Abuse, Exploitation, and Narrative Control in Polyamory

Here is RabbitDarling’s most recent post, concerning the abusive patterns of people formerly in her life. #AbuseInPoly

[I’m disabling comments for this post. Post comments on the site linked, where RD can control the conversation.]

I could hide my own Easter eggs.

[Content Warning: Manipulation, abuse, victim grooming, sexual assault, physical assault, mild reference to BDSM themes, toxic relationships, general squick]

[Author’s note: this account, while full, is not exhaustive or replete.  It can’t be.  There are hundreds of moments I could include in this narrative that illustrate and illuminate the dynamics of the relationships I’ve survived, and despite which, have chosen to thrive and flourish.  Comments will remain open, but as always, moderated strictly by me, prior to posting publicly. ]

Being in an abusive or exploitative plural relationship is a lot like falling asleep in the bathtub with the lights out and no map.  Wait.  Let me explain.

Okay, so let me back up.  Have you ever fallen asleep in a hot bath?  I do it with some regularity.  It’s a rather odd experience and feels as close as I can get to describing what it’s like to find yourself…

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The Community Response to Abuse (re-blogged from Navel Gazing)

So, stop what you’re doing and go read this post over at Navel Gazing.

Let’s take a look at some of it, and let me say a few things.

When I first tried to articulate what I thought the community response to abuse should be, the only thing I could really think was that abusers need good friends. The kind of friends who are willing to tell them when they are not being the best that they can be. And survivors need good friends. The kind of friends who will be on their side, who will believe them, who will protect them, and who will provide unwavering support when their inner support fails.

I agree with this. The simple fact is that as human beings, complicated as we are, we have the potential to harm others and to take harm from others in a myriad of ways. I have made mistakes and hurt partners myself, and regret doing so immensely. I’m glad that I have friends who are willing to honestly point out where I err, and I am glad that my friends have been there to help me through my own traumatic experiences from both partners and metamours.

Both survivors AND abusers need community support.

Specifically, survivors need protection and validation and abusers need support for accountability.

Again, agreed. People who hurt others, especially if it’s part of a pattern of behavior (and especially if it’s ongoing and unacknowledged) need the people around them to not only keep pointing it out, but also be willing to be ready to support them when they are ready to take steps towards whatever kind of reconciliation or at least personal improvement may be possible.

In most cases, I think that those who hurt other people will be able to find a path back to respectability and welcome by any community. In the cases where they cannot find that path, then the community needs to know about those people in order to make a more informed decision as to what kind of relationship to pursue with those people.

People who don’t want to change will often tell you that they don’t change because of the way that you are asking. This is horse puckey. Change is a personal matter, and it’s hard no matter what. If you want to change, no amount of assholery will be able to stop you. If you don’t, no amount of gentle crooning will make it happen. However, having said that, when we threaten community members who do not support community standards, what we do, mostly, is encourage them to hide their bad behavior.

Change must come from within. It starts with the recognition of wrong-doing, and moves through understanding the cause of the behavior and how it is seen by others. Those who feel attacked, criticized, or maligned by accusations will often find a way to camouflage, rationalize, or re-direct attention from their behavior.

Two of the biggest seeds are the invalidation and naming of another person’s experience and the sense of entitlement over someone else’s choices. Look for it, in yourself and others. Call it out. We can all weed the garden. Remember,

This is my experience. You can not know my experience.
That is your experience. I can not know your experience.
These are my choices. You are not entitled to control over them, you are not victimized by them.
Those are your choices. I am not entitled to control over them, I am not victimized by them.

Look for systemic oppression, and the stories we tell ourselves and each other about why it’s ok. Challenge the stories, and think about how to best support someone who wants to change.

Word. This is a problem which all communities must face, as the atheist community has been facing issues related to harassment and feminism in the last few years. We, within the poly community, have some things to learn about how to deal with accusations of abuse.

How to be the friend of a survivor

Give them a safe space away from their abuser
While you may still be friends with their abuser (remember, abusers need good friends), understand that if you invite both people to the same space, you are actually only inviting the abuser. Try to also create events that are safe for the survivor. If you do not, understand that you aren’t a friend anymore.

