Critical polyamorist blog
At the Edmonton-based Tipi Confessions show I co-produce with three other Indigenous women, the MCs recently read an anonymous audience confession on stage that elicited much laughter: “Polyamory is too much talking. Yawn.”
True! But so worth it when the tree of polyamory matures. After four-plus years of transition from compulsory monogamy and state-sanctioned marriage-mind, my solo polyamory tree feels rooted and fruiting like never before.
What is “Solo polyamory”? A Facebook page on the topic lays it out as follows:
People who practice solo polyamory have lots of kinds of honest, mutually consensual nonexclusive relationships (from casual and brief to long-lasting and deeply committed). But generally, what makes us solo is the way we value and prioritize our autonomy. We do not have (and many of us don't want or aren't actively seeking) a conventional primary/nesting-style relationship: sharing a household & finances, identifying strongly as a couple/triad, etc.
This blog post is inspired by the emergence, after years of tender and consistent cultivation, of the full-bodied fruits of polyamory. I have also honed my tending skills via study of polyamory’s social practices and the ways in which our bodies and institutions shape and are (not) shaped by ethical nonmonogamy. Combining action with theory is key to undoing this compulsory monogamy world. 
Monday 11am: A text from a newish lover from across town: “Your messages make my day brighter.” Plus a kiss emoji. We schedule a coffee date. We also shift the hours of a dinner date. I realized that I’ll be back later from Calgary than I thought. I am not the best with my Google calendar. He is full of sweetness. He draws it from me too. I feel my heart grow with him. He too is a gardener. He often wakes me and puts me to sleep with affectionate messages. It is joy to have days begin and end with his texts, though I see him about once a week. Our work and home-lives are at the center of our lives. He is not solo poly. I am, but what does that mean? My daughter is the anchor of my house.
Monday 5pm: “So it looks like this weekend is a no go. I miscalculated my weeks….” My dear friend and lover in another province asks to re-schedule our visit. He is a novice at nonmonogamy Google-calendaring. I understand. “The extra few weeks will only increase the joy we have in seeing each other,” I say. And yes, it’s okay if he visits even now that my teenage daughter has moved to live with me after several years living with her dad. Of course, I am open with her about polyamory. I am bad at hiding things. And ethical nonmonogamy is not shameful. I want my daughter to know there are options besides compulsory monogamy, and marriage. And I am only attracted to kind people. I would not bring anyone around her who is not kind. “Oh she knows about us,” I tell him. “She likes you. She thinks you’re cute.” (I didn’t tell him the rest: “….like a puppy.” My girl loves dogs more than humans.) He laughs.
Monday 11pm: I just went to bed, after tucking in my daughter who is still sick with a cold, and cuddly when she is sick. Otherwise, her autonomy is quickly increasing. A little ding on my phone. Is it my sweetie across town? He’s an early-to-bed person. Probably not. Is the one I adore in another province? Surprise! It’s a man I was newly seeing when I left Austin last year. He and I started slowly: Busy schedules, work, our respective children, my two main partners, our friends. And his wife, who I now email and message with more than him. She keeps me apprised of their lives. I’ve gotten to know them better since I moved away. We share in common the experience of having artistic children, and a belief that love should proliferate, not be contained by monogamy. She is so lovely. But this time, it is him catching me up on their lives by text. I tell him I’ll be in Austin in July. We make plans. He sends me a picture of him in his Texas boots kicking back in a field of bluebonnets. Be still, my beating heart. I love that land, those skies. He too is one to be seriously doted on. He is a good partner to his wife, a good dad, a good person. He is a good friend and potential lover to me. Plus, BOOTS. He says he has a sexy photo for me too….if I want it? Sexier than boots in bluebonnets? Oh yes, I want.
Tuesday 7:00am: Sexy pic arrives. I get on my rower with energy. A great start to the day.
Sunday 3pm: I make plans in late April in Vancouver with a steady partner I left in Austin. It was not easy to leave there. It was a good life. But I am drawn to places where Indigenous presence is more visible. I am giving a keynote at a polyamory conference in Vancouver. He will fly up to meet me and also attend the conference. He would rather go there than visit Edmonton. Go figure! (Edmonton is the main city of my heart now. I have brief dalliances with Vancouver a few times a year.) He and I shall walk all over Vancouver. I will go vegan with him for a few days. His vegan philosophy runs counter to my view on things, but it is fundamental to who he is. And he makes me laugh even when I eat vegan food. With his well-coiffed hair and his pastel-colored, always immaculate shirts, one might take him for a political party staffer on a night out. He looks normative, but good. Yet he is quirky and unusual on the inside. He is from one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth. He relocated to Texas and stayed. I am enamored of his contradictions, and our contradictions together. He is fun. And despite our considerable differences, we are fun together.
Three Sundays ago: “Standing on the street…my instrument wrapped around me…Here I am, thinking of you. I miss your beautiful smile. How I miss the challenge of your towering intellect.”
This text. Made my month. Would it not yours?
That former lover and always mind-mate is one of the most talented and interesting human beings I will ever know. He texted me from his southern city. I will be there for another talk, also in April. We made plans. I will be able to hear him play music again, hear his distinct voice and laugh. Connections take many forms. Sometimes they involve human bodies touching, or human bodies wrapped in voluptuous arms of brass. Bodies connect with cityscapes, with thousands of bluebonnets, and the sultry air of a southern city. We will eat decadent southern food together. There will be much meat. Our two bodies will be wrapped in each other’s voices and laughter. Who knows what else? One is open.
This is how polyamory works for me. Both my mother and a mentor told me when I was in my twenties, “Never burn bridges.” I’ve almost always followed that advice. Think of how one is with platonic friends. Those one connects with deeply. One can go years. Pick up where we leave off amidst each other’s meandering lives. This is how I am with friends and lovers. My lovers are almost always also my friends, where we are able to move into, out of, and sometimes back into romantic engagement. This is different than the common “friend with benefits” (FWB) idea. FWB often implies a public face of the relationship where the sexual engagement is a hidden fact. While I am not one to publicly display much physical affection, neither am I interested in hiding romantic feelings. FWB, counter-intuitively, seems conditioned by the dominant societal ideal that sex is only legitimately attached to the real, authentic (assumed monogamous) romantic relationship. So sex between "just friends" is somewhat illicit, gets hidden. FWB seems to both denigrate the power of sex in and of itself ("it's just sex") and denigrate friendship as a "real" relationship ("we’re just friends"). FWB thus seems ironically to privilege the ideal of the mononormative and compulsory sexual couple. But all of my intimate relationships are real relationships. Sex with appropriate persons and with robust consent can be a beautiful experience. Yet sex isn’t some special signifier of authentic love. True love can exist absent sexual connection. I have a couple of friends with whom there is no sexual contact, and I consider them as among the great loves and supports of my life. There are those also those people who identify as asexual but who love romantically in both monogamous and polyamorous ways.
