Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Polyamory 101: Scarcity vs Abundance

Lately, I've been writing some 101 articles for the blog; you can find them using the poly101 label on the site. In this article, I'm addressing a key idea behind polyamorous relationships.

We live in a world of scarcity.

There's only so much stuff to go around.

This is a very Western-way of thinking.

We are raised with a Western Mind.

As kids, we're indoctrinated into a world of scarcity, particularly when it comes to relationships and love:

  • Romantic love, we are told, is finite.
  • You can only have so much, and you must find that one person to share it with.
  • We are taught that we can engage only in one relationship at a time.
  • When one relationship ends, another one is given social permission to begin.
  • Conducting multiple relationships at one time may result in slut-shaming or social ostracism.
  • There can be only one spouse, and when one spousal relationship ends, another is free to begin.
  • Our fantasies and stories reflect The One, or, Princesses and Princes, the Romeo or Juliet, that'll fulfill our every need forever, removing the need to find other partners.
  • Sharing our limited love and sexuality is meant for a betrothed partner and desiring sex with more than one partner is greedy, selfish, immoral. It is hidden behind the practice of an affair.

In Polyamory, love is perceived as infinite. Your heart and feelings aren't constrained, and love can be shared - it is abundant. Poly emphasizes abundance thinking over scarcity thinking:

  • Romantic love, in Polyamory, is infinite.
  • As love is abundant, you can share it with anyone you deem it appropriate to do. Why not love in multiples?
  • Engaging in multiple relationships at a time is acceptable and a base tenant of our human nature. The Polyamorous person may ask, "Why struggle against that nature within the context of monogamous relationships?"
  • Social permission isn't needed to start and end relationships, and value judgements like slut-shaming is replaced with more sex-positve thinking.
  • Polyamorous folks may question the value of a singular spousal connection or even re-define marriage as a more flexible union that extends sexual freedoms to each individual.
  • And Polyamorous types likely see the expression of their sexuality as healthy and growth-oriented. Multiple relationships are celebrated and honestly shown to all.

In that there's a mindfulness around scarcity that some might perceive as being individually constrained or inhibited, most Polyamorous wouldn't go so far as to dismiss monogamy. Most Polyamorous folks that I know would want to avoid monogamy-bashing and suggest that relationship styles are individual choices. Monogamy isn't bad nor wrong. Both monogamy and polyamory have merits. Both can be practiced and respected.

Polyamorous people believe that the joy and expression of love doesn't necessarily mean that it needs to be hoarded; that one person must promise emotional and sexual exclusivity for love to be real. On the contrary: love for someone may manifest in a variety of ways (life partners, casual encounters, deep connections, life-long friendships, fuckbuddies and Friends With Benefits, BDSM, dominant and submissive relationships, etc.). Poly makes allowances for more entanglements beyond "The One".

Further, no Polyamorous person would likely define Polyamory as a state of chaos or absolute freedom; even under a premise of abundance and infinite choice, we still operate under negotiated expectations with our partners. We can't do everything we want without risking others we love. There are still commitments that's brought on by a lot of talking and parsing through emotional muck.

Nor does branding oneself as Polyamorous bestow a license to engage in misbehavior. Claiming to be Polyamorous but concealing a relationship from a spouse is still cheating; having sex without telling other partners is still inappropriate behavior; a woman who identifies as being Polyamorous isn't saying she's easy; a Polyamorous person doesn't have defacto access to the partners of other partners. There are still expectations that we're to operate under, and being Polyamorous isn't adopting a lifestyle of irresponsible behavior.

Generally speaking:

  • In Monogamy, love is scarce. Love is finite; there's only so much to go around. It can only be felt for one person at a time and manifest in an ultimate, singular relationship.
  • In Polyamory, love is abundant. Love is infinite; there's so much of it to share. It can be felt for many people and manifest in completely different ways.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Polyamory 101: New Relationship Energy (NRE)

I've started writing a number of Poly101 articles for the blog; you may have already read my 101 on Should I Introduce Myself as PolyCompersionJealousy, and Polyamory. In this article, I'll be trying to describe a complex set of emotions often expressed in Polyamory circles called New Relationship Energy.

NRE (New Relationship Energy) is a term used to describe the intense giddiness one feels when falling in love. In poly circles, it's a term used to describe a particular state of mind that may be influencing peculiar or erratic decision-making.

In the grips of NRE, life is seen through proverbial rose-colored glasses. Everything is super-amped-up: birds sing the name of your new love; crowds spontaneously break into choreographed musical numbers with you; flowers form tiny faces and smile at you as you walk by; when you roll the dice, it's always lucky-seven; when you watch clouds form ... well, okay, maybe I'm exaggerating but it feels like this. Everything's just going your way.

