I am blessed today with a life that is extraordinarily filled with love and connection. I find it easy to connect with people and to find love, warmth, and intimacy, and that has let me create a rich, joyful personal life in which I feel cherished and supported.
In the book More Than Two, Eve and I talk about the abundance model and the scarcity model of love. We say,
In the starvation model, opportunities for love seem scarce. Potential partners are thin on the ground, and finding them is difficult. Because most people you meet expect monogamy, finding poly partners is particularly difficult. Every additional requirement you have narrows the pool still more. Since relationship opportunities are so rare, you’d better seize whatever opportunity comes by and hang on with both hands—after all, who knows when another chance will come along?
The abundance model says that relationship opportunities are all around us. Sure, only a small percentage of the population might meet our criteria, but in a world of more than seven billion people, opportunities abound. Even if we exclude everyone who isn’t open to polyamory, and everyone of the “wrong” sex or orientation, and everyone who doesn’t have whatever other traits we want, we’re still left with tens of thousands of potential partners, which is surely enough to keep even the most ambitious person busy.
The sneaky thing about both models is they’re both right: the model we hold tends to become self-fulfilling.
But we don’t really describe how to get from a mindset of scarcity to a mindset of abundance. When you start with a scarcity model, your experience will be one of scarcity—so how can you even imagine that love is abundant, let alone begin to internalize a model of abundance?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot.
I get email from my polyamory site. Lots of email. Far too much email for me to be able to respond to all of it, and sometimes I feel guilty about that. The emails sit in my inbox, making me feel like a bad person for not having time to reply to every one. (That’s partly why we wrote the book.)
Each of those emails is different, but they often fall into broad themes. I get emails from people whose spouses are cheating, and want to know how they can turn an affair into an ethical open relationship. I get emails from from people who have hit turbulence in their journeys and want to know if I can give them the magic words of wisdom to solve the problems they face. And I get emails—many of them—from people who really, really want to have more than one partner—or even just one partner!—but can’t seem to attract anyone, no matter how hard they look, no matter how much effort and time and energy they pour into the search.
And I get emails from the flat-out incredulous. “Why on Earth would you want more than one partner?” they say. “It takes huge investments of time, energy, effort, commitment, and resources just to find one lover! I can not imagine how much it would take to find more than one!”
What’s interesting about that is it has not been my experience that finding love takes time, energy, effort, commitment, or resources…at least not in the way people seem to mean when they say things like this. Quite the reverse, in fact. Opportunities for love and connection are so abundant that they tend to waltz in the front door at the most inconvenient times. I live in a world of abundance. But how did I get here?
Right now, I’m sitting in a remote cabin deep in the heart of Washington State’s temperate rainforest—the very same one where we wrote the first draft of More Than Two. I’m here working on a new book, a memoir of my life called The Game Changer. I spend a good part of every day sitting in front of an enormous stone fireplace with a cup of tea at my side while Whiskers, the cabin kitty, sprawls on my lap or paces up and down by the window watching the birds at the feeders outside.
As I work on the memoir, I’ve been revisiting the person I used to be, writing stories about my early, fumbling experiences with polyamory and all the many things I got wrong. And I’ve realized that I started with a starvation model of relationships, and over the years, that starvation model has become an abundance model.
It wasn’t always this way. For a long time, I had trouble just finding friends, so the notion of finding a girlfriend seemed as remote as the notion I might quit my job and climb the Himalayas. I could not understand how to get a woman to want to be with me, so I did exactly the wrong thing. I tackled it the way I would tackle a computer programming challenge. I looked at women as a puzzle to be solved: How do you get a woman to become your girlfriend? What steps do you use to get a woman to love you?
That made me clumsy. I came across as entitled and desperate. I accepted anyone who showed me even the slightest hint of interest, no matter how mismatched we were, no matter how little we had in common.
It took time, energy, effort, commitment, and resources to get to the point where love and connection are so plentiful. But I never invested time, energy, effort, commitment, or resources in the process of searching for love—at least not directly. Instead, somewhere around the time I started thinking about being an ethical person and what that might mean, I began investing that time and effort in myself, in becoming the best version of me that I can be.
