Occasionally I get some interesting letters. Recently, I was contacted by a High School Honors student seeking information for a paper. Here’s what the student wrote:
Hello, [...] I am currently working on a research paper on polygamy. I found your information on the lovemore.com website and I was wondering if you would be willing to answer the following questions.
How does dating work in a polygamist relationship?
Did you choose to be a polygamist? If so what made you choose to be a polygamist?
Did you grow up in a polygamist family? If not how does being a polygamist affect your non-polygamist family?
How do the children interact with multiple mothers?
How does being a polygamist child affect childhood?
Do you have to be a certain religion to be a polygamist?
What are your feelings on Warren Jeffs?
Do you believe that Warren Jeffs is the reason polygamy is illegal in some states?
How does being a polygamist affect your day to day life?
Why do you believe polygamy is illegal in multiple states?
Does polygamy being illegal affect your day to day life?
Is there anything that you think that I should know about polygamy in order to write my paper?
Thank you for taking time to read my email and answering my questions
This email, while clearly interested in the topic and asking some worthwhile questions, shows the vast gulf in understanding in the general public of what polyamory and polygamy actually are.
Here’s my response:
Dear [ ]:
I’ve been debating how to answer your questions since your first message. The issue, you see, is that you have contacted the wrong person to answer the questions you’ve asked. I’m not a polygamist. I practice *polyamory*. Here’s a quick definition:
Polyamory = poly (derived from the Greek for ‘many’) + amory (derived from the Latin for ‘love’)
In other words,
Polyamory is the belief in and/or practice of multiple loving relationships, with the full knowledge and consent of those involved.
Polyamory and polygamy are not the same thing, though they share the same Greek root meaning “many.” Polygamy, however, shares the root “gamy” with the word “monogamy,” which refers to human marriage customs. (See more here: http://www.affixes.org/g/-gamy.html)
In addition to that letter, I’ve also compiled a DRAFT of a table highlighting some of the similarities and differences between polyamory and polygamy. I’ve been hesitant to publish it, in part because I haven’t yet run it by any representatives from the groups discussed (other than polyamorists, where I’ve run the paper by some researchers into polyamory, a few months ago.) So if you, dear reader, identify with any of these groups, and you find areas that you feel need improvement, please do bring the matter/s to my attention (gently, if you can!) I wish to provide this list as a starting point for thought and discussion, not as a prescription for division. I myself am not a social scientist and do not claim to be an “academic.” The references and suggested readings listed are also not meant to be an exhaustive list, but instead a starting place for further research.
(as popularly understood in US;
aka religious polygyny) (1)
Multiple adult partners
Multiple adult partners
Deserving of human rights
Deserving of human rights
Stigmatized and misunderstood
Stigmatized and misunderstood
Lack of governmental or social recognition of family status
Lack of governmental or social recognition of family status
Egalitarian (shared power in relationship)
Patriarchal (decisions and responsibility reserved to male head of family)
Structure not based in organized religion (though practitioners may be religious and/or spiritual)
Structure originates in religious doctrine or belief
Any combination and number of genders in relationship structure
Relationship structure limited to 1 man, multiple women
Mostly not prohibited in the US (2)
Mostly prohibited in the US (3)
About love/romantic relationships
About marriage relationships
Long-term commitment optional
Long-term commitment a requirement
May be sexually open (individuals in the relationship may or may not have additional sexual relationships outside of the polyamorous relationship under discussion)
Always sexually closed (individuals within the relationship may only have sex within the relationship)
Same gender sexual relationships may be allowed
Heterosexual relationships only
Allows for gender fluidity and other non-normative gender expressions
Binary gender expression only
Relationship focused (May or may not consider themselves part of a family)
(1) Other forms of polygamy exist worldwide that are not based in religious doctrine or belief. This table does not address those and is not meant to imply that they either don’t exist, nor that they are the same as the religious form of polygamy discussed here. This table exists primarily to clarify the most common misperception of polyamory being “the same as polygamy,” as represented by, for instance the TV shows “Big Love” or “Sister Wives.”
(3) Some Christian polygamy groups advocate marrying and then getting a legal divorce in order to create a “spiritual marriage” only. This form of polygamy (in essence, a form of serial marriage) would be legal in the US. (Source: http://www.christianpolygamy.com/)
Do you have anything to add to this table? Any great references, important line items, or any comments or questions? As always, feel free to contact me on my Love Outside the Box webpage, to comment below, or to visit my Facebook page, LoveOTB. I welcome your discussion and feedback.
“There’s no One Right Way to be Polyamorous, but there are plenty of Wrong ways!”
