Jan 252013

As I assemble my thoughts and update the outline for my Solo Polyamorist class (which I’ll be teaching at Winter Wickedness), once again life tunes into the Serendipity Station, and starts flooding me with links to various folks and their thoughts on the subject.

Now, there have always been rants about how people are co-opting the term “polyamory” to mean any form of non-monogamy. There have always been rants about people “choosing” polyamory as a fait accompli, an ethical structure they’ll adopt in order to make their existing behavior somehow more acceptable. But lately, there have been an awful lot of rants about how polyamory has become popular and is suffering from the inevitable effects of popularity.

I’m linking to Sex Geek’s rant because it is the one that stirs me up the most, and the one that I’ve spent the longest time sitting with, trying to understand the depth of my response to it. This was my initial response to reading this article:

Felt of rant like to me. A lot of griping without suggesting how to solve any of these issues, or even talking about what “better” looks like. I would rather see articles that lead by example. That show us new paths rather than complain about what everyone else has written. It is easy to bitch. For example, in all this railing against hierarchy, the author barely spent an entire paragraph suggesting alternatives or what their benefits and flaws are.

All well and good, but the more I sit with it, the more I feel like I have left things unsaid. There’s an assumption underlying the anger in this article that polyamory is some kind of activism, that it is some kind of movement rejecting oppression, and that like all other movements, polyamory therefore has an obligation to reject acceptance by the mainstream.

This is not my view. I think of polyamory as an ethical stance taken by an individual — something Sex Geek advocates for as well. But where Sex Geek and I differ is that I don’t feel all that particularly attached to the term itself. I don’t feel like the word has a sacred meaning which I most protect and advocate for.

The more time I spend giving advice on polyamory forums, the more time I spend reading the opinions of polyamorist activists, the more I see polyamory become accepted by the maintstream. Which I think is great, unreservedly, because I have no illusions about how mainsteam acceptance works.

We are pack animals. Herd creatures. Humankind has ever been thus. Always, there have been the fringe elements of our herd, individuals who are uncomfortable being in the center of the pack. Fringe elements, who stray away from the comfortable feeding grounds and seek out new places. When we prove these areas safe, the rest of the herd moves in. It’s societal. It’s evolutionary. It’s what humans do.

Of course the importance and meaning of individual lyrics get lost as bands gain notoriety. Of course important philosophies become trivialized as their wisdom gets broadcast as part of sandwich commercials. I do not rail against this anymore than I would stare at the ocean and wish that it would, for just one stretch of sandy beach, stop crashing against the shore.

On the other hand, I am a fringe creature, and I choose to lead by example. Instead of complaining that people are still using hierarchy terminology, I make a point of discussing my relationships in terms of radar ranges (a metaphor replete with the sense of movement and shifting priorities, of targets and vectors, and different directions we might all be traveling in). When people ask me for advice about their relationships, I answer with questions about the ethics of the individual and the choices you are empowered to make about your own life.

I chose to call myself a polyamory activist because at the time I discovered the word, it felt very accurate to me. But like all intimate arrangements, time moves ever forward, and meanings shift and relationships change. The word “polyamory” no longer means what it meant when I claimed it in 1995.

I think it’s time I let it go.

“But gosh,” says one of my girlfriends (a close-range target that I’ve been tracking for a while). “What will you do without that identity? Are you really going to give up who you are just because you don’t like one article?”

Nonsense. I’m not giving up an identity. I’m not letting go of who I am. I’m just saying goodbye to a word that no longer describes what I am, what I have been, what I intend to be.

What will I call myself instead? I’m not really sure. “I practice a form of ethical non-monogamy that doesn’t have a catchy name,” isn’t very illuminating.

Maybe I’ll be lighthearted about it and tell you that I’m a Protestant Polyamorist, part of a group of doctrines that reject what polyamorism has come to mean today. I can joke about rejecting the pervasive influence of King Xeromag and the Papal proclamations of Cunning Minx.

