With This Ring – What Marriage Means to Me as a Polyamorist

This blog was originally posted in Life on the Swingset on November 28, 2012.

I went to therapy for the first time last week. Between the recent breakup with my (our) girlfriend, and general marital stresses at home, it was time to find someone to vent on that would actually be able to help, instead of just thoughtfully nodding at me and offering hugs. Not that I don’t like hugs.

One of the questions that my new, delightful, poly-friendly therapist posed to me was about marriage. We were discussing commitment, and she asked what marriage meant to me in terms of commitment, and how it’s different from a long-term boyfriend/girlfriend type of relationship.

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Here’s me, playing with my dress on my wedding day. Photo by Brenda Sandhouse.

This is actually a pretty poignant and pertinent question for me, especially because I’ve seen so many people that seem to be on board with polyamory or open relationships, until marriage becomes a question. In an online article about an open marriage, I read a horribly vindictive comment that basically said “Sure, it’s great to fuck around when you’re young, but once you get married, it means you need to be monogamous forever.” Worse, we encountered a similar sentiment in real life with the parents of one of the girls in my constellation. My husband had to deal with his girlfriend’s dad basically treating him like a confused frat boy. His sentiment was that you know, it’s great that you can get this many girls to fall in love with you, but you’re married now. Stop that. He treated the idea of multiple partners as a great thing for a young man that wants to sow his wild oats, but that’s all. So my husband’s girlfriend’s father is now treating her like a homewrecker, and is concerned on my behalf for my marriage – mind you, I’ve never met this man.

So, no. Marriage does not mean it’s time to sever all the polyamorous connections and commit to monogamy with my one and only. Pardon my severity, monogamous folks, but that’s stupid. If I wanted to be monogamous, I would be monogamous with my boyfriend or girlfriend just the same as my husband or wife. I want to be polyamorous, and therefore I will do so with my boyfriend or girlfriend just the same as my husband or wife. Which brings up another issue I’ve come up against. I’ve heard a lot of people – poly folks included! – who have assumed marriage is off the table with any new partners because they’re already married. Yes, it’s true, unless we all move to Northern Africa or Southeast Asia, we can’t be legally polygamous. Sad, but true. But just speaking for myself, I don’t need the government to rubber-stamp my marriage in order for me to consider myself married. I am legally married to my husband, but personally that part of the marriage was primarily to make our financial lives easier. We’re now able to be on the same health insurance, and I think both our credit scores got a little better. We file our taxes together – by which I mean he does it for us, so big win for me. But I didn’t need the government to tell me when I was married – I just needed them to give me permission to do all those annoying money things. This means that I am open to the idea of being married again. It hasn’t come up, but it is hypothetically an option.

Ok, I hear all your frustrated sighs, enough stalling and explaining what marriage does NOT mean to me. What marriage does mean to me, is that if I decide to marry someone, I’m choosing them forever. I know, in the world of the 50% divorce rate, that doesn’t seem to be what marriage is about anymore. The fact that the phrase “starter marriage” even exists is evidence of that. Polyamory may have scrapped a lot of the terminology of the standard wedding ceremony (“forsaking all others,” for example), but I hold strongly to the “’til death to us part” portion. A wedding, to me, is a promise made among people in the witness of family, friends, and your optional deity of choice, that no matter what happens, that relationship will survive. My husband and I promised each other that we are committed to each other for the rest of our lives, and not just because we’ve legally tethered ourselves together. To me, the difference between being “partners,” “together,” “in a relationship,” etc, and being “married,” is the promise of forever.

That’s my easy definition, now let’s throw a kink in it, because my constellation are a bunch of kinky bastards. I’m gonna talk about my boyfriend. He’s got two ex-wives under his belt, and as

such will not get married again. Period. Hard limit. And we accepted that as part of the deal when we got together. The question – and fear – that boundary raised in me was about how much he was willing to commit to a relationship. Based on my personal definition of marriage, “never getting married” meant “never making promises.” It meant forever wasn’t an option. But the world doesn’t operate on my definitions of things. So when he told me he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me, I started doing some hard thinking. Once again, I do not have a gift-wrapped platitude to close with, because life doesn’t come with those. But I am reconsidering the meaning of commitment, within marriage and outside of it. The one thing that is certain about polyamory is that you have to let your definitions be fluid. All of them.

