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Can polyamorous hierarchies be ethical? Part 2: Influence and control

June 11, 2016

This is part two of a three-part series inspired by the question Can a hierarchy ever be ethical in polyamory? As I said in Part 1, I have come to the conclusion that this is the wrong question to ask. To get to the right questions, we need to drill down deeper. Part 1 talked about how we define hierarchy, how hierarchies reflect power dynamics within relationships, and why they’re so hard to talk about. In this instalment, we’re going to look closer at some of those power dynamics.

Influence and Control

Any healthy relationship involves a certain amount of influence. While it’s not a good idea to rest your hopes for a relationship on your partner changing, or to make your partner into a project, good partnerships do change the people in them. You may learn new habits, new skills, new hobbies, new ways of communicating. But you also have to learn to prioritize another person’s happiness as well as your own. That means allowing your partner to influence you: it means paying attention to what your partner’s experience is, what their needs are, and working with them to help them get their needs met, along with yours. It means sometimes not doing something you want to do, and sometimes doing something you don’t really want to do, in order to make the relationship work for both of you. It means give and take.

In a healthy relationship, this give and take is negotiated and consensual. Boundaries are respected, bottom lines are recognized and not pushed. You may have to give up pizza on Friday because you’ve had it three date nights in a row and your partner’s craving Thai, you may have to move to a city that’s not your first choice (or even on your list), you might have to take a lower-paying job to make more time with the kids—you may have to make big sacrifices or small ones. But you won’t have to give up friends, family, economic or emotional security, self-worth, self-expression, or any of the things that are important to making you you. And this influence is reciprocal: your partner listens to you and seeks compromise just as much as you do. You both prioritize each other’s happiness and well-being.

The other side of this coin is control. Control is what happens when the give and take stops being consensual and reciprocal, when you stop respecting a partner’s boundaries, when you make your own happiness and meeting your own needs more important than valuing your partner’s agency. It may involve emotional blackmail tactics like threats, shame, gaslighting, withdrawal of affection or resources, or, in extreme cases, physical or sexual abuse. It’s important to recognize that an ongoing pattern of coercive control is the definition of intimate partner abuse—and those tactics I’m talking about are part the power and control wheel that’s used to pinpoint abusive behaviours. However, these coercive tactics are used all the time in both monogamous and polyamorous relationships without rising to the level of abuse.

In poly relationships, control can also manifest through hierarchical agreements where partners give each other the power to make unilateral decisions over other relationships.

You might ask how such agreements might qualify as control if they’re negotiated. That’s because of who’s missing from the negotiating process: the other affected partners. Usually, in hierarchical agreements, the rules are presented to secondary partners as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, without an opportunity to shape their creation—either in the beginning, or in the future. (This discussion makes up the bulk of chapter 10 in More Than Two.)

In a poly relationship, intimate influence may affect the choices you make about how you interact with other people. It may mean that you don’t date someone you want to date, or you limit the amount of time you can commit, or you put the brakes on a relationship that’s growing too fast and big…because of the way it might affect your other partners, or because of concerns they have. It might even affect your decision whether to be poly at all.

Or, you might make all those same choices because you have a partner who’s exerting control over your other relationships—whether as part of a negotiated power hierarchy, or as part of a pattern of coercive control.

It can often be difficult to tell the difference between the two from outside a relationship—especially if you’re affected by the choices being made.

Let’s give an example. In her memoir The Husband Swap, Louisa Leontiades describes her metamour, Elena, giving an ultimatum to Louisa’s husband, Gilles, who was also Elena’s boyfriend: It’s her or me. Elena made it clear that she could no longer remain in a relationship with Gilles as long as he was in a relationship with Louisa. I won’t spoil the book by telling you what he chose…or how Elena responded. But while I was working with Louisa on the companion guide to the memoir, Lessons in Love and Life to My Younger Self, the two of us had a discussion about whether Elena’s actions constituted a veto of Louisa.

An outside observer who did not know Elena would in fact not be in a position to say whether her actions were a veto or not. Why? Because the difference comes down to expectation and intent. Elena had every right to set boundaries concerning what kind of a relationship she was willing to be involved in—up to and including who she was willing to be metamours with. But in giving Gilles an ultimatum, was she prepared for the possibility that he might say no—thus leaving her in the position of having to make good on her promise to end her relationship with him? Or was she working from an expectation that he would say yes—thus making the ultimatum dangerous for only Louisa, and not for Elena? What would her response be if Gilles said no? Would she be angry? Consider his choice a betrayal? Use shame and guilt to try to get him to do what she wanted? Or would she accept his decision—and leave the relationship?

An underlying element of all these questions is this: Did Elena feel entitled to have Gilles choose her? Healthy relationships are ones in which we can express our needs and desires, but it’s when we feel entitled to have our partners do what we want that things go off the rails. Entitlement makes us feel like it’s okay to overrule our partners’ agency (and that of their partners). If we’re part of a socially sanctioned couple, this is especially dangerous, because we’ve got lots of societal messages feeding that sense of entitlement. And the most damaging parts of hierarchical setups tend to come about when we enshrine entitlement into our relationship agreements.

Back to the Tower

At this point, I really hope you’ve read Part 1, because we’re going back now to our tower and village.

If you can manage to get away from the tower argument of “hierarchy means unequal distribution of resources” and start discussing the real issues (usually this happens when you stop trying to discuss “hierarchies” and instead get into specific kinds of rules, or arrangements such as vetoes), the new tower argument becomes the question of influence. I want to be able to ask for what I want, express my concerns about my metamours to my partners, tell my partners how their other relationships are affecting me, and so on. This is a relatively easy position to defend, because in healthy relationships, partners can influence each other.

Once the tower of intimate influence is defended, however, we see the village once again reoccupied. The village is things that a person feels entitled to control in their partner’s relationship, or rules and structures that are put in place to ensure that one person’s needs are always favoured in the case of resource conflict.

Tower: I want to be able to tell my partner how I feel about a potential new partner and have them consider my feelings in their decision.
Village: I expect my partner not to get involved with a person I’m not comfortable with them being with.

