Polyamory is getting a lot of airtime in the media these days. It’s quite remarkable, really, and it represents a major shift over the last five to ten years.
The problem—and it’s hardly surprising—is that the form of poly that’s getting by far the most airtime is the one that’s as similar to traditional monogamy as possible, because that’s the least threatening to the dominant social order.
Ten years ago, I think my position was a lot more live-and-let-live. You know, different strokes for different folks. I do poly my way, you do it your way, and we’re all doing something non-monogamous so we can consider ourselves to have something in common that’s different from the norm. We share a certain kind of oppression, in that the world doesn’t appreciate or value non-monogamy. We share relationship concerns, like logistics challenges and time management and jealousy. So we’re all in this together, right?
Today, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have much stronger Feelings about this. I mean Feelings of serious squick, not just of YKINMKBYKIOK*. Feelings of genuine offense, not of comradeship. Fundamentally, I think we’re doing radically different things. The poly movement—if it can even be called that, which is debatable for a number of reasons—is beginning to fracture along precisely the same lines as the gay/lesbian/queer one has. (You could argue it has been fractured along this fault line forever, but it hasn’t always seemed quite as crystal-clear to me as it does right now.)
(*Stands for “your kink is not my kink but your kink is okay,” a common phrase used among perverts to basically say we don’t all have to like doing a thing in order for that thing to be acceptable.)
At its most basic, I’d say some people’s poly looks good to the mainstream, and some people’s doesn’t. The mainstream loves to think of itself as edgy, sexy and cool. The mainstream likes to co-opt whatever fresh trendy thing it can in order to convince itself that it’s doing something new and exciting, because that sells magazines, event tickets, whatever. The mainstream likes to do all this while erecting as many barriers as it can against real, fundamental value shifts that might topple the structure of How the World Works. In this case, that structure is the primacy of the couple.
The media presents a clear set of poly norms, and overwhelmingly showcases people who speak about and practice polyamory within those norms. I’ll refer to this as polynormativity. (I don’t think I’m quite coining a term here, but not far off, as most of the paltry seven hundred-ish Google hits I can find for the term are about obscure legalese I don’t understand. I kinda wish it was already a thing, frankly. So, uh, my gift to you.)
Here are the four norms that make up polynormativity as I see it.
1. Polyamory starts with a couple. The first time I came across the term “poly couple” I laughed out loud. It seemed to me the most evident of oxymorons—jumbo shrimp, friendly fire, firm estimate, poly couple. But lo and behold, it’s really taken root, and nobody seems to be blinking. Polyamory is presented as a thing that a couple does, as opposed to a relationship philosophy and approach that individual people ascribe to, as a result of which they may end up as part of a couple but—because poly!—may just as well be partnered with six people, or part of a triad, or single, or what have you. With this norm, the whole premise of multiple relationships is narrowed down to what sounds, essentially, like a hobby that a traditionally committed pair of people decide to do together, like taking up ballroom dancing or learning to ski. So much for a radical re-thinking of human relationships. So much for anyone who doesn’t come pre-paired.
2. Polyamory is hierarchical. Following from the norm that poly begins (and presumably ends) with two, we must of course impose a hierarchy on whatever else happens. Else, how would we know who the actual real couple is in all this? If you add more people, it might get blurry and confusing! Thus, the idea of primary relationships and secondary relationships emerges. This is what I call hierarchical poly.
“Primary” implies top-level importance. “Secondary” implies less importance. Within this model, it’s completely normal to put one person’s feelings ahead of another’s as a matter of course. Let me say this again. It’s completely normal, even expected, that one person’s feelings, desires and opinions will matter more than another’s. It is normal for one person to be flown in first class and the other in economy as a matter of course, based on their respective status alone. And we think this is progressive?
Of course this plays out differently in different situations. This model is more likely to work out relatively well if the people involved are super kind, considerate, consistent, emotionally secure and generous, and less likely to work out happily if the people involved are mean, inconsiderate, inconsistent, insecure or selfish. It’s sort of like how you’re more likely to keep your job in a recession if your boss is a really nice person than if they really are mostly interested in the bottom line. Either way, this structure ensures that secondaries are dependent on the goodwill of primaries, and that they don’t have much say.
This is precisely what gives rise to things like Franklin Veaux’s controversial (?!) proposed secondary bill of rights or a recent post that went viral outlining how to treat non-primary partners well (note how these are not mainstream media articles). These posts make me sick to my stomach. Not because there’s anything wrong with what they’re saying, but because—according to secondaries, who are exactly the people we should be listening to here—it means that a lot of polynormative people actually need to be told how not to treat other people like complete garbage. These posts are a crash course in basic human decency. That they are even remotely necessary, to say nothing of extremely popular, is really fucking disturbing.
I’m going to digress into a note about terminology for a moment here. I take serious issue with definitions of “primary” that go something like “the primary relationship is when you live together, have kids, share finances, etc.” No. Wrong. Disagree. This is a deeply flawed definition. Any of the elements that go into this type of definition of “primary” can just as easily be had in a relationship that isn’t “primary,” or, for that matter, that isn’t even romantic or sexual. People can live with a roommate, share finances with a platonic life partner, have kids with an ex they never speak to; and on the flip side, a person can consider another person to be a “primary” partner even without living together, sharing finances or reproducing. “Primary” and “secondary” are about a hierarchy-based relationship model, not about specific life circumstances.
“Primary” and “secondary” are not especially ambiguous as far as terms go. With that in mind, I will add a plea here directed at poly people: if you don’t mean to create or imply a hierarchy, don’t use “primary” and “secondary” as shorthand. Many of you are geeks, so accuracy must be important to you, right? Think of this as sort of like not mixing up Star Trek and Star Wars or Mac and PC. Instead of “primary,” talk about your domestic partner, your long-term partner, the person you spend most of your time with, your husband or wife—whatever applies. Instead of “secondary,” talk about your occasional date, your casual lover, your boyfriend or girlfriend or secret agent lover man, your annual long-distance affair, your new squeeze with whom you’re just figuring things out, or whatever other terms explain what you’re up to. None of these are about hierarchy. They’re just relationship descriptors. (I’ll postpone my rant about how some people think “husband” and “wife” are more real than “partner” or “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.”) On the flip side, don’t just drop using the words “primary” and “secondary” in order to look less hierarchical while still making relationship decisions in a very firmly hierarchy-based manner. No false advertising in either direction, okay?
Let me clarify my position here just in case. There is nothing wrong with serious, long-term, committed domestic partnership. There is also nothing wrong with dating casually, and feeling just fine about hanging out with a sweetie way less often than that sweetie hangs out with their spouse, say. Sometimes, a relationship is just not destined to be long-term, or domestic, or local, or involve meeting each other’s parents. This is not a bad thing. It’s just a thing. It’s also not the same thing as being “secondary.” I am not playing with semantics here. I’m talking about frameworks for viewing relationships, making decisions, coming up with rules—more on that in the next point—and treating real, live human beings.
3. Polyamory requires a lot of rules. If we start out with a couple, and we want to keep that couple firmly in its place as “primary” with all others as “secondary,” well, of course we need to come up with a bunch of rules to make sure it all goes according to plan, right? Right. (And there is most certainly a plan.)
This is a control-based approach to polyamory that, while not exclusive to couple-based primary-secondary models, is almost inevitable within them. Rules are implicitly set by the “primaries,” the “poly couple”—at least that’s how most discussions of rules are presented. Some books and websites will tell you (“you” presumably being someone who’s part of a currently-monogamous, about-to-be-poly couple) that it’s really super important not only to have rules, but also to set them out before you go out and do this polyamory thing. If ever you wanted confirmation of the very clearly secondary status of “secondary” partners, this is it: the rules get set before they even show up, and they have no say in ‘em. Again… we think this is progressive?
Here’s the thing. Rules have an inverse relationship to trust. They are intended to bind someone to someone else’s preferences. They are aimed at constraint. I will limit you, and you will limit me, and then we’ll both be safe.
When two people are well matched in their values, and have strong mutual trust, they don’t need a rule to know how they’ll each behave. I mean, how many times do you hear “I’ll agree not to kill anyone if you agree not to kill anyone, okay? That’ll be our rule. No killing.” Of course not. Psychopaths aside, this kind of thing need not be said; we can assume that everyone shares the value of “killing people is bad and I will not do it.”
But it’s not the least bit uncommon for “poly couples” to create elaborate sets of rules to keep each other strictly bound to only behave in ways that are not scary, not dangerous, and not threatening to the primary bond. We won’t kiss anyone without asking each other first. No overnight dates. If you want to see her more than three times, I have to meet her. If you want to see her more than three times, don’t tell me about it, it’s too much for me to handle. No falling in love (this one cracks me up in its sheer absurdity). Love is okay, but only if you love him less than me. Anal sex only with me. Anal sex only with others. You have to date exactly the same number of people as I date. No going to our favourite restaurant together. No sleeping in our bed. You have to text me by eleven. I have to call you when I’m leaving her place. And the crowning glory, the holy grail of poly rules: we have veto power! (I’ve got a whole other post about this one, called Against the Veto, in which I lay out exactly why veto rights are a rotten idea.) The crux: secondaries are secondary, so very secondary that a person they’re not even partnered with can decide if and when they’ll get dumped.
You know, when true danger is involved, I’m all for rules. Rules like, say, you must be at least five feet tall to board this ride… you cannot perform neurosurgery without a medical license… no unprotected anal sex with strangers (note that this kind of rule isn’t about a couple, it’s about protecting your own precious health!)… no fire play at this event as the ceilings are low and hung with paper streamers. But extensive rules around polyamory are essentially the equivalent of saying that love (or sex, or dating) is dangerous and must be severely regulated so as not to harm anyone. To my mind this is a very strange way of approaching the possibility of great joy and human connection—as though it were a bomb that might detonate if not handled by strict protocol. The more rules you put into place, the more you are indicating that you don’t trust the person subject to those rules to operate in a considerate fashion with your shared values at heart. Or, on the reverse, you are indicating that you need to be under strict supervision, failing which you will shit all over your partner’s well-being. If you have to legislate something, it’s because you don’t expect it to happen sans legislation. This is a sad state of affairs in what are ostensibly supposed to be loving, possibly long-term relationships.
Are rules never a good thing? I wouldn’t go that far. They can be a necessary evil, a temporary measure to get you through a rough time during which you are presumably working on a better solution. Which you are. Like, right now. Right? From a completely different angle, rules can be pleasurable, or erotically (etc.) charged, like in a D/s or M/s relationship—although those too, when imposed from a place of fear or agreed to as a way to avoid penalty, can be a form of unethical binding designed to shore up one person’s insecurities at another person’s expense. But aside from these very specific and circumscribed instances, rules are best when they are used quite sparingly, and even then, only when other solutions are unavailable.
What other solutions am I talking about? Trust. Plain and simple. Trust is the soil in which polyamory should grow, much like any other kind of love. Say what you mean, always, and all of it. Follow through on your commitments. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Assume positive intent. Ask questions. Listen, listen, listen. Ask more questions and listen some more. Soothe fears. Work on your own insecurities at the location from which they spring—inside yourself. Be kind. Be consistent. Be generous. Ask explicitly for what you want. State clearly what you need. Apologize when you fuck up, and try to fix it. Find strategies to compensate for your shortcomings, such as forgetfulness or anxiety or lack of emotional vocabulary or whatever else gets in the way of you being able to do all this stuff skilfully. Yes, this is going to be a lot of work. Do it anyway. Better yet, do it because the work itself brings you joy and makes you feel like you are moving through the world in a way that is profoundly right. If you’ve messed up on one of these counts, or any other, and it has hurt your partner(s), heal it. Do the work together. Get couples therapy. Practice new communication skills together. Invest your time, energy and effort to make the soil healthy and nourishing rather than in building fences around the garden.
From there, you can request all kinds of behaviours without needing them to be rules. You know, like “I’m really keen to meet your new lover! Can we have tea next week?” or “Hey, will you text when you’re on your way home so I know what time to get dinner ready for?” or “It would make me feel cherished and special if we had a brand of wine we drink only with each other” or even “I’m terrified I’m going to lose you and I need some reassurance.” Again, this isn’t just semantics. These other ways of relating aren’t “just like rules.” They are about generosity and joy and care, not control and limits and fear. Intent counts here.
4. Polyamory is heterosexual(-ish). Also, cute and young and white. Also new and exciting and sexy! This element of polynormativity doesn’t relate directly to the other three, but since we are talking about media representation here, it’s well worth mentioning. Polyamory is resolutely presented in the media as a thing heterosexuals do, except sometimes for bisexual women who have a primary male partner and secondary female partners. It is exceedingly rare for lesbian, gay or queer poly configurations to be included in mainstream representations of polyamory, even though LGBQ circles are absolute hotbeds of polyamorous activity, and LGBQ people have a long and illustrious history of non-monogamy, recent enthusiasm about marriage notwithstanding. Go to just about any LGBQ gathering—even the most mainstream—and you can’t swing a cat without hitting at least half a dozen people who are doing some sort of non-monogamy, from regular “monogamish” bathhouse adventures to full-on poly families. It’s so common that it feels (gasp!) normal.
But if the mainstream media were to give too many column inches to LGBQ polyamory, then people might think poly is a gay thing, and that wouldn’t sell nearly as many magazines. So the typical polynormative hype article goes something like, “Meet Bob and Sue. They’re a poly couple. They’re primary partners and they date women together.” Or “they each date women on the side” or “they have sex parties in their basement” or sometimes, though more rarely, “Bob dates women and Sue dates men.” Mainstream representations rarely break the “one penis per party” rule, which is exactly as offensive as it sounds. You don’t get Bob dating Dave, or Sue dating Tim and Jim and John while Bob stays home with a movie. Because whoa! That’s just going too far. I mean, playing around with women is one thing, but if you bring a second man into the picture, don’t the two guys need to, like, duke it out? Prove who’s manlier? Because evolutionary psychology! Because nature! Because when there is a penis (and only one penis) involved it is real sex and that means a real relationship and we must have a real relationship to have a primary-secondary structure and we must have a primary-secondary structure to be a poly couple! (Hmm. So maybe this part does relate to my other three points after all.)
All of this creates a situation where polyamory is presented as a hip new trend that edgy straight folks are trying out, and boy, are they ever proud of it. Needless to say this whole framing varies from clueless about queers to downright offensive.
Add the mainstream media’s desire to show images of poly people who are cute, young and white and we are getting a very narrow picture indeed. The magazines want to showcase people who are as conventionally attractive as possible, aged between 20 and 40, and almost never anything other than Caucasian (unless they’re people of colour who are really, y’know, exotic and sexy, like smoldering black men or gorgeous Asian women). It’s a crying shame, because the stories of poly people who are in their sixties and seventies would be amazing to hear. And no, not all poly people are white, but when white is the only image people see of poly, it sure does create a barrier discouraging people of colour from understanding themselves as potentially poly.
The media is also mostly interested in the sexy factor. The deep impact that a given person’s camera-friendliness has on the media’s willingness to showcase them cannot be underestimated. And with that comes the push to sexualize as much as possible. I will never forget, for instance, what happened when I was featured in Châtelaine magazine with a partner about ten years ago. The photographer pushed hard for me to take my top off for the shoot, assuring me it would be tasteful. When I asked him why he wanted to take the showing-skin angle, he said “because you’re not ugly. It’s really hard to photograph people who are ugly.” Um, thanks? My blouse stayed on, but apparently young, white and cute were still the order of the day, because they still had my picture take up way more space than the other people who were featured in the article. You know, the “ugly” ones. Yechh.
Don’t get me wrong. Sex and attraction are significant forces in poly relationships. This isn’t a bad thing, and I feel no need to get all “it’s not about the sex” on you. It is about the sex, at least for most of us. But it’s not only about the sex. If it were only about the sex, it wouldn’t be polyamory—it would be sleeping around, which is awesome, but not usually committed and romantic. If it were never about the sex, it also wouldn’t be polyamory—we’d just be a bunch of friends, which is also awesome, but also not usually romantic, though possibly committed. But the media is really bad at striking that balance. The mainstream is really interested in orgies, and who sleeps with who, and how often, and wow threesomes! And did I mention young, cute and white?
These articles are looking to present a fantasy of conventionally good-looking people having delightful transgressive (but not scary transgressive) sex while remaining as firmly within the boundaries of conventional couple-based relationship-building as humanly possible under the circumstances. That fantasy sells things. It does the rest of us no favours.
— I’m adding this section now (a week after the original post) because a few people have now raised the question of why I am using the acronym LGBQ without including the T for transgender/transsexual. In trying to keep a tight focus on the topic of polynormativity as being about media representation of a certain relationship model, and the problems with both the representation and the model – with “tight” already being a bit of a stretch given the length of this post – I didn’t go into the broader list of ways in which polynormativity supports other kinds of omissions and normativities. In making that editorial choice, I may have perpetuated several of those omissions myself. So, clarification is of course warranted. (Some of the following appears in the comments section, so you will see it repeated if you read through that too.)
So here it is: I am increasingly uncomfortable with the acronym LGBTQ, as the inclusion of a T for “transgender” (a gender identity) at the end of a list of letters standing for sexual orientations (not genders) bears some implicit inaccuracy. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer people may be trans or non-trans; and transgender people may of course be gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer or straight (and beyond) in orientation. Not all trans people feel an affiliation with gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer politics or communities, and not all people with a history of transition feel a need to overtly identify as transgendered, even if they do identify as gay, lesbian, bi or queer. I don’t take any issue with using LGBTQ to describe, for instance, a magazine or a group or a committee or what have you, provided the entity actually serves the people represented by that entire acronym and isn’t just trying to look extra-progressive. In this post, I’m talking about orientation, not gender identity, so it felt (and still feels) inaccurate to throw the T into that specific list.
But that doesn’t mean trans people have no place in this discussion. Quite the opposite. The polynormative model also perpetuates cisnormativity, in two ways. (Cisnormativity is the idea that all people who are assigned a given sex at birth still identify with that sex and express an “appropriate” gender identity as a result, and that anything else is weird or bad.) One is the media representation element – trans people rarely show up in mainstream media representations of polyamory. So this is cisnormativity by omission. The other, more complex piece becomes evident when we dig a little deeper into the “one penis per party” rule, and into how we understand sexual orientation. “One penis per party” relies on the idea that “penis” can be used as shorthand for “man,” because men always have penises, and only men have penises. This, of course, erases the experiences of a lot of trans folks for whom genitals and gender don’t match up, whether because they are men who weren’t born with penises or because they’re women who were (regardless of what a person’s genitals look like at this point in their life, or what words they use for them).
“One penis per party,” more broadly, also relies on the idea that men and women are naturally different in some sort of essentialist, fundamental, biology-based way, such that having a (in this case secondary) relationship with a man is going to be substantively different because man than it would be with a woman because woman. This idea ends up pre-determining how people think a relationship is going to go – how “real” the sex is going to be, how intense the emotions are likely to get, and therefore how “safe” it is to “allow” one’s primary partner to engage in that relationship. This doesn’t account for the possible presence of trans people in the equation. But even if that’s a non-existent possibility in a given situation for whatever reason, it speaks to a viewpoint in which women and men are naturally like this or like that because of their anatomy. This, as a conceptual model, keeps trans people – even if you don’t know any (to your knowledge!) and don’t have any occasion to meet any – in the boxes they were assigned to at birth. It implies that the gender they have moved into is somehow less real or valid. It also keeps the vast spectrum of people who are not trans – whether cisgendered, or, like myself, gender-fluid or somewhere else in the non-binary range – tethered to the boxes they were assigned at birth, insisting that those boxes determine who we are, who we can be, how we can fuck, and what it’s like to be romantically involved with us. Ultimately, cisnormativity hurts everyone. The people most egregiously damaged end up being the people who are the most visibly different, which often means trans women. But cisnormativity isn’t “just” a trans issue. This is about creating space for all of us to exist as we wish.
Like with any normative model, polynormativity works in concert with a range of other normative models to create a full, if rarely explicit, picture in people’s minds about How the World Works, about who counts and who doesn’t, about what’s real and what’s not worth considering. As such, in addition to questions of race and age and orientation, as I mentioned earlier, and of gender, as I’ve fleshed out here, it holds hands with other problematic ideas. Ideas of what family is or should be, and of how kids can or should work into the equation; questions of illness/health and ability/disability, including STI status; questions of class and economic position; and a range of others. But, as a commenter pointed out, this is a blog post, it isn’t a book. Yet…
End of new section! —
In sum, I have three key problems with polynormativity.
First problem: the polynormative model is kinda sucky. Perhaps it might work well, maayyybe, for some people—I won’t go so far as to say it never does. But it comes with a host of problems for everyone involved, most notably for those who are in the least empowered place within the relationship structure, but also in more subtle and insidious ways for those who are in the more privileged place within the structure. Gee, whaddaya know, that’s a lot like pretty much every other privilege/oppression system, ever! I’m going to stop short of saying to polynormative folks, “hey, you’re doing it wrong,” but, well, honestly? Not far off. Maybe closer to “you’re missing the point.”
Because of this stance I suspect I may get irate or defensive comments here from a lot of polynormative folks who feel just great about their model. To them, I will say the following. If you are a member of a “primary” pair in a polynormative model, and your “secondary” partner(s) can provide just as spirited a defense of your model as you do, or even more so—not a defense of you as individuals, nor of your relationship, but of the polynormative model itself—without leaving anything out or fibbing even a little bit so they don’t risk creating conflict or possibly losing you as a partner, then you fall within the minority of polynormative folks for whom the model works really, super well for all concerned. (And I do mean all. If it’s only working really great for the primary couple, the model isn’t working.) If you’re one such bunch, there’s no need to get defensive—I’m not really criticizing you anyway. If, however, that’s not the case for you, please hold off on your defensiveness and think really seriously about the critiques I’m raising instead.
When I start seeing a plethora of mainstream media testimonials from happy, fulfilled secondary partners about how awesome the primary-secondary model is… when these secondaries start writing the latest hit poly books, giving the advice, having the lead roles in the reality TV shows, and doing all this as secondaries (not as people who happen to be secondary to someone but it’s all okay and balanced and fair because they’re also primary to someone else)… when they show their faces in photos, use their full and real names in articles, and just generally feel not the least bit weird about their position in these poly structures right alongside the primary partners who are showcased this way… when this is not an occasional exception, but the main kind of representation I see by and of secondary partners… then maybe I will amend my stance here. I’m not holding my breath.
Second problem: The media presents these poly norms as, well, norms. As The Way to Do Poly. At best, there’s a brief mention that some people do some other sorts of poly, over there, and we don’t really understand them, or maybe those forms are way too complicated for us to summarize in a 1,000-word article. (Triads! Quads! Families! Ws and Xs and Greek alphabets and constellations and ecosystems! It’s all so scary. Also, math is hard.)
But most of the time, “other” (ooh, look at that construction!) kinds of poly aren’t mentioned at all. There is this one way, and here it is! Isn’t it grand? So brave! So unusual! Really quite cutting-edge, don’t you think? … Well, whether intentionally or otherwise, this approach ends up flattening the picture of poly, depicting it in its simplest, most dumbed-down terms. It’s no coincidence that this version of poly is the one that most closely resembles the one-man, one-woman, marriage-based, nuclear-family kind of relationship we’re all told we’re supposed to aspire to. All we’ve done is relax the rules around sex a bit, and unlike (but not that unlike) swingers’ ethics, we’re also “allowing” the emotional end of things to actually exist, in the sense that we have relationships and are not “just” schtupping. But not the kind of relationships that actually “threaten” (?!) the “primary” couple. Not with people who, God forbid, make demands on one or both of us, or challenge us, or want to have a say in how things go. Then, well, they get the boot, because primary comes first! We can all agree on that, can’t we? Of course. That’s the essence of primary relationships. It’s pretty clear in the terminology. One person comes first, the others do not. This is why the mainstream can wrap its head around poly at all: because understood this way, it’s really not that fundamentally different from monogamy.
Third problem: This whole state of affairs screws over the newbies. Because of this overwhelming slant in media representation, a lot of folks who are new to poly are operating at a great disadvantage.
I’m not really much one to idealize the past, but boy, was it different ten or fifteen years ago. Back in my day (ha!), if you wanted to learn about poly, there was one source: The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt (as Janet Hardy was known at the time). It was all right. Not perfect. Heavily slanted toward sex-party-attending Bay Area granola types, and written at such a basic language level that it wouldn’t go over anyone’s head, but overall pretty solid, and nicely thought-provoking. Deborah Anapol’s Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits was never nearly as popular or sexy, but it did become a quiet classic, and provided another angle. And, well, that was it. Beyond that, there were a few online discussion forums and potentially, if you lived in a big city, real-life local poly groups. This meant that if you wanted to learn about how to “do” polyamory, you pretty much had to make it up by yourself (which can be a good thing, though extra-challenging); talk to people in your local community, which was probably relatively small but also probably pretty warm and supportive; or attend a conference somewhere far away that brought together a bunch of people. And those people might be doing poly in any number of ways, primary-secondary being just one. (Even then, it was a pretty darned common one, so I’m not saying that polynormativity is entirely a new problem—it’s just worse now than ever.)
Right now, though, you can google “polyamory” and get a whole lot of nearly-identical polynormative hype articles, and you can meet up with locals who’ve read the same articles you just did, and you can all get together and do polynormative poly exactly the way the media told you to. And if that’s all you ever bother to do then essentially you are selling yourself short. You are trading in the monogamous norm for polynormativity, which relatively speaking isn’t all that much of a stretch, and stopping there because you may very well think that’s all there is (and you already racked up a whole bunch of cool points anyway). You aren’t encouraged to really think about this stuff without any imposed models at all, which means you never get to figure out what actually might work best for you. As such, the most fundamental element of polyamory—that of rejecting the monogamous standard, and radically rethinking how you understand, make meaning of and practice love, sex, relationships, commitment, communication, and so forth—is lost in favour of a cookie-cutter model that’s as easy as one, two, three. The deepest and most significant benefit of polyamory has become increasingly obscured by media representation, and as a result, is getting farther and farther out of reach for anyone who’s just starting out.
I feel the need to reiterate, one last time, that my problem here is with the polynormative model and the mainstream media’s insistence on it—not with a specific relationship structure or with any people who happen to practice it. Yes, the polynormative model and the primary-secondary relationship structure do happen to overlap often, but I can’t tell by looking at you what process, values or circumstances brought you to your current structure, or why you chose your terminology, so I can’t and won’t criticize or judge individual people or poly groupings on the sole basis of having a primary-secondary structure. If this post provokes a sense of defensiveness in you, I invite you to sit with that and think about why.
The key distinction here is between philosophy and current situation or practice. This is similar to how sexual orientation and current sexual practice are not one and the same. You can, for instance, be gay and currently celibate; or bisexual, but these days having sex with only women; or fundamentally straight, but involved with someone of the same sex (though I know some folks would debate that last one). When it comes to polyamory, sometimes, regardless of your philosophy, you may end up being in one big significant live-together kind of relationship and have one or more less-serious or less-committed or less-intense relationships as well. It’s the polynormative mindset I have a problem with, and its prevalence—not the form a given poly relationship constellation may actually take.
If you’d like to expand outside the polynormative model, I have some recommended reading for you. First, read Wendy-O-Matik’s Redefining Our Relationships. Then, check out Deborah Anapol’s new Polyamory in the 21st Century: Love and Intimacy with Multiple Partners. (I haven’t read it in full yet myself, but the excerpts I’ve seen lead me to believe Dr. Anapol has a lot of really wise shit to say about non-polynormative models, though I don’t think she uses that term specifically.) Spend some time reading Franklin Veaux. Read my 10 Rules for Happy Non-Monogamy. If you’re doing D/s or M/s relationships, read Raven Kaldera’s Power Circuits: Polyamory in a Power Dynamic (full disclosure: I contributed an essay to it). Look for information, ideas, works that challenge you to think hard, build your skills and stretch your heart. It’s out there. Your move.
329 thoughts on “the problem with polynormativity”
Man, am I glad I subscribe to your blog, or I would probably have missed this deep, thoughtful, trenchant critical reflection on polynormativity.
Thanks so much for getting into this in such depth. You touch on many issues that really warrant discussion.
I’m in a deadline frenzy right now and will be for a couple of weeks. I hope to be able to return to this with some commentary of my own when I recover my brain enough to switch mental gears. I’d really like to get into a few topics you touch broached..
Thanks again for this great post! Am sharing the link elsewhere right now.
Thank you. 🙂
I was with you up until your argument against rules. for people who are exploring non-monogamy with a monogamous relationship as their starting point, rules can help prevent a lot of pain and heartache. it’s not about failing to trust the other person, it’s about a previously-monogamous person not knowing what his or her comfort zones are. sure, you can forego the prior discussions and boundary-setting, but the danger of just trusting and trying to work through complex, internalized mono-normative emotional reactions post facto is the destruction of the existing relationship by piling on too much too quickly. IME, boundary-setting can be very helpful to preserve an existing relationship that both partners want to preserve, while allowing emotionally-risky non-monogamous exploration. in such cases, boundaries are often relaxed as people learn to trust each other outside their dyadic partnership.
Well, the way you describe this, you might be talking about one of the exceptional, short-term circumstances where rules can be necessary. But even then, a rule is a blunt instrument. There are much gentler, finer tools at our disposal, and they don’t require a lot of experience to use. I was new at this whole poly thing too, once, and the way my partner and I did it at the time was to agree that we would talk about everything. Just… Everything. Figure it out together along the way. Talk all the time. Trust in each other’s goodwill. Listen hard and repair things if one of us stepped over a line that neither of us knew was there. It worked, and worked well. So maybe, for some people who are especially terrified or especially untrusting of one another or have very few skills, rules might be the only way to accomplish the goal of figuring out what works for them, but that’s really not the case for everyone. Most of us have a lot of other options that get the job done, and that better serve us in terms of helping us nourish trust, even for rank newbies. Rules are designed to prevent the very fuck-ups and other experiences that help you learn together and build trust. It’s possible to build trust despite having a lot of rules, but honestly I think the rules more often than not slow down that process, rather than aiding it.
Just a quick note–I’ll try to get a much longer reply later–but I might point out that your “gentler, finer tool,” namely to “talk all the time” “about everything” is a Rule. It’s a BIG rule.
Personally–it’s a rule that I agree with 100%… and I will elaborate in a later response–but it fits within the other realm you mention a lot–namely trust. I would personally assert that trust is awesome–but it lives exactly in a mutually reinforcing relationship with communication. Without trust–you often don’t communicate–which can lead to less and lest trust. If you communicate often and openly–this leads to more trust–>which leads to more willingness to communicate.
Anyway.. I’ll try to bring up other points later. I too find long, declarative lists presented as the cure-all/be-all of relationships to be rather obnoxious–but I don’t blame that on the rules themselves.. but rather I think it’s more a problem of a kind of mindset that thinks rules are ARE A REPLACEMENT for trust and communication. That’s where the problem is.. rules are fine, usually–but they are just statements/words/whatever… and they only need be as powerful as we decide them to be..
Okay, really–I must be off.. but a really cool post.. more thoughts later..
I got into poly around eight years ago, via my bisexuality. Yes, I’m married to a bisexual woman, and yes, we followed the “monogamous couple opening up to other people” thing, complete with a handful of hard-and-fast rules to make it less scary and make each of us feel safer. As we got more confident, the rules organically vanished, except for the “safe sex at all times unless we have all talked about it and agreed to it first” rule, because well d’uh.
The funny thing with us, though, was that we very quickly rejected the primary/secondary hierarchy, because it felt a bit gross. Arbitrarily categorising people above or below each other just felt really, really wrong. We simply agreed that we would work on sustaining our relationship, but others would be allowed to be whatever they were.
Like you, we went for descriptors rather than ranks. We talked about life partners, lovers, fuckbuddies, and so on. Worked just fine for us, though a few people in our poly group warned us it would lead to disaster.
I agree that trust and communication are key. You can’t get angry with someone for doing (or not doing) something if you never told them it was an issue for you.
So yeah, good article. Thanks!
@Prof. Woland I agree with you the Rules aren’t problematic in and of themselves. There are worse and better ways to manage rules, and there are worse and better reasons to have rules.
Prof. Woland – Thanks for your thoughtful response. I totally agree about your framing of the relationship between trust and communication. I would disagree, though, that people talking about things all the time is a rule. It’s an approach… a philosophy… possibly a guideline… an agreement, perhaps. But it’s far too easy to stretch “rule” into a synonym for “any framework that guides what you do” or “anything you say you’ll do,” whereas I think the idea of a rule is a lot more specific than that. A rule is a directive – whether imposed or agreed upon mutually – that can be broken or obeyed. I just don’t think the rigidity of that concept applies to the myriad ways that two or more people might agree to treat each other, or simply go ahead and treat each other based on a shared value system without the need to explicitly agree upon specific behaviours at all.
For instance, if I make a date with someone, there’s no rule in place saying I need to give them at least a day’s notice if I’m going to cancel, or that if it’s a particularly special date (birthday, say) I really shouldn’t cancel at all without a very serious reason. But I’ll still behave according to those understandings of what’s cool and what’s not. I’d like them to, also, but it’s not the end of the world if we do things a bit differently – for instance if they feel it’s okay to cancel that same afternoon, all right, no biggie. Not my preference, but hardly worth making a fuss over. Perhaps for some reason we’ll talk about it and agree on how we both feel dates should be approached, but that doesn’t make it a rule, it just means we’ve established that whether or not we hold similar values here, and possibly how important it is (and it may not be) for one or the other’s approach to shift. Perhaps we won’t talk about it at all until someone does different – cancel at the last second, say – and the other clarifies that wasn’t cool. Even then, I wouldn’t call that a rule, just an organic evolution of how two people understand how to treat each other well.
Anyway. I realize I’m being really specific here, and that for some people the nuances I’m trying to get at aren’t really of interest, but to me it feels like a pretty crucial distinction, and I don’t know how better to express it than via specificity of terms. Re-reading your comment, I think you’re just operating with a much broader definition of the term “rule” than I am. Either way I’m right on board with the pinpointing of the problem in the idea that rules are ever a replacement for trust and communication. Well said.
I agree with many of the things said here, but I strongly balk at the current “smart poly” trend of rejecting rules for all these reasons.
I generally hate the “more evolved” “pro-poly” line of argument, and I get more than a whiff of that here. I also (as other commenters have pointed out) find that rules actually help people, concretely, often especially when they’re new. Yes, there are more fine-grained ways of doing things! But that often requires people to do things like take 5 hours to talk about their relationship every two days, and not everyone wants to do that — and they’re not bad people or unsuited for poly just because they don’t want to do that.
The bottom line for me is that I see SO MUCH self-righteousness in the poly community. And I don’t think you personally are indulging in that, Andrea, but I see so much of it, and it is so alienating. I feel troubled about assimilation too, but self-righteousness hasn’t helped the queers much. People who are mainstream and accustomed to mainstream ways of doing things are not bad just because they’re mainstream. (I talk about this a lot in my book about pickup artists, actually.)
If a poly person isn’t at the point where they feel comfortable doing poly without a bazillion rules, well, let them do it with a bazillion rules. It’s completely legit to offer case studies of how that approach has failed in the past, or ideas about how to do it differently, but I really take issue with opposing it.
Sidenote: I previously explored a lot of these issues in my piece Relationship Tools: Monogamy, Polyamory, Competition, and Jealousy.
“Most of us have a lot of other options that get the job done, and that better serve us in terms of helping us nourish trust, even for rank newbies. ”
I don’t know that I agree with your characterization of the skills that “most” people have. do some? absolutely. do many? most likely. but most? my own human experience (and what I’ve gleaned from talking to counselors and therapists) suggests that in actuality, most don’t. (but yay for those who do!)
“Rules are designed to prevent the very fuck-ups and other experiences that help you learn together and build trust.”
mmm. I don’t think fuck-ups are the only way – or even the best way – to learn together and build trust. fuck-ups can be so massive that they permanently damage existing trust.
I think rules (or perhaps the better word is agreements, as mentioned below – I don’t think unilateral dictates are helpful to anyone) are very useful tools in exploring non-monogamy. and they are just that: tools. nor are they necessarily blunt or harsh as you paint them. coming to rules – or agreements – does require discussion and communication. perhaps not as exhaustively as you promote, but at last as far as the people involved are comfortable.
