Back in the summer, I was invited to be a panelist for a discussion held by the Chicago Polyamory-Under-40 group– an informal Q&A session for about 40 people. The ‘requirements’ to be on the panel were two things: having practiced polyamory for more than a year, and being willing to talk about our experiences. Having done something for a year and a half by no means makes me a ‘veteran’ or an expert, but I enjoyed talking about it, and the folks at the meetup group have kindly invited me back to be a panelist again for a talk on Sunday, November 25th.
I had hoped to blog about the previous talk, but that never materialized. So I figured now would be a good time to write about how I picked up this lifestyle and some of the topics that came up at the last discussion.
Polyamory is a relatively new word, a mash-up of Greek and Latin. In its broadest sense, it means being involved in more than one romantic relationship, with the knowledge and consent of all parties involved. This last part is key, as this is what makes it an ethical way of relating to people, as opposed to “cheating” or forced forms of polygamy. Unfortunately, when many people think of non-monogamy, what jumps to mind is deceit and betrayal. When done mindfully, open-relationships reduce or eliminate the possibility of cheating by resetting the rules all together, creating a game the players can actually win. Think of the range of human needs, desires, preferences, personalities, energy-levels, sex-drives, life-situations…it doesn’t make sense to me to set up a one-size-fits-all arrangement for everyone. Polyamorous relationships take many forms: free-range individuals, open marriages, swinging couples, fidelitous triads, the list goes on. Ideally, the diversity among these relationship structures reflects the diversity of the people in them. Ideally, these relationship structures meet their needs in ways that monogamy did not.
Now, by writing this, I’m officially outing myself (once again) to everyone who has access to my blog. I know some of my friends will not feel particularly good about this topic, and I want to stress that in no way is this meant to be a criticism of my friends in monogamous relationships. I should make it very clear that I do not think there is anything inherently superior about open relationships. The entire point is to be in good relationships. Where I really would like to draw the line between types of relationships is not whether they’re open or closed, but whether they were consciously chosen or unconsciously acted out. Did you mutually decide what kind of arrangement would best meet your needs, or are you operating on sets of assumptions that might be neither congruent nor healthy? As my partner Peter puts it, the point is to be the architect of one’s own situation. The question shouldn’t be “is this exclusive?” but “is this sustainable?” That said, figuring out one’s ideal arrangement is a process, one that I think involves time, trial and error, and a degree of brutal honesty with one’s self that is not encouraged in our society. And these situations change over time. I didn’t get hit with a bolt of relationship enlightenment. Instead, I got a clearer picture of how I wanted things to be over time, and the image continues to sharpen.
I don’t think there’s anything inherently problematic about only dating one person. But having grossly unrealistic and impossible expectations of that one person –or of yourself as someone else’s one and only– is a problem. So that’s where things begin for me.
In my post from earlier this year, The Purity Myth and Why I Flew the Abstinence-Only Flag for a While, I talked about acquiring a very rigid set of expectations for what my relationships were supposed to look like. When my last monogamous relationship ground to a halt, I felt bitter towards my exes, but more so than that, I felt angry with myself. Because not only had I failed to find the Perfect Boyfriend, I had failed at being the Perfect Girlfriend, eternally attractive and low-maintenance. Clearly, if I had just Gotten It Right, I would be happily coupled as opposed to feeling alone and ignored. The problem wasn’t so much that I had tried to date these people to the exclusion of others as much as it was that I had a very specific—and very impossible—idea of the role I was supposed to be playing. The harder I tried to play it, to say the right things, look the right way, go through the motions, the more I lost my ability to be candid, honest, vulnerable, and assert what I really needed…you know, to relate to people. After all, this was my one socially condoned vehicle for intimacy, right? I couldn’t afford to screw it up. But ultimately I just felt bitter and trapped.
I decided to take a few months to drop dating all together and just focus on sorting myself out. It ended up being a good decision. What I discovered was that with the agenda of finding the ‘perfect partner’ off the table, I felt less pressure to look good and more freedom to be real with people. I should tell you that this improved my relationships dramatically: all of them, not just with straight men. I had not gotten used to being bluntly honest and completely direct with people, and the experience was strange and exhilarating. It’s still a trap that I fall into at times: getting so caught up in saving face and looking good that I start to stifle myself. But this is an occasional blunder, and not the chronic state of affairs it used to be.
