Since we started taking Amazon pre-orders for More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory, we’ve gotten a bunch of questions about it here, on our Facebook page, and on my and Franklin’s Twitter feeds. I decided it would be a good idea to post a little FAQ here to answer the most common ones.
Will there be an e-book?
Yes! There will be both Kindle and ePub editions. Unfortunately, it’s hard to impossible for micro-publishers like us to take pre-orders for e-books, so you’ll have to wait for May 30 to buy it. A couple of details:
- We haven’t settled on pricing yet, but it’s looking like it’ll be around $9.99.
- Anyone who backed our Indiegogo campaign at $15 or more will be automatically getting an e-book. Check your email on May 30 for the link to download it–be sure to check your spam and “promotions” folders if you don’t see it. That link will only work for a limited time, because…
- We’re probably going to be signing up for Amazon’s KDP Select, a program that substantially boosts Kindle royalties and sales rankings, but with the trade-off of giving Amazon exclusive distribution rights to digital versions of your book for 90 days. That means that once we enroll in KDP, we have to stop distributing e-books through all other channels. So what we’ll probably do is make the backer and ePub editions available for 10-14 days before starting the 90-day exclusivity period with Amazon. Come fall, we’ll launch a wider ePub distribution campaign.
Can I get your book if I’m not in the United States?
We’ll be making the book available via print-on-demand on Amazon UK and EU on or shortly after May 30. At that point you’ll also be able to buy POD copies directly via the Createspace e-store, which has fairly reasonable international shipping rates (around $6).
In the month or two after publication, we’ll also be distributing the book into other international markets, including Canada, Australia and Brazil. We will make announcements here and on our Facebook page as that happens.
In the meantime, if you live in one of these other countries and don’t want to pay full retail + shipping for a book, you might want to consider encouraging your local bookstore to put in a wholesale order directly from us, or get your local poly group together to buy a carton at wholesale + shipping. Which brings us to…
Are you taking wholesale orders?
Yes, we are taking wholesale orders for the book. Poly groups, bookstores, university professors and others interested in bulk purchasing can send an email to email@example.com for information. We will also provide complementary desk copies to accompany wholesale academic orders.
Eventually the book will be available through a distributor, but we’re still working on choosing our distributor and establishing a relationship.
Are you sending review copies?
Members of the media, including high-profile bloggers, may write to press@thorntreepress for review copies. (We reserve the right to decide what constitutes “high-profile.”)
What else can I do to help?
The most important thing you can do right now is to share our pre-order link: http://amzn.to/ReG10R. (If you tweet, please use the hashtag #MoreThanTwo.)
The more orders we get through Amazon, the higher our sales ranking goes and the more early exposure we get.
Here are some other things you can do:
- When you visit the Amazon page, go visit the pages of some other poly and sex-positive books–like The Polyamorists Next Door, The Ethical Slut, Not Your Mother’s Playground, Sex at Dawn, Open, Opening Up, The Husband Swap, Polyamory and Pregnancy, and Redefining Our Relationships. This will help associate our book with those books on Amazon for people looking for books on poly.
- Ask your local bookstore or library to carry us. Give them the firstname.lastname@example.org email address. Most libraries allow you to put in requests for purchase.
- After you read the book, review it on Amazon.
- Review the book on your blog, Goodreads, or other preferred social media channel.
- Help improve the page rankings for morethantwo.com by linking to it on websites and blog posts about polyamory. If you have links to the old xeromag.com site, update those links to the matching page on morethantwo.com.
- Fill out our book tour survey and help us organize a gig in your town!
- Register for Atlanta Poly Weekend and come to our workshops and Franklin’s keynote.
- Follow us on Facebook, invite your friends, and like and share our posts.
- Join our mailing list.
Other ideas? Other questions? Share them in the comments!No comments
Aiieeee it’s almost here!!!
Amazon has More Than Two: A practical guide to ethical polyamory, up for presale at a discounted price of $17.75. If you pre-order now, your book will come from the first printing.
So reserve your copy now–plus a few for friends!7 comments
It’s done! The copy-editing is complete, and the book has gone to layout. In just a few short weeks (eep!) we’ll be sending the file to print. Our publication date is… drum roll please…
May 30, 2014
If you haven’t signed up for our mailing list yet, you can do so now and to be notified by email when pre-orders open (which will be soon).
We sent out a survey to all our Indiegogo backers asking you how you want to be credited on the website, e-book and print book (depending on what you’re eligible for). The survey went out on our Facebook, by email and as an Indiegogo update, but a few people still haven’t responded. If you don’t respond, you won’t get your credit. We’re leaving the survey open for a few more days–until midnight on Monday, April 14–so if you haven’t filled it out yet and you want your credit, please go do it now!
We’re having book launch parties back-to-back, on May 30 in Vancouver, Canada, and May 31 in Portland, Oregon. Then we’re headed out to Atlanta Poly Weekend on June 6 to 8, where we’ll be leading workshops and Franklin will be giving a keynote. We’ll be sending out launch party info by email shortly.
If you’ve been following our Facebook page, you’ve been seeing snippets of what’s been cut from the book. For the first time, we’d like to share with you a teaser of what’s actually going to be in the book. Below is a short excerpt, and below that is the complete table of contents.
From Chapter 1: Starting the Journey:
It’s a story as old as time: Boy meets girl (or perhaps boy meets boy, or girl meets girl), they date, they fall in love. They pledge sexual and emotional fidelity, start a family and settle down to live happily ever after, the end. But the story often proves to be a fairy tale. All too often it continues on into misery, breakdown, separation, divorce, boy meets new girl. Lather, rinse, repeat.
In one common variant, boy meets girl, they settle down, one of them meets someone new, things get messy, dishes are thrown, hearts are broken. Or perhaps you’ve heard this version: Girl meets two boys, or vice versa. A tragic choice must be made. Someone is left heartbroken, and everybody is left wondering what might have been.
We propose that there is a different way to write this story. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl meets another boy, they fall in love, girl and boy meet another boy, girl meets girl, girl meets boy, and they all live happily ever after.
The word polyamory was coined in the early 1990s from the Greek poly, meaning ”many,” and the Latin amor, meaning “love.” It means having multiple loving, often committed, relationships at the same time by mutual agreement, with honesty and clarity. We know what you’re thinking: “Who does the laundry?” We’ll get to that in a bit.
Polyamory isn’t about sneaking off and getting some action on the sly when your girlfriend is out of town. Nor is it about dating three people and keeping everyone in the dark. It’s not about joining a religious cult and marrying a dozen teenage girls, or about having recreational sex while maintaining only one “real” relationship, or going to parties where you drop your keys in a hat.
Poly relationships come in an astonishing variety of shapes, sizes and flavors, just like the human heart. There are “vee” relationships, where one person has two partners who aren’t romantically involved with each other; “triad” relationships, where three are mutually involved; and “quad” relationships of four people, who may or may not all be romantically involved with one another. A relationship might be “polyfidelitous,” which means the people agree not to pursue additional partners. Or it may be open to members starting new relationships. A poly person might have one or more “primary” partners and one or more “secondary” partners, or recognize no rankings. They might have a “group marriage,” sharing finances, a home and maybe children as a single family.
Some people imagine that polyamory involves a fear of commitment. The truth is, commitment in polyamory doesn’t mean commitment to sexual exclusivity. Instead, it means commitment to a romantic relationship, with everything that goes along with that: commitment to being there when your partners need you, to investing in their happiness, to building a life with them, to creating happy and healthy relationships that meet everyone’s needs, and to supporting one another when life gets hard. Unfortunately, society has taught us to view commitment only through the lens of sexual exclusivity; this diminishes all the other important ways that we commit to one another. People who can’t commit to one person sure as hell can’t commit to more than one!
