Posts Tagged ‘Polyamory’
I have a strong dislike of blog posts apologising for not having posted, and promising renewed blogging enthusiasm. “Who,” I think, “do you think you are? Do you think we were all sitting around saying to ourselves, ‘I wonder why so-and-so has stopped writing her wonderful blog posts? Is she having a lot of sex, or has she been kidnapped? Or both? I do wish she’d return and share more of her scintillating insights with us.’”
With a little self-hate, therefore, I will give my excuses. I’ve been sick, horribly, horribly sick. It happened gradually, looking back, I can see the accommodations I made without realising, and as my reserves of energy drained, what I dropped, what I struggled on to do, and what became a roaring dragon of a task nesting in my life.
Blogging was one of the first things to go. It held on a little longer than sex and kink, but eroticism is, as Bataille points out, a supreme waste of energy. Writing is, too.* Driving long distances went a year ago, it gave me headaches that made getting home again was a terrifying and dangerous feat, so I get the train. Dancing, munches and kink events held on until about six months ago. Going out isn’t just tiring, it’s risky—what if I’m hit with extreme tiredness, nausea, a piercing headache, miles from home? So life whittled down and down. I sleep, sometimes I eat, I go to work and get sent home. I stop going to the supermarket, and order, sporadically, online. I don’t cook. I don’t wear pretty clothes, I wear the yoga trousers I no longer yoga in, even to bed, and I sleep eleven hours a night. I don’t read difficult books, and then I don’t read books at all. I sit in bed and watch films without subtitles. I get to level 21 in Skyrim. I develop a terror of my work email account. Now and again I go to work, and call the lover, crying, from the car park, because my head hurts so much I don’t know how to get home.
I’m deficient in B12. I don’t know why. I know injections are making me better. By which I mean, I worked for eleven hours this week, and only spent one day in a darkened room with a hellish headache. And I think I’ve told you the truth about my illness, but the memories are fuzzy. Apparently it’s something to do with lack of oxygen to the brain.
Then, in the middle of it all, came Christmas. When I’m not making enough money to pay the rent, when I’m shivering in my unheated house, and people expect presents. When I feel like throwing up, and life’s about shortbread and sprouts. And for the first time in my life, I was to host Christmas. On 2nd December I called the lover in tears, on a train from Leeds, unable to carry the Christmas decorations my father was going to throw out, if I didn’t give them a home. December days crept by, and lifting the hoover remained beyond me. I started gluing paper chain, it was repetitive, mindless, and hurt my muscles. The lover went away for a long weekend, I kept wandering to the fridge and away again, vaguely aware that I ought to eat, but with no idea how to solve the problem.
After my diagnosis—a very happy day—and my first few injections, I declared that I needed a Christmas tree. I was to be my main Christmas expense. It’s a moist day, mist clouds the windscreen and gathers in beads on the tree branches. There are shrubby trees with long, sprongly tops. There are fat green firs with short spikes, and thin ones that look like they grew up in a crowd, with their arms pinned to their sides. I like the grey-blue trees with long fronds and tiny fir cones. I run from one to another, getting the lover to stand them up so I can see their height and breadth, and check the branches behind. I choose one. I can’t see him behind it.
Do they deliver? Yes. But they don’t say anything more about it, and I’m suddenly so, so tired. The trees are now slightly wavy, slightly out of focus. It’ll fit in the car, they tell me, once it’s gone through the tree-trussing machine. I feel sick. The lover puts the car seats down and I try to put a blanket over the boot, but the tree man doesn’t listen. I don’t have the energy to fight. When the it’s in, I just want to get away. I scrape some tree sap off the mirror and return it to position. I can’t see the lover through the pine needles, but I grope underneath them for the handbrake, and ask him if there’s anyone coming from the left before I pull onto the main road. I drive a good fifty metres before I pull in and ask if we’re anywhere near the curb. I can’t drive home, I tell the tree. Everything’s gone wrong. There’s a rustling.
The lover called his in laws. We treated my dizziness with a kitkat and a coffee at the B&Q café, until they arrived like knights in a shining estate car. They carried the tree inside and lay it on the living room floor. It had grown at least a foot since we put it in the car. We stood around the prone tree and looked at the room: the curtains were closed and the heating was off. I could almost hear them thinking, “You want us to spend Christmas here?”
More people came to the recuse. The lover and his wife spent the evening cleaning, tying the tree to my bookshelves, hovering up its needles, and threatening me with canes when I got off the sofa and tried to join in. By Christmas, they had done my washing up, cleaned my house, done a supermarket shop with the in-laws, cooked a turkey, brought over a table and silver tableware, made hundreds of paper snowflakes, and God knows what else, because they sent me to bed.
