Primary, Secondary, Tertiary & Worthless.*

July 15, 2011 at 10:19 am (Polyamory, Relationship) (, , , , , , , , )


*Title stolen from a Tweet by @BadPolyAdvice.

I know there is no right or wrong way to “do poly”. There’s no rulebook everyone must adhere to. I’m not going to say that poly people should all think the way I do about how they refer to their relationships. I’m admittedly new to poly and doing a lot of thinking, exploring, and wondering, so I’m no expert at the practical application of the poly philosophy to real life. That said, I do have a point I want to make, and I think it’s valid. Regarding relationships and labels, we need to think carefully about why we use the labels we do, and what that says to others, and how it affects our thinking.

Many of us are resistant to certain labels, or labels of any kind. But there are some benefits: labels serve to identify people and things in ways that can be commonly understood, and I don’t think that, as a society, we’ll ever stop using them. I do think that we need to use all labels with care, because the words we choose can sometimes say much more than we mean. And by using words that carry so much weight, we may be limiting our thinking about the things we are labeling, and this applies particularly to polyamorous relationships.

The way we label our relationships is troublesome for me.  In poly relationships, it’s very common to refer to your partners as primary or secondary.

Primary: first or highest in rank or importance; first in order in any series, sequence, etc.; first in time; earliest.

Secondary: Next after the first in order, place, time, etc. belonging or pertaining to a second in order, rank, etc; derived or derivative; not primary or original.

There are a lot of reasons to use the primary and secondary labels for your relationships. It sets a clear rank and hierarchy; it establishes who is most important to you, and therefore who will get the most of your time, which is a finite quantity; it helps manage expectations among everyone involved; it establishes boundaries. Frankly, it’s just handy to put your lovers in order. Right?

For a lot of reasons, I have a general resistance to hierarchical definitions. I find them belittling. To see them used in terms of intimate relationships irks me. To me, it says, “I have compared Partner B to partner A, and Partner B comes up wanting. Partner A is better.”  This seems like a value judgment; and because A is primary, he/she gets the most, and B gets a little less. Do value judgments and comparisons have a place in polyamorous, open relationships? I don’t think that they do.

Ranking implies a decrease in value the farther down the rank you go. It also implies there is less to give for the lower ranks. With time, yes, we are all limited, and we have to make choices between work, self care, chores, friends, lovers. But is love a finite quantity? Do we have less love to give each successive partner?

Isn’t that what we’re arguing against by being poly in the first place – that starvation mentality, that there’s only so much love to give and then it’s used up?

I also wonder if using the primary label closes one off to possibilities. If I say to each new potential partner, “I have a primary and he’s most important”, that does help towards setting expectations about the amount of time and attention another potential partner could receive. But to me, it could also say, “I’ve already compared you to someone, even though I don’t know you as well as I know him, but I already know that you can’t measure up to him, even though I don’t know you as well yet.” That immediately erects a wall: you can come in, but only this far. It could restrict how that relationship might grow.

But the fact is, I don’t know what might develop with a new partner.  I may have met my primary first, chronologically, but it’s certainly not inconceivable that there might be another person out there who is also compatible with me. And I could potentially have – gasp – my primary become my secondary. Ouch for him! (1) So do I use the primary label to protect my chronologically first lover from outside threats?

Is it inconceivable to have peer relationships, with equivalent amounts of love being exchanged?

Polyamorous: pertaining to participation in multiple and simultaneous loving or sexual relationships.

That’s a really fundamental definition, but I think sometimes it’s good to go back to the fundamentals. Multiple and simultaneous. Not greater/lesser. Not superior/inferior. Not primary/secondary. Multiple, simultaneous. No ranking of one against the other. No comparison. Just concurrent.

Human beings have value. It can take a while to discover exactly how much value any given person brings to your life. My argument against using hierarchical labels is that it creates a barrier that could prevent you, and your new/potential lovers, from experiencing organic growth in a relationship. When you tell them from the outset that the possibilities are limited, regardless of what qualities this new person might bring or what potential they might have, you’re closing yourself off. That’s not loving behavior, to me.

