#WLAMF no. 33: Black belt mistakes

Some time ago, I wrote about dating black belts. I prefer to date people who have already demonstrated the skills required to treat others well in a relationship–that is, people who are black belts at relationships.

It’s a common misconception among folks who’ve never done any martial arts that a person with a black belt has mastered the techniques of his discipline. That’s not true; in fact, a black belt merely shows you’ve got a handle on the basics, and are now ready to start learning the more advanced stuff.

What does it mean to have a handle on the basics? In that post, I tried to make a list of specific relationship attitudes and skills that show a good foundation in how to behave reasonably toward other folks.

Being a black belt doesn’t mean someone is perfect, nor that they know everything there is to know. If you have a black belt at bicycling, it doesn’t mean you can do a triple back spin in a half pipe; it means you can ride the bike without falling over, you know the rules of the road, you can deal with it if someone unexpectedly jumps out in front of you.

A black belt still makes mistakes. The difference between the mistakes made by a beginning student of a martial art and the mistakes made by a black belt is that the mistakes made by a student tend to be simple, easily recognized and easily corrected, but the mistakes made by a black belt can be subtle and difficult to correct.

The same can be true of relationships. Longevity in a relationship does not necessarily prove mastery of relationship skills; in a healthy, dynamic relationship, there is always more to be learned. And sometimes, mistakes made in an established, long-term relationship can have deep roots and subtle consequences.

Non-monogamous relationships are complex animals. Polyamorous relationships require care and feeding, and as with any relationship, mistakes are inevitable. Some of these mistakes can be very subtle indeed.

Poly mythology

Every subculture creates its own mythology. It is shared ideas and a commonality of interest which define a subculture, so it’s no surprise that subcultures give rise to their own set of mythologies; and the poly community is no exception. We sometimes like to make fun of the “monogamous fairy tale,” yet there are polyamorous fairy tales too.

One of the myths that seems on the road to becoming entrenched in some quarters of the polyamorous community is the idea that polyamory represents a state of “spiritual enlightenment” beyond that of mere monogamy. Monogamy, or so the idea goes, is the unfortunate result of a benighted culture enforcing a tradition of patriarchal oppression and property values. Polyamory is for people who have broken free of these artificial constraints and reached a deeper level of human understanding, one free of petty jealousy and possessiveness.

It’s easy to see why this myth is seductive. People who choose to live in polyamorous families are met with a great deal of resistance; to be polyamorous in the face of a non-stop barrage of cultural values that reinforce the Prince Charming metaphor requires a strong sense of self-identity (and no small measure of courage). Often, people are driven to polyamory because they are fundamentally incapable of being happy in a monogamous relationship. When you’ve been inculcated by values that contradict your own sense of self, and you finally gather the energy to break free of those values and live your life on your own terms, it can become easy to believe that you have transcended some petty and outmoded idea and discovered the key to enlightenment.

But this myth breaks down quickly. It’s not reasonable to assume that the number of lovers a person has is the measure of that person’s enlightenment; if that were the case, rock musicians might have us all beat! The measure of a person’s compassion lies in how she treats the people she loves, not in how many of those people there are. And polyamory represents a system that is not right for everyone, just like monogamy. It’s easy to imagine that if we lived in a culture steeped in polyamory, the mavericks who chose to buck the trend and carve out monogamous lives for themselves might also believe they have discovered the key to enlightenment!

Polyamory and monogamy represent two different relationship models, nothing more. There is absolutely nothing intrinsic to polyamory that makes it better than monogamy, and there is nothing that makes monogamy automatically better than polyamory. There are wise, compassionate, enlightened people who are monogamous; and there are selfish, crass, inconsiderate louts who are polyamorous. Neither relationship model has yet to corner the market on wisdom or spiritual enlightenment.

A related myth is the idea that polyamory represents an “ideal” or “natural” state of man, and everyone would be poly if only it weren’t for social conditioning. People are inculcated with monogamous values and ideals from a very early age; the myth says that without this conditioning, which traces its roots back to social constructs designed to ensure parentage and establish conventions for property ownership and inheritance, people would tend to be polyamorous.

It’s true that we live in a culture steeped on monogamous values, and that these values are reinforced from a very early age. But there’s no reason to believe that without this conditioning, all people, or even most people, would be polyamorous. Monogamous ideals serve the needs of a great many people quite well. Human beings are a varied bunch. There’s no single philosophy or way of life that works for everyone. In a polyamorous society, it’s quite likely that someone would write a book extolling the virtues of the maverick idea of monogamy! A society works best when it allows its members the freedom to determine what works best for them.

