Category Archives: poly means many

Poly Means Many: From within

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 can be found at www.polymeansmany.com. This month’s topic is misconceptions and judgments

One of the main reasons I write about my love life on a monthly basis is because I’m aware by society’s standards it’s a little on the unusual side, and I sort of want to demystify it. This month, the Poly Means Many project is revisiting the idea of misconceptions and judgments that people tend to make. Last time, I wrote about the overlap between this and biphobia.

This time, I’ve been thinking a fair bit about the stuff that goes on within our own community and the gross oversimplifications that often pop out of our mouths when we’re defending ourselves, and the side of our community that is presented to the public.

Polynormativity” was a term I found really useful when I learned it: an umbrella term for the media-sanctioned brand of polyamory that you’ll generally see in the lifestyle sections of the paper. It’s the kind straight-man-bi-women arrangement with built-in hierarchies, where everyone’s cute and white and it’s definitely not all about the sex because they are going to have babies and a nice house. When your average non-poly person thinks of poly, this is kind of thing that springs to mind, and it’s a nice thing to present because very few people are going to have much of a problem with it, as it maps on to the generally socially-accepted life trajectories.

Now, it’s not like these relationships don’t exist. Hell, they do, in buckets. And it’s why a lot of the time I don’t get on well with poly men, who will often want to crowbar me, sooner or later, into that sort of arrangement. This isn’t necessarily just how poly relationships are presented, this is how a lot of people expect and want them to work, and because it’s so normalised, it’s sometimes not even negotiated. That is absolutely and categorically not OK. We as a community need to just as aware–if not more so–as mainstream mono society of the dangers of assumptions and avoid making them. 

I definitely feel like sometimes I get judged from within the community for my rejection of a lot of polynormative values. As I wrote last month, I reject the relationship escalator, which means the babies and the nice house are something to which I definitely do not aspire. And for me, a lot of it is about the sex. I am a powerfully sexual person. I like sex. I love sex. I love having sex with lots of beautiful and amazing people, sometimes all at the same time. I have literally been accused of commitment phobia from poly people for how I conduct my relationships.

The poly umbrella is a diverse community, and because of this, we need to avoid making judgments about how others within our community live. This can be hard: we are all, after all, unlearning all the wrong things we were taught about love and sex and relationships. And we’re getting good at how they apply to ourselves as individuals, but not so much when we meet someone who does things differently. The thing is, there’s enough judgment coming from outside our community. This is not the fault of those of us who fail to meet up to mainstream society’s definition of almost-normal.


Poly Means Many: Outside the relationship escalator

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”

Once, I lived with a partner. As with a lot of people, it was initiated through necessity, because of the housing crisis. I hated it. I realised that this was not how I wanted to do my relationships, that living with a partner wasn’t for me. In a way, I think it killed that relationship, even when they did manage to move out. Living with a partner is just too much for me. I don’t like it, and I don’t want it.

The standard model for relationships is the “relationship escalator“. It’s a one-way trip, up along a trajectory from getting together, to adapting your lives around each other, to tying your lives together by living in the same place and sharing finances, with the optional final step of pumping out tiny little humans or creating something together so that people knew you were there. It works for some people, I don’t doubt it. But for a lot of us, it doesn’t work at all.

The relationship escalator, this received model of how to do relationships, is at least in part a product of capitalist patriarchy. You will notice how neatly it ties in with traditional family structures at the top of the escalator. The bits at the top of the escalator are incentivised: often, it is only in cohabiting that people can afford to keep on living in cities, and marriage is introduced as the only route to visas and tax breaks. It’s beneficial for capitalist patriarchy to have people living in neat little units, with their property and their babies.

As for me, my relationships are strictly off the escalator. I wish I could say it was a political objection, that I’d made a conscious choice, but it isn’t. I find cohabiting a bit of a hard limit. Overnight stays, yes, they’re lovely. More than one overnight stay, yep, that’s great. Permanently living with a partner? Good god, no thank you. I can barely manage to look after myself, I like my own space to hide in when I need it, I like my things in a certain way, I have my own routines and rhythms. Even when I love someone, seeing them literally every day gets a bit much.

This doesn’t mean I can’t form meaningful, significant relationships. They just look different to how a meaningful, significant relationship is expected to look. I don’t ride the relationship escalator; my relationships look more like a stroll through a park on a warm June day. It’s not going anywhere, but why does that matter, when everything is so beautiful? Rather than undertaking journeys with partners, I have adventures, basking in sunshine. And even when the sun dips behind a cloud, I’ll still keep on wandering with the people I love.

It seems weird that I have to keep on saying how it is entirely possible to have a mutually supportive, loving relationship when most of the escalator is off-limits to me, because it seems so natural to me. But a lot of people are surprised, and I know some think there’s something wrong with me, that maybe I haven’t met the right person (always just one person: escalators are narrow things). But I know it’s not that, that I like my relationships to be a wide open space, that we can move in any direction that feels right.