I think part of my own resistance to the model you set out is that it is very easy for one partner to abuse it and push the other partner further than they’re ready to go. and then attempt “oh, honey, I’m sorry, let’s get through this it will make us stronger.”
“A rule is a directive – whether imposed or agreed upon mutually – that can be broken or obeyed. “
This makes me even more confused about the “special brand of wine” example. Your other three examples in that section are all one-time requests that don’t impose any continuing expectations. But if my partner and I agree to have a special brand of wine we only drink with each other, in order to help them feel cherished and special… doesn’t that then become a directive that I can either break or obey in the future?
@baggagecarousel – Yeah, I certainly don’t think that everyone in the world comes equipped with the same emotional skill set. Wouldn’t that be nice… 😉 But I do know that I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have more than just a single skill. I think the focus on rules as an easy go-to obscures the existence of other skills that could be employed (and strengthened!) to achieve the same end.
The way I see it, the benefit of creating, implementing, and enforcing a rule should always be weighed against the cost of doing so, and with every single rule you add, there is a cost, and usually a higher one than you might expect. That cost could be disharmony (depending on how the rule was arrived at and whether anyone feels slighted by the process or unfairly bound by the result), failure to account for the complexity of the current or future situation (as we cannot predict what will come up), lack of flexibility induced by the reduction of people’s freedom to make independent decisions, the emotional/relational effort it takes to enforce rules consistently (because a rule does require enforcement), a focus on technicality or measurable elements of behaviour (letter of the law) that obscures the value of intent (spirit of the law), outsiders’ perception of the people in question (this may or may not be a concern, but sometimes it is very much so), and so forth. And of course, as I’ve discussed, it is often pretty problematic when a rule is created by two people and applied to others without their input, when such is the case. It is dangerous to see rules only for their benefits, even when they do have benefits. If there is some way to solve a problem that does not involve creating a new rule, that’s almost always a better “deal” in the cost/benefit analysis.
The list of other possible skills one could employ in lieu of rules is endless. I’m boggling a bit just trying to think about how to list them all, so I think I’ll not go that route. Instead I’d say that some of the most productive conversations any given pair of people could potentially have would start out with, “If we had no rules about this at all, how would you be most naturally inclined to handle situation X?” That conversation could continue with “I’d probably do A, or B if it were like this, or maybe C if it were like that. How would you react to each of those, and why?”
But then, it sounds like maybe I’m preaching to the choir – your use of the term “agreements” and your distaste for dictates makes me think this may be another terminology snag. I don’t think a rule and an agreement are at all the same thing. But I’ve gone over that in other comments, so I will leave it alone here.
As for the problem you point out about abusing a no-rules model… yes, absolutely, that is possible. The problem is, that same person – the one who is likely to push someone further than they’re ready to, and then apologize in what sounds like an insincere way (if I read you right) and blow off their fuck-up as a growth opportunity – that person? They’re the person who’s going to try and find a loophole in a rule anyway. They’re the person who’s not especially considerate, who kinda just wants what they want and is trying to find a way to get away with it. No rule is going to change that kind of person – but the employment of rules can fool you into thinking you’ve got it under control. Good faith is the underpinning of any relationship, and if it’s lacking, then any approach you take will lead you to the same place in the end. One hopes sooner rather than later, so as to minimize the attendant damage.
@Wbd – I don’t think so, no. I don’t think continuing expectations are synonymous with rules. I can fully expect my partner to honour our standing Wednesday-night yoga date unless we discuss otherwise, but that’s not the same as imposing a rule stating he has to show up. I do think that if exclusivity is desired for certain activities, that needs to be talked about pretty clearly – and I see how for some folks that could approach what they’d understand a rule – but it still doesn’t feel like approaching that from the same angle as a rules-based approach. I mean, I suppose you could make it a rule – “you may not drink this wine with anyone but me” – but I hardly think that’s necessary. Shared intent, I think, can be enough to hold most (?) people to a way of behaving without need for regulation per se.
Just remember that what is right for you isn’t necessarily right for everyone else, so you should not assume that rules don’t work for some people. Criticizing other people for using rules, is basically saying you think your way is better, which is fine for you.
In the end all that people need to know about polyamory is that the people who are this way make their own decisions and their own rules about it and they vary wildly from relationship to relationship. People don’t need to understand it to accept it. If someone decides it is for them, they’ll figure it out.
Whitewashing polyamory is the same as whitewashing kink. You’ll hear about a little play, but you’ll never hear about someone being led around town on a chain or being used as a toilet. That has always been the way media is, in every aspect.
@baggagecarousel4 I could not agree more with what you say. I know that we, wouldn’t have gotten anywhere down the road of our poly life without ‘rules’. I think that many of the people who fit into the “polynormative” model are those who are coming from the ‘mainstream’ following this progression to work from what they are, to what they will become. I think that rules is one of the ways that people progress down that path.
Sidenote: I have previously explored a lot of these issues in my piece Relationship Tools: Monogamy, Polyamory, Competition, and Jealousy.
Shared intent, I think, can be enough to hold most (?) people to a way of behaving without need for regulation per se.
I’m sorry to be obtuse here but I genuinely don’t understand the distinctions you are trying to make. If my partner and I form an explicit shared intent about a special brand of wine, how would you expect our actions in the future to look different from people of otherwise equal compassion/emotional intelligence who had made a rule from that intent? What would happen if one person drank the special wine with someone else?
Part of why I’m picking at this is that it’s been an issue in my dating life. I’m in a relationship that is in some respects quite polynormative – I have a partner who is both a domestic/life partner and is primary in the sense that I’ve made promises to him that I haven’t (yet) made to other partners – but I never recognize my own relationship processes in the things people write about how hierarchy operates (people asking for advice on the internet yes, and media images yes, I see where this comes from, but I don’t recognize myself). That’s cool for cultural analysis – this doesn’t have to be about me – but the prevalence of this model/stereotype makes it more difficult to have the “so is your kind of poly compatible with my kind of poly?” conversation.
Specialized poly jargon is supposed to be an aid to this process but not when it forces distinctions that aren’t emotionally relevant to me and ignores distinctions that are. It sometimes feels like trying to discuss the evolutionary history of birds with someone who grew up with the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.
I’m not Andrea, but I’ll do my limited best to answer this question. Let’s say Partner A drinks the special wine with Partner B, rather than Partner C. In a rules-based system, there would be some sort of penalty because Partner A had broken a rule. That’s how rules work: you break them, there are consequences. In a system of respect and love, Partner C would feel bad, and Partner A would have to deal with the fact that her or his actions made Partner C feel bad. In an ideal system, A and C would have a conversation wherein Partner A explained that it was really super late, and B had been really upset about something and whatever it was seemed to be the sort of thing best discussed over a civilized glass of wine, and the Special Wine was the only wine in the house. So under the circumstances A felt that C would understand that this was a one-time act of desperation, and would not begrudge the sharing of the wine. A and C might further make a resolution to make sure the house is stocked with both the special wine and other respectable wine, so that this doesn’t come up again.
Thanks, Jennie! The idea of pre-specified penalties as a distinguishing factor makes sense to me, though I don’t think it’s one I’ll ever find relevant unless I develop a sudden interest in formal D/s.
I mean, it would never occur to me to think that someone using the word “rule” is actually talking about doling out an arbitrary punishment before discussing the circumstances, because lolwut, who does that, that is absurd. Or that “Partner C will feel bad and Partner A has to deal with that” might not qualify as sufficient penalty for breaking a rule.
As a person in a poly constellation that has only briefly resembled polynormative, I can’t recommend this post highly enough.
I also use the words Primary and Secondary but extremely sparingly and only for the powerful shorthand they can be, just as the author uses them in the article.
To the author, my thanks for this. You write for me.
Primary and Secondary may be powerful shorthand, but they carry way too much derogatory baggage for me to want to use them in any circumstance.
As someone who doesn’t fit any of the poly norms you present, I like your post a lot.
The term polynormative doesn’t do it for me though. When I hear heteronormative, it means to me that heterosexuality is considered normal, the default. Which is different from referring to heterosexual norms. I think polynormative works the same way. What you’re really talking about are poly norms not that poly is the default relationship style. Sounds like the beef is with the media and the way they portray media relationships, though. Not sure what I can do about that. I’ll keep living my poly life that is not ‘normal’ and be open about it and the media will keep ignoring the likes of me. Even the LGBT media.
I love the treatment you give to primary and secondary and totally agree. Even if the intent is not hierarchical, they’re hierarchical. I’ve never seen a relationship that used them that didn’t turn out that way.
Thanks for the comment! Neologisms are so much fun to dissect. 🙂
You’re right about the way that heteronormativity is used – it’s a way of describing the way heterosexuality is held up as the norm. But sometimes the “normativity” element is used the other way around. So for instance “homonormativity” is sometimes used to describe a politic in which gay is the norm and all others come second, but it’s also used to describe the prevalence of a specific set of norms around “being gay” – neoliberalism, uncritical of gender oppression, as close to heterosexual as possible, etc. (Both senses are described at the bottom of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heteronormativity.)
I am aiming to use “polynormativity” in this latter way – to indicate that there is a prevalent message conveyed about a specific way to “be poly” or “do poly.” I imagine you could use “polynormative” also to mean a politic in which poly (no specific kind) is the norm and all other relationship types come second – and that might be a useful sense to use it in at times. For instance in this sense, it is true that a lot of BDSM communities are polynormative, in that people are assumed to be poly unless they say otherwise, rather than the reverse.
So… I dunno. Ambiguity yay? I hope the context of its use in this post makes it clear what sense I’m using it in. I do wonder where it’ll go from here though. 🙂
Thank you. I mean, I know that some poly looks like this, but it has nothing to do with my five-person, two married couples and me, copious connections of varying sexiness/romanticness/platonicness between us. And when I try to explain that my relationship to my partners is different than the relationship to their married partners, people *always* jump to ‘less than’. No, that’s not what I said. I said different. They’ve known each other longer. They have different standings with their families. They have different history. We are not the same people! Different. Not better.
I very much agree with the sentiment that the rules should be unnecessary if everyone involved is caring. loving, considerate, reasonable, etc. However, as a lawyer, I have learned that reasonable minds can and do differ on just about everything. And almost everyone has insecurity, has an ego ripe for bruising. I say “almost” because I believe a person can reach a level of enlightenment beyond such things, and perhaps we ought to aspire to get there, but I think very few make it there. Your post makes me think of times I thought it was easier to seek forgiveness than permission. If we do not have rules, and if we have not attained sufficient enlightenment, then our interactions will always create a level of friction that leads to dischord and conflict. Optimally, we can use that conflict as a learning experience, growign seeing that no one was trying to hurt anyone, people just came into the situation with different expectations and assumptions, and we al leave even more open and enlightened about ways to view life… But…is that easier / better than having a prior discussion on expectations / assumptions? I’m not sure. In my experience, such discusssion leads to rules. Thinking it through, I’m not sure leaving rules behind does much more than shift you from the zone of permission-seeking to the zone of forgiveness-seeking. You expressed shock (if I read correctly) that some people think certain rules are so important they “need” to be stated, while you think they are so important they “should’ be automatic. Declaring what one Needs or telling people what they Should do, is the quintessential battle of egos. And oneness Should be / Needs to be about rising above the ego… Wait… Should? Need? Does oneness have an ego, too? This has been your psychoblast. Blowing up minds since 1999. (Well, mostly my own. Watch for shrapnel!) Seriously, though, I agree in spirit and would be there in body but for these chains of love…
Thanks for the great comment, Ken. Thanks for admitting you’re a lawyer. 😉 That does bring with it a certain perspective!
I don’t think it’s a bad idea to talk about expectations and assumptions prior to things happening, not at all. In fact I think it’s very wise. But I don’t think those discussions need to lead to rules – perhaps check out my reply to Prof. Woland above on that topic. Perhaps you, too, are using a different understanding of “rules” than I am. (Is there a lawyerly definition of this term? I’m curious!)
I also don’t think this is a simple shift from permission-seeking to forgiveness-seeking – though it could be. If I understand you correctly, you’re using “permission-seeking” as shorthand for “talking about things before they happen” and “forgiveness-seeking” as shorthand for “fixing the mistakes you’ve made from having not talked about things before they happened.” But I don’t think prior discussion needs to be reduced to permission-seeking, I think it can be a lot broader and richer than that, and potentially less conclusive or concrete and more exploratory. And on the other end, forgiveness-seeking isn’t always a bad thing – no rules, no matter how rigid or detailed, can possibly tell someone exactly what to do in every single situation. And we all fuck up, rules or no. So seeking forgiveness as appropriate seems like an inevitable part of doing relationships, no matter the model.
Anyway. A thought-provoking comment. Thank you for engaging.
The thing that has confused me most times I read about polyamory is that many people approach it both as an issue of identity (saying, “I am poly”) and they want to talk about the right way to do it, as if it were this thing with one meaning or even several meanings. I actively dislike talking about the way I love using the term polyamory because I don’t feel like I’m a “kind” of person or part of a club or a movement. I just practice do-it-yourself-above-all-honest-love, regardless of whether it involves one person (I can do this too) or more. When I do use “polyamory”, it’s for the same reason that I use the word “gay”: it’s an easy short-hand that will get me *somewhere*, even though it causes so much confusion. But I don’t have time to give everyone a lecture. So I just use bad words to get places.
I loved reading the article – it’s thought-provoking and beautifully written. But it strikes me as conflicted, the way it seems to be both rejecting prescriptive thinking (don’t simplify poly) as well as re-enacting it (poly isn’t this, it’s this (too)). I guess it just tires me, all this effort to tell other people what to think (or what prejudices not to have). Let’s face it, for most folks out there, we’re complicated people and few. They may not know many such exceptions in their short lives and mainstream media isn’t going to teach them. It’s like living in a country full of people who practice one religion, and you are the only atheist. There’s no point complaining that the Bible doesn’t do a good enough job of showing the other side of the debate. When you *do* choose to tell people why you live the way you do (and patiently explain that, no, you don’t sacrifice goats to dark forces, but you do eat meat from animals with cloven hooves), chances are that it’s going to be a one-person-at-a-time job. Sucks, but that’s life. You, a lonely philosopher in the wilderness. (I guess the advantage of being poly is that you’re hopefully at least a little academy… though there may be schisms…).
I’m sorry if you think this is defeatist. It isn’t supposed to be. To extend the metaphor even further (it’ll snap!), I guess we could start standing on rocks and proclaiming the benefits of critical thinking, but I think (from my personal and admittedly limited experience of mass communication about polyamory) few people are truly capable of this, and we just end up with an ugly rival religion of how to love. For me, it’s enough to stay local. I trust change that comes through personal relationships. And if I *do* stand on a rock, I won’t air my frustration that people are getting it wrong. I’ll recite a poem about how awesome my love is. 🙂
One other thought – it’s interesting, everything you say about primaries and secondaries and progressiveness. On this, I supposed I’d just comment – and I don’t think that you’re denying this – that just because it’s a shitty set-up for some of the people involved doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Same as if it’s not very progressive. Ultimately, it’s up to the folks involved. Let diversity live. If it really doesn’t work, it’ll die. If it kinda-works, even though people in the relationship aren’t fully happy, it’ll probably be batting ‘average’ in this world of personal lives. I think love is dirty. It almost always involves power imbalances, unfairness, compromises… The same way that everyone shits, no matter how clean they are. Existence just comes with these nasty, messy processes. I give up on trying to work out the best way for other people to navigate them. It’s enough to find my own path.
Sorry for such a mammoth comment – so much to respond to in your article, and the more I think and write, the more I find myself having to return to what you say in order to make sure I’m responding to YOU. I think, in the end, you’ve just nudged me into articulating a bunch of things that *I* think – they’re more adjacent to your article than responding to it. Oh well, I guess I’m that guy again… Thank you again for such a stimulating post!
@mr. adventure Well said. I don’t think that your outlook is defeatist. You actually summed up a lot of thoughts I was going to post in direct response to this article as well as some of the thoughts I wrote in my blog.
“So I just use bad words to get places.” Ha! That’s great. Thank you for the chuckle, and for the kind words also. 🙂
And no, I don’t think you’re being defeatist. “One person at a time” is the way the world changes, really. Though I’d like to think a blog post might reach more than just one at a time. 😉 The only somewhat defeatist bit is that you don’t want to stand on rocks and extol the benefits of critical thinking. Nooo! Come over to the dark side and stand on that rock with me! I TA in women’s studies at the university level… so I spend lots of time standing on exactly that rock, and I watch people’s brains expand because they start thinking critically. So I know it can and does happen. Anyway. I totally respect your preference for love poems over rants. I shall nod at you respectfully from my rock. I’m not so good at poems. Though talking about how awesome my love is – well, follow me on Twitter and you’ll see plenty of that. I don’t *only* rant. 🙂
“But it strikes me as conflicted, the way it seems to be both rejecting prescriptive thinking (don’t simplify poly) as well as re-enacting it (poly isn’t this, it’s this (too)). I guess it just tires me, all this effort to tell other people what to think (or what prejudices not to have).”
Hmm. Maybe? I don’t think I said, anywhere in this post, that polynormative *isn’t poly.* It is poly, it just often – not always, but often – barely scrapes by. I think the polynormative model is most of the time as close to not-poly as you can get while still being poly, but it’s still in the game. I’m not sure that position qualifies as prescriptive thinking. I adamantly don’t believe in a One True Way of doing poly. My “10 Rules for Happy Non-Monogamy” post is titled as such with very tongue-in-cheek intentions for exactly this reason (and, if you read it, you’ll see that my “rules” set out in the post are… well… really not rules. Personal challenges, maybe; points to ponder). Insofar as I include a paragraph here about trust-building as a solution instead of rules, I suppose you could say I’m being prescriptive, but honestly any relationship of any kind where trust isn’t present and building strikes me as one in which the participants will be pretty miserable, or one that won’t last. It’s like saying “if you don’t eat you will starve.” More like stating the obvious than prescribing anything, really.
That said, I am (on this blog at least) an opinion writer, and as such it does not tire me in the least to tell other people what they should think and what prejudices they should not have. 🙂 People are more than welcome to disagree, and I claim no authority to tell them how they *must* think and feel. But express how I think they *should*? Yup. I’m all over that. To each their own. 🙂
Thanks again for the delightful comment. Mammoth is more than welcome here.
Phew! I’m really glad my post did not come across as insulting. After I hit ‘post’, I thought to myself, ‘hey, I’ll look at the rest of the blog’… and it progressively hit me… oh shit, it’s actually her JOB to STAND on the ROCK! And, you know, ‘job’ is not the right word – people don’t stand on rocks for the money – it’s its own form of love. And who am I to criticize someone else’s love?
SO – sincere apologies if my post could *in any way* be construed as life-bashing (you didn’t seem to see it this way but I’m still a little horrified at my insensitivity, so apologies ahoy). And – not that I imagine my opinion would or should matter much to you personally – but I’d add, despite my complaints, that I have huge respect for what you do (both as a TA and on the blog). *waves respectfully from own rock* I have my own internal inconsistencies on this front. On the one hand, I am sceptical of the value of mass communication about poly stuff (“I guess it just tires me”); on the other, your article clearly achieved the opposite (“such a stimulating post”). I’m not even going to try to unpack my self-contradictoriness on this front because I think it’s a truth in and of itself. That really is how I feel. Both, at once; or at least in quick succession. (And you know, despite being obsessed with accuracy, geeks DO embrace paradox on a fairly regular basis. It’s like the Prime Directive in star Trek. When the hell did the Enterprise actually follow that non-intervention principle? But it got yanked out every episode…)
You know, I find it fascinating the extent to which many responses to this post and to other posts in your blog consist of people disagreeing with things you *haven’t* said, but which they’ve understood you to say. I don’t think that reflects badly on them or on your ability to communicate. I think it’s a sign of a really fundamental sort of conversation – one where people are being driven to form new and unfamiliar thoughts. You can follow the argument while you’re reading it, but as you start to reply, your ability to mentally sustain all the details falls apart, and it collapses back down into some simplified version of what was being said – usually, something a bit more straw manny, and familiar. It’s really tiring, going back to the text, to reinterrogate it, and then to go back to your own reactions, and tease out the things that feel out of place.
mr. adventure – I get the feeling it would be a joy to sit down and have tea with you. 🙂 Do look me up if ever you’re in Toronto.
Thanks for the lovely follow-up comment. No, I’m not the least bit insulted, but I do appreciate the idea that it’s my job (in that broad sense) to stand on the rock. I hadn’t thought of it quite like that before, but that strikes a chord. So I will put that little pebble of a concept in my pocket and touch it every once in a while and it’ll make me smile. Thank you for that small gift.
And yes, the straw-man thing is one tiring element of all this standing-on-rocks business, but I think as I age (?) I more quickly hit a point where I’m ready to just say “in fact no, that’s not what I said, but feel free to go back and re-read” rather than trying to earnestly re-explain. The “work” that is not tiring, though it is time-consuming, is in responding to the comments that raise a genuine challenge. I’m feeling particularly blessed here, as the level of dialogue seems to be remarkably high thus far. Pretty awesome how many thoughtful people are stepping forth to engage, yourself included, even though perhaps that is work for them too.
One of the fundamental elements of rules that cause mischief is determining against whom the rule applies.
A rule that applies to someone else is typically just crap (anything that starts with “You must…” or “They must…,” for example). A rule one applies to oneself (anything that tarts with “I will…,” for example) is typically the sign of a respectable person.
Oooh, I like this. Thank you for posting!
I use the word “boundary” to separate “rules” that apply to other people and “rules” that apply to me. Something that starts with “I will…” is not a rule, it’s my personal boundary. Something that starts with “You must…” or “They must…” would be a rule.
This touched me, thank you. I recognize myself in much of it: here in scandinavia the divide is sometimes called relationship anarchy vs polynormativity. I appreciate the clarity that it is about a mindset not a situation. I am most touched by the emphasis on trust, deep trust, it has light, and by “those days” when we figure it all out by ourselves, and I am remembering when I did actually come closer to myself, to my way. Which is still on its way…
Thank you for your super simple way of articulating this – a mindset, not a situation. Yes, that.
Great stuff! I agree with it nearly 100% (including the gentle criticisms of the first edition of “Slut”; I think we took care of most of these in the newer edition).
We’ve been arguing against hierarchical poly for, what?, 19 years now (probably longer, counting the work Dossie was doing in her private practice before then) – but it seems stronger than ever 😦 I prefer the term “life partner”: a business partner is the person with whom you share the risks and rewards of running a business; a life partner is the person with whom you share the risks and rewards of running a life.
One point you miss, though: many, maybe most, poly people are both “primary” and “secondary.” I might be “primary” with my life partner and “secondary” with my girlfriend, while she might be “primary” with her girlfriend and “secondary” with me. (That’s the most common configuration, but many others are possible.) In fact, I counsel people that if you’re going to do the primary/secondary thing, that you not consider being a secondary unless you have one or more other solid relationships, and/or a life calling that occupies a lot of your time and energy: it’s just too sad, and too hard on the self-esteem, to be that dependent on someone who by definition cannot be available to you when you need them. I like the “constellation” model, where any given individual is a member of a few constellations – near the center of some, out on the periphery of others, with all the constellations in Brownian motion so that relationships can ebb and flow in importance as time and desire permit. At least, that’s what’s always worked best for me and the people I know.
As for the young/white/cute thing ::spit:: – I’ve lost count of the number of TV producers who have called me asking, “Can you recommend a poly family that isn’t, um, er, old hippies, or, um, geeks?” My standard answer: “No; I don’t know any poly people who aren’t one or both.” (I conveniently leave out the part that I don’t know any *people* who aren’t one or both: old hippies and geeks is a concise and exact definition of my social circles.) They don’t even ordinarily ask about queers – that’s so far beyond their imagining that it doesn’t come up.
Do poly people still talk about “rules”? We proposed “agreements” in the first edition of “Slut,” and I do think agreements have their place in poly practice. While it’s true that the need for agreements shrinks as trust grows, most of us do have sore spots, hot buttons, baggage and phobias: one of my long-term partners was extremely averse to seeing me kiss anyone else on the mouth, so we agreed that I wouldn’t do that where he could see it. (He would have been fine with watching me get fucked, as long as there was no kissing involved.) I also had to set a limit about what scents could be worn in my bed after finding my pillow reeking of patchouli ::blech::. Agreements, by their nature, are fluid and spacious, allowing for movement as each individual’s needs and desires change; rules are static and external. I haven’t heard a poly person talk about “rules” in a long time, and I’m disappointed to hear that they’re still out there. I don’t think they have much of a place in monogamy either, FWIW.
Anyway – thanks. I’m sort of out of the mainstream of poly thought these days, and I hadn’t realized these memes were as prevalent as they apparently are. I hope a zillion people read this column.
Janet W. Hardy
co-author, “The Ethical Slut”
Thanks for chiming in, Janet! I haven’t yet read the newer edition of the book, but it’s waiting on my shelf. I look forward to seeing how it has shifted since the first time around.
Interesting perspective on primary/secondary. It’s not exactly what’s presented in the media-produced polynormative model – I all too often see only the primaries presented, and those primaries not being secondary as well, or if they are, not mentioning it or discussing that status as such. Your viewpoint, as someone who counsels, is necessarily going to reflect that aspect of real-life poly in a way that no media article is likely to, so it’s cool to hear you mention it.
I can see how the kind of balance you describe for secondaries pursuing a primary/secondary model (“I am secondary to you, but you are also secondary to me or the equivalent so it’s all good”) might work. Still, I’d see that as being a structure that’s far too dependent on outside circumstance to maintain its integrity on its own steam. Also, it relies on the assumption that one’s emotions will just conveniently obey those circumstances (“you’re allowed only this much space, feelings, so stay put! I said stay!”). Like, that having a primary partner or time-consuming life calling cancels the possibility that a secondary will desire to be more than a secondary. That vision of perfect balance rarely, in my experience, plays out quite so tidily in real life, because emotions aren’t restricted by their object’s availability, or even by the availability of the person having the emotions. A friend of mine, for instance, has a colossally bad disaster story about a “perfectly balanced” quad where the structure and the feelings didn’t match up at all and… it was just… awful. Not my story to tell, but… *shudder*
And on the flip side, lots of availability does not necessarily make for a relationship that will expand to fill it. Sometimes a “secondary” partner is secondary because that’s the nature of that particular connection, so being secondary and quite content with that – because regardless of how much or little else is occupying your time, you don’t want more than secondary status in a given relationship – is a real possibility. I still dislike the model insofar as it’s imposed as a norm – but this is one of those instances where it could work really well.
Anyway. I doubt I’m telling you anything you haven’t already thought of here. Just interesting stuff to chew on.
I really, really wish your old hippies and geeks were being featured in the media more. Holy shit do I ever. Or in a book (hint, hint!). Or… I dunno. Maybe this is my super-big soft spot for oral history work with aging marginalized communities showing. But I can’t help but think that *someone* (not me, too busy) needs to gather the stories of these creaky California poly hippies before they all croak and we lose the closest thing to an earlier generation that we have. Argh. There’s a PhD in there somewhere… anyone? Anyone?
“Agreements, by their nature, are fluid and spacious, allowing for movement as each individual’s needs and desires change; rules are static and external.” YES. Thank you for putting words to this. Gawd, it’s nice to have someone else articulate this difference. It’s *really* not just semantics.
Anyway. Thanks for an engaging response. 🙂
Just as a point of clarity: I’m not a professional counselor; that’s Dossie. I’m a writer/publisher/editor/teacher. But as a highly visible version of all of those, of course people tell me their stories and, sometimes, ask my advice, and I give it to the best of my ability. There probably aren’t too many people in the world who have met more poly people than I have.
In many ways, I’ve found that being the outside partner, then going home to my own partner and family, is ideal for me: I get the juiciness of being (as Lolita Wolf gorgeously calls it) “dessert,” but I don’t have to carry any of my sweeties’ couple-drama home with me. It’s the only way that I can imagine being a “secondary” would work for me, and I am not a particularly needy person. The model most people recognize, where the “secondary” hangs around like a bellboy waiting for the clerk to go “ding,” sounds like an excellent recipe for unhappiness.
Dossie has toyed with the idea of doing a book of slut profiles, I know; if she could find the right collaborator, she might be up for it. I declined because I absolutely loathe doing interviews I’d publish it, though.
“My standard answer: ‘No; I don’t know any poly people who aren’t one or both.’ (I conveniently leave out the part that I don’t know any *people* who aren’t one or both: old hippies and geeks is a concise and exact definition of my social circles.)”
Which is all well and good for you, but some of us DO have social circles broader than that definition. (And are still skeeved by offers to film our lives.) So what do we do when everyone’s yelling at us for ruining poly?
It sounds a lot like you’re defining poly to include exactly who you want it to include and nobody else. Probably not your intent, but I am darn tired of seeing that stance over and over again. Yes! I am young! I am white! I pass for cute when I make an effort! And my existence in your community is somehow a problem?! Please tell me how I can fix it. Please.
There’s nothing the least bit wrong with being young and cute – enjoy it while it lasts! There isn’t even anything wrong with hierarchy, as long as the “secondary” is clear on their role and has agreed enthusiastically to it. The problem lies, not with you, but with the producers who want only poly that fits with their pre-conceived ideas and that will not challenge the viewer. And, for those of you who *do* fit those parameters, it’s important that you remember that yours is only one way of relating, no better or worse than any other, and to be sure that you recognize others (queer, geeky, nonhierarchical, old, etc.) as part of the greater world of poly.
Awesome write up of a real problem. I’ve been cringing more and more as not just mainstream media but poly-books and blogs and websites seems to relegate folks who are ‘secondary’ in a relationship to a lesser status, where everything is about the ‘primary couple’. I did not get into blogging and writing about polyamory to validate unicorn hunters, damn it!
And the young, hot white polies are the only polies! God! FWIW I’m told that Natalia (producer of Polyamory: Married and Dating) was actively trying to find a more diverse cast for the second season, but there should have been some real diversity period.
Not getting my thoughts out well – long day with a lot of triggers – but thanks for a great article.
As someone who has been constantly engaged with the media in my own country (Portugal) and who is male, white, cute, young, etc., I do have to say that this strikes a chord with me. A good one – it is a much-needed expression of all the problems that happen when non-normative experiences clash with (or are assimilated into) this neo-liberal construct of mass media, capitalism, comodification, and so on.
I’ve worried, talked about, written about and thought about polynormativity for some time now – though certainly not as long and hard as you! – and this is a marvellously put list of all the problems that happen when polyamory, and other forms of non-monogamy, are lived as monogamy-but-not-really.
What happens with me is that often only the triad in which I’m in is available or willing to go on record / on camera (though fortunately that’s been changing recently!). When I’m speaking, I keep trying to be careful with how I phrase things (like saying “My first partner, but only in a strictly chronological meaning of ‘first’!”), but like you’ve pointed out, the framing done by reporters also contributes A LOT to how things get presented, and sometimes the message doesn’t go through in spite of the best efforts of all poly people involved.
So, all of this begs the question: why do I keep appearing and talking to the media, if my current configuration can be mobilized to portray what seems to be just a stereotypical situation of a male-advantageous set-up? To give a short answer (and being conscious that this in no way makes the situation itself alright or unproblematic), different countries and different stages of media and public awareness make this a choice between some (faulty) visibility in mainstream media and no visibility at all.
This obviously is not a counter-point to your analysis of polynormativity, but perhaps more of a reflexion on poly and engagement with the media, thought in a contextualized way – a lot of the resources you can rightfully take for granted there are simply non existant here – but the Google you have there is the same I have here, and so this is a strange mix of a lot of information but not a whole lot of either people or other resources, representations, etc.
As a side note, I think this excellent post deserves an annex pertaining to the tension between some LGBT movements’ objectives, polynormativity and mononormativity.
All the best, and thank you so much for this thought-provoking piece,
Thank you, Daniel, for bringing in a perspective from a different geo-political reality. 🙂 I indeed fell into the trap here of failing to note that I’m talking quite specifically about North America.
Anyway, I agree that the decision to appear in the media or not, as someone who can be made to look as though you were living or espousing a norm that you may very well not be, is a thorny one. My poly structure isn’t as easy to construct as normative – my partners are a cis butch dyke and a fey trans guy, and we are a full-on triad, and our poly family is a veritable constellation of relationships including domestic and not, romantic and not, etc. But even then, I’m really aware that I personally fit the young, cute, white demographic well enough in a photograph that it’s still a real danger that I’ll be held up to represent something I don’t want to, or perpetuate a norm I don’t personally espouse. It is complex. At the same time, the very fact of being “palatable” (yechh) to the mainstream, to whatever extent, perhaps gives people like you or me the opportunity to say some really challenging things to a wider audience that might not hear it otherwise. On balance, good or evil? It’s really hard to tell.
As for your side note – I have lots of thoughts about the tensions you describe, and not the ones one might expect. It’s been a very interesting ride to watch same-sex marriage play out in my country over the past decade, for instance, and the results of the process aren’t exactly what either the gung-ho marriage activists *or* the radical anti-marriage activists might have thought. A topic for another time, but a yummy one.
Thanks again for your comment. 🙂
Thank you for acknowledging the situatedness of your own evaluation of this situation (not that this somehow invalidates what you said, of course).
But continuing this train of thought, I wish more texts involving polynormativity would also talk about the deep influence that the “American Dream” and the “American way of life” (as it pertains to liberal individualism and the self-made-man *snicker* mentality) has had and still has on how polyamory is thought about, talked about and lived throughout the world. I see many of the comments here fall into those very same assumptions, and eventually shift the debate into very americanized questions of identity versus behavior and so forth. So that it’s just not a question of polynormativity, but a certain kind of polynormativity, that links back to certain aspects of the culture of your own country, but then get exported (as most info on poly is both in English and from America).
I hope you don’t interpret this as any kind of anti-USA rant, it’s more to do with the need – in my opinion – of what some call radical situationism; here, given the high-profile visibility of particular forms of american ways of living poly (normative or otherwise) it’s interesting to think about how specific shades of normativity, embedded in specific times and spaces, get replicated, adapted, transformed and so on. This, in a way, allows for a more nuanced vision of the geographies of normativities, and also allows for a historiography of normativities within each place. Even though “normativity” is a wholly abstract idea (since to be the perfect normative is the same as being, say, the perfect Christian), it’s an idea that keeps shifting, changing and, what’s interesting, is that no two people seem to agree exactly on what (or why) is normative at any given time.
As for the side note – I’d expect a nuanced and not-that-coherent game of push-and-pull between all those different activists, some compromise, some fear-mongering, some over-reactions and yes, also some normativities from all sides. 🙂
Thanks for your thoughtful reply!
Well, I should point out that I’m writing from Canada, not the United States. So yes North America but not so much the American Dream and related cultural specificity. The more years I spend travelling both countries, the more I see that there are real cultural differences between the two, not because I’m a rah-rah Canadian nationalist in any way (I’m way too critical of the nation-state for that), but because we really do have vastly different social and legal systems in many ways and those necessarily impact our experience of the world. Social health care is a gigantic one. Gun politics another. Death penalty. Same-sex marriage. Sheer numbers (i.e. population). Geography. These are just a few elements, but I can trace very clear ways in which they impact how people on each side of the border get to live their lives, and that’s without even touching scholarly research on the topic. Anyway. This is a whole other discussion. I agree with you that it would be super interesting to take a look at how national identity and politics impact the way in which polyamory is understood and practiced. Sounds like a very big project, and one that would have to be done carefully in order not to fall into the inaccurate application of generalities to specific situations, but intriguing nonetheless.
Ah, apologies for the geographical misshap, and thanks for your considerations. Indeed it would be a tough project, but in any case, there’s always the possibility of inserting a bit of that into everything we write, I guess.
I’ve never been so excited reading an article. I’ve read everything I could get my hands on regarding poly and am always left frustrated by the monogamous principles most folks seem to be basing their ‘poly’ relationships.
