This is it. This is the summer of Fully Exploring Poly. I’ve been holding a lot of resistances and – not quite fears, but wary expectations – of how this summer will play out in my gut and in my heart, and I feel very strongly that, whatever happens, these next two months will be challenging and life-altering. I hope, and expect, that it will also be a time of positive change and joy.
Poly is on my mind more constantly than ever before, and I was pretty obsessed about it while I was in San Francisco. I found a fascinating blog that follows a woman’s personal journey through opening her marriage and trying to figure out if she can be in a relationship with a polyamorous partner; you can probably guess that I’ve already read the entire archive. There are just so precious few resources for having a polyamorous relationship when you yourself feel you have only enough energy to devote to one person at a time – maybe two, if one of them is long-distance.
And, as I process my own emotions and reactions, watch others’ relationship dynamics, and read, read, read (or listen, in the case of the Polyweekly Podcast), I continue to suspect that I lean more towards sexual monogamy than polyamory.
It’s been difficult for me to admit this, because I have read many of the warnings to poly partners against dating monogamous people. There’s this article, for instance. Granted, I have no desire or fantasy of turning Max monogamous with my seductive wiles (snort), but for a while it was easy to conflate the difficult emotions I felt over our relationship with the concept that my not desiring other partners was detrimental to him in some way.
It doesn’t help to be bombarded by a diverse mishmash of messages of what poly should look like, how your relationship to your partner’s other partners should look and feel, and what emotions are and aren’t healthy to feel and express.
To that end, I’ve been working to develop my own, personalized poly primer, which I hope to use as a guideline in defining and shaping my own flavor of relationship style. I’ve begun to realize, now that I’m facing the full brunt of poly, that I have relied very heavily on Max to define “poly” for me – too heavily. And while I certainly haven’t figured it all out yet, if I am to delve into this, I have to be able to identify and communicate the needs I’m looking for from my partner(s). Luckily, these needs are beginning to crystallize as I dig a little deeper inside myself.
My Poly Primer
- Dedicated space – Taken from my friend Red’s post, a space where I fit and belong in my partner’s world. Also, a space where I feel safe to express my emotions, worries, and concerns, without fear of mockery or scorn.
- Collaboration – I need to feel that there is a collaborative effort to sustain and build our relationship.
- Trust – Trust that my partner acts with good intention, compassion, and kindness.
- Support network – Something I’m actively developing and growing, a network of poly-knowledgeable friends that I can turn to for advice, comfort, or a listening ear.
- Self-acceptance – Be able to feel that my being and presence are an asset to my partner’s life, and that my self-worth is not diminished by sharing my partner with others.
- Couple versus partner – Perhaps my biggest epiphany: Desire for a “couple” relationship, versus a “partner” relationship. I say desire instead of need, because I’m not quite convinced it’s a need, but it’s at minimum a very, very strong desire.
- No surprises – Taken from one of Allena Gabosch’s Poly workshops, keep surprises to a minimum. Significant relationship shifts, new additions, NRE – please keep me informed!
- Balancing poly and D/s – I’m … still working on defining this one…
That’s a pretty long list already, and I could add more, but I don’t want it to get too unwieldy from the start.
While getting brunch with the Programmer this morning, I talked with him quite a bit about my spending the summer in Seattle. The conversation inevitably turned to the topic of poly management. The Programmer mentioned something that has made me realize what might be holding me back from fully accepting poly in my own life.
He told me that he views his poly group as a family, and that he sees his partners’ partners as akin to his own partners. In this framework, it’s pretty obvious to each member that it’s not a zero-sum game, and everyone wants everyone else to succeed.
Everyone wants everyone else to succeed in a family? The concept was difficult for me to grasp at first. How is that intrinsic to being a member of a family?
Enter in my own familial experience.
Not only did I spend most of my childhood either in school or under minimal supervision at home – and thus I believe never bonding very strongly with my immediate family members – I’ve never really been close to anyone in my family for most of my life. I had no interest in participating in the ‘family time’ my mother continually attempted to implement, and I was often happier going off on my own, whether it was hiking in the woods or working on school projects.
So, then. What does family actually mean to me? I hear the word, and its meaning (aided by indoctrination through popular media) and my personal association are at complete odds. I don’t think of community, closeness, or support network. I think of obligation, filial piety, and tradition.
Usually, it feels like a necessary evil.