Shit’s Different: Another Take on Jealousy in Polyamory

This blog was originally posted in Life on the Swingset on January 31, 2o12.

I go to trivia pretty frequently. At the venue where I play trivia, the rules change halfway through the game. Our host, as we get into the new round, reminds us every week that “Shit’s different, pay attention.”

I’m telling you this because I’m using it as a metaphor for my poly life. Yes, really.

One of the most common questions that gets thrown out into the ether by people entering the world of non-monogamy, is “How do you deal with jealousy?” This is a totally valid and important question, but it’s also important to remember that jealousy is a different animal in a polyamorous relationship than in a monogamous one.

I recently explained my feelings on jealousy in one of my family’s non-monogamy discussion groups. My step-husband-in-law (or “metamour,” for those of you who prefer fancy terminology) said it was one of the best explanations he has ever heard, so I thought I may be on to something worth sharing. Here’s my take. In a monogamous relationship, if I am jealous of someone, it is because I believe my partner is interested in that person and therefore might leave me. If I am not in a monogamous relationship, if my partner is interested in someone else, he will pursue her, maybe date her and he will not leave me. I am free from the fear that my husband’s romantic involvement with someone new will necessitate the end of our marriage.

This does not mean that there is no jealousy in polyamorous relationships. If it weren’t utterly gauche I would put that sentence in enormous red text. I’m not trying to tell anyone that poly relationships are jealousy-free. I’m also not saying that some people don’t fear abandonment within their poly relationships. I’m just saying that shit’s different. So. Disclaimer done, back to me.

I don’t get jealous.

Yep, I just said that. Really.

Please don’t start throwing things at me yet.

Here’s the thing about jealousy. Jealousy is all about fear. It’s about being afraid of losing your partner to someone else. I experience a lot of challenging negative emotions, ones that are often mis-diagnosed as jealousy, but what I don’t feel is fear. What I do experience are insecurity, loneliness, and envy. These feelings are easily confused with jealousy, because they arise at similar times.

For example, when my husband is on a date with someone, and I have no plans, I might feel loneliness. If he’s met a new girl, and she’s especially beautiful, I’ll feel insecure. If we’re at a party, and he’s getting lots of attention and flirtation, I may be envious. But none of those things are jealousy, because they do not come with the fear that my husband will leave me.

This is the reason that jealousy in others confuses me. Oh wait, I haven’t told you that yet. Here’s another tidbit about me and why I’m abnormal – and, I think, wired for the non-monogamous life. I don’t understand why people get jealous as often as they do, and I have a hard time communicating and empathizing with a person experiencing jealousy. I’m unable to relate to an irrational fear of abandonment, because I don’t experience it myself.

You could argue that it has to do with my parents not getting divorced when I was young, or some other fascinating thing about my childhood, but the fact is, when someone tells me that s/he is going to stick around I believe it. I don’t worry that abandonment will come out of the blue – that one day my spouse will up and leave unexpectedly. And so when he does meet a new girl, or spends a lot of time flirting with someone, it doesn’t cause fear. Therefore, when I see jealousy in someone else whose relationship is apparently stable, my reaction is confusion. I want to help and sympathise, but I simply don’t get it.

“My partner is interested in someone new and that fact in and of itself is upsetting to me,” is a sentiment I have no way of mentally processing.

Change the motivation, replace it with something concrete, and I am totally there. Sympathy hat is on.

“My partner is interested in someone new and my belief that she is prettier than me is upsetting to me.” Yep, all over that.

“My partner is interested in someone new and the fact that he forgets to do things with me because he is spending time with her is upsetting to me.” Hoo boy. Totally with you there.

