Critical polyamorist blog
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.
Several evenings ago I attended a class and conversation on open relationships at a feminist sex shop in an increasingly trendy area of my mid-Continent city. The class was for the open relationship curious, or beginners. Although I’ve been at this for about 19 months, I’m still a beginner. My fabulous fellow WOC (woman of color) sex educator friend, Divina, led the course. She also does community activism on a range of other social issues that entangle and go beyond topics of sexuality. In this largely white, middle-class poly community, where I shy away from poly group events because I feel like a cultural outsider, I willingly submit to Divina’s skilled, effusive, and politically sophisticated leadership. Like me, she thinks about the role of compulsory monogamy in propping up a heteronormative, patriarchal, and colonial society. I can jump right in with her—into the politically deepest part of a conversation on this stuff and she’s right there with me. Plus she’s got years more on-the-ground experience in open relationships than I do. This particular class was aimed at a more general audience, however, tackling issues that many Poly 101 classes do—namely handling jealousy and the kind of never-ending communication that is a hallmark of healthy polyamory.
While the heightened racial and cultural diversity at this meeting was encouraging (yay feminist sex shop!), another cultural bias nonetheless loomed large at this event, which I will address in this blog. That is the couple-centric culture that pervades our city’s poly scene, and our broader society. Coupledom is often the foundational assumption that anchors many poly discussions. Topics for conversation at this class included WHY (open the “primary” relationship)? And then ground rules (for the couple) to consider: WHO (can and cannot be a candidate for an additional relationship—mutual friends? Exes)? WHAT (kinds of sex with others does the couple agree is okay)? You get the drift. As a “single poly” person I sat there feeling feisty and thinking “What, are we single polys just out here populating the world to sexually and emotionally serve individuals in couples?!” We get the “honor” of being on lists of appropriate partners, eligible “secondaries.” Or not? Our bodies and hearts and desires get to be the objects of couples’ rules about what’s allowed. Or not? It’s easy to feel ancillary in this type of poly scene, a sort of “snap on” component to a more permanent—a more legitimate—entity.
No doubt many poly folks in primary relationships struggle against hierarchy between that primary relationship and outside relationships. After all, the structure of the couple allows only so much. The language of primary and secondary only allows so much! Even in a Poly worldview that seeks to undo so many of the repressions and exclusions of monogamy, the normativity of the couple itself goes unquestioned by far too many polys. Yet its primacy in our society is engendered of the same institutions and unquestioned values that produce the monogamy we resist. Like monogamy, the couple entity as central to the nuclear family is bound up with the sex negativity that poly people battle as we argue for and live lives in which sex and love are not viewed in such finite terms (although time certainly is) and thus not “saved” for only one other person. Like monogamy, the couple (especially when legally married), is legitimated and rewarded at every turn—U.S. health insurance eligibility, clearer child custody arrangements, tax filing benefits, and general public recognition and validation. In our society this type of arrangement is assumed as the logical end point, what we are all looking for or should be looking for. One of my favorite bloggers, SoloPoly, has an excellent post on this “relationship escalator” (the expected progression—first meeting, courtship, sex, presenting as a couple in public, intimate exclusivity, establishing a routine together, commitment defined by these steps, culminating in legal marriage that is supposed to last until one person dies). She also has a second related post on “couple privilege” and a guest post on couple-centric polyamory, which links to the Secondary’s Bill of Rights. I’m posting that one on my refrigerator!
The fight for recognition of same-sex marriage also testifies to the pervasive couple-centricity of our culture. The dyad, for so long opposite sex and now increasingly also same sex, is portrayed as the fundamental unit of love and family. It is a key structure used to try and gain what should be fundamental human and civil rights for all of our citizens. I am reminded of biology textbooks that describe the gene as “the fundamental unit of life,” an instance of gene fetishism in which molecules come to stand simplistically for much more complex social-biological relations, for nature and nurture that actually shape one another in all kinds of interesting and unpredictable ways. In addition to genetic essentialism, we have in our culture couple essentialism. We fetishize the couple making it stand at the heart of love and family, which are actually the product of much more complex social-biological relations. The (monogamous) couple and narrower notions of family have a hard time containing and often sustaining the great complexity of relations that we humans feel and forge as we attempt to connect with one another throughout life. As with genes, I am not saying the couple produces only myths and master narratives. Like molecular sequences, there is sometimes beauty and profoundness in what the couple produces. But just as genes do not alone embody the enormity of “life” (despite the assertions of too many scientists and pop culture more generally) neither should the “couple” and its offshoot “nuclear family” embody in its most essential form the enormity of human love, physical desire, and family. A final note on same sex marriage: gays don’t always do marriage like straights expect them to—to give but one example of many, their greater acceptance of ethical non-monogamy. I see this as another upside of marriage equality in addition to it being the right thing to do for same sex couples. From this non-monogamist’s point of view it may help us revise marriage into a less repressive institution.
