Polyamory: not the plural of traditional monogamy May 20, 2016Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, relationships.
Tags: couple privilege, hierarchy, rules, secondary
So, updates and such
Hey there blog readers, remember me?
So, I’ve been a way for a bit. Was between contracts for a while, enjoying Spring, and playing some hockey. I started a new job this week. It seems like a good fit, and they seem to want to make me full time once I get trough the trial period of the contract, which is great. I find myself with a slow-ish afternoon on the last day of this first week, and I decided to say a few things.
A few things.
There, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I can get on with the such.
Have you ever been in a relationship that was just not going well? I mean, the person is great, you love being with them, but something just isn’t right? Maybe it’s not a good match, maybe one or both of you is going through some shit and it’s getting in the way. Maybe their other relationships are effecting your relationship. In any case, it’s just better being done with it, and while you miss the person, you don’t miss the relationship?
You still love that person, and you probably even miss them, but once the situation is gone and done, you can see all the things you couldn’t before and you don’t want to go back unless things would be different. And you know that they probably will not be.
You know what I mean?
Well, whether you understand or not, the fact is that there is actually a meaning there, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently.
I was in a relationship with a lovely, intelligent, and very sexy woman for about 2 years, which ended recently (she ended things, to be clear). I miss her, every day. We have not spoken in about 3 months. The reasons for our relationship ending are not really relevant here, but suffice it to say that I understand why it ended and am no longer angry about it. I’m disappointed, mostly.
But after some time away, some things became clear, and I think that this type of situation is common enough in polyamory to say a few words about it.
It concerns a pattern which is very common to people who are just trying polyamory for the first time, and how they set down rules, expectations, etc which become largely unspoken minefields for the people with whom they become involved. Now, this type of thing is addressed in some of the polyamorous literature (including More Than Two, but I cannot cite the chapter because I don’t have my copy with me, and am too lazy to look it up, currently), but I still think that this particular problem is under-discussed among actual polyamorous people, especially among those who are new to it.
I get it. You are established in your relationship, and you want to make sure that your relationship isn’t threatened. So you make some rules, but more than the rules you expect some level of control over who your partner sees, when they see them, and perhaps establish a hierarchy to make sure you are primary; to make sure your place is not threatened.
Yes, this is about couple privilege and imposed rules and hierarchies. Anyone who gets involved with any such established couples will be subject to an agreement they never made, and further will often have similar expectations on anyone else you might see, because such control becomes the default in how they think about relationships.
What is happening here is traditional models of relationships are being smuggled into a polyamorous situation. As if polyamory was just the plural of traditional monogamy. Spoiler; it’s not.
The control and sense of ownership inherent in most relationships in our culture, which is the basis for much of monogamy, is already a problem on it’s own, but it is especially toxic when people try to apply it to a non-monogamous situation. The result is that the control extends beyond the primary relationship, and seeps into the secondary and tertiary relationships. Anyone who gets involved with such a primary couple risks inheriting the rules, sense of ownership and control, and manipulation involved in such a relationship.
From the point of view of the primary couple, there is no problem. They see this as how it’s always been, and possibly how it should be. They, in short, are comfortable with it (or, at least one of them is; probably the one making the rules). But to those outside, it acts very much like a minor form of oppression. You find yourself subject to rules you didn’t agree to, you find yourself having to defer to the primary relationship almost always, and there is a gap in the potential for intimacy, especially the longer the relationship goes on.
You are, essentially, a second-class partner. And, after a while, the relationship can no longer be a healthy one. One feels stifled, and in some cases we can smell the resentment from our metamours who seek to control our access to their partners, as if they sense the struggling from within the chains thrust upon them.
And it’s super hard to see it when it’s happening, unless you are paying really close attention and you have a lot of experience with such things. And it’s hard to talk about these things with the primary couple because they are in a position of privilege, and hence are blind to it. Also, the signs are often ambiguous; it’s really hard to tell the difference between normal conflicts and when you are treating someone in your life like a second-class partner, in some cases.
