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On training wheels and Utopian polyamory

August 16, 2013

This is the first of what we hope will be many joint posts written by Eve and Franklin. We’re writing this one as a dialogue between the two of us, because Franklin thought that would be cool.

Franklin is known for having controversial opinions on polyamory, and it’s no surprise that he has frequent run-ins with people over those opinions. Nevertheless, it often still surprises us exactly what proves to be controversial.

One of these more surprisingly controversial positions is the idea that people deserve to have a say in the relationships they participate in and be empowered to shape them, rather than having their relationship with a new partner circumscribed by their new partner’s existing partners, such as in the form of rules that restrict emotional or sexual involvement. Recently, someone accused Franklin of promoting “Utopian polyamory”: an idealistic vision of poly that this person believed most people can achieve only after lots of work and lots of relationships. This same argument also pops up when people express the idea that vetoes, rules and other forms of hierarchy are “training wheels” for couples: a stage most need to go through before they can “graduate” to egalitarian poly.

Eve: I’ve been on both sides of this: I’ve been the new person dating someone who is in other, established relationships, and I’ve been part of a couple that has opened up after being monogamous for many years. The training wheels argument is dubious to me from both sides of this scenario. My husband and I didn’t use the “training wheels” when we opened up, because it felt disrespectful to both our other partners and to each other. And my first partner after my husband was a man who had been in a hierarchical veto relationship for 13 years at that point. Their rules weren’t training wheels; hierarchy was just how they rolled.

Franklin: To me, the biggest problem with the “training wheels” metaphor is that it is disempowering and disrespectful to new partners. It treats people as practice; it’s almost like saying “Well, we don’t really have the skills to treat you well, so we’re going to use you to learn how to treat our future partners well.” The Bible is wrong when it says the love of money is the root of all evil. Treating people as things is the root of all evil.

Eve: The person who taught me how to ride my bike told me he didn’t believe training wheels were helpful—that using them would encourage overreliance on them and that I’d learn bad habits, which I’d have to overcome after taking the training wheels off. I don’t know if that was true, but I do know I learned to ride my bike without training wheels (but with a lot of skinned knees). So I see the training wheels question really as one about who bears the risk while newly poly people acquire new skills. You can say, “We don’t want to risk falling and getting hurt ourselves, so we’re going to ask you to take on this extra share of risk for our relationship”—as well as the normal share of risk that goes with making yourself vulnerable in any new relationship. Or you can own your share of the risk and be prepared for the likely skinned knees.

Franklin: I think the entire purpose of many of the relationship rules we see, especially among people new to polyamory, is risk avoidance. I think it’s natural to want to say “I would like to protect the relationship I already have, so I want to explore polyamory without risking it.” The problem, as you say, is that many folks end up transferring all the risk onto new partners. The reality is that polyamory will change your existing relationship. It’s going to happen. You can’t invite new people into your heart without changing things. The trick is to trust that, even when things change, you will still be okay. Your existing partner (or partners) will still be there for you, and you will be able to navigate the changing waters. It seems to me that if you start from a position that you can’t trust your partner, and you need rules to keep your partner in line, then perhaps exploring polyamory isn’t the wisest choice for you. Especially if you’re going to shift the risk onto other folks.

Eve: I do believe that people are going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. Making mistakes is how we learn. None of us is going to reach poly Utopia just by saying we want it so. But even as we acknowledge that we’re going to do things imperfectly, we have to try to do them well, the first time. And keep trying. You can’t practise trust by not trusting. You can’t practise courage by building walls around yourself and your relationships. In the amazing book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown talks about how we all want to wait until the perfect moment before we start practising courage—until we’re stronger, more resilient, “bulletproof.” But the time to walk into the arena, as she puts it (quoting Theodore Roosevelt—seriously, read it) is always now.

