How do you determine what’s adequate in a poly relationship?

 

I don't think the larger cultural context is the sole determinant of whether 
behavior is ethical. The larger cultural context is important because of 
people's expectations. However, and this is where polyamory comes in, one 
cannot determine whether something is ethical *solely* by looking at the 
cultural context. One must look at both the cultural context and the 
individual context. 

So a poly relationship in which the participants have thought about how
their situation differs from the norm and have agreed that's OK is ethical.

However, in the cultural context, polyamory is wrong, and so to assume
that someone would be open to it is wrong. Let's say that you were
polyamorous and got involved with someone, but didn't tell zir. Then you
got into another relationship, and when zie found out about it, zie got
upset. You couldn't claim ethical behavior by saying "But we never agreed
on monogamy so I thought it was OK to be poly." The cultural context is
that monogamy is the norm, and it is up to the poly person, who has an
ethical system that differs from the norm, to be aware of the difference
and inform the people zie interacts with if it's relevant to them.

I start at the cultural level in determining ethics of behavior because I 
think that most people "default" to the cultural norm. They create special 
codes of ethics of their own in some parts of their lives (rejecting the 
cultural norm because they disagree with it) and in other cases they create 
special codes because of the idiosyncracies of the specific situation.
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Polyamory: Find Out How This Group Of Polyamorous People Makes It Work!

The concept of nonmonogomous, consensual, structured relationships is an old idea. From King David’s harem and the Mahabharata’s princess with five husbands to the early Mormons to turn-of-the-century free-love communities, people have looked for workable alternatives to monogamy and cheating.

People exploring nonmonogamy these days use a lot of different terms to describe their lifestyles, including “polyfidelity” and “polyamory”.

The two words are more-or-less interchangeable, though the former is more likely to be used by people who consider their current multi-partner setups more or less stable and who aren’t taking or looking for other mates.

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I had a long, boistrous chat with 14 “polys” I met through a computer bulletin board. They came from a variety of backgrounds, although the plurality were middle-aged hippies who hadn’t stopped questioning society’s norms. There were heteros, lesbians, gays, and a few bi males. (One man said he got into the poly world because he’d fallen in love with a woman but didn’t want to give up men.) They were currently and/or formerly in a variety of nontraditional partnerships–triads, quads, “Vs” (one person who sleeps with two other people who don’t sleep with each other). Some were in closed relationships; some had “primary” partners plus other lovers.

They met me after their regular Polyfidelity Potluck, where they’d dined with fellow polys (and people interested in becoming polys) and discussed issues relating to their lifestyle. Some of them also meet regularly for group massage and hot-tub parties. Some were raising children, conceived with present or previous partners.

(Everybody here is identified by a fake name unless otherwise noted. Some of them say that in their particular workplaces or social situations, it’s easier to come out as gay or bisexual than as having multiple lovers.)

How they got into it

Several said they’d found their way into the poly life after unsatisfying experiences with impersonal promiscuity, either on their own or in the swinger underground. That lifestyle delivered sexual variety but left the spirit very unfulfilled. George, one of the over-40s in the group, said, “What I found in this community was a way to fall in love again. I spent 15 years after my divorce fucking my brains out, keeping loving relationships at arms length.”

George, 50, has had “lovers who were significantly younger than I. It wasn’t like we were bonded in some perverse monogamous way. They weren’t going to be caring for me when I was 80 or anything.”

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Carol had been in a longterm relationship with Mark, when she began to have affairs in secret. “He found out. We went to a polyfidelity workshop. I was amazed by the integrity, the quality of the people I’ve found. It seemed like a workable model. It’s forced us to be honest in a way I’d never dreamed we could be.”

Mark, Carol’s lover, said he found people in the poly subculture seemed to be “much more vulnerable and open. That’s helped me relax a lot.”

Kathy and her lover had been involved in the swinger subculture. “There was a lot of free sex, but a taboo on being lovers.” She longed to share hearts with more than one person, not just orgasms. She said she’s found this in the poly subculture. “I never felt much jealousy, any reason any relationship should do away with any other relationship.”

