Critical polyamorist blog
Note: This post was originally drafted in October 2014. I have been quiet on this blog for the past year except for posting 100s. I have revised this blog to a place where it segues better to my current non-monogamy practice, which has evolved intellectually and emotionally from where it was a year ago. You can read about that in the next blog, which is forthcoming soon.
This journey through ethical non-monogamy is a form of inquiry. The questioner in me pushes forward with her assertive self, her observational skills, her self-reflexivity. She is relentless in her analysis. Even on days when I am weary, when I am about to give up on the possibility for ethical non-monogamy in a world of compulsory monogamy and ownership of others’ bodies and desires like tracts of land (it assaults my intellect and hurts my heart), her desire to understand and engage with the inner workings of ethical nonmonogamy pushes me to keep working. For me, the work isn’t primarily what other poly people describe: extreme communication, strategies for jealousy abatement, and Google calendaring date nights. Those are baseline skills of polyamory laboratory technicians. The work of a polyamory theoretician and analyst includes those lab tech skills and so much more.
Polyamory for me is not “fun” these days in the lusciously mundane sense of the word. It’s intellectual work, but intellectualism after life’s material needs is my next deepest drive. And that’s good because there have been too may false starts on a path too little worn. I started out with polyamory to forge an alternative route outside state-sanctioned marriage and monogamy, which ill fit me, towards more fitting forms of connection. But there has been too little of that. There has been too much not great heart connection, although the sex is usually better that, facilitated by my relationships with (would-be) poly people who struggle to overcome histories and habits of curtailing diverse desires. Few people, even those willing, know how to operate with openness outside the cage of monogamy.
Polyamory has become—on days when I think I mainly benefit in my intellectual growth—a project of forging a path for others in another time and place. Forgive the explorer at the edge of the frontier narrative. But I am committed to turning The Man’s narratives back on him. I like to gaze at him, re-appropriate all the bountiful lands and resources he stole and reserved for himself (like choice, greater independence, sexual desire as an acceptable urge and not something to be owned by another) for my own ends, and maybe eventually for marginalized others. Turn about is fair play on the way to something more democratic for everyone. THAT is critical polyamory.
Each new encounter, each person’s life story for the first time, being in their physical presence one-on-one for a length of time, figuring out the nature and level of mutual (or not) attraction—these are all data points. I have been taking mental notes all along. I have not simply been searching for intimacy and connection, but I have been trying to also understand. And I think I have pursued a project that shares something intellectually with Nitâcimowin blogger Kirsten Lindquist’s project to “decolonize” love and relationships. I have learned much about myself, and the (not so?) colorful array of humanity during the last 20 months of doing this. There is much variety in the world, but simultaneously less than you’d think. For your reading pleasure, here are some recent observations.
Observation 1: People are different and yet they are similar, and the cage of monogamy stands always at our backs
In the past three years I dated three men in open marriages. All three men are very different individuals and so are their wives very different from one another. Yet I have come to see characteristic patterns in each set of relationships. In all three situations, one or the other spouse seemed not equally committed to non-monogamy, or at least this particular form of non-monogamy that we call polyamory. Some people find it easier to have secret sexual flings or allowed kiss-and-don’t-tell relationships outside the marriage. Poly seems a lot of work and too complicated a road when one is primarily seeking a passionate sexual connection. It is precisely the complications and sexual lack of fulfillment that plague long-term traditional marriages that so many people seek to escape. The last thing they want is to build emotional and social complexity with someone outside the marriage. Such people are right to be hesitant about polyamory. Poly is like monogamy in some ways. It requires different forms of communication and skills than managing primarily sexual relationships. Indeed, poly bloggers and writers often note how poly communication skills (openness and a focus on sharing and owning ones feelings versus focusing on blaming the other person) could also enhance committed monogamous relationships. Poly is not an alternative for everyone experiencing dissatisfaction with monogamy. It certainly was/is not a panacea for the open-marriage couples I’ve interacted with.
After a while with each couple I would catch glimpses of their deeper stories and lives that were not very in line with the husband’s initial narrative of their open relationship. The husbands were not misleading me. Rather, I think it is hard to see from within all the layers of a marriage, the complicated weave produced iteratively over decades. I learned that I would endure fallout quickly if there is bad communication or lack of agreement in the primary marriage relationship about how my secondary relationship should go, and about whether non-monogamy is really agreed upon. With two of the men, I think they were simply too monogamous for polyamory. It became apparent to me that both were scouting the landscape for a replacement primary-type relationship were their marriages to fail, either legally or in spirit. A primary break-up risks destabilizing the secondary relationship too, especially when specific relationship formations (i.e. primary versus secondary) are not equally desired between partners. My work and my child take up the center of my life. The person that would compel me to center and make them “primary” is so rare, I try not to expect their eventual appearance in my life. Too many single people are looking for a primary partner, usually in the form of eventual legal marriage. Marriage is not a goal for me. This is why dating people in open marriages appeals to me. But it is better if those marriages open themselves from a place of strength and yearning for growth, not a yearning born more of absence, or uneven desires.
