What’s a metamour? On my terms


September 29, 2012 by aggiesez

optical illusion?

The “metamour” concept is like the vase in this picture. Don’t see the vase? Only see the faces? That’s the problem I’m talking about!

“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.

“OMG! I might have to SEE her? TALK to her? Be NICE to her?”

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.

“Death Becomes Her” — Bad lessons from a 1992 dark comedy about metamour relations…

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.

22 thoughts on “What’s a metamour? On my terms

  1. maymayay says:

    If your conclusion from reading my post is that I “think [the term metamours is] actually a problem — coercive rather than consensual,” I don’t really know what else to say except to encourage you to try re-reading my post. But I’ll try to clarify.

    My reading of this post makes me believe you are implying that I believe the term itself is not useful, or is itself not worth having around. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

    In actuality, what I was talking about was the cultural script prevalent in The Polyamory Community that dictates how metamours should behave toward one another. That is the problem.

    In an overwhelming number of self-described polyamorous relationships, there exists a dyad (a couple) that has immense privilege and power over the couple’s metamours. Most polyamorous don’t understand and don’t like to confront the fact that this couple privilege permeates their lives and even their community’s discourse to the point that it causes extreme emotional despair and pain among people who the poly community calls “secondaries.”

    This is an artifact of oppression culture and it exists, largely unacknowledged, even proudly supported, in polyamorous communities. I find that disgusting.

    It is often explained away by poly-community apologists who use the idea that metamours “should” know and be nice to each other and what have you to diminish, silence, and excuse oppressive behaviors of a couple that hurt “secondaries.” They do this primarily by using the word “metamour” to convince people how to behave, rather than using the word simply to mean a relational position of two people in a network.

    That is the problem my speech highlights.

    I hope this clarifies your apparent confusion.

    • aggiesez says:

      Hi Maymay. Thanks for attempting to clarify, but I still find your line of reasoning a bit hard to follow.

      One the one hand, you seem to be saying that people in poly relationships are first and foremost individuals who deserve respect and consideration. I agree with that wholeheartedly.

      On the other hand, you also seem to be saying that when poly people are expected to treat their metamours with respect and consideration, to basically let got of couple privilege, you seem to be saying that’s somehow coercive, setting up metamourhood as an inflexible “institution.” I don’t quite get that part.

      I suspect we’re probably mostly in agreement, we’re just talking past each other a bit.

      The reason I included my link to your post was excerpts like this:

      “If we succumb to contemporary polyamory rhetoric, in which “metamour” carries all kinds of behavioral connotations and poly-cultural scripts, Belle and Claire are now coerced to relate to each other “as metamours,” without ever consenting to have this kind of relationship. Neither of them were given a choice, asked for input, or even considered by the others. They couldn’t have been, because they don’t yet even know the other exists.

      “This coercion is subtle, and often justified by polyamory’s proponents as “a good idea.” It’s an oppressive behavior borne from the desire to be more loving, not less. I know this because I am guilty of hurting some of the people in my life in this way—and, very likely, so are you.”

      • maymay says:

        I do not know how to be more clear with the written word than I have already been, and since my writing has proven insufficient for your understanding I will not try to clarify that way further.

        You are welcome to call or SMS/txt message me at your leisure—my number is (323) 963-4827—and we can coordinate a phone or Skype call that I will be happy to record and publish. Or, if we’re geographically near one another, I invite you to join me for coffee sometime. You can learn where I am at any given time by going to my website’s shelter page.

      • Michael Chui says:

        Chiming in several months late, but

        I got the sense that Maymay is saying that many poly people/couples are unwittingly misusing the term in a couple-privilege kind of way. Belle and Claire CAN’T have a relationship yet–they haven’t met each other. Saying that they’re metamours before they’ve created a relationship preempts the possibility of having a relationship grow naturally between them. That’s artificial and coercive and could probably be handled better.

