Category Archives: poly ideology

The Value of Personal Narratives

Since my personal essay about my family was published at Salon a few days ago, numerous people have called me “brave.” I greatly appreciate the sentiment, though it feels incredibly strange that simply talking about my family should be considered an act of bravery. I would be lying, though, if I said that writing and publishing the piece was not a little terrifying. Salon has a large audience, and I knew that I was going to be exposing a lot of people to the inner-workings of a poly family for the very first time. I worried a lot about how my words might be misinterpreted, and whether or not readers would truly believe that my partners are happy. I wished there was some magical way I could really offer a people a window to see how loving and peaceful and healthy my family is. And I knew that no matter how hard I tried, the comments would be full of hate and personal attacks.

But I did it anyway.

When I was still living monogamously, suffering from depression and trying to choose between the unbearable pain of losing my husband and the equally unbearable pain of never being free to love another, it is no exaggeration to say that the personal stories of other poly people saved me. I knew that I believed in polyamory in theory. But it was only through reading personal narratives–the personal stories in Tristan Taormino’s Opening Up; Jenny Block’s Open; Scott, Terisa, Matt, Vera, and Larry’s story in Newsweek–as well as having conversations with another human being who desired polyamory, that began to make me feel less crazy and less alone. And when I was having those difficult early conversations with my husband, it was those personal narratives I gave him to read. He didn’t need any convincing that poly sounded great in theory. What he needed was proof that were actual people, actually making it work in practice (and, as something of an amusing side-note, hateful internet comments on some of those stories were the very thing that made my husband certain he was comfortable with a poly relationship, as he found himself reading those comments and feeling protective and defensive of the articles’ poly subjects… way to go, nasty comment-makers!). I truly, honestly would not have the live I have today–the life I love more than I ever thought I could love life–had it not been for others sharing their stories.

Now that I am so fortunate as to be happily and comfortably settled in a stable poly family, sharing my own story feels like the least I can do for people who are struggling like I once was. Of course, I want to help humanize poly folks to society at large, and help educate the general public about our relationships and our families. But far more than that, I want to be that example that helps someone out there who is hurting and feeling trapped and who doesn’t know that it’s possible to live the way they dream of living. That’s why it’s worthwhile to me. Because if no one else had been willing to do that before me, I shudder to even think about what my life would be like right now.

As a final note on the topic, I just want to say that in spite of all the nasty comments, the support I’ve received has been overwhelming. I’ve received emails from strangers, messages and texts and facebook comments from friends who I’ve never really discussed poly with before who have told me how much they appreciated the essay, and kind words from both fellow poly activists and fellow writers as well. To everyone who has kindly commented, re-tweeted, re-posted, and “liked” my essay: thank you. In a world with so little validation and acceptance for my family, your support means more than you know.

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.

Further Thoughts on DOMA and Polyamory

It's only when you marry two goats that things really get out of hand (via Cyanide & Happiness).

It’s only when you marry two goats that things really get out of hand (via Cyanide & Happiness).

As promised, I’d like to elaborate (ramble) a bit now about my thoughts on poly marriage and DOMA.

I’ve always responded to the slippery-slope argument by asserting that poly marriage is not, in fact, anything to be terrified of. I’ve occasionally seen responses from other poly folks that are more along the lines of “everyone should calm down, we’re not interested in marriage right now, anyway.” That might be true, but it’s not really the line I’m interested in taking when it comes to defending the idea of poly marriage. My point has always been that from an ethical perspective, you can’t defend same-sex marriage and then not extend that thinking to plural marriage as well. As for pedophilia and bestiality, it feels absurd that I should even have to point this out, but it seems pretty simple to draw the line at consenting adult humans being free to marry one another. Children and goats are not capable of meaningful consent. Now, some people argue that adult women in fundamentalist polygamy type situations aren’t really provided with the opportunity to give meaningful consent, either. But unfortunately, the same thing is true for a lot of women in fundamentalist religious monogamous marriages as well, and we don’t use that as a reason to throw marriage out all together. The fact that some plural marriages, like plenty of monogamous marriages, happen in a problematic way is not a moral argument against the entire institution. I don’t believe that poly marriage is right around the corner. But if I’m going to defend the ethical implications of it, I’m going to do so in a way that says “if this happened tomorrow, so what? Have you stopped and thought about whether there’s really anything ethically different about this than about monogamous marriage, gay or straight?”

