September 23, 2013 by aggiesez
“Come on, are you really saying that you wouldn’t want a primary partner if the right person came along? That must just be because you’ve been burned in prior relationships, right? Why would you want to cut off your options?”
…Yeah, I get that a lot, even from poly or poly-friendly people: a blatant refusal to accept that I truly am solo poly by choice. That this is not a reactionary in-between phase until I find “real” love. Disbelief that I actually prefer to avoid deeply logistically enmeshed (and probably hierarchical) primary-style relationships — no matter how wonderful a certain partner might be. That surely I’ll change my mind someday, once I get over being bitter about my dissatisfaction or betrayal from previous relationships enough to open my heart to the “right” partner(s). That by claiming to be eminently satisfied with the solo poly life, and having no desire to change this, means I must be “cutting off options” that could make me “really happy.”
Quite recently I found myself in precisely this kind of conversation, as a matter of fact.
I was at a party for a sex-positive subculture (not poly, but very poly-aware). It was a hell of a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it immensely. I attended with one of my lovers — a very cool poly friend with lots of benefits who I’ve been dating on a fairly regular but relaxed basis for several months. He and I are definitely not riding the relationship escalator anywhere in particular. We just enjoy each other’s company and friendship.
In contrast, almost all of the other people at this party were in established couple relationships, and were there with their primary partner.
One gentleman at the party struck up a conversation with my lover and me. He seemed pretty intelligent, and had a long history of being active in sex-positive communities. He asked how my lover and I met. We mentioned that we’d met through our local polyamory meetup group.
The gentleman asked, “Oh, so are you two primary partners?”
My lover answered first, saying no, we aren’t primaries. Then I chimed in to say: “We’re friends, and we’re dating. But personally I don’t do primary-style relationships, or hierarchical ones. They don’t work for me.”
(Yeah, I know, I could have just left it alone. But me being me, that’s what I said.)
This sparked the gentleman’s puzzled response, “Well, surely you’d want a primary partner someday, right? You can’t mean you’re not open to that possibility…”
“Actually, that’s exactly what I mean,” I replied. “Strictly speaking for myself: I’ve done the primary-partner thing a lot. It’s not a structure that works for me at all. I’ve learned that I really love being my own primary partner, not putting anyone else in that role. This works best for me, I’m happiest that way.”
He didn’t seem inclined to accept that I was speaking my own truth. And here, I need to preface the rest of our conversation: I am not assuming that this guy was being a jerk, or judging me, or mansplaining, or trying to convince me of anything. I’m assuming his goodwill and that he was honestly attempting (if ultimately failing) to understand why I prefer solo polyamory above having more conventional primary-style relationships. And I also acknowledge that many people are solo poly by circumstance, not choice — or that they’re fine whether or not they have a primary-style relationship. So I can understand why those questions probably occurred to him, and I don’t blame him for that — even though it did bug me that he felt the need to voice them to me.
He pressed on, “Well, just because you got burned in prior relationships doesn’t mean that you need to cut off options for something really wonderful. I mean, if the absolutely perfect partner came along, are you saying you wouldn’t want to be their primary partner?…”
“Yep,” I reiterated, “I don’t do primary-style relationships. If someone really only wanted our relationship to move toward that structure, they wouldn’t be perfect for me. Anyway, I have lots of options for great, meaningful intimate connections that do work well for me.”
“Also,” I continued, “You just met me. You know nothing about me or my prior relationships. So it’s a bit of a leap to assume that I’ve ‘been burned before’ just because I said that I’ve learned through experience that a particular style of relationship doesn’t happen to suit me.”
At this point my lover chimed in to note that he, in fact, happens to be open to having a primary relationship someday. Which is wonderful for him — and a fine choice for many people. I said so.
The gentleman then said to me, “So if you think having a primary partner can be wonderful, I just don’t understand why you’d want to cut off your options.”