        OTOH, my sense of Aggie’s idea of a metamour is that it’s not a relationship in the typical love-friend-acquiantance area, but rather it’s something like… my son started reading a book and the ideas he’s getting from it have affected our relationships, for better or worse. Or instead of having tea every afternoon with me, he’s attending a study session at college. In other words, it’s non-consensual, but it’s also not really coercive. It’s the connection between the domino you tap first and the last one to fall over. There’s some kind of cause-and-effect influence happening, but it’s not necessarily intentional. It invokes physics to me. A magnetic field, maybe. You put a magnet down next to another one and stuff just happens.

        I’m rambling now. I don’t know if that helps at all, but I felt like I understood both sides.

  2. Rodrigo says:

    Nice post. I enjoyed it even more than the other one.

    One thing that I notice about the term “metamour” is that it may give the impression that one’s metamour is also, by implication, one’s “amour” (the “meta” working as an adjective sort of thing). So it sounds like one not only should be friendly and considerate to one’s metamour, but that they are the two of them themselves in some sort of extended romantic relationship. I can see why that might make people feel they are being coerced into a relationship with them, as if their partner is saying: “hey, I am part of a package, to love me you have to love all my partners as well”.

    Yes, I realize that none of the above is *technically* true and defining “metamour” to be simply “one’s lover’s lover” does not imply “one’s ‘kind of’ lover”, but I think the nuance ends up being there.

  3. So interesting! It sounds like family dynamics, much like my wife has with my sister. Read this just in time for tonight’s Black Rose Education Series on Metamours.

    • aggiesez says:

      Interesting. What’s that education series? Got a link?

      • http://www.br.org/br/

        Metamours 101: Interacting with your Partners’ Partners with Amethyst Wonder
        Tue meeting for January 8, 2013 8:00 pm

        1) Literally, meta = with, adjacent, beyond, about , a concept which is an abstraction from another concept + amor = love.
        2) The partner of one’s partner, with whom one does not share a direct sexual or loving relationship.
        If there are infinite ways in which partners can relate, then the potential connections between metamours is infinity^2. Let’s discuss some of the most frequent hows & whys of interacting with your partner’s partners, including, approaches, communication, boundaries, and time-management.
        Amethyst Wonder was spawned from the mind and libido of a then-32-year-old kinkster and self-proclaimed slut as she surfed the internet looking for kindred spirits. She identifies as a queer, femme, poly-capable, pansexual, cis-gendered, switchtastic, geeky pervert of color.
        Usually seen as Mommy/Big Sister, helper, protector, nurturer, administrator, and/or organizer, Amethyst tries to help others along their own journeys of personal exploration whenever possible. She previously contributed a monthly column on internet dating for Fearless Press and has been a volunteer or staff member at 13 Dark Odyssey events, as well as The Floating World 2011 and 2012. Amethyst has presented for DC TNG, The Floating World, the Geeky Kink Event, FetFest, and Frolicon.
        $5 BR members with membership card $10 all others ALL WELCOME

        Phoenix Park Hotel 520 North Capitol Street, NW

      • aggiesez says:

        Cool, thanks.

        Would love to hear follow-up about how the non-primary partner’s point of view on metamour relations get addressed in that workshop — especially whether/how the presenter encourages people in a primary couple to treat non-primary partners with fairness, respect, and consideration. If you’d like to send me some notes about that after the session, I might run it as a guest post.

        Might want to also check out my early post on how to treat non-primary partners well

      • maymay says:

        Or try Rebecca Crane’s “Metamour Intensive,” a complement to my keynote you cited in this post.

      • aggiesez says:

        Thanks for the reminder, MayMay — it’s on my to-do list to summarize, link to, and comment on Rebecca’s excellent presentation in a future post here.

  4. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this post. I’m in a polyamorous relationship and trying to come to terms with my own relationship needs and orientation. I’ve been thinking about the relationship I have with my metamour, and this post laid a lot of very helpful groundwork for me. It also alerted me to some problems I’m decidedly not having, which makes me think I’m on the right track. 🙂

  5. Another great piece. You operationalize in the real world how this works.
    Don’t try to reason with people like your neo-Marxian critics, and certainly don’t’ let then intimidate you. You have too much to offer to be bullied. In the end the Critical Theory is religion just as much as Catholicism is. The substitution of “oppression” for “sin does not make them any less intolerant of other viewpoints. Since religion depends on belief not reason, reason is lost. When Horkeimer coined the world “Critical Theory” he was specifically arguing for belief over evidence. Just like the religious right believe rightwing politics should be equated with being Christian, there are those who believe poly be equated to Critical Theory (new-left) politics. Of course should they succeeded poly will forever be a marginalized fringe.
    Your postings point a way forward out of the ghetto. Your writings do not appear to demand your readers embrace an entire social-political viewpoint in order to be poly.

