Category Archives: Open relationships

Poly Means Many: Handling other people’s assumptions

This month, the Poly Means Many team is looking at assumptions.

I’ve written here before about how – thus far – I’ve had a pretty easy time of it when when coming out as polyamorous/explaining polyamory. Either my friends/acquaintances/colleagues are too polite to state their negative assumptions right up front, or they were able to take my words absolutely at face value. I suspect a bit of both.

I’m in a very long-established primary relationship, and it seems evident to anyone who spends time with us (or so I am told) that that relationship is not ‘fading’ or ‘on the rocks’ or any of the other unpleasant assumptions that surface around the longest-established relationship. So that’s a deflection already.

I have, on rare occasions, fended off the question ‘but why isn’t he enough for you?’. My answer is always similar – it’s not that The Rake isn’t enough, it’s that I see poly as adding to our lives, not taking away. It’s a hard question for me to answer, because we’re starting from totally different assumptions – theirs includes the idea that poly is an attempt to make up for a lack of something. I have an abundance of so many wonderful things in my life, but I don’t see that as a reason to say ‘Right, no more wonderful things now. All done.’

If anyone’s assumed that I live a wild and slutty life, or that poly means endless rounds of threesomes, they’ve been polite enough not to say so to my face (the boring truth is: not so much).

Probably the most common assumption I’ve dealt with is that non-primary relationships don’t count and are less important or less real.

When the Rake and I announced we were getting married, a friend of my mum’s asked whether we’d be stopping all this poly stuff (delightfully, my mum was minorly outraged on our behalf, and said that of course not, why on earth would we do that, it would make no sense). Someone told me repeatedly how amazing and inspiring and intimate my relationship with The Rake was, but maintained a deafening silence on my relationship with my then-boyfriend, despite spending time with all three of us. Someone else made it clear that they assumed I would always end any other relationship at the request of The Rake, no matter how long-established the other relationship was or what the reason for the request might be. Someone once asked me who I loved ‘most’, evidently expecting a firm answer in favour of The Rake (I said I didn’t think love could be ranked like that, and experiencing love was different between every pair of lovers, and their question didn’t really make sense to me).

I suspect some of my friends were a little suspicious when they were first told about poly, but they had the sense and kindness to keep any negative assumptions to themselves. As the years have gone on, I hope many (if not all) of their concerns have been assuaged. I’m sure, as I move through different life stages, there will be plenty of strange assumptions to fend off from unexpected corners – but I’m ready for it. I’m happy in my life, and confident in the choices I make; if people choose to disbelieve me or to make false assumptions, that will eventually become clear to them. The truth always becomes clear in the end – it’s patience that’s hard work.

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 polymeansmany.com

Poly Means Many: Relationship ethics

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 polymeansmany.com

I’m delighted to be returning to the Poly Means Many project this month, and with such a huge and interesting topic – relationship ethics.

Behaving ethically in relationships can mean two different but related things – it can mean the absence of harm (‘not being bad’) and also actively improving your partner’s life (‘being good’).

Sometimes, when other people are concerned about poly, it’s because they fear it’s doing harm to one or more of the people involved. They might be wrong in that, so I’m going to look at some of the theoretical harms of polyamory and work out whether they’re really harms or not. If they really are harms, though, what then? Can we reliably consent to something which harms us, or can we agree to harm a fully consenting and informed partner? Or must we be stopped for our own good?

I’m not going to look at the ‘actively doing good’ side of relationship ethics, not today, as this post is already long – I’ll stick to looking at potential harms.

Isn’t it just a fancy name for cheating?

Well, no. Cheating is the name we’ve come up with, as a society, for breaking the implicit or explicit agreements of a relationship regarding romantic/sexual connections with other people. Cheating doesn’t mean ‘sleeping with more than one person’ – otherwise, all those single people who are dating around would also be referred to as cheaters. If everyone involved in the situation has given full and informed consent, who is being ‘cheated’? There’s also a very interesting implication in the word itself – ‘cheating’ implies getting away with something, cheating the rules. If the rules are that relationships with other people are totally fine, how is that breaking the rules?

