Well, now that I've been doing "poly", in one form, at least, for a couple of years, my thoughts on it have evolved a lot, I think. I have a better idea of what poly is in a general sense, what many or most practitioners of it think it is, or how they practice it, and what it is to me. I also have a better sense of what "ideal poly for Rosa" looks like.
When I first got involved in a "polyamorous" relationship, the situation was that there was this guy in whom I was interested, and he had this chick whom he was planning to marry in about a month. But, hey, we were flirting and getting along pretty well, and he explained to me about this polyamory stuff. At first I was skeptical, but then I came around.
So there I was, in my first "real" relationship, and it was going pretty well, particularly considering it was semi-long distance. I met another guy, he was hip to the poly scene, and we started dating, too. At that point, I had two "secondary" relationships, which, for you poly layfolks out there, means it's a "real" relationship, but it doesn't have the weight, scope, depth, breadth of, say, a traditionally monogamous Relationship. It's somewhere between that and a fling. Or that's where these relationships were, anyway. I knew Guy1's wife, and met Guy2's new girlfriend, whom he met after we started dating, and everything was, for the most part, hunky dory.
These relationships evolved and one of them ended, and then I moved to Boston after graduating, which changed my expectations of the remaining relationship, since, in theory, he and I would have more opportunities to get together and build the relationship. Additionally, I hoped there would be more opportunities for me to build a relationship with his wife; there had been some hints of tension in that realm of things in the past couple of months, and it seemed prudent to take care of any problems that may have been occurring.
This is where things got a little more complex, and caused me to think a lot more seriously about what being poly means to me, and what I wanted out of (poly) relationships in general. As things stood, I was in only one romantic relationship as a "secondary" partner to a married man, which in itself is fine. I didn't have an extraordinarily good relationship with his wife, which is significantly less fine, though, at least to a degree, that was due to the fact that I didn't have much of a relationship with her at all, much less a good or bad one. I had expectations of the relationship -- that it would fill out and get a bit more rounded now that it was local -- that weren't being met, and frustrations all around abounded.
So that gives you a sense of the context of my thinking. Moving into a little more theory and thoughts...
A problem with the relationship setup in which I was involved at the time
was that I didn't have a relationship with my partner's wife, which
limited the degree to which I could be involved with him in a larger
sense. This was due to a lot of factors, of course, and the "whys" don't
really matter that much at this point. The lesson learned is that in
future relationships, unless I really want them to be purely sexual and/or
superficial, the r'ship should include my partner's parter(s).
Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that it should include him/her/them in
a romantic or sexual sense. I'm mostly not bisexual, so putting that kind
of expectation on relationships would mostly limit me to getting involved
with bisexual men who have male partners. (Though, as a side-note, I do
think it's possible to be romatically involved without having or wanting
to have sex. More on that later.) A corrolary lesson, learned through
a friend, is that having a relationship with a partner's partner should
not preclude having a relationship separate from that scheme. So applying
this to the above situation:
The way it was: [me and guy] [guy and wife]
The way it "should" have been: [me and guy] [guy and wife] [guy and wife and me] ([me and wife])
The reason the last r'ship is in parenthesis is because I'm not sure that's an essential component of the setup if the other three groupings work out smoothly.
So there you have an idea of a "better" poly r'ship, from my perspective. That's still a fairly far cry from my ideal.
I find it somewhat problematic that "secondary" r'ships end up being fairly limited. This isn't always the case, but often. "Go this far and no farther." That did and does strike me as a false way of conducting a r'ship. Natural r'ships evolve and develop, and that constraint of "secondariness" ends up feeling unnatural. Or it did to me. Apparently, this works for a lot of people. I would more see a "secondary" r'ship as a potential "primary" one. That is, a phase rather than a definition, if anything.
At least part of the appeal of being in a poly setup is getting away from strict limits or expectations imposed from the outside. Of course it's impossible to escape that entirely, nor would I really want to, personally, and I like a degree of order as much as, or perhaps more than, the next person. That aside, I do think there's a lot of room to maneuver, and using hard and fast terms like "primary" and "secondary" gets in the way of that at least some of the time. If the language we use shapes the way we think about things, then the use of concrete terms like that can and does limit the flexibility of thinking about and practicing polystuff.
My theoretical ideal at this point is a "quad". That is, a r'ship involving four people, all of whom are directly and strongly involved, both individually and in a group sense, with the others in the group. I think such an arrangement is / would be very difficult to establish, and probably fairly challenging to maintain, but that's due in no small part to monogamous training we get as kids. I do think it's realistic, though I am not sure I'll ever find the people and/or circumstances that make space for such in my life. This quad would, for my purposes, be two men and two women. Now the obvious question people have asked me is, "But you're not bi, so how would the r'ship between you and the other woman work?" As I mentioned earlier, I don't think that a r'ship needs to be sexual to be romantic, and it's in that direction that I would probably want to steer that end of things. I have very close friend in with whom I would say I'm quite intimate in a mental and emotional sense, and with whom I'm physically comfortable, but there's nothing sexual in that r'ship, and it was in thinking about that r'ship that I realized that that is how I would see it playing out in the context of the quad I'm envisioning.
