There were two parts of Chapter Two that were quite interesting to me. One was the gentle suggestion that entering into polyamory with an expectation that relationships (and people) will fit into the little boxes that have been planned out and designated for them is a recipe for disaster. It was an interesting juxtaposition against the questions that finished Chapter One, which asked people to envision what sort of situations they saw in poly. I’m reading that as first encouraging people to imagine scenarios (which may be more or less box-like, depending on the individual), and then if those scenarios were particularly box-like (like say, a couple saying that they will only date people who date their other partner), gently letting them know that people and boxes don’t really go together (now cats and boxes, that’s a whole other ball of wax. or maybe yarn, in the case of cats…).
Having myself had only one experience within polyamory of someone trying to put me into a particular box – I have no desire to go through that again. To call it traumatic would not be exaggerating. Though the experience was deeply disturbing and upsetting, it was helpful in that I learned a lot about the kind of questions that I need to ask someone when initially getting to know them, so that I can steer myself away from future harmful situations.
The other was the idea of there being two axis of poly. The most illuminating part was – aha, yes! – the most extreme end of the “free agent/community oriented” axis is defined as relationship anarchy. Given that Franklin and Eve are including relationship anarchy as a style of poly (instead of a separate type of relationship), I do think that chapter one could benefit from some amount of re-wording so that it’s clear that the book is about ALL loving relationships, not just the romantic and sexual ones.
On the other end of the spectrum, the “community oriented” part of poly, I wonder if the pitfalls of community oriented polyamory may be discussed more in a later chapter, or potentially expanded upon in a later addition. There have been a number of recent blog posts about the emotional harm that occurs when community-oriented polyamorists start putting poly communities and the needs of the community ahead of the needs of the individual. There is a definite need for a deeper dialogue about community-oriented polyamory that doesn’t seek to codify or create One True Way of doing community-oriented polyamory, but does highlight certain behaviors that can be signs of abuse or overly-restrictive control within the community. As Shea Emma Fett wrote in her excellent essay, they following behaviors are excellent warning signs:
- The quality of my relationship with my partner was dependent on the approval of others in the group.
- Withdrawal from the group was seen as “not trying,” resulting in reduced approval.
- It was equal, not really equal. There were double standards for behavior and double standards in the interpretation of behavior.
- The loss of the relationship extended to the home, social network and support network.
- The group or parts of the group typically banded together against one person instead of letting each individual relationship play out.
- There was no good mechanism for setting boundaries.
I have had some experience with forming a polycule. What I learned from that experience is that even if there is only one person within the group focused on an unhealthy amount of control, and desiring to put group dynamics first, then unless all other members of the polycule continuously set strong boundaries around that person and enforce a healthy dynamic, the entire polycule can be sabotaged and turn from a wonderful place of love and support to a place of manipulation and control. In the case of the polycule I had been involved in, it became clear that other members of the polycule were not willing to take the manipulative, controlling member to task over bad behavior. Because of that, I left the polycule; I didn’t want my life to become a series show-downs between myself and the controlling party nor did I want to have to spend an enormous amount of time repeatedly pushing back against the restrictive boundaries that this person wanted to insist upon.
Despite my negative experience, I do believe that it is possible to have healthy, positive polyamorous communities. I think the best way to achieve that is to have an ever-changing community where fairly autonomous members become closer and drift apart as life dictates. It may not be quite the recreation of the intense family/clan that (I suspect) many community-oriented polyamorists are hoping to achieve, but it would forge a community that doesn’t sacrifice individual needs for a nebulous greater-good/idealized version of harmonious living.
On the other axis -solo to entwined- I can see how those things different, and how the two axis working together offer a wide variety of ways to live a happy, loving, and authentic life.
For Jon and myself, I know that we’re both committed to the relationship anarchy end of the first axis. Though we plan to spend the rest of our lives together, neither of us is comfortable with the idea of any person having veto power over our choices. Being true to ourselves must come first. We discuss things with each other as fairly and reasonably as we can (even when they are tough, charged subjects like marriage, or friction with other partners), take time to think about if we’re supportive (or at least OK with) proposed changes or ideas, and act accordingly. Jon and I have very similar thinking on a wide range of subjects, so this has been remarkably easy for us. Even when we have had friction, so far we’ve been able to have a couple back-&-forths tweaking boundaries and exact parameters, and been able to meet in a comfortable middle.
Ostensibly, Lora is also committed to this end of the spectrum. The main reason that I have doubts are her repeated attempts to be coercive and controlling towards Jon. I have sometimes speculated that she’d be more comfortable if she and Jon’s relationship did involve veto power – that is, the ability to demand your partner discontinue a relationship or behavior that you are not comfortable with. But I don’t truly know what she’d prefer, if she really would have a preference towards that, so I do my best to believe her when she says that she is as comfortable at this end of the spectrum as Jon and I are.
