Monthly Archives: July 2012

Inappropriate questions

One of the topics that sometimes comes up is people unfamiliar with non-monogamy asking inappropriate or offensive questions. I’ve had very little of this, personally, and I don’t know why – but on a couple of occasions I’ve been asked questions that perhaps others might have felt were inappropriate. I didn’t mind.

Everyone has a right, of course, to draw their own boundaries, and if someone asks you a question that you feel is intrusive or too personal, you’re entirely within your rights not to answer. But I will happily answer most things, and I say so as well.

When I’m speaking to people about non-monogamy, often it’s their first exposure to it. And people understandably have questions about how it works! On mentioning my partner and my boyfriend to someone recently, he said “and do you sleep with both of them?” then immediately clapped his hand over his mouth and said “I can’t believe I just said that, I’m so sorry.” I laughed, to me it was so clearly well-intentioned but tactless (and then I said “I couldn’t possibly comment on that. But they are both complete and loving relationships.”)

Really, that’s what people are trying to find out. Most of us have come across someone who’s listed themselves on Facebook as being ‘married to’ their best friend. I’ve had jarring moments reading something online where a married woman mentions going out for a drink with her girlfriend – I assume ‘poly and bisexual’, but it turns out I should have assumed ‘straight, monogamous, and refers to female friends as girlfriends’. I see these kind of questions, artless though they may be, as a genuine reaching out for knowledge and understanding. It’s possible I might have a really close platonic male friend who I refer to jokingly as my boyfriend; it’s possible that when I said partner and they first assumed I meant domestic/life partner, I actually meant my business partner.

Aside from people who are asexual, a happy and healthy sex life for most people is a crucial part of a loving adult relationship, and one of the most obvious things that distinguishes it from a close and loving friendship. This is true to such an extent that it is assumed – in fact, assumed in a way that it wouldn’t have been for unmarried relationships in earlier parts of the twentieth century. If you mention your boyfriend or your girlfriend, people will assume that you’re having sex with them. It doesn’t mean they want to know about it, or that it would be appropriate to talk about the amazing sex you had last night, it’s just an assumption; it’s just there.

However, because culturally we hold sexual exclusivity in such high esteem, and consensual non-monogamy is a very new concept for most people, the sex thing is, I think, the bit that people want to get straight in their heads. The idea of close friendships with lots of people is not difficult; even, I think, the idea of loving more than one is not difficult for most. But understanding that yes, these relationships do include sex just as any other relationship does… I don’t see that as hunting for salacious detail. It’s just looking for context, for a framework, for a way in which to understand these relationships.

Reflexive love and hate

A comment was left on the last post by the delightfully-named Devil’s Avocado, and I thought it was so interesting I wanted to throw it open. Here you go; zie says:

“So what about ‘I hate you’? I have a theory, based simply on what goes on in my own head, that it almost always means ‘I hate myself.’ So is there an argument to say that ‘I love you’ may often mean ‘I love myself’? (In a good way, obviously.)”

Poly Means Many: Love, new every time

A great many other wiser people have written and talked about what we mean by ‘I love you’. A wise friend of mine pointed out that, as a phrase, it holds the same problems as my partner and I uncovered with ‘I’m sorry’ – it works as a placeholder for a multitude of other emotions and intentions and messages, which may or may not be shared by everyone else in the conversation.

Aside from the basics – I care about you and about your life and happiness, I hope we have a continued presence in each other’s lives – it seems to me that ‘I love you’ means something different each time. Well, not each time, but between each new set of lovers the phrase ‘I love you’ and the word ‘love’ is given fresh meaning. Every relationship develops its own language, its own history, its own conventions, and ‘love’ is part of that – what I mean by ‘I love you’, ‘I miss you’, even ‘hi’, can be subtly different depending on context, and a huge part of that context is the relationship and history between the speaker and the hearer. Any other idea you try and pin onto the concept of love (I hope you love me too, I look forward to our future together, I find you desirable, I want to work towards your happiness) it’s not that hard to imagine counterexamples, situations where it’s definitely love but doesn’t encompass that idea. Love is a complicated beast, and not even always positive.

I know absolutely nothing about linguistic theory etc, but I’m confident that this is hardly a new or original idea – that the context between speaker and listener partly determines meaning. After all, you mean something very different (…I hope) when you tell your mum you love her and when you tell your girlfriend you love her. And my shout of ‘have a good day, I love you’ as my partner leaves for work in the morning carries a different emotional weight than our first starry-eyed intense admission of love, all those years ago, or than the ‘I love you’ after a disagreement or misunderstanding.

Falling in love is a different experience every time – though it shares some commonality, which is why often when older people talk about falling in love they say they felt ‘like a teenager again’. For most people, that’s their first experience of the giddy ridiculousness of falling in love, so understandably (especially if someone’s been in a monogamous marriage for decades) it’s the first comparison they reach for. And loving someone – actively and consciously loving them, caring for them, nurturing the bond and the relationship in the best and most useful way – is of course a different experience every time, because people are different and have different needs. To feel happy and loved and fulfilled and free takes something different for me than it does for you.

This maybe helps explain why it is that my love for my boyfriend doesn’t and couldn’t take away from my love for my partner – it’s not that they’re both drawing from the same exhaustible well of love. They are two different and complex emotions – both share many similarities, but are not the same thing. I am surprised by the capacity for love I have discovered in myself, and feel incredibly fortunate to be able to explore and exercise it – and also, I am amazed and grateful to be able to witness the love between The Rake and his Lyra, or Fafhrd and others; seeing their ability to love and care for other people only makes me love them more. I remember once reading someone compare it to discovering a new room in your house that you never realised was there – a whole new stock of love for a new person and a new relationship, that only adds to rather than subtracting from what’s already there.

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month six bloggers – ALBJ, An Open Book, More Than Nuclear, One Sub’s Mission, Post Modern Sleaze, and Rarely Wears Lipstick – will write about their views on one of them.