I cannot emphasize this enough. I have (and I’m not the only one) avoided a plethora of social activities over the last year to avoid a specific person who I knew would be there, even if the social event was in my neighborhood and would be attended by friends of mine. I have avoided being around this person because almost any memory of him causes a miniature panic-attack. The sound of whistling still gives me chills, because he whistles tunes much of the time. For months after I left his house, the sound of his notification, on someone else’s phone, would cause me to become highly anxious that he was around.

I did not want to be anywhere near him. And the couple of time in the last year I was, it was terrifying and upsetting. Luckily, that is all fading (the nightmares still come around now and then), so I will no longer be hiding, but the fear, anger, and trauma still exist.

We need to be aware of accusations because a victim will avoid their abuser, often for a very long time.

Be willing to distance yourself from people who display abusive behaviors
Sometimes you can’t be a friend of someone who is abusive unless you support their beliefs. It’s hard to fracture your community that way, especially when it is already small. It’s hard when you realize that maybe you can’t just invite everyone to your party. But you know who doesn’t have the choice that you’re struggling with? People who have been abused. Our lives are about avoiding places our abusers are going to be, about losing friends, about being incredibly careful about where and how we share our experiences and about not being able to go to parties. Suck it up.

On top of this, be willing to listen to people who have stories of being abused. I know quite a few people who, upon being faced with the stories of what friends of theirs have done, have refused to even hear their stories. In some cases, the victims are dismissed and the abuser not given a second thought.

This is problematic.

It’s especially problematic if the reason this happens is because the abuser turns it around and blames the victims of abuse. Recently, a dear friend of mine broke out of such a spell, and has received a fair amount of dismissal and disrespect from people within the circle of a person who has caused considerable pain and trauma to people close to me. Her crime? she left the inner circle around the person responsible, after going through her own ordeal with him and his family. She wrote about her experience with this falling out here. Subsequently, someone I know could only speak disdainfully about her for having left the way she did while defending the culpable person as being a victim himself.

Those who do not distance themselves will land on the other side of that rift, and will often not be trusted by victims any longer. The unfortunate reality of social and tribal behavior is that sometimes we lose friends merely because they are no longer part of the safe space.

Believe them
This is actually not as simple as it seems. Because people who are abusive almost always hide as victims. If we believe them, unequivocally, we give safe harbor for abuse. But if we are always suspicious of people who report abuse, we do not give a safe space to survivors who already doubt their own experience. Even more uncomfortable is the fact that when I am talking about “abusers” and “survivors,” I am talking about potential that is in all of us. We are all susceptible to abuse, and we are all capable of it.

Let me emphasize something there: “people who are abusive almost always hide as victims.” Holy shit yes. This is hard, I know. Hearing accusations about abuse and other problematic behavior is tough, especially if you know one or more of the people involved. There is almost always nuance and blame to be shared, and knowing what to believe is hard, especially if accusations are coming from all sides.

But when someone who is the perpetrator of a long and established pattern of abusing others starts to claim to be the victim, the terrifying thing is that it often works. Telling the difference, from the outside, is hard as fuck. I get it. I get it because I think most of us, and maybe all of us, know what it’s like to have hurt someone. A person facing an accusation often wants to emphasize how they were wronged, and having the strength of character to look at one’s own crimes is really really difficult. The result is we become defensive, start spinning counter-narratives, and we may even start to concentrate on our own pain caused by others rather than take an honest look at what we have done.

Recognizing this pattern is the only means towards cutting that shit out.

Throughout our lives, we will be both the accused and the accuser, to varying degrees. And having been through that, we can recognize and empathize with all sides of a situation. And from that vantage point, seeing people on all sides claim to be victims, we tend to want to side with accepting that those people are victims, rather than those responsible for the harm.

It’s hard to look at someone responsible for abuse and see it, especially if the look on their face is one of pain. But it’s possible to be in pain and to be responsible, and we need to be able to handle each separately.

So I want to propose a meditation. When we really understand the difference between these statements, we will understand how to support both survivors and abusers.

“I was victimized by acts of control” is not the same as “I was victimized by the other person’s resistance to my control.”

“This is my experience” is not the same as “This is someone else’s experience.”

This is critical, because I am not sure that when people are in a space of culpability, they understand the difference between the statements above, as they pertain to their actions. I have seen examples of the conflation of these statements from people in my life, and this type of distinction has been topic of discussion around me for some time, now.

