Monday, 31 March 2014

The relevance of significance

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts will be found at from tomorrow. This month, our topic is "relationship significance"

"I can't date another married woman*. I just can't," he said to me when we'd been, well, dating for a few weeks**.

This wasn't him breaking it off. He just didn't want to be my "boyfriend", he told me and I understood.

I really didn't mind. I was enjoying our whateveritwas, and had no complaints about the actual relationship, so to quibble over the terms he used to describe it, or to demand a greater demonstration of our relationship's significance through vocabulary, seemed pointless. We carried on "not dating", and I carried on being happy.

A month, or maybe two, later, he broke a brief moment of silence in the car. "Are you my girlfriend?" he asked me, with a smile that could almost have been shy. "Yes," I told him, but really, I meant "duh!" And that was the end of that.

I'm pretty sure that had I not been happy, and had our time together been less than wonderful, that lack of declared significance would have gnawed at me. Had he not been doing everything I wanted from a boyfriend, I expect I would have been stung by not not feeling able to use the word.

So I think there is a distinction between how we mark our relationships' significance and how significant they actually are, and I know which one is more important to my happiness. I won't deny that I get real pleasure from acknowledging the significance of my two relationships. I remember the first time I said "my husband" after the wedding, and realised that with that one word, people I didn't know would automatically consider him my family, my next of kin and my partner for life. It's a powerful shorthand. Similarly, when I say "my boyfriend" people know that I'm not just a married woman with a disposable bit on the side; he's valued and significant to me.

But if the words don't get used, those things are still true. It's a bit like saying "I love you" - I like to tell them, but I don't only love them when I'm saying it. My boyfriend and I recently celebrated four years of loving each other, and my husband and I will soon celebrate ten, but it isn't the celebrations that give these relationships their significance to me. It's just a delightful bonus.

In fact, a relationship that is marked with more significance than it deserves can be profoundly unsettling. Someone telling you that they love you, but not demonstrating it. Someone calling you their partner to other people, but not returning your calls. Someone who declares a level of commitment that they just aren't upholding.

Actions speak loader than words, but the right words are still sweet.


*He got over it.
**Whether we knew it or not.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Stars, planets and people I love

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts will be found at from tomorrow. This month, our topic is "What being poly has taught me"

I was driving home from a weekend away with my husband next to me and our daughter in the back of the car. Unusually, we'd spent most of the weekend apart - she with family, and the two of us with various respective friends. At two and a half, her independence surprises and impresses me; we both missed her far more than she missed us.

I drove north along the motorway, back home to the house we share, and we listened to Poetry Please on the car radio. The last poem was Stars and Planets, by Norman Maccaig, and I listened to the line describing our Earth as 'This poor sad bearer of wars and disasters' and was struck even harder by how precious these two people are to me. How precious and unlikely this family, bundled up together in my little car, is. I love them so much that sometimes I can barely think of anything else.

Polyamory has taught me that as precious and surprising as this love is, there is room for more. I may live with my daughter and my husband, but my boyfriend, no matter what, will always have a seat at our table. My three great loves, and me, 'Rolls-Roycing round the sun with its load of gangsters'. Maybe one day there will be five, or more of us. I like thinking about that.

I would not pretend that polyamory has always made our lives better. People are not always what they seem, and the world is unpredictable. Those who say they love you can do hurtful things because you let them get so close. All of us have been burned in one way or another by opening ourselves up.

We let people in more carefully these days, but we still let people in.

    Stars and Planets, by Norman MacCaig

    Trees are cages for them: water holds its breath
    To balance them without smudging on its delicate meniscus.
    Children watch them playing in their heavenly playground;
    Men use them to lug ships across oceans, through firths.

    They seem so twinkle-still, but they never cease
    Inventing new spaces and huge explosions
    And migrating in mathematical tribes over
    The steppes of space at their outrageous ease.

    It's hard to think that the earth is one –
    This poor sad bearer of wars and disasters
    Rolls-Roycing round the sun with its load of gangsters,
    Attended only by the loveless moon.

    From The Poems of Norman McCaig

Monday, 13 January 2014

Other people's decisions

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts will be found at from tomorrow. This month, our topic is "Decisions"

The more people you date, and the more people they date, and the more complicated your wider relationship network gets, the more likely it is that a decision you make will resonate somewhere down the line and affect someone who had no input into it at all.