On Valentine’s Day 2011, I was not on the exciting date I’d hoped I’d be on. Instead I was sitting in my neighbors’ kitchen, drinking a Four Loko out of a champagne glass, enjoying a group commiseration session. The universe, having seemed to intuit my need for a good rant, some alcohol, a couple of high-fives, and a little vindication, provided them gracefully. One of my neighbors, a friend from the Russian department, had recently split up with a long-term girlfriend, and was coming to grips with how badly he wanted to be back in a long-term relationship. I was the opposite, realizing how badly I needed not to be in one, at least not for a while. We sat up until about 4 that morning talking about our relative situations. It was the first of many such conversations to follow. My neighbor ended up becoming one of my closest friends in college, partially because from the very outset we had to be abundantly clear about what we were seeking and accepted that we were looking for very different things.
After a couple of months, I did start dating my neighbor, but I use the term ‘dating’ for lack of a better one, because it really was a case of “interacting where you intersect.” This is a term that some people use to describe polyamory and figuring out the parameters of each relationship: what is the set of things that the two of you can do that are mutually fulfilling and beneficial? In some cases, there is enough overlap that it produces a life-partnership, for others, a long-term relationship, for others, someone to shoot pool and watch Francois Truffaut films with, for others, a short fling. All of which can be very satisfying relationships, I think, if people honestly think through their expectations and needs. This a natural process that people go through with their friends—we gravitate towards different people for different kinds of activities and conversations. But I think people are less willing to do this with their romantic partners. It seems to me that we demand a level of overlap that sometimes just isn’t there– and maybe doesn’t need to be there. The ugly flipside of this is staying in a situation where there’s not enough overlap, and we don’t recognize we need it. How much do we need, and how much is enough? I think it can be hard to honestly ask and answer that question.
So I found myself in a relationship with my neighbor. A vaguely defined romantic friendship with an expiration date, running in the background of us also dating other people off and on. For most people, I thought, this would be highly unsatisfying. But it ended up being one of the most enjoyable and healing relationships I’ve been in. I didn’t have a sense of failure hanging over me because I wasn’t trying to date by the book. It just was what it was. And it was great. During this process, what I started to realize was that I didn’t need someone to be exclusive with me in order to feel secure with them. I needed them to show up for me. Between text messages, phone calls, invitations to parties, dinners out, dishes washed, drinks mixed, long conversations, flowers mysteriously appearing in my apartment, weekend mornings sleeping in…over time I had a very strong body of evidence that I was important to this person. And that felt really good. What kinds of actions, words, touches, signs, gestures really make you feel secure? Previously, I’d been doing things from a negative frame of reference: I need you to show me I’m important by making everything and everyone else unimportant. I need you to leave out everything but me. Hm, here’s all the ways you’re not perfect. Here’s all the ways we’re not quite getting it right. I guess this just isn’t going to work.
It felt good to quit judging things based on what someone wasn’t or wasn’t doing and instead look at everything that they were doing. It was refreshing to quit measuring my partner up to this fantasy standard that I’d developed, which, I realized, wasn’t even my fantasy—it was a conglomeration of various conflicting cultural influences guaranteed to produce only dissatisfaction. Were we failing at being the perfect couple? Oh, definitely. But we were doing a great job of just being good to each other. Moreover, I felt relieved at not having to be perfect myself. The great irony was that the less I seemed to care about making people like me at this stage, the more they seemed to enjoy talking to me.
As was expected, things ultimately didn’t work out for my neighbor and me. I was disappointed (come on! We were having so much fun! Why do you want to stop?), but I got it. That disappointment gave way pretty easily to appreciation. After all, I’d been given an incredible balm for my previously shattered self-esteem and a gold mine of information about myself and other people. The idea that things need to last forever to be meaningful I think is completely untrue. That was another unnecessary expectation to peel off: that things always need to last. In that regard, the relationship was a failure, sure. But in terms of helping me get out of a serious emotional funk, it had been a great success!
