discussion while planning this trip, as to whether it was appropriate to have one’s other significant other (OSO) join them for their honeymoon. Ginny and I agreed, months before the wedding, that this relationship is not all about us. Neither of us feel very strongly about the idea of hierarchies in polyamorous relationships, and so there does not need to be a sacred space, time, or vacation that is just about us. Yes, we wanted some of it to be just about us, but all of it did not need to be so.
At the wedding itself, Gina was not only there, but she was a central part of the party as well as the ceremony, as I chose her to be my signing witness on the license. For most of my relationship with Gina, she has played a central, integrated, and important part of my life. So why wouldn’t she come with us to Austin? And being that Austin is one of the best places to hear live music and be around the vagaries of hipster culture, Gina and I had a great time watching ridiculous and down-right awesome live music while enjoying some good local food and drinks.
A new paradigm of relationships
What I am not sure many people fully understand about polyamory, at least as I view it, is that it is not merely about adding relationships to our lives. It isn’t merely having a girlfriend and a wife (in my case). It’s about discarding the very foundation of traditional monogamous culture. It’s about saying that there may, in fact, be something fundamentally broken about the way our culture looks at relationships.
In short, I am trying to destroy so-called “traditional marriage” in our culture. But more precisely, I’m trying to show that this “traditional” idea is not particularly good nor even very traditional. It is a broken, largely unhealthy, and unskeptical approach to relationships which does not answer our needs and desires in this short life. Some changes need to be made, if we are to live this life on our terms, not the terms of obsolete ideas about sex, love, and relationships.
Why do we make the logical leap from “I like this person and want to be with them” to “they are mine, and nobody else can have them”? Well, partially because this is not a logical leap at all, but it is a leap based upon emotions which are largely driven by uncertainty and fear.
Surely, at the beginning of relationships we are often genuinely distracted by the relationship, but why, upon having the relationship mature, do we continue along the path of exclusivity? Why do we seemingly forget that a relationship with another person does not have to be a contract of exclusivity, setting one person above all, forever, forsaking all other loves?
Why do we place other relationships second, third, etc hierarchies below that one special place? I don’t mean the people we are not very close to or perhaps don’t like; why do friends, other potential love interests, etc all become somehow demoted below that relationship necessarily and automatically?
Don’t get me wrong, when people voluntarily enter into relationships of their choosing, they can do so in any hierarchical fashion they like. But why (as I ask again and again) is their a default setting to put your significant other into a role of unique importance? Why can’t anyone else be placed there, or at least near there, as well?
The problem isn’t that people are not more or less important to us and our life, it is that we artificially have a slot for that one special person, when in real life things are not so simple. There is no reason to have to choose one person to inhabit that special part in our lives.
Poly set theory?
What I offer as an alternative is something like the following. Let’s think of relationships as fitting into sets. Each set may or may not overlap, especially over time, but they have levels of intimacy, care, and importance attached to them.
- Let’s start with what I will call strangers. These are people with whom you interact at a very superficial level, and who you either don’t know or don’t know well. These people are not close to you, you probably don’t know their name, and they are less likely to become part of your life in any meaningful way.
- Then there is a set of acquaintances. These are people with whom you share familiarity, but not closeness. You may like them or you may dislike them. You may, in fact, like them or hate them a great deal. They may be people from work, people in your network of social ties, neighbors, or distant relatives you see occasionally. These people may become close to you under certain situations, but likely only for short periods of time before returning to their relative distance.
- Also, there is the set of what I will call platonic friends. These are people with whom you share commonalities of interest, background, etc and with whom you have no romantic of sexual interest. You like, possibly love, these people and you enjoy spending time with them and may do so often. There is no rule that you cannot be lovers with them, but one or both of you is not interested in this arrangement, for whatever reasons, and so you do not. A good example here is your best friend from high school, college, work, close family members, etc.
- Then there are your friends, perhaps we could call them poly friends, with who you share romantic, sexual, etc relationships. These people are not your partners, not in the sense of a “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” kind of way, but they are people with who you have more than a mere friendship. Whether you do kink scenes with them, have occasional sex, or just like to spend time with them talking, sharing emotional intimacy, etc they are not mere friends, but also lovers and people with whom you share some level of intimacy. But they don’t quite make the set of partners, significant others, or even spouses.
- That last set, those with who you are closest and with whom you share highly integrated lives in addition to sexual and/or romantic intimacy are your partners or perhaps your family. In mainstream relationship culture, this role is set aside of one person, usually your wife, husband, etc. These are the people with whom you plan long-term lives with. You consider these people in making life-choices, they know you very well and care for you, and you may hope to spend the rest of your life with them around as part of your life.
