So, I’m going to get all ranty pants here about polyamory because… just argh. Now I’m totally on board with the fact that there is no “one true way” to do polyamory, I think there are several ways to manage multiple relationships and what works well for me isn’t necessarily going to work well for others. However, this does not mean that there aren’t SEVERAL ways to do polyamory all wrong.
I’m not going to list all of them here, because I’ve done some of it before, and there are books about how to not do polyamory wrong, but I’ve had some serious problems with current media interest in polyamory – some of which is the fault of the media (such as who they select to represent people who are poly), and some of it is the cringe-worthy ways in which those who are deemed media friendly discuss polyamory.
So, an article in The Age, from January (I’ve been stewing on this for some months), interviewed several people I know. The article’s title is poorly chosen, “The power of three“, as if poly configurations are only ever in 3. I mean it’s nice and safe to report it that way, you have a couple with one other partner, or a triad. These are easy things for people unfamiliar with polyamory and all it’s permutations to understand. Particularly if the couple deems their relationship to be the central one, and any other partner is a lesser relationship – that continues traditional thought about marriages and partnerships being central to your life and everything else is secondary.
But for those of us (and really there are so many more with different configurations) whose relationships don’t centre around the a central couple, or a triad – we’re not exactly being considered and in fact being made invisible in the media discussion about what non-monogamy looks like. This isn’t a bad thing right now, Australia has enough political and religious bigotry alarm about marriage equality without throwing polyamory in the mix. And to add to the fact that it isn’t always safe for people to come out as non-monogamous as it may impact their employment, visa status, custody arrangements, etc. To complicate matters further, when people are in long strings of relationships, such as me, and my three partners, and their partners, and their partners, etc – where do you draw the line in discussing publicly who is with who, and who do you out, and what happens if someone doesn’t want any media attention?
But anyway, let’s go to the article at hand, and just quietly the use of “polyamorist” makes me twitch.
Lee always knew that Ramsey’s ambition was to form a triad. He was “burnt”, he says, from past experiences at the centre of what is known as a “V”, where one person has two separate concurrent relationships with two people, who are not connected to each other. “I made it clear I was no longer interested in a ‘V’ relationship,” Ramsey says. “I had been there, done that, and it was exhausting, extraordinarily taxing.”
I think the biggest problem I have with articles such as this is that because only a small segment of the community it talking (for reasons discussed above), it comes across that the participants are the be all and end all of polyamory. That their way is the right way, and what they dismiss is completely valid to dismiss.
Now, as someone in a Y (because I have three partners, so not a V), I don’t find it at all exhausting or taxing. I think I’d find a triad a lot harder, and I know many people who’d feel that way too. I love the way my partners interact, the friendships they have, and the way they support each other when needed. Really they make my life fantastic, and I wouldn’t exchange the way I love and live.
Now I know that my style of relationship isn’t for everyone, but I wouldn’t make a comment that it was “exhausting, extraordinarily taxing” without lots of additional explanation. It is entirely possible that Darren did explain why that was so for him, but that’s not in the article.
He says, “You just tell people, in no uncertain terms, ‘This is my view of the world, this is what I like. This is what I expect. If you want to be part of it, get on board. If not, step off the train at the next station.’ ”
Yeah no… Negotiation and compromise are a HUGE part of polyamory. Dictating terms has you come across as an arsehole. Sometimes there aren’t compromises that work for all parties, but you work on finding one before determining that there isn’t one. There will always be hard boundaries, and that’s reasonable, but generally those things don’t come as shocks to people. Being told that entering a relationship with Darren means a triad, or if already in a relationship with Darren and he’s decided that it’s now going to be a triad – that shit isn’t cool.
We are constantly told that lasting relationships require compromise, but polyamorists don’t agree, which makes their lifestyle – depending on your view – either the purest extension of personal liberty or rank individualism.
For his part, Darren Ramsey says he doesn’t “play the compromise game. Compromise is a game of lose-lose … it means both people have to give something up in order to get very little,” he explains. “I firmly believe everybody can have everything they want.”