This is especially relevant to people who seek to, and are good at, controlling narratives. Persuasion is a powerful tool, and if used well it can be a very effective means of manipulation. Those who seek control may view push-back against that attempt as an infringement on them, and perhaps an injury. This is essentially similar to how power and privilege work against those who have neither; they are used to getting their way, and this time they are not.

It seems simple, but it is not. And I feel that not being able to tell the difference between these things allows us to harbor abuse in our communities and abusive behaviors in ourselves. Being able to see the difference between these statements will allow you to really, truly and solidly hear the story of a survivor. It’s not simple, but if it was, we would have figured it out by now. I’m willing to be imperfect while we figure this out, how about you?

We will all fail, from time to time. We need to be comfortable with failure, if we are to process and improve as people.

We as a community, especially our leaders, need to take the time to learn about how to respond to allegations.  When abuse rears its head, they need to not only hear the stories that victims tell, but they need to make sure that they have a means to respond to the accused.

In some extreme cases, there may be nothing to do but to ask them to leave. In most cases, however, there must be room for rehabilitation. But that rehabilitation must keep in mind the place of those they have hurt, and prioritize them. The must be rom for rehabilitated people, but that room should not be next to their victims, and certainly not in a place of authority or leadership over their community.

The community needs to create safe spaces, and those safe spaces must be carved out by those leaders in that community better. We all have more to learn, and more we could be doing better.

Humility: The Song and the Notes

Nietzsche_tastevanitySo, you know this concept of humility? Yeah, that one is rough sometimes. It seems like some people hear it’s tones as a discordant miasma of chaos, while others hear a well-trained symphony playing something seemingly divine. The truth is that it’s neither of those things, but the nuances of music are such that there is room for argument and taste.

There is the kind of humility which is supposed to be the theme song which follows you around. It’s like a master beat-box artist, or possibly an angel with a harp or even just some dude just wailin’ on that bass (tastes do differ, after all), but not matter what that arrangement is, it’s one of the presences in your life, ideally keeping arrogance, bias, and simple error at bay.

Listen, confidence is great. I’m all for confidence.  And I’m definitely not for deference or prostration to either gods, absolutist ideals (or Platonism in general), or traditions. But there are other sources of servitude than religions and traditions. Our emotions, desires, and cognitive biases will perpetually get in the way of our ability to navigate between the Scylla/Carybdis of our hubris/timidity. Humility, if played to an Aristotelian key, is a song of temperance, and not docility.

for my own reference as much as anyone else's
for my own reference as much as anyone else’s

So, given the tempo of this Aristotelian ballad, floating between Prestissimo and the Grave (perhaps an adagio today and an allegro tomorrow), I think that some sense of perspective of who, where, and how we are requires the ability to be self corrective more or less based upon the circumstances in which we find ourselves. That is, we need to listen to the other players if we want to make music well. Life is not all solos.

But also because sometimes it’s time for quiet reflection, and sometimes it’s time to dance! Sometimes we need to assert ourselves, and sometimes we need to step back and listen. And sometimes we might hear something new in our favorite songs or discover that upon further reflection, we hate this song (Hell, Nietzsche could tell you all about that, amirite?). Sometimes we can find new ways to interact with the world, as our desires and tastes change.

The path behind and the path forward

Our preferences are linked to things like memory, experience, and emotional associations.  These preferences are also intimately related to the ideals and goals which we revere. These ideals are immensely powerful motivators, but they can also be anchors and delusions.

Sometimes these ideals come from an ancient religion, steeped in history and buried into the very language, culture, and psychology of a community. That is where this blog started, as a log of ideas about how religion wove its way into the fabric of love, sex, and commitment in our culture. It was an exploration of the problematic concepts which underlie all of our ability to conceive of who and what we are as people living in a universe without gods, but within a culture drowning in the psychopathic, unconcerned, or impotent ideas of gods.

Yes, yet another Nietzsche reference. Get used to it.
Yes, yet another Nietzsche reference.
Get used to it.

This was a blog about exploring what was possible, if we stop adhering to the sexual, romantic, and relationship norms our society defers to. It was, in a sense, one more hammer to the old gods, ideals, and philosophies to which so many are still adhered.

And over time it changed. I started thinking about polyamory more.  I started having more experiences within polyamory. I had many wonderful and fulfilling experiences, I’ve had experiences which were fun but often challenging, and I’ve experienced the worst interpersonal trauma from people I lent some trust to.

