A few years back, my partner Eve Rickert and I wrote a book. You may, if you’re reading this blog, have heard of it. It’s about polyamory, and it’s called More Than Two.
In the book, we said, “We’re not experts on polyamory. We believe there are no experts. Polyamory is still too new for that.” The book did rather well, and as a result, a lot of people turn to us as those poly experts of expert polydom who can tell you how it’s done.1
Pigeon, meet hole.
We’re not poly experts because, err, there are no poly experts. As Eve likes to say, we’re artists: More Than Two resonates with people not because we’re the gurus on the mountaintop handing down the poly wisdom, but because we’re writers who can talk about our own experiences in ways that some folks connect with.
Did you know that we write about more than just polyamory? It’s true!
In fact, we have another book coming out this fall. It’s a novel, and it’s not about polyamory. Indeed, there’s not a whisper of polyamory in it.
So what is it, then? Well, imagine a quasi-steampunk alternate past in which Queen Victoria never existed, the Protestant Reformation never happened, there’s no British Empire, Dr. Frankenstein succeeded with his experiments (sort of), and the British don’t drink tea.
Then make it a comedy in the style of or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.
Only with a higher body count.
How’s that for jumping out of the pigeonhole?
Anyway, as we did with More Than Two, we’re crowdfunding this book. It’s called Black Iron. It publishes this fall, but you can get an early copy of it if you like. Plus, we have all sorts of other fun stuff, like posters and T-shirts and other goodies. And today, we’re repeating a stunt I did back in 2015 when we crowdfunded The Game Changer: from noon to midnight, Eve or I will write a blog post for every crowdfunding contribution we get in that window. We’ll keep writing as long as you keep backing, or until we drop. And for contributions over $100, you can suggest a topic. Follow along by RSVPing to our Facebook event or following the #WLAMF hashtag on Twitter.
There is, of course, a downside to not being pigeonholed. When you fit safely in your hole, people know what to expect of you. When you don’t, they don’t. “Well, yes, you can write a good book on polyamory, but can you write fiction?” I hear you saying.
It’s a fair question. I think the answer is yes. You can check out an excerpt from Black Iron and see if you agree.
We have a lot more books inside us. Some of them won’t easily fit into pigeonholes.
To be fair, we never intended to write Black Iron.
There’s a funny thing that happens when it comes to creation. Sometimes, it seems like the thing you’re creating wants to be created. It’s as if there is a universe of books out there, waiting to be written, and occasionally they find their way into our world through the head of some person somewhere.
That’s the way it was with More Than Two. Not to sound superstitious, but it feels like that book wanted to be written, and we were the conduits between that universe-space where unwritten books live, and the real world.
That happened with Black Iron. It pushed its way into this world even though we had other plans. So it goes.
There are a lot more books trying to be born right now. There’s a vast universe of unwritten books clamoring to be written. I invite you to explore with us.
1 Along the way, some folks have apparently started using More Than Two as a blunt instrument against other folks—”You need to do thus and such because Eve and Franklin say so!” Please don’t do that.
Last year, Eve and I started working on a new book, Love More, Be Awesome. It’s a followup to More Than Two, intended for a wider audience than just poly folks. We have an ambitious goal: Love More, Be Awesome is intended to be a user’s manual for being a decent human being.
The book was originally slated to be on shelves at the end of this year, which means it should be in the final stages of proofreading right about now. It’s not.
This afternoon, we set fire to the first draft.
We’ve been blocked on it for a long time. More Than Two wanted to be written; this book doesn’t. We’ve been spinning our wheels, struggling to get anything out. And last week, we finally figured out why: for the last year, we’ve been thinking about the book in completely the wrong way.
You see, there’s no such thing as writer’s block, as it turns out. Instead, there’s “you can’t write because you’re approaching this wrong.”
So this afternoon, we torched everything. All our notes, our diagrams, everything about the book, all went into the fire. (Well, except for the bits that exist as bits; those bits just got deleted.)
It was incredibly freeing. Now we can start again, blank slate, with an entirely new approach.
I can’t wait to get writing.
Primum non nocere. It’s a Latin phrase that means “first, do no harm.” It’s not part of the Hippocratic Oath, but it is a central tenet of bioethics in most of the world.
It also, I think, makes a pretty good tenet for relationship ethics as well.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from Dan Savage’s personal assistant, asking if I was interested in helping craft a response to a person who’d written in to Mr. Savage with a poly problem.
