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.
“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.7 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.
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
“An American looks like a wounded person whose wound is hidden from others, and sometimes from herself. An American looks like me.”
–Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy
It has come to my attention that some people think we have it easy.
Apparently, in some quarters, people like Franklin, and now I guess me, and other bloggers who argue for egalitarian relationships and treating other people as full human beings are privileged, or elitist; we simply lack mental health issues or personal insecurities and thus just don’t get how hard relationships are for everyone else. Apparently we’re all lounging around with our perfectly secure asses in armchairs (when we’re not having orgies), with no self-work to do and no drama and perfect, clear communication that we inherited as our birthrights from stable, intact families with no history of abuse and great self-esteem building and high-quality, bullying-free schooling throughout our lives, and now we’re all sitting here from the vantage point of our perfectly happy, comfortable and drama-free poly networks looking down at the little people and telling them all how they’re Doing It Wrong.
I can identify a few possible reasons for this misconception.
One, Franklin is not very comfortable with vulnerability in his writing. He’s good at compelling arguments, he’s good at analysis, and he sees things (some things, usually, you know except when he doesn’t) very clearly. But he doesn’t tend to share the really hard stuff. And his writing is analytical, so even when he relates personal experiences, he doesn’t convey them with the emotional charge they carried for him (and others involved) in real life. And there are some things he doesn’t talk about. Some things, in fact, that carry such a heavy emotional weight and yet are so important in understanding how he came to his approach to poly that in order to include them in the book, I will be interviewing him and writing up the stories. (And vice-versa.)
Two, as one of Franklin’s other sweeties mentioned recently, poly people have become salespeople. We don’t want to show all the raw, ugly struggles because we’re in the middle of this PR battle to make poly look like the viable, healthy relationship option it actually is. We want to be accepted as normal, healthy and stable, so we put our best face forward. We show the happy poly moments and the glowing live-in triads with their healthy, well-adjusted kids. We talk about love being infinite and how multiple relationships aren’t always a zero-sum game (even though they often are). When we talk about our scheduling struggles and our processing conversations, it’s with humour and eyerolls, obscuring the intense emotional work that goes into them.
Third, Franklin and I are both struggling with imposter syndrome. It’s worse for me than for him, but he’s also way more secure than I am. It’s kept my brain and my typing fingers more or less frozen with writer’s block for the first week and a half of our writing (but not his, thankfully). My brain keeps telling me I’m not good enough to write a book on poly. Who the hell am I to give advice to other people on how to have relationships? I’m thinking these things because I know what you don’t: I know my relationship history and my mental health issues and all the mistakes I’ve made, some of them pretty epic. I know the drama and trauma I’ve lived through, the painful and seemingly irresolvable situations I’ve experienced and those that still exist. I know about the people I’ve hurt and the ones who’ve hurt me.
Franklin says that it’s all this that makes us qualified to write this book, after all. It’s our mistakes that have taught us what we know; we can share them with others so people can learn from them rather than making the same mistakes themselves. But knowing from the inside how imperfect my own relationships are, I can’t help but feel a little bit like a fraud every time I try to write about how you can make a poly relationship work.
On this, I keep repeating to myself something Dan Savage once said in a response to someone who called him on his qualifications to be a sex advice columnist: he’s an advice columnist because people want his advice. They read it, they like it, and they find it works for them. End of story. And Franklin’s website has become one of the most popular poly resources on the Web because people want his advice. They find it useful; several people a week email him to tell him how much his site has helped them. We’re writing a book because people want a goddamn book, so much that several hundred of you were willing to pay for it nearly a year in advance, before a draft was even written.
And then… there’s simply the immense vulnerability of writing a book, of being very publicly out, of putting our names and our decisions and our lives out there for public view and, inevitably, criticism. Franklin is used to the scrutiny, but it still affects him. It still affects him when people misrepresent his writing to use as a convenient straw man for whatever point they’re trying to make, or whatever (often reprehensible) behaviour they’re trying to excuse. And for me, it’s all still very new. So getting really real? Opening up our soft spots and broken bits for that kind of attack? Sharing the hardest and most crucial moments of our lives–the things that it’s hard even to take a good hard look at ourselves? Really fucking hard and scary. And, given the way some of our less vulnerable stories have been treated, maybe actually dangerous.