I wasn’t doing it to find love. I was doing it because my relationship with Shelly showed me there was something fundamentally broken in the way I had approached my relationships in the past: that in trying to do whatever I could to honor my “primary” relationship, I was being dishonorable to the other people close to me.
So I started spending time, energy, effort, commitment, and resources in becoming secure in myself. I began working to understand my own fears and insecurities and eliminate them. (If there’s a figurative monster living under my bed, I said, I’m not going to hide from it any more—I’m gonna make that fucker pay rent!) I made a conscious choice to live with honesty and integrity, even when being honest was hard.
Doing that meant I had to spend time and effort learning good communication skills, even when (in fact, especially when) I was faced with talking about things that were hard to talk about. It meant I had to battle the parts of me that feel shame or embarrassment about who I was, and become a person who lived life openly and on my terms without compromise. It meant I needed to learn understand my needs. It meant I had to develop tools of good partner selection, so I could choose partners who fit well with me instead of believing that I had to accept anyone who showed interest in me. (I can’t overemphasize how huge this was. Choosing partners whose goals and needs were aligned with my own did more, in one stroke, to eliminate the problems that caused me to sacrifice my own needs for the needs of a partner than any other single factor. Looking back, it seems obvious…but when I was in the middle of all this, it was anything but.)
It meant learning that other people are real and that it’s important to interact with them as human beings, not as things for me to try to get my needs met with. It meant becoming a self-confident person. It meant learning and accepting that I make mistakes, and other people do too, and that’s okay; we are all born of frailty and error and if we are to share this world with one another, the first fucking rule of existence is that we must pardon reciprocally one another’s failings and seek wherever possible to treat one another with compassion.
I did all those things, and something happened. People started noticing me. People started offering me genuine connection. People started trusting me, being vulnerable to me, wanting to be close to me.
And that was the turning point. That was when I started to realize that love is abundant. It made me understand that I don’t need to have a desperate, starvation model of love that says love is scarce and hard to find and I have to spend my time and effort and energy searching for it. Understanding that love is abundant made me calm down about love; when you think love is all around you, you don’t freak out about trying to find it. People noticed that, too, and opportunities for love and connection grew even more.
It seems to me that yes, you do need to spend time, energy, effort, commitment, and resources finding love…but if you direct those things outward, in the pursuit of love, you’re not likely to have great success. Turn those things inward. Spend them on yourself. Become the best, most secure, most confident, most kind, most compassionate, most honest version of you. Do that, and love will follow in abundance.
Whiskers the Cabin Kitty
Like most of the rest of the book, creating the cover for More Than Two was something of an adventure. We’re quite pleased with it, and so are most of our readers—the response to it has been overwhelmingly good. We thought you might enjoy knowing a bit more about the process that took us to the final cover, as it says a lot about the evolution of our own thinking about polyamory and the book itself.
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.
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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One of the most common tropes in the poly community is, “The three rules of polyamory are communicate, communicate, communicate.” Communication is the lifeblood of any healthy relationship, which is why we have not one but two chapters on communication in the book More Than Two.
There’s a place where this emphasis on communication can lead us down a dark path, though, and that’s when we mistake basic privacy for poor communication.
One of the questions I hear often in conversations about polyamory is, “How much am I allowed to keep private about one relationship in another relationship?” Answers vary all over the map, but there are usually two main camps: the “we share absolutely everything with each other” (where “each other” usually means one couple within a poly network, though the same sharing rarely extends to everyone in the relationship) and the “what happens in one relationship is private unless a need to know exists in another relationship” approaches. Within each camp you’ll find some pretty extreme views, from “I share every single text and email with my partner” (an approach most commonly found in hierarchical, primary/secondary polyamory) to “I never tell one partner anything at all about my other partners.”
Finding a path through this maze means understanding what privacy is, and how maintaining privacy differs from hiding the truth.