Christmas worked. There was food and fizz and Christmas cocktails. The oven broke while we were making Christmas dinner, but that didn’t matter because I got more presents than anyone else. I can’t take responsibility for being a fabulous hostess at Christmas, but I can be amazed by my poly family, and my poly family’s family. They aren’t the type you expect to spend Christmas at their daughter’s husband’s girlfriend’s house. I don’t think they’ve ever been called dangerous free thinkers. I have to remind myself not to call them Mr. and Mrs., because they feel so strongly like schoolfriends’ parents, and not the ones who talked about being 60s radicals and wandered around the house nude. When I needed help with an oversized Christmas tree, they give it. I think that’s amazing.
I don’t know when I’m going to be better, but I do know I have help. For now, though, I have to go, because the lover’s in-laws are coming round to take away my tree. Maybe I’ll post again soon.
*I realise some people write for money, and therefore aren’t wasting their efforts but earning coffee tokens, but these people exist in negligible numbers.
I’m moving house. I’m tired of the dripping tap and the leak under the sink, and I’m tired of plumbers who do things like ransack my kitchen bowls to mix grout in. I don’t want needles and broken WKD bottles on my doorstep, and I don’t want to live next to a main road. So I’ve been looking, and it’s been hell.
The first flat we viewed was a cheap studio. It was on a private road, in a grand building with stained glass windows. A stained glass face looked back at me in the bathroom, next to the toilet tank, which was over the bath. In the bedroom, there was a single bed.
“Is it possible,” I asked, “to bring my double bed?”
“Where would we put this one?” The landlord spread his hands in helplessness. The tip, I was tempted to suggest.
“I’m afraid it’s a dealbreaker.” I told him.
“You’re not allowed a double bed in a studio,” he said , “it’s illegal. If the environmental health inspector came round…” I managed to get control of my eyebrows before they rose too far, and I nodded, as if to an excited lunatic or toddler. I edged towards the door.
I knew they were Christians, someone had placed Church pamphlets in the hallway, and these men had the shoes of pamphleteers. Single people, I surmised, must be prevented from fornication by any means possible, including the restriction of space. I didn’t bring up the oodles of hot, sweaty, lesbian sex I’ve had in single beds. The conversation got around to my current landlord, and my flat above a church. “Oh! You know Rev. Awfully-Important!” was quickly followed by, “about the bed, I’m sure we can work something out.” Do Christian contacts legitimate sprawling sex, or do they just provide a guarantee that you’re not going to get up to anything naughty?
In the next place I looked at, a dingy hallway led to a dingy living room, where the current tenant sat in a beanie and hoodie next to the gas fire. The kitchen was a galley overhung by mysterious boxes of wires and the bedroom, looking out onto the road, prominently displayed a conversation-piece fuse box. The shower room was mottled with mould. “We expect it to go very quickly.” Smiled the letting agent.
“I’ll let you know.” I said. I sat outside in the car, and wondered what I’d done to deserve this.
If I was single and wealthy, this would be easy. Single and poor is different. Single makes everything more expensive. If I had a partner, we’d be going halves on a one, two or three bed property, any of which would be cheaper than all of a studio. And they’d be nicer.* The rooms would be bigger, the kitchen would be suitable for culinary activities more complex than heating a tin of soup. If I were in a live-in relationship, not only would I have another contributor to housing costs, but there’s a chance that contributor would have a full time job. A full time job gets you a mortgage, a mortgage gets you somewhere cheaper than a rental property where you’re allowed to put up shelves and paint the skirting boards with polka dots. Suddenly, you’re not looking round dark, mouldering rooms with mysterious stains on pieced-together carpets. You’re looking at somewhere you might actually want to live.
I know it doesn’t always work like that. I know I could be shackled to a man who drinks the mortgage payments, or insists (horror!) on eschewing a proper career to pursue dreams like publication. Nevertheless, pairing up does more than just double your chances of finding at least one stable income. The world is set up for couples, and living alone is an aberration, something that should only be attempted from a position of great wealth and privilege.
Most single people can comfort themselves with the thought that they will, someday, find the person they want to live with. For us polyamorous types, it’s more complicated. Many people simplify it by dividing their love lives into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ relationships, so that the romance-mortgage-Labrador-children path can be pursued with a designated partner, while the others know where they stand. Those picked as a primary by another partner presumably stand in the gardens of their nice homes, while the passed-over secondaries lurk in their dingy studios. The primary/secondary hierarchy feels, to me, nasty and degrading. I don’t rank my friends by importance, why would I do that to my partners? Whatever it is that we’re doing, whether it’s fucking or sailing or drinking tea, it has an integrity which shouldn’t be belittled by a statement of someone else’s primacy. And so I muddle along, hoping not to stand on too many toes, and being grateful for the accommodations made for me.