Polyamory isn’t the same thing as polygamy, which means having multiple spouses (most often in the form of polygyny, or multiple wives; sometimes in the form of polyandry, or multiple husbands). It’s not about keeping a harem, though we know some of you there in the back row were kind of hoping we’d go that way. It’s not the same as swinging, though some poly people also swing (as we discuss in chapter 17, on opening from a couple). And finally, it’s not about rampant promiscuity. Polyamorous relationships are relationships—with good times, bad times, problem-solving, communication…and, yes, laundry.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Janet W. Hardy, co-author of The Ethical Slut
Part 1: What is polyamory?
1 Starting the journey
2 The many forms of love
3 Ethical polyamory
Part 2: A poly toolkit
4 Tending your self
5 Nurturing your relationships
6 Communication pitfalls
7 Communication strategies
8 Taming the green-eyed monster
Part 3: Poly frameworks
10 Rules and agreements
11 Hierarchy and primary/secondary poly
12 Veto arrangements
13 Empowered relationships
14 Practical poly agreements
Part 4: The poly reality
15 How poly relationships are different
16 In the middle
17 Opening from a couple
18 Mono/poly relationships
19 Sex and laundry
20 Sexual health
21 Poly puzzles
22 Relationship transitions
Part 5: The poly ecosystem
23 Your partners’ other partners
24 Finding partners
25 The rest of the world
Last words: Love more, be awesome
We’re still deep in the midst of editing–still finishing the final chapters to send off to our substantive editor, while simultaneously polishing the chapters we’re getting back from him to send to our copy-editor. The book is turning out to be quite a, er, substantial piece of work: currently at 160,000 words and counting, 25 chapters covering every poly scenario you (or at least we) could think of. (For comparison, The Two Towers is about 155,000 words). And it’s good. Really good (if we do say so ourselves). Alan, our substantive editor, agrees: he gave us a very flattering mention over at Polyamory in the News earlier this week.
We’ll be announcing our pub date and launch parties soon–as soon as we get the rest of this book to our editors. Which will be soon.
(See how we got to 160,000 words? Thank goodness for editors.)
But by special request, we’re setting the book aside for a moment to address another question from one of the people who backed our Indiegogo campaign last fall. This one comes from a backer who asks: What are some strategies for successfully “de-escalating” relationships, say from romantic or sexual to friendships?
We’re doing this post as another dialogue, this time with a special guest–Franklin’s sweetie Joreth, who has posted on breakups in the past on her blog here and here (we’ve also addressed breakups before from a slightly different angle, here).
Franklin: Shortly after I moved to Portland, I started a relationship with a woman who was a partner of a good friend of mine. She and I were romantically involved for perhaps six months when she decided we really weren’t terribly compatible as romantic partners. She took me aside one day and expressed that she didn’t want a romantic relationship, clearly and directly. I told her that I was completely in love with her, and that meant I wanted whatever made her most happy–if that was a friendship that wasn’t a romantic relationship, then that’s what we would have.
I think she was a little surprised; she expected a much worse response. We are still close friends, and still very fond of each other.
Eve: So it sounds like you’re saying that you think the key–or at least an important first step–in backing away from a romance to friendship is clear, open communication about what you want? I would agree; I think the compassionate and ethical thing to do is to talk to your partner openly about how you want the relationship to change. I have been in situations where a partner has tried to cool off the relationship passively, by becoming unresponsive or backing away. That’s a painful thing to experience.
For me, I think the critical element has always been time. I can’t go straight from being lovers to being friends, or at least I have no experience of successfully doing so. When I’m still in love with someone, it is painful for me to be around them without having access to them, emotionally or physically or both. I need time for my feelings to resolve before I can be comfortable in their presence. In the cases where I’ve been deeply in love but have become close friends later, usually a couple of years elapse between the end of the romantic or physical part of our relationship and the beginning of the friendship.
Joreth: I’ve been in both situations: where I was able to transition almost seamlessly from a primary-like romantic entanglement to a platonic friendship with no time in between, and where I needed a good several months or years in order to reset, as it were, the feelings category in my head. I don’t think there is a formula that will say “spend this much time apart and you can transition to another type of relationship,” certainly not a blanket one for everyone, but not even one that will apply across the board for a single person. Each relationship we have will have different needs even in the breakup, so we need to listen to what our emotions are telling us about where we should take things with each soon-to-be-ex partner. I think flexibility and letting go of expectations for how the breakup *should* go is probably the next step in a smooth transition. We can possibly have goals for where we eventually would like to end up, but how we get there will need to be tailored to the participants. That said, there are some guidelines that have higher chances of success than other methods of breaking up and transitioning peacefully.
Franklin: I definitely think clear and honest communication is a key piece of the puzzle. It’s hard, though, and I’ve fallen flat on that bit myself. Another important part, I think, is the expectation management I described in our earlier post. Letting go not just of expectations about how the breakup should go, but of expectations about how the relationship should look, is really important.
I value consent above just about everything else. I don’t want to be with partners who don’t want to be with me. I try very hard to let go of expectations that a partner “owes” me love and intimacy just because we’ve had it in the past. My partners don’t owe me a relationship; I’m not entitled to it. If I am to be serious about valuing consent–and like I said, this is really important to me–I have to acknowledge that my partners have a right to choose not to be romantically involved with me. They have a right to break up with me if the relationship isn’t working for them.
It’s not always easy. I want my relationships to continue. But it seems to me the best way to have that happen isn’t to hold on to the idea that they owe it to me, or to punish them if they don’t want to be involved with me, but rather to be the best possible version of myself. Even if I occasionally mess it up and fall short.
Joreth: There’s a whole episode in the TV show Sex and the City about the worst way to break up with someone. I will be referencing this in my upcoming workshop on breaking up. The punchline is that Carrie says, “There is a good way to break up with someone, Alan, and it doesn’t include a Post-it.” She points out in her rant that people just want a breakup that honors what they had together and offers them some closure. Normally, I would tend to twitch a little bit at typical pop-psych words like “closure,” but if you are the one doing the breaking up, and you want to transition to a friendship or FWB, you will have better luck if your breakup conversation is one that expresses your honor and respect for your former partner and what you had together and, as said above, clearly closes the door on this particular chapter of your relationship, to mix a metaphor.
Eve: I want to address the “good way to break up” (without a Post-it) idea. A lot of people, I think, get hung up on the proper medium for breaking up (with emails and text-messages being universally frowned upon). A lot of people will say that the only acceptable way to have a breakup is in person. Dan Savage did a column awhile ago about the text-message breakup, where he says, “When I listen to someone complaining about how he was dumped, SMS, what I often hear is someone complaining that he was dumped.” I think often the medium can be a distraction: people latch onto it as a way to make their ex the bad guy–look at how mean he is, he dumped me by email. A considerate, well-thought-out email can be a good way to handle a breakup, if a partner is someone you don’t see often. So is a phone or Skype call. I think it’s more important to be direct and clear, and not leave it to linger once you’ve made your decision. And, if you are hoping to keep a connection with this person long-term, to keep a two-way line of communication open for the person to express their feelings about the change.
I also don’t think it’s possible all the time to go from a romantic relationship to something else. The obvious case is when there’s been abuse, of course, but many romantic relationships end after there’s been a serious breach of trust or breaking of intimacy. Those things, when they can be repaired, take time and work. Often, when a person isn’t willing to put in the time and effort to fix them within a romantic relationship, they’re certainly not going to do so outside of one. That was the case with my last partner.
Franklin: Yeah, that’s kinda the thing about transitioning a relationship to a friendship–it only takes one person to end the relationship, but it takes two to keep the friendship after.
I think a lot of the problem people have with the idea of a breakup in an email or text message is that it feels like the initiator isn’t really being sensitive to the recipient of the breakup. That’s what it felt like when a partner broke up with me in instant message a long time ago. But looking back on it now, it wasn’t that she broke up with me in IM, it was that she didn’t have any sensitivity to my feelings. Had she dumped me in person, I think that would still have been true.