I think that the repeal of DOMA does pave the way in our general direction at least in the ethical sense. I’m inclined to agree with law professor Mark Goldfeder, quoted in USA Today as saying: “It’s one hundred percent likely that these polygamist cases will come, but they will no longer turn on whether a relationship is immoral. The court will look at whether these relationships cause third party harm.” Of course, my personal dividing line of whether or not something is immoral is really no different than the question of whether it causes third party harm. But that aside, I think Goldfeder makes a good point. I think that when polygamist cases are brought before courts in the future, the DOMA decision will have some impact on the outcome. And unlike Wesley Pruden at the Washington Times, I think that’s a positive thing.

While I am all for boldly asserting the ethical acceptability of poly marriage, though, and also genuinely hopeful that either poly marriage will come to pass or the whole government-marriage business will be disbanded one day, I am not particularly interested in placing marriage at the center of poly activism.

Part of my reluctance to place marriage rights at the forefront is really similar to the critiques of the assimilationist nature of the same-sex marriage movement. While a lot of us poly folks (myself included) do have two or more “marriage-like” relationships, a lot of us don’t. Plenty of poly people choose to share a home with only one–or even zero!–partners. Plenty of us who do have two or more cohabiting, life-committed partners also have other lovers outside of that. Part of the beauty of polyamory is its ability to take many different forms, to be many different things, to reject very narrow preconceived molds of what romantic, intimate relationships should look like. And I’m afraid that if marriage becomes our central focus, we’ll put forth a public image of poly that erases all of that wonderful, liberatory variation.

Another concern I have is about the narrowness of marriage as a focus. I address this at a bit more length in a piece that’s forthcoming soon over at Modern Poly, but to put it briefly, I think that if we really look at what compulsory monogamy is and where it comes from in our society, we can talk about patriarchy. We can talk about capitalism. And I feel like we can say “you know, I really just want to marry two people and live in the suburbs” and leave it at that. Or we can have these conversations about radically challenging the dominant power structures. And I think we can do both of these things at the same time; I’m living with my partners in the suburbs, after all. But I think if we allow marriage to become the entirety of the conversation, we’re really missing out on a much larger and more important opportunity to situate ourselves as part of a broader system of hierarchies and oppressions.

I know that in the wake of the DOMA ruling, we’re going to be called on a lot by people from all over the political spectrum to talk about our own feelings about marriage. It’s potentially a great opportunity. I just hope we can make sure the conversation is a nuanced and inclusive one.

The Importance of Being Critical

I spend a lot of time writing and talking about polyamory: here on my blog, in other publications, and in discussion groups and forums. And as anyone who follows this blog has gathered, I can often be critical of some things that occur frequently within polyamorous relationships: hierarchical structures, rules and regulations, veto-power, etc. Frequently, I’ve been accused of saying that some things are more poly than others, or that there’s a “right” way to do poly. I don’t like it when others are poly-police, saying what is and isn’t more “perfectly” poly than something else. But I want to take a minute to talk about how that kind of policing is different than being critical of some tendencies within a lot of poly relationships.

I engage a lot with social justice, in a variety of ways. To me, a huge component of that is turning a critical lens on the dominant social structures of patriarchy, heterosexism, racism, classism, and hierarchies of all kinds. But just like I challenge the system of compulsory monogamy, I’m also going to challenge problematic things I see happening within polyamory. There is no free-pass given just because we are both poly; if you are doing something I find to be patriarchal, problematically hierarchical, heterosexist, or any other oppressive thing, I am going to talk about that. That doesn’t mean I’m saying anyone is doing poly “wrong.” Poly means being open to the potential of loving multiple people simultaneously, nothing more and nothing less. I don’t think you’re more poly or less poly if you have a closed triad relationship, if you have seventeen lovers you only see once a year, if you have no lovers but know that the idea of loving multiple people sounds and feels right to you, if you have threesomes or foursomes or more or if you don’t, if you’re asexual and think polyamory works to describe the way you connect with others in your life. None of these is a more “correct” way to do poly, and I disagree with anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. But if I see behavior within poly relationships that I think is hierarchical or oppressive, I’m going to talk and write about that. And I think those kinds of challenges to the status quo are not only acceptable, but necessary.