One of the things I suspect is going on here relates to the fact that, in my experience, monogamous friends who are most indifferent/supportive of polyamory are those who are settled and content with their own monogamous set-ups. If you’re happy and you know your own relationship is working well, then other people’s unconventional choices are entirely unthreatening, and relatively dull. But if you’re unhappy, if you fear your partner is lying to you, if it’s a real challenge for you to remain faithful and monogamous, if you think your relationship isn’t quite working but you’re not sure why… suddenly someone doing things completely differently can be scary, because you thought everyone had to play by the same set of rules, the same rules that are making *you* unhappy, but we’re all in this together, right? Personally, I suspect that on some level ‘isn’t it just a fancy word for cheating?’ doesn’t mean cheating on *your partner*, but cheating on what the questioner feels are restrictive society-wide relationship rules. They feel like you’re cheating on *them* – they’re abiding by rules they dislike because they thought everyone had to, and polyamory just proved them wrong. Ouch.

This doesn’t highlight a harm to anyone involved in the relationship; it may be hard to understand for some, but polyamory and non-monogamy more broadly are absolutely not cheating – they abide precisely and carefully by the rules of that relationship, even if the rules are in some ways outside the norm.

What about STIs and HIV?

The assumption is that all polyamorous people are super-slutty promiscuous high-risk types – and, perhaps more to the point, are also putting their partners at risk. Some polyamorous people have a very high number of partners, yes, but some can count their lifetime sexual partners on the fingers of one hand. (If this comes as a surprise to you, then yay, learning!)

Having more sex doesn’t actually mean you’re at higher risk of STI transmission: if in your life you have sex with one or more people, then yes, you are more at risk of STIs than someone who has never had any kind of sexual activity. That’s about it, though. There are more factors involved – it’s not that every theoretical sex partner out there has an STI they’re just waiting to pass on; it’s not like rolling a dice where after rolling it a certain number of times you’re practically certain to roll a 6. Someone who has a new sexual partner every week but is scrupulous about safer sex precautions and hygiene, and insists on seeing recent STI screen test results every time, is going to be at considerably lower risk than someone who goes out a couple of times a year, gets drunk, and has unprotected sex without any discussion of risk factors or other partners.

Yes, STIs are a risk of having sex, just as getting in a car accident is a risk of getting in a car – but you drive safely, you take sensible precautions, and you assume other drivers aren’t always as sensible as you. It’s an informed choice. And if you knew of someone who was regularly driving at 100 mph down winding lanes, with no seatbelt and a couple of beers, who claimed they’d just got ‘caught up in the moment’ or they and their passenger were ‘having fun but too embarrassed to bring it up’, you’d think they were kind of a twit. And you probably wouldn’t get in their car.

You’re just going along with it for them/they’re just going along with it for you

I’m not going to say this never happens – I’m certain it does on occasion; whatever poor relationship choices you can imagine, someone somewhere has made them. But a very common criticism of polyamory seems to be ‘there’s always one partner who’s totally gung ho about it and the other one has to either go along with it or lose them’ and truthfully, this doesn’t resonate with my experience. I’ve met lots of people identifying as one form or another of non-monogamous, and I genuinely can’t think of *any* where the power balance was so obviously and upsettingly uneven.

Perhaps the confusion arises from different styles of dating? After all, I know quite a lot of people in couples where one person is a pretty active dater and the other doesn’t really pursue anyone unless a relationship drops into their lap. If your perspective on relationships is one of game-playing and one-upmanship, then that must look as if one person is ‘winning’ and the other is ‘losing’. But that’s not really how loving relationships work. It doesn’t take account of different desires (I, for example, am not much interested in pursuing new connections at the moment, I have too many exciting projects to be getting on with to find much time for new people) and nor does it take account of change over time (there have been times when I have been busy with lots of dates and The Rake has been focusing on other things).

But perhaps there really is an imbalance sometimes? Well, maybe… maybe that’s normal, too. After all, *all* relationships require compromise. Everyone has things they would consider to be deal-breakers, but everyone draws their line in a different place. Perhaps over at the ‘easy’ compromise end there are things like ‘what colour teapot shall we buy? Red or green?’ and over at the ‘hard’ compromise end there are questions like ‘shall we have children?’ or ‘can we cut that family member out of our lives?’ or ‘shall we live in this country or that country?’. For some people, ‘will our relationship be non-monogamous?’ is one of those uncompromisable questions that they will not budge on (whether the answer is yes or no); for others, no doubt, it might feel closer to something like ‘shall we live in the city or somewhere rural?’ – a big question, yes, and one on which they have a preference, but one that they’re willing to be convinced about, willing to stretch themselves a little to accommodate a partner they love dearly, and perhaps one to revisit in a few years and come to another compromise in turn.

