Category Archives: Poly Means Many

Poly Means Many: what I’ve learned

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 “what being poly has taught me”.

Being polyamorous has taught me a lot of things.

It’s taught me that my own capacity for love far exceeds what I had thought I was capable of – and also that greater love comes with a corresponding risk of greater heartbreak.

It’s taught me that someone I love letting me see them fall for someone else is the most extraordinarily beautiful and intimate experience – and that watching someone I love in pain because of another relationship, and being powerless to help, is harder than I could ever have expected.

It’s taught me that love isn’t always all you need – but that love plus honesty plus respect will take you pretty much anywhere.

It’s taught me that a handful of people are surprisingly scared of and threatened by non-traditional relationship structures – but that my monogamously-inclined friends and family are just as open-minded and supportive and loving as they’ve always been.

It’s taught me that I value discretion, and in a close-knit community people who won’t relay my stories (even seemingly minor anecdotes) – but that discretion has its limits, and a long-term partner who won’t be honest about a relationship isn’t such a long-term partner after all.

It’s taught me that, just as when I was single, I don’t have much interest in dating for the sake of dating – but that I value beyond price the ability to make space in my life for people who are outstandingly awesome.

It’s taught me that I’m far from perfect and I make mistakes – but it’s also taught me that I’m human and I get to make mistakes, and forgive myself just as I would forgive people I care about.

It’s taught me many things – most of which I won’t list here – but above all it’s taught me that the possible joys and wonders make the possible heartbreaks absolutely worthwhile, that there is so much I still don’t know, and that I have a lifetime ahead of me in which to learn more and love better.

Planning a poly Christmas

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 “poly holidays”.

What does a polyamorous Christmas look like? As ever, ask three poly people and you’ll get five different answers. Shorter version: whatever you and your network want it to. A quick disclaimer – I’m not in any way religious, and I love celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday.

Longer version: for one reason and another (sometimes my reasons, sometimes reasons I agreed with, and occasionally reasons I didn’t like at all) I’ve never yet spent Christmas with any partners (or metamours) other than the Rake. This may very well change in future. As a celebration, at the moment it’s something I feel I want to share with only long-established and stable connections; family-like connections; if not cohabiting then potentially heading that way. I value the opportunity to withdraw at Christmas and spend time feeling nurtured by spending time with family and loved ones – and for the moment, that doesn’t feel like it would fit with a comparatively new relationship.

Of course, I reserve the right to go back on this completely in future, and laugh gently at past-me.

That said, some of the techniques learned by navigating complex modern families are just as applicable here. Celebrating Christmas on more than one day, in more than one way, and in more than one place; creating personal and private traditions that aren’t specifically tied to Christmas Day; making sure to be in contact and within metaphorical reach of those who aren’t physically present.

Christmas can magnify stresses, because it can be invested with such significance. Some people have wonderful and uncomplicatedly loving relationships with their family, and love seeing them at Christmas; others are completely and happily separated and out of contact. Most people are somewhere in between. So even leaving polyamory aside, it’s a time of year that can be very stressful, full of careful navigations of expectations spoken and unspoken. Multiply this with issues of ‘out-ness’ (are you out to your family? Do you want to be? Are they supportive, or critical, or worse? Are your partners keeping you secret and you wish they weren’t?) and it can be especially difficult for many people to mix family and partners.

But as ever, it’s about making sure people feel valued and important, in the ways that are uniquely suited to them – there is no magic formula. “Come and spend Christmas with my family!” might be what one partner is longing to hear, or it might make someone else feel smothered and rushed. “I’ll be out of contact all Christmas as I’m focusing on my primary partner” might be a clear and reassuring statement of fact to one partner, but to another it might sound like telling them they’re unimportant and unwanted.

Tread gently; Christmas for some is just another day, and for others is invested with huge emotional significance. As ever, talk about your hopes and expectations, and don’t let yourself or others be disappointed by an expectation you kept secret and then went unfulfilled.

Poly Means Many: FOMO

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 “FOMO and loneliness”.

FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out, and as an acronym is often thrown around when talking about social media and the worries it can exacerbate – after all, if you weren’t invited to that party, it can be hard hearing friends mention how much fun it was, but it’s far worse if they spend the next week tagging each other in party photos on facebook and exchanging jokes on twitter about what they got up to in your absence.

In terms of polyamory, it’s probably more specifically relevant to feeling like you’re missing out on something that a partner is doing with another partner, and not you. Rather than the big stuff (‘my partner and his other partner are buying a house together and I wish I was too’) let’s look at the everyday kind of FOMO.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s crucial that all couples get a chance to present themselves as a couple, in social situations, in your ‘community’ etc. It’s really important – though especially so for non-primary relationships – to give them that level of social visibility, recognition and acknowledgement, When you’re poly, this means that there will not only be times when your partner and their other partner are off doing something without you, but there will even be times when they are presenting as a couple in front of your friends and acquaintances (hardly uncommon if you’re a non-primary partner, perhaps more unusual if you’re a primary partner – both have their own difficulties). I don’t mean to imply any dishonesty or shutting out occurs – quite the opposite; like so many things, this is very easy when handled with honesty and good intentions on all sides.

Two examples: one, The Rake and his girlfriend went to an event a couple of weeks ago while I was spending the weekend with my girlfriend Poppy. I’d heard about the event before, and it sounded like a fun night, a great excuse for dressing up, and a good crowd. I was a touch envious of the fun it sounded like they were going to have, but mostly excited to hear about how their evening went, and pleased for them that they’d managed to find this chunk of time to spend together. As it turned out, I was too engrossed in my own plans to give them a second thought that night, but was glad to hear the next day when the three of us lounged around at home together about the night they’d had and friends they’d run into.

