Some people might be doing poly wrong: Peaks in the polyamorous landscape

A couple of days ago, Cunning Minx posted an article on which I read yesterday, entitled “Everyone is doing poly wrong and needs to die in a fire.”  The post was about how we need to step back and be more tolerant of differences in evaluating the many philosophies of polyamory.  The gist seems to be that there is not one universal way of doing polyamory, and we should not hold our own lifestyle as superior to how others approach non-monogamy.

Overall, I believe that Cunning Minx made some accurate and true observations, but I have a few things I want to explore related to the question of whether there are better ways to do polyamory.  Essentially, I believe that there may not be one best way to do polyamory, but I do believe that there are some non-monogamous practices that will be better in general and specifically (for certain people).  Let’s look at some parts of Cunning Minx’s article and see if we can tease out some things.

Let’s start from the basic premise: those of us participating in online forums, posting opinions on blogs or Facebook and attending conferences with poly tracks are all either practicing or interested in practicing polyamory. Or non-monogamy. Or swinging. Or open marriage.

We all have opinions, some of them quite strong. And those opinions are not all the same.

So why are so many of us so vehement in our desire to demean, judge and exclude others?

Well, to answer that, we have to remember that judging is not necessarily a bad thing.  Criticism is not always uncivil.  Demeaning others is a different story, and I try not to do it, and I will only exclude people from my life, not from the community (as if one could do such a thing).  I will not use mere semantics to ostracize anyone, even if such an attempt made any sense.

There are some times when someone acts in such a way that perhaps they have merited some criticism (I’m certainly not immune to that).  Or perhaps a poly triad, network, etc has created a set of rules, guidelines, etc which end up not working for whatever reasons.  Those facts are empirically and logically valid subjects for criticism, so long as we practice good critical thinking skills, compassion, and listening skills. As a community, if we seek to make ourselves better and to improve our understanding of ourselves, relationships, and each other we may occasionally need to judge and criticize one-another.  We also need to accept such criticism from others.

We may, in fact, need to keep our critical thinking skills sharp, and thus judge pretty regularly.  The question is whether our judgment is sound, fair, and compassionate.

To be fair, I understand why we do this. Since polyamory is an alternative relationship structure, most of us have worked very hard at defining what polyamory is for us. We try poly once and make a mess of it. We try again, and it works better, so we decide that what we did the first time was wrong. We try again, and it works better for us, so we decide that we need to advise everyone coming after us that the way we are doing it now is the right way to do polyamory, and every other way is wrong.

I understand what Minx is saying here, and I agree with what I understand to be the point; that we should not conclude that we know that our way of doing things is universally best and that there might be different structures that work for different personalities, circumstances, etc.

But I want to make sure that we are not missing the nuance here.  There may, in fact, be things that newer (or even more experienced!) polyamorous people are doing, which we have seen or done ourselves, which might benefit from our experience, judgment, and criticism.  It may even be possible that some practices are almost always harmful, whether generally or to specific people.  Or, it might be the case that we see that the behavior is not ideal for these people, for these reasons. Now, I agree that in our attempts to talk about such things we should approach the problem in a way conducive to understanding rather than demeaning, but I don’t want the conclusion to be that we should never criticize or judge other people’s way of doing things.

As she says:

But please, I beg of you, let’s stop judging others so harshly, even after we’ve discovered a brand of polyamory that works for us. Before critiquing others based on your personal definitions of what poly is or isn’t, first perform a quick self-check: would you like it if someone told you you weren’t really poly? Would you want someone telling you that your marriage wasn’t real? Would you like for someone else to define what love or commitment means for you? So let’s not impose our definitions and experiences on others.

Right. Agreed.  However, there is a difference between imposing our definitions and experiences and putting them in context in order to evaluate the effects of behavior, (again) whether generally or specifically.  In short, the conversation about how to best do polyamory is not purely subjective or relative (although, just like ethics, it is partially both of those things), but is rather intersubjective and contextual.

