Another Perspective in Nonmonogamy

I mentioned in my intro to openness post that I was going to write one post about nonmonogamy and feminism, and another post that was more about my personal experience. I did write the personal post, and have it up on my blog if you’re interested in reading, but I wanted to share with you somebody else’s experience instead. After yesterday’s feminism & nonmonogamy post, I received a response from a reader who told me how she came to nonmonogamy and her perspective as a “secondary” partner. I’m posting it with her permission; you can call her Eleanor Sauvage:

Thanks go, first of all, to Frau Sally Benz for a fabulous post!

I actually think that whilst the commenters on both of the Feministe threads are right that poly can be very unfeminist and mono can be feminist, poly, precisely because poly is unusual and often marginalised, means that the kinds of gender dynamics which so often shape (especially heterosexual) mono relationships kinda have to be more up for grabs, for negotiation, for reshaping, in a poly relationship. That is, in our current context, there’s a tendency for people to assume that they know how a mono relationship is meant to go: there are depictions of it everywhere! And this often means that mono relationships aren’t explicitly negotiated; the power relations within them are often not the subject of discussion.

I’ve learnt this through hard experience, and it’s why I’m posting this comment. I’ve been in a couple of pretty poisonous mono relationships. I hadn’t even really considered poly as a possibility. I assumed, without much thought, that I’d be far too jealous to ever go there. Besides! One person was enough, right?! (So I was busy telling myself in my disastrous relationships!) And these mono relationships, well, let me describe them, and we’ll see if other women have shared my experiences at all. At first, both were heady, exciting and fun. I felt like I could be whoever I was, free to share and be loved and to love. It felt liberating. That would be what poly recognises as New Relationship Energy (and what others call ‘the honeymoon period’). And then, that energy wanes, and in these two cases, it waned into ease and comfort, into relationships that felt pretty right. And then, something wasn’t right. In one case, we were just not that compatible. But I cared, and so I stayed, and I tried to make it work. I tried to make it work while he blamed me for everything that was going wrong in the relationship. In fact, at one point he said to me, completely seriously, ‘If you could just be happy, everything would be fine.’ Which… was true, but kinda missed the point: if I wasn’t happy, it wasn’t because I was being recalcitrant! He also said to me something which jarred me at the time, but which I, in my willingness to take responsibility in the relationship, overlooked: ‘I don’t understand why you’re not happy. I treat you well! I don’t hit you!’ and so on. A Nice Guy (TM) to a T: ‘I don’t hit you, so you should be happy being with me!’ The other relationship hit trouble because he got depressed. But the main characteristic in both of these was that I felt like I ought to take responsibility for the relationship. I felt like the relationship mattered so much to me that I put it first, setting aside my needs and wants and desires to take care of the relationship, to take care of him. It became, in both cases, my primary sense of worth, because it was where I was dedicating a huge amount of my time and energy. And because I was setting aside what I needed to care about someone.

Until eventually, in one case, I cheated because I was so unhappy, and so tired of being blamed for everything, and in the other, until he started recovering from his depression and I started to expect that he be nicer to me (he didn’t like that). In both of these situations, I behaved that way because that’s how you behave in relationships, right? You acknowledge the tough patches, and you stick with your partner through them. You work through problems. You support them when they’re having a hard time. But how, exactly, do we ever know how much work is too much work? In the second relationship I’m describing here, I was in fact told that everything I was giving, everything I was doing for him, or for the relationship, was because I wanted something from him. I said it wasn’t, but this was devastating to my sense of self: was I really being selfish? Were my gifts really manipulative? Unconsciously? How would I know? And how could I not give to him, and still care about him? It was a bind there wasn’t a way out of. But this, I think, is pretty familiar to women: where you put someone else first. It’s unhealthy, yes, and a tough thing to intervene in, especially while remaining in a relationship.

And then, I became interested in someone who is in a longterm poly relationship. I thought he was interested in me, and so, refusing to deny myself on the basis of a possible terrible future, I made the move. He was anxious about getting ‘entangled’ with me, not because he didn’t want to, but because we were such good friends, and because he was concerned about ‘opening doors’ that were always already limited. I told him that if the feelings were there – the desires – for both of us, then really, what was the point in denying them?

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the poly thing, especially about being in the dreaded position of the secondary (‘omg! you’re the fucktoy!’), but I want to explain why this has worked and continues to work for me, and works for me precisely to counter my tendency to be self-effacing in relationships (as women are taught to be). First, I know that when he wants to be with me, he wants to be with me. He isn’t feeling obligated, or like he ought to be spending time with me because we are in a relationship. He spends time with me for me. That has done some lovely things for my rather battered self-esteem, yet because the relationship is a secondary one, and we don’t get to see each other that often, it also means that I really don’t feel – as I have in the past – that my real sense of worth comes from the relationship. I feel recognised and valued for who I am, not for being a girlfriend. Interestingly, this also intervenes quite neatly in jealousy, which at least for me has arisen from the idea that ‘he’d rather be with her than with me!’ Clearly, who I am to him is sexy, and fun, and interesting and exciting enough that he makes the time for me/us. Second, I knew that he already had a primary relationship. He already has the person he goes home to at night. And that means that any support I offer—and given that I love caring about people, I knew I would, but didn’t want to be trapped—would be over and above what he needed, and that any difficulties he was dealing with weren’t ever going to fall predominantly on his-and-my shoulders. And I could always say ‘I can’t do this right now,’ without feeling like I was abandoning him. So I’m not going to get trapped in the same space as the previous relationships. It allows me to practice other ways of relating; make new habits which are less self-effacing, which are more life-giving for both of us. And third, it meant that I could be having passionate sex and exciting conversations and straight-up fun that has lasted for months on end. Being only able to spend, say, a night a week together has spun out the NRE for quite a while. It’s also meant that a busy working life doesn’t make me feel like I’m neglecting anyone.