A lot of my freelance writing outside of this blog is centered on feminism. Part of that involves dealing with problematic hierarchies that often exist between men and women in heterosexual relationships. When I am critical of patriarchal power dynamics, it doesn’t mean I’m saying that relationships between men and women are in some way inherently wrong. It means I’m criticizing the way that patriarchy plays out in some of those relationships. A lot of radical queer activists are very critical of more mainstream LGBTQ politics. That doesn’t mean they’re accusing anyone of being “less gay” or of doing queerness wrong. It just means that they’re critical of some of the priorities and tendencies within the mainstream LGBTQ movement. These kinds of criticism create important dialogue. And it is not about insulting individuals, but about challenging power structures that play out in very real ways, and that have very real and harmful consequences. When I write about what I see as the problems with hierarchies, restrictive rules and regulations, veto-power, or gender imbalances in poly relationships, what I want is to ask people to really think about the reasons they’re making the choices they’re making. I want to call out the social structures that cause us to behave the way we do, to question the status quo. I don’t want to tell anyone that they’re a horrible person or that they’re not poly enough. I want to have a conversation. I want to give people things to think about. Most of us have already accepted the fact that compulsory monogamy is a problem, that too many people are coerced by society into “choosing” monogamy without ever considering any alternatives. And I want to ask whether—even once we’ve broken that particular mold—some of the choices we make within poly relationships are rooted in similar unconscious social conditioning. These are questions I think we all must be willing to confront. And anyone who understands how pervasive the system of compulsory monogamy is should also be willing to turn a critical eye toward other social structures, as well.

I’m never going to tell anyone that their poly relationship is structured “wrong,” or that they’re less poly than someone else. But I’m always going to challenge hierarchies, wherever I encounter them. “To each their own” is a well-intentioned sentiment, but it’s not a worthy excuse for letting oppressive structures go unchallenged.

Definitions and Dichotomies

Any veteran of polyamorous communities and discussion groups has heard plenty of squabbling over what does and does not meet the definition of polyamory, and typically this debate is centered on a question of love vs. sex. And as someone who is in two loving, life-committed relationships, I can tell you that it’s frustrating when people portray polyamory as something that’s all about sex and nothing more. I understand why some people feel the need to assert that poly is about forming more meaningful connections; I’ve certainly made arguments along those lines myself. However, I find it equally frustrating when people take that argument to such an extreme that they look down on any sexual relationship that is not deep, emotional, and meaningful. To me, polyamory is about the potential for loving more than one person simultaneously. Just as people who are inclined toward monogamy do not necessarily only have sexual relationships within the confines of long-term, committed relationships, poly people, also, want different things with different people at different points in their lives. If someone has a rule saying “you can have sex with others, but no meaningful relationships,” I have no problem saying that definitionally is not polyamory (though that’s not meant as a value judgment). But as long as someone is open to more meaningful relationships with multiple partners, and along the way happens to enjoy some connections with others that are strictly sexual, I’m not about to kick them out of the poly club.

I’ve realized, though, that the discomfort I have with this tendency to define polyamory as only about multiple loving, romantic relationships is much more complex than a simple wish to allow for people to have casual sexual relationships if they so desire. Ultimately, there is an entire dichotomy of relationships as either casual or serious, and another dichotomy of relationships as either romantic or platonic, that I am unhappy with.

I do understand the desire to define certain relationships as being traditionally romantic and committed. I’m not one to advocate for a paradigm in which we simply eschew all labels. It matters to me to identify certain people as my partners, to declare some relationships as being central to my life, and to publically recognize my significant others as the people I am sharing a life and a future with. I don’t want to be misunderstood as advocating for a complete abandonment of such identifications.

However, that being said, there are relationships in my life that simply don’t fit neatly into the socially-prescribed dichotomies. I have had relationships that are physically intimate and ongoing, but which still feel emotionally more like friendships than traditionally romantic relationships. I have a physically intimate relationship with a woman, who I care about very much as a friend, but am not romantically in love with. And though I have never felt that I was in love with a woman, and am not certain of my potential to ever feel that way in the future, an interest in women is definitely a part of my sexuality. I have a very close relationship with my ex-boyfriend that is not at all romantic or physically intimate, and yet it still feels as though it does not neatly fit into the socially-accepted bounds of “normal” relationships because it is a relationship with a former romantic partner that is a central, meaningful part of my life. And I have had other relationships with male friends in the past that were not explicitly romantic, and yet did not seem to fit neatly within the bounds of platonic friendship. To me, this is all a part of polyamory. And the beauty of polyamory is that it can allow for all of these nuanced forms of intimacy. It does not require us to make choices about whether a relationship is romantic or platonic, casual or serious. It allows each relationship to be—organically, authentically—exactly what it is.

When I hear people describe polyamory as only about committed, loving, long-term relationships, I understand where they’re coming from. But I think the discomfort I feel is similar to the radical queer discomfort at assimilationist gay and lesbian politics that place a “we’re just like you!” argument at the center of the gay rights movement. I understand an impulse toward seeking validation by comparing our relationships to those which are culturally sanctioned and recognized. But I don’t believe we need to seek that validation at the expense of everything that is beautifully queer and undefined about our relationships, our sexualities, and our lives.

