There is something we don’t talk about much in polyamory. Those of us who are educators and activists tend to focus only on the positive aspects of polyamory. We’re so busy playing cheerleader (see, polyamory is healthy! It’s fun! You can have your Kate and Edith too! There’s no need to be afraid your partner will leave you from someone else, when they can have both of you!) that we don’t talk about the bits that are scary and disruptive. We don’t talk about the fact that, yes, even in polyamory, sometimes you do choose one person over another.
A game changer is a relationship that’s so amazing, so spectacular, so absolutely mindblowing (or sometimes, so terrible and destructive) that it changes your life. It changes your sense of what’s possible. It changes you, in a thousand different ways. Game-changers change things. It’s in the name. They’re disruptive.
A lot of the rules and structures and hierarchies we see in polyamorous relationships are tacit admissions that game-changers can happen. They’re scary. A game-changing relationship can make you aware that things you thought were not possible, actually are possible after all. It can change your priorities. It can change what you want your life to look like. It can change your entire life.
I was married when I met Shelly, my first game-changer. Shelly, whose guest posts about consent and family you will find right here on this blog, is one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met in my life.
I really believed I had a pretty good handle on things when I met her. I truly believed I had it all figured out…what I wanted my life to look like, who I was as a person, what my priorities were. Shelly changed all that. She showed me a world I did not, in a very literal sense, believe was possible.
My marriage did not survive that relationship. There were a lot of reasons for that, but ultimately, what it came down to was Shelly showed me that the compromises I had made weren’t always necessary–and worse, were actively harmful to people who got close to me. My wife and I had not built a relationship resilient enough to accommodate change, and our relationship ended.
When it did, I was subjected to a lot of blowback from the other poly people I knew. The end of my marriage was interpreted by many people (not all, to be fair, but many) as a betrayal of the proper poly ideals. I had, people said, chosen one person over another, the one unforgivable cardinal sin of polyamory. I had renounced all that polyamory stood for.
It wasn’t true, of course. What I had actually done was far worse: I’d chosen one way of life over another: a way that favored trust over rules, communication over restriction, and love over structure. And it changed me. It changed the way I thought, and wrote, about polyamory.
Over the years, I’ve heard from many other people in the midst of game-changing relationships, and many of them are struggling with the same things. They’re perceived to be abandoning the ideals of both polyamory and monogamy, and they’re feeling shame over that. They feel like they’re doing it wrong. Like loving another person too much, or changing as a human being themselves, makes them bad poly people. And I’ve realized that’s not okay.
The person I am now was shaped more by Shelly than by any other person in my life, possibly including my parents. And I like who I am now. I don’t think we should be shamed for relationships that make our lives better.
That’s what The Game Changer is about. It’s a memoir, and it’s my next book.
It’s also the book the big publishers wanted me to write back when I first set off down this to writing More Than Two.
I first started thinking about writing a poly book back in around 2005 or so. I had been working on my poly website, which was hosted at xeromag.com back then, for about five years, and I kept getting email from people saying “Hey, Franklin, when are you going to write a book?”
I didn’t, back then, think of myself as a writer. My college roommate back in the day kept telling me I was a writer, but I still had an idea that when I grew up I was going to be a computer programmer. Or a linguist. Or a biologist. Or…anything but a writer.
The “Hey, Franklin, when are you going to write a book?” emails kept coming in, though, and eventually I decided, hey, I know! I’ll write a book!
I knew less than nothing about writing a book, so I bought a book on writing books. It was called How to Sell, Then Write Your Nonfiction Book. According to this book on writing books, there’s a process you’re supposed to follow. You put together a query letter and a proposal. You create an outline and a sample chapter or two. You make a list of publishers and agents who handle books in that field, and you send your proposal to all those people.
I did this, sending out almost 70 copies of the proposal. And then I waited.
Eventually, I started getting responses. A few of them were obviously form letters that just said “no.” One or two of them said, “Your project looks interesting, but we’re not signing new authors just now.” And a bunch of them… Well, a bunch of them–more than half of the replies I received, in fact–said, “We aren’t interested in a how-to book on relationships, but if you rewrite your proposal as a memoir, we’d love to have it!”
I didn’t want to write a memoir. What I wanted to write was the book I wish I could have read, back when I was screwing things up and hurting people. I didn’t want to titillate people. I wanted to help people be excellent to each other.
So I shelved the book. And then I met Eve, and she told me she wanted to write a book with me, and More Than Two was born. Thanks to her, it is a damn sight better than the book I would have written, so I’m glad the publishing companies turned me down. I am very proud of More Than Two, and it would not be the book it is if I had never met Eve.