And I’ve changed. Who I am today is not who I was 6 years ago, when this blog started.  And in the last several months, I came to a realization that has had a profound effect on my outlook for the future.  I realized that I was wrong about something very fundamental about myself; something that has been the cause of a very significant problems in my life. And I owe that knowledge to someone who I love dearly and who had to allow me to sink or swim on my own.

I swam.

What is it? Well, that’s not really important, is it? The specific lesson is not the point, at all. Besides, that revelation is personal, and while I would be more than willing to share that understanding (assuming I could properly articulate it) with the people I’m close to in my life (and I’m happy that I have people in my life who honor me with their friendship and love), it’s not necessary here.

Also, there are people who still read this blog (hi there! You can one star my post if you like, but that’s sort of childish, isn’t it?) who would attempt to bend and stretch such information against me if they could (narrative spinning is their specialty, after all). Also, because it can’t really be that interesting to most of the rest of you anyway. You don’t come here to be my proxy therapist. I tend to pay people to do that for me.

The last reason I’ll not explore this personal revelation here leads to another kind of humility which I’d like to talk about. This is the kind that comes out of nowhere and knocks you on your ass. These are the striking and emotionally intense notes in the song of your life, ones which have consequences for how you hear the rest of the song.

It’s the kind of humility (humiliation, perhaps) where you have found that you (perhaps) fucked up, big time, and now it’s time to shut up and start listening. Of course, one does not always shut up and listen, so one might talk themselves into a corner. And then, well, you’re in a corner having to decide what to do next.

And then you have to learn some things. Then you have to reflect one how you fucked up, what you are going to do about it, and even though you might hate doing it….

Now it’s time to walk the hard path.

And then, sometimes, while walking that path, you find that you didn’t know as much as you thought, especially about yourself.

I think there might be a metaphor in there....
I think there might be a metaphor in there….

My lovely girlfriend and I, with whom I’ve just celebrated a year together just this week (but who must remain anonymous, for unfortunate reasons related to social expectations and cultural taboos), went to see the movie Wild, which I liked quite a lot. Obviously, it’s a movie about self-discovery and traveling a difficult road (both literally and metaphorically) towards a goal which may be arbitrary, but which takes on new meaning as you approach it.

The problem is that by focusing on that destination, that ideal, you miss all the details all around you. It’s also not unlike hearing that note or phrasing in a piece of music which keeps dancing around a melody, harmonic, or note. If you do nothing but anticipate that note, that goal, or even that (perhaps) perfection then you are not paying full attention to the path itself. You start to miss the trees because you are looking for the whole forest.

If we, as listeners and as path-travelers, learn to pay more attention to the moment then we will notice that it changes our journey from progress to process. In other words, we become less-ends-oriented and we become more aware of the experience of journeying. Knowing precisely where you are is a humbling experience, sometimes. Whether we think of this humility in the cosmic sense of size or in the existential sense identity, it amounts to a humility which should offer us some pause.

And we should accept that offer, from time to time.

Eventually that destination, which was so dramatic and distracting to start, dissolves either into the horizon and becomes your theme song or it starts to fade into background noise, ultimately to be unnoticed or forgotten. And then all there is the path. And when you are bored on this path you start to see things differently. When it’s quiet, when you are alone without distraction, you have the opportunity to listen to yourself a little closer, and you will almost certainly learn something.

Since we're on a Cheryl Strayed kick today.
Since we’re on a Cheryl Strayed kick today.

Well, I’ve learned some things recently. And I think that I am feeling better than I have in a long time, at least in terms of being optimistic about my personal future. The dawn has broken, the storm clouds are retreating, and what I thought was going to be my end may end up being my greatest beginning.

I’m not saying that it will be easy, because it will not be.  I will not say that I do not fear it, because I do. But where it will be hard I will work harder, and where it will be terrifying I will allow myself to slow down, look at the path, consider the destination I may create for myself at that moment. As a practical result, I will no longer retreat from the world as I have been in recent months.

Now, the biggest challenge I have is to have the patience to wait for Spring, because this cold weather is not pleasant for me, at all. Is it May yet?

Bottom line? Well, I was wrong about some things concerning myself. But as a result I was able to discover that maybe I have an opportunity for something better, now. My advice is to be willing to listen, be wrong, and to imagine that perhaps the reason you find yourself where you are has more to do about what you are wrong about than anything else. Or, alternatively, you may find that you were more right than you knew, only you didn’t believe in yourself enough.