Just no. Seriously all lasting relationships require compromise, whether they are polyamorous or monogamous. Being human and living in society requires compromise. Compromise is not a lose-lose game if you walk into that conversation ready to listen to what the other person has to say and what they need. If you have your partner’s best interests at heart then you can generally find a compromise that will work. It might be a short-term setback to your plans, but taking other people’s desires and needs into account would suggest that you care about them. Not taking their desires and needs into account would suggest you don’t.
Again, there will be times when people refuse to negotiate and compromise and for me, that’s a deal breaker. Fail to negotiate in good faith with me, with the aim of finding or working towards a solution that means we can all get our needs and desires met in some mutually satisfying form – I’m unlikely to be in or enter into a relationship with you.
To suggest that all compromise is bad is doing polyamory wrong.
To most people, the idea of seeing their partner have sex, or even receive an intimate cuddle, from someone else is as appealing as being skinned alive with a blunt potato peeler. But polyamorists insist that jealousy is a pointless emotion that can be worked through and dealt with, if not completely cured.
“I don’t know that you would find a child born that feels jealousy. It is a learnt behaviour,” says Ramsey. “We didn’t pop out of the womb saying, ‘Damn that next kid coming along.’ It just doesn’t happen that way.” Parents of warring small children may disagree, but Ramsey is insistent. “Jealousy is an indicator that something else is going on … it is coming from a place of insecurity.”
This on the other hand is great. One of the first questions I get asked is how I cope with other people sleeping with “my man”, or how “my man” copes with me sleeping with other people. Even my two GPs asked me this question when I outed myself to them. Jealousy is a multi-layered emotional response that can be worked through. Mine typically involves insecurity and once I can figure out what I am feeling insecure about I can seek reassurance and work through that. The other bit of my jealousy is far more envy or, “I want to be doing that!”. So I go off and do that, or ask myself if I really want to do that, and then do it if I do.
And now because I have two great poly blog posts that I entire agree with, I’m going to put all the bits up that I massively agree with and comment on them as appropriate. These two posts tie in neatly with The Age article, so it all fits together neatly. From Heartless Bitches, “Poly People I Can Do Without“:
Now I have nothing against casual sex and the people who enjoy and practice it *responsibly*. The “poly” people I can do with out are the ones who want to be able to do WHAT they want, WHEN they want, with no regard or consideration for the feelings of their other “partners”. And I’m not talking about the occasional time that we ALL do something that we didn’t realize would adversely affect a partner – I’m talking about people who USE other people for their own gratification and don’t CARE if something they do is hurtful to another. They think that by using the word “poly” to describe their behavior, they can somehow legitimize discourteous, disrespectful, careless, and self-centered behavior. The worst of these types will be courteous and considerate so long as nothing impinges on THEIR want of the moment, leading a partner to trust and believe in them. But the moment they want something that might adversely affect a partner, consideration and caring are conveniently discarded as unnecessary burdens. And any bad feelings a partner may experience as a result of this behavior are also treated as excessive burdens which THEY don’t want to have to deal with.
For me this ties into the comment made by Darren that compromise is lose-lose. I’m sure that Darren would be shocked to see his comment interpreted this way though.
“Responsible” means being honest and mature enough to sometimes change your plans (delay gratification) to show care and consideration for how your actions might affect a partner.
Responsible” means telling your partner the TRUTH when you are having uncomfortable feelings instead of encouraging them to do something, and then complaining that it hurt you after the fact.
“Responsible” means being HONEST and not having a hidden agenda. It means talking to your partner OPENLY about expectations. It means telling your partner the same thing you are telling other people.
Oh goodness all of this. The number of stories I have heard from people regarding partners who say they are happy with one thing and then complaining about how much it hurt them later, and the number of stories I’ve head about people who won’t compromise because they want it and they want it now, and the number of times I’ve heard people discuss their hidden agenda.