You could take a new shift pattern at work, which means you can no longer keep a scheduled date night with a partner, which means you need to reschedule, which could mean that your metamour has to alter plans to fit in with the new status quo. Or you could get a totally new job, so you and your partner decide to move to another city, which could mean that their partners find themselves living closer or further away. Or you could decide to have a child with one of your partners, which will totally change the structure of all your other relationships, and radically alter the time and space you have available.

And this gets more complicated when you're factoring in caring for children. It is almost impossible for my husband or me to make a decision about how we spend our time without it affecting the other. I can't go away for the weekend without either taking my daughter, taking my husband and my daughter, or leaving her with him, none of which can be done without his agreement, and none of which can be done without affecting how he spends his weekend. And how the two of us resolve this might then affect the time and space left for his other relationships. Complicated.

Two important things make this easier:

The first is kindness. I am grateful for the reassuring confidence I have that none of us will make any of these decisions without at least trying to be kind to each other, and to those other people in our network who could end up affected by our decisions. The secondary nature of my relationship with my boyfriend does mean that sometimes we make unilateral decisions about our lives that affect the other (I got pregnant, he's spent a few big chunks of time abroad) but being kind and understanding from both directions has made this as gentle as possible. If my husband wants to invite a girlfriend over for the weekend, he doesn't do this without being sure that I'm happy to spend that time with her too, which means that she will know that she is welcome, and I will feel more comfortable asking for him to agree to some of my plans another time. And, because he is kind, he's often offering to put himself out before I've even asked.

But equally important to kindness is the ability to stand up for ourselves if something is happening that we don't like. We check in with each other often, but this would be no good if we couldn't rely on each other to be honest about unhappiness or discomfort. This might mean asking for more or less time alone, or more or less time with a metamour. It might even mean ending a relationship (or even asking your partner to end a relationship) because decisions have been made that you just can't be happy with. Being kind and generous to your partners and metamours is no good if you aren't being kind and generous to yourself.

What I'm really arguing for is a balance between the two: thinking of your own needs, and thinking of other people's. Don't make decisions without considering the consequences for other people, but don't go along with anything that hurts you just to avoid conflict or keep other people happy. Everyone is important. When making decisions that affect other people's lives, think of how it will affect you, think of how it will affect other people. Check-in often to make sure that everyone is happy, and answer honestly and kindly when people check-in with you. Be kind to each other, and kind to yourself.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Flexible festivities

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts will be found at from tomorrow. This month, our topic is "Happy Holidays!"

I think Christmas is a bit like monogamy - it feels non-optional, fixed and traditional, but it's ubiquitousness is really just a result of social conventions that can be taken to pieces and reconstructed any way you like. For some, the day has religious significance, and for some it's more about raucous drinking and indulgent eating. And for some it is both, of course. You don't have to set a Christmas pudding on fire, spend hundreds of pounds on presents or festoon your house in tinsel any more than you have to stick to one partner at a time. These things are all negotiable, even though society does its best to convince us that they are not.

But good God does society do its best to make you feel that you are missing out when you do. I've been told that I can't really love my husband if I want to see my boyfriend as well. I've been told that my daughter will grow up resentful and confused by the lack of a monogamous bond between her parents. People who don't have big, happy families are made to feel lonely because they are constantly being told how much they are missing out on. And people I know who've decided to break with their families' traditions and do something different over the holiday period have been made to feel that they've let people down. One of my siblings suggested off-handedly to our mum that her partner and children might like to go abroad for Christmas, but the resulting wave of guilt soon persuaded her to stick to the status quo. (And to be honest, I was glad, because I didn't want them to go either.) And, of course, polyamory creates yet further complications that can make doing what you want even harder. The more entangled we are in other people's lives and other people's wishes, the more complicated and fraught it can be to do our own thing.

If you've run into, or are likely to run into any of this, I obviously can't tell you how to fix it. The only general advice I have is to stay flexible. Remember that the whole holiday season is arbitrary, and so find places where you can bend to make things easier. Perhaps getting everyone you want together for December 25th is impossible, but you can treat it as a movable feast, and organise it for another day. Perhaps you could go for something close to our solution, which is to use Christmas Day as a biological family get together, and New Year's Eve for the other important people in our lives.

Things can be complicated. In previous years, our Christmas/New Year's plans have become very complicated indeed. But as this is traditionally the season for giving thanks, I do try to be thankful for these complications. Without them, I wouldn't be spending this season surrounded by people I love.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Your future needs.

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts will be found at from tomorrow. This month, our topic is "meeting your needs".

I've always been pretty certain that I wanted to have children, and luckily for me, so has my husband. It was one of the things we checked out about each other in the very early days, when we were giddy with the possibility of love.