I also agree that the “you’re not polyamorous” discussions are not especially helpful in terms of figuring out what is good for us, since it’s hung up on the term itself rather than its antecedent.  Just like the conversations about “you’re not an atheist” or “you are an atheist” are not especially important in the larger scheme, even if having a clear definition of the term “atheist”might be of some importance in itself (at least to people interested in such things).  So long as we don’t slip into the realm of stretching terms such as “polyamory” and “non-monogamy” into meaningless terms that could mean anything (and therefore nothing), I don’t see a problem.

The larger issue is a wider understanding and acceptance of more relationship styles, as well as the ability to try to figure out what works best for people, in terms of relationships, and why.  Whether we call someone “polyamorous” is, perhaps, an interesting semantic conversation, but whether a group of people fall into “polyamory,” “swinging,” “monogamish” (ugh), etc is not as relevant as whether what they are doing is fulfilling, healthy, and consensual.

In the BDSM world, there is a philosophy that folks are encouraged to embrace. Since BDSM involves exposure to a plethora of fetishes and kinks that we may only not share but may actively dislike, folks are encouraged to be accepting. Even when exposed to a kink that incites disgust, we are encouraged to embrace the notion of “your kink isn’t my kink, but your kink is OK.” Let’s please do that with polyamory as well. Let’s stop spending our time judging others and telling them they are doing poly wrong and simply agree to say:

Your polyamory is not my polyamory, but your polyamory is OK.

But what if it isn’t? There must be room for us to evaluate whether how someone’s relationship affects everyone involved might not be optimal for them.  Granted, the fact that some practice or another didn’t work for me (or us) is not sufficient, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it could also not be a good practice for others, either.  The question is not whether your relationship structure could work for me, it’s whether it is working for you! And it is sometimes the case that we (all of us!) are not the best judges of what is best for us (not to say that anyone is a better judge necessarily, just that we might be wrong in our opinions, for many reasons).  Sometimes, the perspective of others is the only way to see past our blinders.

Let me be clear and say that I think that this criteria is relevant for all human behavior.  Following Sam Harris’s concept of the Moral Landscape, I believe that there are actual empirical (and thus, not merely subjective) ways we can (in principle) evaluate whether a (set of) behavior(s) is better than another.  Similarly, I believe that there may be be many “peaks” (continuing Harris’ metaphor) in the polyamorous landscape which represent a set of possible healthy ways to be polyamorous.  What makes them healthy is partially subjective, partially based in personality dynamics, and partially ‘objective.’

To summarize what that analogy implies, I believe that while there may be no single universally better way to approach relationships (whether polyamorous or otherwise), I believe that we can identify unhealthy or even immoral behaviors within the logically possible space of (polyamorous) relationships which, once we can evaluate them, we should be willing to criticize and avoid.  The other side of that coin is that there may be many better ways, many “peaks” in the poly landscape, to be polyamorous well.

In terms of this analogy I think that Minx is saying, in her article, that when we yell at each other from our various metaphorical peaks to criticize the lifestyle of another peak, we may be stepping off the edge of our own peak.  There is a difference between the benefit of your experience allowing you to see potential cliffs and shaky ground in the path up to the various peaks and seeing another peak as inferior to ours because it doesn’t work for us.  And sometimes, we may even understand that some person or group might be on the wrong mountain, and maybe we can point them to another one as an alternative.  Some peaks are better than others for some people.

Cunning Minx’s discussion next is about how we should approach situations where we might be concerned or critical.

When someone is kind enough to share with you his poly situation, it is our job to listen, to ask questions and to offer support if asked for it. Labels are the beginning of a discussion and an invitation to ask more questions, not the be-all and end-all. So when someone says, “I’m polyamorous,” my favorite tool to whip out is:

Tool #1: “Cool! So what does that mean to you?”

I believe it’s not anyone’s job (including mine!) to judge and tell someone she is doing poly wrong. Criticism like that only serves to puff up the speaker with a sense of power and to disempower the person sharing his story. If you truly believe that someone you’re speaking with is doing something horribly wrong, a good way to offer an option without judging is, “My experience has been… ” and share your story. See? No judgment necessary.

