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27 August, 2009

So Jealous, It's All I Can Do


Jealousy is the elephant in the room that you can't not discuss. It is not a problem I claim to have solved in my own life. For anyone who isn't either a powerhouse of confidence or capable of complete, unflappable trust, jealousy is bound to creep into the picture now and then. When I say "jealousy", I mean the cocktail of fear, insecurity and dread that flares up when someone perceives a threat to one of their romances. In a nonmonogamous relationship, it's a subject that must be addressed.

It seems that not everyone feels jealousy - at the very least, individuals feel it in all manner of different ways. But for people who do have the bug, it often takes a few familiar forms. There's that tightness in the chest, the accelerated heartbeat - one wants to act, but how? There's the wriggling worm of fear that squirms around one's ventricles and squeezes. Seeing your lover kiss someone else and exchange the tender looks that were once reserved only for you might set your hands to trembling. Perhaps at night, knowing that your lover will wake in another person's bed, a sense of loneliness - loss, even - steals over you. For some people, it's not half so much about sex as about the time and affection lavished on other partners.

People take any number of measures to avoid jealousy. A common theme is to structure the relationship in such a way that it's not really open. Something is allowed - only same-sex relationships, or sex without love, or love without sex - but whatever sore point triggers jealousy is packaged away and never touched. If that doesn't suit you (and it certainly doesn't suit me) then it's necessary to gird one's loins and ask, when something triggers a sense of jealousy, why does it do so? Jealousy might feel hellish, but it's doesn't arise through spontaneous generation. It's an arrow - a blinding, neon arrow, pointing to emotional issues somewhere in the relationship or in your emotional landscape at large.

The people I'm dating now both have some connection with other partners. Leilani is very explicitly head-over-heels for her other boyfriend, a longtime heartthrob who's the focus of her affections. When she talks about him, I don't feel a pang. It honestly doesn't bother me to know that I'm not her primary concern. But when Margaret, the focus of my affections, talks about her sometimes-lover, I sometimes feel the touch of that wriggling worm of fear. It's as though, with Leilani, she began turned away from me, and any time she turns my way is a bonus; I've come to take Margaret's love as such a foundation, though, that any threat of her turning away worries me. This, despite the fact that she's never given me any reason to suspect she won't turn right back to me. If I feel jealousy, it's unfounded. So, whence does it stem?

There's a tremendously insightful pdf called Practical Jealousy Management that's available from Franklin Veaux's website. It's from a conference on polyamory in 2006. Veaux is always clever and usually helpful, even if I do hate the pseudoSocratized way he structures his FAQ. The story of jealousy has a happy ending in that handout. Of course, gentle reader, if you should have advice, complaints or stories of your own, I'd love to hear those as well.

If addressing jealousy isn't your style, though, read on! Do I ever have the hand-out for you. That's right: you never need examine the roots of your own feelings again, with this splendid new guide to Making Relationships Suck! Yes, that's right! Soon you, too, can sabotage every loving relationship in your life, alienating your intimates, enraging their O.S.O.'s, and driving everyone around you completely insane! And don't think that this guide applies only to polyamory. Oh, no! This guide will illuminate all it takes to irreparably screw up even a single relationship. You may already be using some of these techniques! Rest assured, though, that these professional tricks of the trade will add richness, subtlety and panache to your romantic mindfuck.

Edit For Synchronicity: this post from Polyamory In The Media just happened to coincide with my topic for today. It comes with the Carl Jung Collective Seal of Unconscious Approval.

25 August, 2009

What's it to you?

I know it's two posts in as many sleep cycles, but I'm curious. What is polyamory - or some other branch of non-monogamy, if that's your sphere - about, to you? For me, the "duh" definition is that it's about love, but there are any number of ways for love to enter the equation. Beyond that, it's about love with personal responsibility. Maybe you've heard the phrase "You are responsible for your own orgasm." Take that and magnify it, and you start to get the virtues of polyamory. If your partner doesn't want to have the kind of sex you do, who's responsible for seeing that you're satisfied? Not her. If you want to feel a certain way and someone you're dating doesn't inspire that feeling, is that her problem? If you're jealous of her other significant other, it's up to you to figure out the root of the problem. (But that doesn't mean our gentle reader has to work it out alone, O.S.O.! Most things are best solved with the aid of loved ones, especially when the conclusions affect them.) And, of course, if you want to be dating someone it's your responsibility to be aware of what you have to offer them. I've overcommitted before, and believe me, if you don't have enough time or interest for seeing a new partner, it's better not to get that person's hopes up. From orgasms to emotions and all the way on through, it requires serious responsibility.