In more somber moods, I might tell you that I don’t know what I’m calling my ethics yet, because I haven’t bought the domain name yet. And without a pulpit, how could I possibly preach change?

Most likely, what will happen is that I’ll babble these long-winded lectures about how the word has come to focus on a set of espoused beliefs which have very little to do with what I believe in anymore, and that I got close enough to the term to care about distinctions and so I don’t want to be called that anymore, and everyone else of the planet will say, “That Master So’N’So, he’s one of those polyamorists who have opinions about what they do.”

And really, I’m fine with that. Because at least I’m not preaching hate against the latest bunch of humans who have just found out about this cool idea that I like.

Nov 092012

(cross-posted to all the usual places)

Just to be on the safe side, let me start this with a whole bunch of disclaimers: This is not a complaint. This is not venting. This is me telling you what the mechanics of happy could look like.I am not talking about people, I am talking about my experience with polyamory, and I am talking about it for the benefit of those considering polyamory.

Yes, my partners are aware that I am having these experiences. I have talked with them about this stuff. That is sort of my whole point in mentioning this to YOU.

Polyamory is fucking HARD.

People say this a lot but I really think that some people out there might benefit from putting themselves in my shoes for five seconds and really asking themselves, “Could I really handle this? Am I really willing to ask someone else to handle this in order to be in my life?” Because I tell you what, I could not have handled this ten years ago.

I have spent the last five years being a secondary partner without a primary partner of my own. I like it this way. I tell people that _I_ am my primary partner. I joke that I am always the Bridesmaid, but never the Bride. Of the relationships that I am currently in, every single one that I consider myself committed to, is with a married woman.

Let me put that another way: every single relationship I am in could be ended by a third party decision.

I can already hear all of my polyamorous friends start to protest, start talking about how much they abhor hierarchies, how they don’t allow veto rights in their relationships. I know what you are going to say, and I am willing to bet my long-lost anal virginity that the people who want to protest are all in primary relationships or want to be in primary relationships. Heck, all my partners would tell me the same thing.

And I’m sorry to hurt your feelings, but I call bullshit. I understand that you and your partner have all these rules and philosophies that you’ve spent all this time working out and discussing together, but that’s not the point. The point is, _I_have not had those conversations with them. Your primary partner does not love me, your metamour, the way s/he loves you, his actual partner. My theoretical happiness does not trump his desire to make your primary relationship work. “Drop everything else and focus on our marriage” is ALWAYS still on the menu, no matter what you say.

More importantly, as a secondary partner, the potential for that choice always exists in my head. I may be good at ignoring that demon imp voice, but it will always be there. When I’m weak. When I’m having a bad moment. When my boss tears me a new one because I screwed up big and I desperately need you to wrap your arms around me, that voice is there, whispering its evil little chant: “I bet her Primary will come first,” that voice sings.

Is that likely to happen? No, because I have made good choices and I have faith that my partners are all spiritually and emotionally committed to a shared set of ethics, and I have taught myself how to trust that if their beliefs are this compatible with mine, then their partner’s beliefs are probably pretty similar.

But teaching myself that, maintaining my faith in that, was HARD. Difficult. The opposite of easy. Definitely harder than being sexually monogamous. WAY WAY WAY harder than being socially monogamous.

Keeping that lingering doubt out of my head and heart when I am deep in a self-pity spiral is HARD.

Living a lifestyle where 95% of conversations about MY feelings for YOU includes a discussion of how I think your other (read: more important) partner feels? That is HARD.

That is not the Easy Mode. That is not the Easy Path To Free Orgies All The Time.

I think that the vast majority of polyamorous people I have met thus far would find it easier to lie to their Significant Other about an affair than to learn to trust metamours like that. I know I certainly would find it easier.

My girlfriend is having her husband’s baby. Right now, they are sharing in an utterly transformative experience that I will never get to experience with her. Never. I mean, this completely fucking trumps that time when he saw the Transformers 3D with her before I could.

