Slippery language and couple-centric polyamory


October 6, 2013 by aggiesez

This guest post is by Eve Rickert, who is co-authoring a new book on polyamory with Franklin Veaux. On the date of this post, they wrappied up a crowdfunding campaign for their forthcoming book by the same name — surpassing their goal of $19,800 to raise a total of $22,757. The extra funding will help support a book tour. Thanks to everyone who contributed!

Eve writes:

I’m writing a book on polyamory called More Than Two. I’m writing it with my sweetie Franklin Veaux, who since the late 1990s has been writing a popular polyamory resource website of the same name.

At the time Franklin started writing his website, couple-centric polyamory was the norm, and primary/secondary hierarchies were more-or-less assumed. His posts such as Secondary’s Bill of Rights were pretty radical at the time they were published. Fortunately, they are less so now.

For the first two decades or so of his romantic life, Franklin himself practiced polyamory in a hierarchical, couple-centric fashion. And I came to polyamory through opening up an eight-year monogamous marriage.

Part of what Franklin and I are trying to do with our book is to reflect the real diversity of structures and approaches that polyamorous people adopt. We’re trying to break free from the couple-centric approach that has long characterized so much of the writing and discourse about polyamory, even on Franklin’s own site. In this process, we’re learning that language can be very slippery. Many common phrases that poly people use — even those who don’t practice hierarchical polyamory — reflect a couple-centric viewpoint. It’s damn hard to root these out.

I’m an editor by profession. Part of my job is to make sure that an author’s true meaning shines through — sometimes in spite of the authors themselves. This includes being alert to sneaky phrases that could imply something other than what I know the author intends. Consequently, I must stay very keenly attuned to all the possible meanings of the language I’m editing.

When I’ve picked up my red pen, so to speak, for the early draft chapters of More Than Two, the book, a few phrases leaped out at me. Now that I noticed them, I’m seeing them everywhere. They’re by no means unique to our writing. These common phrases pop up over and over again on blogs, in articles and on forums. And it’s time for them to go.

Here are five examples of common couple-centric phrases from the polyamory lexicon:

1. “Dating a couple.” This phrase marks the obvious place to start. By pointing it out, I’m also picking on Franklin a little (he knows), since this is the title of a popular page on his website. True, that essay unpacks many of the couple-centric attitudes people in couples can bring to dating — but still he resorts to the phrase in a prominent way.

The phrase “dating a couple” can mean one of two things:

  • You are dating both members of an established couple.
  • You’re dating someone who is also part of an established couple.

Either way, the phrase “dating a couple” has the weird effect of negating the people within the couple. It turns the couple into a unit, and implies one relationship — when in fact there are three.

Also, isn’t it interesting how the person doing the “dating” of that couple gets to remain an individual, while the people in the couple lose their individuality? In practice, this can be what happens. For instance, people who are coupled up often assume that the people in the established couple must make all decisions jointly — or that someone who dates one of them must date both of them.

Nevertheless, I propose that people DO NOT date couples! People date other people — who may, sometimes, also happen to be part of a couple (or triad, or other established partnership).

2. “Entering a relationship.” This phrase occurs on the same page in Franklin’s website, but it’s incredibly common. Most recently I spotted it in the title of this article: How to Treat a New Person Entering Your Existing Relationship.

Another twist on this phrase is “join a relationship.” Recently (and unexpectedly) I got into a bit of a firestorm on Twitter for uttering what I thought would be the relatively uncontroversial view that you don’t “enter a relationship,” you create one.

Whenever you begin any new relationship, all of your existing relationships will be affected — as will all the existing relationships of your new partner(s). Similarly, you may help create or expand a social unit that you may call a tribe, family, network, polycule, and so on. Any such configuration is a network of relationships — but not a single aggregate relationship, per se. While you may forge new relationships within such a network (as well as affecting other existing relationships) you do not “join” that relationship.

Franklin has pointed out something quite telling: Poly people often will say that a new person is “entering” a couple’s relationship, but almost never that a couple is “entering” the new person’s relationship — even if the new person also has other partners. This choice of words is especially problematic. It implies that the couple’s relationship (the one being entered, of course) is inherently the more significant, or “real,” relationship. Also, the new person can enter or leave — but they do not have the option of forging their own distinct relationship.

3. “All the members of a relationship.” This has also been expressed as “everyone involved in a relationship,” and keeps turning up in our early drafts of chapters and blog posts — as well as in various places online (including on Franklin’s website).