Tower: I want my partner to be available to me during emergencies or when I am struggling emotionally.
Village: I expect my partner to be willing to cancel plans with other partners in order to be with me whenever I’m having a hard time.

Tower: I have a lifetime commitment with my partner, and I want to feel like they will make choices that honour that commitment.
Village: I don’t want other partners to express desires for commitment from my partner, because I fear it will undermine their commitment to me.

At the same time, I think a lot of people, when they say “I need hierarchy” (or “I need veto”), are really saying “I’m afraid I won’t be able to influence my partner.” It’s not that they specifically want control: it’s that they want influence, and they either haven’t been taught healthy ways to have or use it (especially in poly situations), or they have only been in crappy relationships in the past where they didn’t have influence—so they don’t know what it feels like.

Now, it is a fact that for most people most of the time (but with many exceptions), longer-established, more committed or more entwined partners are likely to have more influence on a pivot partner than newer, less committed or less entwined partners. And that influence is going to affect what happens in other relationships. Sometimes, it may mean not starting a new relationship, or even ending an existing one—even when no pre-established structures are in place to ensure that certain partners are always favoured, even when there’s no control.

Going back to the diagram from More Than Two that I shared in Part 1:

More Than Two p. 182, illustration © Tatiana Gill 2014. All rights reserved.

More Than Two p. 182, illustration © Tatiana Gill 2014. All rights reserved.

As explained in the book, the arrow coming from the left and making the circles on the right is power from within the relationship on the left, affecting the level of intensity and commitment in the relationship on the right. But what we don’t really talk about in More Than Two is the fact that the power arrow can come from influence or it can come from control. And if you are the person on the right, your experience of the pivot’s decision may be very much the same regardless.

As a result, as I mentioned in Part 1, in any situation in which there is an unequal distribution of resources—or influence—the person with less may be inclined to look at the situation and say “This is a hierarchy.” And this is where I think the questions of What is a hierarchy? and Are hierarchies ethical? are not the right questions. Because what the person on the right is saying is really “I feel disempowered.” And that matters—and is what we really need to pay attention to.

That will be the subject of Part 3.

Can polyamorous hierarchies be ethical? Part 1: The tower and the village

June 10, 2016

Awhile back, Tikva Wolf, creator of the excellent webcomic Kimchi Cuddles, posted a query on her Facebook page: Can hierarchical relationships ever be ethical? I’ve been chewing on a response to that question for some time, because the answer is not simple. I mean, we spend probably a solid 50 pages in More Than Two trying to tease apart how to make relationship agreements ethical—and we still don’t really answer that question. I finally realized, that’s because it’s the wrong question. If we’re concerned about treating our partners ethically, then the right questions are not Can a hierarchy be ethical? or Is this a hierarchy?

But in order to define the right questions, we need to talk about hierarchy. And that’s a long enough discussion that I am going to break it into three parts. When we get to part three, I’ll talk about the questions we really need to be asking.

Defining Hierarchy

It seems to me that basically every discussion of hierarchy in polyamorous relationships eventually circles back to a discussion of what people mean by the word “hierarchy”—and then stays there, unable to reach escape velocity from the gravity of that never-ending semantic debate. I do not want to continue that debate here. Rather, I want to try to shed some light on why we keep having it. I don’t actually think it’s because people have different definitions and we can’t all agree. I think something a little more subtle is afoot.

I originally penned the definition of hierarchy that would eventually become Chapter 11 of More Than Two in a post here back in early 2013. In that post—and later in More Than Two—I focused on the power structures that you often see in poly relationships that are defined as hierarchical, especially those where the terms “primary” and “secondary” are preferred. Specifically, I said there:

A poly hierarchy exists when at least one person holds more power over a partner’s other relationships than is held by the people within those relationships.

Essential elements of a poly hierarchy defined this way are authority, where a person (the “primary”) has the ability to make rules about a relationship that they’re not in, and asymmetry, meaning that others don’t have the same authority over the primary relationship.

In More Than Two, cartoonist Tatiana Gill helped us portray this visually, where power from within one “primary” relationship was used to restrict the levels of connection and commitment permissible within another, relationship:

6-restrict

Such hierarchies are typically expressed through rules that may be more or less complex: things like limits on money or time spent together, sex acts that can be engaged in, and even feelings that can be expressed may all be included. Vetoes—which we define as one partner being able to unilaterally end another relationship without discussion—are common in such hierarchies, but are neither universal nor their defining feature.

Now, we know this isn’t how everyone uses the word. We acknowledged as much in More Than Two. It is, however, one of two prominent definitions used among poly people. So let’s talk about the other definition.

Many people claim that a hierarchy is any poly situation in which one relationship gets more time, energy, priority, commitment, sex, or other resources than another relationship.

So what’s wrong with that definition?

Well nothing, specifically. Except that it’s useless. For starters, that’s basically all relationships. This is the position advanced by people (including us) who argue against use of the word hierarchy in this sense.

Did I say it’s useless? I didn’t mean completely useless. It has a use, but it’s not the one you think. To the people who promote this definition, the usefulness doesn’t have to do with communicating an idea. It has to do with obscuring another one.

Things are about to get a little abstract here, but bear with me, because I’m about to talk about something that happens all. the. fucking. time. in poly communities—and it has a name.

The Tower and the Village

About a decade ago, neuroethicist Nicholas Shackel coined what he called the motte and bailey doctrine. The name refers to a kind of castle that was popular in Western Europe in the early medieval period. The motte is a hill topped by a fortified keep and often surrounded by a ditch or moat. The bailey is basically the rest of the castle: a bit of land containing the rest of the buildings and surrounded by a fence or wall (and possibly another moat). To make this a bit easier to follow, I’m going to refer to the motte as the “tower” and the bailey as the “village,” as shown in the following image:

motte-and-bailey

Now the tower, being on a hill and fortified as it is, is much easier to defend than the village. So when the village is attacked and the walls are about to be breached, everyone can run to the tower, bar the doors, and dump boilng oil on top of the attackers (or whatever other horrific defence strategies were employed in the 12th century). But no one really wants to live in the tower very long—ultimately, they need the village. So the tower is only defended until the attackers have been beaten back or have moved on, at which point everyone reoccupies the village.