Not arrogance and not servility, but instead a humble sense of perspective towards finding a way to balance your individual strengths with an ability to weave those strengths into a larger whole. There will be times for solos, soap-boxes, and individual efforts, but working harmoniously and in symphony is often much harder and more rewarding.

I wish for beautiful music along all of your paths.


I recently re-discovered an old journal of mine that I thought I had misplaced. In fact, I think I misplace this journal every couple of years or so, because every time I find it I think to put it some place safe, and then forget where that place is. I wasn’t looking for it, specifically, this time. This time, I was just putting away some paperwork, and there it was.

journalAlso, recently, I’ve started writing in a new journal. It was an idea that I came up with in the context of recent therapy sessions, and it has been helpful to have a safe space to write about things that are too personal, even for me. As readers know, I have not been shy about writing about some personal issues here, and that will not stop, but there are some issues I will not write about publicly.

I’ve also started re-reading The Art of War, by Sun Tzu. In the early chapters, I ran into the idea that all warfare is based in deception. The next line said “if able, appear unable.” In other words, make yourself appear weaker than you are. Or, at very least, do not present yourself as you are, so that your enemy cannot properly size you up.

This, immediately, reminded me of a quote that I ran into many years ago, one which has stuck with me over the years. I remembered it as having been written by Baruch Spinoza, who is among my favorites to read. The truth is that the quote is from Soren Kierkegaard, who I was reading around the same time, many years ago, so the quote was copied in my journal around a bunch of Spinoza quotes. The quote is as follows:

One can deceive a person for the truth’s sake, and (to recall old Socrates) one can deceive a person into the truth. Indeed it is only by this means, i.e., by deceiving him, that it is possible to bring into the truth one who is in an illusion.

The context of this quote, according to this source, is about why Kierkegaard sometimes wrote as if not a religious person (supposedly to lead people to Christ, as Kierkegaard was a Christian Existentialist). But I think it has some significance outside of this parochial context, and I think it can tell us something about human behavior which is worth some consideration.

I don’t want to dig deeply into that at the moment, but I think the most interesting thought embedded in there is the nature of illusion; is not illusion relative? Is not one who is in error prone to see the truth as an illusion? How human is it to be caught in a narrative which is quite delusional, but because one is within that web it appears sensible? Cults, religions, and even some cliques operate in just this way, and sometimes the only way through the miasma might be some creativity with perspective.

The mind is crafty and agile. The mind that wants to believe will, and it will move not only the goalposts, the ball, and the kicker but it will often shift the field upon which it plays in order to keep the illusion of coherence.

It’s harder to hit a moving target. It’s hard to hit what you can’t see. Stealth, in other words, is an advantage in war.


Is that analogy apt? Are we at war? And who are “we”? Civilization? liberals and conservatives? Exes? Family?

For many years, I have advocated transparency. I’ve been open about my flaws, mistakes, and struggles as a person who very much wants personal growth and improvement. And this strategy has been a mixed bag. It has led to some intimacy with people I’m close to, but it has also been taken advantage of by people who like to control people and narratives. And by a person who is especially good at, or at least has a strong desire to utilize, such control and who is also especially good as deception, open war would be fruitless and possibly unwise.


I don’t really have anything more to say on the subject right now, but I’ll end with a few thoughts about where I’m headed. I’ve been very quiet recently. Last year was a very traumatic and stressful one for me. But do not be deceived; I am not going away nor am I defeated. This year is a new one, and I am feeling better all the time. I’m gaining strength that I did not previously have. I do not fear anyone, or anything, because I have no reason to hide. My pain has only made me stronger.

Deception may be an art of war, but I have yet to decide whether I want to wage war or simply stride along my path impervious and uninterested in the distractions off to the side. So long as the distractions stay to the side, and do not land in my path forward, I will not focus on them. My path, however, is wide and it includes friends, organizations, and some parts of the polyamorous, atheist, and skeptical communities.

The debris which previous warfare has left behind me is not forgotten, however. This is not a washing of the hands, forgiveness, or anything of that nature. Far from it.  This is a desire to move forward unmolested, if that’s possible.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.