We ended the conversation there, because it clearly wasn’t heading in any useful direction, and I didn’t want to get into a real argument or start banging my head against the nearest wall in the middle of a fun party.
6 reasons why these conversations irk me
1. Presumptions. Sometimes people who are highly intelligent and well versed in non-monogamous relationships options (as this gentleman appeared to be, based on other things he said before our conversation took this frustrating turn) still assume that everyone must either have or want a primary-style relationship. It seemed that he could accept that my lover and I aren’t in a primary relationship; but not that I might not desire a primary partner someday.
2. Personal relationship preferences are not up for public debate. When someone speaks their own truth about how they view themselves and choose to run their lives and intimate relationships, it’s really out of line to deny or question their self description or decisions if you are not personally involved, and if others are not being clearly harmed or put at risk of harm.
For instance, if someone tells me they are monogamous, love monogamy and only desire monogamous relationships — I wouldn’t try to deny, question or dismiss that choice. I might mention that other viable approaches to relationships exist, if they indicated a lack of awareness of this, but I wouldn’t suggest that they “should” investigate or consider other options. They’ve made up their mind, and it’s not up to me to second-guess such a personal choice.
3. Concern trolling The gentleman kept returning to his contention that I was “cutting off options” — which implies that I may be making a self-destructive error by avoiding conventional primary-style partnerships. Often people who concern troll honestly believe they’re trying to help by clueing you in to risks you may not have considered; they don’t realize how patronizing and disrespectful this behavior can be. They just can’t conceive that other people might not want or value something that they personally hold dear.
Here’s what I mean: From my teenage years I was certain that I never wanted to have a baby or be a parent. I was pretty vocal about that, and am glad I never wavered from my choice to avoid parenthood. And as a woman, I’ve certainly heard many people warn me that I might regret this choice once it’s “too late,” and that I might miss out on immense joy and fulfillment — without acknowledging that there are plenty of ways to achieve joy and fulfillment that don’t involve childbirth or parenting, and without crediting me for the joy and fulfillment I have achieved in my life. That’s concern trolling. Fortunately, having long experience with standing up to concern trolling in the context of my reproductive choices helps me resist and refute it in other situations.
4. Conflating relationship style with partner selection. When someone implies that I would (or should) stop being solo poly once I find the “right” partner(s), they’re missing the point. They’re assuming that any difficulties I’ve had with being a primary partner stemmed not from being in the wrong kind of relationship, but from having chosen the wrong partners. Which implies that I might have been happy in a primary relationship, if only I’d chosen more wisely (or been luckier).
This frankly reminds me of when a lesbian gets told, “Oh, you just need to find the right man.” The gentleman at the party apparently presumed that the desirability or goal of having a primary relationship is beyond question. Also, his use of the term “right” could easily imply that if I don’t share that goal, there might be something “wrong” with me or my partners, past and present.
But in fact, I’ve learned through experience (good and bad) that I’d probably be unhappy in any relationship that most people would recognize as “primary.” Therefore, what-iffing about the relative merits of my potential partners is a red herring. And, to be honest, it’s rather insulting, too — because everyone I choose to remain in relationship with is “right” for me in the context of our relationship. (Unless, of course, they eventually demonstrate otherwise, at which point I’d end or sharply curtail that relationship.)
5. Dismissing my decision as emotional acting out. His assumption that my preference for solo polyamory probably results from bitterness over “getting burned,” rather than from learning to recognize and honor my own needs, probably rankled me the most — because it contains a kernel of truth.
Yes, like most people who’ve had substantial relationship experience, I’ve been burned by some former partners and metamours. And yes, I’m still a little bitter about how some of my past relationships went wrong. And yes, that emotional history inevitably colors my current perspective and choices somewhat — just probably not in the ways that most people might expect.
In my case, my major experience of being in a primary-style relationship lasted 18 years, including 12 years of legal marriage — and that relationship was indeed rocky. But I’m not bitter about having “failed” at my most substantial primary relationship. Rather, in the years since our divorce, my former spouse and I remain close friends, allies, and emotional anchors for each other. That’s hardly a “failure.” In fact, he and I agree that, while getting unmarried was a difficult choice, ultimately that transition marked the start of the most successful part of our deep, ongoing relationship.