Finally someone sees poly the way I do! I agree with everything you’ve said here and am thrilled to see it being said! I’m going to be telling all my friends about this article and you and posting a link so everyone can find it. Of course, if that is alright with you. 🙂
Goodness, by all means! 🙂
I wrote a little journal on my fet profile (ttowngirl) about your blog, linking to your profile and this blog. Several people have been commenting. 99% very positive! 🙂
Thanks tracy, you are very kind. 🙂
I agree with your assessment of the media’s current presentation of polyamory, Andrea. Polyamory is presented as a way to augment a couple — when in fact polyamory itself could be considered a way to blow up the couple (and its evil twin, couple privilege, along with it). Maybe the current presentation of polyamory is “couplenormative”?
I like that you added the primary secondary thing to the blog as well as the hetosexualish part. 1. Who wants to be the third wheel or the second choice and how can you realy prefer one love to another or give love a number? 2. I consider myself pansexual and do not limit love to such labels as male, famale, bi, strait, or homosexual. I love nomatter what you are.
My biggest issue with the new polyamorous order 9popularity) is how many swingers come around and confuse being a swinger with being poly. Being a Swinger and being Polyamorous are two very different things. Polyamory means just that “many loves” not many sex partners or being a swinger and screwing all around…
I’ll disagree with you here, JP. I think many polys’ exclusion of swingers is either class-based, ignorant or both. If you talk to actual swingers, you’ll find that all kinds of connections happen within the swing transaction – from glory-hole-level anonymity through lifelong partnership. I once met a foursome who had met as two couples while swinging, fallen mutually in love, and were living together in a group household. Just as not all poly relationships include traditional romantic love, not all swing relationships exclude it – and unless you can come up with a good solid definition of “love” (I certainly can’t, and I’ve never heard one that made sense to me) the whole thing is an exercise in futility anyway. I’ve had one-night stands that felt profoundly, passionately loving to me, and long-term relationships – my first marriage comes to mind – that never got beyond “close friends.”
Polyamory certainly isn’t swinging, but I’d argue that at least some swinging is a subtype of polyamory.
I’m so glad you brought up love and its definition/s.
My favorite definition of love is the one bell hooks uses in her book All About Love taken from M. Scott Peck:
“the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”
Maybe it’s one of the definitions you’re referencing that doesn’t resonate with you – just thought I’d share it in case it’s not.
I think “love” is the one sticking point in this otherwise profoundly resonant article for me, and other articles I’ve been delving into about poly practices, agreements, and boundaries. There’s so much talk of “falling in love” and whether “love” can or should be controlled. Whether one love should be more special or significant than another, or if there should be many different loves in our different relationships.
That feels like it might be a fracture point – if there’s a fundamental belief that one can only engage in one loving relationship, or that one loving relationship has to hold the most love or the most special love, then a hierarchy must develop to grant one loving relationship a sacred place. And if love is thought of as something that can be “fallen into” or not fallen into; something that can or should be withheld from a partner, lover, or friend; something that’s not our fault and just happens to us; something that’s felt for one partner, so is an excuse for breaking agreements and boundaries with others – well…it can be quite a mess.
I’m not quite to the point of wrapping my head around it well enough to be articulate, but I feel like starting with a shared definition of love is so important for everyone including poly folks.
I’ve come to a place personally where I think all parties approaching each relationship with the mindset of being loving; of really considering love a verb, action, choice, decision, and/or way of life is the foundation of those relationships.
If love is instead a choice, a responsibility, a verb – if I am responsible for behaving in a loving way to all my partners regardless of time spent, level of commitment, significance, degree of engagement, then doesn’t that contribute to flipping the hierarchy on its head in some of the ways the author describes?
Not sure if that was fully articulate or a helpful contribution, but it feels true to me at least IME, if not as something that could be applied universally, that having a shared understanding of love as extending one’s will to nurture someone else is a fundamental piece of this puzzle.
Ooh, I just got my hands on a copy of that book, and I’ve heard so many good things about it. This is one more motivation to read it! Thank you for the thoughtful comment. It’s true that one’s understanding of “love” is going to fundamentally impact how poly works. Add that to understandings of “rules,” “hierarchy,” “agreement,” “primary,” “secondary” and so forth as discussed in other comments (to say nothing of “sex”!) and… yeah. No kidding we need to cultivate strong communication skills.
It’s a far better definition than most I’ve read – with one small problem: the word “spiritual,” whose meaning is even more hotly contested and nebulous than “love.”
That said, I do think the concept of “love” may be the crux of this argument. Monogamists would have it that at least one kind of love, the sexual/romantic/domestic one that underlies the ideal of monogamous marriage, is unique to one individual and cannot be felt toward more than one individual at once. And I think it may be that “uniqueness” concept that forms the foundation of what Sexgeek has dubbed “polynormativity.”
There is nothing particularly radical about being a couple in which one or both have “a bit on the side,” as the Brits put it – it’s been happening for centuries, more openly or less, and far more often than the family-values crew would prefer to acknowledge. The radicalism comes in challenging the concept of “love” itself: whether it can be felt toward two people or ten or all of them (this last was what made Jesus radical); whether it’s possible to have “a la carte” (sex from one person, domesticity from another, romance from another); whether it even exists; whether it can shift forms yet still remain important… all of that, and more.
I wonder whether this is the core of the issue you’re describing, @Sexgeek. “Belief in the traditional ideal of romantic love” = polynormavity; “challenging that ideal both philosophically and in one’s own living patterns” = radical poly. What do you think?
I like most of this: I am a bisexual woman in a newly poly marriage to a straight man, and have thus far only had one short term relationship with a woman…but I am STILL against that being what poly relationships “should” look like. I wasn’t willing to try being poly until I was sure my husband could accept the possibility of me falling madly in love with another guy and the three of us all moving in together etc. None of my other relationships are going to be as important to me as my marriage AT THE START, but why limit their possibilities? If my husband doesn’t trust our relationship, we shouldn’t be poly at all.
My one issue with this article is when you equated nonsexual romantic relationships with friendships. It always makes me sad when poly people do this, especially since it’s usually just after drawing a clear line between a romantic sexual relationship and friends with benefits. Not everyone wants to have sex with everyone (or even anyone) they’re in a romantic relationship with. One of the appeals of polyamory for me as a sort-of-asexual is that it allows me to have romantic relationships with sexual people without feeling like I’m making them miss out on sex. And my romantic relationships, whether mostly or entirely sexless, are NOT the same as platonic friendships.
Thank you, Snow. What a great comment. 🙂 So great to have an asexual, or sort-of-asexual, perspective here.
That said… I didn’t say anything in my post about nonsexual romantic relationships. Perhaps I should have! But I’m not sure where I see the equation you’re talking about.
If it helps, I can definitely say that, while I am not asexual, I’ve been in non-sexual romantic relationships at several points in my life, sometimes briefly, sometimes for extended periods of time, each time for a different set of reasons. This kind of relationship deserves its own post, really, or possibly it could be discussed alongside other types of non-sexual but equally committed or serious relationships – for instance, a non-sexual, non-romantic D/s dynamic that involves a great deal of time commitment and intense emotion (also something I have experienced). Or a non-sexual and non-romantic but nevertheless committed and domestic (i.e. living together) poly family relationship (again, one I’ve been in, this one for four years now). These, too, are not the same as platonic friendships – they are much more on par with what we associate with sex-and-romance relationships in terms of commitment level, intensity, etc.
Anyway, the way you describe how poly is a great fit for you makes a TON of sense, for the reasons you state and plenty more too. If nothing else, these things are certainly nowhere on the radar in a polynormative model, and deserve some airtime. Definitely a thought-provoking angle on this whole question. Thank you.
Thank you! Yes, there are many different kinds of significant nonsexual relationships, and they push at the boundaries of what exactly we mean my “romantic”, “platonic” etc. It’s possible I misread you, I’ve come across some blatant erasure of nonsexual romantic relationships in my readings about polyamory and may have been seeing implications you didn’t mean. But the sentence that bugged me was “If it were never about the sex, it also wouldn’t be polyamory—we’d just be a bunch of friends, which is also awesome, but also not usually romantic, though possibly committed”
I read this as “relationships which are not about sex are just friendships” but realise now you may have just meant that since most people want to have with their romantic partners there is going to be sex involved in most polyamory. Still, it’s hard not to read SOME implication that romantic relationships without sex are just friendships. (Not that there’s anything wrong with “just” friendship! But it’s a different thing)
Great, great post. Thank you.
I’m the blogger who crowdsourced and wrote the post: No-primary partners tell how to treat us well
I can understand your nausea that my post, and Franklin Veaux’s needed to be written at all. Believe me, I wish I didn’t have to descend to the point of outrage over how I’ve been treated as a non-primary partner and solo poly person — and how others in these positions get treated not just within the poly/open community, but in society at large — in order to get motivated to start SoloPoly.net. But at least all that outrage, anger, and a hell of a lot of heartache appears to be yielding some value through that blog, and my forthcoming book on relationships that are on society’s standard “relationship escalator.”
Yeah, a lot of poly people — and people in general — DO need to be told how to not treat others like complete garbage. That’s unfortunate, but I think it’s part of human nature. I wish people were otherwise, but it’s easier to work with people as they actually exist (especially if they’re in need of remedial learning) rather then how I’d prefer them to be.
Your post has given me much to think and write about, thank you so much.
A little about me, as it relates to this article first… I am, I guess what you would call polynormative, given the way you describe it. I am part of a couple. A ‘single’ couple at the moment. We are heterosexual (-ish). I’m a cis -gendered heterosexual male, and my wife is a cis-gendered Bisexual female. We don’t believe (we’ve been told before that as a married couple we don’t get to make that claim, it can only be bestowed upon us by our partner(s)) that we practice hierarchal poly, but we do both have an established and fulfilling relationship that is valuable to us that we don’t want to end. So… does that make us Polynormative? I don’t care, anymore. I say all of that so that my perspective is a little more clear than it otherwise might be. All of that being said, though, I agree with the majority of the points made in this article. What I don’t necessarily ‘get’ is the point of it.
The mass media operates out of its own interests. End of story. It’s not interested in an accurate or holistic representation of poly; it never will be. Those of us inside poly (and I am including myself in that group, even though, by your estimation, I may not be.) are unlikely to ever see an accurate and complete representation of ourselves in the mass media. That doesn’t mean that what the media *is* willing to represent is somehow ‘wrong’ or different. Like most things, I believe that polyamory can be viewed as a range on a spectrum of relationship styles. One part of that range is closer to the cultural normative than the rest; that’s all. I think his was said elsewhere in the comments, but it makes the most sense, instead of bastardizing polynormativity and separating this from ‘real’ polyamory, it makes the most sense to as loudly as possible, embrace it as one of many right ways to do polyamory.
Why the debate over the words primary and secondary? They are just words. Different words to describe the same thing won’t eliminate the underlying hierarchy. I understand the distaste towards hierarchal relationships. I actually share it. We’ve talked to single women who have expected it, and it has always been a huge red flag (and a bit of a turn-off) for both of us. But, it’s presumptive to believe that everyone who has an established relationship that they don’t want to end turns to a hierarchal relationship to reach that objective.
You say that the mainstream portrayal does a disservice to the newbies. But, everything I’ve read in poly discussions outside of the mainstream media about taking an established, committed, closed, monogamous relationship through the process of becoming any kind of polyamorous relationship, pretty much starts the same place as this mass media narrative. Your position assumes that just because people start their poly life one way, it means means that it’ll stay that way. I honestly just don’t think that’s a legitimate argument. Anyone who’s doing any relationship ‘right’, be it self, monogamous, friendship, poly, or anything else will grow and adapt as part of the process. If the mainstream media stresses that communication and trust are the most important things in a poly relationship(as most of what I’ve seen (admittedly, not a lot) does), then I think they are doing better than they normally do when it comes to representing real relationships.
I get that your real issue is with the media. I agree with that issue, and it’s a reason why I truly consume as little of the mass media as possible in my life. But your article seems to address that issue by cutting off and quarantining part of the poly spectrum, by naming it something different. (Maybe it’s not a new term, but this is the first I’ve heard of the term polynormativity.) To me, it’s like cutting off your arm, because the sleeve of your shirt gets caught in a table saw. That doesn’t change what the mainstream media does. They will still call it polyamory. It will still be “other” to them. Practitioners of polynormativity will still be on the fringes of “normal society” with everything that entails (risk/fear of losing their jobs, children, etc.). More people in the mainstream will just be more aware that it exists. In short: I agree with you that the mainstream media only highlights the most culturally normative aspects polyamory to increase the appeal, but I don’t see how anything in your article addresses that problem.
“Those of us inside poly (and I am including myself in that group, even though, by your estimation, I may not be.)”
“I think his was said elsewhere in the comments, but it makes the most sense, instead of bastardizing polynormativity and separating this from ‘real’ polyamory, it makes the most sense to as loudly as possible, embrace it as one of many right ways to do polyamory.”
This is interesting. You’re the second person in the comments, so far, to think that I’m saying polynormativity isn’t real poly. Perhaps I should have expected that interpretation to pop up, but I’m still a bit surprised, as I wrote nothing of the sort. Polynormativity is very much real poly – I did call it *poly* normativity, after all. it’s just a problematic model, for all the reasons I outline in my post; and because of the media focus on it, it comes across as being the only model, which is itself problematic. My point is that I don’t think it is one of many right ways to do polyamory. I think it is one way to do polyamory that’s often, though not always, not right at all, and that stands a high chance of hurting the people involved in a manner that isn’t nearly as likely to happen in other models.
“Why the debate over the words primary and secondary? They are just words. Different words to describe the same thing won’t eliminate the underlying hierarchy. I understand the distaste towards hierarchal relationships. I actually share it. We’ve talked to single women who have expected it, and it has always been a huge red flag (and a bit of a turn-off) for both of us. But, it’s presumptive to believe that everyone who has an established relationship that they don’t want to end turns to a hierarchal relationship to reach that objective.”
Hmm. I think you may have misread my post. I’ll summarize: Primary and secondary aren’t “just” words; they are words to describe a hierarchy. In my post, I specifically called upon poly folks to use their words accurately – primary and secondary if, and only if, you mean hierarchy; other descriptive terms if you don’t. I also specifically asked people not to engage in “false advertising” by changing the words without changing the hierarchy. In no way do I presume everyone who has an ongoing established relationship turns to hierarchy, and I certainly didn’t write that in my post. My whole point here is that other models are available. This isn’t a theory, it’s a reality – lots of people do non-hierarchical poly. In any case, if a potential partner’s expectation of hierarchy is a red flag and a turn-off to you, then presumably you’re not doing hierarchical poly either, and therefore aren’t polynormative, so we agree with each other here. Am I missing something?
“You say that the mainstream portrayal does a disservice to the newbies. But, everything I’ve read in poly discussions outside of the mainstream media about taking an established, committed, closed, monogamous relationship through the process of becoming any kind of polyamorous relationship, pretty much starts the same place as this mass media narrative.”
Good point, insofar as any existing couple looking to open up will face similar challenges, and those challenges are discussed both in the mainstream media and in poly circles. I think the distinction, here, is twofold. First, in most poly discussions outside the mainstream media, there is a greater level of acknowledgement that not everyone starts from a monogamous relationship in the first place, whereas the mainstream media portrays almost nothing but. And second, in most poly discussions outside the mainstream media, the focus on a particular demographic and level of “attractiveness” isn’t nearly as important, and neither is the “OMG how titillating SEX!” thing, because nobody’s trying to sell a magazine. As such, a newbie who shows up at a poly meet-up without ever having read a mainstream media article on poly is more likely to start out with the understanding that they have diverse options.
“Your position assumes that just because people start their poly life one way, it means means that it’ll stay that way. I honestly just don’t think that’s a legitimate argument.”
I don’t think this, and I didn’t argue it anywhere in my post. People can and do change over time. If anything, my argument here is that more of them should, and sooner rather than later.
“If the mainstream media stresses that communication and trust are the most important things in a poly relationship(as most of what I’ve seen (admittedly, not a lot) does), then I think they are doing better than they normally do when it comes to representing real relationships.”
Sadly, you are quite right here. Which doesn’t speak highly of the mainstream media. Sigh.
“I get that your real issue is with the media. I agree with that issue, and it’s a reason why I truly consume as little of the mass media as possible in my life. But your article seems to address that issue by cutting off and quarantining part of the poly spectrum, by naming it something different. (Maybe it’s not a new term, but this is the first I’ve heard of the term polynormativity.) To me, it’s like cutting off your arm, because the sleeve of your shirt gets caught in a table saw.”
Well, not exactly. I have two real issues, not just one. One issue is with the mindset of those who practice polynormative relationships, because as I lay out in my post, this relationship model relies on a power structure that is oppressive to secondaries and stands a high chance of hurting them, even if a small minority of people manage to pull it off in a way that leaves everyone truly happy. One issue is with the media, in that the media’s participation is giving a giant signal boost to the most culturally normative aspects of poly, and as such is helping to create polynormativity. They each support the other.
Am I cutting off and quarantining? I don’t think so. I still think polynormative folks are poly. I am highlighting a certain portion of the spectrum and naming it something different, yes, but not excluding it from the spectrum. I do think polynormativity is coming at poly from a fundamentally different mindset than other models, and this does make me feel a real separation from folks who do polynormative poly. The entire set of assumptions that polynormative people operate with is radically different from the ones I start from. Pointing this out doesn’t feel like cutting off my arm at all. As I mentioned in my introduction to the post, I used to feel like a certain unity existed along the whole spectrum, but I’m realizing that it actually doesn’t, or at least not nearly to the same extent as I used to think. I’m not making that happen, I’m just observing that it is happening. Polynormativity doesn’t need my help – it’s happily existing out there all by itself. I’m just writing about it. 🙂
“That doesn’t change what the mainstream media does. They will still call it polyamory. It will still be “other” to them. Practitioners of polynormativity will still be on the fringes of “normal society” with everything that entails (risk/fear of losing their jobs, children, etc.). More people in the mainstream will just be more aware that it exists.”
To a point, I agree with you, but I’m not sure that practitioners of polynormativity are or will be still on the fringes. In fact I think a key point here is that practitioners of polynormativity are now beginning to be seen as exciting and sexy and cool and ultimately not that threatening to the dominant norms. That’s not really fringe so much as it is “edge” – as in, cutting edge, trendsetting. As such, I don’t think they face the same risks. This is still a young enough state of affairs that I can’t say this with any certainty, but I’d be willing to bet that polynormative folks are, for instance, way less likely to lose custody of their kids than, for instance, a four-parent, six-child egalitarian poly household. With the polynormatives, the neighbours aren’t likely to complain to the authorities about weirdness in the family structure – they might, at worst, notice how often the couple likes to hold small parties. If a complaint did come up, social services wouldn’t ever notice the difference – the primary couple could just tell the secondary not to drop by that afternoon, or to pretend to be just a friend. That sort of avoidance is a lot harder if you’ve got a clearly unusual multiple-adult domestic situation where several parents are known to take care of the kids and where there aren’t enough bedrooms in the house to support a “we’re just roommates” ploy. So… I certainly don’t have numbers or legal cases to back this idea up, but logically, polynormatives are at relatively lower risk.
“In short: I agree with you that the mainstream media only highlights the most culturally normative aspects polyamory to increase the appeal, but I don’t see how anything in your article addresses that problem.”
Hmm. I think I spent a lot of time addressing the problem, but I get the sense that what you mean here is that I didn’t offer up any solutions for the media end of things? Is that right?
If so, you’re correct. I focused my solution-offering on the other issue, that of the practice of polynormative relationships (or rather, on not practicing them). For the media issue, I didn’t bother saying much, because I don’t honestly have much to say. I think the media should do different. I think individual activist-minded poly folks can insist, to some extent, on better parameters for our own representation when the mainstream media comes calling, but I don’t fancy myself a media strategist – though I’d love to read what such a person might suggest. My participation in media has largely been as a writer, and as such, I’m very aware that the subjects of stories really don’t get much say in how a story reads when it’s finally published. And it needs to be that way, otherwise you’d have pharmaceutical companies paying journalists to only write about how great they are and such. (Not that this doesn’t happen, but at least it’s frowned upon if it’s caught.)
So… solutions? They’re probably mostly pretty grassroots. Cultivate relationships with the media that allow for more nuanced representations. Maybe someone could create a tumblr of non-polynormative media articles and segments so that people would have a place to send journalists who are looking for ideas on how to do this well. Certainly more non-polynormative poly folks should speak up about their lives, if and when they think that’ll move the discussion forward. That’s what I got off the top of my head. I’ll trust that non-polynormative poly people will get creative with their strategies if they want to see change happen. 🙂
Hi. Thanks for your reply to my comment. I addressed many of your points further down in the comments. Thankfully, many of the comments have enhanced my understanding of your post, which was most welcome. I found that I actually disagreed with less of it than I thought, which was not much to begin with.
“In no way do I presume everyone who has an ongoing established relationship turns to hierarchy, and I certainly didn’t write that in my post. My whole point here is that other models are available. This isn’t a theory, it’s a reality – lots of people do non-hierarchical poly. In any case, if a potential partner’s expectation of hierarchy is a red flag and a turn-off to you, then presumably you’re not doing hierarchical poly either, and therefore aren’t polynormative, so we agree with each other here. Am I missing something?”
You said in your original post: “Following from the norm that poly begins (and presumably ends) with two, we must of course impose a hierarchy on whatever else happens.”
To me, that indicates an assumption that to the couple who wants to preserve their existing relationship, hierarchy is the most likely path chosen to do that. Again, this is one of the phrases in the post that could describe many couples who look in to polyamory, but is only directed at the subset of those couples who want to practice polynormativity, even though all of the couples look the same. But, like you said, we do agree that turning to hierarchy as a means to maintain an existing relationship is a bad idea. But it does not follow that since “poly begins (and presumably ends) with two, we must of course impose a hierarchy on whatever else happens.”
I do still have some more nuanced issues with some other portions of what you say in this reply and elsewhere, but think that it’s inconsequential enough so as not to contribute to the discussion at hand. I did address some of the pertinent points in my reply to a comment of yours elsewhere.
One fundamental disagreement that I’ll make (only to say that it exists) is on the need for the word polynormativity, and the effect of using it to describe a group of people within polyamory. I explain my reasoning on why I disagree with this in my other response. Feel free to respond, but I think that this is likely a situation where our mutual, respectful disagreement will just have to be the end of the discussion. As it stands, I understand your point and respect that it’s valid, even though it is in disagreement with my perspective.
The last thing I wanted to express is deep and sincere gratitude for your post, and your diligence in participating in the discussion. You have enlightened me, and given me much to think about beyond just the world of polyamory. Thank you.
@ Rho – Ah, gotcha. I was describing specifically polynormativity – not all couple-founded poly situations. I don’t know if hierarchy is the most likely path most people choose, and I hope not. But that is the approach that’s often presented, i.e. the polynormative model. I know I took a kind of sarcastic tone in parts of my post like this one, and they weren’t meant to be read literally, but I can see how confusion might arise.
Anyway, thank you for your kind words. 🙂 I am blown away by how … real? genuine? the discussion has been here. Shows me that even in disagreement there are some incredibly respectful and thoughtful people out there in the world trying to do relationships in a different way than we’ve been taught. Pretty amazing.
I gave up describing relationships as polyamorous some time ago so I really liked the differentiation between the philosophy and the situation that people may find themselves in.
The issue with hierarchy is understandable but I think it can be a valid approach. I have a primary relationship when my commitment to the other person is intended to be long term and I’d sell a kidney (maybe even my own) to help them. A secondary relationship is one where I’m committed to the other person but realize that it will probably last for a span and end. I value them but there are limits to what I might sacrifice to help them. I’d be sad to see it end but not nearly as much as if a primary relationship ended. A tertiary is even more ephemeral. All of us have primary relationships. For most of us, our parents and children are primary. In comparison, a new boyfriend/girlfriend/lover will have less significance in our lives and their loss will be felt less keenly. We will possibly limit how much effort we’ll put into fixing a problem before we give up. Unless you experience love at first sight, relationships grow over time. Someone becomes more important to us as we spend time and share experiences. We can avoid using the terms Primary, Secondary, etc… but I think that’s linguistic legerdemain.
The trick is to be clear in your own mind and, as the blog says, treat each other with basic decency. Of course, isn’t that always the best policy regardless of whether someone is mono or poly? Whether its a romantic or platonic relationship?
I don’t disagree with you about the relative influence and weight of various different relationships, how far we’ll go to help someone, and so forth. That’s just human reality; relationships take up different spaces on their own merits. But that isn’t the same thing as deciding that one relationship will be “primary” and coming up with a list of rules to ensure that all others are treated as “secondary” with attendant lack of rights and resources. This isn’t legerdemain at all, it’s a fundamentally different way of approaching relationships.
This strikes me as being similar to this “what is a rule” question that’s come up in some previous comments. I think the idea of a rule is pretty specific, but some people use that term much more broadly. I don’t think we do ourselves any favours by using the idea of a “rule” to mean “anything we talk about doing,” and similarly I don’t think it’s helpful to use the terms “primary” and “secondary” to talk about how of course not everyone in our worlds is treated exactly the same as everyone else or gets exactly the same amount of our time and attention. These words are about hierarchy, not about the ebb and flow of human connections that is common to us all.
Well, here’s the thing: there is one person in my life that I am prepared to move heaven and earth to look out for. When I describe this person as “primary” and others as “secondary” I am just being honest. If, on the other hand, I decline to use those words, but still treat that person differently than everyone else I date, isn’t that dishonest? Removing the label will not change the reality.
Sorry for the delay. I’ve been traveling. I agree that coming up with a list of rules to hobble or hinder any relationship is problematic. I don’t use rules to reinforce a relationship’s primacy. I think of the hierarchical labels more as a passive observation (rather than something to be actively pursued) of a relationship’s importance when I’m divvying up the finite resources of time, money, physicality, etc… It is always possible for a relationship to increase or decrease based on many variables though that happens gradually over time.
Regarding rules, I only have one, and it carries through all of my romantic relationships. I am obligated to tell anyone that I engage with sexually if I’ve engage in any behaviour which could expose them to a risk and the nature of that behaviour and risk. That allows them to change their behavior towards me. Perhaps they’ll decide to abstain from sexual contact until I’ve been tested for STDs. That’s their right just as it is my right to decide how to explore my own relationships & sexuality. I have to accept the responsibility and consequences for my choices. I expect the same consideration from my partners.
That takes me to my problem with vetoes. It is a way for someone else to claim responsibility for my behaviour and I reject that unequivocally. In reality, I view a veto as an ultimatum. After all, I can choose to honor the veto or not. I can consider that as their way of saying that they need me to stop doing something or risk the end of the relationship. Then I have to decide what is more important to me and act accordingly.
The bottom line is that none of my partners gets a say in any other relationship between me and someone else. They only get to control their own life.
I have been researching polyamory for about three years now, ever since I first heard of the term and had a “light-bulb” moment. I read everything I could, joined forums, and went to a fabulous poly therapist. In all those three years I have never felt so utterly rejected, belittled, and despised as this article makes me feel. Personally, I believe polyamory, and life in general, is about creating our own rules, our own paths, our own way of living. What this article does is take a form of polyamory (one which, as others have mentioned, is quite possibly a standard form for people like myself who are in the very long, slow, and challenging process of opening up a longterm mono relationship) and destroy it. A little cursory “oh, I’m not judging and if you feel defensive ask yourself why,” is the classic bullying approach to “my way is better than your way and if you can’t see it, then that is because you are shutting your eyes, stupid.” From what I have read and learnt there is no one way of doing polyamory. Sure, it can be done “wrong” (lying, cheating etc), but if the people involved within the relationship are happy with it, then who is anyone to tell them their version of polyamory is wrong? That is what this article has done.
Emily, if the people involved within the relationship are happy with the model of that relationship, then it’s not wrong. Re-read what I wrote. I stated this really clearly, several times, in detail, and it’s not cursory; I very much mean it.
The problem is that a polynormative model is predicated on a primary-secondary structure in which some people – secondaries – are less likely to be happy, less likely to feel like they have any right to be, and more likely than anyone else in the equation to get the boot if they ask to be. If *everyone* involved in a primary-secondary model is feeling great about that model, there’s no problem. If only the primaries feel great about the model, or if the secondaries can’t express that they don’t feel good about it on penalty of possibly losing the relationship, well, yeah, there’s a problem happening. I am absolutely judging that, and so I suppose, if you are in a primary-secondary structure in which you are primary and the secondary/ies in your world have very little say over the aspects of the relationship that affect them, and you want it that way, then perhaps I am judging you. But I can’t tell from the outside what’s going on in your poly specifically, and I wouldn’t presume to. What I have done here is point out the high level of risk inherent in the model that some people (including, it appears, you) espouse. (Also I rant about mainstream media representation a whole bunch, but I get the sense that’s not what you’re upset about.)
Lemme try one more time. If you are engaged in a model of polyamory that is designed in such a way that the people who get involved with you have little or no say in how the relationship goes, are not party to discussions that affect them, are prevented by the relationship model from expressing their dissatisfaction should it arise, and/or can be dumped at someone’s say-so whom they are not involved with… that’s a problem. Or at least, it’s a problem unless the secondaries truly, deeply also want it this way, which is rare but not impossible. I’m not belittling you and I don’t despise you, but I do reject, if not you personally, definitely the model you’re (maybe?) working from, and I do judge that model as deeply flawed.
If this isn’t the case, then I’ve got no problem with whatever you’re up to.
Regardless of any of this, I take no issue with you personally. Lots of fine people engage in bad relationship models, especially if those models are all they’ve been exposed to. The finer the people, the more likely they are to find their way, sooner rather than later, into models that aren’t so rotten in terms of how they position the non-primary people around them. I’ll venture, though I don’t know you personally, that if you’re engaged so deeply in a long process, and so committed to tackling the challenges that come with it, then you’re one of those people who stands a good chance of moving into a non-oppressive model. It doesn’t make the current model any better, but it might make you someone who is thoughtful enough to notice how damaging it can be to others, how limiting it can be to you and your primary, and caring enough about your non-primary partners to leave it behind as soon as you possibly can. But again, I don’t know you and your situation, so I am not really qualified to comment.
I think the thing here is not criticizing one relationship model but criticizing the overwhelming attention paid to one relationship model to the exclusion of others.
I’m fairly new/just sorting out my feelings about poly because I’ve become intimate with someone who identifies as poly. And for me, this article was really a breath of fresh air because it was the first time I’ve read something that addressed some of the concerns I’ve been having. And helped me think about how I should be negotiating with and talking to this new significant person in my life. Up till now, I’ve largely only been introduced to the “polynormative” definitions set up in this article, and I had been thinking about what I wanted and how to communicate what I wanted in those terms. And I had been thinking of myself and this person as necessarily “secondaries” to each other, and feeling a lot of the insecurities that this post describes in terms of what we could ask of each other and what that meant about our priorities in each other’s lives. Just reading this post makes me feel a lot freer in how I can speak about our evolving relationship and my sense that just because it doesn’t “fit” the “polynormative” model expressed above doesn’t mean that it’s not going to work out for the best.
To be honest, I spent many years saying that poly wasn’t for me because this was the only model I was introduced to, through friends whose relationships made me somewhat uncomfortable– people who were bound by a lot of rules and hierarchies that made their relationships, even with their “primary” partners seem imbalanced and unkind. These were people who also fit the demographic model above and who, I hate to say it, often seemed to be using “poly” as a label for “cheating with permission.” My first introduction to poly was a friend whose husband “came out” as poly while she was pregnant with their first child, and it never sat right with me because it very much seemed less like a healthy way of navigating relationships and more like his excuse to ignore his wife during her pregnancy in favor of other partners. My second introduction was another similarly weighted-in-a-husband’s-favor model that definitely made me feel the Penis Highlander discomfort expressed above.
I slowly began to meet other people who practice good poly, whether it’s in the one-primary-couple-with-additional-secondaries model or any one of a number of models that work for them. But it took a long time for me to get over that initial squick coming from the way those earliest “poly couples” were presented to me.
So this isn’t about any one model being wrong. It’s about one model being presented as the be-all-and-end-all of how to do it right. And I can definitely put myself forward as someone who’s been affected by that, because it’s really the only model I’d had much introduction to. My unease over the fact that it’s not the right thing for me has made me feel confused about where I fit, but without much reassurance that there *is* a fit. So I feel like this article is really for and about people like me, moreso than people who already have a model that works for them.
I’ve been kind of thinking about the relationship between commitment and hierarchy. Do you think that the first implies the second? Not in a “your feelings are invalid” sense but in the sense of “if a choice is forced, it will land on the course I have committed myself to”?
My current context–I have been on the end of a V that was formerly a triad for the last 9 months. My partner’s girlfriend (my ex) and I want incompatible things of the larger relationship structure; I am struggling with feeling like a Bad Poly Person for not being supportive of their relationship/not being ok with my partner’s drastically reduced time and energy that is going towards our long-term committed relationship, and wanting that length of time spent and existing commitment to act as a dealbreaker in my favor.
Hmm. Good question. I don’t know if I have a perfect answer for your situation, as it sounds like there’s a lot of history and context I can’t know from two paragraphs. But I’ll give it a shot.
I think the key piece here is the people, and what each person wants. You want X. Your ex wants Y. X and Y are mutually exclusive. Is that right? My question would be, what does your partner – the partner that you and your ex now share – want? X or Y? Or is there some sort of Z that makes it possible for both to exist at once, just not in the triad form you used to have? Note that my question isn’t about what your partner should or shouldn’t want, but what they do want, which may be quite different.
I’m a big believer in commitment in the sense of committing to everyday relationship quality, with longevity as a potential by-product of that careful, ongoing cultivation. I’m much less of a believer in commitment in the sense of til-death-do-us-part. So to me, in this situation, the deal-breaker should be that of happiness, not length of time spent or existing commitment. And yes, as the point in the V, your partner’s happiness is the one I’m asking about first, but I’d be just as interested in your happiness. Clearly you are not getting what you want here. Is there a chance that you could, in a way that would not compromise your partner’s happiness? Or are your two versions of happiness also mutually exclusive? If so, pushing for them to drop theirs in favour of yours is ultimately not going to get you what you want anyway – which is presumably a happy, loving, committed relationship where everyone involved is really deeply enthusiastic about being there.
You can force people to do things, but it’s much harder to force people to *want* to do things. I think what you ultimately want is for your partner to want to prioritize you, not just to do it because they’re obliged. As such the key tools to get at a firm answer are question-asking and deep listening, not a deal-breaker move flowing from longevity-based hierarchy.
I’m getting tired so I hope this isn’t coming out too garbled. Signing off for the night now. Hope that helped… Best of luck to you.
You are correct–she and I want mutually incompatible X and Y (one issue: she wants a fully closed V, I want to see other people). Your answer was not garbled and was very helpful and to the point. I will have to think about that idea of commitment.
I think that, as you’ve said, there is definitely confusion around the idea of hierarchy and the practice of priorities. Is your problem with what happens when people force relationships to align with specific structures and assign predetermined value to them according to their place in the structure? I tend to have a broader definition of hierarchy–it does encompass some stuff like priority-setting and the deliberate choice to enter unbalanced relationships.
While I agree ‘polynormativity’ is a thing, (thought I would call it heteronormative polyamory), and that there is a problem with it, i feel like the article does a poor job of identifying those problems, and expressing why it is important to identify and resist those problems.
1. the model is sucky — why? because of how it takes advantage of secondaries, and generally, likely women through the traditionally feminine role of providing affective and sexual support.
2. poly is wrapped in societally sanctioned narratives of monogamy — and this is bad how? because of harm the couple-form nuclear family structure does to people.
3. newbies have it rough — not so sure about this one. just as mainstream will coopt subculture, subcultures will continue to take representations back and fuck with them some more.
4. finally, I feel an admission has to be made that ultimately the politics of poly … just aren’t. it’s a liberal pursuit of individual lifestyle that has very little to do with actually fundamentally challenging and uprooting systems of oppression. i think it is worth investigating why polyamory so easily fits into a heteronormative narrative.
I think it is possibly unhelpful or at least nonpolitical to place the starting point of a critique of anything with feelings of ‘offendedness’. (Offending what? Why? Why is that bad? I prefer to frame resistance to things in terms of the harm they do in material terms.)