With the third open marriage couple, the wife wasn’t fully on board. As far as I can surmise amidst glimpses of the communication shortfalls between them—and in turn with me—she seemed to be doing it for her husband who seemed to want an outside relationship very much. It was apparent in communication with both of them, that there is something emotionally or intellectually different that he also needed and that the marriage didn’t provide. But she was nervous, and rightfully so. She could handle some extra-curricular sexual diversity just fine. They’d done that for much of their nearly two decades of marriage in a way in which their relationships were kept separate from the marriage. But she wasn’t ready for this: an outside relationship with an emotional connection, and all three of us attempting to be friends. He is the most important thing in her life. She told me straight up. I finally figured out through my efforts at communication with her that the whole situation hurt and confused her more than it did anything positive for her or for their relationship together. Why did her husband not have that figured out when he lives with her? And before he roped me into their—from my admittedly partial standpoint—difficult communication dyad? He had three choices: Work to get her on board and hope it works. Leave the marriage if she never gets on board. Or live with her not getting on board and give up his plans of polyamory. Oh, there is a fourth choice: he could cheat, although it doesn’t seem likely. Their affection for one another was great. We all agreed to part ways. I hope they found a relationship style that worked for them. I remember them both with affection.
I grew weary of being practiced upon by couples who are new to this. But then I reflect—alone or in conversation with poly (former) partners and friends—and they remind me that we are struggling together through our relationships and our "failures." Sometimes I too will need to practice relationships with partners that have greater skills in some areas than I possess. This is, of course, true of monogamous couples as well. They do not all come together with evenly developed relationship skills. And I wonder, is this less complicated for me since I am not opening an existing relationship, but entering them? In a conversation recently with the most recent open-marriage partner, I told him again as I had before, that the learning from all three open-marriage relationships was sufficient reward for the growth pains.
Observation 2: Toward a post-cheating society
As an aside, the longer I engaged in polyamory and the more depth of understanding I gained about how much work it is, I am less judgmental about those who “cheat.” I increasingly don’t like that word. “Cheating” to me seems to imply one does not own one’s body and one cannot do whatever the hell one wants with it. If someone is “cheating,” there is clearly a greater problem then them getting some on the side. We are sexual beings. Repeat after me: “sex can feel good, sex is a form of connection, sex is not inherently wrong.” Greater problems include “cheaters” not practicing safe sex—if they’re not. Don’t add injury to insult by putting your primary partner’s health at risk. If we agree that one owns one’s body rather than one’s husband or wife owning one’s body, we can see that more than the desire for sex with others, an inability to be honest about those desires is actually the problem. But this is where my sympathy has increased for some who resort to cheating. Widespread compulsory monogamy and sex negativity in our culture fertilizes the lush blossoming jungles of sexual repression and frustration that then nourish the cheating human body. I have data on this too. Being in my mid-40s and not quiet about my non-monogamy, I regularly get approached by men from 30-60 who because they don’t get what poly is think that I’ll gladly have a clandestine affair with them. Their lives are filled with sexual frustration and wives who (they say) won’t do anything sexually interesting with them, if they still have sex at all. I’m sure there are women who experience their own forms of sexual frustration with repressed and/or non-engaged husbands (or wives). My data—being a very heterosexual-presenting woman—is overwhelmingly with heterosexual men. Thus, sex negativity coupled with the ethic of thinking one should own literally or metaphorically another’s body, and finally the compulsory monogamy this produces—this is the core disease. I have come to see “cheating” by men and women as a symptom of this sickness—something the body does to lessen its pain. Rather than lamenting the cheaters, I lament the society in which this concept and practice has such salience, causes so much pain. I view polyamory and other forms of ethical non-monogamy as helping create a post-cheating society.
Observation 3: Critical Poly has an addiction to good men, which alone is not enough. They are a difficult habit to break
I had dinner some months ago with a poly guy I’d just met. I’ll call him Joey. It turns out that he is a very decent human being. He is a devoted father. When he told me about his children’s antics, they sound so cute. He is also a devoted partner. He is in an open marriage where they worked out major difficulties in opening that marriage five years or so ago. His wife had a steady lover outside the marriage and he wanted the same thing. As Joey described it, he wanted a woman who takes care of herself physically, and who isn’t into being collared, bruised, and whipped. BDSM is not his thing and he meets a lot of poly women in his city who are into that.