Description v. Prescription in Polyamory

In the past, I’ve talked about whether monoamory or polyamory is better, and concluded, essentially, that so long as we are aware of either possibility and we pursue our desires authentically, I’m not concerned where we end up. Today, I’d like to take a look at a set of issues within relationships which fall under the same logical structure, and tease out why I think things like rules and promises, especially when they are intended to remain in place indefinitely, are not only unwise but may be self-defeating.


Negotiation as an Ongoing Process, and not a Scripture

DeMilleTenCommandmentsDVDcoverOur culture has a handy trope for a rule which is set “in stone.”  Whether the image come from the old Ten commandments movie (or the Mel Brooks version), or from the Old Testament itself, we understand what it means to create a rule or promise which is not designed to change. The idea is that some person or group has handed down a rule which is meant to be kept indefinitely. It is either thought of as a moral commandment or an agreement with no defined end. In other words it is treated, in some cases, as scripture.

The absolutism of this set of circumstances is comforting, at least to some, but it has an air of moral absoluteness which simply does not fit with the nature of relationships (or anything, really) which depend upon communication, growth, and adjustment to change. The stability and structure of such an agreement might be comforting, but this comfort is an illusion and is often short lived.

Such rules can take the place of agreements, requests, or demands but in any of these cases the same fundamental problem will arise. Of course, the issue of coercion, abuse, or simple fear might also play a role, but at bottom all of these situations suffer from the simple mistake of thinking that it’s possible to create a set of rules which will be relevant after new experiences, growth, and changed circumstances have thrown aside all of our assumptions and intentions.

If we make such rules, we must keep in mind that as we experience more, as the circumstances change, and as we grow (both in our set of desires and our ability to handle new situations), the rules we made might not be relevant anymore. In some cases, the rule might end up no longer being necessary, and yet many people hold onto them out of habit. Because it’s the rule. Because it became scripture, and as many people can attest to, scripture sometimes just stays even after you don’t have any need for it.

In other cases, the rule might end up becoming a crutch upon which we lean in order to avoid facing the fact that the circumstances have, in fact, changed or that the rule was a smoke-screen for some fear. But the bottom line is that the rule may not match up with current needs, desires, and relationships, and so it might be better to see that rule as a temporary agreement to be reconsidered now or in the future.

Especially people new to polyamory, the tendency is to create some hard boundaries, rules, etc in order to create some sense of safety or protection against all sorts of things. But as time goes on, relationships form and new desires may arise which run against these rules created early on. So, what do you do? Do those rules become scripture or do you re-evaluate, re-negotiate, and possible change the nature of your relationship as a result?


Prescription versus description

Thinking of rules as a means to protect ourselves is problematic, at best. No rules we can create will protect us from the things we fear, because the things we fear might always happen no matter what rules we adopt.  Fear needs to be dealt with directly, and not through defense mechanisms. Rules, in this case, are often more about identifying what our fears are, and making such rules absolute seeks to avoid dealing with that fear as much as actually avoiding harm.

As any monogamous person likely knows, the rule to not have other sexual or romantic partners does not necessarily prevent our partners from the interest in other people, which is the real source of the problem as much as the potential acts themselves.  When polyamorous people employ similar rules about levels of intimacy, the difference is one of quantity, not quality. Making the exclusivity limited to one person or a few does not solve the problem of fearing the loss of intimacy. Trying to defend this intimacy is absurd; if they want to give it to us, they will regardless of whether they also give it to other people.

So, what if we thought about rules as a description of an idealized reality rather than a defense? What if we thought of it as a guideline to staying on the path or achieving the kind of life that we want to live? That is, rather than a defense or a set of ways to protect ourselves, what if we thought of rules as a means to keeping ourselves pointed in the right direction and not distracted by road-side attractions along this path?

That’s certainly an improvement over looking at rules as absolute dictates and Hobbes-esque defenses against harm (although guidelines will be this as well), but what if we went even further than this? What if we stopped using the model of prescribing the direction we were going, and adopted a model of exploration? What if instead of defining where we are going, where we will be, and what the destination were to look like, we were looking towards the horizon and discovering what we found?

What if, in our relationships, we are map-makers rather than law-makers?

Laws have to be changed, reinterpreted, and often simply scrapped in order to keep up with our lives. Laws and rule are, in many ways, fundamentally conservative and traditional approaches to reality. Necessary for many reasons, but they are not a force for change or growth in themselves.

