Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Metamours and family

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 www.polymeansmany.com from tomorrow. This month, our topic is "relationships with metamours"

I've written on this topic before. Since writing that post nearly two years ago about my fear of extending our nuclear family with the meta connections of polyamory, most of those connections have collapsed. Back then, I was concerned about the effect on Small, but she is fine. This time, I'm more selfishly thinking of myself. (I can do that sometimes, right?)

Although that post was about 'chosen family', I didn't choose any of my metamours - my partners did. With only trivial exceptions, I've always been delighted by their choices. Despite some bad past experiences, metamours, semi-metamours (metafuckbuddies?) and potential metamours are still one of my favourite things about poly. I want my partners to keep dating, because I want to meet their dates! If they find someone they want to be around, the chances are that I'll want their company too. Everyone wins!

But I'm not a part of their relationships, and I don't get a vote in how they are conducted, or how long they last. They are relationships of choice, but not mine.

That's not to say that metamours can't become friends or even family in their own right, but I suspect it happens less often than we hope. When the supporting meta-ness of the relationship has gone, there will at least be change, and what comes out the other side won't be like the metamour relationship you started with. If there are sides to be taken, the chances are you won't be on theirs any more. People that I once felt intimately close to have ended up feeling like near strangers, and none of it was in my control.

The relationship between metamours and the way that this builds poly networks or 'polycules', is seductive. It is so tempting to call these connections family far far earlier than the connections deserve. I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only one to fall into this trap. Most of the time, these connections feel stronger than they are. One crucial difference between biological family and chosen family is, I think, that one is opt-out, and the other is opt-in. To put it another way, you don't need a reason to include your parents or siblings in your family, but if you cut one or more of them out, you probably had a damn good reason for doing so. Relationships that started for a reason, on the other hand, are more vulnerable to change. These relationships of choice can be stronger, but the former is more plastic. The bonds between metamours can appear deceptively like family relationships (because you didn't choose them), but like your sister's partner or your uncle's new spouse, they are as brittle as romantic relationships themselves.

This is not to say that we don't believe in the 'poly tribe' any more, or that we don't think that metamours can become family. We do. We're just more cautious about whom we include. Marge Piercy's vicious poem A Snarl For Loose Friends ends with the lines 'Don't count your friends by their buttons until you have seen them pushed a few times' and I think that's good advice for anyone you want to rely on. My relationships with my partners and their meta-relationship with each other have all seen multiple buttons pushed, and we're still standing. Our relationships have been proven strong, and so we feel safe to call each other family.

Poly people talk about communication a lot. But we've learned from past experiences, and now we trust the results of this button-pushing more than what is said. That's not just because they may be unreliable, but because sadly, relationships don't succeed just because we want them to.

Small is old enough now to talk about her long term memories. She talks about my boyfriend when he isn't here, as she does with the rest of her family. When she was with my husband's girlfriend this weekend, she asked about a trip they took last Autumn, several visits ago. If someone has stuck around, through thick and thin, even when things got hard, then they'll be around long enough for her to develop a real connection with them.

Me? I'm cautious, but still hopeful. I've seen it fail, but I've seen it work, and I'm trying to learn from that. The two men in my life have loved each other as well as me for years now. No matter what else we might have got wrong, this bit we've got spectacularly right.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Won't polyamory harm your children?

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 www.polymeansmany.com from tomorrow. This month, our topic is "misconceptions and judgements"

Very little gets to me as much as the insinuation that I'm a bad or negligent parent. Here's an example: Dr Karen Ruskin (a "Marriage and Family Therapist") writes from an empassioned and entirely speculative position about the perceived risks to children of a polyamorous household. Chief of these is the risk that a breakup of one of the parent's relationships will cause lasting and serious emotional damage. Here are some choice snippets:

As children age and these significant adult figures in their life come and go (due to adult break ups with one’s polyamorous partner/partners), children don’t feel so loved, they no longer feel stable nor at peace. What do they feel? They feel abandoned! They feel rejected! Children who feel abandoned and rejected are emotionally wounded, hurt, and in turn feel unworthy of love...

Love pulled out from under the rug, any day any time is not a healthy way for a child to live. Thus, when their parent argues with one of their lovers, the child may fear the end is near, never knowing when this person they love and loves them will no longer exist in their life.

Read that extract again, but this time, imagine that it was written about single parents. Would Dr Ruskin advise single parents (whether parenting alone, or co-parenting whilst single) to just avoid dating entirely, and stay entirely single until their kids move out, in case their child developed an attachment to a partner that didn't work out? Of course not. I can imagine that she might advise caution, which is sensible. But would she warn them that their children might "become hardened and not open to love"? That dating and ending a relationship might cause their children to "wonder if they too someday will be dumped and that they are disposable too"?

If single parents aren't being subjected to this level of scaremongering about the damage they are causing their children, it's either because people think that being single is so awful that it's worth harming your children to avoid (problematic) or it's because children love their parents' partners more deeply when there is the possibility of several of them (nonsensical). Or maybe, just maybe, it's just because it hasn't been properly thought through.

This makes it one of those "polyamory is not that special" situations, because parents who date is not that new. Which is useful, because it means when I was concerned with much of the same things that Dr Karen froths at the mouth about, I actually had real lives and real parents to compare myself to. They weren't polyamorous (as far as I knew) but they were doing pretty much the same thing that I was.

To tackle the other side of dating, we were once told that we were raising our daughter in a "sexualised" environment. That one was pretty unpleasant. And here is the thing: most children grow up in houses where sex happens. Whether your parents were monogamously married, living separately, single or dating, parents have sex, they probably had some sex. It is not unusual. For the most part, children move seamlessly from being totally unaware of their parents' sex lives, to cheerfully pretending they know nothing about it. And then they move out. We don't anticipate our family being any different.

Which is another way of saying, again, that when it comes to parenting, we're not that different. I can understand the curiosity, and in the interest of combating misconceptions I'm happy to answer questions. But please, hold back on the "what about the children?" bullshit, because there is nothing you can judge us for without also throwing millions of other non-polyamorous families under the bus.

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 www.polymeansmany.com 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 www.polymeansmany.com 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 www.polymeansmany.com 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 www.polymeansmany.com 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 www.polymeansmany.com 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.