But all of this kinda fits in with why I really like poly. The problem with many of our contemporary relationships is that we’re meant to be everything to another person: to fulfill all and every need. I see this in parenting, where one couple are supposed to be everything for their children. I see it in relationships that have gone destructive, like mine described above: where I have felt that I had to be everything to another person, and felt continually like I would never ever be enough, that I had to set myself aside in order to be enough. Where I have felt bad for having needs that my SO didn’t know how or didn’t want to fulfill. In poly, there’s no assumption that you ought to fulfill all of someone else’s needs, or that they ought to fulfill all of yours. Those responsibilities, which can weigh so heavily on relationships and on partners, can be shared. And they can be shared in ways that are made explicit, which are negotiated. Which means that women have space to be less self-effacing without feeling like they’re putting the relationship at risk by not being able or willing to fulfill a need or desire. And yes, that negotiation is possible in a mono relationship—and is engaged in, in the ones that work, I think!—it’s just that because poly is unusual, in my experience, people don’t assume they have a right to things, or assume they’re fulfilling your needs based on some pre-defined notion of what a relationship is, as is so clearly defined for mono relationships in almost every love story ever. And my articulation of my desires or needs don’t need to be balanced against whether I think it’s fair to expect this of my partner, because there’s no presumption that they will simply have to fulfill it. Nor does my honest articulation of my desires become a potential space of breaking up because the person I’m with can’t fulfill them (which is handy, given that I like girls as well, and would like to be able to like ’em right up close, as it were, a set of desires I mostly kept from my previous partner, that my sweetie positively encourages me in). All the balancing acts involved in relationships are a bit more up for grabs because there’s so few models for these relationships floating around.

On the first thread at Feministe, someone commented that they couldn’t find one person they wanted to date, let alone multiple. And to that I would say: your standards shift, with poly. It’s not that you expect less, but that you don’t expect everything from one person. It allows you to recognise the worth of parts of people, without having to require them to be everything to you, or for you, all the time or for all of time. It allows you to negotiate what you need from your various partners, without having to do that negotiation on the inside and often ending in self-denial, as so many women do, to ensure that their relationships are tenable long-term. And that, I think, is where poly really comes into its feminist potential: it intervenes in the cultural logic that informs so many of the (usually but not only heterosexual) relationships women wind up in: where your needs, wants and desires, especially if they fall outside of what men are taught to expect that women want, are situated as potential threats to the stability and future of the relationship itself. This often leads to women denying their own desires, or thinking them less important than the relationship itself. Sometimes that’s okay. More often, it makes a relationship poisonous, whether through resentment or through non-fulfillment. And sometimes it makes a relationship that could have worked and been utterly fabulous for both parties, just not all on its own without other relationships/people around it, stutter to a halt. And in this respect, I think that poly, when it’s done well, reminds us that we are in relationships with people, and that those involved ought to be the ones for whom it works, not society at large.

Similar Posts (automatically generated):

48 comments for “Another Perspective in Nonmonogamy

  1. Eleanor Sauvage
    August 15, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    Given the direction that things have spun on the other thread, I just want to say from the very very get go, that I am NOT SAYING that monogamous relationships inevitably spin out the way that they have for me (and not all of mine have spun out that way, either). What I’m saying is that FOR ME poly has intervened in my tendency to be self-effacing, a tendency which I think many women are socialised into. And that monogamy is so reiterated in quite limited ways in our culture that it can be binding on people’s needs and wants. This isn’t about what’s more evolved or enlightened. It’s about how dominant ways of being in the world tend to replicate themselves, and often obscure other ways of being…

  2. August 15, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    Thanks for writing this, Eleanor. I really appreciate you sharing your story with us. As a mono-minded person myself, I find it a bit hard to wrap my head around poly but am trying to learn and understand. I’m pretty touched that you put your heart and story out there for us all to read. A very thoughtful post that I will think on!

  3. hot tramp
    August 15, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    Eleanor, I wish poly worked this magic on everyone who dipped a toe into it. The poly-related discussion forums I visit seem filled with people — most often women involved with men — who are still trying to silence their own wants and needs for the sake of an ultimately unsatisfying relationship. “My partner broke our safer-sex agreement and didn’t use a condom; is it okay for me to be upset?” “My husband is going on a date this weekend and I’m feeling jealous because he hasn’t taken me out to dinner in years; how can I stop feeling this way?” Many women get quite far into polyamory without reexamining the cultural messages we get about the (in)validity of our emotions and needs.

    For me, finding polyamory was fulfilling and liberating because it offered an alternative to the shame and guilt I’d been stuck in for years, when I’d love or want more than one person at once and think that made me bad, broken, doomed, etc. But I also recognize that I had a lucky introduction to poly, with a reasonably feminism-savvy guy who always wanted me to communicate moremoremore and absolutely honored my wants, needs, and autonomy. Now that I’ve had a taste of that, I accept nothing less from my partners: You don’t have to submit to my every whim, but you do have to listen to and respect what’s going on in my head and heart. I’d sooner go back to monogamy with someone like that than do poly with a person who wanted me to shut up and be satisfied with whatever s/he cared to give.

  4. Bushfire
    August 15, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    The way you describe your poly relationship sounds so wonderful. I identify as poly but I am practising monogamy right now with a wonderful partner who would prefer to be monogamous. I still have not actually been in any sort of poly relationship, but I love hearing about how they work. Thanks for sharing.

  5. August 15, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    Yes! This! This is the difference between how I view my relationships, and how society expects monogamous relationships to function. My relationships work like a venn diagram. We each have our lives, and the relationships exists in their intersection. In my relationship, there is little pressure on each of my partners to be “everything”– they are who they are, and I appreciate them for exactly that. I take comfort in knowing that they see me the same way.

  6. August 15, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    The problem with many of our contemporary relationships is that we’re meant to be everything to another person: to fulfill all and every need.

    This is the difference between how I view my relationships, and how society expects monogamous relationships to function. My relationships work like a venn diagram. We each have our lives, and the relationships exists in their intersection. In my relationship, there is little pressure on each of my partners to be “everything”– they are who they are, and I appreciate them for exactly that. I take comfort in knowing that they see me the same way.

    (Yikes, I seemed to have messed up formatting the first time ’round.)

  7. roula
    August 15, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    It allows you to recognise the worth of parts of people, without having to require them to be everything to you, or for you, all the time or for all of time.