Also, in the grips of NRE, you and your lover are all lovebirds and turtledoves: at social events, you will ignore everybody else and stare longingly into each others' eyes; you're seen with each other all the time - you're an "item"; hand-holding can quickly turn into giggly-heavy-petting; and the sex with this person is mind-blowing.

Language that you'll use within NRE may include colorful words like: forever, forever ever and ever, infinity, destiny, The One, The Only One, soulmates, never, always, etc. etc. ad nausium.

NRE can probably be thought of as more an observed state. Your poly friends would observe your behaviors and contribute them to your being in NRE. "Ahh. Jeremy. Right. He and Joni are on an NRE roller coaster. Zoinks." Unless you're truly hypercritical and cognizant of your own emotional states, you wouldn't likely see yourself suffering from NRE ... you're just happy and in love. 

Awww. Bliss. Ain't it cute?

Now, NRE presents some troublesome issues in poly. 

Firstly, in this emotional and mental state, you're probably not going to make the best decisions. As the Ethical Slut points out, try to avoid long-term legal agreements during this phase of a relationship: buying a house, a car, signing a lease, kids. All of this stuff has long-term ramifications, and you and your blissed-out-butt aren't exactly seeing "long-term ramifications". Hey, I'm guilty on this one: within just a month of our relationship, PF and I were out "looking" at houses together. With our kids. Yikes.

Secondly, your established partners would care to remind you that they're still there. They still love you. They're still important. They may not be the "new shiny" but they've still stuck by you for all this time and deserve just a little more attention, time, love, and respect. I think most poly partners can recognize when one of their partners are in NRE and make suitable allowances, but it can go south very quickly. You can quickly find yourself down a rabbit hole ignoring other partners which can lead to all kinds of bad. At this level, allowances and patience are thrown out the window and your pre-existing partners would insist you've "got your head up your ass". At that point it's time to wake up and start making changes. Pronto, Kemosabe.

Thirdly, there are real emotional and sexual challenges surrounding NRE. I've seen circumstances where male spouses encounter repeated and prolonged performance problems their wives after finding a new shiny. Women can also respond in similar ways - desiring a certain touch from a certain guy and nobody else will do. That kind of contention in the bedroom can be problematic. It takes a lot of talking, negotiation, and processing with all partners involved to work through these issues. It isn't easy for anybody.

Fourth, NRE is an endorphin-fueled altered state. It can be mildly addictive. Some people in poly can be described as NRE-Junkies. Either consciously or unconsciously, these are people who'll enter relationships, burn through an NRE cycle, and then - once the relationship evens-out and they're no longer getting the endorphin rush - they bow out. They dump their partner and move on to another relationship to get that high. More than just a few times will get a person noticed by a poly community and that person may become socially ostracized or, worse, they'll be flagged. Warning, warning: danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

Finally, NRE must eventually fade and transition to more usual life patterns. NRE can't go on forever - the fuel and space for it to burn isn't infinite. Otherwise, that burn will be felt like a radiating heat in other areas of your life: financially, in respect to chores and other obligations to children and household, friendships and acquaintances, co-existing relationships, work. If it doesn't normalize, a relationship can start burning down other established habits, patterns, commitments ... it gets bigger, consuming what it touches. It'll consume. And force a degree of changes you never anticipated making that could be hurtful and damaging to people all around you. 

NRE is desirable. It's expected. It's the magic found in love. But in Polyamory, it's something that's seen as both a blessing and a threat. Managing your own actions and recognizing your own compromised emotional state during NRE is a hallmark of poly processing. Working through NRE-exacerbated drama is a common theme in Polyamory communication.


Collaborative Creation

Back in the day, I used to be a band geek.  Shocking, isn't it?  ;)  For hours each school day, I spent my time with the same group of people.  Jazz band first thing, then concert band, followed up with sectional practice and any sort of pep band activities in the evenings.   Often, I had many other classes with my fellow band geeks, and we circulated in a clump for most of the day apart from musical activities.

Band was central to my life in those days. It was how I survived high school with minimal damage. Particularly with the others in the jazz band, we were extended family.  An incestuous ball of teenage hormones running amok with brass, reed, and percussion.  Recently, I sold my beloved trumpet.  It was an emotionally charged decision, but I realized that I was never likely to take it up again.  Why?  I loved being in a band, and solo music holds little interest for me.

Similarly, in my relationships, the goal has never been to run my own agenda.  I seek collaboration, consensus, and shared creation of the composition that is the life we choose to lead in relation to each other.  While ripping a solo can be heady stuff, I am happiest as a strongly valued member of a group.

Poly gives me a forum to be a contributing member in the genesis of something that is more than I alone would be able to generate.   As more voices join the band, there are more subtleties, nuances, more depth of harmony and melody, and more opportunities for dissonance.  Being able to see, hear, and feel how my interactions are impacting others holds much more satisfaction for me than in charting my own path and hoping that others follow me.