I actually believe — perhaps ironically, given that the title of our book is More than Two — that every relationship contains exactly two people (a dyad, in sociological terms).

For instance: I have relationships with my partners, and they have relationships with each other, and I have relationships of various sorts with my partners’ other partners. All of these dyadic relationships affect each other. But my globe-spanning, 50-person-plus romantic network is not “a relationship” — and neither is the little four-person group comprising me and my three partners.

When you think about this, it should be intuitive. You have relationships with each of your parents (that is, assuming you do) — but you are not “a member” of “their” relationship. Why should it be different with intimate relationships?

Focusing on dyadic relationships actually helps me a lot in navigating tricky poly situations. I think phrasing that refers to relationships as containing more than two people arises from the same place as “entering a relationship” — the presumption that the couple’s relationship is the “real” one (or at least, the more important one), and that other relationships are mere add-ons.

4. “Outside relationships.” The established couple is “inside,” the others are “outside,” get it? Recent I’ve seen this used in LiveScience and, well, all over the place if you participate in any poly discussion groups.

Franklin has done a pretty good takedown of the use of the word “outside” to refer to partners, and what it means: So What Is Couple Privilege, Anyway?. I have heard the phrase “other relationship” used, as well, and it’s slightly better, but not much.

There’s pattern emerging, isn’t there? The couple’s relationship is the “real” relationship. New partners can “join” or “enter” it, thus becoming a “member” of that relationship — or perhaps they will be an “outside” relationship.

And finally…

5. “More than two.” The title of Franklin’s site and our forthcoming book presents some challenges. At first I hadn’t really thought of it as couple-centric. I mean, it just means more than two, right? In monogamy, you’re only supposed to have two people involved with each other romantically; but with polyamory, you get to have more! Sounds simple.

But recently someone mentioned to me that they think More than Two sounds couple centric — and on reflection, I see their point. What might this phrase communicate to people who are new to the idea of poly?

First of all, More than Two might imply that “two” is still the default unit. The simple fact that “two” is a prominent word in the title pushes “two” forward as a concept — perhaps even making “two” appear more concrete than “more.”

Also, this phrasing can conjure the mental image of starting out with two and then adding to that (the “couple+” model of polyamory which borrows much from monogamous culture). Given that couple-centric polyamory is still the default assumption, the risk of such conflation seems especially high.

…Which isn’t to say that we’re ditching that title. Still, this quandary serves as a prime example of how dominant the couple narrative is, even in poly culture. And how — even with the best intentions, and even when working hard to keep our language inclusive — Franklin and I still end up using phrases that assume couplehood as a default unit.

In writing this book, I’ve encountered many more examples of couple-centric language, too many to cover here. I’m not even sure it will be possible to weed them all out.

There are so many different approaches to polyamory, so many structures and configurations, and so many different types of people, that we can’t possibly cover all of them. Nor can we predict where everyone will be coming from or what they’ll want. It’s not realistic to expect that we could. Still, we’re doing our best to maintain our focus on relationships and the people within them, and to make sure our language reflects that intent.

14 thoughts on “Slippery language and couple-centric polyamory

  1. Wow, I really never thought of it that way but you are right. Why should the couple be the “most” important part that seems to defy the idea of poly in some ways… Defiantly some good food for thought here.

  2. Alan M says:

    > “dating a couple” has the weird effect of negating the people
    > within the couple. It turns the couple into a unit, and implies
    > one relationship

    That’s the point. Many people think they ARE dating a couple, and in fact they may actually be doing so.

    Hear me out. This is an example of a *meta-relationship:* a person having some kind of relationship *with a relationship,* more than with its flesh-and-blood components.

    A very ordinary, nonsexual example: My aunt and uncle, let’s say, played bridge with another couple all the time. They got along wonderfully for years, for dinners and bridge games and sometimes all went on vacation together. One evening, circumstances threw my uncle and the other man together alone. They were awkward and realized they had little to say to each other. It would have been even more awkward with my uncle and the other wife. He and his own wife were actually not in a relationship with two other people — they were in relationship with a couple.

    This sort of meta-relationship thing happens all the time — in clubs, sports teams, workplaces, etc. It may not be a good basis for a poly setup, but it is a pretty common thing and a real thing.

    Alan M.
    Polyamory in the News

    • aggiesez says:

      I understand what you’re saying about “meta-relationships,”Alan. Speaking more myself (not for Eve), it just seems to me that they are a collective label/identity — and I’d argue, to some extent a fiction — that people often agree to buy into consciously or unconsciously. Also, meta-relationships are often bolstered socially, governmentally, legally, and financially. But the irreducible unit of an interpersonal relationship is a dyad. That doesn’t go away, no matter what happens to the meta-relationship. Therefore, I don’t think the existence (or at least, agreed-to fiction) of meta-relationships changes the underlying fundamental dyadic nature of interpersonal relationships.