But back to housing. The lover already has a house. It’s a very nice house, and I envy him, but he lives in it with his wife. Perhaps some poly families live together in mansions in a big, hippish love-in. All I can say is that even if you like me very much, living with me is a trial. To do it for your partner, you’d have to be a saint. One of the dead ones.
Realistically, I’m on my own. I’m going to pay a high price for my obstinacy in refusing to find myself an unentangled partner. I could look on the bright side and reflect that solo living means freedom, but I’ve seen too many horrible flats recently to feel that’s true. Nevertheless, I’ve picked one, a tiny flat with oddly-shaped rooms and a door opening directly from the living room onto the driveway. And I’m determined to turn this relationship to account, because if there’s one thing I’m bad at, it’s moving.
My usual approach is to begin packing the week before. Then, the day before the move, I look around with surprise at my home, wondering where I got so much stuff. I discover that the first boxes I packed block access to other possessions, and that they’re too heavy to lift. I despair of one room and move to another. I think about stopping for lunch, but remember that there’s nothing left in the house but frozen puff pastry and the mung beans that have survived five house moves unopened, so I begin to pack the spices and spill turmeric over my hands. Eventually a friend or lover calls by and pretends to help, but really spends their time berating me about the apparently inefficient or dangerous way I’m filling the car. At some point we give up, unpack the duvet, and fall into bed. The next day, at the other end, tired and hungry, I look at the piles of boxes and begin to assess the damage to my possessions. I imagine a life with an adequate number of bookcases and begin to make alphabetised piles of books which topple in the night.
This time it’s going to be different. This time I’m going to buy a bed before I move in, not make a nest of duvets on the floor and wait until Christmas. I’m already preparing. I increased my stock of teaspoons fourfold this week—the lover’s wife gave me some.
The lover says he know how to do this. He knows where to buy furniture and how to get an awkwardly shaped object down the stairs, he knows how to Tetris a car and measure a sofa. He knows, he says, how to get me to my new home with little crying and most of my things.** Polyamory, leaves me in a very small flat, but if it gets me to my new flat without a tantrum, I’ll sing it’s praises to the skies.
*’Ah!’ you’re thinking, ‘but she could share a house!’ I could, but past experience shows that I’m not a very nice person in the mornings, and I’m untidy and intolerant at all times of day. Also, my income currently relies on having a space to entertain clients in private for up to three hours at a time, and housemates blundering in with take away wouldn’t really add to what I’m trying to achieve.
**In case you’re doubting the lover’s ability, he has already shown himself to have house-inspecting talents far beyond mine. He pointed out in one place, for example, that it wasn’t possible to get in the shower while standing up, and that in any case it would flood the flat downstairs.
My life’s a disaster right now. Admittedly, it’s improved since the week I spent in bed hardly able to speak through the pain and the fug of codeine; I can type, peel potatoes and feed the cat all by myself, but it’s still not working. When I broke my bones I’d just finished my MA and was looking for work. Now, after weeks of enforced idleness, I’m fuzzy-headed and tired, wondering if my brain has wasted away as my muscles have. This doesn’t feel like post-university looking, this feeling like unemployment.
So, somehow, I have too many priorities. I need a job that pays the rent: to find jobs, apply for them, and field calls from recruitment agents telling me that’s an old job that should’ve been taken down. I need to do well at the couple of hours work I have got, tutoring which involves a few weeks’ worth of reading that isn’t counted in my hourly wage.* I need to do my physio and get my fitness back so I can manage a working day. I’m desperate to get out of the inner city area that’s making life look so bleak, so flat hunting’s imperative. I need to do something about the fact that weeks of sitting around have made me horribly, grotesquely fat. And at some point I’m going to have to think about my commitments to other people.
Concentrating on the things I have to do to make my life bearable again, I’m losing the things I did before. There’s no time to write the novel I spent the last year on. I’m not healed enough for dancing or cycling, my arm aches when I try to sew. I’m too tired and stressed for socialising. Last week the lover decided to take me to his house, away from the leaking sink and the unhoovered floor. We made it as far as the city centre before I recalled leaving a window open, and overcome by misery and indecision, stood leaning into the wind feeling the tears turn from warm to cold on my cheeks. I cried all the way home, where we found the window closed.
