Poly Means Many: In Praise of Bad Timing (Aug 2013)

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts can be found at www.polymeansmany.com. This month, our topic is “Time”.

This month I want to write about time, specifically as it pertains to “bad timing” in relationships. This has been very much on my mind lately, as I am about to move country. I’ve been reflecting on the timing of my various relationships (many were very badly-timed!) and I begin to realise that it is one of the most important factors in how long that relationship lasted, the intensity of it, or even that it existed in first place. Upon reflection, Bad Timing is something I can mostly praise.

Bad Timing as Catalyst

According to a lot of people, now would seem like a “bad” time to start a new relationship, given I’m about to move country. It’s been interesting to observe who has distanced themselves from me during this time and who has decided to come closer. There have been a few people with whom I’ve shared a mutual interest who’ve decided to not pursue anything with me due to my move. However, not to sound immodest (!), but mainly I’ve been bowled over by people who’ve decided they’re interested despite my imminent departure. In my experience, Bad Timing often is the catalyst for these connections. For better or worse, it is a catalyst I embrace.

My history with Bad Timing

My relationship with the Boi Wonders has had a unique history in terms of timing. A couple of years ago I thought it was very likely my visa would not be renewed and that I would have to leave the country. Despite that we decided to enter into a relationship, knowing full well that three months into our relationship I would likely have to leave, probably permanently. During that time we became very close and also quickly became well-acquainted with one another’s virtues and flaws. Thankfully I was rather unexpectedly granted another visa. Shortly thereafter a series of “badly-timed” interpersonal events transpired that put our relationship under more stress than ever. Somehow we managed to make it through all of this and our relationship came out stronger.

Two years later I’m in a position now where I now must leave the country, but happily I can do so with the Boi. We would not be together if we had listened to the sensible voice in our heads that “now is not the right time” a couple of years ago. I’m so happy we decided to give it a go despite the rather immense odds against us at the beginning.

One of my last Long-Term Relationships (with someone other than the Boi) was the long-distance relationship I was in for 18 months, which some of you may recall from when I started this blog. That relationship started partially as a result of Bad Timing too. She went to China for the first 6 months of our relationship, but we decided to give it a go anyway. I could not be more grateful. Although we’re not in each other’s lives much now, I learned and loved a lot with her and would never change that for anything.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t always ignore Bad Timing and plow through anyway! A few times in the past couple of years, I’ve met someone and after a few weeks or months, decided to not pursue a romantic connection with them. Bad Timing was often a factor in making that decision. However, in my experience, even making a go of it and deciding not to pursue that kind of connection can bring people closer together as lovely friends.

Bad Timing with Metamours and Friends

As I mentioned earlier, Bad Timing does not just impact individual partner-relationships. Say, I meet someone and most signs point toward it being a bad time to start an entanglement. Maybe I’m moving away or maybe my other relationship is on the rocks. Adding a new relationship to the equation could be viewed as risky, and maybe it is. But it can also be the necessary impetus to finally sort out the problems in my extant relationship(s), whatever the outcome of that sorting-out process may be, and an added motivation for me to sort out any issues with my metamours.

Bad timing brings both the good and the bad into sharp focus. It’s easy to reflect on missed opportunities – which believe me, I have done! – but also facilitates an intense reflection on the good. At the end of the night of my farewell party recently, a friend came up to me and said “I feel like I’ve wasted all this time not having been friends with you earlier.” This was really touching, but all I could think was that I’m just that much more grateful for the awesome friendship we have now and can continue to have. Moving away doesn’t mean my life needs to stop or that I can’t have nice things. It just means those things take a radically different shape than they might have otherwise done. Nothing has taught me this quite so well as being polyamorous.

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Poly Means Many: Assumptions about polyamory and sex

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts can be found at www.polymeansmany.com. This month, our topic is “assumptions”.

Out of the many assumptions made about polyamorous people, assumptions about sex seem to often be expressed the loudest. It’s now a cliché that in virtually every media article written about polyamory the headline photo is a photo of several pairs of feet (all white!*) in bed together (*but that’s a blogpost for another time). Of course, we don’t see such photos in articles written about monogamous couples, even though they obviously also have sex with each other too. Broadly the assumptions about poly and sex can be categorised as follows:

– Wow, you’re poly! So I assume you must have a lot of sex.

– You must have sex with a lot of your friends/You must not have non-sexual friendships.

– You’re just afraid of commitment. One day you’ll want to settle down.

For this month I will address each of these assumptions in turn.

Wow, you’re poly, so I assume you must have a lot of sex.

