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.

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On Camping and Poly + Mono Relationships

Ferrett wrote this essay with a pretty solid metaphor for poly + mono relationships that centered on camping. The metaphor’s tl;dr is: if you hate everything to do with camping, you should not put yourself in a situation where you are forced (by yourself or others) to go camping.

I support this statement.

But, I am reminded of the classic 80s film, Troop Beverly Hills, in which Phyllis, the uber-privileged Wilderness Girls troop leader (played by Shelly Long) abandons a rained-out campsite with her troop to check all the girls into a suite at a swanky hotel. When the regional director shows up to find them in plush surroundings eating room service, she asks, “You call this roughing it!?”

Phyllis replies without hesitation: “One bathroom for nine people? Yes.”

Of course, not everybody does “camping” the same way, but sometimes – the experience can be made far better with the right company, even if the “roughing it” part isn’t your cup of tea. Similarly, not everyone manages their relationship(s) in the same way, and an incompatibility with one potential partner may not be an issue with another.

Over on the book of faces, I run a closed group for the mono partners of polyfolk. It’s a support group of sorts for those of us who straddle two different worlds and perfectly fit in with neither. Our group is starting to hover near 300 people, the majority of whom are making it work. I also admin another group for both the poly and mono folk in mixed poly + mono relationships, which has a membership of over 9,000.

This morning, someone shared about their feelings of fear and discomfort in the knowledge that their partner was going to be having sexual intercourse with somebody outside of their relationship for the first time. They shared that the kind of feedback they received from their friends (who are all monogamous) vilified their partner, and made them feel even worse.

I say it often – that being in any kind of relationship, is not a guarantee that you are never going to have a bad day, or a bad feeling, or a negative reaction to something that’s happening that is outside of your control. But, finding a group of people who can be supportive, show empathy, and remind you to think of the reasons why you made the choice to explore something out of your comfort zone, rather than judge for them, can go a long way in helping you overcome those negative feelings.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I actually do hate camping – and yet: if my partner reallywanted to, I’d be open to having a conversation about what it is I despise about camping, i.e.: no access to toilets or running water, long hikes to reach a campsite, and things (other than my partner) that bite. Because there are campsites that you can drive to that have showers and toilets within a reasonable walking distance, and there are locations and climates that are less prone to mosquitoes and/or bears.

To be honest, the idea of looking up at the stars, fucking in the great outdoors, and the smells, tastes, and sounds of cooking over and making out next to a campfire does have some decent levels of romantic and hedonistic appeal to me.

But, if I were a Phyllis, and the only type of “camping” that could work for me was one that included a 24-hour room service menu, 10,000 thread count sheets, and HBO access – then I think we can all agree that it’s not reallycamping. And, to that point – I do agree with Ferrett 100%. If you’re going to be in a polyamorous relationship (even if you are not polyam yourself), then don’t try to make it look and feel like a monogamous one to protect your delicate sensibilities. Own the reality you’ve chosen, or choose a different reality.

On the other hand, if you’re the polyamorous person who is dating a monoamorous person, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the responsibility for the emotional labor in finding that poly/mono relationship sweet spot is entirely up to your mono partner. You are also part of the relationship equation, and would greatly benefit from learning how to validate and support someone through their uncomfortable feelings even when they’re inconvenient.

Validating does not mean enabling or agreeing with. It simply means saying “I hear you. I believe that it feels that way for you. I support your efforts to push through your discomfort, and I will make reasonable attempts to address your concerns where it’s in my power and appropriate.”

Yes – poly + mono success stories, though they are still a bit rare, are out there; but it’s important to remember that there is no guarantee that every relationship you want to be in is going to be the right relationship for you to be in. Whether you are polyamorous, monoamorous, ambiamorous, relationship anarchist or any other label that resonates with you – if you are absolutely miserable, then you CAN make a different choice.

Unless you can’t. I have compassion for those who feel stuck for reasons that are out of their control (finances, health, dependents, or abuse). I don’t have answers for those situations, but I hope you find yours soon.

Related Posts:

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Monocorn Sanctuary

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.

Possibilities are not guaranteed

Sometimes I see a pattern – people who want to know if it’s possible to be happy in a mixed mono + poly relationship, and …well, it is…but it’s not a guarantee. There’s not a “Follow these eight simple steps, and you will be a happy monocorn for EVAH!” There’s a lot that has to do with issues of compatibility. A lot of times it’s not so much the polyamorous aspects of the relationship that cause the problems…the problems already existed. The polyamorous aspects of the relationship expose them.

Whether it’s possible to be happy or not sometimes depends on how you respond to those exposed problems. And sometimes even if you did everything perfectly, it still won’t work.

All relationships are a gamble. Poly. Mono. Something in between. Something on another spectrum entirely. There’s no guarantee that it will work indefinitely. You can only succeed if you try, but even then…it’s not guaranteed.

We think “successful relationship” means “never ending.” If a relationship ends, it’s automatically a “failure.”

I don’t think that’s the case. I have learned something profoundly interesting about myself, my needs, and my wants from every relationship I’ve ever been in that didn’t last. Did that make them failures?

Not if the goal is to keep growing.

I’m so happy with my current poly partner that I don’t doubt there are people who hate me for it. My relationship is amazing. I often feel like it’s unfair how happy I get to be all the time.

But I don’t for a SECOND hang my hat up on the way it is right now and expect it never to change. That change might continue to include the two of us in a romantic entanglement together. I sure hope it does. I anticipate it will for a long while.  It might not.

I don’t try to predict the future. I live in the now.

Today, I am happy.

Ask me again tomorrow.

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.