In order to change, we need to be explorers, curious and skeptical. As Nietzsche said, we need to be attempters in life (cf Nietzsche, BGE §42 and §210) reaching for the possibility just beyond us. Rules may be relevant for a while, as explorers, but eventually we will run into a new land where the rule simply does not apply. Eventually, we will have to start being ethnologists and adopt a new perspective, and realize that not only is the land upon which we walk different, but the walker is different as well. As we explore, we will change, and the person who left our home shores with notions about right, wrong, civility, etc might no longer exist.

Carrying your civilization into another and remaining the same misses the point of traveling. The point is to grow and change, not to carry your old self to new lands. We don’t want to be imperialists, do we?


An example; Primary and Secondary

Consider this; the difference between the rules set up in monogamy and the rules polyamorous people set up around primary and secondary relationships are usually logically similar. In monogamy, you surround your partner with a metaphorical fence and say “no more in here,” while with polyamorous relationships you might say “only one, maybe two or three, in here. The rest of you are relegated to second-class relationships.”Why prescribe this hierarchy? Why go out of your way to define it as such? If someone feels at home in that fence, why would you make a rule saying they can’t come in?

When we set out on our journey of relationships, if we define these roles beforehand we might find a couple of things could happen. First, we might find that it creates unnecessary distance and feelings of inadequacy for “secondary” partners. It’s one thing to actually be less intimate and close to someone, it’s quite another to be defined as such regardless of whether it’s true or not.

Meeting someone, dating them, getting close to someone is already a complicated enough without having artificial boundaries set on how important that person is allowed to be to you in addition to all that. If someone defines my relationship for me, as would be in the case if I were a relegated secondary, it would not change how I would feel about my new partner but it would make me wonder how close I’m allowed to feel or how close I’m allowed to be.

I’m just not sure if “allowed” is a relevant concept when it comes to how we feel about people. Rules, in many cases, attempt to define how we are allowed to feel in addition to how we are allowed to act. Setting boundaries and rules on actions is one thing (and is important). Setting rules about how we are allowed to feel is quite another (and absurd). So the question is whether things such as relationship status is a function of actions or feelings, primarily.

Are statuses–things like being primary, secondary, etc–things we  prescribe or are they things we describe? It’s probably both, but I think that how we actually feel is the primary factor in the nature of a relationship. And so no matter how much we may want and try to prescribe that from the start, how we actually feel will be the primary factor in how close a person is to us. Holding someone at a distance merely because of a rule is, in my opinion, not a decent way to treat another person. And it feels shitty when it happens to you.

Further, you may find that no matter how much you try and pre-define a relationship, that rule might be impotent in terms of actually preventing a person from getting really close. This can lead to situations where someone calls person A their primary, but person B (relegated to secondary status) might end up being equal or greater in terms of intimacy in the long run. Trying to prescribe these statuses thus simply seeks to create rules about territory you have not explored yet, like trying to decorate a room you’ve never been in. You don’t know how close your partner will be to their new partner, and trying to set a rule about it will have as much effect as defining how many chips you’re allowed to eat from the bag.

Clearly, there will be distinctions in terms of how close you are to a person, how much time you spend with them, etc. Clearly, terms such as primary and secondary are useful terms to describe how relationships actually are right now, and I would not try to argue for any “relationship anarchy” which would attempt to argue for use ridding ourselves of labels.

But just like how the dictionary does not prescribe meaning (they simply log use of words, and reflect the world rather than define it), labels such as primary, secondary, etc are descriptions of the nature of a relationship more than a pre-ordained rule about what role someone will play in our lives.


It is undoubtedly true that some relationships are closer and more intimate than others. Insofar as words like primary and secondary have use in the context of relationships, they should be descriptive terms. But these descriptions are not chiseled in stone, and in 2 or 5 years things might be different. We must be aware that this might happen, and that when it does we have to be allowed to re-define our relationships to reflect reality, rather than impose our preferred reality onto our relationships.

The feelings we have for people will exist no matter what labels and rules we have.  Prescribing our relationships is, at best, a conservative attempt to maintain the status quo of the intimacy we have with someone. But that intimacy will remain, grow, or diminish not based upon any prescription, but instead upon the actual changing nature of the relationship. And as relationships change and grow themselves (and sometimes they grow apart), we should view the journey as an exploration, and we should be map-makers, not law-makers, of our lives.

