On biting that apple

After spending a weekend at her sister’s wedding, a member of one of the groups I moderate wrote a post that described a feeling I think many people, especially those who are on the early side of transitioning into non-monogamy, can relate to.  She wrote:

I never “felt poly” before I met my main squeeze, who was already poly. My love for him brought me into this lifestyle, and I have other partners that I care deeply for, but I never planned out my life to include multiple partners.

As a little girl, I imagined the day I would marry someone on top of my favorite mountain, and really thought I would have a white picket fence life path.

I feel like I don’t know what a successful poly life should look like. How will I know when I’ve made it? How will I gauge my success? How do I get over this weird feeling of jealousy I have for my sister, when I don’t even want a marriage that looks like hers?

Maybe, now that I’m thinking about it, a lot of what I’m feeling is a bit of resentment that I now know poly is an option.

With her permission, I’m (lightly editing and) sharing my response:

“…a lot of what I’m feeling is a bit of resentment that I now know poly is an option.

This is such a strong statement that really gets to the guts of so many people’s fearful reactions to hearing that someone else might do relationships differently than they do. When I share with strangers how my relationship is different, they generally surprise me by taking it in stride.  Sometimes, however, I can tell that they tense up – because it is so different, and we are socialized in so many ways to believe that different is “wrong” and “wrong” is “scary”.

It makes sense that this unsettled reaction from loved ones could lead to you feeling resentful that you’ve suddenly been given the knowledge that you want something that sets you apart.  It’s so much easier to conform when you don’t know you don’t want to conform.  But I think beyond that, I eventually got to the point where instead of resenting being given this information- I resent that society didn’t offer it to me to begin with.

I get mad at the world for limiting my potential.,

I hate that every fairy tale I grew up with made it seem like marriage was the highest level of achievement I could reach, and that it was up to the men to “save me” and that i could only have this if I were the most beautiful princess with the smallest feet or the prettiest voice or the longest hair. I HATE that on top of all of that, I was given a list of what “beautiful” could look like and spent so much of my life comparing myself to (and not meeting) that ideal.

We are so indoctrinated into the idea of comparing ourselves to what we’re “supposed” to do or be or look like based on a standard someone else set for us, that even when we break free of it and accept the concept of polyamory into our lives, we’re still grasping at comparing our poly to the “ideal” of what polyamory is supposed to look and feel like and how we’re supposed to measure our success and standing within that structure.

What if where you are in your life is EXACTLY where you’re supposed to be right now? What would that be like, to stop comparing your current location to a perceived end-game?

As a young widow who got all the way to the end game significantly earlier than expected, I cannot tell you how much of my own life I got back after I realized that there was no longer a set of expectations for me. People stopped trying to put me in a box, because the box of “30 something widows” was so small that they couldn’t decide for me what I was “supposed” to do.

After I came out of the shock and the haze of my mourning period, I realized that for the first time in my life, I got to decide what I wanted for myself. It was liberating.

I know that before I ever got married, it’s all I wanted. It didn’t matter how many friends told me to wait, or to not do it, or that they’d never do it again, I KNEW that I’d been thinking about that party and my dress and all that went with it since I was a little girl. I knew the pressure that my family put on me to be a wife, because – again, it was constantly reinforced that becoming a wife and mother was the highest achievement I could ever hope to have.

It wasn’t until after I’d had the experience that I realized that those dreams of mine were heavily influenced by the limits of society’s expectations for me. They were not purely my own, and as I went through all that processing to regain my identity after my husband passed, I recognized how deeply influenced I was to make my “choice.”

Today, I’m learning to transition that resentment into pity. I feel pity for the people who can only see beauty in a certain “type”. I feel pity for the people whose self confidence is based on having to measure themselves against another person or a made-up ideal. I learned to stop worrying about how well society or my family accepts me. If they want to be part of my life, they’ll do so on my terms.

People who cannot accept me and love me aren’t deserving of the energy I would expend on being angry with them. For the ones, like my extended family members who I’m not “out” with about my relationship style, I pity that they’ll never really know me and that the person they call “granddaughter” or “niece” or “cousin” is a costume I wear in their presence. That version of who they think I am doesn’t define me.

