Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Joys (and Dangers?) of Living in a Poly-Friendly Bubble

A couple of days ago, my 87-year-old co-housing neighbor -- I'll call her Claire -- told me she had been meaning to ask me about my "alternative lifestyle." We were hanging out together while I made her some dinner, because her regular caretaker was sick and her back-up caretaker was out of town. Claire is a 4-foot-10-inch dynamo, sharp as a tack, but she had a stroke a couple of years ago and does better with some daily assistance. She and I proceeded to have a completely comfortable conversation, with her at the sink washing strawberries she had just picked from her garden plot and me chopping vegetables for soup. It went something like this:

Claire: I'm just so curious. How does it work for people like you, who have more than one partner? Are you able to be honest about it with the children? What do they know?

Me: At this point, it just works, you know? Everyone gets along, everyone's fine, it's all good. As for the kids, they know the whole story, basically. We told Denali [age 18] about our open marriage when he was about nine. And I just explained it to Sienna [age 7] a couple of weeks ago, actually: she said to me one morning, totally out of the blue, "Mama, you have two boyfriends." I said, "Oh? Who are they?", and she said, "Cam and Daddy, of course!"

Claire: She figured it out! What a smart girl!

Me: She totally did. So then I said, "A lot of people have just one boyfriend or girlfriend at a time, but some people have more than one." And that was really all she needed to hear.

Claire: I suppose it's just normal for her. She's used to it by now.

Me: Exactly. It's not a big deal. I wasn't sure, when we first moved here, what people were going to think. But everyone has been really accepting, not judgemental at all. And it's also great that everyone seems to like both Parker and Cam. I mean, of course they would: they're both great -- each in his own way. They're very different from each other.

Claire: I'll say! Very different!

Me: Well, Claire, here's a tip from me, just in case you ever want to join the polyamorous club: if you're going to have more than one man around, you don't want them to be exactly the same as each other. What would be the point of that?

Claire [laughing]: Of course not -- they need to be different! I think it's simply marvelous, the way you have it all arranged.

This exchange stood out to me, not because it was in any way uncommon, but because it reminded me how uncommonly lucky I am. These days, most of the non-poly people I meet are like Claire: curious about how my life "works," but completely open to the idea that it does work. However, not everyone who chooses to be open about being open is going to get such a friendly reception from the neighbors. Some people in alternative relationships would be risking social censure, or worse, if they were "out" about their lifestyle.

There are places in the world where adultery is still considered a punishable offense. There are people -- women, mostly -- who have been stoned to death for far less than I have done.

Which means there are people out there who believe that someone like me deserves to die.

It's easy to forget that. I mean, I live in an ecovillage in the Pacific Northwest, among urban gardeners, political activists, nomads, and hipsters. It's a very poly-friendly bubble. You can't throw a set of hand-carved tribal ear plugs or a gluten-free, saffron-scented macaron into the Portland crowd without hitting one of us. On the second Sunday of every month, I get together with a group of a dozen other poly mamas. It's just normal for us. We're used to it. We're lucky.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Buddhist's Critique of Polyamory

This morning, as I was contemplating what I ought to write about, now that I am free to swim in the topical seas of polyamory like a parasailing jellyfish every Tuesday, letter or no letter, I came across this article from the creators of the movie Monogamish (not yet released), and I thought to myself: bingo.

Aptly titled "A Buddhist's Insights: Sustaining Love in Relationships," the article is about what an emotionally and spiritually mature relationship looks like. It's also a pretty harsh critique of polyamory. Says Fabrizio Chieza, "From what I have seen over the years, people who preach about...open relationships, no matter how eloquent they may be about the philosophy behind it, do so for fundamentally selfish reasons."

Them's fightin' words. 