The motte and bailey doctrine describes how this same tactic can be used in an argument. You have two positions: one (the tower) is easy to defend, but ultimately not the one you really care about. The other (the village) is a lot harder to defend, but it’s also the thing that matters to you. So in an argument, you defend the village—until you can’t, at which point you retreat to the tower, and defend that. Once the pressure has lifted, you can relax and head back out to your village.

A good example comes up sometimes when trying to converse with people who believe strongly in astrology. If you don’t, and say as much, there’s a response that some people will bring out: “Well, you can’t deny that the moon and the sun have some influence in our lives! Just look at the tides and the seasons.” And, well, sure. No one can deny that. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a thing, circadian rhythms are a thing. As for the moon…that’s out of my wheelhouse, so I won’t comment, but I wouldn’t find it all that surprising to learn that there’s empirical data supporting some effects of the moon on our mood, emotions or hormonal cycles. So that’s the tower: some celestial bodies affect our lives in some ways. That’s relatively easy to defend.

The village, of course, is the idea that there’s some complex system through which dozens of celestial bodies affect our lives in intricate ways that can be predicted by mathematical formulas—right down to who’s the best partner for us or what day is a good day to sign a contract. If you want to convince me of that, well…you need to have more evidence than pointing out the tides and seasons.

The motte and bailey doctrine is an indispensable part of the way poly communities talk about hierarchy and whether it’s an ethical way to structure your relationships.

In this version of the argument, the hierarchy-means-everyone’s-a-special-snowflake argument is the tower. It’s easy to defend, because this is true of, well basically every relationship on the planet. No two relationships—even those prescribed by rigid gender and social roles—are or can ever be exactly the same, and no sane person would argue that they should be. The counterpart to this argument is the notion that “egalitarian” polyamory entails an expectation that all the relationships be the same. As we say in More Than Two, “Expecting the same level of commitment and entwinement from each [of your relationships] would be high-order foolishness.”

The fact that this form of hierarchy exists in every human being’s relationship life does not, as one might expect, make it a useless concept, though. In fact it’s a very useful concept indeed—because it doesn’t actually exist to communicate an idea. It exists to protect the village.

The village is the definition of hierarchy I gave at the beginning: where certain partners expect to be able to control other relationships that their partners are in. It’s usually clear that this is what’s really going on because people don’t tend to stay in the tower very long. Once someone has defended their tower—getting everyone to agree to the obvious statement that yes, all relationships need and consume different resources and have different priorities—you can often see them creeping back out onto the village.

An example of this is when people start talking about the idea of “respecting” the primary (or marital, or nesting, or parental, or whatever you call it) relationship. With the possible exception of some relationship anarchists, most people will accept at face value the idea that you should respect a partner’s other relationships, in that it’s a good idea to support your partner in keeping their commitments and doing things that support the health of their relationship life, and also in that most people understand that long-established, entwined relationships (particularly with children) tend to involve more time, energy and priority than newer or less entwined relationships (tower).

But are members of a couple saying that “respect” means not voicing criticism of abusive or manipulative behaviour? Not advocating for your own needs in a relationship? Not expressing your own feelings of love or attachment? Never asking for your relationship to take some priority some of the time? Then that’s a power hierarchy: the village. Watch what happens when you challenge this. Does the couple retreat to the tower? Do they say things like “Well you wouldn’t give someone the keys to your house on the first date!” “We’ve been together 10 years, we just have more sweat equity!” “You can’t expect everyone to be equal.” And the classic “We have to put our children first.”

The thing is that none of these statements are wrong. That’s why someone is saying them—because they’re the tower, easy to defend. But it’s not about these things, not really. It’s about the village: how much control someone has over what happens a relationship they’re not in.

Defining egalitarian polyamory as “everyone gets the same” and hierarchical polyamory as “every relationship is different” makes non-hierarchical poly seem easy to dismiss, and people who try to practise it, impractical ideologues. This conversational trick is devastatingly effective at shutting down discussions about the ethical implications of power dynamics in poly networks.

Lest I be accused of being too hard on primary partners, let me point out that secondary (or satellite, or peripheral, or whatever you like to call them) partners can also employ rhetorical tricks to confuse discussions of the power dynamics in poly networks.

A common one is to look at any unequal distribution of resources and call it a hierarchy. Since the idea of hierarchical relationship networks has, over the last few years, become increasingly frowned on in at least some poly subcultures, an accusation of having a hierarchical relationship is often a criticism—and can really sting if it comes from someone you love, especially if you’re actively working to avoid the power imbalances that we describe in More Than Two as hierarchies. Sometimes the accusations are true, but sometimes they point to other kinds of problems, which I’ll discuss later in this series.

Unfortunately, I do think that in many instances where I’ve seen these tactics used, the driving force behind them is just straight up intellectual dishonesty. But very often, I think it’s more innocent than that, and comes from a genuine confusion over what power within healthy relationships looks like—and from the fact that very often it can be hard to tell, from outside a relationship, exactly what the power dynamic is within it.

That’s what Part 2 is about.

7 Things Never to Say to a Polyamorous Lesbian

February 9, 2016

Or: How to make your coed polyamory group welcoming to lesbians.

This is a guest post by Sophia, a friend on mine & Franklin’s who has organized poly groups and events, especially for women and LGBTQ folks, in the Vancouver area. This post arose out of some thoughts she shared with me, which Franklin and I wanted to signal boost because they represent a perspective and experience that we feel doesn’t get a lot of airtime in our communities or our literature.

I’ve been a lesbian my whole life and a polyamorous lesbian for the last five years. The city where I live has a fairly active polyamorous community, with discussion groups and social events. The most active of these are the ones that welcome all genders. I love sex-positive people: We talk freely and mostly without shame about sexuality and relationships. We can be frank and fun people. Experienced and successful poly people often have great communication skills. I have not met with a lot of overt homophobia in polyamorous social environments, probably because about 80% of the women are bisexual. Many of the men are lovely and profeminist as well, and I have some good male friends among them.