Gina originally was “with a partner, sort of by chance monogomous. He was getting restless, concerned about being stuck in a relationship. He broached the subject of being with other people. I said, `It sounds like fun. Sure. Now what do we do?’ Nothing happened for a while. We answered ads in Fantasies (a swinger magazine). They were swinger or cruiser types, just in it for sex. It didn’t work out. But from one step after another, we found a community. This community, this family, is very important to me.”

The community

Scott came to the meeting with his female lover; both have spouses. “This is a community of people who understand open sexuality, the possibilities of nonmonogamy. They can pull together in understanding, better than a monogamous group can. My wife wanted to leave me 10 years ago. Our lovers came to us; they offered consolation and love in a non-judgemental way. They gave us the support to stay together.

“I haven’t been in a committed relationship, because I didn’t want the baggage of coupledom. The group gave me a new vision of coupledom: of giving each relationship its full potential, the full open range of what each particular relationship has.”

Melanie, Scott’s lover, was one of the founders of the potlucks. She said she was initally surprised at the degree of bisexual affection she found when she joined the polyfi community, even among the men. “Sexuality among the same sex is always there. You won’t do it with someone of the same sex necessarily, but when you remove the artificial barriers to it, it all opens up.”

George believes some people are destined to be in love with more than one person at a time. “Most cupids have a few bows and arrows; some have submachine guns.” George also differentiates between the poly subculture, with its emphasis on safe sex and mutual support, and unthinking promiscuity. “What we’re doing has some basic tenets; honesty and consensuality especially. Adultery is a part of monogamy. What we’re doing is different from that. People in this group are interested in sexuality and expanding it. We push the boundaries of sex, the whole gradation between shaking hands and fucking one’s brains out.”

How they work it out

Gene, one of the younger potluck members at age 29, came to the group interview with his lover and her three children. His wife was out of town that week. “We agreed to this when we got married over 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s unreasonable to assume that one person would be your be-all and end-all for the rest of your life.”

Still, he noted that “you trade one set of problems for another when you’re willing to let your partner look at other people naked and want to touch them.”

Janet agreed that with a consensual poly life you get rid of the dishonesty that comes with cheating, as well as the frustrations that come with unrequited desires, but you still have to deal with the natural jealousy. “You shouldn’t expect the jealousy to ever go away, but you learn to live with it.”

Scott has “a primary partner who has a wife; but her wife doesn’t do boys.” He said every nonmonogamous relationship sets up its own boundaries: “Just about everyone’s negotiated their comfort level with their partners.”

Another problem, and the main reason everyone in the interview wanted fake names, was outside intolerance. “We get targeted by the religious right just like any other sexual minority,” Scott added. “We sometimes call it `dysphilia,’ the inability to love or the fear of love.”

Outside intolerance is especially tough when partners in an open or multiple relationship are raising children; neighbors, school officials, and government agencies have been known to interfere in nontraditional households with kids. Marianne, 42, has been in one nonmonogamous relationship or another her whole adult life. She believes children can get more care and attention in non-nuclear families. “Groups are a wonderful way to raise children. Children really benefit when there are more adults around.”

One woman’s story

After two “triads,” Marianne fell in love with a UW researcher four years ago. “He hadn’t done multiple relationships before. He said `Let’s be open to it in the future.’ Then in grad school, he began studying with a woman. We all became friends.

“Then we got a national newsletter about multiples. He was reading it, came to bed, and said he’d like a `secondary’ relationship with this woman. We finally figured out the thing that would be most comfortable for me is that they’d see each other every Wednesday. It wasn’t strict, but it was a framework. We tried a threesome once, but she was uncomfortable with it. That relationship went on for over a year. She went on to other things. It just faded. We’re still open to other intimate relationships in our life. He again has a woman he sees once a week. I don’t think they’re sexual and I don’t care.”

Differences of interest

Professional counselor Kathy Severson (her real name) recently advertised in the Stranger Bulletin Board for a nonmonogamy discussion group she wanted to start. She got 26 responses from men and only one from a woman. She placed a similar ad in the Lesbian Resource Center’s paper and got no responses. Severson, herself a participant in a lesbian poly relationship, believes women (gay or straight) are more hesitant than men (gay or straight) about expressing a desire for multiple partnerships–even though women can be about as likely as men to cheat on their lovers. “My perception is that gay men have an easier time accepting nonmonogamy; while lesbians resist the idea. It’s more how we’re socialized as men and as women.”