What about for you? Have you thought about it before? What makes polyamory polyamory, and why?

24 August, 2009

Things That Go Wrong

Thanks to one of my friends on Twitter, I just noticed that #itsnotcheating is a trending topic. Most of the tweets are things like

#itsnotcheating if HE kissed ME!. lol

#itsnotcheating if your drunk.

#itsnotcheating if u swallow da evidence...


#itsnotcheating hahahhahahahaha no, there is NEVER an exception.

And, my favorite:

#itsnotcheating if its with obama.


I'd give that last person a free pass, too.

It raises an interesting question, though.
What happens when you and a partner of yours aren't using the same terminology?

Maybe you and your partner are starting to try out bondage, and because it's a special, intimate thing, she asks you not to do anything "kinky" with someone else. If you've just opened your relationship, your original partner might ask you not to sleep with anyone yet. It's worth knowing whether he means "have sex" or "spend the night in bed". The former is a pretty typical worry about sexual exclusiveness, maybe indicating that there are some comparison issues you two will need to discuss. The latter might signal that your partner is more afraid of lowering emotional boundaries and having non-euphemistic intimacy with other people - and that fear is pretty common, too. And then there's the most basic, and complicated, of the whole bunch: what does it mean when someone says "I love you"?

Making implicit definitions explicit can be a big step toward building harmony between partners. It's not cheating if you know what each of your partners means by the words that make up whatever agreements you've made and follow not just what you meant but what they meant, too. Similarly, people tend to have expectations about what a relationship means. Maybe those expectations are hidden within labels like "girlfriend" or "dating"; sometimes they come packaged with having sex, kissing, or just holding hands. That expectation could be anything from an implied commitment to an implied lack of the same unless otherwise agreed upon. Ask the people you date (or kiss, or have sex with) what it means to them, if anything. Talk about what "love" means and what you expect from a lover. It'll help to make your relationship a more easily navigable place, and it'll even give you something to talk about on Friday nights. ...or am I the only one who thinks that making unconscious expectations explicit is a fun way to spend a Friday night?

22 August, 2009

Reasons to be Cheerful (Part Three)

Here's the big trick. Plenty of people fool around when they're young, but with polyamory, if you stick with it for the long run, your household won't end up looking much like white bread America. You might end up living in a group of people committed to each other across the board, or you might have one of your or a lover's partners as a roommate; you might be someone's "aunt" or "uncle" who spends the night after the kids go to bed. You might have to look after your own kids, and that could get problematic.

Teach Your Children

I don't know about the rest of you, but I don't expect ever to be in another monogamous relationship. I can easily imagine being satisfied with a single partner and spending years without dating another person, but even after getting married and having a child, I wouldn't want to close off the chance to pursue a new attraction. Neither would I ask my partner to promise that kind of exclusivity.

Having a child in a polyfamily creates a completely new suite of challenges. First of all, there's the problem of informing the kid. I'm a huge fan of being honest with children, but kids talk. This isn't Britain in 1966 - my dad's preschool has plenty of kids with more than one mommy - but generally, those two mommies are either monogamous lesbians or the result of a second marriage. To most ears, "non-monogamous" sounds like "sexually depraved", which is good grounds for many a conservative social worker to raise the alarms. Even worse is the problem of divorce: if a polyamorous relationship doesn't work out, all the bitter party needs to say is, "My spouse is promiscuous and doesn't maintain a household appropriate for children." Many people in the online poly community have voiced concerns that polyamory endangers their custody of their children, enough people that it's even made its way to the polyamory Wikipedia page. In my home state, I imagine the legal argument would have to be based on a risk of "Emotional Injury: an impairment to or disorder of the intellectual or psychological capacity of a child as evidenced by observable and substantial reduction in the child's ability to function within a normal range of performance and behavior." Luckily for me, I suspect that Massachusetts isn't equipped with a legal code that's likely to break up a polyfamily; other states might be less forgiving.

