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!
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.
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.