Polyamorous holidays: When you’re the secondary

This is a guest post by longtime poly blogger Noël Figart, author of the Polyamorous Misanthrope blog. A friend of mine sent me a question last week about surviving the holidays as a polyamorous secondary partner, and Franklin and I chewed on it for awhile before finally throwing in the towel. It sucks (I’ve been through it), and we empathize…but we couldn’t think of any concrete solutions. So we turned to someone else we trusted. I’ve followed Noël’s blog almost since the inception of my own non-monogamy journey, and she gives great poly advice that is grounded in respect, love and being a grown-up. When we cast around for someone to take this one on, she was the first who came to mind. Feel free to post your own suggestions (or empathy and support) in the comments.

I’m looking for advice on surviving the holidays as a Secondary. My only current partner is married, and also lives very close to his biological family, whom he is also very close to emotionally. He’s told at least his mother that he’s dating someone, but she has essentially bent over backwards to ignore our relationship. Although we don’t subscribe to an emotional hierarchy, there’s still the functional/social hierarchy of him living with her, being accepted by his family, etc., and holidays really seem to heighten that glitch in the matrix.

My own biological family lives too far away for me to spend time with. My partner is spending the holidays with his family (no big surprise) and his wife (also not a surprise.) We’re doing some personal celebration things on days around the holidays, but they’re very solitary activities. I find that it’s very much getting to me that I’m alone during this time of family togetherness. I’m making the best of it spending time with friends, but it hurts to not be able to spend the time with the person I love the most, and additionally to feel like I am socially “erased” from his life during this time. I’d like to know how other people have dealt with similar feelings of being the Invisible Partner during a very rough part of the year to be alone.

Ow.

That hurts and it’s tough. And guess what? There is some social erasure going on in this.

Is it avoidable?

© Michal Moravcik/Depositphotos.com

To not be publicly acknowledged as a partner or to be erased from public celebrations can be painful. Photo © Michal Moravcik/Depositphotos.com

That’s a tough one. One of the problems with polyamory is that in general they are very much “roll your own” relationships, which means that while we’re reared to specific social expectations, the realities of our relationships often don’t follow that social expectation. Which for the hot threesome can be awesome, but it can suck when it’s bumping up against an expectation of the inherently social and community-oriented time of the holidays being something you expect, are taught to value, and to be frank… Kinda do value! So to not be acknowledged and to be erased from the more public celebrations can be painful.

In my perfect world, families of origin would be accepting of the people who are close to their members and welcome them into family celebrations. I’m sorry that it doesn’t work that way all the time. It hurts like crazy.

That doesn’t mean you’re totally helpless in the face of the situation, though.

Let’s break this down in terms of relationship skill sets. I’m sure you’ve run across the idea before that it’s important to ask for what you want. It is crucial, so get it out there. Don’t worry about whether what you want is too much to ask: once you know what you want, ask for it. This can be scary, but I think all good relationships require a bit of courage. Yes, you’re setting yourself up for a refusal, but if you don’t ask, you don’t give them the opportunity to say yes.

So try it out, “Honey, I feel really alone during the holidays. Since we are partners, I feel like we’re family, too, and I want to be able to be included in some big holiday gatherings. Is there any way this can happen at all?”

Notice that this is open-ended. You’re asking for what you want, but you’re not telling anyone how to give it to you. That’s good, because chances are better that you’ll get some suggested solutions that you might not even have thought of.

Yes, I’m presuming good will here. After all, you’re partners and you love each other, right?

You mention that you’re doing a small, private celebration with your partner. Maybe it shouldn’t be (just) a small, private celebration. Maybe at some point a big holiday party that you and your partner and metamour host might be a good idea. It doesn’t have to be a holiday in and of itself. I used to throw a big tree decorating party the first of December ever year.

As for the specific holidays themselves, I used to be a member of a group marriage. While we got enough wrong that it did eventually dissolve, one of the things we got right was that we hosted holidays at our house. That kept us from having to choose among families of origin. People who wanted to visit on a holiday were welcomed. It worked out okay. Nothing’s perfect, but it was a good solution for us, as it did keep us on more equal ground with each other.

