September 29, 2012 by aggiesez
“Metamour” is an especially weird bit of poly-speak. But still, I think it’s a surprisingly useful and important term…
NOTE: This is one of a series of posts where I define how I’m using some key relationship terms in this blog. Other people may use these terms in other ways, but I’m trying to be clear and consistent in this context.
New words, even awkward or silly-sounding ones, make the most sense when you need to discuss something that isn’t supposed to exist (or at least, not be visible) in common society.
In our culture, where monogamy is a dominant paradigm (as well as a strongly held and emotionally charged common assumption and value), you’re only supposed to have “serious” intimate relationships with one person at a time. If no one’s allowed to have more than one serious partner, there’s no need for a word for additional relationships.
All the terms we have for stepping outside that norm are negative or trivializing: cheating, fooling around, messing around, playing the field, two-timing, commitment-phobic, womanizing, philandering, etc.
For polyamorous and open people, these word choices all suck. Which is why we say “polyamory” and “open” in the first place: they’re positive, descriptive terms, not defined by lack or implying aberrance or judgement.
Metamour: A person who is in an intimate (romantic or sexual) relationship with an intimate partner of yours.
That’s the basic description — but the metamour concept has a ton of important implications.
Once you’ve wrapped your head around the idea that it’s possible and OK to have more than one intimate relationship at a time, you come across a huge monogamy-paradigm disruptor: Poly/open relationships are about sharing — especially sharing information and engaging in direct communication. They’re not usually about managing secrets or firewalling information.
What distinguishes polyamory from more conventional relationship styles is not just that multiple partners are involved, but that these networks of overlapping intimate relationships are fully honest and consensual. This means everyone involved knows about everyone else involved, and consents to this arrangement.
This information-sharing goes beyond a cursory admission, “I’m fucking someone else,” and maybe giving a name — something common in “permission slip” or “don’t ask, don’t tell” monogamish relationships.
In poly and open relationships, the people involved typically all know each other — at least, for relationships that have been going on for a while and have become emotionally invested. They’ve met, have spoken, hopefully get along reasonably well, and probably even know how to contact each other directly. This can be great in an emergency, but it also is often a good, useful, and even mundane part of everyday life for poly folk.
…At this point in the discussion, people from mono-land tend to leap to extreme conclusions about how poly people relate to each other. Reality check: It’s not that everyone in a poly network of overlapping relationships needs or wants to profess mutual love, leap into bed together for hot tantric orgies, or move in to become one big family sleeping in a California King. In fact, those situations are fairly rare in the poly community.
Still, the kind of honesty that’s the hallmark of polyamory means that even if your various partners aren’t intimate with each other, they still have a connection with each other. And that’s not just because they’re both boinking you. Get this: their connection isn’t all about you! It’s about how they affect and relate to each other directly — and how they each influence their respective relationships with you.
Simply by existing, metamours affect the amount of available time and attention. They’re part of the overall emotional climate and interpersonal dynamic. They sometimes click well with each other, or not, but as with any adult relationships generally things work better if metamours can communicate and get along well enough to address issues before they fester into crises. Metamours also can be a resource for various kinds of support — they’re not just a “cost,” they’re a potential benefit as well.
Simply referring to “my partner’s other lovers” isn’t incorrect, but it fails to get to the heart of the issue. Such verbal gymnastics say more about distance than connection. It distracts from the link that exists between two or more people who have something pretty important in common, and who are usually involved in each other’s lives — at least to some extent, directly or indirectly, and whether they acknowledge or want it or not.
That’s where “metamour” becomes a handy word:
- The “mour” part denotes love or intimacy — like “paramour” or “that’s amoré!”
- “Meta” denotes a broader perspective, a systems view that takes more than just a dyad (the atomic unit of interpersonal relationships) into account.
In my experience, this core concept baffles and freaks out a lot of monogamous (or ostensibly monogamous) people. Often they’re philosophically okay with the idea that someone might have more than one intimate relationship going on, and that this might be “allowed” and honest. But the idea that your various partners might actually know each other, and communicate directly, maybe about you?!?! That you might be expected to not just acknowledge the existence or presence of the guy your wife is fucking — but maybe also coordinate schedules, or buy him a beer, or even drop him off at work in the morning sometimes? And that other people might see that your partner doesn’t just have a disposable piece on the side, but an actual relationship with someone else — and you’re enough of a doormat to be OK with that?
Or — scariest of all — all of you might be expected to sit down together to negotiate a solution to an emotionally thorny situation, like one of you is insecure or jealous?…
It’s precisely this lack of secrecy and compartmentalization, with the potential for direct interaction and changes to how an established couple gets perceived, that tends to make mono people shudder. Healthy poly relationships don’t constantly reinforce the assumption that only one relationship can be “legitimate” or “real.” Even if the relationships aren’t all equal, by mutual agreement (which is common in polyamory). Also, the presumption of consideration, coordination, negotiation and collaboration among metamours seems invasive or demeaning to many monogamous and monogamish people.
Here’s another reality check: Even mono people know that monogamy usually isn’t what it purports to be. We all know people who claim to be (or pose as) monogamous, while engaging in other intimate or sexual connections more or less “on the down low.” These range from webcam or phone sex, to hiring sex workers, to sporadic secret makeouts and hookups, to ongoing affairs, to serial-monogamy transitional cheating, to full-on additional households and families.
But such connections are uniformly presumed to be wrong, or trivial. Also, only the person in the middle is supposed to acknowledge what’s going on and handle communication with everyone — his or her existing partner is supposed to be able to ignore the additional relationships, and certainly never have to take them into consideration in a positive, respectful way.