I also think worrying about media representations are ‘eh whatev’; I’m more concerned about people being harmed, within material social relations, either by society at large (coercing people to enter into couple relationships in order to assure their continued survival) or by people practicing heteronormative polyamory. (exploiting the emotional and sexual support provided by people filling ‘secondary’ roles)
I hope that you’re able to incorporate this feed back into further writing on this topic… and that I made sense. I painted with broad strokes, and there are many statements that I made without a necessary nuance that would need to be investigated, especially with respect to race, sexuality, class, and cultural context.
On your first point, I didn’t mention how women are possibly more likely to be taken advantage of as secondaries, but that’s a very good additional to the analysis. It doesn’t feel central to me – the primary-secondary structure places anyone in that secondary position at a disadvantage, and that’s not gendered. But in polynormativity, because heteronormative, it is true that the secondaries are overwhelmingly likely to be women, so point taken. Still, I think the same problems still arise when a couple-based, primary-secondary, rules-focused model is applied in non-het contexts – they’re just not hetero-ish so as such not fully polynormative.
On your second point, I don’t think I’d argue that couple-form nuclear family structure harms people – I mean certainly it can, and I don’t love it, myself, but that’s not really where I’m coming from here. My aim was to say that the creation of a normative way of doing poly is itself a problem because normative, not that it’s a problem because of material harm. To me this point is about challenging the creation of a very flat, limiting “should” story about how poly is supposed to work. I have just as much of a problem with the creation of narrow norms that aren’t, in themselves, harmful. For instance, it is the norm to portray able-bodied people in the media. There’s nothing wrong with or harmful about being able-bodied. But there is very much something wrong with that being the only kind of body we get to see, and the kind that is therefore held up as “right.” The harm here may eventually be material – say, creating a society in which people with disabilities are treated poorly, or in the case of poly, a society in which non-polynormative people are made to suffer in some way for being less acceptable than polynormative ones. I think that’s probably happening to some extent, as I speculated in an earlier comment response to Rho, and that it may continue to happen, or possibly be happening in worse and more measurable ways at some point in the future. But the normativity is a problem well before it culminates in that end result of measurable harm.
On your third point, I’m not arguing that newbies have it rough; and certainly, subcultures do what they do, and it’s good. I am arguing that polynormativity creates a situation where people on their way to being poly are increasingly likely to think there’s only one way of doing it, and – though I didn’t say this explicitly – the more reinforcement they get of that idea through mass media, the less likely they are to seek out poly communities or subcultures where they might hear a different story.
On your fourth point, well, for polynormative folks, I absolutely agree that poly is “a liberal pursuit of individual lifestyle that has very little to do with actually fundamentally challenging and uprooting systems of oppression.” That’s a slightly different way of defining polynormativity itself, really. And I don’t know that it requires much investigation to see why that fits into a heteronormative narrative. It’s a slightly less gendered version of a thing people have been doing since the dawn of humanity, which finds its expression in all sorts of ways. Aristocrats got to fuck their servants, but the servants could be dismissed at the drop of a hat. I mean… that’s how hierarchy works. Someone’s on the losing end of it by definition.
But I disagree that this “individual lifestyle” thing is true for all polyamory. Historically some forms of non-monogamy have been very invested in changing the social order – think lesbian feminist non-monogamous communes in the 1970s, the gay spiritual clan led by Purusha the Divine Androgyne, and the work of Morning Glory Zell (who coined the term polyamory). Their work was a little more granola-new-agey than my own politics today, but these folks were instrumental in laying the foundations for the poly “movement” such as it is, and you could hardly argue they weren’t trying to achieve social change. There are lots of similar types of work being done now – Raven Kaldera comes to mind, but he’s definitely not the only one. Outside the spiritual/granola (and I do say that lovingly!) approaches, currently, poly activists are doing some really interesting work around issues like multiple-parent family rights, the legalities of group marriage, and other such stuff. And outside the context of legal-system activism, I’ll paraphrase what an acquaintance of mine noted the other day – that for her, polyamory isn’t a lifestyle, it’s a by-product of an entire value system that is queer, sex-positive, non-hierarchical, creative and so forth. This is directly in keeping with a lot of the non-polynormative writing out there, which is very much about changing the world via a radical rethinking of human relationships – that’s one reason I love Wendy-O-Matik’s book so much. So, I mean, you could always come up with a really narrow idea of what counts as far as challenging and uprooting systems of oppression, and then argue that polyamory doesn’t do that. But I think you’d be denying a lot of history and a lot of activism if you took that approach.
In any case, I appreciate that your materiality angle and my media-analysis angle are not one and the same, but I don’t think one’s wrong and the other right. I think the materiality angle is harder to work when it comes to this particular issue, in the sense that it would be challenging to gather concrete evidence of material harm, but it wouldn’t be impossible, and would certainly be super-interesting to read about. I smell a bit of scholar on you… any chance you’re thinking and writing in this vein yourself? Would love to read your work if so.
“But in polynormativity, because heteronormative, it is true that the secondaries are overwhelmingly likely to be women…” Whoa, wait, what??? Heterosexual does not mean or imply patriarchal, and for every hetero poly woman in a life-partner relationship there is likely to be one or more male outside partners. As a woman who drifts around Kinsey 1-2, I’ve lost count of the number of male partners I’ve had while in a primary relationship with a man. Unless I’m missing something here, you’ve fallen prey to the “man as instigator and sexual prime mover in poly” stereotype, the very one that you’re inveighing against.
Hmm. I may have somewhat misspoken here. I totally wasn’t talking about the male-instigator stereotype, and certainly (as a very dominant, instigation-prone gal myself), I don’t believe in it. And while I used the word “heteronormative” I should maybe have stuck with the “heterosexuali-ish” way I described things in the post itself. From that perspective, I’m just doing the math. If the polynormative model usually includes a primary couple made up of a man and a woman, and the man is usually straight, and the woman is most often some sort of bi, and on top of that the primary couple works from the (highly cisnormative and offensive in various other ways but relatively common) “one-penis-per-party” rule on top of it all… then realistically, the people who become secondary partners to anyone in the configuration are more likely to be women. This is certainly what’s most often desired if a polynormative couple is looking for a shared secondary, via the whole “unicorn-chaser” thing, but not only that. So… does that clarify? I don’t have *actual* math to rely on here, but I think the logic holds up fairly well…
Oh wow. This, just all of this. I’ve said a lot of this in various ramblings over a number of years, but you’ve put it all together in a beautiful way. I might have to start running this post past potential dates as a screening process…
Hi sexgeek and all, thanks for a great discussion! I totally agree that the MSM sucks, but that’s not new.. and people should definitely be decent! I did want to throw out a couple points as well, though 🙂
As Ms Hardy mentioned: phobias and baggage. Even more so, many if us come with histories of strong socialisation and even sexual repression. Many aspects of poly exploration can trigger huge and involuntary responses. If poly has always felt somehow natural enough to you (and communication as easy!) that you can just feel and talk your way through it, then count yourelf lucky! For the rest of us, there is a lot to overcome, work through and learn, and that’s where clear boundaries can really help (this is obvious, I’m sure). Is a rule you work out consensually an ‘agreement’? Is a rule whose breaking doesnt result in armageddon a ‘guideline’? Is a rule about methods a ‘framework’? I do think this wanders into semantics — which is fine, just let’s remember we all dont use words the same way!
Secondly, someone said something like ‘different, not less than’. Why are ‘less’ and ‘more’ bad? Some relationships are less important than others, why is this a bad thing? There are always heirarchies, so what really is at issue here? (Really, I’d like to understand!). Is it a question of validity? Or meaningfulness? A friendship is just as valid, just as meaningful to me as a best friendship, but I will prioritise my best friend if there’s a conflict. Not always, not everytime; the friend is still a friend. But there’s heirarchy, no?
Do you think I’ve totally missed the point?
No, I don’t think you’ve totally missed the point, but… something. I’m realizing that the same kind of challenge seems to be coming up in a number of the comments here, around exactly these two questions, rules and hierarchy. The distinctions I’m drawing – between the specificity of rules and the generality of other ways of relating to people, and between the specificity of a primary-secondary hierarchical model and the generality that not all relationships will take up the same kind of space in our lives – seem quite clear to me. To others, the distinctions seem not clear at all, or rather, others seem to see them as versions of the same thing. This is a good learning experience for me, in that it’s helpful to know that some folks really do fuse together what I think are in fact fundamentally different concepts. But yeah, I think they’re fundamentally different.
It’s sorta like… lifting weights to get beefy is not the same as lifting weights to fight impending osteoporosis, even if you could walk into a weight room and see both of those things happening and not be able to tell by looking what reason each person is doing what they’re doing. They are both lifting a barbell, but their goals, motivations, support systems, techniques, risks and outcomes will be totally different. I’d say they’re doing really different things; others would say they’re doing the same thing; nobody can tell from the outside, at least not without intense scrutiny.
Not sure what more to say on that, beyond that I’m intrigued to see such clear evidence of how vastly different people’s perceptions of the same situation can be. 🙂
@sexgeek, Thank you so much for this reply. This is the exact reason why I personally have such a difficult time wrapping my head around articles similar this one. Because ultimately, it’s about the “goals, motivations, support systems, techniques, risks and outcomes”, but it’s described in terms of the externally visible aspects, which may potentially represent other “goals, motivations, support systems, techniques, risks and outcomes”. This can be applied exactly the same to discussions I’ve seen and had regarding “unicorn hunters”, which was interestingly added as a comparison to your polynormativity somewhere in the comments. At least to some of us, the terms used to describe the “goals, motivations, support systems, techniques, risks and outcomes” are at least partially fused with the physical actions being taken. Or maybe another way to say it is that for me, using the word rules to describe a specific set of “goals, motivations, support systems, techniques, risks and outcomes”, doesn’t change the fact that the word rules can (and often does in the world of polyamory) include others.
It’s like a Bodybuilding trainer and a Physical therapist (or anyone who specializes in weight training to deal with osteoperosis) walking into a gym where people are doing both types of weight training. Both of them are going to be saying that some people are doing it ‘wrong’ and others are doing it ‘right’. As you say, they are both likely to be describing the same physical actions (though highlighting different aspects of them), when it all comes down the “goals, motivations, support systems, techniques, risks and outcomes” of the people who are exercising, which can’t be seen from the outside. The terms bodybuilding, weight-lifting or weight-training could be used to describe both, but they are as you said very different.
One big distinction between the weightlifting analogy and the situation with Polyamory is that most everyone I’ve seen in the comments agree that one set of “goals, motivations, support systems, techniques, risks and outcomes” is bad and should be avoided at all cost. This is again why I have the issue with the word polynormativity. To me, that word takes something from the world of polyamory and makes it something different. (To me, “Poly” has always been used in polyamory as shorthand, not prefix. So to say that it’s still poly because you’re using poly as a prefix, misses my point. I’m not poly, I am polyamorous; I say I’m ‘poly’ because it’s 4 letters instead of 11. I will be discontinuing that action, though.) As I’ve seen this discussion take place, and the distinction that what you are actually talking about is the “goals, motivations, support systems, techniques, risks and outcomes” of certain people, I can now think of situations where I HAVE indeed seen this kind of hierarchy. (Not talking about the media coverage aspect of things in this instance, either…) In the times that I have seen this, though, it’s always with people who aren’t “REALLY” Polyamorous, they are using the label polyamory to do something that is not at all polamory.
Your word Polynormativity isn’t describing any aspect of polyamory. There’s already a term that describes what you discuss here based on the “goals, motivations, support systems, techniques, risks and outcomes” required for the distinction between “Polynormativity” and “Polyamory”. Unethical Non-Monogamy. Unethical people will use anything and everything they can to ‘get away’ with their actions. That does not exclude misrepresenting themselves as something they are not. Unethical people have been “coming out as polyamorous” in convenient times for as long as I have been aware of Polyamory (far longer than I’ve considered myself polyamorous). That doesn’t change what polyamory really is. I remember facing situations where I had to defend polyamory (as a person who was choosing to be monogamous), and say that someone who did something “in the name of polyamory” was not polyamorous at all, but was indeed just a dirtbag. We don
And now, getting back to the media coverage of the issue… I can now better understand your assessment of how this circumstance puts (especially, but not exclusively solo) newbies at a disadvantage. My comment is this… There will always be some aspect of polyamory that is ‘attractive’ to the media. There are people in the general public who will use whatever ‘new’ thing the media is showing to mask their actions. Anytime I’ve seen the media give any positive attention to BDSM (a la 50 shades of grey, love it or hate it), there’s always discussion about how some element of the population uses BDSM as a mask to disguise their controlling and/or abusive behavior. There are people who use Polyamory as excuse to disguise some truly disgusting behavior, but that doesn’t change polyamory. The increase in media coverage may make more of the people who would do this aware that “Polyamory” is a potential excuse for their actions, but it won’t change what polyamory is. The best way to address this, is not to make distinctions *within* polyamory, but to make it as public as possible exactly what *real* polyamory includes, *INCLUDING* (maybe, especially?) the parts of it that the media is most interested in representing. Polyamory doesn’t need new words. We need to do everything possible to make sure that discussion of polyamory focus on the “goals, motivations, support systems, techniques, risks and outcomes” that are true to polyamory, even the ones that look similar to what the media is representing. It’s like making sure that everyone knows that we are at an osteoporosis support convention, so that the bodybuilders won’t be surprised that everyone is lifting weights all ‘wrong’.
My motivation for saying this is not only just that I think it’s the best thing to do. I do think that this is the best way to handle it, and that is my primary motivation, but there’s also a selfish motivation to it as well. Based on the description you gave of “polynormativity” (just like the most common descriptions given of “unicorn hunters”), it’s extremely likely that I and my wife would be lumped in with the people you are talking about. This has happened repeatedly with discussions of “unicorn hunters”, and I don’t want to be lumped in with EITHER of those groups, because we are not those people, though I can understand that from the outside, it may seem so. The statement “If you don’t do it I’m not talking about you” (as I’ve seen in this discussion and in discussions about unicorn hunters) doesn’t apply, because I may know you’re not talking about me (after you clarify exactly what you are talking about), but that newbie who’s already at a disadvantage may not, which does me and others like me a disservice. If we continue to make poly about the right “goals, motivations, support systems, techniques, risks and outcomes”, then the difference between real polyamory that looks like the ‘normative’ model and that normative model itself will become apparent. We can’t expect the media to make that distinction for us.
@Rho – Interesting take on things. Mulling it over… it sounds like in terms of value systems around how to do polyamory, you and I are relatively on the same page, even if our particular structures look different. But I am calling a certain mindset (bodybuilders?) “polynormative” while still arguing that they’re under the polyamory umbrella; and you’re saying, if I understand correctly, that in fact we don’t need “polynormative” as a way of describing them, and we should be saying they’re not *really* doing poly at all.
I dunno. I don’t think polynormative people are necessarily unethical. They could be engaging in that relationship model because they genuinely don’t know what other options there are, especially if they’re really new at it. Or because they think they don’t have the skills to do different (though I’d argue this isn’t a skill question, it’s a mindset question, and regardless of your model, we all need to work on our skills). Or… any number of other reasons. I mean a lot of people make decisions from a place of fear, and use control as a way of managing that fear, and yes all of that can lead to behaviour I’d likely call unethical. But I’m not sure I’m ready to lump all those possibilities into a single ball and toss it out, y’know? There’s nuance in there, I think, and room for people to shift and change. Someone who’s truly unethical from a values perspective isn’t likely to shift much, but someone who just hasn’t thought deeply about what damage they may be doing but is otherwise pretty ethically minded is absolutely likely to shift what they do once they notice and reflect. And for all that I think some folks are reading this post as me being nasty and judgemental, I feel pretty much the opposite… I feel like it’s important to say that polyamory is this incredibly broad thing, and there are a vast range of ways to do it, and what works for some won’t work for others. I *still* think the polynormative model is a high-risk one, and that it comes with all the problems I listed. But I’m not quite ready, in my own personal conception of things, to label it “not real.”
I’m sure at least some of this aversion is because I’ve been overexposed to “real/not real/one true way” thinking via the leather/BDSM world. I see it wreak incredible damage there and I don’t want to reproduce it in a poly context. Calling out bad behaviour is one thing… telling someone they aren’t what they think they are is quite another. I realize some folks have more or less read my post as though I’m doing the latter, but I hope a deep breath and a re-read will clarify.
Anyway. Thanks again for the super thoughtful comments, Rho.
Thanks for calling out the ‘one penis’ male-hetero-sanitisation in popular representations (‘pop-poly’?). As a cis-hetero male exploring polyamory, this is something I will definitely have to keep an eye on, and make sure I try to trouble it whenever I can.
Though it’s not at all surprising that philosophies of polyamory would be co-opted to try dress up a patriarchal polygyny… perhaps ‘patriarchal polyamory’ would be a good term? Might that also encompass some of the objections against oppressive hierarchies in the primary-secondary model that I think you were making (but certainly didn’t really understand)?
Yeah, the one-penis rule is upsetting for several reasons. For starters, “penis” is used as shorthand for “man” and as someone who hangs out with a whole lot of trans people I find that kind of equation just makes me want to scream. But it’s also problematic because it often seems to be a last bastion for straight poly guys. Most cis poly men I’ve met are pretty darned feminist-minded and queer-friendly compared to the standard average. But even then, for some of these folks, they can’t seem to get past the idea (implied or acknowledged, but most often implied) that real sex involves a (cis) man. So in a polynormative model, which aims to minimize “threat” to the primary couple, it’s not hard for them to accept their female partners’ interest in women, but it is really threatening for them to accept their female partners’ interest in men. To me, that essentially means they think women having sex with women isn’t really real or valid or “threatening.” If I were being petty, I’d wish for them that their girlfriends would fall head over heels in love with other women and ditch them to go live in a giant lesbian orgy commune, just to prove the point. Somewhat more realistically, I’d like them to see other women as being just as “real” and therefore just as “threatening” as men. Ideally, I’d like everyone to ditch the concept of “threat” entirely, not to mention the concept of “penis = man”.
Reblogged this on Sex, Gods, and Rock Stars and commented:
(Sorry for email subscribers: I reblogged the wrong post!)
I highly enjoyed this entry on the vision of polyamory the mainstream media is presenting as “normal” – the concept that it starts with a monogamous couple who decide to include other relationships of lesser importance (secondaries) which are regulated by many rules the secondary did not help create, and for which the “primary” partner holds veto. The author makes it clear that although it *is* one version of polyamory, it is by far not the only, or even the most common one. For example, these “polynormative” images assumes heterosexuality, whereas most of us queerdoes have been involved in some form of non-heirarchal poly at one point or another, and yet the media *never* portrays poly as a queer thing (my partner Winter would point out this would have to do with trying to legalize same sex marriage, making all media visages of lesbian and gay relationships identical to heterosexual monogamy). Also, it is rare to see POC represented in these portrayals of polyamory, unless their race is used to show their “exotic beauty”.
Anyway, I don’t want to give away the entire post, but it is incredibly on-point and wittily written in regards to the real depth and breadth of poly relationships and how they are homogenized for television. Kudos to the author for speaking out instead of toeing the line on this one.
I agreed so strongly with your views here that the only and best way to show it was to reblog your entry. As someone who is in the process of trying to fight the assumption that all poly relationships have a primary partnership at its center (since leaving my husband, there has been some assumptions that I would naturally “replace” him with one of my other lovers and/or find a new spouse, rather than what I’m actually doing, which is rejecting both the concept of marriage *and* heirarchy in relationships by keeping all my relationships (now and future) equally important to me in different ways.
Thanks, Del, for sharing and also for the nod about the “not toeing the line” element of this. Sometimes putting out a strong statement like this one is kinda terrifying, even if I’m feeling really solid about it.
I feel like I’m seeing a similar situation in regards to the same-sex marriage situation; that poly queers are being shoved into the trunk in the back of the closet in fear that the LGB community already has the negative reputation of being focused on random anonymous hookups, as though loving poly constellations are somehow the same thing. Even hetero poly people are starting to get the gag if they write or speak publicly about how same-sex marriage could possibly open the door to redefining marriage entirely, in a way that might help poly unions gain some legal ground. But no, any of us queerdoes who dare not look hetero-homogenous are getting the short shift when it comes to the media, as though somehow middle America has no idea we exist along side Adam and Steve and their minivan and adopted children.
I think I said this in either my comment or my reblog, but I find that this is happening to me even on a personal level. As I have recently ended my spousal relationship, it seemed for a while that some of my lovers were jockeying for “primary position”, as though there was a spouse-shaped hole that needed to be filled. I’ve had a lot of long, hard talks with both the people I’m currently in relationship with, as well as friends and flirtations, that it is my distinct desire *not* to enter into another relationship like that, but rather live life with a constellation of people I care for in a variety of ways, no one person more important (or more Del-identified, as in “Del and Mike” – my soon to be ex – like the person you’d automatically invite to a function to attend with me. I have made the conscious decision that the “couple at the top” model does not work, for me and maybe for others, and I am looking forward with a fair amount of anticipation moving into a more relaxed, “I’m with who I’m with in the moment, and in that moment they’re the most important person” sort of model. I have no idea if it will better, worse, or similar in regards to interpersonal relationship issues, “rules”, or anything else, but I really hated how the “couple at the top” model worked, and I’m glad to be rid of it.
“People can live with a roommate, share finances with a platonic life partner, have kids with an ex they never speak to”
Cohabitating is nothing like having a roommate! My husband can’t just give me one month’s notice that he wants to move out! And having kids with an ex you never speak to is *precisely* the sort of situation that people prioritise their primary relationship to avoid. If it’s no big deal for your partner to move out, or for you to never speak to your co-parent again, then maybe you’re not really primary partners. But living together, being financially dependent on each other and co-parenting children isn’t what makes a relationship primary, it’s what makes us *want* to make a relationship primary.
“There is also nothing wrong with dating casually, and feeling just fine about hanging out with a sweetie way less often than that sweetie hangs out with their spouse, say. Sometimes, a relationship is just not destined to be long-term, or domestic, or local, or involve meeting each other’s parents. This is not a bad thing. It’s just a thing. It’s also not the same thing as being “secondary.””
You see, this is *exactly* what I and many other people I know mean when they say that a partner is secondary. Because a domestic, long-term relationship that I commit most of my time to is going to be more of a priority to me than a relationship like this. And it is this difference in time, domesticity and length of commitment which results in heirarchies. It is human and healthy to prioritise the relationships which are more important to you. This is why we care more about our partners than we do our acquaintances. I wouldn’t want my secondary partner to treat my feelings and desires as equally important to him as his primary partner’s, as this would be disrespectful to his commitment to her, and would work against his happiness.
Of course, it is very very common that a secondary partner isn’t happy the relationship, and wants more time, consideration or affection from the relationship. This isn’t a problem with heirarchy; it’s the same problem as with any relationship where two people want different things. If someone wants to prioritise their primary relationship over their secondary relationship that is as much of a valid choice as it is to tell someone you’re dating that you’re not looking for anything serious right now, or to decline a marriage proposal. The problem isn’t that one person’s feelings are being treated as more important than another’s, the problem is that someone isn’t getting what they want. In a monogamous relationship, that would probably just be the end of things. What it wouldn’t be is evidence that monogamy is a bad system.
Yeah, this idea that my relationship model isn’t “really working” unless everyone I’m dating is happy with it all the time is an arbitrary and capricious standard. Sort of like people who say that bisexuality isn’t “real” unless a person is absolutely 50/50 attracted to men and women, i.e. the person who is 60/40 attracted to one gender or the other is “really” gay/straight.
“Cohabitating is nothing like having a roommate! My husband can’t just give me one month’s notice that he wants to move out!”
Sadly, he can. He can also go out for a pint of milk and never come back. I certainly wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but this stuff absolutely does happen, and the fact of being married doesn’t stop it from happening. At best, in an ideal marriage, the choice to marry is itself an indication that one doesn’t intend to do such things; and in a worst-case scenario, marriage gives you some legal protection to mitigate the consequences if it does.
And cohabitation/roommate/etc. is exactly what you decide it will be, or perhaps, exactly what it becomes regardless of anyone’s deciding anything. I’ve had roommates who showed up, paid rent, barely spoke with me, spent most of their time elsewhere, and left after a few months. We currently have a roommate of several years with whom we may well end up investing in real estate and who is family in every sense of the word but biological and sexual/romantic. Unusual, sure, but clearly not impossible.
More to the point, though, you’re using a very different definition of “primary” and “secondary” than I’ve outlined in this post, and a different understanding of what a hierarchy is, so there’s not really much to argue about. I’ve addressed this in more detail in a couple of previous comment responses, probably most on-point to your comment in my response to H just above, if you are interested.
I want to agree with the author here. I currently cohabitate with someone I am in a power dynamic relationship with, but our relationship is non-romantic. I know that’s the minority in most power-dynamic situations, but it is what it is for us and it works. And we do have a few comingled financial things – a shared bank account, bills, etc – and in a lot of ways it works and feels similarly to when I was married. The only difference is that our relationship is not romantic; to say it’s not emotional would be misleading, as I do care for her a great deal, but the idea of going out on a “date” with her seems odd. But even with the “guarantee” (ha) of a collar, she, too, could make her own decision to leave at any point; even though we have a signed contract that says she has to talk to me before ending the relationship, I have no legal ground to stand on if she chooses to ignore that. And as I have recently separated from my spouse of ten years, I can very rightly say that yes, your spouse can decide on a dime to end the relationship and refuse to work it out or even come to a place where you’re both okay with the end of the relationship (I had tried very hard to stay and work things out one way or the other, but then he decided it was “too broken to fix” and gave me less than 48 hours to leave the house we had shared for six of our ten years.)
It happens. I hate to say it, but it does. And being poly, or legally married, or totally in love in this moment, doesn’t change that fact. I was completely in love with my spouse when I found out he had been having an ilicit affair – and our *only* poly rule was “Tell me what’s going on”, and he broke *that*.
“At best, in an ideal marriage, the choice to marry is itself an indication that one doesn’t intend to do such things”
Yes, that’s what I was getting at. He can’t “just” give me notice, because that would tear apart our marriage. A roommate can nearly always give notice to move out without ending or damaging the relationship. I’ve done it myself, and no one got their hearts broken. When people say that primary relationships are primary because they live together, they don’t mean like having a roommate! You (like the poster above) might find a few situations around the edges of this model that don’t quite fit, but as a general comparison, it doesn’t work.
“You’re using a very different definition of “primary” and “secondary” than I’ve outlined in this post, and a different understanding of what a hierarchy is, so there’s not really much to argue about.”
So are you talking about prescriptive vs descriptive? That seems to be the case from some of your replies, but it really isn’t clear from your post. And this also seems to suggest that you think descriptive hierarchies and descriptive primary/secondary relationships aren’t really hierarchical or primary/secondary at all. And I think that is why people are disagreeing with you so much – for most people I know, hierarchies don’t require pre-planning or enforcing with rules to exist, and secondary relationships don’t need to be limited by fixed boundaries for them to be considered secondary in importance to someone’s primary partner(s). And this, honestly, is the problem I come across a lot when discussing this issue with those who say they are against primary/secondary models and hierarchy. They are using the terms in a much more restrictive way than the rest of us. Usually, as far as I see it hierarchical situations that suck. And if they don’t suck, they aren’t really hierarchies. I think a bit more understanding of how other people use the terms would help before decrying the concepts, or we just end up talking at cross purposes.
I also don’t think that everyone fits neatly into prescriptive or descriptive. I agree that prescribing relationships is often not a great idea and can cause unnecessary problems, and I think it’s great to tell people that there are other ways of doing it. But similarly, as I said above, a lot of what gets decried as horrible, prescriptive hierarchy is actually just a relationship that isn’t going where one of the participants wants. If you are actually averse to having additional primary partners (whether that’s for practical or emotional reasons) it makes sense to be clear about that, and if they don’t like it, it isn’t necessarily the model that’s the issue.
But thanks for responding! Really, I think your original post could use some clarification, because the way you are using the terms is clearly not universal.
@More Than Nuclear – I’m not talking about prescriptive vs descriptive per se, no. It’s tempting, because prescriptive is definitely a big bad no in my books, and descriptive is in theory not so bad. But I think descriptive hierarchy *can* come with many of the same problems if perhaps more… gently? subtly? and possibly therefore less evidently to those in the primary positions, and therefore in need of even more careful eyeballing in some ways. I dug into this in my response to Dw3t-Hthr below, if you’d like to see it.
This debate over the use of terminology continues to intrigue me. (When I’m not standing on a rock like this, I make a good chunk of my living as a translator and editor so word fascination comes with the territory.) I’m getting it, that for you the description of someone as secondary doesn’t mean… well… and there I go again. I’m still not sure what it means to you. Doesn’t mean they’re less important? Well, you’ve said it does mean that. Hmm. Doesn’t mean they’re not considered in decisions that affect them? Well, from what you’re saying, I’m not clear on that one. Doesn’t mean you live together – that one is clear, but in my experience living situation has nothing to do with rank, as several of my most significant relationships have moved in and out of being long-distance, so that term wouldn’t fit if it were defined on the basis of domesticity. Still, at least it’s concrete for you. Okay.
I dunno. I’m trying to stretch my brain into a place where “secondary” doesn’t mean “on the losing end of a hierarchy and that’s not terribly nice,” and evidently I’m having a hard time, as it keeps circling back there, or at least back to the questions about it. As a descriptive term, it’s still not very clear, for me, in that I genuinely can’t tell what “secondary” actually concretely *means* if it doesn’t mean rank.
Maybe this is a mindset question. Because I am just not in the habit of ranking anything or anyone in my world I can’t quite grasp how to do it here either, kindly or otherwise. I have three brothers and they don’t feel like primary and secondary brothers to me because two of them live down the street and the other one lives in another city. If anything I see the faraway one more! I have a lot of friends, and each friendship looks different, and some are closer than others, but I’d be hard pressed to pick a “best” one. I enjoy a range of pursuits, from PhD studies to yoga, but is one of them primary and others secondary? How do you calculate that? PhD takes more time each week, but I’ve been doing yoga way longer. The PhD will eventually be done, the yoga I hope to do forever. One’s intellectual, one’s body-focused. Better or worse? Higher or lower? What about kayaking, which is mostly a summer thing, but which I do for days at a time? I just… brain fail. *crumple* It would be easy to argue that romantic relationships are fundamentally different from these other examples but in my experience they really aren’t. The same range of variables applies – intensity, longevity, proximity, continuity, etc. – each at different degrees, and often they shift over time. As such each relationship looks different, but I honestly couldn’t rank them, even descriptively.
I’m not going to quite take the hard line that Joreth does (somewhere in here, I am losing track of the order of comments!) in saying that yours is a straight-up wrong use of the terms, but I do think it’s much more ambiguous to an outsider than you might think. And y’know, if there’s a shared understanding of meaning between you and your people, which there seems to be, then clearly it’s working on at least a local level. But outside that, I think it really can confuse.
Anyway. Thanks for the brain food. Now I need a real-life snack. 😉
I don’t actually think that living/not living together is a crucial component of primary/secondary relationships. As you said, there are many situations that make that clearly not the case. My husband isn’t my primary because we live together, share finances and raise our daughter together, we live together, share finances and decided to raise a child together because we are primaries. We’re not against the idea of additional primary partners for either of us, but so far, ours is the only relationship we’ve had that has worked out that way.
“I dunno. I’m trying to stretch my brain into a place where “secondary” doesn’t mean “on the losing end of a hierarchy and that’s not terribly nice,””
Yes, I can see that, and I think this is why it seems to me that anti-hierarchical poly people tend to define secondary relationships as specifically *miserable* secondary relationships. If your relationship is happy and satisfying, it can’t be a *proper* secondary relationship. I am a secondary partner to my boyfriend, and maybe that puts me on the losing end of a hierarchy, but I am genuinely happy with that. I would even be okay if his primary partner had (shock horror!) veto rights over me, (even though I think vetoes are ridiculous). I love him, but I want him to be happy more than I want him, and his primary relationship is more important to his happiness than I am. So yes, I suppose I am okay with the fact that she might get input into my relationship with him, and I get little to none into his relationship with her. I understand why some people would be unhappy with this situation, but it works for us.
In comparing hierarchies in relationships to other things, I blogged about this a while ago as part of the http://www.polymeansmany.com project here: http://www.morethannuclear.com/2012/10/hierarchy.html, and I also used family as an example. I do actually think that there are hierarchies present in most of the situations you mention, even if they aren’t linear, and if they might shift over time.
“I’m trying to stretch my brain into a place where “secondary” doesn’t mean “on the losing end of a hierarchy and that’s not terribly nice,” and evidently I’m having a hard time, as it keeps circling back there, or at least back to the questions about it”
The terminology around secondary/primary is really confusing to me here. I don’t see a problem with hierarchical poly – it seems to me to simply be a way of explicitly describing what may actually be going on. One way I think about it is to compare it to friendships, which may be wrong (in which case I hope you tell me why).
Some of my friends are more important to me than other of my friends, and I will prioritize them more, give them more time, attention and resources. I don’t see any problems with that. Sometimes lower-priority friends want more time from me than I want to give, so they lose. It’s not necessarily the case that they will think “I lost to A, who is the Primary Friend”. Sometimes they lose to other things I care about more, like dance or grad school. But they still lost – they are still at the “losing end of the hierarchy and that’s not terribly nice”.
I assume that this is fine, that it’s okay to be prioritizing different friends over each other. And in the “descriptive” sense, some of these friends are *always* going to be less important than other friends, or less important than my career. And that it’s fine to unilaterally end a friendship if it’s not working out for you, despite the fact that they had no say in it. Why is it different when it’s a couple vs. a single person who makes this decision?
It’s typically considered gauche to tell your friends where in the priority queue they are, but that doesn’t mean the queue doesn’t exist. In a hierarchial poly system, the difference *can *be that you simply are openly acknowledging the different priority sets, instead of only doing it implicitly, and that it’s a romantic relationship instead of a friendship. Does that change whether it’s okay to do this or not?
deebeazy – I think you have misunderstood what I wrote.
When unhappiness is happening in relationship, sometimes the model is the problem – a lot of non-monogamous folks, for instance, feel that a monogamous model is wrong for them. Sometimes the person you’re involved with is the problem – an abusive spouse, for instance. Sometimes they overlap – like an abusive spouse in a monogamous relationship with someone who’d rather be non-monogamous. Sometimes they don’t – like a perfectly wonderful spouse in a monogamous relationship with someone who’d rather be non-monogamous. It can be hard to tell the difference, especially if you’re really enmeshed in a bad situation and just want to reject the whole thing, or on the flip side, so happy with a given person that you can (for now?) overlook the poor model fit. But I do think there’s a difference.
It sounds like you think I expect the people you’re dating to always be happy, failing which I’d say the model is flawed. In fact, the people you’re dating could be happy or miserable or some of both, and that’s not necessarily go anything to do with the model. This is why I pointed out how it’s important to think about whether secondaries would defend not you personally, and not your relationship, but your relationship model itself. From that vantage point, someone you’re dating could easily say “I love deebeazy and our relationship’s got its ups and downs, but no matter what, being a secondary in this context is perfect for me.” Then, even if you broke up, they’d be likely to deliberately seek out the opportunity to be a secondary in another primary-secondary situation. Or “I love deebeazy and our relationship is fantastic, but boy, this secondary thing is kinda shitty.” In which case, the secondary model is probably not inherently making them feel happy, and they wouldn’t seek it out again.
I suppose it’s possible someone could feel differently about the model itself from day to day, independently of the relationship. Lemme see, how would that work… so maybe, like, “I love deebeazy and our relationship is consistently fantastic; sometimes being a secondary is really advantageous and feels like a perfect fit, sometimes it’s really hard on me.” Seems like a less likely angle on things, but not impossible. I don’t think I’ve seen that happening too often, but I dunno… it’s hard to find empirical evidence for this stuff.
Anyway. I don’t quite get how this relates to the bisexuality metaphor you’re using, but thank you for giving me a reason to set my ideas out more clearly. 🙂
Sorry, I was using “happy” as a shorthand for “content to continue as a secondary partner in a consciously hierarchical primary-secondary dynamic.” I was responding to your assertion that unless our secondary partners–presumably all of them–“can provide just as spirited a defense of your model as you do, or even more so.” That, to me, implies that if even one person I/we am/are dating eventually decides that being a secondary isn’t for them, the entire model is flawed. Perhaps that’s not what you meant, but I think it’s a valid interpretation of what you wrote.
