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Bees in the Closet: A Polyamorous Parable

February 16, 2020

Adapted from a comment at Polyamorous Black Girl.

There’s this idea that’s been rolling around in my head for awhile. It’s related to what Ginny Brown referred to as “But you never said —!” in her blog post “Abuse in polyamory, 2019 edition.” I call it “bees in the closet.”

You live with a partner. You come home one day and open the door to the closet in your shared bedroom. Hundreds of bees swarm out. You run shrieking to your partner, “Why are there bees in the closet?!”

Turns out he’s decided to try beekeeping, and he’s moved in a hive. Into the closet.

As you gingerly pull stingers out of your arms, your heart still racing, you ask him what the hell he was thinking, and why he didn’t ask you first—or even tell you before you opened the closet door.

“Well, you never said you had a problem with bees. How was I supposed to know? I’m not a mind reader. You have to communicate your needs if you expect to have them met.”

There’s this thing I see happening a lot in polyamorous circles—and it’s happened to me in my own relationships. (If I’m honest, I’m pretty sure I’ve done it, too.)

Polyamorous folks who lean toward a less structured approach focused on “agreements and boundaries” rather than rules will often talk about how each relationship can be negotiated differently, with different commitments and expectations, based on the needs and desires of the people in it. This is the idea of “designer relationships.” And like many good ideas in polyamory, it’s true—to a point.

The problems start cropping up when this idea becomes weaponized to promote a notion that no one can or should have any baseline expectations in a relationship, that everything needs to be negotiated case by case, and that any hurt caused by a violation of baseline expectations is the fault of the person who held the expectation, for not communicating or negotiating it first.

This is tricky, and it’s one of those places where any good advice can be twisted to harm, because it is also true that some people do use unspoken expectations to manipulate others: “If you loved me, you’d just know…” When this is being done in a manipulative way, though, it tends to be about things that are either very specific, personal and obscure, or that shift frequently and without warning—or both.

You tell your partner you need him to move the bees outside. He says “But you didn’t negotiate a boundary about bees before I moved in. Now you’re changing the rules on me after the fact. Also, you’re trying to control my living space, and that violates my consent.”

And yet…certain actions simply are incompatible with being in a loving relationship with someone. And all of us can, should and do have baseline expectations that are, for the most part, universally understood. For example, at an absolute bare minimum, most of us expect our relationships to be free from physical violence. Most of us expect our partners to tell us the truth. If these things are to be negotiated away in a relationship, the onus is on the person who wants to get rid of them to define that as an exception—not on the person who wants them to explain why they should have them. At a higher level, most of us expect some amount of empathy and—if someone cares about us—to be consulted on decisions that directly affect us before they’re made. Like…keeping bees in the closet.

But a skilled manipulator can make any of these requests sound unreasonable, even controlling. And this is especially true in alternative subcommunities where we’ve already rejected some social norms—and aren’t entirely agreed on which ones we do accept.

Your long-distance metamour, who’s never been to your home and hasn’t talked to you in months, starts posting Facebook posts about people with mental illnesses (for example, and as a total hypothetical that’s not at all related to any real-life events, melissophobia, an irrational fear of bees) needing to get help for themselves instead of making their partners responsible for taking care of them.

Oh and also, just as an aside, if your partner wants to control what you keep in your closet, that’s a red flag for abuse.

People who care deeply about their partners’ autonomy and agency, who feel empathy for their partners and want them to be happy, are especially susceptible to this kind of manipulation. We’re the ones most likely to suppress our gut feelings, take on any pain as ours to deal with, resist participating in any behaviours that could remotely be seen as infringing on our partners’ rights, and rationalize and normalize things that most folks would recognize as really not okay.

And if anyone outside the situation says, “Hey, that doesn’t look right,” it’s easy to say, because of how far outside the norm we already are, that they just don’t get how we do relationships.

You start to think that you overreacted about the bees. Maybe your feelings about bees really aren’t his problem. They’re his bees after all—why can’t you just deal with it?

So you shut up about the bees, and you get used to the feeling of them crawling on your skin at night, and to shaking them out of your clothes, and you tolerate all the little stings. You start cleaning up after them, too, to make up for being so unreasonable about the bees to begin with.

And even though you never really feel comfortable in your home again, eventually you can’t remember why—except that somehow it had something to do with how you tried to control your partner.

But you’re not like that anymore.

An 1840 naturalist's colour illustration of three black-and-yellow bees on a black-and-white line drawing of a flower.

Common Humble-bee. (B. terrestris.), by Mr. Westwood in Jardine Naturalist’s library, 1840. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

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