Severson says she’s sometimes “astounded” by some people’s lack of curiosity about alternate relationships. “It threatens what they’re doing. You talk about it and they give you this stony-faced look. Lifelong monogamy is an ideal some people don’t want to give up, even people who’ve come out as lesbians and gays….The nuclear family model has been so destructive. It isolates people. The ownership issue in monogamy still needs to be questioned, the notion that `I own your body.’ We want to control, to define everything, including our most intimate relationships. There’s all that angst going on, with all the divorces and unhappy couples out there, but when you suggest alternatives you get such resistance….We have knowledge of how to live without fear, scarcity or ownership. But here we are, bound in structures and contracts that bind us. To heal that dichotomy is the challenge.”

In her work, Severson has found two main ways people come into non-couples.

“There are some people who discover nonmonogamy consciously, on their own or with a partner, try to consciously come to a new way to relate. The other group are those like me who almost accidentally find our way into questioning the dominant relationship structures. I fell in love two years ago with a woman who had another lover. Since then, nonmonogamy has been my group and counseling focus for about two years.”

One of her favorite aspects of nonmonogamy is its opportunity for what counselors like to call `personal growth.’ “Each relationship calls forth different aspects of your being. If we are secure enough to say `I know I’m special to you,’ why set up road blocks to people’s energies?”

Still, Severson is the first to admit a nonmonogamous life creates as many challenges as opportunities. “It’s about being completely present to whoever I’m with. There are questions of time, space, and energy when you’re trying to be a real intimate partner with even one person, let alone two. If you bring a level of consciousness to a relationship, it’ll do well.”

What to do if your partner is uncomfortable with the idea of polyamory?

My partner and I went through a period where we had agreed to be
poly, but I was feeling pretty insecure about it and felt that I might go
out of control if/when he did start pursuing other relationships.

I did have a very hard time the first few times he had dates with other
women, even though those dates didn't amount to much. During the period
where I was waiting for him to develop a relationship, sometimes both of
us wished that he would just go *do* one and get it over with.
openlypoly-poly-family

To my surprise, I began worrying about it less over time, as I saw that he
was giving me a lot of room for my feelings. I guess what I was really
afraid of was that I would have a very strong reaction and it would
frighten or anger him and we'd end up in an escalating fight. That didn't
happen, and I found once I'd had a strong reaction to something, and he
accepted it, the reaction tended mostly not to occur again.  There have
been certain exceptions to this, but they are few enough that we've been
able to make agreements about how to avoid them.

As for explaining that poly doesn't mean your partner "isn't giving you 
something" -- well, in a way, she isn't giving you something. She isn't 
giving you the experience of knowing many people, because she is only one 
person and she simply can't give you that. Maybe it would be better to be 
honest about that instead of trying to insist that she is giving you 
everything you want. (To be sure, she may be giving you everything you want 
and expect from *her*, and be sure to make that clear.)

How To Express Your Important Relationships To Others?

Primary partner

A person with whom I have agreed to share and plan a future. This
person gets a lot of say in my day-to-day life and I get a lot of say
in zirs.

openlypoly-english-old-guys

My lovers, friends, relatives, and acquaintances know that I have a
primary partner and most of them know who zie is. My partner also
discloses zir relationship with me similarly.

Secondary partner, lover, sweetie

A person with whom I have a strong, ongoing relationship, usually with
romantic and sexual aspects. Someone whom I make an effort to see
regularly*. However, these people do not have a lot of say in my
day-to-day life, other than being able to expect a regular share of my
time/energy, and I don’t have a say in their lives.

My close friends, lovers, and partner know that I have secondary
partners and know who most of those people are. (My primary partner
knows all of them.) Acquaintances and relatives don’t know the exact
nature of these relationships — to them, I describe these people as
friends.

* “regularly” means “at approximately regular intervals”, e.g., once
every couple of weeks.

Friend

A person with whom I have a mutual relationship based on respect and
affection. There may be sexual/romantic aspects. We do not expect to
see each other regularly and we do not have any say in each other’s
lives.

My partner knows who most of my friends are. My lovers and close
friends know who some of my friends are. My relatives and acquaintances
may know a few of my friends.

