I get around this by challenging the assumptions about how much time you have to spend with a partner. Except for my primary partner, rather than time-per-day or time-per-week, I think of total-time. So I see each of my secondary partners once every week or two, and keep in touch via email and phone in the meantime. When I'm starting a relationship this sometimes doesn't feel like enough. But as the relationship continues over time, I begin to feel comfortable in that relationship, as I would in a relationship where I was spending more time-per-week, because of the long shared history. This probably only works for people who feel OK about having secondary partners, of course, and doesn't exactly fit the subject line.
I think that most people grow up with the models of monogamy and of official-relationship + clandestine-relationships, and I think one of the biggest difficulties in polyamory is shifting to a model of several known relationships with knowledge and communication among all partners.
I also think, as someone who had a lot of difficulty with it, that the shift is well worthwhile.
I feel much safer being able to talk to my partner’s other partners.
But being forced into it isn’t the greatest idea. Proceed slowly, say that you and your wife would prefer more open communication (if that’s true of your wife), but that you aren’t going to rush things and you’ll proceed that way only if and when she says she’s ready.
I would put one exception in there: Insist that if your relationship with her were to deepen or change in a way you didn’t anticipate, you reserve the right to tell your wife. A great many severe poly problems have developed because someone fell in love and began wanting changes in the kind of relationship zie had with the new love, and didn’t tell zir other partner(s) until it was already quite far along. That can feel like a
I’m a believer in the Miss Manners school of etiquette, and my suggestions are based on the idea that when others breach your ideas of etiquette, you assume innocence until proven guilty, and the best response is to gently remind the person of your preferences rather than expressing anger.
If there is no question in your mind that the action was
deliberately intended to be rude, then anger may be appropriate.
Based on this philosophy, I would say something like “I’m sorry, but C and I can’t come by ourselves — we make a point of doing things together with the rest of our family on Halloween. Let me know when you are having a party that can include all of us.”
My reasoning: People can invite whomever they like to a party. The invitees get to choose whether they want to come in the configuration that is invited. It is rude for a guest to ask if zie can bring more people, unless the invitation says that it’s OK to bring others.
There is a convention that says one is supposed to invite spouses and partners, but I believe that the freedom to invite whom one likes takes precedence over that. Of course, one is welcome to hint that one wants one’s partner(s) to be invited and not to attend if the invitation is not forthcoming.
To me, the issue of whether zie accepts your family style is somewhat separate, and if I were wanting to try to talk sense into zir about that issue, I would probably do it in a letter not directly related to the party invitation. I also would probably take a more “sad and disappointed” tone:
“Your exclusive invitation seems to suggest that you still disapprove of the kind of family I have. If so, I’m disappointed — I thought that you didn’t approve because you were afraid it wouldn’t work. But I feel it is working for all of us and has worked for a respectable length of time. It’s disappointing to me to feel that nevertheless, you don’t respect or
trust my choices.”
Last time I opined that WIITWD (What It Is That We Do) as poly people has nearly as many varieties as there are people who practice it. This time I’m going to look at two of the fundamental principles that guide poly. This is not a question of what behaviors people engage in; rather, it’s more of a definitional issue. As in, if you don’t believe this, you’re probably not poly.
The first rule is pretty simply stated
People are not property.
Now this sounds sufficiently self-evident that most of the people I tell this principle to just nod in agreement. They, too, believe this. Of course, we all like to think of ourselves as enlightened and few (if any) of the people reading this column long for days or societies when a man owned his wife and could beat or rape her as he pleased. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
I am not claiming that people who believe people-are-property treat their spouses or SO’s poorly. Nor am I claiming this mind-set is limited to men — women practice it as well. It’s so common we’re hardly aware of it, except when it erupts into violence.
I believe we are fooled by our language. We speak of ‘my’ girlfriend in just the same way as we speak about ‘my’ house, ‘my’ rules, or ‘my’ shirt. This leads us to think of them in much the same sense. When we own something, it can be taken from us: if someone starts to date the same person we are dating then something has been taken from us.
