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

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, relationships.
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5 comments

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.

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Description v. Prescription in Polyamory September 9, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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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.

Conclusions

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.