I think of growing up being constantly compared, academically and physically, against my cousins and against my parents’ own accomplishments. How can I think of family as anything other than a zero-sum game against that kind of background? I think of my mother’s recent trip to Taiwan for a family reunion, and all of the married nieces and nephews with their children that will remind her so starkly of my lack of pursuit of a family of my own.
Perhaps, if I had a better idea of how to find or build the kind of community I want and create new, positive associations to this word, family, I’d be better equipped to fully accept polyamory.
As much as I love reflecting – in long blog posts – on the bumps that I’ve hit while navigating my first poly relationship, sometimes it is simply my insistence, stubbornness, on solving everything myself and never seeking outside help that exacerbates things. I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with the concept of inviting another person into my head and to the table to help process my feelings.
Communication in this arena has thus been halting at best as I find ways to fight that blockage. Emails and blog entries allow me to reflect more carefully and make sure I get my thoughts out as clearly as I can, though admittedly physical and phone conversations have the benefit of immediate feedback and vocal support. I am not prone to blurting out what I’m feeling right away, and it often takes quite a few days of sorting through my feelings to even talk about them coherently.
The balance I have been fighting to achieve is how long to wait, in the time I am taking to figuring out how okay or not okay I am with some occurrence, before I mention anything.
Because, of course, while I am trying to be more open about my feelings, I also recognize that it’s not practical or realistic to always mention when I’m not feeling good about something. Sometimes it is about self-care and distracting myself until some brief episode of jealousy passes.
This leads me to wonder: what are some of the ways poly people employ self-care to get through those periods? Would anyone care to share?
This is really hard to write, and it’s a little raw at the edges, but if I’ve learned anything these past few months, it’s that getting this out in some form is always preferable to keeping it in.
I realize that I do not have the best background for understanding polyamory, and my past relationships did nothing to improve that understanding. But perhaps unraveling some of that baggage will give me a better foothold for parsing out why I continue to have the issues I have with all of this.
What immediately comes to mind is my first relationship with Tim. After discovering the existence of his fiancée through her finding out about me and writing to me, I then found a letter she had written to Tim on his computer. It was heartbreaking, and the realization that I had caused that level of anguish to another person – unwittingly, due to my naivete – was, and still is, hard for me. I saw myself, the outsider, as an intrusion, wreaking havoc on this existing relationship, and loathed both being the outsider and the effect I had had on an innocent party. I despised myself for it, while simultaneously despising her for the anguish her existence now caused me.
Of course, the main force of all my anger was directed at Tim; for (among many things) his manipulation of my trust, and also for tingeing the discovery and budding growth of my kinky side with lies and deceit. It still angers me how strongly my subsequent relationships have been affected by this experience. I truly believed I would never wear another’s collar again, nor would I submit to another and call them Sir.
But the hardest realization for me to come to terms with, which subsequently branded a new fear in me, was that my connection with him, our relationship, had always been that tenuous by its very nature, had always been necessarily secondary and easy to dismiss to preserve his primary relationship.
Whatever initial impression I might have had regarding poly was colored very strongly by this. I read others’ blogs and forums discussing poly, and while a part of me was curious, intrigued, another part of me shook my head in disgust. All I saw was poly being used as an excuse to manipulate multiple people at once. In poly, I saw the effects of hurt and pain magnified with each additional person involved, each additional line that connected one person to another. Drama seemed inevitable, and drama was the last thing I wanted to endure.
Now, it is four years since I left Tim, and I find myself suddenly with the opportunity to change that view very drastically. Since becoming involved in the Boston rope scene and then moving to San Francisco, I have seen examples of stable poly relationships, though I admit the majority of them still look like a train wreck more often than not. I saw people cycling through new partners and culling out other partners as quickly as clothing, I saw statuses change so often it was hard to remember who was with who, and I saw all of those connections as superficial at best.
I recognize that this works for some people, that they and their partners handle it well, and that they have a different emotional capacity for it. I also recognize that I am not one of those people. So, while I was being exposed to positive, working examples of poly families and getting to know and become friends with many of those people, I still didn’t believe I was “one of them,” so to speak.
Then, I met Max. What started as an experimental, short-term service relationship with a start and end date has become something much, much more significant, and I am still reeling a bit from the transition. Although it’s now over a year that I’ve been in this evolving relationship with him, it still feels very new and raw – undoubtedly due both to the physical distance and our individual time constraints and schedules.
