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Backer question: What are “polyamory problems”?

October 5, 2013

This post presents you with another one of the $500 backer questions for the More Than Two Indiegogo campaign (just two days left!!!), and again, we’re answering it together.

Thomas asks:
“Can you illuminate the difference between relationship problems and poly relationship problems?”

Franklin: My first thought is most “poly relationship problems” are actually just “relationship problems.” There are a few problems specific to polyamory, but they’re a lot more thin on the ground than you might think. Many of the things we consider to be poly relationship problems–dealing with jealousy, for example–can exist in any kind of relationship; it’s just that polyamory either raises the stakes or makes the normal solutions we’re handed by social teaching (such as “restrict your partner’s access to other potential mates”) irrelevant.

Eve: Hm, I’m inclined to disagree. I can think of a number of problems that are, if not unique to poly, most often seen here. For example, issues around being out and needing to conceal or marginalize one or more partners, or decide whether to disclose your relationships. Issues around how to relate to your partners’ other partners. Limitations on your relationships that would be pretty uncommon in a monogamous relationship, such as, I live with one partner, so I can only live with another partner if they both get along. Or, I can only get legally married to one partner. That’s just off the top of my head.

Franklin: That’s a good point. Certainly, I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t poly relationship problems, only that a lot of the things we’re told are poly problems are actually relationship problems in general.

It might be helpful to think about what “relationship problems” means. There are relationship problems that are issues between partners in a relationship, and there are structural problems, such as the issue of being open about a non-traditional relationship in a society that frowns on those relationships.

Eve: Well, it depends. The broader social problems that come with being polyamorous can affect the relationships, or not, and it’s when they affect them that they become relationship problems. For example, whether to be out or not is not necessarily a relationship problem. But if a decision not to be out means you have to pretend one or more of your partners don’t exist, and they have a problem with that, then it becomes a relationship problem.

It’s true, though, it seems like “poly relationship problems” could break down into two broad categories: problems associated with the social pressures of living polyamorously in a mongamous society, and problems associated with having more than two people in a romantic molecule.

Franklin: It’s the second variety–problems associated with having romantic relationships with more than one partner–I tend to think of as “poly problems.” One way to distinguish between these and problems that can affect any relationship at all is to ask the question, “If I only had one partner, could this be a problem?”

I know many monogamous people who struggle with jealousy daily, even though they don’t have any evidence of infidelity. So I’m inclined to think of jealousy as a “relationship problem.” Ditto for time management, the other problem we hear about in poly circles all the time; I know people who struggle with time spent with a partner vs. time spent at work or school, time spent on hobbies, and so on. (I’ve actually given up on hobbies in order to free up time for relationships.)

On the other hand, issues of hierarchy, as Eve mentioned, definitely qualify as “poly relationship problems.” Other poly relationship problems might include deciding who sleeps where when, how to get along with a partner’s other partners (though that’s an edge case, as monogamous people deal with this in friend and family circles all the time), safer sex practices (though this is also a bit of an edge case), and deciding who sleeps in the middle.

Eve: I think the getting along with POPs (partners’ other partners) problem is pretty different from the friends & family case, particularly when you live with one of your partners (see our earlier post about this). It depends, of course, on what kind of personality you have and how intertwined you like your relationships to be generally. Maybe it’s that we have a pretty well-defined script and set of rules for how to interact with a lover’s friends or family members when you don’t get along with them, and expectations tend to be fairly well matched. Maybe it’s that lack of script and discordant expectations, in addition to the higher stakes and higher levels of interconnection, that make it a different sort of problem.

Franklin: So perhaps we need three categories: “poly relationship problems,” “relationship problems” and “relationship problems that polyamory adds a new level of complexity to.”

That brings up another question, which is: Do poly problems require different strategies than relationship problems that aren’t poly-specific?

My hunch is they do, at least in some cases. With monogamy, we’re handed a socially sanctioned script for dealing with a lot of issues. That script gives us the answer in a neat little bundle with a ribbon on top. We don’t need to do a lot of soul-searching or introspection to use it. With a lot of poly problems, the shrinkwrapped answers don’t work. When we try to adapt them–for example, when we feel insecure or displaced by a partner’s new partner, and try to resolve those feelings by limiting the relationship with that new partner–we can quickly end up in hot water. Actually solving these problems in a sustainable and compassionate way requires that we be willing to grapple with the root sources of insecurity or fear that live inside us.

Eve: We’ve mentioned monogamous scripts a couple of times. I actually have had a post brewing about this for several weeks. I think in many cases, those scripts fail us not just because they simply don’t work in cases where you have multiple partners involved, but they actually shame us because, when we’ve internalized them (and most of us have), they make us believe that we are doing something wrong by loving more than one person. And when that happens, it can limit our ability to advocate for our needs or treat our partners well. But I’ll leave that idea there until my next post.

Franklin: One of the nice things about polyamory is when we do encounter problems, we often have more eyes on the problem. That assumes, of course, that we trust our partners; it’s often true in my experience that folks who attempt to solve problems by way of hierarchy are actually seeing their POPs as the problem rather than the solution.