I certainly know polyamorous people who do seem to have a lot of sex, but just like monogamous people they have “floods” and “dry spells”. I’ve certainly had those myself! But I’ve never heard anyone link being poly to having a higher sex drive (anecdotally or otherwise – although please correct me if I’ve missed something). The “you must have a lot of sex” assumption also erases people who have naturally low libidos and who are asexual. There’s certainly a segment of poly people who talk a lot about the sex they have with various people, but that could just as easily be a product of them being more open and unashamed about their sexuality than most people. I’ve gone from monogamous set-ups to polyamorous set-ups and can say from my own experience that whether I’m poly or not has no bearing on the amount of sex I have at any given time. My ebbs and flows have largely transpired for different reasons (e.g. hormones, medication, mental health, etc).

In addition, poly people don’t all want to have sex with loads of people, or loads of threesomes and orgies. Some of us do, and some of us prefer to keep our sexual encounters one-to-one. Sometimes it varies from week to week and year to year. Some of us prefer to not have sexual encounters (with partners or otherwise) at all. We’re all still polyamorous. We’re just people who have complex and differing preferences.

You must have a lot of sex with a lot of your friends/a lot of people.

You know what? Not really. I definitely have friends who I sleep with (or have slept with), but I have a far far FAR greater number of friendships that remain platonic. I *gasp!* even have many poly friends – many who I find attractive – who I choose not to sleep with. I have relationships and friendships that have a strong D/s dynamic but maybe we don’t engage in a lot of activities most people would label as “sex”. I know poly people who hold regular orgies with groups of their friends, and I know poly people who’ve had one or two sexual partners, fullstop.

This particular assumption is underpinned with what I think is an even more sinister assumption: that sex inherently defines a particular hierarchy in our relationships. For me, whether I’m having sex with someone has very little to do with their importance in my life. It can often overlap, but that overlap doesn’t indicate a causal relationship in terms of the relationship’s importance.

You’re just afraid of commitment. One day you’ll want to settle down.

I probably hear this one the most from well-meaning friends who just don’t get it when I tell them I’m polyamorous. These are the people who think they aren’t so crassly focused on the sexual aspects of polyamory, but rather the emotional aspects, when actually, sex is at the core of this assumption. If I’m having sex with several people, I’m obviously not committed to any of them. No, not right at all. Commitment doesn’t equal sex or vice versa. My relationships are important (and committed!) based on emotional closeness and trust, not necessarily whether I’m having sex with them, and certainly not whether I’m having sex with *only* them.

In terms of “settling down” (whatever this means?!): well, since I was a small person I dreamed of one day having a wife and a husband. Now I’m less focussed on the genders of my partners, but having more than one co-parent/partner is certainly my ideal. This is subject to change once I actually have children, of course, but I can’t imagine wanting to raise the next generation in a standard nuclear family set-up, particularly since my own parents tried and failed so hard at it. If anything, polyamory makes me commitment-philiac, not commitment-phobic. I want to commit to more people as part of my family, not fewer.

Beyond this, more and more I see myself committed to a community of friends and partners who are building a life together, regardless of who in that community or out of that community I’m having sex with. I’m not sure if or when I’ll know I’ve found this “community” (I suspect it looks more disparate than, say, a commune). However I do know that whatever that community looks like, I’m likely to have non-sexual relationships with most of the people in it and that my sexual relationships will undoubtedly re-configure over time. Some of the most important relationships in my life have never been sexual, or they used to be but aren’t anymore, but I am more committed to them than ever. This is a trend I intend to continue.

Poly Means Many: the ethics of due diligence

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. This month we’re talking about “types of non-monogamy’”. Links to all posts can be found at polymeansmany.com

This month we PMM bloggers are supposed to write about ethics in polyamory (aka why we’re not cheating). I suspect that others may discuss ‘why we’re not cheating’, with specific arguments pertaining to knowing about and consenting to all other relationships at any given time. I’d like to cover something a bit more specific, however before I delve into that I want to establish some basic definitions.

As a polyamorous person I’ve often said that I adhere to ethics but I am largely amoral. When looking online for some solid definitions to share to show the difference between ethics and morals, I struggled to find any – they usually meld together, as in the following from Oxford Dictionaries:

Ethics:

  • 1 [usually treated as plural] moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity:medical ethics also enter into the question

  • 2 [usually treated as singular] the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles:neither metaphysics nor ethics is the home of religion

  • Schools of ethics in Western philosophy can be divided, very roughly, into three sorts. The first, drawing on the work of Aristotle, holds that the virtues (such as justice, charity, and generosity) are dispositions to act in ways that benefit both the person possessing them and that person’s society. The second, defended particularly by Kant, makes the concept of duty central to morality: humans are bound, from a knowledge of their duty as rational beings, to obey the categorical imperative to respect other rational beings. Thirdly, utilitarianism asserts that the guiding principle of conduct should be the greatest happiness or benefit of the greatest number

