Monthly Archives: October 2012

Open, up to a point

I’ve talked fairly often on here about how I’ve been lucky enough to get, at worst, indifferent responses to disclosing poly. Even in terms of families, the responses we’ve had have ranged from confused-but-accepting, through to genuinely positive, supportive and interested. Myself, I’ve ended up in a position where I have very little to lose by being out about poly, personally or professionally – which is, perhaps, a privilege, though it doesn’t always feel like that. So as a result, I can afford to stick my head above the parapet a bit and will often mention both The Rake and Fafhrd in conversation with colleagues or casual acquaintances, and I hope that can go some way towards normalising non-monogamous relationships for those who can’t yet be as open.

Not everyone I’m connected to is able or willing to be as open, for many very good reasons. There are photos of happy times that I love but I don’t put on Facebook, there are anniversaries I don’t publicly comment on, there are congratulations I will only offer privately or in person; the internet is very very leaky. I am often far more open in person than, for example, on social media. This blog is a tricky sort-of exception. Some people have commented on how open and honest it is, but actually, I am mostly open and honest only about myself – not about others. Those are not my stories or thoughts to tell. Sometimes I wonder if that makes my writing alarmingly self-obsessed, but then… it’s a blog, about poly. What did you expect? 😛

I REALLY hope it never is, but if this blog were ever linked to my real-life name, there’s nothing here I wouldn’t stand behind. I’d far prefer it to remain pseudonymous, but it wouldn’t devastate me if this became googleable under my real name. I’ve always written it with that in mind, and any mention of others I will always run past them before I publish it to make sure that they’re happy with the level of information I share. There’s a lot I don’t and won’t write about here.

Over the last few years I’ve gained a greater understanding of the power of secrets, funnily enough completely unrelated to polyamory – more specifically, the fact that as soon as you have something you want to keep secret, you are handing over power to someone else. The more secrets you keep, the more power you hand over. Families can keep secrets for generations, but the explosion when it finally comes out can be unexpectedly terrifying. The instant you have a secret, as soon as someone else gets even an idea of it, you’ve handed them power to hold over you – at worst, you see this in blackmailed politicians and the like, but it can have extraordinary impact even in ‘ordinary’ lives.

I don’t like keeping secrets.

But secrets are necessary; even essential. For myself, what I keep secret is often out of consideration for others – for example most of my friends (or, worse, family) certainly don’t need or want to know the details of my sex life. Disagreements or difficulties are only the business of those going through them. Worries are eased by sharing them with close friends and loved ones, but perhaps not everyone needs to know. Private relationship moments, the wonderful and the less-so, are exactly that – private. If anything, polyamory can teach the value of discretion – it’s rarely appropriate to vent to friends about how much your partner annoyed you over something minor and silly and one-sided, but if your friend’s boyfriend happens to be also dating your partner, it’s even more inappropriate.

I suppose what I’m talking about isn’t secrets, but discretion – there’s nothing in those examples above, or any number of other areas, that I’d be devastated by someone else revealing without my consent. I’d be annoyed at their rudeness, and possibly embarrassed, but there’s nothing anyone could reveal that would break me. I’d be most upset by a disclosure making someone I care about feel uncomfortable – whether by revealing something about them too, or by giving them information they didn’t want or need to hear. I value discretion tremendously in others, and hope to manage it well myself.

But then, I’m lucky. There’s nothing in my life – polyamory included – that I need to keep secret for fear of losing custody of children, being disowned by family, putting myself at greater risk of violence or abuse, or losing my job. Not everyone has that luxury; I know it, and I’m grateful.

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Carol Ann Duffy: Text

I tend the mobile now
like an injured bird

We text, text, text
our significant words.

I re-read your first,
your second, your third,

look for your small xx,
feeling absurd.

The codes we send
arrive with a broken chord.

I try to picture your hands,
their image is blurred.

Nothing my thumbs press
will ever be heard.

Poly Means Many: Primaries and secondaries

A little background: a very common shape for polyamorous relationships is what’s known as the primary/secondary model, in which one relationship takes ‘primary’ status, and others are ‘secondary’. Primary relationships (it’s possible to have more than one) often share many of the common appearances of a monogamous relationship – living together, shared finances, marriage, child-rearing – and given that not everyone wants to be or can be safely out about polyamory, they can look remarkably like monogamy to the untrained eye. In many cases, and somewhat more contentiously, primary relationships are ranked by those involved as a higher priority than secondary relationships.

