Thursday, June 04, 2015

For karen: a response.

For the first time in seven or maybe eight years, a comment on my last blog entry has prompted a whole new blog entry.  I LOVE when this happens; I wish it happened more often. While it's true I would write these things even without readers--hell, I think I did for about three years--what I really cherish about this here Breadbin is the exchange of ideas. It gives me a chance to refine and sometimes outright reconsider mine.

Reader karen writes:

The polyamory stuff you post is interesting. The only experience I had of such a thing before I started reading your blog was a young couple I met in our local environmental/political activist community. She was married, he was not but they were together everywhere just as her husband fell quite ill. Fairly soon they were handing out poly information at every kind of rally and meeting. Before the husband recovered she left him to do a solo pilgrimage of sorts and now the woman and the husband are divorced and she and her poly guy are in a monogamous relationship. I wasn't particularly close to either of them, but something felt *off* about it. It was clear there was passion between them, but I had a very strong feeling that the polyamory was a kind of rationalization rather than something they understood and lived. I found it off-putting.

I like the case you make for a kind of web of support - multiple connections for giving and receiving love and nurture, but I don't know if I actually know anyone who could manage it without jealousy.


Not knowing the backstory of this couple/triad you mention, I can't say for certain whether they were practicing polyamory or a refinement on cheating. Having read your blog and your excellent, insightful comments on mine, I have reason to trust your intuition that the woman, knowingly or unknowingly, seized on polyamory as a justification for her behaviour. I'd caution that nobody can say for sure, but your words have a good beat: let's dance to them for a bit, shall we?

God knows I come across such off-putting behaviour often enough. People stumble, mentally bruised and bleeding, into various poly forums seemingly every day, in tremendous emotional pain and ready to spread it around.
The story is a cliché: Man with wife -- or just as often woman with husband -- falls in love, or at least lust, with someone he or she isn't "supposed" to--which in monogamous relationships means, well, anyone. Cheating ensues. Cheater then discovers polyamory and thinks oh wow, a get out of cheat free card! "Honey", he or she says, "I slept with somebody else. But don't worry, I'm polyamorous. I love you both." Bereaved party finds a group of online poly folk and accuses each and every one of us of treason, sedition, and complicity in the destruction of a good marriage.

There are several hidden assumptions in the accusation, as understandable as it is. The biggest is probably the characterization of a good marriage as one in which cheating takes place. We all know that's not the case, but it seems to me that when partnerships implode, people look everywhere but within those partnerships to find the reasons.

Right behind it is the notion that polyamory is cheating dressed up in fancy syllables. I hate this statement with a white-hot passion because it is so totally the opposite of what polyamory actually is, and yet it's so beastly hard to knock it and all of its implications out of people's heads. Because of this mischaracterization,  many people believe

  • that poly means less love to go around, especially amongst new or "secondary" partners
  • that poly means coercion, manipulation, and deceit
  • that poly means selfishness
  • that poly means a fear of and a lack of commitment
  • while there certainly may be less time to go around, love is abundant, not scarce, and shared joy is increased, meaning more love is created when love is shown.
  • Poly actually means connection, communication (tons of it) and transparency. Some people practice DADT (Don't Ask, Don't Tell) relationships in which somebody is free to have other relationships so long as the primary partner doesn't know about them. That, I would argue, violates a part of the definition of polyamory: multiple committed loving relationships with the knowledge and consent of all involved. There is no need to overshare: each relationship deserves its privacy, and the need to know everything means insecurity and lots of it.  But you can expect to know your partner has other partners, and to connect with your metamours on some level. 
  • "He's got three girlfriends and I have none, what a selfish jerk." I prefer to put the focus in poly on the partners your partner is encouraged to pursue: it really twists the accusation around. "He's demanding that one woman all to himself, what a selfish jerk." (No, I don't really think this way...unless I see signs of possessiveness in the relationship. Mono or poly, that irks me to no end. 
  • And on commitment: From More Than Two, the definitive guide to polyamory, by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert (a link to their website has been in my sidebar for nearly a year now):

Some people imagine that polyamory involves a fear of commitment. The truth is, commitment in polyamory doesn't mean commitment to sexual exclusivity. Instead, it means commitment to a romantic relationship, with everything that goes along with that: commitment to being there when your partners need you, to investing in their happiness, to building a life with them, to creating happy and healthy relationships that meet everyone's needs, and to supporting one another when life gets hard. Unfortunately, society has taught is to view commitment only through the lens of sexual exclusivity; this diminishes all the other important ways that we commit to one another...

No, polyamory is not cheating: the two are mutually incompatible. It *is* possible to move from cheating to polyamory...just barely. I wouldn't advise it. In fact, I get a bad gut feeling whenever I hear so much as "well, there's this girl named Katherine at work that I'm falling for, but I'm happily married to my wife Edith..." I always tell these people they *can* have their Kate and Edith, too, but they'd better hold off on dessert until they've talked...and talked...and talked it over. There's nothing quite so self-serving or threatening as announcing you're poly and pulling a partner out of your hat in the same flourish.

I can't say if this happened in your example, karen. For all I know, the couple spoke about this at great length and agreed to it. The fact that couple is no longer together should be viewed neither as an endorsement nor an indictment of that theory. The further fact she's now monogamous with his "replacement" is also not, in and of itself, damning. Together, though...yeah. Very strong feeling. Could be gas. Very strong feeling.

