December 5, 2014 by aggiesez
After more than two years of writing a blog about solo polyamory, it’s high time I got around to clarifying my definition of this core concept.
CAVEAT: As with any term I use here, I’m explaining how *I* use this term. Others may disagree — and that’s totally fine. I’m not trying to speak for anyone but myself.
Solo polyamory: Flipping these words around, polyamory is, broadly speaking, one approach to engaging in (or being open to having) ethically nonexclusive relationships involving sex, romance, or deep emotional intimacy. What distinguishes solo poly people is that we generally do not have intimate relationships which involve (or are heading toward) primary-style merging of life infrastructure or identity along the lines of the traditional social relationship escalator. For instance, we generally don’t share a home or finances with any intimate partners. Similarly, solo poly people generally don’t identify very strongly as part of a couple (or triad etc.); we prefer to operate and present ourselves as individuals.
People can be solo poly by choice or circumstance. That is, some people prefer solo polyamory and are unwilling to strongly merge their identity or life infrastructure with their partners. Others simply happen to be effectively solo: they may desire (or be open to) primary-style relationships in the future, but they just don’t happen to have one at the moment.
Solo polyamory can be an expression of personal values. People who prefer solo polyamory generally embrace autonomy as a paramount value: their own, and that of others. (This is very much the case for me, but not for all solo poly people.)
Solo poly people may or may not also be “single,” in the conventional sense of that term (“completely unpartnered”). We may have one or more intimate partners who play a significant, ongoing role in our lives — or we may, at the moment, have no such relationships. At the time I wrote this post (December 2014) I was involved in one significant ongoing intimate relationship, while remaining open to others. Most of a year later, that relationship has ended, and I’m dating others, but nothing yet feels like a particularly deep relationship. And that’s OK.
I do consider myself poly; I wouldn’t participate in an exclusive or dishonest relationship. At times I may incidentally be single — but I am always solo, regardless of my partnership status. Also, I never really view myself as part of “a couple;” I’m an individual who has important and open intimate relationships with other individuals, when it feels right.
Nuances of solo polyamory
Beyond that definition, there are many options and nuances to solo polyamory. For instance, solo poly people may:
Engage in almost any type of ethically nonmonogamous relationship — very casual or deeply committed, short term or long term, flexible or rigidly defined, kinky or vanilla, sexually intimate or not, etc. Like anyone, solo poly people have individual preferences and get to define and explore their own comfort zone.
Live alone, or not. While many solo poly live alone (or prefer to), others may live with friends, roommates, family of origin or choice, their children, etc. They may have partners who stay with them part-time or for long stretches. They may be nomadic, or part of an intentional community. But typically, they do not live with any intimate partner. (And yes, admittedly “intimate” is a very fuzzy term when it comes to cohabitation. Roll with it.)
Some solo poly people may spend considerable time at home with partners, even sometimes living together part-time. Or they may come and go freely from each others’ homes. But generally, solo poly people do not merge dwellings or other resources with intimate partners in a way that would be difficult to disentangle should that relationship end or significantly shift.
Avoid hierarchy, or not. Since solo poly people don’t have primary-style partners, their relationships tend to be non-primary in nature (which doesn’t necessarily mean secondary.) Many solo people, myself included, prefer to avoid relationships with people who practice hierarchy — whether explicitly stated, or presumed. That’s because nonprimary partners are inherently disadvantaged by hierarchy — which is a big part of the point of hierarchy, after all. Plus, thanks to the common social presumptions of couple privilege and the relationship escalator, nonprimary partners often get treated unethically or poorly in hierarchical relationship networks.
That said, some solo poly people are comfortable in (or at least, are willing to accept) the role of being a secondary partner in an explicit hierarchy — accepting imposed rules and limits, or even a potential third-party veto. These people sometimes call themselves “single secondaries.” Furthermore, some solo poly people disagree that couple privilege exists at all, or that it’s a problem.
Date outside the poly community, or not. While solo poly people aren’t necessarily single, we may look that way to people outside the poly/open community. Therefore, conventionally single people sometimes are comfortable getting intimately involved with solo poly people, at least to some extent, since we kind of look like them (if you don’t look too closely). In contrast, dating someone in a primary-style poly/open relationship might seem more alien, and thus more challenging, to a conventional singleton.
Some solo poly people are comfortable dating conventional singles, or people who don’t specifically consider themselves poly or open. I myself am open to dating people who don’t consider themselves poly, as long as they respect, appreciate and embrace that I am polyamorous.
Some solo poly people will even date singles with a stated preference for eventual monogamy — although for me, that’s a major mismatch in terms of significant emotional investment, so I don’t tend to pursue more than casual short-term dating with people seeking eventual monogamy.
Some solo poly people prefer to date only within the polyamorous, open, relationship anarchist, swinger, or otherwise ethically nonmonogamous people. This can reduce potential misunderstandings, mismatched values, or the risk of being carelessly dumped when a partner suddenly “goes mono” on you. However, this approach does lead some solo poly people to feel like they’re “fishing in a teaspoon” — especially if they are unwilling to play the secondary role in a hierarchy.
What solo poly is not
Any identity label is mostly subjective. There’s lots of room for interpretation, variation, gray areas and disagreement. Below is how I usually make this distinction for solo polyamory.
CAVEAT: Again, I am not trying to tell anyone what they are, or what they should call themselves. I’m just trying to clarify where/how I think the term solo poly applies. I respect everyone’s right to self-identify as they choose. (With one minor exception, which I mention at the end.)
Basically, from my perspective, someone who is in a romantically/sexually exclusive two-person relationship, or who is seeking monogamy (or would ultimately prefer a wholly or mostly exclusive relationship) probably would not fit the “poly” part of the solo poly label — even though they may be otherwise solo (if they prefer a lot of autonomy even when in a relationship).
Nor, probably, would someone who is “dating around” or otherwise involved with multiple partners, but who doesn’t disclose all relationships to all partners. This can get murky, since some poly/open people (including solo poly folks) are fine with participating in don’t-ask-don’t-tell relationships — which by agreement do not involve full disclosure.
It gets trickier to distinguish whether a poly/open person is also “solo.” For instance, I’ve encountered some poly people in outwardly primary-seeming relationships (including legal marriage) who nevertheless choose to embrace the solo poly label in order to signify that they prize autonomy, eschew hierarchy, operate mostly as a free agent, and do not place limits or conditions on each other’s relationships. This is not wrong or bad — but it does usually generate some pushback.
The catch here is that hierarchy, enmeshment and couple privilege are endemic to society, and quite insidious. Appearances and circumstances matter, even though they can be deceiving. Consequently, people who are visibly partnered up in a more-or-less conventional fashion face rather different relationship and social dynamics from visibly solo people. It’s not a level playing field. This reality would make it very difficult (although theoretically not impossible) for someone who is, say, is married, living with their spouse, poly and nonhierarchical to consistently behave as (and be treated as) a solo person.
There is one blatantly incorrect way I’ve seen some people misunderstand and misuse the term solo poly. Some people think solo poly means “currently available for nonexclusive relationships that don’t necessarily involve my existing primary-style partner(s).” As in: “I’m solo poly; my wife is okay that I see other people, and we date separately.”
Yeah… no. Sorry. That’s nonmonogamous, possibly even poly. But if you’re in a primary-style relationship, you’re probably not solo — even if you and your primary partner don’t always date “as a couple.”
What does solo polyamory mean to you? Did I miss anything, or do you agree/disagree? Please comment below.
Want to talk with people about solo polyamory? Join the solo poly Facebook group. (Anyone is welcome to join.)