Tag Archives: poly basics

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.

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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.

Q & A: Advice for Singles Seeking Poly Relationships

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: “I was wondering what advice or information you might be able to share for someone single looking to step into the Poly lifestyle (in the true sense of being Poly, versus just the sexual aspects).”

 

A: First of all, congratulations! You’re fortunate to already know you want a polyamorous relationship while single—in many ways, this is a much simpler starting point than the process of “converting” a pre-existing relationship from monogamous to polyamorous. But of course, there are still specific concerns that come along with dating and seeking poly relationships, and envisioning the poly life ahead of you. I’m sure this advice is by no means complete, but I hope it’s useful to you on your journey.

 

Think about what kind of relationship you want. Read books and websites and message boards where people are discussing their relationship configurations, and think about what sounds like the best fit for you. Do you want to become involved with someone in an already-existing web of relationships? Do you want to be the third member in a closed triad with a married couple? Do you want to focus on building a relationship with one person with the knowledge that you’re both open to additional relationships in the future? Do you envision yourself building a life and a home and a family with two or more long-term committed partners? Having at least some idea of what your ideal relationships look like can help you to know if a potential partner is a good fit for you. At the same time, however…

Remain flexible. There might be some things you’re certain you would never want, and it’s cool to know your own boundaries. But remain open to the idea that what you end up wanting might look different than what you thought you wanted in the beginning. Back when I was still monogamous, I used to think my ideal was to have only fairly casual romantic relationships outside of my marriage. But in practice, I quickly learned that I wanted something much more serious than that with an additional partner.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. If you start dating someone, be upfront about the kind of relationship you’re looking for. Even if this person is already identifying as poly, that can mean a lot of different things to different people, and different poly folks are looking for different things out of particular relationships. It’s difficult, but talk about your hopes and desires for the relationship as early on as possible. Of course, you can never know precisely what the future holds. But a simple clarification of whether you’re seeking a deeply romantic partnership, a friend to have fun with with few expectations attached, or anything in-between, can go along way in ensuring that you’re both on the same page.

Don’t limit yourself to only dating already-poly-identified people. Some poly folks disagree strongly with this, and swear that the best way to avoid drama is to stick to relationships only with others who are already living polyamorously. While I understand their reasoning, I also recognize that poly is something many, many people are entirely unfamiliar with, and there is always a possibility that you could introduce the concept to someone who thinks it sounds like a wonderful idea. Be willing to have conversations with others about poly, and to share sources of information that you’ve found useful (I always recommend Franklin Veaux’s website to poly newcomers). If you do date non-poly folks, though, be sure to disclose your poly desires right away. You don’t want to hurt anyone by being dishonest, and you also don’t want to spend time getting invested in a relationship if someone is going to be absolutely unreceptive to non-monogamy.

Remember that you have a right to express your feelings and needs. This particularly applies in a situation where you start dating someone who’s already partnered, particularly if they’re looking for more of a “secondary” relationship, though it can be relevant in a variety of situations. Of course, you should always be respectful of the relationship that existed before you came into the picture, and treat your partners’ other partners well. But that doesn’t mean that you are no longer a human being with needs and desires of your own. You’re still entitled to talk about what you want and how you feel, and you should never be made to feel like you don’t have a right to express those things.

And finally, the number one biggest piece of advice I would give all people about to embark on poly relationships…

Expect challenges. Even though you know this is what you want and you’re totally committed to it, chances are there will be times you struggle with it. I can almost guarantee that at some point in the future, you will feel jealous or insecure, and you will need to work through that. This isn’t a matter of how truly poly you are or how ideologically committed you are to the idea of being in poly relationships; emotions don’t always answer so neatly to ideology. If you think the fact that you’re enthusiastically choosing to partner this way means you will never struggle with the realities of living polyamorously, you will be completely blindsided by these feelings when and if they do occur. It’s also easy to fall into a trap of silencing and dismissing your own feelings because they seem irrational or don’t fit with your concept of yourself as a poly person. It’s far better to be prepared for these feelings in advance, and to realize that it won’t always be easy. When challenges do arise, acknowledging them and dealing with them head on will be far more productive in the long run than trying to repress and deny any negative feelings you have.