– Miss Poly Manners
Polyamorous people are often known to proclaim that one of the advantages of being poly is that there is no “One Right Way” to do it. This allows us the freedom to create our own “designer relationships,” that fit the needs and wants of the individual partners, rather than trying to shoehorn ourselves into a set of “standard” or “societal” expectations that don’t. This is great in theory, but sometimes falls down in practice.* And it turns out Miss Poly Manners is right about all the ways that there are to be wrong.
Pitfall #1 Using the same words to mean different things
Pitfall #2 Taking on more relationships than you actually have time and energy for
Pitfall #3 Agreeing to polyamory and then having a “secret” affair
Pitfall #4 Making promises you can’t keep
Pitfall #5 Trying to transition quickly and smoothly from being discovered engaging in a secret affair to creating an open relationship
You’ll want to read the rest of the article for more detailed information, since (as usual) she has some good observations. The first thing I noticed, though, is that Anapol’s list overlaps with my own 5 Reasons Agreements Fail (from my “KISSable Agreements” workbook series) in a couple of areas. Here’s my list:
Anapol also suggests in Pitfall #4 that “making promises you can’t keep” is a surefire way to have Polyamory fail. I agree, and I think it doesn’t apply just to polyamory, but to any Agreements (whether it’s in a polyamorous context or not.) As you can see above, Reason #5 that Agreements can fail is the “Agreement Simply Can’t Work,” (aka “I just shouldn’t have agreed to that”.) It covers situations where you thought you could agree to something and found out later that it’s beyond your capacity to do so, or where some other Agreement got in the way (maybe one to another person that you forgot about in the moment, or that you weren’t completely clear about at the time.) Whether or not you intended to keep the Agreement, though, the fact is that you can’t … and that means you made a promise you couldn’t keep (i.e., fell into Pitfall #1.)
The 5 Reasons posts aren’t up yet (sorry for the delay!), but all of the Agreements Workbook Entries I’ve already posted are here: http://blog.unchartedlove.com/?tag=workbook. I’ll have the first of the 5 Reasons posts (on the topic of Caveats and Assumptions) up tomorrow (Sat 2/2). :^)
In the meantime, I’m very curious to know… what reasons have YOU experienced that caused your poly relationships or Agreements to fail? What did you do to recover when those happened? As always, feel free to comment below, contact me via my webpage, or on my Facebook Page, Love Outside The Box.
May all your poly (or other) relationships succeed more often than they fail!
PS: Did you know I’m running a Valentine’s Day special on my coaching packages? If you’d like to talk more about how your Agreements are working (or aren’t!), I’d be happy to set up a time to meet in person (in the SF Bay Area), by phone, or via some other remote means (e.g., Skype).
[*That brings up a favorite joke of mine: Q: What's the difference between theory and practice? A: In theory, there isn't one, but in practice, there is!]
This has been a hard week. I am surrounded by loss, impending and tangible. The impending loss is of a personal nature, and involves me facing my own mortality in the mirror of my parents. The already-tangible loss involves several deaths I’ve heard of so far in the last few days. In particular, the loss of community members Brian Baker and Adam Griffiths has hit many of us very hard. Adam was not someone I knew well, but Brian was a friend and colleague. He will be sorely missed, and many of us are grieving this week, for both of them.
These losses and changes bring up fears. Fears of my own mental and emotional stabilities, for instance. Will I, like my grandmother and my mother, also face the gradual eroding of my self and my memories? Will it change my personality, or render me incapable of self-care? Even if that’s not my fate, I might have something happen to me (as with my father) that takes some portion of who I am, and leaves me permanently altered. How would I handle that? Would I still be ME? And even if THAT doesn’t happen… we never know how many days are left to us, as is so clear in the passing of these incredibly vital friends, taken “at their peak,” as many shared at a memorial gathering the other night.
We never know what will happen. For me, this stirs up thoughts about risk and safety. Far from driving me to take fewer risks, it tends to make me feel guilty for NOT having taken MORE, for not having been bolder and stronger, for not having gotten my work out sooner. I try to be gentle with myself (it’s a lot of grief, and a lot to process, after all), at the same time I’m feeling driven ahead by this sense of urgency.
I wrote this to someone privately today:
“Safety” is an illusion, ultimately. It’s a FEELING within ourselves. We
have control over our decisions to proceed, in spite of or considering
risks. Choosing a lower risk activity or course doesn’t not, however,
generally mean NO risk… and therefore may still result in “unsafety.”
There are no guarantees in life, no matter how “safe” one tries to be.
Being wholly and fully alive, living your purpose in every moment …
that is, in my opinion, far better than attempting to play it safe, and
ending your life unfulfilled. I honor and cherish your goal to use good
accomplishments to fuel your desire for a positive world.