When we’re in public together, my partner and I tend to describe ourselves
as partners, tend to spend a lot of time sitting or standing next to each
other, and tend to touch, cuddle, and kiss a lot. We usually spend more
time with each other than with other people, or we interact with people
together. We feel free to walk in on each other’s interactions with other
people.

When I am in public with a lover, I tend to touch zir frequently and spend
more time with zir than with other people. I may periodically walk into
zir interactions with others, but first I gauge whether the interaction
looks open to visitors or not. This behavior is subject to approval by the
lover and zir partners, if any. Some of my lovers ask me not to touch them
in public.

When I’m in public with a friend, I may behave similarly as with a lover,
but I will probably be somewhat more reserved about approaching zir
interactions with others and touching zir.

If I encounter a friend in public, I often hug zir hello and goodbye.

If I encounter a lover in public, I may engage in some more physical
activities, such as sensual hugging or caressing, depending on whether zie
seems open to such behavior, and depending on my agreements with my primary
partner.

With my primary partner — this behavior doesn’t change if there are
onlookers.

With lovers — I tend to be somewhat more reserved about touching them in
public than in private.

With friends — my behavior doesn’t change.

I simultaneously express multiple relationships by:

(1) Informing the people I am involved with, or I am considering becoming
involved with, of the fact that I have a primary partner and other lovers.
Having a conversation about what behaviors are comfortable for zir and what
our expectations might be.

(2) Informing the people I am involved with what they can expect from me in
terms of time/energy/behavior, and informing them of other priorities in
my life. Negotiating if there are disagreements. Sticking to agreements
we’ve made.

(3) Honoring my relationship with someone by scheduling regular time with
zir and focusing on zir during that time (unless there’s an emergency or
my primary partner asks for my attention, which zie wouldn’t do unless
there were a very good reason). Not letting myself get distracted by other
people or things.

(4) If I am with multiple lovers at one time, making sure to spend
approximately equal amounts of energy on each one, either separately or
together (except that I may spend more energy on my primary partner). If
spending time with several people at once, making sure that the energy
among us feels good.

Jealousy/insecurity have arisen in situations where my primary partner and
I spent time together in public. We dealt with that by agreeing that we
could interrupt each other at any time and that we would be very reserved
about physical contact with other people when we are together in public.
(What seems to work best, if physical contact is involved, is for us both
to be touching the same person(s) at the same time.)

No jealousy/insecurity seems to have arisen with any of my other partners.
I’m not sure why this is. Either we’re doing something right, or my
partners aren’t telling me when they feel jealous, or they aren’t jealous
types, or something.

I tend to express those things in private conversation with a person I
might be interested in. I also tend to meet people in contexts where it is
easier to express my non-standard relationship arrangement (i.e., poly
groups, science fiction groups, pagan groups, BDSM groups, the net).

If part of what you are asking is “How do I pick up someone at a party if
I am supposed to be at the party with someone else”: I don’t tend to do
that, because it goes against my desire to honor someone by focusing on
zir during the time we’ve agreed to spend together. I might spend a few
minutes chatting with a new person and might express an interest in
getting to know zir better, but I probably wouldn’t spend significant
time with zir right then.

In public, I want my primary partner to be available to me and to spend
more of zir time interacting with me, or including me in zir interactions
with others, than interacting with any single other person. I’ve had
problems when a primary partner went off in a corner with someone else for
most of the evening. I have also had problems if a primary partner seemed
to be touching someone else more than me. To me, spending most of one’s
time touching a specific person signifies “This is my partner,” or “this
is the person here who is most important to me.”

Sometimes my partner and I go to parties separately if we want to be free
to spend time with others as we please.

I expect friends and lovers to be available to me a reasonable amount of
the time if we have agreed that we are going to a public function
“together.” I would consider it rude if a friend or lover went into a
corner with someone else after making such an agreement. If a lover
happens to be at the function and we aren’t there together, then I expect
zir to acknowledge me, but I don’t expect zir to spend substantial time
with me or be available to me.

So my expectations have a little bit to do with labels for the
relationship, but more to do with labels for the kind of interaction we
are “doing” at this function — are we doing the function “together”? Or
are we on our own?

