More Than Two: the poly book we need right now July 3, 2014Posted by Ginny in Polyamory.
One of the things that makes poly hard, as we often say, is that there’s very little guidance. Monogamy in something like its current form has been going on for over a century (depending how narrowly you define “its current form”), and there are shelves and shelves of books and entire journals of research devoted to it. This wealth of resources means people who are dealing with challenges in their monogamous relationships have a lot of wisdom and outside perspectives to draw on. You can find books on marriage from within just about every religious and philosophical tradition, and addressing just about every conceivable problem. Polyamory’s not there, and it adds an extra layer of difficulty to problem-solving when you only have a few places you can go for the aforesaid wisdom and outside perspective.
We need research and clinical insight, but we also need some in-the-trenches views, words of wisdom and experience from people who have struggled, succeeded, failed, changed, and thought long and hard about their experiences and what lessons to take away. More Than Two, by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, is a strong entry in this gap. At different points while reading it, I felt reassured that my mistakes and struggles are more common than I thought; I felt challenged to work on the weak spots I have that could hurt my partners and metamours; I felt reaffirmed in my belief of how joyful and worthwhile this life I’ve chosen can be. I strongly recommend the book to anybody practicing or considering polyamory — and I think the first several chapters are great for relationships of any kind.
More Than Two is a practical guide, rooted in strong principles. The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship. Don’t treat people as things. These two foundational ethical principles are laid out near the beginning and returned to again and again, but there are other core principles at work in the book. Trust is essential. Growth is good. Change isn’t bad. With these and other principles as its bedrock, More Than Two gives concrete advice and insight on most of the common aspects of poly life.
Most poly advice falls on one of two sides: the rigid, “There are right ways and wrong ways, and this is the right way!” or the wishy-washy, “Whatever works for you, if it makes you happy it’s right!” For the most part, More Than Two steers clear of both of these camps. It is unapologetic about its core ethical principles, and often expresses firm opinions about whether a particular poly pattern is helpful or harmful in general, but it spends a lot more time on the reasons behind the opinion than the opinion itself. You get the sense that the goal is not to argue to a conclusion (as is often the case when someone is preaching a This Is The Right Way message), but to lay out as much information and analysis as possible, and let the conclusion speak for itself.
So, when discussing hierarchy, it doesn’t say, “Hierarchy is great!” or “Hierarchy is terrible!” It says, “Here are some common reasons why people want to establish a hierarchy de jure, and here are some issues that frequently come up in enforcing it, and here are some common ways that people can be hurt and expectations can be shattered in those situations.” It’s pretty clear that the authors don’t think enforced hierarchy is a good idea, but they lay out their view based on experience and principle, and they construct their argument such that a couple who’s hierarchical and proud of it could still take away valuable insights for making their relationship the best hierarchical relationship it can be.
In addition, Veaux and Rickert are careful about language in a way that pleases my communicator heart. When they talk about controversial subjects like hierarchy and veto, they clearly lay out what they do and don’t mean by those terms. They also point out a number of commonly-used words, such as “respect,” that tend to lead to trouble because of how ill-defined they are. Rather than just reinforcing the old poly chestnut “Communication is essential!” they dig deep into the details of what aids communication, what obscures it, and the ways communication can slip into coercion.
If I’m making the book sound dry, it’s not. It’s filled with rich and vivid metaphors that illustrate the concepts involved and inspire creative thinking about them, as the best metaphors do. And nearly every chapter has a personal story, sometimes about the authors’ relationships, sometimes about other people they’ve been close to. Some of the best insights and quotes come from within the stories, as the principles under discussion are brought into messy real-life situations.
Since I am in a de facto (although not de jure) primary relationship, and most of the people in my extended network are as well, I can’t speak to how thoroughly the book addresses the needs and experiences of people doing solo poly or other structures. I do know that the authors were making deliberate efforts to avoid couple-centric language and to reflect the wide range of poly structures, and as far as I can tell they did a good job of this, but because of my perspective I’m less likely to notice weaknesses in this area. What they definitely do well is calling out the double standards and assumptions that often come into play when there is a primary or domestic couple. Even though I think of my relationship as pretty resistant to hierarchical assumptions, I found several moments where I had to stop and think, “Huh… I do that. How do I feel about it?” Again, I didn’t feel scolded for slipping into some hierarchical behaviors — I felt challenged to think about those behaviors, the values underneath them, and the unwanted effects they might have.
Ultimately, the thing I value most about the book is how honest it is about the hard stuff. The personal stories tell about big mistakes, big hurt, big betrayals. It does not flinch from talking about the losses and changes that can happen as a result of poly. We in the poly community have been working hard to convince the world (and sometimes our own voices of self-doubt) that polyamory can be a healthy, happy, fulfilling way to live, and as a result we tend to downplay the agonizing choices, shattering mistakes, and relentless parade of “learning experiences” that come with the territory. Then, when things do go badly, we tend to feel alone and ashamed, like we’re the screwups who are letting the entire poly community down by having actual serious problems and making actual serious mistakes. (Did I say “we”? Obviously I’m talking about myself here, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.) More Than Two makes it clear that actual serious problems and actual serious mistakes are part of everybody’s poly experience. That the hard times are survivable, and that what matters is facing up to them with honesty, courage, and compassion.