Only I get to define who I am.

The beauty of being where you are in your life right now is that you have the freedom to redesign the life you want based on who you want to be. It takes a while to disentangle it all to figure out which parts of what you wanted are still the things you want and which parts were the things you were influenced to want.

There’s no reason why you can’t have a special moment, for example, with someone (or someones) that you love on top of your favorite mountain. It doesn’t have to be a government sanctioned marriage for it to be a meaningful and beautiful moment for you.

The possibilities are limitless.

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The exchange rate for exclusivity: A potentially divisive opinion

Yesterday I wrote a post that took some solid advice from a relationship blogger Ferrett (theferrett.com) to monogamous people exploring relationships with polyamorous people, and added my own nuanced spin as an actual monogamuggle in a relationship with a polywizard.

Basically, if you really must have exclusivity in your relationship, it’s best not to try to force a non-exclusive relationship to look and feel like an exclusive one; but, if exclusivity is not a requirement, then even though you may have some challenges with dating a polyamorous person – it’s still possible to make those pairings work.

Over in the poly + mono facebook group, a frequent topic of discussion is the question as to whether an openly polyamorous person (and by “openly” I mean that they are not ashamed, hiding, or apologetic of their lovestyle) who agrees to exclusivity with a monoamorous partner is similar in scope as the monoamorous partner accepting the non-exclusivity of their polyamorous partner.

A lot of people think that this is exactly the same thing. I do not.

I anticipate that a lot of people will disagree with this post, and that’s absolutely expected and accepted. I get that there are many, many people who do choose exclusivity to make their partner happy, and who have found contentment with and acceptance of their decision. If it’s working for you, great! This post isn’t intended to pass my judgement on you, nor demand that you reconsider your life choices. My purpose is simply to share my take on the topic.

For the purpose of clarity – my definition of monoamorous differs from the concept of “requiring exclusivity.” I am monoamorous but I do not require my partner to be exclusive with me in order to feel satisfied in my relationship. Some people do. Again, that’s totally fine. Not better, not worse, just different.

And in case you haven’t noticed, I generally avoid using the term “monogamous” unless I’m talking about people who also have marriage as part of their relationship goals. I do not, and therefore stick with using “monoamorous” to describe my current lovestyle.

Onward.

As a monoamorous person who has dated a handful of polyamorous partners over the last four years, I am happy to say that I have never had to increase or reduce the number of people I have wanted to be in a relationship with to make any partner happy. Their relationship preference certainly had an effect on how I approach my core relationship values, but they did not physically affect my autonomy in choosing who gets to put their junk near my junk.

On the other hand, if I were polyamorous and either had, was open to having, or wanted to someday have multiple relationships, then choosing exclusivity for the sake of my monoamorous partner would essentially affect my autonomy in deciding who gets to put their junk near my junk.

This is the key difference and the foundation for my position on this debate.

I should also clarify that I am choosing my words carefully because I differentiate between “behaving monogamously” and “being monogamous.” If a polyamorous person has only one partner, let’s say because they haven’t met anybody else in a while, that doesn’t make them any less polyamorous. If a single person is in between partners, but are eventually hoping to meet someone to marry, then they are still monogamous – even if they’re in the “just looking” or “dating” phase of that search.

Likewise, there are some people who are “ambiamorous,” or can find happiness and fulfillment in either state, so “choosing exclusivity” with a partner when there is nobody else on their relationship horizon works perfectly well for them. It is not something that is a hardship for them, and in fact is an agreeable solution.

This is more about the people who feel pushed into exclusivity when it’s not their natural or preferred state. I would (and do) have as much of a problem with the insinuation that because my partner is polyamorous, I therefore must be; and/or that in order to be “even” or “fair” I also have to engage in relationships with other people. What’s “equal” and “fair” to me is that I have as much opportunity as my partner has to explore that option if I choose to.

It’s not “fine.”

I know it’s not the time of year where counseling people to walk away from their relationships is going to go over well. People are afraid to be alone – so afraid, that they’re willing to sit through confidence-destroying behavior from their partners in exchange for a label that proves they’re not alone.

