Category Archives: Polyamory

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.

Vegetable Love

My vegetable love should grow / vaster than empires, and more slow

As someone who loves and trusts slowly but surely, I’m rather fond of those lines (taken immensely out of context to illuminate my post; sorry Marvell. The poem is in fact an ode to not taking it slowly at all).

I’m not going to fall into the ‘there are two types of people in this world…’ trope, but I do think this is an interesting difference – how quickly different people allow themselves to love and trust and show vulnerability, whether in romantic relationships or friendships. Trust allows you to show your vulnerabilities, your soft underbelly, without fearing that you will be attacked or taken advantage of for it. Without trust, there can be no love.

Some people assume everyone is fantastic and trustworthy until proven otherwise, which is wonderful – and especially wonderful when it’s not just due to never yet having been mistaken; if someone has misplaced their trust in the past, yet still extends that trust to pretty much everyone they meet, that’s amazing and beautiful. Some people assume everyone’s out to get them and preemptively shield themselves from the anticipated damage, which always strikes me as very sad and lonely. Most people are somewhere in the middle.

I’ve met a few people who say things like “I don’t trust many people, but when I do I trust them absolutely.” For me, that’s far from the case. I do, in fact, love and trust a great many people, though to varying degrees; as I’ve written in an older post, I actively enjoy placing my trust in people. But it’s definitely a slow build. I couldn’t just decide overnight that someone is trustworthy and that therefore I trust them with anything and everything. Gradual steps, gradual reveals; that dance of intimacy where one small secret is repaid with another slightly bigger secret; an admission of fear or insecurity, repaid with reassurance and an equivalent admission. Slowly, over time, trust is built.

It’s confusing and unsettling when someone tries to dance different steps. If I meet someone and they race ahead, and quickly reveal all their innermost thoughts to me, it unnerves me; it doesn’t feel like an expression of trust, because they can’t yet know me well enough to trust me. Instead, it feels almost like the opposite – because they don’t know me, they must have assumed a lot about who I am, and they’re talking to an invented person rather than me. If anything, early and (as it feels to me) unearned intimacy pushes me further away. Of course, on the other hand, someone responding to my little tendrils of intimacy with distance and refusing to reveal anything about themselves is deeply unnerving (have I offended them? Are they hiding something? Why won’t they let me in?). We all have our own little metronomes setting a pace that we think is ‘right’, and it takes very little deviation from that to push someone away rather than bringing them closer.

All of this applies to all human relationships, not just romantic ones; the delicate building of friendships or the more personal of workplace relationships, too. But in some ways it can be an even more complicated and delicate web when you’re looking at poly relationships.

It would be hard (perhaps not impossible, but very hard) to conduct multiple relationships if your partners didn’t care about each other and enjoy each other’s company. The ideal would of course be for them all to get on brilliantly and have awesome relationships independent of you, right? So on the flip side, when you find yourself with a new metamour, it’s your responsibility to try and form that close relationship as quickly as possible, right? Wrong.

Friendships, relationships, and intimacies are not transitive. This comes up in the Five Geek Social Fallacies, but totally applies here (just because it’s a good example, not because all poly people are geeks – although, to be fair…). “My wife’s bisexual and has just started dating a woman – this means hot threesomes for me, right?” BZZT WRONG. “My husband’s new girlfriend sounds totally amazing and she and I are going to be best friends forever as soon as we meet.” BZZT. “My girlfriend’s new boyfriend buys her dinner at the best restaurants, I can’t wait to hang out with him on our own so we can do the same thing.” NOPE. Just because your partner’s relationship with someone is of a certain intimacy level, doesn’t mean you get to jump straight to that level too. I don’t assume for a moment that I have the absolute right to *know* certain things about The Rake’s other relationships, for example, let alone experience the same closeness that he does with someone he’s seeing!

It helps no-one to try and hurry intimacy based on a relationship you’re not part of. At best it can create a false shallow friendship, all ‘OMG you’re SO AWESOME’ with no real understanding of each other. At worst it can leave one person feeling crowded and smothered – and even lead to them wanting out of the connecting relationship through no fault of their partner. A comment that’s often made about polyamory is that it means relationships can find their own level. This goes for metamours too. You don’t have to hurry that friendship; if you’re going to be fast friends, it will come with time.

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.

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.

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.