In this mental state, I’m not interested in sex or kink. I’ve stopped reading kinky blogs, I’ve retreated from sexual, violent books by the likes of Angela Carter into the safety of Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. I don’t want to hear even the mildest of threats or the nicest of sexual compliments. I don’t want to be told I’m pretty, I don’t feel it’s true but I do feel it’s demanding something. And right now I don’t want to have to give it. I don’t even want to think about it.
Where’s the poor lover in all of this? He’s listening to my plans, lifting heavy objects, hugging me when I can’t stop crying in the night and trying very, very hard not to touch me in ways I could interpret as sexual. That’s crap for him. In poly, though, every decision you make involves everyone else. None of us know, truly, what’s going on with the others; we didn’t sign up to tell our darkest secrets to the group, we each became involved with different people, and we share things with them when we want to. The lover knows, therefore, that even if I don’t have any pockets I like to carry my purse if we’re arguing away from home, due to an unpleasant experience in Beijing, but he doesn’t know how deep my sorrow was when I was cast as a sheep in a nativity play. The extended poly group know neither, why would they?
The lover’s with his wife tonight. They don’t know that the corner of the sheet’s come off my bed and I can’t get it back on. They don’t know that, after the lover told me that he couldn’t give me the weekend away from my flat we’d planned, because of commitments to the poly family, I cried about how bleak the next week feels without it. The awful thing is, the ignorance goes both ways. How many nights has the lover spent here looking after me when he was needed at home? How many times have I thought sending him home for quality time with his wife was a good idea when that only took her from her girlfriend?
This blog post is self-indulgent, I imagine I’ll feel embarrassed about it soon. Those emotions serve a purpose. Our own pain, and that of those closest to us, is intense and real, but we don’t, we can’t, feel everyone else’s, we simply don’t have the emotional capacity to let that much suffering in. Talking about mine in such detail is asking you to do just that, and it’s not a reasonable request. In poly, how does one communicate the circumstances emotions create, without demanding that everyone in the group has infinite reserves of kindness not at all restricted by emotions of their own?
Discerning your partner’s needs and asking for your own to be met is a challenge in monogamous relationships, even in the good times. The delicacy required to get it right in poly is probably always going to be beyond me. At the moment it feels like asking for the moon. I wouldn’t give up the freedom of poly for anything, but, God, I wish it was easy.
*I’m tutoring a student who wants to get the same A Level results I did, in the same subjects. He thinks this will improve his career opportunities. I don’t think it’s occurred to him that, ten years on, I’m teaching for a pittance. I’m not going to bring it up.
Non-poly people, on learning I’m polyamorous, always want to know if I’m jealous. I say that I’m not, and receive a puzzled look, then usually a statement that they would get jealous, that they just couldn’t do it, which is strange because I’ve never invited them to. It’s a lie, of course. I do get jealous, I just don’t get jealous about sex. Not often enough to justify telling a partner that my feelings should influence their actions, anyway. I could count my experiences of sexual jealousy on one hand, which is rather convenient, in poly.
But I do get jealous. I get horribly, irrationally jealous. I get jealous of people I hardly know. I’m jealous of friends of friends for being diverting and funny. I’m jealous of kinksters on Twitter who have more play and have better pain tolerances than I do. I’m jealous of friends’ partners because they get to see a side of my friends I’ll never know. I’m jealous of writers who have had their work published, even though I’ve never sent anything to a literary agent. I burned with jealousy when my father praised his girlfriend’s daughter’s cooking. She hadn’t even left home, my reaction was ridiculous.
I’m an only child, perhaps I never learned to share. That’s given me a useful perspective, though: I can’t help but recognise how petty I am. I can’t tell my friends not to have other friends, or boyfriends, no matter how insecure and envious I feel, it wouldn’t even occur to me, because I have no right to regulate their lives. If I did, though, there would be a helpful conversation about my insecurity or a row about the best way to make pastry, depending on our moods. There certainly wouldn’t be any level of acquiescence. Having learned to allow friends their freedom, I can’t see why friends I sleep with should be treated any worse.
Sometimes I can see the workings of jealousy in my petty mind, even as I’m feeling it. My father’s praising about his girlfriend’s daughter’s* cooking hurt. It still hurts, and it’s been a couple of years now. He never praises me, in fact he doesn’t show enough interest to hear of things he might praise me for. And he particularly never praises my cooking, because he never eats it. Offered it, he’s been known to opt for peanuts or crackers and cheese instead. He says that’s because he doesn’t like vegetarian food, but where’s the meat in a packet of peanuts? Where? WHERE?!