It was over the course of writing More Than Two that we realized how powerful, and how scary, the archetype of the game changer really is. And that’s when we realized… I need to write that memoir.
Since I hadn’t been able find a publisher for More Than Two, Eve and I started a publishing company, Thorntree Press. It was a rocky road with a huge learning curve, and we learned quite a lot about the dark, seedy underbelly of the publishing industry. The industry is a sucker’s game, with authors and illustrators generally getting screwed at every turn. We resolved not to be like that.
We’re publishing The Game Changer next year. But a publishing company needs more than just one book a year, and we’re absolutely thrilled to be collaborating with two exceptional writers for next year’s lineup. We have three books next year, including The Game Changer. The second is an anthology of stories by poly people about their experiences, curated by sociologist and researcher Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, author of The Polyamorists Next Door. And the third is the second edition of The Husband Swap, Louisa Leontiades’ own memoir about her life in a quad.
Like More Than Two, we’re financing these three new books a by a crowdfunding campaign. This new campaign is short, and offers a lot of awesome perks, including stuff we intend to ship out to our backers before Christmas, including More Than Two! I hope you’ll help support these new projects. I invite you to check it out and help us make these books happen.
I am absolutely gobsmacked by the support Eve and I have gotten for More Than Two. I hope you’ll be willing to stay with us on the next step of this journey.
Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now.
In June of 2003, I added a new page to my rapidly-growing site about polyamory. The new page, Polyamory for Secondaries, had a section on it called “A Proposed Secondary’s Bill of Rights.” My partner Shelly, who has contributed her thoughts on consent and “family-style” relationships right here in this blog (and whose writings and ideas about consent and ethics in romantic relationships were instrumental to us as we were crafting the ethics sections of More Than Two) contributed significantly to the Secondary’s Bill of Rights.
The Secondary’s Bill of Rights came from our experiences in a strictly hierarchical, primary/secondary relationship. Shelly first started dating me while I was still married. At that time, our relationship was bound by a large number of prescriptive rules that, essentially, made it almost impossible for her to ask for her needs to be met. Shelly wrote of that experience:
Primary/secondary structures tend to leave a special kind of emotional wreckage. While I freely admit that it is often a mutually beneficial model for all involved, there is a hidden trap. Because sometimes we walk into this structure, with heart in hand, and sometimes our partner meets us there. And then the structure becomes a maze of slamming doors and booby traps. When your partner meets you with real intimacy and love within an externally enforced and non-negotiable framework of limitations, the emotional experience of the relationship is of being simultaneously pulled in and violently shoved out.
This was absolutely the case in the early parts of our relationship. I loved her very much, in the face of a system that did not permit her to express her needs. It hurt both of us.
While we were trying to navigate this violent contradiction between creating intimacy and navigating a structure that forbade her to express her needs, we created the Bill of Rights. A friend of ours, dealing with a similar problem, also contributed to it.
Immediately, the Polyamory for Secondaries page became the most-viewed page on the site, by far. It also generated the most email—nearly all of it negative. Overnight, I received an outpouring of criticism. The two predominant themes in the criticism were “Secondaries shouldn’t expect to have rights; they should be grateful for what the primaries give them!” and “If secondaries want a say in their relationships, they should find primaries of their own!”
Over the years, the critical emails have died down, and eventually stopped. Then, about two or three years ago, I started getting a smattering of negative emails from the page, but these were different—they said things like “These aren’t secondary’s rights, they’re universal rights! Everyone should be able to voice needs and have a say in their relationships!”
When Eve and I started working on More Than Two, from deep in the woods in Washington state, we took those criticisms to heart. What, we wondered, would a universal relationship bill of rights—one not aimed only at secondary partners in hierarchical relationships—look like? The ethics chapter in More Than Two therefore contains our idea of a universal Relationship Bill of Rights. It includes such rights as:
- to be free from coercion, violence and intimidation
- to choose the level of involvement and intimacy you want
- to revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time
- to choose your own partners
- to have an equal say with each of your partners in deciding the form your relationship with that partner will take
- to discuss with your partners decisions that affect you
- to choose the level of involvement and intimacy you want with your partners’ other partners
- to be treated with courtesy
- to have plans made with your partner be respected; for instance, not changed at the last minute for trivial reasons
- to be treated as a peer of every other person, not as a subordinate, even when differing levels of commitment or responsibility exist
These ideas spring, by and large, from the domestic violence community, where gross violations of these rights are depressingly common—though we had to adapt them to a multi-partnered context. Eve did most of the heavy lifting on this chapter. While she was working on it, she researched existing lists of basic rights—the United Nations Charter of Human Rights, the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These turned out not to be particularly helpful. She found real gold somewhere else—in resources written by domestic violence shelters. In a way, this makes sense. The place where a person’s rights are most acutely visible is the place where they’re being violated.
