I’ve been thinking a lot about the practice of non-monogamy lately. Hanging out with Freaksexual, aka my sweetie Pepper Mint, will do that to ya – he instigated a brainstorm the other day on gender-related power imbalances in various forms of non-monogamy (some of which wound up in his post here, if you’re curious), and various things have been rumbling around in my head since then.
The particular tangent I’m on today is about the idea of the “single” non-monogamist. So often, when we talk about non-monogamy or polyamory, we first think of a classic pairing – i.e. two people who are in love and in some sort of committed relationship – who choose to adopt some form of non-monogamy in which they are permitted to have relationships of whatever nature with people outside their dyad.
Fair enough; these people do most definitely exist. But so much of poly literature, poly culture, and the general mainstream cultural perception of non-monogamy presumes that this is the only or prevalent model that all the rest tend to get swept under the rug or simply ignored. This is particularly evident in the straighter elements of poly culture. (Please note I said “straight,” i.e. culturally normative and predominantly heterosexual, not the same as “heterosexual,” i.e. the biological pairing of a man and a woman, which may be quite queer and culturally non-normative indeed.) These elements of the poly tapestry tend to focus not only on the couple-centred model of poly, but specifically on the marriage model – in other words, assuming that most poly starts with a married male-female couple and moves from there into other relationships. Sometimes they focus on this to the explicit exclusion of, or at least total insensitivity to, same-sex pairings, poly people who don’t believe in or don’t choose marriage, people without kids, and more fluid forms of poly in general.
It’s certainly useful to have tools out there – workshops, books and so forth – designed to help married couples figure out how to better do their polyamory so their relationship doesn’t implode. But it bugs me that the standard straight cultural hegemony is still so present even among an alternative approach to relationships.
It also bugs me to note that so much of poly discourse is focused on this model that we neglect to address the concerns or realities of the people outside it. There may even be a question of doubting the credibility of those who do it differently. Much like the “good queers” are the ones who marry and make their lives look as much like straight people’s as possible, there seems to be a lurking idea that the “good polyamorists” focus on a wholesome, normative central relationship and their only deviance is non-monogamy, fully circumscribed by explicitly negotiated and elaborate permissions and rules – whether their rules are about sex (as in swinging), or tantra (as in some more granola-type poly communities), or how many days a week they can each see their other lovers.
As I gear up to teach another poly workshop in Toronto this coming fall, I can’t help but wonder about my own perceived credibility here. For several years I was in a central male-female relationship with my ex, T, and we each had other partners. We didn’t go for the “primary vs. secondary partner” nomenclature, but in a lot of ways that’s effectively what it was like. I was a “good polyamorist”; we weren’t married or gender-normative, but from the outside at least, we were pretty palatable and not that disturbing to the mainstream. Certainly we challenged people in all kinds of ways, but the starting point created by our relationship was a pretty typical foundation that most poly-leaning, poly-friendly and poly-curious people could wrap their heads around quite easily.
Nowadays, though, I’m involved with seven different people in three different cities; a number of those relationships are exclusively or mainly experienced through a dominant/submissive paradigm, some of them are an exciting blend of friendship and sex and romance, one is completely platonic but otherwise intense, one is romantic but not genitally sexual, and some aren’t quite defined yet. And none of them qualifies as a primary or primary-like partnership, although one or two may well at some point in the future.
I’m now officially a Bad Polyamorist. I’m a free agent, a solo sexual being, not reined in by the constraints of a marriage-like relationship. It’s not that I don’t want one (the relationship that is, not the constraints part); sure, it’d be wonderful to have a darling to come home to every night, if the right person were to enter my world and be up for the job. But most of my current relationships aren’t cut out for that, for a wide variety of perfectly legit reasons, none of which involve emotional handicaps or a fear of intimacy. So I’m approaching poly as a single unit, an independent entity. My poly is my own, and those who share it with me choose to do so because it resonates with their own poly approach – not because we figured it out together from within the safe haven of an established dyad.
Pepper refers to this model as “poly dating,” which is apparently the common lingo among San Francisco poly kids. I do use the word “kids” deliberately too – it’s not a rule by any stretch, but it would appear this more free-form approach to poly is a lot more common among the younger queer-ish set than among our parents’ generation. Kids: y’know, the generation that’s eschewing marriage in greater numbers every passing year. So at least I know I’m not the only one.
The trick is, a lot of people tend to see this model as inherently unstable or less valid than the standard one. Or simply harder to understand. Even the most open and queer-friendly of poly theorists don’t always have a handle on it – for example, as a member of Pepper’s poly network, I recently answered a survey for Tristan Taormino’s upcoming book on non-monogamy, and I had to answer “not applicable” to a huge chunk of the questions in it because they focused on how things were arranged in my non-existent primary relationship. Had the questions been about how I approach poly, what my philosophies are, what my personal approach to safer sex might be, how I talk about poly with my partners, what kind of partners I seek or tend to click with, and so forth, I could have provided a ton more information… but because I don’t have A Boyfriend or A Girlfriend, I was limited in my opportunity to explain myself.
When people are stuck in a primary/secondary model, or a central/satellite one, it’s hard for them to wrap their heads that there is actually a lot of potential stability in non-primary relationships, and enormous potential depth and beauty. Especially if you look at non-normative forms of relationship on top of that. One of my non-primary partnerships has been strong and wonderful for five years now, and will likely continue to be for the indefinite future, and it’s deeply committed and completely non-sexual. One of my BDSM-focused relationships is incredibly fulfilling and full of potential, and it will simply never turn into a romantic partnership; that’s just not what we’re cut out for, even if the sex is fantastic.