Joreth: I agree that we get too hung upon the medium, as if the communication tool is solely responsible for the pain the breakup caused. But, at the same time, certain mediums are more challenging to that goal of showing your honor and respect of the relationship that you are now trying to end. A post-it does not show respect because it is not enough space to give explanation, it doesn’t give that two-way line of communication, etc. Making public declarations like changing a Facebook status before you’ve had the conversation in private: also much more challenging to honor the relationship in that method, because the other person doesn’t have the opportunity to be vulnerable and to react in a safe space. Expecting one to handle a vulnerable moment and react authentically in public is kind of the opposite of being respectful.
There’s also a lot of truth in that it takes one person to end a relationship but two to keep the friendship after. That’s why I do not make a goal of becoming friends with my exes–that requires my exes to acquiesce. Instead, I make the goal of being a friendly ex. That places responsibility entirely on my own shoulders for my own behaviour towards my exes. And I believe that giving someone the space they need quite squarely falls under the heading of being “friendly.”
Franklin: Refocusing a little, are there strategies beyond being flexible, managing expectations, and being a friendly ex, that help make the transition easier? I’ve rarely been the initiator in a relationship ending, I’m more often the recipient. What can the initiator do to make the transition easier?
Eve: I, too, have usually been the recipient. The first time I was the one to end a relationship, I actually found it harder than being the one on the receiving end–and have consistently ever since. But it seems to me that our experiences on the receiving end should give us some good perspectives to offer on how to make it less painful. The short answer to that is: you can’t. Losing a relationship you value–and “de-escalating” is a loss, of intimacy, of physical closeness, perhaps of a shared vision of a future together–is going to hurt, and there’s not much you can do to soften that initial blow, I think. But I do think you can create a space where healing will be able to happen in the future.
For me, the most important thing is not to have expectations placed on me that I’ll be ready for friendship too soon. I’ve had exes want to go immediately to friends status, and that’s usually not possible for me–but then I feel like I’m the one in the wrong, because I’m being an “unfriendly” ex. So giving me time and space after a breakup is really one of the best things a partner can do for me. But another thing that’s really important is what the relationship looks like in the ending stages. Do I feel like my partner has been trying to work on issues with me, and we’ve just come to a standstill? Have they been making an effort to listen to and understand me? The hardest endings for me have been the ones where things ended long before they ended: my partner stopped seeing or hearing me well before formally ending the relationship. That’s hard to recover from.
Joreth: For me, the hardest endings (or, the endings that were the most difficult to transition from to friends or more) were the ones where I didn’t feel respected as a person, regardless of whether I was the initiator or recipient. Sometimes that meant that my space wasn’t respected and I felt imposed upon. Sometimes that meant that my feelings and opinions weren’t being heard during the breakup or in the relationship leading up to the breakup. Sometimes that meant that the method of breakup communication did not take certain things into account, like my opportunity to react, or put me in an overly vulnerable position (because being dumped is already a vulnerable position). Sometimes that meant that the reasons given felt like direct attacks on my character as a person, or on those traits about myself that are the most valuable or most important to me, like my integrity. If you want to guarantee that you hurt your soon-to-be-ex partner so much that they will not desire to transition to friends or something more, those are all good ways to go about that. Bonus points for a truly catastrophic ending if you can do all of them at once.
Franklin: It seems to me like the factors most necessary, then, are honesty, directness, flexibility, expectation management, and good faith. None of those things will guarantee that a friendship can rise from the ashes of a relationship, but if any of them are missing, it most certainly won’t.
And, as always, you can’t really control anyone else. You can do the best you can to build the foundation for a friendship, but if that isn’t what the other person wants as well, it ain’t gonna happen. Perhaps the best thing to do is to let go of attachment to just one outcome.3 comments
This is a guest post by my sweetie Shelly, who also wrote what has been called “the best essay ever written about consent.” From her formidable mind comes this essay about primary/secondary relationships, “family” and consent. Read it. I am in awe of her mind. – Franklin
“Of course I’ll hurt you. Of course you’ll hurt me. Of course we will hurt each other. But this is the very condition of existence. To become spring, means accepting the risk of winter. To become presence, means accepting the risk of absence.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Winter is coming…
In the morning, I like to drink coffee out of this cheerful winter mug, stare intently at something 2000 miles away and say, darkly, Winter is coming… And then I like to follow it manically with something like, “And then there will be presents!” or “And then we can DECORATE!” I do this partly because, well, it never stops being funny to me, and partly because the change of seasons is really important this year.
Transitions are really important to me right now. Memories are really important to me right now. With full disclosure, I am actually a homunculus.
“I am filled with sawdust!” I keep trying to tell people. “Nothing is there! When I look in the mirror, nothing is there!!!” … *blink*
And then the other person is like “Paper or plastic?”
It turns out that other people have a lot on their minds.
I thought I would tell you now, though, that I lost myself. No, that’s not right, because that suggests that I might be waiting in security with the lost and found. No, it would be more accurate to say that I demolished myself, and am trying, so slowly, to rebuild myself out of big dreams and little piles of sand.
So now you can determine whether I’m uniquely qualified or massively unqualified to submit this challenge. It’s all the same to me, I just have a story to tell.
We built this city**
When I first met Franklin, 12 years ago, he was in a strict primary/secondary relationship. His wife was primary, had veto over his relationships, and the two of them had worked out a long list of limitations on his other relationships out of reverence for their marriage.
Be careful about saying things that might be darkly ironic later, because they tend to end up becoming darkly ironic later. “Franklin?” I would tell my friends who noticed my googly eyes. “Not with a 10-foot pole.” What I meant, of course, was “I think I will go about rapidly falling in love with Franklin despite my better judgment.”
When you knowingly enter into a restricted relationship and then suffer over those restrictions, it’s hard not to feel like a total boob. Seriously, no matter how bad the pain gets, there’s always going to be a mocking voice that says “Seriously? You signed up for this. What did you think was going to happen?”
But, see, that’s actually an interesting question. What did I think was going to happen? What I thought I was signing up for was an emotionally restricted relationship. I thought that the risk was the same risk you have in any emotionally restricted relationship: unreciprocated investment and unrequited love. Sure, it hurts, but then it burns itself out because nothing feeds it.
But primary/secondary structures tend to leave a special kind of emotional wreckage. While I freely admit that it is often a mutually beneficial model for all involved, there is a hidden trap. Because sometimes we walk into this structure, with heart in hand, and sometimes our partner meets us there. And then the structure becomes a maze of slamming doors and booby traps. When your partner meets you with real intimacy and love within an externally enforced and non-negotiable framework of limitations, the emotional experience of the relationship is of being simultaneously pulled in and violently shoved out. The cognitive dissonance is even worse. Self-advocacy is often interpreted as homewrecking, and disruptions to the status quo are seen as a hostile act. Remember, you signed up for this, you’re breaking the contract, you’re the bad guy. But don’t be cruel and break his heart, don’t be disruptive and speak for your own. just… just want something else, feel something else, BE SOMEONE ELSE.
So, there is a special place, at the bottom of all of that, where you realize that the only truly “right” thing you can do is just… find a way to disappear. But not with an explosion (you drama queen). Just find a way to disappear quietly so that no one notices. Do the right thing and just… go away.
But then, somewhere in that mess Franklin held his hand out to me and said. “Maybe it’s not you, Shelly. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with you. Maybe there’s something wrong with the structure.”
Like most things, primary/secondary works great, you know, until it doesn’t. And it does actually matter how we handle that.
** How long was Jefferson Starship running through your head? Yeah, I did that on purpose.
An answer to the question
Can I just take a moment to call attention to the fact that we are all making this up as we go along?