In short, we should be curious, open, and skeptical of the new terrain which is the future and not merely carry our assumptions, preferences, and comfortable spaces with us. Let our experiences, and not our presumptions, define us.


More Than Two: the poly book we need right now

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.

Loved ones of loved ones

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.


So You Want to Try Polyamory (post at everyday feminism)

Ginny sometimes writes elsewhere besides PolySkeptic.com, and when she does I think it’s a good idea to inform our readers of that. Today, Ginny posted this article on everyday feminism about what to think about when considering opening up and possibly becoming polyamorous, which is a question that more and more people are doing these days.

Here’s the post:

So You Want to Try Polyamory


How Sherlock surprised me in season 3

I’ve just finished watching Sherlock season 3… yay for another lengthy wait before the next season. For those who haven’t watched it yet, I won’t be spoiling any major events or revelations, but I will be discussing character dynamics quite a bit. Read at your own risk.

Ever since I heard they’d cast Mary Morstan, I was anxious about how they’d handle a serious love interest for John. All Sherlock stories rest on the love between Holmes and Watson to some extent, but the current BBC series it is the overt and unquestionable core of the show. The clever deductions, the rise and fall of public opinion, the tension between Sherlock’s narcissism (I contend that he is much more a narcissist than a sociopath) and his chosen life of fighting evil… all of these are secondary thematic players to the mutual love and mutual need between John and Sherlock. (I have no stake in the shipping vs. non-shipping game. I don’t care if you want to interpret their love as homoerotic, homoromantic, or just platonic devotion, and everything I’m going to write here works just fine however you like to spin it.)

Because the John/Sherlock relationship is so much more essential to this adaptation than to many others, the presence of a Mary Morstan was much more dangerous to it. I was honestly surprised they included her character… if you’re writing a love story about two characters, why bring a third in? Nobody in the audience would take her seriously as a rival for John’s affections, nor would they tolerate her if she was. I was prepared for, at best, a passive background figure who we’d only see in the corners of John’s life with Sherlock, and at worst, a source of irritating tension who everybody couldn’t wait to get rid of. A Mary who fought Sherlock for her place in John’s life, who complained about his being out late and fretted about the danger he put himself in, would have been a disaster. All of those concerns would be completely justified, but because they interfere with the relationship that we, the audience, really care about, that kind of Mary Morstan could only have been unlikeable.

Instead, the writers did what I didn’t expect: they gave us the nearest thing to a poly relationship I’ve seen on mainstream TV. Within hours of Sherlock’s return, John, Sherlock, and Mary have slid into what is essentially a quite functional polyamorous V. It’s Mary who sets the tone: she gets what Sherlock means to John. It’s clear from her reaction when she realizes who Sherlock is that she’s seen all of John’s grief and all of his love for his dead friend. It would be understandable if she’d become threatened and territorial, but instead she sees an opportunity for the man she loves to be happy, and she goes for it. She positions herself very clearly as an ally to their relationship.

And it’s her doing this that allows Sherlock to do the same. He’s not mature enough to make the same move on his own, and if Mary had positioned herself as a rival in a zero-sum game for John’s affection, he would have fallen to her level. Instead, he rises, and puts as much work into supporting her relationship with John as she does into supporting his. For me, it was an almost unbelievable level of character development, but I’m willing to buy that the Moriarty affair was humbling enough to effect a bit of genuine growth (his behavior toward Mycroft and others in this season bears that out as well.)

For a really good metamour relationship, both people have to truly value the good things the other brings to their mutual love’s life. They have to be willing to step aside at times to let the other relationship flourish, and to advocate for the health of the other relationship whenever necessary. It helps if they like each other, too, as Sherlock and Mary clearly do. So many little dynamics were familiar to me, like the back-channel communication for and about the mutual partner.

Again, you don’t have to put a sexual or romantic interpretation to John/Sherlock for this to work: plenty of stories involve bitter rivalry and jealousy between a best friend and a lover. In today’s culture, it is just assumed that only one person can be The Most Important, and that everyone close to a central character must be vying for the position. I can count on my fingers the number of movies or TV shows where the characters are allowed to rise above that, to go beyond open competition and even beyond silent insecurity, and to actively support the important relationships of those close to them. To act from the position of, “This person makes the person I love happy, and therefore, I want them in our lives as much as possible.” Sherlock, John, and Mary are all deeply damaged people, but they get this one thing stunningly, incredibly right.