I think that the most important distinction which is relevant here is this; you should not try to create rules for other people, but you can define your own boundaries. That is, you cannot tell two other people how to go about their relationship, even if you also have a relationship with one or both of them, but you can communicate the edge of your emotional needs, wants, and preferences and allow others to make their own decisions regarding that.
If you aren’t clear, ask yourself this when you come to the point of potential conflict between the needs or wants of two partners;
- Am I doing/not doing this because I’m afraid to hurt one or both of them, or because I do want to do it this way?
- And if I am doing it for one of their sake, is it something I would feel comfortable bringing up for re-evaluation or negotiation?
- And if not, then am I comfortable with the amount of control one person has over my relationship with another?
- And even if the answers to the above are all “yes”, is my other partner OK with all of this? How might I feel in their place?
My relationship with X is negotiable, changeable, etc at the discretion of those directly involved, and not anyone else. And while our more intimate partners, whether through marriage, time, or simple choice, will have some level of influence over our choices, it is of immense importance that we do not leverage such power inordinately, purely out of fear, or merely to save the relationship. We should be focusing on people, not the relationship
Because I know I can influence my partners in how they relate to other people. But should I do so? Is the fact that I may have been with this person longer than them relevant? Is the fact that I may actually be married to him/her, while he/she isn’t, relevant? Is the fact that I believe that I am right about why he/she should act in this way relevant?
We have to be really careful with how we leverage such power, because it’s way to easy to rationalize carrying on old traditional values of relationships into the future of our polyamorous lives. To conserve those problematic relationship concepts, simply because they make us feel safer, more comfortable, etc is no better than to rationalize any cultural concept or practice which seeks to create barriers for each other.
What I’m saying is that I don’t want polyamory to become conservative or traditional, I want it to be radical at least until (that is, if it ever happens that) traditional concepts of relationships are egalitarian and has out-grown those old traditions based in ownership and control.
We have to be careful that we do not cross the barrier between communicating boundaries and creating edicts for other people to follow, because insofar as we cross said barrier, we are manipulating and controlling other people, rather than building trust and intimacy.
I write about his because I have seen it. I’ve seen it from all sides. I’ve been the primary partner who sought to control how my partners were with other people. I’ve been the partner caught in the middle of someone trying to control what I did with another. And I’ve been the third person, subjected to rules I didn’t want and was never asked my opinion on. From every angle the situation is shitty, but it is also immensely human. We all are, hopefully, learning and growing. It’s not so much that if we do such a thing we are doing polyamory wrong (fuck that), but we are, perhaps, creating barriers rather than bridges.
Our culture is so full of expectations about relationships that we cannot, even in the polyamorous community, always grow past the concepts of ownership, control, and fear which lay at the basis of our traditional concepts of love, commitment, and sex. It’s hard to parse the lines between what traditions we cherish and value and are healthy from the ones which might be better left behind.
I am still learning how to parse these things myself, so I am no master here (not by any means). Nonetheless, I will urge you all to pay attention to how the expectations you have about how a relationship is supposed to work and how much influence you have over your partners may be derived from the patriarchal, property-based, and fear-filled concepts of relationships as they are depicted in our culture at large.
This thing, polyamory, is more than just having more partners, it’s also about questioning the concept of what it means to be a partner. It’s more radical than mere addition, it’s a whole new kind of math. Don’t conserve the traditional concepts of relationships in adding more, but instead consider replacing the whole shebang.
Relationships are due for an upgrade, and such upgrades will include questioning everything you believe about love, commitment, and even friendship.
Tags: altruism, boundaries, communication, desire, family, happiness, intimacy, jealousy, love, manipulation, needs, relationships, rules, selfishness, shame
You probably saw that spreadsheet of reasons a wife declined to have sex with her husband, a couple weeks back. As these things do, it’s generated a fresh round in the continued conversation about sex and obligation. The conversation goes like this:
Feminist bloggers and commentators: “Nobody ever owes anybody sex for any reason.”