Some people, unfortunately, take this attitude literally and it sometimes expresses itself in violence. But even with a less literal sense of possession, people still often treat their loved ones as property. They believe that this person, and this person’s affections, belong to them and see any diversion of these things as a theft.
Poly people don’t tend to believe this.
The essence of this poly principle is that love is a gift freely given. No one is owed love, no one owns it. Likewise, no one owns the lover any more than anyone owns the loved one. If my lovers are with me (physically or in mind) then it is because that is what they have chosen. If they are with someone else as well, that is also a matter of choice.
In some ways, this begins to look like 60s-era “free love.” But unlike that ideal, wherein everyone would love everyone, the poly notion of freedom is more individual: each person is free to express his or her emotions, without being constrained to own or be owned by another human being.
All of which is not to say that this is better or even necessarily different than that practiced by monogamous people. It’s certainly possible for people to freely choose a single person without necessarily being owned by that person. However, it is not possible to entertain the idea of polyamory without this principle of non-ownership. This difference in mind-set often makes it hard for mon and poly people to communicate — I have often been asked “how can you let someone date your girlfriend?” (or a variant thereof). I cannot answer without first stepping back and trying to help the questioner understand that under the first poly principle the question is almost nonsense.
I do not “let” other people date my girlfriends; similarly I do not “let” my girlfriend date other people. What she does is a result believing in the first principle — she is not my property to be constrained — and the rules we’ve chosen to work under. Which brings me to the second principle:
Polyamory is not cheating.
Every couple or other polyamorous group has its own set of rules. Sometimes, as in a polyfidelitous relationship, those rules state that members of the group do not date or form relationships outside the triad or family. Other times, as in an open relationship, the partners are free to date whomever they choose.
The point is not what the particular rules are, so much as the acknowledgment that there are rules. Even if the rule is a simple “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of thing, poly cannot work without an agreement among all the participants that the rules are such-and-such and we’re going to follow them.
This means, of course, that it is possible to cheat in a poly relationship.
I know people who have done it, just as I know people who have cheated in monogamous relationships. However, poly does not automatically equal cheating. This can be very hard to explain, particularly in a situation where a poly person approaches someone who doesn’t understand the rules. I have found it more than worth my time to make sure up-front that the other person knows that what I’m proposing is not cheating.
Of course, there was the woman who turned me down because she could deal with the concept of cheating but could not cope with the idea of polyamory. Takes all kinds…
One question that often arises is “what kinds of rules?” I tried to cover some of this ground in my previous column on different kinds of poly. In a sense, the kind of poly one practices is a function of the set of rules one chooses to live by. However, even within specific forms, there are many variants. For example, I know polyfidelitous groups where members are permitted to form serious relationships and ones where anything more than a one-night stand is a no-no.
Similarly, polyamorous people range from very secretive “don’t-ask, don’t-tell” situations to fully open relationships in which all partners know everything, including the steamy details. What matters is not the particular rules — except to the people involved — but that there are rules. And under these rules, eatin’ may indeed be cheatin’.
This column will be a semi-regular feature on this site. I will be writing about and answering questions on topics related to polyamory, polygamy, open marriages and so on. It’s always a bit awkward writing when one doesn’t know one’s audience, but I will generally assume that you, dear reader, are not well versed in these topics. If you want to ask me about more advanced things, please send in questions. I will try to answer all the serious queries I get; however, no personal replies will be sent. Questions will be answered anonymously in public.
As for myself, I should warn you that much of what you will read here is my opinion and experience. I’ve been poly for over fifteen years, through many different kinds of relationships. The ideas and practices of poly are almost as varied as the people. Trying to generalize about What It Is That We Do (WIITWD) is always somewhat dangerous. But what’s life without a little danger?
Let’s start with a few definitions.