Being open means being without limitations. When I use words that erect a hierarchy, I’m setting limits. I’m not open.

I’m sure there are many arguments to the contrary of what I’ve expressed here. This is all my own opinion, based of course on my own limited experience. For me, personally, I know labels of some kind are needed, and I’ve taken up the terminology suggested in this article from Loving More: anchor and ancillary. They feel less loaded to me; they’re not as commonly associated with hierarchy, but still carry weight. I like them, and you’ll see these terms used in this blog in the future.

(1) To be honest, however, I admit this is unlikely. Since I’m married and have the legal, financial and other entanglements that come with marriage, I’m not sure how logistically my husband could become a secondary partner. I suppose we could remain married but live apart; or we could have additional partners live with us in a group marriage. But knowing myself as well as I do, I feel like these configurations would be unlikely, at least anytime in the near future.

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Letting go of fear.

June 26, 2011 at 11:03 am (Polyamory, Relationship) (, , , , , , )


Recently I’ve been struggling with the dear husband’s budding relationship with his Latvian hairdresser. (Literally, she cuts his hair and waxes his eyebrows.) It has been a slow-evolving one, and he has said that he would be content if it remained platonic. She doesn’t have a lot of American friends, though she’s lived here for about ten years I think, and in some ways he’s helping her become more accustomed to American culture and the English language. He enjoys learning about her culture and experiences, and she seems to be an adventurous and insightful person. But she is also married, with one pre-teen child and another adult child who is living with her. The DH says she’s described her husband as possessive and controlling. So when I recently went out of town for business and found out upon my return that their relationship had become a sexual one, I experienced a big ol’ jumble of negative emotions.

To start with, I’ve been under an unusual amount of work-related stress lately (though my job is always stressful, I’m working longer hours and worrying a lot more than usual), so my emotional state is a bit on the tender side. I wasn’t aware that anything would happen between them while I was out of town, and so I wasn’t prepared for that conversation when I came home. Plus we had already discussed the potential pitfalls of developing a relationship with someone who is married and cheating, so I was surprised that he had decided to take it to the next level. All this quickly wound itself up into a little ball of anxiety and I found myself acting out in stupid, passive-aggressive ways: cutting him off when he mentioned her, for example, and telling him I didn’t want to hear about her. When she showed up at our usual Friday night hangout, I made some gestures that were possessive and territorial and then sulked for a while.

The DH has not called me out on this behavior, but I’m calling myself out. It’s petty. I know that his relationship with her is not a threat to our relationship; none of his relationships are a threat to ours, because we have a bond that is different from any that either of us has ever experienced, and we’re committed to our partnership. But I do feel like this relationship could be a threat to our peace and tranquility and the drama-free zone we live in. And my inability to control that potential threat has me very anxious and thus, acting out in inappropriate ways.

But the point here is — I can’t control what MIGHT happen. Yes, her husband might find out that she’s cheating, but I can’t prevent that. Yes, that could result in someone or multiple someones having painful emotions, but I can’t prevent that. Yes, it could cause some upheaval; it could – heaven forbid – involve a confrontation which could be violent in nature; but I can’t control any of this. And NOTHING could happen. They might never sleep together again. She might decide she’s devoted to her husband. She might be really good at keeping secrets. She might decide to leave her husband. I can’t know what she’ll do. I don’t know what might or might not happen. I can’t control it.

I have big, big control issues. So I have to make myself stop, sit down, and think through this series of events, and admit to each one, I can’t control you. I can neither prevent nor encourage any particular outcome. The future is not in my hands. And I sigh, and I open my hands, and I say to myself, that’s okay. You can’t control it, so let it go.

It feels good to let go. It’s scary, and it’s not comfortable, and it doesn’t feel natural for me, because I cling to my ability to control what goes on around me. But it does feel good, like peeling a scab feels good sometimes.

Fear holds you back. Trying to control things is a fearful reaction. Letting go of fear is the only way you can grow.

 

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Rules, or the lack thereof.