    For me, finding polyamory was fulfilling and liberating because it offered an alternative to the shame and guilt I’d been stuck in for years, when I’d love or want more than one person at once and think that made me bad, broken, doomed, etc.


    venn diagram

    omg YES. I am so moved and so relating to these that I am doing a very very rare delurk! These are ideas and phrases (sometimes exact phrases!) that I have been using to try to explain myself for the past year and a half. I have always been the serial-monogamist type, but realized about 2 yrs ago that I FEEL poly in my heart, and that the guilt of having feelings for people other than my partner-at-a-given-time had been destroying me.

    Fortunately my partner of five years has tried really hard to understand this realization, and we are at a great point where we can talk about it and are open to the possibilities. So even though I haven’t ventured into multiple-partner territory yet, I consider myself poly in nature. It has freed me so much to just accept that I can be attracted to multiple people AND be a good person, and that my partner can fulfill <100% of my needs but still be a good partner, etc.

    Also! I no longer have those occasional "stuck in a rut" or "is this it?" feelings about my partner that always I thought were inevitable, which I think came from having to "choose" one person to be with and wondering if I was choosing wrong. That's now a non-issue, because I can get to know whomever I like.

    OK – thanks for sharing, everyone – I really appreciate this so much.

  8. Danielle
    August 16, 2009 at 12:45 am

    wow @ how you answered so many questions I’ve thought about. I like the not being EVERYTHING to someone-I stayed in my relationship for almost a year too long b/c he repeatedly told me that without me, he was nothing, no one would ever love me more than he did, hinted that if we ever broke up he’d kill himself (I really didn’t know how to handle that). Or it’s the thought of not having to spend time with someone because you feel that that’s just how it’s supposed to be, or out of obligation, etc. I’ve always had an interest in poly relationships, but this post took my interest into an entirely new level, thanks.

  9. Eleanor Sauvage
    August 16, 2009 at 12:59 am

    Thanks Chally!

    Oh, hot tramp, I know I’m totally lucky! My sweetie and I share a commitment to feminism and are both queer, so that definitely helps. Also there’s a definite queer scene in my city (rather than ‘gaystream’) which means that people are practiced at lots of forms of negotiation-of-power stuff – e.g., BDSM, group sex, and other alternative sexual practices – and even if he and I are mostly on the edges of that stuff, there’s still discussion of how such negotiations can occur. And I would never want to minimise the ways that abuse can happen through poly, because like I acknowledge above, there are ways in which hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity in the context of poly can bring about some pretty shitty things for women. I just think that often people are so busy focusing on what they imagine they would lose in poly that they forget that the wins aren’t just ‘I get to fuck lots of people,’ which, y’know, might be attractive for some, but is, for the most part, not quite what many people want (myself included; I like intimacy rather a lot, and like I said, I like to care about people). And allowing poly to be a possibility (even if never quite a reality) can be part of working out what you want (a) relationship/s to be, rather than just wanting ‘a relationship’ where the style of relating is determined in advance.

    Bushfire, it’s pretty wonderful. It makes me smiley rather a lot. And occasionally it makes me sad, because I know at some point, I’m going to want to be in a primary partnership (which, y’know, I hope will be poly, but obviously that will depend on the other person). A few weeks ago, I had a sad moment when I realised that the closer that me and my sweetie get, the closer the end probably comes. This is because I will hit a point where I wanna be a primary, and he’s not in a situation that will ever let that be possible (quite aside from which, we may not work as a primary couple, however stunningly fun secondary is!). And obviously, it’s not for definite that it’ll end, coz I could meet a wonderful person who wants to be in a primary relationship with me, and wants me to keep my secondary relationship with my current sweetie, but, y’know, I’m not holding my breath. So there are sad moments, but all in all, I have been much happier in this relationship than in most of my previous relationships!

    And thanks for your contribution, Curtis! I’m glad to know it spoke to someone! I’m aware that whenever poly gets raised in a non-poly-centric setting, it’s often seen as claiming itself to be ‘better’, or ‘more enlightened’ etc etc, simply because people are outlining why they like it. I’m not overly interested in creating these kinds of hierarchies, but my experience has been that poly was unexpectedly feminist for me, and has helped me to work out how to be in relationships with people without disappearing my self, so I though I might share.

  10. Eleanor Sauvage
    August 16, 2009 at 1:02 am

    Oh and hi Danielle! I’m glad it was helpful. I think that sometimes poly is presented as almost too ‘in theory’ to feel practicable, so I thought a personal experience might be useful to some!

  11. Eleanor Sauvage
    August 16, 2009 at 1:22 am

    Huh! Weirdly, my reply to Curtis, Bushfire, hot tramp and Chally got caught in moderation, whilst my response to Danielle didn’t. I’m not ignoring you, you first four! :-) Response on its way!

  12. roula
    August 16, 2009 at 1:32 am

    Aw, my comment disappeared too :(

  13. August 16, 2009 at 2:17 am

    Sorry folks, I don’t know what happened with the comment mod and whatnot – this is all new to me LOL. Does everybody see their comment?

  14. Eleanor Sauvage
    August 16, 2009 at 5:32 am

    Roula, your comment’s back (I think). Thanks for delurking. It’s great to hear others’ stories! And I’m glad that FSB was kind enough to post my thoughts, and that you all were brave enough to speak up! It’s certainly helping me to set aside the ‘You’re just fooling yourself’ sense, which I sometimes get from those in my life who believe monogamy is the one true way! It’s especially great that this is happening on a feminist website, for me, anyway! Thank you all!

  15. August 16, 2009 at 6:58 am

    Monogamous relationships benefit from expectation-shifting, too. For me, it only works by being so many things for yourself. And then you can be those things for someone else. My current boyfriend is a very self-sustaining person, and so he can offer all these things to me without resentment. Which is where a lot of relationships trip up. People feel incomplete, so they resent giving, and ugliness seeps in. Perversely, if you think, “If this ended, I’d be sad, but I’d survive because I like myself and get on just fine alone,” then it is easier to be there for someone. Because you’re not “all things” to them.

    If being poly is how you get there, great! But monogamous people can do it, too. And they can do it without giving up the hope of being deliriously in love with one person.