Happily, I'm only aware of one family who's actually lost a kid in this way, and after contesting the case for two years, the mother in question apparently conceded that she was actually an unfit mother on other grounds. (That case, and some of the other legal worries surrounding polyamory, appear in a little more detail on page two of this Salon.com article.) For all that talk that you'll see about the threats to polyamory in divorce courts and social services, those fears haven't been tested. I couldn't call myself a scientist if I didn't withhold judgment on the reality of those risks until I saw a case file. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to find that a court would leap on any excuse it found to break up a polyfamily; whether or not that would be the legal basis for the action, nonmonogamy disturbs many people in a deep way.

All that said, I have to make one claim about raising children in a polyamorous family. It's exactly what kids need.

I haven't been smoking the devil-weed, I promise! Here's my line of thinking. Today, given the ease and frequency of moving from one city to another, many people don't live in the regions where their parents did. My mom lives days' drive away from her family, and we almost only see my dad's at family gatherings. I get the impression that it wasn't always this way, though. When communities were more sedentary, one grew up and raised the next generation within a social network that had been slowly woven over generations. Now, people often go through a series of homes, starting out in cheap apartments and buying a home or more expensive rental place when they're ready to settle down and drop spawn. New parents are lucky if they know the neighbors' names. I know that on my street, more than half of the families we knew were the households of bullies on the bus route or just obnoxious rednecks. None of these people were really close with us; we only had one set of intimate family friends, the ones who turned us on to this town in the first place.

When your family consists not just of you and a spouse but also of your longterm lover, your spouse's unofficial husband, the girl he's been dating for a year or two, your lover's ex who's still close as family, that ex's two boyfriends and their girlfriends Sue and Jo, the cute guy from the video store you asked out this May and who seems hip to the whole poly thing ... suddenly, your circle of support seems a lot wider. Polyamory takes intimacy, communication and trust, three excellent features to have with the person who's taking care of your child while you relax for a night.

Because I'm only 21 and have never raised a child of my own, I spent a little extra time online looking for resources to back up this post. It didn't take long for me to bump into Scenes From a Group Marriage, the story of a child raised during brief but rich and loving experiment in group marriage. I found the article via Practical Polyamory, a blog with a layout alarmingly similar to my own. The author, looking back on his childhood, writes, "the communal household enjoyed a kind of camaraderie I have never felt since. ... I've felt for myself the stress that our hyper-individualist culture puts on families. Few of us live with extended family; fewer and fewer of us know our neighbors, go to church or belong to a social club. We measure success by the size of our houses and our paychecks. We see child rearing as a lifestyle choice, not a community endeavor. But two grown-ups sometimes aren't enough to pay the bills, to wipe the noses, to coach the soccer team and listen to the stories of schoolyard bullying. After 17 years, my wife and I are still passionate about each other. I have no desire to engage in the bold sort of experiment my parents took on. But sometimes, even when all four of us are home together, our world feels too small, and I understand the hope with which my parents blindly plunged into uncharted love." As long as the family was stable, it created a kind of community that's hard to find today. That particular marriage ended in divorce, which threw the whole situation into chaos. A stable nonmonogamous family, though, could work wonders.

If there are short-term or unstable relationships in your poly circle, that might be less conducive to the needs of a child. Children like stability; they like to know when people are going away and when they're coming back. It's important to remember that although kids can adapt to almost anything, they're sensitive to habits and social structures and can get alarmed if either shifts too often or too abruptly. For someone who leans more toward the swinging end of the nonmonogamy spectrum than the polyfidelity end, it would almost certainly be best to keep short-term partners out of the kids' worldview -- not to lie about my practices but to avoid setting a child up for disappointment when a . If you have more than one serious, long-term lover, though, it can only benefit a child to have another reliable, loving parent figure around. In that sort of situation, I suspect that all the explanation you'd have to give your children is the simple fact of living; if the arrangement is stable, they'd grow up with that many more parents to help them and a plethora of healthy relationship models on which to base their own lives. I can hardly see how it hurts to have more love, especially when children are involved.