So mote it be.
Love is also a risk.
It’s a risk to dare to connect with others, when we don’t know the outcome. It’s a risk to love in the face of rejection. It’s a risk to love in our own way, despite the real potential for stigma or censure. But thing is…
We never know if there will be a tomorrow.
So I’m urging you now, my friends, my family, my colleagues, and all you relationship explorers out there (whether I’ve met you yet or not): Take your relationSHIP out of the harbor. Even if it scares you, even if you don’t know how it could possibly succeed, even if you are afraid of failing, or that someone might hate you for who or how many you love. Take the risk. Love boldly.
Tell everyone you love how much they mean to you. Pick up the phone, write an email, go into the next room and give them a hug. Send an old-fashioned letter! Even if your relationship is strained, if you can, try to imagine how you might feel if suddenly, tomorrow, they were gone, and your words of love were left unsaid. Would you regret it? Then speak love to them, now. Loving someone doesn’t necessarily mean approving of everything they do, by the way. Sometimes loving someone is an act of will! or an exercise in choosing your words carefully. :^) But if that feeling is there (even a tiny bit), then in my opinion it’s worth sharing, now, in this moment… because now is the only time we have.
“I’m speaking up for those who feel lost and alone, and who’ve been rejected by others for core pieces of their being, whether that’s paganism, poly, their bodies, kink, or whatever. I’m here to say “you are not alone,” and “you are fine, just the way you are,” and hand them some tools and roadmaps.”
– Dawn Davidson, Nov. 30, 2012
But that’s not the only thing that has me thinking about Identity. See, there’s been a kerfluffle in my world that affects my recent ordination. It’s mostly not even about me, but instead, about my sponsoring priestess. Apparently, They (the powers that be in the organization through which we were both ordained) became quite concerned with the fact that my sponsoring priestess both practices and teaches Sacred BDSM (aka Sacred Kink — see here for the excellent book on the topic, Sacred Kink: The Eightfold Paths Of BDSM And Beyond, by Lee Harrington.) The reasons for this are several, but the biggest reason appears to be that They have conflated what my sponsoring priestess does, with what happened at the Sedona Temple earlier this year. Please understand that I have nothing against Tantra either (I practice Western Tantra myself and recommend it as a path of connection for individuals, couples and even groups in some situations). What my sponsoring priestess does is a) legal, b) ethical, and c) not what brought the Sedona Temple down (which was accusations of prostitution.) Ultimately, the point of the whole thing isn’t the details of what she’s practicing or teaching, but the fact that They took action based on misinformation, incomplete information, and fear. They feared being “tarred with the same brush,” and chose to denounce the whole of BDSM as a whole, rather than having detailed conversations first and taking actions later.
Now, to be fair, some of the situation was exacerbated by a lack of communication and missed communications between the org and my sponsoring priestess. However, I feel that greater efforts at understanding could have been taken before they chose to denounce several personal sexual practices and choices, revoke the ordination of my sponsoring priestess, and invalidate the ordinations of all of her sponsorees (myself included.)
(By the way, I’m continuing at this time to not speak directly about this organization in this public blog, because I’m still hopeful that some sort of rapprochement might be possible. I do not wish to make the situation worse. Additionally, one of Their issues with me in particular was that I had linked to their site using their logo on my own webpage about my ministerial services without first asking permission. Oops, my bad. For now, I’ve removed the offending references pending resolution. However, none of this changes my basic feelings about the situation, and I’m certainly not against anyone with a stake in the matter speaking out about their own experiences and feelings, or writing on behalf of my sponsoring priestess. I’m just trying to not make things unnecessarily worse for myself, or for her. Write me privately if you would like further information, including templates for a letter writing campaign to educate this organization about sacred kink, or to speak out on behalf of my sponsoring priestess in particular.)
It’s also important (in my view anyway) to note that their action (in revoking my ordination and that of all of the sponsorees) does not actually affect either my mission as a counselor, as a priestess/minister, nor does it affect my ability to perform weddings (and other such ceremonies) here in California (and in some other states.) I was ordained on October 10th, 1989, through the Universal Life Church, and I have confirmed with the ULC that they still have a record of that ordination. My ordination through this other organization was intended mostly to create community ties, and a mutual network of support (hence my cross-linking). I’m sad to lose that, of course, but it has no bearing on my legal ability to serve as a priestess/minister.
Even more to the point, as I told them in my response:
I was also VERY clear during the ordination on Oct 7th that I received that transmission from the Goddess herself, and whatever choices are made here on the physical plane in the [national and international organizations], you (collectively) cannot remove from me that Divine blessing and calling to service. I was called into Her service, and in her service I remain, with or without your blessing, acknowledgment, or papers.
