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.


This blog will now be hibernating until September, for the most delightful of reasons 🙂 Enjoy the rest of your summer!


I’ll be back at the beginning of September with the Poly Means Many gang – meanwhile, if you miss me, you can read through some of the archives or just make sure you’ve added this to your watch list or whatever RSS reader you use so you can pick up when I come back!

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.

Stories and narrative

Humans are storytelling animals. We like things to have a reason, a why, a beginning-middle-end. We tell stories about our own lives, about other people’s lives, about invented lives. We don’t like it when things ‘just happen’, with no cause and effect. We tell small stories (the way that weird guy on the bus talked to you becomes, once you’ve relayed it a couple of times, an anecdote – it changes in the telling from a simple statement of facts to a Event, with dramatic pauses and tension and humour) and we tell big stories about our own lives and what it all means.

We tell ourselves that the things that happen around us and to us say something about who we are. But the stories we tell are far more revealing. The exact same life, with the same series of events, could be construed in opposite ways by two different people:

‘Oh, I’m so unlucky, my life is terrible; I’ve never had a relationship that lasted and none of my exes even speak to me any more. My family are distant and cold and I don’t have anything in common with them – I don’t even know why I bother trying to stay in touch. I should have tried harder at school and got better exam results but I just mucked around and achieved nothing, I’m such a loser. My professional life has completely stalled and I’m undervalued at work, I have no idea what to do with myself and it feels completely pointless to even go into work these days. I don’t have enough money and I’m constantly worrying about the future.’


‘My life is great. I’ve had some wonderful relationships with people I loved a lot and learned a great deal from; I hope they’re all out there being happy still. I’m not close to my family as an adult, but I know if I needed them I could call on them with absolutely no questions asked, and we had some wonderful times when I was a child that I still look back on with happiness. I might not have got amazing academic results in school, but I learned so much – not just about the subjects we studied and how to learn, but about people and myself and the kind of adult I hoped to be. I think I’ve gone about as far as I can in the job I do at the moment, so I’m using this quiet time to plan carefully what I want to do next – I’ve got some really exciting ideas!’

It’s an extreme and an obvious example, yes, but it resonates I think. We construct stories around everything, and we create meaning where there is no meaning.

I have a theory: that relationships end when you can no longer make your narratives match. When you’re telling two different stories, and are no longer ‘on the same page’.

Relationships become a construction of narrative, a complicity and collaboration in that beginning-middle-end structure, complicated by the cute fictions we’ve learned from romantic novels and films – ‘we met and I just knew she was The One, instantly’; ‘it’s so funny, we must have walked past each other a million times when we both worked there, but we never met until a year later’; ‘oh god, he never even noticed me at first, did you darling?’; ‘we’re just so similar, she really gets me’… and so on. We love to tell ‘our story’, and one mark of a successful relationship shows up when both partners can tell the same story. And, conversely, things begin to fall apart when you can’t tell the same story any more.

Think about it: you resolve a disagreement by understanding each other’s stories – here’s a hypothetical Chris and Alex who’ve had a disagreement:

Chris: “Oh my god I can’t believe you didn’t call me like you said you would, I’ve been going crazy and wondering where you were all evening, it’s so disrespectful.”

Alex: “I feel terrible, I totally meant to call but I just got caught up in the date, and I didn’t want to be so disrespectful of her time as to just walk out and call you.”

Chris: “But you could have just explained to her that you’d promised to call me – or even sent a text saying ‘sorry, can’t call, going great, back later’. You said you’d call, so I was really worried. But I do understand that feeling of a date going fantastically and not wanting to break the spell.”

Alex: “Yeah, sorry. It’s difficult to find a way of making a call without breaking the flow, though. I know we agreed I’d call you when I was on a date, but is that essential? Could I reassure you in the same way by sending a quick text or something, or calling you before or after?”

Chris: “I see what you mean. Yes, next time try sending me a quick text, maybe that can be enough – but you have to promise that you’ll do it, because I’ll only worry more if you don’t keep to this agreement.”

Alex: “That’s fair, I’ll do that.”

Look at my fake-people hanging out and resolving minor issues happily! So there’s now a narrative: Chris was worried because Alex hadn’t called like they promised they would; Alex didn’t call because they were too caught up in the date and didn’t realise how important it was to Chris. Then when Chris realised it was important to Alex not to interrupt the flow of an evening, and when Alex realised it was important to Chris to keep to the agreement and get some sort of contact, they came up with a different agreement. And everyone lived happily ever after.

If they hadn’t resolved this, we’d be stuck with two stories that don’t match: Alex is inconsiderate and disrespectful and probably cares more for whoever they were on a date with than for Chris. Chris is neurotic and needy and completely over-reacting and making unreasonable demands of Alex.

And those mismatched stories become the beginning of the end. Over time, as you realise your stories are pulling further and further apart, it becomes “I feel like I never really knew her”, “he just doesn’t understand me”, “I can’t seem to get through to her”.

One of the sad things in the aftermath of a relationship is realising how much further apart your stories will move, in each other’s absence – if one of you tells it as an over-dramatic tragic love story, and the other tells it as a misguided diversion, those narratives are only going to diverge further as time goes on, without each other’s balancing influence.

It’s so subjective that it’s all true, or maybe none of it is; these sorts of emotional stories don’t have a Real Truth buried away somewhere – people don’t work like that. A successful relationship is two people who have chosen to try and see the world – and their stories, both individually and interlinked – in the same way, and by applying the same narratives to it. When they are no longer able to do that, the relationship falls apart.

And that’s as true as any other story I might tell 😉

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