So the result of all this is that, it seems, we’re not sharing enough of the hard stuff. That’s our fault. I’m sorry if we made it look easy. It’s not.
And so? Some people look at us think they can’t do what we’re doing because we have some magical armour of immunity from fear and self-doubt and communication breakdowns and insecurity. They think we’re saying if you could just be more like us, it would all be fine. Just be secure, man. Share the love. It’ll all be good.
Here’s something I believe: We are all, every one of us, broken in some way. Franklin may be a lot less broken now than most, but he didn’t start out that way. He’s had to do a lot of hard work over the years, and he’s made some serious mistakes that hurt a lot of people, before he got to where he is now (and even now he’s still making mistakes, cause, um, he’s human, get it?). Franklin also has the privilege of happiness–though I (and most of his other partners) do not.
I, too, play the game on an easier setting than many people, absolutely. I’m a white, femme, cisgendered North American. I was not battered or abandoned as a child. I had a great mom and a good education and enough to eat and health care and that’s a hell of a lot more than other people had, and all of those are privileges. But I did not begin my romantic life whole, either. I’m also a survivor of childhood sexual assault and moved nine times as a kid (in three states) and was bullied and beaten up in school and didn’t even start learning how to treat my romantic partners well until I was at least 30. I’ve been treated for PTSD and depression, and I have self-esteem that is, well, at least no longer so low that it is completely crippling. I’ve spent years in therapy and years more on psychiatric meds, I’ve read my weight and then some in self-help books, and I’ve processed and worked and cried and then cried more. Through that, I have finally reached a place where most of the time I don’t feel like I’m drowning in my insecurity and depression and fear, but like I’m able to stay afloat, with the undertow just sucking at my toes and now only sometimes sucking me under. I didn’t get rid of the flood. I learned to swim.
Author Brené Brown* (whom I draw heavily on in my writing) points out that for people who live what she calls Wholehearted lives—lives lived with courage, compassion and connection—Wholeheartedness is a practice. It’s something you have to work on every day. For a great many of us (myself included), it’s something you have to learn. And that. is. not. easy.
Seriously, people? When did anyone ever say any of this was easy?
The world is not divided between broken people and whole people. What I see as the difference between people like me, Franklin and our partners and this particular brand of critic is one thing:
We don’t accept that being broken is an excuse to do harm to others.
And the foundation of the ethical system on which all our writing is based is also straightforward:
Don’t treat people as things.
Let’s say that again, for emphasis:
Don’t treat people as things.
Don’t treat people as things.
Don’t treat people as things.
There, everything you need to know about polyamory. No need to buy our book now! Five hundred pages summed up in one sentence.
Simple, yes. Easy, no.
We don’t consider an ethical foundation to be a disposable part of polyamory, no matter how fucked up a childhood you had. That it is harder for some people to learn not to treat people as things doesn’t mean anyone should encourage them to stop trying. In fact, we consider it an insult to say that some people are just too fucked up to try to not treat people as things, because we also don’t believe on giving up on people’s ability to become better people. We don’t believe in telling people they’re just too damn broken to learn how to treat people as people. Everyone deserves ethical relationships. Everyone.
The journalist Khadijah M. Britton recently tweeted the following—in reference to an entirely different subject, but so relevant here—that nicely sums up how we feel about this issue:
The worst thing isn’t being the asshole. The worst thing is no one telling you about it because no one has faith you can change. When an entire culture calcifies around the assumption that you are past growth. That is the worst thing. That’s when you’re basically dead. I hate nothing worse than people writing me off, assuming I am stuck in my ways. And would truly hate nothing more than for it to be true. But I know people for whom it is true – and they’re PROUD of it. The most toxic behaviors become a badge of honor. How does that happen?