Good luck, and I hope your process of finding poly relationships is a fulfilling one!

Have questions you’d like to see answered here? E-mail them to angi.becker.stevens@gmail.com, with “Poly Q & A” in the subject line.

On “Having Your Cake and Eating it Too”

As someone who happens to be the “hinge of the V” in my relationships–I’m in two relationships and my partners are only in a relationship with me–one of the judgments I encounter a lot from others is this notion that I’m “having my cake and eating it too,” that our relationships are somehow unfair because I have two partners and they each only have me. I’m not exactly sure what people envision, perhaps that I just lounge around in bed all day while men lavish me with attention and feed me chocolates. But regardless, I’d like to take a minute to dissect this particular complaint about relationships like mine.

First and foremost, I think a lot of people take the notion of “balance” in relationships far too literally when considering poly relationships. “Fair” does not mean that everyone does exactly the same things, and that because I have two partners, the only way for our relationships to be fair is if they each have another partner as well. To me, “fair” means that everyone involved has the equal right to do whatever makes them happy. My partners are both free to have other relationships if they want, and, at least for now, that’s not what they want. I, clearly, do want to be in two relationships. So everyone is doing this the way they want, and everyone is happy and fulfilled. The same goes for what’s “fair and balanced” within poly relationships. One of my partners hates sleeping with someone else in the bed, and the other is quite fond of snuggling at night (as am I). So what’s “fair” is that the people who like to sleep in the same bed get to sleep together, and the other gets his bed all to himself. It wouldn’t make anyone happy or comfortable if we felt the need to impose some “perfect balance” in which I alternated who I slept with every other night. That kind of “balance” would mean rationalizing our relationships to an extent that totally denies the reality of our individual wants and needs.

Second, I really don’t understand this attempt to place human relationships into some kind of mathematical equation. The way people seem to view it, I get 100% from both of my partners, while they each only get 50% from me. But I just don’t believe human relationships are quantitative like that, for one thing. And if we are going to try to use numbers here, no one gets 100% from anyone. We all have other important things in our lives: work, school, family, friendship, hobbies, activism, creative pursuits, any number of things that matter to us. Why do people see it as though my husband has to “share” me with my boyfriend, but I don’t have to “share” him with the time he spends playing guitar or riding his bicycle? We’re all juggling multiple interests and multiple relationships (even if they’re not romantic); this is healthy and normal. No one in their right mind would pity one of my partners because I sometimes spend time alone writing, so why should they be objects of pity if I sometimes leave them alone to spend time with another person? And while we’re at it, I find it a pretty flawed assumption that either of my partners want 100% of my time and attention. Personally, I think 100% of anyone’s time and attention would be a pretty overwhelming thing.

The last thing I find perplexing about this way of thinking is the implication that I just get all of the “perks” in this situation. As anyone who’s ever been in a committed, long-term relationship can tell you, such relationships take time, energy, and effort. My husband jokes all the time that there’s no way on Earth he’d ever want to deal with two of those at the same time. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but he’s still got a point. I don’t mean to make it sound like my relationships are just work, because that’s not true at all; they’re both completely fulfilling and joyful and fun. But it would be a lie to say that there’s no investment of time and energy involved. I don’t just passively receive love and attention from both of my partners, I give those things, too. And I don’t think my relationships would be so great if I gave only half of what they each give me. It’s interesting that when we look at, say, a mother with three kids, we don’t say: oh, she gets all the love and adoration of three children, but they each only get a third of her love and attention. No, we generally praise the mother for being able to love and nurture three kids. Or, when we see someone with a large circle of friends, we don’t say: oh, she’s so spoiled, having that many people who care about her. On the contrary, we probably assume she must be a good, caring friend to be able to maintain all of those relationships. Why, then, is the person with multiple romantic relationships thought to be “spoiled,” “having their cake and eating it too”?