But I see these things described in the advice and support forums that I would never tolerate from someone who professed to love me. These are things I used to tolerate when I didn’t love myself enough to expect better treatment from partners. This is the pattern I fell into when I used to date people who would tell me I shouldn’t have any expectations, or that I was too “needy”, or that any request for external validation was “bad.”

I recently read about a situation where a partner had a negative reaction to their partner spending time with another paramour at a holiday party. She felt like she couldn’t speak up and talk about how much it hurt, because her partner would get upset with her for not being thrilled about it.

There’s a commercial making the rounds on Hulu right now. Every time I see this commercial I remember these people I talk to in the forums. In it, the woman keeps cancelling plans she’s made because her eczema is flaring up. Then she says “it’s fine” while shaking her head and acting all sad and looking completely downtrodden.

IT’S NOT FINE. I want to scream on her behalf. IT’S DISAPPOINTING. IT’S EMBARRASSING. IT’S CAUSING ME TO SPEND HALF MY LIFE HIDDEN AWAY BECAUSE I FEEL ASHAMED ABOUT AN ITCHY RASH ON MY ARM AND NECK.

And what would be the problem with calling attention to the disturbance? “Hey, we have this date tonight but I’m feeling embarrassed by my skin condition. Instead of me saying it’s fine to cancel something I’ve been looking forward to, how about you tell me that it’s fine for you to be seen with me with a rash on my arm?”

I don’t know why it bothers me so much that this commercial is portraying this shit like it’s shameful. WTF? It’s not SHAMEFUL to have a rash. Why does this woman look like she’s making excuses for an abuser when she’s bowing out of plans that she’s making with other people?

The eczema isn’t the problem. The narrative that she should be ashamed of it is the problem. The eczema might be a disturbance, and it can be addressed and treated. Someone who’d walk away from you for having it is fundamentally incompatible with you.

I don’t think acknowledging a rash to the people you spend time with should deter them from wanting to spend time with you.

I feel the same way about acknowledging your feelings.

If you can’t tell the person you love that you are feeling insecure, hurt, afraid, or conflicted about something without them shaming you for having a feeling, then you start to say “it’s fine” to their face, while crying in the forums about how NOT fine you are.

Here’s what’s fine: Having a negative emotion associated with something uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean you’re necessarily right – but it’s okay to have an emotion.

Here’s what’s fine: Acknowledging that there are some bad feelings happening that you want to address – maybe right now, maybe in a little while after you’ve processed them in your own mind.

Here’s what’s not fine: Feeling like the only people you can acknowledge it to are strangers on the internet because your partner is going to be upset with you for being human.

Here’s what’s not fine: When that shit crosses the line into abusive behavior because your partner has groomed you into thinking that your feelings are irrational when they are completely rational.

When you’re saying “it’s fine” and it’s clearly not.

That’s when I want to say “walk away from this.” It’s not your feelings that are the problem. It’s the narrative that your feelings are something you should be ashamed of. Your feelings might be a disturbance, and they can be addressed and treated. Someone who’d walk away from you for having them is fundamentally incompatible with you.

It’s hard to be vulnerable, but think about giving the people who love you a chance to prove that your feelings won’t scare them away. If they do, then for a moment consider whether or not you’re the one who should be scared away.

‘Cause it’s not “fine” to feel like you have no choice but to remain miserable in a relationship. Not even at year end.

Putting relationships on “hold”

I have such a visceral reaction to the phrase “put my other relationship on hold” in the poly discussion groups. It’s usually a phrase uttered when the following scenario applies:

The hinge in a “vee” has developed a solid and happy relationship with one partner that going swell, but everything in their additional relationship is falling apart. Some versions of that sentence would include “….everything in the additional relationship is falling apart because of the other one’s existence.

I’m trying desperately to stay away from calling either relationship “other” or “first” or “second” because I’m trying like hell not to imbue any of this with implied hierarchy.

My reaction is to the idea that you can put someone you say you love on “hold” because someone else you love is struggling. I don’t care where on your relationship flow chart they live.

The phone company puts me on hold. My partner does not. If you can put your relationship with me ‘on hold’ then we have no relationship. That’s how I roll.

