January 2, 2013 by aggiesez
The New Year is an opportunity not just to reflect and look forward, but also to recognize the way things are. Sometimes that’s just not a pretty picture.
As I’ve been gathering perspectives on the role of couple privilege in polyamorous relationships, some stories are particularly striking — and heartbreaking. Recently I received the following letter from one SoloPoly reader (who has asked to be called Love and Lost) which epitomizes how poly people who are part of an established primary couple sometimes end up treating a non-primary partner disrespectfully, unfairly, and painfully. It also shows the high cost of acting out rather than communicating clearly.
Couple privilege is the presumption (which can be unconscious or unacknowledged) that people in a primary couple matter more than other partners or other kinds of relationships. In polyamory, often leads primary couples to make decisions and take actions at the expense of, and without fair consideration of, non-primary partners — and without disclosing up front that this is how relationships with them work.
The saddest part is this generally isn’t what anyone means to do, not even poly primary couples. When people get surprised by their feelings and act out based on assumptions of privilege, that ends up hurting everyone. I honestly don’t believe anyone ventures into poly relationships intending to hurt or mistreat others — or not caring whether they do. But intentionality and blame are not the issue here; I’m talking about behavior and responsibility.
I wish I could say the following story is extreme. But the truth is, I’m publishing Love and Lost’s letter because this kind of problem is all too common in polyamory. I’ve personally had more than one committed, long-term non-primary relationship end in similar ways. Furthermore, the majority of poly people I’ve spoken to (over many years) who enter into significant ongoing non-primary relationships with people in poly primary couples have encountered similar problems — sometimes to a lesser extent, but sometimes even worse.
Fortunately that’s not always the case. In fact some poly primary couples are very forthright and responsible when conflicts happen. (Listen to the first segment of Polyamory Weekly episode 327.) Still, at this point, irresponsibility supported by couple privilege is currently very, very common in polyamory.
Experiencing, seeing and hearing about this kind of anguish over and over again was a key motivation for starting this blog. It also was the genesis of my crowdsourced list of how to treat non-primary partners well.
So as 2013 begins, let this story serve as a reminder of where there’s ample room for improvement in the conduct of polyamorous relationships. Because everyone in poly relationships can work to solve this problem. And, as my comments after the letter show, the problem isn’t just primary couples wielding couple privilege; it’s also the internalized shame that many non-primary partners feel, due to the couple privilege assumptions we’ve absorbed as well.
Disclaimer: Love and Lost’s note represents only one side of this story. I do not have input from her former partner and metamour, and I cannot verify any of this information. So this is presented strictly as an example of a common problem. Also, Love and Lost makes some assertions about the feelings and motivations of her former boyfriend and metamour — but obviously she’s not a mind reader. I’m leaving her assertions to stand since my goal here is to represent how this experience looks from the non-primary partner’s perspective; but we don’t actually know what was going on for the primary couple in this case.
Love and Lost writes:
I was secondary-partner to a amazing, loving, wonderful man, who has a wife and two adorable children. I’ve been poly for a very long time and I’ve spent a lot of time as a secondary. I’ve done this before, I know what I’m doing. I was generous, flexible, helpful, and very VERY conscientious about honoring their rules and not taking time away from the family except for the dates.
I got along okay with his wife — we never clicked like he and I did, but we got along okay. I also got along well with their kids, even helped out for a special event by watching the kids.
For most of a year he and I we were so very happy. Finally, about four months ago, he finally told me he loved me. When his wife found out he’d said that to me, she flipped out. She said he wasn’t spending enough time with her, was letting their relationship slide, and she wasn’t happy.
He was spending all of two dates per month with me, with plenty of phone communication in between. He tried to rearrange to please her — cut me down to one date per month and started emotionally pulling away. I was miserable but willing to hold on.
And then he dumped me. He said he couldn’t maintain a relationship with me, not even a limited one. I believe she was still putting pressure on him at home, I have called it an “indirect veto” — where she just put so much pressure on him that he had to end things with me to keep his wife “happy.” For instance, during our one date in that last month, she posted something on Facebook about it being one of those nights where you just HAD to drink.
The emotional fallout has been long and hard. He abandoned our perfectly good, happy, healthy relationship because of pressure from his wife. Then, she suddenly declared that our relationship was never meant to be close or loving, or have any commitment. He internalized her ideas, treated me so coldly and distantly he basically turned into another person. He never made any effort to maintain the friendship with me he’d claimed to want following our breakup. Now we don’t even speak.