It would be ideal, really, if people would look at my relationships–and all poly relationships–without the basic assumption that someone must be benefitting and someone else must be suffering. There are all kinds of configurations of relationships, and I find the reasonable thing is to assume–unless given actual reason to believe otherwise–that all the people involved in any particular configuration are there because it works for them, because it’s a happy and fulfilling situation for all involved. What could be more fair than that?

Poly Basics: What is Polyamory, Anyway?

By its most basic definition, polyamory is the practice of engaging in more than one simultaneous romantic relationship, with the full knowledge and consent of all involved. But one of the most awesome and also the most challenging things about polyamory is that there is no one way to do it. Unlike traditional relationships, there is also no simple social script to follow, no built-in notion of what it means to be someone’s girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse. Stepping outside of the normal model forces everyone involved in poly relationships to communicate very clearly about what their desires and expectations are within in the relationship. By its very nature, polyamory resists a simple and singular definition.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that sometimes debate rages about what the word “polyamory” means. Personally, I’m not a big fan of trying to tell other people how they can and cannot identify themselves. At the same time, though, I do think there’s a point at which it matters for a word to have a clear meaning, especially when people are fighting for acceptance and awareness of a particular identity. Some people use the word “polyamory” as a catch-all to include all kinds of (open and honest) non-monogamous practices; others feel it should be reserved only for those maintaining multiple serious, committed relationships, and should never include “casual” sex. Myself, I tend to favor more expansive definitions rather than restrictive ones. But there is a place where I feel a need to draw a line in the sand.

By my definition, “polyamory” means that there is at least the possibility of non-monogamous relationships becoming something more than strictly sexual. I don’t think that means all relationships must necessarily be of the emotionally intimate, committed variety in order to claim the label “polyamorous;” just like people who are ultimately interested in monogamous relationships, people in poly relationships are human beings with a wide range of sexual/romantic interests and desires–we’re not all just looking to fall madly in love and settle down at all points in our lives. The only type of non-monogamous relationship I’m willing to exclude from the polyamory camp is the kind of relationship where people are only permitted to seek sex–not love–outside of their existing relationship.

It’s important to be clear, though, that excluding some kinds of relationships from the definition of polyamory doesn’t mean that I think they’re somehow inferior, they’re simply a different flavor of non-monogamy. Plenty of people have arrangements like this, where they’re allowed to be sexually non-monogamous but not to develop any romantic emotional attachments to their other sexual partners. I’m all for such arrangements as long as they work well and are fulfilling for everyone involved; I’m strongly supportive of any circumstances where people manage to negotiate the relationship terms that work best for their particular needs and desires. I certainly don’t believe in privileging any one form of non-monogamy over any other–we should all be allies in advocating for the ability to form relationships however we see fit. But I also believe it can be useful to acknowledge and identify the differences in our various non-monogamous practices while still being respectful and supportive of one another.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that if someone you know or are interested in becoming involved with identifies as polyamorous, you can’t simply rely on an assumption about precisely what that means. Personally, I’m in two committed, long-term relationships, neither of which I see as “primary” over the other. In poly-lingo, our relationship is called a “V” with me at the vertex and my two partners at the ends; the word “triad” typically refers to situations where all 3 folks are romantically involved with one another. Some poly folks have “closed” agreements–often called “poly-fidelity”–that that they will not date or become intimate with others outside of a committed group of 3 or 4 (or more). Some maintain a “primary” relationship–often a marriage–as well as other “secondary” relationships which are emotionally attached but less central to their lives. And these are just a few common examples. Ultimately, if you want to know exactly what polyamory means to someone in your life, the best thing to do is ask. I can’t speak for all of us, but I can’t imagine any poly folks would be offended by a genuine attempt at deeper understanding.