It’s quite right, of course, to prioritise a long-standing relationship or marriage over someone you’ve just started dating in terms of accommodating requests, making time etc. However, the difficulty – and one of the reasons some people choose to eschew hierarchical polyamory completely – is handling reprioritisation as relationships develop. To constantly be second-best, second thought, last on the priority list, cancelled on, perhaps vulnerable to a veto, unable to plan for a future together… for anything beyond an extremely casual relationship, that’s miserable and unsustainable. Writings such as the Secondary’s Bill Of Rights exist because those needs for respect and relationship autonomy are very real. A system of systematically and numerically ranking something as nebulous, subjective and changeable as loving relationships between individuals is one of the reasons some people make a deliberate choice to avoid this model entirely.

For me, the words themselves make me uncomfortable. Primary and secondary. They seem too blunt, too restrictive, to describe the complexity and range of relationships.

They also make me uncomfortable because of the way they are often used as prescriptive rather than descriptive – “I’m looking for a secondary” seems to imply that there is a predefined relationship slot into which a new person will be required to fit. My discomfort with this comes, in part, from my own experience – on the rare occasions that I’ve said something definitive about myself and relationships in this context, I’ve generally proved myself wrong! I was very happy being single and definitely not looking for a serious relationship, maybe ever, when I fell in love with The Rake. I was unwilling to claim the label ‘bisexual’ until I met a woman who was sufficiently awesome that I wanted to date her. I was convinced I was open but emotionally monogamous until I met someone (other than The Rake) for whom I fell utterly head over heels. I feel as if deciding on the shape of relationship you want before you’ve met the person you might build it with is short-sighted.

That said, perhaps it’s just the shorthand I dislike. I don’t see anything wrong with someone saying “I have substantial work/family commitments so I can’t look for a serious relationship, but I’d love to find someone I could go out for dinner with every couple of weeks” or “I’d like to settle down and have children so I want to meet someone I could do that with”. That begins to illustrate why the shorthand makes me uncomfortable – the latter statement seems perfectly legitimate, but “I’m looking for a husband” is a bit scary and assumptive. Perhaps it’s the implication that – rather than thinking carefully about what I want, what my goals are, how those might be met in a relationship, what reasonable expectations could I have of someone else – using the shorthand implies grabbing an off-the-shelf idea and its accompanying (hazy, debated) definition without thinking about the detail and implications for my own life.

I also don’t see anything wrong with recognising the practical reality of relationships – naturally, I have a different relationship with The Rake (we live together, we have a joint bank account, we plan to have children together) than I do with Fafhrd (we live in different cities, plan carefully when we can see each other, and aren’t financially or legally tied). I’ve occasionally come across a slightly superior attitude of “Oh, I don’t do hierarchical poly, all my relationships are of equal value”; that seems, at best, unrealistic. Are you honestly claiming that the relationship with someone you just started dating is of equal value to the relationship with your wife and the mother of your children? There is also an occasional corollary to this attitude, that it doesn’t count as ‘real poly’ unless you are hurtling all your relationships towards cohabitation and commitment ceremonies ASAP. Mind you, I’ve never actually met anyone with that view; I suspect it might be found online only.

Physical proximity, daily practicality or even length of relationship in themselves, though, don’t necessarily define the importance of a relationship. I don’t value my relationship with my sister less because she’s a long way away. I also wouldn’t necessarily want to live with her, awesome though she is, but again it doesn’t mean I value my relationship with her any less. She is essential to me, because she’s my sister and because she’s brilliant. I have another family member that I’m not in touch with, by choice; that relationship had lasted my entire life until I broke off contact, but that length of relationship doesn’t define its importance.

I’ve always loved the analogy that Lori came up with, comparing primary and secondary relationships to education; “Don’t forget that secondary education builds on what is taught during primary education. Where primary gives you the basics, secondary can add value. Secondary education can enhance the primary – adding depth, confidence and fun, but also making sure you truly value what you gained from it.” If only people experienced primary and secondary education concurrently too, it would even more effectively illustrate the way that the priorities and benefits of each flow back and forth and complement each other.

Using words to describe something as intangible and subjective as feelings and relationships can only ever be a starting point – I talked in another Poly Means Many post about the way love contains myriad meanings, and how you need to unpack it to find out what’s actually going on. Primary and secondary are only useful terms if you’re able to say “and what do you mean by primary?”

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month seven bloggers – ALBJ, Delightfully Queer, An Open Book, More Than Nuclear, Post Modern Sleaze, Rarely Wears Lipstick, and The Boy With The Inked Skin – will write about their views on one of them.