20 Years of Polyamory: The Poly I’m Not
(Photo credit: Anil Jadhav)
Read the whole 8 part series:
The Poly I’m Not
I don’t really have any negative thoughts about monogamy. I’ve held some over the years, but as I said in the Thoughts on Monogamy post, over time I’ve come to understand monogamy much better. On the other hand, I do have some judgement about some flavors of polyamorous relationships. I should probably try to take the same view as I do with monogamy – it’s not for me, but it works for other people, and that’s okay. As I said in The Introduction post, polyamory is an umbrella term, and I’d like as many people under the umbrella as possible. But, I do feel some snarkiness about some varieties of poly. Let’s see if I can’t talk about the kind of poly I’m not without getting too mean.
The question is really one of definitions. The main definition of polyamory is “having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved”. My definition of polyamory is something like “an openness to letting each individual one-on-one relationship develop however the two participants want it to”. So there are polyamorous relationships that meet the first definition but not my definition. In Thoughts on Monogamy, I answered the question “Do you think that there can be a middle ground between mono and poly?” These kinds of poly that I’m not straddle that line for me.
First up, polyfidelity. In a polyfidelitous (or polyexclusive, or polyfaithful) relationship, the relationship contains more than two people, but, like with monogamy, the members don’t have sex with anyone but each other. So there might be three people in the relationship, and they have all twosome combinations of sex and/or sex with the three of them together, but don’t have sex with anyone outside the three-person-relationship. This means the “more than one relationship at a time” poly definition. And I do want these people under the umbrella, because anything that deviates from twosome monogamy is so unusual that I don’t want to smack down the idea. However, in my own mind, polyfidelitous relationships are monogamous. They just happen to have more people.
For me, it’s not exactly the “more people” part that’s crucial to polyamory. There are two other ideas that are much more important. The first is openness to possibilities. Right now, I have no desire to have sex with someone other than Joshua and I haven’t for a long time. But if I meet some hot guy tomorrow and want to jump in the sack with him, that option is on the table. The other important idea to me is that relationships are defined on their own terms and not through comparison to another relationship. If I were monogamously married, a new man could not become my boyfriend, not necessarily because we didn’t feel that way about each other, but because of the existence of the other relationship. With my polyamory, though, whether I have sex with someone or date them or marry them is a choice entirely within that relationship and is not defined by my pre-existing relationship(s).
Polyfidelitous relationships don’t meet that criteria for me.
Primaries and Secondaries
Next up is the primary/secondary/tertiary (PST) thing. Some people label their “main” relationship as their primary. This is often a marriage relationship or other “life partner” type relationship. Then other serious-but-less-so relationships are labeled secondary. And maybe casual lovers are called tertiary. This annoys me on several levels. The first is just the extraneous labeling. For example, Joshua and I own a house, cars, and animals together and are having a baby together. I hardly think we need any extra words to convey that our relationship is “serious”. My second problem with PST is the hierarchy. Some people use these designations to convey and enforce importance or priority. The primary must get more dates than the secondary, for example. Certain steps must be taken to make sure the secondary or tertiary relationships don’t “interfere” with the primary. If difficult relationship choices must be made, the primary must come out on top. Every time I’ve seen this enacted, it’s been a mess. Rules are in place to make sure the primary never feels slighted, but ou is always feeling slighted anyway. And the secondary is in an awfully precarious position at the mercy of the whims of the primaries. But the biggest problem for me with PST is simply defining relationships by comparison to other relationships. How much time I spend with one person, how important ou is to me, what level of seriousness we have, etc is just between me and that person. How I choose to prioritize my time, my activities, and my attention is up to me in any given moment. It can’t be predefined so that each person in my life is safely in “their place”.
PST is also monogamy-with-more-people based on my definition. It seems like one purpose of many people’s monogamy is to ensure that they are the most important person in their partner’s life. There is something special reserved for them and only them forever-and-ever-amen. With PST poly, the same thing seems to be in place. The something special just isn’t sex. It seems to be saying, “I’m going to have sex with other people, but you’re still #1.” And that’s just not how I want to think about my relationships.
Similar to PST poly is what I think of as Rules poly. These are people who don’t have a closed, polyfidelitous relationship and don’t have anything as fancy as PST, but nevertheless have some kind of rules and structure to their poly-ness. The possibilities for rules are endless. Some examples of explicit agreements I’ve heard over the years:
- You can’t have sex with other people in our bed. Or in our house. Or in our tent. Or some other variation.
- You can only have sex with other people on Thursday. Or some other designated date night. Or you can never have sex with some else on our designated date night.
- Certain sexual activities are off-limits with other partners, like oral sex, BDSM, toe-sucking, or something else reserved only for us. Certain non-sexual activities are off-limits with other partners, like going to our favorite restaurant.
- No kissing/making out/fucking with someone else without telling me first, or even more rigidly, without getting my permission first.
- You’re not allowed to fall in love.
- You can’t kiss/make out with/fuck anyone in front of me or while I’m home or at the same party.
- You have to clean up the evidence of any sexual activity – bathing before you come home, for example, or hiding the condom wrappers.
These all sound like control to me. They sound like wanting to pretend to be poly while not actually embracing poly. They sound like trying to maintain specialness or superiority, which is pretty much guaranteed to fail. I don’t even like rules about safe sex, like “You have to use condoms with all of your other partners.” My genitals belong to me, and Joshua’s belong to him, and we can do what we like with them. If I had to come up with anything of mine that’s like a rule, it would be, “Keep me in the loop.” But that hardly has to be stated as a rule because Joshua and I like each other and talk to each other. If he’s likely to have sex with a new person, I probably already know about it. If he has sex with someone without a condom, I would like to know before we have sex again, so that I can make an informed decision about what to do with my own genitals. But he certainly doesn’t need my pre-approval to decide what to do with his.
All the other rules just sound like not being poly to me. Of course Joshua can have whatever sex he likes with people in our house, on Thursday, without my permission, while falling in love, and leaving the evidence where it lies. Why not? After all, we’re polyamorous!
And then there’s the category of poly people that are some combination of the above and that really boggle my mind. These are the “only women” people. A man and a woman are in a relationship and the woman is allowed to sleep with other women. Or it’s the “only at the club people”. They are usually monogamous, but every now and then they go to a swing club and have sex with other people. Or it’s the “only in a threesome” people, who occasionally have a threesome but otherwise consider themselves monogamous. It’s like PST in that there is an attempt to maintain a “specialness” in the relationship. It’s like Rules poly, just with really restrictive rules. It’s odd to me, and I don’t understand it.
Anyway, somewhere in all that “poly I’m not”, you can see the kind of poly I am. Open to possibilities and taking each relationship as it comes.
What other flavors of polyamory have you experienced or encountered?
Read the whole 8 part series: