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.
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