A note about The Deviated Norm

This here is a low traffic blog on topics close to my heart. As such, comments and engagement on old posts are always welcome and will be responded to. Except! for comments on old posts telling me to lighten up, not take things so seriously, or let things go, 'cause that shit's just plain ironic. Those comments will get a suggestion to visit Derailing for Dummies.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Today In Meet a Poly Person: Drama Does Not Define Us

Often in online conversations about poly people's relationships, real lived experiences of poly people, (or people in open relationships, or swingers, or anyone else who isn't monogamous) are ignored. There will be a strawperson (or strawrelationship) set up for the blogger or commenter to knock down in their quest to show how very bad and no good we non-monogamous people are. This series was set up in order to combat that. People in non-monogamous relationships aren't all the same, so our experiences aren't.

Hi, I'm Jadelyn, blogger at Witch.Words (and also sometimes at The Border House). I'm a mid-twenties bisexual polyamorous feminist Witch, a student, and a gamer. When I'm not hefting my teaspoon in various arenas of activism, I can be found working towards finishing my years-delayed B.A. and playing way too many video games.

When I try to describe the last year and a half of my relationships to friends I haven't spoken with in awhile, I always get the same reaction. In text, it's something like this: "...wow. That's really complicated, isn't it?" And in person, it's the same plus the addition of raised eyebrows and a very careful neutral tone. It's hard, in our culture, to adequately describe the shifting dynamics of a somewhat fluid polyamorous arrangement.

Some quick terminology notes to begin with, for those unfamiliar with the vocabulary of polyamory. Primary refers either to one's primary partner or relationship. This is the relationship which all involved parties have agreed takes precedence over the others, if a conflict arises. Generally, one is assumed to spend more time and energy on one's primary relationship and partner than on one's secondary and tertiary relationships. Triad refers to a three-person relationship; it may be an equilateral triad - all three persons are considered primary partners - or non-equilateral - one relationship between two participants is primary, and both of those primary partners have a secondary relationship with the third person.

Back to my story. In the past year and a half, my 6-year primary relationship opened to include a third in a nearly-equilateral triad arrangement. It was my first experience with polyamory, and it began as a one-night stand, but we then fell in love and entered what was to be a nearly year-long triad relationship. About ten months later, I reconnected with an old ex and met his fiancee; they, too, are poly, and I became their third. Shortly thereafter, the woman who'd joined my primary and I as our third left the relationship, and things between my primary and I got rocky for awhile. Another six months later, and the other triad I was involved in ended rather explosively (long story), right as I struck up a casual relationship outside these varied triads with a long-time friend of my then-primary and I. Finally, the new relationship with my primary's and my friend proved to be the final push that helped me realize it was time to end the primary relationship I'd had. So in the space of 18 months, I went from a single one-man-one-woman relationship, to a FFM triad, then I became the second F in someone else's FFM triad, then it was my old primary and I, plus still my new triad, then the primary and I and my other relationship, and finally it's boiled down to me, engaged to the friend, and us currently living monogamously.

Through all of this, I've seen (and, sadly, participated in, though I like to think I've learned from the experience) the kind of behavior that makes non-poly people tsk and shake their heads and say "That's what I told you would happen." 2009 was a drama-full year for me, relationships-wise, I admit that. But I've also seen and participated in poly arrangements that were as stress-free as any relationship, monogamous or otherwise, and even more so than some of the monogamous relationships I've had. In fact, I would say that opening our relationship to the woman we came to love greatly enhanced my original primary's and my relationship. We fought less. We had more fun, both with and without her. We both suddenly had avenues to explore in our own relationship needs and sexual desires, that weren't there before. And I will always treasure the great gift that relationship gave me: the knowledge that jealousy is not inevitable. Our culture would have us believe that jealousy is the natural state of a relationship, that affection is a zero-sum game and our partner enjoying the company of another somehow diminishes their love for us. But I learned otherwise. I learned that jealousy follows from insecurity, and that when one's partners are gentle of one's feelings and careful to offer all the reassurance and love one asks for and needs...the jealousy goes away. I learned how to sort through my feelings; how to have open, frank discussions of wants and needs and boundaries in a relationship, and how to respect the conclusions of such discussions. I learned how to tell when I was really hurt by something, and when I just needed to ask for some reassurance to feel okay again; and most importantly, I learned that there is no shame in asking for what I need, because it allows the relationship to continue functioning happily instead of creating resentment.