However, environments that welcome people outside the norm also often attract people who transgress social boundaries in ways that harm other people. Tolerating poor behaviour from these individuals will, over time, drive away the people you want in your groups.

giphy.gif

Here are some things not to say to a poly lesbian. Most of them should seem obvious, but all of them are real examples. Many of them also apply to other queer women as well. 

1. “I slept with a lesbian…”

If you are a man, never, ever tell your lesbian friend or acquaintance about the “lesbian” you slept with. The polite way to treat a lesbian is “off limits to you or any man” sexually. Like a nun. Or your sister. Or your best friend’s monogamous wife. Or your straight best male friend. None of these people want to hear about you having sex with someone just like them. It’s saying “your stated boundary that you are not into men doesn’t matter because this other woman said she didn’t want sex with men but had sex with me anyhow.” Accept that not all women are sexually available to men, and move on. If someone tells you she’s a lesbian, by using that word, she is clearly communicating that she does not consent to receive sexual attention from men. Respect that. Do not be hopeful that this particular lesbian will sleep with you just because another woman did. It’s more than just rude and creepy—it’s a consent violation.

2. “You and your girlfriend are so hot. I’ve been having fantasies about you.”

A man actually said this to me yesterday. No lesbian (and very few queer women, period) ever wants to hear this. Similarly, do not ask to watch. There are no words to express how deeply creepy this is.

3. “Will you date me and my husband/wife? We had a threesome with a lesbian once…”

Don’t ask a lesbian out on a date that involves a man. Don’t even suggest it, hint you are available for a threesome or anything of the sort. Even if she’s friendly. She’s just being polite and assumes you know what the word lesbian means and that you have the class to respect her boundaries. Have that class. (This applies equally to online dating.)

4. “Your girlfriend looks like a man, so why don’t you sleep with men?”

Butch women are women. Lesbians are into women. That’s the point.

5. “I know what toys you girls like…”

Don’t start talking about dildos or strapons. Just. Don’t. It’s none of your business. Again, lesbians are into women. Anything done between women is not about men.

6. “I just thought you might not have had the opportunity to sleep with a man…”

This is laughable. Most women, lesbians included, have to refuse advances from men on a regular basis.

7. “Oh, you’re a lesbian. I could never be a lesbian, I like cock so much. Let me tell you all about what I like to do with men…”

I get it, you need everyone to know you’re not gay. I’m not going to hit on you. And frankly, details about sex with men gross me and a lot of other lesbians out. Like most lesbians, I’ve had sex with men before I came out. I know how it works. It’s not a topic of interest or appeal to me. It’s like forcing a vegan to listen to all the things you like about meat.

i-like-my-men

Obviously, these are things that are rude and inappropriate to say to any lesbian in any setting. But the frankness about sexuality and relationships in poly and kink communities specifically can give people a false sense of permission to be intrusive or to fetishize sexual minorities, and that’s not okay. Lesbians who run into this kind of behaviour in poly communities may choose to stay within queer communities, or to segregate themselves from bi and straight people to avoid these types of unpleasant situations—which I think is a loss of community and possibilities for understanding and connection on both sides.

Let’s be good to one another. Sex-positive communities should be all about respecting stated boundaries and consent. The word lesbian has a very clear, widely understood meaning. I would like to see our poly communities be places where people take that meaning and use common sense to tell us how to behave to other human beings whose boundaries we recognize and respect.

Additional resources:

A great source of information for men on how to treat women of all kinds in nonmonogamous environments is Pepper Mint’s Nonmonogamy for Men: The Big Picture. It’s long, but it’s the best analysis by a man, for men, that I’ve seen of why men sometimes behave so badly in nonmonogamous environments, why the ways men have been socialized to treat women don’t work in nonmonogamous settings, and what to do about it.

Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Consider getting the book! Visit the books page to find out more.

Polyamorous holidays: When you’re the secondary

December 3, 2015

This is a guest post by longtime poly blogger Noël Figart, author of the Polyamorous Misanthrope blog. A friend of mine sent me a question last week about surviving the holidays as a polyamorous secondary partner, and Franklin and I chewed on it for awhile before finally throwing in the towel. It sucks (I’ve been through it), and we empathize…but we couldn’t think of any concrete solutions. So we turned to someone else we trusted. I’ve followed Noël’s blog almost since the inception of my own non-monogamy journey, and she gives great poly advice that is grounded in respect, love and being a grown-up. When we cast around for someone to take this one on, she was the first who came to mind. Feel free to post your own suggestions (or empathy and support) in the comments.

I’m looking for advice on surviving the holidays as a Secondary. My only current partner is married, and also lives very close to his biological family, whom he is also very close to emotionally. He’s told at least his mother that he’s dating someone, but she has essentially bent over backwards to ignore our relationship. Although we don’t subscribe to an emotional hierarchy, there’s still the functional/social hierarchy of him living with her, being accepted by his family, etc., and holidays really seem to heighten that glitch in the matrix.

My own biological family lives too far away for me to spend time with. My partner is spending the holidays with his family (no big surprise) and his wife (also not a surprise.) We’re doing some personal celebration things on days around the holidays, but they’re very solitary activities. I find that it’s very much getting to me that I’m alone during this time of family togetherness. I’m making the best of it spending time with friends, but it hurts to not be able to spend the time with the person I love the most, and additionally to feel like I am socially “erased” from his life during this time. I’d like to know how other people have dealt with similar feelings of being the Invisible Partner during a very rough part of the year to be alone.

Ow.

That hurts and it’s tough. And guess what? There is some social erasure going on in this.

Is it avoidable?

© Michal Moravcik/Depositphotos.com

To not be publicly acknowledged as a partner or to be erased from public celebrations can be painful. Photo © Michal Moravcik/Depositphotos.com

That’s a tough one. One of the problems with polyamory is that in general they are very much “roll your own” relationships, which means that while we’re reared to specific social expectations, the realities of our relationships often don’t follow that social expectation. Which for the hot threesome can be awesome, but it can suck when it’s bumping up against an expectation of the inherently social and community-oriented time of the holidays being something you expect, are taught to value, and to be frank… Kinda do value! So to not be acknowledged and to be erased from the more public celebrations can be painful.