We don’t believe in building a culture based a foundation of giving up on people’s ability and motivation to learn—painfully and over time and with a lot of work, yes—how to trust their partners, communicate effectively, act with courage, and treat other people with compassion and respect. We don’t believe in writing people off, on saying, oh, we can have egalitarian relationships, but you lot, well, you just can’t handle it, and no, you shouldn’t try to grow. Just give up. Go ahead and treat people as things, if that’s what works for you.
Oh, sorry, if that’s what works for the two of you. (See what I did there?)
So here’s the thing, dear reader. We’re not going to give up on you. Not as long as you haven’t given up on yourself. No, actually, not even then: We’ll keep believing in you when you can’t. We’ll continue to believe in your worthiness even when you’re ready to throw in the towel. None of us comes from the factory perfect, and most of us get pretty beat up before we start getting into serious relationships (and often by those relationships, too). We believe that no matter where you’re starting from now, there are always ways you can make your life and your relationships better, and choose to act with more courage and compassion in your daily life. These are skills that can be learned, skills that must be practised–even by those who have them, or they will fade. To say that if you’re not born with them or granted them as part of some sort of ideal upbringing you can’t ever expect to have them is heartless in the extreme.
*See Brown’s TED talk for how she herself learned it, and what the process was like for her.
Er, sorry for shouting.
But really: WE FUCKING DID IT!
It’s just past midnight, the Indiegogo campaign has just closed, and we’ve raised $22,757! Not only have we met our goal, we’ve come within a couple hundred dollars of the first milestone of our book tour stretch goal, which is a loop through the western USA and Canada. We’re so close, we’ve decided we will go ahead and do that part of the tour anyway!
We’re absolutely blown away by the outpouring of support we’ve received. Seriously, there are no words for how grateful we are.
And we have the results of our referral contest! Winners Scott McDaniel, Andi Pants, Amy Gahran and Jeni Brue will get to pick from among the five available prizes: a poly dragon T-shirt, a Relationship Principles poster, a silver poly pendant, three pairs of ears and a tiny hat, or signed first edition of The Polyamorists Next Door.
So what happens now?
Well, first we’re going to sleep.
Then we have to get back to work.
We plan to release the outtakes video to all backers in the next couple of days. On Wednesday, Franklin and I are heading to a cabin in a remote, undisclosed location on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, where we will remain for six weeks while we complete the first draft of the book. We will probably blog occasionally, just to let you all know we’re still alive, but for the most part, you shouldn’t expect to hear from us very much for a couple of months. After all, we have a book to write.
At the beginning of December, our reviewers will receive their first drafts. and we’ll be shipping all the non-book rewards (posters, T-shirts, charms, other people’s books, etc.). We’ll also be filming and editing the backer questions for Badass McProblemsolver, which will be released over the next couple of months. We’re also going to begin working with our designer on the cover, and hope to have a completed version before the end of the year.
Then there’s the manuscript review, second draft, copy-editing, design, proofreading and indexing, all of which will likely take us into May. We’re aiming to hold the launch party and ship books to backers by June.
The book tour? We’re not sure. We’d love to do it as soon as the book launches, but summer’s not a great time for a book tour. Plus, if early sales go well, we might be able to fund a longer tour ourselves, and the fall is a good time for conventions. And honestly? We’ll seriously need a break. (And we have other partners who have been missing us.) So fall is much more likely for the tour.
Backers should be sure to keep an eye on their spam folders as well as their “social” or “promotional” tabs in Gmail (if they have them), as we’ll be using Mailchimp to send out important backer announcements–like the link and password to the outtakes video, instructions on signing up for the launch party, etc.
You might also want to sign up for our email newsletter (signup box at right, or here), as we’ll be using that, as well as the blog, to keep folks informed of important announcements, new blog and video content, etc.1 comment
A lot of folks have compared being polyamorous today to being gay several decades ago, before the GLBTQ+ movement became a major civil rights campaign. The comparison is apt in some ways; for example, there is still little social acceptance of polyamory.