I remember reaching for the words to describe what I was searching for in poly. An image in my mind of shared experiences and shared love, of voices in the kitchen, of shared meals and lots of feetsies under the covers. Family.
Family was a word I struggled to find and then struggled to define. But it was also an answer to the question that remained when I walked away from forced hierarchical relationships. Family was an answer to the question of loss. How do we stave off loss in poly? It’s like when you’re a vegetarian and someone looks at you sadly and says “what do you eat?” because all they picture is canned green beans and a slice of Wonder Bread. “Why would you be poly? You just lose time and resources and security.” But…but…do you realize that there are like five kinds of animals that we regularly eat, and, like, literally a kazillion other kinds of foods? I just. Argh!
What about going to a movie with your partner and your metamour? Or hell, your partner is out and you just call your metamour up? What about group dinners and big parties and ALL the cuddles and always having someone there for you because you have many points of failure instead of one, and (bom chicka) group sex and… just ALL THE DIFFERENT FOODS?
Family is a counter to zero-sum arguments.
Franklin has written about this, but it boils down to this:
The objection: Poly is bad because it means you have to divide all your time up and everyone gets less.
The response: Well, that’s true if you think of relationships as zero-sum. However, that ignores the possibility that you could spend your time with more than one person and then everyone gets more.
I remember long conversations with Franklin where we talked about this idea of family, of sharing a life together. And the more he and I developed this dream, the more his wife dug in to preserve the life they had built, where Franklin could only live with her, could only be primary with her. And the more I pushed this dream of family, and eventually did move in.
But, wait, hold on. Before I sell you this Cadillac, I really feel compelled to warn you that it blows up sometimes. No, really. Hold on.
Consent is something I’ve become deeply concerned about, both personally and culturally. While consent is something most people associate with sex, I think consent is important for every kind of personal boundary. This isn’t just a philosophical musing, and it’s not even really an ethical one. I care about this because weak boundaries and consent violations degrade the self. No, really. Let’s sit with this. Your self? That’s it. That’s what you’ve got. That’s all you’ve got. Degradation of the self is a living death.
I say this as someone who happily, righteously participated, for years, in coercive relationship structures. I architected some, defended others, used them as weapons and ultimately sacrificed my self for them.
Franklin and his wife eventually separated. And it certainly was not a matter of him choosing me over her. He chose one dream over another, one life over another. And I felt with self-satisfaction that I had won some kind of poly moral victory. Because inclusiveness was right and exclusiveness was wrong.
I look back, with a non-trivial amount of horror, at the fact that—even as I felt that Franklin’s wife was trying to coerce him into one kind of life—I was trying to coerce her into another. How often does it happen when someone ends up in the intractable center of a miserable V (or star), that they start to search for some kind of moral basis to make a decision (because it’s just not OK to do anything that resembles leaving one relationship for another)? How often is that moral basis “I’m going to choose the person who is most inclusive, and I am going to leave the person who is, well, trying to set boundaries?”
… Family :(
We differentiate polyamory from cheating by the honesty, the openness and the consent. The desire for transparency in our relationships, the pull towards inclusiveness and shared time, and the emphasis on metamour relationships and communication, I think, all emerge from these principles. And these are good things. However…
When we take the principles of inclusiveness and family to the point where we build relationships that are dependent on other relationships, we are building on a foundation of coercion. Note that I am not saying that these relationships are automatically coercive, only that it’s built in. It’s that room at the back of the house you never use, you know, until you do.
What do I mean by a relationship that is dependent on another relationship? An example might be a triad where one person must be involved with the other two people, or else they can’t be involved with either one of them. Another example might be a V where there is an understanding that one or both relationships will fail if the metamours don’t “get along.” Or perhaps there are many relationships, and if you removed group time, there just wouldn’t be enough time to maintain them all.
Many (most?) poly relationships have relationship interdependence either as subtext or as an explicitly stated criterion. Why? Because time and energy are limited, the idea of family is compelling, and it just doesn’t seem like too much to ask. And if everyone is onboard with the idea, it doesn’t seem like it should be a problem.
And, like most things, group poly works great until it doesn’t. But when it stops working, it seems to create amplified feelings of betrayal and fear, and uniquely powerful emotional hostage situations. I think this is because conflict and change in one relationship typically have a cascading effect.
If I can’t share a home with my metamour, does it mean I can’t share a home with my partner? If I don’t want to spend time with my metamour, will I lose all of my time with my partner? If I break up with my partner, will I lose the support of my metamours? If I stop having sex with one partner, will our shared partner shun me? Does my dyadic relationship even exist outside of the group? Are my feelings enough to make choices, or does this need to go to committee? If I am just generally uncomfortable and need to back off of a shared intimacy, will I be demonized and shamed? If I’m not comfortable in the group, does it mean I’m not really poly? Will my withdrawal be used to build a case to eject me?
And if your romantic network is also your primary social support network—your family—then it massively amplifies disapproval and threats of loss. Social shaming and rejection can create a crippling threat that all but removes choice. If you get into an argument with your partner, and your partner says “you’re selfish and inconsistent and hurtful,” that’s pretty rough. And then you reach out to friends and family, who are essentially your metamours, and they say “how could you do that to him… you don’t care about anyone but yourself,” and then you spiral into fear and isolation and shame, and then your partner says “look what you’re doing to us, you hurt all of us,” and you feel banished and ostracized, it really takes the original conflict to an entirely different level.
When you enter into a group, knowing the contingencies that exist and the terms under which you are approved… when you enter into a group knowing you should really just be grateful for the opportunity, and then you suffer for your loss of control, and for your inability to create the life you need to feel nourished and safe, well it makes you feel like a bit of a boob. And by “boob” I mean double agent, slimy salesman pulling a bait and switch, manipulative homewrecker, monster, monster, MONSTER. Holy fuck, woman, mean what you say and say what you mean, what did you think was going to happen?
And when you really really want to make it work, despite Shakespearean levels of unhappiness, because it should work, it’s easy to start to feel like the only solution is just to try to change who you are. Just crush all of the things inside of you that aren’t working, all the things that are hurting and hurting everyone else, and just… hope something better is left.
(Hi. You there. The one crying. Let’s forget about all of those other people for a minute. Don’t do it. You won’t like what’s left, and you may never recover. And it won’t work anyways. Hey. Maybe it’s not you. Maybe it’s nobody. Maybe it’s just the structure.)
The heartbreaking thing, I believe, is that emotional blackmail is just built into some relationship structures. Abuse doesn’t require an abuser. Sometimes all it requires is a belief.
But don’t worry. For the most part none of this will be a problem… until it is.
The foundation of consent
I believe, pretty firmly at this point, that the foundation of a non-coercive poly relationship has to be the ability to drop to zero-sum at any time, for any reason. That’s not just true for sexual relationships in a group, but also for metamour relationships. But more than that, the foundation of consent is a built-in exit clause for every single relationship. Not happy? Not healthy? It’s OK to leave.
To that end, I’ve decided there’s a bunch of coercive bullshit that has to go.
If you need more from our relationship than I can give,
it is not because you
- are insecure/too needy
- don’t care about your metamours
it is not because I
- am selfish and greedy
- am neglectful and irresponsible
if you need more from our relationship than I can give, then we have a resource incompatibility and we need to determine A) whether that resource is required for our relationship to stay intact, or B) whether it is a general resource you are missing that can be supplemented elsewhere.
If it is amenable to creative problem-solving, let’s try to solve it. If it is not, then it’s OK to end the relationship.
If I am not comfortable sharing any kind of intimacy with your other partners,
it is not because I
- am trying to cowgirl/cowboy you
- am not really poly
- am not really trying
If I am not comfortable sharing intimacy with your other partners, and that takes us to unacceptable levels of resource scarcity, then A) I hope we didn’t build a deeply attached and committed relationship based on coercive intimacy because B) these things aren’t sustainable, and this is going to hurt.