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morality

I eventually found an explanation of the difference that is very close to my own view:

“The difference between ethics and morals can seem somewhat arbitrary to many, but there is a basic, albeit subtle, difference. Morals define personal character, while ethics stress a social system in which those morals are applied. In other words, ethics point to standards or codes of behavior expected by the group to which the individual belongs… So while a person’s moral code is usually unchanging, the ethics he or she practices can be other-dependent.” (Wisegeek)

NB: To much of the world, poly (and queer and kinky) people are considered immoral. I’ve often tended to identify as amoral because ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ within our society is generally determined by systems and social norms that I have actively chosen to reject (e.g. religion). However I do consider myself a very ethical person – someone who can follow a system of expectations to which I consent to be held to account.

In general I’d say that there is a common system of ethics for polyamorous people, one in which we communicate honestly and transparently about our relationships, such that we can give our informed consent. But generally speaking this is viewed on a fairly one or two-dimensional scale: do all of our partners know about our other partners? Are we keeping to the various boundaries we’ve agreed?

What is often missing is conducting what I call ‘due diligence’ prior to starting a relationship with someone. I don’t mean googling a partner before your first date or anything like that. What I’m talking about requires a lot more time, patience and keen observational abilities; this process is partly why I usually take months or sometimes longer before agreeing to enter into a relationship with someone. Instead this due diligence pertains to a potential partner’s other existing relationships, and it is something I’ve personally learnt the hard way (but that is a story for another time… and probably not for this blog!).

I tend to form my relationships and romantic interests very slowly over a period of months, partially due to my experiences of how important this is. (And time, as I’ve discovered, is sadly sometimes not enough to reveal all of the information you might need when people do not know their own needs/desires and don’t communicate them clearly.) Why would I want to find out more about my partner’s other relationships? Because I honestly think that entering into a relationship with someone who is having major problems with their other partner(s) is an ethical issue. If a relationship is on the rocks, it will require more time and energy to resolve than a relationship that isn’t. If you enter into a relationship with that person anyway, you could be knowingly jeopardising their other relationship(s) because your new relationship will require time, energy and effort that is needed elsewhere. Of course, the other side of it should be considered as well; if one of your relationships is on the rocks, it probably isn’t the best idea to engage in new ones.

As we know, the capacity to love can be infinite but the other resources required to sustain a relationship are certainly not. Knowing that many of those resources will be invested in your new relationship is an ethical quandary that I see as particularly relevant to the Kant and utilitarianism schools of thought. Is engaging in a new relationship, despite the negative effect this is likely to have on other existing relationships, ‘obeying the categorical imperative to respect other rational beings’? In my view, probably not. It certainly does not fit into utilitarianism, as it is unlikely that to have the greatest happiness or benefit the greatest number. More likely than not it will cause unhappiness for everyone involved, including yourself as the new partner. In such circumstances it could be more ethical to engage with that person as a friend and not as a partner.

Styles of non-monogamy: the ideal and the reality (Poly Means Many – May 2013)

The past 15 years have given me the opportunity to be involved in all varieties of non-monogamy (except polygamy/polyandry, but I don’t much miss that). I’ve done open relationships, ‘dating’, non-hierarchical polyamory, hierarchical polyamory, polyfidelity and swinging (in my case, this was more like ‘sluttery’). I’ve been polyamorous when single (solo/unpartnered polyamory), poly while having one partner, and poly in a triad.  I could talk to you for hours about the pros and cons of each of these set ups.  (NB: I won’t go into specific definitions of what these different types of non-monogamy entail, as Rarely Wears Lipstick has a good entry defining many of them here. You can also reference the wikipedia article on non-monogamy:  and this chart by Franklin Veaux highlights some interesting overlaps and differences in styles of non-monogamy.)

I was in a very serious marriage-type partnership for eight years in which I (rather unsuccessfully) dated people outside that relationship nearly the whole time.  I would class this as more of an ‘open relationship’: I had a lot of stability in one relationship but almost none in my other relationships.  I then became single, practicing solo polyamory and the aforementioned sluttery.  This was a lot of fun but offered me no security or greater depth of relationship.  A short time later I experienced being partnered in a triad and as a secondary, which was an entirely new experience for me.  While I enjoyed it I sorely missed having an ‘anchor’, and so I came to have a closer affinity to non-hierarchical poly.  I then became involved in two serious partnership-type relationships and continued to subscribe to non-hierarchical poly during that period.  This time I enjoyed having two strong anchors, but both took a lot of energy to engage in and my other relationships (such as friendships) may have suffered due to lack of time.