Here are some more excerpts of what Chieza has to say (in blue), followed by my comments:

If you don’t try to deeply know yourself, to see how conditioned you are, and how most of the time you are not really acting but just reacting, if you never trained yourself to observe your emotions and thoughts, to see how compulsive and repetitive they are, and you never tried to unroot the negative ones, then you will never be able to have a stable and healthy relationship — and monogamy will feel like a prison. Your relationship with your partner will always be conditional on how well he or she caters to your needs and wants. In the same way that we tend to alternate moments of self-loathing with moments of self-adoration, we do the same with our partners. More so even, we keep projecting on our successive partners our own frustrations and humiliations. When you’ll be bored with yourself, you’ll be bored with them. And when you’ll want to hurt and sabotage yourself, you’ll hurt them.

I agree with him completely here -- but I resent the implication that anyone who feels like monogamy is a prison is someone who has failed to develop the self-knowledge and discipline required to treat oneself and others well.

[O]nly emotionally and spiritually mature people can have an occasionally open relationship without inevitably losing their partner’s TRUST.

Again, agreed. But what's with the word "occasionally" here? Well, it turns out that Chieza is not categorically opposed to extramarital (or extra-couple) sex:

If both partners in a couple really aspire to make the other person happy, the right compromises about sexual exclusivity can be made. That means that one, or both, could allow the other to have occasional sexual encounters with third parties when it’s not the self-defeating repetition of a compulsive craving, but rather something that will truly make your beloved happy, and strengthen your friendship.

Aha: so, "occasional sexual encounters" with "third parties" might be okay, in certain situations, but an actual relationship with someone other than the one person you're supposed to be all couple-y with, now that is a different story! Because, as we all know, The Couple is the end-all, be-all of human relating: human beings come in halves; only by finding your better half can you become a whole entity; and since only two halves are required to make one whole, any person outside the couple is by definition "extra" -- a gift to be given, an indulgence allowed.

[Which brings me to my biggest concern with the Monogamish movie, and the term "monogamish" in general: Does that "ish" do nothing more than disguise the fact that we're actually still mired in business-as-usual bullshit? Does it reinforce the idea that relationship equals ownership? Is it another excuse for "couple privilege" and the messes it makes (e.g., failing to treat "third parties" ethically, because one's real allegiance is to the almighty couple and only to the two people therein)? I guess we'll see....]

If I am in a swinging relationship to begin with, let alone a polyamorous one, it will be even easier to leave that main partner who has become a burden. The “polyamorous community” has tried to deal with this problem by making up a set of rules (uh oh, here we go again), a little bit like the rules at swinger parties: when your main relationship is in trouble, you should abstain from seeing other sexual partners — unless you decided to break up — until the problem is resolved … Sounds great, but no one really follows those rules when they become too uncomfortable or inconvenienced. Who’s going to enforce them anyway? Not the church, not the government, not the neighbors. And your friends most of time will just say whatever you want to hear.

Whoa: "...let alone a polyamorous one"? And what's with the scare quotes around "polyamorous community"?

Tell us how you really feel about polyamory, Chieza.

They want some stability for the down times, but also excitement in the high times. More importantly they want to keep their options open, and keep experiencing the thrill of ego-boosting seduction. Contemporary Western society which promotes both self-affirmation and the myth of romantic love encourages this kind of attitude. It’s a consumeristic, opportunistic, A.D.D. approach to human relationship

There we have it. Apparently, people who practice polyamory are not capable of the kind of discipline, devotion, and commitment that sustainable relationships require. We're all so busy running after the Next New Shiny that we never learn the Really Important Stuff -- namely: 

• The less egocentric you become, the more generous and kind your love becomes, and the more you want to allow your partner to be fulfilled — in any way, including sexually. You may even offer your wonderful lover to a friend who you think would benefit from his/her attentions.
• The deeper you understand that everything changes constantly, the more equanimity you will have if the relationship evolves, and goes through unsettling stages. You know that the tough times will pass too.
• The more you know who and what you really are, the less you’ll be afraid to be alone. Therefore the more you’ll be able to love another human being without losing your center, without betraying your true self. The less afraid you are to be dumped, the less you’ll be inclined to make pre-emptive strikes.
• The more you learn to trust your life, with all its inevitable disappointments and contradictions, the more you can accept contradiction from your partner, and deal with it skillfully.