To me, the defining factor in polyamorous relationships is that they are not circumscribed by any external constraints. That means some polyamorous relationships will look very much like traditional romantic relationships, but others will not. Some relationships might appear “casual,” but last a lifetime. Some relationships might appear to be friendships from the outside, but look like something much more than that to those involved. It is all very complicated. It is all very queer. It is all very human.

I don’t want polyamory associated with people who are in committed partnerships, and only seeking no-strings-attached sex outside of those relationships. But I am equally determined not to see poly associated only with a narrow definition of “committed and loving.” At the end of the day, I believe the vision polyamory has to offer is something far more expansive and nuanced than that.

Non-Monogamy and Commitment: Not a Contradiction

Tomorrow, I’m celebrating two years with one of my partners. A lot of people view polyamory as something that’s somehow inherently contradictory with commitment, as if “commitment” is synonymous with “monogamy.” But even as we reject the dominant paradigm of romance, the reality is that we’re perfectly capable of making commitments, too. Far from the opposite of commitment, for many of us poly means making more commitments.

One of my partners and I have been together for over 16 years, and have been legally married for nearly 11. My other partner and I have been talking a lot lately about having some kind of wedding/commitment ceremony, something I’ve pondered in the past. I can understand and relate to all of the radical queer objections to same-sex marriage; I am skeptical of marriage as a state institution, and also skeptical of assimilation into problematic and normative patterns. Marriage as we know it is heteronormative and patriarchal in its origins, and the romanticization of finding “the one” and living happily ever after is at least partially to blame for the way that monogamy is placed on a pedestal.

But despite of these criticisms, I love love. I am, in some ways, very traditionally romantic. It does matter to me to identify certain people as my partners. It matters to me to plan a life and a future with them. However normative it might be, I want commitment. I want to be able to talk about “forever.” I respect and appreciate people who are able to take a more open approach to relationships, allowing people to fluidly move in and out of their lives, or from one role in their lives to another. But for me, being poly doesn’t mean completely abandoning all fairy-tale notions of love. It just means that my happily-ever-after looks a little different than most.

Not too long ago, one of my partners and I were talking about how excited we are to be spending our lives together, and also how great it is that we don’t know exactly what our lives will look like 10 or 20 years from now. In some ways, it’s the best of both worlds: I have the stability of commitment, without the limitations. We know, with as much certainty as humans are capable of, that we want to be together for the rest of our lives. But that says nothing about what else we might want someday, or what kind of intimate experiences we might share with others along the way. We are committed to each other, and one component of that is a commitment is to grow and change and adapt to new things that might come our way. To me, one of the greatest benefits of polyamory is that it means not needing to choose between the security of lifelong commitment, and the possibility of having new romantic and sexual experiences throughout our lives. If I was only interested in the constant availability of new partners and lovers, I could have simply remained “unattached.” But the truth is that I want to be attached. I just want to be attached in a way that feels expansive instead of limiting.

I have heard people say that non-monogamy sounds unromantic, that it is simply too pragmatic a way to approach relationships. But to me, polyamory is not about some cold, ideological calculation. It is about nothing more than it’s about love. I don’t believe in anything like fate or soul mates, but I am madly, passionately, deeply in love with both of my partners, and I believe they’re the closest things to soul mates a person can have. I can’t imagine my life without either of them in it. I can’t imagine a world in which I was forced to choose.

Even with all of my awareness of the problematic social construction of marriage, the harms done in the name of romance and love, I cannot help but daydream about what this “wedding” will look like. I’m reading Offbeat Bride and thinking about dresses. I know how artificially manufactured “weddings” as we know them are. But I live within this society, and whether I want to or not, I do care about standing up in front of my friends and family and saying—in culturally legible ways—this is love, too. And it’s as real as yours.

At the end of the day, I don’t have any interest in un-romanticizing anything. I’m all for believing in true love, making commitments, declaring that love and commitment before the world. Rather than asking people to abandon old notions of love and commitment and family and romance, I’m far more interested in fighting for an expanded definition of what those things mean. I believe that we can take the old traditions and infuse them with whatever meaning we choose, as long as we are conscious and intentional about doing so. And for me, love is all the more meaningful when it is freely given. In the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Love withers under constraints: its very essence is liberty: it is compatible neither with obedience, jealousy, nor fear: it is there most pure, perfect, and unlimited where its votaries live in confidence, equality and unreserve.”