We have the opportunity to re-invent relationships. We will mess up. Things that really make sense and seem right, even righteous, might have hidden explosives. It matters what we do when things go wrong. We should not assume first that our relationship expectations are right and our loved ones are broken. We should assume that we will make bad choices, build bad structures, and subscribe to damaging beliefs. We should be willing to question all of them. We will be blind to many things until we are not. We need to admit that sometimes there are no solutions, that sometimes relationships should end or change, and sometimes it won’t be fair. Relationships require maintenance, resources are limited, and so is love. It’s ok. Follow your heart, honor your own humanity and that of the people around you. Do your best. Show yourself compassion even when, especially when you’re the only one who is.
There are no good people or bad people here. We only risk becoming something static when we decide that we’ve got it all figured out and that our moral code can be absolute. We will all do good things and bad things, and we will all hurt the people we love. Sadly, we will probably hurt them the most in the service of what we believe is right. What makes you good is not perfection in action or strictness to code, but the willingness to question, to change, and to listen to your heart when your life stops matching it.
In the last 12 years, I have watched all of my poly dreams go up in smoke. And what I seem to be left with, in the rubble and ashes, is just a poly life.
And I’m sorry. But you will lose some things. You will lose quite a bit of security. Stuff is going to change, and no one is going to be able to predict how. You’re going to have ideas and you’re going to build structures and it’s really going to matter what you do when those stop working, because they will. Some things might end. Everything might end. But if everyone still sees the humanity in everyone else at the end, then that is no minor victory. That’s my pitch. If you’re not ok with this, then please don’t do it.
But if you do, you might find a little bit more of your self. And at the end of the day, that’s really all you’ve got anyways, and, hey, you are amazing.9 comments
Dr. Elisabeth Sheff’s new book on polyamorous families, The Polyamorists Next Door, is finally out! Pick up your copy on Amazon today and help it become a top seller for the day. If that happens, it will help Dr. Sheff find a publisher for a paperback edition. So please support her excellent (and necessary!) research on polyamorous families and go buy it now!No comments
“Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.” — George Orwell
A couple of folks have asked me why we’re placing such a heavy emphasis on ethics in our new book, with at least one person going so far as to say ethics are all relative and so there’s no way to talk about ethics in relationships in any sort of global sense at all.
We take it as an axiom that ethics exist, and that some relationship behaviors aren’t ethical. If you have trouble accepting that there are any behaviors at all that are unethical in relationships, it’s probably wise to stop reading now, as there will be very little here for us to talk about.
To understand why we’re working hard to create a functional and consistent ethical framework for talking about polyamory, it’s helpful to look at the current BDSM community and how it’s progressed the way it has. I think there are important lessons in there for the poly community, but perhaps not the way you might think.
The organized BDSM community in the US arguably started out in the gay leather community in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and received a significant boost toward the end of WWII. It focused on highly hierarchical roles and often featured military-style protocols, perhaps because returning US servicemen really helped create it. (The argument about gays in the military is kind of silly; there always have been, and always will be, gays in the military.)
In the ensuing 70-odd years since then, the community has changed radically in several waves, becoming less hierarchical and less focused on gay male sexuality throughout the 1980s, more accessible to mainstream culture in the late 80s and early 90s, and much less underground in the late 90s.
For all its history, though, the BDSM community has largely failed to create a culture of consent. This is a bit odd, when you consider that most people involved in BDSM will argue that consent is the defining characteristic separating BDSM from abuse.
What do I mean when I say that it hasn’t created a culture of consent? I mean that the BDSM community, alarmingly often, shields abusers. In my experience, it tends to respond poorly to violations of consent, including sexual assault, especially when the violations come from leaders in the community. The most visible parts of the BDSM community (including such places as Fetlife, which is kind of the Facebook for the BDSM scene) institute policies explicitly forbidding open talk about sexual assault, except in general terms. All this has the effect of making the community a surprisingly safe space for predators.
The exact causes of these problems in the BDSM scene are beyond the scope of this essay. What is germane is that I feel the poly community is in danger of following a similar path, prizing conformity and low conflict above the ethical needs of the people in it.
People who push for years to get a bandwagon rolling are usually unprepared for what to do when the bandwagon finally starts to move. No longer is it all about a few devoted people grunting and straining from behind to make the bandwagon’s wheels move half an inch. When the effort begins to succeed, the bandwagon starts rolling on its own, faster and faster.
And unless the people with the original vision stop just shoving the rear bumper and run up and grab the steering wheel, pretty soon the bandwagon outruns them and leaves them behind. And their elation turns to horror as they watch it careen downhill out of control, in disastrous unintended directions. And then it wrecks itself spectacularly in a ditch. Survivors loot the wreckage and disappear, and onlookers nod their heads knowingly and say they saw it coming all along.
I’ve noticed huge shifts in the poly community in the last two or three years. It’s all over the news. Online poly groups, formerly scarcely larger than scores of people (successful ones sometimes reached hundreds, and large, established mailing lists might get a couple thousand subscribers) have exploded: these days, a poly Facebook group might have six thousand members or more. Poly discussion groups are ballooning also.
That’s good news. Polyamory is becoming an accepted relationship model. Society is changing, offering greater flexibility and more tolerance for people who choose nontraditional relationships.
But it’s also a warning sign. I see a lot more people cheating and calling it “polyamory” than I’ve ever seen before–and, more worrying, I see the poly community becoming a lot more tolerant of it. I’m seeing a lot of people engaging in behavior that’s destructive, damaging, occasionally even abusive, and with it I see the poly community adopting an attitude of, “Hey, anything that anyone does is okay. Judgment is wrong. There’s no wrong way to do polyamory.”
In our book, we’re going back to first principles, and among these first principles is that, yes, there are wrong ways to do any kind of relationship. Violating consent is wrong. Abuse is wrong. Coercion is wrong.
And not all abuse and coercion involves fists. Sometimes, it’s very subtle. Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can make me think I deserve it. I see gaslighting, I see arm-twisting, I see relationship structures that treat people as disposable, and I’m finding I’m surprisingly okay with saying yes, there really are wrong ways to do polyamory.
My concern is that we (and by “we” I mean not just poly people, but people in general) are so strongly encouraged to hate and fear conflict that we are reluctant to call people on bad behavior. It’s easier, so very much easier, to look the other way, to say, “Well, maybe that’s what works for them”; to say, “Well, it doesn’t really involve me”; to say, “Well, they won’t listen to me anyway.”
That’s what I believe the BDSM community has done. It’s a large part of why I stopped participating in it, many years ago. I am concerned that we are so conflict-averse, so eager to say that judgment is always wrong and we must never do it, that we are creating a community that tolerates bad actors, even abusers, because we simply don’t want to step forward and say, “You know what? This is wrong.”
I do not believe we can give good poly advice without starting from an ethical framework and without being willing to say some relationship choices are ethical and some aren’t. It’s easy to say, “Anything that the people involved agree to is okay,” but that ignores the reality of the human condition. It ignores that abuse victims often voluntarily remain with their abusers, at least for some value of “voluntarily.” It ignores that people may agree to things at the start of a relationship that later become untenable–because, seriously, who among us can predict at the very beginning of a relationship what direction it might go? It ignores how easily and casually we are comfortable with violating consent. It ignores that people may make choices that hurt themselves or others for reasons that aren’t necessarily rational–fear of abandonment, fear of loss, scarcity thinking, and so on. It ignores that some people, through no fault of their own (economics, perhaps, or mental health issues, or any of a thousand other things) are uniquely vulnerable.