Another common myth in the polyamorous community is the idea that love is limitless. It just ain’t so. Human beings are not capable of forming intimate, meaningful emotional bonds with limitless numbers of people; even if time and energy allowed, we simply do not have the emotional resources for it. We’re hard-put just to remember the names of, say, six hundred other people; to think that we could not only remember but actually form close, romantic ties with six hundred other people seems a bit of a stretch.

How, then, could we love six thousand other people? Or sixty thousand? Six hundred million, perhaps? Six billion? After a while, our capacity to form a personal connection with other people becomes exhausted.

In fact, the number of close, intimate emotional ties we can form may be determined at least in part by our biological inheritance.

And really, it doesn’t even matter whether or not love is infinite; even if it were, time and energy certainly are not. The number of meaningful personal relationships an individual can sustain must necessarily be limited by time and energy. A relationship will wither without care and attention, and there are only so many hours in a day. Practically speaking, then, the number of people that one can love in any meaningful way is always bounded.

Doubling down

There will be problems in any poly relationship. There are problems in any relationship at all. None of us is perfect.

But in polyamory, we can be vulnerable to trying to map out exactly what we want our relationship to look like. It’s hard, sometimes, to let go of our assumptions about how relationships work; we can try to want to deal with our fears by controlling the outcomes of our relationships, and try to control the outcomes by controlling our partners, the structures of our relationships, or both.

When we run into problems–and we will–we can be tempted to respond by doubling down on the rules. A relationship broke up? We felt jealous or threatened? The problem was there weren’t enough rules, or they weren’t strict enough! Someone has done something that hurt us? We need more controls on the form our relationship can take! When we step back and look at it, doubling down on structures that haven’t succeeded in taking us where we want to go sounds silly…but in the middle of dealing with crisis or pain, doubling down can seem like a reasonable thing to do.


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#WLAMF no. 31: There is always missing information

“Did you feed the cat?”

It’s a simple question, right? My husband and I both feed the cat, though to be honest, usually these days it’s him.

So why is it that I feel guilty and defensive when I hear it? (Oh no, was I supposed to feed the cat? She wasn’t acting hungry, I thought he fed her already!)

“Did you scoop the cat box?”

Well, actually, usually my husband does that to. But when I get a text message from him, “Did you scoop the cat box?” I immediately feel defensive. Instead of a simple “No, do you want me to?” I’ve found myself typing, “No, you didn’t tell me it was needed! I thought you did it yesterday.” And he replies: “It’s okay! I just wanted to know if it still needs to be done!”

Or how about this: we had some guests recently. When they left, they made the bed nicely. We were having another guest, and weren’t sure if we needed to change the sheets. So we sent a message: “We were just wondering if the sheets on the bed were clean.”

“Oh no, sorry! That slipped by us! So sorry.”

Well, okay, they’re Canadian. Even so. We didn’t mean to tell them they were supposed to clean the sheets! We just wanted to know!

So what’s going on here?

Well, one answer is passive communication. But this is a totally normal way for us to communicate in North American society. The question “Did you…?” very often includes the assumption that the person being asked was supposed to do the thing in question; there’s often even a veiled recrimination in the question. If your response is no, it’s a confession, not an answer.

I’ve been pondering this over the last few weeks, perhaps because I’ve been asking “Did you…?” questions a lot. And I’ve realized something.

No matter what we say or how we say it, there will always be information missing from what we say. And our brains are exceptionally good at filling in missing information. Franklin talks about this in his Making Relationships Suck workshop: in experiments with people who’ve had the left and right hemispheres of the brain separated so they can’t communicate, a person’s left brain will completely fabricate reasons for actions taken by the right brain, and then believe them.

If I ask a question like “Did you scoop the cat box?” the missing information could be that I’m at home, contemplating whether to scoop the cat box. It could be that the cat has just pooped on the floor, and I’m trying to figure out why. Or it could be that I expected you to do it, and will be upset if you didn’t.

There is always missing information.

In my case, I guess I feel pretty guilty about never scooping the cat box, so it’s pretty easy for me to get defensive when asked if I did it. Funny how that works, isn’t it? My brain fills in the missing information—He asked if I scooped the cat box. OMG I never scoop the cat box. I AM A TERRIBLE KITTY MOM—and then inserts that information into his message, reflecting back at me.

We are going to do this. We can’t stop it; it’s how our brains work. And I think a big part of the difference between direct and passive communication doesn’t just come down to how completely or directly you convey information, but how you handle it when your brain fills in the missing bits. Do you recognize it when that happens? Do you check yourself and say, “Hey, why am I feeling defensive? Actually, they just asked for information.”