I’m tired of people who pay lip service to “personal responsibility”, saying that they “take responsibility” for their actions, but then refuse to do anything about any resulting pain or damage those actions cause. What they are REALLY saying is, “I take responsibility for the EXECUTION of my actions, but I take no responsibility for the EFFECT or RESULTS my actions may have on you or others.” And there you have it folks, Personal Responsibility Lite ™. Tastes Great, less filling! All of the lip service, none of the work! Any expectation of true acceptance of responsibility will have them parading themselves around as “victims” of your unreasonable expectations.
This type of shit is another deal breaker for me. If you do something that hurt me, and refuse to acknowledge that your actions resulted in me being hurt, then yeah…
I’m tired of double standards: People who want consideration for THEIR feelings from other partners, but then don’t want to make the same concessions and consideration for OTHERS. Someone who identifies as “poly” actually said to me “Taking your feelings into consideration means I wouldn’t get to do what I WANT”.
This is not about changing fundamental behavior and sacrificing basic NEEDS – this is about people who cannot delay gratification for a WANT long enough to take someone else’s feelings about their behavior into consideration. They will imply that *any* expectation of consideration for how their actions might hurt someone else is “manipulative” and “controlling”. And I’m not talking about mono/poly paradigm issues here, I’m talking about people who call themselves “polyamourous” and have “poly” partners, but think any expectation of modifying behavior to take someone else’s feelings into consideration is unreasonable. They call themselves “polyamourous” as an attempt to legitimize ego-centric behavior, or because they can’t trust themselves to be honest or faithful. This doesn’t meet MY definition of “responsible” and it sure as hell doesn’t do anything with the “amoury” half of “polyamoury”… Ironically, these are the FIRST people to get upset when someone ELSE doesn’t take THEIR feelings into account. And if you can’t trust yourself, what the HELL are you doing encouraging other people to trust and believe in you?
Really no further comment.
Polyamoury – the loving kind, isn’t an easy road to travel. It requires immense amounts of communication, honesty, trust and WORK. For me, I would add that “Safe Poly People” are people who don’t AVOID problems by dishonesty and betrayal of trust, but have the strength of character to work (and yes, suffer) THROUGH a problem in order to solve it. They don’t copout and blame their inability to deal with a problem on the other person’s “anger” or because they “fear confrontation”. They don’t blame others for their fears, problems and mistakes. And they don’t play the “martyr”.
And yes this. If you believe that the immense amounts of communication, honesty, trust and work are likely to burn you out or be taxing, perhaps poly isn’t for you.
Sex Geek writes a great article on which I borrowed a couple of points earlier in this piece, titled “the problem with polynormativity”:
The problem—and it’s hardly surprising—is that the form of poly that’s getting by far the most airtime is the one that’s as similar to traditional monogamy as possible, because that’s the least threatening to the dominant social order.
At its most basic, I’d say some people’s poly looks good to the mainstream, and some people’s doesn’t. The mainstream loves to think of itself as edgy, sexy and cool. The mainstream likes to co-opt whatever fresh trendy thing it can in order to convince itself that it’s doing something new and exciting, because that sells magazines, event tickets, whatever. The mainstream likes to do all this while erecting as many barriers as it can against real, fundamental value shifts that might topple the structure of How the World Works. In this case, that structure is the primacy of the couple.
The media presents a clear set of poly norms, and overwhelmingly showcases people who speak about and practice polyamory within those norms. I’ll refer to this as polynormativity.
1. Polyamory starts with a couple. … Polyamory is presented as a thing that a couple does, as opposed to a relationship philosophy and approach that individual people ascribe to, as a result of which they may end up as part of a couple but—because poly!—may just as well be partnered with six people, or part of a triad, or single, or what have you.