At its root, this comes down to the truth that you can never fully understand someone else’s relationship from the outside. If you look at someone and think they’re making poor choices, they’re compromising on what makes them who they are, they’re settling for someone who’s not good enough for them and doesn’t treat them well enough… you might be right. But if they tell you they’re happy, and they seem genuinely to be so even if it’s in ways that mystify you, then trust them.

Unless someone is in a genuinely abusive and damaging relationship (which looks immensely different from a difficult, complicated or even somewhat shitty and miserable relationship) this is, at worst, a minor harm.

It’s too risky; it’ll dilute your existing relationships; it means you’ll break up

This comes from an assumption of love as a zero-sum game, and fundamentally it assumes that poly, in the sense of truly loving more than one person at once, isn’t possible. The assumption is that, given the opportunity, one or other partner will meet someone they like better, and end the original relationship as a result. And yes, from that perspective, consenting to such an alarming risk is a weird and inexplicable thing to do.

But! Given that the entire point of polyamory is maintaining multiple relationships, this logically is just nonsense. I’m in a relationship with person A. I meet person B, who is *amazing*. If I were in a monogamous relationship, I would be obliged to break up with person A in order to pursue the connection with person B, or alternatively I might conduct an illicit affair with person B until I get up the nerve to tell person A that I’ve met someone else and I’m leaving them. But if everyone is polyamorous, then what’s considerably more likely to happen is: I tell person A and person B about each other, everyone makes allowances and compromises and we have a little reshuffle to make more space, and then I have two amazing people in my life when before there was one! Why on earth would I choose breaking up and heartbreak and misery and guilt over that outcome?

That said, let me tell you a secret. There’s some truth in this, and polyamorous people don’t like to admit it, for obvious reasons. Sometimes, having the freedom to pursue new relationships really can jeopardise existing relationships. Sometimes, your big fears come true, and a long-established cohabiting primary relationship breaks up because of a new relationship. Let’s be honest, a full-blown relationship with someone *is* more threatening than a crush on a co-worker that you never pursue – because sometimes, you don’t find out that New Shiny Person is boring or annoying; sometimes you find out they’re just as amazing as you hoped. Sometimes a new relationship can show up problems in an existing one, or you realise an older partner is holding you back in ways you hadn’t recognised, or a new love changes your outlook on life, or sometimes people just make some very stupid decisions in the throes of NRE. It happens.

So I’m willing to accept this one as a potential harm. And maybe it’s stupid and risky, but it’s about as stupid and risky as falling in love with anyone, ever – the more you love someone and the more you show your vulnerability, the more at risk you are of pain, and the more it will hurt when it ends. I’ve already written about how there is no magic ‘never get hurt’ life choice. All defined relationships end, whether they end in breaking up or death. That sounds morbid or miserable, but it doesn’t have to be – the desperate pain of loss is the price we pay for loving deeply, whether one or many. And if you accept that you only have a limited time to love someone (whether that time is a few weeks or many decades) then you must love as truly and as fully as possible in that time. These connections are what make us human; to shut off love because of the risk of pain is inconceivably miserable.

There are plenty of other objections made regularly, but those are enough to be going on with for now – this post is already getting long!

Can we consent to being harmed? Is this ethical?

Let’s imagine that, unlike some of my conclusions, all of the objections above are real and genuine harms. Or, alternatively, let’s imagine we’re talking to someone who is completely unconvinced by my comments, thinks we’re wrong and that these are real and serious threats of harm that we’re lying/delusional in not accepting.

