Back in the cabin again!

I’m typing this blog post in front of a huge picture window overlooking a temperate rainforest in rural Washington state, which means I’m back at the cabin where Eve Rickert and I wrote our polyamory book More Than Two. The cabin kitty, Whiskers, has been happy to see us, and has scarcely stopped begging for treats since we got here.

This time, I’m here to write my memoir, The Game Changer, about my relationship with my partner Shelly and the many and varied ways it changed my life. Poly folks–especially those of us who are poly activists–tend to be salesmen for polyamory, which means we don’t really talk about the ways polyamory can be disruptive…even when we have years of experience and think we have a pretty good bead on how to make it work.

A lot of folks contributed to the croudfunding of this book, and yet, I’m feeling kinda stuck. For years, I’ve written about the lessons I’ve learned and the conclusions I’ve come to, without really writing about how I got there. Now, in this memoir, I’m trying to write something very different from anything I’ve done before: I’m trying to write the personal story of how I came to be who I am, and how I learned the things I’ve learned. And it’s really hard! They say you get good at what you practice. I haven’t practiced this kind of writing.

And that means, for the first time I can remember, I’m grappling with imposter syndrome. I know you all helped support this book financially, and that means you want to read it…and I don’t want to let you down. But I am struggling with how to write this book.

So, for those of you who want to read The Game Changer, I would love if you could tell me a bit about why you want to read it. I’m trying to get this thing out of my head and into the computer, and I could use your encouragement.

Whiskers and I both thank you.

Backer question: What do poly children want to hear from their parents?

This post answers another $500 backer question for the More Than Two crowdfunding campaign (over in four days!), but it’s a little special–because it’s for my mom.

Marilou asks:
What do openly polyamorous children most want to hear from their parents?

Franklin and I thought this was a really good one, and likely something a lot of people would have opinions on, so we decided to crowdsource the answer via the campaign page and our social media feeds. We got lots of great answers, which I will share with you in a moment, but first I’m going to give my answer–and I know my answer isn’t everyone’s.

I think what an openly polyamorous child wants to hear from their parents is much the same as what any child who is openly different in some way that is not well-understood or socially accepted–whether the social norms in question belong society at large or your particular family. We want to know that you love us, that you accept our choices even if you don’t quite understand them, that you’ll continue to be there for us, that you want us to be happy, and that fundamentally our relationship with you won’t change because of this new, different thing you’ve learned about us.

There’s more, though.

We’ve probably always done things you didn’t quite understand. How did you respond when your son, at six, decided he wanted to wear dresses and play with Barbies? How about when your daughter decided when she was 11 that she was going to change her name and wear nothing but black? When your nine-year-old got kept in at recess because he wouldn’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school? Because we noticed. We didn’t just notice because you let us get away with it or turned a blind eye. We noticed how you responded when other adults would make condescending comments over our heads, thinking we didn’t hear. We noticed whether you defended us, or spoke of us with pride–or when you lowered your voice and said, “well, it’s just a phase, you know, kids”–barely concealing your embarrassment.

We could tell when the weird things we did, maybe the weird things we were, made you feel ashamed. And if you felt ashamed, so did we. We learned from you whether to hide who we were or whether to be who we were, whether our real selves belonged in this world or whether we needed to pretend to be something else to fit in, or worse, to be loved and accepted by the people whose love we needed most.

Know what? That hasn’t really changed. We hear it when you call one of our partners our “friend” in conversation. We notice it when only one partner is welcome at family gatherings. We feel it when we find your close friends only know about one of our partners. Each of these things can be a subtle message that deep down, whatever you may have said, you still feel something’s wrong. Maybe even that you’re ashamed of us, or of the people we love.

We know that this thing we do, this thing we are, is kind of weird, and we know it’s going to be hard for you to understand. But part of us is still that six-year-old boy or that 11-year-old girl, learning from the way you react to us–and our partners–whether our authentic selves belong in this world, or not. It’s true that many people whose parents shamed them (or were ashamed of them) or rejected them, at least in part, for who they were, or consistently made it known that they weren’t good enough, or normal enough, or just not enough, have gotten over it. With supportive friends and self-work and a few years of therapy, they’ve developed a sense of self-worth so resilient that they can brush off even the most cruel, consistent parental undermining.

But that’s a hard thing to do, and it takes a lot of work. And anyway… don’t be that parent. Let us save that strength for other battles.

Cause believe me, we have them. The question specified openly polyamorous children, which means we’ve faced a lot of those same struggles you might be facing right now. Struggles with disclosure: whom do I tell? How do I tell them? Do I just mention all my partners normally in casual conversation, the way a monogamous person would? With social acceptance: what will people think? With visibility: we’ve probably been asked to keep it quiet–just as you’ve probably wanted to keep quiet–told something along the lines of, “Well, I guess it’s okay, but why do you have to talk about it?” “Why can’t you just keep it in the bedroom?” (Shame, again: this is something I am supposed to hide.) And we have to shake that off. Every day. Learn to trust ourselves and believe that what we are doing is okay, that we are okay.