What if he'd told me he never wanted to have children? If he didn't even like children? I'm pretty sure I would have walked away. Even if I'd managed to find another partner with whom I could co-parent whilst still being involved with him, the idea of having a passionate relationship with someone who doesn't want to be a part of my family life sounds painful, let alone unsustainable. And I don't think that I could have coped with keeping the distance between us necessary for me to be able to find that co-parent. Back then, I didn't love him, but I could see that I would fall for him, hard, if we kept seeing each other. Far better to break it off straight away, to prevent serious heartbreak.

I asked my husband what he'd have done had I told him that I never wanted to be a parent. He said he'd have kept our relationship going anyway, hoping that either he could change my mind or become satisfied without children, and it would have ended badly.

Which is honest.

In situations like this, it isn't one partner's needs vs. another's, it's your needs vs. your needs. It's about what you want *now* vs. what you will want later. Which is probably harder than my needs vs. your needs, because you can't have a conversation with your future self, and any compromises you make will only hurt you later on.

But now, I think that the stability of my marriage gives us an enormous privilege in making these kinds of decisions. We wouldn't pursue a relationship with anyone who didn't like children (and our child in particular), for example, but the fact that we both have our needs met by each other gives us the strength to say "no" to things that won't work for our family. If you're lonely, or in need of support, or just going through some tough times, I can see that it isn't so easy to turn down someone who can give you what you need right now because they will get in the way of what you need at some point in the future.

And sometimes the situation is reversed - when Small was tiny, my relationship with my boyfriend changed dramatically, and he had to cope with not getting some of the things he wanted from me for quite a while. I'm pretty sure I wasn't meeting his needs, or giving him anything like the attention he wanted from me (unless that attention was to talk about my baby and how tired I was, and to ask for food - he got plenty of that). His choice was to walk away because I wasn't meeting his needs, or to put his own needs aside for a while because he wanted our relationship to exist in the long term. And luckily for me, my boyfriend was in a position where he was happy and strong enough (not to mention happy to be a part of my daughter's life, and delighted to see me so happy) to wait for his needs to be met.

So I'm not saying that my answer to the hypothetical question above is the "right" one, because the position I was in at the time was pretty strong: I had a stable job, good health, and the emotional strength to take the a longer-term view. Plus, it's only a hypothetical, so I can't be sure that the real me would have been quite so pragmatic. Saying "no" to something that will hurt you down the line is hard, as is saying "yes" to something that is hurting you now. But whoever you are, you deserve to be happy, so if you can, don't give up on what you want. You future self will thank you.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

National Poetry Day

A Wish for My Children, by Evangeline Paterson

On this doorstep I stand,
year after year
and watch you going

and think: May you not
skin your knees; May you
not catch your fingers
in car doors. May
your hearts not break.

May tide and weather
wait for your coming.

and may you grow strong
to break
all webs of my weaving.

From New Life, edited by Sally Emerson

More about National Poetry Day.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Is it always hard?

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts will be found at from tomorrow. This month, our topic is "negotiation".

Here are how some recent negotiations with my partners have gone:

  • My husband wanted to travel to stay with his girlfriend overnight, but I didn't want to look after our daughter on my own during the weekend. Before they fixed their date, I checked with my boyfriend, and he was happy to shift our weekly date to keep me company and give me another set of hands with the childcare.
  • My boyfriend and I have had a date roughly every week for more than three years now. Recently, he's been extremely stressed and busy with work, and it's left him with less time to see his primary partner, so he's asked if he could cancel a couple of them. He's been incredibly flexible with me in the past, so I'm only too happy to show him the same understanding.
It seems to be a truth, universally acknowledged, that polyamorous relationships require a lot of negotiating, and this will be hard work. But I've found that the negotiating has been so easy, I've hardly noticed it happening. My current relationships haven't needed any more communication or negotiation than the monogamous relationships I used to have, and they're certainly less work.

I suspect this is partly because we're all getting what we want from the respective relationships, so our negotiating is always tweaking, rather than pushing against the foundations. If I wanted more than a weekly date with my boyfriend, for example, and wanted to negotiate for more, then I expect I'd be less willing to lose one of them. If I wanted my husband to spend more time at home, then we'd have bigger issues than me wanting to find some company.

But mostly, what makes these negotiations so painless for me is that they've both been such excellent caretakers of my heart that I don't question their motivations. By now, they've given me years of being kind, flexible and understanding, so if I ask something of them, I know that they want to say "yes", even if they don't.

Which is another way of saying that the hard work was finished a long time ago.