This realization and experience — plus noticing a consistent improvement in my quality of life, emotional well being, self esteem, and peace of mind since I started living solo (despite having occasional hard times and bad breakups here and there) — helped me understand that being solo poly really is my best approach to life and relationships. I have finally found in myself what I’d long believed I could only find through a primary-style partner.
My main regret (which I’m sometimes a teensy bit bitter about) is that I didn’t figure this out much earlier, because I was too scared to stand on my own.
Truth be told, I’ve been burned far worse in some significant non-primary relationships I’ve had with men who had primary partners of their own. This is probably why I’ve had a lot to say about the couple privilege, particularly the problems it can cause in polyamory. And it’s why currently I’m very reluctant to get more than casually involved with someone in an existing primary relationship. (Although that’s something I might get over eventually, if I meet the “right” partnered poly guy, LOL…!)
Yes, sometimes I do feel bitter about my prior run-ins with couple privilege. However, that emotion does not invalidate my observations on the topic of couple privilege — any more than bitterness about encountering sexism invalidates women’s rights.
I will say this about how my own bad relationship experiences have affected me: I see that I navigate and weather bad breakups and disappointing partners far better as a solo poly person than I did as a primary partner. Being solo poly, I’m more likely to respect my own boundaries, and less likely to cling to something that isn’t working because I fear “ending up alone.” I’m more likely to make better decisions about how I behave in relationships, and whether I stay in them. I’m more likely to take a lot less for granted about my relationships and partners. Plus, I find that I’m more able to be there for people in all kinds of relationships (friendships, family, colleagues, community, etc.) as a solo person than when a primary partnership commands much of my focus.
All this is why I say that being solo poly is a big reason why my life is now the best it’s ever been. Go figure.
6. I took the bait. Immediately leaping to my own defense was a mistake I made in that conversation, and I regret that a little. When people express disbelief or discomfort when they hear that I’m happiest not having a primary relationship and so am not seeking and don’t want one, defending my choice won’t make it a constructive conversation. That sets up an irreversible adversarial context, which sucks — especially at a party.
If I choose to engage people who are inclined to disbelieve or dismiss my preference for solo polyamory, there’s a better approach: I can question their questions.
I wish I’d done this at the party. For instance, when that well-meaning gentleman asked me, “Are you really saying that you wouldn’t want a primary partner if the right person came along?” I could have asked in return, “Do you find it difficult to believe that someone might prefer to not have primary-style relationships?”
And when he said, “That must just be because you’ve been burned in prior primary relationships, right?” I could have said, “Do you assume that I’m unhappy, or at least motivated by unhappiness?”
Yeah, this “question the questions” strategy can lead people down a rabbit hole too — especially with people who generally resist recognizing or examining presumptions. But using this approach means that these awkward conversations at least stand a chance of being productive. Everyone has their own blinders that prevent them from really seeing and accepting others. In order to take off your blinders, you first need to recognize that they’re there.
Of course, I’m no angel, either. Solo polyamory is a topic I obviously feel passionately about. I definitely can take it personally. So there’s always the possibility that when I start to explain my choice to be solo poly, I might leap to conclusions too — about what other people are really trying to do when they question my choice (i.e., quell their own discomfort, mansplaining, etc.). When I ask people to clarify their questions and concerns about my choice to be solo poly, that gives me the chance to understand them, and maybe myself, a little better.
Which means there’s a chance that I’d learn more, too, from these conversations. Even if what I learn is that someone truly won’t understand or respect my choice, I’ll learn more about why that’s so. That can be useful information for navigating life. Or at least for navigating awkward conversations at great parties.
So yeah, next time I end up in one of these conversations, I’ll try that. Because, yes, there will always be a next time…