I rank my primary relationship “higher” than my secondary relationships
(meaning that my primary relationship gets the lion’s share of my
time/energy and gets priority if there is a conflict).

But among my secondary relationships, I perceive no ranking. I try to
treat my lovers with approximate equality — spend more-or-less equal
amounts of time/energy with each of them (especially if I am with several
of them at once). None of my lovers has complained about how I’ve handled
this, for whatever reasons.

Is it polyamorous and ethical to date two people without their knowledge?

It’s true that the relationships would probably change if you told the people about each other. And I’m not surprised you want to keep things the way they are, since you enjoy it. But do keep in mind that

(1) Your behavior is unethical by many people’s systems of ethics. What is your system of ethics based on? How do you justify your behavior in your system?

(2) At some point one or both of your girlfriends will probably find out, and the relationships will change anyway. But if they find out without your telling them, they may have a stronger sense of betrayal and that may make it worse for you and them.

I’m sure you feel that you care about them.

openlypoly-poly-family

But to me, caring about someone is not just a feeling. It also means doing your best not to hurt the person.

In this case, you are setting your girlfriends up for a very big disappointment down the road, when they discover you’ve been hiding the existence of other relationships. I don’t think that’s very caring at all. I think it’s downright mean and nasty.

When you say you care about them, don’t you really mean that you enjoy being around them? But you aren’t really looking out for their long-term interests, or even your own. You’re only looking out for your short-term interests — you don’t want to have to change the relationships. You prefer to hide your head in the sand and wait until the situation blows up and the relationships change on their own, possibly more painfully.

You have two ethical choices, the way I see it:
1. End your relationship with one or both of them.
2. Tell them both you’re involved with someone else and you don’t intend to give up either relationship. Then work with them on whatever feelings might come up.

Most people who do polyamory believe that it is about having multiple relationships *openly and honestly*, not simply about having multiple relationships. Lots of people cheat.

Are primates naturally polyamorous?

Primates have a variety of sexual behavior patterns, but having one mate for life (monogamy) is one of the rarer patterns. Mating with more than one other, openly or secretly, is more common.

openlypoly-really-manly

If you look at homo sapiens behavior, you see that a frequent behavior pattern is having one or more “official” mates (most often one), with the “official” cultural position that monogamy is appropriate, while a number of secret sexual and/or love affairs take place on the side (among both men and women). This is not polyamory. I’m not sure what to name it.

This pattern also occurs in various other primate species.

A great many other behavior patterns are also represented, including polyamory. I don’t think there is any one single “natural” behavior pattern for humans, or for males, or for females. Humans learn most of their behavior rather than acting from instinct.

How Do You Distinguish Different Kinds Of Relationships And Communicate Your Intentions?

Perhaps one way to explain your position to your partners is to say that you are, in a sense, your own primary partner. If I have no primary, then I automatically assign a higher value to my own needs/wants than to others’ (in a sense, I am my own primary).

openlypoly-kerista-poly-commune

If I decide that someone is no longer primary, I tend to state that very clearly.

So let’s say I have no ranked relationships. Each person gets a certain amount of my time and understands that I rank my needs/wants somewhat more important than zirs.

Now I decide that one of these people is my primary. What changes is that I rank this person’s needs/wants equal to mine. The rules about others would change if my primary and I agreed that they should change. Otherwise not. In reality what would probably change is that I might have somewhat less flexibility in scheduling time with my other partners.

Let’s say I have a primary and some other relationships. I decide I no longer want the person to be a primary. I tell the person I no longer consider zir a primary, and I go back to having no ranked relationships.

Again, the only change is that I no longer rank one person’s needs/wants equal to mine.

I tend to make the actual transition from one “label” to another rather decisively. If I want to make a transition, I tend to think about it a lot first, and I tend to hold off on behaving in ways that don’t fit the label, because I believe such behavior causes additional stress in the relationship.

If someone is repeatedly behaving “outside the label,” I will tend to say that I want to change the label until further evidence has been gathered. Let’s say I have a secondary partner who is not able to schedule regular get-togethers. I will tell zir “let’s call ourselves friends rather than secondary partners” because I have different expectations for friends and I won’t be upset at the mismatch.