Now I agree with the first part of the cut I’ve put here and I do have a comment on the first of the four norms that make up polynormativity. I wonder (based on my own experience) if poly is presented as a thing that a couple does, because so many couples (often married) find out about it, talk about it, and then decide to transition from monogamy to polyamory. Clearly the two people in the couple are individual people, but so many people think of a couple as a unit – so even with the transition from monogamy to polyamory, the rest of the world would see the couple unit. It’s not a good reason for polynormativity, but it might be why this exists.
2. Polyamory is hierarchical. Following from the norm that poly begins (and presumably ends) with two, we must of course impose a hierarchy on whatever else happens. Else, how would we know who the actual real couple is in all this? If you add more people, it might get blurry and confusing! Thus, the idea of primary relationships and secondary relationships emerges. This is what I call hierarchical poly.
“Primary” implies top-level importance. “Secondary” implies less importance. Within this model, it’s completely normal to put one person’s feelings ahead of another’s as a matter of course. Let me say this again. It’s completely normal, even expected, that one person’s feelings, desires and opinions will matter more than another’s. It is normal for one person to be flown in first class and the other in economy as a matter of course, based on their respective status alone.
And this is why I don’t have a hierarchy of my partners, because ew. My partners are my partners and I love them all. I don’t rank them over each other, and even suggesting I do so is gross.
I can understand why people do this when they first transition from monogamy to polyamory, it’s a scary ride that requires the rewriting of the social handbook of relationships, but to keep doing it after you’ve settled into polyamory suggests to me that you care less about the other people in your life than the one you wandered into polyamory with. And that’s not as cool.
With that in mind, I will add a plea here directed at poly people: if you don’t mean to create or imply a hierarchy, don’t use “primary” and “secondary” as shorthand. … Instead of “primary,” talk about your domestic partner, your long-term partner, the person you spend most of your time with, your husband or wife—whatever applies. Instead of “secondary,” talk about your occasional date, your casual lover, your boyfriend or girlfriend or secret agent lover man, your annual long-distance affair, your new squeeze with whom you’re just figuring things out, or whatever other terms explain what you’re up to. None of these are about hierarchy. They’re just relationship descriptors. … On the flip side, don’t just drop using the words “primary” and “secondary” in order to look less hierarchical while still making relationship decisions in a very firmly hierarchy-based manner. No false advertising in either direction, okay?
Let me clarify my position here just in case. There is nothing wrong with serious, long-term, committed domestic partnership. There is also nothing wrong with dating casually, and feeling just fine about hanging out with a sweetie way less often than that sweetie hangs out with their spouse, say. Sometimes, a relationship is just not destined to be long-term, or domestic, or local, or involve meeting each other’s parents. This is not a bad thing. It’s just a thing. It’s also not the same thing as being “secondary.” I am not playing with semantics here. I’m talking about frameworks for viewing relationships, making decisions, coming up with rules—more on that in the next point—and treating real, live human beings.
This is the wassname to my previous point. I really like relationship descriptors. I say I live with my two husbands and my girlfriend lives with her husband. I say that I also live with my husband’s boyfriend. Some of us have new relationships, casual relationships, smushes, friends with benefits, relationships which are becoming serious, relationships which are ending, crushes, etc.
3. Polyamory requires a lot of rules. If we start out with a couple, and we want to keep that couple firmly in its place as “primary” with all others as “secondary,” well, of course we need to come up with a bunch of rules to make sure it all goes according to plan, right? Right.
This is a control-based approach to polyamory that, while not exclusive to couple-based primary-secondary models, is almost inevitable within them. Rules are implicitly set by the “primaries,” the “poly couple”—at least that’s how most discussions of rules are presented. Some books and websites will tell you (“you” presumably being someone who’s part of a currently-monogamous, about-to-be-poly couple) that it’s really super important not only to have rules, but also to set them out before you go out and do this polyamory thing. If ever you wanted confirmation of the very clearly secondary status of “secondary” partners, this is it: the rules get set before they even show up, and they have no say in ‘em. Again… we think this is progressive?