Our brains are buggy. They lie to us. Our feelings lie to us. Even our gut responses to straightforward statements or questions can lie to us. A big part of good communication consists of learning to identify the information gaps in what we hear, understanding how we’re filling them in ourselves, recognizing that we’re going to get it wrong, and asking the speaker to fill in the additional information.

Another good strategy is just to take the words at face value.

“Did you clean the cat box?”
“No.”
“Could you?”
“Okay.”

It’s not always this easy, of course. Sometimes you really do need that bit of missing information. But it’s often a good way to start. And trust me, not filling in that missing information at all is a big step up from filling it in with your own story. If you’re not sure what to ask, taking their words at face value leaves space for the other person to help fill it in—if it matters.


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#WLAMF no. 23: Relationship rights

Way back in 2003, I proposed a “secondary’s bill of rights” for polyamorous relationships. This Bill of Rights, much of which was written by my partner Shelly, came out of our attempts to navigate the hierarchical relationship I was in at the time with my ex-wife. My wife and I had radically different goals in relationship (I am intrinsically polyamorous, whereas she identifies as monogamous; I wanted to be free to let other people in to my heart, while she preferred to be the only person I loved, or, failing that, the one I loved the most), and the hierarchies we had in place were our clumsy attempt to negotiate those differences.

We made our rules with little or no thought to the effects they might have on other people. When I started dating Shelly, she found that the rules we had in place disempowered her…which is, when you get right down to it, exactly what they were supposed to do.

So Shelly and I hashed out the first draft of the Secondary’s Bill of Rights, which still exists on the site today, though it hasn’t been updated in rather a long time.

My own ideas about polyamory have changed and evolved over time. In fact, I plan eventually to write an essay about how they’ve changed.

If I were to go back and revisit the Secondary’s Bill of Rights today, I would likely add a new element to it:

I have a right to be aware of problems in the existing relationship.

“Relationship broken, add more people” is such fertile ground for problems in polyamory that it’s a trope among many poly folks. Consent to a relationship–any relationship–is valid only if it’s informed, and informed consent in polyamory, particularly in prescriptive primary/secondary hierarchies, means disclosing things at a high probability of causing drama or harm.

Yet many couples facing problems in their relationship are reluctant to disclose those problems to a perceived outsider. Even if that outsider is, in theory, someone that one or both of them loves.

It’s hard to talk openly, especially about problems or failings. Disclosure makes us vulnerable, and vulnerability is often uncomfortable.

But people have a right to know what they’re getting into, at least in general terms. There might not be a need to air every bit of dirty laundry, every he-said-she-said argument. But when there are serious structural issues in a relationship, they can put new people in an extremely vulnerable position. Integrity and compassion demands we let people know what kinds of problems they may face.


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#WLAMF no. 20: Shelf-stable consent

A couple of months ago, I was presenting at a poly event. We were talking about consent, and someone used a phrase I’d never heard before, but which the linguist in me (who’s basically an eight-year-old squeeing over the neat things people do with language) was absolutely delighted by. She and her partners had, she said, shelf-stable consent.

Consent is not a thing that’s given once and lasts forever. You do not consent to sex with someone for all time simply because you’ve consented to it once in the past, or because you’ve married that person. Consent exists in the moment, as my sweetie Shelly said in this guest blog post that is one of the most popular things we’ve ever published on this blog.

And that’s all true. Consent is ongoing; it’s a process, not a product.

Sometimes, though, we make the choice to give shelf-stable consent. Sometimes, when we’re in a healthy relationship that meets our needs with partners who see us and who we see in turn, we don’t need to negotiate consent before every ass-grab. (Of course, it can be really, really hot to negotiate every ass-grab, don’t get me wrong!) Sometimes, we know our partners well enough to know what they like. I have a partner for whom grabbing her by the hair and throwing her against the wall is an awesome form of foreplay, sure to get her motor going. But we have a history that stretches back for years.

This is shelf-stable consent. It’s not irrevocable; consent never is. We can always change our mind. Nobody can ever assume access to our bodies, our minds, or our space now and forever. Like those little containers of shelf-stable milk, once the container is opened, it might go bad if you don’t take care to store it properly.

Within those limits, though, when it’s freely given and not assumed, when it’s treated with respect, shelf-stable consent is a lot of fun. It’s a gift, and one of the most special gifts we give each other.


I’m writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign at midnight tonight, December 15, 2014. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015!