  16. August 16, 2009 at 7:31 am

    Similar to Bushfire, I’m a nonmonogamous-identified person who is currently practicing monogamy. In this case, monogamy is a mutual decision – we both want to only see each other, but we wouldn’t even have begun a relationship if we hadn’t entered it with the nonmonogamy discussion. It’s an ongoing discussion: we reaffirm our decision to be monogamous often (which is nice), and I don’t worry so much about infidelity since it is our agreement to always have the topic of other partners open for discussion. Bringing nonmonogamist perspectives into the relationship has necessitated a great deal more conversation than I’d previously have in relationships, which I think can only be a good thing.

  17. Courtney S.
    August 16, 2009 at 7:54 am

    I really appreciate your story, Eleanor, and since we have two feminist poly-practicers here, I thought I’d ask you some advice.

    For various reasons, my relationship has been poly in theory and mono and practice for three years. Our own sex life has petered drastically, but we still haven’t talked about recently, and I’m considering bringing it up. Outside of our sex life, our relationship is wonderful. I think going poly would ease some tension, since we would both be sexually satisfied (in theory).

    However, I’m a little worried about it because my partner is much better at getting sexual partners than I am. He’s funny, easy-going, and incredibly flirty. He has no trouble getting women to want to have sex with him. In fact, his flirtatiousness means that he would probably be able to have several partners within the next month or so if we were to proceed. On the other hand, I am not particularly successful at getting sexual partners. I would love to be, but flirting is not a skill of mine, and I tend to come off as abrasive to people I’ve just met. Even people who know me well tend to think I would be unreceptive to flirtatious behavior, and thus I don’t find out that they were attracted to me until I’ve moved away or something. So I’m worried, since I’m the more jealous partner, that going poly would likely become a situation in which my partner is fulfilled and with multiple women, and I am only having sex with him. Which would make me feel pretty undesirable and frustrated.

    Do you have any advice?

  18. Eleanor Sauvage
    August 16, 2009 at 8:38 am

    I don’t disagree with any of that, Amanda, and I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that poly is the only way to shift expectations. I do think that thinking about how relationships work helps in that expectation-shift, and that it’s easy to fall into the established and problematic patterns of monogamy. And I agree totally with the importance of knowing you’d be okay alone, especially its effect on relationships. At the same time, knowing it, and my tendency to get wrapped up in someone else hasn’t, in the past, meant I don’t do it… which is why poly’s been useful to me in breaking some of those habits, and helping me to actually shift the ways that I relate to someone else.

    I’m less sure about your final paragraph. It seems to me that many of these discussions about poly are coming down to people assuming that these posts are about ‘converting’ people, when actually I have no desire to do so whatsoever, and I see no evidence of it in what Frau Sally Benz has written. I’m just pointing out that many of the assumptions poly don’t get at the positives that I’ve experienced. And your line about ‘without giving up the hope of being deliriously in love with one person’ seems to me to imply that I’m suggesting that monogamous people ought to try poly in order to be realistic, or as a compromise or something (because they’ll never find a nourishing relationship otherwise, so they should stop hoping for it). Which is so far from what I’m saying (although it does seem to echo the way that most commenters have engaged with FSB’s series: as if discussing poly is evangelical in and of itself). Sure, it’s possible; I would never want to suggest otherwise! Poly has been helpful to me in renegotiating how I do relationships, and it might be helpful to others who might never have considered it (or being alone) a real possibility before.

  19. leslie
    August 16, 2009 at 10:06 am

    I just needed some clarification…he is in a poly relationship with his primary, you “secondary” in your words, and we don’t know if there are others ..but YOU are in a relationship with him ONLY? And please clarify “cheating” ..if a relationship is dead ?…I am not following your line of reasoning here …I am not questioning your choices you are an adult..just not following the “poly”

  20. August 16, 2009 at 11:05 am

    Courtney S, this is something that has come up for me as well. My guy is much like your partner — fun, flirtatious, outgoing. I’m more reserved, at least when I initially meet people. It takes me a while to open up to them and become the fun, flirtatious type.

    I’m still sort of dealing with it, so perhaps I’m not the best person to give you advice. But I can tell you what I’ve been doing. First of all, I’ve stopped worrying so much about the number of sexual experiences. My guy’s needs are different than mine. If it satisfies him to hook up with multiple people in a short amount of time, then that’s what he should seek. And while I wouldn’t be opposed to that idea for myself (I like sex as much as the next person, and certainly more than most of my friends), my needs are met by meeting someone I think is cool and won’t bring too much drama and can give me a great sexual experience.

    In that sense, it’s more a quantity vs. quality issue. Shifting my thinking into that has really helped me out. My guy still feels guilty about how much he goes out and meets people, while I spend mostly quiet nights at home. But the party every weekend thing is not for me, and that’s not how I’ve ever met people I ended up dating or hooking up with. Reminding him of that sometimes eases his own guilt.

    So I guess I’d say to you, think about what a fulfilling sexual relationship would look like for you even if you weren’t with your partner. Where would you meet the person, and under what circumstances (bar, park, book club, through a friend)? Would you date before having sex, or are you satisfied with hooking up? Once you’ve assessed what your needs are, and you’ve discussed them with your partner, then you might find yourself more ready to take that next step.

  21. Jennifer S.
    August 16, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    I enjoyed reading this post. Unfortunately, most of the polyamorous relationships I’ve observed have been extremely selfish and immature, and I was getting to the edge of writing off poly altogether. For instance, there is a couple I know in an open relationship keep pulling in another friend of mine who is decidely monogamous but attracted to both of them, and thus has a hard time keeping away. Of course, being decidely monogamous he gets his heart shredded every time, and I wish the depth of caring they profess that makes them keep making advances and demands towards him would cause them to let go of him due to how much pain the dynamic inevitably causes… but it’s a recurring cycle, and that’s obviously not going to happen. Another couple I know seems to pursue poly because the drama in one relationship just isn’t enough… I try to empathize, but the fourth time in two months that you feed someone cookies in your apartment while they sob about how the second-of-the-week broke their heart and their long-term boyfriend comforts them… you just start to want to roll your eyes.

    I think the people I’ve known use poly to act out in ways they’ve always wanted to but been too insecure to, but are able to with the “safety net” of a long-term partner. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory, but they all act like middle schoolers. It’s led me to believe that poly isn’t for me simply due to my deep aversion to drama.