Look around your world and notice your band members.  What are their strengths and weaknesses?  In what ways do you complement each other, or potentially generate conflict?  How can you offset it when one of you is having an off day, without ruining the music of your relationship?  What skills and perspectives can you learn from each other to strengthen the whole ensemble? Is this a week you want to work on a complex piece of music, or relax with a piece you can play in your sleep reliably?

Learning how to play well reliably together is something that takes time and repetition.  The tough sections are often flubbed repeatedly, and require significant practice to improve performance.  In the end, the quality of music produced is determined by time, talent, and a willingness to sometimes restrict personal performance to bring up the whole group.

Without awareness of my partners and metamours, it would be easy to be off-beat, or out of tune.  Only by focusing keenly on those I am choosing to "play" with, allowing each voice to have input, is an elegant, beautiful composition possible.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Examining Couple Privilege Versus Earned Privilege

Last night we hosted our monthly discussion group and the topic was couple privilege.

If you're not familiar with the term, Aggie at Solopoly writes extensively on the issue - and I'd really recommend bookmarking her site - but generally it refers to the bias, decisions, and restrictions implemented by a married "core" couple in web of polyamorous relationships.

Couple privilege can be found in the negotiated boundaries and expectations set by a married couple as they launch into polyamory. These conditions are designed to protect their marriage and can be perceived as dismissive, demeaning, or even cruel to secondaries who're forced to oblige by the rules to play ball.

Hopefully, over time, the married couple learns to trust themselves, and they will voluntarily release restrictions, drop controls, or, renegotiate conditions in conjunction with the new partners, so that everyone gets a voice.

If not, continued unilateral decisions made by the core couple can be rather harsh. In effect, the secondary and their feelings can find themselves sacrificed on the alter of good intentions ... all in order to preserve the core couple's marriage.

I encountered a phrase last night that I really wanted to explore in more depth. Somebody referred to it as earned privilege.

The problem that I have with the couple privilege argument is that it seeks a level of instant equality that just can't exist for me, and I've written about this before in the context of hierarchical poly.

In my understanding of life, there are inherent privileges extended to my wife. She's got eighteen years of history with me; an enormous emotional investment; financial and property entanglements; domestic chores and obligations; kids ... practically, it's just impossible for me to look at another relationship on the same level as the one I have with my wife. I've got too much skin in the game.

Thus I must acknowledge that there's inherent bias in my decision-making that will err on the side of preserving my marriage. And, honestly, I'm not really apologetic about it. It's my marriage. I dig it. I choose to keep it around. Call it couple privilege or whatever: it's important to me. It's going to affect everything I do.

Now, within the scope of couple privilege discussion, I've got a problem with implied entitlement. There ain't no such thing as "equal" or "fair". A new partner of mine can't waltz in and demand equal time, commitment, attention, and decision-making as my wife. A. That's not going to fly with her; B. It's totally impractical - I've got other commitments;  C. It jeopardizes my marriage.

But to me - and my wife - there is such a thing as sweat equity.

There's a path to earn mutual respect, trust, and joint decision-making in our lives. And that's where I triggered on earned privilege.

I believe that if a new partner can:

  • honor my marriage;
  • reach out and try to form a relationship/friendship with my wife;
  • demonstrate patience and a willingness to find common ground;
  • abide by our agreements; 
  • talk through problems and implement changes;
  • join me and yet enjoy the company of my family;
  • participate in both the domestic crap as much as the secondary bliss

... then conditions change. Instead of making unilateral agreements between my wife and I, my secondary partner becomes a part of the discussion. Through her skills, trust, dedication, empathy, and willingness, she's earned a seat at the table. And couple privilege ... erodes. It probably doesn't entirely go away but the conditions change.  It's not just about my wife and I; it's about us.

A silly example but one that kind of has resonance for me was this weekend. My wife and I are out shopping for couches. Pretty common. Husband and wife go out shopping for a new couch. She and I are laying on it, taking pictures, thinking of how it'll work, and I'm getting a quote from the sales guy. This looks like another couple privilege/unilateral decision, right? But then my wife stops me. "Wait a second. Maybe we should ask Dave and Camille what they think before we buy it?"

So there we are, getting ready to shift something big in our own personal space, and Gina wants to check-in with our other partners. Not a unilateral decision but a joint decision, involving all of us. To me, that's earned privilege in action. Dave and Camille didn't get to have a say in that decision simply by virtue of being in our lives, by just being there and inheriting equal say. They've put a lot into us and earned a place at the table.

And the couch is largely symbolic. Along with earned privilege comes more time, activities, shared space, and integration. The relationships get larger and become more meaningful. Then couple privilege erodes. It's an earned privilege. And I think I like that a lot more than the implicit demand for equity from couple privilege opponents.