Our society believes that – up to a point – people *can* choose to act in ways which are personally harmful. By law, we restrict some harmful behaviours to people we believe are generally likely to be able to give meaningful consent (smoking is a good example) – in practice this usually means adults of above a certain age. Adults can choose to do things that are fatally harmful and the state doesn’t step in to stop them – and what’s more, we don’t have an expectation that in the absence of action by the state, other individuals will jump in to stop the harmful behaviour (eg there is no social norm that says if you light up a cigarette, your friends and family will leap in to stop it as they would if you were about to cross a road in front of a lorry). So it looks like we have (if not an absolute agreement) an in-practice agreement that people *can* choose to do harmful things and shouldn’t necessarily be stopped – it’s now about where the line is drawn.

Remember, we’re still assuming that polyamory is seen as definitely harmful. But many of the criticisms and fears of polyamory rest not on informed consent but on uninformed consent – the criticism is not that we are fully informed of all the scary dangerous possibilities and choosing them anyway, but that we are fooling ourselves, that we are unaware of the risks, that we are being thoughtless. Therefore, the logic seems to go, if a well-meaning friend could just explain properly how dangerous this all is, we’d think better of our actions and choose monogamy after all.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding, and not an issue of consent at all.

No matter how clearly you explain your understanding, your heart, your way of thinking, if someone is determined to see you as misguided and foolish and not understanding what you’re getting yourself into, nothing you say can convince them otherwise – there is no objective proof you can offer. Objectors think ‘I wouldn’t make that choice; the risks are too great and the payoff not appealing enough’. So instead of assuming that polyamorous people have evaluated the situation differently and decided that the risks are less important and the payoff more appealing, critics instead assume that it’s a failure of logic and reason on our part – we haven’t made an informed choice, we have misunderstood what we’re choosing, and if we understood it we’d think like them. I suspect that if the majority of critics of polyamory could understand fully, from the inside and from the heart, what polyamorous people are trying to tell them, their apparently ‘practical’ objections would melt away.

These objections are not based in the fear of harm – we can absolutely consent to being harmed, whether emotionally or physically. Otherwise we’d ban falling in love (because of breakups), we’d ban having children (because of childbirth and also teenagers), we’d ban marathons (because seriously, look at a marathon-runner’s feet)… These objections to polyamory are based on the assumption of ignorance or a failure of reasoning.

The only solution is for non-monogamous people of all stripes to keep talking, keep acknowledging anything you think is a genuine risk (polyamory is not, actually, the super-special magical solution to all relationship troubles ever), keep being visible where possible, keep just living your life, and over time it will slowly become clear that maybe, just maybe, we know what we’re talking about after all.

You’re going to get hurt

I know someone who was recently warned off polyamory by a well-meaning monogamous friend saying ‘you’re going to get hurt’. It’s probably worth remembering that this is at the root of most opposition we face, in a personal way – it’s rare that anyone thinks you’re a terrible person or are doing something deeply sinful or bad by having polyamorous relationships. Instead, people care about you and don’t want to see you get hurt, and they don’t have many (or any) models of successful non-monogamous relationships to look at, so they worry that you’re heading towards a huge flaming disaster that – if only you’d listen to them – could be averted.

But as for the assumption of ‘you’re going to get hurt’ – yes, actually, yes you are.

You are going to get hurt if you are polyamorous. For certain.

You’re not going to get hurt because polyamory is fundamentally flawed and damaging, though. You’re going to get hurt because *people* are flawed and love is a big scary powerful emotion. You’re going to get hurt because you opened yourself up and made yourself vulnerable to someone. You’re going to get hurt because you expected someone to be different, or because you expected yourself to be different. You’re going to get hurt because sudden terrible vistas open up in your mind when you realise how much you’ve hurt someone else. You’re going to get hurt because someone didn’t tell you something important, or because you failed to tell someone your full truth. You’re going to get hurt because just when you realise how important someone is to you, you also realise that you could lose them, and it’s terrifying. You’re going to get hurt when you trusted someone to put your interests first, and they didn’t, or to guess what you needed or expected of them, and they didn’t. Polyamory is risky because you allow yourself to love, and to accept love in return, and that sounds so simple and beautiful – but it’s not, not always. There is vulnerability and risk and fear in loving and being loved, because we are not telepathic and can never be absolutely totally 100% certain of what’s going on in someone else’s head – so we trust, and we guess, and we hope. And we can’t always get it right. Even if you find the right relationship first time, and never break up for the rest of your life, no relationship – no matter how happy – is without its tiny hurts and sadnesses. They won’t last for ever, nothing can, but they exist and they hurt.