Franklin: It does seem that the secret to healthy, dynamic relationships keeps coming back to courage. Forget training wheels. Forget trying to figure out the right combination of rules that will keep you safe forever. There is no safe forever. Instead, go into the world seeking to treat others with compassion whenever you touch them. When you invite others into your heart, don’t point a shotgun at their heads. Don’t use rules in place of communication. We hear all the time that communication is the first rule of polyamory. There’s a lot of truth to that. Communicate always. Don’t rely on rules to guide you or keep you safe. Communicate your needs. Trust your partners when they say they love you. Don’t assume that without rules, there is only anarchy and chaos; where communication and compassion exist, you don’t need rules to keep you safe.

Eve: Over the last few days Franklin and I have been driving around Eastern Oregon, visiting ghost towns and fossil beds and talking lots about U.S. history. So my mind has been turning over the “Utopia” analogy and comparing it to the history of democratic countries. Democracy is another thing that’s really hard to get right. You could argue that the early stages of the United States—with the right to vote restricted to wealthy white men—were the training wheels stages. But it wasn’t like those people set out and said, “It’s just going to be too much of a mess to let everyone vote, so let’s try it with just the rich white men for awhile, and then we’ll think about universal enfranchisement, you know, once the rich white men all feel ready.” Those folks didn’t give up their power without a fight. And in 2013, we don’t tell countries that want to transition to democracy, “Well, you know, democracy is really hard, and no one gets it right the first time, so why don’t you start out by only giving rights to some people. Then when you’re ready, you can extend them to everyone.” No, those countries are expected to learn from the last few hundreds of years of the democratic experiment and avoid the mistakes others have made, and enfranchise everyone the first time—even though they know it will be hard.

Franklin: Whuf. I think that analogy might get us some angry emails. It’s true, though. You don’t enfranchise just a few people as training wheels, then use them to learn how to be egalitarian. We look at the civil rights movements and the enfranchisement of women and non-whites as good things… well, most people do, anyway, conservative talk radio shows notwithstanding. The idea that citizens have a say in the governance of the country isn’t Utopian; it’s just basic human decency. Same goes for relationships, I think. Disenfranchising people because we need training wheels before we can ride our bikes to Utopia is messed up.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. lynelle permalink
    August 15, 2013 9:02 pm

    “Recently, someone accused Franklin of promoting “Utopian polyamory”: an idealistic vision of poly that this person believed most people can achieve only after lots of work and lots of relationships.”

    ack. to me, utopian polyamory would be thinking that we can add people and love and have no shifts in time or other resource allocations.

    in real life, any relationship involves some risk and some dyad resources, even if you have a lot of overlap with family, friends, and other loves. and to me, every person and relationship would have a part in co-planning in its own dyad, *around existing commitments*, as opposed to bestowance or vetoes from existing partner(s).

    treating our partners as adults, and having a voice in co-shaping our relationships is core to me. while a bestower might operate with kind and compassionate intent, a benevolent dictator is still a dictator, where resource allocation is contingent on the dictator’s feelings, preferences, whims. it treats the partner as a child, and a metamour as someone without say in co-shaping their own dyad *around existing commitments*.

    to me, co-shaping with a partner is part of what a relationship *is* and rules to limit that that is false safety at best.

    to me, safety comes by the empowerment and integrity of living up to ideals instead of living down to fears. ideally, we offer hugs, reassurance, and support to whoever is feeling afraid, yet accommodating that is a dance of a downward-spiral in so many ways.

    if a relationship game-changer comes along, we might struggle to find mutually beneficial paths for resource re-allocation. while that task might lead to a deal-breaker, is that so different than times when a partner’s friend, new job, new hobby, new baby, or other things impact resource allocation, in polyamory, as well as monogamy…? some shifts enable viability, and some don’t. i don’t mean or take that lightly, yet it seems like a reality of life and relationships, no matter the style or structures or rules we place on love and each other. cages kill spirits insidiously, so mostly, i’d hope we want to help each other fly.

    even with a deal-changer though… existing commitments are still “protected” by our partners’ integrity to meet existing commitments. if that’s not the case, i might need a new partner; not new rules.

    i love the history analogy and i think it applies well. every time i re-read about the women suffragettes and what they did and went through to fight for women to be treated as equitable, capable individuals who also should be able to vote, i am humbled, awed, and touched to the core. if they waited until it was “safe” to advocate for women to vote, i suspect we wouldn’t be voting yet.

