Falling in love with someone and agreeing to share your life with zir is about change and growing together. Yes, you cannot predict whether he will really want the kind of family you want. You also can't predict whether *you* will want it after developing the relationship with him further. Realizing that you're making a commitment that you can't back out of unchanged, whether it turns out good or bad, is very scary. In a way it is kind of a death or an end to a part of your life. It's important to acknowledge that and to make the choice actively -- I choose to go into this relationship and see where it leads us -- and to acknowledge that you may lose some things that are important to you. In choosing the kind of person to do that with, I think more important than whether zie shares your exact model of a family right now is whether you and zie can work together to solve problems and whether you can trust zir to be resourceful and respectful of you when big changes occur. Sharing specifics does make things easier, but there are always going to be some specifics, including some big ones, you don't share.
Two couples might well create a stable arrangement based on caring for each other and sharing financial and work arrangements, even if not everyone had an equally intense romantic relationship with everyone else. In a threesome, however, some sort of perceived equality in the romantic relationships is, I imagine, a lot more necessary for stability.
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.