You get the idea. So when I say I don’t get jealous, I don’t want to feel like I’m telling the world I’m the magical poly-fairy who never has negative emotional reactions to her life. What I am saying is that I feel a degree of safety in polyamory that I don’t believe I could have in a monogamous relationship. In my relationship, as it is, the only people who can end it are myself and my husband. His romantic and sexual feelings for other women do not threaten the security of our relationship because they can exist alongside it. If we were monogamous, I would fear the “other woman.” I would be afraid that someone better than me could come along and take him from me. But why would my husband leave me for another woman if he can be with me, and with her?

This does go both ways, by the way. My own wandering heart and libido used to scare me. When I was in a monogamous relationship, the flutters of attraction always came with a sickness in my stomach, a fear that I would cheat or that I would ruin my existing relationship by getting interested in someone new. But I am interested in someone new all the time. And when I love someone, I don’t want to wander off to the new thing at the expense of my love. That’s silly.

So, back to the real moral of the story: shit’s different. My mind has wandered all over this page so I’ll try to sum this up as succinctly as possible.

Jealousy is the fear that my partner’s romantic/sexual interest in a new person will cause my partner to leave me.

In a monogamous relationship, overcoming jealousy involves establishing complete trust that my partner will never develop an interest in a new person to a level that would violate the boundaries of monogamy and thus necessitate the end of the relationship.

In a polyamorous relationship, overcoming jealousy involves the (much simpler, I believe) process of accepting that my partner’s new romantic/sexual interest is not a reflection on the state of our relationship and can exist independently from it.

The Rules – Constant Communication in Polyamorous Relationships

This blog was originally posted in Life on the Swingset on June 19, 2012.

I live by two non-negotiable rules in my relationships, which are the foundation for my sense of security and trust with any other human being and the starting point from which all other relationship boundaries are built. The rules are, “Talk about everything, all the time,” and “No surprises.” The first rule is the most important, as the second is something of an offshoot from it, but these are the standards to which I hold myself and the people with whom I surround myself.

Talk about everything, all the time. This sounds like the simple answer that is always given when someone is offering relationship advice. “Talk to your partner!” “Communicate!” In a way, yes, that is what it is. But this rule is a lot more than that. I apply my rules not only to my romantic partners, but to anyone in my life whose opinion and trust are valuable to me. When I say, “talk about everything, all the time,” I really mean that I want to know everything. Not all news is good news, and not all bad news has a solution, but allowing anything to go unsaid leads to secrets and, potentially, lies.

Rather than vague admonitions, I’ll offer you an example. In my previous post regarding grey areas of affection, I referenced a person in my life who falls into a nebulous category. He is in a monogamous marriage, but he and I share an acknowledged chemistry which we play upon to our mutual advantage. From a certain perspective, a person might argue that it would have been wiser for us to leave any attraction or interest unspoken, because to mention it is acknowledging its existence and asking for trouble for the person in the monogamous situation. My counter-argument is that to leave the attraction unspoken and “understood” is first off assuming that both people understand what’s going on, which is not necessarily true. Second, to avoid that conversation prevents an honest and useful discourse regarding the emotional and physical boundaries of the relationship. Relationship boundaries are tailored to the people involved, and if two people aren’t fully honest with each other, they can’t set boundaries that will keep them both emotionally satisfied and secure.

I once heard a person in a monogamous relationship say that she felt betrayed by a partner’s interest in someone new not when that emotional attachment occurred, but when it was acknowledged. Her partner told his outside interest that he had feelings for her, they discussed it, and accepted that it was mutual but couldn’t lead anywhere. His partner felt that if he had said nothing to this girl, she would not have felt betrayed by him, because to express the emotion makes it somehow more real. I can understand the visceral, emotional urges that make this sound like a really good idea. If he hadn’t told her, then they could just keep being friends and pretend like nothing was between them. The trouble with pretending, though, is that it’s a whole lot like lying. While this guy’s girlfriend might have felt more secure if he kept his outside feelings a secret, he would have been betraying his friend by concealing his true feelings for her. How we treat our friends is based on how we feel about them. That sounds incredibly obvious and inane, but if we aren’t honest about how we feel about one another, we can’t develop legitimate relationships. Imagine the opposite – if a friend secretly despised me, that would have to come to light or our relationship would be poisonous.

