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Loved ones of loved ones June 2, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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This post by the always-excellent Captain Awkward got me thinking. It’s about an adult daughter whose parents began a polyamorous relationship with a third woman, who now lives with them (the parents, not the daughter). The parents and new partner are all trying to get the adult daughter to develop a close relationship with the new partner, and the daughter is balking. I think the Captain’s advice is sound, and I appreciate that she mostly approaches it like any step-parent relationship, which in essence it is, while also giving a nod to the fact that the non-monogamy aspect is playing a role in the daughter’s reactions. I don’t want to talk about that situation in particular, but it got me thinking about the larger question of what is reasonable and unreasonable to expect when it comes to our families and our partners, especially when we have more than one.

Some people would argue that it makes no difference whether we have one partner or multiple partners; our families should treat them all the same way. I have sympathy for the argument but I think it omits a lot of complicating factors. Even setting aside families that flat-out disapprove of non-monogamy (which is its own can of worms to deal with), the reality is that our culture has some deeply engrained assumptions about what love and commitment and exclusivity mean. For most of us, it took a fair amount of mental and emotional work to overcome those in ourselves; it is unreasonable to expect our families to just dump all their engrained beliefs about non-monogamy and behave the way we want them to from the get-go. And especially if our relationship was monogamous or de facto monogamous for some years, they likely have a level of investment in our first partner, and are going to have weird, complicated feelings about the way a new partner fits in. So I think there needs to be some delicacy in how we handle our family’s relationships with poly partners.

I have also, for a long time, said that in-law relationships are the best analogue we have for metamour relationships, in a lot of cases. We’re connected to somebody primarily on the basis that we both love and are loved by the same person; beyond that, we may have a lot in common and be great friends, or we may grate on each other at every encounter. The tools for handling in-law and metamour relationships are often similar.

With all that in mind, I want to lay out what I feel like are a reasonable set of expectations for how we treat loved ones of loved ones, whether we’re connected to them by blood, romance, or just intimate friendship. I’m going to first lay out my outline of what I think we are and are not obligated to do with regard to our loved one’s loved ones. Then I’ll dig deeper into the thoughts and principles that back these obligations. This post is going to be very general in addressing relationships of all kinds, and in a following post, I’ll write about specific situations that add an extra layer of difficulty or complexity, such as jealousy and differing values or beliefs.

With loved ones of loved ones, I believe we are obligated to:

  • acknowledge that person’s place in our loved one’s life
  • make an initial effort to get to know and like them; if the relationships last for many years, make repeat efforts every few years or so if the first ones didn’t take
  • do our best to understand the good things that that person brings to our loved one’s life, and even if we can’t understand it, accept that there must be some
  • accept with grace their presence at events our loved one is hosting or that are in our loved one’s honor, such as birthdays
  • show them basic courtesy and consideration whenever we are thrown together
  • avoid speaking negatively about them to our mutual loved one, unless there is a specific problem that needs to be solved
  • give our loved one room to speak happily about them from time to time

I believe we are not obligated to:

  • actually like them or love them, or pretend that we do
  • spend one-on-one time with them or interact deeply with them
  • hear about them every day or every time we see our loved one
  • accept their presence at events we are hosting or that are in our honor

Obviously, most of these are bare minimums, designed for situations when we and the other loved one don’t get along. For the most part, I think they apply even when the other loved one is not behaving well; when they’re openly hostile or passive-aggressive toward us. In those cases, the mutual loved one may have some responsibility to intervene or at least to avoid putting us in the position of having to see much of each other.

photo by flickr user Paul TownsendRelationships are not just between two people; most of our relationships exist in a communal context of some kind. We see our friends and families in groups at parties, holidays, vacations, weddings. There’s a particular joy in being surrounded by multiple people you love and like, whether it’s three people or thirty. Even my introverted self delights in the feeling of connection and support when I’m with people who all know different pieces of me, who are all there for me in different ways. When everybody in a room is getting to enjoy the same feeling — “Here I am, surrounded by people I love and like and who love and like me” — that’s real community, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Of course it doesn’t always work out that way. Just because I love Alex and Bryce doesn’t mean Alex and Bryce will like each other, or even be able to stand each other. When my loved ones don’t like each other, it means that for me to be surrounded by the people I love, at least some of those people have to be spending time with someone they dislike.The more intimate and prolonged the setting (and the greater the dislike), the harder a burden this is on them. So a balance needs to be struck.