As for the bisexuality analogy, my point was that there will always be some impossible litmus test that people will subject any “alternative lifestyle” to in order to “prove” that it doesn’t work, isn’t real, or isn’t what we say it is. With bisexuals, any evidence that someone has even a slight preference for one gender or the other is taken as proof that everyone is “really” gay or straight, that people who claim a bisexual orientation are merely self-deluded. With polyamorists, any evidence that any one person within the whole arrangement is unhappy with how they were treated is often cited as damning evidence to reassure the dominant culture that poly “doesn’t work.”
I also think that your Marxist* analysis of polynormativity fails to take into account the possibility that one individual can function in multiple intersecting hierarchies. Many of the people I know who are in secondary relationships with one person are also in a primary relationship with someone else. As a married man with a wife and a girlfriend, for example, I am my wife’s primary partner and my girlfriend’s secondary partner. My wife, in turn, is my primary partner; she is also her boyfriend’s secondary partner. Both my girlfriend and her boyfriend have primaries of their own. Each one of us simultaneously occupies what you call “the least empowered place” within one relationship structure – but also the MOST empowered place within another.
*Note: I use the term “Marxist” descriptively, not as a Fox News- fueled epithet. Marxism is a useful model to describe many power dynamics; I’m just not convinced it applies here.
it’s important to think about whether secondaries would defend not you personally, and not your relationship, but your relationship model itself
I am a little confused by your repeated conflation of PEOPLE as being inherently secondaries, not just relative-secondaries. As multiple folks have pointed out here, most people who are secondary to one person are primary to another and as such the person they are secondary to is also secondary to them. And if they’re not then either a) they’re content just being secondary and not having a primary (at least for the time being if not forever) or b) they’re not content and are seeking other relationships but are not planning to give up their secondary relationship in the meantime.
If a person has only a secondary relationship and ISN’T happy with it that doesn’t condemn the entire primary-secondary model, any more than a single person being unhappy with being single while looking for a monogamous partner condemns the entire monogamy model.
Yes yes yes yes yes. It’s so good to be reminded, in this sea of nuclear-family-friendly-poly-media, that there’re as many ways to do poly as there are people doing it, and that there’s nothing wrong with the fact that my way is different from the established “norm” (at least, as far as such a thing exists and is portrayed online).
Basically: it’s refreshing to see that I’m not alone. “Poly couple” hurts me a little too, every time I see it. And I swear that the next time that some relative stranger describes my relationship with my partner as “secondary” (presumably because her other significant relationship is with her husband, and apparently “husband” automatically trumps “boyfriend” in the hierarchy stakes) then I’m going to scream.
(discovered your blog via this Reddit thread, by the way)
hey sexgeek, thank you for this. it really pushed me to reconsider and unpack the concept of primary-secondary. I was always uncomfy with rules like veto powers but didn’t know exactly why and hadn’t thought through how damaging the primary-secondary model could be. I also just appreciate how you rip into the foolishness of trying to outlaw love through rules against it. oh dear. You make reference to the fact that poly is always presented as white and I wondered if you could speak more to how hegemonic monogamy and whiteness are intertwined? Or can you offer resources on poly by and for Indigenous folks and folks of colour?
You know, I wish I had more concrete analysis of this race question in relation to poly. It’s not a topic I’ve read much about, and I suspect that’s because there’s not much written about it, but it also could be that I simply haven’t come across it.
I do know, for instance, that ethnic groups who do some sort of non-monogamy are automatically seen as barbaric (African and Middle Eastern polygamy, say) – but then a similar analysis is applied to white North American polygamists, i.e. Mormons, so the racism in there would need to be teased apart from the anti-religious thing and, on the flip side, from the very legit critique of the misogynistic and child-abusive practices that so often go on in Mormon polygamous groupings. The latter distinction is not very well made by most people who discuss this topic in the first place, even though it’s crucial – non-monogamy does not equal child abuse! Child abuse is bad! Not sure why that’s such a complicated one, but yay mainstream.
I know there is a general acknowledgement that poly communities are mostly white, and also a general truth that they are not *all* white. I also came across something… argh… recently… ah yes! A researcher on the PolyResearchers yahoogroup (possibly a POC herself?) mentioned that she had noticed how she’s encountered lots of POCs who do what we might call polyamory, but who don’t call it that and wouldn’t be found in a poly group, and she suggested that this interferes with them being represented in the research. But there’s almost no research to speak of in the first place, so for now that’s kind of a moot point.
(On a related note, there’s the issue that groups that specifically congregate in order to be poly or do poly or discuss poly together often self-select for straight-ish-ness, not because they’re homophobic – in my experience they’re generally not, and are specifically pretty friendly to bi men, which is a rarity outside those circles – but because the queers get all the poly discussion they need just by being around queers. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but a frequent observation I’ve made across many cities in North America. So no matter how you slice it, the sample provided by “a poly group” is going to be demographically slanted.)
Beyond that, research issues aside, the other issue is that even in the context of more publishing than ever on the topic of non-monogamy, there’s still not much to work from. Alan over at the Polyinthemedia blog recently came up with a bibliography of around 30 books, but that’s 30 books published in my entire lifetime, and most of them are very topic-specific, intro-level stuff. I don’t know how every writer identifies but I’m going to make the educated guess that they’re mostly white.
There is one, just one, collection of poly scholarship, quite recent, and it’s wicked expensive to buy. I got my hands on it just recently after a couple of years of putting it off due to insufficient funds. Scanning the titles, I can see one article in it that explicitly addresses race, though I don’t know how the author identifies; and scanning the authors, I recognize one whom I know to be a person of colour, but whose article does not, from title, appear to be about race. I’d have to read more to tell you if the collection does better than that. (On a side note, I wonder if this will be like the Transgender Studies Reader, where the first volume is mostly white, even though Susan Stryker went all out trying to find contributions by and for people of colour; and the second volume, soon to be published, has a whole lot more by and for people of colour in part because Susan pushed so hard asking for it the first time around, and scholarly writing takes years to produce. So it goes with emerging fields.)
Anyway, let’s move outside the realm of the scholarly. I am sure there are websites out there publishing non-monogs stuff by and for POCs, but I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about *any* current online poly communities as perhaps I could be. I don’t blog specifically about poly very often, either – it’s 90% leather these days, the current post is a pretty big exception. And non-monogamy has never been a focus of scholarly study for me, either, even though it is of course an interest, so I’m not aware of anything else out there, but that doesn’t mean it’s non-existent. So I’m not actually the best person to advise here, but I’ll put out some feelers and post the results, as now you have me feeling kinda curious.
Loved the post. Inevitably, however, every time this subject comes up, I get the two following responses:
“But you can’t expect someone you only went on a few dates with to be equal to your spouse!”
“Primary is totally not disrespectful! Of course, I use the word ‘primary’ in a completely different way that doesn’t resemble either the dictionary definition or the common use of the term, so stop telling people that my way of doing poly is disrespectful!”
Both of which completely miss the point.
I am so frustrated with trying to explain that prescripted hierarchies are inherently unfair & even cruel, but that a prescripted hierarchy is not the same thing as the configuration that it’s expressed in. You can have prescripted hierarchy in a variety of configurations, not just the single-main-couple-with-outside-sex-partners form, and you can have that form that isn’t prescripted as a hierarchy.
No one is saying to show up on a first date with a moving van and your date’s name on the joint checking account, professing your undying love forever and ever. It just seems as though people are refusing to understand that, when we talk about being equal in a relationship, we are not talking about making one of your partners equal to another of your partners. We’re talking about making one of your partners equal to YOU in your relationship with that partner. I’m not sure why that’s so difficult to understand.
I am also very frustrated with people who use words in non-standard or non-intuitive ways and then get mad at *me* for accusing *them* of something they’re not doing. As I keep saying, if you’re not doing what I’m talking about, then I’m not talking about you. If someone uses the word “rule” to mean “we don’t actually tell each other what to do, we talk about our expectations and wants and desires and fears and we both agree on a course of action that either of us is free to re-evaluate at a later time”, they’re not talking about a rule. But damned if I don’t get people insisting that they are using rules and this is why “rules” are OK.
Oh, and a third response I usually get (but is really just a variation on the first response) and forgot to mention is “But what about the children? Of course my husband and children come first, and anyone new should respect that!” ::headdesk:: ::MissingThePoint::
So, thank you for yet another perspective attempting to explain what is apparently unexplainable (at least to some people).
Thank you for this! YES YES YES!
> It just seems as though people are refusing to understand
> that, when we talk about being equal in a relationship, we are > not talking about making one of your partners equal to
> another of your partners. We’re talking about making one of
> your partners equal to YOU in your relationship with that
> partner. I’m not sure why that’s so difficult to understand.
OK, I’ll bite: I would like to understand that, but I don’t. Or rather, I understand it as an abstract concept, but I don’t see how it relates to how I think about my relationships. Perhaps you can help.
I have a girlfriend. My relationship to her is not “primary” or “secondary.” In the little bubble within which we spend time together, her needs are just as important to me as my own, and vice versa. I do not consider myself superior to her, or dominant over her (OK, except in a BDSM context, but that’s another story). She is as entitled to my time and energy and love and respect as I am to hers. I would NEVER refer to her as a “secondary” anything in relation to ME.
However, once we step outside that bubble and include other people, the various hierarchies of our respective lives become relevant. That’s when the needs and desires and welfare of my primary partner are revealed my first priority – in how I schedule my time, how I spend my money, how I make major life decisions like where to live, what job to accept, etc. My girlfriend has a primary partner of her own, and makes decisions on a similar basis. All of this has been made explicit and mutually agreed upon from the beginning.
Where and when, exactly, does this become unfair and cruel?
Thank you very much for the clarification on exactly what was meant by the prescriptive hierarchy. That distinction in the main article was lost on me (and some in SexGeek’s reply to my comment), but your post made it very clear.
This is why I actually dislike the idea of segregating polynormativity from the rest of Poly. Because it decreases the likelihood that people who really need to see this will see it.
“I am also very frustrated with people who use words in non-standard or non-intuitive ways and then get mad at *me* for accusing *them* of something they’re not doing.”
i will have to disagree with you here. (Not with your frustration, but with the point of your comment.) What is an intuitive use of a word to one person or to one group of people isn’t going to apply universally. We can’t expect everyone to conform with our understanding of the meaning of a ‘fuzzy’ word (A word that is used to describe an idea that has varying degrees of subjectivity depending on the idea)…even if many people do.
Anyway, thank you for your post. Wonderful addition to the discussion and much appreciated.
As the original poster has said, repeatedly, she is not segregating polynormativity from the rest of polyamory. It’s more like she made a subcategory, which no one seems to have any problem with in other areas.
For example, we have this category called “citrus fruit” (i.e. polyamory). Within the category of “citrus fruit”, we have oranges, lemons, limes, etc. (i.e., polynormativity, polyfidelity, network poly, etc.) All of them are citrus fruits, but they are still identifiably distinct from each other enough to deserve their own sub-category name.
Especially when one particular category is more destructive than the others, we need a word or a set of words to describe it, so that we can talk about the unique properties of that subcategory, what makes it harmful, and what we can do to fix it, since that kind of conversation does not apply to the other sub-categories. Not all polyamory is the same, or equal, and it is not helpful to fixing our community problems to pretend that it is and that we’re all one, big, happy family.
When a word has both a dictionary definition and a common use that matches, I think it’s a very simple matter that anyone using the term differently is using it incorrectly. Period. Any upset on that person’s part for being misunderstood is not the responsibility on the person who misunderstood them when it has been pointed out to the first person that he is not using a word in a commonly understood manner.
I do not agree that we can just make up new definitions for words and then expect that the rest of the world should adhere to the unusual, non-standard definition. If you want to be understood, and a word already exists with a clear definition and a common understanding, then it is your responsibility to use words according to how your listener will understand. If you don’t, then you can’t get upset when people misunderstand you. If you don’t want to be understood, then you can’t complain when people misunderstand you. If you think you are doing something or talking about something that does not already fit into an established word, that’s when new word creation is appropriate, such as when the word “polyamory” was coined.
@Joreth: Thanks for this – this makes a lot more sense than the original post did about people’s issues with hierarchy. For example, when you say that a lot of people usually respond to this debate with something like: “But you can’t expect someone you only went on a few dates with to be equal to your spouse!””, I agree this often misses the point, but it is an absolutely valid response to THIS post which explicitly said it was wrong to “put one person’s feelings ahead of another’s as a matter of course.”
“when we talk about being equal in a relationship, we are not talking about making one of your partners equal to another of your partners. We’re talking about making one of your partners equal to YOU in your relationship with that partner. I’m not sure why that’s so difficult to understand.”
Perhaps because this is not what the original post said? It’s a good point, and I think if the blog post had said this, the responses would have been different.
But I’m not sure what you mean by “equal” in this context. If two people want different things in a relationship, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a problem with equality. If someone *wants* to keep a relationship fixed into a restrictive box or role, then not doing that because their partner doesn’t like it isn’t any better. Basically, if your partner is limiting your relationship in a way that you don’t like, and would rather end the relationship than change it, I don’t see that as a problem with equality. Maybe you’re just in a relationship with someone who doesn’t want the same things as you.
I do think it’s wrong to put one person’s feelings ahead of another’s as a matter of course. In any situation, I think it’s important for every person who’s going to be affected by a decision to have a say in it, to the extent that it will affect them. This is not always an easy thing to determine – the degree to which a decision is going to impact someone, I mean – but the go-to solution of one person getting more say than another because rank doesn’t feel fair to me. An easy and pretty light example is that if person A and B (spouses) want to go to a movie, and they invite person C, then all three of them should be able to have input into what movie they see.
If we make it a bigger or heavier situation, then it becomes more challenging, but also more important to do carefully. So, for instance, my partner M and I live together along with our roommate S. B, who is partner to me and M, lives in another home not far away with her roommate, and friend of 25 years, L. M’s partner N lives part-time with us and part-time with B and L while we search for housing that’s big enough to have N with us full-time. M and I and S and N all need input into the type and location of housing, as we’re the ones who’ll live there. B needs input into the location of housing, as she’ll be affected insofar as she travels to spend time in our home, but not so much the type, unless there’s something about it that will impact her – say, if she became disabled and couldn’t walk up stairs so we needed to find a place that’s accessible for her to keep visiting. L only really needs to be asked for input if some element of our process would involve him directly – asking him to move out, building a third floor onto B’s house so we could move in, etc. If we decided that M and I should have more say in these decisions than N because we are the longer-lasting pair, or that our romantic attachment takes precedence over our non-romantic one with S, then we’d effectively be shutting out input from people who will be directly impacted by the end decision.
So I think that my original phrasing stands. Beyond that, while I agree in spirit with Joreth’s idea about each partner being equal to you in your relationship with that partner, I think my concept goes even further than that – that each partner should be on equal footing with one another insofar as a decision will affect each person.
@SexGeek The examples you give aren’t really examples of prioritising one person’s feelings over another’s, they are of a group of people prioritising a couple over themselves, which wouldn’t make much sense. If you and M were a primary couple who put each other’s feelings above other people’s, that wouldn’t mean you’d get more “say” in deciding your living arrangements, as you suggest. It means that you and M might consider each other’s opinions more highly than anyone else’s in that situation. That doesn’t mean that anyone one else in the situation has to do the same.
It should be fine for you to say “no” to a house that M hated but everyone else loved, because you put M’s feelings above the other people’s, and M’s happiness is too important a consideration for you to ignore. It should also be fine for you to consider M’s dissatisfaction, but ultimately add another “yes” into the mix, because prioritising a relationship doesn’t mean not having any opinions or agency of your own.
Your idea that “each partner should be on equal footing with one another insofar as a decision will affect each person” sounds, to me, as though it removes MY agency. If A wants to see Les Mis and C wants to see Lincoln, it is B’s choice if they want to side with A or C (or neither). They shouldn’t be required to consider both people’s preferences equally. Which means that if my husband and my boyfriend are on equal footing on any decision which affects their respective relationships with me, but my husband and I nearly always agree, equality doesn’t remove the hierarchy.
Two metamours can’t be on equal footing with each other in decisions that affect them unless they both care about the outcome equally as much, and their mutual partner is equally invested in both relationships. Without that, decisions are going to be skewed. If my husband and my boyfriend want two equally reasonable but conflicting things from me, they don’t both have equal influence over me, so they’re not going to be on equal footing with my decision. It doesn’t mean I’ll always pick my husband, but my boyfriend is aware that I’m likely to. And he is okay with that, because our relationship is not as important or central to his life as our marriage is to my husband. The two of them having equal decision making powers would be incompatible with the relationships we have – none of us want that.
I understand that some people *do* want that. But telling people that hierarchy is a terrible idea is no better than telling them that primary/secondary is the best way to do things.
If I tell my boyfriend that I only want to see him once a month rather than once a fortnight from now on,
I’m hoping media portrayals will be shifting soon. My family is actually going to be featured on Our America with Lisa Ling this season (March 12 on OWN). We’re all in heterosexual (ish) relationships, and we’re white and all aged 25-35, so we can’t really help with the demographic problems. BUT there are five of us, who are all of equal importance levels, (it’s a “W” – two V’s), there is no heirarchy, and we don’t have any rules other than “be considerate.” I know there will be at least one older family featured on the show as well, and there is a third family that I don’t know anything about. Hopefully we help push back against some of the polynormativity going around!
Right on! 🙂
So I’m still turning this over in my head. My first impulse is to send all my lovers a questionnaire to make sure they’re as happy as I think they are!
There is a nugget of wisdom within this that I definitely agree with: that people should be honest about any hierarchies that do or do not guide their actions and/or emotions. There’s nothing worse than being told that you’re playing on a level playing field, only to discover that there are, in fact, unwritten rules and unspoken agreements and a pecking order.
The part of the article that I struggle with is the implicit idea that hierarchies are bad, oppressive, or realistically avoidable in modern life. In my view, all of my relationships fit into one hierarchy or another. There are people with whom I do and do not share property, custody, and visitation rights; there are people whose calls I will or will not take at 3am; there are people whose birthday parties I must, might, or probably won’t attend. To imply otherwise would be, for me, dishonest.
Yes, gotcha. 🙂 Please see my response to H just above, I think it addresses this some.
I found your poly analysis SO interesting, and I’m forwarding this to all my partners so we can discuss it. My first poly dynamic was all about rules, and reading what you wrote: “Rules have an inverse relationship to trust. They are intended to bind someone to someone else’s preferences. They are aimed at constraint. I will limit you, and you will limit me, and then we’ll both be safe.” gave me goosebumps. It was EXACTLY that. I just didn’t know it until after it all blew to pieces. My second venture into poly is like night and day. It began when I started dating my girlfriend, and she told me “I have no rules.” Even now after dating two men in addition to my girlfriend, the “no rules” stand. Safe sex is the one rule we all adhere to, but again, that seems more common sense than a rule. We also don’t use secondary or primary, because I agree with you… it’s like saying that person is a second-class person or less deserving than another. Even when talking to my boyfriend who’s married, he never refers to me as secondary and I love him for it. Thanks for the insightful writing!
A significant quibble with an otherwise excellent post.
“Sometimes, a relationship is just not destined to be long-term, or domestic, or local, or involve meeting each other’s parents. This is not a bad thing. It’s just a thing. It’s also not the same thing as being “secondary.””
Actually – as I, and a number of other people I know use the terminology – that is exactly the same thing as being ‘secondary’, or rather being in a secondary-typed relationship. Frankly, it was bloody hard for me to learn that not every relationship has to work out to be marital, and I would consider myself quite foolish if I did not acknowledge that non-familial relationships are in fact less central and important to my life than familial ones.
Not because I do the couple-based, veto oriented, let me treat other people as disposable recreational relationship toys normative media-darling bullshit, but because letting relationships develop as is natural and best for them individually means sometimes that those relationships don’t always wind up close, communal, and interdependent. And that means that doing hierarchy is, for me, fundamentally about respecting my partners, and having relationships with them of the sorts that they want to have with me.
Personally, I think that one of the problems boils down to people treating “primary” and “secondary” as people rather than categories or types of relationships. One of the other problems is in treating a hierarchy as something that has to be maintained and enforced, rather than just acknowledging the differing levels of importance that actually exist. (The summary of this distinction is usually phrased as the difference between prescriptive and descriptive hierarchy.)
It’s frustrating to have the same language frequently used to mean such different things, but I do think it’s important to acknowledge that the language is commonly used to mean such different things.
Please see my response to H above, as I think it addresses some of what you mention here.
Beyond that… Prescriptive and descriptive hierarchy. Nice. That is a helpful distinction, for sure, and it might help explain some of the comments here thus far – perhaps they are from people who do descriptive hierarchy, and don’t see why that’s a problem, whereas my post is most vocally against prescriptive hierarchy, where the problems are pretty clear.
That said… I don’t know that descriptive hierarchy is necessarily free of those same problems. It’s still a hierarchical mindset, and as such, even if the hierarchy didn’t come pre-decided, that doesn’t mean it has no effect on how people are treated within it, their rights or likelihood of speaking up if something went wrong, etc. And polynormativity means that a lot of people getting into polyamory assume that hierarchy is how it’s supposed to work, *even if that’s not how the relationships they’re in prescribe it*, such that a descriptive-hierarchical poly relationship isn’t necessarily a “natural” or neutral affair – it may well be the result of un-discussed polynormative assumptions, particularly on the secondary’s part. In this sense, polynormativity does the prescribing for you, and a descriptive hierarchy is the result.
I think, for instance, of how several years ago, one of my partners, B, was just beginning to get involved with my other partner, M (B and I were not involved at the time; today we are a triad, with branches of various sorts). I could tell something was fishy when we were all hanging out together, and eventually as a conversation unfolded, I figured it out and took a chance on saying to her, “You know, you are allowed to fall in love with him.” Which pretty much made her cry. Until that point, she had assumed that falling in love with M would be a bad thing, would make me clamp down and insist that he boot her out, and as such that she should keep quiet about it and hope it… went away? Didn’t get too big? I’m not sure. This certainly wasn’t due to anything either M or I had said – it was purely a product of internalized polynormativity. If I hadn’t thought to call her on it, I’m not sure how long she would have gone on being miserable, but it could have been a long time. And during that time, she’d surely have described us as a hierarchy, even if that’s in no way how M and I saw it. Maybe, because of that, she’d eventually have left, or acted poorly, or what have you. Or interpreted the longer duration of my and M’s relationship, and the shorthand and comfort and time spent and habits between us, as just so many signs of her own lesser worth or fewer rights in the structure. And so forth. M and I wouldn’t have had to *do* anything to make that happen. It was, and would have continued to be, her default understanding of things. If we’d decided to simply describe the result of that, we’d be in a hierarchy. Because we discussed it instead, we’re not.
So… if someone’s going to do hierarchy at all, even if not prescriptive, I guess to me this calls for really careful conversations to make sure that the descriptiveness is not simply masking an underlying problematic situation.
One of the things that I find perplexing about a lot of these things is, more or less, “Who are these conversations supposed to involve?” And similar matters.
Because as far as I’m concerned, relationships are negotiated between the people who are actually in them. Nonparticipants don’t get a say, being nonparticipants and all.
So if I-as-an-individual work out a relationship that works for another-person, that is mutually satisfying to us both, stable, and satisfies our desires for interaction with each other, and that sort of relationship in that case does not happen to include the sort of life-entangled commitment and so on that I apply to a marriage, what does that mean in terms of “really careful conversations”? (And do those careful conversations need to drag in relationship nonparticipants as if there is a trumping overcouple or something?)
I would consider it a form of willful and deliberate denial to attempt to claim that this recognition of actual relationship differences is not a hierarchy. I have relationships that contain a certain set of commitments and relationships that have fewer commitments. There is no way of looking at this that does not have one relationship type having more commitments than another.
(I have honestly no idea how I would have dealt with your situation with B, actually; I have never spent time in poly circles in which anyone would treat falling in love as a problem, so that flavor of this issue is pretty much entirely outside my experience. Further, I tend to get actively upset when people try to treat me as involved in relationships where I’m a nonparticipant, so being expected to have some sort of say in the sort of relationship someone might have with someone not-me would really bother me in ways that don’t always end graciously.)
Yeah, I agree, the question of who should be included in or having what discussions on what topics is not always a cut-and-dried thing, though over time and with experience in poly I think, for me at least, the lines have become clearer.
It’s interesting though, that you use the term “nonparticipants” for what some poly folks call “metamours.” As in, people connected to you through a poly configuration but with whom you personally are not directly romantically involved.
I’m not saying this is the case for you or your situation specifically, but the idea of “nonparticipants” hearkens, for me, to a sort of silo formation in which each dyadic relationship is pretty much isolated from any others. In reality, though, much of the time, that kind of silo-ing is a mental/emotional fiction. The things that happen in dyad A will absolutely impact what happen in dyad B if the two dyads have a person in common. A bad date that leaves your partner drained and upset… a fantastic sex romp that has him cranked up for more as soon as he gets home and sees you… a thoughtful conversation that has your partner rethinking the way the two of you handle your annoying in-laws… whatever. This is much the way your partner’s work life and friendships have an effect on you, even if you aren’t working at the same company or friends with the same people. For instance, your partner will likely consult with you about a work-related decision insofar as it may impact you – Should I take this promotion with a bigger salary but longer hours? I’m going to have a lot of business travel in the next three months, shall we organize our vacation around that? etc. And if their best friend is diagnosed with cancer, even if you don’t like the guy much, chances are you’ll be moving your Wednesday afternoon date to Tuesdays for a few months so that your partner to drive his buddy to chemo treatments.
In this sense, relationships are not negotiated exclusively between the direct participants. They are (can? should? be) negotiated with everyone who’ll be impacted by a given decision. How to judge exactly who that is each time, or exactly what to talk about – well, I have no hard and fast rules. But I can’t help seeing the much broader web that we’re all in, and anytime I see people ignore that, I see it bite folks in the ass, sometimes gently, sometimes far less so.
Also, the silo formation makes it much harder to be generous, even if the people involved are inclined to be, because they’re more likely to be simply lacking in information or opportunity. It’s hard to offer your metamour (non-participant) your spare can of paint if you don’t know she’s been hoping to paint her bedroom but can’t afford it right now. And you won’t hear about her need if the general everydayness of the metamour’s relationship to your partner is off the table for discussion. How much is too much? What if you’d rather not be generous? Well, of course, that’s super context-based and personal, so again, I have no hard and fast rules. Just bringing up how interconnectedness can exist if we let it, and everyone stands to gain from it. Of course perhaps there are disadvantages to that kind of connectedness too, which from my perspective are hard to see as it’s always worked out for me.
Also – while I get how if you lean toward thinking in terms of hierarchy, the differential in time, longevity, type of commitment etc. might be really hard to read as anything but, I can’t help but think the idea becomes – if not utterly useless always – just the wrong tool a lot of the time. Is there a hierarchy between a partnership and work? Between a partner and a friend in need? Does there have to be in order to provide a basis for decisions? Or can there be some other way of thinking these things that’s more about context and compassion and care and generosity and the plain old human interdependence and community-building that happen well outside the silos… and less about rank? This does, to an extent, come down to definition – and we may, in this mini-conversation, be butting up against the differing definitions of the term “hierarchy” that have come up in other comments here, so perhaps taking a look at my responses to Rho, Bob Ritchey and H above would be useful here. But I get it that this may be one of those definitional points that we can’t get past, so I’ll not flog it to death.
Threading busted, sorry.
YOu seem to be to be missing my point by conflating things that I very specifically do not conflate.
I am an individual who forms relationships with other individuals. In any given relationship I have, there are only two participants: myself and the other individual person. And for the things that are internal to our relationship, we are the only people who get any say, because we are the only people involved. Which means things like “nobody else gets a say in what emotions are involved here” (and frankly someone who thinks they get a say in my emotions in other relationships is welcome to get the fuck out of my life right now).
This says nothing about interactions between metamours or anything else, because that is an entirely different question. And I genuinely do not understand trying to treat “how a system of relationships might interact with each other” as the same type of question as “how individual people form relationships with other individual people”. Trying to treat the system as part of the individual relationships strikes me as more creepy couple-centrism, frankly. Maybe writ a bit larger, which sure doens’t make it less creepy.
And the “is there a hierarchy between work and other stuff” or whatever else just doesn’t make sense. The way I work: there are commitments and obligations, and people fulfill the ones they have and choose how to spend the rest of their time and energy, including taking on more commitments and obligations. So yeah, work, friendships, relationships, family, and so on, they all come with commitments and obligations, and different protocols for renegotiating them in accordance with need and desire. And yeah, I’ve referred to my work as a primary relationship, because while the nature of the commitments differs grandly from the commitments I have to my spouses, the magnitude is similar; I’ve also referred to the Boston Red Sox as a secondary relationship, though alas after I had kids we kind of don’t see each other much anymore. (And I’ve complained that having a partner in grad school is like being stuck in a prescriptive hierarchy where “the primary” is a goddamn drama vortex.)
So long as some things in life get more commitment than other things, they will, well, have more commitment than other things. The only way for me to escape hierarchy in my polyamory is to try to force all relationships to be at the same level, make the same commitments, and so on, which means that I have to either ignore the consent of people who do not want those commitments with me, or I have to dump them. (And the latter doesn’t appeal, and the former … didn’t work out well and I decided to stop being an asshole with no clue about boundaries and human decency.)
@Dwt3-Hthr – Threading looks busted after three levels when we’re writing, but when it publishes it’s actually not! 🙂
It sounds like there are two pieces we are sticking on. One is where we agree – so, you wrote, “In any given relationship I have, there are only two participants: myself and the other individual person. And for the things that are internal to our relationship, we are the only people who get any say, because we are the only people involved.” I am totally on board with you here. The idea that any person outside a given dyad gets to say what the people in that dyad are allowed to feel about each other makes me nuts, and that is a key point of my original post. So, check.
I’m not sure I’m quite following you on the system vs individual distinction – I think I probably agree with you, insofar as that idea is in keeping with that first piece about who gets a say in emotions. But at the same time, the idea that the system of relationships doesn’t impact the individual relationships seems like wishful thinking. Is that idea what you are referring to as couple-centrism writ larger? Perhaps this is a distinction between the ideas of “influence” (as in, have some effect on) and “regulate” (as in, have some sort of authority over)? I’m certainly talking about the former and not the latter, if that helps.
As for the second piece – calling the idea that some relationships get more commitment than others a hierarchy – again, I think this is a definitional snag. I wouldn’t call that a hierarchy, because I see hierarchy as having exactly the kind of authority structure you say you don’t go in for, and the descriptive nature of it doesn’t necessarily get rid of that problem (as opposed to prescriptive hierarchy where we both agree the problem exists). If I understand you correctly, you call that practical situation a hierarchy, but understand that hierarchy to stop at the door of each individual relationship within it. Which is… well, it seems pretty clear to you that this can work in practice. In my experience it doesn’t work nearly so cleanly, but it’s cool to know that for some folks that can be the case. 🙂
I’m not sure I’m quite following you on the system vs individual distinction – I think I probably agree with you, insofar as that idea is in keeping with that first piece about who gets a say in emotions. But at the same time, the idea that the system of relationships doesn’t impact the individual relationships seems like wishful thinking.
And the idea that I’m claiming that the system “doesn’t impact” the relationships has no place in anything I’ve said.
Let me try breaking out an example here of a hypothetical situation. Say I want to go out to dinner with someone. The only people going out to dinner are me and that someone. We decide where we go, what we eat, what other activities are involved, and so on. We are the only participants in that going-out-to-dinner event.
The decisions about how we do that depend on a context. I may have childcare duties on Mondays (I do in fact have childcare duties on Mondays, so this is an easy what-if), and thus we cannot schedule a dinner date on a Monday. They may need to work late a lot at this time of year, so something that has a long wait for a really nice meal might be a bit too much of a time commitment. I don’t care for Mexican; they’re vegetarian. And so on. But these aren’t family agreements or job responsibilities or whatever else participating in our dinner date; they are constraints on when we have dinner, which we each have accepted as responsible adults.
It’s the responsible adults thing that I’m poking at, actually, the idea that since I know what my commitments are I know what additional commitments I can take on. It’s not the job of a hypothetical new partner to know this and help me enforce my agreements. If I say “I need to be home by eight” it doesn’t matter if it’s so I can say goodnight to the kids before bedtime, because I have an agreement with a partner to be home at that time, or because I have a fucking sleep disorder that requires careful regulation; that’s my stated boundary and the context under which I’m making a new commitment. I don’t get to blame the kids, my partners, or my medical condition for it if someone wants me to compromise on the boundary; at most I can renegotiate it with the relevant parties, if relevant parties are willing to renegotiate. (My circadian rhythms are not.)
As for the second piece – calling the idea that some relationships get more commitment than others a hierarchy – again, I think this is a definitional snag.
That seems quite likely, yes. However, I can’t escape the straight-up denotational thing. A relationship which involves a whole lot of commitments has a (tautologically) greater level of commitment and obligation than one that involves very few, and that’s a genuine difference in status. When there are genuine differences in status in which one category of stuff is more whatever than another category of stuff, there is a clear hierarchy of whatever-ness.
If I have agreements with a couple of people that include who sleeps where when people are at home, how to handle payments on the mortgage, who cooks dinner what night, long-term intent to share our lives at a significant depth, shared projects, shared responsibility for childcare, and so on; and on the other hand I have agreements with people to let them know if I’m going to be out of touch and spend time with them on shared projects, there is a status difference there. One of those relationship types is more involved than the other, and of more importance to the nature and flow of my life.
I tried doing non-hierarchy, and mostly what I got was a giant mess of upfuckery. Learning how to have relationships of lower status than marital was brutally hard, because there were no models for me to work with and (at the time) I was total pants at coherent communication (and so were the people I was seeing). For a long time, I was deeply wounded by the idea that someone might want to be with me without wanting to make those sorts of commitments, actually, and that certainly didn’t help the vortex of drama created by my trying to make things look like “real relationships” – in other words, like the models I had. Learning to be flexible helps a lot, to say the least.
(Wouldn’t be seventeen again for anything.)
Love it, and man there’s a high standard of responses on this site. 🙂 Love your thoughtful replies to responses too.
Phew yes! Running to keep up. Never would have expected this one to go quite so viral. May not be able to continue responding at this pace but right now it’s working! 🙂 Anyway thank you.
I agree with the commenter above who said that getting rid of the hierarchical model isn’t about making all your relationships equal to one another, but about putting yourself on an equal level with each of your partners. The hierarchical model demands that the primary relationship be recognized as “primary” by everyone involved, including the “secondary” partner, in effect requiring the secondary partner to prioritize the relationship between the primaries over his own relationship with his partner.
I think this is a different thing from the incidental – and unavoidable – hierarchies of priority that come up from some relationships being longer-term, more committed, etc. Without the hierarchical model, one partner wanting more commitment of time, energy, etc. than another is something to be worked out between the partners, that may or may not have a satisfactory solution, and that’s part of how relationships work; with the hierarchy in place, there’s not much opportunity for the secondary to seek to have their needs met from their partner without it being seen as an intrusion on the primary couple. Even with the best of behavior from the primary couple, it’s uncomfortable as a secondary to know that one’s own needs have been defined as lesser from the outset and to navigate that with the person that one is trying to seek intimacy with.
Thank you so much for writing this post. I think concern about the hierarchical model gets dismissed by people who have done ok with it as some kind of sour grapes and it’s really great to see it laid out in a way that displays the real emotional pitfalls that can go on with it.
The hierarchical model demands that the primary relationship be recognized as “primary” by everyone involved, including the “secondary” partner
… eh. There are only two people involved in any of my relationships, actually. Me and the relevant other party. So long as we’re agreed on the nature of our relationship, we’re good.
I can’t imagine treating a secondary partner as involved in any of my primary relationships, since they’re not. If they were, they’d be a primary partner, being involved in a primary-type relationship and all.
Reblogged this on lovesquirrel42 and commented:
OH, my God. Thank you, Sex Geek! I HATE poly policing, and the whole if you’re not doing poly my way you’re doing it wrong. Also, I may start to punch anybody who spells it Polly.
