August 11, 2014 by aggiesez
Polyamory is one flavor of ethical nonmonogamy. Therefore, you might assume that most people who practice, or are considering, poly/open relationships would think pretty carefully and often about the ethical basis of how they behave in relationships.
Well, that ain’t necessarily so. Furthermore, if you read most books on polyamory, they tend to concern structure and feelings more than ethics.
That’s a problem. Quite honestly, most people in poly/open relationships could stand to think a little more clearly about how their ethics play out in their relationships…
Ethics are agreements you make with yourself about how you will apply your core values when navigating difficult or confusing situations. They’re about trying to consistently do what you believe is right — especially when that’s the harder path.
Ethics guide you on how and why you wish to behave, rather than merely acting on impulse or reflex. Ethics nudge you to consider what kind of person/partner you really are, or would like to be. Because ultimately, your most important relationship is your relationship with yourself.
Most people, even poly people, don’t think very deeply or often about relationship ethics, since doing so inevitably gets uncomfortable. That’s why it’s common for people to “wing it” with polyamory (just try stuff and see what happens), or conversely, to start from a heavily rules/rank-based approach. Occasionally these approaches result in happy (or at least fairly peaceful) relationship networks. However, it’s far more common that they yield unnecessary and regrettable wreckage. That sucks for everyone.
Want to prevent as much heartache as possible while having great poly/open relationships? That’s where this excellent new book comes in.
Why More Than Two is worth reading
In my experience, getting a grip on your own values and ethics is the most effective path to nurturing happy, stable, mutually fulfilling intimate relationships. If you want to explore poly/open relationships, I think the best way to achieve this is to grab a copy of the new primer More Than Two (by Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux), which is available for purchase Sept. 2. (You can preorder it now on Amazon.com).
If you’ve never read any books on polyamory, this one should be your first. And even if you’ve read every book on polyamory, read this one now.
I don’t say this lightly.
I received my review copy of More Than Two a few months ago, and was immediately impressed. First of all, unlike most books about poly/open relationships, it’s not at all couple-centric. It explores poly/open relationships as something that people do, rather than something couples may indulge in. That alone makes this book fairly unique and very refreshing. (Although I think the title does make the book sound a bit couple-centric, which is a problem.)
Mostly, though, I was impressed by how clearly More Than Two focuses on ethics.
Chapter 3, “Ethical Polyamory,” is where the real meat of this book kicks in. Everything from here forward is premised on the authors’ two key ethical axioms:
- “The people in a relationship are more important than the relationship.”
- “Don’t treat people as things.”
This neat one-two punch knocks out most of the biggest mistakes and worst behavior I’ve witnessed (and occasionally perpetrated) in poly/open relationships. Problems born of trying to prevent change, or at least too much change. Of presumptions of status, or assumptions rooted in deep-seated insecurity. Of failures of compassion and empathy. Of ignorance and lack of skill or practice. Of blatant disrespect and inconsideration. Of power, control, weakness and cowardice. And of abuse.
…Personally, I would have worded “Don’t treat people as things” differently, since I think it’s likely to be misunderstood at first glance by readers who aren’t already in the “poly bubble.” The phrase “treating people as things” might on first glance be easily misinterpreted as referring to sexual fetishes, sex work or strictly casual relationships (none of which are inherently ethically problematic, BTW). Such a core point needs to be stated intuitively to a general audience.
Instead, I probably would have said: “Do treat other people as if they matter as much as you or your primary/existing partners” — as in, everyone’s feelings, needs, goals, lives, and experience counts. As in, we’re all human beings, worthy of full consideration and respect.
How More Than Two is already helping real people with real relationships
As I began to read my review copy of More Than Two a couple of months ago, I discussed it with my honey, IO. He said, “Can I check that out?” I lent him my copy, since I didn’t need to write my review immediately.
…A few weeks later, I had to ask the authors to send me a second review copy of the book. IO was still intensely and busily devouring mine — and putting it to constructive use in his own life. In fact, More Than Two resonated for him in ways that other books on polyamory did not. Its ethical grounding is primarily what made it so relevant to him.
A little background will show what I mean:
IO and his wife Cora are relative newcomers to some aspects of polyamory. Until recently, they’d mostly been winging it. Cora has had other lovers (with IO’s consent and support) and currently has one long-term additional significant partner — but I am IO’s first new partner since they opened their marriage. That’s a new twist for them, and they’re experiencing some bumps adapting to it.
On his own (and well before he met me), IO had been doing substantial introspection and learning. This strengthened his sense of emotional grounding as an individual. It also gave him a clearer sense of what he wants and needs from any intimate relationships, including but not limited to his marriage.
Like many people, IO and Cora have been hitting some roadblocks when trying to discuss and negotiate their marriage, and the network of relationships of which their marriage is now a part. It turns out they prefer different approaches to polyamory, and also that their individual preferences have shifted (though not aligned) with experience. Also, they have developed some difficulties in how they connect and communicate between themselves. All this has generated stress and friction that they wish to resolve (I strongly support them in this effort, just not at my own expense.)