Right and wrong exist. There are ethical and unethical ways to do polyamory. Being willing to look unflinchingly at our choices, interrogate the ethics of our actions, and speak up about uncomfortable or controversial things are, I believe, all necessary to do any kind of relationship well.
I think the time has come to stop pushing and start steering. I want to do whatever is in my power to create a community that is ethical and responsible, that celebrates love rather than fear, and that does not offer shelter to bad actors under the guise of everyone getting along.
There will probably be people who do not agree with this choice. I’m okay with that.9 comments
A few days ago, someone asked an interesting question about the way polyamory is perceived by the larger monogamous world around us. Why is it, this person wondered, that people outside the poly community so often react with fear to the idea of loving more than one person at once?
When I thought about the question, it brought up another one in my head: Why is it that people inside the poly community so often react with fear to the idea of loving more than one person at once?
When I look around, I see all sorts of people who want more than one lover, but who are terrified of the idea. One of the first questions I’m asked when people who are in couples send me emails about opening up to polyamory is, How can we protect what we have? How can we make sure that polyamory won’t change things for us? Polyamory is scary, according to this view; we need protection from it.
And the answers are, you can’t, and you can’t. Any life change may threaten the relationship you have; polyamory will change things for you, and that’s okay.
But still the fear lingers. It drives many of the relationship agreements that people, especially people new to polyamory, make. It underlies the structures that people look for. It determines the rules that people try to play by–or, more often, try to place on any new partners they may find.
Polyamorous people like to call what we do “ethical non-monogamy.” But when I ask people what “ethical” means, most often the answers I get don’t go beyond “be open and be honest.” While that’s a start, there’s a lot more to being ethical than being honest! If I were to walk up to you, the reader, and say “I’m going to hit you in the face with this railroad tie now” and then I hit you in the face with a railroad tie, I have been open and honest, but I have not been ethical.
The poly community prides itself on ethical non-monogamy. We need to do a better job at thinking about what that means.
In the book Eve and I are writing, we have chosen to align our ethical compass using two guiding principles: The people in a relationship are more important than the relationship and Don’t treat people as things. You will notice that “be open” and “be honest” are not among these axioms, because we believe they are corollaries, consequences of aligning our moral sextant to the stars of these two axioms. Being dishonest deprives people of the ability to offer informed consent; when we make people do what we want them to do, without their consent, we are treating them as things.
There are other corollaries as well. If I am in a relationship, and I am asking, How can I make sure my partner doesn’t leave me? I am forgetting the first moral axiom: The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship. If my partner wants to leave, she should be free to do so. If I seek to keep her against her wishes, through rules, structures or any other means, I am saying the relationship is more important than she is. That is not ethical polyamory.
What happens when we align ourselves to these two moral axioms? When that happens, a lot of the common rules and structures we see all around us in polyamory begin to look unethical.
For example, let’s look at a very common arrangement in the poly community that we often see when existing couples open their relationship to new partners: hierarchy and veto. These things are necessary, I often hear, because the world is full of unethical people, people of dubious intent and even more dubious agendas, people who will try to come into your relationship and steal one partner away. And that’s absolutely true. In fact, such behavior is common enough that the poly community has a term for such people: “cowboys” (or “cowgirls”), people trying to “rope one off from the herd.” They exist, absolutely. I’ve run across people like this in my own relationships.
The problem is, I don’t think saying “we need rules to protect ourselves from cowboys” aligns well with ethical non-monogamy. There are people in the world who may want to split a couple up, you bet. But they can’t. It’s not possible. Not without the couple’s help. A cowboy can’t “make” a couple break up. A couple only breaks up if the people involved choose to make it happen. It seems easy for us to forget this, even though it’s so simple. It’s as if we have a collective sense of learned helplessness about our own relationships: we don’t understand that the way to avoid breaking up with a partner is… don’t break up with your partner. The way to make a relationship strong and secure is to work on the relationship.
When we make rules such as veto, we are basically saying, “We think some new partners behave badly, so we are going to treat all new partners as bad actors.” That, to me, violates the ethical principle of “Don’t treat people as things.” The alternative to treating people as things is treating people as people; that is, recognizing that every person is unique, and not holding the sins of some people against all people.
What does that actually mean? How do we behave ethically?
We trust our partners, and trust our communication skills. We voice concerns when we have them, and work with our partners to resolve the issues. We treat our partners as free people who are in a relationship with us by choice.
I know it’s hard. We live in a society that says “when you fall in love you’ll live Happy Ever After” and doesn’t actually teach trust or communication. So we have to learn them and work on them.
But it goes back to what I said before: A new partner can’t break up a relationship. It can’t happen. If the couple wants to stay together, they will stay together. If one member of the couple wants to leave, then that person will leave. Rules won’t change that, and a rule that could change that would be holding the relationship to be more important than the people in the relationship.
If my partner wants to leave, she is free to leave. I do not ask, What rules can make her stay? but rather, How can I be a person who strives to have positive qualities that add value to her life, so we can build a relationship where she wants to stay?
The real question is not What rules do we need to stay safe? but rather, Do you trust your partner to want to be with you, even if a shiny piece of hot ass asks him to leave?
If the answer is “no,” perhaps working on communication and trust might be a better solution that being poly right at this moment. That, perhaps, is the beginning of not treating people like things.
Why does monogamous culture seem to fear the idea of loving more than one person at a time? There might be a lot of reasons. We can point to tradition, fear of the unknown, fear of change, or any of a thousand other things. But can we really expect the world not to be afraid of loving more than one person, when we ourselves, the people who do it, are so afraid of it?47 comments
Note: This blog post has been translated into Italian! The Italian version is here.
This is a guest post by my sweetie Shelly. She sent it to us as an essay a few weeks ago, and it blew us away so much we asked her if we could reprint it. We’ll be drawing on these ideas in the book, possibly even using parts of the essay. – Franklin
Consent is a radical idea
I would like for this to be the shortest discussion ever. I would like to say that we each have an inalienable right to have domain over our bodies, minds, and choices and end the conversation there. I mean, good people don’t violate consent, and I’m a good person, right?
Well, it’s not really so simple. If there’s one common thread through human history, it’s that we are, collectively, really comfortable violating consent. As children, we are often violated physically, emotionally, legally. As much as we are told that we always have choice, we often find that the choice is between homelessness and an abusive working environment or an abusive living situation. As much as we seem to have finally reached some kind of consensus that rape is wrong, we still seem to be having a cultural dialogue about the kinds of circumstances under which it might actually be deserved.
We may encounter many situations in our lives where we have to put walls up and just absorb the loss of control over our lives, our minds, or our bodies. But the one place where we should never have to do that is in our loving relationships. This may on the surface, seem obvious, but make no mistake–this is a radical idea.
The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship.
Consent is about me
There’s a lot of fuzzy usage around the word consent. I would like to propose a tightening of the definition, because if we are not clear about what consent is, we cannot possibly succeed in communicating about it.
Consent is about me: my body, my mind, and my choices. My consent is required to access the things that I own. You do not need my consent to act, because I do not own your body, your mind, or your choices. However, if your behavior crosses into my personal space, then you need my consent.
If my romantic partner goes out and sleeps with a dozen random hookups, he may have broken an agreement, but he has not violated my consent. If he then has sex with me without telling me about his actions, he has violated my consent because he has deprived me of the ability to make an informed choice.
You cannot understand consent without understanding boundaries
My boundaries are the edges of me. What is my personal space? What is it that I alone own, and you must always have permission to access?
This is somewhat personal, and we often don’t know where our boundaries are until they have been crossed. But I think you can roughly divide personal boundaries into three categories: My body, my mind, and my choices.
Poor personal boundaries are damaging to the self.