I wrote a response essay. You might enjoy it: http://www.toastology.com/2013/01/25/poly-volved-poly-vangelism/
Interesting, except for the part about “preaching hatred.” Cuz wow, that’s quite the spin to put on this post! Yikes. No hatred here. Just challenge.
THIS! OMG THIS! Thank you for finding a way to put your finger on something that has been bothering me for a good long while in a way that I couldn’t bring to some kind of coherent or cogent statement. You’ve earned a new reader ❤
I agree with that the polynormative model shouldn’t be polynormative, and that other poly models should be equally represented and respected in the media.
But I’m really perturbed at the insinuation that the ‘polynormative’ model isn’t valid or healthy.
While I agree that the polynormative model shouldn’t be, well, normative, because it marginalizes other models of poly relationships, I disagree with the “First problem: the polynormative model is kinda sucky. Perhaps it might work well, maayyybe, for some people—I won’t go so far as to say it never does. But it comes with a host of problems for everyone involved…” statements. If someone is only comfortable with non-monogamy in that model, but they and their partners and their partners’ partners are happy and comfortable, why on earth does that model ‘suck?’ I want others’ relationships to be equally respected and represented, but I don’t think that makes my kind of non-monogamy suddenly invalid and sucky. If there can be monogamous relationships and poly relationships, then why is a model that incorporates elements of both so bad? That’s… kind of unfair.
I also disagree that ‘rules’ and veto power are anathema to non-monogamous relationships. For me, ‘rules’ are just boundaries, and I don’t think being poly suddenly means you shouldn’t have boundaries. If someone doesn’t have boundaries, cool, but I don’t think it’s fair to say “You have no right to ask certain things of your SOs in order to feel comfortable in your relationship with them.”
I also think veto power is not always evil and useless. I think it’s valid to be uncomfortable with the idea of certain people being involved in your relationships, even if they’re only involved by being involved with your SOs. If a person doesn’t care who their partners are involved with, even if they have severe interpersonal problems with those other partners, awesome. But I think it’s reasonable and valid for some people to need to say, “I am super uncomfortable with this person/these people being in my life more than they already are, and if you get involved, they will be a much larger part of my life. How do we deal with that?” I think it also reasonable and valid if someone needs to say, “I think our relationship isn’t getting the attention it deserves, or needs a little extra tlc right now, and I think introducing new factors might exacerbate that at the moment. Can we hold off on new attachments for now and revisit that in a little bit?” If a person doesn’t want or need those things, great, awesome, but I don’t think it’s fair to invalidate those who do.
I guess my point is: The article says “It’s not cool for the mainstream to decide the One True Way of poly,” and that I agree with. But I feel it then turns around and says, “But that’s because there IS a One True Way of poly, and if you do hierarchies or rules or veto powers, you’re Doing It Wrong,” and that’s not cool.
What it comes down to is that I think ANY relationship model can be unhealthy if communication and respect aren’t given the attention they deserve, and if the people in a relationship have very different default relationship models, that incompatibility can be super unhealthy, regardless of what their natural relationship models look like.
I think you’ve misread several of the points my post, so I’m not going to reiterate, but feel free to re-read and/or to read my responses to some of the comments posted thus far, which may clarify my position regarding the questions you’re raising here.
A very interesting read which came to me via poly in the media.
I agree that the mainstream media really does like to play up the sex angle – threesomes, dating & orgies etc.
I am in a polyfidelity triad, without outside dating of other people. The polyamory developed organically. My partner met and fell in love with another lady.
Every time I read a poly article in the media I do notice that it almost always describes the model you define as polynormative. i.e. primary and secondary partnerships with extras on all sides.
I feel like the ‘boring’ form of poly I have is not of interest (to the media).
I also feel that who and how I sleep with is not anyone’s business.
What an amazing discussion!
In the age of twitter, such thoughtful discussions are so very rare. I found the article very thoughtful and worthy of discussion. What is most interesting is that there seems to be a consensus that there a polynormativity (I had to add it to my Word dictionary). I was under the impression that the lack of normativity is part of the very definition of polyamory. My wife and I watched the first three episodes of the poly TV series and we both hated it, for much the same reasons you listed.
As background my wife and I have been married 26 years (so we are not 20-somethings) and for 16 of those we have had a poly relationship, though we first heard the term just 4 years ago. Contrary to what some posts have suggested, poly for us mostly is about my wife’s relationships. She has a much higher need for social and sexual activities than do I, and as such she has had both long term partners (one over 10 years) as well as shorter relationships. Though I would say it is irrelevant, several posts seem to think it is; she moves up and down the Kinsey scale over the years and has pretty much an even 50/50 dating history of men and women. As I was reading all the posts, she let me know she had a lunch date tomorrow. Also contrary to the built-in assumptions of many posters, there is not a victim and victimizer in this arrangement. We just worked out a long time ago what each of us needs. She loves being in love, and I am happy as a clam with just her…..and my books (I am an academic). Though I also move around on the Kinsey scale, and on occasion I will sexually share with her and her boyfriend/girlfriend (her term), we have never had jointly had a romantic relationship with any of her lovers. Thus, indeed our relationship is heteronormitive; however, that does not mean we think all poly relationships are or should be hertonormitive. We were introduced to the poly concept by very good friends, a couple that consists of a female and a transsexual.
Yes, we did start with a couple, like the media’s polynormitive model, and at the time we were young and white. We are no longer young, but we are still a couple and still white. I, like you, also saw the characters as more a fantasy to appeal to the larger community, than the real world of polyamory (at least the world I live in). Age was the thing that got me most. As I am middle aged, I know full well how many middle aged people are in the community of open marriages (whether they use the poly label or not).
And yes, we are hierarchical. Our relationship, raising our kids, and now planning for our joint retirement is and always has been the center of our lives. All the other relationships are secondary; and, that fact is made known right up front. If nothing else, the security of our children, has depended on that hierarchy. Now, we are getting to that age, that we see that mutual support in our aging demand that committed hierarchy. That is not unfair to others, nor is it treating them as second class human beings, it is in fact being both ethical and fair to the secondary relationships. We have good friends who have other experiences, but that does not mean our experience is the norm, nor do we expect it should be.
You also list rules as a trait of the media’s polynormative model. I very much liked the comment that rules reflect an absence of trust. That was one of my wife’s gripes about the TV show, all the rules. She thought it just silly, and somewhat annoying. For us we have had ever evolving agreements, but they were never rules as presented on the show, but rather a dialogue of our ever changing needs.
There was some discussion of “swingers” and that that was in part the polynormative model. In my experience, once people move beyond the “wow I can have sex with other people” stage, they most often either go back to monogamy, or morph into a poly type relationship of a small group of very close friends who share sexually among the group. Janet Hardy suggested that swinging is a form of poly, my experience is that swinging often leads to poly relationships, especially among middle aged people. So perhaps swinging can be seen as proto-poly; it might grow into poly but it might not.
I said all of this as a preface to a concern. To counter some of the rhetoric that in the effort to combat the media’s presentation to polynormativity, some of the writers have strayed into creating their own view of polynormativity. One that is hostile to other models of polyamory. I think this driven by the tacit acceptance of Critical Theory (pic your variety) as the accepted way to look at relationships of all types. In response to one writer, you explicitly spelled out a whole list of groups and movements driven by critical theory as models for polyamory. I would suggest that should polyamory go the route of the groups you listed, it will forever just be another fringe leftist movement with no real traction in the larger society.
I firmly believe that polyamory and the “polyamory movement” is, like you say, undermined by the media’s portrayal; however, I must ask, what positive alternative are we who practice polyamory offering. I suggest that an angry and accusatory response obsessed with finding oppression under ever rock, will not lead to a broad based movement that can offer a way forward in the face of the failure of monogamy. Nor will the political exclusion of the vast majority of the US population by aligning the poly movement with Marxian/Habermasian criticalism bring about the societal change I think we are all seeking.
There are many people out in the larger world looking for a way forward. It is good that we don’t let the media define who we are. As it is they are creating a world of fantasy that is sorely lacking the most basic idea that love is expressed in an infinite variety of ways. I believe that truth is best presented in the classical liberal language that every human is valuable in and of themselves and all loving relationships are valuable.
Just my thoughts.
Wow, NeoBarbarian, that’s a super eloquent comment. Thank you for sharing your perspective. 🙂 You’re the second person to bring up Marx… sigh. I know, as a good women’s studies scholar, I should be all over Marx, but I always find him so dreadfully dull. This is making me think maybe I should give him another shot so that I can properly respond to this sort of thing.
I hear you on the idea that anger and vitriol aren’t the way forward, absolutely. But I disagree that “looking for oppression” is a bad thing. The worst kinds of oppression are often the ones that people in places of privilege, by dint of their positions, can’t readily see. So if we don’t make a conscious practice of looking, the situation continues. Rarely is an oppression not voiced by those being oppressed – but often those voices are not heard. *Inventing* oppression where it doesn’t exist at all – that, maybe, is a bad plan – but it happens very rarely, in my experience. More often, oppression is dismissed as no big deal by the people who aren’t living it. So I do think there is value in looking for it, analyzing situations where a power differential is embedded in a structure in order to shed light on how it can hurt people, and listening as best we can to the voices who express that hurt when they do so.
I’m a black, queer, non-monogamous (in various configuration over the last 16 years), father, and in an inter-racial marriage, and I call shenanigans on your whole thesis. You don’t know anything about relationships you aren’t a member of. Saying that something is bad poly because it isn’t the kind of relationship you are looking for is incredibly conceited. I feel that the level of judgement that you layout in this post creates a huge deterrent to new people who don’t yet know if non-monogamy is right for them.
Your very verbose examination of how “the media” portrays polyamory lacks even the most passing reference to an actual identifiable representation like: “Married and Dating” or “I Love You And You And You.” The whole thing boils down to “get off my lawn” and is filled with caustic damaging relationship advice, both in general and for non-monogamy.
For anyone reading this I promise you that you are in a relationship with all of the other partners of your partners (metamours). Each member exerts gravity on all the other members, like a solar system. You cannot escape the fact that the further out from you a metamour is the less gravity you can exert. Rules about health and well-being are par for the course for most relationships, because feelings are part of health and well being.
Andrea, you have a very good platform here and you really could have used it to shed light on what real polyamory looks like, instead of bemoaning the fact that the mainstream finds a poly configuration you don’t like to be the most palatable.
Carlos, I think you may have misread a lot of my post, so I’m not going to respond to most of your points directly as I think I’ve already covered them both here and in my responses to some comments – feel free to read specifically those I wrote in response to Rho, Bob Ritchey, H and Emily as I think they’re most relevant here.
The one thing I will note is in response to the fact that I didn’t include references to specific media representations. That was a deliberate choice. If I were doing a scholarly study, I’d have done a literature review with plenty of specific examples, and analyzed each in turn, and possibly even come up with actual numbers about what’s most prevalent. And if someone were to do a study of poly representation in the media in this way I’d be most intrigued to read it. But in an opinion piece, if I had pointed out specific articles or TV shows or what have you, the danger would have been that the ensuing discussion would have digressed into a dissection of the example pieces instead of focusing on the trends I’m pointing out and the conceptual models I’m setting up. This isn’t because I’m not aware of specific examples (though I admit reality TV as a whole makes me want to chew glass so I haven’t watched the poly addition to the genre), but rather because using specific examples would have taken away from the purpose of my post. Anyway, so far, the people who’ve cited the TV shows in their comments here have largely done so in support of the idea that they, too, perpetuate polynormativity. If you know of any that don’t, I’d be curious to hear about them! Maybe that would be enough to raise my interest higher than my distaste. 😉 But I will note that the existence of non-polynormative media representation doesn’t cancel out polynormativity.
One other thing: unfortunately the solar system model doesn’t hold up, unless in your idea of a solar system, one planet can eject another planet from the system when it’s not in the first one’s direct orbit. This is one of the issues I’m pointing out in polynormativity – the fact that one specific metamour in a primary-secondary hierarchy can in fact exert a whole ton of influence on the other’s situation, but it’s unidirectional. Kinda too bad, though, because I rather like the visual, and the metaphor could be pretty rich in other ways.
Either way, thanks for commenting.
Liked Carlos’ comment about relative gravity, think the solar system metaphor was unfortunate oversimplification and led to your misunderstanding his point. Better might be molecular structure, where the bond between two atoms can affect the bonding of another atom not directly involved in the first bond.
Also disagree that that the influence of one metamour in a p-s hierarchy is necessarily unidirectional. I’d ague that if it is that is only because the other metamour chose so (and thus had influence through that choice).
All metaphors have their weakness. But, it is not unidirectional, even heavily structured relationships are affected by life and other people (both platonic and erotic).
I concede that this isn’t a scholarly debate, but it helps to illustrate at least a little. I have never seen (and probably never will see) mainstream media portray my poly– Queer-Interracial sex is kind of a niche genre.
Finally, you assert that many people misread your post. If it’s just one person that is definitely an option, however it seems that many people are making the same objection and you are dismissing it. I have to put forward that you have communicated more/different things than you intended.
I’m getting a bit tired of the ubiquity of “primary” and “secondary”, sure enough. I didn’t set out to have one “real girlfriend” and maybe someone or someones else on the side. I wanted to be outside of the whole exclusivity system, and “primaryness” is still pretty exclusive.
“…so I can’t and won’t criticize or judge individual people or poly groupings on the sole basis of having a primary-secondary structure. If this post provokes a sense of defensiveness in you, I invite you to sit with that and think about why.”
ok, first of all the post doesn’t elicit defensiveness. more just a yawn, and a twinge of dismay for you. I got the problem, early on, then I kept looking for an assertion of what you’d prefer. Didn’t really find much. Seemed a lot of negative, nothing positive. You don’t like the polynormative norm, what I didn’t find was what would be fun and make you joyful instead?
Then it didn’t take much thought to see why some might react defensively. Or perhaps that you seem to elicit a lot of defensive reactions and that’s why you project such an expectation. Just look at that closing I quoted, seems to indicate clearly that your focus is criticize and judgement, just not on the sole basis of one structural factor. If I get around to reading those works you cited I hope there’s more, and maybe from your endorsement I can infer they’ve passed judgement. Or should I look for your critiques of them in some of your other writings?
As you note, in the last paragraph, I do point folks in the direction of several examples that discuss the models I think are better than polynormativity. Some are other people’s books and websites. One is my own 10 Rules for Happy Non-Monogamy, another post on this blog, which lays out in fairly decent detail my thinking on the what-to-do front (as opposed to the what-not-to-do front) and which forms the basis for my longest-running and most popular workshop, and will probably get turned into a book at some point. Also throughout the post I linked to several other examples of my own writing on various sub-topics in the post. In this specific piece, though, my project was critique, not construction, and it was long enough already with just that, so links seemed the way to go for the rest. 🙂
If you are curious, you can also check out https://sexgeek.wordpress.com/poly-resources/ which is my annotated bibliography of relevant resources.
Great article, Andrea. Lots of food for thought here!
On a side note, I am curious about why you use the term LGBQ, as opposed to LGBTQ. Have you addressed this in a previous post? I’m really interested in your take on this, as I have been reflecting on this topic for a while now 🙂
Ooh, I would be curious to hear your thoughts!
For me: I am increasingly uncomfortable with the acronym LGBTQ, as the inclusion of a T for “transgender” (a gender identity) at the end of a list of letters standing for sexual orientations (not genders) bears some implicit inaccuracy. Gay, lesbian and bisexual people may be trans or non-trans; and transgender people may of course be gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer or straight (and beyond) in orientation. Not all trans people feel an affiliation with gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer politics or communities, and not all people with a history of transition feel a need to overtly identify as transgendered, even if they do identify as gay, lesbian, bi or queer.
(Of course Damien I’m aware this info isn’t news to you, but it is my rationale, so since you went and gave me the platform, I figured I’d post it in full.)
I don’t take any issue with using LGBTQ to describe, for instance, a magazine or a group or a committee or what have you, provided the entity actually serves the people represented by that entire acronym and isn’t just trying to look extra-progressive. But here, I am talking specifically about orientation, not gender identity, so it felt inaccurate to throw the T in.
That said – I have been chewing on the idea of going back into this post and clarifying that cisnormativity is a key piece of polynormativity, as well. I hint at it, for instance in my complaint about the offensiveness of the “one-penis-per-party” rule, but I don’t address it explicitly. I know at least one trans person who thought that by not saying anything about trans folks here, I was myself perpetuating cisnormativity. I’m not sure I agree, but if it could be read that way, perhaps it’s worth an edit.
What do you think? … Anyone else want to chime in on this question?
Similar to Carlos above, I wanted to point out that you’ve said several other people have “misread” you, not understood the post and you’ve even dismissed people who said they were upset by certain aspects, or thought you were being judgemental or “preaching hatred”. Perhaps you should consider that rather than being misread, you miswrote?
Generally speaking, when criticized, I go back and test whatever I wrote against the criticism leveled. I’ve pretty much done that each time it’s come up here, and responded as appropriate. Frankly it’s been a full-time job these last few days, and not one I can reasonably sustain (maybe I shoulda put those Google ads on here a long time ago, and then I’d be making money off all this traffic…). When it comes to criticisms that are clear misreads, I refer back to the original, as it’s a time- and energy-saver. Seems reasonable to me. So far the only comment that’s made me think an amendment to the original post might be warranted is the question about trans inclusion and cisnormativity. The rest have been expansions, but not corrections.
So just as an example, Carlos wrote, “Saying that something is bad poly because it isn’t the kind of relationship you are looking for is incredibly conceited.” Which is a clear misread – at no point in my post did I say anything at all about the kind of relationship I’m looking for, and that’s really not the point of the post at all. Other commenters have, in fact, complained that I *didn’t* say what I like better than polynormativity. What I did here was point out the structural issue in the polynormative model that, among other things, creates the risk of hurt to secondaries, and referred readers to two detailed posts written about and/or by secondaries that set out exactly the kind of damage they experience and/or guidelines to avoid such damage.
I’m not cruel or hateful – nowhere here do I suggest targeting specific groups for hateful acts, and the very idea is abhorrent to me. Not to mention, I’m not even sure who that commenter thinks I’m targeting – straight people? Young, cute, white people (uh, I am one)? Polynormative folks (even though I’ve explicitly noted that it’s not possible to see from the outside who’s doing polynormativity)? I don’t take this kind of accusation very seriously because it doesn’t hold up under even the briefest scrutiny.
Caustic, at a few points? Sure, I’ll cop to that. It helps make a point sometimes, and express legit exasperation. I could possibly have made the same points without it, but I see no ethical reason why politely earnest should be the only acceptable way to make an argument. In court, maybe, but this is a blog, after all, and a whole lot less sarcastic than many. Further, the tone is precisely what has some people cheering – I’m clearly not the only one both thinking these things *and feeling this way* about them, and that latter part is meaningful and worth expressing. We could go down the route of the “tone” argument and I could point folks in the direction of some excellent writing on derailment… but most commenters here aren’t complaining about that, so I’ll leave it for now.
Opinions upset people. I know what it’s like to read something quickly, get fired up and react. That doesn’t mean the reaction is reflective of what a person has actually said. I’ve learned to check my reaction and re-read carefully – whether an e-mail from a lover or an article in a newspaper. It’s not always easy, even for someone who’s even-tempered, especially when a topic is deeply personal, which polyamory can’t help but be. Thus far, this post has gotten some ten thousand reads, which blows my fuckin’ mind. I’m not surprised I’ve gotten a few comments from people who reacted but didn’t clearly analyze. Most comments, amazingly, have been super thoughtful, respectful and engaged. I am grateful for that.
On that note, I think I will take a break from my responding. Thanks to all those who have contributed to this amazing discussion, and apologies to whoever comments next – I’m sure you have awesome things to say. But I need to do some yoga and sleep more, and edit a book on deadline. Or y’all need to start showering me with money or something. 😉
Yes – this is the sort of thing I mean. This is still assuming that people who infer something you didn’t intend to imply are just giving you off-the-cuff opinions without really paying attention, whereas people who agree with you are proof that what you’ve written is completely clear and reasonable. I just think you’d get more people on your side and more people considering your reasonable points if you considered more carefully what it is about your post that causes people to so frequently “misread” you. Even if you think it’s just because none of us are clever enough to understand you, that might be a reason to dumb it down enough so that we get it?
But yes, you’ve worked really hard replying and keeping this going! So thanks for that – I know lots of people here appreciate the dialogue.
Thanks for clarifying, Andrea. I’m also against adding the T to LGBQ as a matter of fact, for the following reasons.
My own experience of transitioning to identifying as a man is vastly different than being out as a queer dyke in my previous life. The emotions, the physical embodiment and sensations, the social experience, how strangers see and treat me, etc., are like nothing I’ve ever experienced before simply through being queer. That said, while being trans is not a sexual orientation for me, it is much more complex than a gender identity. It changes my whole life. The best way to describe it for me is a “way of being in life and society”.
While cisnormativity can definitely an issue for some of us, especially if our body does not conform naturally, or through hormones and/or surgery to cis standards, I don’t know that it is necessary to include it in your piece above. But it would make an interesting post topic, especially combined with the visibility and the invisibility of trans folks in society. I would definitely comment on that also 😉
oh my – food for so mucho thought. You are awesome. I’m struggling heavily right now – just never in my heart been mono – though have tried and spent too many years in it (and the cheating). Doing some soul-searching rethinking and the whole ‘rules’ thing was driving me nuts – cos life is not that simple. Thank YOU!
I’m so in alignment with this article that I have no criticism. I’ve been tooting the same horn for years now, and at times my ass has been grass, when it’s assumed that rejection of the hierarchical terms and concept of “primary/secondary” equals lack of honoring and respecting existing relationships. They CAN be – and are for me – quite mutually exclusive.
We dump the word “primary” a long time ago (which, btw, back in the early days of modern polyamory, DID ONLY mean who you live with, and likely need to live cooperatively with…which in turn implies the *possibility* of certain commitments connected to that, which may need to take precedence *at times*). We refer to each other as “nesting partner(s)”. This simple term, “simply” means the person (or persons) you “nest” with. (I think there’s probably a strong Heinlein rooting in this.) Which *never* implies hierarchy. It simply suggests the same thing that the *original* use of “primary” meant….someone you cohabit with (as well as being in loving, “romantic”, likely sexual relationship with), who you likely have to coordinate and cooperate with, so that home life remains pleasant, peaceful and functional. Since the term “primary” has been so very corrupted, I no longer feel it in any way serves it’s original purpose. I heartily reject the “more important” and “I have to be #1” mentality.
Ah, I forgot to add that to me the rules others construct to create a sense of “safety” and “security” (a means I feel only really offers a false sense of both), remind me of a parent-child relationship. “You can’t put your mouth there, it might be dirty.” “Don’t share that when you play with that friend. It’s only meant for family.” “I don’t approve of that friend. You can’t play with them.” “You can eat dinner there, but you can’t sleep over.” “I have to meet them and their mom before I’ll allow you to play with them.”
Rules imply lack of trust. Rules imply we don’t have faith in our partner(s) ability to make good choices. Rules imply control. Whenever I express this there’s a number of people that then say something to the effect, “Hey, I have to do something to make sure that my partner doesn’t make bad choices….choices that may affect me and our home/family/stability in a negative way.” The solution to this is to pick partners/lovers in the first place that are highly aligned with your values, intentions, aspirations and inclinations. My feeling is that when we make choices in partner/lovers based on the above mentioned criteria – while engaging in clear communication around our hopes, preferences and *personal* boundaries – the (alleged) “logic” of “rules” becomes invalid.
For instance, *for me* certain sexual acts are off the table *for me* without a particular level of full and honest disclosure around sexual heath. I don’t expect my partner(s) to necessarily be steered to *my* personal boundary issues, but I do expect – and can trust – they will be fully disclosing to me, which then allows me my fully informed personal choice. And……..my choice may feel like an unfortunate consequence for that particular partner/lover, but at that point it a choice they made knowing full well how it would affect my choice. This is not presented in the form of an “ultimatum”. It is simply *my* truth and *my* comfort level.
Because we fully acknowledge and honor each other’s self-sovereignty and personal autonomy, we collaborate on exploring the circumstances of each possibly “challenging” situation that might come up, and massage it together, to see where we both land. Rather than strive for 100% agreement, we strive for mutual respect and a deeper understanding…not only of each other, but of ourselves as well. Empathy is a a key ingredient in this sort of process. When we hold these things under the microscope for close examination, we can often see that what’s really at issue are ego/possession/control/fear issues, rather than anything that is a “real” threat. In fact, often the only real threat to the stability of a relationship is our own knee-jerk reactions and paranoid inflexibility….the the inclination to try to “power over” someone else.
I’m very pleased that you didn’t go off on a MSM hates/exploits us tangent. You’re not being treated any differently than anyone else who comes to their attention.
And I offer my #1 bumper-sticker slogan: “one size fits all doesn’t”
I haven’t read through all of the commentary on here, so in all likelihood someone has already brought this up, but “polynormativity” is not really what you are describing here. If we are using “Heteronormativity” as the example drawn from the LGBT community, than the term “Polynormativity” would refer to the idea that polyamory is the societal norm, (with the consequence that people are assumed to be poly until proven otherwise.)
I think that a more appropriate term for what you are describing would be “Hegemonic Polyamory.” Taken from the concept of hegemonic masculinity. It is the idea that here is an ideal form of polyamory, and a heirarchy of poly lifestyles. Within the poly community, we are told that there is a “right” way to do polyamory. This is very much in keeping with the concept of hegemony.
This. This was my big beef with the article. I enjoyed and agreed with just about every point, but cringed every time “polynormativity” was used. I desperately want this meaning of polynormativity to become widespread, while simultaneously wanting everyone to understand and embrace the points raised here.
I think Polynormativity would be great. If “Oh, s/he already has a partner” stopped being a response to me expressing interest in someone and, “oh, s/he’s monogamous with someone” was said instead
I like your proposed alternative label for this issue. Hegemonic Polyamory. A polyamorous norm where all the other damn societal -normativities have whittled down polyamory to one narrow form.
Thanks so much for writing this. It echoes some great conversations that we were having at a workshop I did at OpenCon in the UK back in September.
I used the idea of the Crab Bucket (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crab_mentality) which I got from Terry Pratchett to consider the ways in which – once outside of the mononormative crab bucket we create polynormative crab buckets because of the desire to grasp hold of something safe when we feel (socially) precarious and uncertain.
The group then came up with all the poly crab bucket things they’d come across, including all of the things you write about here (couple focus, hierarchies, rules, and white, young, heterosexishness). Definitely it is a problem for newbies who enter a world with a set of given rules just as much as in mononormativity and can be actively discouraged from finding out, and expressing, what works for them. I think – as with many communities – there is a real value in emphasising the diversity of ways of doing poly, and this is something I’ve been trying hard to do in my writing on the topic.
Interesting the group at OpenCon felt that there were beginning to be two poly crab buckets – one very couple and rules-based (perhaps based on the desire to keep the couple safe and secure), and the other based on a rather rigid and over-simplified idea of freedom. In the second one there could be ideas such as that no experience of jealousy was ever okay, or that everyone must be completely free to what they like without considering ethical responsibility to others, or that nothing that sounds like a rule or contract is ever permissible.
I think it is useful to remember that, whatever we do, it is very easy to unwittingly form new normativities (or crab buckets) which people can cling to just as tightly. In my book I encourage an embracing of uncertainty in relationships – but ironically even that, if grasped hold of, can be used in problematic ways e.g. by somebody who insists on not making any kind of promise or commitment to others even on a day-to-day basis.
Thanks again for great food for thought. I definitely plan to post on this topic myself at some point.
As someone whose husband has asked to open their marriage, I have found both frustrating and comforting things throughout the comments here.
In the military, soldiers have primary and secondary objectives. Does this mean that the 2nd is not important? No. It means that if they find themselves in a position where they must make a choice on how to allocate resources, they will be looking toward the chances of furthering or accomplishing the primary first. Sometimes, the primary cannot be furthered or achieved, and they work toward the second. Sometimes, there is a blatant chance of success at the 2nd, and it is taken advantage of. If both can be accomplished at once, then that is a bonus.
Okay, that said – hold onto it – some of the impression I get from Polys I have talked to is that these relationships just sprang out of nowhere, and then suddenly there is this surprise of the 2nd not being the only one in the mix! Um, no. Just as when you go on a first date with a cop, doctor, or someone who has to be “on-call”, you should know as a 2nd that your married date is more than likely going to have his or her spouse and children as a priority. Their primary “mission” is going to be first in consideration of their time, attention, and money. And as 2nd, you should know and agree that maybe your date will have to put some of his/her family’s needs ahead of yours. I.E. I have a poly whose husband has an immunity disorder. She often has to break dates – even long-scheduled ones – because she can’t take a chance on bringing something home to him. Her 2nd was told this on the first date, and he agreed.
Informed agreements only seem fair to everyone. A Poly should state upfront: I can only see you once a month because of my other commitments (whatever they are); my spouse has a health issue and plans can change; etc. If the 2nd doesn’t think they can manage the structure the Poly is able to offer then they should state so, and then they can decide what to do.
I disagree about the rigidity of words. Words can be fluid and contextual. The sergeant doesn’t just say “We have two missions here.” He/She tells them what is primary and what is secondary because they will only have so many resources (so many men, so much time, so much C4) and they must choose their actions accordingly.
Ok. Still with me? That said – as my husband’s spouse and best friend – there have been times when something important was going on in a close friend’s life, and that person needed to talk RIGHT THEN. Once we were in our way out for our date night, but in that moment, there was more good to be accomplished by his taking her call than us going out. His “secondary” (she’s not more than a close friend, but I am using to indicate someone not spouse or children) took priority there. Taking that call did not ruin his chances of completing his primary goal – we would just go later. However, if he were taking me to the ER, he would need to delay his call with her. She was sobbing and in a bad way, but if I had been very ill or hurt, he would have gently explained and hung up.
Even with my husband’s job there are priorities. He is often on-call. Unless it is so important that he has arranged for someone to cover for him, emails/calls/texts about work take front seat. We can make plans to watch a movie, but if his phone goes off, the movie is on hold.
So using “primary” and “secondary” to give others an average sense of your priorities is not a bad thing. Does my being primary in my husband’s life mean that I am *always* first no matter what? No, his job, his friends, his family can take that spot depending on the circumstances, but if you looked at the big picture, you would see that I am most often his “primary” priority.
This is not a license to treat anyone badly, but a 2nd who knows his/her date can only see him/her once a week going in should not be surprised when his/her request for more dates is politely (I would hope) denied. This doesn’t mean she shouldn’t ask, or that the “primary” couple shouldn’t discuss it at least, maybe something has changed, but it does mean that he/she should be fully aware that they are asking to change a situation that they agreed to at the beginning of the 2nd relationship.
As to there being rules…rules are stated conditions of behavior for which there are consequences for following or breaking them. There are rules in games and rules at school and rules – mostly unstated – of society. So why is it so awful to use the word “rules”? In this situation? If my husband and I agree that both of us will use condoms with other partners otherwise there will be no sex between us for 6 weeks, that’s a rule. There is a stated behavior – and a consequence for not doing so. Why are there rules? Usually for the purposes of safety or efficiency. Is the safety of one person’s state of mind or emotions not important? Maybe my SO’s 2nd has PTSD regarding a rape, as the scent of Drakkar cologne triggers nightmares. Maybe her rule is that her SOs and 2nds can’t wear that cologne. What kind of person would buy that and insist their SO wear it no matter what, knowing how it will affect the 2nd? Okay, maybe one who knows the rule, and wants to break them up, but otherwise? The “primary” would acknowledge the 2nds rule and everyone would know the consequences of breaking it.
There are cases where 2nds are abused. I will grant that. However, there are many cases where the 2nds thought the could change the circumstances to fit what they wanted or paid no attention to the structure they were getting into in the first place. You rarely start a job where the boss waits to tell you a week after you started that cleaning the bathrooms or being on-call is part of your job. Known duties are stated upfront. If you don’t want that, don’t accept. If you think you can handle it, and later it becomes a problem, you can try to negotiate, but shouldn’t be shocked if the answer is no. That is what you agreed to.
“Rules” provide structure and allow people to prioritize and make choices; they allow others to express boundaries.
None of those things are bad, they are how many people maintain their relationships – sexual and non-sexual alike.
I am comforted – to close off here – that discussions such as this are ongoing because as the saying goes, if the question has many answers, you are either asking the wrong question or there is no right answer. And I imagine my DH and I will have our own unique way of being poly.
This might be the best explanation yet. I have two half-written rebuttals to the idea that prioritizing of relationships does not devalue anyone. I was particularly appalled at the guy who seemed to insinuate that it was wrong for his married poly to favor her husband over him. But this is more persuasive than either of mine.
This is a great rebuttal to the argument that it is somehow anti-poly to that to favor ones existing long term relationships over new ones. One writer in this tread had the temerity to suggest it is demeaning for a woman he is dating to favor her husband’s needs over his. I have two half written responses to this, but neither is as good as Marvel’s.
This is a really good description of the importance of — individuallly negotiated — rules in any relationship.
It took me a while to realize that my parents — in a seemingly-traditional monogamous relationship — had actually sat down and negotiated the terms of their relationship very early, with some very specific, and concrete, rules about division of labor (including which days of the week each one was responsible for cooking, which cleaning jobs each one would do, etc.) It worked and made for a really healthy relationship. Occasionally things got renegotiated (but I’m talking after decades).
That’s *not* actually traditional — traditional is to make a whole lot of bad assumptions about what each one of them “should” do, probably based on gender roles or something.
Why would you ever want *fewer* rules in a relationship with *more* people?
I’ve been in a few communal living situations and they only functioned with a *bunch* of rules.
You don’t want to go over the top with rules; that’s a sign of paranoia.
But an example of a very reasonable rule that some people care about is “I will only have romantic relationships with people who will tell me about all their other romantic relationships”. That’s a rule. Apparently some people really only feel comfortable with the other rule, “”I will only have romantic relationships with people who will keep quiet about all their other romantic relationships”. If you don’t sit down and negotiate the rules of your relationship, how can you possibly do OK? You’re going to start off on the wrong foot immediately with miscommunication.
Rules are important for every relationship. Negotiating rules individually rather than following templates is also important.
Also, I went and read your post on control. While I can understand what you are getting at, as someone who is a former computer security geek, I will say that it is easier to lock down on a server/network everything that might be a potential danger, and then modify the conditions when you discover something isn’t a problem, than it is to have a free-for-all condition where you are constantly monitoring conditions and connections to close off the dangers once they are discovered, half te time to late.
I would rather our default rule be “no anal”, and then change that stance for a person upon a conversation, rather than be blindsided with a POST-sex confession of “Oh, yeah, Terri and I did that” and a painful fix-up of a crossed – and possibly known – boundary.
Some triggers/boundaries are not known, I can confess that. That happens in any relationship. Actually had a roommate say: “I didn’t have any idea your borrowing my umbrella without asking would freak me out.” It happens.
But if something is known, it should be acknowledged up front. It gives the other person a safe place to make a decision.
It’s like grapes. My DH doesn’t buy the grapes. Why? Because I am way picky about grapes. Size, color, feel. Default choice: he doesn’t pick the grapes alone. I could go on and let him buy the grapes, and even after much discussion and maybe even a slideshow of the grapes I like, he still stands a pretty high chance of leaving me disappointed (we have tried this, without the slideshow). It is better that I buy them, or he bring them to me, and I can agree or not if they are right.
You were right in your article to say that something with once partner might be okay, but the same thing would not be okay with another. I think, however, it would be more secure for everyone’s feelings if there was a default state of “no” for some things that could be changed on a case-by-case basis depending on those involved.
Is that control? Of a sort, but having whatever measure of control a person can have over what happens to him/her isn’t a bad thing. And it helps partners know what the boundaries are, what the limits are, and prevent hurt feelings and turmoil rather than putting in the position of repairing trust/feelings/relationships.
Eh. My relationships do not exist to be a media model. Not why I am in them. If they happen to conform to media standards? Well, OK, I guess. But I don’t go running around trumpeting about how they conform to those standards. Frankly, I’m too busy working on my relationships to really care whether or not they conform to media standards.