Another issue that I find disconcerting is the idea of leaving something unspoken and understood. This idea is that you and another person both know something about your feelings toward one another, but you intentionally don’t address it directly. I refuse to leave anything “understood” between myself an a person that I care about. I am easily confused and misled by subtlety, and I would rather be utterly gauche with my bluntness than misunderstand someone’s intentions. I have often said that I would be much happier if a person who is interested in me would simply state it point-blank to my face than try to hit on me, gauge my reactions, and move slowly. This is because I will assume that everyone falls slightly on the positive side of neutral in their feelings toward me unless I am explicitly told otherwise. This means hitting on me is a generally ineffective strategy. The end result on more than one occasion has been that a person assumed I had no interest and moved on, when in fact I had no idea what was really going on. This is a frustrating problem that is, I think, incredibly easy to alleviate.

Talking about everything all the time is also the best way to implement the “no surprises” rule. I have shared quite a few details with my partners that have, in retrospect, turned out to be trivial, because I am trying to stave off the possibility of a surprise in the future. For example, if I’ve been flirting with someone but I’m not sure if real mutual interest will develop, I still tell my partners about it. Because I think they would rather know about flirting that doesn’t lead anywhere than have the reverse happen: Surprise! So-and-so asked me out, or so-and-so and I made out at the bar last night. When I used to maintain an online dating profile, I would tell my husband about anyone who I exchanged more than two or three messages with. The vast majority of them came to nothing, but I would rather be overly cautious. Unexpected changes seriously mess with my comfort level, so I do my best to avoid pushing them onto anyone else, and I expect the people around me to do the same. While my partners have the right to seek both physical and emotional relationships with anyone they deem worthy, if I were to find out after the fact that one of them had a sexual encounter that I had no forewarning of, I would be devastated. If a person I considered a close friend revealed that they had an emotional or sexual attraction to me that I was not made aware of, I would be offended. Surprises are never good for me.

With the exception of presents, presents are good.

Privacy in Polyamory – I love you, Please go away

This blog was originally posted in Life on the Swingset on April 11, 2012.

I am a people person. While I wouldn’t quite call myself an extrovert (I hate strangers and get anxious in crowds) I am the sort of girl who is happiest when I’m surrounded by people who I care about. When given the option of going home for a quiet evening alone or going out to the bar with friends after work, I’m at the bar every time.

That said, there are a handful of things in life that I really prefer to do alone. And because my significant others and I work opposing schedules, I typically have about three hours of alone-time during the afternoon every day when I can take care of my alone-time activities. I didn’t really think much about how valuable that time was until the past few days, when my husband has been working from home and suddenly I found myself in the presence of at least one other person at all times, for a span of almost a week.

My husband’s girlfriend said to me once, after a particularly long and busy stretch of days, that she wished she could find time in her life when she wasn’t around anyone she’s sleeping with. I’ve got a pretty solid late-night social life after all my partners are abed, so I’m pretty lucky in that respect. I do get time with my friends. When schedules are normal, I’d say I get a pretty good division of time among complete solitude, partner-time, and social-time. This has just been an abnormal week for my husband’s work schedule that threw a kink in my routine.

As I was getting frustrated with this problem, I decided to ask my step-husband-in-law for his input, because he not only has multiple significant others, but also young children. He told me that he makes a point of spending some time alone every day in his “man-cave,” but that he almost never gets the house entirely to himself. That made me feel a little guilty for complaining about my one week of getting peopled out, but at the same time I realized that our home really doesn’t accommodate privacy very well. Especially for the sorts of things that I like to be private.

To be specific, in polyamory, I live with my husband and his girlfriend. We have one bedroom with one bed, and we have an office with all three of our computers in it. There is a door to our bedroom, as there ought to be, but our office is a pass-through for the rest of the apartment. This means that if other people are at home, computer time is not private time, and really can’t be without inconveniencing the rest of the household. “I’m sorry, you can’t walk from the living room to the bedroom because I want to be left alone in the office,” is not a terribly practical request.

