The title’s a bit of a mouthful, but let’s see where this goes.
Quite a while ago, Andrea Zanin wrote a piece called “The Problem with Polynormativity” (link is further down this post, just wait). Since reading it back in, what, last January(?), I’ve tried half a dozen times to come up with a response because she said some really smart stuff in it and her writing also made me defensive-angry at the same time.
And I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why.
As things do, stuff got put on the back-burner, and then taken entirely off the stove. And then, a little while back, I had a long chat with a friend who was dealing with some Relationship Stuff, and I started thinking about it again – not Andrea’s post, but the whole mess of how relationships work, and how there are so many different ways of doing “open relationship” that people can stumbled and get tangled no matter how much they want to make things work.
And then, last night, someone linked me to a rant (I will link to it further on in this post, but it’s called “The Problem with ‘the problem with polynormativity'”) written in response to some of the stuff that was brought up in Andrea’s post, but that is apparently making The Rounds through the “greater poly community” (for a given value of “greater”. Sometimes it feels a bit like a lot of this discussion happens in the U.S. pansexual community, and there are definitely some Cultural Differences going on between them and the Canadian Dykes).
Anyway. Moving right along. I decided that I could write this now, so I did.
To begin: Andrea’s post, which I haven’t read in a while. The following is what stuck with me when she first posted it, along with whatever a quick skim brings to mind.
Right. So:
In it she talks about how the model of polyamoury that most often (in the rare cases when this happens at all) gets acknowledged or discussed by those officially living within what Gayle Rubin calles The Charmed Circle of socially acceptable sexuality… is one that involve a pre-existing (monogamous) couple opening up their relationship to a third person whom they both want to date and whom (one can only hope) wants to date both of them. She talks about why this sucks and, while my quick skim has reminded me that some of the suckitude she’s talking about has to do with how having The Media only acknowledge one option in the poly-verse means that people looking at maybe trying consensually non-monogamous relationships wind up having only one version of non-monogamy easily available as an example, what I best remember from my original reading of her post is that the suck followed two intertwined Possible Results:
(A) The Third Romantic Partner having her[1] romantic and emotional needs (and investment!) totally thrown under the bus within a given 3+ relationship, but also
(B) Those Third Romantic Partners being viewed (by The Charmed Circle) as the weird ones (those freaks, those insatiable bisexuals, those home-wrecking sluts), should their dating-a-pre-existing-couple adventure not work out, while Bill and Joan are just a nice married couple who tried to spice things up and it was that home-wrecking slut who ruined everything, put their marriage in jeopardy, was too demanding, etc. etc.
I think we can all agree that Possible Result “A” is a horrible thing to do to anybody (at all, but particularly those you profess to care about), regardless of whether they’re your primary, your secondary, your Servant, your Boss, your spouse, your partner, your girlfriend, your friend-with-benefits, or your one-off play-partner at a party. I know we’re human and we all slip up occasionally or need to triage things in a crisis, but building that kind of behaviour into your relationship structure, before the relationship(s) itself even exists, really is a pretty awful thing to do to somebody[2].
Possible Result “B”, on the other hand, is significant more for reasons around social privilege. Who gets to have their relationship, their sexuality treated as Normal. I married my partner. Which means that she didn’t and can’t marry her other partners. And there’s social power in that wedding ring, in that certificate, and I know it. It means that I’m more likely to be the assumed “and guest” (singular) on any invitation she receives. It means that, if Ghost and Kitty and I sign up to play Ultimate Frisby with a group of largely monogamous, coupled-off people, it would most likely be assumed that Kitty was “our buddy” rather than being “my buddy” and “Ghost’s girlfriend”. In situations like that where the married-to-each-other people are also in the closet about dating outside of their diad[3] and so don’t correct those assumption when they crop up, this can leave the third party feeling like a second-class citizen or a dirty little secret rather than a beloved member of a triad. Which both (i) feeds back into Possible Result “A” and its related suckitude, but also (ii) means there’s a non-consensual power-imbalance at work that is going to heap additional social pressure on the Dirty Little Secret to suck it up and accept whatever crumbs she’s thrown because she’s not supposed to be there, anyway.
Are you with me so far?
So. Andrea’s article said a lot of good, sensible stuff.
And it also made me twitch in that defensive-angry kind of way.
And it wasn’t until last night (thence making this post today) that I really understood the why of that.
See, in my little corner of the polyverse, I’m a bit weird. I’m in an open relationship, and *want* to be in an open relationship… and I’m only dating one person. To-whom I’m married. I joke about being the most monogamous poly person I know.
And this thing – this “being the most monogamous poly person I know” thing – has had me feeling like I’m “not poly enough” on numerous occasions.
But I’ve also felt “not poly enough” because of my insecurities around abandonment and “being replaced” and my subsequent recurring (although getting less so) bouts of argy-bargy and angst around my partner’s many partners. My lovely wife/property has done me a tonne of good on that front because she always comes back and makes a point of checking in and being reassuring (in actions as well as in words). But the feeling persists (sometimes), and it bubbles up when I read articles that talk about hierarchical poly as being totally horrible and having zero redeeming qualities.
And last night I got linked to a post – a rant, which makes no bones about being what it is – about attachment-bonds, both secure and tenuous; about how the idea that “non-hierarchical poly is *easy* if you’re really poly and not just a monogamous person in disguise” (totally something my ex-gf did with me, fyi) is a pernicious nasty attitude that is showing up a lot these days[4]; and about how there are a lot of people who are trying poly, and who are marching through their worst, most end-of-the-world-is-nigh fears, in order to get this thing that they know in their guts is what they need, even though it’s terrifying… and that, because they’re installing safety nets and training wheels as they’re doing this, they’re being kind of spat upon by people whose bodies, for whatever reason, aren’t telling them that they are in immediate and life-threatening danger[5] every time their partner goes on a date or flirts with someone else or whatever.