But, I realize that this visceral reaction to this phrase stems from a past experience I had, in one of my early attempts at poly with someone who made a LOT of newbie mistakes that I see playing out again and again in the advice forums.

His relationship with me was solid. The more solid we were, the less stable she was. So when she struggled, he would “dial it back” with me in order for her to get stable again.

Guess what?

She used that. She used it regularly. Every time her jealousy would flare up, she’d have a panic attack or get herself into trouble or blatantly break one of his rules (these were both D/s relationships) and he’d dial it back with me to help her recover.

I’d complain to him and try to reason with him. “It’s like if there’s one kid who always follows the rules and another kid who’s constantly breaking them, so what you do is take away the toy from the good kid and give it to the one throwing the tantrum in order to shut them up.”

“It’s that saying that the squeaky wheel always gets the grease, but if you don’t pay attention to your other wheel you’re going to end up with a flat tire.”

He’d say he understood and things would change, but then he’d keep doing it. He’d keep rewarding her tantrums by denying me. When she felt like she’d “won” then she was fine again.

Guess what I did?

I started having panic attacks. I mean, it worked for her. Why wouldn’t it work for me? But, it backfired. I hadn’t set a precedent for having panic attacks, so when I had them I was told I was “faking” it, and to pull it together.

I wasn’t faking it. I was trying to control something I couldn’t control that I SHOULD have had some control over. The protocols and boundaries of my relationship should have been something he and I discussed and agreed upon together. Our boundaries and protocols should have been the foundation of stability upon which our unique relationship could be built independently of any other relationships he was building with anybody else.

But he kept allowing someone else to pound cracks into our foundation.

And, here’s the fun part… Usually, it’s the “primary” or the “first, and more established” partner that thinks they have a say in how their partner conducts their other affairs. In my case? I was the first one there. She came in three months after me, and it only took three months for her to completely destroy us by shedding the light how little control and integrity he really had.

So now, when I hear people wanting to put one relationship “on hold” I want to tell their seemingly dispensable partner, “RUN. RUN FAR AWAY.”

As the late Patrick Swayze declared, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.”

Family Holidays for the Non-Anchor Partners

I run a group for “monocorns” – a word I coined to describe monoamorous people who are comfortable and happy in relationships with polyamorous people.

This morning one of my fellow monocorns posted something – and, though I don’t feel quite as strongly about it as she does, she is spot on about the struggle that certain “family holidays” like Thanksgiving and Christmas pose to those of us who aren’t the “visible” partners to our partners’ families.

It’s not a monocorn specific thing, either. Anybody out there who doesn’t hold “primary”, “anchor” or “nesting” status with their partner(s) might feel the struggle of a day like Thanksgiving.

I adapted. Thanksgiving isn’t a Thursday holiday anymore. Now it’s a Friday. Christmas happens several days later. Sometimes New Years eve is a day earlier or a day or two later, as well.

But, I won’t pretend that it’s not difficult on the day of.

If you are the nonmonogamous partner to someone you are not seeing today – it’s probably a good day to let them know that you wish you could. At the very least, it’s a good day to acknowledge that it might sting a little for them when they’re not sitting next to you at the table. Even if you wish YOU weren’t at the table because, hell yeah – families can be annoying. It’s having our partners there that makes some families more tolerable.

And for those of us who are spending these next few family holidays without our partners by our sides…

I guess all I can say is “I understand those feels.” I hope that for you, like for me, it’s not so much pain that it overshadows everything amazing you have with your person.

Wishing you all a pleasant evening, whether you spend it with your family, your friends, your pets, or with Netflix.

Roller Coasters and Trampolines

“How does one deal with the ups and downs of a poly relationship?”

My immediate thought upon reading this question is to wonder how one deals with the ups and downs of ANY relationship?

How do you deal with the problems in your monogamous relationship?  I spent more than 10 years in one.  We certainly had problems.  I believe the way we dealt with them was to identify them, communicate them, and attempt to adapt.

Now, I’m in a poly relationship.  We have a few ups and downs.  Not a huge number of them, but they exist all the same.

Does the poly part make a difference?

