Monthly Archives: September 2013

On rules, and the letter of the law

Rules are often a contentious topic in polyamory. On the one hand, restrictive and apparently-arbitrary rules can be a sign of insecurity rather than respect and trust; on the other hand, it’s disingenuous – unless you’re practising a very particular form of free-agent poly – to pretend that your relationships do not and will not restrict or change your behaviour in any way.

The idea of relationship rules makes me uncomfortable; it feels restrictive and makes me itchy. When asked what the relationship rules are between The Rake and I (interestingly, no-one has ever asked me this question about partners I don’t live with) I usually say it’s ‘practice safer sex’ and ‘don’t be a dick’. Yes, it’s slightly more complicated than that – but not by much. If The Rake were to do something inconsiderate or thoughtlessly hurtful, I wouldn’t say that he’d broken any rules – I would assume that he’d done something that it just hadn’t occurred to him would bother me. Because if he’d thought it would bother me, he wouldn’t have done it. QED. *shrug*

I know some people really enjoy working within an explicitly defined framework of rules, but the way I see it is that concrete rules can actually be counterproductive. Instead of encouraging kind, thoughtful, considerate behaviour, strict rules can result in behaviour that obeys the letter rather than the spirit of the law. Let me give you a toilet roll example. (No, seriously!)

Most houses have a spoken or unspoken rule that whoever finishes off the roll should replace it. This rule serves (at my guess) two purposes: one, so no one goes into the bathroom to discover there’s no loo roll, and two, so that one person doesn’t feel like the ‘toilet roll fairy’, expected by the rest of the house to just sort it out for them.

But… This rule, or expectation, is exactly what leads to the lonely loo roll sheet. Because technically, if there’s one sheet left balanced on top, then you haven’t finished it so you don’t have to faff around with changing the roll – right?

If there was a household rule that was ‘don’t act in such a way as to inconvenience other household members’ then perhaps this wouldn’t happen. But that’s not the rule in most homes or offices (even if it should be…). The rule is about surface behaviour, not underlying outcomes.

If you must have relationship rules, make them about the underlying needs, not the surface behaviour. “We agree not to leave each other wondering where we’ve got to at 1am” is a better rule than “always text me from your date to tell me your plans”.

I couldn’t do it

One of the very common responses to mentioning polyamory is often ‘Oh, I couldn’t do it’. Many polyamorous people I know (myself included) meet this with varying levels of amusement, annoyance or boredom, with stock responses including ‘That’s ok, I’m not asking you to’ or ‘It’s not for everyone but it works for me’.

But I’ve been thinking some more about this, and I think as a phrase it’s actually not a dismissal, and more about finding a way to be actively supportive.

I was talking to a friend recently about how nice it was to be at a social gathering that included babies and small children – but more importantly, how nice it was that people who have happily decided not to have children of their own could still hang out with and play with children, without anyone making it a Big Deal. The issue of having children has become binary, in many people’s eyes – either you must definitely want children (probably right now) or you definitely don’t want children because they’re all hateful snotty screaming monsters. There’s no middle ground there. There’s no space for someone who is absolutely firm and happy in their decision to not have children of their own, but still really enjoys playing with friends’ toddlers – it’s unpleasant how many people will look at that and try and see it as ‘oh, they secretly *must* want children, they must be *so sad*.’

I suspect that lack of middle ground pushes people to the extremes, to avoid awkward and incorrect (and offensive) assumptions – so to avoid people saying ‘oh, you must want a baby *really*’, I imagine it’s sometimes easier to slide into the extreme of claiming all children are hideous and you can’t bear them and oh god don’t bring that child near me.

Similarly, I would imagine it’s hard for people in monogamous relationships – or monogamously-inclined – to feel free to say ‘that sounds great, you all sound really happy, it’s obviously very fulfilling’ without worrying about getting the side-eye from their friends or partner, who might assume that what they therefore mean is ‘I want to be poly too!’. So instead, they feel the need to pave the way by making it clear that it’s definitely not something they want, or could do, and once that’s out of the way only THEN are they free to say complimentary things.