It’s also flawed in some ways. Polyamorous people rarely face the same level of discrimination that gays and lesbians have faced, and it’s rare to see violence directed against people for being polyamorous, as has and continued to happen to gays, lesbians and transgendered people. While I can see why people make the analogy, and I do see some similarities, I also think we poly folks have had it much easier, and still have it easier even now, than many people in the gay and lesbian communities.
That said, one of the issues that we still face in common is whether to be out. There’s a lot of conversation in the poly community about whether and how to be open about polyamory, with many people in the poly community feeling that being open about polyamory isn’t an available option. The poly closet is a real thing, and deciding whether to be out is something we’ve all had to address.
In my experience, when I talk to people about the reasons they choose not to be open, it seems the answers tend to fall in one of two general categories.
Many people say they’re concerned about losing their jobs, livelihoods, or families if they’re open. I know a polyamorous family in Florida who lost their children in a custody dispute in which polyamory played a key role. In the workplace, polyamory is not a protected status, and people can face losing their job for being polyamorous. People on active service in the US military are also potentially at risk. Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibits adultery; active-service military personnel can conceivably be subject to court martial, dishonorable discharge and even prison for being openly polyamorous.
The second category is related to potential social censure. I’ve spoken to people who do not face threats to employment, housing, or custody, but remain closeted because they don’t want their friends, relatives, or family to find out they’re in a non-traditional relationship.
The decision to be open or closeted is a personal one, and something each person has to make for himself or herself. However, one thing I do often see missing from the conversations about whether to be open is the effect that this choice has on any partners who aren’t married or otherwise in a socially sanctioned relationship.
In the GLBTQ+ community, the conversation about whether to be open or closeted seems to have a great deal of symmetry for all the people involved. The risks and rewards of either choice are likely to be similar for both members of the relationship. After all, they both face the same social stigma, the same potential violence, and so on. Each person might have a different level of acceptable risk or a different desire to be out, but the pros and cons are likely to be shared more or less equally by both people involved. (There might be some asymmetry if one member of a relationship is in the public eye, but in general, for most couples, this is a decision whose effects will be shared by both of them.)
The choice to be open or closeted in a poly relationship, however, is likely to be much more asymmetric: the consequences of the decision, either way, are likely to be distributed unevenly across the people in the relationship.
What I mean by that is when two people are in some kind of socially recognized relationship–for example, married to one another–and also have additional partners, but are closeted about those relationships, the couple in that recognized relationship get to claim the benefits that accrue from the social recognition, while many of the penalties for being closeted are borne by their other, non-socially-recognized partners.
For example, when a couple is closeted, it’s usually a pretty sure bet that any social functions that are extended to partners, such as invitations to company picnics, will be attended by that couple, and will not be available to any of their other partners. Invites to family holidays will likely not be extended to otherl partners if the couple is closeted to family members; if they are, the relationship will most likely be downplayed or not acknowledged at all–and in extreme cases, the non-sanctioned partner may even be presented as an employee, such as a nanny. (It can be difficult to feel secure in a relationship when one’s partner is accustomed to saying “no, we’re just friends,” or even, “she works for us,” in public!)
A person who is involved with closeted partners in a socially approved relationship is often expected to be closeted herself; most often, keeping the relationship secret is one of the conditions of dating a member of such a couple. This can, particularly over long periods of time, make her feel as though she’s a shameful secret, or is being forced to compromise her integrity, or both.
Whether these limitations are significant to the unacknowledged partners in a relationship will, of course, depend on the folks involved. It is important, at least in my opinion, to acknowledge these limitations when considering whether and how to be open. Functionally, being closeted about polyamory while in a socially recognized relationship often means claiming all the advantages of that social recognition, while denying those advantages to anyone else involved in the relationship. In that way, the calculation of whether to remain in the closet is significantly different for polyamorous folks than it is for people in the LGBTQ+ community.