Honestly, when I wrote my piece “Coming Out About Love,” which described some of my soul searching while preparing for the ordination, I was afraid to post it publicly on my website… but what I feared at the time was getting pushback from the *poly* community about my *spirituality*. It never in my wildest dreams occurred to me that the trouble might be the other way around! And yet, here we are.
… Imagine my dismay to find myself facing what appears to me to be the same core issue in the very pagan organization with which I thought to align myself: prejudice and blatant lack of understanding and compassion regarding personal choice, and the teaching of these personal choices as loving, valid forms of relating.
Here I sit, my friends, with egg on my face about my (mostly private) judgments earlier. I am reminded, forcefully, of the bumper sticker one of my partners used to have on his car, that read:
Fundies are fundies, whether they pray to the Lord or the Goddess.
So I offer my apologies to my Christian — and pagan, atheist, agnostic, etc — friends who are NOT judgmental and/or fearful of things they don’t understand. Thank you to all of you good-hearted folks out there striving to understand and accept things outside of your experience. I appreciate you so much! Thank you for being yourselves, and allowing the space for others to be themselves as well, even when you don’t fully understand the whys and wherefores.
And to all of you — whatever sort of experiences you may have, and whatever ways you might identify, let me reiterate that you are not alone, and you are OK, just the way you are. Whoever you are and whatever choices you make — so long as those are done in Love and respect, and between consenting adults — that’s totally ok! We don’t all have to like the same things, do the same things, or go the same places. If we did, the world would be boring, and we’d all be trying to squeeze into the same restaurant. Ugh!
So in that spirit, let me offer you something I started brainstorming the other night (inspired by the awesome Samantha Bennett again). At the bottom of this post I’ve added 21 Reasons To Be Yourself. I think I’m just getting started on this list, so if you have other reasons to offer, please let me know! Feel free to comment below, contact me here, or on my FB Page, Love Outside The Box. I’d be happy to add your reasons, too.
Always remember how awesome you are!
PS: If you’re interested in discussing issues around identity (or any other related topic, such as polyamory, kink, jealousy, Agreements, managing new relationship energy, etc), feel free to schedule a 1/2 hour free consultation with me. BONUS: For a limited time, each FREE consultation comes with a Jealousy Judo pdf of tools to use to manage jealousy in yourself. Let me know how I can support YOU in being yourself, and speaking your own truth!
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A 21 self-salute:
21 Reasons to be yourself
1) because no one else can do it — you are the only you there is
2) because you have something to say to the world
3) because your children (or your nieces, nephews, little siblings, etc) need you to — how else could you make it safe for them to be *themselves*?
4) because the world needs you to — it’s time for all of us to stop trying to be someone else, and to give up ransacking the world to “keep up with the Joneses”
5) because Deity (God, Goddess, the Universe, your higher self, the FSM…) put you here to do something. You wouldn’t want to let God — or yourself — down, would you?
6) so all the other people like you don’t feel so much alone
7) because it isn’t anyone else’s business WHO you are, anyway
8) because otherwise, you’ll go to your grave thinking “what if?”
9) because THEY said you can’t do/be/say that
10) because it feeds your soul
11) because it makes you happy. And that’s enough, all by itself. Really.
12) because what if reincarnation is true, and you aren’t yourself this time, and have to come back and do it all over again?
13) because you’re ok — great, even — just the way you are
14) because you look silly in Julia Roberts’ clothes (I mean, unless you’re Julia Roberts, in which case, you look just fine!) Stop trying to be someone you’re not.
15) because otherwise, who’s going to [bake the cookies/fix the car/type the memo] if you’re off wasting energy elsewhere?
16) because somewhere, sometime, someone will be inspired by you
17) because otherwise, the terrorists (internal or external) will have won
18) because it’s a great way to silence that nasty voice in your head that says you’re “less than.” By definition, nobody can be a better you than you!
19) because otherwise, how will the postal carrier know whom to deliver your mail to?
20) because *you matter*. Your thoughts, feelings, and actions in this world leave a mark in this world. The lack of them would, too. Choose to make your mark.
21) otherwise, how could your college buddies find you on Facebook?
It is different things for different people, and sometimes at different times for the same person.
To which I added:
“…and for the same person with *different people.*”
As an example, I have some partners where the “fundamental harmonic” is kinky, and some for whom it is not. I literally cannot have vanilla sex with one partner, and I never or rarely have kinky sex with another. It’s about the dynamic BETWEEN individuals, not about some static quality of each person. The fact that there’s a “fundamental harmonic” doesn’t mean that other harmonics are less “real” or less “true” for any particular interaction.