    Anyway! This post describes a poly relationship that seems healthy and mature and gives me hope for the whole subject in the way that theoretical writing about how poly “should” work do not. Which is cool, because I never did want to write it off – the whole monogamy thing always seemed ridiculously arbitrary to me. I just know people who are deeply into the ideology of poly and yet I have still not seen a poly relationship that didn’t basically seem like all the obnoxious things about mono relationships to the nth power.

    (To be fair, most of this has taken place between college-aged people, an age group that is generally still trying to figure out how to have healthy relationships of any configuration. You may also take this as a perspective on how The Younger Set is doing poly.)

    All this to say, thank you for this post!!! Even though I spent most of my comment complaining about poly, I hope to see more relationships working out like yours seems to be in the future :)

  22. Marlene
    August 16, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Aside from the situation where a person cohabits with one partner and not others, I’m not clear on this whole primary/secondary thing. I say that as someone who has been doing poly relationships for many years (at least poly is what the kids seem to be calling it these days).

    The primary/secondary model has always looked to me like some cultural presumptions about pairing creeping in. Sometimes I see it being used to alleviate a longstanding lover’s potential anxiety about new relationship energy between their lover and someone new, as in “They’re fucking all night like teenagers, but my relationship is PRIMARY and therefore more important than that”.

    I might have one lover who I decide to live with, and there are obvious logistical implications to that, but I’m really not fond of the way that people tend to place greater value on the relationship that (from the outside) looks most like a traditional monogamous pairing.

  23. Li
    August 16, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    Hey Jennifer S.

    Please don’t write off poly. Some of us are super duper careful about making sure our relationships are healthy and empowering, even when they are full of drama (really never seen a relationship without drama). Also, please don’t write off the younger set. I’m 22 now and have been in healthy poly relationships for quite a few years. Many of my poly friends are the same. We tend to get through it pretty fine.

    Marlene, I agree with some of your points about the use of terms like primary, but I think it’s partially a function of the way in which English as a language doesn’t really supply that many useful words to describe poly relationships. OK, I lie, it supplies pretty much none. So we end up working with terms that don’t quite fit in order to make our relationships expressable.

  24. Meg Que
    August 16, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    Eleanor, thanks for sharing your story! I hear a lot about how people think poly doesn’t work because they go onto “poly discussion boards” and see all the drama. Well, that’s a very self-selecting portion of the population! The vast majority of poly people I know personally do very well… so well in fact that they have little need to go online and complain about their relationship(s). Relying on discussion boards to tell you about the poly community is a lot like relying on Jerry Springer to tell you about human relationships in general.

    I think you have hit the nail right on the head about why I enjoy not just being in a poly relationship, but interacting in the poly community. In a poly relationship the focus is on coming up with a relationship that *works well for everyone involved*. There isn’t the pressure to make more or less of a relationship than is healthy for both people.

    For example, I am happily married to my wife. We have pretty much no boundaries in our relationship. We live together, sleep together, probably to a point most people would consider to be co-dependent. It works very well for both of us. I also have very fulfilling relationships with people on other levels. For example a girl I adore and am very close friends with who I’m also very attracted to. We make excellent friends. But I’d never date her in a million years. The enjoyment of each others company is not lessened because our relationship doesn’t fall into any ‘typical’ society approved mold.

    The reason I find poly seems to on average work a bit better for people has nothing to do with poly itself, but rather the sheer amount of communication it takes to make it work. I even had someone say that she and her husband wanted to be poly because of how must she admired how close her friends were with their SO(s). But neither one of them wanted to actually practice it. She was surprised to discover that just the act of going through that conversation with her husband *did* bring them up to the same closeness.

    So basically I think that everyone should choice a type of relationship that suites them best. But for that relationship to be the best it can be, actively choice it instead of just slipping into it seems to be best.

  25. Eleanor Sauvage
    August 16, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    Tanglethis, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to suggest. The possibility of poly, whether or not it becomes a reality, is great for helping us intervene in our expectations of how relationships are ‘meant’ to work, I think.

    Courtney S, I don’t have much to add to Frau Sally Benz’ take, except to say that these things need to be negotiated according to need. That is, aiming for equality is great, but equality doesn’t need to mean ‘we both do the *same* things with the *same* number of people’. And don’t forget it’s up to the two of you how this works. Your partner may be willing to limit how many people he sleeps with upon ‘opening out’, until you have settled into a more comfortable, less jealous space (e.g., once you’ve had a fling or two, or whatever). That said, it’s probably also about working out how to deal with the jealousy too. Is it about getting affirmation from him about how much he wants and loves you? Then ask for that! :-)

    Leslie, he’s in a long-term relationship with a partner. I’ve dated a few people since we’ve been entangled; and I’m certainly not bound by the relationship with my sweetie in any way to not see others. That’s what makes this poly. I can date, kiss, sleep with other people without having to check in with him, because that’s the relationship we’ve negotiated. I cheated because I was in a relationship with someone, and we both expected monogamy. I broke the rules. Yes, in many ways he did too, but this is part of what I find interesting about monogamy: nothing seems to count as actively destroying the relationship except sleeping with someone else. I did the wrong thing, because I should have broken up with him. I think it’s a bit dangerous to say ‘well, the relationship is broken, therefore I can sleep with other people’ without actually discussing that with the person you’re in the relationship with. I guess that this is part of the difficulty with knowing when something is really over, versus when you should keep working on something. For me, someone needs to acknowledge to the other person that it’s over, in order for that breakup to be fair. For the record, though, I also don’t hold myself utterly responsible for breaking that relationship. That is, I wasn’t the only one who did something wrong and unfair!

    Jennifer S, I definitely hear what you’re saying. I think there is something about maturity at work here (not that that means that da Yoof can’t be mature; just perhaps less likely). Both of us have hurt and been hurt, I think, and been made aware of how important negotiating relationships is. Also, like I mentioned up above, he’s dedicated to progressive principles, and particularly feminism (when I say dedicated, I mean he’s made such things the focus of his life). So in lots of respects, I may just be lucky. That said, drama isn’t all bad; there are people who thrive on the excitement, and for whom, yes, being in a primary poly relationship makes them feel safe enough to explore things with others. I think that’s a good thing; so long as those others are treated ethically (so not like the situation you outline!!).