It’s a bit disheartening to read a page on a domestic violence website and reflect on how closely the descriptions of abusive relationships map onto some of the more extreme primary/secondary hierarchies that exist in the poly community. Relationships where people are disenfranchised, where people are told they may not voice their needs or object to the rules as they exist, even where people are told they must be intimate with someone they don’t want to be intimate with in order to continue their relationship with the person they do want to be intimate with…the parallels are striking (and saddening).
I’m not saying all hierarchy is abusive, of course. But I will say when a poly relationship structure closely parallels the sorts of relationships you see in domestic violence literature, it might be time to take a long, hard look at what you’re doing.
This Relationship Bill of Rights has, for the most part, been positively received. However, we have heard some pushback against it. (Eve was surprised and disappointed that people would object to these ideas; having experienced what I did with the Secondary’s Bill of Rights, I expected it.)
The criticism of the Relationship Bill of Rights echoes in important ways the early criticism of the Secondary’s Bill of Rights. We’ve heard complaints that secondaries shouldn’t expect to have a voice in the form their relationship takes; they should either accept what’s offered, exactly as it is offered, or move on. The primary couple calls the shots; it is up to the secondaries to sign on or leave. If they sign on, they’re signing on for the whole ride. If they know up front what they’re getting into, they have no right to complain.
Eve and I don’t think the notion that everyone should be able to participate in deciding how their relationships look ought to be a controversial position. Yet, apparently, it is.
Some of that, I think, might come from the notion that we really oughtn’t expect to be able to get away with having multiple partners—not really. Polyamory isn’t something we have the right to choose, it’s something a partner lets us do. It’s a privilege, and a tenuous one, subject to restriction or revocation at any time. We’re getting away with quite a bit just by shagging more than one person; what right do we have to expect any more? We ought to be damn grateful for having that opportunity, and shut the hell up about the rest!
It’s a pervasive and deeply ingrained idea, even among people who consider themselves non-monogamous by nature. Mononormative culture is not so easily shaken off. Hell, I have never been in a monogamous relationship in my life, yet for many years I believed it was unreasonable of me to expect my partners to be okay with me having more than one partner, and thought I would have to accept being kept on a short leash! I accepted restrictions that were hurtful to my “secondary” partners because I believed I did not have the right to stand up for all my relationships. I had people tell me I was lucky to be getting away with as much as I was getting away with; on what possible basis could I complain?
There’s a great deal of fear in these networks of rules and prescriptions, too. Fear of loss, fear of upset apple carts, fear of things changing. It’s hard to be compassionate when we are fearful; it’s hard to consider what other people need when all we feel is threat or loss.
We, Eve and I, know we’re expecting a lot of our readers. Throughout More Than Two, we encourage our readers to take the hard road. We are asking you, over and over, to move with courage, to face the weakest and most frightening places within you, and to accept that things can and probably will change. We ask you to trust that you are worthy, your partners love and cherish you, and the people around you will support and nurture you—and if they don’t, to seek out situations where they do.
The idea that each of us has the right to a voice in our relationships should not be controversial. No matter what forms those relationships may take, empowering people is preferable to disempowering them. In order to accept this idea, though, we must first accept that we, all of us, have the right to choose polyamory. We are poly because that is the relationship life we want, not because someone else allows us to be. We can—indeed, if we want healthy relationships, we must—seek to treat everyone around us with compassion, decency, and respect. We cannot seek to protect ourselves by shifting emotional risk onto others. We cannot seek to protect ourselves by scripting and controlling others. People are not lifestyle accessories.
We cannot control others not only because it is not ethically right, but because, no matter how comforting that idea may sound, it doesn’t work. My relationship with Shelly was a game-changer; it destroyed my relationship with my ex-wife. All our rules, all our prescriptions and prohibitions, in the end did not, could not survive contact with the real world. Had we sought to protect ourselves not by building rigid structures designed to keep things from changing, but instead by building resilience within our relationship and a resolve that we could be kind to other people and still have faith that we would be okay, perhaps we would still be together. In our naivete, we forgot we were dealing with other human beings, and we neglected to consider their needs as well as our own. That mistake hurt a lot of people, and for no reason: in the end, it did not save us.
Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now.