In my perfect world, families of origin would be accepting of the people who are close to their members and welcome them into family celebrations. I’m sorry that it doesn’t work that way all the time. It hurts like crazy.

That doesn’t mean you’re totally helpless in the face of the situation, though.

Let’s break this down in terms of relationship skill sets. I’m sure you’ve run across the idea before that it’s important to ask for what you want. It is crucial, so get it out there. Don’t worry about whether what you want is too much to ask: once you know what you want, ask for it. This can be scary, but I think all good relationships require a bit of courage. Yes, you’re setting yourself up for a refusal, but if you don’t ask, you don’t give them the opportunity to say yes.

So try it out, “Honey, I feel really alone during the holidays. Since we are partners, I feel like we’re family, too, and I want to be able to be included in some big holiday gatherings. Is there any way this can happen at all?”

Notice that this is open-ended. You’re asking for what you want, but you’re not telling anyone how to give it to you. That’s good, because chances are better that you’ll get some suggested solutions that you might not even have thought of.

Yes, I’m presuming good will here. After all, you’re partners and you love each other, right?

You mention that you’re doing a small, private celebration with your partner. Maybe it shouldn’t be (just) a small, private celebration. Maybe at some point a big holiday party that you and your partner and metamour host might be a good idea. It doesn’t have to be a holiday in and of itself. I used to throw a big tree decorating party the first of December ever year.

As for the specific holidays themselves, I used to be a member of a group marriage. While we got enough wrong that it did eventually dissolve, one of the things we got right was that we hosted holidays at our house. That kept us from having to choose among families of origin. People who wanted to visit on a holiday were welcomed. It worked out okay. Nothing’s perfect, but it was a good solution for us, as it did keep us on more equal ground with each other.

For those of us who have the couple privilege—that is, those of us who are in public, socially recognized and sanctioned couples—I do think we need to have a heart here. While I’m certainly poly enough that I don’t think it is healthy for anyone to be anyone else’s sole social and emotional support, at least one of the factors incumbent on polyamorous relationships is the reality that romantic relationships are often our most deeply intimate ties. As such, the social bonding rituals that celebrate and reinforce these ties need to be recognized, and all our partners included.

I encourage anyone who is in this situation to try to think of ways you can show your partners how loved and valued they are as members of your personal community.

You can follow the Polyamorous Misanthrope on Facebook.

If you like what you’re reading, consider buying one of Eve’s books.

It’s finally here! The More Than Two audiobook! (Also, Kimchi Cuddles!)

May 5, 2015

Okay everyone, you can finally stop messaging and tweeting at us about when the More Than Two audiobook will be out: it’s finally here! You can order it on Amazon now, iTunes coming soon. Please share!

And in other news… The amazing webcomic Kimchi Cuddles is going to be a book! Creator Tikva Wolf launched her crowdfunding campaign today (in collaboration with my & Franklin’s publishing company, Thorntree Press), and she’s already up over $5,000. There are some great perks there—including copies of More Than Two and other Thorntree books. And an awesome crowdfunding video. Please go check it out and support her now.

Thank you!

We’re coming to Europe!

March 28, 2015

Wow, you guys! It’s been an amazing six months. The book More Than Two has sold over 8,000 copies. The manuscript for Franklin’s forthcoming memoir, The Game Changer, goes to copy-editing on Monday. And we’ve been invited to speak at Poly Day North in Manchester, UK, this October… and we figured, hey! Let’s do a Europe book tour! We have lots of backers and fans in the UK and Europe, and we’ve gotten enough frequent flyer miles over the last year to cover the tickets. So, we’re doing it.

If you live across the water, we need your help! We need folks to help plan local events, and we need places to stay. So if you want us to come visit you, please fill out this short survey. Our tour route will be based entirely on where we have fan support.

Thank you all so much for making More Than Two such a success!

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Resources on abuse in polyamorous relationships

February 21, 2015
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Abuse is, unfortunately, common in polyamorous relationships, just as in monogamous relationships. Polyamorous abuse can look different from abuse in monogamous relationships because of the characteristics of group dynamics. In addition, most polyamorous relationship advice assumes non-abusive relationships, but may be harmful when applied to abusive situations, and many resources for abuse survivors aren’t necessarily friendly for polyamorous people.

Several of the resources below contain checklists of behaviours common to abusive relationships and to healthy relationships; however, the following are some possible signs of abusive polyamorous situations, specifically*:

  • You feel frequently demeaned or humiliated by a partner or metamour.
  • You feel that acceptance by your polycule depends on your participation in group sex.
  • A partner or metamour reads your messages, emails, journals or other private information without your permission.
  • You find yourself doubting your own grip on reality, especially as it pertains to a relationship or your polycule.
  • You feel like a partner or metamour is “two different people,” or like you never know whether a partner or metamour will hurt you or support you in any given moment.
  • You feel discouraged from communicating with your metamours.
  • You feel you are expected to keep secrets from or about your partners or metamours.
  • You only or primarily hear negative things about your metamours.
  • The things a partner says and the things your metamours say often don’t seem to match up.
  • You’re made to feel that you are “not really polyamorous” if you express a concern, ask for a limit, or communicate your feelings.
  • You feel shamed for seeking out social supports outside your polycule.
  • A partner or metamour invalidates your feelings or internal experience.
  • A partner or metamour claims to be a gatekeeper, or the only or best source of reliable information about polyamory.
  • You feel that no one else will want to be with you or “put up with you” if you leave.
  • You feel like the sole problem in a relationship or polycule.

Resources and reading

The following are some resources that you may find useful to help you decide whether your situation may be abusive, help others, or heal from abuse:

Here are some books:

  • Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft—hands-down the single best resource available for understanding abusive men and patterns of misogynistic abuse. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life by Robin Stern. This is the book that originally popularized the term “gaslighting.” (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems by Alexandra Stein is great for understanding the kind of abuse that can happen in abusive polyamorous networks. (Powell’s | Indiebound |Amazon)
  • The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence by Gavin de Becker. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • The Verbally Abusive Man – Can He Change? A Woman’s Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go by Patricia Evans(Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You by Susan Forward. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You by Patricia Evans. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival by Kelly Sundberg is a heart-rending memoir of surviving and leaving an abusive relationship. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)

First-person accounts

Enough people have come forward describing their own experiences of abuse in polyamorous relationships that there’s now enough for a whole section on first-person accounts.