The comment that Millie was an excellent cook was like a fissure in the dam, a jet of my anger and hurt spewed out; all the feelings about my father’s lack of interest in me hit me in a flood. Those feelings may be big and important personally, but they really don’t have anything to do with Millie’s culinary skills. Jealousy is all about me, and it’s not going to be fixed by someone else, even if Millie serves something ugly and poisonous at a fancy dinner party. Unless it’s to my father, I suppose.
As far as sex goes, I stave off insecurity by only sleeping with people who I’m pretty confident think I’m attractive. They’re going to think other people are attractive, too, but they’d think that even if they weren’t allowed to act on their desires. I’m comfortable if I’m sure I’m near the top of the list, which limits my range of sexual partners but does wonders for my self-esteem. I do catch myself in little waves of jealousy about play partners’ play partners, which mostly boil down to “she/he has a less wobbly bottom and a better pain tolerance than me.” Those feelings have little to do with the person I’m jealous of and a lot to do with my relationship with my own bottom. I suppose if it reached a critical level I’d have to have a conversation with play partners about whether playing with someone who cries so easily and wobbles so much is fun, and reserve myself for the extremely enthusiastic, as I do with lovers. I’m hoping, however, that kinky confidence will grow with experience, as sexual confidence did.
I’m willing to work at it because jealousy is such a horrible feeling. On a selfish level, I just don’t want the experience of it, but I don’t want to be a partner who limits the people I’m with (rather the reverse). Dealing with jealousy brings freedom. I get the freedom to do what I want sexually, which is important to me because, goodness, I want to do a lot of things! I also get the freedom to refuse what I don’t want. Whenever I’ve been with monogamous people, whether I’ve signed up to those rules or not, there’s been a horrible, horrible pressure. We’re in love. He wants to be with me forever, he doesn’t want anyone else. And may he please suck my toes? And I think, how awful to have a burning desire to suck toes, to want that fulfilment, and never to get it. To go your whole life without this simple thing, to die with it undone, for me. It’s a huge sacrifice. And would it be so awful to have my toes sucked, to provide great happiness to the person who would lay down his life for me? And I try to say yes, but…no, I can’t do it. So I feel guilty, and he wonders why I look so downcast and bake so much. Eventually the relationship ends in guilt and recrimination.
I’m exaggerating (slightly), but the core point about the pressure of monogamy is sincere. To supply everything that someone wants sexually is going to require doing things you’d rather not do. After many years of trying to seem interested as sweet nothings were whispered, look enthusiastic during gentle thrusting, and pretend I like the taste of cock, I’ve come to terms with my kinks. I don’t want to go back to doing things I don’t enjoy. That’s why it’s nice to say to my partner, “You want toe sucking/gentle sensuousness/consensual sex? Go find someone else to do that with.” He can, and he will, in the same way that he presumably does with his desires for blondes, or men, for which I really don’t fit the ticket. And I’m happy, because I like him, and I want him to have things he likes.
In the middle of all this freedom: freedom for me to see other people, for him to see other people, for me to say no, the obvious question is whether there’s a point when I’ll want less freedom and more security. The idea of my lover chatting up men at the Folsom Street Fair this week didn’t trouble me, the idea of him having a fling doesn’t, but how would I feel if someone became so important in his life that he didn’t have time for me? Probably quite hurt. But—and I’ve managed not to say this to a non-poly questioner yet—throwing your lover over for another isn’t a phenomenon restricted to the poly world. It’s a story as old as creation, in fact, wasn’t it Lillith’s first crime? So I’ll take the risk of being replaced as we all do, but comforted by the knowledge that I’ll see my usurper coming. There’s a chance I’ll be jealous then.
*Let’s call her Millie. It’s easy to say ‘Millie’ disparagingly.
A few weeks ago a married vanilla friend, whose understanding of alternative sexualities is not dissimilar to mine of model train making (in that we can both know there must be an attraction, but wonder if childhood trauma is the root cause), asked me about polyamory. Is it not, she wondered, difficult knowing that my lover is going home to someone else? Am I not jealous? And what will I do if I fall in love and decide I want to keep him all to myself?
The same issues—jealousy and what we’ll do if we decide we like each other in a forever and always way—come up in almost every conversation I have with laypeople about poly. I tell them that the built in brakes are the things that I love about it.* If you’re in a socially acceptable relationship, with someone of the requisite age, race and gender, it is easy to get inadvertently caught up in a romantic narrative leading to cohabitation, marriage and Labradors. Even when I’ve been explicit about not wanting that, previous partners have convinced themselves that we’re heading that way. I like being free of all those expectations, and one way to achieve that is dating someone who’s your father’s age, whose parents call you rude names in a language you don’t understand, you or who is already married. It’s rather liberating. No one’s granny has ever said, “So, I hear you’ve seduced Deirdre’s husband, do I hear wedding bells?”