Earlier this summer, a writer who goes by the pen name Elizabeth Stern published an article in Salon titled “Jealous of what? Solving polyamory’s jealousy problem.” Franklin and I wrote the following as a response.
Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?
Elizabeth Stern has hit the polyamory jackpot. She has two loving, secure partners who are highly compatible not just with her, but with each other. The two loves of her life like each other, share interests, and are actively supportive of each other’s relationship with her. And none of the trio has ever felt jealous.
We hope, for Stern’s sake, that she and her partners manage to remain forever in their blissful Eden. For many people, jealousy emerges just when it’s least expected, without foreshadowing. (Coincidentally, Franklin first experienced jealousy four years into his first serious polyamorous relationship.) If this happens to Stern, we hope she will be able to grant her partners, her metamours (her partners’ other partners) and, perhaps especially, herself more patience, compassion and empathy than she has granted her readers.
Based on her description of her relationships, we can venture a few educated guesses about Stern and her partners: they are probably secure, with high self-esteem; they probably have good communication skills and a reasonable amount of experience in healthy relationships; Stern clearly has good partner-selection skills. We stress the importance of developing all these assets in our new book More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory. They are also highly educated, financially stable and engaged in meaningful, fulfilling careers—that is, they have strong identities outside their romantic relationships.
Like someone who’s never suffered depression giving advice to someone who has, or someone who’s never encountered economic hardship critiquing the moral shortcomings of the poor, Stern looks to her own happiness and tries to decide what she’s doing right and others are doing wrong—because obviously, if everyone else would just do what she’s doing, they’d be as happy as she is. Like many people with unchecked privilege, she scoffs at those who must actually work at the things that come to her naturally. Advice aimed at those who must make an effort at learning communication, developing emotional self-awareness and building self-esteem only “soaks in a sea of middle-class self-actualization.”
Stern believes her lack of experience with jealousy makes her an expert on the subject. She conveniently chooses a solution to jealousy that most cleanly fits her personal worldview: the problem is individualism, and more specifically, the kind of bourgeois individualism that following the traditional Marxist line, always serves the interests of the ruling class.
To bolster her position, she invents a fantastical human past. It’s not clear what societies Stern was imagining when she talked about jealousy being a “non-issue” before the Industrial Revolution: does she long for lords and ladies, rosy-cheeked peasants and noble savages? Surely she cannot imagine that a return to feudalism and arranged marriages is the solution to jealousy we should be seeking? While it’s not clear exactly what kind of world she wishes we lived in, what is clear is that it’s not the world we do live in: Stern’s analysis is woefully uninformed about both human history and animal behavior.
Turning from Stern’s misty-eyed, nostalgic Utopia to the real world, a casual look at history and literature shows us that jealousy has always been part of the human condition. The Greek story in which Zeus’ wife, Hera, is consumed by jealous rage over the affair between Zeus and Seleme and engineers Seleme’s death; Unferth’s jealousy of Beowulf in the epic saga; Othello’s mad and destructive jealousy, constructed from whole cloth by Iago; Scheherazade’s husband Shahryār’s consuming jealousy at his betrayal, which sets the stage for One Thousand and One Nights; Rama’s abandonment of Sita in the Ramayana…all these show how deeply the roots of jealousy are embedded in the human condition.
Some people might argue that some of these cases of literary jealousy are not actually about sex or romance, but about status, property, politics or ideology. This observation is true, and it offers an important insight: jealousy is often not about relationships at all. It can be about social status, division of resources, or violation of taboos, among other things. In More Than Two we refer to jealousy as “a chameleon emotion.” Learning to recognize its many faces—and its many causes—is key to its management and ultimate banishment.
Jealousy starts young: it can be seen in infants as early as six months of age. Children get jealous of siblings, parents, other kids at school, mom’s or dad’s new partners—anyone they feel threatens the affection they rely on. This phenomenon is well–known. Would Stern have us believe it only occurs in the children (indeed, infants) of neoliberal capitalist parents?
As anyone who’s ever owned pets can tell you, jealousy is also not uniquely human. In The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People, David Barash and Judith Lipton delve deep into the sexual behavior of non-human (and human) animals. It turns out, many animals display an array of behaviors that look an awful lot like what we call jealousy in humans. We see evidence of “jealous” behaviors in primates, birds and dogs (but presumably only capitalist dogs), among other animals.
We do not deny the social element of jealousy. In their book Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá argue that pre-agrarian societies were openly promiscuous, and monogamy an invention to protect the accumulation of property. If one accepts their arguments, it may be that at least part of human jealousy is in fact a post-agrarian (though not post-industrial) invention, socially programmed and heavily linked to social status and economic security.