A current lover once broke up with me. He said he wasn't ready for a relationship. It was both a funny and sad moment. I said to him, “We are in a relationship even if you break up with me. Will we not always be friends, like we have been for years? That’s a relationship.” He agreed on the friends part. But he didn’t think he could do ethical nonmonogamy. And after his long marriage, as much as he liked me, he might want to pursue others. He had my blessing. But he wasn’t ready to process polyamory and the idea that we could have other-than-platonic love and touch between us, yet also pursue that with other people at the same time. Friends with benefits or serial monogamy made sense to him, and they don’t work for me. And most importantly for both of us, he didn’t seem to understand that it is possible to cultivate deep intimacy while living life off the relationship escalator--outside of normative couple structures, e.g. cohabitation and marriage. From his point of view, there was freedom or getting trapped. So “falling for” someone made him nervous. I laugh, but not at him. I laugh at how absurd and oppressive settler society has made the project of love and fidelity. Faithful and loving nonmonogamy is counter-intuitive to social norms that draw hard lines between friend and lover, sex and other kinds of intimacy and touch. These lines prompt us to be stingy and possessive with love and affection, and to view it as inappropriate except in the narrowest of circumstances, to attach it to a one-way relationship escalator. In my form of ethical nonmonogamy, I do not draw such lines, nor am I interested in tackling someone onto an escalator. I love him, whether we have sex or not and no matter who else he has sex and love with. As a solo polyamorous person, falling for him never scared me, whatever happens. I cherish each of my eggs. Occasionally one breaks. But not putting them all in one basket means I have others to sustain me. After a hiatus in our romantic relationship (no hiatus in friendship), he’s pondering my polyamory again. This makes me happy.
Five Wednesday’s ago. My avowed monogamist daughter spoke up at the end of a group conversation in Trondheim, Norway, where I traveled for work. She was the only young person in a group of adults, all Indigenous people, testifying to one another about the trials of living under colonialism. One topic of conversation was settler-imposed sexuality and family structures. My daughter shared: “At first my Mom’s polyamory freaked me out. But I was younger. I didn’t get it. Now I understand, and it has taught me that I don’t have to choose one group of friends over another. I don’t have to be in a clique at school. I can have lunch with one group of kids this day, and a totally different group of kids the next. Sometimes they don’t understand, and they get offended, but I like to have different kinds of people in my life.”
That is the kind of nonmonogamy I too practiced as a teenager, back in my Midwestern and not-at-all-cosmopolitan childhood, long before I understood that polyamory was a possibility. I liked and was often liked in return by nerds, rockers, cheerleaders, athletes, band kids, theatre kids, and kids that crossed race and class lines. I willed myself at about the age my daughter is now to not limit myself to one crowd, to promiscuously consider many possibilities that came my way, not to covet or be jealous. Maybe I was naturally a nonmonogamist. Or maybe I was just so interested in people and the world that I developed strategies for having as much of it as I could. If I never left my childhood homes in rural South Dakota or the Twin Cities of Minnesota, I have no doubt I would be in part who I am now: In whatever configuration I could manage, spinning webs of diverse care and relations. Polyamory is one more way to enact that.
The Critical Polyamorist
 See our Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/tipiconfessions/. Also see the webpage and podcast of our parent show, Bedpost Confessions, produced by Sadie Smythe, Julie Gillis, and Mia Martina, out of Austin, Texas, https://bedpostconfessions.com.
 Stay tuned for my eventual unpacking of “solo polyamory” within a context of critical Indigenous relationality. Polyamory is, I am aware, a form of settler sexuality but one in which I find partial decolonization. It is a weigh station as I learn to disaggregate settler sexuality and kinship into good relations.
 For more on solo polyamory, check out these two-oft read articles. Aggiesez. “What is Solo Polyamory? My Take.” SOLOPOLY: Life, Relationships, and Dating as a Free Agent. December 5, 2014. Available at: https://solopoly.net/2014/12/05/what-is-solo-polyamory-my-take/. And Elisabeth A. Sheff. “Solo Polyamory, Singleish, Single & Poly.” Pyschology Today. October 14, 2013. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-polyamorists-next-door/201310/solo-polyamory-singleish-single-poly
 I am very much in conversation with Angela Willey, and her book Undoing Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016.
 See the SoloPolyCon 2017 conference Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1261631220560643/.
 Aggiesez. “Riding the Relationship Escalator (Or Not). ” SOLOPOLY: Life, Relationships, and Dating as a Free Agent. November 29, 2012. Available at: https://solopoly.net/2012/11/29/riding-the-relationship-escalator-or-not/.
If I were a country music singer I’d write a song by the same title as this blog post. I would love to be an ethical nonmonogamist, sequin-sporting, cowboy boot wearing Native American country music star, belting out radically different narratives of love, lust, and loss. Steel guitar and fiddles would scream behind me. But I digress.
I left a state sanctioned legal marriage in 2010, or so I thought. We have never legally divorced. I don’t care about the legalities. We are still financially and socially entangled as coparents, and we occasionally collaborate professionally. I don’t plan on marrying again. I will always be responsible financially to my coparent’s wellbeing, if he needs me to be. He has been my closest friend. There are also benefits to being legally married in the US, that settler state of which I am a citizen and where my coparent still resides with our child. The US denies its citizens universal healthcare and makes it difficult for “alternative” families (i.e. not heterosexual and/or monogamous) to enjoy rights of visitation in hospitals, or easier child custody arrangements. Legal marriage, including same-sex marriage, helps deliver these benefits. Marriage can also provide tax benefits, cheaper insurance and other financial incentives. Living in two separate households is expensive enough. The financial perks of remaining legally married help even though I now feel deeply negative about the institution. Such benefits should not be reserved for those who are coupled in normative, monogamous unions constituted along with legal marriage. But this powerful nationalist institution reserves for itself the utmost legitimacy as an ideal social form, one we are all supposed to aspire to or we are marked as deviant. It asserts its centrality at the heart of a good family. It forecloses other arrangements and choices. Even after I tried to abandon settler marriage, it continues to break my heart year after year as I struggle to live differently in a world so fundamentally conditioned by it. I wrote in a July 2014 blog post, Couple-centricity, Polyamory and Colonialism, about this form of relating and how it was imposed to build the white nation and decimate indigenous kin systems. The diverse ways of relating of other marginalized peoples, e.g. formerly enslaved African-Americans post-emancipation and their descendants, LGBTQ folks, and those from particular religions that advocate plural marriage (my readers may have less sympathy for the latter) have also been undercut by settler norms of sexuality and family.