I am a nervous writer. If I feel like someone might look over and say, “Hey, whatcha working on?” I can’t focus. I can’t deal with people looking at anything I’m working on before it’s finished. My computer is a desktop, so sadly I can’t just retreat to a room with a door and work with my computer in my lap. It’s the desk or nothing.

More importantly, I like to masturbate. I don’t care how many sexual partners I have, how often we have wild orgasmic sex, or how satisfying they are, I like the release that comes from solo sex. I suffer from performance anxiety, and that occasionally spills over into my sex life. Masturbation is important to me, because it’s completely pressure-free. The only person I need to please is myself. I don’t have to be aesthetically pleasing, I don’t have to be especially loud or quiet or quick or slow. I can just get what feels good. Even if I were to close myself in the bedroom, solo sex is a little less solo when there’s someone home to hear my orgasm noises. Obviously I have no shame in my husband hearing my orgasm noises, but it seems a little mean to not invite him to the party.

To bring this back to the “man-cave” and at-home privacy, I am hoping that when we furnish our second bedroom, we will be able to turn it into a sanctuary and escape when one of us wants to get away. Currently that room is a big pile of boxes, but to be fair we’ve only been in our current home for about six weeks. Eventually it will get cleaned up and made into an actual bedroom, and any of us can use it as a personal getaway. Maybe I’ll find a keyboard for my tablet and be able to write more portably. This is an optimistic idea.

Rings and Conversation – Polyamory, Flirting, & Wedding Rings

This blog was originally posted on Life on the Swingset on January 17, 2012.

Allow me to preface by saying that I am terrible at flirting. I am almost always oblivious to the fact that I am being flirted with, and my idea of showing that I am interested in someone is hiding from them and failing to make eye contact. So any ideas about flirting and sparking conversation that I present should be taken with that in mind.

It occurred to me today – well, many times, but I only dwelled enough on the subject to write about it today – that the wedding ring, which once was the universal sign for, “Don’t even try to flirt with me.” has lost that aspect of its meaning in my life. How many people do we know who are happily married and also romantically available? I am on that list.

The wedding ring used to tell me that a person was off-limits – though, truly, even before I entered into a poly lifestyle that meaning was one I imposed. The fact that I was not poly at the time didn’t say anything about the person wearing the ring. The strange thing is, I still do the glance for a ring when I see someone attractive, even though I am both married and available. It’s an odd impulse. Even though I am not monogamous myself, I seem to subconsciously anticipate monogamy in others.

Also, as a poly person, I find the transition from small-talk to, “I think you’re hot and we should totally do stuff.” to be more difficult to maneuver, even in the absence of a ring. Monogamous folks have a whole stash of easy lines, like, “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?” I would feel more than a little forward (and ridiculous) with a line like, “Are you in a monogamous relationship?” Or, “Oh, you do have a girlfriend/boyfriend? Are you set on having just one?” Doesn’t really work so well. I’m downright awful at flirting to begin with. This just compounds the issue. Especially if someone goes for the, “So, are you married?” line and I have to counter with “Yes, but that’s no reason you should give up,” or try to fit a mention of my husband’s girlfriend into the conversation as a hint. Not easy.

For instance, I had been recently crushing on a regular customer at my job. I was certain that he was married, as he often comes in with his wife. I work at a sex-positive cafe, so expectations of monogamy are lower in my workplace than they are in the outside world, but I didn’t know how to find out. It took me several months of small talk from behind the counter to discern that yes, in fact, they are monogamous, so I should drop my interest and move on. That left me in a long-term emotional limbo that I didn’t especially enjoy.

I wish I could say I learned something through this experience, and that next time I will know just what to do differently to avoid that discomfort. I can’t say that. Next time I meet someone attractive, I will go through this exact same process all over again. Maybe eventually I will uncover the secret to learning whether someone is monogamous without making myself look like a creeper. When I do, I promise I’ll write it on a big banner and show it to everyone I know.