These past two years have been the best, happiest, most fulfilling years of my life, and never have I been more excited to see what the future looks like. I’ll avoid going on at the kind of sappy, still-smitten-after-two-years lengths that I realize can be a little nausea-inducing at times. But I dare anyone to try to tell me that polyamory is un-romantic, that non-monogamy is incompatible with love.

Poly Without Rules: How Does that Work?

I’ve written in the past about my views on rules in poly relationships, and one of the most common responses I receive when discussing that part of my ideology is that it sounds great in theory, but can’t possibly work in practice. I think we’re really trained by a lot of the poly how-to guides out there that one of the absolute keys to making polyamory run smoothly is to sit down and draw up some kind of contract with a whole lot of specific rules and restrictions, and to a lot of folks the idea of embarking on non-monogamy without such clearly defined rules seems like a haphazard recipe for disaster. But for me, living without rules in my relationships isn’t just about ideology, it’s actually how we live and function (quite happily!). So I wanted to spend a little bit of time talking about the practicalities of how poly without rules actually works in practice.

First of all, a lack of rules does not mean a lack of communication. If anything, not having formal rules necessitates clear, specific communication even more. I think it’s incredibly important for everyone to have the right and the ability to communicate their preferences to their partners. I don’t believe that we have a right to make rules to control the behavior of others, but I do believe that we all–as humans–have the right to tell others what we want, need, and prefer in our intimate relationships. The difference between these two things is more than just semantics; it’s the difference between seeking to dictate the behavior of others vs. being honest about our own desires/wants/needs and asking others to try their best to respect those desires/wants/needs.

For one example, one thing a lot of poly folks have firm rules about is when they must be notified of a partner’s new romantic/sexual interest. Some might have a rule that they must discuss it before becoming involved with a new person at all, some have rules that say kissing without prior notice is okay but anything beyond that needs to be talked about in advance, some people insist on meeting a partner’s potential partner before anything happens, and so on and so forth, in as many variations as you can imagine. So how do you approach such a discussion without rules?

For me, this is about communicating preferences. I can tell a partner “I’d prefer if you have the opportunity to let me know before something happens between you and someone else, especially sex. If you have good indications that something’s going on ahead of time, you should let me know. But I also understand sometimes things just happen, people get caught up in something, and I don’t want you to feel like you have to turn something down/walk away from a desirable situation because you haven’t had an opportunity to check in with me.” To me, this kind of framing is a lot more nuanced than a firm rule, just like real life and relationships are nuanced. My partners know that if things happen in a way that deviates from my preferences, I’m likely to struggle with it emotionally a little bit more. And that’s an awareness they can use to help make a decision about how to handle a particular situation. But if they do something in a way that doesn’t perfectly match my preference, it doesn’t mean they’ve broken a rule, it doesn’t mean they’ve betrayed me, and it doesn’t mean they’ll face any kind of punitive consequences.

If a partner were to continuously, time after time, blatantly ignore my communicated preferences and desires, that would demonstrate a lack of basic respect for me. But that’s a flawed relationship, not something that formal rules could have protected me from. I know that my partners love and respect me, and I know that they both generally want to behave in a way that won’t cause me any pain and suffering. This should be true in all relationships. I also know that we’re all human, and sometimes we’re all going to do things differently than what the others would find ideal. And I don’t need to be able to say “you broke such and such a rule!” in order to tell someone “this kind of hurt my feelings, and here’s how I’d appreciate you trying to do it differently in the future.”

People in relationships–poly or not–have all kinds of mutual agreements that they more or less abide by, about everything from who takes the trash out to whether they’ll call if they’ll be home late to how they decide on making major purchases. We don’t generally view these things as “rules,” but simply the mutually-desired dynamics that develop over the course of merging our lives with someone else. Agreements about how we form relationships with others don’t have to be any more daunting or complicated than this.

Again, I’ve heard many times that the distinction I would make between “agreements” and “rules” is merely a matter of semantics. But I have to disagree. Words have power and meaning, and declaring that something is a “rule” another person must adhere to is incredibly different from a mutually consensual agreement, or a well-intentioned request. There is a world of difference between saying to a person “you are not allowed to _______” vs. saying “I would appreciate it if you would ________.” And I am anti-authoritarian enough to find that difference crucial.

Poly without rules does not mean just sitting by while your partners do absolutely whatever, whenever, and silencing yourself if their behavior is painful for you. That would hardly be a happy, functional relationship. Poly without rules simply means communicating our needs and desires without turning them into some kind of mandates, and trusting our partners to love and respect us enough to want to behave in a non-hurtful way.

