Louisa Leontiades, author of The Husband Swap and an important supporter of our Indiegogo campaign (she’s giving e-book copies of her book to all our $30+ backers), left this comment on our “Training Wheels and Utopian Polyamory” post:
Here’s the thing. You can’t just say to people ‘be brave’ and expect that it is something they can immediately do. Children are naturally fearless until the world beats it out of them with spite, rejection and shame. It takes time. Just as it takes time to build it back up again. Is there a place for expressing the utopian ideal of going for it without training wheels? I say, absolutely. Should this be a black and white rule that we put on those struggling to escape monogamy and chastity implemented by a patriarchal structure? I say, the way is to slowly educate with compassion. Knowing that not everyone is capable or willing to stretch that far. Which doesn’t make them bad people–just scared people.
We didn’t reply there, because her comment opens up a bigger conversation that we felt deserves its own post.
There are lots of configurations in poly and lots of poly styles, but let’s focus for a moment on a scenario that’s quite common, one that many of the readers of our book will be likely encounter or be part of early on in their poly experience: an established couple has decided to try polyamory, and one of them begins to date a new person (who may or may not have established partners of their own). It’s this scenario that people often apply the “training wheels” analogy to, and typically it’s the couple that is allowed the use of the training wheels.
It’s true that opening up a long-term relationship, possibly risking everything you’ve built together, is scary. It’s scary to see your partner fall in love with someone else, before you’ve had enough experience to reassure you at the deep, visceral level where it really matters that their love for that other person won’t diminish their love for you. Taking this step is a high-risk venture. Both partners have a lot to lose. And let’s not sugarcoat this: lots of couples don’t make it through the transition. The risk is real.
And it’s true that when you have so much on the line, it’s hard to be brave just because someone says you should.
But… you know what else is scary? Falling in love is scary. It’s scary in the best of circumstances, but falling in love with someone who is already deeply bonded to another person, who shares a life with that person, and who may not know exactly what kind of space in their life they can offer you—that’s scary as hell. So for the new partner in the position of opening their heart to a person in an established relationship, especially a relationship that’s newly poly, the situation is pretty high risk, too.
Too often in looking at this type of situation, the focus is exclusively on the original couple, the risk they bear, and how scary it is to face that risk. Too often, whatever they need to do to protect themselves from the risk posed by the new relationship is defended, because yeah, it can be really fucking hard to face that risk. And if they stay together, the relationship is a success, and whatever they’re doing to stay together is “working.”
The problem with this approach is that it makes the new partner—along with the risks they’re facing and the fear they’re experiencing—invisible. We expect the new partners to be brave. We expect them to bear not just their share of the risk, but a substantial share of the couple’s risk, too. The couple gets training wheels. The new partner doesn’t even get a helmet.
I might be being to vague here. What might these “training wheels” look like? (The “training wheels” that many couples never take off, even after a “new” relationship has lasted for years?) They could be an agreement that allows one member of the couple to end the other partner’s other relationships if they become uncomfortable or feel the relationship is threatened. Or an agreement that the partners in the couple will never spend the night apart, that certain activities are exclusive to them, that the couple’s relationship will always “come first,” or that the other relationships will never exceed, in importance, closeness or commitment, some threshold defined by the original couple.
These all seem like good ideas at the time. They’re certainly often reassuring to the couple. My husband and I discussed agreements very similar to these when we negotiated opening our relationship after many years of monogamy. Then I fell in love, and we realized that real people were going to have their hearts on the line just like we did, and we could not in good conscience attempt to grow relationships with them if we could not give those relationships space to thrive.
The problem with dealing with your own fear by limiting other relationships is that what you are actually doing is shifting risk from yourself or one of your partners onto another person. Everyone in a polyamorous relationship has their share of risk (like everyone in a relationship, period, has their share of risk), but the (often permanent) “training wheels” are in fact another human being, and the couple is essentially saying to them, “Here, you carry this risk, because we don’t want to.”
At the risk of conflating love and war: everyone’s scared in a foxhole, but is it okay to hide behind another person when you’re afraid? Sometimes it happens, yes. People do some pretty selfish, fucked-up things when they’re scared, and they deserve compassion, understanding and forgiveness. But is that behaviour we should be normalizing, even encouraging? Should people who do it be considered role models? Is it something we should be pointing to and saying, “this is an ethical way to behave,” or even, “as long as it works for you, it’s okay”?
Everyone who chooses to open their heart and be vulnerable to another person—everyone, monogamous, polyamorous, or other—exposes themselves to risk. Loving another person is perhaps the riskiest thing you can do, and perhaps that’s part of why the rewards are so amazingly huge. Generally speaking, I think the ethical thing to do is to accept and carry your own share of the risk of your own relationships yourself, rather than asking someone else to carry them. Generally, but not always. Sometimes one person is stronger, braver, more capable of carrying a greater share of the collective risk. Sometimes one person is uniquely vulnerable and in need of protection, for a short time or the long term. What’s the ethical solution then?
Analogy time. Raise your hand if you’ve ever played D&D. (I’m a Second Edition girl myself.) You know when the GM asks you to announce your marching order?
…For what I expect will be the vanishingly small proportion of our readers with their hands still down, I’ll explain. When a party is about to explore some potentially scary and dangerous place and they have to walk single file (because of course that’s generally what you have to do, in scary and dangerous places), the GM (game master) asks the party to announce their marching order, the sequence in which the characters will walk.
Strategies vary, of course, but typically you put the big, burly fighter with the heavy armour and lots of hit points up front, to bear the brunt of the first volley of arrows (or acid, flames, demonic spiders, mind-destroying tentacles, etc.) when you are (inevitably) attacked. Toward the back, you put the wizard with the ranged area-of-effect spells. (If you can, it’s good to have someone with a lot of hit points in back, too, in the event of a rear-guard ambush.) The middle is where you put your healer, along with any injured or weakened party members—or the insane, hemophiliac, 12-year-old psychic elvish princess who’s being stalked in her dreams by a fallen god (for example), whom you’ve been hired to transport and protect.
When deciding whether risk in a polyamorous network should be redistributed, and how to do it, I think it’s useful to think in terms of marching order. Who’s the most resilient, the most experienced, the bravest, the strongest? Who’s uniquely vulnerable—perhaps as a result of a mental or physical illness, or economic dependence or other hardship? Does the marching order make sense based on need and ability? Does everyone involved understand why their position is what it is, and do they all agree to it? Is it renegotiable when needs or circumstances change? Is there a plan in place to help the weaker members of the party grow in strength, courage and ability, preparing them to eventually walk side-by-side with the other party members?
Typically when we discuss arrangements that shift risk in polyamorous relationships, we don’t do this. Typically it’s assumed that it’s the couple who will protect their relationship, and the new partner who will bear the associated extra risk.
But is the inherent risk, before any shifting happens, lower for the newer partner than for the members of the original couple? It is scarier for the couple?
That depends. So many factors go into determining who has more to lose, or who’s in the best position to be strong in the face of loss, that you can’t really say, without looking at a specific situation, who’s bearing the greater risk. I believe the assumption that a newer partner should carry greater risk in the interest of protecting the original couple is not based on real risk or ability, but rather is one of the unexamined assumptions that arise from couple privilege. The polynormative marching order is: newer partners in the front or back, couples in the middle.
I think that’s an assumption worth checking.
Everyone is afraid, and everyone can be brave. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone needs compassion. So why, in polyamorous relationships, do we so often expect the newer partner to be brave and strong, while calling for compassion and patience for the original couple? Why don’t we expect everyone to be as brave and strong as they can—and when they can’t, for everyone to receive compassion and patience?