Seems to me that if it weren’t that, it’d be something else.  Relationships have ups and downs.  It is known.

But, are you on a roller coaster or a trampoline?

Do your ups and downs have forward motion — or do you keep revisiting the same spot over and over again?  Are there new twists and turns and challenges to overcome together, or are you trying to achieve some sort of flight stasis by pushing yourself into taking higher jumps?

Gravity is always going to bring you back down again. Trampolines are a fairly binary activity – your feet are either in the air, or on the mat – and there is a very short amount of time that you spend in either state as you travel back and forth between the two.

Roller coasters are different.  Roller coasters can be frightening, and disorienting, and for some people – completely off limits; BUT…

Roller coasters  have nuance.  And the amount of time spent soaring to new heights, or hurdling through a loop-de-loop varies.

My first roller coaster ride was Space Mountain at Disneyland. I had just gotten tall enough to ride, and everyone was always talking excitedly about it.  Already pretty geeky by then, I loved the futuristic feel and “story” that they’d created around the line to get onto the ride itself.  It looked and felt right up my alley.

I didn’t know it was a roller coaster, though.

I really didn’t know it was a roller coaster in the dark – where you couldn’t see the tracks.

I hated it.  I didn’t see one of the twists coming and by the time I walked out of the attraction, my neck had stiffened and I was in tears.

I was completely unprepared for the roller coaster and developed a fear of all roller coasters based on that experience.

My first poly relationships were a little bit like that.  I wasn’t well prepared – we hadn’t communicated effectively, and I was a little bit in the dark with what their expectations were.  I just knew that they didn’t give two flying craps about my expectations.  They were gonna do what they were gonna do, and if I got hurt – it was my own fault for wanting…what….light? a road map? A sense of where we were headed?

For years I swore up and down I would never date another polyamorous person again.

Years after my first Space Mountain experience, a friend convinced me to go on one of the kiddie rides at another theme park.  This was a short roller coaster that just rolled along with a couple of ups and downs, but no loops or quick turns.

I enjoyed it.  So she said, “If you like that, then you should try Colossus.  It’s basically just like that, but bigger.”

So, I agreed.  Colossus was a staple at this theme park. It was one of the oldest and largest wooden roller coasters, and it didn’t have any loops either.

I loved it!

“Well, if you like that….then you’ll LOVE Revolution! It’s the same thing, but with only one loop.  You won’t even feel it!”

By the end of that day at the theme park, I’d tried every roller coaster there was, including the newest one – Viper – which had multiple loops, corkscrews, and even one that went backwards.

 

Roller coasters still had ups and downs and even took me for a loop;  but, out in the light of day, I could see the tracks ahead of me, brace myself for the scary bits, and enjoy the rush of coming out the other side unscathed.

And the slow progression into the larger rides helped, too.  I was able to take small steps at a time.  Try it out and see if I liked it.  There was no pressure to get on any ride – just a suggestion that if I liked the last one, the next one would be just like that, but *more.*

Roller coasters have ups and downs, but (with the exception of Space Mountain) – you can kind of see them coming.  And you deal with them the way you deal with them.  Put your hands in the air, and scream…..

Okay, maybe not – but you anticipate, communicate, and adapt.

There was another attraction at the theme park a summer or two later.  By now, I was emboldened.  I fucking *love* roller coasters, I’m going to try them all!

This one was called “Free Fall.”  The car took you up like 30 stories high….and then just dropped you.  There was no warning.  No forward motion. No feeling of the track guiding the way.  You were just falling, trapped in a carriage, unable to even see the person beside you.

I never went on that thing again, nor any other attraction that featured anything like that.

If the ups and downs of your relationship are more like the free-fall than the roller coaster, then …yeah, I don’t know how I’d cope with that, other than to get off that ride and never get on it again.

And if your ups and downs are like being on a trampoline?  Well, some relationships are like that in the beginning.  The same fights, and an exhausting workout..  If there’s never any forward movement, my choice would be to slow down and climb off.  Eventually it’s time to rest.

But, if your ups and downs are more like a roller coaster…well, again.  Roller coasters have nuance.  Is it the peanuts coaster in the kiddie park – where your biggest fight is over the baseline status of the toilet seat?  Is it like Revolution, where you have a couple hangups that take you for a loop, but you get through them fairly quickly?