I never liked going up all that much, anyway.


Poly Means Many: Lessons learned

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 can be found at polymeansmany.com

I’ve written a lot before about how I don’t know what I want and I consider myself a work in progress. Saying that, I have learned a hell of a lot over the years I’ve been doing poly. A lot of the things I’ve learned haven’t been particularly fun, learned through tears on my pillow from screwups which were sometimes my fault, and sometimes those of others. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” may not always apply, but it certainly applies with these things I have learned the hard way, which I share now in the hope that maybe some of you might not end up having to go through the same shit.

(1) You don’t know what your boundaries are until you hit them. In theory, you’ll have some idea of things you definitely don’t want and that’s good, because you can avoid those things proactively. The thing is, matters of the heart are always steering a ship into uncharted territory, because every single relationship is unique. And sometimes, you might dash yourself on some unexpected rocks. You find things you love that pleasantly surprise you, but you also find things you never knew you wouldn’t be right for you, and sometimes it can be agony when you discover these things. This is horrible. But, on the plus side, I now have a better understanding of things that are dealbreakers for me, and can avoid that profoundly awful experience.

(2) Poly doesn’t happen in a vacuum. This problem tends to show up more among radical poly types. There is a mindset that doing poly will be utterly divorced from general societal influences if one has read the right books and has the right analysis. This is completely and utterly categorically untrue. This problem tends to manifest in two main ways. Firstly, men treat women badly. They replicate sexist structures, with an added poly twist to maximise the number of women they can fuck over. And secondly, there is often a denial of the presence of hierarchies due to anarchist beliefs. And both of these are very difficult to challenge, because those perpetuating these problems believe that having the right political analysis is enough. The solution here, I’ve learned, is to apply the same critique that I would to anything in which I’m not directly involved, and run as fast as I can in the opposite direction the second I catch the faintest whiff of manarchism. Not necessarily the best solution, perhaps, but certainly the one which has kept me safest.

(3) You will fuck up. Apologise and learn from it.

(4) You’ll never get everything exactly as you like. And that’s OK, because nobody and nothing is perfect. If it feels right, but not perfect, that’s good, not bad.

(5) Seriously. You will fuck up. Just don’t be a dick about it. Accept that you can fuck up, and hurt people, and that doesn’t make you a monster if you don’t do it again. If you deal with it right, ultimately you can become a better person from it. I hope I have.


Poly Means Many: Making decisions when you don’t know what you want

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 can be found at polymeansmany.com

The topic for this month’s PMM is decisions. For good reasons, this is a central issue in doing poly: from the big stuff such as what shape a relationship takes, and how not to exclude anyone; right down to the little stuff, like where to go for dinner on a date night. How do we balance our needs with those of others, choose who to see and when, and keep everything fair, while still getting what it is we want out of relationships?

Speaking for myself, I haven’t a fucking clue. My depression has this rather annoying effect of making me doubt everything I think and do, and making me woefully unsure of what I actually want at all. Ultimately, that makes making decisions rather difficult. Standard poly models tend to hinge on an assumption that you’ll know your own mind before making a decision, but in my experience, that’s often not possible, because I often don’t know what I want.

And so, because I cannot imagine there is not another soul alive who has similar problems as I do, I offer some tips for decision-making while living in a state of uncertainty. These are things that have worked for me.

(1) Be upfront and open about the fact you’re not sure. Explain to partners, lovers, friends, that you really don’t know what to do when a decision is presented. Often “I don’t know” are the three little words it’s hardest to say because there is a phenomenal pressure to have an opinion on absolutely everything, and that’s just not how life works. If you start from a position of honesty about your own uncertainty, it means everyone is on the same page. It means no surprises in the future. And also,  honesty is awesome and very important to doing poly, anyway.

(2) Remember that nothing has to be forever. I think that the acceptance that nothing is necessarily permanent was one of the things that helped me negotiate life–and in particular poly life–the best. None of the decisions one makes have to be set in stone, irreversible and irretrievable. Things change in ways we cannot predict, feelings evolve over time, and circumstances may shift. A decision that feels right at the time it is made won’t necessarily be right in the future, and that doesn’t necessarily mean you made the wrong decision. It means that nothing stays the same. There will always be a way of getting what’s right for you to happen.

(3) Know that sometimes you might make the wrong decision. This is another thing we’re not meant to talk about: the fact that sometimes you will be wrong. And you might fuck up horribly and hurt someone. Or you might end up hurt yourself.  Ultimately, that’s a horrible thing to happen, but it is sadly unavoidable when it comes to matters of the heart, even if you’re the most decisive and sensitive person in the world. And if things do go wrong, embrace being held accountable if it was your fuck-up. Take stock of what went wrong and how it went wrong. And use that to inform future decisions. On the flip side of this, remember that you will know when the decision you’ve made is wrong, because you’ll feel shit, or others will feel shit.