Funny -- I would've said these are all things I have learned in my polyamorous relationships. (Well, except that bit about the Limited Time Offer, the loophole through which I give MY lover to MY friend, temporarily, if I feel like sharing.) Huh.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Best Time-Management Tip Ever (When You're Poly and In Demand)

Dear Viny,

I'm writing because I am looking for time management strategies for people in multiple relationships. Everyone in my life is important, and I don't see who or what I could cut out, but I feel overwhelmed sometimes. I feel bad for complaining, since I know I am lucky to have so much love in my life. There are people that would appreciate being in even just one relationship. Yet, it's like no matter what I decide to do in the free time I have (which is not a lot), I am worried someone is feeling left out, or I think I am probably forgetting something crucial, or getting way behind on something I should be attending to. Do you have any suggestions for how to fix this?

Stressed Out

Dear Stressed,

When I was in graduate school, I had to put together a dissertation committee that included members who were specifically outside my area of expertise, and that meant approaching professors I didn't know well. In response to my humble request for a tiny smidge of his valuable time, one guy – we'll call him Dr. Snooty Bigname – came out with this gem: “Everyone wants a piece of my action.” I almost laughed, until I saw that he was completely serious. Ever since then, whenever I or one of my partners complains about not having enough time, someone will tease, “Aw, poor popular baby! Everyone wants a piece of your action!”

It's tough being in demand, isn't it? And part of what makes it so tough is that you feel like a total heel if you complain about it. First-world problems, and all that.

Yes, Stressed, there are probably people out there who only *wish* they were dealing with your issues right now. It's good to have some perspective, to realize that you are indeed very fortunate. But don't let your gratitude turn into guilt. Those of us who are rich in relationships do have problems we have to address, and feeling like “everyone wants a piece of my action, but there's not enough of me to go around” can be a real challenge.

I could write for hours on this topic – but unfortunately, I don't have hours at my disposal right now. I have 30 minutes, if that. So here's what I am going to do: I'm gonna skip all the advice about scheduling and identifying priorities and all that, and go straight to my Number One Tip for How to Feel Like You Have Enough Time for All the Very Important People in Your Life, which is actually super simple:

Start with yourself, and spend some quality time alone.

I'm serious. When did you last give yourself the kind of attention you're giving to others? When did you last devote a substantial amount of time to self-care (without worrying that you were somehow “wasting” time you could have spent connecting with loved ones)? If your answer is, “Um...???”, then you have indeed been neglecting your most important responsibility.

It may seem counter-intuitive to spend more time alone when you're already concerned that you aren't spending enough time with other people, but you have to remember that there is an inverse correlation between how stressed out you feel and how “there” you are able to be for someone else. If your emotional reserves are depleted, you have nothing to give. Obvious? Maybe. Or maybe not. In my experience, introverts are better at monitoring that blinking “need to refuel” light on their internal dashboards; those of us who are more extroverted are too often running on fumes before it occurs to us that we'd better pop into the “Me Time” station for some much-needed petrol if we don't want to break down in rush-hour traffic. Whether you are introverted or extroverted, though, it is an undeniable truth that being in multiple intimate relationships takes more energy. Which means you are actually going to have to refuel more often than someone in one relationship, not less.

I wish I could say more, but this is going to have to suffice for now, because I'm off to the Oregon coast for my annual “two days all to myself” retreat. Should you happen to run into me, sitting alone in a cafe with my cup of clam chowder, or running along the beach, a lone figure against a backdrop of ocean and windswept sand, please don't say hello. ;-)

Seashells and Sympathy,

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Tuesdays with Viny

Dearest Readers,

I know, I know: I'm completely subverting the “advice column” paradigm I've set up here, but I have an important announcement to make.

Drumroll, please....

I have decided to write a post every week, whether or not I have a letter to answer. Today officially marks the first installment of Tuesdays with Viny.

