Saturday, March 28, 2009

Island, peninsula, or part of the continent?


There are several major models of polyamory that involve varying levels of privilege and responsibility between the various people in relationship together. One of the ways we see this expressed is in hierarchical language, like primary, secondary and tertiary. This tends to denote how the practical application of connection works, but there are a lot of people that don't like this language, finding it demeaning or limiting.

I'm looking at trying a different model of how to relate based on the degree that a person wants to be responsible to others, as well as the privileges they might have a reasonable expectation of having access to: Island, peninsula or continent.

An "island" person would be someone who prefers strongly to be very independent. They don't want to run decisions past others, participate in consensus within a group, be "on call" to anothers' emotional or physical needs, and might see those levels of entanglement to be co-dependent or undesirable. Relationships are loosely defined, if at all, although they tend to have intense emotions surrounding relationships. Giving and receiving are seen as independent choices with no strings attached to islands.

A "peninsula" person still values their independence highly, but sees value in having some connection on an on-going basis with others. They will participate in consensus, but may still go their own way at any time. Give a little, get a little, but seldom at expense of their own goals or objectives. Connections may be strong, but are often less entwined in daily living. Giving and receiving usually run pretty quid pro quot, with a balance being sought.

A "continent" type looks to build strong tensile strength in their networks. Consensus is highly important, to the point that some of their own desires and needs can be sublimated for the health of the group. The deep level of commitment to their relationships may cause them to appear to be dependent on their partners at times. They value responsibility, and have a tendency to over-give. Giving and receiving are important parts of why they are in relationships with others, and connections feel less significant if there isn't a level of responsibility attached.

How do these (admittedly highly general approaches!) work in application? One possibility- Let's say you have a "island" dating a "continent": The continent is looking for a level of connection involving responsibility and intimacy that the island is likely to find stifling, and may feel rebuffed when their requests for help are declined. The island may be confused as to why their personal decisions are questioned, or that their partner wants them to participate more fully within daily life. In this case it may be helpful to find someone who knows how to build bridges, or have each partner move more closely toward a peninsula mindset.

Would it be helpful to understand the general approaches that a potential partner has on independence, entanglement, responsibility and privileges before starting a relationship? Of course! Even after the fact, it can be very useful to "retrofit" a relationship to allow more flexibility between styles, as well as just understand when someone has a totally different take on the word "relationship" than you do.

One thing that can be very challenging is when rights and privileges are desired without the accompanying responsibilities or vice versa. This can look a little like S's 11 year old saying she wants a cell phone. Alas, she doesn't have a job, has no way to pay for that item, as well as monthly upkeep on it. In the same way, someone that doesn't put into the relationship "bank" may find themselves short when the time comes that they want to make a withdrawal. Whereas, someone who gives to a person that doesn't record their deposits will be shocked to find that there is no running balance when they need to pay an unexpected bill.

FYI: I'm a continent with peninsula leanings. How about you? ;)


Anonymous said...

This is a GREAT post! I am all for people having the "same page" talk, but knowing that in the future your preference may change. I think at this point, I could be any of the 3, depending on the lover involved. However, I want the same affection, touch, communication with all, but understand that some people are like you say, oriented to being an island, peninsula, or continent, and may not want to change. Thank you! xo

Anonymous said...

To me these are not fixed preferences, so much as possible modes for a relationship. I like being part of a continent, but in order for that to work I have to have a similar climate and topology to the people I am considering connecting this closely with, which is not always true.

Even if I don't share enough feature of my emotional environment to join that closely I might still be interested in building a land bridge to someone and forming a peninsula,but that doesn't mean that both of us cannot be parts of our own continent, like the land bridge that formed between asia and north america.

And sometimes when my emotional weather forecast is stormy I will stick to an islands relationship to keep others out of the ugly currents. But a relationship like this can exist between any two land masses that are not closely connected, even to continents.