These aren’t “casual” relationships. I’m not putting energy, effort and care into these partnerships just to kill the time until Mr./Ms. Right comes along and everyone else can be relegated to their proper place on the back burner with a twice-weekly phone call. They’re not secondary. They’re full and rich and wonderful, and they are exactly as they should be, and what they should be is not my One True Life Partner.
In some ways, I see the more dyad-bound sort of polyamory as an understandable starting point for a lot of very legitimate and wonderful relationships. But I question what happens when people limit their understandings of non-monogamy to something that happens with a pair at its root. It causes a number of things to go wrong, among them…
Non-monogamy as a stepping stone between relationships rather than as a fully articulated relationship philosophy. In other words, some people are really happy to espouse a non-monogamous approach when they’re in a long-term relationship that’s already beginning to fade or fail; pseudo-polyamory ensues, in which one or both members of the dyad starts dating other people, finds a better match than the original, and ditches the original partner to become monogamous with the new one. It’s effectively a new form of serial monogamy.
Non-monogamy as killing time. In this model, a person dates around casually with a variety of people until they find and settle down with The One, after which they fully opt into monogamy and then pooh-pooh polyamory as only being fit for people who don’t really know what they want or as as being “young” and figuring themselves out.
Non-monogamy as misguided entertainment. In this form, a couple may become effectively non-monogamous, but they manage to convince themselves that it’s “just about sex” and that they reserve all their emotional energy for their primary relationship. Which is great, when it works. The problem is that even among the most single-minded of swingers (never mind people who actually go on dates), there is absolutely no way to know ahead of time that it’ll work, and the premise itself prevents the dyad in question from coming up with strategies for how to manage if one of them should develop real romantic feelings for another person. It also de facto relegates all other partners to the status of animated sex toys, which is a hard thing to maintain beyond perhaps a single one-night stand – and even then, no guarantees. (I personally prefer my sex toys to be inanimate and my bedmates to be able to hold up a conversation, but I digress.)
Non-monogamy as a form of couple enhancement. Do you need someone to shore up your sagging sex life? Well, go find a hot third person to bring to bed with your hubby, and you’ll be reinvigorated with the thrill of conquest while remaining safely ensconced in your marital bed. …Eeek! Now don’t get me wrong, I’m totally not against the idea that it can be fun for a couple to go cruising together, or for a third person to hop in bed with a couple for a night of fun or even a much longer involvement. But that’s not quite the same thing as the central dyad turning into a pair of sharks, cruising the bars for their next feast and then ditching them once they’ve had their fill. This is just a collaborative version of the “partners as sex toys” problem in the last example.
Basically, a lot of the problems with dyad-based polyamory reside in the fact that it’s not actually about the “amory” – love – part of polyamory at all. Or that the model is poorly equipped to deal with actual real, solid, gorgeously blooming and growing love between people outside the original dyad. Who would truly call that kind of relationship “secondary”? When you’re talking about love, “secondary” is a pretty darned awful way of labelling it.
I think my biggest problem with the assumption of and cultural emphasis on dyad-based polyamory is that it presumes a dyad to be somehow more valid, grounded, credible and stable than the philosophy of polyamory itself. First of all, that places a huge importance on the existence of a dyad and on its quality – in terms of connection, communication, health and so forth – a quality that may in fact not exist at all. (Is every couple you know the paradigm of clean communication and emotional health? How about all the poly ones you know? Yeah, I didn’t think so.) Second, it effectively shunts all other forms of relationship into the assumed status of secondary (whether explicitly or implicitly) – even if there is no dyad in relation to which they can occupy such a secondary position. This automatically lends less weight to the value and importance such relationships can play in a person’s world; it presumes that polyamory only really counts if you’re doing it hand-in-hand with your one true honey, and otherwise it’s just a fancy way of saying you sleep around. And third, it presumes that the intrinsic value of a polyamorous or non-monogamous life approach is useless – that it’s only valid when filtered through the cultural imperative of pair-bonding rather than standing on its own as a strong, healthy and nourishing way to bring love into your world and give it to the people around you.
I’m much more interested in values-based philosophy of polyamory that remains constant within a given person, and which that person then applies to their lived practice of relationships. When poly is a value for someone, it means they’re less likely to drop me if things start going wonky with their other partner(s); less inclined to undervalue my place in their world or dismiss it as less important or worthy of respect and consideration if we’re not primary partners; less likely to treat my other partners poorly or misunderstand their value in my life; less prone to changing their approach on a whim and leaving me out in the cold.
To me, this feels much more stable than poly that’s grounded in a specific relationship; we’re talking about a value, an intrinsic piece of a given individual’s life approach. I don’t want to be with people who are willing to give this poly thing a shot to make me happy, or as a kooky experiment, or to boost their egos, or who are doing poly while they wait for something better to happen, or who will want to pack our relationship into the Primary box even if it doesn’t truly fit there. Whether I wind up in a happy central-dyad/primary relationship or not, I’m interested in dating and loving and being with people who share my philosophy of generalized openness, non-ownership, and the non-scarcity of love. I suppose in some people’s eyes, my lack of a primary partner makes me “single,” but if this is what being single is like, I’m sticking with it even if I fall in love with someone tomorrow and stay with ‘em for the rest of my life.