the spectrum of polyamory

Recorded 8/5/20

Everything is a spectrum right? Even non-monogamy?

D: Recently, a really close monogamous friend of mine admitted she didn’t know much about non-monogamy and poly. This friend said she’d assumed for a really long time that it was just having an open relationship and/or it was just an excuse to cheat on a significant other. Her comments led to an amazing conversation and it was so amazing, in fact, that Julie and I are going to bring some of that to this installment of Ask Poly.

J: Yay!

D: As you can imagine, this is a big topic and, as always, we only know what we know. All opinions are our own for better or for worse. So, are we ready to jump in?

J: I read once while researching how to build a non-monogamous relationship with your partner that cheating is a really good example of “accepted” non-monogamy. The second example of “accepted” non-monogamy is swinger culture. Like there was a Bob’s Burgers episode about swinger culture, so you know it’s in the mainstream. You say swinger and you think about a couple that’s probably wearing a lot of white linen and they are very tan. Their hair is way too blonde and they are in their 40s or 50s. Mostly they just hang out and do whatever. Or whomever.

D: I think you just described an episode of Miami Vice.

J: Yeah, I don’t know where that stereotype comes from. I’m sure most swingers don’t look like that, but I do think swinging is considered more of an “acceptable” form of non-monogamy. Like if I went to my family and said, “I cheated on Jace,” or “me and Jace are swingers,” they would know exactly what I mean. But if I say to them, “me and Jace are poly,” they’d have no idea how to handle that. It’s also interesting that your friend brought up cheating with permission because there’s still this box where people understand cheating but don’t understand that my husband and I support each other’s decision to live a poly lifestyle.

D: And I think the other part really interesting part about cheating and swinger culture being the most “accepted” forms of non-monogamy is that they are heavily about sex. I know we’ve discussed this before, but there’s an implication that being non-monogamous is all about sex and that’s not true. It’s just a piece of it.

J: Yeah, for some people maybe it is about sex, and that’s cool, but that’s not the whole story. And I totally feel that vibe because the longer Jace and I live this way, the more we realize that sex is both meaningful and meaningless at the same time. If poly was only about sex, I think I’d have stopped doing it a long time ago because the novelty of having sex with multiple people wore off pretty quickly.

D: Interesting, tell me more.

J: I mean the first time we had sex with other partners it was like, “Oh my god I can’t believe we’re doing this!” But now it’s more like, “Well, I guess it’s Tuesday!” Sex is just part of this spectrum of things humans do together. Humans cook for each other; humans hold hands; humans take walks together; humans fuck.

D: Right. Poly relationships are about connecting in all the ways, not just through sex.

J: I mean, I’m so into doing domestic shit with other people, more so than I am into sex. Like take me to the grocery store and like tell me about what that bitch at work said.

D: Girl, my perfect date is the grocery store. I LOVE IT.

J: Me, too! Is that an East Coast thing? Do Californians like grocery shopping?

D: I don’t know, but it’s one of my favorite activities. Someone at work asked me what I miss most during the pandemic and my work appropriate answer—

J: Because outing yourself as poly at work is a different conversation for a different day.

D: My work appropriate answer was that I miss grocery shopping. I miss having my list, taking my time, and wandering aisles for as long as I choose. Maybe, if I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll go to multiple stores or learn about new food.

J: I feel that so hard. When I went to France the first time I spent so much time in the grocery stores reading labels and learning about new foods and ingredients. Literally I spent hours in the shops.

D: I think there’s a “grocery shopping is like non-monogamy” metaphor in there somewhere…

J: Oh there definitely is, but we digress. With regards to poly I always define it as the feelings that come along with the relationship. There’s an emphasis on some kind of emotional connection.

D: Yeah, definitely. And one of the things I told my friend when we were talking is that non-monogamy is basically a spectrum. There are all different facets to it and no one way is better than the other. If you and your partners are feeling 100% fulfilled and safe, then you’re doing it right.

J: Yep, exactly!

D: And like for Zac and I our poly experience involves a couple we’ve dated for four years that we consider some of our best friends. It’s just that with these friends, we sometimes get naked with and make-out. And then there’s you and Jace whom we actively call our girlfriend and boyfriend, and we are cultivating an intentional romantic relationship with the two of you. Also we have some really good friends who we don’t have physically intimate relations with, but we like spending time together and have developed close friendships. All of these relationships have their own flavors and an important place in our lives and our experience.

J: Definitely. Some people you’re like “nah, we’re not gonna date them, but we’re buds.” We’ve said this before, but all non-monogamous people don’t automatically want to date or fuck all other poly and non-monogamous people.

D: It really clicked for her that polyamory is a spectrum just like LGBTQ+ is a spectrum. And I would take that even a step farther and say that non-monogamy is a spectrum similar to LGBTQ+ and within that spectrum is polyamory. Just like being gay means something different to each person who identifies that way, being poly also means something different to every poly person and relationship.

