Thursday, September 25, 2014

"We're Poly, She's Not": The Problem with Poly-Mono Pairings (And Why Exercising Veto Power Isn't the Solution)

Dear Viny,

My husband came back from Burning Man having connected with a longtime mutual friend of ours. The problem? We're poly and she's not. Admittedly, I have my own triggers about his relationships because his last one was spectacularly one-for-the-record-books bad. This time around, we've made a serious effort to do things right and I'm feeling supported and assured. 

We met her at the same time so she's very much *our* friend. Therefore, there is none of the “you're-befriending-me-because-you-want-to-bone-my-husband” worry, and this is good. Up until recently, she was in a long term relationship and we had, in passing, conversations about our "lifestyle" (I hate this word because it sounds like we spend excessive time agonizing at the grocery store about which vegetables are appropriate for insertion. Nevertheless, it's probably the correct word for the situation).  

She is giving the situation a lot of thought because the idea of poly interferes with her long time supposed goals for herself. (I say supposed because she's at the age where you start being really honest with yourself about what you actually want vs. what you always thought you wanted... or would want.) I commend her for recognizing the gravity of the situation and not taking it lightly. 

She and DH have had many talks about it and she and I finally got together recently to discuss things. To put it bluntly, I am nervous about the prospect of her overcoming her resistance to poly just because she has feelings for my awesome spouse. In order for her to do this, she has to "get over" his having a wife. While I recognize it isn't specifically personal because she likes me and we get along, it still IS personal because my husband and I have spent most of our adult lives together and we *are* part of each other. 

Tell me, oh storied one...  Are there poly monsters under my bed?  Am I fussing over nothing? 

Yours truly,
Perturbed in P-town


Dear Perturbed,

You're not fussing over nothing. Your letter gave me a quick peek behind that oh-so-chic dust ruffle of yours, and I'm pretty sure you've got something furry and clawed hiding under your bed.

No, it's not the cat. And it's not the fabled green-eyed monster of jealousy, either, because that particular critter is curled up on top of your bed, in plain sight, along with the hard-nosed monster of cynicism and the thin-skinned monster of insecurity. As you know, a monster you've tamed isn't a monster at all. The puppy-pile of nuisances napping on your afghan isn't what's freaking you out, because those are the issues you've already identified, and you obviously already know how to deal with them when they arise.

I don't have a clever name for the monster currently keeping you up at night, but I can try to describe some of its characteristics. It has big eyes, big ears, and fuzzy boundaries. Commonly found under the beds of people whose lives are entwined with those of others, it feeds on a very specific kind of fear, which is this: someone I love is about to fuck up.

I can see why you would be worried that the romance developing between Dear Husband and your mutual friend might turn out to be a mistake. Your friend's “resistance to poly” is a huge red flag. Yes, she is in the process of re-evaluating who she is and what she wants, so it's possible that she will end up deciding she wants to be in a relationship with your husband – not in spite of you, but partly because of you! – which would be groovy as all git-out. Or, she might decide that while she herself prefers to be monogamous, she is perfectly happy sharing your husband with you. However, it seems somewhat more likely that she will end up deciding she really is monogamous by nature, and would prefer to be in a monogamous relationship. Which would be decidedly less groovy.

The reason why so many poly people have a “poly-only” dating policy is because they have experienced first-hand the many miserable ways in which a poly-mono pairing can devolve into drama and dysfunction. I was once in love with a man who took seven and a half tumultuous years to realize an important truth about himself, which was (to quote him verbatim): “I can't be healthy around you when I have romantic feelings for you and you are in a poly lifestyle.” Either I had to let go of my lifestyle, or I had to let go of him. Since my “lifestyle” at that time included a husband, a new lover, a metamour whose friendship I really valued, a set of personal convictions, an ideology, an identity, and a future in which I would be free to nourish other intimate connections and express my sexuality however I chose, with whomever I chose – well, I did the only sane thing. I let him go. And I vowed I would never again allow myself to become romantically involved with someone who could not accept me as I am.

