Critical polyamorist blog
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.
How Can Polyamory Teach us to be Better Professionals: Or, How I Learned to Love and Be Loved by Many Colleagues (by Jessi Bardill, guest monogamist)
by Jessi Bardill, Guest Monogamist
Critical Poly note: Jessi Bardill and I had a conversation this past summer at a conference we both attended. She was at the time in the last frantic stages of planning her wedding (gorgeous bride, by the way). Yet we still found time to discuss during conference coffee breaks the virtues of polyamory in terms of the lessons it provides for good communication. Poly provides helpful tips for better and more open communication whether one engages in monogamous or plural relationships. It occurred to her that such lessons could also apply well to academic and other professional mentoring relations. This guest blog post is the result of that conversation. I hope you enjoy it dear readers!
Thanks to the Critical Polyamorist and critical scholars that inform her work, I too have started to take a good hard look at my own relationships – not those of the sexual variety (having just promised monogamy through ceremony to one partner) but instead to those relationships that sustain, shape, and condition my life as an academic and as a member of multiple professional communities. In readings and discussions about how a critical polyamory can make for a better personal life, I was consistently reminded of advice given through my graduate and undergraduate studies about “reading promiscuously” and seeking out a spectrum of mentors, preferably who do not mirror you yourself – a task which has extended as I see myself beginning to balance between being a mentor and being a mentee, including engaging in peer mentorship circles where the power of the relationship is more evenly shared. All of which brings me to a few important lessons that are shared between critical polyamory and successful professional relationships:
1) Respect and shared emotion are important. If one or the other is not present, you are not in a relationship with the other person but instead are being used, perhaps as a node within a networking play, as a means to their ends, or as a token representative.
2) One relationship will not fulfill all of your needs. Unless you plan to be a clone of your mentor, you will need to engage multiple mentors and will one day have multiple mentees. At a point, you will realize the assignment of either term—mentor or mentee—is inefficient if you are to engage deeply with one another, build knowledge together, and support each other (even in disagreement).
3) If you seek out or attract others in these relationships who are only very similar to yourself, you are likely to find yourself unfulfilled. The additional perspectives, experiences, projects, interests, and pursuits of those with whom you are in relation will provide more than a mirror of your own, but can also provide complements, extensions, and challenges.
4) Jealousy provides a barometer of individuals engaged in relationships. Various cultural narratives and the privileging of monogamous couplehood have conditioned us to be jealous, of other interested partners, of other relationships, and for jealousy to be felt by others towards us. These instances reflect more about society and our place in it as individuals, including how we feel about our shifting positions within professional relationships, how we are communicating in relationships, and how we support others seeking that care and communication. Those with whom you are in a relationship should also seek others to be in relation with, and moreover, your relationship with them will improve through their additional explorations in these relationships. They are not objects, projects, or products – they are people, and you are too.
5) You are responsible for your own development, and part of that development involves engaging in these relations – not in believing someone else will do it for you. A key component to polyamory is communication, including honest communication, and that communication involves being clear with partners as well as yourself.
6) Openness and honesty will facilitate stronger relationships. Avoiding a meeting, disengaging in conversation, or otherwise being disingenuous harm both parties in a relationship – if you are not having your needs met across the relationships, evaluate how those needs have evolved and what you need now, and which relationship offers that, or could.
7) Some relationships end, others will materialize, and still others will develop into more than originally anticipated. Especially in mentoring relationships that are prescribed by others and not entered into with attention to the above principles, the relationship is likely to end like a bad blind date. But other relationships might emerge from unexpected connections. Those relationships that both parties choose to be a part of may become more sustained, more frequent, more collaborative, or even more personal.
From other sexualities deemed “deviant” from the norm (itself established to protect property and hierarchy), and informed by the Critical Polyamorist’s most recent post on “Couple-Centricity, Polyamory, and Colonialism”, I have also learned that sharing or group relationships are important. Having a peer group, a writing group, a sewing group etc, allows you to invest emotionally in multiple people at once, does not require the relationship to be sustained by only a partnership, and can build on the earlier principles by enacting respect, honesty, emotion, and discouraging jealousy as well as promoting mutual responsibility, support, and community development. While some may think these parallels are a step too far, an attention to these principles in mentoring and other important relationships should provide its own answer to what polyamory can do for you today when you love and lift many (including yourself).
Jessi Bardill is an Assistant Professor of English at East Carolina University. She thinks, writes, and teaches about intersections of power, privilege, and technologies as well as the possibilities for alternatives to colonized structures through social justice and other means.
 In her post on “Routedness, Not Rootedness in Geography and Desire”, the Critical Polyamorist redefines “promiscuity” in positive terms, “not as excess or randomness but as openness to multiple complex connections” though sometimes partial, and that “when they are combined, cultivated, and nurtured, multiple connections constitute sufficiency, and sometimes abundance”. It is this satisfaction or abundance, as opposed to excess, which could be compounded with labor concerns, that I seek to examine in mentoring and professional relationships.
 My thanks to Divina (see Couple-Centricity, Polyamory and Colonialism) for her feedback that forced me to articulate this point in a way that I hope now is more clear.
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 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