The High Cost of Resisting Compulsory Monogamy
In 2010, I was still brainwashed by compulsory monogamy. I was deeply pained by not feeling what I thought I was supposed to feel in a lifelong, coupled relationship. I thought if I found the “right” monogamous relationship my confusion and pain would be no more. But I did not entertain that idea for long in the separation. I cannot honestly remember why I decided to explore ethical nonmonogamy, at first by reading, and then by actively engaging with an ethical nonmonogamy community in the city I moved to. In the several years since I began living as a nonmonogamist, I have climbed a steady learning curve. Many of those lessons are documented in this blog.
But despite my realization that settler sexuality and family are the source of much anguish for me, for my extended family in our mostly “failures” to attain it, and for indigenous peoples more broadly, I have consistently known that if I could go back in time to 1997, I would get married all over again. We brought our daughter into this world. I would change nothing if it meant she would not be here. Being the cultural person I am, I live according to the idea that there is a purpose that I will probably never fully name to our daughter’s presence in this world. I cannot imagine this world without her. I would do every single thing exactly the same in order to make sure that she arrived in this world exactly the person she is, both biologically and socially. I understand those aspects as co-constitutive. That is, we are biosocial beings.
But even aside from our daughter, I would get married all over again. Had we not legally married he would have moved overseas without me for a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity, and that would have ended our relationship. We had to be legally married, according to immigration, for me to accompany him long-term. I would marry him all over again because I grew enormously with him. I don’t know if he would say the same. I hope so. If he would not, that would be sad. We spent so many years together. My daughter’s father is someone with whom I have always questioned my cultural and emotional fit. He is not a tribal person. Those are the people I connect emotionally most deeply with. Yet he and I have a deep and abiding intellectual and political fit, and I have not been able to let that go. We never ever lack for ideas to discuss together, and with such animation. We think and write well together. We are highly intellectually complementary, and that matters to us since we both do intellectual work. Physically we are a good match as well, except for me sometimes when the cultural connection felt not enough, when I especially longed for that kind of emotional intimacy, and which no doubt I did not provide for him either. There are things I will never understand about him. I attribute that to our very different cultural upbringings. I would grow detached, retreat physically. I eventually accepted that he was not the right one. Yet I see why I got together with him, and why I kept coming back after several attempts early on to leave, why I ended up staying so long. And yet I also cannot regret leaving. I simply don’t see how I could have done anything differently given who I was, and who he was each step of the way. I did not take the easy way out. I tried hard for years to understand. It was only through staying, and then finally leaving, and then studying and practicing ethical nonmonogamy that I came to understand the structures that produced our relationship, and which continue to.
I know that there was no other choice but to eventually leave. I have revisited this decision many times. Each recollection, I arrive at the same conclusion. The unhappiness was growing too large. My behavior in the marriage too deteriorated. I grew to dislike my coparent and myself more every day. I had liked us both when we got together. I finally couldn’t live like that. I had respected us both. I wanted to respect us both again. I had so much to change. I see many couples out in the world mistreating one another, or suffering in silence. Between my own marriage and the nonmonogamous relationships I’ve been in, both with divorced people and with those attempting to make their marriages work, I know how pervasive are unmet needs, the resentments and sadness that come for so many with compulsory monogamy. I see these dynamics everywhere now. And I no longer see them as individual failings. For many people, there are few real choices. Our society does not want to accommodate anything but compulsory monogamy. It insists on the right one, until death do you part, settling down as a mark of maturity, making a commitment with a narrow definition of what that looks like. Society then stigmatizes multiple needs and vibrant desire as commitment phobia, wanderlust, sordid affairs, promiscuity, cheating. Indeed, our society better accommodates lying than it facilitates openness and honesty. While I am able to choose not to lie, to be openly nonmonogamous with my partners, it has come at a significant emotional and financial cost to all involved when I left a normative marriage to eventually figure it out.
Only if I were who I am now could I have made a gentler, wiser choice six years ago. Only if I were an ethical nonmonogamist then could I have tried to make another decision, and asked my coparent to join me in that. He is an anti-racist, anti-colonial, sex-positive feminist. Chances are he would have tried. But I was not who I am now. It was an intensive, committed journey to get here. I also know long-together couples in open relationships who work well, who love and respect each other and their other partners, and whose children are well taken care of. Ethical nonmonogamy, if it were a legitimate social choice that we were taught early on, like we are taught compulsory monogamy from our first consciousness, would enable more expansive notions of family thus keeping families more intact. I probably would not have left. I would have known then that no one partner, even a culturally more familiar one, could provide all I need. A different kind of marriage is a marriage I can probably get behind. This is one reason, despite my misgivings about the Marriage Equality movement, I do think queers getting married will trouble our mononormative conceptions of marriage as part of their critiques of heteronormative marriage. Queers more often do ethical nonmonogamy. If anyone is going to marry, better queers than straights in my opinion.
Crying the Nights into a Coherent Narrative
Six years into this transition, I have begun crying myself to sleep each night, either at the beginning of the night, or sometimes in the middle. I never sleep the night through. My tears do not represent regret. They mourn ongoing, inevitable loss. Crying is like composing, whether words, or song, I imagine. I let the nightly cries take me as if they are a spirit possession so strong it is easier to submit. I work through them as hard forgings of language that are at first raw, then sensical, poetic. It is a form of intellectual intercourse with the emotions of my body, with history, with the planet and skies. My days are bright and pass quickly with vibrant intellectualism—with measured hope in an era where many have little. Why then are the nights so hard? After much pondering, I think I know. The nights this far north are expansive in their starry blue-blackness. And though they grow shorter, squeezed on both ends by sun, they are somehow not smaller. The night relinquishes no power. History and auto-ethnographic data flood in to widen the hours of unsleeping. Until finally I fall asleep without realizing. I am not a person who can live content without understanding. I was deeply troubled in a normative marriage. In order to change anything, I had to understand why. It took me six years of active study of myself, of texts, of others to understand.
During the last few months, in the long nights of reflection and in deeply physical bodily mourning, I have come to know that I could have done nothing differently. Under the weight of settler history, I had a narrow range of choices. Of course I do not feel blameless. My love and longing for my daughter won’t allow that. My nightly cries have now become simple mourning of every night lost with her—every night that I cannot hug her goodnight, or rub her back until she falls asleep. She is a teenager now but like all of the children in our extended family, she likes to sleep with her mom. I mourn the loss of cooking dinner with her in the evenings, her chatter in the kitchen, her eagerness to learn how to cook. I mourn her beautiful singing voice daily, seeing the progress of her paintings weekly in the art studio. I miss giggling and plotting and whispering with her in person. I left a marriage that her father had a much easier time fitting into. Settler marriage was a model that more or less worked in his life experience. He was always her primary caretaker. I could never have asked to take her with me, not then anyway. I also left for a nonhuman love it turns out, although that took me a while to realize. I needed to be back on the vast North American prairies. My coparent loves living near the sea. While I am fed by multiple partial human loves I cannot do without that land-love.