If you need immediate help, assistance with safety or exit planning, or just need to talk to someone, you can call the Network/La Red hotline at (617) 742-4911, or the National Abuse Hotline at (800) 799-7233.

**Note: There are many people in polyamorous and sex-positive communities offering their (paid) services as consultants or trainers in transformative justice and community accountability. Many of these people are extremely dangerous, and I strongly recommend against working with any independent “professional” to support you in an abusive situation. Work only with established, credible organizations with clear structures of accountability.

*Thanks to Samantha Manewitz, LICSW and creator of Safety Beyond Safewords, for assistance with this list of red flags.

 

Relationship rights: Can you negotiate them away?

January 18, 2015

Franklin and I had an awesome interview on Friday with blogger and journalist A.V. Flox. We talked for almost two hours—I’m kind of scared, actually. A.V. is a fantastic interviewer. She’s the kind of person who makes you want to tell her everything. Everything. So I’m a little nervous about what incriminating (or at least embarrassing) things I may have said during the interview.

One of the things we talked about was the Relationship Bill of Rights, and specifically some thinking I’ve been doing about it lately. The RBoR was tough to come up with, in large part because we were having a hard time defining what was a “right,” and where to draw the line between a “right” and something that’s just really, really helpful. As Franklin has talked about before, we ended up turning to domestic violence prevention resources for inspiration, because those folks are pretty much the only people out there actually talking about relationship rights. In the end, we sort of dodged the question of definition, though, stating that for the purposes of our RBoR, we were basing our “rights” on principles that we felt polyamorous communities should uphold as part of our attempts to be basic decent human beings.

I don’t agree with that definition any more.

I’ve been thinking about this because the idea has come up in a few places that people can negotiate their relationship rights way, as though relationship rights are part and parcel of whatever your larger relationship agreement is, and you can pick and choose from them. And I think that’s a problem. The more I’ve thought about it, the more it seems clear to me that you cannot negotiate away your relationship rights—even if you want to, or think you do. And that, in fact, may be exactly what makes them rights, and not just general principles for good relationships.

Now I know there’s a libertarian wing of poly thinkers, and this is going to piss a lot of them right off. There are a lot of people who argue quite vehemently that anything people consent to within their relationships is okay. That comes from an understandable place: most of us are used to being judged in our lifestyles, most of us are used to demands that we follow other people’s rules. We’re reluctant to sign on to anything that looks like someone else telling us how to conduct our relationships.

The problem is, that  argument can bring you to some seriously messed-up places.

There’s a reason domestic violence prevention websites have lists of your rights in relationships. It’s because the places you tend to see rights violations tend to be abusive relationships. It’s because rights violations tend to lead to abuse. Do abuse victims “consent” to be in their relationships? On the surface, perhaps it looks that way, but that is rooted in a victim-blaming, “why doesn’t she (he) just leave?” mentality and a serious oversimplification of the psychological dynamics of abuse. Abuse relies on tearing down your partner’s sense of self and personal agency to the point where consent is really no longer valid. And it doesn’t take physical violence to make a relationship abusive.*

I believe that if you’ve come to a place in your relationship where someone has negotiated any one of their rights away, that relationship includes coercion, and that invalidates consent. Staying doesn’t mean your partner’s not hurting you. The fact that your partner submits to you doesn’t mean you’re not being an abusive asshole.

By way of example, I want to look at a couple of the rights we list in More Than Two:

  • To revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time.
  • To end a relationship.

These are really two facets of the same principle, since ending a relationship is revoking consent to intimacy—but the second right is such an important corollary of the first, we felt it needed to be stated on its own. It is, well, pretty much the most obvious and inalienable of the rights. And yet…there are people who think you can negotiate this one away. It’s most common to see such thinking in D/s relationships. Franklin likes to tell the story of a couple he used to know who were in a Master/slave relationship that the Dom insisted was “real.” He owned his wife, he swore, just as surely as he owned his toaster oven. He continued to maintain this right up until the moment his wife had him served with divorce papers.

In BDSM, some of us may play with non-consent. But—and this is going to piss some people off again—the key word here is playing. It’s a game, and at some level deep down, even when you’re absorbed in the role, you always remember it’s a game. But even in a 24/7 relationship, even when you say you agree to be another person’s slave—what happens when you step outside the role? If you say, “Whoa, can we talk, I need to renegotiate some things here”? Or even, “I’m not into this anymore, I don’t think it’s working—I need to move on.” Is that okay? It needs to be. Because you can’t, literally can’t, negotiate away your right to leave a relationship, or to revoke your consent.

You’ll see arguments against this outside BDSM circles sometimes, too. In the flush of NRE, it’s really tempting to say things like, “I will always love you.” “I won’t ever leave you.” Wiser folks who have been through a few heartbreaks may tend to resist the urge to utter such things in the heat of the moment. But even if you do… you can’t be held to them. These are not promises you can keep. You cannot promise to feel or want something forever; you cannot pre-consent to intimacy.

Yet there are people who believe that they can hold their partners to these kinds of promises—even extract such pledges of eternal love early on. There are people who will shame and coerce their partners to keep them from leaving—and if your partner is trying to keep you in a relationship that you don’t want to be in? That’s abuse. No matter what you said before. You can never. Negotiate away. Your right. To leave.

I could make a similar argument for many of the rights in the RBoR. But this line of thinking has forced me to re-evaluate the RBoR from the standpoint of this new definition of rights. If a right is something you cannot give up in a relationship, do all of the rights in our RBoR still stand as rights?

To answer this question, we need to consider, for each right, what it means for that right to not exist in a relationship. Does consistently violating that right lead to coercion? Does it violate ongoing, informed consent? Will it lead to abuse?