Now, of course, replace ‘polyamory’ with ‘monogamy’. It’s still true. It’s even true if you eschew romantic/sexual relationships altogether but still care about other human beings at all; people are wonderful and beautiful and infinitely fascinating and worthwhile, and also are flawed and pretty much guaranteed to let you down at some point, even with the very best of intentions on all sides. Living life and caring about other people means you wind up getting hurt, but with any luck – with thoughtfulness, and careful choices, and trying hard, and being kind – the amazing heart-singing joyous experiences you have in your life will outweigh those moments when you just want to hide in a box and ignore everything because it’s all gone wrong. The reason polyamory can sometimes feel riskier is that there are more relationships, more people, more opportunities for wonder and magic and love, and more opportunities to fuck it up.

So, yes, polyamory means you will get hurt. So does monogamy. So does caring and trusting anyone, ever. There is no magic ‘never get hurt’ life choice. All you can do is embrace and experience your happinesses as fully as you possibly can when they come, and when you are at your lowest hold to the thought that it won’t always feel like this, and you will be okay.

The importance – or not – of words

I think, often, we are extraordinarily skilled at deceiving ourselves. We know our own brains best, and are experts in coming up with tricks and evasions to direct our attentions elsewhere, to something else, somewhere else, anything but the real issue at hand.
I was thinking about the importance (or not) of word choices the other day, and the words we use to identify ourselves and describe our relationships. I’ve written before about the value of having the Right Words to describe a concept, and how if you don’t have the words to describe something, it becomes incredibly hard even to think about it, let alone to describe it to someone else. Human semantic ingenuity is pretty much infinite. So: hurray, we have a vast and ever-growing list of ways to describe our relationships! But that very abundance of choice – we are limited only by the words we can invent – can become more divisive than descriptive: ‘oh, that’s not polyamory, that’s just polyfuckery’; ‘we have an open relationship, we’re not polyamorous’; ‘we’re trinogamous, not polyfidelitous’; ‘that sounds closer to swinging than polyamory’ and so on and so forth. The strange outcome of this is that it can begin to feel as if all the different terms swirling around for consensual non-monogamy begin to form a ranking – with, of course, practically everyone keen to define their own relationship/s as ‘good polyamory’.
And this, in turn, can lead to relationship terminology being yet another thing to pick over in moments of insecurity and doubt.
Which words to use is not an argument or topic I’ve found particularly compelling when I’m happy and content in my relationships. Honestly, if someone else wants to describe a relationship of mine as poly, or an open relationship, or dating, or whatever – what difference does it make to me? I’m happy, I know where I am and the place I hold in my loved ones’ hearts; words don’t change that. It’s only if someone seems to have a notably disrespectful or hurtful misconception (like, non-primary partners don’t really matter or count, or that it’s all just a fancy term for cheating) that it needs addressing. No-one else will ever fully understand your relationships, by virtue of the fact that they’re not in them; accept that they won’t, and they will only ever get approximately close to the truth.
BUT – if you’re unhappy? Relationship terminology becomes yet another thing to pick at, because we are scared of what it might reveal. Why won’t she tell anyone other than monogamous friends that we’re polyfidelitous? Why would she describe her relationship with me as an open relationship but her relationship with her other girlfriend as polyamorous? Why would he call me his secondary and another partner his boyfriend? When he called me his girlfriend that one time, should I have asked more about what that meant?
And this is why I started out talking about distractions. We like to distract ourselves with details and small things (the words to describe a relationship, why she ended her text with x rather than xx, why he made that playlist, why she won’t ever make Wednesday night plans with me but will with her other partner, why all his social plans now get made via his new boyfriend…) so that we don’t have to look at the big frightening truth: this relationship is not happy any more.
None of those things matter to us, in our hearts, when we are happy and secure. It’s only when they feel like symbols of something bigger and scarier and more fundamental that they matter. When you’re in a sea of doubt, you want certainty to cling to. If you can find a reason behind it, if you can explain it away, then it’s ok. If someone is using words that make you unhappy, or planning their time disrespectfully, then as long as you can get them to change those words or their plans, you’ll be happy again, right? But there’s not a lot you can do in the face of the stark and sad – and often sudden – realisation that a relationship is not a happy one and not working any more. It’s a sensation of powerlessness and foolishness that is incomparably miserable, so of course we come at it from every other possible angle to try and make it be something else.
I suppose my point, if I have one, is to remind myself (and perhaps you?) to be bold – if I find myself fretting over little things repeatedly, try and look up, see more. Try not to take far too long to realise that I’ve pushed a relationship past the point I could or should have let it go and sought happiness in a different way. Sticking at it too long holds back not just me, but others too.