These terms tend to be commonly used in the poly community and they cover a good deal of what goes on. All of the following assume that all the people involved know what is going on and that they are communicating as honestly as we humans know how. Sneaking around, cheating, and having affairs without one’s partner’s knowledge are not what we’re talking about.
As you read through this list, remember that what the majority practice in America and Europe at the moment is something of a historical anomaly. Exclusive monogamous relationships between one man and one woman came to be the dominant relationship form well after Christianity was established. People from cultures as far apart as the Viking-era Norse and the native people of Australia practiced one or more of the following.
- Polyamory is the practice of being in love with more than one person at the same time. “In love,” of course, is tough to define, but it generally includes having romantic, affectional, and/or sexual feelings toward another person. In the case of someone who is polyamorous, it means that person is (or is capable of) having those kinds of feelings for more than one person at the same time.
- Polygamy is the practice of having relationships of a serious sort with more than one person at the same time. A relationship can be anything from a lifetime commitment such as marriage to a casual thing such as “we tend to have sex whenever we’re in the same city.”
Relationships may also not have a sexual component or may be limited to other forms of physical interaction. For example, I know people who will do anything except sexual intercourse with anyone other than their primary partner.
- Nonmonogamy covers almost any form of relationship with more than two partners. Generally it carries a flavor of “openness” in the sense that a nonmonogamous situation might be expanded by the addition of a new partner or another relationship.
- Polyfidelity is a closed form of nonmonogamy. Fidelity in this case refers to the level of commitment, which is presumably equal among the three or more members of a polyfidelitous relationship and generally no member of the group will seek a relationship outside the group without the other member(s) being involved. A common form of this is the triad, where a committed pair adds a third member.
- Primary/secondary are ways of describing differences between relationship in a nonmonogamous situation. A primary relationship is often considered “first among equals” and may represent a particular level of commitment. For example, many nonmonogamous partnerings have an agreement that only the primary couple will conceive children.
Obviously, each of these terms is open to several different kinds of interpretations and the combinations are as varied as you can imagine. I know of triads where two heterosexual males each relate physically to a female partner, but have a strong shared emotional bond between the men. In other situations, the men may be bisexual and enjoy a physical aspect to their relationship. Or the woman might herself be bisexual and have both male and female partners who do not relate physically but are brought into emotional closeness by their shared love for the third partner. The bottom line is: don’t assume.
Safer Sex, Contraception, and Sexually Transmitted Diseases
For most of us, there is no such thing as totally safe sex. Realistically, what we need to do is assess our own lifestyles for risk factors, and openly discuss with our sexual partners what our options are for risk management. There is no one right answer for everyone – but starting with a good knowledge of the facts will help us make rational decisions we can be personally comfortable with.
- The Safer Sex Page
- The best collection of safer sex information on the Web.
- Safer Sex Information from UCSF
- Heavy on scientific references.
- Coalition for Positive Sexuality’s Sex Ed for Teens (and adults, too!)
- Information for teens and others learning about their sexuality, presented in a chatty, friendly manner.
- SHAPE, Sexual Health Advocacy and Peer Education home page.
- Safer Sex Guide from the folks at SFPSE
- Another good general overview of the subject.
- Go Ask Alice
- A public-health service of Columbia University, with questions and answers about topics such as Sexual Health and Relationships, Drug and Alcohol Concerns, Fitness and Nutrition, Emotional Well-Being, and General Health
- Internet Health Guide
- A service of the University of Wisconsin
- New Life Changes
- Menopause – traditional and alternative therapies to help women through this change of life.
- Healthy Devil
- A service of Duke University – heavily oriented towards the health needs of college students. Has a good section on STDs , but many of the other links are broken.
- Successful Contraception, an interactive program to help you find the birth control method that’s right for you, brought to you by the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals
- Choosing a Contraceptive – a very complete list, including extensive information about emergence contraception.
- Birth Control information from the UCSF Gopher.
- Ann Rose’s “Ultimate Birth Control Links” – a good collection of links to information about a wide variety of contraceptive methods, including abstinence and sterilization.