On the second axis, for me at least, that changes depending on each individual partner and their needs and desires. Jon is the only person I’ve meet thus far in my life that I’ve had a tangible, painful need to commingle all aspects of my life with. I have shared my home with other partners, like Rachel, and that was delightful. Part of why it was deeply painful to walk away from the toxic polycule I mentioned above (which involved Rachel) is because I do love the idea of having an intentional home with a polycule – if the right people come along at the right time and we figure out a good way to swing it financially, that is definitely something that I’d love to do. In my deepest heart of hearts, I am a sharer both because of the financial sense that it makes to share resources, as well as the wonderful emotions that arise from living in a home with many loving people.
For the rest of the chapter, the part of me that advocates friendship-based polyamorous relationships was somewhat disappointed. It seems (from the personal history that they relate) that Frankly and Eve are both approached polyamory from a place of sexual/romantic relationships that transitioned away from sex and into strong romantic/quasi-friendship relationships. I do deeply appreciate that they mention asexuals several times during this chapter, and how polyamory can potentially create a safe environment for asexuals to have deep, lasting relationships. With polyamory, an asexual who has partners that do crave sexual intimacy can satisfy that need while still loving and honoring their asexual partner.
Being a sexual person myself who loves polyamory for the ability it gives me to have serious, committed relationships with friends, I would like to see that perspective acknowledged too. I have to say that I wonder if I’m an anomaly – do most polyamorous people who find sex an important component of relationships generally only seek our relationships that include sex and romance from the beginning? Is a prior sexual relationship nearly always the foundation to a long-term relationship that doesn’t include sex? Maybe this is something that I need to ask other poly friends, to see what experience they have with friendship-based polyamory.
Lastly, the part about polyamory being about people; people, not need-filling machines – that’s an important thing to me. In the one prior relationship where I felt like I was suddenly and unwillingly being forced into a box, I think it’s accurate to say that I did feel like I was being treated as a need-filling machine – when I made it clear that I was not and did not want to fit in the meat little box that had been made up for me, things fell apart. Advocating for myself meant the end of a relationship (though it was initially pitched as “a separation for a while, until things cool down”. I guess they never cooled down).
People aren’t swappable cogs. Sometimes multiple people can fill the same need, yes, but they may do it in different ways, and they will definitely bring other different things to the table. They should be honored for those differences. And if a person’s uniqueness makes them an unsuitable partner, both parties should be able to part ways without implying (or outright suggesting) that the other person is wrong simply for being who they are. It is certainly possible for this to become painful frustrating – I imagine I’m not the only one out there who has met someone who was sooooo close to being a wonderful partner, but those few little differences were enough that it just wasn’t going to be workable – but that’s part of what living is about. We meet new people and together decide if/how we want to make room in our lives for each other. Forever being able to meet someone new and get to know them and learn new things from them is part of the allure of life, don’t you think?
And once again, we’re at the end of the chapter with its questions:
What are my needs in relationships? Are they attached to specific people? That is, do I need these things generally, or do I need them just from certain people?
Well, that’s certainly a big question! My basic needs in relationships: love and respect. Those are needed in all my relationships. Needed in some relationships: sex, physical intimacy, hobbies/interesting in common. Those can mix and match as people come in and out of my life.
What configurations am I open to? Am I looking for a particular configuration because I’m afraid that others might be more scary or more threatening?
I’m pretty open to any configuration that allows all parties to follow their hearts (even if that means following them to places that I can’t go), so long as everybody is able to do so equally and everybody feels good in the configuration.
Am I flexible in what I’m looking for?
Flexibility is my middle name.
If my relationship changes, is that ok? Can I accommodate change even unexpected change or change I don’t like?
It depends. Relationships do change over time – I think that’s a given, whether we like it or not. Some changes can be rolled with, and some changes mean that a relationship transitions into a new place. Both of those are fine with me.
When I visualize the kind of relationship I want, how much space does it leave for new partners to shape the relationship to their needs?
This one is impossible for me to answer right now. With the on-going health issues that I have, all I have energy for is my relationships with Jon and Lora, as well as keeping in some amount of contact with other lovers. I hope to someday be in a place where I can look outward again, instead of so deeply inward.
Am I focusing on an idealized fantasy more than on making organic connections with real people?
What happens if I connect with someone in a way that differs from how I want my poly relationship to look? What message does that send to someone who doesn’t fit neatly into my dreams?
Once again, it depends. It depends on the person, on what is different, on where I see it taking me and that hypothetical person. The message that I would want to send to someone who doesn’t fit neatly into my dreams is that regardless of what happens between us, they are wonderful and deserve to be cherished for who they are, and in relationships where they can be who they are. Whether or not that will happen with me is up to each individual relationship, but if it doesn’t happy with me, that doesn’t mean that I consider them any less wonderful or valuable or deserving of love.