June 12, 2011 at 2:56 pm (Polyamory, Relationship) (, , , , )


When we first opened our marriage four years ago, we established some rules we would operate under, as many couples do:

  1. One partner is permitted to veto the playmates of the other partner.
  2. If a playdate must be hosted in our home, do not inconvenience the non-participating partner in order to do so.
  3. The marital bed is not to be used for playing with other people.

Veto power was only exerted once, and by me – a friend of a friend wanted to play with the DH, and we had a difference of opinion about her. He saw her as a free spirit; I saw a woman desperate for any kind of attention. No more than a month later, we found out she had gotten pregnant by another man and was attempting to entrap him (and by extension, his wealthy family) into a relationship with her. Some very icky drama resulted, and we were both pretty grateful that we weren’t involved in it.

Rule #2 proved problematic. In the early days particularly, the DH played around a lot more than I did, and for various reasons his playmates could rarely host. In spite of this rule there were times when I felt I had no choice but to get out of the way, because I was nowhere near comfortable with the thought of sitting around the house doing my own thing while listening to my husband fuck another woman upstairs. This lead to some resentment on my part until we talked about it further and made a more concerted effort to coordinate schedules so I didn’t feel forced out of the house in order for him to have a friend over.

Over time, though, all three rules went away. Not through any conscious decision or deliberate discussion – I slowly stopped enforcing them. They were, after all, my invention, rules I had requested to establish boundaries and comfort zones. And truthfully, they were pretty arbitrary, serving only to exert control over him and over the potential threats to our relationship. They were like a bulletproof vest, placed over my areas of potential emotional wounds. The rules weren’t helping me overcome my fears of abandonment, of not being “good enough” for the relationship to endure. So as I grew, as I became more confident in the security of our relationship, and as I learned to trust both him and myself to make wise decisions, I let the rules dissolve.

We now operate on trust and respect. We have some basic principles for how our relationship works, but I wouldn’t call them rules, because they really are fundamental principles of good communication. We no longer ask each other for “permission” to be with someone else; we trust each other to make good choices in who we spend time with or become intimate with. We don’t view one another as property to be “shared” with (or withheld from) someone else. We keep each other informed of our plans with others, just as we agree to what & when we do things together, and make sure plans don’t overlap.  And that’s about it. And it’s working very well.

As I meet other people who are polyamorous and who have their own rules, I’m starting to question why they have them. I know everyone is different and what works for me may not work for others, but I do wonder if they have thought about the real reason why they have certain rules in place. Is it to exert control over their partner; is it a form of possessiveness? Is it to cover up and cushion a fear instead of exposing and resolving it? People don’t like me asking these kinds of questions. So far, it’s even resulted in a couple of potential friendships not getting off the ground.

Additionally, I wonder if others would be willing to re-negotiate their rules once another partner with potential for a real relationship enters the picture. Shouldn’t a new partner have a say in the guidelines that affect their relationship? Would you enter a legal contract into which you had no input? Why should a relationship be any different? But this leads to a dissection of the hierarchical nature that many poly people assign to their relationships, which troubles me very much, and will be covered in another ramble at another time.

The husband and I are fortunate to have both evolved our thinking about our relationship at a similar pace and along the same path. It’s one of the reasons why we are so compatible – on many issues, we come to the same conclusion independent of one another. For others, their mileage may vary; their fears may be deeper-rooted and harder to resolve, or their need for control may not be easily sated. Ultimately, though, I know this will become a factor in other relationships the husband or I establish with others, and asking others to justify their rules may lead to fewer relationships than we’d like. But as with many areas of life, we can only live in the moment, and we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

 

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Jealousy vs. Envy

May 6, 2011 at 9:04 pm (Polyamory, Relationship) (, , , , )


I was asked recently if I experience jealousy in my open relationship with my husband. My honest answer is no, I haven’t really felt jealousy in several years. I have had moments of distress, however, especially as our relationship evolves and new elements are added. The question made me start thinking about the distinction between jealousy and… whatever that form of distress I keep feeling might be. Like most good citizens, I like labels – I like giving a name to something. So as I am wont to do, I started looking up words on dictionary.com to see what made sense to me:

Jealousy: resentment against a rival, a person enjoying success or advantage, etc., or against another’s success or advantage itself. Mental uneasiness from suspicion or fear of rivalry, unfaithfulness, etc., as in love or aims.

