Solo polyamory is harder. Why do it?


May 30, 2014 by aggiesez

All types of relationships take work — but it’s definitely not a level playing field. Conforming to social norms does make many aspects of relationships easier. While being poly/open is more logistically, socially, and emotionally challenging than being monogamous, I do think solo polyamory generally is even harder than that.

Followup to this post:
Guest post by Mitchell Greenbaum
Does your relationship roadmap match your destination?

Being happy as a solo poly person absolutely requires doing considerable personal work. It takes a special kind of resilience: being exceptionally well grounded in yourself while remaining open to possibility.

Here’s why all of this hard work is so, so worth the effort.

Defaults are easier

One big reason why the escalator approach to intimate relationships (where partners increasingly enmesh their daily lives and merge their identities) is so popular is that it certainly can make life, and relationships, much easier. There’s so much you just don’t have to think about, so it’s easier to coast. (Not that coasting is good in any relationship, but it’s much easier to get away with on the escalator.)

Having one or more primary-style partners provides a ton of structure, both internal and socially reinforced. This structure turns the personal connection between partners into a type of default setting. That is, increasing enmeshment means that opportunities to connect with your partner(s) automatically “just happen” most of the time. And that many thorny relationship problems get answered in advance by clear, known “shoulds.”

That’s fine. If having such structure and those defaults helps keep you and your partner(s) happy, stable, resilient and fulfilled, and if you can be good and fair to others in the process, there’s nothing wrong with riding the escalator.

Why should anyone want to do relationships the hard way? Specifically, why might someone who desires long lasting, deeply intimate relationships prefer both solohood (retaining autonomy by avoiding deep life enmeshment with romantic partners) and polyamory (openness to concurrent emotionally/sexually intimate relationships, with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved)?

In my experience, that’s because solo polyamory can be awesome, in ways that primary-style partnerships (whether open or closed) simply cannot provide. Not that solo polyamory necessarily is more awesome than other relationship approaches; it’s just a different, uniquely valuable, and equally valid brand of awesome.

Truly awesome things are rarely easy.

What I mean by “more work”

Solohood and polyamory, especially combined, are definitely not the most obvious, simplest or easiest ways to approach life and relationships — mostly because they lack the defaults that traditionally signal “real” relationships or commitments.

You have to keep thinking very carefully to make both solohood and polyamory succeed, for yourself and the people you love. It’s all D.I.Y. Less enmeshed relationships have less “exoskeleton” (external support and obligation, including social validation and support). This means that less enmeshed relationships must survive based mainly on their internal resilience and vitality; on the people involved actively wanting to continue the relationship.

The good news is that relationships which have less exoskeleton and inertia are also much less likely to be stunted, warped or smothered by exoskeleton. This can give relationships even more room to thrive through growth and change. At least, that’s how it can happen — as long as everyone involved is equipped to recognize reality and possibility, and to adapt and explore responsibly. Which takes work.

What kinds of “work” am I talking about? Mostly, it’s personal work — self awareness, self acceptance, compassion, creativity, self reliance, the ability to be happy and fulfilled alone, and developing ninja skills for partner selection and communicating/ connecting with others. While this can apply to anyone in any relationship, there are unique implications for poly/open relationships, and especially for solo poly people.

Back in 2007, blogger Andrea Zanin nailed that work list down pretty well in her post, 10 realistic rules for good non-monogamous relationships. It’s a good post, go read it. I’ll wait.

What I love about Zanin’s post is that she emphasizes how individuals (not couples) can take responsibility for making their open/poly relationships healthy and strong, and for not forming or relying on exoskeleton. She specifically does not advise people on how to “protect” relationships — a red herring commonly fed to formerly monogamous couples who are “opening up,” in order to reassure them that they can abandon exclusivity without having to change that much. Right.

Rather, Zanin’s tips focus on being fair and good, and respectful and considerate, to everyone in a relationship network — while taking good care of yourself, too. Great stuff, and extremely relevant and friendly to solo polyamory. And yeah, it’s damn hard work.

Another problem that makes solo polyamory harder is misunderstanding due to conflation. Since solohood and polyamory lack common social hallmarks of connection and commitment, often people (even poly folk) assume that solo polyamory must inhibit one’s ability to connect deeply with others.

Too often, it’s presumed that people who prefer solo polyamory probably don’t really want or value deep or long lasting intimate relationships. Which means that people often believe (perhaps unconsciously) that it’s kind of okay to solo poly disposably, since we wouldn’t really be so hurt by it.

Seriously, that shit happens. A lot. Ouch. All the personal work I could ever do on myself, or communication I could do with partners and metamours, would never keep that kind of situation from not hurting. Fortunately, my internal work and groundedness can help me spot those problems early — and correct for them, or leave sooner rather than later if I see that someone’s likely to treat me badly.