I don’t want to make it sound like I believe everyone should be open. There certainly are important reasons not to be, and it’s a choice each person has to make. I would prefer to live in a world where nobody has to make that choice, but failing that, it would be nice to live in a world where the consequences of that choice were fully considered, not just for the couple in the socially sanctioned relationship, but for the people involved with them as well. I feel that too often, we in the poly community don’t acknowledge the ways in which people who aren’t part of a socially approved relationship end up shouldering most of the cost of being closeted, without receiving the benefits of social approval.7 comments
This post presents you with another one of the $500 backer questions for the More Than Two Indiegogo campaign (just two days left!!!), and again, we’re answering it together.
“Can you illuminate the difference between relationship problems and poly relationship problems?”
Franklin: My first thought is most “poly relationship problems” are actually just “relationship problems.” There are a few problems specific to polyamory, but they’re a lot more thin on the ground than you might think. Many of the things we consider to be poly relationship problems–dealing with jealousy, for example–can exist in any kind of relationship; it’s just that polyamory either raises the stakes or makes the normal solutions we’re handed by social teaching (such as “restrict your partner’s access to other potential mates”) irrelevant.
Eve: Hm, I’m inclined to disagree. I can think of a number of problems that are, if not unique to poly, most often seen here. For example, issues around being out and needing to conceal or marginalize one or more partners, or decide whether to disclose your relationships. Issues around how to relate to your partners’ other partners. Limitations on your relationships that would be pretty uncommon in a monogamous relationship, such as, I live with one partner, so I can only live with another partner if they both get along. Or, I can only get legally married to one partner. That’s just off the top of my head.
Franklin: That’s a good point. Certainly, I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t poly relationship problems, only that a lot of the things we’re told are poly problems are actually relationship problems in general.
It might be helpful to think about what “relationship problems” means. There are relationship problems that are issues between partners in a relationship, and there are structural problems, such as the issue of being open about a non-traditional relationship in a society that frowns on those relationships.
Eve: Well, it depends. The broader social problems that come with being polyamorous can affect the relationships, or not, and it’s when they affect them that they become relationship problems. For example, whether to be out or not is not necessarily a relationship problem. But if a decision not to be out means you have to pretend one or more of your partners don’t exist, and they have a problem with that, then it becomes a relationship problem.
It’s true, though, it seems like “poly relationship problems” could break down into two broad categories: problems associated with the social pressures of living polyamorously in a mongamous society, and problems associated with having more than two people in a romantic molecule.
Franklin: It’s the second variety–problems associated with having romantic relationships with more than one partner–I tend to think of as “poly problems.” One way to distinguish between these and problems that can affect any relationship at all is to ask the question, “If I only had one partner, could this be a problem?”
I know many monogamous people who struggle with jealousy daily, even though they don’t have any evidence of infidelity. So I’m inclined to think of jealousy as a “relationship problem.” Ditto for time management, the other problem we hear about in poly circles all the time; I know people who struggle with time spent with a partner vs. time spent at work or school, time spent on hobbies, and so on. (I’ve actually given up on hobbies in order to free up time for relationships.)
On the other hand, issues of hierarchy, as Eve mentioned, definitely qualify as “poly relationship problems.” Other poly relationship problems might include deciding who sleeps where when, how to get along with a partner’s other partners (though that’s an edge case, as monogamous people deal with this in friend and family circles all the time), safer sex practices (though this is also a bit of an edge case), and deciding who sleeps in the middle.
Eve: I think the getting along with POPs (partners’ other partners) problem is pretty different from the friends & family case, particularly when you live with one of your partners (see our earlier post about this). It depends, of course, on what kind of personality you have and how intertwined you like your relationships to be generally. Maybe it’s that we have a pretty well-defined script and set of rules for how to interact with a lover’s friends or family members when you don’t get along with them, and expectations tend to be fairly well matched. Maybe it’s that lack of script and discordant expectations, in addition to the higher stakes and higher levels of interconnection, that make it a different sort of problem.