    Marlene, well, in this situation, that’s exactly it: he lives with his long-term partner. I see him, usually, once a week. I’m not a huge fan of the primary/secondary terminology either, but that’s kinda where it seems to fall out. I too have ambivalences about the ways that the primary/secondary distinction works, reservations that also arise from a sense that people are being bound by the expectation that they ‘need’ what looks like a traditional pairing. For example, I have questions about the kind of rules that are put in place to ‘make sure’ secondary partners don’t become too important, and threaten the primary couple. That seems to me to not reflect poly’s commitment to allowing each relationship to find its level. At the same time, there are good reasons for committing to a particular relationship, and in the case of my sweetie, his relationship has worked and been sustaining for 15 years, so I can see why he’d want to invest in that (and they don’t have explicit rules, as far as I know, because for the two of us, this ‘secondary’ setup is working). As for alleviating someone’s anxiety about their partner fucking all night, well, I think that’s okay, actually. Alleviating anxiety isn’t a bad thing. In other words, I’d really want to resist the idea that if you ‘go poly’, you have to be fine with everything and anything. That too easily slips into denying one’s own needs and wants, as several commenters have pointed out, and especially for women, that only entrenches rather than challenges heteronormative femininity.

    And thanks for contributing, LJ! :-) Good to hear another voice.

  26. August 16, 2009 at 7:09 pm


    I do primary/secondary polyamory as an escape from cultural presumptions, personally. The ones I got stck with were “A real relationship ends in marriage.”

    After breaking a few relationships that would have been perfectly functional lightweight, happy romantic friendships but would be horrific dramafests at the spousal level – by trying to make them into Serious Business – I decided it would be good to stop doing the stupid painful thing. So I started with the heirarchy, and distinguish between the people I love and want to marry and the people I love and would throttle in theirsleep if forced into close proximity or an attempt at interdependence.

    I know and know of people who do heirarchy as a sort of sop to “There is only one real relationship” cultural indoctrination; I know people who do it ‘cos they’re just not interested in more than one spousal relationship (and honestly, I get the strong impression that the polygamy-interested subset of polyamorous folks is a minority); I know whole bunches of different ways of not doing heirarchy (some of which look a lot like the heirarchy I do, which makes it clear that lots of things are a matter of perspective).

    People are complex. I have two husbands and a secondary partner, personally. (One of my husbands does heirarchy, the other doesn’t.)

  27. Alexandra Lynch
    August 17, 2009 at 4:21 am

    Poly for 20 years. Married to Spouse. Spouse has girlfriend of nearly a year. I have married couple I’ve seen. R&L. Have live in boyfriend and another roommate.

    The polyamory thing is not why I’m contemplating sleeping on the couch. It has to do with the fact that I used to get undressed for bed and sleep naked. Now going to bed involves getting dressed in leggings, a long-sleeved henley, a knit watch cap, socks, and gloves. Because my husband keeps wanting the room cooler every day, and my body is liking it less and less. And this is August. Gods help me when it gets to be December….

  28. Austin
    August 17, 2009 at 7:31 am

    And that means that any support I offer…would be over and above what he needed, and that any difficulties he was dealing with weren’t ever going to fall predominantly on his-and-my shoulders.
    The problem with many of our contemporary relationships is that we’re meant to be everything to another person: to fulfill all and every need … In poly, there’s no assumption that you ought to fulfill all of someone else’s needs, or that they ought to fulfill all of yours.

    For reference I a practicing poly in a lesbian V, with primary in the same city and secondary in another. In reading your article, which I like very much, the thing which stuck out for me was the first quote above, vs sentiments expressed in the second, which are a standard opinion within poly. Being in a situation where any support you offer is over and above what he needs indicates that his primary is already providing all these supports. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad way of doing poly, as it’s one I see a lot with what is more traditional mono couple who are involved with others because they like them. It still rests on the formulation where the couple provide all the required support though, and hence it sounds to me like your relationship which you are describing isn’t actually, for your partner, a situation where he is reliant on different people for different things but is reliant completely on his primary, and gets additional joy and love from you, which is sort of different. Is that what you were trying to say?

  29. Eleanor Sauvage
    August 17, 2009 at 7:43 am

    Given that this thread hasn’t turned into the vitriol-fest I paranoidly fantasised it might, I want to make my email address available to those who might want to discuss poly further; I’m intrigued by the politics and personal experiences attached, so feel free to get in touch if you’d like to!: eleanor.sauvage at that gmaily place.

  30. Sheelzebub
    August 17, 2009 at 7:55 am

    On the first thread at Feministe, someone commented that they couldn’t find one person they wanted to date, let alone multiple. And to that I would say: your standards shift, with poly. It’s not that you expect less, but that you don’t expect everything from one person. It allows you to recognise the worth of parts of people, without having to require them to be everything to you, or for you, all the time or for all of time.

    A couple of things:

    1) For me, I need to be attracted to someone and feel chemistry with them. I have met a lot of attractive men, but I don’t necessarily feel chemistry with them. The commenter could have meant that in her comment (it was one line, as I recall). I’ve been accused of being picky, but it’s about what I said above–I need to feel a connection and I need to be attracted to someone. I don’t require a man (I’m straight) to give me everything (but obviously, if I’m getting nothing from the relationship, I’ll walk). I have friends and family who fill certain needs as well (and friendships are a commitment–you have to put in energy and time and effort for them). People don’t have to be limited to sexual relationships; I think that’s a holdover from the mid-century ideal of a romantic relationship that fills all your needs and that romantic, sexual relationships are the most valid.

    2) The idea that your partner is supposed to be everything to you and provide for all of your emotional needs is actually relatively new. It really came into vogue in the middle-part of the twentieth century, on the heels of the love match (because marriages weren’t really for love, traditionally). While people (or, I should say, women) were not sanctioned to have extra-marital sexual relationships, it was perfectly OK–hell, it was expected in Victorian times–for both spouses to have very intense, close friendships with members of the same sex. Likewise, people were supposed to have interests outside of their family (unlike today, where you supposed to hyper-focus on your nuclear family and children, too intense of an interest in her children would be deemed as abnormal for a woman). Upper-class Victorian women were expected to spend their time in civic and religious activities and organizations. (Lower class women were working, as were their kids.)

