Going “We We”


July 28, 2015 by aggiesez

Picard facepalmLast night I was talking to a married poly guy, rather new (1-2 years) to polyamory. I was surprised to see that apparently he could not, for the life of him, discuss himself as an individual! Every sentence was “we, we, we…”

I pointed this out to him, explicitly, three times — for instance, by asking him, “Ok, so what has YOUR experience of polyamory been, as an individual, from your personal perspective?” It totally didn’t register. He’d answer that each time with sentences starting with “We…” (OK, once he did start to say “…I…” — but it so visibly discomforted him that he switched back to the plural before that sentence was over.)

He and his wife apparently do not date as a couple; they date separately and each have their own additional relationships. That’s great. And: If you’re dating as an individual, it generally helps to, you know, be able to present yourself as an individual — even if you’re also partnered. (This was especially relevant since he was seeking insight on how to meet more poly/poly-friendly people outside of polyamory meetups, as well as on how to flirt as a married poly guy.)

Our conversation continued — he was pretty eager to talk. He and his wife practice hierarchical polyamory, and he noted that hierarchy “works for us.”

So I asked him twice if he or his wife had ever asked the people they date whether hierarchy works for them, too. “Of course it does.” “Have you asked them?” “Of course it works for them. They’re like us, they usually have partners too.” “But have you asked them? You might want to actually ask them.” “But it works for us.”

I mentioned nonhierarchy as an option, as a thing that people do. He clearly couldn’t conceive of a relationship network that lacks a “primary.” The closest he got was, “Well it wouldn’t be practical or fair to make another partner equal.” (I’ve seen that before: assuming “no hierarchy” means that all partners must be primary and treated identically.)

He didn’t seem to grasp that in nonhierarchical polyamory, “equal” means that partners have equal negotiating power to each other. That is, the partners all get to have a full say in how their own relationship works — according to their own wishes, needs, priorities, boundaries and constraints. (Everyone has those, including solo poly people.) Ideally this all happens with consideration of others, including metamours — but ultimately it’s the partners, together, who decide how to handle their relationship (and not outside parties, even their spouses).

In contrast, in hierarchical polyamory, partners in a primary relationship are presumed to be entitled to set all the terms for how their secondary relationships will work — or whether they’ll even continue to exist. Secondary partners may (or may not) be free to advocate for their own needs and wishes — but that’s not really a deciding factor in how their relationship will work. Ultimately in hierarchical polyamory, the only “power” that secondary partners have is the Hobson’s choice of whether to stay or leave the relationship.

…Sigh…  It’s a good thing I wasn’t trying to educate or convince him about anything. That would have been futile, it appears.

This conversation highlighted how couple privilege and the Relationship Escalator mindset can be such a trap for some people, even in polyamory. These issues can limit what you’re able to perceive and think — like George Orwell’s Newspeak.

To lose the ability to conceive of, or express, yourself as an individual. To develop an allergy to first person singular. Wow. Doubleplusungood.

I don’t think this is a simple matter of pronoun preference — similar to respecting someone’s choice of gender (or gender neutral) pronouns. Rather, it’s a matter of whether you’re able and willing to see, and present, yourself as a discrete individual. That makes a big difference in how you can engage with other people.

Merging your identity with partners is not necessarily wrong or bad. It’s understandable that people sometimes want to identify strongly as part of a couple, family, community, corporation, etc. — and reflect that by saying “we” in some contexts. (Hell, even the U.K. monarchy deploys the “royal We,” and writers often use the “editorial we.”) However, eclipsing your individual identity in this process has some significant downsides.

The way this fellow talked might make more sense in the context of swinger lifestyle culture, which is generally strongly couple-centric, hierarchical, and highly structured. But in polyamory, even if you’re not solo — if you can’t present yourself as an individual, that makes it really hard for people to engage with you as an individual. Which can undermine your goals.

ADDENDUM: I’ve been getting some pushback to this post for criticizing this guy for doing polyamory differently. Rather than bury that in the comments, I’ll address it here.

Yep, I’m definitely being critical of his approach to how he presented himself and does polyamory. Not that he doesn’t have a right to be different — he absolutely does. But similarly, I am not obliged to approve, or to have no opinion.

Remember, this guy and his wife date people separately — not “as a couple.” In fact, he was specifically seeking input on how to meet more poly-friendly people, and flirt with them, outside of the context of poly community events. Commenting on his inability or unwillingness to present as an individual is warranted in that context.

Also, hierarchy is not inherently wrong or unethical; people are free to choose it. What bugged me here was his apparent unwillingness or inability to even consider that the people he and his wife date might have a different perspective on their hierarchy that really matters. Ignoring or discounting involved parties is a huge ethical quagmire that often leads to really shitty behavior, especially in polyamory. Many solo poly people know too well how that dance works.

Finally, about his inability to grasp that nonhierarchical polyamory might be possible — and that it’s not about treating all partners identically as primaries, but respecting nonprimary partners enough to accept that their voice really counts in their own relationship. That’s not wrong, nor unethical, but just… Classic.

3 thoughts on “Going “We We”

  1. Jody Wynnyk says:

    I met a newly poly couple several months ago. We shared a nice connection at that moment, but it was pretty clear that they were more swinger-like than myself (more poly-like). I told the story of the couple to another friend and she responded, ‘hand them this poly book and that poly book and tell them to read them and get back to you in 6 months.’ How ridiculous! People are where they are in the process. Maybe they’ll progress and grow in their relationships and sense of self, maybe they won’t. I like to think that the conversations I have with folks plants seeds of possibility of how they can grow going forward, but it’s not up to me to go back and ensure those seeds have properly taken root.

    • aggiesez says:

      To clarify, I actually wasn’t trying to educate him, I agree people are where they are. I was exploring where he was at by pushing at his boundaries.

  2. Sallie says:

    I think you made a good effort to help him see his privilege, but as in most situations involving privilege, he just can’t. Good try, though. He might see it when a solo polyamorist either refuses to date him or dumps him soon after, because he won’t protect their relationship equally with his wife’s. Then he will have some skin in the game–until then, he just can’t see it.

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