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.