    I really want to stress–having multiple relationships that are not romantic or sexual in nature (whether you are poly or not) can bring a lot to your life. Sometimes I think we in this culture overlook the importance of the non-sexual relationships in our lives (but that’s another post and I don’t want to buy a ticket to Derail.)

  31. Eleanor Sauvage
    August 17, 2009 at 9:36 am

    Oh, I know there are multiple ways to read that line, and I certainly wasn’t telling the author she (I think?) was wrong! I was simply trying to demonstrate the ways in which poly has intervened in that kind of thinking for me, that’s all, because I quite like the way that it’s opened up my perceptions of people and the ways I relate to them.

    And I’m very aware that the ways that we do relationships now is quite bizarre when you look at it historically! To your description, I’d add that at least some of those intimate same sex friendships were likely sexual, at least to some degree (less so as the anxiety about homosexuality took hold, probably). I am certainly not devaluing friendships, and I think discussing them in this context is useful, because many of the valuable things about poly lie in the support network, and this kind of ‘sharing out’ of the fulfillment of needs etc can be echoed in mono in a collection of close friends. This is what I mean about poly intervening in that logic that says you must have one person to fulfill your everything. There are other things that intervene, too, like having lots of close friendships. Like I seem to keep saying, I’m not saying poly’s the only way, I’m just pointing out it’s a possibility that intervenes quite usefully in heterosexism, and one that worked for me.

    The only thing that I would add to the importance of friendships is that, well, for a long time I’ve thought that making sex the distinction between a friendship and a relationship is a bit strange; and as I’ve shifted more into thinking about poly, my question, I guess, is why the desire for sex within a friendship should be denied, if both people are into it. I get that complications can happen, but they don’t always, and can often be sorted if they do, and sex can just be fun! I’m not saying that’s how all friendships ought to play out, obviously, I’m just intrigued by how sex can become the making of The Serious Relationship, and that friendships, including sexy friendships which are sustaining for both (+) parties often get precluded on that basis. I guess my point in the end is that the ‘lack of community’ thing that seems to characterise contemporary life is a good thing to intervene in, whether that’s through having a great network of friends you never have sex with, or through having a great network of friends, some of whom you have sex with sometimes… :-)

    But thanks for some great thoughts, sheelzebub. I particularly like the historical persepctive stuff, and I think there’s huge conversations we could go on to about the historical specificity of our contemporary genders (which are often treated as if they’re transhistorically, and thus naturally and essentially the way they are. Thanks, evpsych, whatever would we do without you?). But I will resist buying a ticket too!

  32. Eleanor Sauvage
    August 17, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Oops, I missed a few comments:

    Austin, that’s an interesting point. I guess, in relation to the first quote is that he’s survived so far, and so well, within the primary relationship he has (and with the other friendships he has), that I’m not going to become the sole support. This is what happened in the other two relationships I described: I became the primary support, in fact, pretty much the only, and had to set myself aside in order to be that, going far beyond what I could give and stay happy and healthy, because there was no one else to offer support. And, to be honest, although there are sometimes definite needs which are fulfilled by a specific relationship (like a kink, say, or a particular set of knowledges, or whatever), the kind of stuff I was implicitly referencing here is more like hard days, difficulties at work, hard stuff in relationships etc etc; stuff that his primary (plus whatever support network) has already fulfilled in the past. Maybe in some sense he’s fully reliant on his primary/himself, but I really just meant that it’s quite freeing to know that if I say ‘Y’know, dude, I’m exhausted and can’t really talk about how annoying work is just now,’ he’s not going to wind up with nowhere else to take that need to talk stuff through. So when I say ‘over and above,’ I just mean that there are multiple places he can take whatever issues, so I’m just adding to the surfeit. Is that clearer?

    And thanks for contributing, Alexandra! Maybe you should invest in one of those half-and-half doonas, with a skinny half and a nice fluffy warm half. ;-) But that might just be me and my liking sharing a bed!

    Meg Que, I’m glad you enjoyed my (little bit of) story. I think the point about actively choosing relationships, rather than just slipping into them, is exactly right. It’s not that poly has the monopoly (haha!) on good relationships, it’s just that it’s simpler to slip into a pre-structured mono relationship, I think. Entertaining the possibility of poly (alongside, as others have suggested, self-sufficiency (which I have more questions about, but won’t discuss here), strong friendship networks etc) helps to refocus attention on the fact that relationships don’t have to work like they do in the movies, and that actually, we kinda would prefer it that way ;-)

  33. lindsey
    August 17, 2009 at 10:16 am

    its like, you ladies live in my brain…

  34. August 18, 2009 at 1:33 am

    I am late to this but I just want to say – I LOVE this post! I’ve never had a “real” relationship with someone actually poly, but twice now I’ve struck up casual things with someone in an open relationship, and I’ve really enjoyed that dynamic partly for the same reasons you talk about – I do tend to get kind of self-effacing in relationships (though in my history, the partners in question weren’t actually to blame at all, honestly) and it’s great having someone filling certain needs without feeling at all like they have to fill all of them… I feel like these experiences have changed my perspective in a way that will come in handy the next time I meet someone I want to be more emotionally involved with (neither of these dudes I would have wanted to be).

  35. somegirl
    August 18, 2009 at 3:49 am

    This post has been incredibly enlightening. I was recently casually involved with someone who seemed to be sort of drifting into a poly lifestyle – or at least hoping to. The lack of clarity (in the form of a discussion this open, or even the language/tools to fully express the nature of his desires) sent me running in the opposite direction, with an underlying suspicion that I’d narrowly escaped a particularly charming, cunning opportunist. Now I realize I was probably just in the tricky position of being part of a fairly well-meaning someone’s poly test run.

    Good luck with your sweetie, and any other/primary relationships you choose to form. Sounds like a tough territory to navigate, for all its fun, and I do understand the appeal of the fun :)

  36. coco bucugno
    August 18, 2009 at 4:31 am

    There’s a thing I fail to get in these poly/mono discussions: Regarding love relationships, do we go for the person or the relationship style? It’s as if you decide on your preffered mode of relationship first and then find people who comply. I see no difference here to those who want to ‘get married’ and seek eligible bachelors, as if looking for an appropriate job post. Well, maybe most of you here think romance is a bygone habit of the Victorian era, but I still want to follow the butterflies in my stomach and then see how it goes with the wonderfully unique person I’m in love with, what makes both of us happy along the way. The more terms attached to a relationship, I feel bounded by some set of regulations that kill all those butterflies.