So I am thankful for Skype. I am thankful for jet planes. I am thankful that I mostly have the means to make this work. But the distance cuts hard, especially in the middle of the universe of night when I am far from my daughter, when I hear matter-of fact thoughts in the crystal quiet: Things might not end well. There are no guarantees. Yet maybe “ending well” is a vestige of monogamy, a vestige of the utopic but destructive ideal of settlement in its multiple meanings: not moving or transitioning; settling for the best thing we can imagine; closure, no open doors. But a life in which our child lives long plane rides away from one or the other parent seems a sad alternative to the settler monogamy and marriage I cannot abide. So much travel feels ultimately unsustainable—emotionally, financially, and environmentally. I think of refugees of war, or economic migrants who live through different sets of oppressive circumstances half a world away from their loves, both human and land. I try not to feel sorry for myself. I still have so much. I try to have faith that I can keep patching together my loving relations over an arc of the globe for as long as I need to. I try to have faith in new ways of knowing and being, ways that scare me. I am in uncharted territory. I hope I can keep going. Maybe something will change.
Ethical Nonmonogamy as a Site of Biocultural Hope
Settler marriage, sexuality, and family have been cruel and deep impositions in my people’s history, and in mine. My ancestors lived so differently. I think we tribal peoples are left with pieces of foundations they built. What we have been forced, shamed, and prodded into building in their place is an ill fit. But it is not like we have plans or materials to build as our ancestors did. We go on as best we can with what we have. My ancestors had plural marriage, at least for men. And from what I read in the archives “divorce” was flexible, including for women. Women controlled household property. Children were raised by aunts, uncles, and grandparents as much or more than by parents. The words in my ancestors’ language for these English kinship terms, and thus their roles and responsibilities, were cut differently. I know one feminist from a tribe whose people are cultural kin to mine who speculates that maybe the multiple wives of one husband may sometimes have had what we call in English “sex” with one another. (I assume when they were not sisters, which they sometimes were.) And why not? In a world before settler colonialism—outside of the particular biosocial assemblages that now structure settler notions of “gender,” “sex,” and “sexuality,” persons and the intimacies between them were no doubt worked quite differently. Much of the knowledge of precisely how different they were has been lost. Oppression against what whites call sexuality has been pervasive and vicious. Our ancestors lied, omitted, were beaten, locked up, raped, grew ashamed, suicidal, forgot. We have inherited all of that.
I live and work in pursuit of new ways of loving, lusting, and losing amidst the ruins and survivals together of my ancestors’ ways of relating. I work with what is left to work with. I take note of the historical accounts we retain, both in academic English and in our oral histories. I look to articulate these partial understandings with my lived experience in tribal community and the fundamental ethical lessons I’ve inherited from my people. Even in the instances where specific knowledge of cultural practices was beaten and shamed out of our peoples, I believe that we have retained in community fundamental ethical orientations to the world that can help us learn to love and relate in the 21st century in ways that are less conditioned by the specific settler structures of sex and family against which I live and write. Some of these ethical orientations include a sense of agnosticism about what we know and withholding judgment, a humility and patience to wait for more information; a sense of relatedness to other living beings rather than fundamental rights to own or control; a broader and less hierarchical definition of life (born of that agnosticism) than Western thinkers have tended to allow; a sense of being in good relation that is measured by actual relating rather than by doctrine; and finally not simply tolerance for difference but genuine curiosity about difference, and sometimes even delight in it.
In my loving and relating, I look for and seek to proliferate “sites of biocultural hope” as my colleague and friend Eben S. Kirksey describes them. In what has been dubbed an anthropogenic age, in which humans have developed the capacity to fundamentally alter the Earth’s climate and ecosystems, Kirksey advocates something more than apocalyptic thinking. He is one of the non-indigenous thinkers with whom I am most in conversation. He encourages us to understand surprising, new biosocial formations in an era of environmental, economic, and cultural crisis as legitimate flourishings, and not simply deviance. Where Kirksey refers to "emergent ecological assemblages—involving frogs, fungal pathogens, ants, monkeys, people, and plants," I do not forget such other-than-human relations. But I also refer to indigenous peoples and cultures in the wake of American genocide as not only sites of devastation, but as sites of hope. My particular people have been post-apocalyptic for over 150 years. For other indigenous peoples it has been longer. Still, our bodies and continuing/emergent practices are ecosocial sites and manifestations of hope. We survive, even sometimes flourish, after social and environmental devastations, after and in the midst of settler cruelties from extermination to assimilation designed to wipe us from this land. I see us combining our fundamental cultural orientations to the world with new possibilities for living and relating. We’ve been doing this collectively in the Americas for over five centuries. We’ve done it with respect to syncretic forms of religion and ceremony, with dress, music, language, art and performance. Why should we not also articulate other ways to love, lust, and let love go? Settler love, marriage, and family in hetero- homo- and mononormative forms does not have to be all there is. I have to have faith in that. I am only beginning to imagine.
The Critical Polyamorist
 Katherine Franke. Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality (New York: NYU Press, 2015). Also see Nancy Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) and Sarah Carter, The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press 2008).
Looking for Love in Too Many Languages…Polyamory? Relationship Anarchy? Dyke Ethics? Significant Otherness? All My Relations?
Despite the fact that the polyamorous community says it over and over again—polyamory is ‘not just about sex’—the monogamously inclined media…cannot get past the fact that sex is a potential component in several relationships. Yet polyamory is by definition ‘many loves’. Sex might be a component and it also might not be….Mainstream media perception and focus on sex as the principle driver of polyamorous relationships, is not only incorrect, but it has damaged the real meaning of polyamory to such a[n] extent that I don’t know whether we can recover the word.
“The Mass Exodus of Polyamorous People Towards Relationship Anarchy"
Postmodernwoman.com (October 5, 2015)
There are many insightful blogs being written on topics that can be understood as “critical” polyamory. They contain analyses that go beyond more common treatments of emotional and logistical troubles related to having multiple, open relationships. Critical poly accounts address complex intersectional politics that condition how we are able to (or not) love openly and promiscuously. (See a selection of such blog posts on my links page.) And when I use the word promiscuous I do not define it as is standard in our mononormative, sex negative culture, i.e. as indiscriminate and random sexual encounters. Rather I re-define “promiscuous” as follows:
PROMISCUOUS, adj. and adv. (OLD DEFINITION)
Pronunciation: Brit. /prəˈmɪskjʊəs/ , U.S. /prəˈmɪskjəwəs/
Done or applied with no regard for method, order, etc.; random, indiscriminate, unsystematic.
OED Third Edition (June 2007)
PROMISCUOUS (NEW DEFINITION)
Plurality. Not excess or randomness, but openness to multiple connections, sometimes partial. But when combined, cultivated, and nurtured may constitute sufficiency or abundance.