Metamour connections have always existed in mono-land; they’re just almost always terribly dysfunctional and destructive.
In monogamous culture, if metamours know (or at least know about) each other, and if they encounter each other, they typically assume a stance of strong hierarchy and even emnity. Such knowledge and encounters are generally taken as an excuse for horrible behavior: jealous rages, physical assaults, breaking stuff, abandonment, abuse, cold silence, sexual rejection, cutting sarcasm, shunning, backstabbing, humiliation, aggressive competition, ridicule, blame, accusations, crying jags, drinking binges, storming out, moving out, hysterical phone calls, clinginess, revenge, and more.
After all, that’s how “love triangles” always work out in the movies. The inevitable “winners” and “losers” get sorted out by the closing credits — usually with the “invader” vanquished and repudiated.
Hint: movies thrive on drama. That’s the point. What makes for engaging stories tends to make for crappy life and miserable relationships. If you model your life goals and behavior on TV and movies, expect lots of drama and disappointment — with no convenient fade-to-black or exultant theme music crescendo.
…Anyway, the metamour concept is just a shorthand way to describe people in a network of overlapping significant intimate relationships. They may be good friends and consider each other family. More typically in poly relationships metamours are (or try to be) mutually respectful, considerate, and supportive. Or they may merely be sociable, civil, and tolerant — especially if some of the relationships are very new or far less emotionally invested. In some bad situations poly metamours may dislike, compete with, sabotage or veto each other. We’re not angels.
But even if they don’t specifically know each other, or know about each other: metamours are still metamours. They exist in that shared context. Ignoring that relationship doesn’t make it disappear. Just like siblings who don’t talk are still siblings — but their refusal to interact makes for some very awkward weddings and funerals.
Not everyone in the poly/open community is comfortable with the term, or concept, of metamours. A few people in these communities think that the way poly folk typically handle metamour relationships tends to be somewhat coercive. (Note: I edited that last sentence after some feedback from the author of the post I’ve linked to, which is worth reading.)
Also, some people who consider and call themselves open or poly get really squeamish about dealing considerately with metamours. Unfortunately I’ve had personal experience with this, in more than one long-term poly relationship. In fact, it was a key factor in my recent breakup with my boyfriend of over three years. That was a damn shame, and probably could have been avoided (or at least that relationship could ended on better terms) had his spouse and he both been willing to sit down and talk with me to negotiate mutually acceptable solutions to some issues we faced.
On a related note: The two times I dated ostensibly mono men, who both claimed (to a point) to be accepting of my polyamory, they both also complained loudly that they felt they were being “forced to have a relationship with” my existing partner at the time. Obviously those guys were not suitable partners for me, and they quickly revealed themselves as such once our relationships progressed beyond the initial phase. Also, I didn’t “force” them into anything; I simply refused to pretend with them that my pre-existing partners didn’t exist. The fact that I was unwilling to lie to them in order to protect their comfort zone made them profoundly uncomfortable.
Those experiences sucked. Still, I can understand the common discomfort — among monogamous and many poly/open people — with taking metamours into consideration and dealing with them respectfully.
We have all been raised in a culture that prizes couples; where both men and women are taught to tie our sense of self-worth to whether we have a life partner. That’s a big reason why so many people who have the means to support themselves often cling beyond all reason to marriages and other significant relationships that are demonstrably toxic. Having a publicly visible primary partner “validates” you as an adult in the eyes of society. It “proves” that you’re capable of commitment. And it “proves” that you’re valuable and desirable.
The fear of being unpartnered — and especially the fear of being judged by others for being unpartnered — is valid. If you are an adult beyond the age of about 30, and if you don’t have (and especially if you aren’t obviously seeking) a primary partner, people will probably judge you for that:
- You won’t get invited to as many “couple” events, like dinner parties.
- You’ll have awkward conversations where people first assume you must have or want a primary partner — and then they feel sorry for you or maybe treat you as a potential threat when they see you’re off the relationship escalator.
- People may hint that perhaps you’re not such a good parent.
- People may give you backhanded compliments about your “freewheeling lifestyle.”
- You may face discrimination when trying to get management-level jobs.
- You may face discrimination in housing or lending.
- Your family might make you sleep in a cot in the laundry room when everyone’s in town for the holidays. (No kidding, that happened to a single mono friend of mine!)
The more I think about it, it seems that maybe the point of monogamous culture isn’t so much about who does or doesn’t get to sleep with whom, but rather who gets to be perceived as a couple – and thus garner all the perks (personal and social) conferred by publicly visible couplehood.
This may be why “cheating” is common, acknowledged and quasi-accepted in mainstream culture (although it’s vilified), while metamours have been largely invisible and thus ignored. (Hell, we didn’t have a word for them, so how could they exist?)
Maintaining good metamour relations inevitably entails giving up at least some couple privilege – or at least the default trump card of unconditionally being your partner’s sole or top priority in every situation and decision. Some people view this purely as a sacrifice. They can’t, or won’t, see the benefits that metamours can add to their life, and to their relationships.
Even worse: In the poly community — where egalitarian relationship values are commonly touted — active and passive resistance to walking the talk about treating metamours with respect and consideration turns many otherwise cool poly folk into blatant hypocrites.
Again, everything I’ve said here is from my perspective only, to clarify how I’m using this term. Your mileage, as always, may vary.
What’s your take on metamours? Do you find it to be a useful concept, and word? How do you use it — or do you prefer other language? Please comment below.