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#WLAMF no. 18: Feeling worthy

I have said many times that one of the core secrets to good relationships is good partner selection. A huge number of relationship problems can be avoided up front simply by choosing good partners: partners with compatible ideas about relationships, with good communication and problem-solving skills, partners who are not abusive or controlling or entitled.

But there is a prerequisite to good partner selection. It’s one I don’t often think about, because it’s something I’ve always taken for granted. And I’ve become aware that I can’t take it for granted; indeed, it’s far from a given for many of us.

In order to choose good partners, you must first believe you are worthy of having good partners.

That can be tough. We don’t live in a world that equips us to feel worthy and empowered. Indeed, it sometimes seems to me that many of our social systems are predicated on, or even depend on, making us feel unworthy. When we feel worthy and empowered, what hook can advertisers use to market to us? How can politicians frighten us into voting for them? How can we be controlled?

Eve and I talk about worthiness in More Than Two. We argue that it’s a necessary part of good relationships, but I think it might go even deeper than we talk about in the book. We can not seek partners who are good for us if we do not feel worthy of partners who are good for us–if we do not believe that, intrinsically and for no reason other than the essential nature of our humanity, we deserve to be treated well.

Worthiness is hard. We offer resources in the book for helping to build a sense of worthiness. But I think it starts with faith. Even if we can’t explain why we’re worthy, we need to make the leap of faith that we are–not because we have done anything to earn it, but because being treated well is something we shouldn’t have to earn.

That faith doesn’t come easily. It means stepping off the edge of the cliff and believing there’s a net down there to catch you. I wish I knew what the magic roadmap toward feeling worthy was. I was fortunate; I had awesome parents who equipped me with fantastic tools to build self-worth, even when I was living in rural Nebraska and had no friends or peers.

It’s possible. I know it is. It starts, I think, with faith.


I’m writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign at midnight tonight, December 15, 2014. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015!

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#WLAMF no. 12: The flip side of couple privilege

In our book More Than Two, one of the dangers Eve and I talk about with existing couples opening their relationship to polyamory is the problem of “couple privilege.”

“Couple privilege” is a set of assumptions and expectations, some external and some internal, that we make about relationships. No mater how hard we try to be egalitarian or treat new partners as “equal,” we can assert privileges–sometimes without intending to–in our existing relationships, and end up disempowering anyone we may start a new relationship with.

I have written a lengthy blog post about couple privilege, which includes a long (but by no means complete!) list of examples.

But what we don’t talk about as often is the way that insidious ideas about what “real” relationships look like can seep into people who aren’t part of an established couple. Social ideas about what relationships “should” look like are pervasive, and can affect everyone, not just folks who are already partnered.

One of the clearest examples of this “reverse privilege” I’ve seen is something I’ve heard many people say when they start dating someone who already has one or more partners, or more commonly when they start dating both members of an existing couple:

Well, this is good for now, but eventually I’m going to want a partner of my own.

Did you feel it? That strange ripple on the surface of the water, hinting at turbulence lurking way down deep?

It can be very, very hard to let go of the idea that a relationship that involves more than one other person is every much as valid, legitimate, and “real” as a relationship with only one partner. The subtext of the “partner of my own” idea is that a partnership with someone who has other lovers is less satisfying, or perhaps less legitimate, than a partnership with someone you don’t “share.”

It’s a notion rooted in centuries of tradition and many a bad Disney cartoon and romantic comedy, so it’s not too surprising that it can be so difficult to let go of. Yet we must. I submit that as long as we believe a plural relationship is less real than a relationship with only one person who doesn’t have other partners, poly relationships won’t be as satisfying to us as monogamous relationships. We’ll always feel that our lives are inferior to what they could be.

Worse, when we feel this way, we don’t necessarily treat our partners well. When we see our relationships as less—less real, less authentic, less satisfying—we more easily treat our partners as expendable things, rather than as people. It’s not just couples who treat people as disposable commodities!

Another way this can happen is when a person says, “You know, it’s not really that important how I treat my partners, because they have each other. It’s not a big deal if I break commitments, or fail to show up for dates. Hey, it can’t be that bad! They still have each other, right?”

Love does not play numbers games. The heart does not see its connections as interchangeable. We all know it would be almost unspeakably cruel to tell a parent who has lost a child, “Hey, it’s not that bad! You still have another kid, right?” Why, then, would we think it would be any different for romance?

It is on all of us, no matter our relationship status, to treat our lovers preciously. When someone offers us their love, they’re offering a gift of incalculable value. Let us, each of us, recognize that, and strive to take care of one another.


I’m writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign at midnight tonight, December 15, 2014. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015!

Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now.