J: I like to describe poly as letting each relationship I enter into authentically develop and run its course. So if we meet a couple, and it works out, maybe we start dating them or maybe we don’t. I’m a human with feelings and a need for attachment, so I try to let all of my relationships develop naturally. I mean I have partners, especially my solo partners, who I am close with on various levels, but I don’t think I’d ever call any of them my boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s more like we’re friends that sleep together.

D: Or go to gay bathhouses together.

J: Oh my God! That was such a great experience. Yep, I’m a cis woman and I went to a gay bathhouse. Let’s talk about it! On a special bonus episode.

D: Or in a Poly Speaks blog.

J: But what an amazing experience. And I was allowed to be there, for the record. I didn’t sneak in or go illegally. The person I had that experience with is a good friend and sometimes we hook up. And then I have other solo partners where they will come over to my place or I’ll go to theirs and maybe there will be dinner or drinks, but we’re not really there to talk, ya know?

D: I like your perspective on this. We talked about before when we discussed feeling anxiety over touching each other despite being attracted to each other: we both knew there was the potential for some sort of relationship and one way or another it was going to run the course it was supposed to, even if that was platonic and not romantic.

J: Right! Exactly!

D: Also, fun fact, the four of us actually met the old fashioned way and not through a dating app. And Julie and I hit it off in a bar.

J: Yep. We were drunk, we sang karaoke, we kept talking, and then at the end of the night I remember grabbing Jace in the car and being like “Zac and Daphne! Didn’t you like them?” and Jace responded, “YES! I fucking like them you should text them!”

D: And it all worked out, but we’ve discussed how different our relationship would be if you and Jace or Zac and I didn’t get along as well as you and I did. It never would have developed into a romantic relationship, but you and I probably would have become friends. The “crush” part of that, the part of me that said “I really like her” would have probably fizzled out, but that would have been the natural course of the relationship. So…long story short, I guess we got lucky in this case, but it could have easily gone a different way.

J: Definitely.

D: So one of the other things that my friend said was, “in my last two relationships we tried to be open, but was really more about my partners getting to do what they pleased and getting mad if I even tried to talk to someone else.” And so she really internalized this false power dynamic for a long time.

J: Right, and it’s important to know that true open relationships and non-monogamy generally do not involve being coerced into or agreeing to something just to just to make your partner happy. Everyone draws the line in different places, but if it’s not making everyone involved happy then it’s probably not a great situation. Like I know someone who is poly but his primary partner is not because he chooses not to be, but he doesn’t mind that his boyfriend is poly and has other relationships.

D: We were talking, too, about the concepts of permission and approval because my friend also asked if it was important to get approval for the things you’re doing or being free to just do whatever you want. And this speaks to your example of your friend who is in an open relationship with consent and permission, but those are not necessarily the same thing as approval.

J: Right.

D: There’s consent and negotiation. There’s communication. You know where the boundaries are and when you need to check in. Like yes, you’re approving of the situation, but approval is a loaded term.

J: Yeah I think approval has a really negative feel. Approval to me feels like I’m saying Jace is my property and I dictate what he does and doesn’t get to do. Like I don’t own Jace. He needs my approval to make sure he can make a date and isn’t missing something else that maybe we’re doing together, but it’s not my place to say “yes you can date her but you can’t date him.” I’m also not letting Jace do something. There’s no “let” here, either.

D: Yeah, that’s a really good point.

J: Jace is free to act as he needs to in order to be a happy and healthy human being. I consent to that and support that, but I don’t give my approval on his actions or partners. Jace isn’t my possession. You have to let go of the idea that you are entitled to someone’s heart or affection or that they belong to you in some way. Love and affection are things you earn and there’s trust that you have to build.

D: Agreed. And like I said earlier, the way I think about non-monogamy it’s a spectrum of things. For some people, getting approval might be a part of what gives you and your partner a thrill or a part of what you need to stay grounded and together, and that’s cool. The only wrong way to be non-monogamous is to not behave in a way that works for everyone and keeps everyone safe and makes everyone happy.

J: Yeah, that’s a good way to explain it.

D: If I’m taken care of and happy and getting what I want from Zac and my other partners, and they feel the same way, then I’m doing something right. And that’s what’s important.

J: Yeah, it’s all supposed to be additive and enriching. Like friendships can enhance your life, poly relationships should be the same way. There are lots of reasons why people are non-monogamous like maybe someone is asexual or someone has a higher libido or they’re long distance or because something feels like it’s missing. Or like Jace and I are poly because we can be. We jumped in because there was no good reason to be monogamous.

D: Honestly, I don’t even think that monogamy is the natural state of being for humans. Early on when Zac and I started talking about being non-monogamous in the first year of our relationship, Zac was very honest with me and said “I can’t have sex with the same person until I die.” He said he could see himself spending the rest of his life with me, but did not think he would be happy and fulfilled if we tried to be monogamous forever. And when you’re 22 and your last relationship was terrible and abusive—

J: God, everyone really has that one terrible ex, don’t they? Why is that?