  2. Adrian permalink
    August 15, 2013 10:37 pm

    So much loving the dialogue style! Excellent post!

  3. Jul permalink
    August 16, 2013 7:49 am

    Great post. I love the democracy analogy, think it’s spot on.

    • Marc permalink
      November 14, 2014 5:30 pm

      ” You could argue that the early stages of the United States—with the right to vote restricted to wealthy white men—were the training wheels stages. ”

      There’s a whole party trying to bring back those days.

  4. Christine permalink
    August 16, 2013 9:30 am

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post Eve and Franklin. Please keep shedding your light on polyamory. I wish more poly couples were able to see things the way you do.

  5. Christine permalink
    August 16, 2013 1:54 pm

    Though they claim they don’t do veto power, some people do it indirectly by sabotaging their partner’s other relationship. That happens when someone is not taking responsibility for their jealousy. They feel challenged, and they make their partner feel guilty about it, by saying things like “Why are you putting me through this?” or “I am not comfortable with you spending the night with her, I am not ready yet”, or “I’m trying so hard to deal with my jealousy, but I jut can’t, I’m too limited. Ever since you’ve been in a relationship with this person, my life has been miserable”. And they expect their partner, who is a good guy, to take action toward limiting their suffering, such as prioritizing the primary relationship, and limiting the other one. In the long term, the other relationship suffocates and falls apart.
    With another secondary partner, they may not feel as jealous, and things are going to be fine.
    To me, we are never victims of jealousy. We always have the choice to not allow the fears behind the jealousy drive our relationships.

  6. August 16, 2013 4:37 pm

    Argh! Having been poly effectively my entire life, the training wheels/practice relationship thing is something I find incredibly upsetting.

    One of the most unintentionally hurtful things anyone ever said to me was that they thought I made an excellent ‘practice girlfriend’. While I think it was intended to be a compliment about my levels of patience and understanding, and the positive effect I had had on my friend’s self esteem and self knowledge, it struck me that it also meant I was seen as temporary, disposable, a stepping stone to use before moving on to some other more permanent relationship.
    That was some ten years ago, and it still stings because as a poly woman I have found a lot of folks treating me that way. Particularly monogamish or new-to-poly types, who basically go “Oh, but you have other partners, surely you won’t care if I dump you with no warning to go off and settle down with someone random I just met?”, completely ignoring that actually I *am* open to setting up home and settling down with someone(s) I’m compatible with.

    I don’t want to be a practice girlfriend. I want to be a girlfriend, dammit.

    • Eve Rickert permalink
      August 18, 2013 2:21 pm

      Oh, wow. What an absolutely horrible thing to say to someone. I’m sorry that happened to you.

  7. August 28, 2013 1:10 am

    Here’s the thing. You can’t just say to people ‘be brave’ and expect that it is something they can immediately do. Children are naturally fearless until the world beats it out of them with spite, rejection and shame. It takes time. Just as it takes time to build it back up again. Is there a place for expressing the utopian ideal of going for it without training wheels? I say, absolutely. Should this be a black and white rule that we put on those struggling to escape monogamy and chastity implemented by a patriarchal structure? I say, the way is to slowly educate with compassion. Knowing that not everyone is capable or willing to stretch that far. Which doesn’t make them bad people – just scared people.

  8. September 29, 2013 1:40 pm

    While it’s true that not everyone has all the skills they need right from the start to just jump in the deep end and start swimming without the water wings (to use a different analogy), the idea that doing the exact opposite of being a decent human being is somehow the WAY you learn to become a decent human being is what the argument is all about.

    In other words, people are advocating using training wheels to learn how to swim, when what they really need are water wings.

    It’s OK that there is a learning curve. It’s not OK that the method used to gain the skills is a method that fundamentally teaches “skills” that are the opposite if the end goal. You don’t learn how to enfranchise people by disenfranchising them first. You enfranchise them and then deal with the repercussions as they happen. You don’t lock people up and say “but we HAVE to put you in jail because it’s the only way we’ll ever learn how to get along with you as free people!”

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