By extension, I think it’s possible for people to be somewhere on the mono to poly/open scale, and to be in a fundamentally poly dynamic with one (or more) partner/s, and in a fundamentally mono dynamic with another. I think they can APPEAR to change over time, much as bisexual people appear to change over time, when really, it’s more that they’re expressing different parts of themselves at different times with different people. People are complex, after all!
I even referred to this (in a different context) a couple of months back in my blog:
“…I think it’s by far the most common case that polyamory includes sex. In my definition, polyamory most often includes sex, in the exact same way that monogamy most often includes sex, but can be experienced without it; they’re both relationship styles after all. But just as it’s possible to have a celibate or sex-free monogamous relationship, it’s quite possible that someone might identify as polyamorous but not be having sex or in a sexual relationship. The presence or absence of sex is not like a light switch after all. Otherwise, we’d all walk around changing our status whenever we had a sexual encounter (or didn’t): Now polyamorous, now celibate, momentarily monogamous, polyamorous again ….” (http://blog.unchartedlove.com/?p=1594)
Ultimately, I am concluding, I do view polyamory as an orientation — whether a sexual one or “only a relationship one” pretty much doesn’t matter in this case — which might for some of us be/become an identity. As Jessica Burde said on the PLN list, I think it’s possible for poly to be BOTH “something you are” AND “something you do.” Which, I’ll note, can be true of being “Queer” as well (much as Dan might prefer to skip over that part): You can certainly engage in same-sex sexual behaviors, without identifying as “queer”; and you can certainly identify as gay, for instance, while not being in any currently sexual relationship whatsoever.
Sarah Taub mentioned in the version of this thread on the PLN list that she views the genesis of this tension (at least in the US, and I’ll add, possibly the driving force behind Dan’s need to exclude polyamory as an orientation or an identity) as being the struggle for rights and freedoms. The GLBT movement leaders largely chose to frame the discussion as a matter of “innate orientation,” saying that people should not be penalized for expressing their true nature (“we can’t help it.”) So therefore same-sex couples and families should not be penalized in terms of marriage rights and tax benefits, for instance, because “they can’t help being who they are.”
(This framework is, not incidentally, problematic for bisexuals (among others), since people who can choose to be in either a heterosexual or a homosexual relationship don’t fit well within an “I can’t help it” framework. This is undoubtedly at least part of why so many bi folk have felt dismissed, denigrated, or just erased by the GLBT rights activists over the years… and why poly folks and bisexuals seem to have found common cause in at least some cases.)
The polyamory contingent of the SF Pride Parade, on June 26 2005, marching under the registration of the Bay Area Bisexual Network (BABN.)
On the other hand, there’s another common framework for the “fairness” discussion that dates back at least to the founding of our country, which is the idea of “free choice.” This is what our doctrine of “freedom of religion” is based upon: “everyone gets to choose whether and how to worship deity/spirit, without interference from the government” (at least in theory).
As Sarah said, GLBT activists have mostly used the first frame, and poly activists have mostly used the second. There are some GLBT activists that choose the second frame (e.g., “everyone gets to choose whom they love, and whom they call family”), but by and large the differences in these frames can explain why the conversation comes up over and over again as a point of tension, and why (inexplicably to me, previously), so many GLBT folks seem to view polys as “the enemy” rather than natural allies.
I think ultimately, I’m with Bonefish, commenting on Dan’s blog, who says that whether or not polyamory is a sexual orientation (which arguably it’s not under most current definitions of “sexual orientation”), it most definitely CAN be an “identity.” The point, ultimately, isn’t “orientation vs. choice.” The point is actually that regardless of whether polyamory is something innate, or something chosen, it can still be a primary part of one’s identity. And no one — not Dan, not some church, not the government — has a right to tell me (or you!) what and who is important to me. I get to love who I love, and to say that, and I shouldn’t have to be ashamed of it, nor fear consequences for speaking out about it (though this latter is still unfortunately true for many people regarding employment and child custody issues in particular. See Woodhull’s Family Matters Project for more on “rights, recognition and respect for all families.”)
To sum up, I think that with regard to the issue of polyamory as identity, Dan has his loud mouth up his proverbial backside, and people have come out in force to tell him so. What a shame he can’t recognize polyamorous people as potential allies if you doused us in glowpaint and shone a blacklight on us! I’ll surely be looking forward to seeing the responses he posts in next week’s promised follow up on the original post! Should be very interesting indeed….