Joey is kind and emotionally deep with eyes that gazed at me intently, I had a hard time looking back. It takes me a while to be that open. He used a lot of soft words right off the bat to communicate his desire for me. For someone like me who is not quick to vulnerability, he was courageously vulnerable. We talked and laughed at dinner. The band was easy to listen to if not original. The food was good and the waitress gracious and skilled. The restaurant was architecturally interesting. It had expansive floor to ceiling and wall to wall windows that allowed us to see the growing city tower around us, a looming crane asleep for the night across the street. It was a really nice evening. As our laughter and ease with one another increased, he put his hand on my back. He rubbed my back, put his arm around my waist. It all felt good.
At the end of the evening when he kissed me, something strange and new happened. At least it felt strange and new, but really it was not. It was a reaction born of years of living and learning. As with all epiphanies, this one was a long time in coming. When I kissed Joey I felt a flash of feelings and unease. Thoughts of another man popped into my head. I’ll call him Adam. “I MISS Adam. I want HIM here,” sounded in my head. Adam recognizes me like only one other person has before, even more so. Let me explain my understanding of what others might call “romantic love.” I resist using trite words. When I say that Adam recognizes me and I him, I mean something greater than the physical, intellectual, emotional, and ethical attraction that come bundled together between us. He and I can stand inside one another’s attentive gaze for a duration. Explanations are not necessary between us, yet histories and ideas and a shared orientation toward the world contain us like a private body of water. Adam and the one other person I have shared a similar recognition with are both men whose stories in some way mirror my own. The tones of their voices were familiar to me the first time I heard them. I never tire(d) of hearing their voices and laughter. They spoke/speak to me in simultaneously tender and challenging ways. They excavate(d) my stories with keen interest, and my stories elicit their own. The first person is a long time gone. Adam lives across a sea in a far-off land in a monogamous relationship. I accept platonic friendship with him. I have no choice. I cannot imagine my life without the communication he and I have. Year after year, I live with the pleasure and the pain of our friendship. But why, in that moment with Joey did I wish so hard I could be with Adam? Since Adam and I have never been physically more than platonic, I did not imagine kissing him—but simply sitting with him. Talking with him. Looking at the city lights with him. That has never happened to me before when I’ve been with the men I’ve dated. The pain of my feelings for Adam, the feeling of scarcity in not having a more-than-platonic relationship with him usually only comes when he and I are in one another’s physical presence too long. Out of sight, and it’s much easier on my heart.
It took me a few days to figure out why Joey’s touch invoked longing for Adam. Writing this post helps me to understand. After the last 20 years of living, I recognized a pattern that too much characterized my orientation to relationships. Mid-40s Critical Poly understands more deeply than ever before something her 25-year-old monogamous self could not have: goodness, a loving orientation, even combined with a degree of physical attraction is not in and of itself sufficient. I need emotional depth to be even between partners. Joey wanted something “steady” and what I think he would call loving. I felt his intentions. They called up in me a desire for what I’d call deep mutual recognition. What I feel with Adam. Not all relationships have to be that kind of connection. Some want to be mainly physical connections, some are meant to be romance-light and passion-heavy, and that’s okay as long as things are more or less mutual between lovers. My epiphany with Joey included the insight that human touch, if given with loving, respectful, and passionate intentions, is a turn-on for me. Period. I caught myself wanting to want to be with him. He is a good man. But I knew I could not evenly return his emotional energy. My physical desire for him then dissipated. I am done with the days of choosing men because they are just plain good, who have their sights set on something deeper, and where there is physical attraction, but where my gaze doesn’t lock in. The lock is rare for me, indeed.
With Joey, I recognized my old pattern quickly. This took me years to learn. On the other hand, things with FB, my firefighter boyfriend, are mutual as far as I can see. We have nice physical compatibility, a steady and slow-deepening relationship. We are both open to where our relationship wants to go, and where it might not go. As FB observes, he and I don’t feel the need to have too many conversations about our relationship. We just relate, and that’s a good sign. I know now that it is easier to spend solitary evenings than to live lonely and mean inside a relationship in which I cannot give my partner what they desire and need. And vice versa. I write this with every bit of awareness of the privileged leather throne upon which I sit at this granite countertop in this comfortable apartment in this liberal city with my cupboards and refrigerator full, money in my bank account, and my body safe from all anticipated harm. I have the means to be alone, although I wish it weren’t so often.
Let’s hope Adam’s image doesn’t go crashing too many liaisons.
Yours truly in camaraderie,
The Critical Polyamorist
 See my July 28, 2014 blog “Couple-centricity, Polyamory and Colonization” for a brief critique of “primary” and “secondary” relationship language.
Photo credit: Short Skirts and Cowgirl Boots by David Hensley
The Critical Polyamorist, AKA Kim TallBear, blogs & tweets about indigenous, racial, and cultural politics related to ethical non-monogamy. She is a prairie loving, big sky woman. She lives south of the Arctic Circle, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @CriticalPoly