June 8, 2014 by aggiesez
Guest post by Mitchell G
The nice thing about traditional relationship models (such as the standard two-person exclusive relationship escalator) is that they have a narrative (known storyline) you can follow. However, that’s also precisely what can make traditional relationships hard, too.
Aggie asked me the other day what I thought of her newest post, Solo polyamory is harder. Why do it? I said my only point of disagreement was with the idea that nontraditional approaches to relationships are necessarily the more difficult choice. As she put it:
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.’
As I realized my opinion on the matter was potentially blog-post-length, I asked if I could write a guest post about it, and here we are:
Where do you want your relationship to go?
I agree that there are many advantages to following standard relationship narratives. Existing in mainstream social culture tends to be easier when your relationships fit into that culture.
- The language you use to refer to your relationship is far more likely to be widely understood.
- The structure of your relationship is more likely to be understood and more likely to be respected.
- The dominant narratives provide a roadmap that reduces ambiguity about what your relationship means, what direction it’s headed, and what you can expect of it.
…or do they?
Well, they do if it works for you. Roadmaps are useful for getting you places. But if your goal is to get to Toronto, a map that gets you to Miami is useless. It’s even worse than useless if everyone around you is saying “No no, this map will definitely take you where you want to go, I promise, just follow it and everything will be fine.”
A map that leads to Miami is going to be incredibly helpful for people trying to get to Miami — I certainly wouldn’t want to try to get there by instinct alone. If Toronto is more your kind of place, though, then every mile you travel toward Miami is actually adding to the amount of work you will have to do to arrive at a better place.
It’s a little like this: Imagine being a straight woman in a culture with social norms that say women’s needs in relationships are entirely subordinate to those of men, and that a woman’s primary role in a relationship is to be subservient to her male partner. If your actual ideal relationship is an egalitarian one where partners communicate their needs and listen to the needs of the other, then following the traditionalist narrative isn’t just putting off the work you’ll need to do to learn how to express your own needs; it is also teaching you habits (subservience, subordinating your needs to those of your partner) that you will have to unlearn in order to successfully have the kind of relationship that works for you. You are being driven toward Miami and away from Toronto.
Following narratives is less work if it gets you where you want to go. If it doesn’t, though, then at best it postpones the work you must do to have the kind of relationships you want — and at worst it actually increases the amount of work you have to do to get there. Not only will you have to determine what exactly you want in relationships, and how to achieve those goals — you’ll also have to unlearn habits that have been pushing you in the wrong direction.
I want to be clear: If Toronto is the best city for you, then you’re going to have a far easier time finding it if you use a roadmap to get there. There is no question about that. Even having a map that gets you to Vermont might be better than not having a map at all. You’d be a little off course, but you’d still be relatively close to your destination — just a little trailblazing left to go.
That said, everyone should expect that eventually their relationships will face challenges for which there are no easy roadmaps. Developing the skills to deal with those situations sooner rather than later is valuable. Practice makes permanent, and getting comfortable with trailblazing early means it’ll be much less intimidating when you have to do it later. You’ll already have practice and experience dealing with those challenges, and won’t think it’s such a big deal.
Learning how to be an effective relationship trailblazer does take more work up front. However, you’d eventually have to do much of that work anyway — and it’s easier to do it in calm times than during a crisis. Gaining these skills up front means you’ll be more prepared and likely to be facing the right direction when you’re unsure which road to take.
In short, I’m not sure if I think solo polyamory is necessarily more work than the relationship escalator, or than having an honestly nonmonogamous but primary-style relationship. It may just be that the work you need to do in order to be happily solo poly is more readily apparent, and must be done comparably sooner than would be the case when coasting along on narrative alone.
What really makes relationships hard
That said, I don’t think it can be denied that from the context of mainstream society, there is a significant advantage to following dominant narratives. Having a poly relationship in a monogamous culture is hard. Having a homosexual relationship in a heteronormative culture is hard. Having solo-poly-style relationships in the subsets of poly culture where hierarchical primary-relationship-and-other-orbiting-relationships-style poly is the norm is hard. Having relationships that break out of sexual orientation or gender binaries is hard.
These things are hard not because of traits inherent to the relationships, but rather traits that belong to the cultural environment in which those relationships exist.
It’s the people who think polyamory means you’re not really in love or you can’t commit, or who think that non-heteronormative orientation or gender identities are sinful, or even that they don’t really exist. There is no sugarcoating or handwaving away the difficulties that come with breaking from the norm.
Do those difficulties outweigh the advantages of learning how to trailblaze and find communities that celebrate differences rather than demeaning them? That’s not an easy question to answer, and it probably can only be answered on a case-by-case basis. Still, I don’t think that the answer is as simple as “Yes, not following the standard narrative is always harder.”
I think stepping outside standard narratives makes your work more obvious, and makes certain things harder. I also think there are times where, in the long term, it actually means you’ll have less work to do to get to where you want to be.
I think it’s an open question, and an interesting one, and one that we should keep talking about.
Mitchell G is a geeky, poly, kinky, skeptic blogger who writes about social justice, relationships, depression, and chronic pain at Research to be Done, and engages in a wholly excessive amount of … auto-metacognition? Or does it make more sense as meta-auto-cognition? He isn’t really sure, but playing with prefixes is fun and writing bios is hard. True story.