Monthly Archives: July 2013

Q & A: How to Explain the Choice to Identify as a Non-Monogamous Couple

Disclaimer: all answers given here are the opinions of one person. There is no one correct way to “do” poly, nor is there one correct way to conceptualize it.

Q: With our open relationship status we are free to date, sleep with, fall in love with whoever we want but we both work full time and its hard to find time to meet new people, especially ones who would be open to a poly relationship. We’ve tried swing parties and online dating to no avail. We have kind of realized that we have to let things happen naturally and it may take a long time to find someone who would be a perfect fit for an additional partner for either of us or for a third in our relationship, which, although is frustrating sometimes, it’s ok because we don’t want to rush anything and we want it to feel right when it happens but my question is: When we tell friends, family, acquaintances that we are in an open relationship but they see we have been going strong for a year but we don’t do that much dating and we don’t have a third person in our relationship, they often say “Well why don’t you just be monogamous then?” Which either leads to me trying to explain Third wave feminism, patriarchy, the messed up-ness of “Ownership” of a person and all sorts of other complicated ideals that I may not be in the mood to explain and a lot of the time I end up getting tongue tied but I still want them to understand all of those things. So, like, is there a nice, easy reply to that question?

A: First of all, I can relate a lot to your situation. My husband and I spent around 7 months as “just us” in-between the time I dated my ex-boyfriend and began dating my boyfriend, and we still absolutely considered our relationship polyamorous in that time. I wasn’t one for actively seeking another partner myself, and was content to wait for it to happen naturally. But it was still extremely important to us to identify as poly, and would have remained important even if it had been years before someone new came along.

I think perhaps the easiest way to explain it to others is to remind them that monogamy means a commitment to only be romantically and/or sexually involved with one person. If a couple enters a relationship and decides to be monogamous, they don’t just mean “until one of us meets someone else.” To people who desire monogamy, that commitment is a huge deal. And it carries with it a whole big set of well-known expectations about what is and is not appropriate to do with others outside of the relationship.

You, on the other hand, are in a relationship where you have chosen not to commit to monogamy. It doesn’t matter if it’s just the two of you for a long time to come; you still value your freedom to potentially connect with others romantically. Monogamy is incredibly meaningful to those who prefer it, and it shouldn’t be viewed as something to enter into lightly, and I doubt most defenders of monogamy would want to see the word being used by folks who would not mean it as “we are committed to the institution of monogamy” but rather as “we’re monogamous until we meet someone else.” To me, the notion that a relationship can be “monogamous by default” makes about as much sense as saying that someone should identify as asexual while they’re temporarily single. These labels are far more about the potentials we see in the long-term than they are mere descriptors of a relationship’s current form.

If you happen to be having a conversation where it feels like it makes sense to elaborate on your deeper polyamorous ideology–to talk about your ideas about feminism and “ownership” and how this all relates to your relationship philosophy–it can be great to open up dialogues about those things. But you shouldn’t feel that you have to go on at length about why you’re non-monogamous in order to assert the fact that you are non-monogamous. In situations where it feels more comfortable to keep it brief, I think it’s pretty concise and clear to simply say “Being monogamous means being committed to only being with one partner. We’re polyamorous (or open, if you prefer), because we’re committed to having the freedom to be with other partners.”

There might always be some small number of people who think that you’re just trying to identify in some “edgy” way, even after you offer an explanation. But you can’t always control others’ perceptions of you–especially in non-traditional relationships!–and trying to do so will often lead to more frustration than its worth. Explain yourselves the best you can, but don’t feel pressured to bend over backward trying to make it clear to people who still don’t understand. The two of you are on the same page about what kind of relationship you have, and that’s ultimately the most important thing.

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If it’s not Feminist, then it’s not my Polyamory

Apologies for such silence on the blog these past weeks; we were gone on a family vacation, and since coming home I’ve had a handful of other writing projects requiring my attention.

I’m still at work on other things, but I wanted to take just a quick moment to talk about how essential I think feminism to polyamory. Which should be somewhat obvious by the series I write here about feminism and poly, but sometimes I think there’s a difference between merely recognizing an intersection vs. saying that activism in one area absolutely requires awareness and attention to another. And as I’ve encountered some really anti-feminist thought in some poly spaces recently, I really feel the need to briefly try to drive home how vital this connection is.

First, compulsory monogamy is, itself, a patriarchal institution. And I don’t think we can fight that institution in any meaningful way without unpacking its patriarchal legacy. If we say we want to challenge compulsory monogamy but we don’t make that challenge from an explicitly feminist perspective, then I think we’ll always fall a great deal short of really dismantling that institution at its roots. The entire dialogue around people having “ownership” of one another in romantic relationships is really rooted in notions of male ownership of women. Obviously, there are plenty of women who don’t want to “share” their partners, either (and not sharing can be totally fine, as long as its a conscious choice and not the result of a social mandate), but that doesn’t change the fact that the whole construction of “ownership” in marriage was never a two-way street.

And second, I think that poly without feminism can potentially be a rather dangerous thing. If polyamory is just a means of reproducing traditional sexist dynamics in relationships with multiple partners, then we’re stepping dangerously close to everything that’s wrong with traditional patriarchal “one man-many women” polygamy. I see polyamory veering close to this in relationships with the so-called “one-penis-policy,” for example, where a husband is permitted to date women, but his wife is only permitted to date women herself and forbidden from dating other men. With all of the problematic sexist gender dynamics that are potentially present in our sex and dating lives, I think that men wishing to engage in relationships with multiple women must be even more vigilant about upholding feminist values, because the potential harm and potential replication of patriarchal power structures might be even greater when a man is in a position of dominance over not just one woman, but several. I’m honestly not interested in fighting for the sexual liberation of men who will only use non-monogamy as a path to “conquer” a greater number of women.