We all have an intuition about where our physical boundaries are. Our boundaries may start at our skin, or the point where we can feel breath. They may begin on the other side of the room. It is the point where we feel touched and physically affected by another person. When we share physical space with others, which we often do in community spaces, we may need to sometimes choose not to share that space depending on where our boundaries need to be at the time. You have the right to decide if, how, and when you want to be touched. Always.
In romantic relationships we often negotiate shared physical space. If touch begins beyond our skin, we may need to negotiate some space that we can control. For some people, this may be a room of one’s own. For some, it might be as simple as asking for some quiet time on the couch. However, without individual space, or the ability to negotiate for individual space when you need it, the only option for exerting a physical boundary may be to leave the shared space.
This is your mental and emotional experience of the world, your memories, your reality, and your values. When we engage the world, we let people into this personal space. Finding the edges of your mind is trickier than finding your physical edges. We are social creatures, and even the most superficial interactions engage our mental and emotional boundaries. The boundaries of the mind are, on the one hand, the easiest for others to cross over into, and also the boundaries we have the most control over.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me think I deserve it”
It’s easy to say “don’t give people so much power to hurt you,” but that does not address our need for connection and acceptance. It does not account for the very healthy impulse to seek feedback on our perceptions of the world. I believe that the healthiest person, when persistently rejected, will witness either an erosion of their mental boundaries or an erosion of their ability to engage in intimacy. I also believe that the only way to maintain good mental boundaries, to counteract social rejection, and to assess when to disengage, is to have strong self-knowledge and self-confidence, and to engage in self-compassion and care. In other words, to engage in behaviors that build your self-esteem.
Solid mental boundaries require self-esteem.
When we engage in intimate relationships, we let people into our minds. We open up our mental boundaries. We let a chosen few affect us, deeply. This is beautiful and amazing, and in my opinion, is one of the things that makes life worth living. But your mind belongs to you and you only. Your intimate partners, your family, your boss and the woman at the grocery store only ever get it on loan, and if that intimacy is damaging you, you have the right to take it back. Always.
Setting mental boundaries is different than setting physical boundaries. When I set a physical boundary, I am exerting some control over what you do with your body as it pertains to my space. Do not touch me there, do not move closer to me, leave my home. But with emotional boundaries, we have to take care to not make others responsible for our mental state. When we tell another person “do not say or do things that upset me,” we are not setting boundaries, we are trying to manage people whom we have let too far into ours. This management, and the high stakes of being responsible for another’s psychological well being, quickly introduce coercion into a relationship, and coercion erodes consent. Should we make requests of others to maximize our emotional health? Yes! Should we try to honor those requests if we can do so in a healthy way? Yes! Are you responsible for my wellbeing and what I feel? No.
At every fork in the road, each of us will bring our own values and experience to an examination of the information available. How we approach this process, and the conclusions we come to, is a large part of what makes us who we are.
I am a collection of experiences, memories, preferences, and feelings. I am one of billions of unique ways to process reality. But I am also the sum of my choices. My choices are the place where I stop dreaming and start pursuing, where I stop planning and start building. Choice, in my opinion, is where human beings become truly beautiful, and sometimes truly terrible.
Choice can be the most difficult personal boundary to defend. It seems like the predominant belief is that if we are empowered to make our own choices, we will all become monsters, and we must entrust our decisions to external authority. This permeates our society and seems to inform the way we build relationships. Without engaging in a debate about whether people are fundamentally good or bad (or option C), I ask you to look at your partner and ask yourself if you respect their ability to choose, even if it hurts you, and even if it’s not what you would choose.
You cannot consent if you do not have a choice.
When we enter into a romantic relationship, we make a choice. Over time, we build a life. This may involve legal and financial commitments and responsibilities. When we make those commitments, we should do what we reasonably can to follow through. But there is a difference between life-building and intimacy. Consent is about intimacy, and in every moment of every day, we should feel that we have a choice in the intimacy we participate in.
Consent exists in the moment
You cannot pre-consent. You can state intentions. You can make commitments that don’t involve your personal boundaries. But consent exists right now, right here in this moment. Let’s say I tell my partner “I want to have sex in five minutes. If you want to, I will definitely 100% want to have sex with you. I guarantee you that it is absolutely 100% ok. I commit to it. Here is a notarized piece of paper with my signature.” And then let’s say in five minutes, I say “no.” If my partner has sex with me anyways, it’s rape. (If you engage in consensual non-consent, you will recognize that you still have to negotiate a safe word or a way to recognize when consent has been revoked. If you don’t, you’ve crossed into abuse.)
Previous consent for intimacy never, ever overrides withdrawal of consent in the present.
I’ve given a pretty extreme example, but one that hopefully everyone will agree with. However, we often make all kinds of agreements to future intimacy and then proceed like those agreements override our boundaries in the moment.
Coercion erodes choice
Being in a consensual romantic relationship means you are never committed to any future intimacy. In a consensual romantic relationship, you always choose the intimacy you engage in. Intimacy is anything that enters into your personal boundaries. It can be sleeping together, sex, hugging and kissing, emotional sharing, living together, having certain shared experiences, or making shared choices.
Again, you can state intentions, but you cannot pre-consent, and both people must recognize and respect personal boundaries right now, regardless of intentions stated in the past. The reason this is so important is that when there is an implied obligation, the relationship can easily become coercive.
It is actually really difficult to avoid coercion in romantic relationships, because boundaries are most likely to be set during the times when intimacy is already in trouble and there’s a lot to lose. When relationships are good, they make us better, they make our lives bigger, and it’s easy to forget about our boundaries, because there is no reason to enforce them. When communication erodes, when trust comes into question, when we feel out of control or deeply unhappy, and then one or both people try to set a boundary, it can be terrifying.
What does coercion look like?
Coercion is when you make the consequences to saying “no” to intimacy so great that it removes any reasonable choice. There is more obvious coercion, such as threats, either externally or internally directed. But I find that coercion just sort of organically arises when you believe that your partner, in that moment, owes you intimacy. If you think your partner owes you intimacy, and you are just “expressing your feelings,” there’s a good chance you’re being coercive. If your partner says “no,” and you start preparing for a fight instead of accepting their choice, you’re probably going to be coercive.
If your partner is trying to set an intimacy boundary, they probably have a very good reason. It might not even be about you. The chances that your partner has had their consent violated in their life are really high, and it may have been really bad. Show appreciation for your partner’s self-advocacy and self-knowledge, be grateful for the intimacy they have shown you, and make it clear that you respect their autonomy and ability to make choices, even if you don’t understand what’s happening or why.
It’s also possible they are being manipulative and using boundary-setting as a way to coerce you. Withdrawal and silence are classic techniques of emotional blackmail and can be initially difficult to distinguish from healthy boundary-setting. It’s even possible they are setting boundaries just to punish you.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. The solution is never to try to force someone to do something they don’t want to do. Thank them, and respect their choice. If you can’t respect their choice, it’s time to examine your own boundaries.
Why you shouldn’t lie
I’m going to take a little bit of a detour here to talk about the intersection between mental/emotional privacy, choice, and consent. When you enter a romantic relationship, I believe there is one kind of intimacy that you must participate in, and if you find that you can no longer participate in it, you have a responsibility to end the relationship. I’m referring to honest, open communication.
Being able to share, to the best of your ability, who you are in a relationship, is critical for that relationship to be consensual. You must give your partner the opportunity to make an informed decision to be in that relationship. If you lie to your partner or withhold critical information, you remove their ability to consent to be in the relationship. The important information that needs to be shared should be negotiated early and is unique to each relationship.
Most important is to communicate those things that might be deal-breakers, or might be threatening to your partner’s emotional or physical health. Your partner deserves to have the ability to make a choice about how they want to participate in the relationship given the new information. Examples might be sexual behavior with others, drug use, the acquisition or use of weapons, violent impulses or behavior, or depression or suicide attempts.