So (maybe) the best thing you can do for your polyamorous children isn’t just to love us and accept us. It’s to own us. Be proud of us. When your friend is talking about her son’s talented opera singer girlfriend, boast about your daughter’s brilliant software engineer girlfriend and her postdoc boyfriend who does research in the jungles of Ecuador. Ask how all your son’s partners are doing. Remember their names. Invite them to Christmas dinner–no matter what the grandparents think.

But the question was about what a parent might say, not do. So maybe the thing we most want to hear is, “I’m proud of you.”

And now, our readers weigh in on the subject:

  • “We support you, even if we don’t particularly understand it.”
  • “If you’re happy, we’re happy.”
  • Like all children they want love, support and acceptance from their parents.
  • “I’m glad you have such a big family to be there for you.”
  • “How are [lists all the names w/o leaving someone out] doing?”
  • “I’m so glad our lessons in love, communication, & intentional family sunk in!”
  • “How many of you will be coming to our house for dinner? Your whole tribe is welcome.”
  • “Your partners are all valid, acknowledged, respected, welcome.”
  • “If you’re happy then we are happy for you. How many chairs will we need at Thanksgiving?”
  • “How are your partners?”
  • “I am so glad that you are happy!”
  • “I trust you to know what makes you happy, and I will make an effort to know the important people in your life.”
  • “Good for you! I hope they’re all treating you right.”
  • “Wow! We won the lottery and we have so much money we don’t know what do with ourselves! Want some?”
  • “Let me buy you a house.”

(I have to admit, those last two are pretty tempting answers, all things considered…)

Thanks to everyone who offered their input!

 

Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now at Amazon or Powell’s. 

Marching order

Louisa Leontiades, author of The Husband Swap and an important supporter of our Indiegogo campaign (she’s giving e-book copies of her book to all our $30+ backers), left this comment on our “Training Wheels and Utopian Polyamory” post:

Here’s the thing. You can’t just say to people ‘be brave’ and expect that it is something they can immediately do. Children are naturally fearless until the world beats it out of them with spite, rejection and shame. It takes time. Just as it takes time to build it back up again. Is there a place for expressing the utopian ideal of going for it without training wheels? I say, absolutely. Should this be a black and white rule that we put on those struggling to escape monogamy and chastity implemented by a patriarchal structure? I say, the way is to slowly educate with compassion. Knowing that not everyone is capable or willing to stretch that far. Which doesn’t make them bad people–just scared people.

We didn’t reply there, because her comment opens up a bigger conversation that we felt deserves its own post.

There are lots of configurations in poly and lots of poly styles, but let’s focus for a moment on a scenario that’s quite common, one that many of the readers of our book will be likely encounter or be part of early on in their poly experience: an established couple has decided to try polyamory, and one of them begins to date a new person (who may or may not have established partners of their own). It’s this scenario that people often apply the “training wheels” analogy to, and typically it’s the couple that is allowed the use of the training wheels.

It’s true that opening up a long-term relationship, possibly risking everything you’ve built together, is scary. It’s scary to see your partner fall in love with someone else, before you’ve had enough experience to reassure you at the deep, visceral level where it really matters that their love for that other person won’t diminish their love for you. Taking this step is a high-risk venture. Both partners have a lot to lose. And let’s not sugarcoat this: lots of couples don’t make it through the transition. The risk is real.

And it’s true that when you have so much on the line, it’s hard to be brave just because someone says you should.

But… you know what else is scary? Falling in love is scary. It’s scary in the best of circumstances, but falling in love with someone who is already deeply bonded to another person, who shares a life with that person, and who may not know exactly what kind of space in their life they can offer you—that’s scary as hell. So for the new partner in the position of opening their heart to a person in an established relationship, especially a relationship that’s newly poly, the situation is pretty high risk, too.

Too often in looking at this type of situation, the focus is exclusively on the original couple, the risk they bear, and how scary it is to face that risk. Too often, whatever they need to do to protect themselves from the risk posed by the new relationship is defended, because yeah, it can be really fucking hard to face that risk. And if they stay together, the relationship is a success, and whatever they’re doing to stay together is “working.”

The problem with this approach is that it makes the new partner—along with the risks they’re facing and the fear they’re experiencing—invisible. We expect the new partners to be brave. We expect them to bear not just their share of the risk, but a substantial share of the couple’s risk, too. The couple gets training wheels. The new partner doesn’t even get a helmet.