To summarize, then, though I’ll say much more on this in the future, I’m entirely uninterested in participating in any kind of poly activism that isn’t explicitly feminist. To me, separating the two is incorrect both personally and politically.

(and of course, I believe that feminism needs to make room for a critique of compulsory monogamy, as well. More on that to come, too…)

Send me your polyamory questions!

I’m still seeking questions for the Q&A I’d like to do somewhat regularly around here, so if anyone out there has any questions for me, I’d love to hear them!

I’d especially like to answer any questions folks might have about poly in a sociopolitical context, but anything goes! And I’d love to receive questions from both folks who are poly and folks who are not.

Questions can be sent via email to angi.becker.stevens@gmail.com, and I promise you’ll remain anonymous!

Thanks, as always, for reading.

My Personal Poly Ideology: A Summary

I’ve probably said a lot of these things in the past on this blog at some point, and the topics I haven’t addressed here yet will probably get their own entire post here at some point in the future. But I thought it might be nice to write a fairly concise little post summarizing my general poly ideology—not the daily practicalities of poly relationships, but my core poly beliefs. I get a lot of google hits here from people who seem to be newly exploring polyamory, and sometimes I think it can be useful for folks in that situation to read a brief overview of how others approach poly rather than reading lengthy pieces about each finer point. And additionally, I think it can also be useful for people to understand the perspective this particular blog is coming from. So with that, I’ll offer my own personal “poly in a nutshell,” which I’ll also be adding to an “about” page here on the blog.

 

I believe that polyamory means, by definition, having the ability to romantically love multiple people simultaneously. And by “ability,” I mean not just the personal capacity, but also the freedom. If you’re in a relationship where the agreement is “you can have sex with multiple people, but don’t get emotionally attached,” that’s great if it works for you, but it’s not polyamory. I don’t think being poly means you can’t ever have more casual sex, or that all of your relationships must be of the deep, committed variety, but identifying as polyamorous should signal that you’re at least open to the possibility of maintaining multiple loving relationships.

My more extensive thoughts on defining poly can be found here and here.

I don’t agree with “rules” within relationships. I think sometimes people need to make agreements, but unlike rules, agreements are mutually consensual, not about one person dictating the behavior of others. I believe that being free to love others necessitates personal autonomy, and that becomes impossible if someone else is given the power to micromanage the details of your personal relationships. I believe people are always entitled to have personal boundaries, ie, “I’m not willing to do ______.” But this is not the same as saying “you’re not allowed to ______.” I’m of the opinion that genuine love and respect in relationships make rules unnecessary, and that without genuine love and respect, rules aren’t ultimately going to help you.

More of my thoughts on rules can be found here and here.

Along the same lines as my feelings about rules, I don’t agree with “veto power,” where one partner has the right to “veto” another’s choice of partners. I believe this is both completely unfair and dehumanizing to the third-party in these situations, and is possessive and controlling in a way that runs counter to everything I value about being polyamorous.

I also do not agree with any kind of double-standards within poly relationships, especially the far-too-common gendered double standard wherein a man allows his wife/girlfriend to have female partners but not male partners, while he is permitted to have female partners himself (in poly-jargon, the “one-penis-policy”). Even setting aside the obvious patriarchal connotations of these arrangements, if what we’re talking about when we use the word “polyamory” is actually love, I don’t believe love can be made to answer to such terms. “You can only fall in love with people of my choosing” is not how love actually works. I believe love must be freely and autonomously given—without being subject to the rules, regulations, and permissions of someone else. This is not to say I believe in imposing an artificial “fairness” on the situation; if a woman is only interested in dating other women outside of her relationship with a man, for example, that’s great. Plenty of people in poly relationships have different numbers of partners than one another, or relationships that are at different levels of seriousness and commitment. This is all well and good, as long as each individual is free to relate to others however they choose. Wanting different things is not the same as an externally imposed double-standard; equality simply means that all members of a relationship have the same freedoms.

I am not in favor of using hierarchical terms like “primary” and “secondary” to designate one’s relationships. Again, I don’t believe that any kind of artificial equality should be imposed, and it’s natural and normal for different relationships to take different forms and have different levels of meaning and commitment. But that does not require identifying those relationships in a way that hierarchically ranks them against one another.

More on the use of primary/secondary labels can be found here.

Finally, I believe strongly in viewing polyamory in a broader sociopolitical context. Society’s enforcement of compulsory monogamy is deeply tied up with patriarchy and other systems of oppression, and I think any work we do to increase awareness and acceptance of poly relationships should be done with mindfulness about the intersections between various forms of oppression in our society.

More of my thoughts on poly in a broader context can be found here, here, and here, as well as in a multitude of other pieces on this blog.

It’s important to note that this is all just my personal ideology, and it is often said that there are as many ways to “do” poly as there are poly people. But so often, “how-to” poly advice treats things such as rules, primary/secondary labels, and veto power as though they are absolute givens in polyamorous relationships. If nothing else, I like to offer an alternative point of view, and perhaps some comfort for those who are wondering whether things like rules and veto power in poly relationships are really necessities.