… And this rant really cleared up a few things for me about why I get defensive when I read stuff that says “safety nets make you bad”. So I recommend that you read it, too.
Mildly tangential but related sidenote: So, I don’t know if any of you listen to Polyamory Weekly, but honest-to-gods, Minx irritates the hell out of me. Going by what she says in her podcasts, she’s a “solo-poly” type, someone who doesn’t want to be a live-in partner to anyone, that she has a lot to do, and appreciates the freedom of having her own space. All of which is totally fine and wonderful, and I can relate to a lot of it. But I find that, as someone who deliberately seeks out people to date who already have one or more significant peer-to-peer attachment bonds going on in their lives, her totally reasonable expectation that the other partners of her sweeties will treat her with respect and compassion… they turn sour in my mouth when she talks about people like me – anxious pre-existing partners who are struggling with this open-relationship stuff – with neither respect nor compassion. (Maybe she’s stopped doing that? It’s been a while since I listened to her show, for just that reason).
Maybe she does that because she been on the flip-side of that – the whole business of being thrown under the bus without a thought – too many times and she doesn’t have a lot of patience left for new people who are exhibiting the same behaviours that got her hurt before.
Fair enough. But you don’t put out a fire by throwing matches at it.
Anyway. I’m wondering if that’s the attitude that Much-Ado is referencing zir rant, more than the specifics of Andrea’s post or the “How Not To Ruin Polyamoury for Everybody” post that zi links to, later on (and that zir rant seems to be primarily about).
Right. Back on track.
Much-Ado’s post also brought up some questions for me because, honestly, a lot of poly people – and a lot of goths, pagans, queers, and other folks who also find Home within the context of open relationships and consensual non-monogamy – are *not* attachment-secure. But I’m wondering how many of us are attachment-avoidant (fear of being subsumed or devoured by our attach-ee).
I mean, me? I’m attachment-insecure. Through and through. Fear of abandonment all the way. It’s part of why I’m only dating one person – because I don’t want to screw up one or more relationships and lose everybody I care about as a result[6]. Being in an open relationship, for me, means that I have that “allowing” thing going on – I don’t have to police my own desires or my own sexuality the way I felt I had to in my monogamous relationship(s)[7] – but I’m (so far) largely uninterested in doing more, outside of my primary (only) romantic/power-exchange relationship than having occasional play dates with my friends. That could change. It could change drastically. I don’t know. But for now, that’s where things are at. 🙂
I had a girlfriend, once, who was attachment-avoidant through and through. I’m sure you can imagine just how well that one went. :-\
I’m wondering if the “poly is easy” (for a given value of “easy” – poly/non-monogamy/openness often get referred to as “graduate level” relationship styles for a reason) folks, the ones who have an easier (easier, not easy) time navigating the jealousy fears, or plugging into frubbly compersion, I wonder if they are as much “attachment-avoidant” and “attachment-secure”, or – maybe more accurately? – if they get to “attachment-secure” but started out as “attachment-avoidant”, which maybe made the possibility of both (a) multiple sweeties, but also (b) sweeties with multiple sweeties (aka: they won’t be around 100% of the time, so you won’t feel trapped or stuck) really appealing before they did the buckets of Self Work that are typically required if any of us want to make this consensual non-monogamy stuff work long-term and in healthy ways.
I have to admit that I’m just theorizing here. I can think of a couple of people off the top of my head who don’t (I don’t think) fit that particular mould, but who have an easier time with polyamoury than I do. So it’s not a one-size-fits-all theory by any stretch of the imagination.
None the less, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something (maybe) to this.
Ms Syren.
[1] It’s very, very frequently a her – see “hot bi babe”, but also see “one penis rule” and the way pansexual sometimes gets described as “pansexual” (with air-quotes) because it frequently means “heterosexual cis men and bisexual or bi-curious cis women in heterosexual relationships” and sexual interactions that are reminiscent of traditional Swinger culture.
[2] Although it too reading a different article, by a different author (So Somebody Called You a Unicorn Hunter), for me to really wrap my head around the how and why of that. The article takes the “couple + 1” relationship model apart a bit and explains why stuff that looks really good – and *is* really good, and even comes (at least some of the time) from a place of compassion – on paper… pretty much goes to hell in a hand-cart once actual real Additional Romantic Partners are involved. It was a big help for me, so I encourage you to read that one, as well. 🙂
[3] Because of the above-mentioned social privilege that comes with monogamy.
[4] For a given value of “a lot”.
[5] Uh. This all has to do with attachment bonding. Which, until relatively recently, was understood as something that happened (or failed to happen) between parents and children. More recently, it’s starting to be used as a model for understanding how adult peer-to-peer relationships (like romantic relationships) work, as well. Emily Nagoski did a great quartet of videos – here, here, here, and here – talking about this far better than I can. 🙂 Go watch them, they are awesome. 🙂 Part One is the one that explains about the whole “feeling like you’re going to die” thing, fyi. 🙂
[6] Having never dated more than one person at a time, I can pretty-much guarantee that I will screw it up somewhere. I’m human. It’s what we do.
[7] My big, married, hetro-monogamous relationship, by the way, was a pretty wretched, controlling relationship. Not all monogamy (or herterosexuality) is like this, fyi.