Less-feminist bloggers and commentators: “What, never?”
“Wellll, hardly ev– no, actually never.”
All this is well and good and needs to be said and re-said until everybody gets it. But at the same time something’s been troubling me about posts that talk about how the whole concept of withholding sex is flawed. They’re not wrong; the very idea of “withholding sex” implies that sex is something granted by default, something a person can take back as a hostile act, rather than being always and every time a gift each person freely chooses to give the other. But. I also know people who have suffered in relationships because their partner was never choosing to give them the gift of sex, and in a situation like that, repeating, “Nobody is obligated to give you sex” does not really answer the issue. Nor is it just about sex. The post that I linked argues that it makes just as much sense to talk about withholding baking cookies for your lover, cookies being another way of expressing affection and care that is not in any way owed within a relationship. Nobody is obligated to bake you cookies, have sex with you, kiss you goodbye in the morning, stay in touch during the day, or hug you when you’re sad. And because our cultural dialogue is so warped around sex particularly, and because a lot of people do feel that there’s obligation around it, it’s really good that posts like the above are being written and spread around.
That being said, though, when we’re talking about a loving relationship, I think the whole question of obligation is a derail, if not an outright red flag. True, nobody is obligated to provide their partner with sex or cuddles or kind words or a certain amount of time, but in a loving relationship, obligation is not really the point. If my lover says, “I would like X from you,” where X is any form of attention or affection or caregiving or really anything that would meet their needs or make them feel happier, and my response is, “I don’t think I’m obligated to give you that,” that indicates that there’s a fundamental problem in the way one or both of us thinks about loving behavior.
The problem might be on my lover’s end: they might be in the habit of demanding things from me on the grounds that as their partner I am obligated to give those things. Sex. Cuddles. Making dinner. A ride to the airport. Whether they’re doing it knowingly and intentionally or not, if they tend to make requests with the attitude that it is something that I owe them, that is a problem. This is the side of things that the whole “no such thing as withholding sex” dialogue is coming from, and it’s an important one.
The problem might also be on my end: I may be using “obligation” as a handy way to justify not caring about my partner’s needs and wants. Especially if my lover is a self-effacing type who is easily convinced that they’re not worth effort and care (and so many of us have those voices within us), the exchange of, “Baby, I would love it if you did this,” “Nah, I don’t feel obligated to do that,” can completely shut down the conversation, and make my lover feel guilty for even asking.
Putting obligation behind a request is a means of coercion: it’s a way of attaching moral value to a person’s answer, which is a very coercive thing indeed for those of us who like to think of ourselves as moral. Putting obligation (or lack thereof) behind a denial is a way to make someone feel unvalued, uncared-for, and not worth the effort, while retaining the moral high ground for yourself. Nobody could fault you for saying no to something you were never obligated to do! Case closed, no need to consider further. And that does its own kind of damage.
Obligation is a distraction from the real issue, which is, “Do I feel that making you happy in this way is worth what it will cost me?*” Sometimes the answer is no, and that is an acutely uncomfortable thing to say, which is why we shy away from it and use “obligation” as a screen. We are social beings and most of us are taught that caring for others is a virtue, while refusing care in order to meet our own needs is a suspicious act that must be justified. (Women, in general, receive this message about 2-3 times as strongly as men, but everybody gets it.) Just saying, “No, I’m going to prioritize my own needs here” is incredibly difficult for most of us, and we often feel a strong impulse to justify it, by invoking obligation or another concept that gets away from the central question.