Again if you are in the process of transitioning from monogamy to polyamory you are likely to have rules because of all the scripts you have to rewrite. And these rules will be unfair on people you initially get involved with. The lesson is to a) come to the realisation that these rules are unfair; and b) find sufficient trust in your existing relationship to relax the rules.
4. Polyamory is heterosexual(-ish). Also, cute and young and white. Also new and exciting and sexy! This element of polynormativity doesn’t relate directly to the other three, but since we are talking about media representation here, it’s well worth mentioning. Polyamory is resolutely presented in the media as a thing heterosexuals do, except sometimes for bisexual women who have a primary male partner and secondary female partners. It is exceedingly rare for lesbian, gay or queer poly configurations to be included in mainstream representations of polyamory, even though LGBQ circles are absolute hotbeds of polyamorous activity, and LGBQ people have a long and illustrious history of non-monogamy, recent enthusiasm about marriage notwithstanding. Go to just about any LGBQ gathering—even the most mainstream—and you can’t swing a cat without hitting at least half a dozen people who are doing some sort of non-monogamy, from regular “monogamish” bathhouse adventures to full-on poly families. It’s so common that it feels (gasp!) normal.
But if the mainstream media were to give too many column inches to LGBQ polyamory, then people might think poly is a gay thing, and that wouldn’t sell nearly as many magazines. So the typical polynormative hype article goes something like, “Meet Bob and Sue. They’re a poly couple. They’re primary partners and they date women together.” Or “they each date women on the side” or “they have sex parties in their basement” or sometimes, though more rarely, “Bob dates women and Sue dates men.” Mainstream representations rarely break the “one penis per party” rule, which is exactly as offensive as it sounds. You don’t get Bob dating Dave, or Sue dating Tim and Jim and John while Bob stays home with a movie. Because whoa! That’s just going too far. I mean, playing around with women is one thing, but if you bring a second man into the picture, don’t the two guys need to, like, duke it out? Prove who’s manlier? Because evolutionary psychology! Because nature! Because when there is a penis (and only one penis) involved it is real sex and that means a real relationship and we must have a real relationship to have a primary-secondary structure and we must have a primary-secondary structure to be a poly couple! (Hmm. So maybe this part does relate to my other three points after all.)
I’m happy at least in the media in Australia, although we’ve had mostly white people being interviewed, there is a large age range. Yes they’re all conventionally attractive, but at least we’ve had a diversity of ages.
It’s late, I need to sleep and if I’ve left anything out, or haven’t made sufficient sense, let me know and I’ll write any addendums that need writing.
3 thoughts on “Let’s talk about polyamory (again)”
I’m picking out one tiny point in a long post of awesome, but your comment about identifying people as a couple unit is quite the coincidink. A friend last night asked me how many single friends I have. It took me some time to think of the answer, because that’s not how I code people. I don’t have a look up table in my brain for “couple” and “not couple”. I’m married, but being part of a couple isn’t part of my identity – if I was for some reason no longer in that couple, I would be sad, but I wouldn’t have lost a part of who I am. I think for a lot of people it is a part of their identity, and losing a relationship redefines who they are (which was the context of the conversation). For people who feel that way, anything they do is something the couple does. So, yeah, I think that does contribute to the notion of “something couples do”.
Apparently the universe is conspiring this weekend to make me think about how people identify themselves in and out of relationships. I wonder if it’s possible to manage poly if you are the kind of person whose identity includes their relationship status? It would certainly seem to make it more complicated.
Further to the couple unit thing, your thoughts on how finding out about poly as adults in a monogamous relationship might shape the way people think about it seems spot on to me. Even now, and with the somewhat flawed presentations of poly in mainstream media, there can’t be that many kids who are hearing about poly as part of the normal range of human sexual identity (though mine have been!) and that certainly would have been even rarer in the past.
Thank you for being one of the people who has shared ideas and words with me that have enabled me to share those same ideas with my kids and hopefully allowing them to grow up doing a little bit better at understanding and accepting diversity than they otherwise might have.
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