The problem was that the guy who’d written in was in a relationship with a woman named Erin, and she had passed a rule that he was not permitted to date anyone else named Erin. Apparently, Erin is a popular name where he’s from, and it had repeatedly happened that he’d met and connected with someone, only to learn her name was Erin, and he had to tell her, “Sorry, we can’t see each other, I’m not permitted to date anyone with your name.”
Naturally, I weighed in against this particular rule. I’m not quite sure what motivated it, beyond the things that motivate many apparently completely arbitrary rules in polyamorous relationships: insecurity, fear of loss, fear of abandonment–the usual suspects in the lineup.
Dan Savage printed my response (which you can read here), as well as that of Dossie Easton, who was similarly skeptical of the rule.
But then he said something interesting. Talking about the anti-Erin rule, he said:
It’s common for people in open relationships to insist on a rule that seems arbitrary, even capricious, to their partners. I call these rules “Brown M&Ms,” a reference to 1980s hair rock band Van Halen. The band’s touring contract stipulated that bowls of M&Ms be set out backstage with all the brown M&Ms removed. To see if their contract had been followed to the letter — a contract that included a lot of technical requirements for their elaborate and potentially dangerous stage shows — all the band had to do was glance at those bowls of M&Ms. If a local promoter couldn’t be trusted to get something simple and seemingly arbitrary right, they couldn’t be trusted to get the bigger stuff right. And if the promoter didn’t get the big stuff right, it wasn’t safe for the band to perform.
Arbitrary rules in open relationships are like Van Halen’s brown M&Ms: a quick way to check if you’re safe. If your partner can’t be trusted to not sleep with someone else in your bed, not take someone else to a favorite restaurant, not use your favorite/special/beloved sex toys with someone else, etc., perhaps they can’t be trusted to get the big things right — like ensuring your physical and emotional safety and/or primacy.
I scratched my head when I read this. I see where he’s coming from, and yet…and yet…
The problem with this idea hit me while I was walking in the woods with Eve, something we do most days while we’re out here in rural Washington writing.
There’s something a little off about treating a romantic partner like a contract employee. If you’re approaching your relationship with the same mindset you might use to hire a producer, I would argue that the fundamental foundation of trust and mutual respect required for a healthy relationship probably isn’t there. If you feel the need to test your partner to ensure their trustworthiness, it might be time to take a step back and think about why that is.
But leaving aside the issue of whether you should place contractual constraints on your romantic relationships to help you decide whether your partner is trustworthy, there’s this:
First, do no harm.
Let’s talk about brown M&Ms.
If I am hiring you to produce a show for me, and I tell you to take the brown M&Ms out of a bowl, it’s pretty easy to see whether or not you’ve done it. More to the point, it doesn’t cause harm to anyone. Sure, you might not like picking the brown M&Ms out of a bowl; it sounds like a tedious, if easy, task. But I’m hiring you and paying you for your time, so eh, whatever.
Now let’s say I decided to test your ability to stick to the rules by using some other contractual clause. Instead of saying “give me a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown ones removed,” I wrote into the contract, “take a lead pipe, cut it so that it is exactly 12.4 centimeters long, then beat the sound engineer with it until he has exactly seven bruises of two centimeters diameter or greater, but no broken bones.”
No reasonable person would say there was anything at all okay about that. Attempting to justify it by saying “I want to make sure that the person I hire is abiding by all the requirements of the contract!” should, I think, result on howls of outrage.
That’s an extreme example, but it illustrates the point: If, for whatever reason, you are in a relationship with someone you have so little trust for that you feel the need to invent tests of their loyalty, first, do no harm. Make your tests harmless: brown M&Ms, not beatings.
You might argue, and I am absolutely certain someone will, that a rule barring a partner from dating anyone named Erin is harmless. After all, you’re letting your partner date other people, right? So what if you don’t want them to date anyone named Erin? Other Erins of the world have no intrinsic right to date your man, right?
But here’s the thing: By the time someone is writing a letter to a newspaper columnist looking for relationship advice, people have been hurt. Damage has been done. Happy, joyful people in awesome, fulfilling relationships do not write to strangers asking for help.
In More Than Two, Eve and I (well, mostly Eve; she did the heavy lifting in the ethics chapter) proposed a Relationship Bill of Rights. This Bill of Rights is not a how-to list for ensuring awesome relationships; it’s a floor, below which your relationship probably is tending in some unhealthy directions.