D: I wish I knew. But when you’ve only recently started really healing from that relationship, you don’t necessarily take something like “let’s be non-monogamous” well. I was still working through issues related to instances of emotional abuse and all I could think was that Zac was going to leave me or I wasn’t enough for him somehow. And that took time to work through. To Zac’s credit, he gave me space and time, and eventually I was able to conclude that those weren’t the things he was saying at all. He wasn’t saying “I don’t love you” or “you’re not good enough.” Instead he was expressing a desire to explore a part of himself and he wanted to explore it with me as part of our adventure through life together. That really forced me to really think about what I wanted, which was, ultimately, to go on this journey with him and also have the opportunity to explore different intimate relationships.

J: One person cannot be all things for one person.

D: No, they can’t. And whether you find that in a non-monogamous sexual relationship, or a well-cultivated multi-partner poly relationship, or in close friendships where there is no sex, it’s important to find it because your primary partner, your spouse, your significant other cannot be everything to you. It will literally lead to crashing and burning.

J: And there’s no way! I love the shit out of Jace. He’s my anchor and I want to spend the rest of my life with that man. But I DON’T LIKE FISHING. I can’t do it and I don’t want to do it. I will never be that person for Jace.

D: But now he has Zac and they can fish together and that makes them so happy!

J: Thank GOD! But in the same way, Jace will never get excited about fabric choices or knitting or the dimensions of the wheels I bought for my roller skates. He doesn’t want to watch trashy TV with me.

D: There’s this theory I read about recently, as discussed in Eli Finkel’s book The All or Nothing Marriage, which suggests people getting married today in Western cultures are desperate to see their spouse as their emotional “everything.” This means your spouse is your best friend, your lover, your caretaker, and whatever else you’d ever want. Your spouse isn’t just the person you marry for economic stability or to climb the social ladder anymore. This is so different from the traditional reasons people got married for hundreds and thousands of years, which was for practical survival and social mobility.

J: Because it was a business model and you needed children and you needed heirs to work the farm. Oh, and this guy doesn’t smell as bad as the rest of them and my father told me to.

D: He gave my father four sheep in exchange for my hand in marriage and that was a great decision.

J: Yep. It will feed my family for years.

D: So those relationships often lasted longer because they were built on a different model of need. Either you learned to love them or tolerate them or killed them in their sleep. But outside of that marriage you had other relationships—

J: Like handmaidens you’d take on your honeymoon and have lesbian sex with while your husband was out of town.

D: But over the past few decades, there has been this developing expectation that your spouse is supposed to be your everything and this puts pressure on some marriages in a way that allows resentment and dangerous co-dependency to develop. There’s some belief that higher divorce rates can be attributed to this because you are so wrapped up in this one person and this one relationship, that when something happens that shakes what you see as the truth of your relationship, then it deteriorates very rapidly.

J: That’s really interesting.

D: I also recently finished Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert and one of the stories she shares is about a trip to Vietnam where she speaks to an older woman in a small village. During that conversation, she realizes that in this village, among these people, marriage and romantic relationships aren’t the center of those people’s “emotional biographies” the same way they are in Western culture. This struck me as really interesting, especially as a poly person, because it lends itself to the narrative that there are many relationships that can make up who you are emotionally and it shouldn’t just be your spouse or significant other. In my mind, cultivating all of these poly relationships allows me to avoid looking at Zac as the one and only source of affection and pleasure and friendship in my life.

J: Yeah, Jace and I had a conversation early on where I had to honestly tell him I was not going to be his fishing person. And he needed to find other people to fish with. I can be many things for Jace, but I can’t be that.

D: So to go back to the misconception that non-monogamy is all about sex, I think early on I even believed that in some way. I mean certainly our thoughts and feelings on what that means have changed over time as we’ve changed and gotten older, right? When you’re 22 sex is a really BFD. When you’re in your 30s it’s still a big deal, but it’s very different. The sex Zac and I have now and/or look for in our partners is about connection and it’s less about being horny AF and needing an outlet.

J: Yeah, ya know, I think the older I get, I find that sex is so cool beyond the orgasm part of it. Like you get to know someone in such a different way. When you’re having sex with someone, it can be almost meditative. You’re vulnerable, not just in a physical way, but also mentally. You do the fucking Avatar thing where you mind-meld spirit to spirit. It’s all the feels and serotonin. That is the fun part. You TRULY see a person when you fuck them.

D: I think that’s amazing. I love that.

J: I think even when I’m having fun or trying something new it’s sooooo much of a journey. That’s kind of the fun part of it. I don’t know, this will probably be hotly debated, but one dick is all dicks. Same thing with vaginas. Even with sex, you get to a point where you can only do so many things. Ultimately, there are a limited number of sensations. It’s not special. But the person and the soul you’re doing those things with makes it different and fun and special. It’s the person not the sex.

D: I don’t think I can say it any better than that.