Poly Means Many: Born This Way?

Is being polyamorous a choice, or a sexual orientation, like being gay or straight?

I come down firmly on the side of choice… Mostly.

Honestly, I think everyone has the capacity (if not the inclination) to form multiple loving relationships. Setting aside sex and romantic love for a second, most people have multiple loving relationships; close friends, workspouses, family and chosen family, the ex who somehow morphed into a best friend. And as for being in love with two people, ‘having to choose’ is common enough to be the plot of endless novels and films. And yet, most people are in monogamous relationships, and happy about it; maybe because it’s just the done thing and they’ve never questioned it, maybe for the intensity of it, maybe because it’s less risky (in all sorts of ways), maybe as a sort of loving and happy mutual self-denial, maybe they only want to share the sexual/romantic side of themselves with one special person, maybe they wouldn’t want their partner to form relationships elsewhere, or maybe they just like it just because. It doesn’t really matter.

Given that I think everyone has that ability, I don’t think there’s something special or different about people who identify as polyamorous. The difference is that they’ve chosen to form their relationship/s with (at the least) the option to form additional relationships elsewhere.

In my own life, I know I could have taken a different path, and been happily monogamous. I’ve never cheated on anyone; never even been tempted (honestly); for me, an open relationship was not an avert-the-worst decision to sidestep the ‘inevitable’ infidelity, as some people say it was for them. It was an addition, a bonus, it just seemed like it might bring extra joy and happiness and would be worth exploring.

Technically, it’s still a choice I could make – just not one I’d want to, not now, not any more. It feels like alternate universe speculation, really; I can imagine a universe in which I had taken a different path and was living my sort-of-current life but happily single, for example – but I couldn’t get there from here, it wouldn’t make sense. Aside from the fact that a monogamous relationship with anyone would have to mean the heartbreaking and unthinkable end of existing relationships, I would also miss the freedom – both for myself and for whoever was my partner. I was thinking seriously about this the other day, about how it would feel to me now to be in a monogamous relationship, and I couldn’t do it – I’d really miss even the small things, being able to say ‘she’s gorgeous and checking you out – I’m going to the loo, go and talk to her!’, let alone the big things, of being able to see the sheer joy brought to someone I love by someone else who loves them, or loving and being loved by more than one amazing person. It would feel to me as if something drastic and essential in the relationship were missing.

Even if all my current relationships were to somehow collapse disastrously, I would not choose a monogamous relationship. I may be wrong, I may regret writing that in years to come, but I suspect not.

That still doesn’t make it an orientation; it just makes it a choice that I do not consider optional. Maybe it would help to take it out of the realm of sexuality: I’ve made a succession of career-related choices, for example, starting with what I chose to focus on in school, what I chose to study at university, jobs that I’ve chosen to accept or not, additional projects I’ve taken on, voluntary work, and so on. This has led me to a position in which I couldn’t, now, choose to take on just any job anywhere – I couldn’t decide tomorrow that I’m going to go and run an oil rig, because I have neither the experience nor the interest or inclination. It doesn’t mean that not working on an oil rig, or working in my current field, is something innate – it just means that this is a combination of where my choices have led me and what I want to be doing.

The temptation is often to define sexualities as nature rather than nurture, because that sidesteps the attempts from less tolerant people to claim that it’s a lifestyle choice, and therefore everyone can and should choose to be heterosexual, monogamous, marriage-and-babies-and-lawnmowers. But why should making an active (and, one hopes, considered and informed) choice be any less valid than an innate orientation? Unless you proceed from the assumption that anyone who deviates from the norm is either wicked and choosing to be so, or a poor thing who can’t help how they were made and deserves to be pitied, why should it matter how someone came to live as they do?