I’d be curious to know, by the way, how you identify. Feel free to fill out this quick checkbox form if you’d like. (You don’t even have to leave your email address for this one [ETA: and I've even made the name field optional, too].
May you have as much love as you want, need, and deserve (no matter what your orientation is!)
PS: It’s kinda funny, actually, because I said some stuff recently that might be read as agreeing with Dan, that poly is something you do rather than are (here in my most recent Agreements Tip, #6.) To clarify, though, I see it more as a case of AND rather than OR. Yes, when making Agreements, it’s a good idea to keep sexual behaviors separate from relationship needs. That’s more about how Agreements (especially ones around Safer Sex) work, though, and not about the validity of viewing polyamory (or GLBT, or…) as either behavior or orientation.
This seems a little bit arbitrary in the world of Anything Goes, doesn’t it? You may behave however you want sexually in Savage World, but the political dictionary is strictly maintained.
That does seem a bit odd, doesn’t it, for someone like Dan who usually argues that no one else should be allowed to comment on his chosen relationship? So who made him god … er … the editor of the “political dictionary” when it comes to polyamory??
In keeping with my WNFIN / NaNoWriMo goal (mentioned in yesterday’s post) to finish a draft of my Agreements Workbook, here’s the next installment in the Agreements Workbook, Tip #4: “Pay Attention to the Cost/Benefit Ratio” (aka The Fun Factor), which is about creating balance, especially when one or more partners are being asked to give something up whether temporarily, or longer.
As always, if you have any questions or comments about these Agreements Workbook entries, feel free to contact me here, or on my FB Page, Love Outside The Box.
PS: Want to talk more specifically about your own situation? I’ll be happy to do a mini-session for you for free. Just drop me a line!
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4) Pay Attention to the Cost/Benefit Ratio
Face it, some things are just more fun than others. And giving up something fun in exchange for doing something less fun, isn’t fun! While fun certainly isn’t the only thing in life, and may not be the best measure of the worth of a particular activity, it is important to consider when making Agreements. It’s especially important if one person is being asked to give up something fun — whether temporarily, or longer-term — in order to support their partner’s (or partners’) comfort or needs. As I discussed above [p. ____], the relationship needs your needs. Therefore, it’s a good idea to try to keep some balance by making sure that the cost/benefit ratio and/or “fun factor” is sufficient to make it possible to keep the Agreement without a lot of stress or a build-up of resentment.
Balancing everyone’s needs can be challenging!
One way to go about this is to substitute something else that’s as much or more fun than the thing you’re doing without. For instance, you might decide that, although wheat gives you a rash and therefore you can’t eat pie or cake, you don’t have problems with chocolate or ice cream, and so you substitute one of those for dessert. Each one is relatively the same amount of “fun” and so you’re unlikely to feel upset at getting one, but not the other. Conversely, substituting a coconut macaroon for a chocolate-chip cookie is not going to work as well if you don’t like or can’t eat coconut. The cost outweighs any potential fun of eating the cookie. You might decide to forego the cookies altogether, and maybe feel deprived about it, or resentful.
Why is this important? Because resentment leads to bad feelings, an imbalance in the “Magic Relationship Ratio,” and eventually to the destruction of the relationship, according to John Gottman, a prominent researcher on relationships. [refs] While it’s possible (and in fact necessary) to overcome relationship “glitches” with “repair attempts,” if resentments and deprivations and an overall feeling of “out of balance” persist long enough, they will be toxic to the relationship. Consequently, it’s best to avoid creating the resentments in the first place, if at all possible.
Similarly, it’s best to avoid making Agreements that are difficult to make, or lead to the relationship feeling like a “chore.” This also will lead to an imbalance in the Magic Relationship Ratio, and the eventual erosion of the relationship.
Let’s look at an example in negotiating a safer sex Agreement. It’s possible that, for various reasons, one lover might ask another to forego having intercourse with a new lover, a particular lover, or lovers who are not inside of a “condom compact” or other Agreement. However, the people making the Agreement may have mutually decided that tantra/energy sex, or BDSM/kink activities are allowable with that partner or partners. Or maybe it’s the reverse, and sex is ok, but only one person ever calls this person “Master.” Whatever the “fun” things are, only those involved with the relationship can decide which things are of more or less equal “fun” value. But if everyone agrees that they are of equal value, and agrees that the substitution is ok, then it’ll make the Agreement easier to follow.