(Note: I read something yesterday about how it's important not to tell others about your goals, because research since the 1930's has apparently confirmed that people who share their goals are less likely to achieve them. So I would just like to state, for the record, that writing a post every Tuesday is a plan, not a goal.)

So, a little bit about how this is going to work:

No, I won't be changing the name of my blog. It's still going to be called Dear Viny. And I'll continue to post responses to people who've written in with questions, of course. I do respond to every letter I get, at least briefly, even though I don't post every exchange on my blog. It's just that I no longer want my content to be so limited by my form. I am looking forward to exploring topics I think are relevant and interesting, even if no one else is talking about them (yet). So, as always, dearest readers, please feel free to communicate with me. I'd love to hear from you, whether or not you need advice – you're most welcome to give me topic suggestions, or share your own perspective about something I've said, or ask for clarification, or whatever.

Now that I've gotten the big announcement out of the way, let me tell you how the idea of Dear Viny was first conceived, just 'cause I've been feeling all nostalgic and reflective lately (prolly has to do with the fact that my eighteen-year-old son will be heading off to college in a few months...sniff, sniff).

Dear Viny actually has three “parents” – isn't that just perfectly apropos?

1) My previous blog, Viny's Little Black Book, which I retired right before moving to Portland in June of 2011. When I began that blog, I had no intention of keeping it going indefinitely, and it was a relief to write the concluding post. There is something really disconcerting about putting one's private life – and the lives of family, friends, and lovers – on display, even in anonymous/pseudonymous mode. However, after few months went by, I found myself really missing that particular writing relationship. So I started a new blog under my real name, a totally-safe-for-work series of meta-musings on writing and creativity, but I quickly bored of the project. I was craving juice, not some recursive postmodern frappe served by up by mimes in ironic hats.

2) My envy of Cheryl Strayed. I had just read Wild (this was before the movie was even announced). Wild is about Strayed's adventures hiking the Pacific Crest Trail – which I happen to've hiked with my husband in 1994. Well, okay, we hiked part of it: 1,100 miles, north to south, from Ashland, Oregon, to just south of Mount Whitney in California. I kept a detailed journal on that journey, and had always thought that I might one day use it in my writing somehow. But now it was too late: Cheryl Strayed had already planted her flag in that fertile ground. Then I read Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. That book is a collection of letters Strayed wrote while working as an advice columnist for The Rumpus. Another me-shaped niche fully occupied by Cheryl Strayed. The lady had not only managed to beat me to my book about the PCT, but she'd also managed to land my dream job. Well, fuck, I thought, what does the world need me for? It's got Cheryl. (Classic green-eyed monster malarky, for sure.)

3) Getting asked, for the third time in a week, for relationship advice by someone I hardly knew. Ever since I decided to start “coming out” as polyamorous (my version of polyamorous, anyway – we can quibble about terms 'til the cows come home, but who really wants to be standing in semantic bullshit at sunset?), I have been fielding relationship questions nearly nonstop – or so it sometimes seems. Let's say I go to coffee with an acquaintance, and the subject of some sex scandal comes up, and I mention that my spouse and I are not monogamous. That, in fact, I am happily involved in more than one long-term, committed relationship. The initial response is usually something like, “Oh, really? Huh, that's...interesting,” followed by a blank look, as they “check out” of the conversation in order to process this bizarre bit of trivia. More often than not, the very next meaningful thing out of their mouths is some kind of intimate confession. It might take two minutes, or it might take two weeks, but when they are ready to check back in, they often have a secret to share. It's odd. Saying, “I'm in an open marriage” is apparently the emotional, relational equivalent of saying “open sesame”: utter the magic words, and people reveal themselves.

So, put those three things together – I missed writing in my little black book; I realized it was absurd to think there wasn't enough room for me and Cheryl in this great big world; I was reminded that there are people out there who might value my perspective and appreciate my help – and presto!

Maybe another time, on some Tuesday in the future, I'll share some highlights from Dear Viny's first couple of years. I know y'all can't wait! ;-)

Exit polls & Jellyrolls,