I roughly think of polyamory as a descriptor of your relationship structure (or relationship options) which would explain why I think of it as a choice rather than an orientation; it’s not a label of Me As A Person or of Who I Am, just of how my life is structured and what I like and what makes me happy. Not everyone would agree with me – there are people who identify as polyamorous but who are happily in monogamous relationships, for example. And actually, to really pull out whether polyamory is an orientation or a choice would require us to have a complete understanding of how we determine whether personality traits are nature or nurture, and would also require us to have an absolute understanding of the distinction between nature and nurture, neither of which we (as humans) currently have! There are so many complicated factors thought to contribute to sexuality, including genetic, hormonal, and environmental – orientation vs choice seems like a far less important issue than allowing people to live in safety and respect, whatever their relationship structure.

I think polyamory is a choice – for me it was a choice – but I also think it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter if I’m wrong.

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

Ingroups and outgroups

As a species, we are really good at dividing people into groups. These people are like me, those people are not like me. These people are good, those people are different and scary and bad. And the divisions just keep on going – drill down into any subculture and you find endless vicious debates between groups that seem incomprehensible to the outsider. Did you know, for example, that you can provoke war at a folk festival by starting an argument about singing in your own accent versus a ‘put-on’ accent, or whether a song written by a modern artist using traditional stories and motifs counts as a folk song? The rest of the world looks on baffled, if indeed it notices or cares at all.

The spectrum of non-monogamy has its own internal sillinesses, invisible or irrelevant to outsiders – people in poly relationships are ‘better’ than swingers because it’s not all about sex (and what’s wrong with sex?); a relationship of two women and one man is inherently sexist and oppressive; one of the more unpleasant but pernicious beliefs: nonmonogamy is somehow universally better or more evolved than monogamy. Blergh.

At the risk of sounding like a hippy idealist (OH LOOK THAT’S BECAUSE I AM), what can we learn from people who are different or who have made different choices? And how can we kinda-selfishly take useful lessons and improve our own lives? (This is kind of my take on religion, by the way; I’m not religious, but if your religion has good writings with a solid moral core of ‘be responsible for your actions and don’t be a dick’ then I will read and enjoy them, and if your religious festival has music and tasty food? I am totally celebrating it with you).

Some people in monogamous relationships could learn from the polyamorous tendency to communicate about everything and be lovingly honest, and to learn how to overcome jealousy rather than just banning the things that trigger it. Lots of happy monogamous people do this already, which is partly why they are happy.

And some people in polyamorous relationships could learn from the way monogamous relationships focus all of someone’s sexual and romantic energy on just one person – how can you ensure your partners feel that intensity, intimacy, loyalty and importance? Again, lots of happy polyamorous people do this already, which is partly why they are happy.

What can I learn from people who are or have chosen to be something that I am not? Perhaps even harder, what can I admire in them? There’s always something. In my most generous moods, I can even find things in Tory policies that – even if I disagree with the implementation, and the results – looks like it came from a good place. (NB: if you’re dealing with American politics, this may not apply. Sorry about your political system, guys 😦 )

Be good to people, be happy, live well, and keep learning how to be kinder and happier, in whatever ways I can find those lessons. That’s my plan. Who’s in?

Why should ‘I love you’ be scary?

I was thinking about this the other day. Setting aside the problems of the different meanings behind the phrase, why is it a potentially scary thing to say for the first time in a relationship, or to be told?

Even though love is a beautiful thing, here’s what I came up with: telling someone you love them for the first time is unilaterally transgressing the unspoken limits of the existing relationship. And what’s more, it’s doing so non-consensually and without negotiation. Any other relationship development – you’d like to start having sex, dating more formally, move in together – can be conducted as a negotiation and posed as a question. But you don’t ask someone for their permission to love them, and you can’t ask someone not to love you after all. You can try and change your behaviour, or ask other people to change theirs, but saying “I love you” states it as an unarguable fact; no debating, no changing it.

Obviously, the hope (and more often than not the reality) is a wonderful outcome, and discovering that love is reciprocated. But the only comparable act I can come up with – where one person can single-handedly make a change to the shape of the relationship from then on – is breaking up with someone :/

This sounds terribly doom-laden. I swear I’m a fluffy romantic really!