Polyamory and Relationship Anarchy
I am edified by what I see as an increase in critical polyamory analyses that address questions such as how can we participate in open relationships as persons conscious of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability and other kinds of privilege and marginality. How do we do polyamory in less hierarchical rather than more hierarchical ways? The more rule-bound and couple-centric forms of polyamory, for example, that privilege the (state sanctioned) married, cohabiting, child-sharing couple as “primary,” with additional relationships being “secondary,” seem to me to replicate many of the conditions of monogamy that I find politically and ethically distasteful. I am always interested in analyses that help us envision ways of relating beyond such normative arrangements and beyond Western notions of romantic “love” conditioned—whether we know it or not—by capitalism’s coercive power.
I am an indigenous critic of “settler sexuality,” that is hetero- and homonormative forms of “love,” “sex,” and marriage. Or as Scott Morgensen—whose work established the term—defines it: “a white national heteronormativity [and increasingly also homonormativity] that regulates Indigenous sexuality and gender by supplanting them with the sexual modernity of settler subjects”. In thinking against forms of settler sexuality, I have become intrigued by the concept of “relationship anarchy” (RA). I’ve read several recent online analyses of this term, including one by well-known poly blogger Louisa Leontiades, as a reorienting concept for previously identified polyamorous people. Leontiades, author of The Husband Swap (2015), references blogger Andie Nordgren’s “Short Instructional Manifesto for Relationship Anarchy,” and describes RA as follows:
Relationship Anarchy is a relationship style characterised most often by a rejection of rules, expectations and entitlement around personal relationships. Relationship Anarchists are reticent to label their relationships according to normative expression (boyfriend, girlfriend etc.) believing these labels to be inherently hierarchical but rather look at the content of the individual relationships allowing their fluidity to evolve naturally under the guiding principles of love, respect, freedom and trust. Relationship Anarchy does not predefine sexual inclination, gender identity or relationship orientation.
I am curious about and moved by the concept of “relationship anarchy” (RA). But anarchist thinkers such as the blogger at Emotional Mutation have pushed back against poly folks appropriating the term “relationship anarchy” to help us lessen the perceptional baggage generated when mainstream media presents our relationships simplistically with a “salacious hyperfocus on sexuality.” Emotional Mutation clearly differentiates RA from poly, when they explain that polyamorists will tend to avoid or reject “some of the more radical/anarchic avenues of non-monogamy” that Relationship Anarchist’s pursue. For example:
…Relationship Anarchy rejects all arguments for policing the behavior of one’s intimate partners. ALL of them. What this means in practice is not only No “Agreements” in our own relationships, but also no participation in policing the rules/agreements/contracts of other peoples’ relationships. In other words, Relationship Anarchists are not necessarily anti-cheating.
These descriptions of the RA ethic make a lot of sense to me after three years as an ethical nonmonogamist, one who has made an intensive intellectual and political project out of the practice. As I wrote in my last blog post, “Critical Polyamory as Inquiry & Social Change” (Dec. 13, 2015), I lament cheaters far less than I used to. Rather, I lament the society in which the concept of cheating has so much salience and causes so much pain. “Cheating” is an idea conditioned by what are ultimately ideas of ownership over others’ bodies and desires. Having been "cheated on" long ago before I was married, having been the unwitting dalliance of someone who was cheating, and having myself cheated out of confusion and resistance (I see now) to monogamy, I can say that I cannot tolerate lying. It insults my intelligence. I could not myself carry lies. I confessed quickly. Sometimes the truth hurts, but for me lying hurts more. Cheating comes in part from thinking that lying will hurt less than honesty. Indeed, for some it does hurt less. This is the reality of a compulsory monogamy society in which there are severe social, legal, and economic penalties for breaking the monogamous contract. Those of us who have had the wherewithal to say “I want out” know well those penalties.
But the main reason that Relationship Anarchy intrigues me is my growing distaste—other than consent and safe sex agreements, of course—for relationship rules broadly. Like monogamy, I see fundamental aspects of polyamory to also involve imposing onto relationship categories and rules forged historically to manage society in hierarchical ways and which facilitate the coercive work of colonial states that always privilege the cultures and rights of whites over everyone else, the rights of men over women, and the rights of the heterosexuals over queers. Of course, state-sanctioned, heterosexual, one-on-one, monogamous marriage is tied to land tenure in the US and Canada, and helped bring indigenous and other women more fully under the economic and legal control of men. Polyamory only partly challenges settler sexuality and kinship, including marriage, in seeing ethical love as not being confined to the monogamous couple. But as I’ve written in an earlier blog post, “Couple-Centricity, Polyamory, and Colonialism” (July 28, 2014), it still often in practice privileges the married couple as primary, other relationships as secondary, and continues to invest in couple-centric and often nuclear forms of family that are deeply tied up with colonialism. Ethical nonmonogamy in the US and Canada does not do enough to question these settler forms of love, sexuality and family. Although to be sure, there are ethical nonmonogamists who do their best to loosen the strictures of settler family forms to the greatest degree they can in a society whose laws thwart alternative families, including indigenous and queer families, at every turn.
Dyke Ethics and an Indigenous Ethic of Relationality
In addition, and not unlike monogamists, nonmonogamous people also often privilege sexual relating in their definitions of what constitutes ethical nonmonogamy, or plural loves. Might we have great loves that don’t involve sex? Loves whom we do not compartmentalize into friend versus lover, with the word “just” preceding “friends?” Most of the great loves of my life are humans who I do or did not relate to sexually. They include my closest family members, and also a man who I have had sexual desire for, but that is not the relationship it is possible for us to have. I love him without regret. We have never been physically intimate. Is this somehow a “just” friends relationship? I do not love him less than the people I have been “in love” with. Might we also not have great and important loves that do not even involve other humans, but rather vocations, art, and other practices?
I am coming to conceive of ethical nonmonogamy in much more complex and fluid terms than even polyamory (yet another form of settler sexuality) conceives of it. There are certain queer relationship forms that my evolving vision of relating resonates more closely with. In her forthcoming book, Undoing Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology, University of Massachusetts feminist science studies scholar Angela Willey articulates a broader sense of the erotic than is reflected in both monogamist and ethical nonmonogamist (i.e. polyamorist) sex-centered ideas of relating. Briefly, Willey defines the erotic in conversation with black lesbian feminist writer Audre Lorde and her idea of joy, “whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual.” Joy can involve humans and nonhumans, including entities and concepts not considered to be alive in a typical Western framework. The sexual and the romantic may be present in Lorde’s and Willey’s concept of the erotic, but they have no special status as a form of vital connection. Music, love of one’s work, satisfaction in building something, making love to another human being, artistic expression—all bring joy and fulfillment and are forms of eroticism. This can help us envision more expansive forms of connection and belonging beyond those produced by monogamy and nonmonogamy, and their sex centered understandings. Not that sex isn’t great for many of us, but it’s not been great for everyone. Nor do some people care to have what we call “sex.” Not all loves involve sex, even between partners. That should not diminish the veracity of love, commitment, and relating when it is the choice of both/all partners to not include sexual relations. The concept of erotic at play here does not hierarchize relationships according to the presence of sex, or the kind of sex. Willey is especially attuned to the loves and relating of queer subjects, “dykes” in particular, in whose circles she reads deep values of friendship, community, and commitments to social justice. And while sex and coupledom are present they are not uniquely centered. Willey’s observations are complementary to what I am calling an “indigenous ethic of relationality.” I am working to articulate a conceptual framework of relating with not only my human loves—sexual and not, but also with indigenous place, and with different knowledge forms.