I didn't share this story in the hopes that your husband will learn from my example and nip this new relationship in the bud, before it has a chance to get all overblown and blowsy. I shared it to explain why I am pessimistic about the chances of a poly-mono pairing working out long-term, and why I can understand your fussing. If one of my partners fell in love with someone whose response to the burgeoning romance was something along the lines of, “Too bad you're not single! Oh, well...I'll try to overlook that Viny person...for now,” I would be crawling the walls. I would be sorely tempted to put both my feet down: “So sorry, honeybee, but it's a definite ix-nay on this one. Trust me: been there, done that, and it's a disaster. I can't stand by and watch you get hurt.”

Yes, if I were in your situation, and I had veto power, I would be tempted to use it. And this is precisely why I don't have veto power in my relationships: I don't want to be tempted. In my opinion, the concept of veto power does not belong in intimate relationships between equals.

I realize this is a controversial statement. Many poly couples explicitly include veto power in their relationship agreements. Unfortunately, I don't have enough time right now to go into the well-reasoned disquisition this topic deserves, but I will say this: I believe that people should be free to make their own mistakes.

Notice I said “mistakes,” not “decisions.” Not every decision can – or should – be an individual decision. Mistakes, however, properly belong to the individual. If it is a mistake for your friend to get involved with your husband, given the goals she has for her life, then that is her mistake to make. If it is a mistake for your husband to get involved with this particular woman, given her resistance to poly, then that is his mistake to make.

This brings us back to the monster that has taken up residence under your bed. I suspect that the source of much of your current anxiety is uncertainty about the extent of your responsibility in this situation. I would like to submit that it is not your responsibility to decide whether or not your husband and your friend should continue to explore their connection. It is not your responsibility to make sure your husband doesn't get himself into another mess. It is not your responsibility to make sure your friend meets a certain “percentage of time spent soul-searching” quota before she begins experimenting with a new relationship paradigm. You can share your concerns with each of them, of course. In fact, you owe it to yourself – and to them – to communicate clearly how you are feeling, to speak up about what you want and need. But that is where your responsibility ends.

Granted, it's not easy to let our loved ones conduct their other relationships their own way. I have to remind myself to back off constantly. However, there is great peace of mind to be found in trusting others to take care of themselves – by trusting them to learn whatever they need to learn from making their own mistakes.

Pickles and Peccadilloes,

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sexual Intimacy vs. Non-sexual Intimacy

Dear Viny,

I have what may be an odd question. (Or maybe not.) I'm not really in an “alternative” relationship, so I don’t know if my concern is unusual.

My husband has what I would call a girlfriend. He plays tennis with her two times a week and they share a passion for astronomy, so they're always sending each other links to articles and so on. And they talk on the phone every day. What concerns me (maybe I’m just weird) is not the possibility that they're having sex. (He assures me it's not a sexual relationship, and I think I believe him.) It's actually the other parts of their relationship that bother me. What I want to know I guess is whether sexual intimacy or non-sexual intimacy is more threatening?



Dear C.,

If I were a chiropractor, and you walked in with a spine shaped like the question you just asked, I'd be tempted to give you an adjustment before you even sat down to give me your health history, and that would be unwise. Luckily, however, I am merely an advice columnist, not a chiropractor. Tweaking your question may cause some momentary discomfort, but there will be no lasting damage if I get it wrong. So, let's risk it.

Take a deep breath in. Count to three. Now exhale, slowly, and rephrase:

My husband has a girlfriend. (So what's wrong with ME?) She likes tennis and astronomy, and I don't. (Does that mean there's something wrong with me?) He talks to her every day, about stuff that matters to him. (Why doesn't he talk to me the way he talks to her? Is something wrong with me?) He says he's not having sex with her, but secretly, I kind of wish he were. (What the fuck is WRONG with me?!) If it were just sex, I probably wouldn't feel as threatened. (Is that normal, Viny, or is there something wrong with me?)