(4) Check in regularly. Have conversations to make sure everyone involved is still happy with decisions that have been made. See if anything needs to change. On top of the obvious benefits for the relationship in doing this, there’s something in it for you. If, like me, you’re plagued by self-doubt, such check-ins can often be reassuring: having it explicitly spelled out that things are going well means that you can remind yourself that you aren’t always making terrible decisions.

(5) Trust your instincts. Chances are, sometimes you’ll find yourself in a situation where you feel uncomfortable with, but can’t articulate why. You’ll find yourself feeling like rationally, you ought to do one thing, but your instincts are telling you otherwise. Trust those instincts. There have been a number of times when I have done something that my instincts have told me not to. It’s never ended very well. And from that learning experience, I am trying to be upfront when I have a bad feeling about things, by way of explanation for the decisions I make.

(6) Just do it. I view life as that child’s game of “warmer, colder”. Sometimes I make a decision and inside I feel more like “this is what I want”. Sometimes I make a decision and inside I feel more like “this is not what I want”. In feeling my way, I am learning more about what it is I want, what I like and how to make decisions which fill these needs and wants. Trying things is the best way of understanding these things. Using the previous five points make navigating this territory easier and less damaging for yourself and others. Feel your way, and let yourself learn.


Poly Means Many: Needs (and meeting them)

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 can be found at polymeansmany.com

I have needs. Everyone does. I’m one of those lucky bastards who has bases covered on the bottom tiers of the old Maslow’s hierarchy, and I’m doing half-decently at some of the other bits and bobs. But this post isn’t directly about my mental and physical health, or my fragile employment situation or any of that shit, because this is about my relationships.

My needs are fairly problem-focused because I have a lot of problems in my life. So when I talk about getting my needs met, a lot of the time that means exactly the same as solving problems that I’m facing. Sometimes this might be something material: getting someone to help me hang curtains, or move furniture, or cook. A lot of the time, though, these needs are far more abstract: someone to cheer me on, someone to ask what’s wrong, someone to say nothing, just hug and briefly make the world feel like a less shitty place.

Poly communication–at least, of the kind promulgated by a lot of the guides to poly–is somewhat individualistic. When we need something, the model goes like this: we work out what we want, we sit down with our partners, we say “I need X”, and then we have a conversation about it and hopefully everyone goes away happy and fulfilled and that need is incorporated into the relationships.

The thing is, that doesn’t work for me. It rests on a number of things that can’t necessarily work it out for me. Firstly, I am fairly inarticulate, particularly when I’m distressed. When something’s wrong, I’m not always capable of finding the words, any words. So I’ll pretend I’m perfectly OK with varying degrees of success, or do an awkward thing where I cry everywhere which I often think is uncomfortable for everyone, except actually those who I love and trust are pretty cool with that.

Also, my needs are fairly fluid and moment-to-moment. The people who write the poly manuals and run the workshops tend to be fairly privileged. They are often economically stable and have access to decent treatment for the problems they face. So problems take the form of “I’d like to see more of you.” “Sometimes I feel like your new relationship with so-and-so is eclipsing ours and I need to feel like I still matter to you.” And so on. These are important issues, which matter for sustaining relationships, but they’re not the sort of things I need.

Finally, this mode of communication sometimes doesn’t sit well with me. In the past, I’ve had relationships with people who are very articulate and capable of doing the old “I need XYZ”. And it kind of backs me into a corner. Because I’m not so good at saying “I can’t do that”, I end up being cornered into doing things I don’t want to do, or I cannot. It all sounds reasonable to me, the way it’s put, and I want to do it. I acquiesce, and when I inevitably completely fail at managing to do what I agreed to, they are cross with me for agreeing in the first place, and I should have said something earlier.

I need people who can be constant sources of support in ways that I cannot articulate or explain. I need people who can proactively check in occasionally. I need people who don’t treat me like I’m made of glass, but can have whole conversations that to an outside observer would sound like a banal exchange between strangers, when it is in fact vital me-maintenance. I don’t have the energy to have long conversations about every little thing that crops up that I might need to deal with. I just need things moment-by-moment. The same is true for those I love and trust. We’re crawling in the dark, and we found each other.

One day, perhaps, when my life is sorted, I might find myself in a position to be able to have the long conversations about the relationship detail as my needs shift up the pyramid. For now, I do what I can, and the love I have enhances my life.