You can force someone to make a certain choice, or coerce them into that choice, but if you lie or withhold information from a partner, you deny them even the ability to know there was a choice to be made.
Fear, the telltale sign
Why am I so afraid in this relationship when there’s no imminent physical danger?
If you find yourself asking yourself this question, check your boundaries. Do you know where they are? How much power have you given to others to affect your well-being, your self esteem, even your desire to live? Remember, when you give someone the power to affect you and to come into your mind, you are only loaning what belongs to you. If you are afraid, you have given too much. When you look forward, do you see choices? Is leaving the relationship a viable option? Is changing the relationship a viable option? Is setting boundaries a viable option? What happens when I say “no”?
You see plenty of relationships fall apart in sadness, anger, hurt, and feelings of betrayal. It is unnerving when a relationship becomes permeated by fear, but I believe this is often the trajectory of a relationship that lacks consent. It’s from here that we begin to bend ourselves around our fears instead of embracing our dreams.
The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship.
If there is one safe place in the world, it should be with the people you love. I’m not talking about the safety of guarantees, but the safety to be everything that you are. It’s the safety to be dynamic, to change, and to dream. But to be safe, we have to be whole.13 comments
I’ve heard that charge from people on the Internet, usually folks who read one of my blog posts and say, “You have five girlfriends? That’s so selfish! You’re hogging all the women for yourself.”
Lately, I’ve been hearing it from an entirely different quarter: this time, from people who are reacting to the fact that I recommend relationships that aren’t built on rules. “You don’t have rules? That’s so selfish! You just want to run around doing anything you please!”
These accusations are a bit of a head-scratcher. There are two different directions I could take in writing about this. On the one hand, polyamory and a life without rules aren’t really selfish at all, and accusations of selfishness shine an interesting light on the conceptual frameworks we use to view the world. On the other hand, calling someone “selfish” is an effective shaming technique because we think of selfishness as an inherently, incontrovertibly bad thing, so it is difficult for someone accused of selfishness to say, “Well of course I am, and that’s good!” Accusations of “you’re selfish” are an attempt to provoke shame over perceived transgressions of some kind of social norm.
And then, when I sat down to write this, I thought: hey, why choose one? I’m poly! I’ll write about both.
Let’s start out by looking at the accusations themselves.
Is it selfish to have multiple partners? Is it selfish to construct relationships without rules?
Someone who looks at me and my sweeties might think, “Wow, this guy is taking all these women! He has five partners, and I only get one (or, perhaps, none at all)!” Someone who looks at my relationship structures might think, “Wow, this guy says his partners can’t put rules on him! He gets to do anything he wants!” And, from a certain narrow, through-a-keyhole viewpoint, that makes sense.
What both complaints miss is the idea that it’s not about me. Yes, I have five partners…and they all have other partners besides me! I’m not “hogging all the women”–far from it. If you shift the perspective off me and onto each of my sweeties, from their perspective I am one of several partners that they each have.
The same thing applies to the complaint about rules. When you shift the perspective off me and onto my sweeties, you see that I do not place rules on them. Each of my sweeties is free to make her own choices, without me telling her what to do–though we all negotiate around our needs. I place no restrictions on them because I am confident that, if I advocate for a need, my partners will choose to meet it. They’re with me because they want to be; if I express my needs, they will meet them because they want to.
In both cases, the complaint that I am being selfish focuses only on me. The person making the complaint is placing himself in my position and seeing the benefit to me from my relationship structures…without looking at the situation from the point of view of my partners, or examining the benefit to any of them.
Which is–dare I say it?–kind of a selfish perspective from which to make this complaint.
From a different perspective, one could argue that monogamy is selfish. After all, in a monogamous relationship, your partner is yours and yours alone. When you have a partner, that partner belongs to you; nobody else is allowed to touch.
And it could even be argued that rules-based relationships are selfish. The act of passing a rule, which for this purpose I mean as a restriction placed by one person on the behavior of another, is inherently selfish: when Alice passes a rule, she is attempting to get her needs met from Bob–the rules are not about Bob’s needs, or his other partners’ needs. I have never met anyone who says something like “Bob, honey, you have a new girlfriend? I would like to make sure your new girlfriend has her needs met, so I would like a rule that says you are required to spend the night with her at least once a week.”
No, in the real world, rules tend to look more like “I want to wake up beside you each morning, so you can’t spend the night with another lover.” Or “I want to preserve my sense of specialness, so you can’t take anyone else to our favorite restaurant.” Or “I want a sense of control over your other relationships, so I need to have a veto arrangement.” The common element of each of these rules–all three of which are, in my experience, quite common in poly relationships, is “I want.”
If you’re shaking your head and saying “Franklin, you asshole, are you saying every monogamous person or everyone who uses rules in their relationships is selfish? You bastard!”…hang on a second and let me explore the second part of this idea, which is that…
Selfishness is not (necessarily) a bad thing.
In its most basic sense, selfishness is a necessary part of any healthy relationship, or for that matter, any healthy life. We cannot set personal boundaries if we do not have a sense of motivated self-interest. We cannot care for others if we do not take care of ourselves.
We make choices every day, especially in our relationship lives, for reasons that can legitimately be called “selfish.” We all, at least ideally, seek relationships that make our lives better: that make us happier, add value to our lives, bring out the best in us, fill our days with joy. We would likely consider an unfulfilling relationship that we remained in even though we gained nothing from it dysfunctional, even soul-destroying. At the end of the day, we make the choices we make because we hope to be better off by them.
That doesn’t mean we are, or should be, selfish in every moment of our day-to-day decisions. We may stay with a partner through rough times, or make choices that help support a partner but cost us something, because we are committed to the long-term success of that relationship. But we’re committed to the long-term success of that relationship because enlightened selfishness takes the long view.
And selfishness is not zero-sum. We tend to think of selfishness as gaining at other people’s expense, but in fact, when we commit to a relationship that promotes the growth and happiness of everyone involved, everyone wins! My partners are with me because being with me makes their lives better. I am with them because being with them makes my life better. We continue to invest in those relationships even when they’re difficult because we look at global, not local, maxima. I may choose to give up something I want today for the sake of my partner, knowing that I am in the relationship for the long haul, and it will bring me joy into the future.
I think most people would agree that a relationship in which we sacrifice our happiness for the sake of another person without any possible hope of happiness, now or in the future, is probably not a good relationship. I think we’d all agree that a relationship in which we damage ourselves without hope of positive outcome is not healthy. There is always an element of selfishness (or, perhaps, self-interest, though the distinction between the two is often subjective and depends on which way you’re peering through the keyhole) in any healthy relationship; on some level, we know it’s impossible to sacrifice our own happiness for someone else’s, and that someone who expects us to is being perhaps a bit sociopathic.
Yet we still use “you’re selfish!” as a go-to tool of shame and control. We use it, ironically, when we want someone else to do something different–in other words, when we’re being selfish.
Some selfishness is okay. That kind lets us set and protect our boundaries, advocate for our needs, and choose relationships that are positive and rewarding. Some selfishness is not okay. That kind seeks to gain at other people’s expense, to get what we need without considering the needs of others, to take rewards that are denied to other people.
There are those who say that people who do not believe in God are incapable of being moral. I see a parallel in the idea that those who have no rules are certain to stomp willy-nilly all over their partners. Both assume that it is only external structures, restrictions imposed on us from the outside, that prevent us from consuming everything around us in an orgy of destructive selfishness.
No, polyamory isn’t inherently selfish. Polyamorous relationships built without rules aren’t inherently selfish, either. But that’s not to say that being selfish would automatically make them bad. It is time, I think, that we stop using “you’re selfish!” to club people who do what we don’t want them to, and instead consider that relationships that benefit everyone involved, without providing for some people at the expense of others, are in fact the relationships we should strive for.
Even if someone else finds them “selfish.”5 comments