What is “Love” Anyway? Becoming (Partially) Together?
All of this musing on plural, expansive mutual caretaking relations brings me back to this concept of “love,” which we throw around a lot in English.
Since I moved 2400 miles north to Canada from the American south last summer and left behind a wonderful friend and lover—FB (short for Firefighter Boyfriend), I’ve had time to reflect on our way of relating for the 14 months we were in close contact. FB models the kind of relatedness—a kind of “love” one could call it—that I am moving toward. It is not quite polyamory, nor Relationship Anarchy. I don’t yet have a name for it. FB is always there for me, even when he is not here. We never saw each other more than once every 2-4 weeks, usually for a weekend at a time. But I saw him enact a kind of distributed web of faithfulness that is rare, at least in US American culture. FB attends to his many loves: his children, his parents and sibling, sometimes his previous lovers. He attended to me and to M and to R, his other partners during our time together. He attends to his athletic training partners. He attends to his friends since childhood. He attends to his work, which he takes very seriously. He attends to these people and practices with his heart and his physical being. He does work for people as part of attending to their complex human needs. He fixes cars, fixes things around the house, and for a few of us he attends to our bodies in sexual ways. He continues to check in with me though we are separated by thousands of miles. He even checks in with my child occasionally. I will always remember the day he accompanied us to a speaking gig I had in a town 100 miles from home. He tied his camping hammock from a tree on the university campus, and my child swung in it while FB played guitar and sang Johnny Cash songs to her so she wouldn’t have to be bored at my talk. He is filled with energy to attend to his many relations. While he helps nourish community far beyond his nuclear family, his children too are raised in community, with not only him but by extended family.
I remain in relation with FB, although often now by messaging or Skype. I continue to converse with him, to learn with him. He is not indigenous but he gets it—at least the human side of this ethic of relatedness, a 21st century articulation of “all my relations,” that I work to live. I never told FB that I loved him. I was still defining love when we were together in the same city according to a couple-centric, probably more escalator-like definition, which FB and I were not ascending. Monogamous conditioning is probably like an addiction in that one must always be vigilant to its hunger, its willingness to help one cope or make sense of life. Though I work daily to gain nonmonogamy skills and to put down long- conditioned monogamous responses, I accept that it may always live inside me. I need the support of other nonmonogamous people who like me are in recovery from a colonial form of monogamy. Because I keep working at it, I am more skilled than I was a year ago in spotting monogamous responses in myself. I see that I was mistaken when I did not tell FB that I love him when I saw that I had his consent to share those words. In fact, we were enacting it even then. I understand now that love is not only feeling, but attention and willingness to caretake, even partially. Sometimes this includes sex. Sometimes it does not. From here on out, I will be more careful and thoughtful, yet more generous in my use of the word “love.”
When we caretake, it must also include ourselves. FB attends to himself. He knows that he needs to replenish. He is also not afraid to ask others to attend to his life. Being in relation requires doing and asking. This is because we cannot do everything for ourselves, or for others. As tireless as FB often seems in his efforts to be in relation, he is also always clear that he cannot be everything to anyone. Along with him I learned that faithful attention to one’s loves requires not submitting to the myth that partners can “complete” or make each other whole. I have come to think that asking for that is not fidelity, but betrayal of oneself and one’s lover(s), thus the point of a broad, strong network of relations. We can only manage the heavy work of sustenance in cooperation with one another.
FB and I have engaged in what Alexis Shotwell (after Donna Haraway) calls a form of “significant otherness.” Haraway refers to “contingent, non-reductive, co-constitutive relations between humans and other species” as she theorizes more ethical human relations with and responsibilities to the nonhuman world. By co-constitutive, Haraway refers to how we shape and make one another. We become who and what we are together, in relation. Taking Haraway’s reformulation of “significant otherness” as also a way to “talk about valuing difference,” Shotwell applies this relational ethic to her own analysis of polyamory practice: “significant otherness points towards partial connections, in which the players involved are relationally constituted but do not entirely constitute each other.” She also draws on Sue Campbell’s analysis of “relational self-construction”—the ways in which “we are formed in and through mattering relations with others…how our practices of being responsive to others shapes the kinds of selves we are.” 
How does this play out on the ground? Through specific relations with FB, for example, in concert with my intellectual relating with theorists cited here (Campbell, Haraway, Lorde, Morgensen, Shotwell, and Willey), and with indigenous ways of thinking relationality, I can now articulate “love” in a more complex and considered way than I had before. I have learned through nonmonogamy practice and reflection on that practice—aided by feminist, indigenous, and queer theorists—that one becomes together differently with different persons, phenomena, and knowledges. This happens on material and social levels simultaneously. Different bodies and desires fit together differently, thereby shaping different sexual practices and facilitating different sets of skills. New desires and pleasures (sometimes surprising!) are biosocially constituted. Different personalities and social ways of moving in the world help us partially re-socialize one another. With the aid of lovers past and present, including intellectual and other loves whose actual bodies play less to no part in our intimacies, we are ever becoming.
I began writing this post before Valentine’s Day, but life interfered and it took me a while to get back to it. But in that spirit, I leave you with a blessing: May your loves and relations be many, and not caged within settler-colonial norms of rapacious individualism, hierarchies of life, and ownership of land, bodies, and desires. I hope that every day you are able to spend time with some of your loves, whoever they are and in whatever relationship form they take. I wish you health and connection in 2016.
The Critical Polyamorist
 Scott Lauria Morgensen. “Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism within Queer Modernities,” GLQ: A Jouranl of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16(1-2) (2010), 106
 Angela Willey. Undoing Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology. London and Durham: Duke University Press, 2016 [forthcoming].
 Alexis Shotwell. "Ethical Polyamory, Responsibility, and Significant Otherness." In Gary Foster, ed. Desire, Love, and Identity: A Textbook for the Philosophy of Sex and Love. Oxford University Press Canada: Toronto (forthcoming October 2016), 7.
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.