For now (and, if all goes as planned, for the next several years), that's all I can really say on the subject of polyamory in the big bad Real World of taxes and babies. I've talked about some of the basics and the hypotheticals in these last three articles, but next time, I think, there's call for a look at what it's like in the trenches. What does it look like when a polyamorous relationship actually happens? It might be sunshine and puppies when all parties have the same agenda, but what happens when something goes wrong? Happily, I don't have that much experience on the latter subject, but I'll do what I can.

EDIT: Despite what I said in my reboot, I can't help but want to revise this one. It's probably healthiest, if one is seeing casual or short-term partners, that one model those behaviors visibly early in the life of one's child. Better to have the child think of those things as nothing special than for them to come out years later, a situation that might lead to feelings of betrayal or distrust. Besides, what if the child someday wants to try seeing multiple short-term partners? Better to already know how than to flounder around hurting feelings. That's what parents are for: giving their children examples of some ways to live in the world, and ultimately setting them free to pick their own.

20 August, 2009

Reasons to be Cheerful (Part Two)

Indulge me and pretend that you've signed on with the first principle: commitment to one person doesn't preclude simultaneously committing to another, and it might be nice to see how. Why, though, would anyone want to see a partner running off and courting other people?

I want to have control.

You might think to yourself: "I don't have a perfect body. I don't have a perfect soul. What if my partner doesn't notice when I'm not around? What if she meets someone special who floats her off to a beautiful world while I'm creeping around elsewhere and I never see them again?" Some people are upset by the idea of a lover having sex with someone else; others are jealous of emotional intimacy, wanting to reserve something special for the two of them. Even basic time management can get complicated; all told, is being able to date other people really worth letting your partner do the same?

I imagine that most people reading this post realize that it's hypocrisy of the most blatant sort to ask that you be free to date any number of people and demand that she not do the same. If the relationship is open, it should be open for all parties. But we're only human, and jealousy can be a problem. There are a few bright spots, though, to having a partner take other lovers.

One of my favorite reasons is that it's a totally new way to know a person. In a monogamous relationship, you'll never have the chance to see what it's like from a third-party perspective when your partner falls in love. You can help choose outfits for dates, talk about whether the new kid seems like good news or bad, and offer the best kind of comfort when heartbreak happens. It's easy to feel alone after a breakup; when you have another lover, that pain is a little easier to mend.

Jealousy does arise sometimes. The question isn't necessarily how to avoid it, though, but how to deal with it when it arrives. In my experience - call me out if this hasn't been true for you - the only way to deal with emotions in the longterm is to start by acknowledging them. Let yourself feel it, know it, and then you can move with it. When something stirs up jealousy, the question is, what did the stirring? What's the real source? Often, it's fear of loss: it's easy to worry whether the presence of some other significant other will draw your love's attention away from you. What if he meets someone smarter or more exciting? What if she meets someone just like you ... but a little more so? Wouldn't you be left in the dust?

There are at least three levels on which to address this fear. The first is to ask, if we were in a monogamous relationship, would the chances of your partner's leaving you be any different? My guess is, if anything, there's more danger in monogamy. In a polyamorous relationship, there's no need to end one relationship in order to pursue another. In monogamy, though, if there's a chance of happiness with someone new, one has to scrap the current dyad just to investigate it! Staying together out of fear of being alone turns love into some awful Death Cab for Cutie single. Still, the fear of being left behind - or even just the sense of loss that one might feel, having to let go of the fairy tale that what you and your single lover feel is unique and could never happen between her and another person - can be stronger than the logic of that thought experiment.

Secondly, one thing that polyamory does not foster is defining oneself by one's romances. Having dated one person through most of high school, I learned almost everything about love, sex, and romance from my experience with Alma. We talked a couple of times about whether we even knew who we were without each other. I remember thinking at some excessively morbid moments that, were he to die unexpectedly, there would be no point in my continued life. (Obviously, I got over that.)

It's easy to imagine that one's happiness comes from one's partner, and that the source of the joy one feels when one is in love is the loved one. As romantic as it sounds, it's simply not true. Every feeling that runs through our bodies begins and ends within them. Our bodies - and thus our minds - are discrete, despite our interdependence with the rest of the world, and deciding to take responsibility for one's own emotions is the key to finding satisfaction with them. It's easy to let oneself react to what the world throws at one, but in some of the situations that come to pass in polyamorous romances, it can be important not simply to react but to stay conscious and monitor your own feelings. We're the ones inside our own heads, and so we have the power to work under the hood (personally, I recommend Buddhist-style mindful meditation). When it comes to fear, or to happiness, part of the emotional maturity that polyamory demands is the ability to take personal responsibility for our experiences.