However, if one person tries to dictate to the other/s based on their own “fun” scale, without consulting their partner/s, it’s less likely to work well. It’s important to remember that things aren’t of equal value or fun to each person, and therefore the cost of giving them up may not be the same for any two people, even if it appears on the surface to be “fair.” For instance, giving up “Penis in Vagina (PIV) intercourse” might be easy if you’re a Kinsey-4 bisexual woman, but much more difficult if you’re a straight male who doesn’t much like oral sex (I’ve heard tell there are some like that! . So making a blanket Agreement to have “only oral sex with outside partners” would place a greater burden on the hypothetical straight male, than on the K-4 bisexual woman. His selection of partners might be significantly affected, while hers might not be affected at all, or only slightly. The cost/benefit ratio of this Agreement will not be the same for each person, even though the Agreement otherwise appears to be “fair.”
The 12-Step programs utilize this cost-benefit ratio in some ways. One way is by substituting going to meetings, instead of engaging in the addictive behavior. For most people in these programs, drinking (for instance) is going to be a lot more fun than going to meetings, on a case-by-case basis. It’s not that the meetings are no fun at all (hanging out with friends can be great, in fact), but relatively speaking, the addiction is likely to seem more fun to most people, especially in the early stages of recovery. However, the “fun” side is not the only factor in the ratio. Over the long term, the cost of drinking (in terms of money, relationship issues, work problems, etc) is going to be far higher than the cost of attending the meetings. So the eventual cost/benefit ratio is favorable enough to many people to make it worth the effort of letting go of the former behavior.
The point of this section is not so much to dictate any particular behaviors or things that “should” or “should not” be in whatever Agreements that you make (that will be as individual as you are), as it is to remind you to keep the cost-benefit ratio in mind when you do make potentially “imbalanced” Agreements. Sometimes you can work around an unfavorable cost-benefit ratio by “sweetening the pot” (e.g., “I’ll make dinner for you on the day after I have an overnight date”.) Other times you might choose to experiment with a Time-limited Agreement (e.g., “I don’t feel comfortable doing that for a month, but I might be able to do it for 2 weeks, and then we can revisit it.) [See p. ___ on Time-Limited Agreements.] However you choose to address it, it will be easier to keep the Agreements if you’ve thought about these things in advance, and if the cost-benefit ratio is generally fair, and not skewed against one or more people in the Agreement.
 (This is, of course, a gross simplification, and not meant to minimize the effort of quitting an addiction, which is usually a very complex issue, and highly individual.)
Note that these entries are all rough drafts, and thus are probably missing things like references. If you know the perfect reference to add, feel free to suggest it! I always like to add to my resource collection.
Honestly, I think that this section might be one of THE most important in the book. It’s crucially important to understand that without a focus on WIN-WIN-WIN (etc) for the entire relationship as a whole, it’s not possible to make functional and lasting Agreements. This shift to a cooperative, co-creative model of meeting needs — and away from a competitive one — is fundamental to what I mean when I talk about my own orientation toward Love as a spiritual path. For me, being truly IN LOVE with my partners means that their needs are as important to me as my own — not more important, nor less important, but instead equally important. It’s another place where I try to remember to ask “WWLD?” (What Would Love Do? ;^)
Some people try to negotiate by just giving in. For whatever reason—perhaps they don’t know what their needs are; don’t think they’re worth having others help to meet them; expect that they can’t get them anyway, etc.—these people don’t bring their needs to the table, don’t state them, or don’t state them clearly. Then they’re puzzled as to why no one ever takes care of them, why they’re always so exhausted, or why they feel resentful down the line. They’ll often say “whatever YOU want dear,” but expect the other person to mind-read, already know what they want/need, or to anticipate their needs and factor them in.
This is a very bad strategy. At the very least, it often leads this person to be perpetually waiting for other people to fulfill needs that they’ve never stated (see the “Grandmother” joke on p. __.) In its most pernicious form, it’s flat-out passive-aggressive, confusing, maddening, and will eventually erode the relationship from neither party getting what they really need.
The relationship needs your needs
It’s important for both/all parties to honor that both people’s needs are important, and need to be met. Why is this? It’s because the relationship needs your needs.
“Say what? That makes no sense!” I can hear some of you saying.
I’ll say it again: The relationship needs your needs.
One way to think about the dynamics of a relationship is to realize that to some degree, the relationship itself is one of the players in the negotiation game. The idea behind negotiation is to get to a win-win-win scenario, where no one feels taken advantage of, and everyone gets what they need, and even some or most of what they want. On the flip side of what I just discussed — passive-aggressive behavior — each party can end up feeling in competition with the other/s for scarce resources. (This is a really great recipe for jealousy, by the way; see Fig. __[Kathy Labriola's 4-Part Jealousy Model, which is available on the backside of the Jealousy Diagnosis sheet, also available as a free download].)