I am an imperfect poster child for polyamory. As any social justice activist could tell you, it's always easiest to "justify" one's cause to the other side when you have the "right kind" of example, the easy case. For pro-choicers, for example, it's easier to use as an example a mother of two whose pregnancy with a third and wanted child suddenly threatens certain death if she carries to term, because nobody could possibly dispute the necessity of that abortion. Those advocating for health-care reform garnered better results from the angry masses when talking about a single parent with cancer who was laid off and now is dying without the ability to access insurance or treatment. It's easier to push for same-sex marriage when you can show couples who have been together for 50 years, than to acknowledge the serial monogamists or LGBs who only casually date. And when it comes to polyamory, it's easiest to legitimize it in the eyes of skeptical monogamists if one can point to long-term, stable, drama-free, "perfect" poly arrangements, because the fewer visible flaws the relationship(s) have, the harder it will be to pick it apart and blame everything bad on the polyamory. I, on the other hand, with my drama and shifting from one arrangement to another, in quick succession and not always cleanly, am easy pickings for critics, who would claim that all the drama in my love-life stems from the polyamory itself, not the relationships or the people involved.

But it is for that reason that relationships like mine need to be visible, too. Otherwise we allow the disapproving masses to set the bar on what kind of poly is acceptable and what isn't, and nobody wants their relationship to be judged by someone else's standards. If we allow that, then where is the threshold set? Are only stable triads acceptable? How long must a relationship last before it's considered "stable"? Can people sneer at you and question the legitimacy of your relationships and say your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend/partner doesn't "really" love you, because you're poly, so long as it's an open relationship of under, say, 5 years duration? Polyamory is about respecting the legitimacy of all kinds of love relationships, because we understand that what works for one person won't necessarily work for another. And that includes those poly arrangements which aren't perfectly stable, those which are semi-dysfunctional, because perfection should not be a requirement of our existence any more than it is for monogamous relationships.

As for my poly future? I'm deeply interested in working toward the legalization of polymarriage here in the U.S., because in an equilateral poly group, how do you decide who marries who? Like it or not, marriage confers a certain stamp of legitimacy on relationships in our culture, and it would be terribly hurtful to have to say, "This pair out of the relationship is the "real" one, the legitimate one, and everyone else is legally an afterthought." And while I'm living monogamously with my fiance for the moment, we have talked it over, and we've decided that if or when we meet the right woman, and she's amenable, we would be willing to open our relationship into a triad. I found I was much happier and more comfortable in a mostly- or nearly-equilateral triad than in a situation with multiple independent relationships, or a deeply imbalanced triad; that's just what works best for me. So I very much hope that the Universe allows me another chance to experience that happiness in my life.


  1. I'm enjoying this series! I wish I had more to say, but my partner and I are poly in concept but have not found the right person/people/time/arrangement of the planets to become poly in fact, if that makes sense :) I just also wanted to say:

    "Our culture would have us believe that jealousy is the natural state of a relationship, that affection is a zero-sum game and our partner enjoying the company of another somehow diminishes their love for us."

    This! There are so many toxic memes out there about how relationships "should" be, but this one gets under my skin quite a bit. I mean, what it seems to boil down to is this idea that all relationships should be monogamous, and that you should not have any kind of life outside of your partner*. That's .... that's something deeply wrong in our society, IMO.

    *IME (YMMV) this has manifested in all kinds of weird ways, from people asking if it bothers me/my partner that we have friends of the "opposite" sex (which, yeah...) to people asking me if my partner was ok with me going back to school, not shaving, coloring my hair green, etc. WEIRD.

  2. As far as how "seriously" anyone else takes your relationships, I think you should consider that long-term commitment and stability are the hallmarks most of us use for judging ANY kind of relationship. I'm certainly poly-friendly, but I'm not going to honor the relationship of a newly-formed and volatile triad the way that I honor a stable relationship of many years. You may not like this, either, but I'm just pointing out it isn't necessarily poly discrimination to feel this way.

  3. anon, when you say "a stable relationship of many years" do you realize that you put that in contrast to triad, implying to myself (at least) that it is a two-person relationship? That triads need to be defined as such, but two-person relationships just *are* a real relationship?

    I'd also like to point out that coupled monogamous people get their relationships respected within days of them starting. My sister started "sort of" dating a guy maybe 2 weeks before our family came out to see her for graduation. The entire family spent the whole time talking about him, including him into activities of ours, and generally treating him like he could potentially be coming to Thanksgiving next year (or whatever). If I started dating another person (more seriously than "sort of"), I would most certainly not have that individual be given the same level of respect and space that my sister's NOT EVEN "real" boyfriend was given by our family. Let's not pretend that this is about length of time or some standard measure of "volatility," since the second is going to be judged based on the judger's biases and prejudices (which, if they live in most of the world, include anti-poly sentiments).


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