Lots of people have written lots of blogs about jealousy in open or polyamorous relationships, and many of them agree that the root of jealousy is fear. When my relationship with the DH became open, which was shortly before we got married, I wasn’t prepared for it, and it terrified me. It wasn’t completely a surprise – we’d talked about monogamy, and we’d talked about non-monogamy, and I was doing a fair amount of fucking around when we first met, so openness did seem to make sense. But we didn’t exactly agree to an open relationship. He opened it for us. I felt blindsided and spent about a month in a deep depression. But I also felt compelled to figure out why I was in such distress over something that had been in the back of my mind for a long time. I wanted to figure out what I was afraid of.

For me, it was a fear that I wouldn’t be “enough”, that he would find someone better – someone sexier, more adventurous, more open, someone stronger, bolder, happier, more confident – whatever it might be, better than me. It took me about a year to build up my faith in our relationship and to start believing in the fundamentals of any good open relationship:

  • One human being cannot fulfill all the needs – social, emotional, sexual, intellectual, or otherwise – of another human being. Period. It’s just completely unrealistic.
  • One human being does not have a finite amount of love to give. It’s not he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not. He can love me, and love someone else, without stopping loving me.
  • He loves me for who I am – unique, neurotic, sexy, bossy, moody, loopy me – and is committed to a lifelong partnership with me.

As I started living and breathing and accepting these principles as reality, the jealousy gradually dissolved and ultimately disappeared. I can’t say when I stopped having painful jealous reactions to his activities, but I did realize one day that those feelings were gone. And that made me feel a lot freer to do my own thing and start exploring what I wanted out of this arrangement, and to figure out what kinds of relationships I wanted to nurture.

But then the other discomfort started. DH would go out to play, and I would be at home, and I’d feel icky. I’d rewrite my profiles on various dating sites, I’d gird my loins and toss together another Craigslist ad, and I’d paw through the resulting mediocre responses and dick pics, and I’d feel icky. I couldn’t find what I was looking for, but meanwhile he’s living it up with what seemed like a new partner every week. And I felt icky green envy.

Envy: a feeling of discontent or covetousness with regard to another’s advantages, success, possessions, etc.

For me, envy doesn’t seem to be fear-based – at least I can’t find the fear after digging around beneath it. It’s simply: you’re having something I’m not and it’s something I want, damnit! You’re having hot sex. You’re feeling the rush of delight at discovering someone new. You’re having adventures. Where’s mine? When’s my turn?

I don’t resent his pleasures, and I don’t fear that his relationships will detract from or harm the one we have.  But I’m definitely discontented, watching him have fun. I know it’s not peaches and cream for him – he seems to meet mainly single women who eventually find themselves a monogamous relationship and morph into “just friends”, and he feels a degree of frustration over the inability to find someone who is open to the intimacy he wants as well as the long-term potential. But it seems like it is a lot easier for him to meet women than it is for me to meet men, which stirs the green envy in me.

I even struggle with envy towards my few playmates who have other playmates, as well. As an avowed introvert and a bit of a misanthrope, nevertheless I’m craving more human interaction these days, and I want that interaction to include both intellectual and sexual stimulation. I can’t seem to get enough – and my “enough” threshold is pretty low compared to other people, so it’s frustrating that I’m struggling to fill my minimal needs in this area. And that frustration leads to envy over having to share people with other people. They should all be mine, damnit, mine mine mine! Except when I want to be by myself, of course, when I wish they would all leave me the hell alone.

A cure for jealousy came to me eventually, so I suppose at some point I will learn how to transmogrify envy into compersion. For now, it’s a flaw I’m very much conscious of, and trying to manage the best I can without placing unreasonable demands on anyone I care for.

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