Subverting Empire in Our Hearts and in the Bedroom: A Christian Polyamorist Perspective (by T.B. Livermont, guest blogger)
by T.B. Livermont, Guest Blogger
Critical Poly Note: Dear readers, I feel truly privileged to know and learn from T.B. Livermont and honored that she is allowing me to publish this guest post. While I am not a Christian, I am moved by her theological reckoning with ethical non-monogamy, and her expansive and pragmatic vision of love.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.
St. Paul in Galatians 5:19-23 (NRSV)
In considering my duty to Jesus Christ and to the Church as a Christian who has recently found peace in embracing an ethical non-monogamous lifestyle, I must consider how Christians have failed to liberate our theology from old political understandings. In many ways, Christians are still like our Hebrew forefathers who, having escaped Pharaoh and empire, cried in the wilderness and clung to the remembrance of the comfort of captivity. The message of Jesus Christ from the beginning was that of mercy, love and the establishment of a political entity ‘not of this world.’
Why in a post about the structuring of romantic relationships am I talking about empire and governments? Like my blog host, I was also born and raised in the Heartland of America and am a tribal member of a plains tribe. I am also the daughter of pioneers. In fact, when I, my mother and my children stand in her family cemetery, there are seven generations of pioneers. I believe that Americans such as myself have inherited much from ideas of feudalism, even while we supposedly reject much from such systems. In practice, we have a love-hate relationship with democracy.
Almost the entirety of the Bible is framed in relation to political structures and mores, including the Gospels’ recording of Jesus Christ’s analogies and parables in which he illustrated the relationship between God and man. The Gospels record him using those now outdated political structures as analogies that in his time invited and challenged listeners to reimagine what loyalty could mean. Jesus often posed questions to his followers that asked them to think critically about the empire in which they lived. He rarely answered these questions directly, but instead the parables and analogies he used coaxed people to imagine new ways of thinking, thereby tipping the usual patterns of slavery and serfdom of his day upside down.
What is the lesson for Christians’ romantic relationships in the 21st century? While few of us really take issue with the idea of duty, Americans get queasy with feudal ideas of lords over subjects, not just because they invoke various patterns of ownership akin to slavery, but because as those living in a democratic republic, we blanch over ideas of hereditary rights over others. Unfortunately, our marriages, while somewhat more modern, are still closely tied to the old power-down structures of king and country. Monogamous marriage (or polygamy way back) was necessary for inheriting titles, land, power and prestige. Those in power would make sure their male subjects could hope for and thus be controlled by that hope as they aspired to and engaged in their ‘king of my own castle,’ practices. These included marriage, control of women’s sexuality and reproduction, land ownership by and for men, etc. Modern American marriage (and divorce) laws and practices are still directly tied to these ideas.
Now that we no longer live the king/subject model of government, how do we begin framing new relationships, between those we love and, for Christians, between ourselves and how we understand our duty to God and the Church. We Christians have purposefully (or by force in boarding schools and other institutions) been immersed in the Bible’s history and allegories subsequently filtered through an American cultural translation of old feudal political models. We must now make a new accounting. How can our families and romances more fully reflect our realities as Christians and non-Christians living in a democracy? Much of the pressure from the Christian Right on ‘saving the family,’ actually reinforces outdated models of marriage and family mores that have much more to do with maintaining and establishing patriarchy and a specific brand of Christian thought, that of American Evangelicalism, than from any honest theological wrestling with the Bible.
Other types of Christians read the Bible in a progressive way. God wasn’t trying to sell kings and feudalism as the only means for human government under him. Even in the Jewish Bible, God warned the Hebrews that he didn’t want them to have kings, but they kept insisting because they wanted to be like the nations around them. In the Book of Judges, a time period before Israel had the great kings we now think of, the greatest judge was a woman. The judge model is really the foundation for the love of neighbor Jesus brought us, and the freedom that comes with it, rather than the fear and subservience of a feudal model. Why shouldn’t we also reconsider our models for sexual relationships and families based on this earlier, freer and more loving model?
Poor study of the Bible and much prooftexting on marriage by American Evangelicals, coupled with our confused American relationship with monarchy (vs. democracy), cause us to lose focus on how subversive many of the Gospels and Biblical narratives were. Christian polyamory (and again I can’t state it enough--this should not be confused with patriarchal polygamy) can be understood as naturally stemming from a progressive reading of the Bible. Think of how easily “Lord” and “Savior,” enters the language? While such terms reflect the loyalty we should give Jesus Christ, such terminology is also limiting. For a very long time, I have also identified Christ in light of other Biblical descriptions of him: “The Firstborn of Creation.” He is also the “The Word of God Made Flesh,” and more simply, “Emmanuel, God with Us.”
If the Bible is both true to history and a rather faithful witness to the political realities in the times in which each book was written, two things can be said: 1) the sacred texts have sometimes been used by governments and powers to force behavior and actions that would prop up oppressive governments. 2) Christians can also trust the witness of the Bible in its own right, provided we understand thoroughly the feudal relationships woven throughout books written in that time and their interpretations later by those living similarly in monarchies and feudal systems. These particular histories and interpretations continue to shape how we in the U.S. in the 21st century interpret the Bible.
American Christianity: Times are a changing
Several years ago, as America had the opportunity to vote for the first African-American president, a group of Christian Anabaptists published a book called, “Jesus for President.” This book was in direct response to the hyper conservative and what they see as an ungodly prostitution of the church that would erode separation of church and state and further political and social injustices in our country. There was a presentation on YouTube that is the guts of the book tour, which I suggest to anyone who is interested in the idea that empire and Jesus are not two peas in a pod. The book and video go to great lengths to retell the entire Biblical narrative in a Christocentric way, so that every loving thing Christ said about those in power and those of the lowest station in the first century is highlighted as the subversive, anti-empire activity it really is. Much of the subversion in the Jewish Bible includes God inspiring and pulling to the forefront simple people. For example, putting a slingshot in a shepherd boy’s hand to kill the giant. The boy then became a king. Or God had Emmanuel born in a stable to a young woman, who could have been stoned to death for being pregnant before marriage.
I am sure the main author of “Jesus for President,” Shane Claiborne (who was celibate until marrying a couple years ago), would be horrified for me to piggy back his community’s work with polyamory. I want that to be clear to those who have hated Shane’s message of peace and reconciliation and who would use anything they could to disparage his efforts.
However, I bawled through Shane’s works because they affirm the love within my heart, infused by the Holy Spirit, for my neighbors. At the same time I have felt ashamed and confused for loving more than one person romantically. I am trying to reconcile an over-flowing of love with the idea that love is scarce and should be saved for only one. I believe Christian polyamory can help address this contradiction. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people follow Christ for license to cheat on their spouses or commit fornication (the objectifying of humans for sexual release). This is not what polyamory is. Polyamory literally means ‘more than one love,’ and love does not seek to do harm, but instead open the door for ethical sexual relationships filled with communication, honesty, and yes, a peculiar notion of loyalty. Nor am I suggesting that all Christians should become polyamorous. I write this because those of us who find ourselves following Christ as polyamorous people may have an unique witness that adds much needed diversity to the world of polyamory and a more democratic understanding to Christianity of the Hebrew carpenter that would become So Much To So Many.