I like this system though because it is not ordered, but I really don't think preferences are universal. Mexico is part of the North American continent that has a peninsula relationship with Colombia and sees Norway which is part of a close triad and a larger continent, but only on an island basis. Mexico probably likes all these connections, it might feel it actually has more in common with Colombia then with Canada, but the USA is a good hinge between then and that relationship is important enough to make the commitment to be a single land mass, but Columbia has its own land mass commitment and you are just never going to get Brazil and the USA to agree to share political bounderies. Ok I a stopping now before I get too deep in to geography neard territory.

polyfulcrum said...

Thank you both for the additional comments! Yes, I agree that all of those models can be used, even simultaneously, within a given person's relationship network.

When I've seen issues arise is when one partner desires a different level of "land mass" than another. Also, there are times when one starts out on the island, decides the import taxes stink, and moves to the closest peninsula, or that the hustle and bustle of continental living is too stressful and they'd rather operate on island living schedules. Being aware of those states, and communicating when they are changing, is information important to shared with partners.

Unknown said...

What you're describing as "island" and "continent" people, I've usually referred to as "free agent" and "family" models of polyamory.

It's been my experience that there is a continuum between "free agents" (who tend not to involve themselves with a lver's other lovers, tend not to see their relationships as being interconnected, and/or tend not to put a lot of focus on group consensus) and people who tend to see their entire network as part of a single family. One one extreme, free agents may even present themselves or behave like they're single; on the other extreme, people may not even permit their partners to express any interest in new lovers without the unanimous approval of everyone involved in the relationship.

I don't think this is directly related to hierarchy, though.

I've known free agents who nevertheless do designate one relationship as "primary," and I've known people who adopt a strong family model of polyamory who nevertheless don't make distinctions between "primary" and "secondary" partners. And on the flip side of the same coin, I've known free agents who recognize no distinctions in hierarchy and strong family-oriented polyamorists who maintain a strict "primary couple" with a hierarchy of partners beneath them.

So essentially, I think we're talking about two separate, unrelated things here; your "island" and "continent" folks may or may not adopt a hierarchy, and the way they approach relationships isn't necessarily related to whether or not they use hierarchies within their relationships.

polyfulcrum said...

Yes Tacit, this is an alternate way of looking at relationship connection outside of hierarchy. In our household, one of the partners is pretty uncomfortable with that terminology, so I'm working to explore other practical ways to look at relationship connectivity without hierachical classifications being a default place to start a conversation. This feels like a promising possibility. I'd like to hear more from you about your "free agent" and "family" concepts!

Darcy said...

I like the idea of developing non-hierarchical descriptions for relationships. Although I can see in some relationships the importance of someone being Primary. I personally become more uncomfortable when it comes to going down the line with labels of Secondary, Tertiary, etc. I feel most comfortable to describe my relationships explaining that all are loved for each their own special things that they can bring to the relationship.

I look forward to more discussion of this topic.

Anonymous said...

People are creating new poly paradigms everywhere I look. Over on the Yahoo group Expansive Loving, some folks seem to be designing an amalgam of free agents bonded together as a family of choice. They don't see those as forced binaries. Autonomy and integrity are their bywords, responsibility to self generating mutual respect for one another. Transparency not hierarchy provides security.

I am continually impressed by the creative ways in which people can fashion lives that work for all those they choose to love. Now that we've broken out of the confining boxes society provided us we are building structures whose beauty arises out of their very uniqueness.

Whether I see myself as Majorca, the Iberian Peninsula, or part of the European continent may just depend on how and where I attempt to form alliances and what sorts of treaties we feel the need to negotiate. This piece never changes, no matter which paradigm flag I'm flying.

Thanks for providing more opportunity for the evolving dialogue.

Anonymous said...

"Connectedness" disputes between partners seem pretty straight forward to me. Sad if you want more then you are being offered, annoying if more is being taken then is offered, but pretty simple since it is a binary system.

What is tricker to me are "connectedness" disputes between metamours. If I have an island relationship with someone who is part of a continent the relationship with the other people in that group is tricky. Yea they are close and share decision making with my partner, but they are not closely connected with me, so I can end up feeling like the other members of my partners landmass have more decision making power over my relationship then I do, and it gets even worse if I am a part of a land mass too, because the gravity well from these other relationships pulls at a looser connection and can sometimes pull it asunder out of good motives.