  6. […] The best — and sometimes hardest — part about choosing solo polyamory is that I can never coast in my intimate relationships. When you’re this far off the standardrelationship escalator, you can’t afford to make assumptions about how relationships work, or about partners or metamours. […]

  7. […] ORIGINAL What’s a metamour? On my terms […]

  8. […] with my metamour about how adorable our mutual […]

  9. […] dancers have to be VERY skilled communicators. You can expect to become an expert on making your metamours, especially ones that identify as primaries, feel comfortable and safe with your presence because […]

  10. Vianne Daniels says:

    I’ve always done my best to be friendly with my metamours. I’ve often considered them kindred spirits and maintained friendships with them even after the partner we shared was gone from both our lives. My current situation is as the primary partner, but I am ridiculously fond of my metamour. We may be pursuing an intimate relationship ourselves, although that’s not a requirement. We take care to be aware of one another’s feelings and insecurities.

  11. thedaddycat says:

    I am one of two monogamous male partners to a poly female partner. I have worked very hard with her to build our relationship and communication. We just attended the Winter Flea this past weekend, and some of the presentations were invaluable in helping us develop and grow our relationship, especially in the area of communication.

    While he and I would be considered metamours by this definition, we have never met. However, I am working on having compersion for him. I appreciate the positive and fulfilling things he brings to her life through their relationship, things that I am incapable of providing for her. I am trying very hard to not just appreciate him, I also want to love this man as another valuable and loving person in her life. I’m not jealous or insecure of her mother, siblings, or children. Why should I be upset, threatened or insecure about someone who gives so much of value to her life?

    Though she tells me that he defers to me(I’m “primary” in common parlance), I consider us both to be equally legitimate partners to her. He is an old partner that she’s reconnected with since we partnered up. While I had to do some adjusting to her polyamory, he seems to be having a much harder time with it, even though she was poly with him and another partner for two years. They all went their own ways well before she and I met, though he’s now returned to have a place in her life.

    She and I have an intensely open and honest communication pathway established, and I hide nothing from her, including my thoughts and feelings, fears and insecurities. When they first reestablished their relationship (and “forced” me into a poly situation), I had plenty of issues and insecurities. I came to her and we talked at great length and in great depth about everything. We resolved anything that came up as it arose. She let me know in no uncertain terms that our relationship was not in danger just because she loved more than one person. She reassured and reaffirmed me about our relationship, something that was of great comfort to me. It is my belief that this will only help us to grow stronger, closer and deeper in our relationship.

    I guess for me the term metamour best describes the physical relationship he and I share as separate and individual partners to a common partner. Compersion would best be used to describe my feelings of acceptance, understanding and compassion for him, though it is at present unilateral. She has told me that she “edits me out” a lot when with him (for his sake), while I ask her about him and how he’s doing. I know that he wants her to be his mono partner, to supplant me as “primary” at the very least. I just keep loving her unconditionally…… and him as I find ways to accomplish that.

  12. Laura says:

    Very well said. (I use the term ‘metamour’ exactly the same way the author does.) Interesting point about mainstream monos‘ acceptance yet vilification of cheating because it is not as bad as publicly presenting a vague partnership situation. I’d never thought of that but I totally agree.

  13. […] One of the men that I have a romantic connection with is visible uneasy and suspicious every time I mention any of the men that I’m into. And it’s not just a me thing — I don’t think I’ve heard this man say a positive thing about any of his femme partners’ masc partners (i.e., his masculine metamours). […]

  14. Jo says:

    Such a great word! I’m married and just started dating a gal, and she and my partner get along great! We all play video games together, and she’s met my partner at my house a couple times. When my partner and I decided to pursue polyamory, I made it a priority to find people that I thought would get along with my spouse. It’s early on, but so far, so good.

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