      Even in the example you cite, of two couples in a relationship — I’d argue that the awkwardness stemmed not from “a couple being in a relationship with a couple” — but rather from the individuals involved ignoring and neglecting the dyadic connections between individuals. Just because they misunderstood the fundamental unit of that network of relationships doesn’t make their collective fiction real.

      • Kit Hosley says:

        @aggiesez – Isn’t that ignoring the right of the folks involved to choose the nature of their relationships?

        You’re claiming they neglected the dyadic connections between the individuals – but in such a case, dyadic connections may not be the goal.

        I don’t believe that you or I can label the choice to enter into a mutually consensual and desired couple friendship as described as a ‘collective fiction’.

        And I think this relates back to avioding the assumption of a couple-centric perspective in a poly book.

        Couple centric *is* the current dominant paradigm in much of society.

        So yes!

        We should strive to aviod that as much as possible in speaking to those in or exploring a diverse community of relationship structures.

        However -as Alan points out – neither should we aviod respecting the areas where it *is* an accurate description of a given set of relationships.

      • aggiesez says:

        Collective fiction has its uses. It’s not inherently a bad thing.

        But when you’re talking about interpersonal relationships, you’re talking about people — that is, individuals. Those people may also identify as part of a couple, triad, whatever — but they never stop being individuals, even though they may choose to ignore or subsume their individual identity.

        And yes, many people DO choose to subsume their individuality in favor of a group identity. When they do that, they often find it difficult to relate to others as individuals in just the ways Alan described. That’s their right, I’m not saying they don’t have the right to do it. I’m just saying: doing so seems to lead to less flexibility and resilience in interpersonal relationships.

  3. SHG says:

    I love this post! Points 2 and 3 focus specifically on the things that were difficult for me when beginning polyamory. Once I was able to clearly identify the issues, and then address them, polyamory became relatively easy for me. 🙂

  4. polyhydra says:

    Love it!
    When I first started polyamory, it was from the point of opening up a marriage and was therefore very couple-centric.
    It included veto rights and pages of rules, including rules about how I was allowed to feel and an interview process for any new relationship.
    Needless to say, it absolutely didn’t work and the marriage imploded under rules unilaterally put in place regarding the primary relationship too.
    Now, I’m firmly in the solo camp and only deal with myself+. I refuse to be turned again from an I in to a we.
    Admittedly, I like “joining a couple”. I build three relationships, not just one and despite their rules, I feel more free because of the lack of expectation that I turn from an individual in to a couple.

  5. floaker says:

    Given the above I’m surprised you haven’t renamed the book “More Than One”.

  6. Well, you can always change the name of the book to: “More”, or “More than one”

  7. John K says:

    This is a wonderful post, thanks for writing it. I’m glad you included ‘More Than Two’ as your fifth phrase. I’ve been hearing about the book, but hadn’t really given the title much thought – until today I confess I assumed it was another way of saying ‘Opening Up,’ as in, “We’re assuming you’re in a couple and we’re here to show you that the two of you can expand your circle together.” I can’t speak for everyone of course, and I’m not sure who you consider your target audience to be or whether they’d read it the same way (I’m a moderately experienced Poly). But that was my assumption.

    You’ve probably considered it already, but it might be worth putting some thought into a subtitle. I’d guess that the assumptions I made from the title would have influenced how (or whether) I approached the book as a reader, and I’d hate for authors who are so laudably careful about avoiding couple-centria to start off on the wrong foot with readers.

  8. Stella says:

    I cast my vote for a revised booktitle of “More than one” because the whole idea is to bust through the socio-cultural norms and the war-weary love mantras, such as “He/She’s the ONE” and bowing to the alter of all that is “couple”.

    Whereas most of us over 30 know that, as one of my friends once said: “we need Others, and Others of Others”:)

  9. primalike says:

    For the longest time I thought the blog was called More than One, in terms of more than one partner at a time.

  10. […] doing solo poly or other structures. I do know that the authors were making deliberate efforts to avoid couple-centric language and to reflect the wide range of poly structures, and as far as I can tell they did a good job of […]

  11. […] base. We were worried that any image involving more than one person as the trunk would invoke the couple-centric idea that becoming involved with someone who is already in a relationship is “entering” […]

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