I read through the RBoR again with these questions in mind. Amazingly, I found that all of the rights still meet the bar for being a right. There are certainly cases where you might choose not to exercise a right. It might be easy enough to say you don’t need the right to leave when, well, you don’t want to leave. But when you decide you do want the right? It’s still there.

And that’s what makes it a right.

 

*Read more about abuse in poly—and all—relationships here.

 

 

Evolution of the More Than Two book cover

December 28, 2014

Like most of the rest of the book, creating the cover for More Than Two was something of an adventure. We’re quite pleased with it, and so are most of our readers—the response to it has been overwhelmingly good. We thought you might enjoy knowing a bit more about the process that took us to the final cover, as it says a lot about the evolution of our own thinking about polyamory and the book itself.

About a year and a half ago, in one of the first posts published on the More Than Two blog, Franklin wrote about why we decided to change the More Than Two logo from the image he’d used on the site and his own LiveJournal blog for years: three people working together on a heart-shaped blueprint. He was responding to an idea we developed later in the book: relationships are grown, not built. So he revised the logo slightly (and very quickly), so that the three people were working on a garden, not a blueprint:

blueprintlogo gardenlogo

© Franklin Veaux 2013

Of course, as many people commented there, there were a lot of things wrong with the second image (for one, you don’t use ladders to work on gardens in the air). And certainly, it was no book cover. We were also troubled by the “polyamory is a closed triad” stereotype that the image seemed to promote—we’ll come back to that later.

During last year’s crowdfunding campaign, we bought a stock image to use in our social media and marketing materials, building on the idea of “growing” love:

heart tree small

© Shutterstock/musicman

In December, we shared Franklin’s post about the two images with our cover designer, along with some additional feedback: we wanted to move away from the idea that poly is a couple opening their relationship, or three people in a triad. We wanted to make the book accessible to people of a wide variety of poly persuasions, and to give people new to poly the idea that there were lots of configurations available.

The designer we were working with at the time, Vanessa Rossi, wasn’t an illustrator, so we started out trying to see if we could find some stock images, or illustrations we might be able to buy, that fit the bill. Vanessa filled a Dropbox folder with images, and we picked a few that were headed in the right direction, but not quite right:

tumblr_mp5e2a9Q7w1sxmo85o1_500  diversity-people-tree-set-336d656   23514923-dna-molecule

Images © Rene Campbell 2013Shutterstock/Cienpies Design; 123RF/Olga Ieromina

Of all of these, the people-tree was the best, but the couple-plus-child wasn’t the right base. In fact, we were worried that any image involving more than one person as the trunk would invoke the couple-centric idea that becoming involved with someone who is already in a relationship is “entering” that relationship, or else imply a default primary-secondary model of relationships. We decided the trunk needed to be a single person, with deep roots (the self-work we stress in the book) sustaining many loves.

So Vanessa did a second round of research:

isolated-diversity-tree-people-2474d2e stock-vector-spring-tree-with-women-silhouette-45949855 Isolated Diversity Tree hands

© Stockfresh/cienpies; Shutterstock/Lindwa; Depositphotos/cienpies

Closer—so much closer—but still not there. We could get one person as the trunk, but no people in the tree, or people in the tree, but no person as the trunk, but not both. At that point, Vanessa advised us to hire an illustrator. We were fortunate enough to be able to engage the very talented Paul Mendoza, who reviewed the research done so far, as well as the blog post, and came up with some quick sketches.

Morethantwo_sketch_composite_1 cropped

© Paul Mendoza 2014

We liked the colours in the top right thumbnail, but wanted something less stylized and more like a watercolour painting, more akin to the lower right. I had imagined the trunk and roots fairly rich in detail, something like Mercer Mayer’s depiction of Father Forest from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, one of my favourite childhood books (seriously, it’s beautiful—buy it).

FatherForest

© Mercer Mayer 1987 

We also went back and forth about the hand-holding figures in the top right image. One of the things Franklin had liked about his original images was the sense of everyone working together to build something. At the same time, we were afraid that having all the beloveds holding hands would, again, promote a stereotype: of closed-group polyamory, “polyfamily,” group intimacy or polyfidelity.

We had both grown quite wary of the “polyfamily” concept as a normative model as opposed to one option among many. Not everyone wants that model, not everyone who wants it is able to create it, and not everyone can be close, or even get along. All of that’s normal, and people in poly networks need to learn strategies for building relationships that work within the particular dynamics of the people involved. We didn’t want a cover that implied that the circle of happy people holding hands was what poly is “supposed” to look like, and people who don’t achieve that are somehow doing it wrong. So, no hand-holding. But Franklin has on a few occasions since then expressed some wistfulness that the cooperative sense of the early images was lost. In retrospect, it might have been nice to have had some people in the tree holding hands. But the cover as it is offers a snapshot of where we were in our thinking at the time, as we worked to integrate our new insights about polyfamily and consent into our own ideals about polyamory.

So Paul tinkered a bit, and came up with a more detailed “painting” (in quotes because he created it digitally):

Morethantwo_B

 © Paul Mendoza 2014

At this point, we (well, I) decided to post the work in progress to the More Than Two Facebook page. That turned out to be a mistake. I’d intended it to be a “whee! Look what we’re doing! Isn’t it exciting!” post. Our readers understood it as a “Hey, look what we’re doing, we’d like your feedback and input!” post, and we immediately got an onslaught of comments and suggestions, many contradicting each other or our own creative vision. Many commenters would have had us essentially go back to the drawing board—likely thinking that this was just a rough concept sketch, and not the culmination of what was, at that point, several months of research and revisions.

After some discussion with Paul of the feedback we’d gotten, he offered the following sage advice:

The moment we allow Facebook posts to become the art director, we enter an new type of hell. One thing we learned a long time ago is to never post pre-production work as it was being done, just as an after its done insight into the process. Otherwise we suddenly got far too much advice. It can be helpful to an extent, but you can never make everyone happy.