In Fig.___ below, I’ve included a very small matrix (a table) of a relationship between two people, with Person A along the top, and Person B along the side. [Sorry for the crappy formatting here; consider it a little incentive to buy the book once I get it out! ]
Fig. __: Matrix of Win vs. Lose for Person A, Person B, and the Relationship as a whole
Of course, many polyamorous or non-exclusive relationships have more than two people in them. However, if you break things down, it rapidly becomes apparent that one way to look at multiple relationships is as a series of dyads, or pairs, in addition to another entity, the relationship as a whole (see Appendix A for a more detailed explanation.)
So if we accept for the purpose of this example that the ideal in any interaction between two people in relationship is to end up supporting the relationship (otherwise there wouldn’t be a need for an Agreement…), then there is only one way in which that can happen in the scenario in Fig. ___. Only if both Person A and Person B feel like they’ve “won” does the relationship win. If either one feels like they’ve lost, then the relationship as a whole has lost. If the relationship loses enough times—and especially if one of the partners loses all or most of the time—then eventually, there will be no relationship.
Please note that for the relationship to win, it’s not possible for one or both of the people to capitulate, “cave in,” or otherwise give up their needs completely. That also will lead the relationship to lose, and as we discussed above, eventually that leads to no relationship. Remember: the relationship needs your needs!
So somehow, you’ll need to get to a point where everyone’s needs are being addressed, and the relationship as a whole is “winning.” That’s where negotiation comes in, which I’ll cover in the next section.
 True confessions time: In this section, you can assume that when I say “they,” I really mean “I.” Not only have I gone there more than once, I’ve got a season pass, so to speak. I speak from personal experience!
Note that these entries are all rough drafts, and thus are probably missing things like references. If you know the perfect reference to add, feel free to suggest it! I always like to add to my resource collection.
I’ve barely begun it myself, but one thing that struck me is the excellent definition of terms at the outset of the article. Please note that these terms and definitions are the author’s for the purpose of the article– they’re not mine, nor are they meant to be considered to be “the only right way” to define these terms — but I found these descriptions of various subsets of the larger community to be succinct and quite useful, and thought I’d share. I find them particularly interesting, given the ongoing discussions within the community/communities about the definitions of these words. Enjoy!
[From p. 273 of the article: Kevin J. Zimmerman (2012): Clients in Sexually Open Relationships: Considerations for Therapists, Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 24:3, 272-289]
“Open relationship is an umbrella term that encompasses any relationship structure that is not monogamous. It is useful at the start to deﬁne some common relationship patterns that nonmonogamous clients may bring up in therapy. Partnered nonmonogamy refers to a committed couple that allows for extradyadic sex. Swinging is nonmonogamy in a social context, also referred to as “the lifestyle.” Polyamory allows for partners to have more than one relationship that is sexual, loving, and emotional. Solo Polyamory deﬁnes nonmonogamous individuals who do not want a primary partner. Polyﬁdelity refers to three or more people who have made a commitment to be in a primary relationship together. A monogamous/nonmonogamous partnership is one in which one person is monogamous and the other is not. Open relationships are different from inﬁdelity or cheating because partners agree on the sexual boundaries of the relationship and there is no deception about sex. In this respect, successful open relationships typically involve individuals who privilege authenticity over conformity in their relationships.”
What do you think about the author’s definitions and statements here? I’m largely in agreement with him, though I have some small quibbles (e.g., I think “solo polyamory” could easily apply to people who do not have a primary partner, as well as those who don’t want one.) I was particularly happy with his clear distinction between Polyamory/Open Relationships and Cheating, and with his definition of Polyamory:
Polyamory allows for partners to have more than one relationship that is sexual, loving, and emotional.
Seems like it hits the high points, though I think the concept of “honest” is important enough to include in the definition, if one is quoting it without the rest of the paragraph for context. Here’s my own previously posted definition as one comparison point:
So what does “polyamory” mean to you? Do you agree that “Open relationship is an umbrella term that encompasses any relationship structure that is not monogamous”? Or does “open” have a slightly different meaning to you, as it does to me? (See my blog article I’m Poly AND Open for more details.) Do you have any other comments or observations about how being open/poly/etc works for you, or what sort of things YOU think a therapist should know in working with you? How does the therapist’s understanding of these terms influence your comfort in the session/s? Are these terms you’d find useful in discussing your own relationships/s with others?
“I’m speaking up for those who feel lost and alone, and who’ve been rejected by others for core pieces of their being, whether that’s paganism, poly, their bodies, kink, or whatever. I’m here to say “you are not alone,” and “you are fine, just the way you are,” and hand you some tools and roadmaps.”
What do YOU need to be heard about?
firstname.lastname@example.org or 510-686-3386.
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