I hope this helps to demystify “poly without rules” at least a little bit, but I’d love to engage with further questions/concerns in the comments! Thanks, as always, for reading.

Poly Basics: Jealousy and Poly Relationships

The first thing I want to say on this subject is that jealousy—the experience of jealousy—is real. I think that sometimes when we’re trying to make ideological arguments against the way jealousy tends to play out in monogamous scenarios, we sound too dismissive of the very real pain and suffering that jealousy often causes. So I think it’s important to say at the outset of this discussion that regardless of whether jealousy is a social construction, it causes very real emotional consequences for people. When we decide to become polyamorous, we don’t just press a magical jealousy off-button, though it would be fantastic if we could. Some of us might truly just be “non-jealous types.” But for most of us, jealousy is still something we struggle with. We’ve just made a choice to confront it and deal with it in a different way.

I’m strongly of the opinion that romantic jealousy is very largely rooted in fear. Monogamous culture tells us that other possible romantic (or sexual) interests our partners have are unequivocally threats to our existing relationship. We are taught that it is simply not possible for someone to romantically love two people simultaneously. Therefore, if my partner begins to have feelings for someone else, the traditional thinking says that he must no longer have the same feelings for me. This thinking conditions us to fear situations where even the potential for romantic interest exists, to be uncomfortable with and skeptical about scenarios such as a partner developing a deep friendship with a person of their romantically preferred gender (good luck if you’re bi; all of your friendships must be treated as suspect). In this kind of paradigm, where other people are seen as a threat, it’s easy to view fear as a rational response.

In turn, jealousy is then used to justify all kinds of dehumanizing, possessive, controlling behaviors, particularly those enacted on women by men. The traditional monogamous (and patriarchal) ideology says that it’s reasonable for men to tell women who they can and can’t spend time with, what time they should be home at night, what they can and can’t wear. When jealousy is a motivating factor, we excuse people for invading one another’s privacy by reading each other’s emails and text messages, spying on them or listening in on conversations, and all manner of creepy, controlling behavior that’s often considered a precursor to physical abuse.

I have said a multitude of times that I do not have a problem with monogamy itself. But I do have a problem with the way monogamous ideology plays out when it fuels this kind of behavior. Jealousy does not ever justify controlling the behavior of others and treating them as possessions, and any social allowance for this kind of behavior is highly problematic.

But unfortunately, this fear-based jealousy is so deeply engrained in us, it can be very difficult to shake, even if we’ve shifted our thinking to recognize that others don’t pose a threat to our existing relationships. So what’s the alternative approach to dealing with these very real feelings, if not to enact rules and regulations to control the behavior of others?

In my opinion, and in my experience, the most valuable way to deal with your own feelings of jealousy is by communicating what you want and need from your partner, not by attempting to control their behavior outside of the relationship. If you’re feeling insecure, don’t respond by criticizing something your partner does with someone else, or by comparing one relationship to another. Instead, ask directly for what you need to feel better. Not by saying “I want you to spend less time with her,” but instead by saying “I really need some more quality time with you.” Try to identify exactly what bothers you about a particular situation. Are you afraid this other person is smarter, better in bed, more attractive? Do you feel threatened because they share something in common, an interest or a skill, with your partner that you don’t share? Does it just plain make you feel icky to imagine your partner having a similar emotional intimacy with someone else as they have with you? It’s important to really understand the particulars of your jealousy in order to be able to ask for the kinds of reassurance that will really succeed in making you feel better. But whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up for feeling jealous. It’s not your fault you’ve lived however many years in a society that teaches you to feel extreme discomfort at the very thought of your partner relating intimately to someone else. Communicate openly, be as honest as possible, and don’t turn your own feelings of fear into an attack on the other person.

What about when you’re on the other side, and it’s your partner who is wrestling with jealousy? First of all, validate and empathize with you partner’s feelings. Don’t try to simply rationalize him or her into feeling differently. Emotions are messy, and don’t always correspond neatly to ideology; it’s possible to know that a new relationship poses no threat to an existing one, and yet still struggle with very real pain and insecurity. Respond to your jealous partner with sympathy, not anger. But also, make it clear that your partner needs to be asking for what he or she needs from you, not trying to control your behavior with others. And when your partner does communicate needs and desires, make sure you do your best to meet them. This is how you build trust and security, and prove that your new relationship is not a threat.