- Contraceptive Failure Rates from Contraceptive Technology: Sixteenth Revised Edition, published in 1994.
- Emergency Contraception information – what do to after a contraceptive failure or unprotected intercourse.
- International Planned Parenthood provides reproductive health and family planning services in over 140 countries, including locations in:
- The Planned Parenthood Federation of America is a major supplier (and in many communities, the only supplier) of low-cost women’s health care, including Pap smears, mammograms, STD treatment, and contraceptive advice, in the United States. Online information is also being made available by local Planned Parenthood clinics in:
- California: San Diego and Riverside Counties, Statewide
- Illinois: the Chicago area and East Central Illinois
- Indiana: Southern Indiana (often hard to connect to)
- Iowa: Greater Iowa
- Montana: InterMountain Area
- Pennsylvania: Southeastern Pennsylvania
- Washington: Spokane and Whitman Counties
- And many others…
- Contraception information from the alt.sex FAQ.
Condoms are a relatively reliable form of contraception, but also, more importantly, condoms and other latex barriers are the single best way to prevent disease transmission during sexual activity.
- Basic Facts About Condoms and Their Use in Preventing HIV Infection and Other STDs, by The CDC
- Condom and Latex Information
- How to Use a Condom
- How to Use a Condom, from The Rubber Tree (a not-for-profit supplier of birth control and safer-sex supplies)
- The Sheath File, a large collection of euphemisms for “condom”, many pretty silly.
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is spread by genital sexual contact with an infected partner, by breastfeeding from an infected mother, or by contact with infected blood.
There are vast amounts of information about AIDS and HIV available on the Web. Some good places to start looking for information are listed below.
- HIV & AIDS: The Basics, from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC)
- The sci.med.aids FAQ
- The Body, a whole-body AIDS treatment resource.
- The Terrence Higgins Trust in London has a number of useful pamphlets, including Understanding HIV Infection and AIDS, Preventing Infection, and Treatment Issues.
- AIDS Treatment Data Network (also en español; includes a good simple explanation of HIV disease)
- AIDS information from the National Institutes of Health (U.S.A.)
- Brown University TB/HIV Research Laboratory
- Living With AIDS (also en español)
- Counselling guidelines for HIV testing (also en français)
Although AIDS may be the scariest sexually transmitted disease out there, there are other diseases which strike many more people. Some, like syphilis, are almost always transmitted sexually. Others, like hepatitis and chlamydia, are transmitted through both sexual and non-sexual routes. All of them can really ruin your day.
- STD Information from UCSF.
- Facts about STD’s, a relatively complete collection of information about common sexually transmitted diseases.
Copyright Alternative Sexuality Resources, © 1995-1996; all rights reserved
1. Tell the Truth.
Lasting relationships are built on honesty. Honesty isn’t hard and it gets to be a habit. Bite the bullet, tell the truth. If your relationship can’t weather it, you are in the wrong relationship; but it probably can. Telling the truth is easier than lying, all rumor and myth to the contrary. Lies are a lot of work. They weigh you down and isolate you. Small lies get lonely and seek out bigger lies.
Don’t ask one lover to lie or keep secrets from others. Secrets breed distrust. Secrets build walls and discourage intimacy. Know the difference between privacy and secrecy.
Resist the desire to ‘protect’ someone by telling them what you think they want to hear. “Especially do not feign affection.” If you’re not sure about love, say so. If your relationships are not a high priority in your life, let people know. Encourage honesty in others. Above all, be honest with yourself. Are you looking to build a family or for a little sexual variety?
Fear is usually what prevents honesty. Make it safe for people to tell their truth.
2. Know Yourself.
This is the most important tool and sometimes the hardest to find. Spend quality time with yourself and find out what you’re like. Most people never do. Learn to tell when you are moody or unreasonable or defensive or hyper-sensitive or blinded by New Relationship Energy. Know your limits. If you are not able to be a good friend or lover to someone, tell them. Discover where you could do better. Learn what’s healthy for you and what’s not. Learn when to take a walk and cool off; grown-ups need time-outs too. Figure out what your priorities really are and live by. If your life doesn’t reflect your priorities, change your life, not your priorities and today, not in some better future.