Of course it was not always so that the (monogamous) couple ideal reigned. In Public Vows: A History of Marriage and Nation, Nancy Cott argues with respect to the U.S that the Christian model of lifelong monogamous marriage was not a dominant worldview until the late nineteenth century, that it took work to make monogamous marriage seem like a foregone conclusion, and that people had to choose to make marriage the foundation for the new nation.” In The Importance of Being Monogamous, historian Sarah Carter also shows how “marriage was part of the national agenda in Canada—the marriage ‘fortress’ was established to guard the [Canadian] way of life.” At the same time that monogamous marriage was solidified as ideal and central to both U.S. and Canadian nation building, indigenous peoples in these two countries were being viciously restrained both conceptually and physically inside colonial borders and institutions that included reservations/reserves, residential schools, and churches and missions all designed to “save the man and kill the Indian.” Part of saving the Indians from their savagery meant pursuing the righteous monogamous, couple-centric, nuclear-family institution. Land tenure rights were attached to marriage in ways that tied women’s economic well-being to that institution.
Indeed, the nuclear family is the most commonly idealized alternative to the tribal/extended family context in which I was raised. As for many indigenous peoples, prior to colonization the fundamental indigenous social unit of my people was the extended kin group, including plural marriage. We have a particular word for this among my people but to use it would give away my tribal identification. With hindsight I can see that my road to ethical non-monogamy began early in my observations in tribal communities of mostly failed monogamy, extreme serial monogamy, and disruptions to nuclear family. Throughout my growing up I was subjected by both whites and Natives ourselves to narratives of shortcoming and failure—descriptions of Native American “broken families,” “teenage pregnancies,” “unmarried mothers,” and other “failed” attempts to paint a white, nationalist, middle class veneer over our lives. I used to think it was the failures to live up to that ideal that turned me off, and that’s why I ran for coastal cities and higher education—why I asserted from a very early age that I would never get married. Now I see that I was suffocating under the weight of the concept and practice of a normative middle-class nuclear family, including heteronormative coupledom period.
I was pretty happy as a kid in those moments when I sat at my grandmother’s dining room table with four generations and towards the end of my great-grandmother’s life FIVE generations. We would gather in her small dining room with it’s burnt orange linoleum and ruffled curtains, at the table beside the antique china cabinet, people overflowing into the equally small living room—all the generations eating, laughing, playing cards, drinking coffee, talking tribal politics, and eating again. The children would run in and out. I would sit quietly next to my grandmothers hoping no one would notice me. I could then avoid playing children’s games and listen instead to the adults' funny stories and wild tribal politics. Couples and marriages and nuclear families got little play there. The collectives—both our extended family and the tribe—cast a much wider, more meaningful, and complexly woven net. The matriarch of our family, my great-grandmother, was always laughing. She would cheat at cards and tell funny, poignant stories about my great-grandfather who died two decades before. Aunts and uncles would contribute their childhood memories to build on those stories. My mother would often bring the conversation back to tribal or national politics. A great-grandchild might have been recognized for some new creative, academic, or athletic accomplishment. The newest baby would be doted on as a newly arrived human who chose this family. The Mom who might be 18 or 20 and unmarried would have help, and she would be told to go back to school, or find a career track to better her life for her baby.
Too many in my family faced life choices more restricted than mine are now. Others were simply unwilling to sacrifice a life lived daily among extended family and tribe, as I have done. From where I stand it looks like my most of my extended family members have more security in that small town family and tribal community, or in the coherent, densely-populated “urban Indian” community in which I spent part of my childhood, than they do in Euro-centric traditions of nuclear family and marriage. On the other hand, my security and primary partnership is the educational and professional escalator that I ride and climb to ever more opportunities in high-up cities. Paradoxically, in seeking security outside of one colonial imposition—marriage and nuclear family (although I also tried that for a good while and wasn’t so skilled at it)—I chose a highly individualistic path that enmeshes me in different sets of colonial institutions: all of those corporate, nonprofit, government, and academic institutions in which I have worked. I also have a global indigenous and professional network that brings tremendous meaning to my life. But individuals among them are rarely here at night when I need someone to share words, laughter, food and touch with. I need to build some sort of extended kin group here in this city where I live. I doubt that coupledom (mine or others) combined with “outside” relationships will ever suffice in this context. Building something more collective is my desire and my challenge. Despite my focus on couple-centricity in Poly World, some polys refer to their intimate networks—their extended made families as “tribes.” But even those individuals are an ill fit for me for cultural reasons I’ve written about in earlier posts, ISO Feminist (NDN) Cowboys and Poly, Not Pagan, and Proud. I learn especially open communication lessons from Poly World, but I’ve made few real friends there. I look more to indigenous peoples for partial models, and I continue to seek non-indigenous people in this city who don’t fit the existing poly cultural mode, but who are committed to open relationships. Alas, it is exhausting being a minority within a minority. But I can never resist a challenge.
One final insight: Indigenous colleagues that I admire speak and write of “decolonizing love,” for example the Nitâcimowin blog of University of Victoria graduate student Kirsten Lindquist (Cree-Métis). I obviously love her focus of decolonial analysis on relationships. It is a generative framework for pushing us to articulate a better world. But my slightly cynical aging self doesn’t quite believe that we can decolonize, meaning to withdraw from or dismantle colonialism. We live inside a colossal colonial structure that took most of the world’s resources to build. Does not every maneuver against colonialism occur in intimate relationship to its structures? There is no outside. Deep inside the shadows and shifting (cracking?) walls of that edifice I don’t anymore see my family’s and tribe’s failures at lasting monogamy and nuclear family as failure. I see us experimenting, working incrementally with tools and technologies that we did not craft combined with indigenous cultural templates in any open space we can find to build lives that make any sense to us at all.
The Critical Polyamorist
 Nancy Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) in Sarah Carter, The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press 2008): 3-4.
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