Be sympathetic, too, about the pace at which your partner feels comfortable actually spending time with you and your new partner. Respect and recognize that someone saying “I’m not ready to see you two together yet” is not the same as saying “I’m not ready for you two to be together.” I don’t believe in making “rules” to circumscribe the behavior of others, but I do believe we all have a right to make our own decisions about what social situations we are or aren’t feeling ready to put ourselves in. After a time, it might become reasonable and necessary to ask a partner to step out of his or her comfort zone in this regard, but I recommend a willingness to take this part of things slowly if that’s what your partner needs.

I think it’s entirely possible for even monogamous relationships to use this sort of model for dealing with jealousy, rather than falling into the trap of possessive, controlling behavior. And conversely, it’s also possible for poly folks to respond problematically to jealousy, even after we think we’ve left the old paradigm behind. The basic suggestions I’ve offered here are no surefire guarantee that things will always go smoothly and that no one will ever feel hurt or angry. We have to remember how thoroughly we’ve been conditioned to feel jealousy, and to give ourselves permission to have some difficulty overcoming that. But we can’t extend that to permission to control and dehumanize others, regardless of how real our emotional experience of fear might be.

What’s so Bad About Monogamy? Nothing, Except When it’s Compulsory.

Over the years, one thing I’ve encountered many times is the accusation from (some) monogamous folks that poly people present ourselves as “more enlightened” and “smug.” There are bound to be some poly people who legitimately look down their noses at monogamous people, but the vast majority of us are not at all critical of monogamy itself. We’re critical of the institution of compulsory monogamy, the set of norms which present monogamy as the only possible option. Even in trying to clarify this, though, I’ve encountered defensive responses from some monogamous folks: “you’re implying all monogamous people are mindless sheep,” “I freely chose monogamy after considering all the options,” etc. Now, to be clear, I certainly don’t want to imply that anyone is mindless. But the reality is that society does circumscribe the choices we feel capable of making. That doesn’t mean we’re mindless, it means we’re human—social creatures who long for the acceptance of a larger community and are vulnerable to criticism and shame.

If a lot of poly people seem particularly bitter toward compulsory monogamy, and sometimes even toward monogamy itself, it’s probably because very few of us were able to identify and live polyamorously from a young age. Most of us spent years—often long, heartbreaking, damaging years—trying to force ourselves into a kind of relationship that was inauthentic for us. And yes, a lot of us have come out of that holding a bit of a grudge against compulsory monogamy.

I have always been polyamorous. As soon as I was old enough to have serious crushes, I had them on more than one person at a time. I ended some early relationships not because I stopped wanting to be with one guy, but because I started wanting to be with another and thought that was the only option. When I fell deeply in love and knew that I wanted to spend my life with someone, I never considered that could mean anything other than only that someone. The options were either: settle down and remain exclusively with this person you love, or have variety, but without long-term meaning and commitment and depth. I chose love. And I’ll spare you all the drawn-out details, but suffice it to say that I spent several years of marriage trying desperately to actually conform to monogamy. I knew that I loved my husband, that I couldn’t imagine my life without him. I thought that was supposed to just flip a switch to make you stop developing feelings for others, and it felt like something was broken in me when that didn’t happen. I hated myself, I wondered what was wrong with me. The only thing that prevented me from developing feelings for others was completely isolating myself from meeting new people, and that was just trading one misery for another. I contemplated affairs. I contemplated divorce. I contemplated suicide. Realizing I was polyamorous—that I had no choice to be anything but polyamorous—and beginning to actually live authentically to who I am was like opening up the curtains and letting all this sunlight in and seeing things clearly for the first time.

When I look back now on all those years of trying to force myself into contentment with monogamy, it seems absurd. Being happy, having a life that actually feels right, is so easy, and yet I was made to feel that it was impossible. As liberating it was to finally be myself, it was also infuriating to realize that I could have been happy all along if not for some artificial, repressive social structures. And yes, there are moments when that kind of realization does make you want to go up and shout from the rooftops: “look everyone! There’s another way!”

I know that monogamy is right for a lot of people. And I know that a fair amount of people actually are aware of alternatives, and still choose monogamy freely. That’s wonderful. I want all people to be able to live the lives that are right and meaningful for them. But I also know there are still countless people in the same place I was in, trying to force themselves into a role that doesn’t feel right and never will. Right now, there are people who are ending relationships they don’t want to end, or having affairs and hating themselves for it, or forcing themselves to follow the rules but feeling miserable and not understanding why. And I want those people to be able to be happy. I want them to know they can have a different life.

Monogamy, just like any other relationship structure, can be great. But compulsory monogamy, quite plainly, sucks. And just as one can be heterosexual and still hate the institution of compulsory heterosexuality, I hope that even monogamous folks can find it within themselves to sympathize and to understand why I’m not about to stop hating compulsory monogamy anytime soon.