The giant upside of solo polyamory

Here’s the big payoff: As a solo poly person, I tend to not have “zombie” relationships. My relationships are all pretty high quality and vital. The ones that endure are resilient, not rigid. The form and intensity of our connection shifts in direct response to where vitality lies. Also, I feel no inclination to pretend that a relationship is vital simply because its structure remains intact.

Perhaps most importantly, not having or wanting a primary-style relationship has led me to finally treasure and actively nurture all of my relationships whether or not they involve sex or romance — and even when they transition in and out of such intimacy.

That wasn’t always the case. I used to be one of those people who conflated “relationship” with sex/romance. Consequently I tended to undervalue other connections — sometimes in insidious, innocuous ways. Such as by saying: “just friends.” And I used to think that it was “natural” for one relationship to become, and remain, my default top priority.

Eschewing relationship defaults is precisely what empowered me to connect more deeply and genuinely with others. Not just in sexual or romantic relationships, but in all my connections with the people who matter most to me. Plus, not relying on defaults and norms helps keep me as open as possible to new connections that might enrich everyone involved.

For much of my life I tried to ride the escalator. That experience makes me certain I do not ever again want to feel that I “need” any relationship with another person (or am so afraid to leave one) to the extent that I stop seeing and honoring who they really are, right now — or who I have become, and am becoming.

Not having, or wanting, relationship defaults means that I’m not trying to freeze myself or my partners to preserve some “perfect” state, or to shield our connection from “threats.” Nor do I wish to tell love what it needs to be when it “grows up” into a “real relationship.” Every day, I focus on what I value most in my relationships — as opposed to what I’ve been told I “should” value.

For me, solo polyamory is what makes this possible. It also makes me very happy, and helps me be a better person — generally more peaceful, stable, and able to give more to others (as well as accept and appreciate more what is offered).

Solo polyamory is definitely not the only path to groundedness and openness, but it definitely can totally rock on these fronts.

And yes, all kinds of relationships may be hard, or easy. I’ve tried various approaches: monogamous, hierarchical and compartmentalized polyamory, casual, even long stretches of celibacy. Of all of these, solo polyamory has been the the most challenging — but it’s a challenge I’ve met, and that finally allows me to thrive.

As always: Your mileage may vary.

One thought on “Solo polyamory is harder. Why do it?

  1. bb says:

    I think you touched on something very important here – and it is the quality of friendships and non-romantic relationships that can be had as a solo poly person. As a person who had long practiced a solo poly life without really defining it as such, I developed a lot of close friendships and familial relationships. I have also been in monogamous relationships and open relationships – and really they both are the same, the opportunity to invest in people outside of you relationship is severely diminished. It is just a fact of life, it is. Your entire thinking revolves around another person, the time you can invest in others is always secondary and put on a back burner as to fitting in with the demands of the relationship. As a solo poly person there is no relationship that takes priority that all others are secondary to, and it allows you to wholly devote and invest in people in the moment and when needed in a way that is impossible to do in a relationship, and does allow for investment in others that is not possible otherwise.

    Part of me knowing that marriage wasn’t ever going to be right for me was knowing I never wanted to have to make someone my utmost priority and have to put other very significant relationships with friends and family on the back burner to that marital relationship. A person is supposed to forsake all others and put their marital partner at the center of their life, as the person who has first dibs at all times on your time and energy. I knew that there was no way I could go honestly into that type of arrangement, I don’t want to prioritize anyone in my life over someone else I care about full stop, and I can’t. Now that doesn’t mean that in the moment and at certain times certain relationships don’t take priority, but that is subject to change as to the needs of friends and my desires and needs, it allows me to move where I need to be and where I am needed freely, and allows close relationships to develop because I can devote the time and energy, both emotional and physical, and direct it where I want, it is not always directed at one person that others need to be secondary to.

    The life of a life-long single or solo poly person is able to have very rich relationships outside of romantic ones. There was an article I read not long ago in how married people are losing touch with social networks more than at any time in history in expecting a spouse to be their everything, their lover, best friend, emotional outlet, intellectual stimulator, comic relief, financial partner etc. and pretty much primary and often sole source for fulfillment of all needs and are isolating themselves from social relationships that used to offer many of these things. Now there are extremes of course, but every committed relationship requires some degree of this, and there is only so much of one person to go around, if most of it is going into one person there really is little leftover for others, and that is what we give to other relationships are leftovers. Where a solo poly person can provide many people with the consideration of a main course during different times, and that is the kind of consideration needed to develop deep bonds with people, sadly people in relationships by making someone their ultimate priority at all times are not experiencing the depth of other relationships can bring.

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