But why should this last set, your partners, be defined as being a set of one ideally? What is the rational explanation for this? The fact is that any of these sets can have many or few people in it. And, I would argue, many forms of polyamory probably maintain the arrangement of that last set being set aside for one person.
Hierarchy in Polyamory
In my experience, many forms of polyamory still include this idea that one person is still relegated to this last set. Some poly people see the primary relationship as sacred, unique, and other partners should not transgress the boundaries set by a primary partner. Now, clearly boundaries agreed to are important, but I wonder to what extent those boundaries are necessary or ideal.
The idea that my girlfriend should not join my wife and I on our honeymoon assumes a boundary around such times and places. It assumes a sacred space into which another person should not tread. Now, if my wife and I decide to set that boundary, a girlfriend should not cross it, but the question is whether such a boundary should be created.
In polyspeak, are rules and boundaries necessarily a good thing to require, or do they perpetuate the very basis of mainstream monogamous culture?
Basic rules about safety, property, etc are good ideas, but it seems to me that any healthy relationship would not have to enumerate such rules. Why, for example, would I want to be in a relationship with a person who would flaunt and disregard safety, property, etc?
If a new lover said to me something like “don’t bother with the condom. I know we haven’t talked about it or cleared it with your partner, but I’m clean and I won’t tell anyone,” then not only am I most-certainly using a condom, but I might decide to discontinue the sexual relationship under some circumstances.
Why? Because it shows that this person cannot be trusted to respect safe sexuality. How many other partners has this person said that to? How many of them are usually safe? There are too many uncertainties for me to follow this request and still consider myself a loving partner. It shows that this is a person I should not want to be very close to me because I already know they are willing to lie and deceive. Such a person could not enter my last set of partner, and may not last long as a poly friend, depending on other factors.
Boundaries are rules that grown organically out of actually loving and being considerate of the people we are with. It seems to me that to enumerate such rules demonstrates some level of distrust. And so the more a person moves from one set to another, the less rules should be necessary. When we have people we wish to think of as partners, family, and spouses, we should not have to have rules so much as respect and good decisions. We should want to keep them as safe, or safer, than we would be willing to keep ourselves.
Bottom line, Ginny and Gina are my partners. I trust both of them, even in their times of human weakness and uncertainty. My life is entangled with both of them, and as a result their lives will be entangled with each other, and also with the people with who they are entangled. Therefore, Gina does not need to be relegated to a second-class place in my life any more than I would want to be relegated to a second-class place in hers.
And through this tangled web of sets, a family forms. Not that we are all extremely close, that we are all necessarily intimate, but that the decisions I make affect them and vice-versa. Rules and boundaries for such arrangements only betray lack of trust, and I want trust as part of my life.
Tags: cheating, monogamy, relationships, trust
This post will be hard for me to write. It will be difficult because it involves mistakes I have made juxtaposed with ideas about love and polyamory that may come across as crass, cold, and possibly uncaring. There will undoubtedly be people who read this that think of me as an asshole for the thoughts I will express below, but I think it’s worth exploring these ideas anyway.
After all, it is such experiences which helped give me perspective on polyamory, and perhaps some people will sympathize or have experienced similar things.
So, I have not always been polyamorous. Well, I suppose somewhere deep down, I have always been predisposed to polyamory, but I have not always practiced polyamory in my relationships. I discovered it early, being around 20 or so, and while I had a quasi polyamorous relationship back then, I was immature, uninformed, and was not really ready to have very healthy relationships then.
So, after college I was monogamous, serially so anyway. And during the most serious relationship I was in during my 20′s, I acted badly on at least one occasion. All of the details of the act are not necessary, but it should be sufficient for me to say that I cheated, hid that act from my girlfriend (with whom I was living at the time), and it was eventually found out.
But I want to focus in on a small part of all of this in order to draw out a lesson I learned about myself, love, and non-monogamy from that time. This part occurred a long while (I think 6 months or so) before she found out about the act. It was pretty immediately after the act happened, in fact. It was the first real opportunity I had to reflect on it in the presence of my girlfriend, and I regret not coming clean at that time, but it’s the past….
I loved her. In many ways, I still do. But I truly loved her then and appreciated our relationship and all the wonderful times we had. Sure, we argued about things like cleaning (she was terribly messy), being on time (She was perpetually late), and so forth, but I loved her genuinely. The sex was great, she got along with my friends, and I loved being with her. I found her very attractive, passionate, and there was never a lack of desire from my part.