She and I were fluid-bonded (and, speaking of hard conversations, that is another Not The Easy Mode conversation: “I would also like to fluid bond with your wife.”). We had to break our fluid bond while they tried. Think about that. Think about how you would react to that. They decided when they were going to start trying to have a baby, at which point I had to start wearing condoms again with my girlfriend.

If you’re the sort of person who would see that as a slap in the face, then maybe you shouldn’t be poly.

(Just to dive briefly back to my last point, have you thought about whether you believe you should get any kind of say in when your girlfriend will start trying to have kids with her husband? Is that a conversation you’re prepared to have?)

When I lay in bed next to her, I can smell that she’s growing some other guy’s kid in her. Her body is changing shape. Her daily routine has been biologically rewritten. It will require a completely different wardrobe — she isn’t even going to be dressed like I’m used to. For the next seven months, her husband and this choice is going to be an inescapable element of my relationship with her.

I mean, realistically, what they’ve just done is decide to change the woman that I’m in a relationship with. Not just for the next 7 months, either.

It is thrilling and gratifying and deeply affirming to watch myself be okay with this, but I have to say, it is not easy to be okay with it.

It requires skills, it requires learning how to notice yourself be Not Okay with it, and have the courage to speak up and admit when I am Not Okay with it, and have a relationship where you can talk about it and feed your esteem while still making sure she’s getting all her natal vitamins and naps in. It requires trusting in your relationship’s communication skills, and trusting in THEIR relationship’s communication skills, which is way harder, because you are never going to get to watch them talk about you when you’re not around.

When people talk about how polyamory is hard, this is MUCH harder than anything I ever imagined Those People meaning.

As the Icing on Everyone Else’s Cake, I am by now well used to long distance secondary relationships, to weekend affairs. I am used to having to say goodbye at the airport. I have developed skills to deal with the sense of loneliness and sudden isolation, have learned to deal with having to return to my empty bed. But listening to her talk about what a great time she had and how much she misses me and wishes she could be there with me but now she’s got to go to bed with her husband? Constantly being treated as a Special Occasion that needs to be planned? That is always going to be hard. Nor is there really anything that she can do about that.

People imagine polyamory to be this place where you’re never jealous and there’s enough love and connection so that you’ll never feel left out again. I have to tell you, this isn’t my experience. I wouldn’t want it to be my experience.

I get jealous. I feel the whole wide range of emotions.

I have complex, multi-layered, so-intense-I-can-barely-keep-a-grip emotions. My relationships push my buttons and terrify me and test my idealistic philosophies about what relationships should be, about what I can be to other people. It is a challenge.

It is a challenge we face together.

It amazes me how many people think they can enter poly relationships and then tell their partner, “Your emotions about the other relationships I’m in are Not My Problem.” That you’re solely responsible for dealing with your own emotions and that asking for help and support is somehow not Good Poly? What amazes me even more than that, are the people who don’t even think about what it means to ask someone to be their secondary partner.

If you’re not involved in the emotional experience of your partners than what the fuck are you doing this for? Prostitutes and swingers clubs will be way less expensive and time consuming. Multiple, ethical, open, emotionally intense, committed relationships are hard.

As a perennial secondary partner, do you know what my deepest fear is every time I start a relationship?

That I’m being used as an exit strategy.

That my entire relationship with you was secretly, the entire time, actually just about getting the strength to leave your Actually Significant Other. Because she won’t actually know that’s what she’s doing. Because she’s convinced herself that she’s happy with her marriage and that this is just one more way that they’re expressing that happiness. Because for her I’m nothing more than a catalyst agent for her to grow some balls and Dump The Mother Fucker Already, but for me that was an actual relationship.

If it’s surprising to you that this happens often enough in the world of polyamory for me to have baggage about that shit, then maybe you should spend some more time thinking about this choice.