For various reasons one of those relationships ended,  and for several months now I have found myself being poly with one partner. Recently, I’ve gone on dates with several people. I’m perhaps ‘dating’ someone I really enjoy spending time with now, but as I will be moving continents in a few months, my inclination to get into another serious intense long-term relationship is not as strong as it has been previously. I’m cautiously realistic about long-distance relationships. If or when I have children, I imagine that I may practice a more hierarchical form of poly, if only because my kids will unquestionably be my top priority as well as any co-parents I might have (please note: this could be more than one other person!).

For ages, I had the closest affinity with non-hierarchical polyfidelity. I think this is because I spent my early teens dreaming about having both a husband and a wife. Although I see polyfidelity in a different (less gendered) way now, it still attracts me in many ways. But my point is that despite whatever ‘ideal’ I have, the right approach for me is as much a product of circumstance. Any ideal simply might not fit with the shape my life is taking. One thing I’ve noticed, is that it can be difficult to find partners who are willing to try non-hierarchical poly when they are already very seriously partnered up or intimidated by my current relationship.

My relationship style may also change and adapt based on the preferences of who I am dating at the time. Some may think of this as fickle, but I think of it as realistic and practical.  One of the most important skills of a polyamorous person is negotiating ‘flexible boundaries’ (a term I first heard on the ALBJ blog on the post about boundaries and rules). While I cannot say whether any given style of non-monogamy is somehow superior to others, being able to negotiate what type of non-monogamy you want to practice over time is one of the most fundamental negotiations of all.  

Poly Means Many: Dealing with Bad Stuff. “Why we don’t have to have to be okay”

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts can be found at polymeansmany.com
 
The PMMers have been putting off this topic for a little while now, for obvious reasons.  No one likes to dwell on the “bad stuff.”  But as I’ve said in previous entries, especially when I wrote about “Loss”, polyamorous people are often more open to the fullness of experience.  With more relationships comes more love AND more challenges.  I’ve certainly dealt with no shortage of “bad things” (and amazing wonderful things) whilst being poly.
 
This month I want to talk about why we don’t have to be okay, as a means to “deal with bad stuff.”  What does this mean?  Sometimes I (and several others I know) have felt that in order to be “good at poly” that it means we have to be okay with whatever and whomever our partners want to do, whenever they want to do it.  Occasionally we all have felt pressured by someone or ourselves to be okay with things because as poly people, we do not want to hold our partners back in any way.  We are evolved, we are confident and secure as people and we rarely if ever feel jealousy.  Right?!  But no, that’s not how it works for many of us.  So often it’s just not that simple.  This is sometimes used as a strategy to “deal with the bad stuff,” i.e. ignore your feelings/emotional reactions or do more work on yourself until the feelings (hopefully) go away.
 
While I strive to be as open-minded as possible, I call bullshit on this kind of thinking.  It smacks of the “more evolved than thou” mindset that some people hold when comparing polyamory to monogamy.  Not being okay is perfectly okay.  Just because you don’t feel comfortable with a particular person, particular sex act or a particular set of circumstances doesn’t mean you’re jealous, insecure, controlling, unable to feel compersion, etc etc, and it does NOT necessarily mean that you’re not poly or not good at poly.  Having few or no boundaries just means exactly that — it is not a signifier that you’re more or less healthy as a poly person.
 
In my experience and observation, trying to let things go and act like you’re okay actually backfires, because it will eventually come out later, either in an outburst, in passive-aggressive resentment or by turning the negative feelings back on yourself (lowering your self-esteem/self-image).  Taking the time to examine these feelings, accept that we have them and then communicating this to our partners — whether these feelings seem rational or not (since many emotions are exactly the opposite of rational) — is what helps us find the origin of them and work through them.
 
As an example, I’m a firm believer that jealousy can be a helpful marker of something you want that is lacking in your relationship with your partner. Maybe you’re not spending enough time together, or the right kind of time.  Or, maybe you want your relationship to remain completely unique in some way (this is important to most poly people, in my experience).  Or maybe there is a person or circumstance you are just not comfortable with or that stirs up insecurities for some reason.  Agreeing certain boundaries can be a suitable way of dealing with this.  What becomes tricky is agreeing boundaries that will make both you and your partners happy and comfortable.  
 