So what is jealousy, then? It’s a surprisingly tricky question, for unlike most emotions, jealousy is an amalgamation of many feelings and impulses. The word dates back to the 13th century, and the dictionary defines it as “intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness; disposed to suspect rivalry or unfaithfulness.” That says little about what causes it. We’re often told that jealousy is provoked by possibility: if a lover spends time with someone who could be a suitor, we feel jealous. Yet many people don’t feel jealous when a lover has sex with someone else, while others feel jealous if a lover even talks to someone of their preferred sex. Clearly, it’s not the external situation per se that creates jealousy. Jealousy is an individual internal response, but one almost certainly shaped by both nature and nurture.
Jealousy is often the fear of being replaced. It starts in us so young because it is, arguably, the first and purest expression of the ego. We cannot outsource the taming of our own egos; we cannot export the job of facing our own insecurity. Jealousy is not a one-size-fits-all problem, so a mass-produced, one-size-fits-all solution won’t succeed.
Stern’s conclusions about the roots of jealousy are naive, because she believes that since she and her partners have never experienced jealousy, it means they never will. They’re arrogant, because she believes that her single four-year polyfidelitous relationship with two men can serve as a model for all poly relationships. But her assertions are also dangerous.
One of the most common—and devastating—relationship mistakes a person can make is to assume, “I am feeling bad, so that means someone has done something bad to me.” Sometimes it’s true: abuse happens, cruelty and gaslighting happen, people can just be inconsiderate and unkind. Jealousy can be a signal: that something is wrong in a relationship, our needs aren’t being met, our partner really does have one foot out the door. Or it can be a social cue: our status is threatened.
But sometimes jealousy comes from inside, revealing insecurity or anxiety we need to confront and work through. Or it can be utterly irrational, arising blindly out of seemingly nowhere, perhaps from our social training—or perhaps an ancient biological urge encoded in our DNA. Perhaps a partner’s or metamour’s well-intentioned words or actions have tripped over deeply buried emotional trauma and unleash demons that make us feel like our world is going to end. The network is supportive, everyone is communicating—then a new situation is encountered and BAM! Jealousy. Feeling bad doesn’t always mean someone else is doing something wrong.
Stern’s view is dangerous, then, because often people feel jealous when no one is doing anything wrong. Treating jealousy as a purely social issue (and we’ve seen it done) can lead to an endless circle of judgment, recrimination and accusation. It’s the ultimate in outsourcing: the outsourcing of emotional responsibility. True jealousy management involves listening to the jealousy to find out what it’s trying to tell you, and communicating with your partners (and metamours) to discover whether there is truth behind your fears—and if not, to get the reassurance you need.
But Stern’s conclusion is dangerous for another, more insidious reason. The dense-network “polyfamily” model she describes is a good one for many people. Polyamory advocates, in fact, tend to choose closely networked co-habiting triads and quads (usually with children) as their poster families. When it works—and we’ve both seen many situations where it has—it’s amazing. It’s understandable to crave such a structure; many do, and some successfully create it. Those who are suited for such a life and have managed to build it themselves, as Stern has, are fortunate indeed.
But there’s a hidden trap when such structures become prescriptive. When everyone is expected to be “family” in order to stay in their relationships—or the converse, to stay in relationships in order to keep their “family”—such networks can easily, and with the best of intentions, slip into coercion. One of Franklin’s partners has written on our blog about how prescriptive family structures can become coercive, undermine consent, and strip away the most essential of relationship rights: the right to leave a relationship.
Stern advocates a structural approach, something actually quite common among people new to polyamory. “We just need to find the right social structure for our relationships!” “We’ll have a closed triad, where everyone loves everyone else, and then there will be no jealousy!” It’s easy to understand why; dealing with unpleasant emotions is hard, messy work, and we will reach for any excuse not to do it. Yet structural approaches to jealousy rarely succeed—and when they do, it’s usually because of luck, coincidence, or an already solid set of interpersonal skills.
In fact, we see, over and over again, that when we outsource responsibility for our relationships onto “society,” whatever “society” means in a given era, we end up with systems that strongly discourage any form of non-traditional relationship. For example, polyamory.
In fact, research has shown that societies that attach great social importance to specific, sanctioned social and sexual roles—for example, societies that highly value marriage and proscribe sex outside of sanctioned relationships—have greater incidence of jealousy, suggesting that reinforcing socially approved roles, far from being the “solution to the jealousy problem,” actually makes the problem worse.