photo by flickr user Halo EfektiIn general I believe that we should do what we can to make our partners happy — but not to the extent of abandoning our own sense of self or making ourselves miserable. This is why I say that we should make an initial effort to get to know and like loved ones of loved ones, and should make repeated efforts over the years if the first one didn’t go well. People grow and change, and two people that clash horribly at 20 may able to be great friends at 35. If we can give our loved one the gift of liking the other people they love, we should do so. (Usually the reason we might resist this, and develop an antagonistic relationship with someone we would normally like, has to do with jealousy of some kind, which I’ll talk about in the follow-up post to this.)

However, I’m pretty ferociously in favor of people’s right to feel the way they feel, and not be pressured — by themselves of others — to fake or force feelings just for someone else’s convenience and happiness. If you don’t like someone, you don’t like them, and piling on guilt and obligation isn’t going to make those feelings go away. Your loved one’s love for someone shouldn’t compel you to spend massive amounts of time in their company.

In most cases, I think it’s fair that I should get to have the people I love most near me at important, celebratory occasions that are about me, and that they should all make the effort to make the experience as pleasant and free of strife as possible: thus the obligations to accept the presence of our loved one’s loved ones at such events, and to show them basic courtesy. (The possible exception to this is when there’s a deep history of hurt between the two outlying loved ones, such as a divorce or breakup. I’ll discuss that situation more in the follow-up post.)

At the same time, Alex and Bryce should get to celebrate their important events and milestones surrounded by people that they love and like, and it’s unkind for me to impose them on each other if they strongly dislike each other, especially if it’s a very small gathering where they’ll have a harder time avoiding each other.

In US culture, at least the part of it that I inhabit, there’s a very strong pattern of viewing people who are married, living together, or long-term monogamous partners as a social unit. If one person is invited to a thing, the other one is assumed to be invited as well. In many circles, in order to have a party or group event with one half of a couple and not the other, you have to designate it a “girls’ night” or “guys’ night” — which doesn’t work so well if the couple are the same sex, or if the friend group isn’t segregated into men and women. I have a whole host of thoughts on the social unit trope, which I’d like to write about separately, but in brief: I’d love to see the assumption that people have to travel in pairs loosened, for a whole host of reasons. It sucks for poly people, at least those not using a primary-secondary model, and it sucks for single people, and it sucks for loved-ones-of-loved-ones everywhere who don’t really want to spend an evening together but can’t let go of the assumption that an invitation to one person must include an invitation to their partner.

Going back to the the list of obligations: for many of us, part of having a close relationship with someone is sharing what’s on our mind, what’s exciting and interesting and important to us. And in many cases that involves talking about another person we care about — whether it’s “Jamie did the nicest thing the other day” or “Kim and I keep fighting about this one thing.” This is normally not an issue, but when the person we’re talking to hates Jamie or Kim, suddenly it’s a huge deal. Even if they want to be supportive, they’re going to have to be managing their own feelings about Jamie or Kim while listening. Again, a balance needs to be struck between “I can’t ever talk about Kim because Jamie hates hearing it” and “Every time I hang out with you it’s Kim this and Kim that!” Where exactly the balance falls is something that should perhaps be explicitly negotiated and discussed.