What do Radical Politics have to do with it?

From my experience in poly circles and communities, it seems there’s often a reluctance to talk about politics. There’s something to be said, perhaps, for having politically-neutral spaces where folks can come together for personal advice on dealing with poly issues. But even when conversations turn to poly activism, it seems to me that there’s often a hesitation to link our cause with any bigger socio-political picture, let alone to actually endorse or argue for any specific political position. But I’m going to go ahead and stick my neck out here and talk a bit about why for me, my polyamorous identity and my radical left politics are inseparable.

I have heard a lot of people say things like “I don’t want to politicize my personal relationships.” I get that. I really do. I think it’s a very natural impulse to want our intimate relationships to exist outside of a realm of rational, ideological thought. But here’s the thing: our relationships are already politicized. Whether we’re gay, straight, bi, queer, monogamous, polyamorous, asexual, or whatever nuanced combination of those identities, how we form intimate relationships—and to what degree those relationships are accepted and validated by the society we live in—is hugely shaped by the socio-political context in which we exist.

Making the transition to living polyamrously played a huge role in my personal radicalization. I’d always had socialist leanings and was aware that my opinions were far left of liberal Democrats, but to a certain degree I was comfortable with writing my own ideologies off as extremes that would likely never be reflected or represented by a majority. At the same time, I’d spent years trying to find contentment in monogamy, knowing all along that it wasn’t authentic for me but seeing no other viable alternative. I didn’t see a problem with society for presenting monogamy as the only option, I instead saw flaws within myself for being unsatisfied. When I was finally living in a poly relationship, feeling free to actually be myself for the first time in my life, I couldn’t help but look back and wonder what had taken me so long, and why this had seemed so incredibly impossible. And the answer, of course, was that my life and my choices had been circumscribed by society. I thought of myself as someone who was reasonably comfortable going against the status quo, but even I had some social constructs—like monogamy—that were so deeply internalized, I couldn’t even think to seriously question them, even when they were causing me to suffer. It became incredibly disturbing to me that we are so indoctrinated into the set of norms we live with, we are more prepared to criticize our own inner desires than to criticize the constructs which make those desires shameful. And that realization played a huge role in opening my eyes to just how severely society limits us.

The real crux of all this, of course, is that these limitations exist for a reason. Social norms don’t just happen spontaneously with no larger connection to the structure of the world we live in. These norms serve a purpose, a purpose that almost always has something to do with upholding the current hierarchy. Social constructs are not merely about “tradition,” they’re about protecting the interests of the rich, straight, white men in power. And any social change that didn’t threaten that power structure would be met with little resistance.

Let’s look for just a moment specifically at patriarchy. This is an extremely simplified breakdown, because I don’t want this post to become thesis-length. But to summarize: we live in a patriarchal society. And patriarchy relies on the subordinate position of women. Upholding the dominance of men requires upholding traditional gender roles. And traditional gender roles rely to some degree on traditional relationship structures. Both compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory monogamy, then, help to uphold the patriarchal order. And so on, and so forth, with every intersecting system of oppression we live with.

Now, I want to be clear when addressing these things that I am not suggesting that all leftists reject the institution of monogamy as part of their political position. I don’t believe that something as personal and emotional as our intimate relationships should ever be chosen as a political stance. The aim of radical leftists should be to create a world in which we are all granted the freedom to form intimate relationships authentically, whatever that means for each of us. But I do call on radical leftists to challenge the institution of compulsory monogamy, and to consider the ways that institution both supports and is supported by the other oppressive structures we dedicate ourselves to fighting against.

On the other side of that coin, I call on poly folks to consider the way our struggles to live authentically and to be accepted connect with the bigger hierarchical picture of our society. When I talk about solidarity, I don’t just mean that we sympathize with and support the struggles of other people because we understand what it’s like to be looked down on, too. And I’m not just talking about some kind of reciprocal “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” way of looking at various fights for social justice. I’m talking about actually recognizing the complex system of oppressive social norms that are actually interconnected and are actively working to uphold one another. If you want to fight for poly acceptance but are not also interested in dismantling structures of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism, then I don’t believe you’re seeing the whole picture of society as it actually exists.

I realize this is brief for a discussion of such complex and deep-rooted problems, and I’m sure that some of it probably seems a bit vague and over-simplified. But the bottom line is, I think we need to start a dialogue. If we want to really challenge the status quo, to really disrupt social norms, then we need to start by thinking about where those norms came from, and whose interests they serve.