A recurring theme in the New Testament, and especially the letters of the New Testament attributed to St. Paul, is that we cannot do whatever we feel like now that we live in the freedom of Christ. His advice for Christian life must be seen as a response to the incredible freedom people felt when given the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Women specifically felt great freedom in the Gospel. St. Paul’s concern was that if church leaders didn’t provide this new people with a way to express this freedom, non-Christians would disparage the message of Jesus Christ and might also see it as a form of dangerous political rebellion. Sudden philosophical or religious freedom can cause all sorts of unforeseen structural issues in society, so I am cautious to not utterly abandon scripture and even tradition.
New Christian ethics for relationships, including ethical non-monogamy
Rather than tossing St. Paul’s words to the wayside like some progressive Christians, his concerns resonate with me deeply as I navigate polyamory. Many Christians would criticize me for choosing ethical non-monagamy, no doubt assuming that someone who would choose to refashion herself romantically and sexually in this way is simply wanting to have sex with everyone, forgetting a sense of duty or loyalty to a partner or to herself. I have actually had the opposite happen. In not seeking to ‘replace’ my previous loves (whether we remain romantically and sexually involved or not), I am free to continue caring deeply for the good of those I love. There is nothing more Christian than that and this gets to the core of fidelity and natural duty. Recently, while walking into a church event, I had the sensation for the first time that I was not a ‘fallen woman.’ While I’m sure the little old ladies would be horrified to know how I order my bedroom and heart, I walked in feeling honest, knowing I am not promiscuous in the negative definition of that word. Rather, I am confident that I can now treat more people with more love and ethical consideration than is possible within the confining mores of feudally-inspired monogamous marriage.
As a Christian, I do believe I have certain restraints upon me as a follower of Jesus Christ. St. Paul once remarked that deacons (church leaders) ought not to have more than one wife. This remark has been used as reason not to divorce and also as an argument against polygamy. Oddly enough, it is the only place that I’m aware of that tied the male gender to the role of deacon, despite Paul himself referring to specific women as deacons (which is washed out of the English versions of those letters to some degree). At any rate, what is important to add here is the rest of what Paul said, and to note the societal conditions within which the “one wife” command was given. In that society, a man’s wealth was most easily seen and shown off by having more than one wife and by having many children. Not only were multiple wives and children a status symbol, but they were also the vehicles by which a man gained wealth and power. More children meant more workers--especially for agrarian peoples, more strength of arms against enemies and overall provided a type of ‘investment’ we can’t relate to today. As followers of Christ, those new Christians were to eschew wealth and power. In the Book of Acts, it actually says they lived and shared everything in community. So, accumulating possessions--and in that culture women were possessions--was frowned upon. Paul was advocating that men specifically who sought to lead in the Church must not be so concerned with accumulating wealth, but to take care of their families, and beyond that to serve those in need. Paul was not advocating a limit on love.
Conclusion: Understanding the pitfalls while walking with love
Like the new Christians in that era, I know that I must maintain a lifestyle in which I can take care of myself and my family before I can hope to help others. I know that I only have so much time and so many resources.There are thus natural laws (material reality) that govern what I can do. I also find that as a Christian it is best if I divorce my ideas of duty and fidelity from outmoded laws meant to govern wealth and power in another time and place, and instead place my sense of duty and faithfulness squarely in the plane of Christ-like love and second from a place of personal loyalty. Loving more than one person romantically in ethical ways does not objectify them if we keep to our ethics and love them first with Christ-like love. Monogamy has done as much if not more in objectifying humans as sexual objects and creating a culture of fornication, since in our culture of serial monogamy, we must cast aside lovers and sometimes even the parents of our children once we begin having sexual relations with another. This seems to place sexual relations ahead of love in defining what relationships should be. Most Christian leaders would say ‘sex outside marriage’ is fornication. I have had trouble with that definition my whole life. How, when I follow Jesus, am I to put more stake in following the marital laws of the country I live in, than the intentions of my heart? I still struggle with that. I know that St. Paul wanted Christians to find a measure of peace within the governments they lived under. He is often lambasted for this by Christians, especially today, but I believe that there is a certain element of practical truth in that advice. Mostly though St. Paul was worried that “whatsoever you don’t do in faith is sin.” Obviously a piece of paper from the government about a marriage does not protect those people from hating each other, from abuse, from dishonesty or anything else. It may make things easier for women bearing children so that they have a degree of safety in being provided for during vulnerable times in their lives, but yet, that is no guarantee either. So, how then do I make peace with words like fornication? Adultery?
Can I truly, as a Christian, go have sex with whomever I like? Can I get falling down drunk at a local honky tonk and participate in hook up culture and one-night stands? In fact, I feel freer now that I’ve come out as polyamorous to not engage the usual means for finding and securing monogamous relationships and marriage. I am in no hurry to ‘replace’ people and to make choices that in my past (serial) monogamist practice may have caused me to have sex with someone too soon or to jump into relationships too quickly. Biblical admonitions against fornication specifically address the objectification of other humans to fulfill one’s own needs sexually, and I would suggest emotionally. With this understanding of fornication rather than an understanding that conflates it with sex outside of legal marriage, I must ask myself to the best of my knowledge aided even by prayer, a) do I want to enter a relationship of any type solely for my own benefit or do I truly love the other person first in Christ-like love and b) am I able to hold both love and fidelity for them based on their needs of me, as well. As for adultery, if they are involved in a monogamous relationship, especially if they are married, does my relationship with them meet the previous criteria, plus an added openness and honesty with their current partner. For my own loyalties and fidelities, I must also ask if a new relationship will cause me to abandon my other loves and relationships and cause heartbreak and instability.
Polyamory is not for everyone. I grieve, though, at the way marriage today still chains us to the past and not always in traditions that inspire and teach us, but in ways that make us become subjects to be lorded over. The Bible has been much maligned, especially by those in tribal communities, and I’m sure in sex diverse communities as well, because of how so many Christians have clung to the law rather than the spirit in which it was written. While “Jesus for President” has begun decolonizing the American Christian mind, I pray that we might also allow Jesus Christ to decolonize our loves and bring forth the fruits of the Spirit in our hearts and bedrooms while also guiding us away from unloving actions against self and neighbor.
T.B. Livermont is a recovering Evangelical living in the Northern Plains. An enrolled tribal member, she works everyday to love God and her neighbor and to bring up her children to walk well with the rest of Creation.
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 open 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 & @KimTallBear