Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Monogamy Is Over. So Is Polyamory.

A recent issue of Time magazine ran with the cover, "Is Monogamy Over?"

The consensus among the thinkers/cultural gurus who weighed in on this question seemed to be, "No, monogamy isn't over -- er, not exactly. Kind of. But not, like, TOTALLY over. Which is good, because monogamy can be a good thing for people. Kind of. At least in theory."

I disagree. I think monogamy IS over.

The mere fact that Time put that question on their cover demonstrates that our cultural narratives about relationships are changing, and changing pretty rapidly. I believe that within a few decades, most people's attitudes about relationships will look more like mine, whether or not they choose a lifestyle like mine. 

But don't get all excited (or freaked out, as the case may be) about the coming Ascendency of the Polyamorous World Order, because I also think polyamory is over.

What I see, from my vantage point, is that people are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with both "monogamy" and "polyamory", and what those labels imply. At nearly every "poly" gathering I have attended, someone says something like, "I don't know if I qualify as truly polyamorous, because...."

[Here are some of the "disqualfiers" I've heard: My partner and I are thinking about opening our relationship, but we're still in the experimental phase; I'm in a companionship marriage with my gay husband, and I don't even have another partner right now; I just broke up with partner A, which means now I'm only seeing partner B; I'm not dating at the moment, and neither is my wife, which I guess means we are technically monogamous; My live-in partner and I don't have sex any more, so my girlfriend is my only sex partner; I identify as asexual; I'm actually still a virgin; etc.]

I wonder if we need a new term to describe the new relationship paradigm that is in the process of emerging -- a term that denotes a collection of ideas about relationships, rather than a set of practices. (I know, I know: not another new term!)

Regardless of what we might call this collection of ideas, I'd like to take a stab at enumerating them. Here they are -- feel free to email me with any additions/deletions/clarifications/comments!

{EDIT: Quite a few people have pointed out that the ideas below sound a lot like Relationship Anarchy. I discuss RA, and the reasons why I don't feel comfortable calling myself a relationship anarchist, here.}

  • sex isn't bad or shameful
  • different people manifest sexuality in many different ways; as long as it's consensual, we shouldn't judge other people's sexual tastes or the way they choose to express themselves sexually (or not, in the case of people who identify as asexual)
  • sex isn't inherently private; robust, open communication about sex is good
  • open communication about your sexual history/activities is perhaps the most important “safer sex” practice you can implement (your partners are then able to give informed consent)
  • sex can be sacred outside of exclusivity and long-term commitment (in other words, it's not a choice between "sacred & monogamous" and "casual & promiscuous" sex)
  • there is no natural, non-arbitrary line we can draw to separate what's sexual and what isn't
  • people have the same right to express themselves sexually, and to engage in sex on their own terms, regardless of gender/orientation (there should be no double standard)

  • true intimacy depends on open communication (which depends on a bunch of other things, including self-knowledge, communication skills, and a commitment to honesty and transparency): “don't ask, don't tell” limits intimacy; indulging in intrigue or "mind" games can damage trust
  • intimacy is more valuable than privacy
  • intimacy depends on mutual consent and reciprocity (in other words, boundaries are healthy)
  • most people do better with multiple intimacies in their lives
  • people who celebrate and foster multiple intimacies will create stronger communities than those who limit their intimacies: what we want is deeper, more bonded communities brought together by mutual interest in intimacy, rather than a common interest in eradicating some hated Other
  • there is no clear distinction between sexual and non-sexual intimacy, because intimacy is holistic: it includes the whole person, and sexuality is part of that

  • you don't have to break up with a partner when things aren't perfect; there are all kinds of creative solutions to incompatibilities
  • likewise, you don't have to break up with one person because you are interested in another; it doesn't have to be “choose A or B”
  • DIY relationships are more rewarding than following a culturally sanctioned script, because they are of necessity engaged in more consciously (although some discourse on polyamory is getting script-y these days)
  • there are no relationship “givens”: agreements, terms, obligations do not magically occur because some event happens (“you slept with me, so that means X” or “you married me, so that means Y”), but because people sat down together and made an explicit agreement – and understand that those agreements must be revisited regularly
  • there is no ideal model for how a relationship should be
  • change is inevitable in any relationship (which is why agreements must be revisited to make sure they are still serving everyone's needs); and not every good relationship is sustainable
  • there is no “correct” trajectory for how change “should” happen in the course of a relationship
  • one person can't be everything to anyone (under this paradigm, no one ever has to ask, “Why am I not enough for you?” or “You like so-and-so? What's wrong with me?”)
  • the dyad is not the only locus of intimacy