Franklin: So perhaps we need three categories: “poly relationship problems,” “relationship problems” and “relationship problems that polyamory adds a new level of complexity to.”
That brings up another question, which is: Do poly problems require different strategies than relationship problems that aren’t poly-specific?
My hunch is they do, at least in some cases. With monogamy, we’re handed a socially sanctioned script for dealing with a lot issues. That script gives us the answer in a neat little bundle with a ribbon on top. We don’t need to do a lot of soul-searching or introspection to use it. With a lot of poly problems, the shrinkwrapped answers don’t work. When we try to adapt them–for example, when we feel insecure or displaced by a partner’s new partner, and try to resolve those feelings by limiting the relationship with that new partner–we can quickly end up in hot water. Actually solving these problems in a sustainable and compassionate way requires that we be willing to grapple with the root sources of insecurity or fear that live inside us.
Eve: We’ve mentioned monogamous scripts a couple of times. I actually have had a post brewing about this for several weeks. I think in many cases, those scripts fail us not just because they simply don’t work in cases where you have multiple partners involved, but they actually shame us because, when we’ve internalized them (and most of us have), they make us believe that we are doing something wrong by loving more than one person. And when that happens, it can limit our ability to advocate for our needs or treat our partners well. But I’ll leave that idea there until my next post.
Franklin: One of the nice things about polyamory is when we do encounter problems, we often have more eyes on the problem. That assumes, of course, that we trust our partners; it’s often true in my experience that folks who attempt to solve problems by way of hierarchy are actually seeing their POPs as the problem rather than the solution.
Eve: I’m not sure what you mean by “more eyes on the problem.” Could you explain that?
Franklin: In my relationships, when there have been problems between me and one of my partners, sometimes it’s one of our other partners who comes up with a solution. When you’re knee-deep in alligators, it can be hard to remember your goal was to drain the swamp; when you’re knee-deep in conflict, sometimes an outside voice can help find the solution.
Eve: I see. I’ve experienced that too, I just hadn’t thought about it that way. Of course, when I’m having problems with one of my partners, it can be very hard not to let that affect my other partners. I guess that’s another example of a poly relationship problem: that issues in one relationship can spill over into another.
So here’s a question: There are a lot of solutions in monogamous relationships that don’t translate so well into solutions in certain poly situations. Does it go the other way? Are there solutions to poly relationship problems that don’t translate well to monogamous situations? We like to say that “poly relationship skills are really just relationship skills,” so does that mean that all poly relationship skills are applicable in monogamous situations, too?
Franklin: Wow, that’s a good question.
When I think of poly relationship skills, the skills that come to mind first are communication, trust, honesty, willingness to take personal responsibility for my emotional responses, and understanding principles like “just because I feel bad that doesn’t necessarily mean someone else did something wrong.” Those are probably universally applicable to relationships generally; hell, they apply to business relationships and friendships, too.
I can’t think offhand of strategies that I employ in poly problem-solving that wouldn’t also work in a monogamous relationship. I might have fewer resources to draw on, since there are fewer people to turn to, but the strategies themselves work just as well in any relationship, I think.
Eve: So, it might sound a little bit arrogant to say that many monogamous solutions don’t apply in poly situations, but all poly solutions are applicable in monogamous situations. I’m trying to think of counterexamples. And I think what’s happening is that we’re not distinguishing between skills and tactics. The things you mention–communication, trust, honesty, willingness to take personal responsibility for my emotional responses–are all skills, and you’re right, those are just general relationship skills. Tactics would be those scripts we follow, when X happens try Y or Z. And I bet there are a few that are specific to poly, just like there are situations that are specific to poly. I just can’t think of any right now. Maybe we should ask our readers?
Franklin: I can see situations that are unique to polyamory, so I’m reluctant to say that all problem-solving tactics we employ in poly relationships are universally applicable to monogamy. I can’t think of any counterexamples either, though. Let’s put it out there! What do you guys think?3 comments