I know this isn’t always the case, but I do think this probably applies more often than we give it credit for. People want to express their support, admiration, understanding in the best ways they can, without causing pain or distress to those they care about in turn.

Poly Means Many: Negotiation

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts can be found at www.polymeansmany.com. This month, our topic is “negotiation”.

This month’s topic is negotiation – much like communication and scheduling, it’s something that’s often held up as a Special Poly Skill.

As you might be able to guess from my sarcastic capitalisation (there is so such a thing as sarcastic capitalisation), I am unconvinced. Negotiation comes from accepting that not everyone in the world wants the same thing as you, that you can’t always get what you want, and that even if you could, if there are people you care about then you wouldn’t want to ride roughshod over their desires and needs just to get what you want. It requires clarity, self-knowledge, care for someone else, empathy and understanding. I don’t see anything there specific to polyamory; that’s just a people skill.

You might have noticed this is a fairly common thought on this blog – that ‘good poly skills’ are generally just good relationship skills, in the broadest and most encompassing sense of relationship. Why do I keep saying this? Because fundamentally I don’t think poly is that interesting.

*awaits chorus of ‘then why blog about it?’*

I read poly blogs for a variety of reasons; some combination or permutation of:
– a friend or acquaintance’s blog, or a writer I admire
– feeling reassured that other people are out there doing the same thing; feeling part of something
– looking for other people dealing with a specific issue, for inspiration/commiseration
– feeling like less of an idiot by finding other people who’ve made the same mistakes as me
– learning more about poly configurations and relationship styles beyond my own and my friends’
– catching up on media coverage, books, cultural stuff that I rely on the internet to inform me about

(Those of you who don’t know me in real life – or even if you do! – I’d be interested to know what draws you to read this blog)

Reasons for reading poly blogs, for me, do not include ‘learning about general poly skills’ – relationship skills, yes, which is also part of why I am endlessly fascinated by advice columns. I can think of literally no poly relationship skill or issue or behaviour for which I couldn’t also come up with a monogamous analogue – sometimes imperfect, but even issues that come up in the majority of poly relationships are different every single time, so there can never be a perfect comparison.

Reasons for writing this blog (aside from the self-centred enjoyment in working out thoughts and feelings by writing about them) include the hope or intention to contribute to the normalisation of poly. If there are five people writing about poly on the internet, they are crazy and out there and deluded and can be easily dismissed. If there are five thousand people writing about poly, they are a bit weird and they don’t all seem to agree on, well, anything really, and they’re still kind of out there and maybe we ought to pay attention and Ban This Sick Filth. If there are five million people writing about poly, then oh god it’s yet another damn poly blog, and actually it’s mostly sort of dull, and do you know I think most of these people are kind of ordinary and worrying about whether work is going well and which family they’re going to see at Christmas and are they about to run out of peanut butter and is the pharmacy open late and how soon can they reasonably leave that boring drinks reception?

Divorced women – worse, divorced mothers – used to be whispered about behind neighbours’ hands, with divorce seen as shameful and humiliating and an excellent topic of gossip. Now? No one (except perhaps the Daily Mail) bats an eyelid. We have done this before, with so many things, and we can do it again.

I truly don’t think poly is all that exciting, objectively. It’s amazing as a personal experience, of course, just like falling in love is amazing as an experience but not (despite how it feels at the time) novel or world-changing or particularly interesting to anyone other than the people directly involved. Polyamory is one way among many of arranging your relationships and drawing your boundaries, that’s all. I have no interest in diminishing anyone else to make myself feel happier or more secure, and personally I feel that it diminishes many long-standing and happy monogamous relationships to imply that they have somehow taken less communication or negotiation to get to where they are. It’s not a competition. You don’t get a trophy at the end if you prove you worked the hardest on communication or scheduling.

Every single relationship goes through difficult patches. The ones that come out the other side, the people who have gone through the fire together and come out shining brighter, are the ones who communicated with clarity and love and empathy, who negotiated kindly and carefully, who knew themselves well enough to state clear boundaries with love and care. When people have climbed emotional mountains together, when they have weathered storms they could never have imagined in the giddy days when they first met, then whether or not they are monogamous seems like a tiny consideration by comparison.