Many people never see the consistent patterns in their own behavior that are obvious to everyone else, like always pursuing the same type of lover or acting just like their father did. They are blind to themselves. What don’t you know about yourself? You can transform your addictions into a preferences and eventually into a choices, but first you have to know about them.
Take time to discover things like: what baggage are you carrying from your childhood or your last relationship, what do you need and what do you only want, what pushes your buttons and why, how are you still growing up, which things are you willing to compromise on, what are your core motivations, what makes you jealous or insecure or competitive, at what point are you over-extending yourself, what are your patterns, strengths and weaknesses, etc. A lot of this goes back to honesty.
3. Take Care of Yourself.
Work on you. “Grow your own garden in your own soul, don’t wait for someone else to bring you flowers.” Instead of looking to other people for validation or satisfaction or happiness, learn to make it yourself. This is a vitally important skill for living, not just relationships. You will always be at someone’s mercy – until you learn to satisfy your own needs. Once you do, you gain a freedom and confidence that can never be taken away. You can meet people as equals and choose to enjoy life together instead of carefully exchanging needs in a scarcity-driven emotional economy. Ironically, a person with this kind of independence is very attractive. (Just when we don’t need it. Thanks.)
Take time by yourself to think about what you need to work on and give yourself the space to do it. Take care of yourself, be kind to yourself, like yourself, love yourself, accept yourself, forgive yourself, respect yourself, serve yourself, nurture yourself, just be yourself and please, sharpen a knife and cut yourself some slack. Everyone is too hard on themselves. Everyone’s mirrors are warped. Yours are too; learn to compensate. Learn emotional first aid. Get your own shit together. Be number one in your life. Deal with your childhood/parent issues; if you don’t bury your ghosts, they’ll bury you. Your relationship with yourself is the foundation of all others.
4. Take Responsibility.
Own your feelings. No one can make you sad or angry or happy, they are your emotions. They exist in your head and nowhere else. You own them. You. There are always choices. Accept that sometimes you are going to feel good or bad for no reason at all – not because of the people or events in your life. When you make someone else accountable for your feelings, your disempower yourself.
Playing the victim or martyr is just a way to manipulate people. To say, “I hurt you because my parents hurt me”, is to surrender your life to other people and to the past. Be here now. Take charge of your own feelings and actions and life. You are responsible for seeing that your own needs get met. (Yes, even your sexual needs.) Don’t tell other people “do me, make me happy, protect me, save me.” Learn to take care of yourself.
Relationships take work. If there are problems in one of your relationships or if your life is a mess, stand up and carry your share of the responsibility (and no more), even if you don’t think you deserve it. Taking responsibility is not taking blame, it’s taking control. Remember leaving home. As you take more responsibility over your life, you have more freedom, not less.
5. Encourage Growth.
Remember to care about your lovers as human beings. It’s surprisingly easy to forget. Support them in advancing their careers, spiritual pursuits, educations and ambitions. At their own pace and in their own way. Help them to heal and understand themselves better. Encourage them to take time by themselves and give them the space they need. Help them cultivate strength. Ask them to do the same for you but tell them how; they can’t read your mind. One way to encourage growth is to give those you love the freedom to love others.
Some people find neediness and weakness very attractive. Maybe they think they’ll be abandoned if their loved ones become strong. They might try to keep people weak and needy so they’ll stay. They might give generously but with conditions and strings attached. This is not unconditional love – it may not be love at all – it might just be aggressive need.
Growth can be stunted by difficult emotions like insecurity or fear of abandonment. One way to manage a limiting emotion is to meet it head on. “The only way out – is through.” Don’t hide from it; that just gives it power. Dive in and weather it and survive it and examine it. Your fear is far worse than reality. Learn that and the emotion loses its power and you grow stronger. You can even use emotions like jealousy, insecurity, etc. to learn about yourself. Pay attention to them, they are valuable.
