Not an Odalisque

The Perils of Polyamory

with 10 comments

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:

Homogenisation

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.

Scheduling

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.

Explaining Yourself
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?”

“Yes.”

“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?

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Written by Not an Odalisque

September 24, 2011 at 1:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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10 Responses

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  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. I fully agree with your perils and can’t wait to see what other people have to input.

    Mr Wrath

    September 24, 2011 at 4:40 am

  2. Yes, the perils are not what the non-poly people expect. My friends constantly warned me I’d get hurt, that it would in tears. It’s diffcult to answer that one diplomatically. I don’t want to say to my lovely married friends that they’ll probably get hurt too, like how many marriages end in divorce these days etc.

    And the questions about jealousy were difficult too. How could I be jealous of those who had always been there, who I loved as my family, who made my partner happy and loved him too. Nothing to be jealous about there. And if someone knew came along for either of us that would be dealt with – we could change with it or move on.

    For me poly gave me the space to be me, and to pick and choose the good parts of the realtionship. We had the lovely weekends together but none of the domestic headaches. Much of the time I thought I got the best deal and yes I wasn’t number 1, but then I didn’t want him to be my be all and everything either.

    But as time went by I asked myself what I wanted long term – no longer monogamy, but certainly my own number 1, and possibly children. It worked for a couple of years, made me happy and fulfilled, but had run its course. The end was upsetting but I always knew it would be, and the best thing was the ability to move on as friends, cos that’s the real joy of poly – we don’t get misled or hurt or betrayed – it’s all very civilised and grown-up.

    Emma Jane

    September 25, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    • I’ve also struggled to stay quiet when people tell me that poly will end badly, especially when they then provide an example of a time a poly relationship ended in heartbreak, as if monogamous ones never do. I’m going to come back to jealousy, but I too wonder about serious relationship stuff like children. I don’t think I want any, the cat is enough responsibility, but if I were considering it other relationships complicate the issue. It’s like picking a person with children or a job as a human rights lawyer, you can’t turn round after committing and say it’s a problem they’re busy this weekend. In any case, I hope I manage civilised and grown up, too. I’m not known for it!

      Thank you for commenting (and sorry it took me a few days to reply

      Not an Odalisque

      October 3, 2011 at 11:37 pm

  3. We have both food and water dishes that hold a good 2-3 weeks worth of each. The cat is clearly not starving to death, despite being left alone for long weekends on numerous occaisions.

    Rob Wynne

    September 29, 2011 at 2:47 am

    • That’s fine if your cat isn’t the kind of cat to scoff dry food up straight away, even if there’s way more there than normal! Timed feeders help to some extent though

      Alyss Abyss

      October 1, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    • He would get lonely! He might think I’m never coming back. It would be heartbreaking.

      Not an Odalisque

      October 3, 2011 at 11:39 pm

  4. Poly for me has it’s own perils, some of which I think we share to some degree and others that are quite different. I struggle with jealousy a lot more, probably because of my own insecurities and low self esteem more than anything. I also don’t want to have a relationship where someone feels like they are second best to my marriage and I find it hard to find a way to build a life with my girlfriend when I already have a life built with my husband. It’s hard to want to share everything with her too, like living together and getting married but I know there are ways around all of that.

    Alyss Abyss

    October 1, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    • It is hard, isn’t it? There’s an obvious path with a first partner. I’m working on a jealousy post, so you may find I’m more similar to you than you think. I think Emma Jane is right, though, it’s hard to be troubled by the presence of someone who has always been there. A new partner may be a different thing entirely.

      Not an Odalisque

      October 3, 2011 at 11:43 pm

  5. Well, I didn’t say you should GO for weeks at a time. 🙂 Just making sure he’s got the food.

    Then again, I know what you mean. We just got back from a weekend trip, and the cat was very upset with us when we got home. She just sat at the foot of our chairs and meowed piteously at us.

    Rob Wynne

    October 3, 2011 at 11:43 pm

  6. Coming very belatedly to this particular party… for me, the biggest peril of poly is knowing that any so-called ‘secondary’ relationship is likely to, ultimately, prove temporary: that one’s partner will move on to try and find their own primary partner; that one can’t meet all of their life aspirations. I blogged about this a few months ago in a post that I hesitated to publish for many months:
    http://www.spankingwriters.com/blog/2011/07/04/the-price-of-poly/

    Yet I balance that with the joys of it enabling me to have had the most wonderful, intense, genuinely loving relationships – leading afterwards to the deepest friendships (and yes, still, love). I wouldn’t *not* have entered into or fallen so deeply (to differing degrees) in any of my poly relationships, knowing that they would eventually end.

    You’re writing such wonderful posts that strike at the heart of so many issues dear to my heart at the moment… for which, thank you.

    Abel

    October 9, 2011 at 3:10 pm


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