Put your hand on your heart, C., and take a look at those parentheticals. Have we gotten any closer to saying it straight? If so, read on. If not, feel free to click that little “x” and go make make yourself some carrot biscuits or something.

Still with me? Yes? All right, then!

As far as I can tell, you're not weird at all. I mean, for all I know, you sleep upside down in a violet velour bat costume and brush your teeth with Cracker Jacks – but there's nothing weird about what you shared in your letter. Many people in committed relationships feel threatened by the idea of their partner being intimate with another person. Many of these same people feel aroused by the idea of their partner having sex with another person. (This may seem like a contradiction, but it isn't. That's because intimacy and sex are not the same thing. You can have hot sex without being intimate, just like you can have hot coffee without being intimate.) Anyway, whatever seemingly-strange, seemingly-conflicting emotions and desires have been coming up for you, C., they are most assuredly normal. 

Now, would you please stop comparing yourself to other people – especially your husband's girlfriend? Her being the person she is doesn't make you a better or worse person than you are. I understand the temptation to compare, I really do, but I promise you that nothing good comes of it. There is no security to be found in "better than" and "worse than." Trying to figure out how you measure up or where you stand in relation to someone else just feeds your jealousy. In my opinion, you need to get out of the "me vs. her" mindset entirely. 

Still speaking of comparisons, but moving on: you wanted to know which is more threatening, sexual intimacy or non-sexual intimacy. My answer to that question is that there is no difference between the two. Intimacy is intimacy. The sex is irrelevant. That sounds like an extreme position, I know, but there are mainstream marriage “experts” who would agree with me. For example, Shirley Glass, the author of Not “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity, argues that it's not necessary to have sex in order to be unfaithful. She warns couples about the dangers of “emotional infidelity” – or, in other words, being intimate with anyone other than each other. I think Glass is right to be suspicious of non-sexual intimacy, because there is no such thing as non-sexual intimacy. When you are truly intimate with someone, you see them as a whole person. You can’t divide them into sexual bits and non-sexual bits, and then cherry pick only those bits that feel safe to you and/or your significant other. Whether they happen to be gay or straight or bi or asexual or pansexual or queer or kinky or engaged in some fluid process of exploring who they are and how they want to express themselves, human beings have sexual histories and sexual identities. They have thoughts and ideas and philosophies about sex. Whether they choose to have sex or not, they can’t be intimate without also being sexual, because they are sexual beings.

To someone like Shirley Glass, this is a reason to avoid intimacy. To someone like me, this is a reason to learn how to deal with jealousy – my own, and other people's – so that I can fearlessly embrace intimacy, wherever and however it may bloom.

Eros and Bandoleros,

Monday, September 1, 2014

I Wish My Girlfriend Had Another Boyfriend

Dear Viny,  

I am a 17 year old male, with a girlfriend about my age. We've been dating for just over a year, but in the past few months, things have been getting worse and worse. We fight more and more about little things, and she seems to always need more attention than I am capable of providing. I love her, but she turns to me to solve all of her problems, which I struggle to keep up with. I can't be too sure, but I think it has something to do with her fear of abandonment, most likely fostered by her alcoholic and emotionally unavailable parents, as well as her verbally abusive older sister. She has no emotional support other than whoever she's dating. As a last attempt to fix our relationship, I have recently been considering the idea of suggesting polyamory, something that has worked for several people (of all ages) whom I know, in the hopes that it might help us both to have other people to be intimate with. Maybe if we had some more support and new perspectives, it could help to take the pressure off. Do you think this is a good idea? And if not, what should I do instead? 

- The Rambler 


Dear Rambler,

I think you are wise to see that you and your girlfriend could both benefit from expanding your support network. One of polyamory's great contributions to popular culture is that it provides a radical validation of the not-so-radical idea that people do better when they are able to cultivate close, meaningful relationships with more than one person at a time. However, polyamory is certainly not the only way to avoid dumping all of your emotional needs on one overburdened partner – and thank the glutenous appendages of the Great Spaghetti Monster for that, because I think polyamory would be a really bad idea for you and your girlfriend right now.