The cheating act, therefore, was not about lack of attention or satisfaction. It was just about me being into someone else I had met and with whom I had spent some time in social gatherings One weekend, the circumstances allowed the possibility to act on it, which I did. Yes, alcohol was involved, but the responsibility was ours. We both knew what we were doing was wrong. We did it anyway.
A couple of days later I was faced with my girlfriend, and I had a choice. I knew that it would have been easy to get away with what happened, and so while I felt like I should say something, I hesitated. And so with the intention of sitting her down and telling her, despite knowing it could end the relationship, I found her and could only express a strained but genuine smile. She was happy. She was in a great mood, had plans for the day she was excitedly telling me about, and I was genuinely glad to see her. Yes, the sex had been good with the other girl. Yes I also liked the other girl. Yes, I had violated a trust. Yes, I should have stopped her and said something.
But we were happy. A rationalization for sure, but a true one.
It was at this moment that it fully clicked home for me that there is no contradiction between loving two people. Or at least loving one person while enjoying sex and intimacy with another person, as I cannot say honestly I was in love with the other girl; that would be a severe stretch of the truth. We were recent acquaintances, really. I didn’t know her very well. But we liked each other, shared attraction, and decided to act on it spontaneously.
I felt the tension of knowing I had acted badly and feeling genuine love for the person whose trust I had violated. It was guilt mixed with happiness. I knew, at that moment, that I would be capable of caring for a person deeply and genuinely while also being with someone else. I knew that polyamory was something I wanted and would be capable of. The irony of discovering this in the context of doing it all very wrong is not lost on me at all.
We were together for some time after this, even after she found out about the act. We actually had a polyamorous relationship with another woman later on, which was a fairly successful even if relatively short triad. The cheating act did create problems, but we worked through them and moved on. I don’t know if the trust ever fully returned, and the relationship eventually faded until we were friends with benefits, friends, and now there is distance between us.
Now I’m married, and she engaged. We don’t talk much anymore, but are on friendly terms. I still love her and care about her, even knowing we cannot work as partners nor, do I think, would either of us want to. Such is life.
So, here is the thing. I violated an important trust. I had sex with another woman while in a monogamous relationship, and after having done so all I could think about was how happy I was with my girlfriend, how much I loved her, and how much I still wanted to be with her. I also thought about how in an ideal world I would continue to see that other girl. That never happened. We only saw each other a couple times after that, and eventually job opportunities led her away.
There was no immediate, visceral contradiction there for me. Yes, there was a tension, but it was mostly fear of losing a person I loved with some guilt for having done it. But there was no deep feeling of having done something inherently wrong; no feeling that sex with another person while in a relationship was always wrong, just wrong when done in this way.
I was aware of the fact that according to common wisdom there should have been a contradiction there, but it didn’t exist for me. The tension was all in knowing that I could do it again, at least not in the wrong way. I wanted to do it in the right way. And eventually (after she found out) we would start talking about opening up our relationship, and we eventually did decide to become polyamorous.
I was as if, in my mind at that time, I was already polyamorous. I completely got how one could share and be shared without it being an issue. The fact that we were not polyamorous at the time, that we had not agreed to share, was a problem that did erode at me, but we continued to be happy. In fact, later on she did something rather similar with a male friend of hers while visiting home and did disclose it to me immediately. And it was fine.
It was fine because in my mind I was already willing to share. I was already geared to have that conversation. I had already stopped thinking about her as being exclusively mine. I would love her whether she was with other men (or women) or not. I loved her because I loved her, not because she loved only me.
Now that I am polyamorous, I experience a similar feeling all the time. Whether I spend some intimate time with Gina, Ginny, or someone else, if I am to then spend time with my wife or my girlfriend afterwards, I am then focused on them. The fact that I just had sex with another person cannot touch what I have with them. What I have with them is special, powerful, and transcends such silly things as where my penis was just a little while ago or whose penis was with them.
Why does that matter? Why should that matter?
And I understood that in that moment I should have disclosed the act, but didn’t. I rationalized all sorts of reasons why it was better to keep it secret. I get that even if it didn’t change how I felt or that it really should not matter, I should have disclosed. And now I do disclose. If I am with someone else, Ginny and Gina usually know that it is a fair possibility before it happens. And if it does happen, they know.
And I still love them both, am happy with them both, and all is transparent.
What I learned was that sex and other people cannot damage relationships in themselves. Relationships fall or stand on their own merits. If your relationship is strong, it can withstand external intimacy. If your relationships have weaknesses, those external intimacies will become a lightning rod for those weaknesses, but are not necessarily the cause of them.