Two, there’s a party coming up which will be the Rake’s opportunity to introduce his girlfriend to many of his (our) friends who haven’t met her before, so they’ll be going ‘as a couple’ – which works out perfectly, as not only will I have a lot of friends to catch up with, I’ll also have other duties to be getting on with to help run the night. If you’re not poly, you might be wondering how this works – do you ignore each other? Do you pretend you’re not together? No, nothing so odd. As far as I’m concerned, it just means that their primary connection for the evening will be each other – when this has happened before it means their focus for the evening is each other, they’ll meet people together, introduce each other to friends, hang out together etc; basically everything you do at a party as a couple! I hang out with them too (his girlfriend is great fun) but in these situations I defer to the fact that their evening is together and am careful to give them space to present themselves without me. They get to welcome me into their space, rather than the Rake and I welcoming other partners into our space. I’m intentionally taking on a pretend-secondary role for the evening, in some ways. The Rake has given exactly the same graceful distance for me in the past with other significant partners – it feels like a very easy give and take.

Both of those examples, though, I could – if I wanted, or if I was feeling especially low – conjure into something miserable. Into ‘why don’t you want me around’ or ‘is she more important than me’ or ‘are you ashamed of me’. But it would take real effort to see something that’s so far from my lived experience. Instead, if the Rake is off doing something without me, it doesn’t really even matter whether it’s with another partner or not. Maybe I have plans of my own, or maybe I get to seize the chance for a precious evening in alone (I can’t tell you how much I love getting the place to myself for a night, and spending time alone with my own projects or reading) – either way, I really value whatever I’m doing with that time, and look forward to sharing stories of our evenings. But if I was really jealous of a night out that didn’t include me, so much so that I wanted to be included, then I’d try and work out what was missing from my life. Is it that I feel like I don’t get to go to enough parties? Do I feel like a certain set of friends doesn’t recognise my importance in a partner’s life, and want more visibility? Have I secretly always wanted to go to the opera myself but never had the courage to suggest it as a date activity? Do I wish I got lazy weekend time with that partner, and rarely get the opportunity?

Just like with the poly discussions about jealousy, with this sort of FOMO there’s generally something underlying that instant emotional flash of “NO!”. Rather than responding to the instant emotional reaction, it’s far more valuable to dig further and find out what the problem really is. If you can find the root of it in yourself, you’ll be able to ask clearly for what you need, and that often means you can solve the problem with far more positivity and joy – by adding more awesome to your own life, rather than trying to subtract it from your partner’s.

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.

Poly Means Many: Time and busy-ness

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 “time”.

One of the analogies people sometimes make when explaining poly, and how your partner’s other partners aren’t actually out to cruelly steal your love away from you by stealing their time, is about hobbies. What if your partner had a hobby they really loved? Or a demanding job?

I’m going to give you a concrete example of this. I met up with someone recently who was researching non-monogamies in a professional context. After I’d got in contact with them and said I’d be happy to talk, we then got on to fixing a date. I sent over a list of my possibilities (‘I can do next Wednesday between 8 and 9, most Thursdays, I’ve got a Tuesday after 7.30 in four weeks…’) and eventually we found a day that worked.

When we met up, one of the first things they said to me was how characteristic this was of the non-monogamous people they spoke to – busy calendars and forward planning.

And yet, what was filling my calendar wasn’t dating. What I was having to schedule around included: a series of dance classes, personal writing projects, volunteering to run a couple of major events, seeing friends, theatre tickets (admittedly, with The Rake, so that’s technically dating activity), a work-related drinks reception, a craft project I’d had to schedule an evening for so I got it done, a couple of parties…

Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think some of this busy-ness comes from being fairly introverted. I love seeing lots of friends together at a big party, but I can’t do it often – I prefer to see people (especially people I’m close to) one-on-one, so we can really catch up. Which, of course, can take up a lot of evenings if you actually want to see your friends.

But anyway, my point is certainly not to say ‘look at my glittering social life’ (and you’ll notice some of that is time scheduled on my own, and some is work-related). My point is: that lack of time had nothing at all to do with me being poly, and everything to do with having a reasonably busy social life and a few creative outlets and projects.

Time management is one of those things, like communication and honesty, that sometimes get talked about as though they’re special magic poly skills. They’re not. Time management is something useful to most people. The only thing that begins to differentiate poly time management is other people’s feelings.

If I change my plans one evening and don’t work on the creative project I’d planned to (or just lie on the sofa playing Kingdom Rush instead) I feel a bit rubbish about that, but no-one except me is hurt.

But if I cancel plans with someone who cares about me and would like to see me (or, worse, cancel plans because someone else is free and I’d rather see them) then I’ve hurt someone. Possibly very badly.

Again, though, this isn’t in any way restricted to poly. Just because in some ways it’s easier to say to a partner ‘that was really shitty of you to cancel plans with me because your other partner was free’, it doesn’t mean that friends aren’t badly hurt by exactly the same behaviour.

And this is why polyamorous people tend to talk about time management and scheduling a lot. It’s not because it’s a skill that’s only or especially relevant to poly people. It’s because we’re working within a framework in which it’s already often widely understood and explicitly agreed that how you divide your time is a fairly clear marker of the importance you place on your relationships with people – and, therefore, how hurt people can be by poor or inconsiderate time management. Just because that’s not something talked about between friends, doesn’t mean people aren’t still badly hurt by feeling like they’re falling off the end of your priority list.

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.