Certainly it is true that in cases where everyone is able to share their feelings, where they feel seen and heard by their partners and their metamours, jealousy can be less likely to arise, and it’s usually easier to cope with when it does. And when multiple partners are able to enjoy each other’s company, time management and division of relationship “resources” can be much easier.
It is also true that poly relationships go much more smoothly when everyone actively supports each other’s relationships—and this idea is certainly nothing new to the poly advice literature. Columnist Mistress Matisse talked about “rooting for the home team,” and in More Than Two, we talk about the importance of “teamwork”:
Teamwork [among metamours]—or at least the possibility of it—is one of the things that makes polyamory stand out from other forms of non-monogamy. When they are going well, metamour relationships enrich the lives of everyone in a romantic network. Many people, in fact, see metamour connections as a prime benefit of polyamory. (p. 398)
It is not true, however, that close metamour relations, dense networks and social support make jealousy a “non-issue.” We’ve seen polyamorous groups of three or four people all closely connected with each other dissolve into jealousy, recrimination and, ultimately, dissolution. Ironically, Stern’s solution to the problem of jealousy is something we’ve seen cause jealousy: having strong social support for particular relationships can backfire dramatically when someone perceives a rival to be encroaching upon the socially approved role.
Stern claims that an “individualistic approach to relationships is also ‘convenient’ in that it allows partners to be dispensable.” But by seeing our partners as individuals, we recognize their uniqueness and irreplaceability. By seeing them in terms of their social role, instead, we make them interchangeable: it’s not the person who matters, it’s the role. And when partners feel interchangeable, jealousy tends to emerge.
Stern offers abstract sociopolitical theorizing about an emotion she is, by her own admission, unfamiliar with. To someone in the grip of a crisis, who’s struggling to deal with jealousy, this sociopolitical theorizing can come across as insensitive, even condescending. It offers no tools for dealing with the problem short of “rebuild your social network to look like mine and hope for the best.” To someone hip-deep in jealousy, what’s needed is not theorizing, but real-world experience in coping with and resolving the problem.
“Jealous of What?” is aimed at “those who don’t want to be faced head-on with the green-eyed monster,” but there is no other way to deal with jealousy. We cannot outsource facing our own fears and insecurities. If we are to become the best possible versions of ourselves, there is no other way than to assume command of our own potential.
Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now.
Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about the assumptions we make in our relationships, and how those assumptions can influence our relationship outcomes, for good or for ill.
I’ve been meaning to revisit that idea for quite some time, specifically with an eye toward the assumptions we make in polyamorous relationships. While those of us in polyamorous relationships might think we have thrown off the shackles of conventional monogamy, the ideas we’ve grown up with can insinuate themselves quite deeply into our worldview. Like dandelions, which have evolved resistance to the hoe and the spade by developing very deep roots, those ideas are not so easily plucked.
In talking with poly folks all over the place, I’ve observed correlation between some of the assumptions we carry into our relationships and the way those relationships look.
One of the relationship assumptions that can creep into polyamory is the Highlander: the idea that, at the end of the day, “there can be only one.” One relationship that’s “best,” one relationship that’s the “main” or “most real,” one relationship that matters more than the others. This relationship is, unsurprisingly, usually the one that’s been there for the longest time and has had the most opportunity to develop mutual commitments, obligations, perhaps even children.
It’s surprisingly easy to confuse relationship commitment with financial or practical entanglement, and to believe that losing those practical entanglements must mean a loss of commitment. There’s also, I think, a bit of holdover from our Puritan ancestry: we measure value by work and investment, but work and investment are unpleasant things we do only as long as we believe we have to. Given a choice, we’d discard them in a heartbeat, to go dancing through fields of daisies without a care in the world.
What does this assumption reveal? It reveals a deep idea that monogamy is actually right. There really is only one commitment that matters, when you get down to brass tacks. Sure, we can have other dalliances, up to a point; but really, you can’t fully commit to and fully love more than one person–at least not romantically. (You can, apparently, fully commit to two children, but that, we are solemnly told, is different.)
This assumption often speaks to our fears: “If I’m not on top of the heap, someone else will be, and I’ll lose what I have; my partner, in committing to someone else, will withdraw commitment from me.”
An assumption that is sometimes proposed as an antidote to this is the Archie Bunker: the notion that everyone involved with a common partner is “all in the family.” It’s often coupled with assumptions about sex and sexual availability (“If you’re sleeping with her, I get to sleep with her too!”) or about interpersonal relationships (“You don’t have to worry, honey, she will be your sister-wife!”). If the Highlander seeks to contain fear through systems of rank, the Archie Bunker tries to control it by enforcing mandatory connection. These may seem like opposite ideas, this king-of-the-hill approach vs. the all-for-one-and-one-for-all family, but ultimately, they are both two sides of the same coin: We manage fear by controlling the form our relationships take.