Another thing that makes these relationships fraught is the implicit value judgement in saying, “I dislike this person that you love.” Are we saying that we think their judgement and taste in friends is lacking? Even if we don’t mean that, are they going to think we do? Saying something like, “I don’t know how you can stand Dallas,” or “I don’t know what you see in Shelby,” can come awfully close to saying “What’s wrong with you that you like this person?” And “what’s wrong with you that you feel X?” is pretty nearly always damaging to hear from a loved one.

photo by flickr user Jorge BernalSo while I think it’s important to own and acknowledge our feelings about our loved one’s loved ones, whether they’re positive or negative, I also think we need to be careful not to make the false jump from “I dislike Jamie” to “Jamie is a sucky person.” A key hallmark of maturity is being able to separate personal, subjective feelings from objective realities. To say that another person is unbearably annoying is true, as long as I’m only making a claim about their effect on me. I can find someone unbearably annoying, while someone else finds them funny and adorable, and neither of us has to be wrong. Even with more arguably objective traits, such as how self-centered or intelligent or polite a person is, we each have our own priority list of the things that make someone likeable and worth spending time with, and our lists will likely not match perfectly with our loved one’s lists.

This is why I say we should make an effort to understand and appreciate what our loved one values in the other person. If you’re like me, it’s really fun to spend time doing the, “Oh, I see, to YOU it’s really important that someone be self-aware and socially skilled, while I don’t really care about that as long as they’re kind and well-meaning” kinds of calculations with your loved ones. You get to figure out what qualities are important to you in your friendships and what’s important to your friends in their friendships, and how all those things dovetail and intersect. Even if dissecting personalities isn’t a hobby of yours, it’s worth taking the time and effort to notice at least a few positive qualities in the loved ones of people you love. It helps build a barrier against the resentment you might feel at the way this person hits your own personal buttons, it protects both you and your loved one from feeling like your dislike of that person is a negative pronouncement on your loved one, and — most importantly to me — it exercises your understanding that your loved one is a distinct person from you, with values and needs and interests that are different from yours, and that you need to be able to acknowledge and honor those things if you are going to love them effectively.

 

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Boundaries and Metamours March 12, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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Each relationship is it’s own thing. Yes, when you date people who know each other, are friends, or who may also be lovers, there will be aspects of your relationships with them which overlap and interact, but each relationship needs to be its own entity, at least to some degree.

There are many levels of desired control, information, and involvement with metamours (partners of partners). Some people don’t need or want to know much, and they may never be close to your other partners. Some people really love the idea of closeness, friendship, and possibly more from metamours. There are all sorts of conversations about boundaries, rules, or possibly even vetoes that happen in the polyamorous community when it comes to the people our partners have relationships with. Some people set close guidelines, others do not.

My preference for how boundaries, rules, and even vetoes should be applied leans more towards relationship independence, while recognizing that our partners should be listened to, at very least, when it comes to the other people we develop intimacy with.  The closer we are to a partner, the more their opinion should matter, but it should never be the only factor.

In some cases, the complicated inter-relations between multiple partners will create unique situations where 3, 4, or more people all mesh together in a special way, and the individual boundaries may disappear (to some degree, at least) and give way to shared intimacy. Insofar as this can and does occasionally happen, the one-on-one nature of intimacy starts to give way to some degree, and if this happens then it can be rewarding. But in most cases, whether with polyamory, monogamy, etc, each relationship will build up its own intimacy and boundaries, and those intimacies need to be respected.

That said, I’d like to address some thoughts about various factors that come into play when it comes to establishing guidelines, rules, and vetoes.

 

Physical risk

Obviously, the more people we are having sex with, and the more people those people are having sex with, increases the likelihood of STIs. Within a responsible community or network of people, this can be minimized by regular STI-testing, by creating a sort of firewall either through family fluid bonding or other methods of creating a physical boundary between you and the general population and other families/networks. But no matter how you address it, the reality of STI’s is usually an important factor for anyone who is sexually active with more than one person, whose partners are in the same situation. If your sexual network reaches outside of an enclosed group, and reaches the general population, STI’s can get in.

Some people are much more anxious about this than others. But whether you are one of those people who is more anxious about such a consideration or not, if someone you are involved with is, then it should become an important consideration for you. Setting guidelines or rules about safe sex sex is a legitimate request for a partner to make, because the consequences extend beyond the two people involved, and could possibly effect other partners. Assuming, of course, that an STI makes its way into your network, which can again be minimized by regular testing, maintaining good safe sex firewalls around your network/family, etc.