Respect is for equals. Honor people’s limits and boundaries. Listen when someone says ‘no’. Demand the same. Never tolerate abuse of any kind. You deserve better. Be polite to your partners, they deserve it more than anyone in your life.
It’s too easy to take partners for granted. Make commitments for a limited time and not for a lifetime. “Will you marry me for another year?” It helps you stay aware. Try not to save all your best stuff for one partner and exclude other partners, especially when they are together. Treat them evenly or someone will feel slighted. Words like “best”, “most” and “favorite” force comparisons and make people compete and make someone lose. Find a way for everyone to win.
Respect relationships as well as people. Think of each relationship as a separate entity. It could be healthy or sick. It has a natural shape; don’t try to force it to be something else. Find out what is it and let it be just that. Resist the desire to use a relationship to get your head in order; a lover is not a life raft. If you need therapy, see a doctor.
It’s easy to project your expectations onto other people. “Maybe they’ll change.” Don’t try to force a person to be someone they are not. People are package deals; accept them for who they are, good and bad, or don’t accept them at all.
If you want respect, keep your word. Keep to the spirit of your agreements; don’t squabble over semantics looking for loop-holes to exploit. When you make an agreement in the kitchen, keep it in the bedroom.
If you want healthy relationships, strong communication skills are a necessity, not a luxury. Trouble usually starts when talking stops. Things come up all the time that have to be worked through patiently and lovingly, even when you’re having a bad day. It gets easier over time, but it takes work and a willingness to break up scar tissue and tear down walls. Communication skills are what make a person a great lover or a dud.
Arguing skills are not communication skills. Arguing better than someone doesn’t make you right, it just makes you better at arguing. Some people strive to ‘win’ an argument at all cost – even if it costs them their marriage.
Listening is more important than talking. And harder. Listen actively and don’t just hear. Make eye contact. Be here now, don’t wander. Paraphrase their words to see if you heard them right. Notice your own words and feelings as you listen. Listen to unhappy feelings without needing to fix them. Listen to disagreements without taking sides. Listen to non-verbal communication, which usually speaks more clearly than words. Be aware of how the people in your life are loving you.
Some talk is not communication. If you get lost in the woods and pass the same landmark several times, you are making the same mistake over and over. Raising your voice or speaking harshly makes you harder to understand, not easier. Avoid saying “always” and “never” is disagreements; they just dig up the past and revive old mistakes. Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. “I think you’re wrong” is easier to accept than “you are wrong.”
Express yourself clearly; people can’t read your mind. Learn to ask for what you want. Tear down the wall between your feelings and your words. If you set limits and boundaries, communicate them. Make sure everyone knows what they are getting into. Learn how to defuse arguments. If necessary, learn how and when to say goodbye. Actions communicate better than words. Show people that you love them. Share kindness and affection and laughter. And when in doubt, rub their feet.
Having tools isn’t enough, you have to really want to use them. Ya gotta wanna. Your disposition will make it work or blow it at any time. Find a way for everyone to win. Make important decisions unanimous. Don’t go to sleep angry; talk it out. Shine a positive light on difficult situations too; many relationships wither from negative energy. Try not to turn little problems into big ones. Look for solutions, not someone to blame. Be direct, not covert. Practice tolerance, patience, flexibility, generosity, understanding, forgiveness. Learn to apologize. Laugh at yourself.
9. Be wrong;
you can’t learn from mistakes if you always gotta be right. Let it go; be happy instead. Listen more than you talk. Give someone else the last word. Take the high road. See things through their eyes; empathy is the cure for anger. Stay calm and remember to breath. Let down your walls, trust, open up, risk and let yourself be vulnerable. Without vulnerability there is no intimacy. Emphasize friendship over romance. Take your time. Savor what you have instead of dwelling on what you don’t have.