Eve: I’m not sure what you mean by “more eyes on the problem.” Could you explain that?

Franklin: In my relationships, when there have been problems between me and one of my partners, sometimes it’s one of our other partners who comes up with a solution. When you’re knee-deep in alligators, it can be hard to remember your goal was to drain the swamp; when you’re knee-deep in conflict, sometimes an outside voice can help find the solution.

Eve: I see. I’ve experienced that too, I just hadn’t thought about it that way. Of course, when I’m having problems with one of my partners, it can be very hard not to let that affect my other partners. I guess that’s another example of a poly relationship problem: that issues in one relationship can spill over into another.

So here’s a question: There are a lot of solutions in monogamous relationships that don’t translate so well into solutions in certain poly situations. Does it go the other way? Are there solutions to poly relationship problems that don’t translate well to monogamous situations? We like to say that “poly relationship skills are really just relationship skills,” so does that mean that all poly relationship skills are applicable in monogamous situations, too?

Franklin: Wow, that’s a good question.

When I think of poly relationship skills, the skills that come to mind first are communication, trust, honesty, willingness to take personal responsibility for my emotional responses, and understanding principles like “just because I feel bad that doesn’t necessarily mean someone else did something wrong.” Those are probably universally applicable to relationships generally; hell, they apply to business relationships and friendships, too.

I can’t think offhand of strategies that I employ in poly problem-solving that wouldn’t also work in a monogamous relationship. I might have fewer resources to draw on, since there are fewer people to turn to, but the strategies themselves work just as well in any relationship, I think.

Eve: So, it might sound a little bit arrogant to say that many monogamous solutions don’t apply in poly situations, but all poly solutions are applicable in monogamous situations. I’m trying to think of counterexamples. And I think what’s happening is that we’re not distinguishing between skills and tactics. The things you mention–communication, trust, honesty, willingness to take personal responsibility for my emotional responses–are all skills, and you’re right, those are just general relationship skills. Tactics would be those scripts we follow, when X happens try Y or Z. And I bet there are a few that are specific to poly, just like there are situations that are specific to poly. I just can’t think of any right now. Maybe we should ask our readers?

Franklin: I can see situations that are unique to polyamory, so I’m reluctant to say that all problem-solving tactics we employ in poly relationships are universally applicable to monogamy. I can’t think of any counterexamples either, though. Let’s put it out there! What do you guys think?


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3 Comments leave one →
  1. mist permalink
    October 5, 2013 7:59 pm

    Time scheduling for special events, especially for partners family including own children.

  2. Sean permalink
    October 8, 2013 5:26 pm

    I think we have it pretty figured out in the poly world. Call it arrogance but I honestly can’t think of any poly solutions that don’t work in mono, having been in 2 mono relationships, 2 poly and 1 mono that turned poly.

    The biggest issue is really getting along with POP’s. My primary and secondary get along really well to the point where I can just wander off and leave them to their conversation. But me and my secondary’s wife…..well we haven’t been in the same location for a while, when we were talking it was mostly out of necessity though we did get along briefly. I know this causes issues for my secondary so I’m open for any advice.

    I personally don’t feel jealousy in terms of my partners being with others but I know that my partners do so I’m coming to understand it and how to minimise my causing of it (though they tell me that it’s just personal insecurities that they need to work through themselves)

    In a mono relationship, you talk to your best friend about your partners, I talk to my partners about my partners. I think them being friends helps because they help me sort out the issues and even make allowances for me to work those issues out. I think it is good for the partners to know if there are issues in the other relationship because it really does affect everyone.

    And who sleeps where when was a problem sorted out over a long time with lots of trial and error.

    Poly can present a lot of relationship problems, but when you can make it work, it works so well.

  3. November 18, 2013 7:23 pm

    It seems to me like this question jumped pretty quickly from “relationship strategies” to “relationship scripts” to “relationship solutions” to “relationship skills” to “relationship tactics”. These are all related but different ideas. I’m not entirely clear by the end which one or ones you’re actually asking about.

    Skills, I think, is reasonably clearcut and you guys already answered that – they’re kinda high level things like trust and communication that apply regardless of the type of relationship, from poly to mono to family to friendship to work to states in between those things.

    It’s when you get into things like “solutions” and “scripts” that I’d expect you’d see the true divergence between mono and poly relationships. Polyamory might be too new on the scene with too many permutations to really have what we would call “scripts” yet, but there are certain solutions that do get floated relatively frequently that might count as something close. Things like “don’t develop relationship hierarchies” – monogamy has a natural hierarchy. Or “get to know your partner’s other partners – they’ll seem more human and less threatening” – monogamy doesn’t have other partners. Or “people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime” – there are ways in which this does apply in monogamous relationships, but if you’ve found a “season” partner and you want a “lifetime” partner it makes sense to end the relationship in monogamy in a way it wouldn’t necessarily in poly.

    If for any of things your response is “not every poly person does that! Some relationships it wouldn’t even be applicable to!”… well, of course. Not every mono person follows mono scripts either 🙂

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