When I came out, the concern was overwhelming, quite literally. It seems to me that everybody knows of an open relationship that dissolved: it was therefore insisted upon, with great force, that mine would not only dissolve, but was in the very process of dissolving. I keep saying it, but everybody knows monogamous people who divorced: it's odd that nobody ever seems to bring them up.
It took a great deal of explanation on my part to assert that one relationship need not preclude others, and that the decision had been made jointly after many years. To this day I feel like people are just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sorry to disappoint you, folks. I'm just as committed to my marriage as you are to yours.


"...but I don't know if I actually know anyone who could manage it without jealousy."

Neither do I, karen, and I include myself.

I've heard tell of possibly mythical creatures who don't feel jealousy. We'll call them Nessies, because as far as I'm concerned they live deep within a loch somewhere and only surface to breathe when nobody's looking.

I thought I was one of them, once. I used to hate jealousy. I thought of it as pain at another's happiness, as compared to schadenfreude, happiness at another's pain, and I was utterly horrified the first time I recognized it in me.

Of course, the first time I thought I was feeling jealousy, it turned out to be envy. (Envy: wanting what someone else has. Jealousy: wanting what someone else has, *such that they can't have it anymore*.)  And I have since felt judgment that manifested very much like jealousy: righteous indignation, hurt, and bewilderment. That happens when you discover your relationship isn't what you thought it was, or that your partner isn't who you assumed they were...and you blame your partner for your own unquestioned assumptions.

But yes, I have since felt jealousy. Actual, soul-deadening jealousy. And do you know what I found out after I got over the shock and horror of feeling such a hateful thing, and started seriously wondering where it came from?

It came from me. It was my own feeling, my own problem. Always and without fail brought on by some other emotion that *also* came from me and was my own problem.  Reading up on it, I realized that just like envy and judgement (and, for that matter, happiness and contentment),  neither a partner nor a metamour had put it in there...and neither a partner nor a metamour could take it out.

There are a whole bunch of different kinds of jealousy: speak to ten psychiatrists and they'll give you twelve different ways to characterize the emotion. Most of them lump all the jealousies polyamorous people feel under "Romantic Jealousy" and leave it at that. (Then again, most psychiatrists aren't even aware of polyamory in the first place; finding a poly-supportive therapist is a nontrivial task.)

The framework I like posits four different kinds of romantic jealousy, any or all of which can be felt at once.

  • There is the Hollywood kind, the possessive  'IF I CAN'T HAVE YOU NOBODY CAN BANG BANG BANG! jealous rage. People who are prone to this sort of thing would obviously never even consider polyamory. They should instead seek help: no relationship should be forced to exist in such madhouse conditions. I've heard of far too many that do, and none of them are even remotely happy.
  • Less extreme, there's what I call Common Jealousy, which is quite common in monogamy and very easily spills over into polyamory (because scrubbing out the monogamous belief system so deeply engrained in us takes time). It's your basic fear that your partner is about to up and leave you for somebody else. The only way out of that mindset is through it, and even then, there are no guarantees in life. But the way to deal with your fear is to treat each person in each relationship with the respect they deserve, because people tend to live up, or down, to the level of respect and trust you place in them. Yes, you'll get burned by the odd predator. Everything I have seen in my life has convinced me that most humans are fundamentally good, though. Treat them well, you'll be treated well in return.
  • There is "exclusion jealousy", very common in poly relationships when one person has other loves while the other has none. "Why do you get to have all the fun?" The cure for that is to be self-confident enough to attract your own additional partners (recognizing that it takes time--after all, how many years did it take to find your first?) That kind of self-confidence recognizes that having one partner is not a handicap (there are some poly people with no partners at the moment) and it also learns to value compersion (the opposite of jealousy: happiness at your partner's happiness). 
  • There is "competition" jealousy, also very common, where you compare yourself to your metamour and, gee gosh it's funny how this happens, come up short. It's actually amusing that more often than not your metamour is doing the same thing at the same time and coming up just as short in comparison to you. New partners are jealous of the older partner's level of connection; old partners recoil in the face of what poly people call NRE ("new relationship energy").  Both may recognize how silly they're being, but who says jealousy is rational?
Well, there is such a thing as rational jealousy, If you are being treated like a doormat -- if you're being ignored and left to fend for yourself while your partner pursues others; if your agreements are broken and boundaries are forever being pushed and stretched to include things you are not comfortable with--go ahead and blame that on your partner, and take corrective action...which may include abandoning that relationship. Note that this behaviour is not even close to what polyamory is about. 

But most jealousy you're apt to feel is not rational, and you must resist the temptation to pin the blame on this partner or that metamour for your own insecurity. The cure for any jealousy, rational or no, is trifold:  communication, self-awareness, and partner-awareness. 

Poly done well takes a level of trust and respect that can, quite frankly, be difficult to sustain at times. You have to be willing to respect other relationships while simultaneously trusting the others in those relationships to respect yours. If you can achieve this--and many, many people have-- you get that web of support - multiple connections for giving and receiving love and nurture that is the hallmark of love without limits.

Thank you so much, karen, for your comment.


karen said...

My pleasure. That was interesting too.

I was never convinced that monogamy "worked" particularly, but the older I get and the more experience I have, the more I think that the thing we call love isn't. So I no longer think it's entirely monogamy's fault.

Ken Breadner said...

I'd love to see an expansion on "the thing we call love isn't". In many cases, I agree with you--what we call love is often needs fulfillment, possessiveness, or some combination of the two. I would be very interested to know if you have identified other things that "love" is...