I’m of the opinion that the degree to which a partner is closed off from the greater network or population, sexually, the anxiety about STI’s should decrease, and the rules and guidelines around protections against STI infection should reflect that by being relaxed, assuming that everyone involved is comfortable with that. Being a person who is less anxious about those considerations, I realize I’m in a place of privilege here, and will not expound as to what degree people should attempt to overcome such anxieties.

 

Emotional risk

Even in a world without the concern for unwanted STIs (and pregnancy, of course), there are still emotional considerations to take into account. In previous posts, I have argued that emotional concerns are the responsibility of the individual, and that other people are not responsible for how we feel about their relationships with other people. And while I agree that feelings of envy, jealousy, etc are ultimately our own responsibility, I believe that it is morally superior to take the attitude that how our actions with one partner affect our relationships with and the feelings of our other partners is relevant to us all. In short, we need to care about our partners, but we should at very least be aware of how our actions might emotionally affect their other partners.

The closer metamours are, in space or intimacy, the more it matters that consideration and care are accounted for. Depending on the closeness of metamours (especially if they cohabitate), there is a responsibility to consider the effects of their actions and relationships on others, as well as the effect on their immediate partners. So while I don’t think that a metamour is always responsible for how another feels, in general a metamour should be considerate and aware of how their behavior and attitude might affect those around them. They may not be responsible for the feelings, but they should at least attempt to be aware that those feelings exist and why.

Insofar as what a pair does in private, the emotional effects of those actions will depend on many factors, perhaps too many to diagram or parse out (so I won’t try). Outside of actions with health consequences, what people do in private should have little or nothing to do with what any of those people might do with other people or how those other people feel. Private intimacy is private (if you want it to be), and those relationships we have are important in their own right, even if another tangential relationship might have existed longer or may even be a marriage.

My partner going out and having a kind of sex that I might be envious or jealous of is my problem, not theirs. And while there may be specific examples where some moral responsibility comes into play in such cases, in general creating boundaries, rules, and even vetoes in terms of what your partner is allowed to do with other people is usually a means to protect our feelings, which are usually fears. And while those feelings matter, those feelings are not sufficient by themselves to create rules or vetoes about specific kinds of actions.

If my partner really wants to have sex with someone, and I’m uncomfortable with that, my demanding that they don’t do so is crossing a line in most cases. I may choose to have their decisions effect how I want to relate with them, but I should not demand that my feelings effect what actions they take elsewhere, assuming those decision will not expose me to physical risk. If I’m in a situation where their acting on desires will hurt me, I have some responsibility to find out why I’m being affected, not merely demand they don’t do the affecting thing. If that ‘why’ turns out to be that I don’t want to share, that’s different from a feeling of inadequacy or fear of my partner leaving me, and needs to be addressed by a different solution.

And while some temporary boundaries may be helpful for beginners, in the long run they merely address the symptoms (the feelings themselves) rather than the cause (insecurity concerning the strength of the relationship, for example). Those causes are not fixed or addressed with boundaries, they are addressed by dealing with them directly. That’s harder, but it’s also a means to a long-term strategy rather than the emotional triage which rules and guidelines seem to be designed to deal with. Triage may be a useful skill when shit gets hard, but they are temporary solutions at best. In the long term, the goal should be to deal with the fundamental causes, rather than the fears about this particular action or feeling.

The intimacy, love, and quality of activities I have with a partner are about that partner primarily. How my other partners feel about that does matter, but they are not always the primary considerations I have to be aware of in deciding how to continue or discontinue those activities. My relationship with person A has to be it’s own thing, and how much I involve other people in that relationship will depend on the desires and comfort of all involved. Sometimes, that involvement can be quite open. Sometimes, the boundaries between relationships melt away into transparency and shared intimacy.