I hate to jump on this pet peeve again, but this is judgment.  When you offer another perspective, in order to address what appears problematic to you, you are judging.  I would ask Minx to consider that rather than frame this as “don’t judge,” we should all think about this as “judge fairly and with compassion.”  Judgment is a neutral exercise, and can be done harshly or with compassion, but it is all judgment.

Tool #2: “My experience has been… “

One caveat, since I know someone will ask: yes, I do have a personal belief about a “wrong” way to do polyamory based on the dictionary definition involving the “full knowledge and consent of all parties involved.” So if, for example, a person self-identifies as poly and has an additional partner that his wife is unaware of, I personally am more inclined to label that “cheating” rather than polyamory due to the fact that his wife doesn’t have knowledge and therefore can’t consent. However, my response is not “you’re not really poly” but rather, “In my experience, poly tends to work best when everyone involved is honest, open and consenting. Have you tried talking with your wife about that?” to open up a conversation rather than impose a judgment.

This is good advice if your concern is to not to activate the defense mechanisms of biases, cognitive dissonance, etc within your interlocutor.  Some people don’t care about that, and will ignore this advice because of that lack of empathy or concern.  I am becoming increasingly sensitive to this, and am making an effort to be more compassionate and constructive in my judgment and criticism.  The bottom line is whether you want to have a constructive conversation or if you just want to finesse up some clever quips.  I do love me some clever quips (Hitchslaps, anyone?), but in most cases I want a conversation and will try and heed this advice.

I’ve read a few assertions from intelligent poly folk of late that claim that anyone who defines poly or poly family as [fill in the blank] is wrong and needs to “die in a fire” because that doesn’t match the writer’s or speaker’s own experience.

I don’t know about you, but I dislike it when someone who isn’t in my shoes and who hasn’t lived my life tries to tell me what my poly experience should be. It brings to mind right-wing extremists who claim that they have the right to define what marriage is for everyone else. Or what “family” or “family values” are for everyone else.


If we don’t want others to define marriage or family for us, let’s not do that to each other. The person who gets to define your brand of polyamory is YOU. No one else. And the ONLY person for whom you get to define polyamory is you. Share your definition with your loves, your partners and anyone who asks for it, but please don’t impose it on others or judge others who have chosen to do poly a different way from you. Offer to listen; offer support; offer discussion,;offer your own anecdotes. But please do not offer judgments or critiques. We have the aforementioned right-wing extremists for that.

If you don’t like it when others judge your lifestyle, maybe you should stop judging theirs.

But I don’t mind when other people judge my lifestyle.  I like it a lot less when they do so without compassion, fairness, or when they don’t know me well, but I don’t mind judgment per se.

Further, I don’t think other people should mind judgment per se.  So while I agree that the arguments about whether someone is a true polyTM are not especially helpful or interesting, the conversation about whether one’s actual relationship structures are healthy are helpful, and we should all be open to such judgment and criticism.

If you are lucky enough to have found a brand of non-monogamy, polyamory, swinging or open relationships that works for you, GREAT! Many of us take months or years to figure out what we need in order to be happy and healthy in our relationships. And please do share that with others when asked: many of us are looking for models, ideas and roadmaps that might work for us.

So please, share rather than critique. Listen rather than judge. And communicate your definition as an option rather than imposing it as a rule.

The tendency, among progressive minded people, to demonize the practices of judgment and criticism is wrong-headed, in my opinion.  Criticize and judge after listening, and continue to listen while you communicate your judgment and criticism.  We, progressive-minded people, need to stop looking at criticism and judgment as bad, reactionary, right wing efforts.  They are critical thinking tools, not weapons.  They can be used as weapons, sure, but so can hands.  Hands are also one of the means by which we can show affection, love, and lust.  Similarly, if wielded properly, judgment and criticism can be wielded with affection, love, and, well, maybe not lust (but who knows!).

And as a final word, absolutely no person or concept should “die in a fire” or “burn in hell.” Let’s just say “My experience has been… “

Amen.  My experience as been that many people may not be doing relationships in a way best for them, and we should all be open to the conversations which will evaluate whether that is the case or not.  So long as we try to listen and understand first, of course.