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Polyamory: not the plural of traditional monogamy May 20, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, relationships.
Tags: , , ,

So, updates and such

Hey there blog readers, remember me?

So, I’ve been a way for a bit. Was between contracts for a while, enjoying Spring, and playing some hockey. I started a new job this week. It seems like a good fit, and they seem to want to make me full time once I get trough the trial period of the contract, which is great. I find myself with a slow-ish afternoon on the last day of this first week, and I decided to say a few things.

A few things.


There, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I can get on with the such.

Have you ever been in a relationship that was just not going well? I mean, the person is great, you love being with them, but something just isn’t right? Maybe it’s not a good match, maybe one or both of you is going through some shit and it’s getting in the way. Maybe their other relationships are effecting your relationship. In any case, it’s just better being done with it, and while you miss the person, you don’t miss the relationship?

You still love that person, and you probably even miss them, but once the situation is gone and done, you can see all the things you couldn’t before and you don’t want to go back unless things would be different. And you know that they probably will not be.

You know what I mean?

Well, whether you understand or not, the fact is that there is actually a meaning there, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently.

I was in a relationship with a lovely, intelligent, and very sexy woman for about 2 years, which ended recently (she ended things, to be clear). I miss her, every day. We have not spoken in about 3 months. The reasons for our relationship ending are not really relevant here, but suffice it to say that I understand why it ended and am no longer angry about it. I’m disappointed, mostly.

But after some time away, some things became clear, and I think that this type of situation is common enough in polyamory to say a few words about it.

It concerns a pattern which is very common to people who are just trying polyamory for the first time, and how they set down rules, expectations, etc which become largely unspoken minefields for the people with whom they become involved. Now, this type of thing is addressed in some of the polyamorous literature (including More Than Two, but I cannot cite the chapter because I don’t have my copy with me, and am too lazy to look it up, currently), but I still think that this particular problem is under-discussed among actual polyamorous people, especially among those who are new to it.

I get it. You are established in your relationship, and you want to make sure that your relationship isn’t threatened. So you make some rules, but more than the rules you expect some level of control over who your partner sees, when they see them, and perhaps establish a hierarchy to make sure you are primary; to make sure your place is not threatened.

Yes, this is about couple privilege and imposed rules and hierarchies. Anyone who gets involved with any such established couples will be subject to an agreement they never made, and further will often have similar expectations on anyone else you might see, because such control becomes the default in how they think about relationships.

What is happening here is traditional models of relationships are being smuggled into a polyamorous situation. As if polyamory was just the plural of traditional monogamy. Spoiler; it’s not.

The control and sense of ownership inherent in most relationships in our culture, which is the basis for much of monogamy, is already a problem on it’s own, but it is especially toxic when people try to apply it to a non-monogamous situation. The result is that the control extends beyond the primary relationship, and seeps into the secondary and tertiary relationships. Anyone who gets involved with such a primary couple risks inheriting the rules, sense of ownership and control, and manipulation involved in such a relationship.

From the point of view of the primary couple, there is no problem. They see this as how it’s always been, and possibly how it should be. They, in short, are comfortable with it (or, at least one of them is; probably the one making the rules). But to those outside, it acts very much like a minor form of oppression. You find yourself subject to rules you didn’t agree to, you find yourself having to defer to the primary relationship almost always, and there is a gap in the potential for intimacy, especially the longer the relationship goes on.

You are, essentially, a second-class partner. And, after a while, the relationship can no longer be a healthy one. One feels stifled, and in some cases we can smell the resentment from our metamours who seek to control our access to their partners, as if they sense the struggling from within the chains thrust upon them.


And it’s super hard to see it when it’s happening, unless you are paying really close attention and you have a lot of experience with such things. And it’s hard to talk about these things with the primary couple because they are in a position of privilege, and hence are blind to it. Also, the signs are often ambiguous; it’s really hard to tell the difference between normal conflicts and when you are treating someone in your life like a second-class partner, in some cases.

I think that the most important distinction which is relevant here is this; you should not try to create rules for other people, but you can define your own boundaries. That is, you cannot tell two other people how to go about their relationship, even if you also have a relationship with one or both of them, but you can communicate the edge of your emotional needs, wants, and preferences and allow others to make their own decisions regarding that.

If you aren’t clear, ask yourself this when you come to the point of potential conflict between the needs or wants of two partners;

  • Am I doing/not doing this because I’m afraid to hurt one or both of them, or because I do want to do it this way?
  • And if I am doing it for one of their sake, is it something I would feel comfortable bringing up for re-evaluation or negotiation?
  • And if not, then am I comfortable with the amount of control one person has over my relationship with another?
  • And even if the answers to the above are all “yes”, is my other partner OK with all of this? How might I feel in their place?


My relationship with X is negotiable, changeable, etc at the discretion of those directly involved, and not anyone else. And while our more intimate partners, whether through marriage, time, or simple choice, will have some level of influence over our choices, it is of immense importance that we do not leverage such power inordinately, purely out of fear, or merely to save the relationship. We should be focusing on people, not the relationship

Because I know I can influence my partners in how they relate to other people. But should I do so? Is the fact that I may have been with this person longer than them relevant? Is the fact that I may actually be married to him/her, while he/she isn’t, relevant? Is the fact that I believe that I am right about why he/she should act in this way relevant?

We have to be really careful with how we leverage such power, because it’s way to easy to rationalize carrying on old traditional values of relationships into the future of our polyamorous lives. To conserve those problematic relationship concepts, simply because they make us feel safer, more comfortable, etc is no better than to rationalize any cultural concept or practice which seeks to create barriers for each other.

What I’m saying is that I don’t want polyamory to become conservative or traditional, I want it to be radical at least until (that is, if it ever happens that) traditional concepts of relationships are egalitarian and has out-grown those old traditions based in ownership and control.

We have to be careful that we do not cross the barrier between communicating boundaries and creating edicts for other people to follow, because insofar as we cross said barrier, we are manipulating and controlling other people, rather than building trust and intimacy.


I write about his because I have seen it. I’ve seen it from all sides. I’ve been the primary partner who sought to control how my partners were with other people. I’ve been the partner caught in the middle of someone trying to control what I did with another. And I’ve been the third person, subjected to rules I didn’t want and was never asked my opinion on. From every angle the situation is shitty, but it is also immensely human. We all are, hopefully, learning and growing. It’s not so much that if we do such a thing we are doing polyamory wrong (fuck that), but we are, perhaps, creating barriers rather than bridges.

Our culture is so full of expectations about relationships that we cannot, even in the polyamorous community, always grow past the concepts of ownership, control, and fear which lay at the basis of our traditional concepts of love, commitment, and sex. It’s hard to parse the lines between what traditions we cherish and value and are healthy from the ones which might be better left behind.

I am still learning how to parse these things myself, so I am no master here (not by any means). Nonetheless,  I will urge you all to pay attention to how the expectations you have about how a relationship is supposed to work and how much influence you have over your partners may be derived from the patriarchal, property-based, and fear-filled concepts of relationships as they are depicted in our culture at large.

This thing, polyamory, is more than just having more partners, it’s also about questioning the concept of what it means to be a partner. It’s more radical than mere addition, it’s a whole new kind of math. Don’t conserve the traditional concepts of relationships in adding more, but instead consider replacing the whole shebang.

Relationships are due for an upgrade, and such upgrades will include questioning everything you believe about love, commitment, and even friendship.