Yeah, I’m sticking to YKINMKBYKIOK. And I’d appreciate others doing of me the same courtesy.
Why does this need to be a community, or an identity, or a movement, or even a thing at all? This article is just complaining about what other people are doing. You sound like my monogamous friends do when they complain to me about my life choices. Just relax and let people do what they want. Or what they think they want.
It’s about the media portrayal of it. She’s clear on that and how people have different ideas and that’s okay. I’m surprised by a lot of the comments here and how many of them don’t seem to understand that this is about the portrayal of it. She states clearly that there are many forms not a standard form as portrayed.
They also act like her framework is absolute and the only option she approves of when it’s clear it isn’t. This is simply a criticism of the main-stream approach of an acceptable public portrayal of something form the outside in what is considered by most to be the “norm” when in fact it’s not how it all works. The ideas presented here are also fluid, and doesn’t touch on each nuance of detail that a lot of people seem to be expecting. It’s not a book, and even then you can’t cover it all.
If it was only about the media portrayal of poly, then she should critique the Polyamory show with that critical eye, rather than share their stereotype and critique other poly folks with it. It’s easy to box a bunch polyfolk under a “polynormative” label and hate on their lifestyle and choices, but is that a good thing? It just seems so highschool, boxing people in categories and judging them with a smug sense of superiority. I agree with a lot of what she said, but kinda hated the way she said it.
Dan, she did criticize that show, she didn’t reference it by name but one of her entire points goes around how it is displayed in a very limited manner a specific way and no other way on reality tv shows that deal with it (as far as I know the show you mention is the only one).
Thank you for reminding me exactly why I ran screaming from a relationship with a “poly couple” who were just too polynormative for me. I couldn’t necessarily express my ick with this particular couple and now I get it.
Also thanks for giving me a name for a long-term relationship I have:
He’s now my “secret agent lover man/maybe-twice-annual long-distance affair person” partner. I’m not sure what my equivalent title is, but I think it’s a damn good name for this particular relationship. Wonder if I can find a greeting card for him…..
I get that you want to not have polyness – as a movement, a way of life, a radical re-definition of relationships – presented in a skewed way in the media. But the media actually does a terrible job of representing healthy relationships even for white, hetero marriages! If you’re waiting for the mainstream media to thoughtfully represent all forms of polyamory, you’re going to wait a looong time. And watch/read/listen to a bunch of unhealthy, mis-representing stuff along your way 🙂
Thanks for presenting your thinking, it was thought-provoking. But as a white, bi, monagamous, fairly femme woman – the vanilla flavor everyone loves to hate for being a “poser” or various other sins – I think you too readily dismiss that some may actually enjoy being a poly couple, or being polynormative. I’ve done a lot of personal digging to realize I do like to shave my pits and wear heels on occasion, I like to be in a sexual relationship with one person, etc. I haven’t always known these things about myself, and I’ve done things other ways, but now I know. If that has to be my “kink” for you to respect it, then yes, let’s call it that.
Well! Thank you so much for refraining from going so far as to say what you call “polynormative” can’t ever work for anyone! How insightful, open minded and magnanimous of you!
I don’t know what you think there is to be gained by stoking a schism within a minority in which many are already hesitant to claim their rights, but frankly, whatever it is strikes me as having more to do with your own psychological needs than those of the community.
But if self-righteousness, snarkiness and downright bitchiness work for you, give you some sense of superiority or even worse, a sense of self, well, go for it.
Poly people have wanted more recognition for a long time, and now that its here, we need to control the messaging by making sure its not heteronormative, white, couple focused, etc. But I disagree that poly is being done a disservice by airtime, primary/secondary hierarchies, and rules. In particular, newbies are benefiting from an explosion in media and cultural awareness of poly in general because they know its an option now! Yes, the media oversimplifies anything in a short stories, but I hope newbie poly folks would google it or pick up a book and not take their sole definition of poly from one couple they saw on a 10 minute tv spot. Also, you contradict your premise that poly can be done in many ways by finding so much fault with primary models, or relationships with extensive rules- these models are valid even if they don’t conform to YOUR ideals about power and relationships. I agree that we need to continue challenging assumptions that only women are bi in these relationships, and that the couple is still essential, and challenge these assumptions by how we describe poly and the relationships we put forward as examples, but we need to appreciate these cultural baby steps of awareness, which we’ve been asking for for years.
Over the past year, as I enter the poly world from the “muggle” monogamous world (which included 25 years of marriage), I was expecting to use terms such as “primary” and “secondary”–and that my relationships would fall into these categories. What I’ve found, though, is that I simply can’t use such terms because they don’t fit. I have simply been describing my relationships–the person I spend the most time with, my occasional lover, etc.–as there is no way to place these wonderful people into a hierarchy. Yet I know it works for some people. Live and let live. Rules? Right now it’s pretty much a case of 1) safe sex and 2) being completely open with communications. This is a great blog post, BTW, and I’ll be sharing it on Facebook (which is where I found it in the first place).
I get what you’re saying, but don’t necessarily agree. I just really don’t give a shit how other people want to do their relationship style and don’t think we should get hung up on exaggerated media portrayals (the media does that with everything) or the lifestyle choices of younger newbies (who’s views and lifestyles will definitely change 10 or 20 years in like most everyone’s has that have been poly for over a decade).
Everyone does it differently, whether they are poly or mono, there is no one else on the world that does relationships like you, like me, or even the people you label “polynormative.” You don’t like labels like primary/secondary (how many people actually used them in real life? I think they are more a tool for online conversations) or being put in a “polynormative” box, yet you happily put others into this new category you made for them. You don’t like the labels and the hierarchy, yet you create own labels and hierarchy (you sure seem to think these polynormals live a lower form of poly that’s less enlightened as yours).
I also find the people that say they have no rules tend to have more rules than those that do, they just call them agreements or they are more internal rules. They say things like “I would never date…” or “I don’t do that” a lot. They often think they are more enlightened and open, but in reality are less so.
I general this feels like half-assed and emotional outburst about the media’s portrayal of poly (which I can agree with) and what bugs you about a lot of poly people that you probably talk to online or a poly potlucks. I get that. However there’s a lot of poly folks, in far larger numbers than show up at events and forums, out there charting their own paths and probably not deserving of your label and stereotyping. My turn to vent about what bugs me about a lot of poly people? People like that dismiss or put down other people’s lifestyles that aren’t like their own, people that get in other people’s business, judge their private lives and relationship styles, and tell you why there’s is better and why you think their opinion should matter. When I was a newbie to poly 15 years ago, my mentors and the people that gave me advice and help did so from a positive and encouraging standpoint, telling me what they do and what works for them, what others do, and generally provided great support and represented poly as wonderful and positive. They were a credit to their kink and I try to do the same. All this labeling, negativity and judging doesn’t really make poly seem fun, positive or inviting. Seems like the same old dramarama, you’re the cool hipster kid that does it better telling everyone else why they aren’t as cool as you… can’t we move beyond this attitude?
Herbert Marcuse has written some on the propensity of Capitalism (but really any complex enough system) to coopt threats. At the end of the day you end up with something not much different than the norm. Systemic change is an interesting topic in itself, it has several requirements that we know of, but it doesn’t usually happen unless you change master memes (or genes in biological systems), and it doesn’t happen without some amount of cultural (reproductive in biological case) isolation. I write about this in my blog: http://www.culturalspeciation.blogspot.com. Specifically polyamory as an example:
As a fed up, non-consensual, non-negotiated, de facto secondary who is exhausted by article after article about how secondaries shouldn’t let their NRE fuck up the primary relationship, how they should leave the campsite (aka the primary relationship) better than they found it, and how primaries can make sure their relationships stay bulletproof…THANK YOU. I see many primaries using “polyamory” as a trendier way to say “swingers” or as a way to maintain dysfunctional relationships, and I see secondaries who are in it because they are lost/have low self-worth, fear commitment, or are generally just shitty advocates for themselves (why are there SO few articles by secondaries about how great it is…these secondaries do exist right?), and I see both sets trying to rationalize relationship choices while openly saying their love life is unhappy – though that’s not related to the crappy dynamics they accept, of course. And, a startling lack of honest communication for something supposedly founded on honesty. If anyone, the primaries are happy getting Different Pussy on the side and are the ones writing Pollyannaish articles about how if you’re not happy You’re Doing It Wrong and are probably being selfish and jealous or not letting the love flow and other such bullshit.
These are merely my direct experiences as well as observations of other poly people I know. I see quite a few happy swingers but I know very few polynormative groups where everyone’s happy, especially the secondaries. I totally agree with the author that you can disregard most of this if ” your “secondary” partner(s) can provide just as spirited a defense of your model as you do, or even more so—not a defense of you as individuals, nor of your relationship, but of the polynormative model itself—without leaving anything out or fibbing even a little bit so they don’t risk creating conflict or possibly losing you as a partner…(And I do mean all. If it’s only working really great for the primary couple, the model isn’t working.)” If they can, quit bitching because this isn’t about you*, and if they can’t, or if you haven’t made a point of finding out how truly happy they are, there you go.
*Yes, the statement that there IS polynormativity addresses those with mutually happy relationships, but what really matters how polynormativity can really set poly relationships up for pain and failure. If you think the most important thing about this article is being called “not that edgy,” I feel bad for your secondaries.
Hope I’m not repeating anyone else’s comment here, but as a mono with a poly husband, I’d say that rules are distasteful but necessary for us because of two things: our values as they apply to relationships don’t match particularly well, and I cannot trust either him or the women he chooses as girlfriends to do things in a way that I would consider to be in the best interests of everyone, as opposed to just doing whatever they please, or even to tell the truth about what they are doing. Over time the trustworthiness issue has gotten better as my husband as gotten his poly legs under him, so to speak, but we still have the problem with conflicting values. I’ll give you an example. My husband believes in reincarnation, so he thinks it’s perfectly ok to fluid bond with everyone, because if you die of AIDS, or give it to someone else, no big deal – you have an infinite number of additional lives. I believe that this one life is all you get, and I am less than keen to get any STD, never mind AIDS. I can’t use condoms with him when we are trying to get pregnant. So we have a rule of sorts which consists of everyone else in the extended network/relationship humoring what they consider to be my stupid mania about STD testing and no fluid bonding with strangers. If I just trusted my husband and his girlfriends on the subject, they would simply do some praying before sex and assume that means they are protected. I find that in mono-poly relationships, which are pretty common, rules are often needed and needed basically forever, unless one or both partners learns to understand the other’s perspective well enough to take it into account when making decisions.
What do you think about those circs? Or were you talking about rules only in a poly-poly context?
Dana, rules/agreements (I prefer boundaries which are a must for any healthy, non-codependent person) aside, it sounds to me like there is more going on with your husband than his believing in reincarnation and polyamory. I don’t think his disregard for his safety, yours and that of his other partners is normal or healthy. I believe in reincarnation too, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t value my life and the lives of others.I know a lot of people who believe in reincarnation and have never met anyone who acts so reckless as a result. I have know a lot of people who act that way as a result of past trauma, depression and hopelessness, addiction (including sex addiction, which is not about liking sex too much or being poly or kinky- it’s about escaping from reality or self-medicating with sex in a shame cycle that usually escalates with more dangerous behavior- a lot like any other kind of addiction) Fluid bonding is a serious issue and your boundaries on this are good! He sounds like he needs a good, open-minded therapist to get to the root of his lack of boundaries and respect for his own life.
I’m actually looking for others’ takes on whether rules are needed when there is NOT much common ground in the value systems, not so much for comments on the asininity of my husband’s yoga school dogma (I agree with you on that, but trying to argue or therapize someone out of religious dogma is useless).
Awesome Article! I’m making a documentary called Radical Love on Polyamory, open relationships and Non-monogamy! Wendy-O-Matik is one of my favorite authors and I’ve interviewed her for this film, as well as Dossie Easton! I consider your thoughts wise and poignant! Would you like to be in the film? You can ramble on about polynormativity! It doesnt matter where you are located… I’m traveling across country soon to catch wind of poly folks from all walks of life!
My name is Stefunny Pettee
Sexeepettee@gmail.com is my email
you can get my phone number and we can talk over the phone too if thats less time consuming!
Hope you say yes!!
ehrmagerd there’s a lot of replies here. Well, I had such strong thoughts about your article I wrote my own article. Find it here, on polysingleish.com:
thankyou for all your words 🙂
Okay, this is brilliant. I’m definitely following this blog.
I’m a poly guy who has grown increasingly disenfranchised with the poly “scene” here in Seattle because of some of the things you mention in this post. Some of the problems are orthogonal — the cliquish, anti-newcomer attitudes, the “you’re doing it wrong” hyperbole — but some of the problems are spot on what you’re talking about here.
I’ve just ended a primary/secondary self-defined relationship. The reason I ended it was simply this: it felt wrong. I loved my “primary,” but the arbitrary distinction that she was “better” than others I was with, that I had to drop everything for her, make sure my schedule was open for her, and so on… that was growing increasingly irritating.
During the breakup — which has, thankfully, gone mostly smoothly — my ex-primary accused me several times of trying to just “swap her out” for a different primary. I was frustrated because I couldn’t find the words to explain to her that *that isn’t what I want*. I don’t just want a new primary; I want a whole new way of doing relationships. I want to date some people, fall in love with some people, have sex with some people, take vacations and road trips with some people. And, gasp, those groups might not always be the same! I don’t know why that requires a convoluted structure of controls and rules, since it seems like just, you know, being human, and governed by the one ethical rule of “don’t be a dick.”
Although I’m not a fan of screeds against any kind of “normativity,” I have to say that this post hit exactly the sweet spot. This arbitrary distinction of primary vs. secondary relationships, the idea that the “goal” of any kind of a relationship is to produce a long-term coupled situation, all of this is just so alien and frustrating. Can’t we all just live how we want and love who we want?
THANK YOU for saying what I’ve been to worried to say. Thank you.
OK, I’m going to date myself here, in the 1962 musical “The Music Man”, a young Shirley Jones sang a song of her desire to find the kind of man she could love, and one line has stuck with me for all these years, “And I would like him to be more interested in me than he’s in himself and more interested in us than in me” OK, it’s better with her beautiful voice. But the point is well made and very much needed in this discussion about polynormitivity and relationship hierarchies.
In all this talk, the different writers seems to implicitly assume, but not spell out, what they personally want out of their relationships. As with all subjects, the ends must dictate the means. So if we get all wrapped up in a debate over rules and primary and secondary relationships, but don’t agree upon why we have intimate relationships, it’s like debating the best roads to take without agreeing on what city we are trying to drive to.
In the song I referenced, she is expressing a life of commitment to mutual welfare is of paramount importance, trumping the partner’s individual needs and wants. That may strike some readers in this thread as belonging to an oppressive world of the past and that such a priority is antithetical to polyamory. I beg to differ. I would suggest that not only is it not dead, it is the only form of polyamory that will make it to the mainstream.
Oh, I hear the screams now!
I did not say such a model is couple based, what I said was the mutual welfare is of paramount importance, trumping partner’s individual needs and wants. There could be two partners, or three or more, but the members all agree the welfare of the group superseded that of the individual. Thus in the language of this discussion, all members of the group are primary relationships and all relationships outside the committed group are secondary.
One writer (in a linked to his response) spelled out clearly that in all his relationships, his needs came first. OK, he has spelled out his priority. But he will not be able to maintain a long term, mutually respectful interdependent relationship and keep that priority. Yes, I wrote that stamen as an imperative. The self-first approach will not succeed in such a relationship; either the relationship will be exploitive of the partner(s) or it will dissolve. All egalitarian interdependent relationships demand the giving up of some of one’s needs and wants.
Now, must all people who are called poly want such an interdependent relationship? Certainly not. There are people who are fine going through their entire life with an ever changing landscape of relationships. For them there is no need to prioritize primary and secondary relationships. But, such people who continue to live this way into middle adulthood are unusual. Humans are by nature social and have a nesting instinct. Nearly all people come to value such relationships in time, as they move through life, even if they do not do so in as young adults.
Kinsmitten made an excellent point about the abuse of “secondary’s”. She wrote “If anyone, the primaries are happy getting different pussy on the side and are the ones writing Pollyannaish articles about how if you’re not happy You’re Doing It Wrong and are probably being selfish and jealous or not letting the love flow and other such bullshit.” Her feelings of being used for sex reveal the dark potential for abuse guised as openness in the poly community in the exact same way as it is in the larger “serial-monogamy” community.
It is not, as she suggests she’s been told, her problem that she feels misused. Rather, it is the problem of the couple with whom she is sleeping. They are either just claiming poly to use her for sex (which is immoral) or the just have failed to under and meet her relationship needs. To pretend it is easy to be ethically and poly is not to understand either poly or ethics. In our 16 years of open marriage, only once has my wife had a “secondary” who, either did not have a primary or was a male who did not want an interdependent relationship. And, that one time did not turn out well. She’s never done that since. My one relationship where I had a “secondary” was (is) with a woman I’ve known for 30 years, and we have been very close for decades. When her monogamous marriage ended, we had some sexually involvement (she is not local) until she entered a new monogamous relationship. We no longer are sexual, but are still close and I couldn’t be happier for her. She wishes her new love were open to poly, but he is not, such is the trade-offs in life; however, she has repeatedly thanked me for being there for her when she needed me and thanked my wife for letting me be there. To me, that is how to ethically work out polyamory within a hierarchal system.
Thus, to defend my belief that the future of polyamory as a social movement depends on those people who form stable mutually supportive relationships; dare I use the words family and marriage? I propose that if polyamory is to be accepted as a legitimate, socially constructive alternative to monogamy, there will have to be some polynormitivity. The question is who will articulate a vision of polynormitivity; a polynormitivity that does not look like what was presented by ShowTime and embraces the variety of ways to live out polyamory. Such a vision can’t be just a hippy dippy narcissistic, “I’m in it just for me” statement. Society, by definition, is made up of nesters, and such as view is a threat to stability with no benefit to the whole, so we need to show how polyamory can be part of an interdependent society. We must convince Mr. Mainstream and Mrs. Hometown, that if their spouse is working beside a poly, that their marriages are not in danger. We can’t do that if we claim that their marriage is no more valuable than the relationship my wife has with the new man she has just began dating last week. I would suggest support of hierarchical l relationships (and marriage) would go a long way to doing this.
This is is why I believe, the venue for the public face of poly should be a public fight for legally binding marriage of more than two people. Yes, that would create a legally binding relationship hierarchy in polyamous relationships. I know there are lots of polys with no interest in marriage for themselves, just as there are many in the gay and lesbian community who have no interest in marriage, but support the legal recognition of such marriages to signals they are part of the mainstream. I also know that most of those who write here that they are adamantly oppose the concept of “primary relationships” will at, some point in their life, have one.
Thus, I end where I began, what do you believe is the end game of your polyamourous relationships? If love (and sex) are an ends in themselves of all of your relationships, that’s well and good; but, are you projecting that narrow view onto others in this discussion when you condemn relationship hierarchy? Further, if we claim to be seeking social acceptance of our embrace of “many loves”, we cannot be seen as anarchist, seeking to destroy bedrock social systems from whom we seek acceptance.
I’ll close by again thanking SexGeek for her original article and all the writers who have contributed to this wonderful discussion.
I had more to say about this than fit into a comment, so http://artins.org/ben/personal/introspection-privilege
this is furiously relevant. thanks for shedding light. i have not found a mention on the blog about licensing, so I may as well ask: would you agree to my taking (a lot of) inspiration from your post to write one in French (obviously with credits, backlinks, and all that sort of thing)?
Bien sûr. SVP partage le lien ici que je puisse le lire et voir quel est ton point de vue! 🙂
Hi – I still have not written my comment/translation piece, but the blog is online and looking good.
It mostly starts with my own story of a traditional exclusive married couple stepping the line to become an open relationship, and then discovering a whole universe of other possibilities.
Hey! Whew – detailed article, lots of thoughtful comments… thanks for contributing to discussion.
From where I sit (as another person with long term involvement in non-hierarchical multifaceted relationships and dialogue within communities discussing issues facing people in queered relationships) there’s really one mission alone in this realm that I would push for other people to focus on: Not dictating or judging what other people need/want/do with their relationship structures. We all hurt people and get hurt within all relationships. Yes, we need to respect each other, but I see it as counterproductive to tell people that a particular model is inherently more damaging or disrespectful than another.
It really is far more damaging, in my mind, to in any way contribute to the giant pile of books and articles and blogs and yes, mainstream media too, that tells people how they should and shouldn’t create and foster their relationships. Indeed, I think we should be encouraging people to develop unique and creative relationship understandings custom designed for individual and collective need. There is still so much shame that people have for “not doing poly right” that pushes people into structures that aren’t right for them and makes people feel like they can’t ask for what they want or make needed boundaries. We need to be gentle and encouraging and support people to come up with any and all arrangements that are needed and desired. That includes things that aren’t right for me and aren’t right for you and well, have infinite parameters and nuance.
Of course I agree with a lot you’ve said about things that I’ve seen as damaging. In fact, I think that you’ve outlined a lot of the most prevalent things that are pushed on people that may not be right in someone’s life. These make me really angry too. But from my POV… that there is no “polynormativity” beyond what has been created as a mainstream model and pushed on people as standard in some (mainstream and not mainstream) media. I don’t even think these models/standards are in practice in a widespread way in the ways that you frame it. I think there are a lot of people who think that that’s “what poly is” because they have little experience or contact with discussion around relationship models and this (in my mind false) poly/mono divide.
What we really need is more positive resources and discussion for people to say that all relationships are unique and individual/couple/group needs are all different and require dynamic and individualized arrangements and support.
Thanks again for your thoughtful article and contributing to meaningful dialogue. 🙂
Thank you for sharing this. I found this article at pretty much a perfect time for me, as my wife is rekindling a relationship with an old girlfriend with whom we’ve had problems in the past. This article provided some excellent perspective and I appreciate it!
“If it were never about the sex, it also wouldn’t be polyamory—we’d just be a bunch of friends, which is also awesome, but also not usually romantic, though possibly committed.”
Asexual people can be polyamorous. They can have multiple loving romantic relationships that go way deeper than “just a bunch of friends”. Google asexuality in future before writing about sexless love lives as “just” anything.
I was thinking the same thing, though there is another comment which also addresses this and I thought the author responded very well to it. I don’t think they were intentionally making a dig at aces when they wrote this post (most of which I very much enjoyed) and I feel that while they may have put their foot in their mouth (RE the line you quoted) that there was no harm meant… and hopefully minimum harm done (RE reinforcing people’s feelings about the illigitimacy of the relationships that aces form). Of course I would like to see it revised with more qualifiers to clarify their point but I don’t know that that’s going to happen. -Dallas
Reblogged this on Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History and commented:
Long and sooooooooo gooooooood.
More comments later on, but you do get that the marriage equality activists (or, more accurately, the “gay marriage” activists), queer and straight alike, run screaming at any mention of queers and poly, right? I think that is far more of a factor than media squeamishness about poly (there’s probably some straight media PC about portraying queer non-monogamy as well). As someone who has been, off and on, involved with the marriage equality movement in a mainstream context, I’ve been personally told to be a team player and keep my head down / stay quiet about poly until the election was over. Queer couples with poly histories have told me that they need to stay in the poly closet in their queer organizations, to keep paid jobs and volunteer positions. Etc.
That said, yes, the media’s portrayal is definitely hetero-normative, and the “organized” poly community tends to be fairly segregated, and non-bisexual queer poly people are under-represented… and the infamous “couple seeking a hot bi babe” (sigh) phenomenon is very real. There are lots of issues, lots and lots of issues inside the community, and the media in how the media portrays who is a participant in it… which in turn distorts the public perception of who poly people are, and what they do, in the usual directions (as you outline). As well as the perceptions of potential allies and participants.
Yes, I’ve heard of this type of silencing happening in different countries. It’s pretty shitty, and good on you for mentioning it. I’m not convinced it’s directly causing polynormative media portrayals though – while there’s some overlap between the various groups at play here, I don’t think there’s a monolithic marriage-equality force silencing all the non-normative queers leaving only the straight folks to hold up the poly banner on TV. And I’m not sure I’d say the mainstream media is squeamish about non-normative polyamory. More like uninterested or incomprehending. It doesn’t fit the model they know they can sell.
In any case, I appreciate the perspective you offer here. It is definitely worth noting how the push toward mainstream inclusion for same-sex couples in the institution of marriage is quite directly leading to the quashing of non-mainstream voices and perspectives. Thanks for posting. 🙂
Reblogged this on Submissions and commented:
This! This is a great read.
I miss living in a poly relationship after 6 years of marriage and another 4 of looking in all the wrong places. I read so many sites and blogs and discussions and all I see is people expounding ‘primary’, ‘secondary’ ‘Google Calendar’. Poly is prescribed to death when, in fact, it has exactly the same joys and pain of ANY relationship.
A first class read here!!!
Reblogged this on your passport to complaining and commented:
This is long and thoughtful post on the problem with the mainstream culture “embracing” poly, to sanitize it by making it be hierarchical, white, straight and privileged. Dont believe it, the edge is far from what is comfortable for Babylon, for it inherently threatens its underlying oppressions.
Thanks Angie for the reference
great discussion. Regarding rules and the couple thing. When we were trying to be responsible non monogamists at the beginning we had rules. Now after nearly a decade as a triad we only have one. Safe, sane, consensual and courteous. We have come to believe love, like life, is fluid and it sometimes takes time to emerge from the old paradigm of jealousy, control and predictability into a place of maturity, confidence and a willingness to allow for change. Would I be crushed if I lost my spice to someone who wouldn’t share? Of course, but I would deal with it. I learned long ago that trying to evolve people to a higher level is as effective as trying to keep things the same. Not saying you are doing this, I agree with you, but I needed time to come around and there must be a starting point. Media sells what sells and that is sensationalism, sex and violence. Does it suck? sure but if we stop watching that stuff it will pass on. It is important though for new folk to know that there is more than one way to be poly so thanks.
To find something you think, and strongly feel, said for you is great. To find it said ten times better than you could say yourself is marvelous. Thank you.
Many thanks. 🙂
I’d add one thing about the “rules.” IMO to have an explicit rule, you have to have an explicit (or strongly implied) consequence of breaking said rule. Otherwise it’s not a rule, it’s a request.
If these really are rules, then I assume the implication for even the smallest one is that the relationship will end (or the poly- will stop, I guess), not that the primaries will sit down and discuss it. Which seems a bad way to go about sustaining any kind of relationship.
But if you just rewrite every one of the author’s example rules as “Here is a list of things you might do that will probably make me jealous or angry or hurt [and I shouldn’t presume that you know it]” then they work just fine.
Since the #1 problem with relationships is communication, having such non-rule rules would probably do a lot more good than harm. Usually one person has a pretty extensive list in their head and assumes the other person has access to that list, too.
Well said. 🙂
I really enjoyed and profoundly agreed with the parts of this article which I read. I skimmed some of it, and will return to read it more carefully in the near future. But I want to say … I wonder if “polynormativity” is the best word choice in the title, or for the subject.
Wikipedia says about “normative” (a term meaning different things in different contexts): “In philosophy, normative statements affirm how things should or ought to be, how to value them, which things are good or bad, and which actions are right or wrong.” Basically, I take it to be a fancy word for “ethics”. And your article makes many very fine ethical (normative) points. So the title seems to me to set slightly wrong in relation to the text of the article. It seems to imply that normativity is wrong in relation to polyamory.
Into the article a bit, we discover that your gripe with “polynormativity” is really a gripe with how the mainstream media presents “polynormativity”. But the mainstream media’s presentation of “polynormativity” is flawed in the same basic ways–and for the same reasons–that the mainstream media gets so many (most) other things wrong. (I assume most readers here know what that is.)
Outside of the mainstream media we find that, in fact, most sensible and decent poly people agree with the normative orientation you present so effectively. I guess the problem that emerges is that people can be insensitive arses inside and outside of the mainstream media’s presentation. But I do think there is a decent strand of tradition in what I call “the polyamory discourse”. And that strand is, in fact, normative within that discourse–even if some folks are on the learning curve, catching up, growing up….
A “discourse” is not a monolith. Voices and opinions differ, but I do see in the poly discourse a commitment to treating people with the very decency, kindness, respect and love you call for. What your article does is emphasize the best of the tradition. It’s a matter of the wobbly redistribution of weight in the conversation.
Your article is very interesting and a great analysis of what polyamory is to different people, and how definitions need to be fluid.
I have recently started dating a person in a poly relationship, and so far it seems fairly comfortable to me, although for myself I’ve never been intuitively inclined to be polyamorous.
There are a few observations that I have made (and forgive me if they have been covered in the article and are repetitive…!)
So many labels! I don’t think there is a need for so many labels. To me stating (for yourself) that you are in an Open relationship seems the most logical. It is whatever feels comfortable for you, as each person is different with different needs. What is one’s intention with seeking mulitple partners? Is it purely for variety of sexual experience? Having a primary/life domestic partner with the need for additional sexual intimacy?
I have many friends who are single and date multiple people at once to try out which relationships work best for them. There is no primary partner so to speak. Are these people not engaging in poly situations?
This is way more common in our society (hence the actuality of polyamoury more widespread that we are aware of, or that society defines).
Another observation is the creation of many complex rules. If one chooses to “make” their relationship polyamourous with their partner, but then creates an incredibly complex set of rules surrounding it, with non-stop controlling/negotiating of situations, I don’t think its unreasonable (in fact it is needed) for that person to look at themselves and their needs and maybe recognize that polyamoury is not comfortable or natural for them.
A friend of mine is interested in seeking additional partners, but her current partner has no interest in engaging with other people.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. There is no shame in wanting to be monogamous regardless if your partner is wanting to explore other situations.
My last observation with regards to some friends who choose to be polyamorous, is to recognize that directing emotional intimate energy amongst several people can be very exhausting and life affecting (for some), and again to recognize that there is nothing wrong with being comfortable with choosing to focus your emotion energy and needs with one specific partner.
I find that some people almost feel pressured to go along with the idea of polyamoury with their partner, when in fact it unnecessarily complicates their relationship.
Whatever feels comfortable and maintains your natural sense of emotional and psychological well being is what is important overall.
Thanks again for the article!
I no longer use polyamory as a descriptor for relationships for exactly the reasons you cite. Being a computer geek, I tend to think of a flow chart using if then logic.
– If there are more than two people, it’s non-monogamous otherwise, it’s monogamy (end of loop)
– If the non-monogamous situation can add other people, it is open otherwise, it is closed such as poly-fidelity (end of loop)
Those are the most restrictive levels of organization. After that
you have specializations of non-monogamous, open relationships such as
– sexually open while emotionally closed (stereotypical swinging)
– sexually and emotionally open (stereotypical polyamory)
– sexually closed while emotionally open
(just for completeness)
– sexually and emotionally closed (stereotypical monogamy)
I use polyamory to describe people who are capable of having multiple loving (romantic, with or without sex) relationships. They may engage in relationships that are not based in romantic love as well. I am a polyamorous person who engages in non-monogamous romantic relationships. Some of them are involve love and some don’t.
Each person has to figure out what works for them and not allow a partner to pressure them into something they don’t want. As you say, maintaining multiple relationships can complicate a relationship so the partners need to be able to communicate their own needs without trying to project those onto each other. A polyamorous person who pushes their monogamous partner to change is just as wrong as a monogamous person who tries to limit their poly partner’s ability to be true to themselves. Either the people need to learn to accept and embrace their partner (and their needs) or they may need to be willing to end that relationship so that both can find more suitable partners.
I will disagree with the last comment, “Whatever feels comfortable and maintains your natural sense of emotional and psychological well being is what is important overall.” We tend to grow the most through uncomfortable situations. Very few people have a life changing epiphany while sitting at home in safety and comfort. It is by getting outside our comfort zones that we are forced to consider new alternatives which lead to change which, hopefully, results in growth.
“– sexually closed while emotionally open (just for completeness)”
Oh, we exist. There’s always been a social niche which allows us to.
Love this post Andrea; I wish you were coming to Berkeley for the International Academic Poly Conference this weekend because this is the discussion I am trying to spark there and it would be lovely to have an ally.
I keep thinking about something you said to me years back about how poly for you flows from a place of privileging radical honesty, and I really liked that; I feel like your discussion of rules is coming from that place. Maybe poly rules are like… subcultural training wheels that polys needed to move forward as a subculture but are not always or continually or still necessary. Maybe for some they will always be an important part.
Polynormativity is something I talk about in my book, so I’m glad to see it springing up in multiple places. I have also heard it floating around in general usage. I think it’s a useful way to think through these specific issues, though in my work I prefer to think more broadly in relation to intimate privilege to keep a focus on the intersectionality of it all. I think this comes hand in hand with mononoromativity, just like homonormativity as a term almost came into being with heteronormative (though, as Warner framed it at the time, he though it not possible such a thing could be talked about).
You know, it’s funny, in my book I cite your blog as one example of more intersectional, more critical public sphere places where poly and kink are discussed in their full political contexts. I will have to update the reference to aim specifically here because this is a key moment in poly talk! So thanks!
Belatedly, thanks so much for this lovely reply, Nathan. I really appreciate the thoughtful engagement. A “key moment,” hey? Huh! Cool. 🙂
WONDERFUL article. Not sure the fact that some trans folk don’t identify as queer is a good reason to leave them out, though . . . they’re left out enough.
It’s a function of perspective. You choose to see oppression instead of choosing to see a society that now shows an open curiosity about your way of life.
Reblogged this on Emergent Behaviour and commented:
Totally agree with this. Big problems with all labels & therefore any kind of normativity.
Reblogged this on Poly Chicago and commented:
I’ve been thinking a lot about this article lately. I find that I am running into some presumptions about the way that my relationships work due to the polynormative model discussed in this article. These issues are important to me, because I am married and I date both married and single people. I don’t want people (and the media) assuming that I am operating in a certain way, for the same reasons that I don’t want them thinking that my marriage works a certain way, or that my perceptions of myself exist due to gender.
I’m glad that this is written the way that it is. Give it a look.
Thanks for the post and all the thoughtful comments. I started out on here in order to try to explore some of these issues. I do think rules have a good place for many. In a recent relationship, I had just one – let me know if you are interested in/becoming involved with/involved with anyone else. That rule was violated. The relationship didn’t last.
I have to say I don’t self identify as poly mostly because of how often it has been presented to me (as above). Structure structure structure, rules, rules, rules. The way I have seen poly relationships play out through friends etc. has been like all of the above, and my first reaction, upon getting involved with a poly fella was “I’m not poly!” And that’s still my first reaction. Trying to shake that notion. I’m grappling with the fact that when I don’t label myself as poly, I am assumed to be mono. Nothing could be further from the truth and it is incredibly frustrating to have to explain every single time that just because I don’t label myself one thing does not mean I am the other end of the spectrum. Rambling here, sorry. Thank you for an insightful article. I am going to go read the rest of your blog now!
I have been a very satisfied secondary partner in many poly relationships during long stretches of time when I did not have a primary partner because I did not want that level of commitment. I agree that you could replace the term secondary with terms like girlfriend, casual lay, or long distance hook-up depending on which of my relationships we are discussing, but I was always aware and supportive of the fact that my lover’s commitment to a life partner outweighed his/her commitment to me. This didn’t mean I felt undervalued or lacked agency. I don’t date people who would completely disregard me and I don’t date people who are in life partnerships with someone who would completely disregard me. I have had far more negative experiences with the expectations that follow “primary” than with the flexibility that follows “secondary.” I was hurt the one time I lost a romantic partner because of issues with her primary partner, but we remained close friends and I agreed that she made the right call. They were adjusting to parenthood and her primary partner needed more time and energy which had a realistic impact on our relationship.
220+ comments and we finally have one from someone like you! Nice to know you do exist. 🙂 Thanks for posting.
One additional thought: I completely agree regarding greater focus on diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. My poly experiences have included a great variety in terms of both. I also would love to see greater focus on non-partnered poly individuals. I am currently in a relationship that looks like a primary partnership, but we both identified as poly before we met and I bring a rich and cimplex relationship history with me to this and other new relationships.