  • jealousy doesn't equal love; it is better for your psychological health to let it go; it is totally possible to overcome, or at least minimize, your feelings of jealousy
  • jealousy, when examined, proves to be a collection of fears (abandonment, personal inadequacy, etc.)
  • it is possible to develop positive feelings in place of or in addition to jealous feelings, i.e. "compersion" (happiness because of a partner's happiness with another)
  • it is possible to experience romantic love for more than one person at a time (though since relationships tend to be at different stages, and to fill different needs, in practice this overlap isn't complete....)
  • you can't be honest with others unless you understand your own emotions and learn to communicate about them without holding others responsible for how you feel: you have to have a clear sense of where your ego boundaries are
  • the desire to control one's intimate partners is unhealthy, and it's worth working to overcome this desire to control them, because everyone is happier when autonomy is respected and nurtured

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Unrequited Love: My Metamours Wish I Didn't Exist

Dear Viny,

My husband “Scott” and I opened up our marriage almost 2 years ago. I've been seeing my boyfriend “Charles” for over a year and a half, and it's been a wonderful dating experience. My main struggle in this relationship has been, and continues to be, that Charles' wife, “Jessica,” does not want to get to know me. We met once at Charles' request, but only for 20 minutes because that was all that Jessica wanted. I don't feel a great need to be pals and hang out all the time with her, but I do feel that a certain degree of compassion can be gained by some sort of regular get-together. I want very much to express my caring for her and to let her know I understand who she is as the lovable woman Charles married. I want her to know that I care for her and her sweet family. Without any opportunity to communicate, we may secretly be as suspicious of one another as we want, and it almost feels as though we are vying for Charles' time and energy from opposing sides of the fence. I dream instead of being a united front, both of us on the “make Charles happy” team (his words).

Part 2: My husband struggled for a year with us being open, despite the opening up being his idea. Scott was worried that my connection with Charles was a sign that our marriage did not have the right kind of foundation (I disagree – I like our marriage and am grateful for the many ways we connect with one another and with lovers). So when Scott started dating “Megan” a few months ago, I went into it gently and supportively, having had his support for my relationship with Charles all this time. I was also a bit wary, though, given Scott's shaky assumptions about our own connection. The first problem is that Megan is single and very monogamously-minded. She simply cannot wrap her head around the fact that she has a deep and important connection with a married man. Working with Megan's struggle to accept the poly-ness of this situation has been stressful and causes me to worry that she secretly wishes and plans to have Scott all to herself. Add to it that she refuses to meet me because she'd rather me not be here at all...this is just more than I can support. My husband is out all the time with her and runs at a second's notice to put out the fire any time she cries about this. It is really out of balance, and he is feeling pulled by the opposing forces of two women who love him but aren't necessarily working together for the good of the whole group...we just want him to ourselves, at least right now. This isn't fair to him. I spent some time resenting her and thinking that she was just trying to make my life hard. Then one day, I learned that my inquiry into a job that might cross paths with hers caused her to cry, and I was overcome with compassion for her. I realized for the first time that she is truly having a hard time with this. It occurred to me that she is a deep-feeling, lovely soul who happens to have found a meaningful, intimate connection with a married man despite her personal wishes and ethics about it. Having felt that compassion for her, I can't go back to resenting her. I really feel for her. Now my problem is that I wish she would meet me, so I could explain that I see her side of this.

I have two metamours who prefer to compartmentalize their relationships with the men I love and who do not want to get to know me. I just want to have some time with them to let them know I care for them and to affirm we all want the same thing: for our men to feel loved and be happy. Am I selfish or wrong to want some degree of togetherness with my metamours? Maybe they are happier pretending away reality, and I should move as slowly as the most reluctant part...? My men are trying to behave as compassionately as possible, and although they don't want to push their other partners into meeting me when they aren't ready, they have both been gently pursuing the idea with my metamours. So what can I do now? Is it best to wait for everyone to come around while my men do their gentle work of getting my metamours on board?

Help me out of the cold and into my metamours' hearts,


Dear B,

I am impressed – and touched – by your letter, and I only wish your metamours could read it. If Jessica and Megan were able to see you for who you really are, I'm sure they would love you.

Of course, that's exactly the problem: they aren't able to see you. They aren't even looking. From your description, it sounds like both of your metamours have their heads deep in the sand of “Let's pretend she doesn't really matter.” Never mind that nothing grows in that sand. Never mind that it's desert all the way down, a fucking wasteland of miserly misery. At least it's better than the existential terror of “Maybe I don't really matter.”

We all want to feel like we matter. Unfortunately, many of us have been taught to measure our self-worth according to how much other people are willing to sacrifice to be with us – which explains why the idea of being someone's “one and only” is so appealing. The twisted logic goes like this: If my lover is willing to forsake all others, past and potential, then I must be incredibly valuable. (“See, I am worth more than all of the rest of them put together! I matter most!”) In contrast, if my lover gives up nothing to be with me, I might be worth nothing. Unless I can prove my value – typically at someone else's expense – I will worry that I am worthless.

No wonder your metamours don't want to see you: seeing you would mean facing their own fears.

Your situation is regrettably common, B. Far too many people in open relationships seem to think they can avoid anxiety by avoiding the people they imagine are causing it – an approach that's just about guaranteed to backfire. As strange as it might seem, meeting your lover's other lover(s) is actually the most effective antidote to the ickiness of jealousy.