For those of us who have the couple privilege—that is, those of us who are in public, socially recognized and sanctioned couples—I do think we need to have a heart here. While I’m certainly poly enough that I don’t think it is healthy for anyone to be anyone else’s sole social and emotional support, at least one of the factors incumbent on polyamorous relationships is the reality that romantic relationships are often our most deeply intimate ties. As such, the social bonding rituals that celebrate and reinforce these ties need to be recognized, and all our partners included.

I encourage anyone who is in this situation to try to think of ways you can show your partners how loved and valued they are as members of your personal community.

 

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It’s finally here! The More Than Two audiobook! (Also, Kimchi Cuddles!)

Okay everyone, you can finally stop messaging and tweeting at us about when the More Than Two audiobook will be out: it’s finally here! You can order it on Amazon now, iTunes coming soon. Please share!

And in other news… The amazing webcomic Kimchi Cuddles is going to be a book! Creator Tikva Wolf launched her crowdfunding campaign today (in collaboration with my & Franklin’s publishing company, Thorntree Press), and she’s already up over $5,000. There are some great perks there—including copies of More Than Two and other Thorntree books. And an awesome crowdfunding video. Please go check it out and support her now.

Thank you!

We’re coming to Europe!

Wow, you guys! It’s been an amazing six months. The book More Than Two has sold over 8,000 copies. The manuscript for Franklin’s forthcoming memoir, The Game Changer, goes to copy-editing on Monday. And we’ve been invited to speak at Poly Day North in Manchester, UK, this October… and we figured, hey! Let’s do a Europe book tour! We have lots of backers and fans in the UK and Europe, and we’ve gotten enough frequent flyer miles over the last year to cover the tickets. So, we’re doing it.

If you live across the water, we need your help! We need folks to help plan local events, and we need places to stay. So if you want us to come visit you, please fill out this short survey. Our tour route will be based entirely on where we have fan support.

Thank you all so much for making More Than Two such a success!

Check out Eve's mad Photoshop skillz

Resources on abuse in polyamorous relationships

Franklin and I have just wrapped up a very well-attended session on abuse in polyamorous relationships at the Poly Living 2015 conference in Philadelphia, which was a follow-up to Franklin’s keynote last night on “Telling Our Stories, Changing the World.” We’re very grateful that so many people came to the session, especially the numerous mental health professionals who contributed their expertise to the discussion. We wanted to make the resources mentioned at the session available here for easy access.

Here are some books:

  • Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. (Powells | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You by Patricia Evans. (Powells | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You by Susan Forward. (Powells | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs by Stevan Hassan. (Powells | Indiebound | Amazon)

If you need immediate help, or just need to talk to someone, you can call the National Abuse Hotline at (800) 799-7233.

 

 

Relationship rights: Can you negotiate them away?

Franklin and I had an awesome interview on Friday with blogger and journalist A.V. Flox. We talked for almost two hours—I’m kind of scared, actually. A.V. is a fantastic interviewer. She’s the kind of person who makes you want to tell her everything. Everything. So I’m a little nervous about what incriminating (or at least embarrassing) things I may have said during the interview.

One of the things we talked about was the Relationship Bill of Rights, and specifically some thinking I’ve been doing about it lately. The RBoR was tough to come up with, in large part because we were having a hard time defining what was a “right,” and where to draw the line between a “right” and something that’s just really, really helpful. As Franklin has talked about before, we ended up turning to domestic violence prevention resources for inspiration, because those folks are pretty much the only people out there actually talking about relationship rights. In the end, we sort of dodged the question of definition, though, stating that for the purposes of our RBoR, we were basing our “rights” on principles that we felt polyamorous communities should uphold as part of our attempts to be basic decent human beings.

I don’t agree with that definition any more.

I’ve been thinking about this because the idea has come up in a few places that people can negotiate their relationship rights way, as though relationship rights are part and parcel of whatever your larger relationship agreement is, and you can pick and choose from them. And I think that’s a problem. The more I’ve thought about it, the more it seems clear to me that you cannot negotiate away your relationship rights—even if you want to, or think you do. And that, in fact, may be exactly what makes them rights, and not just general principles for good relationships.