I am so deep in this new, foreign territory that I can’t even identify the horizon – the smooth, clear line of balance to aim for. It used to be easier, during those first few visits, when the bulk of our time together was only with each other: focused, intense, and deliberate. It was also easier because I saw myself in the very specific role of play partner and service submissive.
I should have realized, by Shibaricon, that those roles were no longer accurate. I should have known it when I dropped almost all other commitments there to spend more time with Max. When it was all I could do to force myself to go to the workshops I had planned on attending, rather than the ones he wanted to attend and the ones he was teaching.
Even despite all of our prior time together, the promise of more to come in the future, and the intensity of our connection, I really didn’t anticipate falling. So. Hard. In love.
Writing that was more difficult than revisiting my relationship with Tim. There is a lot of fear in that statement. Whenever I find myself resenting our distance or the time I don’t get to have with Max, I am afraid. I’m frightened by how much I want him, and by how much he fulfills a part of me that I have been deeply craving. The service, the rope, the sex, the D/s – they all fit so well with my own kinky makeup. It’s the closest I’ve come to finding someone who complements my kinks this way.
At first, the fear was rooted in the possibility of loss – of finding such a close match only to have it end, a short-lived play partner relationship with some nice memories and nothing more. Though honestly, those memories would still be very nice, and I cannot imagine leaving this relationship on anything but amicable terms. I cannot envision a future where I’d think back on my time with Max with anything but fondness and love.
No, the fear has evolved into something quite a bit more complex and poly-related. I’m not even sure how to explain it clearly, but the main idea is this: it seems only fair for me to have my shit together and figured out before embarking on this kind of journey into non-monogamy – fair, that is, for Max and his other partners. And yet, every time I find myself in the same space with Max and another partner, I automatically relegate myself to that post of outsider, never sure of where, exactly, I belong, and always, always hesitant to step on toes and disturb established patterns and habits.
Perhaps it is as simple as having been raised in the binary culture of heterosexual couples that makes this so difficult. In dissecting all of this with Max, I’ve come to see the number three as a highly destabilizing factor. “Three” seems to require so much more effort, vigilance, external and internal awareness, and communication, and creates such a divided focus, as to overwhelm the poly beginner. Not to mention that my only prior experience with this has been as the nonconsensual third of a main couple’s relationship. That experience has amplified being with Max and one of his partners into the fear and belief that my very presence in their space is an unwelcome intrusion. And so, in those situations, I withdraw, step back, and build distance between myself and Max.
This is an all-internal issue. All of Max’s partners, all of his extended poly family that I’ve met, have been nothing but warm and welcoming towards me, and I could not ask for a better role model for learning to navigate the poly world. I also have the added benefit of genuinely liking his partners, making it simultaneously easy to want to see them happy as well as more difficult to request time to spend with Max alone. I want to spend all of the time I can with Max, while simultaneously wanting him to spend time with his partners. I see the joy in his eyes and in theirs when together, and I want them to have as much of that joy in their lives as possible. And I want Max: all of him, 100% of his time, focus, and energy. I want him with the same ferocity and intensity that he expresses in his desire to own me.
I am greedy for his time, and I am able to rationalize some of that greed because of our distance. The reason is two-fold; being 800 miles apart makes me cherish any time we are in the same vicinity all the more, and makes me want to guard that time jealously. It also prolongs the timeline of the different stages of our relationship, so that it was only at Shibaricon (our sixth encounter, but nine months in real time) that I found myself becoming fully immersed in the “new relationship energy” that made me want to clear my schedule for Max. But when it is not just the two of us, alone, I am afraid of the destructive nature all of that greed and desire also holds, of the baser emotions they elicit – when it is not joy I feel at seeing Max with his partners, but jealousy and resentment.
Add in the inherently unequal nature of our relationship and the fact that Max is my only partner, and the equation becomes exponentially more complicated.
What it comes down to is figuring out whether or not I can do this, and do it well; whether it is fair to be going through this learning process and developing these skills – with all of its bumps and bruises and missteps – with Max and his family, knowing that it will inevitably cause waves; and whether or not I will have the self-awareness to understand if I am holding on to something I cannot sustain or manage, and holding on to the detriment of everyone involved. And to be able to let go, if that’s the case.
At this moment, despite my tendency to catastrophize things in my head, I don’t believe it will come to that. My motivation for doing all of this digging around in my head, after all, is so that I can figure out how to make poly work for me and thus continue being a part of Max’s family. And if part of that means revealing more of my vulnerabilities and imperfections than I am comfortable with, and risking more honesty and communication rather than less, I will do that.