You seem to understand this intuitively. The question is, how can you put your knowledge into practice? How do you meet someone who wants nothing more than to keep hiding from you? How do you help someone who doesn't want your help?


I don't have a good answer for you. There's not a lot of direct action you can take, given the circumstances. You are probably going to have to wait for Jessica and Megan to change their minds about how they want to handle being involved with men who are also involved with you. Your best bet for hurrying this process along is to try to convince Charles and Scott to use their influence to hurry the process along. To that end, it might be a good idea to see whether there is any reluctance on their part: do the men agree with you that it would be in everyone's best interest for you and your metamours to get to know each other better? Do they share your dream, or are they dubious? (In other words, are they pushing gently out of care and concern, or out of lack of conviction? It's an important distinction.)

While you are waiting, you have important work to do: your relationship with your husband is clearly suffering right now. You used the phrase, “This is just more than I can support,” and that's a big red flag. A phrase like that means a line has been crossed. You need to figure out where that line was, and hike right back to it, on the double. Maintaining your personal boundaries is not the same thing as putting your needs above those of others. Quite the contrary: good boundaries are actually a crucial component of compassion. Let your husband know what you need from him in order to support his other relationship, and then expect him to follow through. If it turns out that you cannot support his relationship with Megan unless Megan is willing to meet you, definitely tell him so -- with the understanding that meeting this particular need may not be within his power. In that case, you will have to approach Megan directly. Write her a letter explaining how you feel. Ask to meet her. Let her know that you're making this request because she matters to your husband, which means she also matters to you. Perhaps she'll listen. 

Mallows and willows,


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

My Metamour Doesn't Know What's Good for Her (And That's Bad for Me)

Dear Viny,

About eight months ago, my husband started dating a friend of ours. (We've been poly for a long time and I also have a long-term partner.) She is not poly nor really poly oriented but had such strong feelings for my husband that she wanted to give it a shot. (I get it. He's a pretty awesome guy.)

She is struggling with reconciling what she wants out of a relationship (and similarly, what she can expect) and what is possible. Unfortunately, her big picture wish list includes a husband and a monogamous relationship. I know this and I can't not know it... especially when she asks for things. I can't help but wonder if she's subconsciously trying to make this fit her needs even if it's fruitless. (And to answer the looming question, I am not concerned she is going to "cowgirl" away my spouse.)

Her getting more pretty much equals me accepting less, and because I can't see this as a "forever" situation, it's difficult to agree. I'll take this moment to say that I already have trouble understanding why anyone would engage in a relationship that ticks a number of the emotional buttons but leaves fundamental things unfulfilled – to each his or her own I suppose, but my brain always comes back to this.


Feeling Uncomfortable, Concerned and Kicky-Screamy


Dear F.U.C.K.S.,

That's one hell of a sign-off. I may need to establish an award for acronymic awesomeness. (So many of life's difficulties can be made just a little less onerous by getting some small token of recognition, don't you think?)

It seems that this question is a follow-up to a question I received several months ago. What I said then, about letting other people make their own mistakes, is still true. You may be entirely correct in your estimation that your metamour's needs would be better met in a relationship with someone other than your husband. However, monitoring her relationships is her responsibility, not yours. Yes, it is a royal pain when someone else seems to be floundering around, making less-than-enlightened life choices, especially when you are close enough to the flounderer to start worrying for your own emotional safety. But taking on someone else's personal issues is a quick ticket to Crazytown, because ultimately, you have very little control over anyone other than yourself. Influence, yes. Control, no.

The best way to approach this situation, in my opinion, is to operate from the assumption that your friend knows what's best for her, and your husband knows what's best for him – and to make peace with the possibility that what's best for them may include making messes you wish you didn't have to watch them clean up.

Your job is simply to do what's best for you. Obviously, what's best for you will include some consideration of what's best for other people, but stay focused on your relationships with them, rather than worrying about their relationships with each other. And avoid the temptation to wander off into “wonder” land. When you are asked to give, don't waste your precious emotional resources trying to figure out whether your sacrifice will end up being worth what someone else gets out of it. Instead, stick to questions you can actually answer, questions that will help guide you in your own relationships – such as, "How can I support my husband in his other relationship in a way that feels sustainable to me, regardless of what I see as the likely long-term outcome of that other relationship?" And, “How can I engage with my metamour in ways that feel good to me?”

In other words, keep your eyes on your own paper, pumpkin. Easier said than done, I know – especially for those of us who pride ourselves on how well we “read” other people.

Finally, may I suggest spending some one-on-one time with your metamour, sometime soon? Swear off conversing about the heavy relationship stuff, and just have a fun girls' night out. She's your friend, too, and reconnecting with her on that level might help you dial back the judgement and jack up the compassion – which would be good for everyone involved. Perhaps, if your friend feels more globally supported, she will be able to ask less and give more, too.

Peachy schnapps and lemondrops,