Of course, 4 is as arbitrary a number as 2, when it comes to defining the ideal r'ship, and if it ended up being 3 or 5, I'm sure I'd be perfectly happy then, too. Personal resources (time, energy, etc) obviously preclude many more very close r'ships, but I suppose that, depending on the circumstances, nearly anything is possible.
A problem, as I've mentioned above, I have with the way many or most people I know do poly is that it's broken into "primary" and "secondary" (and in a few cases, even "tertiary") r'ships. You have one primary, and one, two, maybe three "secondaries". How is that different from having, say, a spouse and a lover, in what I would call traditional society? A friend put it very well in a recent email:
"Especially around the Boston area, most poly folk fit well within the basic paradigm of the het/mono world (that's heterosexual/monogamous, to the uninitiated). Most folks are in a committed relationship and generally are not open to adding a peer to that relationship. They are often married, often consider their main partner in much the same terms as regular het/mono folks. The difference really arises in that the polyfolks don't do the "foresaking all others" bit. Additional relationship outside this "primary" one are truely "secondary". Typically, they have sex with the secondaries, but there are usually pretty strict limitations that are designed to prevent the emotional commitment from reaching the same level as the primary relationship (time limitations, priority distinctions, living/financial arrangements, etc.). So although these relationships are qualitatively different from the "standard" het/mono r'ship, they don't fundamentally challenge the paradigm because the core of the r'ship is the same. Only the extracurriculars vary." (Scott Blake)
To me, the point (or a point, anyway) of being poly is to be open to the opportunity of having more than one deep relationship, "peers" as Scott phrases it, to the primary. Sure, sometimes some r'ships just don't go that way, and that's fine, but for me, that's not really the most rewarding or fulfilling embodiment of a r'ship scheme. I'd really like to be able to have more than one partner who mean reallyreally a lot to me. I can do it with friends; why can't I do it with partners?
What do you do, then, in a case where you have to choose between one or the other partner? Well, first off, you plan ahead so that such a conflict happens as infrequently as possible. And when it does happen, you balance the demands and the urgency and make your choice from there. If partner1 and I have a date, but partner2 finds out that his/her parent has died... well, I think the date would take a rain check. Not all situations would play out so easily, sure, but that's just the way it goes. If the partners are competing, it's likely there's something for you to work on there...
It sort of gets on my nerves the way some (many, even) polyfolk act like they're doing something really exciting and new. First off, as Scott points out in the paragraph above, they're not really doing anything new. Or most aren't. Or maybe it's just most of the ones I know. In any case, in a way, that attitude is problematic, to my mind, because it ends up seeming like some folks are in it mainly for the attention. There's nothing wrong with doing something and enjoying attention for it, but if a main motivation for it is the attention... well, that's just not my thing. If this seems like the natural way to go about having a r'ship or r'ships, then act like it's the normal thing. The fact that you think you deserve media attention for it means that you don't really think it's the normal thing after all. Yeah, yeah, I know that as a poly person one basically has to acknowledge that this isn't the normal thing to the outside world, but as long as we don't act like it's totally normal for us, we'll be a side show. (Realistically, I think it'll be a good long time, which, for ease of terminology, I'll call never, before that happens, but let's ignore that.) Another little pet peeve in the world of polystuff is that polyfolk have a tendency to think or act as if the discovery or living of polyamory is an amazing discovery that will cure American society of all its ills. I don't think that polyamory is for everyone, nor do I think that every poly setup is healthy or appropriate, any more than I think those things for mono r'ships. I think most people end up in varying places on a sliding scale from totally poly to totally mono, just as they are on a similar scale in terms of homo or hetero sexuality. It's obviously a mistake to lay out any scheme or idea as The Be All And End All of The Way Things Should Be Done, and high horses have a tendency to fall over pretty easily.
Far be it from me to say how others "should" do things, though I'm sure I have been guilty of doing that on occassion. I'm sure my own opinions will continue to develop. This is, after all, my brilliant insight after only one go-round on the r'ship circuit (from singlehood to singlehood, that is.) If you managed to slog your way through this whole thing and you have thoughts or responses, I'd be curious to hear what they are. More of my own thoughts, no doubt, will follow, even if it takes a couple of years for them to do so.
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© Rosa L. Carson