That isn’t to say there aren’t issues. They’re just different to the ones non-poly-people tend to imagine. They are the Perils of Poly:
Those flocks of girls in minidresses and seven inch heels one sights up and down the land can’t each independently have reached the conclusion that was a fabulous outfit; they must be feeding off each other. One evening in my last year at university everyone who lived in my house appeared for a night out in black trousers and a cherry red top. You choose your friends because you have something in common, then you reinforce each other’s choices until you slowly start to match. It reaches its peak in couples who like to take long, isolated walks together and eventually buy matching boots and raincoats. It’s not pretty.
Imagine how much worse it is in a poly family. He chooses you for the things he likes. He chooses someone else for things he likes, too, some of which are the same. And she chooses someone, who shares some shiny qualities with him and is chosen for her shiny qualities some of which may correspond with yours, and on it goes. Which isn’t to say that you’re the same, but your similarities are drawn out by your proximity. The Lover He encouraged me to buy a daringly poufy Vivien of Holloway I’d had my eye on, but lacked courage to buy. And then I decided that, much as my plastic-clasped suspender belt is an excellent icebreaker (people at fetish events respond to, “my suspender clasp’s popped open, could you possibly help me?” with alacrity, I find), I could do with a better one. So I asked your acquaintance (well, the ones whose lingerie I’ve seen and with whom I feel able to bring up the subject of unmentionables) for recommendations, and before I know it, I’m at an event with the Lover’s wife in matching lingerie and dresses.
It’s not just fashion, of course, although that’s where it’s most obvious. Relationships are an adventure of introductions to new things. I introduced the lover to ballet and Malaysian food, he reminded me how much I like 80s goth music. He’s also been an enthusiastic escort to burlesque evenings, which is nice, but I think I might have pursued my burlesque lessons with more determination if I hadn’t had his wife’s girlfriend’s performer credentials in my mind. And maybe I’d try less ambitious knitting projects if he wasn’t telling me to give it a go, but his wife’s impressive lacework makes my one wonky lace scarf look like a cat’s cradle. Similarity can, in one’s less secure moments, give rise to a feeling that you’re always second best, or catching up.
Relationships eat time! And the more people who are in your extended poly network, the more birthdays, hospital appointments, great-aunt’s anniversaries and dirty weekends need to be recognised in your schedule. That’s a lot of diaries to coordinate, even if you’re not attending your lover’s wife’s girlfriend’s (imaginary) book launch, because your lover’s wife is, and your lover isn’t, which makes it a perfect day to make that yarn swift and have lots of sawdusty play.
It’s rarely as simple as that, though, there are hundreds of nuanced scheduling problems: When does two people going somewhere together become a date, and therefore a bad time for another partner to drop by? When does, “I’m staying in and watching telly tonight,” mean, “I’m relaxing with my wife”? Many evenings I’ve held off calling because I think they’re together, later to discover they were miles apart, and many times we’ve chatted for half an hour before he’s admitted he’s abandoned her to watch TV alone.
I take up time I shouldn’t even when I’m trying to give my lover space for his other relationships, so you can imagine the trouble I have when there are actual conflicting priorities. If I need extra care after an intense scene, and my partner’s partner is waiting for him in a coffee shop, he’s in an impossible position. And, with the best will in the world, it’s impossible not to want things that aren’t entirely reasonable, sometimes. When there’s only two of you, only one person has to deal with your unreasonable demands. In poly, your lover’s assurances that he really doesn’t mind happen in the context of his vested interest and his presumably more objective partner. It isn’t comfortable.
One person has asked if I have a boyfriend since I started seeing the lover, and I fell to bits trying to answer. With people in kinky settings, with people who know me personally, I’m very open about it. With acquaintances, the only way of being honest is by telling them details of your personal life that go beyond the scope of what they want to know, but to be evasive implies that you’re somehow ashamed. And to breeze around introducing someone as my married lover may, conceivably, create the odd awkward situation for his wife when a well-meaning person informs her of his infidelity.**
The more difficult moments aren’t the ones when I’m angsting over how to explain, though, their the ones when something slips out without me thinking, and there’s no way to fix it. At dancing a few months ago I had a conversation like this:
“You’re seeing someone?”
“He must have to stand on tip toe,” my partner said as if five foot ten is an absurd height for a woman, and must be a severe handicap on the dating market.
“His wife must be about my height.” I told him. We didn’t speak for the rest of the track.