There are probably polyfolk out there who would tell you that polyamory isn't on the Relationship 101 syllabus, and therefore you'd be better off sticking with monogamy until you've learned the basics. I think that's patronizing. It puts down young and inexperienced people, who are presumed to be incapable of choosing the relationship dynamic that's right for them, and it puts down people who choose to be monogamous by implying that monogamy is super simple, a piece of no-bake cheesecake right out of the box.

The reason polyamory isn't right for you right now isn't because you're still a teenager. It's because you are approaching polyamory as a means to an end. And I mean that in two ways: 1) you want to fix a problem, and are considering polyamory as a last-ditch means to accomplish that end; and 2) you seem to be hoping that polyamory will somehow provide you with a way out of your current predicament, an end to your discomfort. Maybe I'm reading too much into the phrase, “As a last attempt to fix our relationship....” And maybe you chose your pseudonym without ever having heard the lyrics to the Allman Brothers song that's currently looping through my brain: Lord, I was born a ramblin' man / Tryin' to make a living, and doin' the best I can / And when it's time for leaving, I hope you'll understand / That I was born a ramblin' man. 

Yep, call me crazy, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you've got at least one foot out the door already. 

No matter what age you are, bringing other people onto a sinking ship is a bad idea. It's not fair to them, and it's not fair to you. I'm not saying you have to have a perfect relationship before you can consider opening it up and dating other people. No relationship is perfect. What I'm saying is there's a big difference between telling your girlfriend, “There are so many great things about us as a couple, and I want to work on the long-term sustainability of our relationship by making sure we each get the breathing room we need,” and telling her, “We're so fucking miserable we might as well add a couple of other people into this messed-up mix and just see what happens – 'cuz it's not like it can get any worse than it already is, right?” (Wrong. It can get worse. A lot worse.)

In other words: polyamory is not a good exit strategy.

So, what do I think you should do instead? Well, for starters, I think you should listen to your heart. Do you want to be in this relationship, or don't you? If you're unclear about the answer to that question – if you feel an ambivalent mix of “yes” and “no” – then make a list of all the reasons why you want to stay, and another list of all the reasons why you want to go, and see if you can find any patterns. As you're reading through your lists, please remember this: fear is not a good reason to stay. (It's also not a good reason to go.) Once you're clear, communicate. Share your thoughts and feelings with your girlfriend, gently and compassionately.

Secondly, from what you've said, it sounds like your girlfriend might need professional counseling and/or a support group to help her deal with the problems she is having at home as a result of her parents' alcoholism. Alcoholism is a serious disease, and it wreaks havoc on relationships. Fear of abandonment is just the tip of the iceberg! There's also low self- esteem (typically the result over-estimating one's ability to control someone else's drinking, and utterly failing), and co-dependence, and enabling behaviors – and the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, Rambler, your girlfriend has grown up in a pretty dysfunctional family. She will have to work hard to unlearn the lessons her parents have unwittingly taught her about what it means to be in a relationship with another person. I strongly recommend that she check out Al-Anon/Alateen, which provides fellowship for friends and family members of alcoholics. There is probably a group that meets in your area (you can find out here). You could consider attending meetings with her, if you feel that would help. Be advised that there's a religious element to most 12-step programs, which some people might find off-putting (I know I do, anyway!) – but at least it's a starting point for building a support network of people who are dealing with similar issues and can recommend other good resources.

Finally, whether you stay or go, one of the nicest things you can do for this girl you love is to model healthy relationship habits. So be true to yourself, and be honest with her. That may mean acknowledging that the relationship is over, and moving on. It may mean taking a break for a while. Or it may mean setting some boundaries, so that you each have the space you need to become strong, independent people, and you each have the time you need to cultivate other interests and friendships.

Thanks for writing. I'm honored that you consulted me, and I wish you both the very best.

Summer Shade & Lemonade,