Sometimes negotiating suitable boundaries is possible — after all, if you’re someone’s partner you want to see them happy.  But sometimes it isn’t.  Sometimes one or both of you will have to compromise in such a way that you’re both disappointed and it will take some time to work through that.  And that’s okay.  That doesn’t mean your relationship or you or your partner are failing at poly.  Every relationship constellation has its unique set of dynamics and boundaries.  Being sad or upset doesn’t mean you’ve failed.
 
Occasionally two or more people who are poly will just not be compatible in terms of negotiating boundaries, or priorities will have shifted, and attempts at negotiating become *consistently emotionally wrought*.  When this has happened to me, the relationship has usually ended as a result, after a lot of effort to work things out. But in a way, that’s just another form of negotiating boundaries between two people.  It’s another way of accepting that it’s okay to not be okay.  It’s another way in which we embrace the full gamut of emotions and experiences as polyamorous people.

Poly Means Many: Communication boundaries and privacy

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts can be found at polymeansmany.com

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness.”

– Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

What is “TMI” to the non-monogamous?
People who engage in non-monogamous relationships often tend to not only be open-minded but rather open about what goes on in their lives and their relationships. Understandably, self-identified “ethical sluts” are frequently quite happy to talk relatively openly about sex, often because they usually have fewer hang-ups and shame about engaging in such activities. I’ve witnessed quite a few poly people openly discussing intimate details about what kind of sex they have with one of their partners with their other partners. This level of detail is welcomed by many, but not all. I generally tend to fall into the latter camp, so I would like to explain how and why high privacy walls can make some poly relationships work more smoothly when it comes to communication.

How high are your privacy walls, and why?
I would describe myself as an open-minded, sex-positive person, but I tend to have higher “privacy walls” than most. I’m not puritanical and never remotely have been. I’m generally quite happy for my partners to have sex with other people, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I need or even want to know the details or specifics of what they do together, when they’ve done it and how. Usually if I’m not somehow involved, I’d rather not know and I’d prefer to not share (unless asked to do so, for some reason).

This is one of the ways I’ve learned to keep my relationships special, separate and unique – the ability to do so is very important to me. Each relationship should enjoy a certain level of privacy and freedom from outside scrutiny.

Privacy walls in polyamorous D/s arrangements
In a D/s context this privacy wall is how I’ve learned to not encourage “competition” between submissives, which I go out of my way to avoid if I can. There was a time when my partners asked me to lower my privacy walls, since it bothered them and they wanted to feel more included in my life. I lowered them, as an experiment, and it did not go as well as they expected. It turns out those kind of details stimulated insecurity and sadness in my partners. Eventually we all went back to my usual privacy walls and everything improved. Had any of the details of what I did with any of them changed? No, it didn’t, but we were all happier having incongruent knowledge levels about each other’s relationships.

Communicating evolving expectations

“The problem with communication … is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

The only complication to this arrangement is that expectations about privacy levels and what type of information is communicated needs to be agreed between partners at the very beginning, and renewed throughout the life of the relationship. This can get complex because people may not always be able to anticipate what type of information they would and wouldn’t like communicated to them in any given circumstance. Your partner might make assumptions about what you do or don’t want to hear about, and how. A certain level of flexibility is required to make this work and expectations should be revisited on a regular basis.

Communicating (or not) about conflict
This not only applies to sex in poly relationships, but conflict as well. It might be better for you and your partners to not disclose that you and your other partners have had an argument. Getting involved in the minutiae of a disagreement between your partner and your metamour can be a slippery slope. You run the risk of feeling angry at your partner and/or your metamour for a conflict that has nothing to do with you, and one over which you don’t or shouldn’t have any influence. Not involving yourself in your partners’ troubles can feel counterintuitive however, given that you may wish to support them in every aspect of their lives. But if you don’t keep a certain amount of distance you also run the risk of becoming a relationship counselor, or being seen as interfering in their relationship. Neither of those situations is likely to serve anybody.

Communicating agreements
One final point: privacy walls and boundaries with regard to communication are not necessarily “rules.” For me the very concept of rules in relationships is odd. Instead I view them as agreements. If one partner says ‘if X thing happens, this will hurt me” and the other person replies “I don’t want to hurt you, so I will endeavour not to do that” – is that a rule? No, it’s an agreement that both parties have come to by means of effective communication. If someone cannot agree to do or not do “X,” the person for whom that would hurt has a choice of whether to stay in that relationship or not. To me rules are restrictive and remove a sense of free will, whereas agreements emphasize that will and the active choice to stay in a particular relationship under particular circumstances or not.

I maintain that communication continues to be the most difficult aspect of any relationship. Polyamorous relationships can sometimes require an exponential amount of effort in this regard – but also an exponential amount of love and satisfaction as a reward. Knowing when not to communicate, or what not to communicate about, are an important aspect of this.