I began a relationship with my current long-term partner shortly thereafter. So far, so good. He makes me gleefully happy, and we both enjoy the other people that come in and out of our lives. As long as the situation is right for us, I hope it continues. So that’s my personal segue into polyamory. Could I have broken out of the constricting mindset I was in in the context of a monogamous relationship? It’s entirely possible. I just didn’t. There is still so much to figure out. I may gravitate back to that model in the future, but for the time being I like where I am right now. And I am continually delivered experiences (mostly good, but some a little awkward, let’s be real) that help me refine more and more my image of what’s sustainable for me and what I can reasonably do for other people.
For anyone who is interested in learning more about open relationships, I highly recommend Tristan Taormino’s book Opening Up. The book is based on a survey of several thousand polyamorous people, and includes lots of letters and anecdotes from people in a wide variety of arrangements who are making things work for them. It also covers topics specific to these arrangements, such as legal and ethical issues, raising poly families, and issues with coming out.
I find the book to be very inspiring and uplifting, but I also find the title to be a bit misleading. I love the concept of openness, but the process of “opening up” an existing monogamous relationship is not simple, not easy, and in so many cases, not even feasible. This is something that I discussed with my long-term partner at length after the last panel. His perception, and one that I share, is that so many new poly relationships fail because people don’t understand that polyamory is not a ‘hack’ of monogamy; it is not monogamy with a twist. It is a fundamentally different way of relating to people. If your exclusive situation arose naturally and organically from your needs, and those needs have shifted, then I believe it’s possible to renegotiate a new framework. But if you’re operating on assumptions (or on possessiveness, or control), and you have not thoroughly investigated what those assumptions are, then trying to “open up” your relationship can be an inflammatory process, as all those little inconsistencies between what you expected and what your partner expected rise to the surface in the form of conflicts.
If it seems like a lot of work to seriously examine your agenda, your assumptions, your needs, and your desires, well, it is. But the effort is critical. How can you expect to have a healthy and viable relationship without going through that process? My belief is that if you try to date on auto-pilot, you will be at the mercy of your programming. And if your programming is ‘off,’ and this is the case for most of us, you probably will not end up where you want to go. You will most likely crash.
The idea of programming is one that I wanted to bring up after the last panel as well. What I noticed as people asked questions was that most of their concerns only looked specific to polyamory on the surface. There certainly are unique concerns that arise within non-conventional relationships. But many of the conflicts are symptomatic of bigger patterns. There’s a quote that I like that goes, “the way you do anything is the way you do everything.” I don’t interpret it literally; instead, I take it to mean that patterns in one area of your life are likely to show up in other areas as well. If you struggle to communicate, to be honest with yourself, if you struggle to set boundaries in any relationships, if you struggle to be assertive—this is going to affect your poly relationships, and probably every other relationship you’re in as well. I can’t just roll my eyes and say we all need to go to therapy, but, well, evidently I just did. (Granted, if I were the benevolent dictator of the world I’d refer everyone to cognitive behavioral therapy and make “talking about our feelings” a required class in grades 1 to 12.) For anyone wanting to improve their relationships, my first suggestion is to look at your life situation as a whole and see if there are any major patterns that emerge, any consistent issues that keep coming up. Give attention to those. Look at what drives you and what limits you. A positive side to this is that you can let your relationships teach you a lot about yourself, and seeking to improve them may help you improve other areas of your life significantly as well.
On a slightly different note, I want to mention that people who really just want to sleep around and disregard their partners’ emotional needs and desires are not being polyamorists, they’re just being jerks. Now, if you know yourself to be either completely incapable or undesiring of any emotional commitment whatsoever, and you are abundantly clear about that, and everyone else is ok with that, well, then, that puts us back in the realm of consenting adults relating to each other. The key is to be clear. I believe relationships are incredibly important. Commitments are incredibly important. And for that reason I think it’s incredibly important to make commitments that you can actually keep and continue to feel good about.
Given that entire books have been written on polyamory, I’m going to wrap up here and hopefully find time to post more later on other topics like jealousy, boundaries, and coming out. I want to end by saying that I know so many people who are completely happy with their monogamous partners. I am extremely happy for them. I also know many people who are completely happy in all kinds of unconventional relationship constellations, and I’m extremely happy for them as well. I don’t think any one structure should be forced on people. What I want is for people to have the freedom to find what works for them and the support they need to maintain it.
*Friends in the Chicago area, if you would like to come to the meetup, please message me personally and I will give you the event details.