I feel like a toy. Like I was never real, like he never loved me — if he had, I wouldn’t have been so very easy to abandon. I’m not even real. I’m not deserving of love, or consideration, or even gentle treatment. I got my heart broken, and it was my own fault for loving a married man.
She came first. I knew that. I even encouraged him to put her first, and I told her their relationship mattered to me too. But when it came down to it, she never gave me that same consideration. My relationship with her husband was never an asset or a blessing to her — it was only something she tolerated, for a while. Once she’d “had it,” she got rid of me.
Of course, I’m aware that he let this happen and made his own choices — but that doesn’t really help. I was happy, he was happy, and she was not. But she didn’t just express her dissatisfaction: She made HER problem MINE as well as HIS. She took my loving, tender, passionate boyfriend — and when she was done “expressing herself” he decided he had to become someone else, someone who didn’t love me.
I had been happy — really, genuinely, brilliantly happy — with my two dates per month. So was he. But it wasn’t real, or maybe my love didn’t matter. I wasn’t real. I was only pretend, right? It’s my own fault for letting myself be a toy, right? Secondary-toy.
Now I wonder if I should give up polyamory. I can’t do this again. I can’t love and have it ripped away because of someone I’m not even dating — to know that I’m disposable, that the primary partner can kick up a fuss and get rid of me. It’s happened before, I’ve been directly vetoed. But this relationship lasted so long and we were so happy, it’s wounded me to my core. Ripped my heart out.
Still, it’s my own fault, right? For loving someone with a ring on their finger. I just keep coming back to it, saying to myself, “I was happy.” But it doesn’t matter. My happiness, my love, doesn’t matter, because I’m disposable. Secondary.
That’s my story. That’s why I’m still grieving, hurting and trying to figure out how to cope through the holiday season without telling my family about my relationship with a married man. Because I was happy. And at the first bump in HIS road, he threw me away, “thrown under the bus” as one of you wrote. I was happy. But I didn’t matter.
Why does this happen?
Too often, individuals and couples enter into polyamorous relationships without first getting clear on how they feel, their desires and needs, their existing commitments and boundaries, and what they are actually (not just theoretically) willing and able to offer to new partners. Also, often they haven’t considered their options for handling inevitable bumps and shocks. Most importantly, often they don’t clearly commit up front to owning and working through their own difficult emotions.
In fact, typically people who are new to polyamory (as well as some longtime poly folk) assume they’ll just wing it and figure out all this stuff as they go along — which means their partners often end up serving as crash test dummies.
Of course, solo poly people can (and often do) fail to do this kind of groundwork. But when an established primary couple is involved, couple privilege creates a power disparity that often goes unacknowledged (or even denied) by everyone involved until trouble strikes.
When trouble hits in polyamory, too often the default response of poly primary couples is to severely curtail or summarily jettison non-primary relationships — without necessarily discussing options and solutions directly with non-primary partners.
It doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible — and, I’d argue, far healthier for everyone involved in the long run — for everyone in a poly relationship network to commit to working through difficulties together while keeping all of the relationships intact.
This usually involves recognizing that differences and conflict will arise, and agreeing up front to get input (and, ideally, agreement) from everyone involved about possible changes. It means being willing to own your own stuff, especially insecurities and fears, and to try to work together. It means never forgetting that all partners, including newer ones, are human beings fully worthy of respect and consideration.
This process certainly isn’t comfortable, especially the first few times you try it. But if you’re committed to being poly, it helps immensely. Usually poly relationship problems can be resolved this way — I’ve seen it, and I’ve done it.
Of course, it is also totally valid for a poly primary couple to decide that they might prefer to address conflicts or insecurities by curtailing or ending non-primary relationships (various flavors of “veto power” or strict hierarchy). This can happen for a variety of valid reasons, including parenting priorities. As long as this is a conscious decision that gets communicated up front to non-primary partners before anyone gets too invested in the relationship, then everyone can make their own choices about whether and how much to get involved. However, when the option of ditching the non-primary partner is presumed rather than discussed, that’s when a lot of unnecessary heartache happens.
Of course, people often only discover their own boundaries when they trip over them. When that happens, it’s important to communicate clearly with everyone involved about what’s happening; to own what’s going on for you. Even if that means admitting: “I/we thought I/we could handle a long-term loving committed poly relationship, but I’m/we’re just not ready yet and may never get there.” That may feel embarrassing or humiliating to say, but it’s fairer and kinder than just bailing on someone — or than acting out in ways that sabotage the new relationship.
