Last month, I spent some time in Springfield with a long-distance lover. I was returning from a trip to Florida to help care for my mom, who was diagnosed with cancer last November, and had an opportunity to spend some time with my lover on the way back.

While I was there, I ended up hospitalized for three days, which is not, Gentle Reader, generally the best use of one’s time when one is seeing someone one does not often get a chance to see.

What at first seemed like bad heartburn escalated over three hours or so until I was spewing blood from both ends. Three days in the hospital and an endoscopy later, it turned out I had a tear in my esophagus and a hole in the lining of my stomach, both of which were fixed. I went on my way, though now I am apparently forever barred from taking ibuprofen.

While I was in the hospital, my Talespinner, the lover I was there to see, let the rest of the poly network know what was going on. Behind the scenes, the other people in my life, scattered all across the globe, came together effortlessly to support her, despite not being in the same town or the same state or indeed the same continent. (I have lovers in London and Manchester, such is the curse of modern society with its ease of communication and travel.

At this point in time, I have arrived at a place where I now identify as solo poly. All my current partners are solo poly. While we can never predict the future, and the road to life is littered with “never would I ever,” I suspect I am unlikely in the future to date anyone who is not solo poly.

And honestly, seeing how easily and effortlessly my extended poly network came together really drove that home.

I am blessed beyond words to be part of a vibrant, thriving, dynamic, healthy polyamorous network. One of the more interesting things about the place I now find myself is that for countless years, I identified as someone who wanted what I considered “kitchen table polyamory,” a set of relationships where my lovers and their lovers all share a home and live entwined lives, a sort of non-nuclear family of folks who all live together in one big happy nested relationship. (Joreth and Eunice have reminded me that what a lot of folks, myself included, call kitchen-table polyamory is more like “commune-style polyamory,” a polyamorous network living in a shared space as a single unit.)

That is not what I have now, and I couldn’t be happier.

It’s been my experience, especially over the last decade or so, that the things I value in a polyamorous network—resiliency, mutual support and care, genuine concern—seem to be found more often and more easily in networks of solo poly and relationship anarchy practitioners than among those who say they want a more communal table approach. That seems…rather counterintuitive on first glance, but it might make a kind of sense.

Before I get into that, though, I want to talk a little about solo polyamory, or more specifically, about some of the fucked-up things some folks seem to believe about solo polyamory.

Image: Yanshu Lee

At its core, solo polyamory (and to some extent, relationship anarchy, which shares some overlap with solo polyamory) is about constructing bespoke relationships, rather than following the normal socially-sanctioned template: date, fall in love, move in together, share a bank account, maybe have kids, grow old, die. It’s about constructing customized relationships that don’t necessarily follow the markers of a “conventional” relationship.

The tricky bit about this is these are the markers many folks, including polyamorous folks, use when they say “yup, that’s a relationship.” A lot of folks have the rather distressing tendency to dismiss, diminish, or write off any relationship that doesn’t match the normal, socially endorsed template.

My wife and I run into this all the damn time. Yes, from other poly folks—folks who bloody well should know better.

Traditional conservatives and some polyamorous folks might disagree on the number of adults, but they share a common belief that if it doesnt look like this, it ain’t a real relationship. (Image: Wavebreakmedia Micro)

We don’t live together. We do share a bank account, but we don’t have kids together and never will. We are married, but we have no particularly strong drive to share a house or entangle our day-to-day finances.

And it drives people nuts. You would absolutely not believe the number of folks, including polyamorous folks, who dismiss our relationship, who sneer at it, who treat it as negligible, who tell us tacitly or directly it’s “not a real relationship.”

We’ve been together twenty years, and I’ve had people who have never made a relationship succeed for anywhere near that length of time tell me we don’t have a real relationship. (Not that I’m saying the longevity of a relationship is the best measure of its success, but when someone who has barely managed to hit half that time in their longest relationship derides our relationship, that’s particularly rich.)

Point is, even those people who’ve explicitly rejected monogamy as a relationship norm can still cling to the milestones of traditional monogamous relationships. Maybe it’s deliberate, maybe it’s unconscious, but it happens all the time. “Well, I don’t really have to consider your wife’s needs, it’s not like she’s a real relationship…” I’ve had at least two long-term partners behave this way, utterly ignorant of how incredibly hurtful it is.

Coming back to solo poly:

I don’t have this problem with solo poly partners. In fact, if you’re reading this and you’re solo poly, I imagine you find this idea quite abhorrent. Or you’ve experienced this yourself. Or both.

It’s easy, I think, to confuse the map with the terrain. Most people who really love someone want to be near them all the time, so people take the fact that you’ve chosen not to live with someone as proof you’re not invested in them, or you don’t take the relationship seriously.

But the real measure of a relationship, the genuine test, is how you come together when things go wrong, not who you live with or whose name is on the title to the car. Plenty of people who can barely tolerate each other still share a home, and many are the people who are genuinely invested in one another’s well-being live apart.

So it was when I ended up in the hospital.

Why would it be that a relationship network of solo poly and RA people might come together more easily and quickly in times of stress than a relationship consciously created as a live-together polyamorous family?

I’ve long said you don’t keep a partner by passing rules that they’re not allowed to hang out with other people or by demanding to know where they are every minute of the day or by trying to control their friend circle, you keep a partner by building a vibrant, joyful relationship they don’t want to leave. And I think something similar is going on here.

I’ve known people who’ve had live-in, commune-style poly relationships. I’ve been in live-in, commune-style poly relationships. I’ve observed, in my own and other relationships, how often the people in them seem to act out of a sense of obligation, a feeling that you are expected to do certain things for your metamours and The Family In General even if it isn’t really what you want to do.

Those expectations, I think, can breed resentment. You end up sort of going through the motions of showing up, but with an undercurrent of resentfulness, because you’re doing it from a sense of obligation rather than genuine choice.

Solo poly and relationship anarchy, for their faults (and I’m not holding them up as ideal, nor saying all people with live-in poly relationships resent their obligations), are built on the idea that all one’s interpersonal relationships are voluntary, bespoke, and chosen based on what you want, not what you’re expected to do by society or tradition or custom. That’s their strength; it’s easier, I think, to support someone out of a sense of genuine desire to help than out of a sense that’s what you’re expected to do. Duties we see as obligations may inspire us to put in the absolute minimum of work; things we choose freely, because they are what we want to do, are more likely to come from the heart.

And that might just be the secret sauce that makes solo poly networks so resilient. Even as other people dismiss them because they don’t have the markers we’ve come to associate with “real relationships.”

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