Get in Line
I don’t want a relationship like my lover’s other, more committed one; I don’t want the responsibilities that come with it, I don’t even want him hanging around my flat for too long. But I don’t want to feel like I’m second best, even if I am second best. I want to feel like I’m special and shiny within the scope of what we have and do together, although that can be difficult to maintain.
I was touched by Abel’s post about relationships outside marriage.
Haron and I are married; we made that permanent commitment to one another many years ago, and it’s a template for relationships that that wider society can understand. And I can’t offer that permanence to either of the other girls; I can’t be that sole, devoted life partner that has eyes for them and them alone; I can’t fulfil all of their long-term aspirations.
I know that; they know that; we know that: we talk and share and trust. And I know too that I never, ever want to stand in the way of what’s right for them. That’s not self-sacrificing; their happiness, long-term, honestly outweighs any selfish personal needs.
No matter how open you are, how loving, how willing to cooperate, marriage is part of the landscape that’s immutable. Each step down the road of a relationship with me is negotiated with his marriage. My relationship takes place in the context of his. I’m sure it’s a challenge for it to adapt, say, to him staying at mine, rather than going home tonight, but that’s the conversation. The expectations of his relationship were established years ago, under influences that had nothing to do with me. Part of poly, for a significant number of its practitioners, is continually accepting the priority of another relationship.
Who will feed the cat?
I have a cat. The lover and his wife have a cat. The lover’s wife and her girlfriend are lesbians, so they’re sure to sprout cats at some point. And we all sleep at each other’s homes often. So when the lover’s here, and his wife’s at her girlfriend’s, who feeds their cat? If I want to spend time at the lover’s, who feeds mine? Life would obviously be easier if we all carried our cats around with us all the time, but this has proved slightly inconvenient. Cat sitter wanted. May save three relationships.
On a more serious note, do readers have any more poly perils to share, or, more importantly, solutions to any of mine?
*Jealousy deserves its own post, but for now I’ll just tell you that I don’t really get jealous.
**You’re probably thinking that’s farfetched, Manchester’s a big place after all, but remember the section on common interests?
My New Year’s resolution, not this year, but the year before, was to give up bad sex. I broke it with a spectacularly awful shag before January was even out. It was gross, but hard to regret, as there’s nothing like reminding yourself what bad sex is like to put you off signing up for it. It was nearly a year before I found myself wanting—really wanting rather than idly fantasising—to sleep with someone else again.
I have taken a lover.* This is the point where I’m meant to tell you he’s tall and domly and swept me off my feet, isn’t it? Sorry to disappoint. We met when I was being shy at a fetish club, where his conversation saved me from having to face crowds of strangers. When he said I ought to mingle I sulked and pouted. I suspect the sulking is where it all began. We stayed in touch, talked about play. Months later he failed, for the hundredth time, to deliver a promised spanking, so I had a tantrum. Is this the stuff romance is made of?
I told my friends about him. “What’s he like?” They asked.
“He has long hair. And he’s married; his wife has a girlfriend.”
“It sounds like a powder keg about to go off.” I was told. I don’t know what’s so dangerous about a ponytail.
Getting into bed with a married man is a bit of a minefield. When is the right point to say, “Would your wife be ok with this?” after the first kiss but before the knickers come off? Do you take his word for it, or call her to check? When you send her husband home late, should you pin an apologetic note onto his coat? Is, “might your wife me expecting sex soon? I wouldn’t want to wear you out,” too personal a question?
I suspect that things are easier if you’re in a Meaningful Relationship. Then you can identify as poly, buy books about doing screwing around ethically and drink coffee, once a month, with the kinksters and hippies who form reassuring and supportive groups. My lover is poly, so’s his wife and so’s her girlfriend. Me, I’m just having sex. And enjoying my lover’s wife’s baking.
If you’re in a Meaningful Relationship, you can demand acceptance from your partner’s (or partners’) partner(s). Since we’re not serious, I hang on the edge; the lover considers me pleasantly shaped and agreeably kinky, that doesn’t imply that his wife has any desire to spend time with me at all, and her girlfriend probably has even less. Alternatively, I can sit alone with the lover wondering whether the others are resentful at my luring him away.
The complications of romance in the poly, kinky world are nothing, though, to the complications of the vanilla, monogamous one. After my adventures in normality the last few weeks, I don’t know how the majority of the population do it.
A few weeks ago, as I waited for my turn at a dance class, a woman approached me and asked, “Are you single? One of my friends might be interested.”
What could I say? The full answer was, “yes, I am single. Happily single, not looking, and in the interests of full disclosure I should tell you that I have a lover. And a play partner. Oh, yes, and I’m only interested in kinksters, really. Who’s this friend?” That seemed rather too revealing an answer, with eleven women other women listening in. So I went with, “it’s complicated.”