In the Relationship Bill of Rights, we said that all people have the right, in poly relationships:
- to decide how many partners you want
- to choose your own partners
I think that entering into any relationship where you’re asked or expected to give up these rights should be done with great caution, and only with a compelling reason. “I’m not sure I can trust you, so I’m setting up rules to test your loyalty and your ability to take care of me” doesn’t strike me as a particularly compelling argument. Indeed, just the opposite; that argument makes me more skeptical, not less skeptical, of the health of the relationship.
At the end of the day, of course, it’s his choice whether or not he stays with Erin Prime. But it has consistently been my experience and observation that the more inclined someone is to pass rules to try to make a partner stay, the more likely it is that partner will leave. It is an enduring truth of the human condition that our fears often cause us to create the very things we’re afraid of.
First, do no harm.
Nearly all relationship advice of any sort, for any kind of relationship, can be dismissed with just one sentence: “But that would be awkward!”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those words. Suffice it to say that if I had a dime for every time, I’d be quite a lot wealthier than I am right now.
“Talk about STI testing before we have sex? But that would be awkward!” “Meet my partner’s other partner? But that would be awkward!” “Talk to my partner about how I’m feeling? But that would be awkward!” “Experiment and try new things in bed? But that would be awkward!” “Talk openly about sexual boundaries? But that would be awkward!” “Talk about my sexual fantasies? But that would be awkward!” “Ask before kissing someone? But that would be awkward!” (That last one, in fact, deserves a blog post of its own.)
These aren’t hypothetical examples. I’ve heard or read every single one of these…just in the past eight weeks.
Here’s the thing: It’s true. Every bit of it. Doing these things will, at some point or another, likely make you feel awkward.
Do them anyway.
For a lot of folks, it seems that feeling awkward or uncomfortable is the greatest hardship imaginable. Worse, it’s almost as if we have, floating around in our subconscious minds, some idea that we have a right to be comfortable all the time, and to never have to confront awkwardness or discomfort.
In the book More Than Two, one of the ideas we tried to communicate is that other people are real. In fact, it’s one of the ethical axioms we talk about: don’t treat people as things.
Part of treating people as people and not as things is understanding and accepting that you will, from time to time, feel awkward.
“Don’t treat people as things” sounds easy, but it’s deceptively complicated. Every human being you have ever met or will ever meet—indeed, every human being who has ever existed—is unique. We all want different things, we all have different priorities. Regardless of how compatible the people close to you may be, the only thing you can be absolutely sure of is there are places, perhaps big, perhaps small, where your needs and desires differ.
That’s why it’s absolutely essential to talk to people, and to hear and consider their needs. It’s not all about you.
It’s awkward when you want something and the person across from you wants something else. It brings your goals into conflict with theirs. Just the possibility of that happening feels uncomfortable.
I think that’s where a lot of the objections of “But that would be awkward!” come from. Talk about STI testing before sex? That would be awkward, because what if they have different ideas about it than I do? What if that means I won’t get what I want?
When you are willing to have those awkward conversations or do those uncomfortable things, you’re showing that you recognize other people are different from you and you’re willing to treat them accordingly.
When someone cries, “But that would be awkward!” the subtext is, “And not feeling awkward is more important to me than recognizing the differences between us that make us both people.”
Therefore, I would like to propose we all would do well by confronting our fear of discomfort, and being willing to do that awkward thing we don’t really want to do. Especially when that awkward thing is awkward because it forces us to confront the differences between us, even when it might sometimes mean we don’t get what we want.
Being willing to feel awkward from time to time is the cost of entry to being a decent human being.
Eve and I are back in the woods again, in the same cabin where we wrote More Than Two, working on a new book.
The new book is not about polyamory. It’s called Love More, Be Awesome, and it’s our take on a kind of user’s guide for being a human being: tips and ideas for being awesome and living a life of compassion and kindness.
Part of the reason More Than Two turned out like it did is this place. It’s incredibly remote; we’re miles from the nearest convenience store and a half-hour drive to the closest town. All around us, as far as the eye can see, is temperate rainforest.
The remoteness helps us focus, as you might imagine, but there’s more to it than that. Every afternoon, we go for a walk, hiking along meandering paths through the trees–some of them clear, others almost completely overgrown. These hikes give us the opportunity to talk about what we’re writing, to brainstorm ideas, and to help work through roadblocks.
And we are once more, in a literal sense, on the path to a new book.
Love More, Be Awesome is a much different book from More Than Two. It’s going to be a lot shorter, for one thing. It’s a lot easier to write a long book than a short book, as it turns out.
This is going to be a difficult book to write, but I like the way it’s shaping up. There’s still a long path with many conversations beneath the shade of the trees ahead, but I’m excited about where we are going.