So, concerned that we were miscalibrating expectations by posting the work in progress, we took down the post. We had gotten some useful feedback in the process, though: the drawing was too diffuse and floaty, too grey and “haunted”-looking. And most of this mirrored what we’d already been thinking: we knew we needed more detail, brighter colours, and a sharper “face” in the tree.

And so, after further adjustments, we ended up with the final image:

More-Than-Two-cover-illustration-Eve's-tweaks---small

© Paul Mendoza 2014

Then came the typography, done by designer Mari Chijiiwa (after Vanessa left freelancing for a full-time animation career), who also created the book’s interior. That was yet another journey, and one I won’t go into here. However, you may notice that the image on the illustration above is flipped from what’s on our final cover: this was done because of typographical considerations. That was harder than it seems, because the background had been painted to match the tree, and it’s resulted in no end of trouble as we try to hunt down and remove any last remaining instances of the earlier draft cover, with the reversed tree, still lingering out there on the Web.

And at last, we had the beautiful, eye-catching design you see on the cover today:

cover-KDP

Image © Paul Mendoza / Typography © Thorntree Press 2014

We’re incredibly grateful to have had the chance to work with the many talented people who helped bring our vision of the book to life. Our thanks go out to Paul, Mari and Vanessa for their part in making More Than Two a success.

Like what you’re reading? Buy the book now.

#WLAMF no. 35: Staying connected in long-distance relationships

December 16, 2014

It surprises many people to learn that Franklin and I have a long-distance relationship. Many people who haven’t yet read the book More Than Two seem to assume we live together, but we each actually live with other partners. We’ve managed to spend a lot more time together over the past year than we did in our first year, but we still spend huge stretches apart—and it’s hard.

Long-distance relationships seem to often come with the territory in polyamory, for a number of reasons. We may have a harder time finding compatible partners who share our relationship preferences, and we may feel more free to structure relationship in ways that don’t follow the relationship escalator model.

But it’s naive to believe that because someone has local partners, it’s not going to hurt to spend time away from a long-distance partner. The local partners don’t “fill the partner space” until the long-distance partner comes around. Needs aren’t transitive, and people aren’t interchangeable.

Different relationships naturally have a level they “want” to seek, too. Sometimes, you get lucky, and your long-distance partner is someone with whom the relationship just naturally seeks less entwinement.

Franklin and I don’t have that kind of relationship. We tend to do really well when spending long stretches of time together, especially working closely. And we tend to really struggle, relationship-wise, when we have to spend long stretches of time apart.

As a result, to make things work we’ve had to develop a number of strategies to help us feel connected during the long stretches of time we spend apart. These are fairly individual to us, so your mileage may vary. But I offer them here as possibilities for ways you might help your own long-distance relationships thrive:

Skype-work. You’re all familiar, I’m sure, with using video-calling tools for conversations with long-distance partners. Franklin and I have discovered, though, that we really like to just open up Skype when we’re working at our computers and keep the window minimized down in the corner. This way, we can work “together” even when we’re apart. (I have to keep reminding Franklin to let me work, though. He’s always wanting to talk to me!)

Just work. Franklin and I are fortunate to have a shared love language: work. Yep, that’s right. We like to co-create, for sure, but it’s not just creative projects—like More Than Two—that we like to do together. We founded a publishing company, after all, and we’ve just founded a sex toy company to research and develop Franklin’s bionic dildo. The work we do on our shared business ventures is part of our investment in our relationship.

Selfies. Okay, it’s kind of silly. But Franklin and I, like many long-distance couples, communicate a lot by text. A lot, throughout the day. And we have this unfortunate tendency to get into fights over text. Really bad fights, like we never—okay, very, very rarely—would have in person. Now the obvious thing to do is to stop trying to communicate by text and pick up the phone, right? Except that the reason for the fights is a sense of disconnection, and by the time it gets to that point, my own instinct is to withdraw and wall off even more–it becomes really difficult to reach out and do the emotional work of reconnecting in those moments.

Enter selfies. This was an idea I had a couple of months ago, just after the book tour, when I realized that part of the sense of disconnection was the experience of relating to Franklin as a disembodied entity within my phone. After awhile, I lost the sense that he was a person. So I suggested that we send each other selfies every now and then, especially when we were feeling bad or arguing, to remind each other that we are real. It helps, too, because our facial expressions can convey so much more about what we’re feeling in the moment than text can–at least, convey it in a way that the other person can also understand emotionally, without having to parse it through a filter of text.

Know thyself. This may sound out of place, but it’s something I’ve found tremendously helpful. Because having a long-distance relationship with Franklin so often involved having to process icky emotions when we’re apart, it’s incredibly useful to be able to identify when those emotions are about the distance and not about him or the relationship.

I had an epiphany on the book tour. Franklin was reading one of the sections in More Than Two where he talks about his ex, Ruby:

All I knew was…I felt scared and angry. I assumed that because I felt this way, she must be doing something wrong, though it was difficult to figure out exactly what. I remember going to sleep replaying all my interactions with her in my head, looking for that thing she was doing to hurt me so much.

Because I was starting from the premise that she was doing something wrong—why else would I be feeling so bad?—I lashed out at her, accusing her of all kinds of wrongdoing, most of which existed only in my head.

As he read, it hit me: I’m doing this. That’s why we fight so much when we’ve been apart for a few weeks. I’m feeling hurt and angry because he’s gone, and because I’m feeling hurt and angry, he must be doing something wrong. So then I go looking for what he’s doing wrong, and BOOM! Off we go.

Well, it’s only been a couple of months—not even that—since the book tour ended. And since then, we’ve managed to not have to spend much more than two weeks apart at a stretch (instead of the three or four we often do). And it’s actually pretty hard work to recognize when this is happening and stop it. So it’s hard to know how far this insight will take us in the long term, but so far just the recognition that just because I’m feeling bad, doesn’t mean he’s doing something wrong, and then remembering to look for the actual source of those feelings, has kept us away from that brink—even in the times I’m feeling lousy.

And the selfies do help. They really do.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 10.50.08 PM

What do you do to help you feel connected to your long-distance partners?


We’re writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign at midnight tonight, December 15, 2014. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015!

Like what you’re reading? Buy the book now.