Polyamory – Control vs. Freedom

I’ve been non-monogamous since I was 14 years old, participating in both open relationships and cheating relationships while in high school. I married a like-minded soul in 1998 (and divorced in 2006 through no fault of our relationship structure). Sometime around 1999, I learned the word polyamory and have used it to describe what I do ever since.

A basic definition of polyamory goes something like this:

“A relationship structure that allows for the possibility of romantic/sexual relationships with more than one person at a time with the full knowledge and agreement of all participants.”

Not surprisingly, there are lots of variations amongst people who call themselves polyamorous. While there is plenty of room for me under the poly umbrella, I’ve recently begun to shy away from it a bit, leaning towards just calling myself slutty instead. I am still polyamorous; it’s just that I don’t want to give people the wrong idea. There’s a lot that gets said about polyamory that doesn’t suit me at all.

Polyamory - Control vs Freedom

As an example, there’s a post at Feministing where Professor Foxy answers the question Am I Nonmonogamous? What Does That Mean for My Relationship? I don’t have any big complaints with the general tone and direction of Foxy’s reply, and the comments to the post are fun to wade through. At the “checklist for nonmonogamy”, though, I had to do some giggling and head shaking. I’m sure this represents what many, many people think are good steps to take. However, this checklist pointedly describes the kind of open relationships I’m not interested in.

Here’s the suggested checklist of non-monogamy prep and my thoughts on it, one by one:

1. What time and spaces are just for the two of you? For example, no kissing other people at family functions. Can other lovers come into your bed or do you have to go to a neutral space?

I don’t reserve time and spaces just for me and one of my partners. Joshua is my only capital R-relationship partner, but I don’t feel the need to block off special times or spaces for us. The two examples given really squick me out. If I take a partner to a family function and I want to kiss him, I’m going to kiss him. Polyamory is an “opening up” process for me – it’s about fewer restrictions, not adding on new places to be restricted or secretive. And of course other lovers can come into my bed. It’s my bed! Heck, even if it’s our bed, it’s still not some super-sacred place that others can’t be in. That’s kind of weird to me. If it’s okay for me to have other partners (and it is), why wouldn’t it be okay for them to be with me in my home or in my bed? Poly people who have these kinds of restrictions are poly people I don’t want to be in relationships with.

2. What behaviors are off limit? People in nonmonogamous or polyamorous relationships often reserve certain activities just for the primary relationship. These are not just sexual activities. A married heterosexual couple I know who are poly only hold hands with each other. Holding hands feels really intimate to them and they reserve that for one another.

No, again. No one limits my behavior but me and the person I’m behaving with. Polyamory, for me, is about letting each relationship evolve on its own terms, not being defined by my relationship to another person.

3. What people are off limits? Can you hook up with friends? Just strangers?

Ack! No! If Joshua asked me not to pursue a specific person, and that type of request was really rare, and his reasons made sense to me, then I would consider it. I’m thinking things like, “Please don’t fuck my dad.” Otherwise, my relationships are my relationships.

4. What about sexual safety? Many, many poly people do not exchange bodily fluids outside of their primary relationships. Barrier methods are paramount here.

I agree that having the sex safety talk is a good idea. I’ve seen some poly groups with really convoluted rules, though, that to me, portray a kind of “sex is icky” and “you’re untrustworthy” attitude. My only “rule” about this sort of thing is “Tell me what you’re up to.” I want to be informed so that I can make my own decisions about my sexual safety, but I’m not interested in laying down the law for my partners. Conversely, I’m very open with my partners about the safety measures I’m taking or not taking, and then it’s up to them to make their own decisions, but not try to alter mine.

5. What must you tell other sexual interests? Do you tell other people you hook up with that you have a primary relationship and that needs to be respected?

I think it’s probably a good idea to keep all your partners up-to-date about your sex life in general. For me, to do otherwise would involve passive lying. If I’m on a date with someone and I’m not talking about Joshua, then I’m actively trying to hide him, because I can’t talk about my life and not talk about Joshua. However, “primary” and “respected” are two buzz words that turn me off. The habit of poly people to order their relationships with titles like “primary” and “secondary” bugs me to no end. Sure, some relationships are more “serious” than others. Joshua and I have been together for years, own a house together, and plan to have kids. Isn’t that enough, though? Do I really need to bestow a hierarchical title on him? And “you need to respect my primary relationship”, to me, smacks of “you’d better not cause trouble or get in the way.” What is the flaw in your relationship that new people need to be warned of your desire for “respect”? And what does respect even mean here? I’d like to hear something a little more explicit, because I can bet that it’ll be a list of rules I’m not willing to agree to.

6. What details do you share with each other? What do you tell each other after you hook up with some one else? This may actually become a turn on over time. Jealousy is normal and natural and should not be a deal killer, but rather something to be talked and worked through.

All of my lovers are friends, and I’m not sure I could continue to fuck someone I didn’t become friends with over time. That means I want to tell them about my life. That means my sex life, too. If you don’t want to hear, “James and I had a fantastic date! We went out to dinner but cut it short so we could go home and fuck like rabbits all night long, and holy shit does he give good head,” then perhaps you and I aren’t compatible. Why wouldn’t I tell the important people in my life the exciting stuff that’s happening with me? I don’t know.

7. How do you honor your relationship? This is so, so important. After you hook up with someone else, what do you do to reconnect as a couple? Do you have dinner just the two of you? Do you cuddle for an hour? This step can be the most relevant to keeping your relationship healthy and strong. The other person needs to feel loved and cared for.

This one is a huge pet peeve for me. How do I honor my relationship? By being in it. If the way that I interact with other people has the potential to “dishonor” my relationship, then we’ve got a problem. And I hate the “reconnect” question. Needing to reconnect after I’ve been with someone else implies that we were disconnected when we were apart. This simply isn’t true for me, and it needs to not be true for my partners, either.

Edited to Add: You can read many more of my thoughts on polyamory in my 20 Years of Polyamory series.

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Am I Nonmonogamous? What Does That Mean for My Relationship?