Sidebar, but an important one: some people use the “obligation” screen not because they’re uncomfortable with prioritizing their own needs, but in order to mask how little they actually care about the other’s happiness. “Caring for you isn’t worth it to me” over and over is likely to get the other person questioning why they’re even committed to the relationship, why they’re investing so much in a person who is manifestly uninterested in meeting their needs unless it’s convenient. “I’m not obligated” pushes it back on the person making the request, highlighting how unreasonable they are to keep asking for things, and encouraging them to make themselves and their needs smaller and smaller. It’s a tactic for emotional abuse, and I recommend running very fast in the other direction if you see it in play.
Back to the realm of relationships that are sincerely caring, but have some toxic beliefs swimming around (which is most relationships). It is important for everybody in a relationship to really internalize that they get to have needs and wants. That the presence of other people’s conflicting needs and wants does not obliterate their own. That it is okay to prioritize their own needs and wants, even if that means denying the other person something that they want. That my need to not have sex right now, to not make you dinner right now, to not drive out in the cold to pick you up right now, is just as valid and worthy as your desire to have me do those things. This is essential, and it’s hard to grasp.
But the conversation doesn’t end there. It can’t. Because if my needs and your needs are in conflict, at least one of us is not going to get what we want, and the way those conflicts play out makes up a goodly portion of the overall health of the relationship. For some people, bringing in obligation seems like the only way to resolve the standoff. I want X, you want not-X. Let’s ask Obligation to arbitrate and decide which of us gets what we want! But, as I said above, this just brings in an aspect of moral coercion and guilt, which is super not conducive to long-term relational and individual health. (I lived the first 25 years of my life under heavy burdens of moral coercion and guilt. I know whereof I speak.)
To resolve the situation in a way that’s going to strengthen the relationship, you have to look head-on at what’s really going on here: Person A wants something that it will cost Person B to give, and Person B is judging whether the happiness or relief it would bring to Person A is worth the cost. Sometimes the answer will be yes, and sometimes the answer will be no. Sometimes you need to do a lot of talking through the situation in order to reach the answer that will be best for both of you and the relationship. (Because this post started out talking about sex, let me point out that submitting to sex you don’t want to be having is usually very costly; a partner that is comfortable with their partner bearing that cost is likely either uncaring or unaware. On the flip side, for many, going without sex for months or years because they are in a monogamous relationship with someone who isn’t inclined to have sex with them is acutely painful. Again, a partner who is both caring and aware will not be complacent about this situation.)
While both parties may be tempted to control the outcome of this conversation, by bringing in obligation or guilt or consequences (like, “If you don’t do X, I won’t do Y for you in the future), any of these entities are going to do damage. What the conversation needs to center around is both people understanding, as deeply as possible, what the request really entails for the other person. What feelings lie behind the need, and the cost? What fears and insecurities, what unresolved baggage is attached to it? What joys and hopes and satisfactions go along with having the need met? What symbolic meanings does each person attach to this action?
The most productive conflict conversations I’ve had always happen when each of us cares deeply about the other’s happiness, and trusts that the other person cares deeply about ours. When you trust in someone else’s love for you, you don’t have to manipulate and threaten and guilt them into doing what you want. You don’t have to bring in Obligation to arbitrate. You can lay your need or wish before them, and explain to them exactly what it means to you, and you can listen to their explanation of what the cost is for them, and what that means to them. And you can work together to resolve the dilemma in a way that makes both of you feel loved and cared-for.
Another part of this is accepting that sometimes you will do something that causes your partner pain, or decline to do something that would bring them happiness. One of the valuable things about poly is that most of us have to grapple with this pretty regularly. A very few of us are lucky enough to have partners that never feel jealousy, but most of us have to cope from time to time with the fact that our new love is causing another partner some pangs. It is so, so hard to say, “I see that this is hurting you, and I choose to do it anyway,” even when that’s the choice our partner wants us to make. It is much easier to get angry with our partner for feeling hurt (I’ve done that), or to feel guilty for even wanting the other thing (I’ve done that too), or to construct sets of rules that delineate what each person has a Right or No Right to do, thus again bringing in the moral weight of obligation to distract from the reality of feelings (I’ve done that less, because I started my poly life with an experienced partner who stayed away from those pitfalls.) It is easier to do those things, but it is healthier in the long run to be able to say, “I love you, and I see your pain, and it hurts me, and I am choosing to prioritize my need in this case.” (This is made significantly easier when the partner can say, “Yes, it hurts me, but I want you to have this joy and freedom and I am willing to bear that cost.”)
Here is the final piece, and for some of us it’s the hardest: the decision has to be made together, and sincerely together, with both people’s full input. I have been in conversations that look a lot like the one I recommend two paragraphs up, where both people are talking about what they need and want and the feelings that lie behind those and seeking a mutually agreeable solution, and it seems at first glance to be a healthy discussion, but in reality one person is controlling the conversation. They may be telling the other person what they’re “really” feeling, or they may be casting the other person’s feelings as wrong or invalid or harmful, while their own are rational and correct and embody what’s best for everybody. Nae good. That’s another “run very fast in the other direction” situation.
But another, more common dynamic is that one person will look at the dilemma and decide for themselves that their need is not worth what it would cost the other person, without even expressing the need to the other person. I do this all the time, and so do most of my intimates, because we tend to be giving and self-effacing to a fault. “I want to go out tonight with Lover, but that means Spouse will be alone and sad, so I can’t.” And Spouse never even realizes that you’ve given up something you wanted for their sake. Over time, if you’re me at least, this leads to a feeling of resentment and entitlement: “I’ve made so many sacrifices for your emotional comfort!…” And you will at some point become upset when they ask you to absorb some emotional discomfort for their own enjoyment: “…how can you not be willing to make the same sacrifices for mine?” (Because they never even realized you were making the sacrifice, dumbass. Meaning me, on many past occasions.) Or you might decide abruptly that you’ve earned some guilt-free enjoyment, and get frustrated when they still express pain over your choice because OMG, can’t you ever do anything for yourself? (When, again, they didn’t even know you were choosing not to do things for yourself on other occasions, and are likely to feel some nasty whiplash at your sudden, unprecedented, and highly defensive selfishness. And yes, I’ve done that too, and it sucks.) Or, in a specifically poly context when making a sacrifice for Spouse’s sake often involves some sacrifice on Lover’s part as well, your bond with Lover may dwindle because they are never being prioritized.
Asking another person to bear some discomfort or pain or inconvenience for our sake is hard. So, so hard. I can barely bring myself to do it unless I feel completely justified (see again: Obligation and its dysfunctional uses.) But I know my loves love me, and desire my happiness, and that there will be times when they’re more than willing to absorb a little cost to see me happier. After all, I do the same for them all the time, and it’s insulting to behave as if their love is weaker than mine or their ability to handle some discomfort is lower. (Sometimes it is… but not usually as much lower as my private decisions would imply.) And I need to give them the opportunity to do that, by asking for what I want. And I need to do it in good faith, without invoking rules and justifications and obligations. If I am truly loved, the fact of my feelings, my needs, my wishes and hopes and desires, is enough to make them at least consider giving me what I want. And if they decide the cost is too high for them, it’s not because I don’t deserve happiness or because it was wrong of me to even ask: it’s because sometimes, the cost is too high. That’s okay. By talking out our different needs and feelings, we both understand each other better, and can continue to love each other well.
*This sentence is adjusted slightly from the originally-published version, which read, “Do I care enough about making you happy in this way to accept what it will cost me?” Midnight Insomnia Brain threw out the revised sentence, which is a better expression of what I mean.
PolyskptiCast episode 2! August 30, 2013Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
Tags: podcast, PolyskeptiCast, rules
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So, we finally got around to sitting down to record yesterday, and now I have just finished editing.
We do more OKStupid, discuss relationship rules, and and read some mail.
We are not sure when we will sit down to record again, but definitely send us some feedback, whether praise or criticism.
But of course it will be all praise, right?