I should have asked who the friend was, but instead I spent the next few weeks trying to puzzle it out. I narrowed the contenders down to two. At first I thought it was the one who’d paid me more attention that night. Then his interest seemed to wane, and his friend paid me more attention. Every time I thought I had a clue—that one had called me “gorgeous”, say, or monopolised my time for an evening—the other would soon do the same thing, and I’d be back to square one. I’d thought the woman who asked me if I was single was involved with one of them. It didn’t look like it some nights, though, and in any case, who am I to make assumptions about the rules of other people’s relationships?
Finally, one of them made his move. He chose a bad night to do it. I’d met the lover at lunchtime, emerged from bed bruised and sore in the early evening, and rushed to dancing. After half an hour, during which I ignored increasingly explicit signals, he declared his attraction and demanded an answer. I refused to give one. He pestered, and pestered, until eventually I snapped and said, “I spent about four hours** today having sex, I just can’t think about it any more!” The look on his face was something to see.
The next week I intended to set things straight and tell him that the answer was no thank you, for now. He was playing it cool, though, and the narrative tension was lost in the face of his indifference. I tried to regain it with reference to previous plot points, “So I assume it was you who sent that lass over to say you fancied me?” I said.
“What lass?” he asked, face full of consternation. I let it drop. By the next week, though, I was determined to give him my answer. I would have to subtly indicate that I wasn’t the nice girl he thought I was. I had my line planned:
“You don’t really know me. If you did, you would probably think very differently about whether you want to get involved.” As I said it, I realised how much I sounded like a sweet, nice girl who wants to get to know a man before she holds hands. It lacked the sense of doom and foreboding I was aiming at. So I found myself agreeing to get to know him, when what I really wanted to say was, “I’m not the girl you think I am. You don’t want me.”
Several text messages later and he’s asked for a lift, offered a lift, offered a meal out and said he wants my email address. All have been refused. That’s when he calls me for the first time and tells me he’s horny. Tells me I’m hot. As I’m explaining that I already have a lover, that I’m not looking for anything else right now, he tells me he’s touching himself. What’s the polite response to that? I repeat that I’m disinclined to get involved with him. He tells me he’s going to come. I wish him a good afternoon, thank him for calling, and say goodbye.
I give you Exhibit One: The Wanking Man. If this is how people behave in vanilla circles, lock me in a dungeon with the perverts. They normally ask permission before the grunting starts.
The Wanking Man’s claim that he worked alone made Exhibit Two the leading suspect for sending the woman over to ask if I was single, even if he had a physical intimacy with her unusual between friends. Since I’ve been known to participate in group snuggles, I’m hardly one to judge. In any case, time slid by, he didn’t made a move, and I concluded that the moment had passed, and we’d settled into being regular dance partners. I accepted an invitation to his house to practise. I was lucky girl, I thought, to have such an attentive man to teach me.
Have I managed to create an atmosphere of doom and foreboding this time?
I arrive at his house and hand over my home-made biscotti, which is received with a disappointing lack of fanfare. We go through some routines, then do some closer moves, and watch demonstrations, standing with his arm around my waist and my hand draped over his shoulder. Eventually, we kiss. I decide to open the conversation about not wanting this to go too far, before he breaks out the condoms. So over dinner, a quorny concoction he’d made after divining my vegetarianism, I said, “I assumed you were involved with that woman, wossname…?”
“Oh, I am.” He says. Hmm.
We have The Conversation. I tell him about my married lover, play partner, and preference for kinksters. He tells me about his girlfriend, love of outdoor sex, dogging, and irrepressible infidelities. Then there’s spanking and cuddles. What’s not to like? Well, quite a lot, if you’re his girlfriend. Are smacks and snuggles over the line?
And so I give you Exhibit Two: The Cheating Man. Respectable on the outside, a bubbling pit of illicit desire and quorn-based seduction underneath.
Monogamous vanilla men are weird. Give me a straightforward poly pervert any day. At least when I call the lover and ask if he’s free to fuck on Friday, he says he’ll check with his wife. Then tells me, in detail, precisely how much he’s going to he’s going to hurt me. I’ll take good honest complexity over secrets and lies any day of the week.
*This is a contested word. We’ve gone through friend, play partner, shag, another half, fraction, decimal point and in an awful slip of the tongue yesterday I used the word girlfriend. There’s always some slippage, and if you were loving readers you’d have a whip round for a good thesaurus for me.
**It is possible I exaggerated by 30 minutes or so. I was rounding up.