If you read books or websites on abuse and domestic violence, one message comes through loud and clear: failure to respect a person’s privacy is one of the first and most common signs of abuse. Demanding to know everything about what a person is doing shows a lack of trust. Feeling entitled to access all of another person’s space is the foundation for almost all other forms of abuse.
Privacy is a basic human right. People involved in polyamory often talk about consent, but sometimes forget that there’s more to consent than choosing when and with whom to have sex. Consent is about access to any part of you: your body, your mind, your emotions, your space. Fundamental to the right to privacy is the right to control who you allow to have access to your most vulnerable places.
This can create some knotty problems in polyamory, because when we feel insecure or threatened, it can be easy to want to know everything about what a partner is doing, saying, thinking, and feeling. Insecurity breeds suspicion, after all.
Unfortunately, when we demand access to details about a partner’s other relationships, we are demanding access not only to our partner’s mind and emotions, but also to his other partner’s mind and emotions, too. People reveal things to their lovers–vulnerabilities, feelings, past traumas or embarrassments–they may not choose to reveal to everyone. We all have the right to expect that some things we share with a lover won’t be passed around.
I have often heard people who feel frightened, insecure, or threatened play the “What are you hiding?” card when it comes to privacy. “We should share everything!” I’ve heard. “Why would you hide things about your other relationship? That just means I can’t trust you!”
In More Than Two, we argue that all healthy relationships have a reasonable expectation of privacy. There can be no intimacy without sharing, and there are limits to what you can share if you are afraid the things you share will be given to others without your consent.
This may include sexual acts; not everyone is an exhibitionist, and many people do not appreciate having their sexual tastes put on display or described to third parties. It may include private details about past experiences. It may include our fears and doubts.
One of the hardest things for us as human beings to learn is that other people are real. Part of understanding that other people are real means understanding that other people may choose to share things with a partner that they might not choose to share with us, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean anyone is being deceitful, underhanded, or sneaky. It simply means we all have the right to maintain boundaries about who has access to our deepest selves.
I have spoken to people who say there is absolutely nothing that happens in another relationship they do not share with their partner–every email is passed along, every conversation is repeated, every sex act is shared. I believe that this approach presents troubling issues and discourages intimacy. It means that anything a person does not want to share with a metamour cannot be shared with his lover.
On the flip side, the right to privacy is not a right to secrecy. There are things that can and should be shared with all the people involved in a relationship network. Those things include any facts that might materially affect a third person, or that might prevent a third person from giving informed consent to the relationship. What kinds of things might those be? One example is anything that significantly affects a person’s STI risk profile.
It’s tricky to set down a list of things that can and can’t be treated as matters of privacy, because life is complicated. But I have noticed a pattern in people who, in my opinion, abuse the right to privacy under the guise of wanting transparency. Some questions that can help sort out whether or not the right to privacy is being infringed include:
Am I asking for my partner, or my partner’s partner, to divulge information that I would be reluctant to share myself under the same circumstance?
How does the information I’m asking for actually affect me? Does it materially affect my life in a quantifiable way, or does it simply make me uncomfortable if I don’t know?
Am I making it safe for my partner’s other partner to be open and vulnerable with my partner?
Does the flow of information go only one way?
Do I trust my partners? Do I have a clear and compelling reason to believe something shady is happening, or am I substituting a need for absolute disclosure for working on my own insecurities?
When you find yourself mired in a trackless wilderness and you’re not sure which direction to move, you can usually find your way by orienting yourself to the ethical compass we talk about in the book. What choices move in the direction of greatest courage? What is the most compassionate thing to do? What shows greatest respect for the agency of all the people around you?
In my own experiences, I have found that if you say everything is open and you will pass around whatever your partners say, write, text, or do, you can’t really expect people to open up to you. They will be aware that sharing with you comes with a price attached: sharing with people they may not choose to share with, in ways they may not be able to control. If you want the kind of relationship in which people are willing to share their greatest vulnerabilities and deepest selves, it’s on you to respect their privacy.
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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.
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