Another relationship assumption that we can carry into polyamory is the Parts Is Parts Hypothesis: the idea that there’s nothing really special or compelling about us, so we need to be wary of anyone with the same parts. Parts are interchangeable, after all. If you find an alternator for your car that works better than the one that’s already there, you wouldn’t need the old one any more. Ergo, if I’m an alternator, I can let my partner have spark plugs or fuel injectors, but I best keep her away from other alternators! If I’m a dude, I can let my gal have other women, but if she’s with another man, I’ll be as obsolete as an old alternator.
It can be surprisingly hard to see the value we bring to our relationships. We don’t live in a society that teaches us to be secure, confident individuals; after all, secure, confident individuals can’t be easily persuaded to buy stuff to prove their value. Polyamory challenges us to see our own worth, and that’s no easy thing to do.
What assumptions help make for healthy polyamorous relationships? Unsurprisingly, the same ones that help to make healthy monogamous relationships: Our partners love and cherish us. Our partners want to be with us, and to build loving, happy relationships with us. We are, each of us, unique and irreplaceable; we are more than the sum of our parts. We are wanted. We are loved.
Believing we are loved is hard; it can seem seductively easy to accept, on an almost unconscious level, the idea that our partners perpetually have one foot out the door, that we must force, cajole, bribe, or police them into staying with us. And, should a partner choose to leave, we can tend to double down…it happened because we didn’t force, cajole, bribe, or police them enough. If only we’d enforced the rules more strictly, they would have stayed.
I would like to propose the radical idea that believing we are loved and cherished is the assumption that underlies nearly all successful relationships. I would also like to challenge everyone who reads these words to put this idea to the test. I am, after all, an empiricist. Let’s build relationships predicated on the notion that we don’t have to make our partners stay with us; we merely need to accept that we are cherished, and cherish those around us in return, and our partners will want to stay with us.
Who’s with me?
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It is a fact often unacknowledged that we are all born, and in many ways predisposed to remain, egocentric little monsters.
That’s not a criticism, mind; just a statement. If you want to see unadulterated egocentrism in its purest form, before the crucible of life alloys it with empathy and concern for others, just look at a two-year-old. We ship with egocentrism as our core framework; most things beyond that are installed separately.
The reflections of this basic tenet of human nature are everywhere. For tens of thousands of years, we believed ourselves to be at the center of creation; this dogma became so integrated in the political traditions of Western Europe that challenging it would lead one to a rather gruesome end at the hands of one’s more ideologically pure fellows. And it messes us up in so very many ways.
Especially in polyamory, where seeing our partner’s choice through the lens of egocentrism leads to heartache of all sorts. When we make “but what about me? the go-to question for evaluating our partners’ decisions, we tend toward the impulse of taking away their agency and treating us as need fulfillment machines. (One trivial example: “I’m a guy, and I’ll let my girlfriend sleep with other women, but she can’t sleep with other men because I know that other women can do things for her I can’t do but I’m afraid if she has another man she won’t need me any more.”)
It’s a tough thing to get past, this tendency to think the world’s orbit centers on us. I came nose-to-nose with this habit in myself back in 1992, when I was involved with the woman I’ve identified in the book More Than Two as “Ruby.”
Ruby was amazing–beautiful, smart, outgoing, kind–and I fell hard for her. My relationship with Ruby was my first brush with jealousy, and it was also the first time I’d ever really come nose to claw with the monster of egocentrism.
She started dating a friend of mine. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t have been a big deal, except that the relationship between Ruby and I was chafing under the weight of restrictions placed on it by the terms of my relationship with my ex-wife, who feared losing me to Ruby. I knew that her new partner could give her more than what I could offer, because their relationship was not encumbered by these restraints, and that made me feel threatened by him. Naturally, as you might expect, I felt very jealous.
Egocentrism became the flashpoint of that jealousy. Ruby would tell me things she had done with her new partner, and my first, reflexive reaction would be “but what about me?” When she told me about going somewhere with him, I would instantly flash to “why didn’t you go there with me?” As their relationship grew, the only thing I could see is “but what does that mean for me?”
When I saw the relationship between the two of them only in how it affected me, I lost the ability to be happy for them, or even to think about Ruby’s needs at all. But it took the destruction of that relationship to see just how deeply that habitual egocentrism ran.