Poly Means Many: The sweet shop of terrible ideas

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 can be found at polymeansmany.com

This month’s topic is Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO as basically everyone says. I struggled to think what to write about for a while, as it was a thing I wasn’t sure if I’d actually experienced or not. I’ve always been kind of “yay, my partners are happy and I didn’t even need to do anything to make that happen”. So I suppose I wondered if I should sit this one out, as apparently I don’t experience this big thing which poly people are supposed to experience.

Then I remembered that fuck it, Poly Means Many. And I do get this feeling–it manifests differently, perhaps, but it is definitely a fear of missing out.

When I first started doing poly, I was like a kid in a sweet shop. Not one of the well-behaved ones, but one of the ones who eats everything and ends up on a sugar high and then eats more sweeties and then is sick everywhere. In short, I didn’t want to miss a thing. I wanted to be everywhere, do everything (and everyone). I’d tear around like a tornado of sexual energy, not go home for days at a time because I was too busy with… actually probably making some terrible decisions.

See, during that time, I don’t think I ever said no to anything. I ended up doing a lot of stuff which was actually pretty terrible for me. I had sex I didn’t want, I ended up in relationships I wasn’t particularly sure about, and to say I burnt the candle at both ends is a bit of an understatement. I let a lot of people down, because it turns out it’s physically impossible to be in about eight places at once.

The reason I did all of this was because I was afraid that if I didn’t seize every opportunity as it appeared, it would be gone. I feared that there might be some sort of expiry date on human contact and so I had best enjoy it while it was fresh. I was scared of missing out by not doing everything immediately.

I was lucky, I suppose, that my FOMO didn’t lead to any life-alteringly drastically bad consequences. I pursued a lot of thoroughly awful ideas at that time.

I finally got over it. I realised that I didn’t have to do everything all at once. That this lovely sweet shop I found would stay open, and if I didn’t cram everything into my ravenous face-hole all at once, I’d enjoy it far more. I would miss out on precisely nothing by putting my own needs and self-care first.

Sometimes the feeling rears its head again, and I’m not going to pretend that I magically started making excellent decisions after all of this. Hell, I still make highly questionable choices from time to time. The difference is I’m aware now of precisely why I’m doing it, and I’m much, much better at not making a hot mess of my silly, silly life. I feel more secure in myself, and in my relationships with others, which helps me negotiate and meet my own needs.

I know I’m not going to miss out. I feel it most of the time. And now, at least, I’m starting to learn what to do with the feelings when they skew the other way.


Poly Means Many: Consent, negotiation, and group dynamics

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 can be found at polymeansmany.com

This month’s PMM topic is “negotiation”, which is so broad I’ll admit to having had trouble with where to start, what with having the material for approximately nineteen sextillion blogposts and a million bajillion conversations swimming round my head. And even though a lot of the PMM bloggers are taking this month off due to IRL things, I really don’t feel like I ought to subject you to every little thought rattling around my brainspace, because you will probably die of boredom before finishing, and my fingers will have worn down to little stubs from all the typing. So, I’m focusing on a small area, one which people have asked me about before, and of which I’ve had both positive and negative experiences.

There has been a hell of a lot of discussion and modelling of consent and negotiation within relationships–however fleeting–between two people, but we don’t talk so much about what happens when there are more than two present. Decades of social psychological research have shown us that weird shit tends to happen in groups of people, and the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts.

So how does negotiation of sex and relationships with several people together work? It’s easiest to look at potential pitfalls here to elucidate what makes things work.

In my experience, one of the biggest problems is that group dynamics can create an environment wherein it is very difficult to say no. When several people are up for sex, and your options are participate or go and wait in the kitchen until they’re finished, one often finds oneself taking the path of least resistance. This has actually happened to me once; I went and sat in the kitchen, that time, and smoked a lot of fags and felt like shit, but there have been other times when I have ended up involved in sex I didn’t want–and, indeed, I cannot say for certain that everyone was as up for a shag as I was, in certain situations before I figured out how to make shit work.

This sort of thing, the nagging concern that someone is just going along with stuff goes way beyond the bedroom.

So how do we solve this sort of problem? First and foremost is, of course, communication which goes beyond saying “I’m not OK”, and into actually checking in with people. This is all useless, though, without striving to make your relationships–of any sort–a safe space. It is not enough to say the words, it is necessary to foster a feeling of trust and security, an idea that it is OK to not be OK with something.

Without this ability to make yourself a safe space, negotiation is never going to work particularly well in any situation. It makes it hard to be honest, and it makes it hard to express non-consent. It stings to hear that no, and sometimes it does feel easier to send someone down to the kitchen, but it is absolutely vital that we make this happen.

From here, it is possible to build an inventory of how the dynamics work, an identification of what makes everyone involved happy, and what doesn’t.

The interesting thing here is that while I was focusing on group dynamics, I realised how much all of this applies when there are just two people present, too. So, I suppose, let’s all buck the hell up and make sure we’re safe.