Are you seriously complaining about the way the media depicts your special group? YAWN!!!! …sorry that the media is trying to sell your values to a huge mass audience that would otherwise have just another reason to spit at you.
The Sheeple have to be tempted slowly into acceptance. Homosexuals haven’t come to be accepted — to the extent that they have been — by having been depicted as outrageously abnormal. They’ve come this far because compassionate characters, often persecuted by backwards hicks yet accepted by their mainstream white, heterosexual, monogamous friends and neighbors, were created for the Sheeple on television shows and in the news. The mass media would like to say, “Your Welcome!”
The mass media is doing this because people, like you, are too brash and insensitive to the Sheeple to be tactful enough to bring them along. The Sheeple are scared and insecure! They need celebrities, scientists, pastors, and their white, heterosexual neighbors to tell them that it’s all right to be poly in a form that they can imagine for themselves. No firing off a gun near the rabbit hole. The rabbits will never come out, and big news media making it out like polyamory is some LGBQT orgy fest — which is the only way that the Sheeple will see it — is just. plain. stupid.
At first I thought you were brilliantly sarcastic, but I suspect you are serious, in which case you are drastically missing the point. Though I did giggle at the word “sheeple” for a minute there, I must admit.
Mmm. LGBTQ orgy fest…
What? Oh. Terribly sorry, got distracted. I’ll go back to being brash and insensitive and ungrateful for all the favours being done for my poor, struggling communities by the benevolent white mainstream media. 🙂
Also – “homosexuals”? Really? Sigh.
My issue with polyamory is that tons of single people struggle enough just to find ONE person to share their lives with. Yet here’s a whole community of people who have 2, 3, 4 or more exclusive partners in very tight circles with all sorts of rules and structures, taking more and more people out of the dating pool who otherwise could be an excellent match for great single people (read: many people in poly relationships can be monogamous and still be happy). It’s greedy, gluttonous, and selfish to want more than one partner, and if one person isn’t enough for you, maybe you’re with the wrong person.
Wow. You are missing both the point and the facts of polyamory. Also you’re not so good at math. There’s some great reading available in my resources section if you want to remedy the first two issues, but I can’t help you with the last one.
Brilliant post, agree with you on all points and look forward to reading more of your posts and the further reading you recommended 🙂
Thanks for sharing!
damn, white people got a lotta shit to say lol
I had been given links to this posts several times since it came out, but never read it until last night. For some reason, the title “Polynormativity” really turned me off. But now I am glad I read it. You have collected and stated many ideas that I, and others, have also expressed in an online poly forum I frequent. I haven’t read all the comments, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that quite a number of commenters really don’t “get” it. People can become so fixated on certain ideas about polyamory that they refuse to see where they offend other people with their assumptions.
I have to also add that there is a lot of assumptions about what is polynormative within various poly circles, too, not just among a mainstream monogamous audience and the media. My pet peeves are: far too many people automatically assume polyamory is an identity, rather than a structure for relationships; they consider poly a kink and assume that all polyfolk are kinky; they believe that all single or solo women are to be feared because ultimately they are cowgirls and all want to marry a poly guy and turn him mono; and they believe that all women practicing poly are bisexual — and if a woman is practicing poly and straight, she must either be denying her true bisexual nature (aww, how sad for her, say the straight men who want to watch), or she is just a dirty whore because she actually wants more than one penis in her life. I also get tired of all the arguing that goes on at poly websites where people insist that we all have to be activists and that LGBT issues are also poly issues. They certainly are not for me, and I am not an activist.
I am a straight woman. No, I am not going to refer to myself as a cis-woman, or zie and zir, or whatever other way political types want to use when they insist on messing around with the English language. I am straight, a woman, and practice non-heirarchical poly (I do not identify as poly – for me it is an action I take, a structure I apply, not an identity to wear). I have no desire to cohabit with anyone, as I like and enjoy my independence, so I would appreciate it if people would stop looking at me and other solo, unpartnered people as cowgirls/cowboys.
I have no need for rules in my relationships. I do have personal boundaries, and anyone I get involved with must respect my boundaries. If I meet a poly guy who has rules in his existing relationship that would affect me in ways I do not care for, I walk. No metamour will dictate the terms of my relationships with anyone. I wish more people who embrace poly would start making boundaries for themselves instead of kowtowing to rules that other people decree.
Recently, all this talk about “poly normativity” has me feeling a bit left out. I’ll admit it, when it comes to sexuality, I’m a bit … well, vanilla. But I like that. I have nothing against kink, or queer folk. In fact, I’ve learned a lot about my own sexuality from both these communities.
And I’ll come out and say, that I fit the “poly normal” model. That is, I live with my husband and my two children and see another partner on the side. I didn’t plan for it to be that way. I hadn’t planned to be polyamorous at all, nor did I even know such a thing was an actual “thing” until almost two years ago …
BTW, do you realize that the background color of your blog turns to black approximately around the comment made on Jan. 25, and the only way to read the text after that point is to highlight the whole page?
“If it were never about the sex, it also wouldn’t be polyamory—we’d just be a bunch of friends”
I don’t know about that; I’ve met some committed poly asexuals. Not that I think you were deliberately excluding them.
Thanks for this piece. I liked it so much i compressed, rewrote and added graphics to it.
Dear Andrea, a german translation of your wonderful posting is now online (with link to your original post of course) at http://beziehungsgarten.net/blog/das-problem-mit-der-polynormativitat
All the best
Yes!!!!!!!!!!! I felt the same but was lost for words,
thanks for the words!
Thanks for this. I have poly inclinations and the reason I’m not is due to these issues. I find the constant “talk” colonizes the time with partners with other partners, and I’ve no use for the rules. I went to DADT years ago.
You have no idea how much I needed to read this, right now. It just all clicked. I’m dumbfounded, in shock, I thought I was doing non-hierarchy and I realize not even fucking close. I thought I was treating my secondary well, because I was trying (that’s good enough right???) but not even fucking close. 6 months of fighting, him begging me not to even stop treating him like a secondary (though that’s what he was asking for) but rather to just admit that it was happening. This may have saved my relationship to a really exciting and wonderful person. At the very least, I’ll own up to all the shit I’ve put him through and hopefully he’ll feel a little more sane. Thank you thank you thank you.
I’m glad you clarified why you didn’t use T in the lgbq acronym. I like when people go back and add to or correct articles. It shows that we are all learners. I’d like to see some additions to the section on who mainstream media uses in its representations of poly. (The word “uses” is purposeful.) You touch one reason why it is harmful for people of colour for mainly white people to be featured but the possibility of coming out isn’t the most important in my mind. There are lots of people of colour who are poly and not including something in this section that points out the racism in mainstream media when they are excluded perpetuates it. The erasure of people of colour from queer movements, feminist movements, labour movements is part of maintaining white supremacy. As a white person, I believe that the systemic and everyday racism that exists maintains this supremacy and we are responsible to each other to point it out and ask for changes. With respect, lori
Reblogged this on The Scorpio Undone and commented:
This is just… awesome. Wow.
I really liked reading this article and am really grateful for the perspective. All my life, I have always been poly-solo. That’s misleading though, since I never knew how to name it or own it in myself until I spoke it out loud to my current primary spouse (then just a hook-up :o) and they said, “That sounds do-able.” So, ironically, my coming to terms with my being poly came about through the development of a beautifully unexpected primary relationship. My last poly-solo moments were spent finding out that I was poly-solo.
That said, I’m attachment-prone, so maybe it was bound to happen like this. I like to be in pairs. When I resist them, I always lose to my own pairing tendency. And, as I formed my current primary marriage with my spouse, I described wanting to be able to lean on them, come back to them *while still looking/dating around in the “big outside world”*. So my primary relationship is in some ways fundamentally built on there being room in it for me to date others honestly. I don’t think my primary relationship would’ve grown to the place where it is if they hadn’t supported that idea when I shared it with them.
Anyway, learning more about what secondary/primary hierarchies do to the people involved is really interesting and useful to me. Though, sadly I find myself wishing I could go back in time and know that I was poly earlier. To have come to where I am via a long period of being poly-solo (and knowing it) would’ve been better perhaps. I probably would have suffered less from my own internalized poly-phobia. And to have had some support in remaining poly-unattached, perhaps I could’ve treated myself to the same freedoms and rights as a poly-solo that you are calling for. At this point I can’t know. And so, here I am, well-entrenched in a mortgage/kids/marriage primary poly relationship. Whups. Yes, I do feel a little guilty/defensive as you predict. That said, it seems hard to imagine dating anyone who can’t respect the importance of our kids coming first. I would love to know if my current secondary relationship would pass the “is it really that great?” test that you describe. I do know that they are not subject to rules that protect my primary relationship, but rather selected for their pre-disposed and freely offered respect for it. This may seem like a small distinction, but I think it could be an important place to start when looking for a definition of the line where things can go sour. Anyway, all of this is by way of contributing to the discussion. Not sure what conclusions to draw. Nutshell is that reading your article made me wish I could go back in time and *be* poly before being paired. Is that a funny response? dunno.
Found the article coukd be su..ed uo in one sentence….. ” this is how poly is and if you arent doing it this way then you are doing it wrong”…..to which i say different strokes for different folks.
Thank you. I believe you have some really great points here!
What is your actual problem with monogamous people? I get the feeling you’ve taken several shots at the concept here and it just reeks of hypocrisy.
I disagree about the hierarchical structure. I’m my husband’s primary, we travel alot for his job (long haul trucker) we have a place in my hometown so when we visit on holidays we have a place to stay with our dogs. I handle all the money, bills, laundry, budgeting, and anything that pops up that needs to be taken care of. If he should meet someone it would have no possibility of being long term because of our lifestyle.
Reblogged this on kinky7.
Reblogged this on mysirsvixen and commented:
Great article, I fetched the link from FL, as part of a discussion on how some are feeling marginalized by the concept of “polynormativity”. It made me think though. Yes, poly is trendy now, and media shows us young, hip, urban white folks as examples, but there are so many ways to practice poly, that I’m forced to reject the concept of polynormativity as inherently wrong. If three people’s needs are being met in a closed triad (or 4 in a quad) then who is to say that “isn’t really polyamory”? Not everyone who is poly is a fluid and dynamic as the next. If your version works for you, then I’m happy for you. If it isn’t working, then change something. Likewise, if my version works for me and my partners, don’t you dare say that because I appear to conform to a norm that I’m “not really poly”. This is a good read, and definitely check out the resources if you are interested in Poly.
I think you may have misunderstood the message of this post.
Perhaps, I thought it was a great article, that’s why I reblogged it though. My comment on my blog is reflective of a greater issue I have with those in several communities (poly, D/s, BDSM-specifically the Gorean and Leather communities) who claim that unless you live or practice the lifestyle in a certain way you aren’t really doing it right, not specifically your post. I apologize if it came off that way.
In much the same train of thought, consider the hoopla in the D/s and BDSM communities surrounding the FSG series. On one end we want the world to be more informed, accepting, and interested in our lifestyle, but when a movie comes out and portrays parts of it differently or perhaps in places inaccurately, then we are up in arms. The bashing of that movie and EL James was uncalled for, but it certainly provided a bandwagon for people to jump on to feel included.
Gotcha. I remain puzzled as to why people read this post and think I’m promoting a One True Way when in fact I’m basically saying “Please *don’t* promote a One True Way!” And also, “Stop systematically hurting people and calling it progressive.” But I hear that maybe that’s not what you meant. Thanks for clarifying.
This is an excellent article, and has given me some food for thought. Most things I could say on the subject have already been said better in the comments by other people, but I do have one small criticism about this statement:
“It also keeps the vast spectrum of people who are not trans – whether cisgendered, or, like myself, gender-fluid or somewhere else in the non-binary range”
The thing is, many non-binary people (including genderfluid people) *do* consider themselves trans – I’m sure this wasn’t a deliberate attempt to portray non-binary people as ‘less trans’ than binary people, but there does seem to be a mainstream perception that there are ‘real’ trans people and then there are non-binary people, which is quite problematic, so I try to call it out when I see examples of it. Other than that, great article!
I am relatively new to polyamory and there is a lot of new thoughts to take in. So, I especially appreciate your thoughts on the importance of accuracy in vocabulary within relationships. I have had many lengthy, and headache inducing conversations on what to label my relationships, specifically with a long term partner.
At first, I fought for using the terms primary and secondary. I needed the difference to be acknowledged. It didn’t seem honest to use the same label for the person I have been seeing for three years and for the person I have slept with a handful of times, as well as the person I may currently want to pursue.
Fortunately, my long term partner never wanted to use the terms primary or secondary as a way to describe any of our relationships (Which was infuriating at first). Words are important to me. I didn’t agree with hierarchical thinking either but a thing must be named!
I loved how simple your solution is! Just call it what it is! A lover, a long-term partner, make-out buddy, life-partner, girlfriend, fuck buddy… Egads, it seems so simple now! Maybe it is for those who have been practicing longer. For me just now, it was not just a light bulb in a closet but the floodlight in a stadium that came on.
Thank you. I look forward to reading more of your posts.
Many people pointed out problems before me, so I’ll keep it short: this isn’t a bad piece which highlights some issues in the community but it sounds overjudgemental, a tad hypocritical and reeks of some past bad experience clouding your judgment.
Not everyone understands rules as unbreakable, strict and pubishable-if-broken thing. Punishment isn’t always something big too, sometimes it’s look of utter disappointment on partner’s face and yes, that’s still a form of “punishment”. Society has been using public opinions and verbal disapproval (forcing a feeling of guilt in our social monkey brains) no less than legal punishments. Psychology and all that.
As for hierarchy, I’m also in support of that, at least, for myself and people like me. In any form of relationship, romantic or not.
Some relations (even platonic and familial ones) mean less to me than others. It doesn’t mean I don’t care, but I do care more or less. That’s just life, and I’m just being realistic, I can’t love or like everyone equally. Even my parents.
If a dude (or girl as a friend) thinks he can enter my life and then expect the same level of commitment and dedication as I give to older relations, which I’ve built with years of effort, struggle and sweat then the dude has too big of an ego and disrespects me and my other loved ones. Our relation might get just as or even more important one day, but until then, I will consider our relationship secondary, less important. Because that’s what it is. Not hated, not unloved, just less important.
Basic human decency is expected, but commitment is built and earned.
And lastly… why do we have to care whether our lifestyle breaks or doesn’t the “norm”?
Many people choose polyamoury because it’s how they feel, how they love, how they are and what they do. This has nothing to do with “redesigning the idea of love” or whatever. If you want your lifestyle to be involved in a political movement, good for you.
But for other people it just means Ann loving Bob as primary and having a thing with Dan as secondary.
It’s not meant to redefine or break or change anything. It doesn’t have to.
I’ve responded to each of these points in past comments. Feel free to read them if you’re interested. Generally a good idea to do that before commenting when a post is three years old and has over 300 responses already. 🙂
Good food for thought.
All theory aside, I’d be curious how well your non-heirarchical model is working out.
I’ve been observing and participating in (what is now called poly) for 40 years (yes, I’m one of those old hippes/geeks mentioned above), and I have not had a need to abandon YKINMKBYKIOK in favor of taking “genuine offence” at how some other people do poly, so it makes me curious about why you would choose that path. Are you up for looking a little deeper?
I see poly as a way to build custom relationships based on mutual caring, skillful communication, good boundaries, reflective awareness, and wise choice of which payoffs one choose in life. It has been for me a great crucible for growth as well as very rewarding, and I am very happy with the loving poly networks I am involved with. You might classify my relationships as “heirarchical”, but we’ll get to that.
There is and always has been a range of models of polyamory; so long as it’s practiced with honesty and from choice, I don’t have a lot of need to “take offence” at how others choose to customize their relationships. The many variations on “non-heirarchical” models are hardly new – but they are becoming more common currently.
In fact in some communities, they are becoming more normative themselves, with people who have “heirarchical” relationships thought of as less evolved or something. The live and let live concept of allowing everybody to create custom relationships that work for themselves can be threatened from many directions, not just by images from the mainstream.
While I don’t take a lot of offence at other approaches than my own, I have been observing my fellow polyamorists for a very long time, and am willing to notice what tends to work and not, albeit varying by individual needs and desires. My belief is that there is danger in any “one size fits all” prescription which does not allow for customizing for the people involved, and changing as the people change or better understand their own needs..
Your description of the “heirarchical” model is somewhat of a caricature at times, but I get that you are exaggerating for effect and describing extreme cases rather than typical. Mostly you appear to be moving back and forth between telling us all that’s fundamentally wrong with such models (ie: how they are so offensive as to preclude YKINMKBYKIOK), and claiming that they can be OK if practiced well so you are not critiquing individual relationships.
For example, you say “This model is more likely to work out relatively well if the people involved are super kind, considerate, consistent, emotionally secure and generous, and less likely to work out happily if the people involved are mean, inconsiderate, inconsistent, insecure or selfish.”
Is that really any less true of non-heirarchical models? Is there something about adopting non-heirarchical models which makes them less dependent on fundamental good will and awareness, and more tolerant of mean and selfish people? I have not found that to be so, and thus it comes across as less well thought out to advocate for one or the other as superior.
I think that many forms of poly can work if one is heartful, wise, and conscious – and if that shoe fits.
Of course I’m sure we would agree that heirachical vs non-heirarchical models are not a binary thing. For example, I know relatively few poly people (where-ever they are on the heirarchial to non-heirarchial spectrum) who are as rule bound as you describe, and what you advocate in terms of communication, negotiation, care – and something more like what you call agreements vs rules – seems more common, at least after the “rraining wheels” stage.
However, it seems as if (at least in 2013) you were rather advocating for the non-heirarchical end of that spectrum more than for finding what place within the spectrum most meets one’s need. None of your examples is about the value of the “heirarchical” end of the spectrum, or for finding a custom fit in the middle. So it’s a pleasant opportunity to converse with an intelligent advocate of one end of the spectrum.
Just by the way, this “heirarchical vs non-heirarchical” naming is not a neutral terminology; it’s clearly slanted towards the “non-heirarchical” and used by advocates of that. How would “prioritizing vs non-prioritizing” work as a description for you? Would that foster more common ground?
I’m genuinely curious how well you experience relationships on the “non-hierarchical” end of the spectrum working out, for yourself and those you know. This is not about “right/wrong” or “shoulds”, just about paying attention to real world outcomes and not being lost in theory. (I’m old enough to have witnessed a generation of “political Lesbians” who spent years attempting to be something they were not; this detachment from their own authenticity did no favors to the wider Lesbian community.) I am NOT saying that’s how the non-heirarchical poly movement as a whole will play out, but that experience informs the set of possibilities that I watch for.
Another experience is watching friends pretend to be all equal and non-heirarchical because that seemed like the best way to do poly to them – but when it was clearly not being in touch which what was really going on or with what their authentic selves needed. There was a lot of shadow and denial involved and it did not end well.
I have not seen a lot of successful relationships at the non-heirarchical end of the spectrum, beyond temporary phases (that may have been a blast, for a while). So I want to learn from others, for whom that does work, as part of my learning about the varieties of poly.
In my experience, most often the pressures of life tend to lead us to priorize how we invest our life energies based on how rewarding a given activity is at a given stage of life (and with a hopefully increasing degree of self-knowledge); this observation obvoiusly applies to far more than just poly but it can influence poly styles. We realize that indeed we do value some things, some activities, some relationships more than others, and spend more time with them; if we do not have time or energy to be fully involved with everything; they are not all equal.
I personally have not observed that relationships are the one aspect of life which is exempt from some need to gently prioritize.
And trying hard to inauthentically make them equal can have negative side effects.
Ironically, holding that all relationships are equal without prioritizing any over the others – can be one of the most blatent and constrictive rules that people can hold in polyamory, partaking of all the ills you aptly describe about rule oriented approaches. Rigidity versus flexibility applies in multiple directions.
And, that said, I realize that it may work great for some people; and that even people for whom it will eventually not work out have to be respected in finding that out for themselves, and a given approach to life doesn’t have to last forever to be valuable in its time. So YKINMKBYKIOK can still apply.
Let’s say a word about priorities. Nowhere in facing that human dilemma of needing to prioritize is it implicit that one must treat people badly – I would always advocate respect, caring, listening, and seeking the best win/win possible. I find that healthy priorities are soft and flexible – it’s not like one person’s needs completely occlude or trump somebody else’s – but that soft weighing of factors is implied in genuinely loving and caring about each person. Even if they don’t get equal time. So let’s not characterize having priorities as any less compassionate than trying not to have priorities. Either approach is going to meet the needs of some partners and fail to meet the needs of others; it’s not like one has the moral high ground in that respect.
One key piece in how I have sorted this out for myself (ie: about my customization) is that I’ve realized that I am not responsible for meeting anybody else’s needs; just because they want something from me doesn’t mean I’m obligated to give it. However, since i care about people, I do what I can – within my boundaries – to try to meet their needs. And I can treat them with care and respect even if I choose not to do some of what they would prefer. This means that if I cannot meet somebody’s need for X amount of time in my life, and they need that to be involved with me, then it’s OK not to have a less-than-top-priority relationship. If we can negotiate a loving and mutually rewarding relationship within the time I can offer, and adapting to changes as best we can, then it can work.
I think that kind of balance is required for loving relationships, whether one has soft priorities depending on each relationship, or one adheres to a very strict equality which does not adapt to each person. so I suspect you will agree.
I appreciate your advocating for one end of the spectrum; I’m somewhere in the middle, but more towards the prioritizing end so I enjoy hearing more about your world and how it works. Your advice about the approaches that along with some agreements are to be preferred to rigid rules conforms to my own observations. I agree that people “demonstrating” poly should acknowledge the wide range of styles rather than letting people assume theirs is the only way (true also of non-heirarchial non-prioritizing polyamorists). You have described well many things I believe in and agree with.
And I’m quite interested in how well non-prioritizing has weathered time and experience for you. Have you moved over time more towards the center of the spectrum, or have you been able to continuously maintain a meticulous non-prioritization in all your relationships? (That is, have your criticisms mellowed more towards “don’t be extreme/selfish/mean/disrespectful” rather than judging prioritization per se?)
Thanks for a stimulating exchange.
OK, TL;DR summary of the above (it was fun to put out my more complete first thoughts on this, tho, even if only for my own sake)
Prioritizing and non-prioritizing or all-equal, might be closer to neutral terms than “hierarchical and non-hierarchical”
Rigid models of the right or best way of doing poly are problematic – whether that model is prioritizing or all-equal. Different models meet different needs, and those will change over time.
Everybody equal all the time, as described in the original post, is closer to being a “rule” (mutual or unilaterally imposed) than to being flexible and adaptive to the current situation and each person involved.
Both prioritizing and all-equal models involve setting boundaries with each person when necessary, that is, not always meeting their needs.
Both models (and the more common approaches in the middle) work better with loving, flexible, conscious people, and not so well with selfish, mean people.
Seems like YKINMKBYKIOK has been discarded too easily in favor of semi-covert judgement and hidden shoulds.
And to circle around to my first paragraph about reflecting, I’d like to gently suggest we all look inside, at what goes one when we are “genuinely offended” by a different style of poly (or sexuality, or child raising or religion…). I’ve observed that to the to psyche, “the best defense is to be offended”. That is, people generally get offended when they are in some doubt about their own life choices, and hiding their defensiveness under an *unneccessary* wrong-making – “I am offended by your lifestyle”. Whether the person is a Southern Baptist offended by homosexual marriage, or an activist “offended” by people who choose to each meat. Feel inside and see if there’s any truth to that. What does it mean to be “offended” (against) how somebody else lives? It means that somebody has done us wrong, just by being in a way that we don’t like. Why would anybody who is secure in themselves and the choices they have made in life be offended by such small things? (not talking about genocide here). There are many other emotions with which to handle choices different than our own, other than taking offense.
A more genuine (albeit vulnerable) expressions could be (in some cases): “I find myself feeling on the outside, when I perceive that people are praising or expecting a different style of polyamory than I practice”. That could be what’s going on or not (I’m not speculating on that), but it’s the kind of thing we tend to cover up by seeking the moral high ground of being offended (ie; going on the offensive to avoid vulnerability). The advantage of something more like this is that it leave room for mutual compassion, which being offended numbs it out with a hit of self-righteousness.
I’m not kidding. Almost every time I find myself feeling offended, there is rich material available to me if I look under the hood. It’s a flag, saying “let go of the moral high ground framing and dig here for your own issues”. I may still feel passionate after digging, but I’ll also be more compassionate.
And this is the human condition, something i operate under as well. Not trying to put you down, we all do this. And you seem a very thoughtful and reflective person, so I risk sharing this tip, not from a guru but just from a fellow navigator of an incarnation – as you have offered your wisdom to others.
I’m quite sure you don’t intend it that way, because you come across as very earnest and thoughtful. But your comments are *super* condescending. Wow. I don’t need to be psychoanalyzed, thanks. And I didn’t ask for advice on how to manage my personal life – which, since you seem to want to know, has only benefited from my ethical approach over the 15+ years I’ve been doing poly.
I’d have a warmer response to this if it seemed like you had grasped the message of my original post, but I think you missed it. It seems you have created a spectrum of relationship styles in your head and slotted me into one end of it, which is not at all what I did in my own writing (or life, for that matter).
I haven’t here, nor ever elsewhere, advocated for an “all-the-same” approach to polyamory, where everyone gets treated exactly the same without regard for the type of relationship, duration, level of investment, etc. That would be absurd. So much so that it’s a bit of a straw man argument for you to suggest it. Taking a non-hierarchical approach is not at all the same thing as taking a rigid “everyone is the same” approach.
As succinctly as I can put it, here’s what I do advocate: That people not create hierarchies where someone, by dint of their position in the hierarchy, is subject to others’ decisions about permitted behaviours, feelings, etc, or even the existence of the relationship, and deprived the opportunity to have their own say. Such an approach is by its nature unethical. Further, in this post, I ask that the media stop portraying polyamory as though this sort of prescriptive (as opposed to descriptive, a distinction that is hashed out in earlier comments, should you care to read them) primary-secondary approach is The Way to Do Poly, as that portrayal comes with its own harms.
It does absolutely offend me when people who espouse clearly unethical models purport to be doing something more evolved than everyone else, and even more so when they teach or advocate that approach as though it didn’t intrinsically harm people. This is not about any insecurity on my part, thanks. It’s a basic and quite sound ethical position. I should hope we can all be offended or upset when we see harm being done without it having to be rooted in some sort of personal insecurity. That you should assume anything about my emotional state is rather creepy and based on what I can only read as projection. In any case, if your minimum standard for offense is genocide, I’m not sure I want your brand of equanimity anyway.
As well, my choice of language is quite deliberate. I think relationship models that inherently deprive some members of their rightful ability to self-advocate are wrong. I see no need to soften this. It is the whole point of my post.
That’s it in a nutshell. If you want a much longer, more detailed version of it than here, check out Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert’s book More Than Two. They do a wonderful job of discussing the ethics of polyamory, and they expand into many areas beyond what I touch on here.
On the question of harm – my point in the paragraph you cited is that even an unethical model can work, to a certain extent and for an indefinite time period, if everyone’s really kind about it. That doesn’t make the model ethical. It just mitigates the harm. This isn’t a weakening of my ethical position at all. It’s an explanation for why some people might not experience harm even in a model conditioned on its possibility.
My post is about what *not* to do. I’m puzzled that you think therefore I’m saying what *to* do. I don’t even really go there in my post, except for a brief paragraph or two on trust-building and accurate communication. So you’ve pretty much come up with all these ideas about sameness yourself. They certainly don’t bear any resemblance to how I navigate relationships or think anyone should, unless all concerned want it that way.
Within an ethical framework that allows everyone a say in what happens to them, there’s tons of room to come up with relationships that work for everyone. In fact it’s really the only way to know they *are* working for everyone involved – when *everyone* involved has the ability to say what “working” looks like for them, what they want, what they can offer, what feels like a limit and why. At that point, with nothing barring honest communication, people are genuinely free to stay, to negotiate how they do things at any point, or to leave. The possible results of such an open process are so vast I couldn’t possibly hope to capture them all, and so I didn’t even make the attempt here.
My post is about the ethics of process, not about a defined set of acceptable results. I can’t tell from looking whether people have arrived at their current structures by open discussion or by some members imposing it on others. So I’m not in a position to judge individual relationships – I just don’t have enough information to know how they got there, unless everyone involved tells me. My ethical position is clear. My mind-reading abilities, not so much. I simply wouldn’t presume to know. You might want to take a cue from me there.
Really informative answer which explains what you’re really thinking about rules.
“That people not create hierarchies where someone, by dint of their position in the hierarchy, is subject to others’ decisions about permitted behaviours, feelings, etc, or even the existence of the relationship, and deprived the opportunity to have their own say. Such an approach is by its nature unethical. ”
That makes sense.
I think this is the source of my prior confusion. Even if you’re non-hierarchcial, sometimes someone *will* be flat-out subject to others’ decisions about the existence of a relationship, when irreconcilable conflicts show up. When the person in the middle of a V has irreconcilable relationship requirements from the people on the two ends — that’s a situation where each person on the one end is subject to the decision of the person on the far end.
“It’s him or me” situations happen in friendships and in business; one tries to avoid it but it happens. They’re going to happen in poly relationships. That’s ethical; it has to be
If I understand you correctly, the unethical part is doing this by virtue of placing someone in a prefabricated slot in a hierarchy?
Reblogged this on LifestyleGambler.
First, while I agree with your article I have an issue with one of your phrases:
“…and you can’t swing a cat without hitting…” as a cat lover I am not happy with the image this provokes!
The biggest issue I have with PolyNormativity is how it forces my relationship to be one way in the house, but another out in Public. To the world, it would seem we have a Primary/Secondary because my Sweeties were legally married before they realized the polyamourousness of their relationship. When I joined them, it was as dating (even in the monogamous sense of not sure where this relationship is gonna go, can we all be livable/compatible/etc.).
When we joined households, my children from previous relationships became as their children. But as far as taxes, health care, professionals, disability, finances are concerned, they are married and I’m “just a close friend”. It gets harder as they became physically unable to do certain tasks and went on Disability payments. Health professionals still see me as the “helper”, not a real relationship. Sometimes, to get them the help they need, we have to “buy into” that. If one of them were to pass away, I would receive no supports, no counselling, no family supports, no financial help….nothing. And no one is going to fix that any time soon. For that matter, if something horrible happened to both of them, I would be put out and dismissed as the “help”. Their estates, their pensions, everything would be given to their blood relations. If something happened to me, my children would be forced to go to their fathers and my Sweeties would likely never get to see them again. Again, no supports, no counselling, nothing.
But in the relationship, in the house, we are a full Triad. We date as Triad in a way of…hanging out with potentials as friends and seeing how they relate and interact with all of us. If we all get something positive out of their inclusion to our household, feel that we love them in that way of we want them with us for all time, we would ask them to enfold themselves into our poly and “marry” them..they would move in with us. We don’t use terminologies such as primary/secondary. Anything that doesn’t include the whole family is merely dating/FWB fun. Other than health concerns, we don’t limit or enforce anything.
Hmm! So good! Just discovered this and I thank you, Sexgeek! Thousands of times! It’s perfect Nothing to add. You made me love the January 2013 you, and I bow to your wisdom, depth, and use of the right words… Haha 🙂
Reblogged this on darnaryelfantaisie and commented:
From A to Z, exactly my thoughts on how polyamory is perceived, contrary to how it should be! Thanks Sexgeek!
This is an absolutely fabulous article and I’m 100% with you. I just have to take issue with your use of the term “polynormativity”. What you refer to is in fact appropriation of selected aspects of polyamory by a society which is mononormative (i.e. in which monogamy is normative). So your term seems a misnomer. Call it “poly-appropriation”. But of course if radical ideas were never appropriated by the mainstream then culture would not move. So it is not a “bad” thing in a broader perspective even if it is, indeed, a gross distorsion of the radical politics of non-monogamy.
If you have the patience to scroll through all the comments here, you will see a discussion about my terminology choice. I disagree that it’s wrong – but I also know that any number of other terms could have been used to convey the same idea!
When I read your title, I thought you were going to discuss the idea that being poly is ideal and suitable for everyone. This is something my parents saw many people run into when they were young, and it turned out very badly. Not everyone is wired for poly relationships, and the expectation that my parents saw in some subcultures that everyone should be poly resulted in a lot of hurt people and doomed relationships.
Yeah, that’s a view espoused by some poly folks to be sure. Or some radically politicized folks more generally. I disagree, of course. Someone should coin a term for it that’s not “polynormativity”!
Hi! Got tired of reading all comments, so I apologise if this is a redundant question\topic… Do you relate this critics of polinormativity (totally applying the new term) with relationships anarchy?
I mean, I’ve been having the same thoughts, related both to (very new, very few yet) experiences and readings. Then, I found this other way of calling, thinking and doing and felt that it would relate so much better to my own way of desiring and imagining how I want to vinculante and share with others… As an autonomous individual with other individuals: free, moved by desire and affection, and love to one self firstly.
If not, if you still consider poliamory and AR as different models or ideologies or ?cosmovisiones? (pardon my English) I’d really like to hear why, since you, or at least your thoughts have earned my respect.
I realize you’re trying to apply all kinds of concepts here, but those of us with brain space processing issues (I’m a mom of 3, grandma of a toddler in my home, caregiver to my Sweeties and we were just forced to move on low income/disability income in the snow during the holidays because our landlady insisted that right NOW is when she wants her home to live in.)….could you please use more layman terms? dumb it down a little so those of us with less word ability at the moment can understand just what you said? Normally, I wouldn’t have an issue, but I am over clocking this brain something fierce at the moment and can’t put 2 and 2 together without getting someone else to do it right now. ugh
What a great question! The answer is complicated.
While I really enjoy thinking about terminology, and trying to use words as precisely as possible to say what I mean, I also acknowledge that in most areas, terms are used in different ways by different people, in different places, and at different times or moments in history. Language is dynamic, and meanings shift as they are used over time. I’ve noticed, in particular, that terms tend to drift toward the mainstream over time, so that people on the margins often need to invent new terms or ways of speaking about themselves (identities, practices, ideas) in order to differentiate what they are saying from what’s come before and is now being used differently. “Gay,” for instance, means something quite different now than it did 40 or 50 years ago.
Terms move in other directions too – such as when we reclaim a word that’s been used as a slur, for instance. But in this case, I think what’s happened is that “polyamory” drifted toward the mainstream, such that some (not all) people use “polyamory” to mean something a lot more restrictive than it was used for originally. And so the term “relationship anarchy” was coined. I’m not saying the original meaning of “polyamory” in the 1960s was identical to “relationship anarchy” today, but they’re a lot more similar than you might think. I am sure people could argue passionately about how RA and polyamory are two completely different philosophies/ideas, and they might be technically correct, but I think there is plenty of overlap in how people use these terms in practice and how people understand each other and build their relationships.
For me, what this adds up to is that no matter what term you use, it will never be sufficient to clearly explain a person’s relationship philosophy or life choices. You have to have a deeper conversation about values, choices, fears, experiences, desires, social location (race, class, gender, generation, and many other factors that influence who we are, how we see things and what terms and ideas feel right to us), history, community of affiliation, sexual orientation and a whole lot more. Someone might choose “RA” and use it to mean the same thing for which someone else might say “polyamory,” or vice versa. Any single term to describe an entire way of being in relationships can only ever be shorthand for the reality of living
One question. Is it polynormative to expect a head’s up from your long term partner when they start seeing someone new. Do I have a right to be angry that he kept this from me? I don’t expect much else besides respect of our time as a couple. Am I wrong to insist I need to know if something new is happening?
Whatever your agreement, even if it is polynormative, you have a right to expect that it will be respected until you mutually agree to change it. So if your agreement said you need a heads-up, then yeah, of course, it sucks if that wasn’t done! Also I think that is a pretty reasonable requirement / expectation in like 90% of poly situations, so by default that seems likely to be a pretty obvious thing even if it wasn’t set out ahead of time in explicit detail. If your partner is telling you that expecting a basic heads-up is polynormative and therefore bad, it sounds to me like a weird way of trying to avoid responsibility for shitty communication by using a false idea of progressiveness as a shield. I hope it’s not like that, but either way, yuck. I hope you resolve this to your satisfaction. Sounds unpleasant in the meantime.