In the ashes of that relationship, I spent a lot of time looking at myself, searching my intellectual closets and emotional beds for the monsters that lurked there. And one of the things I saw was that, by looking at my partners through the lens of “but what about me?” I was denying them an essential part of who they were. I was reducing them to accessories for my own ego, considering only what they brought me instead of what they needed.
It was a humbling experience. It’s not easy or obvious to realize that other people are actually human beings, just as fully as we are, with the same crazy human patchwork of needs and desires, weaknesses and fears, longings and hopes as we have. Ruby got things from her other partner she didn’t get from me, and that was okay. It didn’t have to be a competition, a winner-take-all gladiatorial cage match with her as the prize. The relationship she had with him wasn’t about me–something I might have seen had I been able to step away from myself long enough to see that she did value and love me, and her other relationship didn’t change that.
I worked hard over the next few years to understand where I’d gone wrong, and to learn new habits–habits of looking at my relationships in terms of the idea that every person who has ever walked the earth is unique, and brings something to the table nobody else could bring. (It is common, I think, to do what I did before–to understand that I could have multiple partners without it meaning I loved them any less, without applying the same thing to them and understanding they could love multiple partners without valuing me any less.)
The process took a lot of introspection, and a deliberate, scary stepping away from old reactions. When I felt threatened by someone new in a partner’s life, I would take a deep breath, look in the mirror, and say “this isn’t about me. Even if I don’t understand what she sees in him, it isn’t about me.”
It took courage. It also took being willing to confront my own egocentrism openly, by talking to my partners when I felt threatened. It’s remarkable how difficult it can be to ask someone “so, I see you’re investing in this new relationship; you still love and value me, right?” Acknowledging the things we’re afraid of makes us vulnerable, and when we’re already feeling triggered, the last thing we want is vulnerability.
But it’s necessary. If we are to be involved in healthy plural relationships, we need to understand when things aren’t about us. When we make them about us, we invite ugliness into our relationships. We become like those early political and religious leaders, burning folks at the stake for challenging our position as the center of all the universe.
It took me years to really internalize that my partners’ other loves are Not About Me. For a long time, it was a struggle, and it required daily, deliberate reminders to myself that not everything my partners say or do is a reflection of me.
But I got there, and it’s been a powerful boon to my life ever since.
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Note: This entry is crossposted from Franklin’s personal blog.
I recently encountered, during the normal course of my regular trawling across the width of this thing we call the Internet, an essay posted on the Psychology Today Web site. The article is a rejection of the notion that adultery is okay (an argument made by a different essay on a different site) and, as far as that goes, I have no quarrel with it. If you’re going to make a promise of sexual fidelity, keep it. If you can’t, renegotiate the relationship or end it.
But the problem comes near the essay’s end, where the author says:
More generally, the author doesn’t seem to appreciate that the value of commitment is based in part on the value of what is given up for it. Of course, sexual desire has a unique pull on most of us. But promises of fidelity would mean much less if we were promising to give up something we didn’t want! The fact that most of us want sex so much is why it means so much when we promise it to just one person…
And I find this argument to be very problematic indeed.
I reject this premise wholeheartedly. I do not–I cannot–buy the notion that in order for something to be valuable, we have to sacrifice something in order to have it.
This idea is one of the malignant gifts bequeathed on us by our Puritan ancestors, who believed it so passionately they never saw the hypocritical self-contradiction in it (they yearned for an afterlife in which there is no want, no suffering, and everything is perfect forever, and they thought the way to get there was by rejecting what you want, by suffering, and by working against basic human happiness…something they regarded with suspicion at best and hostility at worst.)
I think, rather, that the value of a thing is not what we give up in order to have it, but instead whether that thing is an authentic expression of who we truly are.
There is nothing noble in denying who you are in order to get something you want. Just the opposite: that is the most craven sort of commerce, exchanging truth for gain. We rightly deride dishonesty in politicians and businesses; we understand that pretending to be something you’re not in order to get votes or money is a perfidious act. Why don’t we understand the same thing about love?
There is no virtue in exchanging your true self for the affections of someone else. Love admits no such cynical transaction. Love is most meaningful when those who love us know who we truly are and love us anyway. It is not about what we can make those we love give up; it is about how we can help those we love be the most genuine, the most honest versions of themselves.
We do not make an act of fidelity meaningful because we don’t want to do it. We make an act–any act–meaningful when it most truly represents who we are, when it most honestly shares what we actually desire. Believing that sex is valuable because we pledge it to one person when we really want to do just the opposite is the most crass kind of commoditization of both sex and love. Matters of the heart are not about artificial scarcity and transactional gain.
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