August 5, 2013 by aggiesez
Just wanted to highlight a mostly good bit of recent advice given to a single woman who recently commenced some romantic intimacy with a poly male friend — and so far, she’s really enjoying it. But this is new territory for her.
Like many open-minded people with no prior poly experience, the woman who wrote to Clay Nikiforuk (author of the very poly-friendly new advice column on Rabble.ca, Love 2.0: It’s Complicated) posed some basic questions that reflect how relationships typically get divided and labeled in mainstream culture. For instance:
- Should I just go with the flow, or put a stop to it to save our friendship?
- How do I decide if polyamory is for me without hurting myself or others?
- There are so many different definitions of polyamory, how can you make sure everyone is on the same page?
- He is engaged. Does this mean I’ll always be the other woman?
Nikiforuk offered a thoughtful response, which included this gem:
“Does your friendship really need to be “saved?” If so, from what? It’s a peculiar idea in our society that friendship and romance are mutually exclusive — so much so that wandering too far down one road will permanently close off the other. A model to visualize is a Venn diagram where “lover” and “friend” find a place in the middle to mingle and ultimately create feelings of fun, love, and appreciation in both of you.
If that doesn’t work out, what’s stopping you from transitioning back to platonic friendship? Get used to other people not understanding your relationship because it doesn’t fit into a nicely labelled box! This is what happens when you start to work with relationships in a creative and playful way to design them just for you and your partners’ needs.”
Yeah, that. Well said. Bravo.
Quibbling with creeping couple-centricism
While I agree with most of what Nikiforuk’s column says, I take issue with this part of her advice. Nikiforuk wrote:
Now, it depends upon what you mean by “other woman.” Will you ever replace his spouse-to-be? Maybe not. But how do you feel about being a friend, a lover, and a welcome addition to an open couple’s marriage? This is an honoured place to be, I feel. It means that a committed couple has carefully decided together that you would be a positive addition to what is, at the end of the day, their relationship.
This wording grates on me a bit, since it implies that the new partner (the single woman who’s new to polyamory) is engaging in a relationship with a couple, rather than with individuals. This is problematic framing, both logically and in terms of implied assumptions about status or privilege.
Since the new-to-poly woman is only dating the man in the couple, she’s actually entering two separate new relationships:
- The dating relationship with the man.
- A metamour relationship with the man’s partner.
Saying “a committed couple has carefully decided together that you would be a positive addition to what is, at the end of the day, their relationship” obscures the metamour connection, which could lead the three people involved to overlook the importance of communication and negotiation between metamours (something highly uncommon and strongly discouraged in mono-land, but which can really help polyamory work well).
This wording also subtly implies that the established couple are the ones who “own” the entire relationship configuration (after all, it’s “theirs”) — and thus are probably entitled to dictate its terms. Although I’m sure Nikiforuk didn’t intend to position the advice-seeker at such a disadvantage, this common presumption is a hallmark of couple privilege.
Nikiforuk’s wording also implies that the pre-existing couple is somehow doing the single woman favor by deigning to allow her to enter “their” relationship. In fact, the single woman brings much the table — her own love, intimacy, friendship, and innate value as a human being. The “favors” aren’t all on one side here.
It would probably be a good idea for everyone involved (especially the single woman) to get familiar with how couple privilege can skew poly relationships — and how to treat non-primary partners fairly and well. Doing so just at the start of a new relationship can help set everyone up for a “win.”
Polyamory is about people, not couples
The poly guy in this example is engaged — and thus committed to a pre-existing and probably primary-style partnership. However, often single people from mainstream culture (who either consider themselves monogamous and/or know little about alternatives such as polyamory) find themselves interested in dating solo poly people — or vice versa. The catch here is that since superficially we look rather like “ordinary singles,” it’s easy for them to perceive and treat solo poly folk like fellow singles from mono-land. This can lead to several unfortunate outcomes, which will be the subject of a later post. (Stay tuned.)
Still, Nikiforuk’s column could have been a great opportunity to clarify that polyamory is something that PEOPLE do, not couples.
It’s understandable why people often assume polyamory is something that’s mostly by and for couples. After all, the vast majority of media coverage about polyamory reinforces the conflation of polyamory and the primacy of couplehood by focusing mainly on the perspective of people who are in established life partnerships. (The TV show title Polyamory: MARRIED & Dating is a dead giveaway on that front!)
It’s true that many poly people are part of an established couple (or triad, etc.) — but many of us are not. Many of us are solo (without a primary-track life partner). For some solo poly people, solohood is a temporary circumstance — they’re open to primary partnership, just generally not a traditional monogamous one.
But many solo poly folk (myself included) are not seeking a primary partner — and don’t even want one. That puts us entirely off the standard social relationship escalator model in a way that can especially confusing for singles from mono-land. It’s easy for them to assume either that solo poly people are seeking a primary partner, or that we’re “players” interested only in disposable casual relationships which lack emotional investment or commitment.
And guess what? Even poly folk who are involved in a primary-style life partnership or otherwise identify and publicly present as being part of a couple (triad, etc.) — they are also individuals! And they make their own connections with other individuals — both their established partner(s) and other people, including potential new partners. Just because you decide to take existing relationships into account when forming new relationships doesn’t mean you’ve surrendered your individual identity and autonomy. There is no hive mind, not even in a marriage.
People with a voice in the media can help combat unfortunate and harmful couple-centric poly stereotypes. The way to do this is to discuss polyamory in ways that recognize and honor the individuality of everyone involved in a relationship network.
If I can be so bold as to put words in Nikiforuk’s mouth, she might have advised something like this:
This is polyamory, not cheating, so you’re not the ‘other woman’ here. You’re a full human being, worthy of respect, who is involved in a consensual network of relationships that also includes two other people. They have their own intimate relationship with each other, and you have separate relationships with each of them. You’re romantically intimate with the friend you’ve become romantic with. You’re also in a metamour relationship with his partner — which is kind of like an “in-law” relationship. And your wants or needs matter just as much as theirs.
In polyamory, being metamours means that you and his partner have your own important connection based on having something important in common: an intimate relationship with the same man. You’re not competitors — and although your intimate relationships are unique, your relationship with him is no less valid or potentially meaningful than hers is. Your intimate relationship is simply newer, that’s all.
What form your relationship with your new metamour takes can mean anything from you and she don’t really talk much, to forming your own meaningful friendship independent of the man you both love. It’s up to you.
Generally, polyamory usually works most smoothly when everyone involved at least knows each other and is on amicable speaking terms. So it might be a good idea to get to know his partner (your metamour), while you’re deepening your relationship with your friend-turned-lover. Building this bridge can help minimize later misunderstandings, jealousies, and other problems, as well as lay a robust groundwork for whatever direction this network of relationships takes.
Keep in mind that poly relationships can grow in any direction. There is no requirement for all relationships in a network to be ‘equal’ — that is, you don’t need to have a goal of group marriage. Neither do you have to enforce a strict hierarchy that always places their marriage at the top of the pecking order. Let go of your preconceptions and allow your new relationships — the one with your lover, and with your metamour — to each find their own comfortable level. If you all start talking and keep talking about what you want and how it’s working, you’ll probably figure out the right balance over time.
Many thanks to Clay Nikiforuk. Despite my quibbles here, her advice to this woman was mostly good, and I look forward to reading her column as it develops.