When your partner, or partners, are seeing other people, you can't let them define you in the same way that I did back in high school. They won't always be around, and they'll always be making attachments with other people. It'll save you a lot of sleepless nights if you can be satisfied as an individual.

The third element, though, is the one I find most reassuring. How realistic is that fear of loss in the first place?

The following paragraphs come from an article called "Leaving the Straight and Narrow" in issue #39 of Loving More magazine, the only issue I've read.

"When a couple with a healthy relationship decides to open it up, they might find themselves asking some common questions: Will my partner find someone else they like better? Will I be abandoned? What if the other lover is better than I, more desirable, more intelligent, and more capable? Am I enough as I am?
"What if someone else is a better lover than my wife? What if the guy down the street is more spontaneous and lively and my guy seems too serious?"

When I read those paragraphs, I realized something: I have never worried about meeting someone "better" than a current partner. Not once have I thought, "What if I like this person better than Margaret?" or "What if she turns out to be the best lover I've ever had?" I have never once worried about someone I love becoming obsolete. And when I realized that, it didn't take more than a moment for me to feel a sense of peace, thinking, "I bet my lover hasn't, either."

When your lover looks at you, she doesn't see a stepping stone to someone more enchanting - or, if she does, DUMP the motherfucker already! You deserve better, and your happiness doesn't depend on that person! Your lovers are with you because you strike them as one of the more splendid people they've met on this Earth, and I sincerely doubt that any of the people who love you are pausing to wonder whether you are in fact the most splendid or whether, no, actually you come in about third.

Sunshine and puppies indeed, yes?

I'm serious about the meditation; taking a moment to ask yourself "What am I feeling right now?" and just observing those feelings, without judging them or acting on them, will give you a kind of muscle for emotional regulation that's otherwise hard to come by. Meanwhile, there's one more reason to be cheerful: part three will be about how to score kinky threesomes with hot bisexual - whoa, wait, I was reading the wrong sheet there! Next week I'm going to talk about getting old and wrinkly and changing diapers. Sorry, kids!

18 August, 2009

Reasons to be Cheerful (Part One)

I should start with the basics. Why would anybody want to date more than one person?

Part 1: "Am I not enough?"

If one of a pair brings up the topic of stepping out of monogamy, the other might be quick to think, "What did I do wrong? Why am I not enough?"

In poly circles, I often hear (or "read", to be truthful) the words "fairy tale". The fairy tale goes like this: somewhere in this world is a person who will love you and meet all of your needs. As long as you are with this person, you will be happy. If you aren't happy, either you're with the wrong person or there's something wrong with you.

I'm a lot of things, but "simple" isn't on the list. I remember a favorite teacher saying once that the biggest difference between men and women was that men were simple. Then he glanced over and said, "Well, maybe not you." (A high compliment!) One of the things I love about being able to have multiple lovers is that I find people who are open to completely different kinds of things. Margaret and I love to talk mind science, but when she starts working on robots my attention may wander. With Leilani, I can't expect to attach a neuroscience article to an email to explain some paragraph about emotion, but I can talk about the grand ecology of the world, and I can get in touch with the great green that I so miss from my childhood in the New England forest. I don't expect either one of them to start spending her time learning to love the things I do that she doesn't, although I love it when we do start trading interests. I don't want to have to pressure someone to shape her life around me; neither do I want to have to fit myself to someone else's needs. Instead, I want to be with someone because I happen to satisfy some or all of those needs, someone who knows that the fairy tale isn't worth waiting for: there may never be a single person who matches every need.

And, hell, what about every want? I don't know about you, but I intend to have a good life. Perhaps that's selfish. Ok. Call us selfish. But we're having fun.