Or are you on Space Mountain, and coming out of the experience with a stiff neck and face full of tears?

Depending on your answer is how you deal with the ups and the downs.  Regardless, it’s important to remember that all relationships have ups and downs, and polyamory in and of itself isn’t the “villain” at the center of it.

Sometimes you’re just not compatible with the passenger in your carriage.

 

 

 

Some thoughts on Hierarchy vs Couples Privilege

The subject of hierarchy comes up often in poly discussion groups. People generally fall into the camps of “hierarchy is fine” or “hierarchy is evil” and usually those who fall into the former are at the top of the pyramid, and those in the latter have been burned by being at the bottom.

I think where the confusion and/or disagreement about hierarchy sometimes happens is where hierarchy intersects with privilege. When I separate the two concepts from each other, then it’s much easier to point to reasons why hierarchy is bad all around, but privilege is sometimes unavoidable.

But, in that intersection, it’s easy to paint them both as harbingers of relationship toxicity.

There are certain things one might take for granted in a situation where partners have shared homes, resources, offspring, and relationship longevity.  For example, the expectation to for the couple to attend family holiday dinners, or visit family living out of state, or attend family weddings or funerals.

Those are inherent privileges that can be pretty circumstantial depending on how “out” one of the people in the couple is to their family. The social expectations of the mononormative culture, especially at gatherings where the older generations are in attendance, make for some these uncomfortable situations where someone’s partner(s) might have to remain “hidden” without it necessarily be the preference for anybody within the relationship. It just can’t be helped without causing major disruptions in the extended family dynamic (or with employers).

I understand having circumstantial, or unearned privileges that I can’t help having. Like the color of my skin or my parents’ socioeconomic status. The thing is, I’m aware that my experience isn’t the experience of everyone else who does not share these traits with me. I’m aware of my privilege and can therefore take action to feel MORE empathy and show more compassion for those who do not have them. I can take into account that their experiences are different than mine and not make assumptions about how they feel or react to things based on how I would feel or react to them.

The lack of this awareness is where couples’ privilege becomes toxic. When the couple isn’t even aware of how their privilege manifests or how it affects those who DON’T have the automatic +1 to your cousin’s wedding, or who don’t have you around to make us a cup of hot tea when we’re at home with a sore throat.

At the same time, as the non-nested partner, I also don’t have to do the boring and stressful stuff, like spend my limited time with him cleaning the cat box or renewing my DMV registration or paying taxes or vacuuming. Every time we’re together it’s a vacation from responsibilities for him, so I get to be the partner he never gets snippy with nor tunes out with headphones and a podcast.

There are certain privileges I have in my role in his life as well, and being aware of them helps me have empathy for the times when his nested partner might feel like she’s not getting quality time with him, for example.

But all of that is separate from hierarchy, because to me, hierarchy implies rank. She does not outrank any of his other partners, nor we her. She cannot (nor would she attempt to) pull rank and affect either of our plans with him. None of us can (or would). He runs his own relationships, his own calendar, and his own emotions. We’re each responsible for our own.

In our polycule, we’re all child-free, so when it comes to the managing of hierarchy and privilege around children, I draw from a different experience. When my late husband and I got together, he was recently divorced and had an 8 year old daughter, an ex-wife and co-parent who would sometimes pull “rank” when it came to my husband’s time for their daughter’s recitals and open houses.  He also had an aging mother who lived with us. If that wasn’t boot camp for polyamory, I don’t know what is.

But the point is – there was hierarchy. The kid came first. I felt his ex-wife liked to use the kid as a way to position herself above me, but the reality was that it was the KID who had priority, not her.

Even in a monogamous marriage, the kid came first, so I don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t hold true in a poly relationship. When my husband’s mom became ill, her needs were elevated as well. We learn to balance all these multiple priorities all the time – at work, with family, and in relationships.

I believe hierarchy in extenuating circumstances, like children or illness or major accident is part of life. I just don’t feel comfortable with it being part of the standard operating procedure when you’re in multiple, committed, romantic relationships.



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