 

Voyeurism and Sharing

There are times when the relationship we have with one person will open up or bleed into a relationship we have with another person. There are times when you can all hang out together, be intimate (whether emotionally or physically), or possibly even make commitments as a group. But even when these things are true, there will probably always be aspects of individual relationships that won’t be shared. There will be special inside jokes, ways you show affection, or even places you go that are special to that relationship. It is the idiosyncratic little bits of private moments, feelings, and times which set relationships apart from each other, and it is these things that we may miss most if the relationship ends.

In situations where groups of people decide to make their lives more intertwined, it is possible for the walls that separate the individual relationships to become more transparent. Whether people cohabitate, enter into group commitments, or merely spend lots of time with each other the likeliness of this happening increases. And once people get to theses stages of polyamorous intermingling of relationships, those walls usually do become thinner (both metaphorically and literally). Boundaries, in those cases, become a different animal because of the increased intimacy.

With increased closeness with metamours, come greater need for consideration and attention to how we interact with the world around us. And at this point the question becomes less about what our partners do with their other partners in private (although that may still be an issue), but also what they do in more open settings. The closer we are with the network of people we are involved with, the more we will see of the intimate moments between people we love and who they love. This can have rewards, but it can also expose areas of conflict. Boundaries, rules, and vetoes becomes a question of everyday, or at least frequent, attention. Where metamours might become family, all of the dynamics of family interaction and negotiation come into play.

And when polyamory becomes family, all the issues will surface. Your issues, their issues, and issues you may not have known existed. Issues may develop that never existed before. Respect, communication, and honesty with oneself are necessary if such a thing will succeed. Because as boundaries melt away, we remain exposed to each other in ways that we might not be prepared for. And when it falls apart, it can be devastating.

 

Walls

Many of us build walls around certain aspects of ourselves, for varying reasons. Sometimes, those walls surround us completely, sometimes we build them towards specific people, and sometimes we merely pull a person or two inside our walls and keep the rest away. Boundaries, rules, and vetoes are like walls.

Walls can be useful things. They keep out those who might harm us, they protect us from the cold outside world, and they help support the metaphorical roof over our head as well as define what is our space. There are harmful things in the world, and walls help keep them at bay, when they need to be kept away. Boundaries, when they are devised to protect us from physical harm, are an important tool to use, and when they seek to create safe spaces for ourselves and those close to us. They help keep us emotionally and mentally healthy.

But walls can also separate us when they don’t need to. Sometimes they only seem to protect us, rather than to unnecessarily push people away when letting more people in might bring us more perspective or positive relationships which we might bristle against at first. When we find those who we want to be within our walls, it is greatly beneficial to allow them inside, but it isn’t always obvious who those people will be before we let them in.

In practice, I tend to build walls to easily and end up keeping people further away than they need to be. It is a part of myself I seek to change, and this behavior has consequences for me and people close to me. Therefore, I worry about the impulse to keep people out as a default more than I worry about being too open. Those who have been hurt by being open (and I include myself in that category) may tend to be more cautious, for perhaps good reasons. And yet I worry whether that the reactionary nature of such wall/boundary building is problematic. I also worry that if I manage to heal my wounds and open up more, I might be equally reactionary in the opposite direction, in exposing myself too much to harm.

I worry about putting walls or relationship boundaries where they do more harm than good, or which are merely unnecessary. I worry about putting bricks in unnecessary walls. I also worry about being hurt when I take those walls down.  I also worry that I worry too much. I never meta-worry I didn’t worry about, I suppose.

Our relationships, and the intimacy within them, are important and–dare I say it–sacred. The boundaries we make around them should not be about protection only, they should be more about creating the necessary space we desire to enjoy that intimacy. They should not be primarily about keeping others out, they should be primarily be about creating the desired space to let the person we are with in. And if that means keeping others out sometimes, then so be it. But we should, perhaps, error a bit on the side of letting other people in. That’s my bias, anyway.

I’m striving to let more people in. There’s lots of room inside the palatial walls I have built for myself.