That makes life easier for me, too. I know that, if someone I'm dating happens to love hip-hop and escargot and wants to share those experiences with someone, she's responsible for finding that someone. Likewise, if I want to bring a date to the Dragonforce concert, she needn't feel obliged to fake enthusiasm. This stands for more important issues, too. Let's say that a godless, sex-crazed sodomite (me) is dating a woman who isn't comfortable with sex. Finding a partner who is comfortable is my responsibility ... but because we don't insist on exclusivity, we can still enjoy each others' company in other ways. She can wait as long as she wants, and we can go for long walks on the beach and enjoy power metal together.

I think that necessitates a question, though. Why not just commit to one of these people and stay friends with the others? For me, I guess, the answer is that I love getting to know people the way one only does by lying in bed together after three AM, trading the stories that come out with sleep deprivation and trading kisses back and forth. I love loving, and because I often end up attracted to the people I like best, the freedom to follow through on that attraction is a wonderful thing. If I were in a closed relationship, I'd just end up with a thousand crushes clogging up the space in my brain. Now that I have the option to pursue them, that pressure doesn't build up.

So, that's part of why I want to ignore the fairy tale. It's not about not being enough but about allowing that one person doesn't have to try to be enough. We're each responsible for our own happiness, and I'd rather surround myself with wonderful people than ... wait, I can't think of an equivalent "pro" for monogamy. The difference between people - isn't that almost reason enough? Each lover I've had has had things in common with some of the others, since I haven't changed that much myself, but there is no complete overlap; change one person and it wouldn't be the same story. The people I've been with are all so fascinating that I'd hate to miss out on one of them.

It can be tough. Life's not all sunshine and puppies. Part 2 will be about balancing the equation: why would you want your partner dating other people? Actually, come to think of it, there might some puppies I can dig up for that one.

13 August, 2009

Polyblog

Writing a blog that isn't just a personal venue, like Livejournal, is new to me. Normally, I wouldn't sign up to produce interesting content on a single topic for the indefinite future. Why would I think that I can hold the interest of a random internet surfer - and why would I want to try?

It's mostly because of her: RosePhase, a blogger whose posts have amused, alarmed and engaged me in the past. She writes about living a non-monogamous lifestyle - the benefits, the drawbacks, and of course the comments from the monogamous peanut gallery. She'd gone on hiatus for some time, but after reading the comments on an interview with Jenny Block, a woman who's published a memoir about her open marriage, she kicked herself into gear again and started writing. You can probably imagine the tone of those comments: "[T]that has caused me to get back to making sure my voice is out there," she writes. "Even if it is small, and selfish, and wrong in other people’s eyes, because the more voices the better."

This may be a tiny corner of the internet, but if so much as one person stumbles across this page and thinks, "That's what I've been feeling!" or "You mean you can do that?", I'll sleep better for it. That's my goal: to increase the visibility of non-monogamous lifestyles, one post at a time. At the very end of that interview with Jenny Block, Jenny said something that stood out to me:

AOL Health: Your book is very personal and reveals intimate details about your past and current relationships. Why did you decide to write about this topic on such a personal level?

Jenny: I felt so alone when I started this exploration. I felt really like there was no model. There was no voice, no one who looked familiar to me. I just had to.

I know what she means. Monogamy was never really a sticking point for me, as I'll write in more detail later, but it's strange and alienating to walk through a world of people who don't even understand how the way one lives is possible. I wandered pretty far from the fold before I figured myself out and got on track. I'd like this page to be a place where people who are still searching can find a model, or at least find some answers. In the end, I want my kids to grow up in a world where monogamy isn't a default setting.

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For more poly media online, observe:

Poly In The Media, a blog that tracks and comments on treatments of polyamory in news media

Loving More, the "old hippies in the woods" branch of polyamory

"Polyamory? What, like two girlfriends?", where Franklin Veaux addresses the younger, kinkier side of polyamory with admirable insight and comprehensiveness

Philosophy of Non-Monogamy, a belligerent, opinionated, intelligent woman who knows herself and is peering into the rest of the world

The (frequently immature or dramatic but often compassionate and always entertaining) Polyamory LiveJournal Community, where you'll see some of the best and worst of poly

If you or someone you know produces a similar online resource, let me know and we can exchange links!

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For the record: yes, I know that polyamory is wrong. The word includes mixed Greek and Latin roots. Please ... find it in your hearts to forgive me.