Now I know there’s a libertarian wing of poly thinkers, and this is going to piss a lot of them right off. There are a lot of people who argue quite vehemently that anything people consent to within their relationships is okay. That comes from an understandable place: most of us are used to being judged in our lifestyles, most of us are used to demands that we follow other people’s rules. We’re reluctant to sign on to anything that looks like someone else telling us how to conduct our relationships.

The problem is, that  argument can bring you to some seriously messed-up places.

There’s a reason domestic violence prevention websites have lists of your rights in relationships. It’s because the places you tend to see rights violations tend to be abusive relationships. It’s because rights violations tend to lead to abuse. Do abuse victims “consent” to be in their relationships? On the surface, perhaps it looks that way, but that is rooted in a victim-blaming, “why doesn’t she (he) just leave?” mentality and a serious oversimplification of the psychological dynamics of abuse. Abuse relies on tearing down your partner’s sense of self and personal agency to the point where consent is really no longer valid. And it doesn’t take physical violence to make a relationship abusive.*

I believe that if you’ve come to a place in your relationship where someone has negotiated any one of their rights away, that relationship includes coercion, and that invalidates consent. Staying doesn’t mean your partner’s not hurting you. The fact that your partner submits to you doesn’t mean you’re not being an abusive asshole.

By way of example, I want to look at a couple of the rights we list in More Than Two:

  • To revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time.
  • To end a relationship.

These are really two facets of the same principle, since ending a relationship is revoking consent to intimacy—but the second right is such an important corollary of the first, we felt it needed to be stated on its own. It is, well, pretty much the most obvious and inalienable of the rights. And yet…there are people who think you can negotiate this one away. It’s most common to see such thinking in D/s relationships. Franklin likes to tell the story of a couple he used to know who were in a Master/slave relationship that the Dom insisted was “real.” He owned his wife, he swore, just as surely as he owned his toaster oven. He continued to maintain this right up until the moment his wife had him served with divorce papers.

In BDSM, some of us may play with non-consent. But—and this is going to piss some people off again—the key word here is playing. It’s a game, and at some level deep down, even when you’re absorbed in the role, you always remember it’s a game. But even in a 24/7 relationship, even when you say you agree to be another person’s slave—what happens when you step outside the role? If you say, “Whoa, can we talk, I need to renegotiate some things here”? Or even, “I’m not into this anymore, I don’t think it’s working—I need to move on.” Is that okay? It needs to be. Because you can’t, literally can’t, negotiate away your right to leave a relationship, or to revoke your consent.

You’ll see arguments against this outside BDSM circles sometimes, too. In the flush of NRE, it’s really tempting to say things like, “I will always love you.” “I won’t ever leave you.” Wiser folks who have been through a few heartbreaks may tend to resist the urge to utter such things in the heat of the moment. But even if you do… you can’t be held to them. These are not promises you can keep. You cannot promise to feel or want something forever; you cannot pre-consent to intimacy.

Yet there are people who believe that they can hold their partners to these kinds of promises—even extract such pledges of eternal love early on. There are people who will shame and coerce their partners to keep them from leaving—and if your partner is trying to keep you in a relationship that you don’t want to be in? That’s abuse. No matter what you said before. You can never. Negotiate away. Your right. To leave.

I could make a similar argument for many of the rights in the RBoR. But this line of thinking has forced me to re-evaluate the RBoR from the standpoint of this new definition of rights. If a right is something you cannot give up in a relationship, do all of the rights in our RBoR still stand as rights?

To answer this question, we need to consider, for each right, what it means for that right to not exist in a relationship. Does consistently violating that right lead to coercion? Does it violate ongoing, informed consent? Will it lead to abuse?

I read through the RBoR again with these questions in mind. Amazingly, I found that all of the rights still meet the bar for being a right. There are certainly cases where you might choose not to exercise a right. It might be easy enough to say you don’t need the right to leave when, well, you don’t want to leave. But when you decide you do want the right? It’s still there.

And that’s what makes it a right.

 

*Read more about abuse in poly—and all—relationships here.