  37. August 18, 2009 at 10:43 am

    coco bucugno, I would say the short answer to your question – do we go for the person or relationship – is we do both. The person and the relationship style are not mutually exclusive.

    As Eleanor described in her post, she didn’t really go seeking out a nonmonogamous relationship. For me too, when I met my guy, I wanted to be with him regardless of our relationship style. Now that we’re in this style, we’re realizing the great benefits of it and applying them.

    I know people whose preference is meeting somebody who is nonmonogamous as well, but if they meet somebody they’re compatible with who isn’t nonmonogamous, they try that out as well.

    In my opinion, it’s about more options, not about limitations.

  38. August 18, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Like Frau Sally Benz, I’m not sure the things are separable. I also don’t think that they’re separable in monogamous relationships either – it’s not like it’s uncommon for people to consider things like whether or not they want children, shared religion, favored activities, or similar as criteria for selecting a long-term partner, and someone who is otherwise shiny but differs on these matters will probably not make the cut. (Some people may cause a reevaluation of those things, but how often that happens I don’t know.) And some people don’t have those as major things – as I mentioned in one of these threads, one of my husbands doesn’t really care about the monogamy/polyamory thing, can do either.

    I once saw a childfree woman say, “And people keep saying to me, ‘What if you meet Mr. Right and he wants children?’ I respond, ‘If he wants children, he’s not Mr. Right.'” It’s a lot like that, for me.

    I once ran into a guy who told me that I would be the perfect woman if I were monogamous, something like thirty pounds heavier, and … hrr, something else I’ve forgotten. And, y’know, good luck to him with that. I’m not those things, though, and it would take a hell of a situation to make me feel it was worth seeing if I could be someone else.

    I meet people sometimes. If they’re shiny, I ask them if they want to pursue some sort of romantic relationship with me. I don’t agree to things I don’t understand (like monogamy). Those are my rules and regulations. I don’t see a comparison there to the “I’m looking for someone to fill the husband slot”, really. I don’t even know how to date.

  39. Eleanor Sauvage
    August 19, 2009 at 1:27 am

    Isabel: why thank you, kind lady ;-) Good luck with future relationships: I think you’re right, a bit of space for exploring things otherwise is useful for thinking about how you really *want* a relationship to be!

    Somegirl:Ah, I’m sure that must have been a little odd. I’m pretty lucky in that my sweetie’s primary relationship has been opened out for ten years now. He’s a little bit practiced, y’know? ;-)

    Coco Bucungo, I agree with Frau Sally Benz, and Dw3t-Hthr, and I’m a bit surprised you could think otherwise after my post. If I hadn’t been drawn to my sweetie, right now I wouldn’t be in a poly relationship, probably. Now that I am a secondary, and have had the time and space to think it all through, I really like the whole poly thing, and it suits my temperament, I think. But I don’t go out thinking ‘now, must find a primary.’ I meet people, we get chatting, if I’m drawn to them, I’m drawn to them. Sure, I’ve had issues where I’ve explained I’m seeing one person, and totally up for getting entangled with someone else, and had people place me firmly in the box of ‘friends but no more’. Which is obviously their call. In fact, in many ways, there’s more freedom to pursue possible love interests. And being deliriously happily in love with two or three or four or more people… well, that seems like a pretty good deal to me!

  40. August 19, 2009 at 4:27 am

    I came to Poly from shear revulsion at the idea that I would own someone and they would own me. I mean if we love one another, why would we want to cut each other off from the graces and charms of other people? That strikes me as getting way to close to the view “It is not enough that I am rich; everyone else must be poor.”

    Once that is internalized, it’s easy to see how jealousy is “carefully taught” by the culture; but really no more natural that going into fits over which “race” you are sharing a drinking fountain with. Almost the whole of “romance” literature is predicated on a wholly unnecessary conflict for affections.

    Once you value your partners freedom, and dispense with jealousy, the rest is pretty easy. You no longer see the outside world as representing a danger to your relationship. Of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t rate some sort of priority in the relationship – and it is well to reflect on how much are willing to give to one person in getting motivated to do that for others. That is one of the ways Poly keeps your perspectives fresh and reminds you of how valuable your other relationships, especially primary ones, are.

  41. August 19, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    I think dispensing with jealousy is about as sane and healthy as dispensing with pain: they exist for the same reason (to alert people to threats/damage).

    Dispensing with the notion that a partner’s interactions with others are axiomatically a threat to one’s relationshtp, sure. Getting rid of the emotional signals for “The resources this relationship needs are going somewhere else”? Terrible idea.

  42. reine
    August 19, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    i’m very confused as to what being committed really means in poly?

  43. August 19, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    Same thing it means in a monogamous relationship: bound to keeping one’s agreements and pledges.

  44. Sheelzebub
    August 20, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Dispensing with the notion that a partner’s interactions with others are axiomatically a threat to one’s relationshtp, sure. Getting rid of the emotional signals for “The resources this relationship needs are going somewhere else”? Terrible idea.


    I also want to say, Roy, that some of your language is similar in tone to the anti-poly and anti-BDSM comments I’ve seen–there’s more than a fair bit of shaming in your comment. People who want to be in a monogamous relationship don’t necessarily think they own their partners or that their partners own them. It also doesn’t mean that they aren’t “free.” You can be in a relationship where you’re free to be with other people but still not free at all–if, for example, a partner is emotionally abusive or manipulative. People are going to feel what they feel, and dismissing them and deriding them for being human isn’t helpful at all.

  45. Sheelzebub
    August 20, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Also, just to underscore what D3wt-Hthr said: even in poly relationships there is jealousy. It’s human, and it’s often a signal. Can we please not shame people into silence about their feelings and their needs?

  46. Alex
    August 27, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    Thank you for articulating some of the benefits of being a secondary. I often get hung up on the drawbacks, and it was nice to be reminded that there are some decided advantages, too.

Comments are closed.