In my experience, working tough stuff out collaboratively is almost always the best approach. If you reflexively bail whenever someone freaks out, you will never learn how not to freak out. Also, this strategy typically leads people to shirk responsibility, by blaming the demise of a non-primary relationship on specific partners or situations. This means you’ll almost certainly repeat your destructive patterns, causing similar damage in future relationships. Everybody loses that way.
Sometimes after everyone involved has tried hard to solve a problem, they reach a consensus that the situation is truly untenable or that differences are irreconcilable. Sometimes, as in K’s story, it turns out that some partners aren’t really willing or able to offer what they thought they could offer. In those cases, an intimate relationship might need to end.
Internalized shame and blame
What saddened me most about Love and Lost’s letter were her heartfelt remarks about how she feels ashamed about and blames herself for the demise of this relationship — not because of her conduct, but simply for loving a married man.
It might be tempting to think that someone who’s chosen polyamory consciously would not adopt such a self-punishing stance, but our heads and our hearts often aren’t on the same page. Especially where strong social conditioning is involved.
Love and Lost’s reflexive shame and self-blame occurred even though she made a conscious decision that the social expectation and veneration of monogamy isn’t necessary and doesn’t make sense for her — and even though her former boyfriend presented himself to her as wanting (and being available to have) a honest, loving, deep and significant non-primary relationship.
The flip side of couple privilege is the internalized self-loathing that non-primary partners often feel. I have a lot of compassion for this since I’ve struggled with it at times, too. It’s horrible enough to be abandoned by a partner — but when you abandon yourself, you are truly bereft. It magnifies the grief of a lost relationship and can leave you feeling even more hopeless.
In this society we’re all marinating in couple privilege from the time we’re infants. We absorb the presumptions that reflect the standard social relationship escalator that defines which relationships — and which partners — are “real,” “serious,” or “matter.” If you’re not riding that escalator, the social default assumption is that you can’t (or shouldn’t) expect to be treated with respect; not by your partners and metamours, and not even by yourself.
Internalized self loathing is the dark underbelly of any kind of privilege; it’s the cruelest effect that privilege visits upon those who lack it. It’s the gay Christian who believes God says that being gay is “wrong” and worries about going to hell. It’s the woman who berates herself as being both greedy and inadequate for “wanting it all” by having a career, a marriage, and a child. It’s the trans woman who cries when strangers make cutting remarks; how could she have dared to try to “pass” as a “real” woman in public? It’s the octogenarian who burns with shame when his children express disgust upon learning that he has (or wants) a lover — he’s “too old” to be sexual.
…It’s the poly person who feels guilty, foolish or worthless for daring to love another poly person who already has a primary partner — since a lowly “piece on the side” can’t possibly merit respect, not even self-respect.
This is why polyamory often is particularly challenging for solo people who don’t have (and who maybe don’t want or aren’t seeking) a primary partner of our own. Even if we consciously disagree with the presumptions and norms of couple privilege, often we still have strong emotional responses rooted in internal messages which tell us that the way we love is wrong, or harmful. At some level, many of us feel that that we cannot love this way and expect to matter or to be treated well. So when our relationships end painfully, we may feel we brought this on ourselves (at least partly) for being poly — at least, for being poly without the safety net of a primary partner).
Also, sometimes solo people — poly or not — feel that if we don’t have a primary partner or aren’t seeking one, there must be something deeply wrong with us.
It sucks to be undermined by your own feelings rooted in social programming. And that can layer on a further amount of shame: if you “know better” it’s easy to expect that you should “feel better,” or at least differently.
Of course, we’re not helpless victims of society, our partners and metamours, or our own psyches. There is much that solo people can do to stand up for ourselves in any kind of intimate relationship — and also much that all poly/open people can do to recognize and respect solo people and the relationships we have. I will be writing more about this in future posts; but the earlier SoloPoly guest post by David Chastity is a great example.
But for now, as 2013 begins, Love and Lost’s story stands as a snapshot of an important part of polyamory as it often exists today. Couple privilege and internalized shame often join forces to make poly relationships especially risky and painful for solo people. It’s why many solo people who prefer polyamory abandon it, even when we’re perpetually unhappy in mono relationships — something that often shortchanges monogamous partners as well.
There is room to improve this situation — to change our assumptions about couple privilege and how they drive our behavior. Simply discussing couple privilege, acknowledging and respecting the perspective of non-primary partners, and getting clear about your own stuff can go a long way on this front. I am hopeful that this is possible, and even likely. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother writing this blog.
Room for improvement is always a good thing. Embrace it — and notice and appreciate progress in your life, loves, and community.
Happy New Year.