So yes, cheating is a violation of trust. But it is not the act, the sex, that does the damage. The damage is the violation of trust. That was a distinction I learned that day, and have ever forgotten.
Of anniversary and double entrendre January 16, 2011Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: break-up, love, trust
It may be arbitrary to some degree, but a year is a year (is a year? How much repetition distinguishes an idiom from redundancy?), and it has been a year.
And digressing thoughts aside (as well as regressive digressions about digressions), perhaps this post could use some context. After all, I do not think it that it is common for people to celebrate arbitrary dates and celebrate (or mourn) random days. Not that I have never been known to do uncommon things, mind you, but not even I am that abnormal…I think.
So, back on October of 2009, I moved to Atlanta with a girl names Seana. We met in Philadelphia, began dating, and when she was offered a job in Atlanta she took it and asked me to join her. I, not having a job at the time and wanting to experience life in another part of the country (and eventually the world), decided to take the risk and go. Risk being the word which has emotional import to this blogger.
So, a few months later things were not going so well, we had a minor argument, and she left. She did not give me an explanation, she refused to speak to me again, and was just gone from my life. That was January 16th 2010, one year ago today. Happy anniversary to me! But one does not usually commemorate dates of break-ups, at least if one is to be considered emotionally healthy, and likewise that is not the intention here.
While the circumstances of this painful break-up were non-typical in themselves, what happened next was what more appropriately makes this an anniversary…perhaps…that’s an issue for debate.
That very same day, being emotionally distraught and in need of distraction, I called two friends I had made while in Atlanta. I met them at The Brick Store (if you ever visit Atlanta and you love beer, you must visit this place!) and had a few drinks, distracted myself, and had a few laughs. One of those friends was a girl I had met a week before, Ginny, and in my anguish and confusion I found myself attracted to her, and things went their natural way as they do with people in such circumstances. Thus, another kind of anniversary, on the same day.
But that is not quite right. Despite this start, it took time to heal, and in that time Ginny was the best of friends, most trusted confidant, and eventually we began to see ourselves as partners (polyamorous partners, of course), and I fell in love with her. But the ability to trust, to love, and to move on after such a wound takes time. She was patient, and in time I, even with the scars that still exist, have found that I have been able to trust, to love, and to look forward to a better future.
But the question still remains as to when, precisely, our relationship started. The question Ginny and I have asked ourselves is ‘so, when is our anniversary?’ It’s a legitimate question, one which we do not have a definitive answer to. Ultimately, it is of little practical difference, as it does not change how we feel about each other, but it becomes a matter of deciding how long we have been together as partners.
In any case, we are, and I hope will continue to be, partners. She is a wonderful person, ideal in my opinion, and I am glad beyond my ability to articulate to know her. In fact, I think I have found myself in a better place now than I was before. I mean no disrespect to any particular exes, but I think I have upgraded in every way, and there is a lesson in this. I think the lesson is that sometimes when we are in pain, we don’t see that things can indeed get better. I urge anyone in pain, suffering a loss of any kind, to keep this in mind. You may find that you will learn things about yourself in times of loss that while unfortunate, may give you perspective. I can almost thank Seana for giving me that perspective…but she’d never hear it nor would she likely understand.
And while I would like to have some explanation, some understanding, and possibly some closure (that will not happen, almost certainly), I am almost….glad (that seems odd to say, but it feels true) that previous relationship did not work. I realize, only in retrospect, that while I did love her, she was not the right fit for me because the truth that is necessary in any relationship was not present in treating a loved one in such a way. It was not warranted, and if it had not happened then, and in that way, it would have happened some other way, at some later time, most-likely
That’s the thing about trust. I thought I could trust Seana, but it turned out I should not have. But I won’t stop trusting. it took me some time, but I came to trust Ginny. And there is no guarantee that this trust will maintained in the end, but I will not resign to the cynicism of keeping people at a distance out of fear that they may break any trust I give them. I will not allow the actions of a fearful and ultimately selfish person to ruin my future with other people I care about. I hope, for the sake of her current and/or future partners, that she will grow beyond who she was to me.
But, I take one thing back; it is not a double entendre at all. No double anniversary here. I do not need to remember such a day, such an act, or such a person as Seana with any further thought (which is not to say the scars will disappear, of course) or comment (that I can control). I therefore, commit such things to the past, where they belong.
But, more importantly, I hope that the people in my life will end up being more like Ginnys than Seanas. I thank Ginny for being the amazing person she is, and I wish her a happy anniversary (of sorts).
And, as we plan on moving to Philadelphia, I hope that those I know there will grow to love her as I do.