I might be being to vague here. What might these “training wheels” look like? (The “training wheels” that many couples never take off, even after a “new” relationship has lasted for years?) They could be an agreement that allows one member of the couple to end the other partner’s other relationships if they become uncomfortable or feel the relationship is threatened. Or an agreement that the partners in the couple will never spend the night apart, that certain activities are exclusive to them, that the couple’s relationship will always “come first,” or that the other relationships will never exceed, in importance, closeness or commitment, some threshold defined by the original couple.

These all seem like good ideas at the time. They’re certainly often reassuring to the couple. My husband and I discussed agreements very similar to these when we negotiated opening our relationship after many years of monogamy. Then I fell in love, and we realized that real people were going to have their hearts on the line just like we did, and we could not in good conscience attempt to grow relationships with them if we could not give those relationships space to thrive.

The problem with dealing with your own fear by limiting other relationships is that what you are actually doing is shifting risk from yourself or one of your partners onto another person. Everyone in a polyamorous relationship has their share of risk (like everyone in a relationship, period, has their share of risk), but the (often permanent) “training wheels” are in fact another human being, and the couple is essentially saying to them, “Here, you carry this risk, because we don’t want to.”

At the risk of conflating love and war: everyone’s scared in a foxhole, but is it okay to hide behind another person when you’re afraid? Sometimes it happens, yes. People do some pretty selfish, fucked-up things when they’re scared, and they deserve compassion, understanding and forgiveness. But is that behaviour we should be normalizing, even encouraging? Should people who do it be considered role models? Is it something we should be pointing to and saying, “this is an ethical way to behave,” or even, “as long as it works for you, it’s okay”?

Everyone who chooses to open their heart and be vulnerable to another person—everyone, monogamous, polyamorous, or other—exposes themselves to risk. Loving another person is perhaps the riskiest thing you can do, and perhaps that’s part of why the rewards are so amazingly huge. Generally speaking, I think the ethical thing to do is to accept and carry your own share of the risk of your own relationships yourself, rather than asking someone else to carry them. Generally, but not always. Sometimes one person is stronger, braver, more capable of carrying a greater share of the collective risk. Sometimes one person is uniquely vulnerable and in need of protection, for a short time or the long term. What’s the ethical solution then?

Analogy time. Raise your hand if you’ve ever played D&D. (I’m a Second Edition girl myself.) You know when the GM asks you to announce your marching order?

…For what I expect will be the vanishingly small proportion of our readers with their hands still down, I’ll explain. When a party is about to explore some potentially scary and dangerous place and they have to walk single file (because of course that’s generally what you have to do, in scary and dangerous places), the GM (game master) asks the party to announce their marching order, the sequence in which the characters will walk.

Strategies vary, of course, but typically you put the big, burly fighter with the heavy armour and lots of hit points up front, to bear the brunt of the first volley of arrows (or acid, flames, demonic spiders, mind-destroying tentacles, etc.) when you are (inevitably) attacked. Toward the back, you put the wizard with the ranged area-of-effect spells. (If you can, it’s good to have someone with a lot of hit points in back, too, in the event of a rear-guard ambush.) The middle is where you put your healer, along with any injured or weakened party members—or the insane, hemophiliac, 12-year-old psychic elvish princess who’s being stalked in her dreams by a fallen god (for example), whom you’ve been hired to transport and protect.

When deciding whether risk in a polyamorous network should be redistributed, and how to do it, I think it’s useful to think in terms of marching order. Who’s the most resilient, the most experienced, the bravest, the strongest? Who’s uniquely vulnerable—perhaps as a result of a mental or physical illness, or economic dependence or other hardship? Does the marching order make sense based on need and ability? Does everyone involved understand why their position is what it is, and do they all agree to it? Is it renegotiable when needs or circumstances change? Is there a plan in place to help the weaker members of the party grow in strength, courage and ability, preparing them to eventually walk side-by-side with the other party members?

Typically when we discuss arrangements that shift risk in polyamorous relationships, we don’t do this. Typically it’s assumed that it’s the couple who will protect their relationship, and the new partner who will bear the associated extra risk.

But is the inherent risk, before any shifting happens, lower for the newer partner than for the members of the original couple? It is scarier for the couple?

That depends. So many factors go into determining who has more to lose, or who’s in the best position to be strong in the face of loss, that you can’t really say, without looking at a specific situation, who’s bearing the greater risk. I believe the assumption that a newer partner should carry greater risk in the interest of protecting the original couple is not based on real risk or ability, but rather is one of the unexamined assumptions that arise from couple privilege. The polynormative marching order is: newer partners in the front or back, couples in the middle.

I think that’s an assumption worth checking.

Everyone is afraid, and everyone can be brave. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone needs compassion. So why, in polyamorous relationships, do we so often expect the newer partner to be brave and strong, while calling for compassion and patience for the original couple? Why don’t we expect everyone to be as brave and strong as they can—and when they can’t, for everyone to receive compassion and patience?

 

Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now at Amazon or Powell’s.