Tag Archives: rules

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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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.

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.

Some Thoughts on “Primary” and “Secondary” Labels

For those unfamiliar with the terms, “primary” and “secondary” are labels sometimes used by poly folks to identify the nature of various relationships. “Primary” relationships are typically marital or marital-type, cohabitational relationships, whereas “secondary” relationships would generally be more casual in nature. Personally, I’m not a big proponent of such labeling, and the following is a list of the ways I find “primary” and “secondary” designations to be problematic.

1. They imply a hierarchy of relationships.

I think we can all recognize that we have different relationships that have varying degrees of importance in our lives. My relationships with–and responsibilities to–my daughter and my partners are central to my life, and I can acknowledge that in a sense they are of “primary” importance to me. But I would never look at my friendships or my relationships with my extended family and label them as “secondary” relationships. They are simply each unique relationships that are valued as individual connections with individual humans, and I don’t view them in a hierarchical sense in relation to one another. Even among friendships, like most people I have some that are incredibly central to my life and others that involve more occasional contact; many of those relationships have organically shifted to various places on that spectrum over time. But I would see no need to “classify” them in a way that implies a hierarchical order of significance. If it doesn’t feel natural to “rank” our platonic friendships in this way, I wonder why it should be any different with relationships of a romantic nature. Certainly, there are some people who are seeking relationships of a specific variety, with lower expectations of things like time, availability, and commitment. But I believe there are ways to openly and honestly communicate these particular desires without treating relationships as something hierarchical.

2. “Primary” and “secondary” seem to contain an assumption that relationships will be at odds with one another.

Many times, when I hear people describe their reasoning for using these labels, they seem to be thinking ahead to potential conflict, as if being in two or more relationships means constantly having to choose between meeting the needs of two or more people. Designating someone as a “primary,” then, becomes a way of saying “when forced to choose, I will choose you.” But I think, first of all, it’s a rather pessimistic view of relationships to assume that there will constantly be this problem of butting heads. To me, it makes a lot more sense to strive for relationships that co-exist harmoniously, instead of assuming that poly relating means constantly choosing between two conflicting sets of needs and desires. And second, even in situations where there legitimately is a conflict of needs or desires between two relationships, I believe in a much more situational, contextual way of determining which choice to make, rather than a blanket “person A has priority” kind of policy. Again, while I can acknowledge that my daughter and my partners “come first” in a broad sense, there might be times when a friend is in crisis and needs me badly at that time; in that situation, I would prioritize the needs of my friend. Or, there might be times when two different partners want two different things, but one of them is behaving unreasonably or irrationally. Again, I would weigh out the context of the particular situation, rather than giving one person an infinite trump card based on their designated “role.” But again, I find that in situations where everyone involved is committing to harmoniously co-existing, these kinds of “choose between person A and person B” situations are really a rare occurrence, though people seem to imagine that such conflict management must be a constant struggle in poly relationships.

3. These labels imply static, fixed relationship roles.

While I recognize that this isn’t the case for everyone, I personally don’t feel comfortable circumscribing any relationship I enter into by saying that it can only contain such and such degree of commitment/seriousness/time spent together/etc. When my boyfriend and I first started dating, my husband and I had been together for well over a decade and were living together along with our daughter; it would have been easy to view those relationships in a “primary”/”secondary” way. But I was very clear from the start that I had no preconceived notions on the limitations of this new relationship, and I wanted the possibilities to be as open as they would be in a “typical” context. Two years later, those relationships don’t in any way resemble a “primary”/”secondary” division, and they were free to evolve that way at their own natural pace. I realize not everyone is open to the possibility of two or more relationships having equal levels of commitment, but for those of us who are, it seems inauthentic to pigeonhole relationships into pre-defined roles.

4. Such labeling seems to indicate that one partner has authority over relationships with the other(s).

This might not always be the case with folks who use “primary” and “secondary” designations, but at least to me, they seem to often be hierarchical not just in terms of a hierarchy of value/time/commitment, but in terms of an actual hierarchy between partners. I’ve written previously about my feelings about rules in poly relationships, so I’ll avoid going on about them in depth here. But to summarize, I’m not personally in favor of arrangements where one partner is given the ability to dictate the minute details of relationships with others. Oftentimes a “primary partner” label carries with it things like “veto power” (the right to “veto” a partner’s choice of significant other) or the right to micromanage a partner’s other relationships. For me, being polyamorous is about respecting one another’s autonomy, and also loving and respecting one another enough to treat one another with fairness and to recognize and validate each individuals needs without being forced to do so by a set of rules and regulations.

5. These labels reinforce monogamy-centered views that polyamory is all about one central  “couple,” with other relationships on the side.

Many people try to project a rather mono-normative set of expectations onto poly relationships, by assuming that there is always one traditionally committed pair at the center, and all other relationships are inherently more casual “fun on the side.” This phenomenon reminds me of the heteronormative tendency to look at same-sex relationships and assume that one person is more like the “man” and the other the “woman,” rather than recognizing that relationships exist outside of that binary. The reality is that a large number of polyamorous relationships do not fit that model; many include three or more people sharing homes, raising children, and existing as a unified family that cannot be reduced to a central “couple.” Non-poly people seem to often find it easier to relate to polyamorous relationships when they see something there that resembles a more “traditional” pairing. But that view is often far from accurate.

Now, I want to be clear that I do realize not everyone who uses the labels “primary” and “secondary” to describe their relationships is actually behaving in what I would consider to be problematic ways; I understand that sometimes those labels simply seem to make sense for the shape that certain relationships happen to take. But I also believe language has power, and it does make a difference how we choose to describe things to the world; the list above are all factors that, if nothing else, I think folks should take into consideration when deciding what terms they’re comfortable using to identify the people they love.