IO credits the concepts, ethical framework, and especially the questions posed at the end of each chapter of More Than Two with helping him and Cora make progress in discussing some touchy issues. Also, he noted that the book’s chapter on hierarchy and primary/secondary polyamory, in combination with his recent understanding about the relationship escalator, especially helped him reconsider ways to approach relationships of any sort.
Meanwhile, he’s gotten more involved in the poly community, and begun reading poly/open blogs and other resources. So while he has had more support than this one book, IO definitely found More Than Two to be not just practical and helpful, but immediately beneficial.
IO and Cora are still working through their issues; that’ll take lots more time and care, and we’re all being patient with this process. But they have made some progress. That’s really important — and it’s one reason why I still choose to be IO’s lover, despite the inevitable bumps and significant risks of loving a poly newbie. (Well, that plus he’s just generally awesome, and we’re awesome together.)
This all goes to show: Ethics don’t always fix problems, but thinking and talking about ethics often clarifies the nature of problems or differences. That, in turn, can help people collaborate to find practical ways to address core issues, rather than waste time and energy on superficial distractions (such as the triggers of jealousy, vs. its roots).
That’s the power of this book. I was impressed to see it in action.
My quibbles with More Than Two
Nothing is perfect. I think this book does have some issues, even from a solo poly perspective. For instance, while it’s generally solo-friendly throughout, More Than Two specifically mentions solo polyamory only in a handful of places amidst its nearly 500 pages.
In contrast, the book devotes an entire 20-page chapter to hierarchy and primary/secondary polyamory. I think this inadvertently reinforces the existing detrimental overemphasis on couple-centric approaches to polyamory. (It’s followed by an 18-page chapter on veto arrangements, thankfully which mainly points out what an ethical quagmire and general hot mess vetoes tend to be.)
I’d hope future editions of the book address solo polyamory with equal prominence to more enmeshed or hierarchical models — especially since solo polyamory still lacks visibility and recognition, even within the poly community.
The book also makes a distinction between “free agent” and “solo” polyamory that I don’t quite get. It seems to muddy the waters, and I hope the authors can revisit and clarify it in future editions.
I think the book could benefit from giving more prominence and clarity to the principle, recommended by the authors, of including everyone directly involved or affected in negotiations when major relationship decisions, rules, or changes are afoot. In other words, if you hold the egalitarian value that other people matter just as much as you and your primary/existing partners do, it probably follows that everyone should have a full and equal voice that counts in their own relationships — one that is not automatically outweighed by the voice of a third party, such as a metamour.
This theme is embedded in all discussions of negotiations in the book — but it’s generally implied, rarely stated flat out. I think the value of inclusive negotiation deserves far more emphasis and exploration, since this is precisely the point that many people (especially people who came to poly by way of formerly exclusive and now hierarchical relationships) have trouble understanding and doing. I believe this is the key to why it’s still so depressingly common for non-primary relationships, and non-primary partners, to be treated inconsiderately or even disposably by partners who are also in primary-style relationships.
Finally: Yeah, this book is long. Probably too long. (Like this review. Pot, meet kettle!) It’s a bit overwhelming to wade through from beginning to end. Fortunately, that’s probably unnecessary. As I noted above, you can read this book mostly a chapter at a time, and not necessarily in order, and not necessarily all of them.
On that front…
How to read More Than Two
If you do get this book (and you should!), here the approach I recommend:
- New to poly/open relationships, or just curious? Start with chapters 1 and 2, “Starting the journey” and “The many forms of love.”
- Got some significant poly/open experience? Start with chapter 3, “Ethical polyamory.”
- Essential reading for everyone: Most of part 2, “Poly Toolkit” — beginning with chapter 4, “Tending your self.” Everyone can definitely benefit from chapters 4-7, which covers basic principles and issues in communication and negotiation, all grounded in ethics.
- From there, skip straight to chapter 13, “Empowered relationships” — probably the most compelling chapter in the book, since it describes a flexible model of polyamory rooted in individuals who are secure in themselves and compassionate with others. (I really, really wish that model was as widely known as rules-based hierarchies.)
- The last two essential-for-everyone chapters are 22 (“Relationship transitions”) and 23 (on metamour relationships) — two areas that the standard social relationship escalator model actively discourages people from developing constructive attitudes and useful skills. We’ve all absorbed social conditioning; we can all use these reminders.
As for the rest of the book, proceed with whichever chapters seem most interesting or relevant to you and your relationships (as my honey did with the hierarchy chapter). Discuss the questions with your partners and metamours, and at poly meetups or in other poly gatherings or forums. Take the time to really delve into chapters that challenge your preconceptions or trigger your fears and insecurities. But definitely don’t feel obliged to read the whole thing, if you’re just not up to it.
Form a book group, if you like. That’s what I’m about to do in the Boulder/Denver region of Colorado. IO and I are especially intrigued by the chapter-ending questions. The group will mostly encourage people to explore their answers those questions.
But seriously: Read this book! If you care about poly/open relationships that benefit everyone involved, and if you care generally about acting with integrity in your relationships, this book will help you get there.
…I’ve said enough for now. Future posts to this blog will expand upon points raised in More Than Two, so stay tuned.