[Note: this entry is part of a series of essays I’m currently writing about solo poly. They will likely end up as part of a new wing on this site soon.]
Over the past few years, I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that for most of my life, I was wrong about the kind of relationship I wanted. I always believed that I preferred a live-in, commune style of polyamory, but having grabbed that brass ring a few times through my life, I’ve come to realize that I’m really, at my core, solo poly.
I didn’t have the language “solo poly” until relatively recently. It didn’t really exist as a concept until polyamory had already become a fairly well-established subculture, and for a long time after I started hearing the term I didn’t really understand what it was.
Solo polyamory doesn’t mean you aren’t committed or closely bonded to your lovers. Nor does it mean your relationships aren’t “serious” or aren’t “real” (dear God, I am sick to death of hearing that even from other polyamorous people, many of whom still, to this day, treat solo poly relationships with derision and contempt), nor that you are just waiting for a “real” relationship to arrive (I’ve been with my wife for longer than a guy who said that to me has been alive).
Solo polyamory simply means you don’t become a sealed unit with your lover. You don’t (necessarily) do everything together, nor live together, nor share finances…and brother, believe me whan I say there’s a deep, deep sickness in a society that tells you becoming part of a package deal is the only ‘right’ way to have a relationship! I could write for days about that, and probably will, but not now.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about agency.
Solo living (image source)
A few months back, I had a long conversation with my wife and my crush* about the key underlying traits that define solo polyamory. They both argue that the key trait that defines solo poly is agency; that is, when you have people whose core value is agency, both for themselves and their partners, you’re more likely to see them involved in solo polyamory.
And they’re not alone. Do a Google search for “solo polyamory agency” and you’ll get over a million hits. Almost every essay on the web about solo polyamory talks, sometimes to great extent, about agency.
Something about that has been ticking at my brain for a long time, and I’ve finally put my finger on what it is:
I don’t think the key trait of solo poly folks is agency. I think agency is a consequence of the key trait, which is self-sufficiency. Agency—both the desire for it in one’s self and respect for it in others—comes from self-sufficiency.
Essentially, I think, it comes down to this: Can you be happy on your own? Can you amuse and entertain yourself? Can you find things that make your life happy, productive, and fulfilled without your partner? Does your life feel empty if your partner isn’t near, or is the presence of your partner one source of joy among many?
In my experience and observation, a high sense of personal agency and a high degree of respect for the autonomy of others tends to go hand in hand with self-sufficiency.
When you need others to help define who you are, set the boundaries between you and others, give you a sense of purpose, or make your life fulfilling, it’s hard to have a great deal of agency. You rely on someone outside yourself to meet internal needs. Remember the Maslow hierarchy?
It’s really, really hard to let other people be themselves, make their own choices, chart their own courses when you depend on them for the top tiers of the hierarchy. What if they make choices that take them away from you? What happens to you then?
I will admit, of course, that some of this may be selection bias, but I have consistently noticed that the people I know who all prize agency and self-determinism, the people I know who are solo polyamorous, and the people I know who are most emotionally self-sufficient, tend to be the same people, to the point the Venn diagram is actually a circle.
I’ve absolutely come to the conclusion that respect for agency is an emergent property, and it emerges from a cast-iron self that you are enough.
I’d love to know what you think.
* I call Eunice “my crush” largely tongue in cheek because I met her at an orgy in a castle in France and came home with a massive crush on her, and “friend, co-author, and occasional lover I’m in a vaguely defined relationship with” doesn’t exactly roll trippingly from the tongue.
That is part of the point, though: the people in solo poly relationships don’t frequently need the relationship definitions that those who want more traditionally coupled relationships do.